Notes from the CIDRiE Symposium
The topic of this symposium—the way forward—could not be more timely.
It comes against a backdrop of:
—the democratic uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.
—Ethiopia’s mid-March attacks on Eritrean guerrilla training camps.
—reports that Isaias was incapacitated and possibly out of power—premature, but underlined the precariousness of the current situation.
It also takes place against the backdrop of the steadily deepening frustration and anger of many over the state of affairs in Eritrea—once touted as part of an African renaissance but now at the bottom of nearly every global indicator, from press freedom and human rights to transparency and ease of doing business. You name the international survey and Eritrea competes for last place with North Korea and Turkmenistan
To begin with the biggest issue, there were numerous rumors on Isaias’s condition last month—he was dead, he was badly ill, he was sequestered, and so on. What I found most credible among the accounts I heard was that Isaias was struggling with depression mixed with physical ailments—notably his bad liver—probably set off by the March Ethiopian incursions and by his inability to respond due to the weakness of the Eritrean military, which has diminished significantly over past decade under his erratic leadership. Through much of this time, Isaias was said to be under care of long-time loyalist Dr. Haile Mitsun, one of the few he can trust, though a surgeon by training. It will be interesting to see what he does and says at the Independence Day celebrations in Asmara—and what he looks like.
One interesting aspect of a popular rumor I heard was that Hagos Gebrehewit had been jailed—not true but it brought attention to the fact that only two people know where all the money has gone and where it is now—Isaias and Hagos. When Isaias does go, Hagos’s status will certainly be a key indicator of who’s in charge and how much has changed. Isaias is back now, but I take seriously reports of secret meetings to plan transition. It’s coming. No one knows precisely when but I predict it will be relatively soon.
My starting point in assessing the situation today is the recognition that Eritrea is a highly sophisticated tyranny—one of the most effective in Africa today—where no public protest or dissent is permitted and thousands are in prison for testing that, some for speaking up at public meetings, others for simply attending a prayer meeting. The only way to express disagreement is to leave and even that’s illegal. You can be shot for trying to cross the border, but many do it anyway, making Eritrea one of biggest generators of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.
Eritrea has two realities: one of visible institutions and official policies and procedures with which one deals most of time, the other one of informal channels, unwritten rules and unaccountable authority controlled by the president and sustained by fear and coercion, but I probably don’t have to tell anyone here this. The important thing is that we know something about such highly repressed societies: They are fundamentally unstable, though instability not expressed in the usual ways as too dangerous.
So what do we see when we look at Eritrea? We find a country that is increasingly isolated, with its economy slipping ever deeper into crisis. The spirit of volunteerism is rapidly waning, as is its once remarkable social coherence—one of most worrying signs is the rise of ethnic and religious identities as a basis for political and military action. Meanwhile, the country is hemorrhaging young people, and there is growing dissension in the armed forces, which, as I said, is a key reason Eritrea did not respond to the Ethiopian incursions, the first such attacks inside Eritrea in more than ten years. Instead, all we got was bluster.
Isaias has grown increasingly unpopular and erratic in his public and private behavior, though he still enjoys a sort of default popularity as the “father of liberation.” But for the first time, he now appears constrained in his ability to initiate unilateral action by his own generals and loyalists. I take this as a good thing.
A key aspect of the current situation that frames any consideration of the future is that Eritrean nationalism remains potent, as does the fear of loss of sovereignty at the hands of Ethiopia, and of course there is a deep distrust of the international community, which Isaias does his best to stoke at every opportunity in order to reinforce his own position and the continued repression of all dissent. Secondly, there is no obvious successor to Isaias, and the external opposition remains as weak and divided as ever. Meanwhile, there is a gold mining bonanza underway that could give the regime new life.
But I would make one more crucial point: Once a turning point arrives, events will unfold quickly with no warning. It is impossible to predict when—could be weeks or months—could be longer—but I doubt much longer. Hence, in my view we should think of Eritrea as in a transitional phase and act accordingly to prepare for it.
So: What are the alternatives?
Inside the country:There is no visible opposition. Eritrea is not like Zimbabwe or pre-uprising Egypt or Syria in this key respect. It is more akin to North Korea in the level and sophistication of repression and the cult-like focus on the leader, as well as in the isolation of the people.
However, there are many people inside the country who are disenchanted with and hostile to regime. You find them within the bureaucracy, the military and the wider society, and you see the effects of this in the pervasive passive resistance and disengagement. You also hear this over and over from recent refugees and defectors.
I am also convinced that the inner circle is now jockeying for position for a post-Isaias regime, in part out of ambition, in part out of fear that if Isaias goes, they could be left hanging out to dry if the truth comes out about their roles in the crimes committed over the past two decades (if not longer).
Outside the country: The EDA is the main organized political opposition, but it is united largely around opposition to Isaias and is not a major factor in hurrying the regime’s demise or in offering a viable alternative afterward. It has also been compromised by its relationship to Ethiopia in the eyes of many Eritreans, but despite this it should not be ignored. The EDA does represent a slice of the Eritrean political scene that needs to be incorporated into any post-Isaias transition if there is ever to be peace and stability in the country.
The main military threat to the regime, such as it is, comes from several small ethnic parties within EDA, drawn from the Afars, Kunama, and Saho and supported by Ethiopia, which is playing with fire by fostering such micro-nationalisms. These armed groups appear to be stepping up their actions to disrupt mining operations to prevent the emergence of an Eritrea flush with unlimited cash to spend on re-arming itself and returning to a more confrontational mode across the region.
Whatever you think of the EDA or these ethnic armies, I would make the point that support for identity politics is growing due to the perception that the secular nationalism associated with both the regime and key segments of the opposition has failed to mean recognition of and respect for their rights. Many members of these minorities see the declarations of secular nationalism as a mask for Tigrinya Christian domination, based not just on the polemics of their leaders but on direct personal experience. Anyone thinking about the future of Eritrea ought to worry about this and about how to defuse it through actions now, not just more speeches, demonstrating in unmistakable ways that the minorities have a stake in a democratic future.
On balance, it seems obvious that any substantive change in the character and make up of the regime has to come from inside, though external opposition groups can encourage it and they ought to be brought into whatever caretaker government is set up to manage a transition, as should Eritrea’s diverse external civil society.
The diaspora-based non-party organizations are if anything more fragmented than the parties, but they are a rich source of new thinking and leadership—and civil society is hotly contested terrain. One of the most interesting new trends is among the youth, where the government and the broad-based, largely non-party opposition are waging a battle for their hearts and minds—and for the loyalty and energy of those who will craft Eritrea’s future course.
The independent wing is holding a major conference and demonstration in Washington, D.C. on the weekend of May 25th—the Eritrean Youth for Change and the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, which you will learn more about on Facebook, much as was the case for the activists who played such a prominent role in the recent uprisings in the Arab states.
For its part, the government is also actively mobilizing among diaspora youth, with many young people asserting their Eritrean identity with greater militancy than their parents and being swept up in the jingoistic rhetoric of the ruling party. Organized as the YPFDJ, they are also holding a conference in Washington, but not until September.
Another strong indication of the energy and dynamism within the opposition is the vibrancy of the external media, mainly independent and oppositional websites.
Against this backdrop, the only certainty is that Isaias Afwerki is not forever. The question is just when will he go—and how. Among the many scenarios I see, three stand out:
1) Situation remains as is, with regime—whether under Isaias or a junta made up of his former allies and acolytes—counting on mining revenue while presiding over ever-tightening security state as economy declines.
2) Armed Eritrean opposition groups escalate attacks in Eritrea, disrupting exploration and production at key mining sites. Leads to intensified counterinsurgency against Muslims and ethnic minorities. Isaias takes the country back to war with Ethiopia to regain control of the internal situation and initiates another purge
3) Isaias is incapacitated, as we thought was the case last month, and power centers inside the regime band together to protect their position and seek to manage the transition so they not left out in the cold and so culpability for crimes of this regime are not brought to light—which is the scenario I think is already underway. I also think the depth of mistrust and rivalry among them will not allow it to succeed without more struggle.
However this plays out, Eritrea is headed for a political crisis that may or may not be violent but that will eventually alter or replace the present regime.
What might help to move this process forward?
1) If the object is to dismantle dictatorship with non-violent means, you need to increase the pressure on it so forces in the country get to point where continuing as things are is no longer acceptable—from a strategic point of view, where is the vulnerability? Answer is clearly in the economy—the mining industry, which leadership sees as solution to Eritrea’s isolation and stagnation and the 2% tax on which the regime depends for its survival—take a lesson from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africans and mobilize the international community to act on this
2) Especially important: support the expansion of alternative media—above all else Eritreans in the country need access to information and encouragement to think critically about the conditions—no single thing will do more to foster questioning and eventually some form of uprising there
3) Also, call for more targeted sanctions that pressure the regime but do not add to plight of population—expand the list of individuals who are affected by restrictions on travel and access to money kept abroad
4) Promote collaboration among the disparate political and civic groups in conferences and common activities like this one and be as inclusive as you can be—there has to be room for all Eritreans in a post-Isaias Eritrea, including many now with the PFDJ, so make sure your movement for change reflects this in everything you do.
5) Urge governments in Europe and North America to be more accepting of Eritrean asylum seekers, especially those breaking with the regime, who are often rejected under a “terrorism bar” that disqualifies someone who was a member of the government or the independence movement—this turns out to discourage people from breaking with the government, which is precisely what we want them to do
6) Finally, do more to help the refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan—show you really care—this is the most obvious and the easiest step for the community to take that demonstrates the kind of society and government you want Eritrea to be—ignoring those in the camps sends a very different message—and at this point all messages matter.
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