Country emerging from isolation after Ethiopia rapprochement

Source: Bloomberg

September 13, 2018, 7:00 PM EDT

Eritrea is casting off its reputation as a hermit state and pushing to become a key player in one of the world’s most strategically important regions.

Decades of eschewing international cooperation by the Red Sea state are giving way to renewed ties. Relations with Ethiopia, its sworn enemy since a border war at the end of last century, are blossoming after the two states agreed a rapprochement in July. Somalia signed a trilateral cooperation accord with the two countries that includes an initiative to seek peace with Djibouti, which in turn has welcomed the move.

Photographer: Nizar Manek/Blooomberg

The effects of the improving bonds are rippling beyond the Horn of Africa, drawing the attention of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. A quarter of a century after it won independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea is welcoming the interest.


“Eritrea is not an island but can thrive in an environment of regional cooperation,” Yemane Gebreab, the top political adviser to President Isaias Afwerki, said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.

Trump Card

Geography is Eritrea’s trump card. It’s situated across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen near the Bab el Mandab, a shipping choke-point used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels en route to Europe and the U.S. through the Suez Canal. China has lauded the country’s position on the Maritime Silk Road, which links shipping lanes along the proposed multi-trillion dollar Belt & Road Initiative.

That makes Eritrea “a key component of any power with interests in the region’s security architecture,” Saud al-Sarhan, secretary-general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said by email from Riyadh.

The U.A.E. has already exploited its strategic location. Part of the Saudi-led coalition that’s been fighting Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen for the past three years, the U.A.E. has built a military facility at the Eritrean port town of Assab to support its forces.

War, Sanctions

Yemane, providing the first official Eritrean confirmation of the installation’s existence, said its construction is “not about bases, it’s not about cash,” but an acknowledgment that there are vital interests that need to be protected in the Red Sea. For instance, neighboring Djibouti is home to the only U.S. and Chinese military bases in Africa.


Isaias’s ruling party has envisaged closer regional cooperation since its days as a liberation movement before the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, according to Yemane. The drive stalled after Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991, the emergence of an Islamist state in Sudan under President Umar al-Bashir, war with Ethiopia and the imposition in 2009 of United Nations sanctions over Eritrea’s alleged links — denied by the government — to Islamist militants in Somalia.

The “basic requirement” for forging the peace accord with Ethiopia was to find a partner in its giant neighbor for regional cooperation and integration, Yemane said. It only became possible after Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister in Addis Ababa in April and immediately initiated a broad array of political and economic reforms.

Aid Billions

“If there was a different situation in Ethiopia and a different setup, all the efforts and encouragements would not have produced results,” said Yemane, who heads the political department of the ruling Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. “For us, the crucial point was determining whether real change had come to Ethiopia.”

The rapprochement has reopened a route to Ethiopia, the continent’s fastest-growing economy and second-most populous nation, that had been closed since the war between the two countries ended in 2000. The prospect of access to the broader region is also drawing potential investors.

In the wake of the peace accord, the Abu Dhabi Fund for International Development pledged a $3 billion aid package to Ethiopia, including $1 billion for its central bank, while state-owned Dubai Ports World Ltd. announced plans for a regional logistics facility in Ethiopia.

Russian Interests

Ethiopia’s water surplus and vast stretches of arable land might help solve food-security concerns among the Gulf Arab states, while its proposed sale of state-owned stakes in key enterprises such as telecommunications and the national airline offer investment opportunities, according to Taimur Khan, non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month the improved relations present an opportunity for Russian businesses to expand their interests in the region, such as a logistics center in the country and participating in a regional oil pipeline and transport corridors. In March, Lavrov announced talks with Ethiopia to establish a nuclear-technology center dedicated primarily to research, after Moscow and Cairo last year signed a $30 billion deal for a nuclear power plant in Egypt and announced talks to use each other’s airspace and air bases.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Friday was cited by the Eritrean Information Ministry as saying strengthening relations between the two states will make a “significant contribution” to enhancing security in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea basin. The two countries agreed last year to work together in “all fields” including marine resources, and counter-terrorism.

(Updates with comment by Egyptian foreign minister in last paragraph.)


Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

Eritreans from Italy, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Holland came together to call on the UN refugee agency to step up its efforts in Libya.

In London the community gathered outside the offices of the UNHCR – chanting slogans and holding up the placards they had brought.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

Young and old, they stood in solidarity with their countrymen and women who are trapped in the hell of Libyan detention centres.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

More than 1,000 Eritreans are currently held in the detention centres. Some suffering from gunshot wounds; women facing the daily threat of rape; children suffering from hunger and fear.

A delegation led by Sham Gabriel went into the UNHCR London headquarters.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya - Sham Gabriel speaking

“We met Michael Saltmarsh, the UNHCR’s representative,” Sham reports to the demonstrators. “We asked the organisation to set up its efforts. Refugees must be evacuated to Niger or other countries. But Niger has become a bottleneck.”

“European powers are not fulfilling the pledges they made to assist: they have a responsibility to protect the lives of these extremely vulnerable people.”

Sham explained that Mr Saltmarsh promised to take their concerns to the UNHCR High Commissioner – and to let the community have his reply.

“It is vital that the UN gains access to the detention centres and those being returned from the sea to Libya must be registered by the UNHCR,” Sham said.


New United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed excitement at the Eritrea – Ethiopia peace deal which she says must be a foundation for protection of human rights in both countries.

Bachelet said her outfit looked forward to the abolition of national service by Eritrea in the wake of peace and that Ethiopia will also scale up efforts to cure an acute internal humanitarian crisis.

She said her office stood ready to support any such efforts aimed at deepening the protection of human rights in both countries.

The Office stands ready to support both countries in protecting human rights. We particularly look forward to seeing an end to indefinite conscription into the Eritrean military.

Bachelet’s comments were part of her opening statement at the 39th session of the Human Rights Council on 10 September 2018. Her predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein had in several statements bemoaned the falling human rights situation in both countries and tasked both governments to pursue concrete resolutions.

Ethiopia since April 2018 has been on a wave of speedy democratic reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Political prisoners have been released en masse, laws are being scrapped and amended to open the democratic playing field especially ahead of polls in 2020.

Over in Eritrea, the government has given the strongest hint yet that an indefinite national service justified by threat of aggression from Ethiopia will soon be reshaped. A UN rapporteur has said the conscription amounted to slavery and crimes against humanity.

Asmara’s bad human rights record has included reports of how political opponents and journalists have been jailed. In some instances religious activists have also been detained according to rights groups.

Post the July 9, 2018 peace deal reached between Abiy and Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, political and human rights watchers are looking on as to how fast and when Asmara will roll out a democratic structure.

Michelle Bachelet’s full comments on Eritrea – Ethiopia

The Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed in July between Eritrea and Ethiopia offers hope for an end to the decades-long stalemate between the two countries, which has had very severe impact on the people on both sides of the border.

The Office stands ready to support both countries in protecting human rights. We particularly look forward to seeing an end to indefinite conscription into the Eritrean military.

In Ethiopia, the Office has recently visited regions affected by intercommunal violence between the Gedeos and the Gujies communities, where recent clashes have reportedly forced over a million people to flee their homes.

We welcome initial steps taken by the Government and urge a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the human rights violations which allegedly occurred, with full accountability for the perpetrators.


Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. diplomat for Africa welcomed a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea ending two decades of hostility but said concerns over Eritrea’s human rights record hindered cooperation with Washington.

Abiy and IssaiasFILE PHOTO: Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri//File Photo


The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea re-opened crossing points on their shared border for the first time in 20 years on Tuesday, raising hopes of reduced tensions in the region.

Tibor Nagy, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for Africa, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the United States had “deliberately engaged” with Eritrea in recent months but it was too soon to talk about lifting United Nations sanctions imposed in 2009, which accused it of supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. Eritrea denied the charge.

Among concerns that the United States had raised with Eritrea was the detention of U.S. embassy local staff and several Americans for what Nagy called politically-motivated reasons.

The United States also wanted a full explanation from Eritrea over past weapons purchases from North Korea highlighted in a U.N. report, said Nagy, without elaborating.

He said the jailing of religious and political prisoners and indefinite, obligatory national service, as well as a tightly-controlled system of government were also a worry.

“Eritrea cannot assume that by saying wonderful things and opening good relations with the neighbors that will automatically lead to sanctions relief,” said Nagy, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.

“There have to be concrete actions taken and we will remain very engaged and say things that may not always be popular but have to be said,” he added.

Eritrea has long dismissed accusations of human rights abuses by the U.N., including alleged extrajudicial killings and torture, as “totally unfounded and without merit.”

The U.N. imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, backed by 13 of the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council. The sanctions included an arms embargo, travel restrictions and asset freezes for some of the country’s top officials.

But warming ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia this year and sweeping reforms by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have reshaped the political landscape in the Horn of Africa.

Abiy’s ruling coalition has ended a state of emergency and released political prisoners, while also announcing plans to partially open up the economy to foreign investors.

In his boldest move, Abiy offered last month to make peace with Eritrea, 20 years after the neighbors started a border war that killed an estimated 80,000 people. Full-blown fighting ended by 2000, but their troops have faced off across their disputed frontier ever since.

“Up to now for the last 20-plus years Eritrea has used Ethiopia as an excuse to maintain what I would almost call a ‘fortress state’,” Nagy said. “With the opening of peace they really will no longer have a reason to do that.”


Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien


Eritrea’s recent foreign policy shifts have been driven by President Afwerki and his Red Sea allies. Neither has an interest in Eritrea democratising.
Eritrea's government building in Asmara.

Eritrea’s government building in Asmara.

This is the fifth part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.

Over the past few years, alliances and rivalries across the Horn of Africa have shifted significantly. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Eritrea, which has embodied the truism that counties have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

Recently, those interests have led Asmara to make peace with Ethiopia after twenty years and improve its relations with others in the region. These breakthroughs have led to hopes that the government may soon enact long overdue reforms at home. After all, for two decades, its oppressive behaviour and economic woes have been blamed on hostility with Ethiopia and living a “bad neighbourhood”.

A closer look at the factors leading to Eritrea’s changing relations, however, dampen these expectations.

Eritrea’s changing allegiances

In the first few years of independence in the 1990s, Eritrea built its foreign ties on principles and loyalties. Though not always completely consistent, it shunned governments that had supported its rival liberation movement as well as monarchies or Islamist regimes deemed to be a threat.

Following the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, these determinations quickly shifted. Tensions with neighbours Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan ratcheted up, while relations with the West took a turn for the worse. Under this growing international isolation and domestic pressure, foreign relations became more pragmatic. The goal became, first and foremost, about regime survival.

President Isaias Afwerki thus looked to cut deals with a range of other powers looking to extend their influence in the region. These partnerships range from China and Russia to Israel, Iran and Libya. From the mid-2000s, however, Qatar became particularly crucial to the maintenance of Afwerki’s increasingly repressive rule. The small Gulf nation provided essential and extensive financial and military assistance and became the Horn of Africa country’s most important economic partner.

In the early-2010s, this close relationship started to fray. Afwerki was reportedly angered by Qatar’s attempts to tame his recalcitrant behaviour and break Asmara’s long-running impasse with Ethiopia. He was additionally alarmed at the Gulf nation’s catalysing role in popular uprisings in the 2011 Arab Spring.

Eritrea therefore took the opportunity of increasing interest from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to shift its alliances. In 2015, it signed a security partnership agreement allowing the UAE to build a military base in Assab for its war-effort in Yemen. Afwerki’s new allies agreed to provide significant financial aid, build infrastructure in Eritrea, and increase fuel supplies to the country. Eritrea provided land, airspace and also reportedly deployed around 400 of its own troops to Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE quickly became essential partners as Eritrea switched allegiances. The extent of this change was clear in the 2017 Gulf crisis when the government threw its weight behind the Saudi-led camp in its attempts to isolate Qatar.

In the last couple of years, Asmara has also given the cold shoulder to this bloc’s regional rivals. It has cut off military and diplomatic relations with Iran, whose nuclear programme Afwerki had publicly defended in 2009, and snubbed Turkey in its attempts to extend its influence in the Horn. At the same time, Afwerki has visited Egypt, an affiliate of the Arab axis, on several occasions and supported Cairo in its diplomatic row with Ethiopia and Sudan regarding the Nile waters.

Peace with Ethiopia

All these foreign policy changes have been significant for Eritrea. But perhaps the most momentous shift has been its rapprochement with Ethiopia after twenty years of hostility. Beginning this June, the two neighbours ended their long-standing stalemate and promised to open a new chapter of peace.

This understandably rocked the region. The conflict has cast a shadow over the Horn of Africa for two decades. Ethiopia has used the dispute to encourage others to isolate Eritrea. Meanwhile, Afwerki has used Ethiopian hostility as a pretext for widespread prohibitions on freedoms, the banning of the free press, and the imposition of indefinite military service at home.

Following the announcement of peace, and Ethiopia’s calls for the UN to lift sanctions on its neighbour, it was understandable that many were excited an opening up of Eritrea might be in the offing.

However, there are reasons to be sceptical this change is coming.

Change abroad, change at home?

Firstly, this development is related to Eritrea’s broader relations across the Red Sea, and therefore the dynamics and interests these contain.

As documented in the Thin Red Line series, the Red Sea has regained its geopolitical significance recently with rival powers scrambling for strategic footprints on the sea’s western shores. Different competing blocs have built allegiances – bolstered by attractive economic deals – from Egypt down to Somalia, gaining leverage over many of their new partners. Some African countries, most notably Ethiopia, have been able to stay independent in the face of this attention, but others have struggled. Eritrea has clearly thrown in its lot with the Saudi bloc to which it is reliant and indebted.

These patrons, however, have little interest in Eritrea undergoing reforms, which might risk its internal instability. After all, the Gulf’s engagement is not based on principles but self-interest. For various reasons, a rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara was deemed to serve these interests; Emirati leaders notably met with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Afwerki on several occasions in the run-up to the announcement of peace. But democratisation in Eritrea is unlikely to. In fact, the opposite may be true.

In this way, Eritrea and Ethiopia’s peace can be seen as part of wider Red Sea dynamics, rivalries and interests being projected onto the Horn, which are more likely to raise tensions in an already volatile region than encourage democratisation.

Secondly, the reality is that as long as Afwerki remains at the helm, it is difficult to see genuine reforms happening. For a whole generation, the president has suspended Eritrea’s democratisation and cracked down on any dissenters in order to maintain his rule.

Former foreign minister Petros Solomon, a member of the G-15 opposition who disappeared in 2001, once claimed that Afwerki’s foreign policy was erratic and that the ministry’s main job was simply to do damage control. But this underplays the underlying logic of the president’s approach to foreign relations, which has mostly been about his own survival. Previously, hostility with Ethiopia served this purpose. Under new circumstances, Afwerki has deemed that a UAE-brokered peace is advantageous. But the ultimate motivation is the same.

Eritrea’s lucrative alliances with powers across the Red Sea may have precipitated some sweeping changes in its foreign policy, but they have also bolstered the president’s position domestically. In fact, rather than pushing for change, they have given him a new lifeline. Afwerki’s new partnerships have allowed him to avoid the economic and political liberalisation that Western donors or continued misery might have demanded, and they have fortified his security and military base against direct threats or internal demands for reforms.



Peace prospects are much higher in the Horn of Africa. But obstacles remain

by Martin Plaut
September 11, 2018 8.15am BST


1.     Martin Plaut

Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study

Disclosure statement

Martin Plaut is affiliated with the Commonwealth Institute of the University of London, the Royal African Society and Chatham House.

    Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki re-opening the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.EPA-EFE/Stringer It’s just five months since Abiy Ahmed took overas Ethiopian Prime Minister yet the pace of change in the Horn of Africa has been simply staggering. Insuperable obstacles have been swept away. So many hurdles have been vaulted that it’s difficult to keep track.

First, Ethiopia and Eritrea ended years of hostilities. And just two months after Abiy’s first path-breaking visit to Eritrea meetings have been held in Djiboutito try and eliminate some of the major international problems besetting the region.

The background to the Djibouti mission was the conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti that erupted in 2008. For many years it was unresolved and there was a serious source of tension in the region. The Djibouti-Eritrea issue was also the reason why United Nations sanctions against Eritrea were not lifted – despite UN monitors declaringthat Eritrea was no longer aiding the Somali Islamist group, Al-Shabaab.

The armed confrontations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and between Eritrea and Djibouti, have now vanished in a puff of smoke. Or so it would appear.

It would be a mistake to ridicule what has been achieved. Eritrea seems to have genuinely dropped its hostility towards its southern and its eastern neighbour. But it’s also prudent to note the obstacles that remain.

Eritrea is still locked in a confrontation with its western neighbour, Sudan. In January Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir closed the country’s border with Eritrea, sending crack troops to patrol the frontier. The dispute was never officially explainedand seems to have been parked for now. But others remain.

Abiy is aware that a lot still needs to be done. As he put it recently:

When the time came both peoples Eritrea and Ethiopia woke up from their sleep and said enough is enough and brought back their peace. The next question will be not about who contributed how much to the peace deal, it should be on how to keep and sustain the peace, because the peace needs to be maintained. So, all people have to work together to sustain it.

In addition, for the peace efforts to stick both Ethiopia and Eritrea must complete internal reforms. Abiy has pushed Ethiopia much further down the road of reform while Eritrea still has a long way to go. Consolidating democracy and internal peace building will be needed if the dramatic pace of change is to hold in the region.

What still needs to be done

As Abiy rightly says, a great deal still needs to be done to sustain the peace. People and villages all along the Ethiopian border need to be assigned to their respective countries, as the new border comes into force. Tens of thousands of troops will have to be withdrawn from the trenches they have inhabited since the end of the border war of 1998–2000. A host of customs arrangements and immigration issues must be resolved. This is the hard graft that needs to follow the handshakes and smiles of the leaders.

Then there are internal reforms in both Ethiopia and Eritrea that have to be addressed if peace and security are to be consolidated.

Ethiopia has made considerable progress on this front. Journalists have been freed from jail, the internet restrictions lifted and media regulations relaxed. Political prisoners have been released and opposition leaders have come home.

Even hardline rebels based in Eritrea have returned. Berhanu Nega, the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, who fled into exilein the US, has arrived home. Speaking to the BBChe described Ethiopia as

a fundamentally changed country.

These developments have transformed the atmosphere in the capital. But in the rest of Ethiopia there are still major issues confronting the government. More than two million people have been displaced in recent ethnic clashes. The Tigrayans, who ruled the country after seizing the capital in 1991, are smarting from their loss of influence.

Still some way to go in Eritrea

In Eritrea there have only been the most feeble of moves towards reform. Bloomberg reported that the government is “definitely studying”the possibility of demobilisation of its vast army of national service conscripts. In an interview the Minister for Labour and Human Welfare Luul Gebreab said:

Definitely a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned.

When this might take place is not clear.

On other reforms, including the implementation of the country’s constitution, the freeing of political prisoners and the lifting of the ban on independent media and all opposition political parties, there is a stony silence from the Eritrean government.

Herman Cohen, the former US Secretary of State for African Affairs who brokered an end to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1991 has offered encouragement. He has has argued that President Isaias “should not fear a more open Eritrea system. Now would be a good time to start the process.”

There are no signs of this taking place and as a result no drop in the number of Eritreans fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia. The UN Refugee agency registered 1,738 in July this year – very much on trend with previous years.

Welcome developments

The developments between states in the Horn of Africa are clearly very welcome. The question now is whether they can be translated into reality on the ground, and whether the international developments will be reflected in internal reforms.

Once both of these steps have been taken it would be possible to conclude that the region has truly been transformed.

Martin Plaut | September 11, 2018 at 7:41 am | Tags: Eritrea Ethiopia, Horn of Africa | Categories: News | URL:

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Source: Exile

Diplomats and representatives of international aid organizations who were posted in Eritrea in the 1990s will remember Berhane Abrehe as the stern head of the Macro Policy and International Cooperation department. Mr. Abehe later served as finance minister until his mysterious fadeout in 2014. It is not uncommon in Eritrea, indeed rather the norm, for senior officials to be fired or simply sidelined, and for new ones to replace them, without any official announcement. It was soon revealed that Mr. Abrehe had for some time been at odds with the leader of the Eritrean regime, president Isaias Afwerki, over key aspects of economic policy and broader governance issues. He had, especially, made it clear that he could not be accountable for policies for which he had increasingly been only nominally in charge. Particularly at issue was revenues from the new gold operations and other mining activities, as well as a range of public enterprises, which are controlled, not by the Ministry of Finance, but the economic affairs office of the ruling PFDJ party, and hence, not subject to regular government oversight. The PFDJ economic affairs office is headed by Hagos (Kisha) Gebrehiwet, a member of the President’s inner circle.

In the last couple of weeks, Eritrean social media has been abuzz with news about a new two-part book that the former minister has authored, in which he severely criticises Isaias’ one-man rule. And just two days ago, Mr. Abrehe, who still lives in Asmara, released an audio message confirming his authorship of the book and reiterating his views on Isaias Afwerki and the general conditions of his country. He did not mince words!

Mr. Abrehe had messages for both the Eritrean public and Isaias Afwerki. Addressing Eritreans within the country and outside, he stated that the dire conditions they find themselves in because of Isaias’ repressive and dictatorial rule should change; and reminded them that only they can bring about that change.

He called on Mr. Afwerki to convene urgently the National Assembly [parliament] “for there are many important issues that we need to address” without delay. “You have no reason to dilly-dally anymore.” Even if several members of the legislature have died, and many others are behind bars or forced to flee the country, he told the President, it’s incumbent on you to do the only sensible thing and call all remaining members to meet immediately.

He further called on Isaias to stop, until proper National Assembly authorization is obtained, the ongoing non-transparent and haphazard diplomatic contacts, sanctioned by no authority but Isaias himself, and about which the Eritrean public has been kept in the dark, as well as the signing of hasty agreements that could potentially compromise Eritrea’s national strategic interests.

Mr. Abrehe also invited Isaias Afwerki to a public debate between them proposing a range of topics including the past, present and the prospects of Eritrea’s political, economic, social and cultural realities.

He reminded Mr. Afwerki that, once convened, the National Assembly is bound to take key decisions, including: 1. in a peaceful, legal and civilized manner remove Mr. Afwerki from his position as head of state and chairman of the National Assembly and replace him with a new leader; 2. holding of national parliamentary elections at the earliest possible time; and 3. pass other important and timely resolutions.

Mr. Abrehe concluded by reiterating that the owners of the coming change are Eritreans themselves, and not Isaias or any other individual or group; and those who would try to stop the coming wave will fail, as they would be faced with the wrath of the Eritrean youth.


Eritrean and Ethiopian commanders meet at Zalanbessa as defensive positions are removed ahead of New Year celebrationsEritrean and Ethiopian commanders meet at Zalanbessa as defensive positions are removed ahead of New Year celebrations

Source: Human Rights Concern Eritrea

Eritrea: Hopes for Democratic Change and Reform of National Service?

Following the recent rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia dated 7 July 2018, a number of media commentators, diplomats and foreign government officials have expressed hope that the political situation in Eritrea would be normalised soon. Attention must be given to the system of arbitrary and indefinite national military service programme of the government of Eritrea.

The National Service programme is characterised by forced conscription, persistent human rights violations and slavery. It is the main reason behind Eritrean migrant exodus witnessed over the course of the last two decades. (See the findings of the UN Commission Of Inquiry).

The hope is that the programme would cease to be indefinite and that the period of service would be limited to 18 months. For Germany’s development minister, Gerd Mueller, who personally met President Isaias Afewerki on 24 August, his hopes go further and he predicts the introduction of “democratic structures” in Eritrea soon.

This far, there is no material evidence to justify the hopes expressed by media commentators and foreign government officials like Minister Gerd Mueller. Their hopes appear to be based merely on their personal encounters with Eritrean officials, or perhaps on the contents of the series of interviews made by Eritrean officials with international media outlets.

From long experience, Eritreans do not take statements made by Eritrean officials seriously, simply because of the constant inconsistencies and discrepancies between words and actions. Above all, the promises they make normally do not materialise.

Nevertheless, in so far as they appear to draw the attention of international media and foreign government officials, perhaps it is important to review the statements made by Eritrean officials over the course of the last four years.

Statements of Eritrean Officials

Concerning  a transition to a constitutional governance in Eritrea, in May 2014, in an interview with local media, President Isaias Aferwerki announced the “death” of the 1997 constitution – a constitution that was ratified in 1997 but never  implemented.  Instead he promised the drafting of a brand-new constitution.

Two years later, in February 2016, a Presidential Adviser, Yemane Gebreab, informed the UN Commission of Inquiry that a committee was established to consider the drafting of a new constitution. Four years since this initial announcement, what happened to this “new” constitution?  Or is there any “new” constitution at all?

With regard to the programme of national military service, in April 2015, in an interview with the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialog, Yemane Gebreab stated that Eritrea would limit national service to 18 months, in line with the provisions of the 1995 decree. He also added that “the challenge is to be able to find jobs, skills, training and business opportunities when conscripts are released”, indicating that the problem is mostly an economic issue.

However, after one month, Yemane Gebreab’s assertions were contradicted by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press statement released in June 2015, which made it clear that there are no plans to limit the period of National Service to 18 months, owing to Ethiopia’s refusal to abide by the decision of the Border Commission.

Similar assertions were made by the Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, in February 2016, in an interview with Reuters in which he stated that there were no plans to limit national service, and that “demobilisation is predicated on removal of main threat”, that threat being Ethiopia’s refusal to withdraw its troops from Eritrean territories. In the same month, President Isaias made an announcement of salary increases to conscripts. It is important here to note the pattern – “we-will-limit, we-won’t-limit, and salary-increase”.

With peace declared between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July this year, similar statements are once again emerging from Eritrean officials, and following the same pattern observed in 2015/16.Immediately after President Isaias announced his impending visit to Ethiopia, it was reported that officials at Sawa military training camp informed new conscripts that National Service will be limited to 18 months. The news found its way to international media and produced some level of jubilation.

Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel was aware of the reports, and he stated that “an official announcement has not been made so far”, suggesting that such an announcement would be imminent.

Later in August, Yemane Gebremeskel told Bloomberg that “work on the constitution would begin soon”, indicating that whatever the President and his Adviser had said about a “new” constitution thus far had been nothing but another empty public relations exercise.

On 25 August 2018, the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, met with the German minster, Gerd Mueller. Mohammed appeared so emboldened that after the meeting with Minister Mueller, he held an interview with the Germany radio service (Deutsche Welle). In the interview, he blandly stated that his government was not the cause of the Eritrean migrant exodus, as if the national service decree has been implemented in Eritrea by the German government! Implicitly indicating that the political situation of Eritrea is back to normalcy (or national service is limited to 18 months), he also called for Eritrean migrants to come back home.

A new addition to the “discourse” (a discourse normally carried out by the president, the Minsters of Information and Foreign Affairs, and the presidential adviser) is the Minister of Labour and Human Welfare, Mrs. Luul Gebreab. On 2 September, Mrs. Gebreab told Bloomberg that Eritrea will cut its army numbers and that the remaining conscripts “will concentrate on developmental work”. Like the excuses presented by Yemane Gebreab in 2015, she also stated that the government is studying the “economic effects of demobilization”, i.e. issues concerning to availability of employment for conscripts.

At the same time, Yemane Gebremeskel asserted (also to Bloomberg)that at the moment there is no  prospect of returning to “statutory” terms of 18 months national service.  Instead he raised the matter of reviewing and considering salary increases for conscripts. It is important to note that conscripts are normally deployed (with no more than nominal pay) in every sector where labour is needed – be it in the army, construction companies or civilian administration.

Bloomberg has learned that Eritrean officials maintain the position that “demobilisation depends on Ethiopia concluding its parts of the peace deal and withdrawing its troops from Eritrean territories”. This means that conscripts will not be free until such time as Ethiopia acts in a specific way. In this way, the officials are determined to convince everyone that the “Ethiopian threat” persists. With the issue of “salary increases” again raised, the repeated pattern of delay and excuse becomes complete.

The National Service: what is it?

For nearly three decades, Eritrea has indeed faced a human tragedy of epic proportions where thousands were subjected to a practice of slavery and servitude, many lost their lives in wars, and a significant proportion of its population was forced to flee the country at great cost to preserve their lives. Central to all of these tragedies is the programme of national military service, and as such it is quite normal to see the issue receiving constant international coverage.

However, there appears a flawed understanding of what exactly the programme is, especially among those who report it; a misconception that appears to exist among diplomats and government officials, such as Gerd Mueller, who therefore simply propagate unrealistic hopes.

The National Service programme started in 1994 with a different proclamation from that of 1995. The first proclamation (71/94) strictly limited the period of national service to 18 months. Supported by the then dominant narrative of “liberation struggle”, it was warmly accepted by the Eritrean society without any noticeable form of resistance. But by the end of 1995, that decree had been quietly rescinded and replaced by the infamous 1995 proclamation (82/95).

By incorporating a provision known as “special obligation” (Article 21(1)), the 1995 decree subjects every adult citizen to its draconian administration, where everyone is duty bound to “serve as a volunteer” for the whole of his/her adult life. To use a more precise definition, for Eritreans the decree effectively stripped their citizenship status from them and turned them into stateless slaves.

One can thus see that the process of building an institution of forced conscription and slavery started long before the “border war” with Ethiopia, with the quiet implementation of the 1995 decree. Slowly over the years, it ensured a Master-Slave relationship in which Eritreans have effectively become the personal property of the president that can be sent to different wars and whose labour can be exploited at a whim for the benefit of the president and his loyal lieutenants. Additionally, it provides the president with a political tool that ensures effective crowd control. (One has only to refer to the list of testimonies submitted to the UN Commission of Inquiry to learn how a certain lieutenants or administrative office-bearers personally benefit from having conscripts under their command).

Parallel with the institution of slavery, a culture of terror has also been established to silence any voices and/ or to curb any actions that appear to resist the system of institutionalised slavery. This system is propagated through a network of national security agents, and a franchise of torture and imprisonment of hundreds at concentration sites countrywide.

A whole list of abuses and crimes against humanity continue to be committed under such institutions of terror and slavery. The Eritrean migrant exodus which the world has witnessed over the last decades is fundamentally a result of such inhumane practices.

We now hear Eritrean officials and international commentators suggesting the return to “statutory” terms of 18-month national service. One wonders whether this means a return to the original 1994 decree or a partial implementation of the 1995 decree? Most importantly, is that truly a solution for the tragedy?

Again, there are persist statements which indicate the economic challenges the government is facing as far as demobilisation of conscripts is concerned. For the outside world, this presents an image of a caring government that is concerned about the future of the conscripts once they are free. But for those who are going or have gone through the institutions of slavery and terror, now only too well that the president and his military commanders are worried about the loss of personal, political and economic benefits as a result of the loss of slave or conscript labour.

One may be tempted to present question to Minister Gerd Mueller and others who are propagating hopes of democratic change in Eritrea: “Why would a Master opt to free his slaves when the consequence of doing so is a loss of personal political and economic benefits? Would appeasing such a slave-master, giving tax payers’ money to him, and providing material and political incentives to that Master, help to free the slaves? Wouldn’t it be much more appropriate to support and empower the slaves to free themselves, or to support those who are fleeing persecution as refugees in Europe and elsewhere?”

In the end, it is perhaps important to recognise that the pressing political issue in Eritrea is a question of citizenship status, which can only be addressed by the introduction of a truly democratic constitutional system that guarantees the enjoyment of citizenship rights. The first step is therefore to put such a constitution in place. To put it in simple terms, the slave must be upgraded to a citizen.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)


Eritrea: Promises of More of the Same

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Eritrea: Promises of More of the Same

by Martin Plaut

Source: Eritrea DigestSeptember 9, 2018

Eritrea’s Charge d’Affaires to the United States is Berhane G Solomon.

A protege of Yemane Gebreab, the ruling party’s Director of Political Affairs, Berhane even has Yemane’s body language: the exaggerated hand movements, the awkward smile and, of course, flashes of brilliance. In short, he is very good at his job, a job that requires him to be bad. To lie, to obfuscate, to stall, to confound and to confuse.

This prowess was brought to bear on Eritreans assembled for the Scandinavia Festival, held every summer in Sweden. These particular set of skills were particularly in high demand since the festival coincided with the period of time that a new line of Isaias Afwerki was launched by President Isaias Afwerki; and because there hadn’t been any preview of the new product, people were confused.

The new version of Isaias Afwerki was very deferential to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (a man he barely knows); appeared to settle for a secondary role not just for himself (unusual for such an alpha male) but the country he leads (a country that fought for decades not to be subservient to, or part of, Ethiopia); and, for a man who had shown his people an austere, stoic image for decades, he was very touchy-feely: blowing kisses and tugging his heart. Nerves were rattled among the faithful; the unfaithful didn’t help by reminding them that the man’s loyalty to Eritrea is suspect, he had always been rumored to be a stalking horse, either because of his lineage (yawn) or that Eritrea was too small for his ambitions.

This short speech by Berhane G. Solomon was a rebuttal and it has six arguments, presented in less than five minutes (I told you he is good):

1.     Singular to Collective: Remove the focus from Isaias Afwerki to the leadership. Instead of the singular, talk about the collective;

2.     Absurdity of Freedom Fighter Being A Betrayer: Present the “obvious” absurdity of the argument that those who fought the hardest and longest to bring about Eritrea’s independence would surrender it;

3.     Place Isaias Afwerki’s Speech Within Cultural Context: Re-define the sentence Isaias made to Abiy Ahmed in Addis (“you will lead us”) as consistent with Eritrea’s traditions of village assemblies (the romanticized bayto under a tree) where each able person presents the other as more able.  Have no worries,  the real agreements will be in writing and will be reviewed by lawyers, he said;

4.     Consider the Source: the same people who are criticizing us for being too energetic in the peace effort are the ones who (with Weyane) were accusing us of being isolationists and anti-peace;

5.     We Won: We long ago decided that change in Eritrea and the region cannot come about unless there is change in Ethiopia, so this is the fulfillment of our hard labor;

6.     No Time To Talk But Work: Our leaders are racing to bring about the fruits of their hard labor. This is not the time to demand they speak to us: “hard to talk when you are racing.”

Let’s listen to it, and view the reaction of the audience here. The counter argument to Mr. Berhane G Solomon will follow, point-by-point:

1. Collective to Singular:Nobody is accusing Yemane Gebreab or Osman Saleh of betraying Eritrea. Nobody is saying they long harbored intent to surrender Eritrea to Ethiopia. Nobody is saying that they were so ambitious they wanted to lead something much bigger than Eritrea. At least, I am not.  All the allegations have been against Isaias Afwerki and him only. Berhane Solomon unconsciously (or consciously) concedes this point when he rhetorically asks, “if selling out Eritrea was their goal, why didn’t they do it in 1992?” Of course, Eritrea became an independent country in 1991 and not in 1992, and he knows there is 1991 (post independence) literature of Isaias Afwerki trying and failing to convince Eritreans to prepare them for confederation with Ethiopia.  Thus, the reference to 1992.

But moving on: let’s get more testimony. And they are not all “allegations”: some are just presented as a matter of fact. And who are the ones making them? They are (A) Mesfin Hagos, one of the founders of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (now PFDJ), a 25 year veteran of the 30-year armed struggle (member of G-15, now exiled); (B) Dr. Dima Negewo, one of the founders of the Oromo Liberation Fronts (OLF), and in charge of its Foreign Office (who represented his front during the negotiations the Tripatriate meetings regarding post-Mengistu government.) Additionally, two Ethiopians testify that Isaias Afwerki was open to the idea of being in charge of a unified Ethiopia: he was thwarted by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ambitions to dominate Ethiopian politics and they are (C) Dawit Woldegiorgis, the administrator of Eritrea for the Derg regime and (D) Andargachew Tsige, the leader of Ginbot-7, one of the Eritrea-based armed Ethiopian opposition groups. Links for all the interviews mentioned are provided below, with time set to the relevant part:





2. Absurd To Call Freedom Fighters “Traitors”: Well, that’s rich coming from a spokesperson for PFDJ which has accused long-serving freedom fighters like Petros Solomon, Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, Haile Woldense, Mesfin Hagos, Ogbe Abraha, Hamid Himid, Saleh Idris Kekya, Estifanos Seyoum, Berhane Ghebrezgabiher, Astier Fesehazion, Germano Nati, Beraki Gebreselassie, Adhanom Ghebremariam, Mohammed Ali Omaro, Omer Tewil, Abdella Jaber, Mustapha Nurhussein and many others FROM ITS OWN LEADERSHIP as traitors and made them disappear.  We won’t even count the thousands of patriots accused of being fifth columnists from outside the EPLF/PFDJ.  The accusation that one individual (Isaias Afwerki) is a betrayer makes more sense than the claim that everybody who opposes him, literally in the thousands, are. In any event, the allegation of “betrayal” here, at least from my perspective, is not that he wants to surrender Eritrea to Ethiopia. The betrayal is that he is doing whatever it is he is doing in secret without consulting the people, or their elected spokespersons in a parliament. Heck, he is not even consulting with the rubber stamp cabinet of ministers.  He is betraying the cause of the armed struggle, as he has done for the last 17 years.

3. Isaias Afwerki & Cultural Context: The speeches of Isaias Afwerki that people have an objection to are (a) his delegation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a leader to deal with all issues Eritrean and (b) his claim that, henceforth, it is incorrect to call Eritreans and Ethiopians as two people. What is the flaw in Berhane G. Solomon’s argument that was just “polite talk” “reconciliation talk” consistent with the Eritrean culture of humility and diffidence, specially in public service? Two things: first, President Isaias Afwerki went out of his way to iterate that, no, this wasn’t just idle talk or flattery: he really, really means it. Second, there is nothing in the history of Isaias Afwerki that shows he has any respect for Eritrean culture, chief among them being, “do not pass a judgement before you give the accused an opportunity for self-defense.” Or, “get the consent of the governed to govern.”  In fact, if there is one thing that will come to define the Isaias Afwerki regime long after it is gone is that it was a very unjust and cruel system, indifferent to the voices of the people or their culture.

As for his claim that we shouldn’t be anxious because all agreements will be in writing, which will be reviewed by lawyers: sorry to say but it rings hollow. The most glaring example of it was that following the outbreak of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, what became apparent was that the two governments had no written agreement to refer to and they were reduced to sharing with us private correspondence between Isaias Afwerki and Meles Zenawi.  That and “colonial treaties” signed by Europeans over a century ago.

4. The “Consider the source” Argument:and other tricks of guilt-by-association will boomerang on the Isaias Afwerki administration because those he associates with, and those who consider him as their personal hero, just happen to be ardent One EthiopiaEthiopians who either don’t accept Eritrea’s sovereignty or question the entire basis of its armed struggle. The point here is that: the Isaias Afwerki regime was wrong to stumble Eritrea into a war (in 1998); it was wrong to escalate Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the final/binding ruling by miring Eritrea in Somalia and getting the country sanctioned; and now it is wrong in pursuing secret deals with Ethiopia without consulting the stakeholders, ie: the people. The “you are accidentally agreeing with people we don’t like” may work on the weaker supporters of the PFDJ but it can’t work on all of them.

5. The “we won” argument: is something the PFDJ uses without ever considering the price that was paid. Firstly, how much did the Isaias Afwerki regime contribute to the downfall of the TPLF from the leadership of the EPRDF-coalition? 100%? 75%? 50%? 25%? Ethiopians will have to answer that, not the “humble” PFDJ.  And whatever the answer was, was it worth the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans exiled, sanctions, and an entire generation of Eritreans who wasted their lives to guard a border because dialogue was not possible prior to their demobilization and now demobilization is not possible even after dialogue that wasn’t supposed to happen before demarcation? Was it worth it for them to hear their chief commanding officer saying, “we lost nothing”? Was it worth it for them to hear a veteran of the armed struggle tearfully saying, to Ethiopia’s tearful Jossy “now that there is peace, when I look back at the 40 years I spent in the armed struggle, I regret it?” video hereWhen is the Isaias Afwerki administration going to face the people not to “lecture them”, but to listen and to be accountable for its actions: what was paid for this win, was it worth it, were there other wins forfeited?

6. Too Busy To Talk:Between 2001 and 2018 (17 years), the Isaias Afwerki government was too busy to talk to the people and be accountable to them because it is too busy protecting the nation from imminent danger. Now that there is peace, the Isaias Afwerki government is too busy to talk because it is too busy catching up for opportunities it didn’t lose because we lost nothing. Busy, busy, busy. It is the same “heads I win, tails you lose” trick. But if there is one lesson it should have drawn from all its former allies–Muammar Kaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Hosni Mubarek,  Meles Zenawi—is that you can fool the people for some time, but not indefinitely. At some point, people will no longer be persuaded by their “trust us, just be patient” reasoning.  This, I think, is what Former Finance Minister and now author Berhane Abrehe is trying to warn them with this message:

Will they listen? Judging from the reaction of their uberfans, there is little hope to be optimistic: first they denied he wrote the books; now they are doing “voice analysis” to prove it is not him sending his message from Asmara on September 1. But the message of Berhane Abrehe is the same one made by General Bitweded Abraha two decades ago: listen to your people, try reconciliation, and be accountable. And we know what they did to him: disappear because he was another freedom fighter who was a traitor, apparently.

The PFDJ is still relying on its “revolutionary legitimacy”: Berhane says that when we question the PFDJ leadership’s commitment to Eritrea, we are claiming that we care for the country more than they do. Well, no; firstly, some of us are not sayingtheybut him.  Secondly, all of us are saying that they are servants of the people and they are accountable to the people and the people, via their national assembly, have the right and duty to express their confidence in them or fire them.

The PFDJ continues to give the people an impossible choice: to get your freedom, you must first topple us; and to topple us, you must be prepared for civil war. Or, if that doesn’t look attractive to you, wait for it on our schedule. Hating both options, the people continue to latch on to people like Berhane Abrehe: that change will come from within and it will come with little or no bloodshed by coordinating with the opposition. Twenty seven years after Eritrea’s independence, you can’t continuously come up with reasons and justifications as to why you don’t have a constitution; you are not accountable to any institution; you have our youth in indefinite conscription; you have political prisoners; you have no independent press; refuse to reconcile with anyone; ignore the hundreds of thousands of your people in exile and close up all political space.  And when a critical mass of them rise up, because there is no constitution, no institutions, no civil society–nothing but PFDJ–there will be nothing to save them from the wrath of the people.

betrayalEritreaEthiopiaPeacePFDJstatus quo


Martin Plaut | September 10, 2018 at 6:37 am | Tags: Berhane G Solomon, Eritrea, USA | Categories: News | URL:

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