Report

‘Definitely Going to Blow’

‘Definitely Going to Blow’

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was his usual uncompromising self when interviewed on national television earlier this month. Only "daydreamers" believe in alternatives to the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), said the man who has run this Red Sea state for 23 years without a national election. Anyone hoping for multiparty democracy, he added, can "go to the moon."

Isaias slapped down suggestions that the time was ripe for negotiations with neighboring Ethiopia, with which Eritrea has been locked in a no-peace, no-war standoff since a two-year border conflict in the late 1990s left Ethiopian forces illegally occupying swathes of Eritrean land. As for the notion, recently voiced by a bevy of former U.S. policymakers and ambassadors, that strained relations with Washington could and should be improved: "This is like chasing the wind!"

The dogged intransigence on display in the interview, staged during celebrations to mark his former rebel movement’s 1990 capture of the strategic port of Massawa, was typical of the man who once led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) to victory — but who has since moved, in many of his own citizens’ eyes, from heroic liberator to iron-fisted saboteur of Eritrean independence. "He never hesitates when it comes to pouring cold water on expectations," says Gaim Kibreab, a professor at London South Bank University and the author of four books on his native country. "Every time people hope for change, he comes out and says, ‘You must be kidding.’"

Isaias’s obduracy also sends an inadvertent message: If change in Eritrea cannot be achieved either peacefully or gradually, it must come about through violence.

There have been nearly 13 years of lockdown in Eritrea, a period in which the country routinely dubbed "Africa’s North Korea" for its militarism and defiant isolationism has virtually disappeared from global headlines. Isaias’s support for fundamentalist groups like Somalia’s al-Shabab — one of the reasons for eroding relations with Washington — has led the United Nations to impose sanctions on the country. Nowadays, even physically accessing what was once an African gateway to the Middle East and Europe is a challenge: Lufthansa, the only Western airline that serviced Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, ceased flying there in October 2013, and the European Union has banned Eritrean Airlines for safety reasons.

Today, there is a growing sense that a crisis point is approaching. "Eritrea’s definitely going to blow," predicts Selam Kidane, an Eritrean democracy activist based in London. "Isaias can’t carry on like this for much longer."

This prospect makes Western policymakers exceedingly jittery. Gazing across the Red Sea at Yemen and Saudi Arabia, blocking Ethiopia’s access to the sea, and bordered by Sudan and Djibouti, Eritrea occupies a prime site in geostrategic terms. With South Sudan in the throes of a new civil war and Somalia’s president struggling to pull together a dysfunctional nation, the last thing the Horn of Africa needs is another unstable country. 

Rumors about Isaias’s health circulate, but that’s a common phenomenon with strongmen of whom a population has begun to tire. A more significant harbinger of turmoil, in a system that has failed to make the transition from military to civilian rule, is the tangible dissatisfaction within the country’s armed forces, whose size — just under 600,000 members — seems grossly disproportionate to a population of less than six million.

The rank and file of the armed forces, their numbers swelled by the policy of open-ended, obligatory national service that has sent more than 300,000 Eritreans fleeing the country in the last decade, are increasingly unhappy at the denial of civil rights, the rationing of basic commodities, and the flagrant corruption of senior officers. The PFDJ argument that Ethiopia’s illegal occupation of Eritrean land — in violation of a 12-year-old international boundary ruling issued in The Hague — makes such sacrifice necessary is wearing thin.

With the University of Asmara, the country’s only public institution of higher education, closed and the private sector crippled by import restrictions and foreign-exchange regulations, a generation forced to don camouflage has little to look forward to. It feels both caged and marooned.

A preview of the likely future came on Jan. 21, 2013 when 100-200 junior army officers, accompanied by two tanks, stormed the Ministry of Information, a building that sits on a promontory overlooking Asmara and is known locally as "Forto." Invading the studio of state-owned EriTV, they managed to force the station’s director to read a statement before transmissions were cut, demanding the implementation of Eritrea’s multiparty constitution and the release of political prisoners. (Some of Isaias’s closest collaborators in the 1990s, dubbed the "G15," have not been seen since he rounded them up in 2001 for daring to criticize his political and military strategy.)

"Operation Forto" appeared to go off at half-cock, before the ringleaders had won the unequivocal backing of key generals. The officers may have been hoping to capture Isaias, who was due to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Information but rescheduled at the last moment. Whatever the case, as the hours ticked by, the mutineers allowed themselves to be talked down by army superiors. The ringleader, a colonel, reportedly was later shot or committed suicide while fleeing toward the border, and a round of arrests of high-ranking PFDJ personnel followed.

But the botched mutiny was a salutary warning. Not just for Isaias, who last month reshuffled his generals in what was widely interpreted as a bid to prevent them from building up loyal followings, but also for the Eritrean diaspora, where vocal, civilian opposition to the regime has, of necessity, been corralled and channeled. Isaias’s critics living abroad are anxious not to see Eritrea fit the clichéd African stereotype, whereby a military strongman is replaced not by a civilian administration but by an ambitious young officer who initially promises reform, only to become the new dictator. They are also very worried about being sidelined.

Earlier this month, three EPLF stalwarts staged a press conference in the Hilton Metropole in London to announce the launch of the Forum for National Dialogue, intended to act as a bridge among the opposition-in-exile, the diaspora, and covert dissenters within the Eritrean administration. Pointing out that the Forto mutineers made no reference to the civilian opposition in their public statements, Dr. Assefaw Tekeste, who once ran the EPLF’s Health Department, said the episode highlighted "the disconnect between what is happening inside and outside the country." The mutineers, he said, "had no idea what was going on abroad." Hence the urgent need to get the various players, in Eritrea and outside its borders, talking to one another.

Some might suggest that the junior officers knew about the civilian opposition but regarded it as irrelevant — and with good reason. Since Isaias staged a crackdown in 2001, jailing possible rivals and neutralizing potential sources of dissent, Eritrea’s exiled opposition parties have squabbled and fallen out, announcing the formation of all-encompassing "umbrella groups" while repeatedly disagreeing over strategy, roles, affiliation, and funding.

Disputes have often focused on the appropriateness of staging meetings in Addis Ababa or accepting funds from Ethiopia — a coziness that has made it all too easy for Isaias to label his challengers living abroad as traitors. But the tensions are also rooted in older antagonisms between former members of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a largely Muslim rebel movement, and the EPLF, in which Christians predominated, that chased them out of the country in the early 1980s.

Despite public mea culpas from former Isaias allies, ELF survivors of that fratricidal rebel war are quick to detect incipient arrogance from exiled EPLF cadres who, they argue, are now seeking to topple the unaccountable presidency they originally created. They suspect the movement that liberated Eritrea believes it won the right to rule, with or without Isaias.

The civilian opposition’s real challenge, however, is how to cross a yawning generational divide. Anyone who has attended Eritrean opposition meetings or civil society get-togethers knows what these gatherings have in common: Delegates are usually male, over the age of 60, and the international media and Western officials are notable in their absence. Dissidents might expect to find an automatic hearing among younger Eritreans who are going into exile rather than performing national service — a constituency voting with its feet. But, in fact, asylum-seekers rarely attend. Desperate to build new lives for themselves in the West, they are intent on winning the necessary paperwork, earning a living, and integrating into host societies. Many feel understandably disillusioned with both the PFDJ and the opposition, whom they see as selling out to Ethiopia.

Yet lately, there are some promising signs of change. Growing numbers of Eritreans living abroad, including younger ones, are being drawn into grassroots activism. They are inspired by events like the Arab Spring and dismayed by stories of the ordeals endured by Eritreans trying to escape their country, who fall prey to gangs of traffickers in the Sinai or who go down in rickety boats off the Mediterranean Coast. Images of hundreds of coffins lined up in an Italian airport hangar, after a boat laden with mostly Eritrean migrants sank off Lampedusa Island in October 2013 and an estimated 360 people drowned, were a massive shock to the community.

Activists in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, and Australia launched a campaign called "Freedom Friday" a year ago. Going through Eritrea’s telephone directory, volunteers began randomly cold-calling compatriots back home, urging them to empty the streets each Friday as a gesture of discontent. (The sociable evening passeggiata — a hangover from Italian colonial days — is an established tradition in Eritrea.)

In September 2013, Freedom Friday unveiled an underground newspaper called Echoes of Forto, the first independent newsletter in Eritrea since the independent press was closed in 2001. A photocopier has been smuggled into Asmara, and contributors in the diaspora send electronic files to supporters in the capital, who surreptitiously print out and distribute the newspaper. Volunteers also plaster stickers and posters making fun of Isaias on walls and telephone booths at night.

The PFDJ has always been very skilled at marshaling its diaspora followers, who regularly disrupt opposition events staged in the West. Now, liaising via Twitter and Facebook, activists are fighting back. They are targeting PFDJ meetings and anniversary celebrations, alerting those who rent out their premises to the oppressive nature of the regime. "A lot of churches in the U.K. and U.S. stopped hosting these events after we made them aware of Eritrea’s persecution of Christians. Now the PFDJ doesn’t announce its meetings," says Kidane, the democracy activist. Moreover, earlier this month, campaigners sneaked a secret camera into the Eritrean Embassy in London to record officials forcing people in the diaspora to pay a 2 percent tax on earnings, a practice banned by the U.N. Security Council. Canada expelled the Eritrean consul in Toronto last year for continuing to levy the illegal tax, a key source of funding for what the World Bank lists as one of the world’s 10 poorest countries.

These are tiny steps, particularly when compared to the extraordinarily effective fund- and consciousness-raising campaign that Eritreans waged from shabby Western offices in the 1970s and 80s, as the EPLF fought Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and, later, the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. But there was a time when such disloyalty would have been unthinkable, so genuine was the newly-liberated country’s affection for Isaias.

The question now is whether Eritrea’s fractious civilian opposition can form a common political platform and draw in the wide-ranging grassroots support it needs to win credibility — before the military men inside Eritrea lose patience once and for all. Eritrea has always prided itself on forging its own path. But there’s one recent, continent-wide trend that Africa-watchers would dearly like to see the country embrace in coming years: the phasing out of the military coup as a method of political transformation.