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Eritrea’s economic “death spiral” led by an “unhinged dictator”

Eritrea has been called the North Korea of Africa, and with good reason. A March 5, 2009 cable summarizes the mess: "Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator [Isaias Afwerki] remains cruel and defiant." It’s a ...

Eritrea has been called the North Korea of Africa, and with good reason. A March 5, 2009 cable summarizes the mess: "Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator [Isaias Afwerki] remains cruel and defiant."

It’s a bleak picture of the continent’s most isolated country. Even Zimbabwe talks to its neighbors. Eritrea is friends with no one — except the Islamist militants trying their hardest to take over Somalia (to whom it provides arms). Perhaps in part because of its isolation, Eritrea is a frighteningly cohesive society — one built in a burst of nationalist sentiment after the brief war of independence that led to Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in the 1990s.

Afwerki was the beloved rebel leader who delivered independence, and at first, the cable notes, he "seemed to be providing (like Mugabe) reasonably good governance to his traumatized nation." But the "accelerating decline into dictatorship" shortly followed. And the bogeyman Afwerki used to focus minds was Ethiopia, a country backed by the United States.

The cable vividly portrays Eritrea as a failed state:

The regime’s practice of seizing crops or forcing farmers to sell grain at below-market prices has caused families to attempt to withdraw from the monetized economy, at least in part, although the Isaias [Afwerki] regime is very good at controlling nearly all aspects of Eritrean society. Eritrean farmers have long lived a knife-edge existence due to marginal rainfall, decades of war and brigandage, and the use of Dark Age technology. Even before last year’s dreadful harvest, UNICEF reckoned that 40% of Eritrean children were malnourished. Despite this, Eritreans remain fiercely patriotic. In the face of deprivation and oppression, the time-tested best practice is to shut up, hunker down, and pray for rain."

The cable goes on to describe a "hopeless future of open-ended National Service at survival-level wages" for the country’s youth — a reference to the mandatory military conscription that is required of all young Eritreans for an indefinite period of time. (Human Rights Watch did an excellent report on this subject just a month after this cable was written.)

Will there be change? The cable documents how Afwerki has made a seeminly inexplicable change in policy toward the United States, going from America-bashing to "a charm offensive with the U.S. in hopes that the Obama administration will for some reason reverse USG opposition to the regime’s regional meddling and domestic oppression." (In case you can’t tell from the tone of that, little chance of that…)

But where change may come is via a coup, the cable forecasts.  While the older generation may be swayed by Afwerki’s revolutionary credentials, the youth are less enthused. The cable predicts that a military regime could credibly take over the nationalist mantle "should the military or a faction of it suddenly find the need to step in to ‘save the revolution.’"

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