Eritrea Alenalki EditorialThe Eritrean government has reacted with predictable denunciations to yesterday’s events.

The government attacked anyone who attempted to report what took place. This is the editorial from the Alenalki website.

“Rumours, Gossips and Speculations with regards to ‘coup in Asmara, Eritrea’ are splashed today in the websites of some news organisation across the internet.

“This situation today Monday the 21st 2013 in Asmara and all Eritrea is not different from any other day. It has been peaceful and business as usual and there is no sign of mutiny, coup d’état or any kind of uprising.

“There was a small incident that has occurred in the offices of the Eritrean Television that was resolved peacefully.

“The details of the incident will be clear in the coming days, but there was no force involved in the incident. The Eritrean Television staff members have reassured their offices is peaceful.”

Equally predictably, the renowned Eritrean expert Dan Connell and I were singled out for criticism.

So what took place?

This is far from clear and there was little reliable information, except for that which could be gleamed over the phone.

If the reporting was poor, President Isaias has no-one but himself to blame.

Eritrea TV off airEritrea ranks below North Korea on the Reporters Without Borders index, with no free press and no foreign correspondents from any of the reputable international news agencies, like Reuters, AP or AFP.

Al-Jazeera, CNN and the BBC are seldom, if ever, allowed unrestricted access to the country.

But – as the Eritrean government admits – something did take place, even if the government wishes to portray it as a “small incident.

This followed the broadcast of a series of demands which were made after around 100 members of the Eritrean Defence Force took control of the Ministry of Information head quarters in Forto just outside Asmara and forced the director of Eritrea TV, Asmellash Abraha Woldu, to read an announcements calling for:

  • the freeing of all prisoners of conscience
  • the implementation of the constitution
  • and stating that the ministry of information is under their control.

Eritrean TV was taken off the air for several hours, before resuming its broadcasts.

This much is clear.

What was behind these events?

There is clearly deep anger and frustration among the young conscripts who have to serve for years in the Eritrean armed forces as part of National Service.

Conditions are often terrible and pay around 450 Nakfa a month – around half the published minimum wage.

Young men and women see life stretching endlessly before them, with little hope of a better future.

Nevsun photo of Erirea operationsThe reason given for these conditions by the authorities is the ongoing confrontation with Ethiopia, with whom Eritrea fought an unresolved border war from May 1998 to June 2000.

Some conscripts are sent to carry out public works. Others to the mines.

So desperate are these young people that they bribe their way across the border, risking death in the land mines, only to face extreme hardship and torture as they try to cross the Negev desert to reach Israel, or else crossing the Sahara to reach Malta or Italy.

Given these alternatives, it is not hard to see why some troops might finally have had enough and decided to seize the Ministry of Information.

This bold move appears to have had little planning.

There have been plenty of rumors suggesting that senior officers were involved, but no hard information.

Not the first army demonstration

To understand the demonstrations one needs to look back to Eritrea’s 30 year war of independence, which ended in 1991 with the capture of Asmara, its beautiful highland capital, from the Ethiopians.

Two years later the country won internationally recognition after a UN monitored referendum.

EPLF fighter Massawa 29 June 1990But the war left terrible scars.

The liberation movement – the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front – under control of President Isaias Afewerki was a highly effective organisation.

It needed to be. Ethiopia was, in turn, supported by the two superpower – first the United States and then the Soviet Union.

Ethiopia also had ten times the population. To win independence the EPLF had sacrificed everything, including internal democracy.

When the EPLF took power this should have ended. But the President found the ‘soft life’ away from the battlefield impossible to adjust to. He simply could not accept that his word was no longer law.

May 1993

A key moment came in May 1993, four days before the country’s official declaration of independence.

Troops, who had not been paid during the entire liberation war, launched the largest public protest the country had ever seen.

This was finally ended when the President met them, promising to improve their lot.

That evening, with the protests over, around 200 of the leaders were rounded up and arrested. Some were imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial.

Although there were attempts by some in the EPLF to move towards a democratic, constitutional state, they were frustrated.

The party, renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice in February 1994, is under the total control of the president.

No other parties are allowed and there have never been free and fair elections.

The ‘G15’

In May 2001 a group of leading former EPLF members (the Group of 15) published an open letter criticising the president.

In dawn raids all those inside the country were rounded up and have been detained without trial ever since.

The independent media were closed and all free speech ended. President Isaias now rules with the assistance of a small military clique, tolerating no challenge to his authority.

It has been left to young Eritreans, in the diaspora, to do what they can to keep hope alive.

Yesterday they made 10,000 phone calls – many automated – to Eritrea, to show their concern and support.