Eritrea Calm for Now, but Challenge to President Far from Over

By Catherine Cheney, on 22 Jan 2013, Trend Lines

On Monday, 100 mutinous soldiers seized Eritrea’s Ministry of Information and forced state television to broadcast their list of demands. Loyal government troops quickly put an end to what some are calling a failed coup attempt, but two Eritrea experts who spoke with Trend Lines said the challenge to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has made the country one of the most isolated and oppressive in the world, is far from over.

“This is a reflection of the depth and breadth of dissatisfaction in the society over the continuing failure to take the country beyond the war footing it went into in 1998 over border disputes with Ethiopia, as well as the chronic economic crisis, the international isolation and the crushing political repression the unelected president has brought on and nurtured for more than a decade,” said Dan Connell, an Eritrea expert who teaches journalism and African politics at Simmons College. “And I do not believe it is anywhere near over.”

Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and former Africa editor of BBC News, said the events “tore away the mantle of a ‘contented nation, going about its business, free from foreign interference,’ which is how the president and his close associates like to portray it,” Plaut explained.

Emphasizing “how cut off Eritrea is from the rest of the world,” Plaut said the best information available suggests the mutiny was spontaneous and poorly planned.

Connell, meanwhile, said he would not characterize what happened Monday as a failed coup attempt, as he did not see it as an attempt to seize power.

“It appears the mutineers had and probably still have considerable support within the military for a national conversation on the continuing state of emergency,” Connell said, explaining that their demands were for the release of political prisoners, the implementation of the 1997 constitution and the start of negotiations for the president to transition out of power.

A small country in the Horn of Africa, Eritrea is one of the most tightly controlled and highly militarized states in the world. Connell noted its mandatory national service for people ages 18 through 55 and its ban on independent organizations not controlled by the state or ruling party.

“Most of the society is in the military or relates to it, and there are no other centers of civic or social congruence, let alone political alternatives,” he added. This means the military, or segments of it, is inevitably involved in any changes that take place in Eritrean society.

Conscripts, Plaut said, are often young men and women whose military service is extended with next to no pay and who are so desperate to escape their situation “that they bribe their way across the border,” facing extreme hardship and torture in their attempts.

“Given these alternatives,” he said, it is not hard to see why some soldiers who had “finally had enough” tried to rise up.

Plaut said the origins of present-day Eritrea lie in its 30-year war of independence, which ended with the 1991 capture of Asmara, now Eritrea’s highland capital, from the Ethiopians.

But in order to win independence, he explained, the highly effective Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) “sacrificed everything, including internal democracy.” This state of affairs should have ended when the EPLF took power, he continued, but Isaias found life “away from the battlefield impossible to adjust to.”

By the late-1990s, Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war over their shared border, a still-unresolved conflict that has killed tens of thousands. And as Isaias held on to the presidency, he continued to crack down on freedoms, rounding up and imprisoning potential challengers.

“Although there were attempts by some in the EPLF to move toward a democratic, constitutional state, they were frustrated,” Plaut said, explaining that the party, later renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, is totally controlled by the president. “Isaias now rules with the assistance of a small military clique, tolerating no challenge to his authority.”

Connell explained, “This is a country with a constitution ratified in 1997 but never implemented, no national elections ever, no nonstate press and no independent organizations.” He added, “even the religious denominations one may belong to are regulated by the state.”

While the Eritrean government says the capital is now calm, opposition activists point to growing dissent within the military. Plaut predicts that “one day, the repressive bubble will burst.”

Source: World Politics Review