Once there was a time when the instructions of the Eritrean government were obeyed without a murmur. But no longer.
Orders for people over 30 to do training with the Popular Army are now openly disobeyed, says ‘Sami’ – an opposition activist living in the capital, Asmara. “There is now a complete dis-connect between the population and the regime,” he told me in a conversation.
An opposition website, Asmarino, reported that citizens had been told to report to the Popular Army and given a deadline of 3rd January.
This order has now apparently been rescinded after an almost total boycott. “For 42 years this would have been unthinkable,” said Sami. People obeyed the EPLF because they believed in the cause of independence and then obeyed the PFDJ (its successor) out of fear. But no more.”
On 21 January 2013 a section of the army seized the television and radio station at Forto on the outskirts of the capital, broadcasting a demand for the Constitution to be brought into force and for freedom and civil liberties. The brief broadcast was cut off the the rebellion finally failed, but it has continued to inspire people.
“Everyone discusses what happened at Forto,” says Sami. “We are sad that it failed – everyone regrets that it did not succeed and talks about it openly.”
But Sami says no-one in Asmara believes this. “Hardly anyone even bothered to listen. They think this talk of a new Constitution is just a ruse to allow the President to extend his tenure in office, or win international aid. No-one believes it will be implemented or change their lives.”
Sami described the general disgust now felt about President Isaias, who is frequently described as mentally unstable. “People discuss this and compare him to other mentally ill leaders who have continued to control their countries,” he said. “He almost appears to enjoy our suffering.”
Conditions for ordinary Eritreans continue to be extremely tough. Many only have two meals a day – some just have one. Sugar is not available at subsidised government shops this month and many other goods have run out, leaving people to find what they can on the black market.
“The regime and the people are now at opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Sami.
He and his associates in the ‘Freedom Friday’ movement (Arbi Harnet) have continued to put up posters, stickers and distribute leaflets at night – getting their message across, and keeping hope alive. “We were very active during December,” Sami told me.