Once Africa’s Kim Jong-un, Eritrea’s Isaias must reinvent himself as a democrat

Saturday July 21 2018

Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki

Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki is extremely cautious and believes he is indispensable to the country, and that without him it will lose its way. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

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Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki has always operated on the assumption that no one would come to Eritrea’s aid after it launched its armed struggle for Independence from Ethiopia in 1961.

It was never entirely true, but the guerillas didn’t have the support of any major power.

When Eritrea gained its Independence In 1993, he saw no reason to alter his view. As a result, major international aid agencies were made unwelcome. Even the United Nations has found it difficult to work in the country.

After 2001, when the president cracked down on all opposition – including from within his own party – all major news organisations, including the BBC, Reuters and AFP – were banned from operating offices in the country.

International journalists have only been allowed to visit sporadically. This has left Eritrea under-reported.

Isaias is moody and reclusive by nature. Since the regime is a dictatorship that has never allowed elections of any kind, the country reflects the politics of its leader.

Following Eritrea’s bitter border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, Asmara became a sponsor of the Somali Islamist group Al Shabaab, and a number of Ethiopian rebel groups.

It did so to undermine the Ethiopian government, which was fighting a war in Somalia against the Islamists. Eritrea’s support for Ethiopian rebel groups had a similar aim in mind.

These activities – as well as a border clash with Djibouti – led to the UN Security Council imposing an arms embargo against Eritrea in 2009. The embargo did not include economic sanctions.

UN-appointed experts monitored the arms and logistical support Eritrea provided to Al Shabaab in great detail. In recent years, they have reported back that they have no evidence of current Eritrean backing for the Shabaab.

Now, given the events of the past few weeks, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said he thinks the sanctions regime will become obsolete, since Eritrea and Ethiopia have resolved their differences.

The prospects for the Horn of Africa could be transformed if the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement holds and their border dispute is truly resolved.

The closure of their mutual frontier for the past two decades has had a terrible effect on people all along the 1,000 km-long border, with family ties and trade patterns severely disrupted.

The people of the two countries have never been at loggerheads: There is little real animosity between them. The divisions have been between the ruling parties of both countries.

With these apparently resolved, life in the Horn can return to normal. The Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab will hum with life once more, as Ethiopian trade flows through them. And the potash deposits on their border can be developed.

Since Ethiopia is currently Africa’s fastest growing economy, this could ease bottlenecks such as international investment in Eritrea, which will no longer be viewed as a war-risk.

And instead of competing to fund and support rebel movements in each other’s countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea can combine to tackle the real enemy: Poverty.

This is the most difficult question and predictions are fraught with difficulty. Having been such a closed dictatorship, it is impossible to say with any certainty how the country will be transformed.

On the one hand, Isaias could allow democracy to emerge, since he no longer has a foreign enemy on his doorstep.

The Constitution, which was ratified by the National Assembly, could be implemented.

Free and fair elections could be held and a multiparty system allowed to emerge. The president could even decide to retire now that peace has been achieved – he is 72 years old.

This is all possible. But it’s not very likely. The president is extremely cautious and believes he is indispensable to the country, and that without him it will lose its way.

He is more likely to move only gradually towards allowing limited freedoms. This could include ending indefinite conscription, since the rationale for this has ended.

Such an approach would be consistent with his past behaviour.

But it may result in growing frustration from citizens who have accepted economic hardship and a lack of democracy during a time of war, but will probably do so no longer. What forces this will unleash and how the citizens will react, only time will tell.

The end of hostilities should mean that Eritrea’s indefinite National Service is ended. National Service (or conscription) is required of all citizens between 18 and 40 years old.

In theory, this lasts for no longer than 18 months. Yet many Eritreans have served for 20 years and more. Pay is minimal and conditions harsh: For women, there is the ever-present threat of rape or sexual abuse. This has been by far the main driver of the refugee exodus that has seen up to 5,000 people leaving the country every month.

Freed from conscription, some servicemen and women will return to their farms or seek employment in towns. One possible consequence is that unemployment could become serious, unless inward investment takes up the slack.

If the border with Ethiopia is opened up again, thousands of people in refugee camps in Ethiopia are likely to return home. The refugee outflow may even be reversed.

This is an optimistic prognosis. More likely, refugees who have risked everything to reach safety will remain in the camps until the outcome of the dramatic changes can be assessed and the transformation is made permanent.

Eritrea’s refugee outflow will only end when both prosperity and freedom become established facts. Until then, it is likely that some will continue to seek a better life abroad, even if in smaller numbers.

Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow for the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa at the UK Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

*First published in The Conversation