A Glimpse into a Mysterious African Dictatorship: Is Eritrea on the Verge?

By IndepthAfrica
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Jan 28th, 2013
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Eritrea made a rare foray into international headlines on Monday Jan. 21, as news agencies and social media sites disseminated speculation of a coup attempt. Reliable information on events in Asmara is hard to come by, however, with the tiny East African nation being one of the world’s least open societies and allowing no independent journalists to operate. One signal that all was not well in the Eritrean capital, however, was the fact that the state television service, which is broadcast from inside the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, went off the air for several minutes — for the first time since its creation in 1993.

Although reports of what took place vary wildly, accounts by opposition figures and dissidents claim that the channel’s leading news presenter appeared on air and read out a brief statement calling for the implementation of the 1997 constitution and release of political prisoners — estimated by Human Rights Watch to number between 5,000 and 10,000. The channel then went dead for the whole day before returning to normal service as if nothing had happened, with a report on how snow was disrupting daily life in Paris. That brief disruption was taken by many as a sign that a power struggle may be underway within Eritrean’s regime.

(MORE: The Ogaden Problem: Will an Old Insurgency Tip the Balance in East Africa?)

Eritrea, which became a nation state in 1993 after two decades of separatist insurgency, has been ruled since its inception by President Isaias Afewerki, who had led the rebellion. For a time, Eritrea was viewed in Western capitals as a beacon of hope, a small but resource-rich nation on track to become an African success story. But optimism quickly soured as Afewerki’s regime, seized by fears of an Ethiopian invasion, cracked down on dissent and created a security state — a dynamic exacerbated by a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. No elections have been held since Eritrea’s birth, and opposition has been suppressed. Large numbers of young people have fled to avoid military conscription or forced labour. Afewerki has also been accused by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea of funding Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabab militants — a charge he vigorously denies, although the U.N. group later reported that international pressure had prompted Eritrea to reduce such support.

While the details of what transpired on Monday remain unclear, the very fact of a glitch in the regime’s in the regime’s information output was hailed by many in the Eritrean diaspora as a welcome sign of ferment. “Whatever has happened, it gives us some kind of hope we might see change at a time when many of us had given up,” says Abel Berhane, 32, an Eritrean refugee living in London. Since Monday, dissidents, journalists and experts have spent hours trying to assemble a picture of what transpired. The story spread by pro-government organizations and Afeweki supporters, is that a handful of soldiers — labeled ‘terrorists’ — had stormed the Ministry of Information and tried to seize hostages, but the army had surrounded the building and negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff. Some Eritrean officials and ambassadors, in conversations with international media, hinted that something had happened, but insisted that everything was back to normal. The Eritrean government failed to respond to several requests from TIME for comment.

Exiled dissidents and opposition groups have not ruled out a more dramatic scenarios to explain last Monday’s events. Some suggest Afewerki had staged the event himself, in order to create a pretext for a new purge of military officers deemed a threat to his rule. A competing explanation holds that up to 100 soldiers, fed up with lack of pay and poor treatment, had marched to the Ministry of Information to put pressure on the regime to heed their demands. According to this version, the soldiers had entered the ministry, ordered the news reader to read out their statement and then left without a shot being fired left. If so, they could pay a heavy price. “The regime will let them be for two weeks, and [then], like before, execute the leaders and arrest the juniors,” speculates Norwegian Eritrea expert Kjetil Tronvoll of the International Law and Policy Institute. “It still puts into question, though, how so many soldiers were able to march through the city without any interference.” Read more

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