Seething discontent in the Horn of Africa: Eritrea’s strange “coup”
By Martin Plaut
At around 10am on 21 January a contingent of Eritrean troops stormed the state television station. They rounded up the staff – all employees of the Ministry of Information – and forced the director of Eritrea TV, Asmellash Abraha Woldu, to read a statement calling for:
- the freeing of all prisoners of conscience
- the implementation of the Eritrean constitution
- and stating that the ministry of information was under their control.
Almost immediately the television broadcast was interrupted, and remained off the air for several hours, before resuming its broadcasts with pre-recorded material. This is about all that is clear.
In the centre of Asmara, the stunningly beautiful highland capital of this tiny sliver of a country bordering on the Red Sea, life continued much as normal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office declared that it had detected “unusual military movements in and around Asmara” and instructed British nationals in Eritrea to “exercise extreme caution and to continue to monitor the FCO’s websites for updates.”
The Eritrean government dismissed speculation and rumours of a coup and described the events as a “small incident”. They went on to launch a scathing attack foreign commentators, including this author.
Behind the apparently calm façade lies a seething discontent, particularly among younger Eritreans. It appears that the soldiers involved in Monday’s protest were from outside of the capital. “They were just amateurs,” one source told me, “mostly just very frustrated young people.” Around a thousand young men and women cross the border into exile every month, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many leave for Ethiopia, which accommodates 127,970 Eritreans. The total Eritrean refugee community stands at 251,954, many of them in Sudan.
So why do young Eritreans flee from the country of their birth? The answer is that they face a future dominated by conscription and poverty. National Service, nominally for eighteen months, can be extended by years. Citizens as old as 50 are still liable for the army reserves. Once conscripted, Eritreans can face years in forced labour on foreign owned gold mines, working for a pittance.
Others are deployed in trenches along the country’s desolate, 1,000 kilometre long border with Ethiopia. The border war between the two countries, from May 1998 to June 2000, was fought with modern jets, heavy artillery and tanks. There is no official death toll, but estimates suggest it left 100,000 dead. Both countries agreed to settle the dispute though by binding arbitration. While Eritrea stood by the ruling of a tribunal in the Hague, Ethiopia did not, insisting on further talks. But while Addis Ababa – a key western ally in the US “war on terror” – played its cards skilfully, Asmara did not. Washington was alienated by a series of snubs and Eritrea found itself out in the cold.
To try to increase his leverage over the US, and to open another front against his Ethiopian adversaries, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki began supporting Islamist fighters of al-Shabab in Somalia. This brought the wrath of the international community down on his head, and United Nations sanctions against Eritrea that have been steadily tightened. As these became increasingly onerous, the Eritreans apparently cut their ties with the Somali fighters.
The situation inside Eritrea itself continues to deteriorate – but away from the glare of international publicity. The country allows no independent media and none of the major news agencies, like Reuters, AP or AFP have correspondents in the country. Reporters Without Borders considers Eritrea the most repressive state in the world, ranking it below North Korea in its latest index.
No free elections have been held since independence in 1993. There is only one political party, the ludicrously named People’s Front for Freedom and Justice. Human Rights organisations like Amnesty International regularly criticise the country’s arbitrary detentions and routine practices of torture. Former prisoners report being held in shipping containers in temperatures that rise to over 50 degrees in the blazing son. Others are suspended from their wrists in the notorious “helicopter” position.
Human Rights Watch estimates there are between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners, without including deserters from National Service “who may number tens of thousands more.” The UN recently appointed a Special Rapporteur to monitor Eritrean human rights violations. Beedwantee Keetharuth can expect little assistance from Asmara.
The news from the Eritrean capital following Monday’s “small incident” indicates that so far the mutinous troops have been allowed to return to their barracks. But the omens are not good.
In May 1993, four days before the country’s official declaration of independence, soldiers who had not been paid during the entire liberation war with Ethiopia, launched the largest public protest the country had ever seen. They stormed around Asmara, demanding that President Isaias should meet them. When he finally came to hear their grievances, the President promised to improve their lot and they returned to the barracks. 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.
Much the same appears to have happened this week. The angry soldiers are reported to have gone back to their camp. What happens to them over the next few weeks, and whether other mutineers appear out of the woodwork, encouraged by their example, is impossible to predict. But the government’s credibility has received a severe blow. The Horn of Africa is notoriously unstable and a further crack in even a regime as unpredictable and repressive as Eritrea is unlikely to be welcomed in Washington or London.