The Eritrean people and their leaders, who demonstrated a remarkable capacity for unity during a long and difficult struggle for independence, are beginning to show signs of restiveness at their president’s increasingly autocratic rule. In an ill-tempered and highly reckless move, president Issias Afwerki has launched a campaign of repression against politicians, journalists and student activists who were critical of his policies during Eritrea’s most recent border war with Ethiopia, which ended last year. Given the Eritrean people’s long experience of resistance to political repression, and the readiness of Eritrea’s neighbours to exploit any unrest there, his move could lead to civil strife that may ultimately prove as unmanageable as Somalia’s.
The causes of the war with Ethiopia have not been resolved and are unlikely to be in the near future. Consequently Addis Ababa will find it difficult to resist the temptation to exploit political unrest in Eritrea. Similarly Djibouti, which has a border dispute with its northern neighbour, will feel tempted to try to take advantage of political and ethnic differences there. The armed forces of the two countries have, after all, frequently clashed along their common border, as have tribesmen from both sides. Sudan, which sided with Eritrea during its long war of independence from Ethiopia, will not hesitate to do anything that will help to end president Afwerki’s aid to Sudanese opposition groups. Asmara is host to a coalition of opposition parties, including John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. It was the US that organized Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to fight Islamic Sudan. Afwerki experienced the most serious opposition to his rule last May, when 15 public figures signed an open letter criticising him for ruling in “an illegal and unconstitutional manner”. Eleven of them were arrested in September and now face the death penalty for treason. Earlier in the year university students demonstrated in protest against the conditions in labour camps they are required to attend during the summer holidays. On 31 July the police arrested Semere Kesete, the president of the Asmara University Student Council. He has not been charged and is still in jail.
Afwerki has now intensified and widened his campaign of repression. On September 18, for instance, the government ordered eight independent newspapers to be closed down. All in the Tigrayan language, Afwerki’s mother tongue, the newspapers were critical of the president’s handling of the war with Ethiopia. Before the announcement of the order, the government information service issued a statement claiming that the Eritrean public was pressing for the closure of the privately-owned newspapers because of the appalling standards of their journalists and their tendency to publish stories they knew to be false. The government order was based on the allegation that the newspapers had made a habit of publishing false information that put national unity at risk.
It is the government’s repression of critics that is really putting the unity of the country at great risk. The scale of the campaign is so great that even western human-rights groups, which normally only pay attention to alleged violations in ‘Christian southern’ Sudan, are now taking Asmara to task. The US-based Human Rights Watch said on September 24 that “president Afwerki was using the world’s preoccupation with other events” to distract critics of his policies during his country’s war with Ethiopia. Amnesty International said the same day that the arrest of 11 public figures was a sign of the mounting campaign of repression in Eritrea.
The real problem facing the Eritrean government, for which the president has no solution, is that the people are fed up with the aftermath of the war, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and resulted in the deaths of thousands of conscripted soldiers. In addition to the growing number of displaced people, thousands of Eritreans who had taken refuge in Sudan during the Eritrean war of independence have now returned. There is no prospect for ending the war, now suspended, for good. According to the 4,000 UN peace-keepers stationed on the disputed border for the past year, both countries have stopped exchanging prisoners of war, putting their desire to end the war in doubt.
Eritrea deserves a better leader than Afwerki if it is to avoid the prospect of destabilization and perhaps, in the long run, a fate like Somalia’s.