Eritrea, the portrait of a failed state at odds with neighbours

Eritrean Ambassador to Kenya Beyene Russon and Foreign Affairs minister Moses Wetang’ula at the minister’s office in Nairobi on Friday. Photo/BILLY MUTAI
Posted  Saturday, November 5  2011 

Ten days before Christmas in 2009, the Eritrean national team arrived in Nairobi to take part in a regional football tournament.

After losing 4-0 to Tanzania, officials noticed something was amiss 30 minutes after the match.

Twelve members of the team disappeared after the final whistle and told Kenyan officials that they had no intention of returning home. They were granted asylum.

The pattern repeated itself last month when the Eritrean club Red Sea went to Tanzania to take part in a regional club championship.

Thirteen players disappeared from the camp and asked to be granted refugee status.

This time, they were not so lucky because the Tanzanian officials rejected their bid to remain in the country.

Those two episodes sum up a sad fact about Eritrea — it is a land from which everybody is trying to run away.


A small nation on the Red Sea with a population of just 6 million, Eritrea has the unhappy distinction of being the world’s second-largest source of asylum seekers.


One-man band

The nation is essentially a failed state. It is governed by Isaias Afewerki, a man the US ambassador to Asmara described in a leaked cable as a “one-man band” and “unhinged dictator” who won the admiration of his people for leading their struggle for independence from Ethiopia before turning his nation into an absolute dictatorship.

The paranoid leadership style of Mr Afewerki has saddled his country with a collapsing economy and a hungry, restless population contributing to one of the world’s worst refugee crisis.

This is how one woman, Habtu Zere Maram, summed up her reasons for fleeing Eritrea in a BBC interview in a camp in eastern Sudan: “I realise there are political problems everywhere, but in Eritrea it is unique. It’s like the Middle Ages. Now we are in the 21st century; how can we live like this? You can’t speak, there is no freedom, you cannot say whatever you want to say. I dreamt of leaving, because I want to live free. Most of the Eritrean people think the same thing.”

It is understandable that many Kenyans knew little of Eritrea before reports surfaced last week that the country could be sending arms to Al-Shabaab militants in southern Somalia. (Read: Kenya warns Eritrea over Shabaab arms)

Little information filters out of the country which allows no foreign journalists in, and the state media is more closely controlled than even in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea.

According to the 2010 Press Freedom Index report by the media campaign group Reporters Without Borders, Eritrea ranks 175th out of 175 countries surveyed.

The tight control of the flow of information has helped mask the fact that Eritrea is one of the biggest sources of instability in the Horn of Africa — a failing state with a government that is happy to fund any fundamentalists that serve its ultimate purpose of weakening its historic rival Ethiopia.


The brutal 30-year conflict to secure independence from their Tigray cousins helps explain much about the current state of Eritrea.

It is a nation with a fiercely nationalistic population but which has arrived at a moment in history where thousands of its citizens have to make a choice between patriotism and starvation.

British author Michela Wrong in her history of Eritrea, I Didn’t Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, chronicles how the colonial adventures of Europeans and the manoeuvring of Cold War powers helped set the stage for the troubles of modern-day Eritrea.

The British encouraged the Italians to colonise Eritrea to stop the expansion of the French empire in the Horn of Africa.

The Italians brought many modern amenities including wide paved roads and beautiful architecture, but they also introduced a terribly harsh form of apartheid.


Black men could not eat, drink or share the same facilities with the Italians whose attitude to the territory they had seized was summed up by the Italian writer Ferdinando Martini, who described colonial policy thus: “One race must replace the other; it’s that or nothing … whether we like it or not, we will have to hunt [the native] down and encourage him to disappear, just as had been done with the Redskins, using all the methods civilisation — which the native instinctively hates — can provide: gunfire and a daily dose of firewater.”

The nightmare of colonialism was followed by the long occupation by Ethiopia which was granted federative power over Eritrea by the United Nations following the defeat of Italy in the Second World War.


Emperor Haile Selassie’s troops, backed by the Americans who wanted to make sure the Ethiopians remained on their side during the Cold War, killed thousands of Eritreans during their struggle for independence.

The Eritreans finally drove out the Ethiopians in 1991 after a heroic war of liberation.

But the struggle was followed by Mr Afewerki’s repressive rule. Many of the leading commanders during the fight for independence were jailed by Afewerki in an attempt by the new president to consolidate his hold on power.

Relations with Ethiopia remained extremely hostile, and a full-scale war broke out in 1998 over the border town of Badme.

Frozen conflict

The end of that war yielded a frozen conflict in which Eritrea, which was with some justification bitter that the international community refused to force Ethiopia to abide by judicial decisions on border demarcation, tried to use all the means it could find to destabilise its rival.

In turn Ethiopia, which is governed by its own dictator, Meles Zenawi, has been accused of doing all it can to weaken Eritrea including accusations by the government in Asmara that it sponsored an assassination attempt against Mr Afewerki.


That’s where Al-Shabaab comes into the picture. Since the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia in 2006, the Eritreans have been accused of sending weapons to the Al-Shabaab, seeing an ally in a group which is hostile to a common enemy.


The result has been to intensify the isolation of Eritrea, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going public in 2009 with accusations that Eritrea was supplying arms to Al-Shabaab.

United Nations sanctions over those ties with Al-Shabaab have only served to worsen the economic situation in the country.

The bleak picture within Eritrea is summarised in a March 2009 cable by the American ambassador Ronald K. McMullen, which in the absence of any independent journalism from Eritrea, serves as one of the most vivid portraits of life in one of Africa’s new failed states:

“Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant. Is the country ‘on the brink of disaster’ as posited by (the Ethiopians)? Party leaders tell us their Leninist ‘war economy’ will be reversed, while Asmara is abuzz with reports of multiple cabinet-level changes. However, tinkering at the margins of governance will count for naught as long as the Isaias regime remains a one-man band. Gold mining will not provide the anticipated economic panacea.

“Although the regime is one bullet away from implosion, Eritrea’s resilience as a country is based on 1) a strong sense of nationalism forged over four decades of war, and 2) the capacity of most Eritreans to withstand suffering and deprivation with forbearance and toughness. Any sudden change in government is likely to be initiated from within the military.”


What will happen now that Kenya has joined the long list of countries that Eritrea has either gone to war with or threatened to fight, from Somalia to Yemen to Djibouti to Ethiopia?

That’s hard to tell. Certainly, the relations between the countries in the region will be sorely tested in case Al-Shabaab manages to launch a major attack within Kenya’s borders.


As Mr McMullen summed it up in a separate cable: “Based on recent history, how do you think we would react to a major Al-Shabaab terrorist attack against the United States?”

Kenyans will hope they do not have to confront that question.


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