Eritrea’s internal power struggle

Written by Sim Tack
Monday, 26 April 2010 14:41
After trying to fight off accusations on supporting terrorist organizations in Somalia, the Eritrean government is now facing accusations over involvement in a bomb attack that took place in Ethiopia. While at first sight the bomb attack may seem like an unlikely act of Eritrea, some deeper investigation connects the bomb attack to recent military actions taken by Eritrean rebel groups against Eritrean military bases. The bombing turns out to be a potential retaliation for the attacks these rebel groups may have staged from Ethiopian territory. This news draws attention to the continuing struggle of Eritrean opposition movements to end the ruthless regime of President Isaias Afewerki and install a democratic government in the country.


While Eritrean President Afewerki has been receiving German members of parliament to uphold a good image of his government in an attempt to lift sanctions imposed upon his country, the Eritrean opposition movements remain active and continuously reach closer forms of cooperation. Eritrea is known to uphold a ruthless oppressive regime that allows to political opposition and it acts upon this with kidnappings, imprisonments and torture. Last Thursday two Eritrean rebel groups launched assaults against Eritrean military intelligence bases located on an axis trailing back to the Ethiopian town of Adi Dairo, where Eritrean rebel groups are known to operate. On Saturday an explosive device exploded in a café in Adi Dairo, the bombing is likely to be the work of Eritrean intelligence agents retaliating for the rebel assaults on its military bases. While fighting opposition and sanctions the Eritrean government does find comfort in the gold rush that currently takes place in its country. This gold mining industry may deliver the resources President Afewerki requires to keep his regime in control of his country.

Two weeks ago President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea was visited by German members of parliament. He talked to them about bilateral relations between Germany and Eritrea, as well as Eritrea’s relations with different countries in the region. There is no doubt that Isaias’ goal was to convince the German members of parliament that the government of Eritrea is not supporting rebels in neighboring countries, or smuggling weapons to them for that matter. Several agreements concerning the health sector were reportedly made, but the key lesson to learn from this visit is that Eritrea is suffering from the sanctions put on it, and that its President is now forced to make diplomatic tours to raise support of Eritrea in western countries. Eritrea is trying to fight off the outside pressure on its regime, while at the same time the pressure from within keeps on building. Opposition groups and rebels continue to try and put an end to Afewerki’s rule.

In Eritrea the only political party allowed by law is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the party of the currently ruling President Isaias Afewerki. As no legal opposition parties are allowed the opposition movements are usually located in neighboring Ethiopia or elsewhere abroad. Most opposition groups such as the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Eritrean Democratic Party, the Eritrean National Salvation Front and the Eritrean Islamic Reform are cooperating under the EDA, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance. The group doesn’t only contain political councils aimed at creating a new democratic regime in Asmara, it also contains rebel groups such as RSADO which occasionally launch military operations against the Eritrean military. The Eritrean opposition has only been uniting since around 2004, and presents the largest opposition movement Afewerki has had to face so far. Of course these six last years are a significant share of Eritrea’s independent history that only started in 1993.

Eritrea has been oppressing these opposition movements since the beginning of the Afewerki regime. Not only are they forbidden to exist, let alone take part in elections if President Afewerki were to ever organize such elections, the Eritrean government has made a habit of using violence against any political diversity. Political leaders, even from Afewerki’s own party, that don’t align with Afewerki’s regime are kidnapped, imprisoned and at times even left to die in jail. Reports of torture and false accusations to imprison opposition members have regularly surfaced. The Eritrean government also limits any outsiders to confirm these facts by seriously limiting travel of foreign officials and even its own citizens.

On Thursday April 22nd two rebel movements; RSADO (Red Sea Affairs Democratic Organization) and the Eritrean National Salvation Front, both movements part of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance, mounted a joint assault on different military bases in southern Eritrea. The assault reportedly targeted military intelligence forces tasked with guarding the Eritrean border from Ethiopia as well as keeping tabs on these rebel forces. The rebels claim to have assaulted the bases in Adi Mesgena, Hadush Adi and Tselim Kelay during nightfall, routing the present Eritrean troops. After holding the bases to destroy and harvest equipment and intelligence located in these bases they were vacated by the Eritrean rebels. As the map shows the assaults took place in two distinct regions, raising the possibility that both pushes originated from the same point located within Ethiopia. The rebels claim to have killed between 11 to 17 members of the Eritrean military, part of the unit tasked with intelligence operations.

On Saturday April 24th news surfaced from Ethiopia that explosives had been set off at a café in Adi Dairo, a town near the Eritrean border. Ethiopia was quick to claim the activity of Eritrean intelligence agents trying to destabilize Ethiopia ahead of the elections. It is however unlikely that the bomb attack had anything to do with the upcoming elections in Ethiopia. As shown on the map the location of the bombing is situated right between Thursday’s rebel assaults on Eritrean military bases, located on the main road connecting both angles of assault. Ethiopian officials have also disclosed that the town of Adi Dairo is known to host activity of Eritrean armed rebel groups. It is very likely that the assaults on the Eritrean military bases were organized in Adi Dairo and that the bombing was a retaliation for the assaults by the Eritrean intelligence troops. While the Eritrean Democratic Alliance refuses any overt help from Ethiopia to overthrow President Afewerki, it is known that these forces are operating out of Ethiopian territory and Eritrean retaliations on Ethiopian soil could severely stress the already hostile relations between the two countries.

While President Afewerki faces opposition attempts to overthrow his regime and install a democratic rule instead and faces international sanctions against his country at the same time, there is a last glitter of hope that Afewerki’s government hopes will bring the resources needed to keep the regime in power. A very real gold rush is currently taking place in Eritrea. The so far barely tapped gold deposits in the country are being exploited by international companies. As opposed to other countries, the Eritrean government does not demand a majority stake in the mining operations, instead it reportedly demands only a ten percent share in the operations, which makes mining in Eritrea considerably more profiting to these foreign companies. Opposed to this stands of course the security risk of operating in Eritrea, not only the rebel groups and the continuous fear of a border war with Djibouti or Ethiopia present a security risk to mining companies. Also the government itself presents a security risk at times. The Eritrean government does not allow companies to do their own hiring of personnel to work in the mines, instead the government delivers workers, usually conscripts in the Eritrean military, to perform slave labor in these mines. Eritrea has been ruthless in forcing out other personnel and citizens wandering around mines, causing tensions and killings at mine operations. The income of the gold mining operations might, however, result in the necessary resources that Afewerki requires to keep his regime in control of his country.

The author of this article excuses himself for a mistake in the original version of the article. The author had wrongfuly understood that President Isaias Afewerki had visited the German members of parliament at their home in Germany, in fact the German members of parliament visited the president in Eritrea.

Copyright 2010 GC Rep

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