What’s going on in Eritrea?

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Junior troops demanding political reform briefly seized the information ministry in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on January 21st was a rare challenge to a one-party authoritarian regime.

The soldiers marched into the state-run TV studios, Eri-TV — there are no private media — and broadcast a call for implementation of a constitution ratified in 1997 but never implemented, and the release of political prisoners, of which there are as many as 10,000. Then they went back to their barracks. Arrests followed, but the message was out.

Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union (AU) Girma Asmerom said that reports of it being a coup were “wishful thinking”. But many say the whole notion of describing it as a coup attempt is mistaken. What the soldiers were trying to do was start a national debate in a country where opposition parties are banned, the independent media has been shut down and foreign correspondents expelled – in fact, one of the most secretive and repressive regimes in the world.

Eritrea has the dubious distinction of being ranked last in the world for press freedom by media rights group Reporters Without Borders (known by its French acronym, RSF).

Eritrea, the RSF says, “is Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, with at least 30 detained. Seven have died or committed suicide in detention as a result of the appalling conditions.”

As Dan Connell writing in the Boston Globe said: ‘In a country where chatting about politics at open-air cafés can get you arrested, this was the only way people with a grievance could get attention and survive: in a large group with guns.’

The debate went global with the Eritrean diaspora taking to the Internet and the streets. One group placed 10,000 automated-calls to Asmara urging people on. The pro-government side made counter-claims on social networks saying nothing was going on in the country and all was well. Protesters in London, Stockholm, Rome, Berlin, and Washington picketed or even occupied Eritrea’s embassies to show support (but the ‘individuals & hooligans who tried to enter the Eritrean Embassy in Paris failed!’ Eri-TV reported on February 2nd).

‘Although just embryonic and ephemeral, this… uprising quickly drew the attention of the international community, foreign media and Eritrean diaspora because Eritrea is an extremely authoritarian country where fear is universal and any form of protest seems inconceivable,’ RSF commented.

Opposition website Awate.com, based in the US but with close connections inside Eritrea, claimed the mutineers were led by an army commander called Saleh Osman, a hero of the bloody 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia (when he refused orders to abandon the key southern port of Assab, defending it and beating back invading Ethiopians.)

“The ‘uprising’ appears to have been a case of Saleh Osman trying to jolt back stalled negotiations for democratisation ” Awate said.

Independent Radio Erena, based in Paris, first broke the news of the Information Ministry seizure. Amanuel Ghirmai, an Eritrean journalist in Paris, was widely quoted in the international press.

Selam Kidane, an Eritrean human rights activist and director of human rights organisation, Release Eritrea, told Al Jazeera that details of what had happened were still unclear but that those who took part in the operation were not senior personnel, but young people fed up with the situation in the country.

“These were not army officers, these were young soldiers – new recruits and those who were forced into the army,” she said. “Instead of young people fleeing the country as in the past, they are now standing up and acting.” Eritrean opposition activists exiled in neighbouring Ethiopia said there was growing dissent within the Eritrean military, especially over economic hardships.

Multiple arrests – some sites say dozens of people detained – followed. They includes the number three of Eritrea’s only political party, a regional governor and senior military officers, according to website reports (Awate.com and Asmarino.com) which could not be independently confirmed.

Those arrested reportedly include Abdella Jaber, director of organisational affairs for the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (EPRDF), and Mustafa Nurhussein, governor of the Southern region, one of Eritrea’s six provinces.

Dan Connell, the author of numerous books and articles on Eritrea, says that the situation in Eritrea is causing a humanitarian crisis as people feel the country:

“Tens of thousands have fled a tyrannical regime often compared to North Korea: Eritrea has one political party; no national elections, ever; no organizations not controlled by the state, including religious denominations; no independent media; no space for raising any questions about government policies. Yet when Eritreans escape, usually at great personal risk, they often find themselves treated like criminals — or just turned away.

The worst off are the victims of a human trafficking ring in which refugees are kidnapped from camps in Sudan and taken to the Egyptian Sinai, where Bedouin criminal gangs torture them during phone calls to relatives while forcing them to beg for ransoms as high as $30,000. One I spoke with in Tel Aviv recently, a 28-year-old former computer programmer, had lost all use of his badly disfigured hands after being hung from them for weeks while awaiting payments.

There is only one solution for this global human rights crisis: a change in the situation in Eritrea so the exodus can be reversed, not simply blocked or rerouted.”


Eritrea – Facts and Figures

The army action shone a brief spotlight on Eritrea, one of the most isolated countries in the world.

Geography: 21,000km2 located between Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti with a 1,000 km coastline along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes on the Red Sea.

Population: 5.4m (World Bank figures), divided into nine ethnic groups.           Diaspora population: 1.2m (UN estimates).

Religion: Officially split equally between Christians and Muslims.

Capital: Asmara. Other key towns are the ports of Assab and Massawa.

Languages: No official language. The constitution treats all the nine languages equally, but Tigrinya, Arabic and English are used on a day to day basis.

History: Eritrea was an Italian colony between 1889-1941. The territory was then administered by the British between 1941-1952. In 1962, the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie declared the annexation of Eritrea as an autonomous entity of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia.

In May 1991, members of the rebel People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) led by Issaias Afewerki — now president — won their 30-year independence war against the Ethiopian government. The conflict was a key factor in the fall of Ethiopia’s dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. On May 24th, 1993, Eritrea officially declared its independence.

However, war broke out again in a bitter 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia.

A UN force of some 4,200 men was deployed along the contentious border zone after a peace deal, but the territorial disputes were never solved — Ethiopia remains on land ruled to belong to Eritrea — and relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa remain tense.

In March 2012, Ethiopia attacked an Eritrean military base, accusing the country of supporting “terrorist activities” in its territories. Eritrea was also accused and sanctioned by the UN in 2009 for its alleged role in backing Somalia’s Al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab insurgents.

Government: Issaias has served as the president since 1991 of the one-party state. Opposition parties are banned and those who challenge the regime are jailed without trial, often in the harshest of conditions.

After 15 top officials wrote an open letter in 2001 calling for democratic reforms — dubbed the Group of 15, or G15 — Issaias launched a brutal political purge, jailing 11 and with the others fleeing into exile.

Late in 2012  information minister Ali Abdu, one of the closest of a narrow elite around Issaias, was reported to have fled the country to Canada.

Media: Eritrea was ranked last in the world for press freedom by RSF. All independent media was shut down after the 2001 purge, while the last registered foreign correspondent was expelled in 2010.

Human Rights: The UN estimated in 2012 that 5,000-10,000 political prisoners were being held. Eritrea is accused by human rights groups and the UN of carrying out torture and summary executions.

Economy: Returns from the diaspora play a crucial role. The economy has been hugely affected by long periods of war. Eritrea remains one of the poorest countries in the world. More than 80 % of the population is involved in agriculture.

Army: In 2012, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS) estimated Eritrea to have an army of over 201,000. Military service is compulsory for both men and women, and can last for several years, even decades.

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