Eritrea is celebrating its 21st independence anniversary this month. The significance of achieving statehood cannot be underestimated.
But for many inside and outside the country May 24 also signifies squandered opportunities and perilous times ahead. The government is widely known as repressive and reclusive. The country still has no constitution, no free press and no university.
Thousands of Eritreans took to the streets over the weekend in many cities around the globe including Washington, D.C., calling for freedom and justice, rule of law and political participation and peaceful coexistence with neighbors.
This year’s commemoration comes against the backdrop of two significant events: Ethiopia’s retaliatory military attacks inside Eritrea in mid March followed by the disappearance for a month of President Isaias Afewerki triggering fears that he was either dying or dead.
It was not true. This made-up news story about the president in the wake of the incursions in pursuit of “Eritrea-supported anti-Ethiopia subversives” was believed to be an attempt to hide Isaias’s painful political dilemma over how to react to Addis Ababa’s moves.
The government said there would be no reprisals hinting that there would be no further bloodshed. But the country was also not in a position to engage in yet another military confrontation given the continued depletion of its armed forces because of substantial defections over the years. The situation is made worse by the UN arms embargo imposed in 2009.
Commander-in-Chief Isaias made no loud waves in the name of national pride or national sovereignty for which he has gone to war in the past with each neighboring state. This time, the government, which has long espoused the idea of "might is right", simply confirmed its political and military weaknesses by brushing off the Ethiopian action as a U.S.-sponsored strategy to divert attention from unsettled boundary demarcation issues still leaving dusty, little Badme in the hands of Ethiopia.
The implications of the Ethiopian army penetrating over 10 miles deep into Eritrean territory could only be guessed at. One of the leading architects of the Eritrean struggle for independence from Ethiopia, Mr. Ahmed Nasser, says the Ethiopian action could create a serious leadership crisis for Eritrea. He maintains: “Eritrean troops have long been demoralized and the regime is badly damaged politically in the Horn Region; further exposure of its military vulnerability may fatally impact President Isaias and his henchmen”.
Earlier this month, this reporter met Eritreans in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, who were rejoicing at the possibility of returning home and some had even packed to go back to Eritrea. They couldn’t wait to be with family and friends again, they said.
One Kenyan International Affairs expert visiting the Tanzanian capital said she hoped the next Eritrean leader would not treat the country and people as if they were his own personal property. The Eritrean leader had refused to consult with his people or with the National Assembly, which is the Parliament, when he decided to go to war with Ethiopia in May 1998. The war dragged on till December 2000 killing 19,000 Eritrean soldiers. Unofficial accounts put the number at over 65,000, about the same as those lost during the 30-year Eritrean independence struggle that ended in 1991.
The Ethiopian government is equally if not more conservative with its official figures. It puts the number of troops killed during the two-year war at less than 19,000. The two nations are believed to have sacrificed between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters mostly in hand-to-hand combat in trenches around their common border. History will one day honor those martyred young men and women by liberating them from being victims of misleading official statistics.
The war was initiated by the Eritrean government, according to a UN finding. Asmara seemed bent on making its point clear on the battle field instead of the negotiating table ostensibly in retaliation against unfavorable trade terms offered by Addis Ababa in early 1998. The new proposed trade and business arrangements represented the most detrimental blow to the Eritrean government revenue. It was a serious threat to the President’s dream to build the largest, invincible military machine in the Horn and East Africa region.
By 1998, Eritrea, still healing from decades of a brutal liberation war, already had over 150,000 trained fighting men and women compared to Kenya’s under 30,000 troops or Ethiopia’s estimated 35,000 active personnel at the time.
Today, after two rounds of UN sanctions topped by an incapacitating arms embargo and confronted by a more determined opposition and facing a more aggressive Ethiopia to the south, the Eritrean leader is believed to be under tense and stressful pressure. If he was suffering from poor health, it could have been caused by the gruesome political quagmire he finds himself in.
If the government itself was the source of the manipulated information about the president’s "terminal liver illness", it sure did succeed for a while in deflecting public attention from the most serious crisis facing beleaguered Isaias Afewerki caused by his uncontrollable fear of a possible full-scale war with Ethiopia.
The Eritrean government is unlikely to ever get sympathy from the African Union, the U.N. or U.S. as they all have already expressed their displeasure and desire to see its demise by imposing sanctions justified or not.
Domestically, no matter how futile, the regime cannot afford to look troubled or weak by, for instance, freeing a dozen political or religious prisoners or by allowing limited freedom of speech or by improving food ration or by offering to talk to Ethiopia. Such measures are out of the question because they would encourage people to be asking for more and more concessions which may lead to demands for democratic changes. That would be opening a Pandora’s Box.
The opposition is not united to be fit to “lead the needed change”, says the Frankfurt-based Eritrean People’s Democratic Party. But the Addis Ababa headquartered 127-member National Democratic Council representing almost all Eritrean political and civil society movements world-wide believes it is ready to play its role. Urging greater solidarity with Eritreans inside the country, Council Chairman Yosuf Berhanu (M.D.) warns against “cosmetic changes by the regime or by possible coup leaders waiting in the wings to replace Isaias Afewerki.” Dr. Yosuf cautions against lifting of UN sanctions “before full transfer of power to the people is achieved and unless human and democratic rights are assured first”.
Poorly organized and with meager resources, the opposition poses no immediate threat to the president. But he is deeply worried by what Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi may have under his sleeves.