Eritrea: “Africa’s North Korea”

«Eritrea is the country with less freedom in the world ». These words come not from someone who opposes president Isayas Afeworki or from the hated government of Ethiopia, instead they come from an official United Nations paper. The report, produced by an investigating human rights Commission which listened to the testimony of 550 Eritreans and examined 160 papers (but was not allowed to enter the country), accuses the Eritrean government of «systematic, widespread and grave violation of human rights», including torture, sexual violence, disappearances, forced labour. Eritrea is described as « The ‘North Korea’ of Africa » where democratic institutions and processes do not exist, nor does freedom of press, military service is indefinite and the country’s relations with all neighbour states are disastrous.

The roots

But how did this situation arise? The roots lie in the country’s history. A former Italian colony, Eritrea, following a period British protectorate (1941-1952), is first federated and then annexed to its neighbour Ethiopia (ruled at thetime by Negus (king) Hailè Selassiè). In the early sixties the Eritreans, tired of Ethiopian control, started a war of independence which was to last thirty years. In the struggle the national spirit is forged. The efforts of militia fighting in the field are joined by those of Eritreans in the diaspora collecting funds and finding international support. Among various movements, in the 1970s there emerges the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front EPLF. Its leader, Isayas Afeworki, takes a Marxist line, although independent from the Soviet Block which in those years supports Ethiopia (in the meantime the Negus empire falls and in its place a peoples republic is born). The war continues until 1991 when Mengistu Hailè Mariam, the Ethiopian leader, resigns and flees the country. The EPLF, allied with a fringe of the Ethiopian resistance, takes control of the territory and in 1993, thanks to a referendum held under the aegis of the United Nations Organization, Eritrea becomes independent.

«When Eritrea became independent – says an Italian who since the 1960s has supported the Eritrean rebels – we thought it would become a new South Africa and that Isayas Afeworki would become Eritrea’s Nelson Mandela. However we were quite wrong ». In the early years, Eritrea is pervaded with great enthusiasm. Many Eritreans return from the diaspora to invest in activities and reside in the country. EPLF, guerrilla movement becomes the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice , PFDJ and is institutionalised. There is talk of democracy and a new Constitution. In fact a Constitutional paper appears in 1997, but without coming into force. Also because winds of war are blowing over the country. Pacified with the independence of Asmara and the coming to power in Addis Ababa of a government with a Tigrinya majority, Ethiopia and Eritrea begin to look at each other once more with suspicion

New tensions

Tensions arise over a failed commercial agreement. And a border dispute is enough to trigger a conflict. The war lasts from 1998 to 2000. The fighting claims 150,000 dead soldiers, Eritrean and Ethiopian. The solution to the border dispute is assigned to an independent commission , the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission which concludes its work in 2002, establishing that the contested city of Badme belongs to Eritrea. Nevertheless the Ethiopian government never withdraws its troops from that city. Tension between the two countries remains high, even in later years.

Difficult relations with Ethiopia are functional to the power of Isayas. The president, invoking encirclement by hostile powers and the impossibility to introduce a democratic system, continually tightens the meshes of repression regarding any criticism of the regime. In 2001 a group of 15 members of the PFDJ movement writes a letter demanding democratic reforms, the application of the Constitution and elections. The letter attracts the attention of the national and international media. Isayas replies harshly. Eleven of the 15 are arrested, three flee the country and one recants. Of the eleven arrested, nothing more will be heard. In the absence of a Constitution the institutional system crumbles. Judiciary power is entrusted to military judges in its penal branch and community courts in its civil branch. Both however remain under rigid government control. The new penal and civil codes are not applied. Parliament, monopolised by the PFDJ, fails to function. The media, pillars of every democracy, are shut down. Today there are no private media in Eritrea and the only existing means of communication are controlled by the dominant Party. Repression is ever harsher.

Difficulties encountered by religious communities

Religious confessions are subject in their activity to increasing interference by the political authorities. Officially, Eritrea is a lay State in which religious practice is a matter left to the individual conscience. In actual fact, from its foundation, the EPLF and then the PFDJ are dominated by Christian Orthodox leaders with far from cordial relations with the Muslim component. Therefore in the early days of independence many Muslims are arrested, accused of being Jihadists and a threat to national security. As the years pass, numerous imam and leaders of Islamic communities are arrested for criticizing the government. The same fate falls to Jehova Witnesses and Pentecostal communities. In 2002 all religious communities are banned with the exception of Sunni Islam and Christianity, Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran communities. But the Orthodox Church is subject to more pressure. In 2007 Patriarch Abuna Antonios is forced to resign and put under house arrest for his criticism of the regime.

Only the Catholic Church succeeds in maintaining its autonomous role. In 2014 the four bishops issue a joint Pastoral letter in which they denounce the critical situation of society, primary cause of the country’s youth drain. In the letter the bishops list serious difficulties facing Eritreans, first of all the fragmentation of families, whose members are dispersed due to lengthy military service or imprisonment. As a result elderly family members are left to fend for themselves. «All this determines a desolate country», the pastoral letter denounces.

An isolated country

Indefinite military service is the tribute the country is forced to pay to the aggressive foreign policy of Asmara. Starting from the year 2000 all young men aged 17 interrupt their studies and enrol in compulsory military service for « an indefinite period of time ». In training centres violence by officers reigns. The  majority of the young men are put on fatigues on generals’ properties or forced labour on public structures. Faced with this situation the boys seek to escape. Many join drug traffickers in collusion with corrupt officers (generals in particular). Statistics issued by international bodies speak of 2-3 thousand youths leaving Eritrea every month. The figure may be overestimated but what is certain is that the exodus of young men is continual.

Eritrea as a country is isolated. Since 2006, the United States imposes sanctions on Asmara for its suspected support to Somali al Shabaab militia. With Ethiopia, tension continues, sporadically exploding in armed clashes. A brief war with Djibouti in 2013 triggered tension also with this small state. Tension which has still not subsided. To escape isolation Eritrea joins the Saudi coalition fighting in Yemen against Houthi rebels. Asmara concedes its ports as logistic bases for the ships of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2014 she accepts to take part in meeting in Karthoum during which the European Union asks the countries of east Africa to restrain the flow of migrants in exchange for financial aid. But the country remains closed to any form of external influence. Even to the point of refusing international aid during the recent period of drought. What will be its future? Difficult to say. The risk is that the State may implode bequeathing to its citizens the ruins of a dream.

Enrico Casale