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Eritrea: When is a mutiny not a mutiny?
Eritrea: When is a mutiny not a mutiny?
African asylum seekers gather for a morning meeting during an overnight protest after leaving Holot open detention centre in southern Israel's Negev desert, 28 June 2014. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
Briefing 100 / Africa

Eritrea: Ending the Exodus?

Eritrea’s youth exodus has significantly reduced the young nation’s human capital. While this has had advantages for the government – allowing the departure of those most dissatisfied and most likely to press for political change – the growing social and political impact of mass migration at home and abroad demands concerted domestic and international action.

I. Overview

The large emigration of youths is the clearest sign of extreme domestic discontent with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s government. Social malaise is pervasive. An ever-growing number of young people have fled over the last decade, frustrated by open-ended national service – initiated in 1995 and expanded during the war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). Yet, this flight has resulted in neither reforms nor a viable movement to create an alternative to the current government. Once outside, the ties that bind émigrés to their birthplace are strong and lead them to give financial support to the very system they escaped, through the 2 per cent tax many pay the state as well as remittances sent home to family members.

Asmara’s response to the exodus, though always focused on mitigating its effects so as to ensure regime survival, has evolved in recognition of its uses. After initial, sometimes brutal attempts to obstruct emigration, a symbiotic system has emerged that benefits a range of actors, including the state. The government ostensibly accepts that educated, urbanised youths resistant to the individual sacrifices the state demands are less troublesome and more useful outside the country – particularly when they can continue to be taxed and provide a crucial social safety net for family members who stay home. Meanwhile, those who remain tend to be the more pliant rural peasant and pastoralist population. Yet, the exodus is not limited to urbanised and educated youth; migrants, including an increasing number of minors, now come from a wider cross-section of society.

Official recognition is growing in Eritrea that despite the side-benefits, the level of the exodus is unsustainable, not least for maintaining support from political constituencies at home and in the diaspora. The burden of ever greater numbers arriving in neighbouring countries and further afield – including on Europe’s southern shores, where over-filled boats regularly sink, drowning many migrants – also demands action by affected states. Ending the exodus requires greater engagement with Eritrea – potentially ending a decade of isolation that has been both self-imposed and externally-generated – as well as ameliorating a growing internal crisis.

Crisis Group reporting has previously outlined the regional implications of that growing crisis and recommended that, in order to confront the problems of which the continuing human exodus is a clear sign, Eritrea, with help from international partners, especially the European Union (EU) and UN, should consider:

  • re-visiting previous plans and updating options for gradual demobilisation, especially of national servicemen and women;
  • re-opening political space gradually by implementing the long-delayed 1997 constitution; and
  • allowing for a gradual restructuring of the economy to enhance job prospects for the youth, and following through on offers to the diaspora to encourage direct investment.

To assist in easing the internal crisis, the Ethiopian government and other IGAD members, especially Sudan, should consider:

  • adopting a comprehensive strategic approach toward Eritrea aimed at relaxing bilateral relations – including a creative, mediated way to resolve the boundary dispute with Ethiopia that removes any external obstacle to demobilisation in Eritrea – and consequent normalisation of regional relations.

Likewise, the broader international community, led by the EU and Italy (currently EU president), and coordinated on the ground by the EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, should:

  • develop a comprehensive and coordinated policy on Eritrea and support regional efforts to improve Eritrea-Ethiopia relations, including resolution of the boundary dispute.

Nairobi/Brussels, 8 August 2014

Commentary / Africa

Eritrea: When is a mutiny not a mutiny?

On Monday 21 January, a number of unofficial sources reported that 100 or so soldiers had invaded Eritrea’s Ministry of Information and taken over state-owned Eri-TV. During their occupation, the soldiers began broadcasting a statement demanding the implementation of the constitution — never enacted by Parliament — and the release of thousands of political prisoners, including a number of high-profile journalists, and former ministers, senior military officers and officials known as the “G15”, before the station went off air. The rest of the armed forces were described as “quiet”, as was the city, and no shots were fired either in the taking or surrender of the Ministry.

It is hard to tell what exactly happened, or why. News from Asmara is opaque at the best of times, and this apparent military-led protest — or “small incident” as the Eritrean government is terming it — is the latest in a number of informally reported developments, only a few substantiated, suggesting cracks in the unusually regimented state. Since there are no accredited independent journalists in Eritrea, the only alternative to government media is diaspora-driven opposition news websites. These can be illuminating, because Eritrea is a curiously intimate place, with members of the same family occupying top government positions while their close relatives are vocal anti-government activists abroad.

What has emerged was that 2012 was a remarkably newsworthy year for the usually unnoticed county. It began with Ethiopia and Eritrea trading accusations after foreign tourists were attacked and five killed by Ethiopian rebel groups in the Afar region, which is close to the border between the two states. Addis claimed the rebels were under Eritrean direction, justifying Ethiopian reprisals in March against rebel camps across the border. Further incursions were reported in late May — just after Eritrean Independence day — with Ethiopian troops apparently occupying new positions inside Asmara’s territory. Eritrean forces, surprisingly and perhaps ominously for their government, put up little resistance.

From late March until late April, the normally omnipresent Eritrean President Isaias Afkwerki was absent from public life, prompting speculation he was sick, even dead. When he reappeared, little explanation was given, and he looked in good health at Independence Day celebrations. Coincidentally a few months after Isaias resurfaced, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi disappeared from public life; his death was announced on 21 August.

Meles’s death was studiously underplayed by the Eritrean government, though it was a topic of anxious speculation among the population at large, who were concerned about a change in Ethiopian policy — Meles was popularly perceived as less hawkish towards Eritrea.  At that time information emerged that the Eritrean government was arming civilians — many of whom have basic military training — apparently unconcerned that weapons might be later turned against the government.

By the latter half of 2012, more rumours were circulating of discord in the government about the state and direction of the country and the ups and downs of high-profile ministers and military commanders, variously perceived as pro-reform or rivals to the president. Indicative of declining morale, in early October, two air force pilots absconded with the presidential plane toSaudi Arabia, claimed asylum, and made a statement critical of their head of state. But this was just one, albeit dramatic example, of the tens of thousands of other Eritreans who fled during the year. The last unconfirmed rumour in November was that the stalwart Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, had also disappeared.

What does the latest incident signify?

It ended peacefully, at least so it seemed. The protesting soldiers were transported to the outskirts of Asmara, their fate so far unknown. Web-based reports claim that the government is talking to the protest leader, Colonel Saleh Osman, a veteran of the liberation war and respected serving officer reputed to have refused orders to withdraw from the city of Assab during the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia– a last stand that, many Eritreans believe, pushed Ethiopia to agree to a peace deal.

Some sources claim that with the TV protest, Saleh was simply demanding political reform. But others suggest that this is a well-orchestrated warning by senior military figures who stand to lose from political and economic reform that the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) has been mooting for the past year. Either way, partisan analysis dominates.

While not a coup, or even a mutiny, this highly unusual behaviour by Eritrea’s troops, is still significant. The last major protest by “veteran” fighters was in 1993, and this incident comes in the 20th anniversary year of Eritrea’s formal independence. Of course, the Eritrean calendar starts in September, so we are already well into what seems to be a momentous though uncertain year for Eritrea.