Following its de jure independence in May 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by one man (and one party), Afwerki, its first 'elected' head of state
In hindsight, I should have known. On Monday, I called the Eritrean embassy in New Delhi, located in the Vasant Vihar neighbourhood, to find out if I could meet the Eritrean leader, the man they call Africa’s Kim Jong-un (or any other member of North Korea’s Kim dynasty).
The response from the person at the other end was interesting. “We don’t know where he is. No one knows where he is. It is not possible to meet him. He is in India on a private visit," she said. Except that the Eritrean leader, Isaias Afwerki, is not on a private visit. He is one of the participants in the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) that starts in New Delhi on Thursday.
Eritrea, a small country of 6.5 million people, is located on the coast of the Red Sea in a region known as the Horn of Africa. The country gained de facto independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1991, ending a three-decade-long war between the two countries which culminated in the liberation of Eritrea.
Following its de jure independence in May 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by one man (and one party), Afwerki, its first “elected" head of state, after a United Nations-sponsored referendum. Elections may not be held in Eritrea for a long time to come, with Afwerki in May 2008 declaring that the country might hold elections in “three or four decades" or longer because they “polarize society vertically".
Much like his North Korean counterpart, not much is known about Afwerki (his name literally translates to ‘mouth of gold’ in native Tigrinya), except for his starring role in the country’s 30-year-long independence movement, as part of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF).
The EPLF, as part of its post-war transition, renamed itself the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the only political party recognised by the government. In one of the US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2010, an Ethiopian intelligence official quoted one of Afwerki’s former bodyguards as telling him, “Isaias was a recluse who spent his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry works.... Isaias appeared to make decisions with no discussion with his advisors. It was difficult to tell how Isaias would react every day and his moods changed constantly."
Afwerki, after Eritrea’s indepedence, was considered one of Africa’s most promising leaders. Former US Ambassador to Eritrea Robert McMullen, in a 2009 cable, said, “Immediately after liberation, Isaias seemed to be providing (like Mugabe) reasonably good governance to his traumatized nation. The accelerating decline into dictatorship began in 1996 with an alleged assassination attempt against Isaias by Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi, followed by the bloody 1998-2000 Border War, and the ‘treason’ of the inner-circle critics called the G-15."
Similarly, as a 2010 Foreign Policy (FP) article on Eritrea notes, “Once hailed as the vanguard of a ‘new generation’ of responsible African leaders, he (Afwerki) has long since won the dishonor of being one of the continent’s most repressive." McMullen, in his summary of the cable, worte, “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant."
Afwerki’s repressive regime
The repression is mainly because Eritrea is a highly militarized nation. It has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with about 320,000 active soldiers. “It’s number of soldiers per capita puts Eritrea second only to North Korea," the Foreign Policy article adds. The country imposes what is known as “indefinite conscription", where all its citizens, including men and unmarried women, are conscripted into mandatory national service. The Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2014 country report says that “although Eritrean law limits national service to 18 months, most conscripts serve for much of their working lives". Besides, the report continues, “conscripts are routinely added as forced labor on essentially civilian jobs". Failure to complete the service results in arrest.
The HRW report adds, “Former conscripts described working long hours for minimal food rations, primitive lodging, and wages too low to sustain themselves, much less their families. They were not allowed to leave the work site. Children as young as 15 are inducted and sent for military training, according to recent interviews by refugee agencies. They and other recruits are regularly subject to violence and ill-treatment for raising questions or for other perceived infractions. Beatings, torture, and prolonged incarcerations are common. Women are subject to sexual violence from military commanders, including rape. No mechanisms for redress exist. Since mid-2012, all men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are compelled to perform militia duty: carrying military weapons; reporting for training; and going on periodic patrols."
Even to graduate from high school, students, the FP report says, “were required to attend national camp during their final year."
Worst place to be a journalist, restrictions on religion
Besides indefinite conscription, the Afwerki’s government is also known to impose severe restrictions on practising religion, other than those recognized or controlled by the government, including Sunni Islam, Ethopian Orthodox, Catholicism and Lutheranism. Violations by citizens are punished with arrest.
Eritrea has been described as the “worst place to be a journalist", repeatedly finishing in the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. The government, the HRW report says, “maintains a complete monopoly on domestic sources of information since it closed all local press outlets in 2001 and arrested their staff. Telephone and Internet communications are monitored. Eritrea expelled the last accredited foreign correspondent in 2008. Although foreign language transmissions are accessible, the government jammed Al Jazeera in early 2013 and has long jammed overseas transmissions from Eritrea diaspora stations. At least six government journalists arrested in 2009 and 2011 remain in solitary confinement without trial." However, earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter, gained access to Eritrea. Her dispatches can be read here and here.
Begging could land you in jail. Or for that matter, a permit is needed for a dinner hosted for three or more people, since it’s classified as a “gathering". And then there’s arbitrary detention, where “thousands of ordinary citizens are arrested and incarcerated without charge, trial or opportunity to appeal, and without access to lawyers, or independent prison monitoring organizations," says the HRW report.
Brutal detention conditions
Detention conditions are described as “brutal". The HRW report continues, “Death in captivity is not unusual. Many prisoners disappear, their whereabouts and health unknown to their families. Former prisoners describe being confined in vastly overcrowded underground cells or shipping containers, with no space to lie down, little or no light, oppressive heat or cold, and vermin. Medical treatment is poor or non-existent. Food consists of a piece or two of bread a day, occasional servings of lentils or beans, a cup of tea, and insufficient water. Beatings and torture in detention are common; wardens are able to impose any physical punishment they devise. A former interrogator told Human Rights Watch he ordered beatings of prisoners until they confessed to whatever they were accused of; they were then beaten to implicate others."
The UN through its Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea said in June this year that it “found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity". The chairperson of the commission, Mike Smith, said, “Eritrea’s dire human rights situation can no longer be ignored.... Is it any wonder that Eritreans—most of them young people—are the second largest nationality after Syrians to resort to seaborne smugglers to cross the Mediterranean to Europe?"
The refugee crisis
It is against the backdrop of forced, indefinite conscriptions, that many Eritreans, especially the young population, are escaping the country. Even while doing so, they are essentially defying a shoot-to-kill order by Afwerki's government. Eritrean refugees, much like North Korean defectors to China, have the constant fear of repatriation to their native country.
However, this doesn’t bother Afwerki, who in 2008 dismissed reports of increasing Eritrean refugees by calling them “deliberate distortions" caused by an “orchestrated, organized operation financed by the CIA".
The exodus has seen nearly 5% of Eritrea's population leave the country since 2003, when the exodus began. Their preferred destinations include Italy (Eritrea was a former Italian colony), the United Kingdom and Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway. An estimated 5,000 people, according to the UN, leave Eritrea each month. As of December 2014, there are as many as 363,077 Eritrean refugees, with nearly 53,662 of those seeking asylum in other countries.
India maintains what President Pranab Mukherjee in May 2015 described as “cordial relations" with Eritrea. Soon after it received de jure independence, India formally recognized Eritrea in 1993. It currently maintains a non-resident embassy (a consulate) in Asmara, Eritrea's showpiece capital. The High Commissioner to Kenya also serves as India’s top diplomat for Eritrea.
According to the ministry of external affairs, India’s bilateral trade with Eritrea was around $244.73 million in 2014-15, a substantial increase from 2012-13, when it was only around $29.89 million. India is also among the highest exporters to Eritrea along with Italy and the UAE.
(Note: Afewerki did not attend the India-Africa Forum Summit.)