Seething discontent in the Horn of Africa: Eritrea's strange "coup"

A further crack in an unpredictable and repressive regime.

At around 10am on 21 January a contingent of Eritrean troops stormed the state television station. They rounded up the staff – all employees of the Ministry of Information – and forced the director of Eritrea TV, Asmellash Abraha Woldu, to read a statement calling for:

  • the freeing of all prisoners of conscience
  • the implementation of the Eritrean constitution
  • and stating that the ministry of information was under their control.

Almost immediately the television broadcast was interrupted, and remained off the air for several hours, before resuming its broadcasts with pre-recorded material. This is about all that is clear.

In the centre of Asmara, the stunningly beautiful highland capital of this tiny sliver of a country bordering on the Red Sea, life continued much as normal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office declared that it had detected “unusual military movements in and around Asmara” and instructed British nationals in Eritrea to “exercise extreme caution and to continue to monitor the FCO's websites for updates.”

The Eritrean government dismissed speculation and rumours of a coup and described the events as a “small incident”. They went on to launch a scathing attack on foreign commentators, including this author.

Behind the apparently calm façade lies a seething discontent, particularly among younger Eritreans. It appears that the soldiers involved in Monday’s protest were from outside of the capital. “They were just amateurs,” one source told me, “mostly just very frustrated young people.” Around a thousand young men and women cross the border into exile every month, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many leave for Ethiopia, which accommodates 127,970 Eritreans. The total Eritrean refugee community stands at 251,954, many of them in Sudan.

So why do young Eritreans flee from the country of their birth? The answer is that they face a future dominated by conscription and poverty. National Service, nominally for eighteen months, can be extended by years. Citizens as old as 50 are still liable for the army reserves. Once conscripted, Eritreans can face years in forced labour on foreign owned gold mines, working for a pittance.

Others are deployed in trenches along the country’s desolate, 1,000 kilometre long border with Ethiopia. The border war between the two countries, from May 1998 to June 2000, was fought with modern jets, heavy artillery and tanks. There is no official death toll, but estimates suggest it left 100,000 dead.  Both countries agreed to settle the dispute though by binding arbitration. While Eritrea stood by the ruling of a tribunal in the Hague, Ethiopia did not, insisting on further talks. But while Addis Ababa – a key western ally in the US “war on terror” – played its cards skilfully, Asmara did not. Washington was alienated by a series of snubs and Eritrea found itself out in the cold.

To try to increase his leverage over the US, and to open another front against his Ethiopian adversaries, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki began supporting Islamist fighters of al-Shabab in Somalia. This brought the wrath of the international community down on his head, and United Nations sanctions against Eritrea that have been steadily tightened. As these became increasingly onerous, the Eritreans apparently cut their ties with the Somali fighters.

The situation inside Eritrea itself continues to deteriorate – but away from the glare of international publicity. The country allows no independent media and none of the major news agencies, like Reuters, AP or AFP have correspondents in the country. Reporters Without Borders considers Eritrea the most repressive state in the world, ranking it below North Korea in its latest index.

No free elections have been held since independence in 1993. There is only one political party, the ludicrously named People’s Front for Freedom and Justice. Human Rights organisations like Amnesty International regularly criticise the country’s arbitrary detentions and routine practices of torture. Former prisoners report being held in shipping containers in temperatures that rise to over 50 degrees in the blazing sun. Others are suspended from their wrists in the notorious “helicopter” position.

Human Rights Watch estimates there are between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners, without including deserters from National Service “who may number tens of thousands more.” The UN recently appointed a Special Rapporteur to monitor Eritrean human rights violations. Beedwantee Keetharuth can expect little assistance from Asmara.

The news from the Eritrean capital following Monday’s “small incident” indicates that so far the mutinous troops have been allowed to return to their barracks. But the omens are not good.

In May 1993, four days before the country’s official declaration of independence, soldiers who had not been paid during the entire liberation war with Ethiopia, launched the largest public protest the country had ever seen. They stormed around Asmara, demanding that President Isaias should meet them. When he finally came to hear their grievances, the President promised to improve their lot and they returned to the barracks. That evening, with the protests over, around 200 of the leaders were rounded up and arrested. Some were imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial.

Much the same appears to have happened this week. The angry soldiers are reported to have gone back to their camp. What happens to them over the next few weeks, and whether other mutineers appear out of the woodwork, encouraged by their example, is impossible to predict. But the government’s credibility has received a severe blow. The Horn of Africa is notoriously unstable and a further crack in even a regime as unpredictable and repressive as Eritrea is unlikely to be welcomed in Washington or London.

 

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Jeremy Corbyn is not standing down - 172 people cannot drown out democracy

The Labour Party could right now be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest, writes shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

The shadow chancellor writes exclusively for The New Statesman amid one of the most turbulent weeks in politics this century.

The “coup” taking place in the Labour Party

The instability from Brexit has extended into the Parliamentary Labour Party with members of the shadow cabinet standing down. I would like to thank all of those who have participated with me for their work.

Frustratingly, this has come at the worst possible time for our country. And at a time in which we our party could have used to reset the economic narrative that the Tories planted in the public during the summer of 2010 when our party was in the midst of a leadership contest.

Our party right now could be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest that’ll probably lead to electing a Tory leader who will be responsible for any economic fallout from Brexit. The Tories have peddled lies over the past six years over the management of our economy and the state of the public finance, which the decision last Thursday is sadly exposing.

I strongly believe that if some colleagues are not careful then they may cause irreparable damage to our party and the country. 

The Labour Party changed last September. Jeremy was elected with the largest mandate of any political leader in the history of our country. Our party’s values of democracy and solidarity seem to be asked of the membership and always met. Sadly not by some members of the PLP. 

There are those in our party who could not come to terms with the fact that a quarter of a million members could clearly see that the our party’s broken election model has lead to two back to back defeats and needed replacing. Like the wisdom of crowds, our membership understands that we cant keep going on doing the same thing electorally and getting the same results.

I believe that we can all still work together, but I feel some MPs need to get off their chest what they have been holding back since last Autumn. Maybe then they will hear the message that our membership sent them.

The truth is that Jeremy is not standing down. In the Labour Party our members are sovereign. There was an election held and a decision made, and 172 people cannot outweigh a quarter of a million others. 

It would risk sending the worst possible message we could send as a party to the electorate - that Labour does not respect the democratic process.

The economics of Brexit

The Leave vote delivered an immense shock to the political system creating great instability. Of immediate concern is the deteriorating economic situation. Credible economic forecasters virtually unanimously warned that leaving the European Union would be an enormous shock to the economy. 

The disagreements centred on the severity of the shock, and the long-term damage done. To that initial shock must be added the realisation that there was no plan made for a post-Brexit Britain. 

George Osborne has not secured the foundations of our economy and the market volatility reflects that missed opportunity. With turmoil continuing, and major employers already threatening redundancies, the immediate task is to stabilise markets and reassure investors and savers that financial institutions remain rock solid. 

The measures announced by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney early on Friday morning, and the later statement from the Chancellor, are to be welcomed and we have requested a briefing under Privy Council rules on the financial authorities’ contingency plans. It is also reassuring that George Osborne has now moved a threatened, post-Brexit austerity Budget until at least the Autumn. 

Nonetheless, with a recession now forecast, any attempt to push further austerity measures in response to the crisis would be an act of exceptional economic folly. The Chancellor’s own fiscal targets have long since been missed and simply redoubling the misery of spending cuts and tax rises will not bring them any closer to achievement. 

What is needed in a crisis like this is urgent government action to shore up investment, already falling before the vote. Shovel-ready projects should be brought forward, creating jobs and focused on beginning to rebuild those parts of the country currently most deprived – and where the vote to Leave was strongest. As a country we will get through this crisis, and we will do so when we no longer tolerate a situation in which too many of our people are excluded from even the chance of prosperity.

The referendum result

I have been in consultation with many economist, trade union and business leaders since the early hours of the morning when we learnt the result. I hope to give a speech this Friday going into further details of Labour’s economic response, but the result last Thursday came as a blow to many of us in the Labour Party.

All wings of the Labour movement fought hard, and two-thirds of our voters swung to Remain – the same as the SNP, and far more than the Tories, who split 60:40 for Leave. 

Labour will now be fighting to ensure whatever negotiations now take place, and whatever proposals the government chooses to bring forward, will maintain hard-won protections for working people in this country.

The new Labour leadership inherited the Labour In campaign last year. Obviously as with any campaign we will now have to reassess, but the hard work of the staff who worked on the campaign cannot be questioned. They did a fantastic job. 

Jeremy Corbyn also managed to help get out a larger number of our voters than the other main Westminster leaders across the country. 

But the sad truth is that we lost regardless. We need to learn lessons of the referendum and the General Election campaigns, and question whether the way we campaign as a party needs to be changed. 

It is clear that we cannot fight the next election using the same outdated practises and policies that were in place at the last two general elections, and the recent referendum. 

We cannot continue to do the same things in the same ways and get the same results. Those people who need a Labour government the most cannot afford it.


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015.