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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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.