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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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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