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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Collaboration is the key to coalfields regeneration

When the last shift ended at Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire, in December 2015, it marked the end of deep coal mining in Britain. Since the early 1980s, over 250,000 jobs were lost in the industry and whilst regeneration efforts over the last 30 years have reclaimed sites, creating new housing and the infrastructure for new businesses and jobs, the scale of these losses was huge, and deep-seated social and economic problems remain.

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust was established in 1999. When we launched our first grant programme we were overwhelmed by the demand, however, this was simply a reflection of the need out there in the coalfields. Our name resonated with people who were incredibly proud of their communities and the contribution made by the coal industry to Britain’s prosperity.

Our independence meant we could be more flexible and responsive, and this helped us direct resources into communities where other funders struggled. Over the last 17 years our programmes have evolved and we have achieved some fantastic results for the 2,000,000 people who have benefited from our support. We have also gained a better understanding of the underlying issues that still impact on the quality of life in the coalfields. There are 5,500,000 million people living in Britain’s former mining communities and many do not enjoy the opportunities afforded in non-coalfield communities. While this inequity exists, we still have a job to do.

The key challenges

The greatest challenge is the fact that there are only 50 jobs per 100 workingage people in the coalfields. when you compare this figure to London (79), and the South-East (68), it doesn’t take much to recognise that there is a major problem here. The key factor is the number of businesses; the coalfields have significantly fewer businesses than non-coalfield communities. Unless this fundamental problem is addressed at scale, we will continue to see high levels of unemployment in our communities.

We also need to raise skill levels, or at least align skills to the local labour market. There are significant numbers of people who don’t have a qualification or are low skilled and this is a major barrier to competing for jobs. If new jobs are created we want our communities to be able to access them. For many people, it means an introduction to learning again and to do this they need to be engaged. It takes time to develop these relationships and build this confidence in people and the resources to make this happen are often lacking.

We also have a real issue with health in our communities. We have significant numbers of people experiencing long-term health problems that limit their day-to-day lives. It’s a major barrier for some people in accessing a training course or attending a job club but there are often low-cost solutions, such as ‘social prescribing’, that can make a real difference to the health of a person.

What the Trust can offer the coalfields

Right now we’re delivering an ambitious range of activities across England, Scotland and Wales. Everything from safeguarding community assets, developing community plans, engaging people through sport, helping people into work, supporting community organisations and creating new industrial space. I can’t remember a more exciting time in terms of how we want to work with our communities and we’ve got some fantastic partnerships with the private, public and voluntary sectors in the mix to help us. All our future activities will be geared to address our strategic themes of employment, skills and health and we will continue to collaborate to leverage additional resources into the coalfields.

We know we could do more and welcome the continued support of the Scottish and Welsh governments. We do, however, have a new and compelling proposition. Our aim is to create a £40 million investment fund for the coalfields, and we are inviting the English government to become a partner with us and contribute £30 million to match our commitment of £10 million. This will enable us to build 400,000 square feet of new industrial and commercial space, creating 1,000 jobs. Over 25 years this will generate £50 million in income, which we will invest in social impact projects generating £500 million in wellbeing value. We see this as a real legacy project for a generation to come.

We know this might seem an ambitious proposition in the current climate, but it’s a truly enterprising approach. Collaboration is at the heart of this and is the essential ingredient for all our future work. Without it we will not achieve the results we want for our communities.

About The Coalfields Regeneration Trust

The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is dedicated to supporting and improving the quality of life for the 5.5 million people living in the former mining communities of Britain. We have worked at the heart of many of these communities since 1999 and have a track record of delivering targeted programmes that have reached over two million people helping many thousands; back into work; to develop new skills and participate in activities that have improved their health.

There is compelling evidence that recognises the significant challenges that still remain and shows how coalfield communities lag behind national averages on multiple indices of deprivation. Our enterprising and innovative responses will address these challenges but we need the support of government and regional stakeholders to help us achieve the scale of impact required.

Employment
The employment rate in the largest UK coalfields is consistently lower than the rest of the country. On average, 14 per cent of adults in the coalfields are out of work on benefits, which is 40 per cent higher than the national average and double that of south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has helped more than 25,500 people into work and created or safeguarded more than 5,500 jobs.

 

Skills

The proportion of the working-age population with low or no qualifications in the English coalfields is roughly 60 per cent higher than in London and 40 per cent higher than in south-east England. Thanks to the programmes The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has
supported, 1.3m people are now more highly skilled.

 

Health

A worrying 11.7 per cent of people living in the coalfields report long-term health problems, compared to 8.6 per cent nationally. Incapacity benefit is claimed by 8.4 per cent of adults of working age in the coalfields, which is 35 per cent higher than the national average and almost double south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has invested in projects that have improved the health of over 250,000 people

The proportion of
the working-age
population with low or
no qualifications in the
English coalfields is roughly 60 per
Employment
The employment rate
in the largest UK
coalfields is consistently
lower than the rest of
the country.
On average, 14 per cent of adults
in the coalfields are out of work on
benefits, which is 40 per cent higher
than the national average and double
that of south-east England.
The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has
helped more than 25,500 people into
work and created or safeguarded more
than 5,500 jobs.

 

For more information, visit www.coalfields-regen.org.uk