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Worldbeater: Isaias Afwerki

Eritrea
Democracy
Isaias Afwerki
Isaias Afwerki. Photo: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

Hard to believe one can fight against authoritarian occupation (by Ethiopia) for decades and then turn into a dictator oneself in a matter of a few years. But that is what has happened with the 72-year-old Afwerki, the only president Eritreans have ever known. Perhaps hardened guerilla fighters don’t make the best democratic politicians – too used to snapping out orders and getting unquestioning obedience.

Eritrea was officially founded by referendum in 1991, after a 30-year-war of independence won by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Partisans of the relatively newly minted country will tell you that it is a model of development rectitude and a fierce guardian of national independence. But at what price?

Every month, an estimated 5,000 (mostly young) Eritreans flee the country, earning it the title of ‘most rapidly depopulating nation’ in the world. By the end of 2016 an estimated 459,000 had sought refuge abroad – nearly 10 per cent of the population. It’s not an easy trip – these young Eritreans are held hostage by kidnappers in the Libyan Desert, sold into slavery, drowned in the Mediterranean or rounded up by xenophobic police when they reach ‘safety’.

Why take such risks? The refugees will point to the country’s infamous National Service System for both men and women that condemns young Eritreans to a form of indefinite servitude (the official period is 18 months) under lowly paid and martial conditions, often in remote arid Sahelian camps. There is a hint of generational warfare here, with Afwerki and his circle giving a ‘soft’ younger generation a feel for the suffering their elders had to endure as part of the much glorified liberation war.

A signpost of Eritrea’s decline is Black Tuesday (18 September 2001) when Afwerki stamped out a lively journalistic scene by banning seven independent newspapers and imprisoning 11 senior government officials. His hatchet man Naizghi Kiflu (minister of information at the time) proclaimed that journalists were ‘a bunch of rodents’. There are currently 16 journalists behind bars and Eritrea ranks at the bottom of the press freedom index maintained by Reporters Without Borders. Civil society, any political opposition and even mild criticism are virtually extinct.

Afwerki runs a micro-managed form of dictatorship where censorship has at times included wedding invitations and the lyrics of songs. He gives long rambling speeches on the official ERI-TV, sometimes taking half an hour plus to answer pre-screened questions. He engages in endless ‘tours of inspection’, gazing approvingly on dams and other public works around the country. His Ministry of Information interferes in almost all artistic production with nervous bureaucrats stamping out anything remotely controversial or just for the joy of exercising arbitrary censorship. In a particularly Orwellian touch, the ministry also runs semi-military prison centres. The overall prison regime is ubiquitous with some 360 ‘correctional facilities’ run mostly by military commanders. Political prisoners (some of them former freedom fighters) are left to rot in a secret prison called Eiraeiro, enduring food shortages and temperatures over 50°C, with no medical treatment.

LOW CUNNING: Eritreans in exile cannot escape the tentacles of Afwerki’s government, with embassies regularly trying to collect a two per cent ‘diaspora tax’ and a network of spies ensuring silence from dissidents worried about their loved ones back home.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: The aloof Isaias has made laughter official Eritrean policy. According to a communiqué of the Ministry of Information: ‘More than just a respite from sadness and pain, laughter gives you the courage and strength to find new sources of meaning and hope.’
Sources: The Guardian; Wikipedia; BBC; al-Jazeera; civicus.org; satenaw.com; allafrica.com; Christianity Today; The New York Times.

The military is pervasive in virtually every aspect of Eritrean life, from the courts to the education system to religious institutions. There have been constant border tensions with the former colonizer Ethiopia, sometimes breaking out into open warfare. Between May 1998 and June 2000 conflict between the two cost hundreds of millions of dollars and resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The result: very minor changes in a border between two of the world’s poorest countries. But with democratic change on the horizon in Addis, excuses for military autocracy in Asmara are looking pretty feeble.

New Internationalist issue 514 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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