Change Is On Its Way: Eight Things Eritreans Should Know

Strathink Editorial Team

Recent events along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea combined with the Eritrean President’s ill health have created a sense of unease within the Eritrean community. There is a feeling of uncertainty both inside Eritrea and among members of the Eritrean diaspora about a future without President Isayas. For twenty-five years, Isayas Afewerki has ruled the small nation along the Red Sea coast with an iron fist. His particular brand of authoritarianism has left his country poor, isolated and dispirited—particularly when comparing it to its neighbors to the south.

While Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Eritrea has stagnated, dependent upon its 2% tax and remittances from the diaspora. While Ethiopia has made significant strides in building democratic institutions, Eritrea is mired in one-man rule governing in a virtual police state.

The contrast is painful and has contributed to the hostility Eritrea has demonstrated towards Ethiopia, culminating in the 1998 border war.

One way or another, whether by the inevitability of mortality or Ethiopia’s threat to make the next war with Eritrea the last war, change will come to Eritrea sooner rather than later. Are Eritreans ready for a post-Isayas Eritrea?

Eritreans have a fierce and abiding attachment to Isayas and the mythology the EPLF created to sustain the struggle for independence. For the liberation movement, this mythology served to unite fighters and supporters as well as provide material and political support from around the world. Eritreans were masters at public relations and built a formidable global constituency.

However, the utility of such unquestioning loyalty to the mythology has imprisoned many Eritreans, particularly in the diaspora. Despite the reality of life in Eritrea, many Eritreans cling to an outdated version of a romanticized Eritrea. Their blind loyalty to a dictator accused of committing crimes against his very own people makes a shaky foundation even shakier—the center cannot hold. If change is on its way and President Isayas no longer leads Eritrea, how will Eritreans who cling to this mythology adjust their thinking?

Strathink would like to help. Let’s start with misconceptions that cause anxiety but are counter-factual.

  1. Ethiopia does not want Eritrea back.

It is regrettable that when journalists write about Eritrean independence, they make no distinction between the Ethiopian government that forcibly annexed Eritrea (Haile Selassie), the government that waged a brutal war against the Eritrean people (Mengistu Haile Mariam’s government), and the government that was a partner in the liberation struggle and, upon taking power, acknowledged that the war over Eritrea was over. The EPRDF government has never acted in a way that would compromise Eritrea’s sovereignty—point of fact—despite Eritrea’s support of armed Ethiopian opposition groups inside its borders.

It is interesting to note here that the majority of Ethiopia’s population—below twenty years of age—were born when Eritrea was already independent. There is no lingering sense of nostalgia for once was in contemporary, youth-dominated Ethiopia. Ethiopia harbors no desire to occupy or annex Eritrea. Ethiopia only wants Eritrea’s President out—and for reasons that have to do with Ethiopia’s long-term peace and security.

  1. Eritrea militarily lost the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia.

Eritreans must accept the fact that Ethiopia militarily defeated Isayas’ army. Eritreans also must accept the fact that Eritrea started the war with Ethiopia—not the opposite. These are facts. Whether or not the U.N. Border Commission awarded Badme to Ethiopia or Eritrea is irrelevant when assessing the military defeat of Eritrea. The decision to award Badme to Eritrea by the Commission was a political, historical, and geographical decision separate from the outcome of the war. This loss does not take away anything from the 30 years struggle and Eritrean independence. The war was a foolish exercise carried out by the President with significant consequences on both sides—even one life loss is a mother, sister, wife or child crying somewhere just to appease the ego of Isayas Afewerki.

  1. The United States is not behind recent events on the border nor the staggering number of Eritreans fleeing the country.

President Isayas and his government have long pointed its collective finger at the United States—in the form of the CIA and the U.S. media—as engaging in a conspiracy with Ethiopia to destabilize the country. First, a destabilized Eritrea would have a significantly adverse impact on U.S. national security interests the volatile Horn of Africa region. The same is true for Ethiopia. With neighbors on the east and west that include Somalia and South Sudan, Ethiopia is an island of stability in a sea of chaos. If Eritrea collapsed, Ethiopia would be confronted by masses of armed people and a long, porous border—much like the situation in Somalia.

As for the estimated 5,000 Eritreans fleeing the border across Eritrea monthly, what possible reason would compel the U.S. to promote pull factors for Eritrea’s out-migration? Immigration issues dominate U.S. politics—it is even worse in the E.U. It is Ethiopia that is providing refuge to the masses of young people crossing the border.

Despite the inherent danger of a population socialized to believe that Ethiopia is an enemy state, Ethiopia allows Eritreans to leave the refugee camps to seek employment or alternative housing—an option that is unheard of in other host countries. Moreover, Ethiopia has provided young Eritreans with educational opportunities at the universities—an opportunity unavailable in their own country due to indefinite military service requirements. What country in the world is providing these opportunities to refugees—refugees from an enemy state?

  1. Ethiopia is not the cause of Eritrea’s inability to advance its stalled democracy, invigorate its stagnated economy, nor respect the civil and political rights of its people.

According to the Eritrean government, Eritrea is in a continuing state of war with Ethiopia. The war, however, appears to be one-sided. While Ethiopia has moved forward following its military victory over Eritrea in 2000, Eritrea is in a perpetual state of war-readiness—essentially meaning that Eritreans have subsumed their civil and political rights to the whims of the state. Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki uses its continued state of war with Ethiopia to justify his police state—including indefinite military service, arbitrary detention, and the general lack of civil, political and human rights. The Eritrean people are prisoners of the President’s paranoia and are being left behind as the rest of the world moves forward.

It is ironic that Eritrea’s pride in sovereignty is so attached to Ethiopia. Eritrea defines itself solely by its relationship to Ethiopia. It is like a bad divorce where one of the parties is unable to move past the marriage and continues to compare themself to the divorced spouse. Eritrea is an independent country but cannot seem to get past its struggle against Ethiopia. As long as Eritrea remains fixated on Ethiopia, it cannot move forward.

  1. There is no international conspiracy against Eritrea.

Since the struggle for independence, Eritrea has enjoyed excellent relations with the international community. This was due in large part to the tens of thousands of Eritreans in the diaspora who built constituencies locally and globally. Until the last five years or so, relations remained positive and the friends of Eritrea continued to support the state of Eritrea on various international platforms.

However, as the staggering number of Eritreans fleeing the country increased and the veil of secrecy was being lifted, the international community was becoming alarmed at the increasing authoritarianism being exposed. The UN report on human rights was a signal for international actors to shift their perception of Eritrea towards one closer to reality. Many would argue that Eritrea had a free pass for too long and the grip held by President Isayas on the small nation was tolerated as an eccentricity on the part of the President—with the consent of the governed.

The international community has long favored Eritrea’s President and just recently pledged 20 million Euros to help build Eritrea’s economy—a remedy to stemming the tide of Eritrean out-migration. The European community has accepted the same perverse logic of Eritreans in the diaspora—pointing an accusatory finger at Eritrea’s economy instead of Eritrea’s President.

When change comes, there is no question that the international community will provide support to post-Isayas Eritrea.

On a positive note, the following statements are also true.

  1. Only the Eritrean people can change their government and have immense resources.

Potentially, there are a number of ways to remove President Isayas from Asmara. The first is to physically remove the President from the capital and settle him in another country. This could backfire and embed President Isayas even more. Eritreans cling desperately to symbols of their independence and a third party intervention to remove him could have disastrous long-term consequences for peace and stability in the country.

A second scenario is renewed war with Ethiopia where Ethiopia marches into Asmara and removes the President. Again, this scenario poses long-term problems for both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ethiopia does not want to manage a caretaker government in Asmara.

A third scenario is the President succumbing to his ill health. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Eritreans. It is an opportunity for a peaceful and orderly transition but to what? Sycophants who profit from the regimes’ repression surround President Isayas and could engineer a transition of faces holding down a status quo government.

The ideal engine of change is the Eritrean people. A credible coalition of Eritrean forces forcing out the President could form a transitional government. The transitional government could take the necessary steps—beginning with a constitution—to start building Eritrea’s democracy and economy. Of course, it is easy to write this from a comfortable chair outside of Eritrea. But Eritrea’s waged a heroic struggle against the emperor and the Derg—it is now time to do the same against their dictator.

Eritrea has a large, well-educated and skilled diaspora community worldwide who can make an inestimable contribution to the country’s development.

  1. The international community will be a valuable resource for a post-Isayas Eritrea.

The international community, including the European Union, the United States, and Eritrea’s neighbors in the region will support post-Isayas Eritrea. It is to everyone’s advantage to have a stable, secure and prosperous Eritrea. This will not happen, however, until a new government is installed that is committed to securing the political, civil and human rights of the Eritrean people and building the country’s democratic and economic institutions.

The international community has acknowledged the barbaric conditions under which the vast majority of Eritreans live. The European community thinks that it can preserve its self-interest by deterring Eritrea’s massive out-migration; yet, Europe understands very well the situation of the Eritrean people under President Isayas. The recent decision to provide the government with foreign aid is a bandaid on a cancer patient—it may look curative but the inside is still dying.

  1. Ethiopia will be a close ally and supporter of a post-Isayas Eritrea.

The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been squandered by the ego of President Isayas. There is no fight between the people of Eritrea and the people of Ethiopia—their ties are through blood and are immutable. Ethiopia can prosper without Eritrea but it can never be secure. Eritrea has spent the last fifteen years since the war arming insurgent groups and generally attempting to de-stabilize Ethiopia. Al-Shabbab and Ginbot 7 are just two of the groups supported by Eritrea with the stated purpose of overthrowing the government of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s longer-term interests lie in a stable Horn of Africa—including South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. In a post-Isayas Eritrea, Ethiopia can play a positive role in the country’s economy—as regional partners. Without Eritrea’s continuing state of war, Eritrea can build its national economy and integrate itself into a greater Horn of Africa regional economic system. Eritrea’s interference in Ethiopia’s affairs is a national distraction for both countries. In a post-Isayas Ethiopia, everybody wins.

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day

Eritreans worldwide want to see change in Eritrea. There is a divergence of opinion on the how. One thing is certain, however, change is inevitable and change is imminent. Eritreans spent 30 years during the struggle and the past 20 years mobilizing their global community to support the country. The next step in supporting the country is to take a clear and uncompromising look at Eritrea today an do what needs to be done. Eritrea can be great. Seize the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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