A Glimpse into a Mysterious African Dictatorship: Is Eritrea on the Verge?

Once hailed as beacon of hope, Eritrea quickly devolved into a secretive dictatorship. Now there may be signs that the regime may be wobbling.

  • Share
  • Read Later

Correction appended: Jan. 27, 2013

Eritrea made a rare foray into international headlines on Monday, Jan. 21, as news agencies and social-media sites disseminated speculation of a coup attempt. Reliable information on events in Asmara is hard to come by, however, with the tiny East African nation being one of the world’s least open societies and allowing no independent journalists to operate. One signal that all was not well in the Eritrean capital, however, was the fact that the state television service, which is broadcast from inside the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, went off the air for the first time since its creation in 1993.

Although reports of what took place vary wildly, accounts by opposition figures and dissidents claim that the channel’s leading news presenter appeared on air and read out a brief statement calling for the implementation of the 1997 constitution and release of political prisoners — estimated by Human Rights Watch to number between 5,000 and 10,000. The channel then went dead for the whole day before returning to normal service as if nothing had happened, with a report on how snow was disrupting daily life in Paris. That brief disruption was taken by many as a sign that a power struggle may be under way within Eritrean’s regime.

(MORE: The Ogaden Problem: Will an Old Insurgency Tip the Balance in East Africa?)

Eritrea, which became a nation state in 1993 after two decades of separatist insurgency, has been ruled since its inception by President Isaias Afewerki, who had led the rebellion. For a time, Eritrea was viewed in Western capitals as a beacon of hope, a small but resource-rich nation on track to become an African success story. But optimism quickly soured as Afewerki’s regime, seized by fears of an Ethiopian invasion, cracked down on dissent and created a security state — a dynamic exacerbated by a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000. No elections have been held since Eritrea’s birth, and opposition has been suppressed. Large numbers of young people have fled to avoid military conscription or forced labor. Afewerki has also been accused by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea of funding Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabab militants — a charge he vigorously denies, although the U.N. group later reported that international pressure had prompted Eritrea to reduce such support.

While the details of what transpired on Monday remain unclear, the very fact of a glitch in the regime’s information output was hailed by many in the Eritrean diaspora as a welcome sign of ferment. “Whatever has happened, it gives us some kind of hope we might see change at a time when many of us had given up,” says Abel Berhane, 32, an Eritrean refugee living in London. Since Monday, dissidents, journalists and experts have spent hours trying to assemble a picture of what transpired. The story spread by progovernment organizations and Afewerki supporters is that a handful of soldiers — labeled terrorists — had stormed the Ministry of Information and tried to seize hostages, but the army had surrounded the building and negotiated a peaceful end to the standoff. Some Eritrean officials and ambassadors, in conversations with international media, hinted that something had happened, but insisted that everything was back to normal. The Eritrean government failed to respond to several requests from TIME for comment.

Exiled dissidents and opposition groups have not ruled out more dramatic scenarios to explain last Monday’s events. Some suggest Afewerki had staged the event himself in order to create a pretext for a new purge of military officers deemed a threat to his rule. A competing explanation holds that up to 100 soldiers, fed up with lack of pay and poor treatment, had marched to the Ministry of Information to put pressure on the regime to heed their demands. According to this version, the soldiers had entered the ministry, ordered the newsreader to read out their statement and then left without a shot being fired left. If so, they could pay a heavy price. “The regime will let them be for two weeks, and [then], like before, execute the leaders and arrest the juniors,” speculates Norwegian Eritrea expert Kjetil Tronvoll of the Oslo-based International Law and Policy Institute. “It still puts into question, though, how so many soldiers were able to march through the city without any interference.”

(MORE: Out of Africa: Israel Confronts a New Generation of ‘Infiltrators’)

A third and most widely believed theory claims that a well-organized and sophisticated mutiny is underway to push for reforms. “We have to see this recent event as part of a long story,” says Leonard Vincent co-founder of Paris-based Radio Erena. He and other opposition elements abroad claim to have received reports suggesting that what they say is long-standing tension between Afewerki and some of his most senior generals reached boiling point recently when Afewerki ordered weapons to be distributed to citizen militias without informing the Minister of Defense. Since then, that minister, as well as several of Afewerki’s most senior officials, has been sidelined, according to these reports.

Among other indicators of discord, two pilots last October defected to Saudi Arabia with the presidential jet. And Afewerki’s Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, has not appeared in public for nearly six weeks, say dissidents, who believe the regime is slowly crumbling. They say reports that beginning to emerge indicate the incident at the Ministry of Information was initiated by recently sidelined generals as a show of strength. “They wanted to show Afewerki they still had power and could shut down the Ministry of Information and other places if they wanted to,” Vincent tells TIME. Military sources in Asmara have told TIME that senior generals are currently locked in negotiations with Afewerki to push for reforms and that the statement of their grievances delivered on television was designed to pressure the President. Many observers, though, doubt that the generals are actually seeking to better the country and speculate they are more concerned with keeping power and preserving their business interests. In the mean time, human-rights groups say that the government has been arresting dozens of people, many of whom— according to experts in Eritrean affairs — are not believed to be involved in the incident.

Explanations of the events at the Information Ministry differ wildly, but “whatever you believed happened, this has been a significant development,” says Tronvoll. “This is huge defiance of Isaias’ power, a message that went around the world instantly, a great boost for the diaspora, and a clear signal that divisions are emerging in the military, the power of Afewerki is withering and it is one step closer to his downfall.” At least, that’s what the exiles, dissidents and victims of the regime are hoping.

Correction: The original version of this story said Eritrea’s state television service was off the air for a few minutes; the channel was dead for the whole day.

MORE: Top 10 International News Stories of 2012