In Eritrea, the question of who has caused the untold suffering of the people has different answers, depending on who you ask. Sympathizers of the governing regime will lay all the blame squarely at America's feet. According to them, if not for American meddling, life would be a dream. For those who are not so sympathetic to Isaias Afwerki's government, it is a question with an obvious answer: Afwerki himself. Afwerki the despotic tyrant is blamed for the problems bedeviling the country. However, the answer might simply be both. The bullying global West and an inept, despotic local government have taken turns to torture and torment Eritreans.
The Despot of Eritrea
Eritrea's incumbent leader, Isaias Afwerki was born on the 2nd of February in 1946 in the working class suburb of Aba Shi'aul in Asmara. Afwerki became a key freedom fighter whose credentials cannot be doubted and upon independence, in 1993, he assumed power as the elected leader of Eritrea. That is the last electoral mandate he got. Afwerki has been ruling by fiat ever since. Eritrea emerged from the belly of conflict a fully formed one-party state with Afwerki emphasizing that any person who talked or acted in the name of other fronts other than the Eritrean People's Liberation Front would be prosecuted for criminal acts. He said this in his very first public speech in Asmara on the 20th of June 1991 soon after taking the city. Still, the state had a brief period of openness just after independence and there was a reason to be optimistic. The United Nations Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in its report stated, "A transitional national assembly, including some members who were elected, was formed. A constitution was drafted following wide-ranging consultation, and ratified by parliament. There were a number of independent civil society groups, including independent media."
This all came to a screeching halt at the turn of the millennium after the war with Ethiopia. The country is so dysfunctional that its national assembly has not met since 2002. A constitution that was adopted in 1997 has been ignored and the country even started drafting a new constitution. Afwerki is a brutal dictator who former United States of America's Ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald McMullen called "an austere and narcissistic dictator whose political ballast dervises from Maoist ideology fine-tuned during Eritrea's 31-year war for independence".
Similarly, the UN Commission of Inquiry's Mike Smith, at the presentation of his team's findings said, "Eritrea is an authoritarian State. There is no independent judiciary, no national assembly and there are no other democratic institutions in Eritrea. This has created a governance and rule of law vacuum, resulting in a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity to be perpetrated over a quarter of a century. These crimes are still occurring today.”
The Commission's report then highlighted that,
Eritreans also continue to be subjected to indefinite national service, arbitrary detention, reprisals for the alleged conduct of family members, discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds, sexual and gender-based violence and killings.”
Due to Afwerki's politics of violence and brutality, Human Rights Watch, in 2018, said at least 12 percent of the population has fled the country.
The Bullies of the West
In 2009, the United Nations Security Council found that Eritrea had provided support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia. In Resolution 1907 (2009), the Security Council demanded that all Member States, in particular, Eritrea, cease arming, training, and equipping armed groups and their members including al-Shabaab. Sanctions including a trade embargo and trade restrictions were imposed on Eritrea. On March 24, 2010, Johnnie Carson, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs testified before an American House committee that, "There is no doubt that al-Shabaab is a terrorist organization. There is no doubt that Eritrea has supported the elements of al-Shabaab."
America was certain. In 2011, the UN Security Council passed another resolution imposing measures to prevent Eritrea from using the diaspora tax or revenues from its mining sector to commit violations of the 2009 embargo. Eritrea denied the allegations arguing they were based on fabricated lies made up by America and Ethiopia. The Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea lent some credence to Eritrea's denial as it found that there was no conclusive evidence of Eritrean support for al-Shabaab in Somalia for four consecutive mandates. Despite these previous findings, sanctions were not been lifted until November 2018. In 2015, Hank Cohen said of the decision to continue the sanctions, "It was taken because certain persons in the highest levels of the United States Government have mean spirited grievances against Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki." Cohen also called it "pure bullying".
The real economic costs of the sanctions are largely unclear. In 2010, Eritrea said its economy was untouched by the sanctions but this was before the further measures of 2011. In 2018, Eritrean Information Minister, Yemane Meskel then said, "Although often overlooked/downplayed, the economic ramifications of the sanctions have been severe, entailing deleterious impact on investment; harassment of mining companies; higher cost of capital for commercial loans; higher shipping/insurance costs; barriers to imports etc..."
The Atlantic council seems to confirm this, stating, "Sanctions thus have significantly weakened Eritrea’s economy, diminishing the quality of life for its citizens in the process." Debates will remain about the exact impact of sanctions but what is apparent is the fact that Eritrea's economy is in shambles. With the lifting of the sanctions, Afwerki may end up being exposed to be the millstone around the neck of Eritrea. Afwerki banned import and export businesses in 2003, construction businesses in 2006, restricted movement of goods and labor, and banned withdrawals of more than $300. Abraham T. Zere, writing for Al Jazeera calls these domestic sanctions.
Whatever the main cause of suffering in Eritrea may be, it is clear that the local dictator has unwittingly joined hands with his Western enemies in making the lives of Eritreans miserable. Sanctions and dictatorships, though superficially dichotomous are attacks on the common people.
Image Credit: US Embassy in Eritrea