The Waning Days of Tyrannical Rule in Eritrea
The peace accord that Eritrea and Ethiopia signed in July 2018 and attendant normalization of their relations had promised a new era of peace, cooperation and progress for the Horn-of-Africa region. Many in the international community believed that this breakthrough agreement will induce the Eritrean government to break out of isolation, reintegrate the country into the global family of nations and kindle its diplomatic engagement in the region and beyond. Indeed, those very changes were pretty much what had initially seemed to be happening, albeit only fleetingly.
The bold reforms that the new Ethiopian leader, Abiy Ahmed introduced in his country’s domestic and foreign policies had thrown the region into a frenzy of diplomatic activities aimed at promoting regional ‘integration and unity’. Launched with levels of zeal and showmanship that verged on theatrics, the diplomatic campaign aroused the interest of even Eritrea’s reclusive dictator, Isaias Afewerki. Driven largely by his egotistical ambition and whimsical mood, he indulged in diplomatic extravaganza of summit meetings, state visits, formal agreements and declarations involving some Horn nations and his Arab patrons in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
However, despite all the hoopla that surrounded what some had nostalgically dubbed the ‘reawakening of Pan-Africanism,’ the phenomenon was fated to be transitory. True to the haste, emotionalism and overzealousness of the campaign’s newfound champions, the regional diplomatic fervor could last but a few months before finally running aground. Having thus been denied a regional platform for self-aggrandisement, Eritrea’s dictator retreated into his shell and reverted to his usual antagonistic ways. Last month, he came out of seclusion and suddenly traveled to Ethiopia on the heels of his short visit to the UAE. Although the purpose of (and motivation for) the former remains unknown, the trip is not expected to substantially alter the bilateral political equation.
Isaias Afewerki’s retrogression following the regional-diplomacy mania dashed the expectations of the international community — worse, the hopes and aspirations of the Eritrean people — for long-awaited domestic reforms. But it also marked the onset of the regime’s downward spiral toward its inevitable demise which, as outlined herein, is indicated by recent developments.
Eritrean Regime’s Early History
The significance of the role the Eritrean regime played in the brief episode of regional reconciliation in the Horn would be better appreciated if viewed within the context of the regime’s early history. In general, this history was shaped by decisions and actions that were:
(a) characterized as hasty and arbitrary, not judicious and logical;
(b) instigated by the whims of a despotic leader, not by consultative and deliberative processes involving people’s representatives and governance institutions;
(c) driven by bias and vindictiveness, not by rational thinking, fact-based analysis and due consideration of potential consequences; and
(d) designed to serve personal ambition and egotism, not national interest and statesmanship.
Soon after Eritrea’s de jure independence in 1993, its new leader came out swinging with angry public accusations against the AU and the UN for historical injustices they perpetrated against Eritrean aspirations for self-determination. The country’s long-term national interests would have been better served if these legitimate grievances were, instead, pursued through appropriate legal and diplomatic processes. But arbitrary and single-handed as it was, the act of heaping vitriolic condemnation on these organizations only served to set the tone for the acrimonious relationship the regime was to have with the outside world over the decades that followed.
A. Lack of Skill-and-Will to Weaponize Diplomacy
A remarkable feature of the Eritrean regime’s 28-year rule is its record of having engaged in military conflicts with all of the country’s four land/maritime neighbors during its first 17 years in power. Analyses on how and why these conflicts occurred and attributions of responsibility for them are beyond the scope of this article. More pertinent to the discussion here is the fact that all of these conflicts would have been averted had political acumen, diplomatic skills and foresight been brought to bear upon the circumstances that led to those conflagrations.
Sadly, the regime was devoid of these qualities and, instead, handled relations/conflicts using a modus operandi fraught with arrogance, rigidity and vindictiveness. Even in the years that followed its last military adventure, it has been known for its relentless hostile rhetoric against Western powers, multilateral organizations and financial institutions as well as neighboring states. The international community countered these elements of vexatious behavior by imposing sanctions and other measures intended to isolate and contain the regime — though some ended up hurting the population as well.
B. New Opportunities and Challenges
The peace deal with Ethiopia finally provided the Eritrean regime a way out of the dire politico-diplomatic straits it had found itself in for the past two decades. This afforded its leaders a chance to rehabilitate themselves and warm up to the principle of resolving disputes through negotiation and arbitration. The deal was a political breakthrough that also was to put to the test the regime’s will to conform with international norms and standards of behavior.
The end of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict did bring some tangible political dividends to the region. In its wake, UN-imposed sanctions on Eritrea were lifted after having remained in place for the preceding nine years. There was also easing of tensions that heretofore marked the country’s relations with Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya. In consequence, Eritrea’s president was able to sign a cooperation agreement, open doors for dialogue and exchange state visits, respectively with leaders of those countries. These gains — made possible by intense diplomatic efforts of the Ethiopian government — also carried the added value of creating an enabling political environment for regional reconciliation. In particular, they afforded Eritrea’s leaders an opportunity to reevaluate their approach to international relations and embrace dialogue and compromise as key instruments of foreign policy.
C. Relapse into Old Habits
The foregoing developments had engendered in the region public sentiments that favored promoting reconciliation, consolidating peace and fostering economic cooperation among nations. At first, Eritrea’s president exhibited uncharacteristic enthusiasm for these prospects: He reached out to other leaders and sought to project lofty regional goals as motives for his newfound diplomatic activism. Nevertheless, his actions and pronouncements during this period betrayed the opportunistic and self-centered nature of his agenda.
Many felt uneasy with the unscrupulous and egotistical manner in which he went about it. It was particularly troubling to see him singlehandedly and arbitrarily committing his nation to secret bilateral/trilateral ”agreements” bereft of the consent of the people and participation of institutions of his own government. Having been predicated on these willful transgressions and wicked manipulations, therefore, Isaias Afewerki’s diplomatic campaign was doomed to be short-lived and to end as frivolously as it had begun.
The Regime’s Raison D’être
It is often said that “nothing under the Sun is immune to changes wrought by the passage of time.” However, in seeming defiance of this adage, Eritrea’s tyrannical rulers have, over the course of three decades, preserved intact the two qualities that define the essence of their mission in life: cruelty at home and belligerence abroad.
On the home front, oppression, subjugation and poverty have been the staples of life in the country for well over 20 years. Adolescents of high-school age continue to be press-ganged into indefinite military service in their thousands each year; citizens who call for justice and democracy continue to be thrown into dungeons never to be heard from again. The Eritrean government busily expands its network of hellish prisons at an alarming pace while stagnation and decay dominate every other aspect of life in the nation.
In foreign affairs, the government is bent on taking rejectionist, confrontational and/or isolationist stances on issues — a propensity that has changed little over the last three decades. PM Abiy Ahmed had exerted considerable effort at IGAD to bring the regime in from the cold. Despite this — and a year after its reconciliation with some states in the region — Eritrea’s government has yet to return to the fold and engage in the organization’s efforts on such issues as regional security, resolution of intra- and inter-state conflicts, etc.
Eritrean government’s standing in the AU is equally precarious. Recently, Eritrea became the only holdout nation that has refused to sign the AU-sponsored African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) casting itself as the odd man out in a continent of 55 nations. Two months previously, the regime had arrogantly exhorted the AU to ”refrain from internationalizing and exacerbating” the political crisis in the Sudan; and, while at it, lambasted the organization for its “inherent flaws”, past failings and — ironically — for its unreformability! This happened while Isaias Afewerki unsuccessfully tried to undercut joint mediation efforts by Ethiopia, the AU and IGAD which eventually brokered an agreement between the Sudanese military junta and leaders of the opposition movement.
Reckless government actions and decisions have long thrown the country into seemingly perpetual foreign relations crisis. Yet, the regime nonchalantly left the post of Eritrea’s permanent representative to the UN vacant for three years following the death in 2016 of its last occupant. When the strongman recently decided to act, he threw to the wind considerations of caliber and due selection process of candidates. Instead, he handpicked a party cadre with no government or diplomatic experience to head the mission. All this seems to lend credence to allegations that underhanded machinations, not international law and diplomacy, are the mainstay of the regime’s external affairs.
Turn of the Tide
Some quarters of the international community had long appeared sympathetic to the Eritrean regime which they believed had been put in a bind by its long, drawn-out conflict with Ethiopia. Others, though skeptical about the regime’s intentions, were willing to give its leaders the benefit of the doubt hoping they will undertake domestic reforms and improve their foreign relations once their border problem was resolved.
The EU and some of its member states have, for nearly two decades, argued “constructive engagement” and “quiet diplomacy” as the best policy for nudging the Eritrean dictatorship into introducing democratic reforms. Claiming to be pursuing this “pragmatic” policy — but actually pushing their agenda of curbing the flow of Eritrean refugees to Europe — they propped up the despotic regime by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into its coffers. All these in the face of hard facts which indicated that, far from improving the lot of Eritrea’s youth or stimulating economic growth as claimed, the funding will only encourage corruption and embolden the dictatorship to stay the course.
However, the advent of the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement met neither the expectations of the international community nor the theorizing of European Establishments. Contrarily, after a brief post-treaty stint with regional diplomacy, Isaias Afewerki proved to the world that he is stuck in his old ways. His regime’s actions and behavior have since left no doubt that the dictator intends to tighten, not relax his tyrannical grip on the country and to continue playing antagonistic and disruptive roles in regional affairs.
Barely three years after a UNHRC inquiry found his regime guilty of “crimes against humanity,” Isaias Afewerki thumbed his nose at the international community by evicting patients from — and closing down — more than three dozen health facilities run by the Catholic Church and which served the most vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of Eritrea’s population. All this happened against the backdrop of the regime’s continued imposition of forced labor and indefinite conscription, the consequent exodus of youth fleeing the country as well as the arbitrary arrest, torture and disappearance of citizens. The persistence of these conditions in post-treaty Eritrea has unraveled the already shaky policy argument of the Europeans, thereby providing its advocates a compelling reason to reassess their policy toward the Eritrean regime.
Indeed, some recent developments in Europe suggest that such policy adjustments may be in the works. Isaias’s exclusion from the Nobel Peace Prize; the recent diplomatic row between Germany (critical of lack of reform in Eritrea) and Isaias’s regime; the recent seminar on Eritrea organized by Swedish members of the EU Parliament and attended by human rights organizations and the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea; may signal an evolving turnabout in European policy towards the regime.
The long tragic drama of tyrannical rule in Eritrea is, by all indications, approaching its fated ending and has its ‘final episode’ playing out at this very moment. Indeed, the question now is not when, but how curtains will be drawn on this dark chapter of our history. Ironically, as the sun continues to set on the tyrannical system, Isaias seems to be expediting his own demise by engaging in actions that are likely to trigger social, political or even military confrontations that will sweep him and his regime to their final resting place.
That the regime is busy digging its own grave is an added ‘bonus’ for the popular struggle being waged to erect a towering edifice of democracy and justice upon that very grave. However, despite this fortuitous timing of the regime’s urge to self-destruct, Eritrean forces of change should not relent in broadening and intensifying their recently invigorated movement, build its momentum and exert the final push toward eradicating the ungodly system from the country.