By Mirjam van Reisen*
Arab Spring has arrived in the Horn of Africa. Young people have been campaigning for the last year, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, phoning households in the country that has been in the grip of its leader Isaias Afewerki since independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1991.
The young campaigners were asking citizens to stay home on Friday afternoons to protest against the dictatorship. The country has been in clutch of fear, while journalists, church leaders, writers, politicians and ordinary citizens have been locked up in jails. The country even scores below North Korea in terms of press freedom.
Since Monday, January 21, a mutiny has gripped the country as some hundred soldiers occupied the Ministry of Information, and subsequently the airport and the Central Bank. The newsreader read out that a constitution would be introduced and that political prisoners would be released.
The mutiny follows in the aftermath of high officials deserting the 66-year old leader, the latest being the feared Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, who recently sought political asylum in Canada. The coup seems to meet little resistance; local diplomats reported that shops were open and that everything was quiet in the streets. Telephone lines were open. So far it looks like a smooth transition.
Eritrea became independent in 1991 after a 30-year war against Ethiopia, but in 1998 war broke out again between the two countries. In 2001, just a day after 9/11 several critics of President Afewerki were locked up, they were never released and never brought into a court room. A prominent prisoner is Dawit Isac, a journalist – writer whose release has been demanded by a worldwide campaign. Following the crack-down those who had the means to leave the country left.
In recent years the population impoverished further and drought and hunger drove many to flee, despite a shoot-to-kill policy at the border. Human traffickers made use of the vulnerability of these refugees, as they were sold on and ended up in torture camps in the Sinai desert. Torture included burning, hanging, whipping and rape while ransoms were demanded of up to US$ 50.000. Relatives collecting the ransoms for the hostages would sell all their belongings, but could never be sure that they would see their relative alive again.
The UN and independent research concluded that the government of Eritrea itself was complicit with the human trafficking. The population has become increasingly desperate. It is therefore not a surprise that a transition is now being forced. Afewerki spent most of his time abroad as he is reportedly ill. His archenemy Meles, President of Ethiopia, died in 2012 in a hospital in Brussels.
The question is, will the coup succeed? It is likely that it will. Firstly, Eritreans are not likely to oppose a transition, as they have suffered economic collapse and drought in recent years. Secondly, Afewerki has no friends among its neighbours, who are in fact likely to quietly support a transition. Moreover, the U.S. and the 27-nation European Union (EU) have become increasingly irritated with the support of Afewerki to Al Shabaab in Somalia and to the piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Eritrea is a very strategic military location that is certainly of interest to the West.
In the unlikely event that the claim for a transition is contested by factions of the military the international community will demand that Eritrea implements the constitution, frees political prisoners and establishes a transitional government with broad representation. And hence our view that the Arab Spring has finally reached the Horn of Africa, throwing its shadow further into the African continent.
*Prof. Dr. Mirjam van Reisen, professor International Social Responsibility at the Tilburg University, is author of ‘Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between life and death’, Wolf Legal Publishers, 2012. She is founding director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA) in Brussels and member of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER).