The latest report from the International Crisis Group, analyses the fragile political and economic situation following the devastating war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). Just a decade ago, Eritrea might reasonably have been described as challenged but stable. Today it is under severe stress, if not yet in full-blown crisis. While not likely to undergo dramatic upheaval in the near future, it is weakening steadily. Its economy is in free fall, poverty is rife, and the authoritarian political system is haemorrhaging its legitimacy.
“As Eritrea continues on this trajectory, its current economic and political problems are only going to deepen”, says Andrew Stroehlein, Crisis Group’s Director of Communications. “While there is no open protest at the moment, the government cannot take this for granted over the long term. Change is really only a matter of time”.
The militarism and authoritarianism which now define Eritrea’s political culture have their roots in the region’s violent history. The 30-year war for independence – achieved in 1991 – was part of a network of conflicts which devastated north-east Africa. The real significance of that legacy has only become clear in the last decade, as President Isaias Afwerki and a small cohort of ex-fighters have strengthened their grip on power, while suppressing social freedoms in favour of an agenda centred on an obedient national unity and the notion that Eritrea is surrounded by enemies.
Eritrea has fought in recent years, directly or indirectly, with Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and Sudan and involved itself in various ways in the conflicts in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia. Relations with Ethiopia in particular remain extremely tense, in large part because Ethiopia has failed to abide by its Algiers Peace Agreement commitment to accept binding arbitration on their disputed border. (The boundary commission ruled that the town of Badme – the original flashpoint of the war – was in Eritrea.) The UN Security Council’s failure to compel compliance reinforced the sense in Asmara that the international community is inherently hostile. While Eritrea asserts that it is pursuing legitimate national security interests, its aggressive approach and abrasive tone have left it increasingly isolated.
The army has been the key stabilising force, but it is becoming less stable, riddled with corruption and increasingly weak. National service – originally intended to build the country – could well prove one of the catalysts for the regime’s eventual collapse. Some form of demobilisation is required but cannot happen overnight, as society and the economy are incapable of immediately absorbing tens of thousand former soldiers. A holistic approach is urgently needed and requires outside help. Instead of pushing the regime into a corner, the international community should engage with Eritrea on the basis of a greater understanding about the country’s past and current grievances. This might well remove one of the regime’s key rationales and ultimately empower more reform-minded and outward-looking elements within the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and wider society.
“It is inadequate and unhelpful simply to portray Eritrea as the regional spoiler”, says Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s acting Africa Program Director. “It is also the product of the political environment of the Horn as a whole. Ultimately, everything is interconnected, and a more comprehensive, integrated approach is needed by the international community to treat the severe problems confronting Eritrea and the region”.
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