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Eritrea - Politics

Since gaining its sovereignty in 1994, Eritrea’s president and independence leader Isaias Afewerki has proven himself an authoritarian of the highest degree and a caricature of the personalized Sub-Saharan African ruler. Isaias presides over Eritrea with an iron fist, treating the state as his own personal dominion.

There have been no elections since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Dissent from Isaias’s regime is not allowed, as meetings of eight or more persons require government approval. So too is reporting from inside the country monitored meticulously: Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea the worst country in the world for press freedom every year since 2007.

During the 1960s, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) led the Eritrean independence struggle. In 1970, some members of the group broke away to form the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). By the late 1970s, the EPLF had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the Ethiopian Government, with Isaias Afwerki as its leader. The EPLF used material captured from the Ethiopian Army to fight against the government.

Although some EPLF cadres had espoused a Marxist ideology, Soviet assistance for Mengistu limited the level of Eritrean interest in seeking Soviet support. The fall of communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc convinced the Eritreans it was a failed system. The EPLF (and later its successor, the PFDJ) expressed commitment to establishing a democratic form of government and a free-market economy in Eritrea.

In September 2001, after several months in which a number of prominent PFDJ party members had publicly aired grievances against the government and in which they called for implementation of the constitution and the holding of elections, the government instituted a crackdown. Eleven prominent dissidents, members of what had come to be known as the Group of 15, were arrested and held without charge in an unknown location. At the same time, the government shut down the independent press and arrested its reporters and editors, holding them incommunicado and without charge. In subsequent weeks, the government arrested other individuals, including two Eritrean employees of the U.S. Embassy.

The 2001 crackdown ended any opportunity for overt political debates on statebuilding in Eritrea. All voices susceptible to challenge the Government had been silenced, either directly through arrests and disappearances or indirectly through fear. No other open protest against the Government has been documented by the Commission until the 2013 Forto incident.

In January 2013, members of the military seized a government building seeking changes in the Isaias regime. By the end of the day, the military members left the building and were arrested in the days following. In the following weeks, flyers were placed around Asmara calling for Eritreans to flood the streets in support of the seizure and for political change, which ultimately did not materialize, likely because most of those who would have participated were afraid of the repercussions of the government, were pre-occupied with national service, or had left the country. The government levels harsh responses to criticism of the government.

The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of the media and requires that documents be submitted to the government for approval prior to publication. The government controlled all existing media, including one newspaper, three radio stations, and a television station. Official media focused primarily on local issues, celebrations, descriptions of good moral practices, and profiles of national heroes.

The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials. The printing of a publication by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are both punishable by law. Government approval is required for distribution of publications from religious or international organizations.

An international nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported that as of 2013 the government held at least ten thousand suspected political prisoners and prisoners of conscious, including opposition politicians, journalists, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and persons suspected of not completing national service or evading militia practice.

An unknown number of persons disappeared during 2014 and were believed to be in government detention or to have died while in detention. The government did not regularly notify family members or respond to requests for information regarding the status of detainees, including locally employed staff of foreign embassies or foreign nationals. Disappeared persons included those detained for political and religious beliefs, journalists, individuals suspected of evading national service and militia duties, and persons with no discernible charge levied against them.

The government has not been granting new building permits, which prompted individuals to build without them. In response, the government began tearing down residences without valid permits. In 2015, there were protests against these housing demolitions. This sparked a demonstration and protest in Adi Keih, approximately 110 kilometers south of Asmara with students blocking bulldozers.

In early October 2012, two air force pilots fled with the presidential plane to Saudi Arabia, where they claimed and were granted asylum. In late November, the then Minister of Information, Mr. Ali Abdu, known to be a member of President Afwerki’s close entourage, defected while on a trip to Germany. In 2009, a dozen football players disappeared in Kenya and in 2011, 13 players refused to return from Tanzania. In December 2012, 17 players of the Eritrean national football team absconded in Uganda during a regional tournament. They resurfaced 18 months later in The Netherlands, where they had been granted refugee status.

In April 2013, a female pilot sent to Saudi Arabia to reclaim the presidential jet also defected. In December 2013, nine more players from the national football team disappeared with their coach in Kenya, bringing to more than 50 the number of Eritrean national football players who had absconded since 2010. At the beginning of February 2015, a pilot in charge of the management of the Air Forces Commander’s office reportedly defected to Sudan.

Categories of persons most commonly denied exit visas included men under age 54, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than age 47. The government did not generally grant exit permits to members of the citizen militia, although some whom authorities demobilized from national service or who had permission from their zone commanders were able to obtain them. Authorities arrested persons who tried to cross the border and leave without exit visas. A shoot-to-kill policy was in effect for those attempting to cross the border to exit the country without authorization.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2015 20:21:05 ZULU