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Eritrea: An oblivious ticking bomb in the Horn of Africa

by Abel Abate Demissie
Tigrai Onlne - May 19, 2014

The Horn of Africa region is one of the most conflict ridden regions in the world. The region has been gripped by several inter and intra state conflicts since long. The ongoing conflict in Sudan, the mass carnage happening in South Sudan, the failure of government in Somalia contributed a lot to the ongoing human tragedy in the region.  While the world is busy of playing a fighter fighter role in those mentioned countries, Eritrea, which seems to be either forgotten or did not get enough attention by the world looks slipping in to deeper political quagmire quicker than any time ever.

Eritrea: An oblivious ticking bomb in the Horn of Africa

In the last two years there were several rumours that President Isaias Afewerki the first and the only President that the young nation knows has been in a very poor health condition.  The most recent speculation was fuelled after his disappearance from the public scene in the late 2013. Even if such kind of speculation is not strange for the 69 years old ailing leader, it appears to be always vague on who is going to succeed the strong man and what would going to happen to the tiny, impoverished and war thorn Horn-Africa nation after 23 years of iron fist rule of President Isaias Afewerki and the only legitimate political party of his, the Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). More unfortunately, Ethiopia, which is going to be the first country to be impacted by any form of political change in Asmara is reluctant to play a proactive role in helping to make the inevitable change to be in favour of the regional peace in general and Eritreans peace and democracy in particular.

Showing a further sign of fragility and desperation, defections have been increasing in Eritrea from time to time among different segments of the society. Aside to the thousands of refugees flowing to Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen; in the last six months alone, a famous pro-PFDJ singer, Yohannes Tikabo (WediTikabo) has been defected to the US and other three Eritrean pilots have been reported to be defected to Saudi Arabia.

Gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1991, Eritrea has been engaged in to a series of conflicts with all its neighbours, most of the time, under the pretext of a border dispute. The country breaks diplomatic ties with Sudan in 1994, waged war against Yemen on 1996, engaged into a bloody war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 and finally engaged in to small skirmishes and diplomatic row with its southern neighbour, Djibouti, between 2007 and 2008.

In addition to the above disputes, the actions of Eritrean government have isolated the country internationally. Eritrea boycotted the AU for more than a decade and only reinstated its ambassador to the AU in January 2011, fiercely protesting what it described as the AU’s ‘failure’ to condemn Ethiopia for its alleged violations of a peace agreement that ended the 1998-2000 border war. Additionally, the Asmara regime withdrew its membership of   IGAD, East Africa’s primary regional body, after a rift with its ‘arch-foe’, Ethiopia, when a meeting on Somalia threatened to divide the region in 2007.and its wish to be reinstated once again have not been accepted by the member states yet.

In addition to this, the imposition of the UN Security Council sanctions on Eritrea, which included arms and travel sanctions for Eritrea's support of insurgents trying to topple the nascent government in Somalia, was a severe blow to Eritrea. It is significant too that for the first time since their establishment, the AU and IGAD called upon the United Nations to introduce sanctions against a member state. Due to the ill-conceived political strategies of the Asmara regime, the country's image has been tarnished. The behaviour of Eritrea has prompted at least one observer and scholar to refer to Eritrea as the 'North Korea of Africa'.

Despite, there is a wide consensus that the war with Ethiopia was a game changer in Eritrea. Following the war, President Isaias Afewerki shortly arrested his senior officials who demanded the constitution to be implemented and to put a limit on the powers of the President. He then ceased private Medias, Civil Society Organizations and any opposition voices one from another. Since then President Isaias Afewerki has been a micro manager and uncontested ‘lifelong’ leader in a country that doesn’t have a parliament, a Prime Minister and even a Vice President.

President Isaias Afewerki, who is well known for his Machiavellian leadership technique since the arm struggle period, has not been hinted who his successor would be and when would he relinquish his power yet. According to sources in Asmara, this is further instigating the power struggle among his loyalists who have already been seeing each other with utter suspicion and deep animosity.

There might be some fundamental explanations on why there is no clue on who is going to succeed President Isaias Afewerki. The first one could be Isaias’s desire to cling on power to the end. However, others argue that living with the same senior government officials and army leaders who attempted the failed coup d’etat against him on January 21, 2013, President Isaias has neither the will nor the ability to transform the country into democracy and peaceful power transition.

Without having any viable state institutions and amidst of deep feud and animosity among leadership circle, Eritrea has the possibility of slipping into deeper political quagmire following the downfall of Isaias Afewerki, either by death or by the army led coup d’etat.

Putting salt in to injury, the Horn of Africa region, the most war ridden and conflict prone region in the world, couldn’t afford another state failure in the region. The possible collapse of the post Isaias Eritrean state may be a safe haven to the international jihadists and terrorists who have been sought another refuge after the successful joint military operation by the African Union forces, the neighbouring states and the Somalia government.

More than any neighbours in the region however, the future of Eritrea will definitely highly impact its southern neighbour Ethiopia, due to the strong people-to-people relations among the two nations. Ethiopia, which has been playing a pivotal role in pacifying the region and helping to revive a strong government in Somalia, may not cope the failure of state in its Northern territory.  

Abel Abate Demissie is a Senior Researcher at the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD). He can be reached at abel.eiipd@gmail.com.

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