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Democracy and Human Rights in Eritrea

Grassroots International founder and current board member Dan Connell teaches journalism and African politics at Simmons College, Boston. He is the author of six books on Eritrea, including the two-volume Collected Articles on the Eritrean Revolution, 1976-2002 (2003, 2004) and Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners (2004). Dan Connell presented this paper as the keynote speaker at the Symposium on Human Rights in Eritrea on Sept. 19, 2005, in London, sponsored by Eritreans for Democratic and Human Rights.

The struggle for basic democratic rights waged by the people of Eritrea has been long and complicated. It spanned more than a century of rule by an array of outside powers from the Ottoman Turks and Egypt to Italy and Britain, and finally Ethiopia. It thrust them into battle with successive superpowers, as first the United States and then the Soviet Union threw their weight behind Ethiopia’s claims. And it tested them again through post-independence conflict with neighbouring states (Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia). Meanwhile, it faced corrosion from within.

I’m here to talk about this nation-building project as I’ve known it over three decades. I won’t dwell on the external threats this young nation has endured-and still faces today-as I’ve written about this at length and can take up in the Q&A and during lunch. Instead, I will look at how the liberation movement, now the government, responded to these threats & challenges, for it is in the crucible of such crises that one’s character is revealed-certainly in terms of the depth and quality of a commitment to rights-based development.

I first encountered Eritrea in April 1976, when I slipped into the Asmara capital and witnessed the assassination of a high-ranking Ethiopian official & its bloody aftermath – the execution of dozens of innocent civilians. My report on this massacre appeared in The Washington Post and was the basis for the first chapter of my book, Against All Odds. Next, I flew to Sudan, where I contacted the two nationalist movements-the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. I then travelled into guerrilla-held Eritrea to see the conflict from their side. I went on to write about this not only for The Post, but for the New York-based Guardian, the BBC, Reuters and more than a dozen other print and broadcast media in Europe and North America.

What I found impressed me deeply: not just the military strength of these liberation armies, but their efforts to transform Eritrea’s diverse and deeply impoverished society as they were liberating it-to bring about increased social and economic democracy as they pursued a basic democratic right for the nation-self-determination.

Over the next 15 years, travelling mainly with the EPLF, I wrote extensively about these experiments with social transformation, as well as the Soviet intervention in 1978, the famine in the mid-’80s and the final Eritrean victory in 1991-part of the time as a reporter, part as the director of an aid agency that I founded, Grassroots International. And I returned at least once a year, often more, throughout the 1990s as a writer and a consultant for various aid and human rights organizations when the EPLF set itself up as the « transitional » government.

As I have written and argued elsewhere in great detail, I believe that the EPLF’s main achievement during the liberation struggle was to mobilise much of the population-half of them Christian, half Muslim, from nine distinct ethnic groups-into a highly-motivated, well-disciplined military force that was able, with no consistent outside support, to bring successive US- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian governments to their knees.

At the same time, the Front worked in tangible ways to improve the lives of people in the liberated zones. In doing so, it brought about considerably more social equality across gender, ethnic and religious lines, thus helping to increase human rights in Eritrea under the definition embodied in the UN Human Rights Charter of 1948, my benchmark for measuring progress in this area.

In fact, as I have frequently argued, it was experiments with land and marriage reform, mass organization and the provision of services like agricultural extension, primary education, adult literacy and public health that motivated such large numbers of farmers, workers, women and youth to join the fight for independence. But more on that over lunch.

The main issue we face here today is what happened next-what kind of state did they create, what happened to the promise of political rights to go with the increased economic, social and cultural rights secured during the fight for independence-itself a democratic right, as I said earlier.

So what do we find now? A nation under siege by its own government, with thousands of people in prison for their politics, none of them charged with a crime or given a day in court to defend themselves; those on the outside denied the most basic rights of speech, assembly, press, and religious practice; a constitution ratified eight full years ago that has yet to go into effect; a sustained military call-up that not only dominates the political discourse to the point where all dissent is branded as treason, but that also provides cover for further militarizing the nation and the new state from top to bottom; and a party in power that is not even accountable to its own leadership structures or membership and so dominates the anaemic economy that even the slightest initiative is impossible without its consent and often without its direct partnership.

But having framed the question this way, let me state the obvious: Explanations for the political corruption and anti-democratic practices we see today inevitably take us straight back to the liberation struggle that I earlier praised for its achievements in the social and economic spheres.

Eritrea’s political culture has long been an authoritarian one, predicated upon secrecy and the exercise of absolute power, often by violent means-and not only within the EPLF. However, as they are the ones in power today, that’s where we focus now.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the EPLF was organised and led by a clandestine core, chaired by Isaias Afwerki and strongly influenced by Maoist political currents-the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party. The EPRP met in secret to draft the EPLF’s programme prior to its congresses; to select slates for leadership prior to elections; and to manage its affairs on a day-to-day basis. Party and Front members who broke the rules were punished mercilessly and then suddenly rehabilitated, as was the practice in China, where Isaias received military and political training at the height of the Cultural Revolution. This pattern of behaviour held true for the government in the 1990s and obtains today; moreover, it will define the practices for future elections convened under this leadership-if and when they occur.

Isaias took explicit control of the EPLF as its general secretary at its second congress in 1987, though as party head he had always been its key figure. But this move, coupled with others taken to change the balance of power within the EPRP and EPLF leadership, set the stage for his emergence as an all-powerful president of an independent Eritrea.

There are a number of incidents one can point to that reflect his penchant for unaccountable power and the use of force to resolve differences-notably the suppression of the menqa and yamin groups in the 1970s and the conduct of relations with the ELF throughout-but for the way in which it prefigured his move to consolidate his dictatorship in 2001, none outdoes the so-called « three privileges campaign » of the late 1980s, which I describe in Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners as a moral crusade in which Isaias appealed to second-tier cadres to heap shame on their leaders for drinking, womanizing, and using their positions to secure material advantages. Thus weakening his political rivals, he brought three generals into the party and front leadership. Today, they remain among the most powerful people in the country.

And it was just such a Cultural Revolution-style witch-hunt that Isaias launched in January 2001 to isolate his critics in the PFDJ-undermining any semblance of institutional coherence within both the state and the party-and to prepare the ground for the crackdown later.

But before I get to that, I want to step back again for just a moment: Few of you probably think there is anything democratic about a secret political party running a liberation front, but I would suggest that having no such party while continuing to operate as if there is one may be even worse. Consider this: what Eritrea has now is Isaias using the same patterns of non-transparent and unaccountable power with only himself and his shrinking inner circle to make and manage the decisions without even a central committee to report to-in other words, he has established a one-man dictatorship in which even the ruling party is an insubstantial shell.

Here’s how it got to this point:

In 1989, Isaias ‘froze’ the operations of the EPRP (known by then as the Eritrean Socialist Party), but he continued to meet secretly with its leadership to plan the post-war transition. This positioned him both to assume the post-war presidency and to make the state the dominant institutional apparatus in an independent Eritrea, subordinating both the Front and what remained of the party to it.

Prior to the EPLF’s third congress in 1994, when it changed its name to the PFDJ, Isaias convinced many veterans to step aside from the leadership in order to bring what he called ‘new blood’ into the political movement. Afterwards, however, he rarely used the Front’s newly elected bodies to decide issues. Instead, the PFDJ’s 19-member executive committee spent most of its time discussing how to implement policies determined elsewhere. In this respect, the newly christened PFDJ mimicked the EPLF’s operational forms during the liberation struggle, but with a singular difference: There was only one man and his personally selected advisors making all the decisions.

The same was true of the state. Though the new government had the appearance of a separation of powers-an executive office with a cabinet of ministers, an interim parliament (pending the first national elections) and a nominally independent judiciary-it was an illusion. The cabinet did not provide a forum for debate or decision-making. It, too, served mainly as a clearing-house to determine how policies hammered out elsewhere would be put into practice. Even the military remained under the president’s personal control, as Isaias leapfrogged his own defence ministry to exercise direct command through four theatre-operation generals, including those he brought with him from the EPRP.

Throughout the 1990s, Isaias expanded and strengthened the President’s Office with specialised departments on economic and political policy that duplicated (and effectively out-ranked) similar ministries. He staffed these departments with loyal individuals who reported to no one but him.

Ministerial portfolios were frequently shuffled to keep rivals from developing power bases of their own. High-ranking officers and government officials who questioned the president’s judgement found themselves removed from their posts, kept on salary but not permitted to work, and then abruptly brought back into the fold when they were perceived to be rehabilitated.

Meanwhile, individual members of the ELF were allowed to return to the country, with a few awarded positions in the party and government or on special commissions, but only if they renounced their organisation. Still, most found their loyalty constantly questioned, and some suspected of continuing ties to the ELF simply disappeared into political prisons. This left no institutional avenue to challenge Isaias’s leadership.

Up to 2001, however, the president’s authority and judgement had at least been contested within the PFDJ, and measures to draw a widening circle of the general population into the country’s political life had encouraged many to hope for a more open future. The two-year mobilisation for the 1993 referendum on Eritrea’s political status brought thousands of people into the political process. A three-year constitution-making process produced a foundation for the exercise of basic civil and human rights. This fed the hope of some-myself, included-that Eritrea was on the road, however rocky, towards the elaboration of a legal framework in which such rights could be contested and expanded.

Up against this possibility was a conviction at the centre of power that the people could not be trusted to rule themselves, especially in this unsettled regional environment where enemies and spies might manipulate them against their interests. What was needed, those close to Isaias argued, was ‘guided democracy’ in which an enlightened few would make the key decisions about Eritrea’s future and involve the general population only by mobilising them post hoc to implement them.

These two lines coexisted and contended within the EPLF/PFDJ through the post-independence years, but they collided head-on when war broke out with Ethiopia, during which the latter faction engineered what amounted to an internal coup d’etat. In doing so, they set back Eritrea’s political development by at least another decade and-I believe-so undermined the nation’s unity, morale and strength of purpose that they put Eritrea at greater risk of defeat than ever before.

I am not going to reprise the crackdown itself, as I think most of you are familiar with it-and we don’t have time-except to highlight some of its more extreme outcomes:

On 18 and 19 September 2001, the government arrested 11 of 15 top government officials and former liberation movement leaders-the Group of 15, or G-15-who had signed a petition that charged the President with illegally suppressing debate and that called for the implementation of the Constitution and the democratization of the political arena. Next, the government shut down the private press and arrested many of its leading editors and reporters.

In the years since, there have been numerous, less publicized arrests- elders who sought to mediate on behalf of the detainees, more journalists, mid-level officials, merchants, businessmen, young people resisting conscription, and church leaders and parishioners associated with minority Christian denominations, among others. And there had been many unpublicized arrests before these events, notably members student leaders at U of A in August and sympathizers of ELF and other organizations banned under PFDJ rule as far back as 1991-in fact, some from before that. Some were held for short periods and discharged. Others – like the G-15 and the journalists and many ELF cadres – have been held indefinitely with no charges leveled and no visitors allowed.

The only media in Eritrea today are those controlled by the state: EriTV; Dimtsi Hafash (Voice of the Masses radio); three newspapers published in Tigrinya, Arabic and English, all of which carry roughly the same information and opinion; and a government-run press service.

The Ministry of Information, headed by Ali Abdu Ahmed-a rising star in post-2001 Eritrea-uses them to propagandize the population without permitting opposing views to be expressed. What information and independent analysis reaches Eritreans does so largely through radio and Web-based media originating abroad.

In May 2002, the government proscribed all religious denominations but Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox church, the Roman Catholic church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (Lutheran). Those prohibited were forbidden from worshipping anywhere in Eritrea, even in private homes. But even the remaining legal faiths faced interference in their activities and in the very composition of their leadership, just as did every other institution in Eritrea. This year the government began raiding Eritrean Orthodox churches and in August they deposed the patriarch himself.

The only non-religious membership-based organizations permitted to operate in Eritrea today are those under the party’s direct control-the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers, the National Union of Eritrean Women and the National Union of Youth and Students. But the trade unions are not permitted to organize any segment of the work force without state and party permission; nor are strikes permitted under any circumstances. Three trade union leaders were arrested earlier this year to pre-empt planned strikes. The women’s and youth organizations are service providers and do not engage in policy advocacy or protest either. The PFDJ sets their priorities and pre-selects their leadership slates, which are then confirmed at periodic organizational congresses, much as was the case with the EPRP and the EPLF during the liberation war.

Meanwhile, no group larger than seven is permitted to meet without government permission and no public protest is tolerated. All public remonstration since independence-by liberation fighters upset over the lack of pay in May 1993, by disabled veterans protesting their banishment from urban centers in 1994, by University of Asmara students in 2001, and by National Service conscripts in 2004-have been forcibly put down, with their leaders detained without trial for lengthy periods.

New prisons have sprung up in and around the major cities, as well as in remote locations in the Sahel and in the Dahlak islands to deal with the increasing rates of arrest & detention. There are reports of new « ghost houses » in Asmara in the mold of those run by the NIF in Khartoum as the government has even begun to arrest the parents of AWOL conscripts.

Over the past decade, Eritrea has conducted regional and local elections with balloting open to men and women of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, but no forms of new political organization have been permitted-not only independent parties but even caucuses within the PFDJ. Nor has the state permitted the formation of politically-oriented civil society groups, think tanks, policy organizations or other independent NGOs. All voting for local public office has been conducted in town-meeting-style sessions presided over by PFDJ cadres. As there are no legal parties apart from the PFDJ and as there have been no national elections of any kind, no rotation of power has been possible.

Throughout these years, the economy has also been dominated by the state and the PFDJ, which share ownership of the major financial and commercial institutions, utilities, services, communications facilities and transport companies. In fact, the PFDJ owns or controls enterprises in banking, trade, construction, shipping, metal-works, auto repair, road surfacing and well drilling, among others. It also holds controlling stakes in a number of joint ventures with foreign investors for other large-scale undertakings, such as mining.

For all this, there is no public record of the party’s economic operations-no fiscal transparency of any kind. Nor, for that, matter is there any transparency in the financial affairs of the state, and it is more and more obvious that the country today is virtually bankrupt, surviving on shrinking remittances from the diaspora and politically motivated gifts, grants and loans from other states, including, oddly enough, the U.S., which sees in Eritrea a partner in the global war on terrorism (and, I might add, the coalition of the willing to bring democracy to Iraq!).

Eritrea’s defense spending as a proportion of national income is now the highest in Africa, and despite many public complaints to the contrary, donated relief is also at one of the highest levels on the continent at nearly &5 per capita, led by the World Bank and the United States, which provides ¼ the total of all bilateral aid, though this may change with Eritrea’s latest moves to curtail NGO activities, seize UN vehicles, tax relief donations and oust USAID altogether and with the arrest of two more Eritrean employees of the US embassy.

With an executive-dominated government running a one-party state that prohibits independent media, quashes non-party NGOs, and detains without trial or recourse to appeal anyone who dissents, there are no guaranteed rights for the citizens of Eritrea-only privileges to be granted or withdrawn at the will or whimsy of one man-Isaias Afwerki. In short, Eritrea has become an unadorned dictatorship.

For the country and its citizens to recover from this trauma and resume the long march to a rights-based democracy, the structures of intimidation and the culture of secrecy that dominate its political life need to be dismantled, and new expressions of self-organisation need to sprout and grow. This would be no easy task under any conditions, but it is more difficult than ever in the poisoned environment that exists today.

Were the lid to come off now, bitter recriminations could overwhelm creative dialogue, and the thirst for revenge crowd out the prospect of a peaceful transition to an open society. To avoid this, while giving vent to the accumulated grievances that many Eritreans brandish as an integral part of their identity, there needs to be a cooling-off period in which all political tendencies co-exist as the truth comes out – perhaps through a truth commission like that of Argentina or South Africa.

The Eritrean people need a chance to breathe free air, to take the measure of themselves and each other, to understand what happened to their bold and courageous liberation struggle and how it did so. And to dream again of the bright future that so many imagined throughout the decades in which they fought and sacrificed to open up that possibility.

I hope this conference can make a modest contribution in that direction.

Thank you very much.


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