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Sudan Tribune

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Eritrean Government ‘Under Siege’

By Michael Abraha

December 16, 2008 — The Eritrean people are quietly hurting. Hunger is painful. The food ration consists of one piece of white bread per person per day. All, including men and women in their 80s, are required to wait in line to receive their meager ration. This ‘favor’ from the authorities is accompanied with a stern warning of retribution if a citizen grumbles about being malnourished. The question of bread is a sensitive political issue in Eritrea as cholera is in Mugabes’ Zimbabwe today

There are at least 2.5 million Eritreans who are said to urgently need external relief aid but the government is refusing to receive it on behalf of its hungry citizens. Receipt of food assistance would mean admission of agricultural policy failures. To make life more miserable, Eritreans are deprived of free speech. Criticism of the authorities can get an individual or groups imprisoned, tortured or killed.

In the midst of this darkness, imagine or picture for a moment of a situation where thousands of oppressed, malnourished Eritrean men and women and children are pouring on to the streets of Asmara and other cities and towns saying: “We can’t take the pain anymore. We need enough food for our tummies and revolutionary ideas for our hearts and minds. We demand liberty or give us death.”

One of two events may ensue: A nervous and besieged Eritrean leader, Isayas Afewerki, may order his generals to shoot and kill the peaceful protesters in their hundreds or thousands (as did Somalia’s Siad Barre before his downfall in 1991) in order to send a stringent message against any further outbursts. The generals may obey the orders and kill off those innocent civilians. Or they may choose to defy the orders of their commander-in-chief. Any one of the two decisions by the generals will mark the beginning of an end of the Afewerki era.

This would create an opportunity for a genuine Eritrean revolution which will need new type of revolutionary leaders who will rise up to match the challenges of that given moment to plan and shape the future for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous nation.

If reports are to be believed, it seems there are some serious rifts within the military hierarchy, and some observers and political opponents are speculating that change is in the offing. In spite of the total news blackout in the closed Eritrean system, there are strong indications that internal and external pressures are mounting.

Commenting on recent developments, Tesfai Wolemichael (Degiga), Deputy Chairman of the new Eritrean People’s Party (EPP), for-runner of ELF-RC, says the increasing number of citizens fleeing the country was ample evidence that the people wanted change. During the last week of November alone, 900-hundred Eritreans fled to Ethiopia and Sudan, according to Tesfai (Degiga) who is also head of EPP’s Foreign Relations. What was unprecedented, Tesfai holds, was that for the first time the escapees who recently showed up at Ethiopia’s Shimeliba Refugee Camp were highly trained soldiers belonging to a special task force that protected President Afewerki.

In an interview to be published soon, the EPP official whose party is about to merge with the Eritrean Democratic Party under former Defense Minister and war hero, Mesfin Hagos, says he believes the Eritrean opposition forces as a whole are ready to lead the people in a new direction to fulfill the enduring promise of a 30-year long liberation struggle which ended in 1991. “We will free our people from fear and abject poverty and the present regime will soon become part of history’s statistics,” confidently states Tesfai (Degiga).

On the diplomatic front, Eritrean policy is on the brink of a disaster which could hasten the downfall of the government. After flirting for a long time with the idea of putting the Eritrean government on its list of terror sponsoring states, the Bush Administration now appears firmly bent on taking action before Barak Obama takes power. If US legal experts have enough evidence to show that the Eritrean government is aiding and abetting terrorists, there is nothing to stop them from applying the existing US anti-terrorism laws against the Eritrean government.

The US and the UN have long alleged that the Eritrean authorities were not only providing safe haven to Somali insurgents but were also channeling to them funds and military equipment including suicide vests and other explosives.

There are two possible factors why the US may want to take action now: One: Somali radical insurgents, whom the US regards as terrorists with alleged Al-Qaeda links, are gaining the upper hand in the Somali conflict raising the possibility of more bloody confrontations between clans and various Islamist and secular political groupings. Eritrea is said to be supporting the insurgency. Second: the running news of Eritrea’s decision to allegedly allow Iran (already in the US terror list) to establish a military base in its strategic Red Sea Port of Assab close to the Djibouti border is a very unwelcome development for the US, Israel and Ethiopia, Eritrea’s arch-foe.

If the US blacklists Eritrea, the ensuing military, economic and financial sanctions imposed would be most devastating to the Asmara government. Its officials would also automatically be banned from travelling to the US, Europe and other allied countries where it may also be made illegal for Eritrean Diasporas to send taxes and other financial contributions to the Asmara government.

Nothing has yet been determined, but the Eritrean authorities are extremely worried. We have to wait and see whether the US will actually take the measure given the fact that its anti-terrorism doctrine has not been effective in stabilizing the Horn of Africa region.

If Eritrea joins the club of terrorist states alongside Sudan, Iran, Syria and Cuba, it is because the authorities in Asmara ignored repeated US warnings and showed no willingness to prevent it from happening. This would be the lowest point in the government’s already failed foreign policy.

The diplomatic blunders committed by the authorities are a reflection of daily abuse of power in the domestic front where there is no constitution or semblance of rule of law. No transparency or accountability. The President and his generals have absolute power over the citizenry. Whatever they say has to be upheld as if it was the law of the land. With this prehistoric, arbitrary and ad hoc method of governing, it is futile for the Eritrean government to expect US favors even if its foreign policy was palatable.

Shared values are not everything in diplomacy but they do play a key role in international relations. The late Ugandan President Idi Amin, who was murdering at an estimated rate of 600 persons a day during his 7-year reign, could not, for instance, be accommodated diplomatically by the civilized world and his departure was a relief for everyone including, not least, this writer, who had the chance to interview him at the height of his power.

Cruelty and monstrosity come in different forms. By refusing to accept food aid when most Eritreans are malnourished and by continuing to trash the sacred values of liberty and human rights, the Eritrean government has become most distrusted and hated by its long suffering citizens. Equally disgusted are freedom loving and democratic forces around the world.

The current Eritrean system is beyond repair and is under siege, says EPP’s Tesfai Degiga, adding that the most sensible thing to do would be for the government to peacefully transfer power to the people without delay.

The author is a veteran broadcast journalist and former lawyer, working in the US based Refugee Research Project. He can be reached at [email protected]