Eritrea’s Refugee Saga Is the Social Cost of Tyranny

The Eritrean refugee crisis is man made. It is a failure of governance. Eritreans are fully aware of the dangers that await them in their long trek to leave their homeland: being shot crossing the border by Eritrean forces, dying on desolate desert trails, being tortured and ransomed by traffickers, sinking in rickety boats and languishing in refugee camps. They make these choices because what they are leaving behind is worse. This diaspora is an indictment against the Eritrean regime. The citizens are voting with their feet.

Eritrea’s refugee saga is what the Ethiopian famine was in the 1970s and 1980s—a product of tyranny. The ruling clique is devoid of concern for the wellbeing of the people. Inasmuch as the famine in Ethiopia demonstrated to the international community how heinous and self-serving the Haile Selassie and Derg regimes were, the current Eritrean refugee saga is testimony that Isaias Afewerki’s regime is no less atrocious. Instead of mitigating the plight of the people, these regimes deny problems until a heavy price is paid in human lives. When it is starkly evident they try to shift the blame. Last week, advisor to the president Mr. Yemane Gebreab, blamed other states and traffickers for the tragedy instead of the failed policies of his regime: “For Eritrea, the defining reason for this is that Eritreans are given preferential treatment and are treated not as economic migrants, but as political asylum seekers.”

Eritrea is not a one party state; it is a one man state. Isaias is the party, the government and the state. This is an extreme form of alienation of the people’s political rights. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the main force in the liberation struggle, was integrated with and strongly supported by Eritreans both at home and in diaspora; since independence, it has squandered the good will of the people. The dream of Eritreans to establish a democracy with a vibrant economy has faded with the reality of life in a destitute prison state.  A good number of refugees are young people tired of constant military service and mobilization.  Even people previously in the ruling clique are dissociating from the government. Many of those seeking refugee statuses are veterans of the struggle for independence, top civil servants, and athletes. The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) is only a facade of a party. For over a decade, Isaias has purged most of his erstwhile colleagues and thrown into prison any political figure that would challenge his authority.

Eritrea had more international support during its struggle for independence than after independence.  The impoverished state needs strong international cooperation to alleviate the plight of its people, yet Isaias’s bellicose, amateurish, ego-driven political stances have  alienated non-government organizations (NGOs) and international organizations, from the African Union to the United Nations. He has engaged Eritrea in military conflict with Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti. He is involved in proxy wars in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan. He is in constant diplomatic conflicts with the United States and European states.

How did Eritrea fall into this political mess? The long arduous military struggle for independence led to the creation of a military bureaucracy devoid of democratic tradition and safeguards. The top down command structure created a personal cult of leaders who, over time, become megalomaniac. So when independence was gained, instead of creating democratic institutions which upheld the will of the people, a quasi-military dictatorship was instituted. Highly fractured and weak opposition parties with narrow, parochial political goals failed to inspire faith in the populace and so never became effective counter-balancing powers.

The “no war no peace” situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been Isaias’s excuse for keeping Eritrea in a state of war for the last two decades. All political rights are suspended; all able bodied are in a state of constant mobilization for war. People are bombarded by propaganda claiming their misery is the product of forces intent on destroying their hard-won independence. This has put in quandary genuine democratic forces as to how to struggle for democratic change under this standoff between the two regimes.

US policy towards the Horn of Africa is based on the narrow perspective of combating Islamic fundamentalism. This concern overrides all regional issues.  Concerning the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ethiopia has gained a favorable position as the strategic ally against Al Qaeda.  For not kowtowing to US policy concerning Islamic fundamentalism, Eritrea has engendered UN military and economic sanctions. These sanctions hurt the ordinary people by creating economic stagnation.  Not only is the narrow power clique insulated from the effects of the sanctions, they use them to fuel the delusion that Isaias is standing against US imperialism. The argument that economic and political hardships will lead to a political uprising that will bring about regime change is wrong. People rise up when they have hope for a better future, not when they feel like helpless victims.

Some might ask why Eritreans are not staying home to fight for their rights like they did for generations to break the yoke of the Haile Selassie and Derg regimes to win their independence. During the thirty-years war for independence, the overwhelming majority of the young and able bodied chose to join the liberation struggle rather than be refugees in strange lands. Their vision and aspiration was to build a better Eritrea. Now internal, interregional and international circumstances have dimmed their hope.

Eritrea is at a historical juncture. If the present course is not averted, Eritrea can fall into the abyss of failed states, The human tragedy will be more severe than that witnessed in Somalia because ethnic-religious cleavages in Eritrea are much deeper and  the abundance of arms and militarization of the society at large is much greater. If Eritrea falls, the fragile neighboring states of the Sudan and Ethiopia would follow because the restive cores of these three countries have deep ties to each other.

The alternative course is for Eritreans, regional bodies and international forces to work together for a peaceful and orderly transition from tyranny to a civil society.

  • A broad united front that guarantees the fundamental rights of the people should be created in the  place of Fragmented parochial Eritrean opposition forces that are busy brewing parochial religious and ethnic grievances.
  • Ethiopia and Eritrea should return to the framework of past agreements to work for peaceful resolution of their conflicts instead of their current “no war no peace” policy. Since Ethiopia has gained the upper hand in the international community, they are in the best position to initiate renewed diplomatic efforts—even if it means Hailemariam and Isaias shaking hands.  Peaceful coexistence of the two fraternal peoples will benefit both.
  • Both sides should stop organizing, instigating and financing opposition groups to wage proxy wars. Both regimes have fanned the violent conflicts that have made Horn of Africa the most conflict ridden region in the world. International community should be even handed and condemn the predatory acts of both regimes.
  • Genuine opposition forces should safeguard themselves from being pawns in either government’s proxy war game.
  • The international community should lift its ill-advised economic sanctions that only add justification to Isaias’s dictatorial rule.  Eritreans cannot work toward democracy while suffering economic hardships that threaten their day-to-day existence.

Some might argue these policies will let Isaias’s regime enjoy a longer life. Isaias’s regime will fall of its own contradiction. In a one man dictatorship malaria or stroke can effect regime change. The million dollar question is, what is going to rise in its place - anarchy or civil society? If the latter is the choice the effort to construct one has to start now.

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