Washington, Dec 15 -
"We are a black hole. We are the North Korea of Africa." Those words of an Eritrean-American, who I spoke with earlier this year, echoed in my head as I read an account in the Washington Post documenting the dire conditions in Eritrea, a strategically located Rea Sea state ("As thousands flee regime, Eritrea goes it alone.")
Surprisingly, the Post scored an interview with the prickly Isaias Afwerki, the country's first and only president. His message: "Leave us alone." We're not.
Eritrea is finally getting some of the attention it deserves for its destructive role it has played in the Horn of Africa - funding and arming an al-Qaeda linked group that has been bringing chaos to nearby Somalia, as well as recruiting Somali Americans to its jihad. Earlier this year, I had legislation to designate Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism. It was voted down by Democrats. But thankfully others are noticing, with a sanctions resolution being circulated in the U.N. Security Council. Notably, African countries - often loathe to criticize their neighbors - are calling for sanctions. So you know it's bad.
Striking was the Post's reporting of life in Eritrea: "While striving to be an egalitarian, self-reliant utopia, Eritrea has become one of the most unapologetically repressive countries on Earth." No free press; religion and the economy tightly controlled. Its prison system holds tens of thousands without trial, detained in shipping containers in the desert. "Leave to live" is the message spread by rebellious young Eritreans, despite shoot-to-kill orders by border guards.
The "self-reliance," the gross human rights abuses, the security threat to the region and beyond --- replace Eritrea with North Korea and you wouldn't miss a beat. But while everyone knows Kim Jong-il, few outside Africa know "the man" of Eritrea, Isaias. That may be changing.