In the late nineteenth century, when the once mighty Ottoman Empire was in a state of collapse, its rapidly failing health gave rise to the phrase "The Sick Man of Europe". Its bleak situation was in sharp contrast to the economic prosperity and political strength that prevailed in the rest of Europe. Today, in 21st century Africa, many countries are moving forward on the path of economic growth and political stability, while there is one notable exception moving in the opposite direction. That country is Eritrea. No other country in our continent today is more eligible for the unflattering designation of the" Sick Man of Africa" than Eritrea.
The country’s record of the past 20 years speaks for itself. Economically speaking, under normal conditions of governance, Eritrea could do much better. It certainly has the potential to become a far better place in which to live. However, governance in Eritrea today is far from being normal. The country is run by one of the most repressive regimes in the world, a regime that controls everything. The result is that it is a country that is going nowhere politically or economically.
Nothing much is happening in Eritrea by way of economic activity. Whatever small-scale industry existed in the past has deteriorated to a point of virtual disappearance, partly due to lack of any market. The reality of the agricultural sector is incapable of matching the government’s exaggerated propaganda about food self-sufficiency. Tourists are not stampeding to visit what is widely seen as a pariah state. Local levels of saving are insufficient to provide the capital accumulation required for investment. This might suggest the need for an aggressive investment promotion policy, but taking such action to launch any proactive measure to attract foreign direct investment is in itself a concept that is totally alien to the Eritrean government. The problem is compounded by the dwindling levels of remittances provided by expatriate Eritreans. Nevertheless, their support to a significant section of the Eritrean population remains critical to the economy as a whole.
There is one partial exception to the economic gloom- the mining sector. There have been some promising mineral discoveries and last year the Canadian company Nevsum brought the Bisha gold project into production. However, it remains far from clear how much this will be allowed to impact on the economy as a whole. President Isaias has already warned the population at large not to expect too much from mineral development. At the same time, and of much greater concern, perhaps, are the stories of virtual slave labour that are coming out of the mining areas, with the use of national service conscripts forced to work in the mining industry for virtually no wages. Many of the thousands of refugees who cross the border every year into Sudan or Ethiopia have horrific stories to tell about their treatment in the mines, and elsewhere.
The political situation could hardly be worse. Eritrea is a one-party state. The name of the party, PFDJ (Popular Front for Democracy and Justice), is, in fact, a complete misnomer. There is neither democracy nor justice in Eritrea, nor, it might be added, is the Front popular. Indeed, the party has lost whatever popular appeal it once had and in strict political parlance it cannot even be called a "front". The country has no constitution, no elective parliament, and the National Assembly carries out no real activity. No elections are carried out, there is no genuine system of justice, and there are no private newspapers of any kind. In Eritrea, listening to gospel songs is a serious offence and playing Ethiopian music is a punishable crime. It is one of the few countries in the world today where prominent citizens including ministers can be detained in secret locations for more than ten years without ever appearing in court, let along facing a judge and with their whereabouts unknown to relatives, Red Cross officials or anybody else.
Eritrea’s current international standing has hit an all-time low. Its relations with most of its neighbors and its regional organization are exceptionally poor. Its interaction with aid organizations has always been acrimonious and is now virtually non-existent. On its own evaluation the Eritrean government appears proudest of the long list of wars it has initiated and the troubles it has stirred, and continues to stir, in the Horn of Africa. It has made it clear it does not regret the several border incidents it provoked with Sudan in the mid 90’s; it feels no shame at having crossed the Red Sea to pick a fight with Yemen in 1996; it still tries to deny it started the bloody war with Ethiopia in 1998, even though it was unequivocally identified as the culprit by the Claims Commission established under the Algiers Agreement; in total defiance of corresponding UN resolutions calling on it to withdraw its forces, it is sitting on the areas of sovereign Djiboutian territory which it invaded in 2008.
The regime has also pursued its destructive agenda of trying to destabilize Ethiopia and other countries in the region by using funds from other sources with an interest in such an agenda. Indeed, it is hard to find a dissident group, an armed insurgency or a terrorist organization in the Horn of Africa that does not enjoy the hospitality and sponsorship of the Eritrean government. Eritrea is one of the best friends of Al-Shabaab, an organization that openly admits that it is affiliated to Al Qaida. Numerous killings and kidnappings of innocent people and widespread destruction of property in Ethiopia, in Uganda and in Kenya have been committed by groups that are trained, armed and instructed by the Eritrean regime. It is not surprising that it has earned the dubious distinction of being a regional trouble maker, but despite this its president and his regime have chosen to live in denial and self-deception. They appear to believe that their actions can be washed away by simple denials. Indeed, Eritrean government officials show considerable nerve, and a very thick skin, continuing to deny the undeniable and defend the indefensible.
Eritrea is run by a ruthless dictator, whose errant demeanour distinguishes him from other African leaders. He spends most of his time plotting the destabilization of his country’s neighbors. When not involved in this, he orders his propaganda machinery to organize marathon interview sessions for him. The views he expresses in those interviews are bizarre. Universally accepted principles such as parliamentary democracy, free press, the rule of law, accountability and transparency are no more than western theatrical performances for which he has no appetite. Instead he harangues his audience about the country’s economic progress, freedom, plentiful food supply, all of which have been achieved through "self-reliance", and none of which actually exist. These bogus achievements in fact only exist in the realm of propaganda. They have nothing to do with the reality of Eritrea today.
The line between fact and fiction in Eritrean government statements has become so blurred that the only way to understand the regime and its president is through the looking-glass of George Orwell. Many of the characters in George Orwell’s political satire, "1984", fit all too neatly into Eritrean politics of today. There is a Big Brother, who sees and hears everything (complete with dark eyes and moustache!), the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty) whose job it is to churn out grossly exaggerated production figures and deceive people into thinking that their standard of living is rising when in fact it is falling, the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) which is charged with the task of controlling information, to rewrite history and align it with Big Brother’s statements, and the dreaded Ministry of Love (Miniluv) which persecutes, tortures and kills Big Brother’s opponents.
The most depressing aspect of Eritrea today is to see how far the regime has been able to get away with so much. The countries of the Horn of Africa have been relentless in appealing to the international community to take the necessary action to force Eritrea to become a law-abiding nation. The African Union, the United Nations, IGAD and other international organizations have made it clear to Eritrea on several occasions that its behavior is completely unacceptable. An investigation by the UN Monitoring Group found plenty of incriminating evidence linking the Eritrean regime to destabilization activities and terrorist organizations in the Horn of Africa. The result is that the UN Security Council has slapped Eritrea with sanctions passed under Resolutions 1907 and 2023. Eritrea has ignored it all. Its leader and his government have chosen to live in denial and continue to make the lives of its neighbors difficult. Last month’s killing of five tourists and kidnapping of others in the Afar region of Ethiopia, very close to the border with Eritrea, is a glaring manifestation of the regime’s disdain for the sanctions already imposed for its behavior. It is apparent that there is need for more effective sanctions, properly applied, that will convince the Eritrean government that its rogue activity entails real consequences. Ethiopia certainly hopes this will happen, and happen soon. Failing that, it will be obliged to consider exercising its legitimate right of self-defense in accordance with international law. --MFA