Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Eritrea: A democratic disgrace or an economic exemplar?

Written by Daniela Kirkby (1) Friday, 02 March 2012 03:10


The implementation of liberal democracy into traditionally non-Western countries has often led to fragile political institutions and low levels of legitimacy. This is due in part to a weak political culture bent on embracing the democratic process. Very few non-Western countries have been able to take on the democratic transition, without backsliding at one point in time or another. Many revert back to authoritarian styles of governance, despite international and domestic pressure to maintain a democratic system.

In Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, in power since 1993, has justified his philosophy on tyranny as being “based on realistic approaches to dealing with challenges.”(2) The iron fist with which he rules is seen by him as being the only way Eritrea can achieve self-reliance. On a continent that is plagued by issues of dependency – made worse by complete reliance on foreign investors, financial and humanitarian aid as well as non-profit organisations, Afewerki’s determination to emancipate Eritrea from this perceived continental doldrums at the expense of liberal democracy is not an all-together unwarranted approach.

However, international players, including the World Bank, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations (UN) have criticised Afewerki’s hard-line and isolationist approach. Eritrea has on more than one occasion been ousted from the international community by way of sanctions and arms embargoes while not attempting to improve its foreign relationships, most notably with its neighbour Ethiopia, the United States (US) and aid agencies. Domestically however, Afewerki tends to display an obvious awareness of the challenges his country faces and ultimately Eritrea’s future potential.

It is with this in mind that this CAI discussion paper outlines the contrasting dynamic between political freedom and economic independence currently present within Eritrea. This is done by drawing on what appears to be the absence of a democratic landscape and comparing it to the economic milestones Eritrea has been able to reach. Ultimately, this paper will highlight the problematic emergence of political legitimacy generated from an increase in the standard of living, at the expense of liberal democracy.

Eritrea: Political power corrupted

The political situation in Eritrea is far from acceptable in terms of democratic standards. The Economist’s 2011 Democracy Index ranked Eritrea 154 out of 167 countries, labelling it as authoritarian and thus one of the worst political regimes currently in the international political arena.(3) Eritrea is ruled by a one-party state, headed by Afewerki under the ruse of the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). While elections have on numerous occasions been promised, Eritrea has yet to actually hold a national election, or implement a constitution. To date, there is no legitimate legal system under which the rights of citizens are disclosed and upheld.

One of the greatest threats to the development of liberal democracy in Eritrea is the country’s lack of an independent press. Since 2001, Eritrea has had no privately owned media house operating in the country, nor have outspoken critics been able to stand up to the Government. Twenty-eight journalists were arrested in Eritrea in 2011 alone, making it the second most repressive regime after Iran in terms of censorship.(4) Over 20 reporters have been held without trial for more than ten years, nine of whom are feared dead.(5)

The lack of a constitution has also led to a complete disregard for human rights. Seeking asylum in a neighbouring country and listening to unregistered gospel songs is a serious offence while practicing Ethiopian culture is a crime punishable by law.(6) According to Human Rights Watch, forced labour and acts of arbitrary detention are widespread, with numbers estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 since 2001.(7) This figure excludes those who attempted to flee in order to avoid military conscription.

Eritrea has also instigated numerous conflicts with its neighbours, most notably the border disputes with Sudan, the war against Ethiopia and its current occupation along the border of sovereign Djibouti. Eritrea’s leader is also notorious for housing, training and arming terrorist groups who have been responsible for the death and kidnapping of innocent civilians in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Eritrea: Africa’s economic success story

Despite Afewerki’s indifference to the political wellbeing of his people – in terms of democracy, his philosophy regarding the economic liberation of Eritrea is noteworthy. His perceived grasp on the “existing realities” and his goal to become “equal partners with everybody” led Eritrea to having the fastest growing economy in 2011, this according to ‘The World in 2011’ report published by The Economist.(8) In 2011 Eritrea’s economic growth rate was 17%, larger than that of Qatar and Ghana.(9)

Not wanting to promote dependency, most notably on foreign aid and donor funding, Afewerki has managed to place Eritrea in a position where local resources are used to their full potential, thus increasing the country’s rate of development. Governing Eritrea with an almost militaristic style has assisted in the country meeting many of their Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s). While Eritrea has not showed progress in all the targets, the majority of these goals show that there has been no deterioration either.(10) Successes include increasing access to primary education, reducing the child mortality rate, improving maternal health, reducing the HIV & Aids infection rate as well as reducing the spread of other infectious diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability. Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation has also increased and the country’s agricultural sector is booming.(11)

Since 2010, Eritrea has become one of only a handful of African countries that do not require food aid. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the majority of Eritrea’s population (80%), is employed in the agricultural sector. Due to the Government’s efforts in creating dozens of micro dams, introducing modern farming techniques and purchasing equipment worth millions of dollars, the majority of the population is now able to have three farming seasons in one year, which as a consequence, has halved the price of food by 50%.(12)

It’s a matter of priority: Democracy versus economics and the need for a politically engaged society

The stark contrast between political freedom and economic independence is only highlighted by the questionable validity of the information exiting Eritrea. Actual and up to date statistics are hard to come by, this due in part to Afewerki’s firm grasp on all information relating to his country and on what the state owned media discloses. Be that as it may, there does appear to be a direct contradiction between the lack of liberal democracy and the recorded increase in economic development.

The question that remains is, what is more important? If Afewerki continues to increase standards of living, his regime will continue to generate legitimacy despite the absence of liberal democracy. Should Afewerki continue to keep in good order the political institutions needed to develop his country, will liberal democracy and the life that it represents become less important on the agenda of Eritreans? Are his citizens willing to sacrifice political freedom in exchange for their economic wellbeing?

While external advocates of liberal democracy continue to criticise Afewerki’s regime, the influence of economic success will internally entrench his legitimacy, be it grounded on democratic governance or not. What remains to be seen is the development and strengthening of a critical and politically engaged society in which a democratic culture is grown. Until that time, it is unlikely that Eritrea will become part of the revolutionary wave currently sweeping across the African continent.


(1) Contact Daniela Kirkby through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit (
(2) ‘Eritrea Achieved Tremendous Success in Health, Education and Food Security-All without Donor Aid’, New African Magazine, November 2011,
(3) ‘Democracy under stress’, Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index,
(4) ‘Prison Census: 179 Journalists imprisoned worldwide’, Committee to Protect Journalists, December 2011,
(5) ‘World report 2012: Eritrea’, Human Rights Watch,
(6)'No sign of policy changes by Eritrea’s Big Brother’, Daily Ethiopia, 3 February 2012,
(7) ‘Service for life: State repression and indefinite conscription in Eritrea’, Human Rights Watch, April 2009,
(8) ‘Eritrea Achieved Tremendous Success in Health, Education and Food Security-All without Donor Aid’, New African Magazine, November 2011,
(9) 'Eritrea has the fastest growing economy for 2011-Economist’, Madote News, December 2011,
(10) United Nations Development Programme website,
(11) Ibid.
(12) ‘Eritrea Becomes Food Secure’, Madote News, 29 May 2011,

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