(Published in Strangers Guide; Jan. 28, 2019)

As Eritrea improves relations with its neighbors, one writer in exile reflects on the country of his birth

Amid news of Eritrea’s rapprochement with its neighboring Ethiopia after 20 years of deadlock and the resulting improved relations in the Horn of Africa, my interest in my home country has taken a new turn. Until these relatively recent developments, Eritrea had been descending into a bottomless abyss, thanks to the reclusive and short-sighted policies of its government. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to adapt to my new home, following my exile and becoming a stateless person.

It has been seven years since I left my home country. Over the years, as I went through several stages of rage/denial/adjustment, my relationship with Eritrea has constantly shifted.

Eritrea has gained adverse notoriety for being the source of a disproportionate number of refugees, fleeing particularly to neighboring countries and Europe, risking the deadly Mediterranean Sea journey. For different reasons, including to explore how this very inaccessible country functions, many people have expressed a renewed interest in visiting Eritrea and experiencing it firsthand.

Recently, I have received many requests for travel tips from independent researchers, journalists and documentary filmmakers who plan to visit Eritrea. At the same time, the opportunity to visit my country and see my family members and friends has been denied to me. I can’t deny that I’ve been reflecting a lot about this. Click here to read the article

ረቡዕ ዕለት 19 ታሕሳስ ምሸት᎓ ንሚኒስተር ምክልኻል ነበርን ህሉዊ ሚኒስተር ጸዓትን ማዕድንን ጀነራል ስብሓት ኤፍሬምኣብ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ፈተነ-ቅትለት ተኻዪድሉስ ተሃሪሙ ብህይወት ከም ዝወጸ ኣብ በበይኑ መራኸቢታት ክቃላሕ ዝጸንሐ’ዩ። ምስኡ ዝተኣሳሰርዓሰርተታት ትንታነታት ክውሕዝ ንቡር ስለ ዝዀነ᎓ ምናልባት ካብ ዝሰማዕኩዎን ብዝተፈላለየ ኣጋጣሚታት ዝፈልጦን ሓበሬታ ከካፍል።

ዝተፈጸመ (ከም ዘለዎ)

ረቡዕ ምሸት ጀነራል ስብሓት ኣብ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ኣጋይሽ ዓዲሙ ኣምስዩስ ከፋኑዎ ንደገ ወጺኡ ክምለስ ከሎ᎓ ብረት ምስ ዝሓዘ ሰብ ብሃንደበት ኣብ ውሽጢ መንበሪ ገዛኡ ተጋጢሙ። መንበሪ ገዛ ስብሓት ብኽልተ ወተሃደራት ዝሕሎ ደኣ ይዅን እምበር᎓ እዚ ዕጡቕ ሰብ መዓስን ብኸመይን ኣቢሉ ኣብ ውሽጢ ከም ዝኣተወ ክሳብ ሕጂ ኣይተፈልጠን።

(ቀዲሙ ኣብ ዝነበረ ዛንታ መኣረምታ ተግይሩ ኣሎ) ኣብ ውሽጢተዅሲ ከፊቱ᎓ ብቐዳማይ ፈተነ ስሒቱዎ። ዳሕራይ ክትኵስ ክብል ብረት ስለ ዝዓከሰት᎓ ተኳሲ ብኣካል ቀሪቡዎ። ብሰደፍ’ታ ብረት ደጋጊሙኣብ መንጋጋኡን ርእሱን ብምህራም ኣብ መሬት ኣውዲቑዎ። ስብሓት በቲ ሃንደበታዊ ማህረምቲ ወዲቑ ኣንፈቱ ከጥፍእ ከሎ᎓ ተኳሲ ግንተታሒዙ፣ ኣብ ትሕቲ ቀይዲ ውዒሉ’ሎ።

ኣብ ሆስፒታል ተዓቝቡ ዝጸንሐ ስብሓት᎓ ዓርቢ ንግሆ ብፍልይቲ ነፋሪት ንሕክምና ኣቡዳቢ ከይዱ ኣሎ። ምንጪታት ካብ ውሽጢ ከም ዝሕብሩዎ᎓ በዓልቲ-ቤት ስብሓት ምስኡ ክትጓዓዝ ሓሲባ እኳ እንተ ነበረት᎓ ብወገን ኢሳይያስ ስለ ዘይተፈቕደላ ግን ንሳ ተሪፋ᎓ ኣብ ክንዳኣ ከኣ ብርጋዴር ጀነራል ዶክተር ሃይለ ምሕጹን ምስኡ ከም ዝጓዓዝ ተገይሩ ኣሎ። ምንጭታት ከም ዝጠቕሱዎ᎓ ወኑ ደኣ ይምለስ እምበር᎓ ብኸቢድ ተሃስዩ ኣሎን በበይኖም መጥባሕታት ይጸብዩዎ ኣለዉን።

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Insiders say President Isaias is now ruling largely unilaterally, keeping the public, military leaders, and even ministers out of the loop.

The lack of information about President Isaias' plans as Eritrea undergoes a period a change is making many nervous. Credit: Sailing Nomad.

Eritrea’s life-president Isaias Afwerki could hardly have had a busier 2018. This year, he has signed an historic peace deal with Ethiopia. He has built close relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He has re-emerged as a man of paramount importance in regional politics, and he has had UN sanctions lifted on Eritrea.

Who knows what 2019 will bring?

That is not a rhetorical question. Isaias has long overseen a closed political system, but this year, its secrecy has reached new heights. While the president used to maintain close relations with his subordinates as a way of control, he is now making momentous decisions almost single-handedly. He is governing without informing, let alone consulting, his colleagues.

When Isaias made the dramatic announcement on 20 June that Eritrea would send a delegation to Ethiopia to discuss peace after 20 years of hostilities, for example, most ministers were hearing the news for the first time, according to inside sources. The first time the cabinet met to discuss relations with Ethiopia was on 28 September, almost three months after the 9 July peace deal had already been signed.

The president has been similarly tight-lipped with the Eritrean people. It was only on 3 November that Isaias sat down for his first interview on the topic. But in the 80-minute monologue-cum-lecture with state media, he talked only about regional dynamics. It was advertised that he would address domestic issues in a second part, but Eritreans are still waiting for that instalment. In the meantime, Isaias has returned to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for a seventh time and signed another mysterious deal, this time joined by Somalia’s president. Click here

                (Published in Al Jazeera English; Nov. 19, 2018)

Having gotten rid of international sanctions, the Eritrean regime is unlikely to change its repressive ways at home.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa on July 16, 2018 [File: Reuters]
Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa on July 16, 2018 [File: Reuters]


On November 14, the United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed to lift the sanctions it had imposed on Eritrea with Resolution 1907.The measure, which included an international arms embargo, travel bans and the freezing of assets of high-profile Eritrean officials, had been in effect since 2009, when the UN accused Eritrea of supporting armed groups in Somalia – something the regime in Asmara always denied.

East African nations and the international community welcomed the UNSC’s decision, which came on the back of a landmark peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

While the withdrawal of sanctions is a major diplomatic win for Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, it is unlikely to change much for ordinary Eritreans. In fact, the regime continues to maintain its own form of crippling “sanctions” on the general population, limiting its rights and freedoms. And there are no serious signs that these sanctions are going anywhere. Click here

(Published in Al Jazeera English; Oct. 12, 2018)

If anything, it has actually strengthened his regime.Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday July 15, 2018 [Mulugeta Ayene/AP]

After signing an historic peace deal with Ethiopia, and receiving unprecedented levels of positive media coverage, Eritrea applied for a seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

With strong support from the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this Horn of Africa country which has repeatedly been classified as “not free” by Freedom House, easily managed to secure an unchallenged slate in the African group’s candidate list. This means the upcoming “election” is nothing but a formality and Eritrea will inevitably join the UNHRC at the UN General Assembly’s next meeting on October 12. 

As a member of the UNHRC, Eritrea will have the right to vote on UN’s human rights resolutions, including the ones that are about its own abuses, for a period of three years. Click here

(Published in Africa is A Country; Aug. 13, 2018)

So far, the only real beneficiaries of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea are Ethiopia and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

Despite the breathless headlines of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, nothing substantial has come out from Eritrea, as yet. Eritreans, who have been endlessly waiting to hear of any policy change from their government, are about to give up.

Since Eritrean officials never cared to give any real information on the agreement between the two countries, the only news is coming from Ethiopian media. Eritreans inside the country have had to watch Ethiopian TV channels to stay informed. The Eritrean diaspora is ceaselessly refreshing the Twitter handles of Ethiopian officials. The only time Eritrean leaders have communicated about the rapprochement was to inform residents to show up in public places to welcome state guests. While regular direct flights between the two countries have resumed, and normalization of inter-state relations progress at a swift pace, Eritreans are still held hostage and reduced to mere observes in their own affairs.

The first Ethiopian flight to Asmara carried many Ethiopian investors who came to explore the Eritrea’s business landscape. Eritreans are denied this privilege.  Since 2003 import and export businesses have been banned in Eritrea. The subsequent targeting of Eritrean nationals with capital under different pretexts, have resulted in Eritrean investors steadily fleeing the country. The extremely unfavorable conditions for businesses, coupled with a construction ban in May 2006, have pushed almost all Eritrean investors to relocate to South Sudan, Angola, Uganda and other African countries. Click here

(The New Yorker; By  August 2, 2018)

Some think his new embrace of peace is motivated by self-interest. Unrest has grown in Eritrea over the last year, and Afwerki may see peace with Ethiopia as the surest way to maintain power. Eritrean exiles question whether he has actually changed. “In his last speech, he did not mention the most awaited issue: military service,” Abraham Zere, an Eritrean journalist and the director of pen Eritrea, told me. “Afwerki is probably buying time to make small adjustments, that might seem semblance of changes such as opening trade and allow free movement within the country, but I doubt he is ready to make any fundamental policy changes such as ending the indefinite military service or releasing all political prisoners.” Click here

(Published in African Arguments; July 18th, 2018)

In barely the blink of an eye, Eritrea’s unpredictable president has completely reversed his rhetoric of the past two decades.

Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki at an official dinner in Asmara. Credit: Yemane Gebremeskel, Minister of Information, Eritrea.

Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki at an official dinner in Asmara. Credit: Yemane Gebremeskel, Minister of Information, Eritrea.

In just a few weeks, relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have not just shifted dramatically but – in many ways – turned upside down.

For two decades, President Isaias Afwerki had demonised Ethiopia, seeing it as an existential threat. He used the supposed Ethiopian menace as a pretext to establish one of the world’s most repressive regimes, ban widespread freedoms, and impose indefinite military conscription. Some of the only bits of music to get official approval from Asmara were toxic war songs that reinforced this all-encompassing enmity on which the nation’s identity was based.

Now, this could not have flipped more completely. In the past month, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias have embraced warmly in both Asmara and Addis Ababa, greeted by huge doting crowds. Eritrean praise-singers have literally changed their tunes to praise peace in Amharic and Tigrinya. Today, the first flight between the two countries in 20 years landed in Asmara, carrying a fully-booked plane that included Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

In barely the blink of an eye, full-throated enmity seems to have turned into whole-hearted love – to the extent that hopeful Eritreans, whose lives have long been determined by the mood of one man, are starting to worry.

Given the opaque way in which the regime governs, Eritreans are used to following Isaias’ words and actions carefully in search of any hints. But for even those unaccustomed to observing him, his recent performance in Ethiopia was startlingly. He appeared out of character, praising the leader of his long-time foe excessively, and proclaiming that the two nation’s populations are “one people”. He then remarkably told Abiy “you are our leader” and announced happily to the crowd: “I’ve given him all responsibility of leadership and power”. Click here

(Published in Africa is A Country; July 15, 2018)

The pace of rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, longtime foes who have been in deadlock for the last 20 years, changes quickly. It is hard to keep up. By the time this is published, it could be old news.

To recap: On June 5th, Ethiopia declared it was fully implementing the Algiers Peace Treaty signed between the two countries in 2000. This was followed by a long silence on the Eritrean side. Then, suddenly, two weeks later, Eritrea not only accepted the peace offer, but took a step further and sent a delegation to Ethiopia. Shortly after, Ethiopia’s prime minister visited Eritrea. The two leaders signed a joint Declaration of Peace; telephone service between the two countries immediately resumed after 20 years; Ethiopian Airlines will start regular flights to Asmara (a direct flight between the two countries would take an hour; it currently can take up to a day); and roads are about to be opened between the two countries, etcetera. On 14 July, Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki visited Ethiopia for three days. The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa is expected to be re-opened during Afwerki’s visit in Ethiopia. Click here

(Published in Al Jazeera English; July 9, 2018)

Despite officially welcoming Ethiopia’s peace efforts, the Eritrean regime is keeping its people in the dark.

In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed is welcomed by Erirea's President Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018 [ERITV via AP]
In this grab taken from video provided by ERITV, Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed is welcomed by Erirea’s President Afwerki as he disembarks the plane, in Asmara, Eritrea, Sunday, July 8, 2018 [ERITV via AP]

Ever since Ethiopia announced in early June that it will fully accept the terms of a 2000 peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea, the pace of normalisation of relations between the two countries has been truly stunning.

First, a high-level Eritrean delegation made a visit to Addis Ababa on June 26 and kickstarted the talks on ending the decades-long conflict. Only a couple of weeks later, Ethiopia’s reformist new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a landmark visit to Asmara and met the Eritrean president face-to-face.

As the convoy carrying Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki – who personally greeted his guest at the Asmara airport – travelled across the city, people waved the twinned flags of Ethiopiaand Eritrea and threw flowers and corn. Portraits of Abiy and large Ethiopian flags could be seen on public buildings around the city.

At a state dinner Isaias hosted in honour of Abiy, the two leaders took turns in praising each other. In a televised speech, Isaias said he was “grateful” for the peace efforts of the Ethiopian prime minister. He said that the two countries have already made up for most of what was lost in the past 20 years of conflict. Click here