(Published in Al Jazeera English; May 24th, 2019)

Eritrean President Afwerki attends the country's Independence Day celebrations in Asmara on May 24, 2007 [File: Jack Kimball/Reuters]

Today, Eritrea is celebrating its hard-won independence, a victory earned after 30 years of fierce and deadly armed struggle, followed by 20 years of deadlock with neighbouring Ethiopia, after the border conflict of 1998-2000.

Like previous years, the Eritrean authorities have made extensive preparations to mark the anniversary with a major festival in the streets of Asmara. But this year, the celebrations will also feature a new element: two mannequins representing Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who in a landmark move last year opened the common border for the first time in 20 years.

The regime clearly wants to celebrate the peace agreement and rapprochement with Ethiopia, still brandishing it as a major achievement. However, it will do so under tight security. While round-ups, patrols and checkpoints have been routine features of Independence Day security, they have reportedly been significantly boosted this year as a clear warning to the general population.

The Eritrean people, who initially also rejoiced at the peace agreement, hoping that the resolution of the cold conflict could bring them much-desired relief, are yet to see any change in their daily lives. Click here to read

For the last two decades every misrule committed by the ruling regime in Eritrea has been justified as part of the unavoidable costs of the unsettled border conflict and Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrean territories after the bloody border war of 1998-2000 followed by 18 years of standstill.  Over their impatient Waiting for Godot, Eritreans have been deprived of their liberty, human dignity, and prosperity: the rectified constitution was shelved; military service made indefinite; businesses kept on hold; construction was banned; schools have been militarized; the only university was closed; the country has turned into a penitentiary state with numberless underground prisons, and the list goes on.

Then to everyone’s surprise Godot arrived in July last year.

The peace deal with Ethiopia marked the culmination of an indefinite waiting. This signaled the crumbling of a realm built on a foundation of excuses. It was further reinforced by the lifting of U.N. sanctions on Eritrea and allowing the country to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, effectively ending any possible excuses the regime could produce.

Many Eritreans who have visited their homeland after the peace deal have shared an uncanny observation: a widely felt sense of zombification among the citizenry. That is a perfect recipe for the regime to continue its repression unchallenged.

Any expectation that Afwerki’s regime would follow the positive example of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist agenda has faded. After the peace deal, most countries and stakeholders hoped to hear that the longstanding Eritrean mass exoduswould immediately end. As unpublished reports from Ethiopian Affairs for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) indicate, when the Ethiopian borders were opened in September, between 1,200 and 1,600 Eritreans were arriving at Ethiopian refugee camps each week until the borders were closed on Christmas.

In the fast-changing geopolitical developments in the region, major powers are aligning with the repressive regime and it leaves the already tarnished Eritreans at a worse stage. The only meaningful resistance (at least visible) facing the Eritrean regime comes from the very large Eritrean diaspora community that serves as an offshore opposition. Click here to read

(Published in Toward Freedom; Feb. 21st, 2019)

Demonstrators in Khartoum march to protest against the Sudanese government’s subsidies cuts and austerity measures on January 16, 2018. Credit: Sudan Tribune / HRW

In December 2016, when activists in Sudan called for a two-day protest to oppose the then spike of prices, including stay-at-home strike, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir challengedthem to come out to the streets: “This regime will not be overthrown by keyboards and WhatsApp.”

That is exactly what protesters did two years later. Sudan has been ravaged with protests since mid-December 2018. People are taking the streets daily to demand Bashir step down after 30 bleak years of deplorable economic conditions and a dire political situation.

The embattled president recently uttered a similar but re-packaged message. Exactly in the same town of Kassala, which seems his only base of support, he told his supporters: “Changing the government and changing the president will not be through WhatsApp nor Facebook, but will be through the ballot box.”

Sudanese people are very much aware of Bashir’s sham elections where average voters could not even name a single contender. The tyrant neither arrived nor stayed for 30 years in power with ballots. In addition, Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Unlike 2016, when protesters scattered after the president’s challenge, this time they were prepared to face live ammunition and tear gas, unarmed. Click here to read the whole article.

                (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

(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

 

Despite all the difficulties, Eritreans and Ethiopians are hopeful that lasting peace will be concluded soon.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 26, 2018 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 26, 2018 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters] 

On June 26, a high-level Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for talks on ending the decades-long conflict between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had extended an olive branch to his country’s longtime enemy by stating that Ethiopia is finally ready to fully accept and implement the terms of an 18-year-old peace agreement between the two countries. Last week, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki acknowledged his Ethiopian counterpart’s peace offer.

The Eritrean delegation arrived in Ethiopia only yesterday, but significant progress has already been made – Ahmed announced that Ethiopian Airlines would restart flights to Eritrea for the first time since 1998. Click here