(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

(Published in Africa is A Country; March 11th, 2019)

Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American congresswoman from Minneapolis, has been in the headlines lately for calling out Israel’s influence on US foreign policy and for her grilling of Donald Trump’s Venezuela envoy, the war criminal Elliot Abrams. Less well covered has been her venturing into the United States’s policy on Africa.

At the beginning of March Omar joined a US Congressional Committee led by Rep. Karen Bass to visit Eritrea. Others in the delegation included Eritrean-American congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado.

Karen Bass is chairperson of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, so this clearly was a high level affair.

That the visit happened may have been largely a consequence of changing geopolitics and conflicting interests of the superpowers in the Horn of Africa; buying time for Eritrea’s Life-President Isaias Afwerki and his regime, in power for 27 years already. It is unclear who will benefit from the visit by the US delegation: the US, the Eritreans or even Eritrea’s more powerful neighbor, Ethiopia. Afwerki’s regime has been shunned by the US and subjected to sanctions.

We doubt that the visit will receive the kind of scrutiny Omar’s remarks about Israel have received in US media. In a tweet, Omar described the visit as the “the first American delegation to Eritrea in decades.” It was the first in fourteen years. But the US may be following its chief ally in the region, Ethiopia. Click here to read the article.

(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 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

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

(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