By Marius Smith
Among last week’s torrent of Wikileaks cables released by the Guardian was a series of reports from the US embassy in Eritrea. The cables derided the tiny African nation’s secretive leader, Isaias Afwerki, as an “unhinged dictator [who] remains cruel and defiant” and “a recluse who spen[ds] his days painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work” while his country falls apart. These are apt descriptions of a man who presides over one of the poorest and least democratic nations on earth, but it wasn’t always so. Isaias was once an independence hero who led an ethical and socially progressive rebel movement, if such a description is not an oxymoron.
When the former Italian colony was formally annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, the United Nations took no action, and those fighting for Eritrean independence realised that they were on their own. During the decades of fighting, Isaias’ Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front lived an austere lifestyle, including many years holed up in the mountains around the legendary town of Nakfa while operating the kind of “hearts and minds” operation that puts the US and its allies to shame. “Barefoot” doctors– soldiers with rudimentary training and a kit bag of basic drugs and medical implements – provided medical assistance to local populations. By 1987, the EPLF was operating 125 schools teaching 30,000 students, as well as six hospitals and a pharmacy making 2 million tablets and capsules a month.
This was not the stereotypical African insurgency of soldiers raping and pillaging the locals. Men and women fought and lived together while studying adult literacy and other subjects - they hoped - that would help to prepare them for their future peacetime lives.
When the EPLF rolled triumphantly up the mountain to the Eritrean capital of Asmara on 24 May 1991, it unleashed a wave of euphoria that carried the world’s newest nation forward for years and heightened expectation around the world that Eritrea would be a beacon for a new Africa. Those who worked in Eritrea during that period spoke of the pride with which people threw themselves into the task of rebuilding their shattered country. Communities banded together to build dams, an entire bureaucracy was created from scratch and transport and critical infrastructure were rebuilt. Foreigners reported an almost total absence of corruption, and beggars were often chased off by locals embarrassed at the sight of them.
However, serious problems were already surfacing during this period. In 1993, Isaias imprisoned former rebels who complained about their living conditions, and in 1997 he ejected international aid agencies from the country. Meanwhile, Eritrea’s failure to demarcate its border with Ethiopia triggered a clash between the two countries’ forces at the insignificant frontier village of Badme in May 1998 which in turn led to an all-out war that cost as many as 70,000 lives before Isaias surrendered. As the Los Angeles Times described it, Isaias had been humiliated over “a patch of arid, rocky land on their border that is devoid of any obvious economic or strategic value”. What was more astonishing was that Isaias had fought alongside Ethiopia’s president, Meles Zenawi, during the long struggle against Ethiopia’s communist rulers. It wasn’t meant to end this way.
The border war was a fight from which Eritrea never recovered. In the aftermath, Isaias outlawed opposition parties and arrested many of his critics, including some of his closest EPLF comrades. To crush dissent, Isaias forced a generation of young men and women into ostensible military service, where they sat, bored and unutilised, along the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders while their country fell apart. Gaim Kibreab, writing in the Journal of Modern African Studies, labelled the service forced labour.
And so we come to the present day. Eritrea, not a failing state, but a failed one. A country which, like Zimbabwe, cannot prosper until its dictator has gone. It is surrounded by similarly dysfunctional states – genocide-sponsoring Sudan, the US military client state of Djibouti and, of course, the equally undemocratic Ethiopia – but none of that excuses the mess that Eritrea has become. In 2010, it ranked dead last on the annual World Press Freedom rankings, besting even North Korea; its gross national income per capita has dropped by more than 20% over the past 15 years; and corruption had crept in: Eritrea ranked 123rd of 178 countries in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index. In addition, it has been accused of supporting a Somali Islamist group, a charge that Isaias has not denied. Admittedly the nation has improved in a range of health indicators [pdf], including infant and child mortality rates and life expectancy, but it has relied heavily on foreign aid to do so.
Isaias’ rule has miserably failed to live up to its once-lofty potential, but the warning signs were evident before his nation was even liberated. The EPLF resistance may have been governed by strong values, but it was also ruled with an iron fist by Isaias and his collaborators. Dissidents were dealt with ruthlessly, fighters were forced to relinquish their identities, and those who wanted to marry had to submit an application to their superiors. The Spartan existence of the Eritrean rebels was instrumental in winning the war, but it was poor preparation for ruling a nation in a global age.
Isaias’ behaviour in power has also followed the all-too-predictable path of many other warrior heroes, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and, increasingly, Paul Kagame in Rwanda. When soldiers have fought for their people’s liberation, they rarely feel that they should give up power to those who didn’t fight. And Isaias may have proved particularly impervious to international diplomacy because of the way his movement was ignored by the UN during its decades of resistance. In his memorable 1993 speech to the UN General Assembly, the first by an Eritrean head of state, Isaias said:
“I cannot help but remember the appeals that we sent year in and out to this Assembly and the member countries of the United Nations, describing the plight of our people…The UN refused to raise its voice in defence of a people whose future it had unjustly decided and whom it had pledged to protect.”
Isaias is clearly a man shaped by his experiences. A warrior unsuited to the task of governing, a man certain that the international community has nothing to offer that he can’t do without. Because of Isaias’ attitude, the US has long considered Eritrea a lost cause and it would be unlikely to care too much if its ambassador was ejected from Eritrea and its embassy shuttered as a result of the Wikileaks cables. Nevertheless, the cables are a vital revelation for they provide the world with a brief glimpse of the mostly forgotten and secretive nation of Eritrea. Its people are poor and repressed. But they have proved before that they are indomitable, fiercely proud of their country and ready to lead it to a more prosperous future, if only they are given the chance.