Eritrea: All that potential, and so little to show for it

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.

10 responses to “Eritrea: All that potential, and so little to show for it”

  1. Marius.,

    It amazes me when foreigners come to a country and stay (like You for a year) and talk and lecture people who were born, lived and studied always amazes me to say the least.

    Let me start my comment by asking you a single question:1

    -1a.- U said the president refused foreign aid and asked INGOs and NGOs to leave,,,,on another paragraph you admitted Eritrea did and doing well on social issues like health BUT you credited foreign aid for the success. Can you explain that?

    1b- It is a clear truth that all African countries MINUS Eritrea have been receiving foreign aid for more than half a century and you can find their populations health status in UN reports.Can you explain why foreign aid by itself made ‘miracles in Eritrea’ but not in others?

    Please reply,

  2. Mauris,

    You lived in Eritrea for a year, and you are lecturing us about a country we are born, grew up and worked. Wow, I am surprised, to say least!

    Let me start with one question: You said The president refused foreign aid and asked NGOs & INGOs out of the country BUT later you credit the advancement in health issues to foreign Aid.Can You explain that? Plus, if foreign aid by itself can help reduce malaria, child mortality, maternal mortality and life expectancy growth why not the ”NON- DECTATOR’ countries of Africa who have had the aid for half a century haven’t improved? Waiting Your reply seriously.

  3. Marius,
    I do not think you are honest on your report. You may have some hidden agenda, or you may have some hidden agenda, or some animosity against individuals whiles your stay in Eritrea. Honestly, that should not blind your mind of writing the truth.
    Needless, to say that Eritrea and its government has prevailed. All ill-advised activities against the country and its people have evaporated. Eritrea once again started to shine.

    The good news is that it proofed truth can be delayed, but not be ebbed.

    Eritreas economy is once again taking off for the best outcome.

  4. brilliant, accurate article Marius. Feven is obviously a govt ‘mouth-piece’, as the hundreds of Eritreans I met there over 5 years from 2000-2005, and the ones I still assist to escape and then provide assistance to find a better life, have no such kind feelings towards their dictator President. I met the President and was subjected to a one hour lecture about how great he was and how Eritreans could look after themselves – he was correct of course – he just needs to resign and let them do just that!

  5. Well done, Marius! As to Feven H’s claims that Eritrea is a “heaven compared to ANY place in the developing world”, I wonder what the 15,000 Eritreans currently living in Kampala, Uganda (mostly young refugees) would have to say to that.

    As you know since we met in Eritrea, I lived there from 2001-2003 and loved the place like nowhere else I have lived. One couldn’t help but get caught up by the wonderful people, fascinating culture, the lack of crime, REAL cooperation with government and communities in implementing emergency and development projects, the Against All Odds-inspired nationalism (and I don’t mean the book), lovely Asmara, charming Keren, the Red Sea… But when you look at where Eritrea is now, your heart breaks. I liken it to the way George Bush flushed so much international goodwill straight down the toilet in the aftermath of 9/11. And it couldn’t have happened to people who deserved it less.

    • America, Enjoy opening wars in every corner of the world and your money gets drained. Do u think George Bush’s aid was ‘international good will’? hahaaa. A joke, it is part and parcel of foreign policy, for America to get something it wants ( can be oil, security issue…)nothing so called good will.Good will exists in Scandinavian aid donors & partially Japan.

      By the way, please mention a single country which gets aid by America because it is democratic in Africa.or let me give you an example, why US was giving aid to Husni Mubarak of Egypt? Don’t tell me he was democratic,,, and how about Saleh of Yemen? and USA’s quietness on the suffering of Bahraini Shias while US was so fast to ‘liberate’ Iraqis.

      Funny thing is you (USA) pretend You care but U don’t.China doesn’t pretend they care and they don’t care.The make partnership if they believe of getting profit of some kind and they are open and clear why they are ‘befriending’ a country.But you guys pretend, go around bush and tell Africa you are saints to save the suffering people under ‘dictators’ like Isaias.

      Keep your (America) aid for yourself.Eritrea, with you or without you will prevail and I admit I have many reservations about my government’s policies but it makes me laugh when I see people ( like Ur presidents or Secretary of state) pretending of having sleepless nights because Eritrea is under dictatorship.Plus it surprises me people calling the Eritrean government as an absolute moron, or senseless who either don’t know how to rule or don’t care what is happening.You people are ‘amazing’, please clean the mess u created in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and probably Libya. Leave us alone. We don’t need ur lectures on if we should go to streets to change government or stay with what we have.We are smart people as all human beings are and who know what to do. We r tired of u making Eritrea look like hell in the main stream media of yours.

      Now call me I am a mouth piece of government because I said the truth. I really don’t care of the name calling

  6. Mr. Smith,

    You said you had seen “truckloads of Eritrean men and women been driven aimlessly around the border regions”. Was that during the war with Ethiopia? Because none of such thing ever happened since the war! If you meant during the war, then still “aimlessness” is not what Eritrea is known for, because it was shear organization and unity, and not aimlessness, that defeated the million-man Ethiopian army, which was later forced to sit on the negotiating table and only to lose the legal arbitration as well.

    May I ask you when you were in Eritrea last? Because you strike me as someone who has not visited Eritrea in my lifetime. Otherwise you would not made such absurd judgments about the Eritrean economy. Did you know the Economist Magazine said Eritrea will be the 3rd fastest growing economy in the world in 2011? (

    BTW, the Eritrean government has better things to do than eject Ambassadors who make asses of themselves in secret cables as well as ejecting themselves. If you had visited Eritrea lately or were informed enough, you would have known that there’s currently no U.S. Ambassador inside Eritrea.

    As for the “…no draft age on the streets…” wrong, again. Asmara happens to be one of the liveliest cities in the world with swarming youths and over-capacity Cafes!! (

    • I lived in the country in 2002-03. I have contacts inside the country who know the current situation.

      Your comment that Eritrea defeated Ethiopia in the border war lacks credibility. See, eg

      The recent and ongoing mineral discoveries in Eritrea mean that its economy may finally start growing at a reasonable pace. Note that it still needs to claw back 20% per capita to reach 1995 levels (note also that the US embassy is sceptical about how much the mining industry will contribute over the next 4-5 years).

      The US embassy in Asmara is still open, but awaiting the appointment of a new ambassador.

      This 2009 Human Rights Watch article gives a good description of where those Eritrean youth are – it’s certainly not in cafes: (quote: “At the time of writing, most of the able-bodied adult population is on active, indefinite, compulsory national service or on reserve duty. The only exceptions are on health grounds, or, for women, pregnancy. In discussions with visiting members of the European Parliament, Eritrean government officials, “admitted that military service, although formally to last 18 months, often extends over decades, reducing both the active workforce and the individual freedom and choices of the citizens.””)

  7. Your article is unnecessarily harsh on the Eritrean president. The wikileaks are only a confirmation of the uncunningly accurate and prophetic words and accusations leveled by the Eritrean president against the US and its puppet Ethiopia unwaranted meddling and demonizing. Many who thought he may have getting a bit “paranoid” are getting their shock treatment as they read on issues like assansination attempts and coups…and there’s more to come…

    The metrics and references you use to guage Eritrea current state is even more pathetic than the wikileak cables. You need to grow up or get in grips with reality: go check Eritrea out; it is a heaven compared to ANY place in the “developing world.”

    • Feven H,

      I have spent a lot of time in Eritrea. There is much to recommend it – the crime rates are low and the culture fascinating, and some aspects of the health and education systems work well – but it is clearly a failing economy and a very closed society.

      Infrastructure is crumbling, there is almost no private economy and the people are petrified of talking to foreigners for fear they may be arrested. There is absolutely no free press, Eritreans find it very difficult to leave the country and there are virtually no men and women of draft age on the streets, because they have been dragged out into the desert for their national service. These are all observations I have confirmed with my own eyes. I have seen those truckloads of young Eritrean men and women been driven aimlessly around the border regions.

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