After decades of conflict and tension, the calm is a novelty for the nation that sits on a key shipping route to the Suez Canal and has known only five years of official peace since seceding from Ethiopia in 1993. After the two fought a 1998-2000 war, Eritrea stifled dissent and indefinitely suspended time-limits on national service, spurring tens of thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries and Europe.
Now, as Ethiopia’s leader promises multiparty democracy, a top Eritrean official says President Isaias Afwerki’s government will “have to respond and provide options for people to consider.”
“We want to create a situation of political participation of our population and we want to devise ways of doing that so people can have a say in how their country and their government is run,” presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.
The ruling party is working on “political structures, forums, discussions” where “people could have an input — a say in their lives — in the administration of their country,” he said, without elaborating or providing a timeline.
Reform in Eritrea — home to an estimated 3.2 million people, according to its National Development Ministry — may prove slow for a country that lacks a working constitution, free press or independent civil society and has long been lambasted for its human-rights record by the United Nations and advocacy groups.
The government has said it’s planning political changes before: Yemane spoke of “an inclusive participatory process” in nation-building during a 2015 discussion forum in Vienna, and Isaias announced late 2014 that Eritrea was drafting a new constitution.
As recently as 2015, the UN listed Eritreans as the fourth-biggest group risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean, adding to Europe’s refugee crisis. Eritrea describes those fleeing as economic migrants, seeking salaries higher than the roughly $120-$270 per month paid in the army and civil service before automatic deductions for items such as housing.
“People are expecting some kind of democratic opening,” said Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and human-rights activist based in Sweden. “The hopes for change are very high.”
Eritrea, which is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, has been under UN sanctions since 2009 because of allegations it supports Islamist militants in Somalia — a charge it argues is politically motivated. Ethiopia recently called for the embargo to be lifted.
The economy has been mostly isolated too, although Nevsun Resources Ltd.of Canada and China’s Shanghai Sfeco Group have mining operations with the state that are producing gold, copper and zinc, according to the Energy & Mines Ministry.
The new friendship with landlocked Ethiopia — which has Africa’s fastest-growing economy and a population of more than 100 million people — raises the prospect of it again using Eritrea’s ports. An oil pipelinebetween the nations is planned.
Multiparty elections planned in Eritrea’s neighbor may be a step “that works for Ethiopia,” adviser Yemane said. “We’re focusing on creating the ground here whereby all citizens can enjoy their rights. We want to free ourselves from prescriptions of dogmas. We want to craft a political situation that works for us here in Eritrea, that responds to the aspirations of our people.”
Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said work will begin on the constitution soon.
The drafting process “was interrupted because of war, not because the government didn’t want a constitution,” he said. “It will be worked out, though unlikely before the end of the year with many priorities amid the dawn of peace.”
Adviser Yemane said the focus will be on economic, social and cultural development that was “held back for 20 years” and that peace gives “a wonderful opportunity.”
No one underestimates the challenges. Eritrea’s ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice is under the firm control of Isaias, the 72-year-old ex-rebel leader. Former high-level officials who’ve criticized his rule have been imprisoned and held incommunicado, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
A UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in 2016 accused officialsof committing crimes against humanity, including enslavement, rape and murder over the previous quarter-century. Eritrea’s government rejected the report, saying it had “no solid evidence.” A 2017 study at the University of Leiden described a “complex regional system involving government officials, military personnel and criminal gangs” used to smuggle Eritreans abroad.
No Rebel Dialogue
While Ethiopia’s political opening has included the government reaching out to opposition groups — including those it previously designated terrorists and were based in Eritrea — its neighbor hasn’t made similar overtures.
The presidential adviser says dialogue with Eritrean rebels hosted by Ethiopia isn’t “an issue at all for the people of this country.”
Eritrean opposition in the diaspora are planning to protest at the UN in Geneva later this month against the “undeserved sympathy” Asmara is getting from “regional and global actors” even as the human-rights and political situations remain unchanged, according to Harnnet, an opposition website.
If there is real change, then says Michael Woldemariam, assistant professor of international relations at Boston University, “the potential economic dividends for the Eritrean people are huge.”
“The movement of resources away from national defense to more productive economic activities will have a positive impact,” he said. “If combined with economic and political reforms, the possibilities for the country are limitless.”