Eritreans Celebrate Independence Amid Serious Challenges

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Poorly organized and with meager resources, the opposition poses no immediate threat to the president. But he is deeply worried by what Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi may have under his sleeves.


[Global: Africa]

Eritrea
is celebrating its 21st independence anniversary this month. The
significance of achieving statehood cannot be underestimated. 

But
for many inside and outside the country May 24 also signifies squandered
opportunities and perilous times ahead. The government is widely known
as repressive and reclusive. The country still has no constitution, no
free press and no university.

Thousands of Eritreans took to the
streets over the weekend in many cities around the globe including
Washington, D.C., calling for freedom and justice, rule of law and
political participation and peaceful coexistence with neighbors.

This
year’s commemoration comes against the backdrop of two significant
events: Ethiopia’s retaliatory military attacks inside Eritrea in mid
March followed by the disappearance for a month of President Isaias
Afewerki triggering fears that he was either dying or dead. 

It was
not true. This made-up news story about the president in the wake of the
incursions in pursuit of “Eritrea-supported anti-Ethiopia subversives”
was believed to be an attempt to hide Isaias’s painful political dilemma
over how to react to Addis Ababa’s moves.

The government said there
would be no reprisals hinting that there would be no further bloodshed.
But the country was also not in a position to engage in yet another
military confrontation given the continued depletion of its armed forces
because of substantial defections over the years. The situation is made
worse by the UN arms embargo imposed in 2009.

Commander-in-Chief
Isaias made no loud waves in the name of national pride or national
sovereignty for which he has gone to war in the past with each
neighboring state. This time, the government, which has long espoused
the idea of "might is right", simply confirmed its political and
military weaknesses by brushing off the Ethiopian action as a
U.S.-sponsored strategy to divert attention from unsettled boundary
demarcation issues still leaving dusty, little Badme in the hands of
Ethiopia.

The implications of the Ethiopian army penetrating over 10
miles deep into Eritrean territory could only be guessed at. One of the
leading architects of the Eritrean struggle for independence from
Ethiopia, Mr. Ahmed Nasser, says the Ethiopian action could create a
serious leadership crisis for Eritrea. He maintains: “Eritrean troops
have long been demoralized and the regime is badly damaged politically
in the Horn Region; further exposure of its military vulnerability may
fatally impact President Isaias and his henchmen”.

Earlier this
month, this reporter met Eritreans in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, who were
rejoicing at the possibility of returning home and some had even packed
to go back to Eritrea. They couldn’t wait to be with family and friends
again, they said.

One Kenyan International Affairs expert visiting
the Tanzanian capital said she hoped the next Eritrean leader would not
treat the country and people as if they were his own personal property. The
Eritrean leader had refused to consult with his people or with the
National Assembly, which is the  Parliament, when he decided to go to
war with Ethiopia in May 1998. The war dragged on till December 2000
killing 19,000 Eritrean soldiers. Unofficial accounts put the number at
over 65,000, about the same as those lost during the 30-year Eritrean
independence struggle that ended in 1991.

The Ethiopian
government is equally if not more conservative with its official
figures. It puts the number of troops killed during the two-year war at
less than 19,000. The two nations are believed to have sacrificed
between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters mostly in hand-to-hand combat in
trenches around their common border. History will one day honor those
martyred young men and women by liberating them from being victims of
misleading official statistics.

The war was initiated by the
Eritrean government, according to a UN finding. Asmara seemed bent on
making its point clear on the battle field instead of the negotiating
table ostensibly in retaliation against unfavorable trade terms offered
by Addis Ababa in early 1998. The new proposed trade and business
arrangements represented the most detrimental blow to the Eritrean
government revenue. It was a serious threat to the President’s dream to
build the largest, invincible military machine in the Horn and East
Africa region.  
By 1998, Eritrea, still healing from decades of a
brutal liberation war, already had over 150,000 trained fighting men and
women compared to Kenya’s under 30,000 troops or Ethiopia’s estimated
35,000 active personnel at the time.

Today, after two rounds of
UN sanctions topped by an incapacitating arms embargo and confronted by a
more determined opposition and facing a more aggressive Ethiopia to the
south, the Eritrean leader is believed to be under tense and stressful
pressure. If he was suffering from poor health, it could have been
caused by the gruesome political quagmire he finds himself in.

If
the government itself was the source of the manipulated information
about the president’s "terminal liver illness", it sure did succeed for a
while in deflecting public attention from the most serious crisis
facing beleaguered Isaias Afewerki caused by his uncontrollable fear of a
possible full-scale war with Ethiopia.

The Eritrean government is
unlikely to ever get sympathy from the African Union, the U.N. or U.S.
as they all have already expressed their displeasure and desire to see
its demise by imposing sanctions justified or not.

Domestically,
no matter how futile, the regime cannot afford to look troubled or weak
by, for instance, freeing a dozen political or religious prisoners or by
allowing limited freedom of speech or by improving food ration or by
offering to talk to Ethiopia. Such measures are out of the question
because they would encourage people to be asking for more and more
concessions which may lead to demands for democratic changes. That would
be opening a Pandora’s Box.

The opposition is not united to be fit
to “lead the needed change”, says the Frankfurt-based Eritrean People’s
Democratic Party. But the Addis Ababa headquartered 127-member National
Democratic Council representing almost all Eritrean political and civil
society movements world-wide believes it is ready to play its role.
Urging greater solidarity with Eritreans inside the country, Council
Chairman Yosuf Berhanu (M.D.) warns against “cosmetic changes by the
regime or by possible coup leaders waiting in the wings to replace
Isaias Afewerki.” Dr. Yosuf cautions against lifting of UN sanctions
“before full transfer of power to the people is achieved and unless
human and democratic rights are assured first”.

Poorly organized and
with meager resources, the opposition poses no immediate threat to the
president. But he is deeply worried by what Ethiopian Premier Meles
Zenawi may have under his sleeves.


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