Eritrea was once the little country who succeeded despite the odds due to hard work and perseverance. When Eritrea pressed for its independence from Ethiopia in the early 1950s, the United States supported Ethiopia’s continued control. During its 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia, first the United States and then the Soviet Union took Ethiopia’s side. Eritrea finally became independent in 1993.
The country was the darling of the United States and other Western nations initially, cooperating in addressing regional issues and promoting self-reliance. There was an active and independent media. Troops active in the long war for independence were demobilized. In 1997, the National Assembly ratified a constitution that enshrined democratic principles and basic human rights. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was counted among Africa’s new young leaders who would raise the continent to new heights. When he visited Capitol Hill, his Congressional fan club treated him like a rock star.
But from its early days of independence, Eritrea had hostile relations with all its neighbors: Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia and even Yemen across the Red Sea. Hostilities caused by mutual support for rebel movements or territorial disputes led Eritrea to pugnacious relations with everyone it seemed. Initially, this was considered the result of a stiff-necked government that wouldn’t back down before those it considered its adversaries. However, things would take a darker turn in Eritrea by the late 1990s.
In 1998, a border dispute with Ethiopia accelerated into a bloody two-year civil war that cost Eritrea between 70,000 and 100,000 casualties and millions of dollars in property loss according to various news reports. The war began with an Eritrean incursion into Ethiopian-controlled territory and ended with Ethiopia holding all disputed territory and having advanced into Eritrea. Ethiopia deported an estimated 77,000 Eritreans after confiscating their property.
The tensions over the border were supposed to have been resolved by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission that was a part of the Algiers Agreement ending the war. Eritrea was awarded the highly contested Badme area, but Ethiopia refused to accept the decision of the commission. When the international community broadly failed to take Eritrea’s side and enforce the ruling, Eritrea became increasingly hostile. Some referred to their increasingly combative position on the border dispute as “seizing defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Eritrea became increasingly uncooperative with the United Nations peacekeeping force on the border with Ethiopia. It expanded its support for Ethiopian rebels and supported Islamic extremists in the Somalian conflict. Last December, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea for backing Somalian rebels.
U.S. relations with Eritrea, always problematic due to America’s relationship with Ethiopia, deteriorated further after the war. In the previous year, the State Department designated Eritrea a country of particular concern due to allegations of pervasive religious discrimination. A year later, commercial export of defense articles and services to Eritrea was denied. Eritrea’s response was to step up its arrests and detentions of clergy and ordinary church members. Eritrea called for the end of American foreign aid, and the U.S. Agency for International Development mission was closed in 2005.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Eritrea is broadly persecuting religious institutions – from Sunni Muslims to Pentecostals to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Religious leaders and their followers have not only been jailed without charge, but have been held in poor conditions and even reportedly tortured. I am aware of one case of a woman who fled Eritrea because she was sought by authorities wanting her information about home churches. They made numerous attempts to have her returned to Eritrea, but the Kenyans and the international refugee authorities refused to do so because of concern over what would happen to her.
After the war, Eritrea became increasingly repressive. The constitution was put aide, elections were cancelled, and a new national policy was instituted that required national service. The Warsai Yekalo Development Campaign required statutory national service of 18 months, but that term was extended so that all male and female adults must work at the direction of the state in various capacities until the age of 40, but in practice often until 50 or 55 years of age. The prevailing wage under this program is a survival wage insufficient to meet basic needs of those with families.
Not surprisingly, Eritrea is leaking more refugees per capita than almost anywhere in the world, according to United Nations statistics. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 100 Eritreans leave the country every day. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans – out of a population of less than five million – have voted with their feet.
Yesterday’s hero is now today’s villain. It is unclear whether this situation could have been avoided, but we certainly should be much more careful before anointing a leader and his government.