Just as the Horn of Africa is witnessing the slow restoration of one collapsed state – after more than two decades of anarchic conditions in Somalia – it may be facing the collapse of another.
The small country of Eritrea, only 20 years after gaining independence from Ethiopia, has emerged as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa – as well as one of the most militarised societies in the world. It is increasingly displaying signs of withering state structures and an unsustainable humanitarian situation.
Although Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa, a more appropriate point of comparison may be Somalia and its descent into civil war. The already fragile security conditions in Eritrea’s neighbouring states means that its collapse could have major implications for regional stability.
The Eritrean state has, since a 1998 border war with Ethiopia, been caught in a negative spiral of autocracy and deteriorating conditions. President Isaias Afewerki – the only leader this young nation has known – used the threat posed by Ethiopia as a pretext to eliminate all domestic opposition and indefinitely defer implementing the constitution and holding elections. Meanwhile, Eritrean society has been almost totally militarised. An indefinite, compulsory and universal military conscription policy applies to most of Eritrea’s adult population. Its army is now one of the largest on the continent, and has the highest number of military personnel per capita in the world next to North Korea. In 2011, Afewerki took the additional step of arming a large section of the civilian population believed to be loyal to his party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.
Although huge amounts of resources have been devoted to Eritrea’s military, the institution appears to be split by personal and group rivalries, both within the leadership and between the rank-and-file and the leadership. Political power is very much personalised in contemporary Eritrea, and remains largely in the hands of the president and a handful of military generals, who are rivalling and contesting each other over power, influence and control over financial resources.
The increasing number of political and military defections is another symptom of what looks to be Eritrea’s crumbling state apparatus. This includes former Information Minister Ali Abdu, believed to be the president’s right-hand man; tens of thousands of soldiers who have sought political asylum in neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia; and the very embarrassing case of two military pilots who defected to Saudi Arabia with the president’s private jet, who were also later followed by a third pilot in April 2013, sent by the government to retrieve the plane. Other defectors include members of Eritrea’s Olympics team at the London Games in 2012, 13 players on an Eritrean football team, and artist Michael Adonai.
The growing frustration among army officers manifested itself this January with a revolt led by a colonel and members of his brigade. Their desperate actions – they occupied the Information Ministry and forced the director of the national TV station to read their demands for political reform on air – further demonstrated the emerging cracks within Afewerki’s regime.
Reliable data on the size of Eritrea’s population is hard to come by, but estimates range between 3 and 4 million people. Of these, several hundred thousand have fled over the last decade, and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Eritrea reported earlier this year that the number of people fleeing every month has now reached 4,000. While the regime is in denial of the deteriorating conditions, Eritreans are voting en masse with their feet. The vast majority of the refugees are young males, and hence a significant portion of Eritrea’s productive workforce have either fled the country or find themselves indefinitely conscripted in the military.
Many of the refugees are trafficked out of the country through Egypt’s Sinai desert, where they can be kidnapped, tortured, and their families in the West extorted for ransom money by regional criminal networks. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has identified the involvement of leading figures in the Eritrean military in these criminal networks. The participation of high-level military personnel in these activities – which also include the trafficking of weapons and forced labour – reveals the blatant role illicit economic structures have assumed in Eritrea today.
A continuation of the country’s current trajectory is unsustainable, and some form of change is inevitable in the near future – the most objective indicator of which is the country’s demographics. Given the absence of institutional mechanisms for managing a leadership change, and the mistrust and insecurities that Afewerki’s divide-and-rule strategies have generated, a collapse of the government could lead to civil war.
Lessons from Somalia
A refugee crisis, high-level military defections, a divided military, ethnic tensions, and a leader displaying irrational behaviour are some of the ways in which Eritrea today resembles Somalia in the years before its collapse in 1991. The case of Somalia also illustrates the difficulty of re-building state institutions once central authority has disintegrated and several armed factions take control.
In the event of state collapse in Eritrea, the security and humanitarian repercussions may in fact outstrip those seen in Somalia. Given the high number of weapons in the country and its near total militarisation, the collapse of state authority and civil war may lead to conflict and deaths on an extraordinary scale. Making this prospect more daunting is the deepening of the country’s ethno-religious divisions in recent years. Nearly every individual in Eritrea’s military and political leadership, for instance, now hails from Afewerki’s Hamasien tribe, and are of Christian background. This has alienated the other ethnic groups and created tensions on a sub-ethnic level as well.
Somalia and Yemen have demonstrated how terrorist groups take advantage of the absence of state authority to recruit members and plan and execute attacks. Groups such as al-Qaeda could find a fertile breeding ground among the politically marginalised and increasingly frustrated Muslim population of Eritrea, which make up somewhere between one-third and one-half of the total population.
Though Eritrea is poor and small, with few natural resources, it has a long coastline along the Red Sea, shares borders with Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia and is close to Saudi Arabia and Yemen – making it important in terms of global trade and security.
The Horn of Africa is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, and most of Eritrea’s neighbours happen to be rather fragile sates. Given the symbiotic nature of conflict and state fragility in this region most of these neighbours would be severely destabilised by the collapse of Eritrea’s state apparatus. These states are themselves overburdened by their own internal security challenges, and do not possess the resources and capacity to handle the challenge of another collapsing neighbour. Such a situation would thus require a substantial international engagement.
While Eritrea’s authoritarian system has so far proven to be surprisingly resilient, if the refugee crisis continues on its current trajectory, the regime is unlikely to survive for much longer. This silent mass exodus will, if not stopped, lead to a humanitarian and security crisis of enormous proportions.
Kjetil Tronvoll is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes College, and Senior Partner at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has written Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War and The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea: Human Rights and Political Development, 1991-2009.
Goitom Gebreluel is an advisor at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has previously worked for the Norwegian government (Norad) and taught foreign policy studies at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.