The lifting of UN sanctions will not solve Eritrea’s problems

Having gotten rid of international sanctions, the Eritrean regime is unlikely to change its repressive ways at home.

Eritrea - Reuters Afwerki
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa on July 16, 2018 [File: Reuters]

On November 14, the United Nations Security Council unanimously agreed to lift the sanctions it had imposed on Eritrea with Resolution 1907.

The measure, which included an international arms embargo, travel bans and the freezing of assets of high-profile Eritrean officials, had been in effect since 2009, when the UN accused Eritrea of supporting armed groups in Somalia – something the regime in Asmara always denied.

East African nations and the international community welcomed the UNSC’s decision, which came on the back of a landmark peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

While the withdrawal of sanctions is a major diplomatic win for Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, it is unlikely to change much for ordinary Eritreans. In fact, the regime continues to maintain its own form of crippling “sanctions” on the general population, limiting its rights and freedoms. And there are no serious signs that these sanctions are going anywhere.

Domestic sanctions

People living in Eritrea have long known that the lifting of the UN sanctions would not improve their lot much, despite the fact that the Eritrean regime regularly used them as a justification for some of its failures. 

Likewise, the much celebrated Ethiopian-Eritrean deal also failed to bring major change to the lives of ordinary Eritreans. Months after it was concluded, the mandatory military service is still in place and civilians are still required to work as guards of official institutions as a form of national service. In fact, military drills and re-armament of civilians have intensified in recent days.

The crippling economic policies of the regime are also likely to remain in place. Import and export businesses were banned in 2003 and construction was outlawed in 2006. The movement of goods and labour was severely restricted and Eritrean nationals were banned from withdrawing more than $300 a month from their saving accounts.

These extreme measures crippled the country’s business sector and scared away investors. This, in addition to a massive brain drain caused by the regime’s repressive policies, stripped the nation of its most talented and entrepreneurial people.  

As a result of these policies and regardless of the UN sanctions, Eritrean nationals who had the potential to invest and develop businesses relocated to other African countries and non-Eritreans simply did not see the country as a safe investment environment. 

The peace deal and rapprochement with Ethiopia also has not done much for the handful of remaining Eritrean businesses so far. In fact, the normalisation led to an informal Ethiopian business “invasion”.

Ethiopians are now able to enter the country and freely sell their goods in the streets of Eritrea, participating in the open market without paying any taxes or being required to acquire expensive licenses. Even for their daily bread, Eritreans are now dependent on Ethiopian producers.

As a result of this highly unbalanced and unfair trade arrangement, no Eritrean business managed to thrive following the rapprochement with Ethiopia.

In this context, probably the only economic sphere that could benefit from the lifting of the UN sections would be mining. But the proceeds from that industry are also unlikely to trickle down to ordinary Eritreans as the regime keeps tight control on mining contracts and profits.

An emboldened Afwerki

Some experts have expressed hopes that the peace deal with Ethiopia and now the lifting of the UN sanctions could usher in changes in the domestic affairs of the country. The absence of a conflict with Ethiopia and some form of international rehabilitation seemingly leave the Eritrean regime no excuse to continue its repressive militarisation of society.

But these major diplomatic developments could also have the opposite effect. They could encourage President Afwerki to continue ruling the country with an iron fist and even embolden to tighten his grip on power even more. After all, none of these diplomatic breakthroughs came in exchange for concessions on human rights or internal political reforms.

For the last two decades, being a pariah in the eyes of the international community, Afwerki was relying on his loyal military commanders to help him hold on to power. However, he has now secured a powerful and widely popular ally in the face of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

With Ahmed on his side and increasing international backing, he no longer feels the need to consult even his most trusted commanders when making decisions. He is now signing treaties and deciding the faith of a nation of over 5 million single-handedly.

Since the peace deal, Afwerki visited Ethiopia three times and Ahmed came to Eritrea twice. The two leaders met twice more – once in the UAE and once in Saudi Arabia – to receive awards. However, the results of these meetings, just like the details of the peace deal between the two countries, have never been shared with the Eritrean people.

Afwerki had always prioritised regional politics over domestic affairs and so far nothing appears to have changed. It looks like he is still more concerned over his own international standing and regional ambitions than improving the lot of his people at home.

He still has old scores to settle in Ethiopia, especially with the old guard of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It is not unlikely that Afwerki played an indirect role in the recent arrests of former top TPLF officials.

Thus, the rapprochement with Ethiopia has provided the Eritrean leader with the opportunity to pursue his regional grand ambitions at the expense of the Eritrean people. The last week’s decision by the UN will likely allow him to make himself more acceptable in the eyes of the international community and come one step closer to becoming an influential and internationally accepted regional actor.

In light of all this, Eritreans have little reason to celebrate the lifting of the sanctions that will likely benefit no one other than Afwerki himself. What the Eritrean people really need the UN to do is pressure the Eritrean regime to lift the devastating sanctions it has imposed on its own people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.