Inside Story

When mutiny came to Eritrea

Was the latest challenge to President Isaias Afawerki’s rule just a taste of things to come?

A mutiny in Eritrea went almost completely unnoticed when renegade troops staged one of the strongest challenges yet to the country’s authoritarian rule.

On Monday, a group of soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information, briefly taking over the state-run television service in an apparent rebellion, which failed. They called for a change in the constitution and the release of political prisoners. Rights groups say up to 10,000 are being held.

I think it’s a serious incident that reflects a growing dissent within the Eritrean government, the army and the population at large.

– Abdurrahman Elsayyid, the Eritrean National Democratic Forces

The small country in the horn of Africa remains isolated and is often described as repressed.

With thousands of political prisoners, a constitution that remains in limbo, and a president who has failed to keep promises of reform, analysts say more challenges are inevitable.

Eritrea is a secretive nation that has been ruled by one president and one party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, since it gained independence in 1993.

Now the tiny nation is in the headlines for an army mutiny that may – or may not – have been a coup attempt. But analysts say it is only a matter of time before Eritrea’s President Isaias Afawerki is confronted again.

The man who the US once praised as a renaissance leader had promised elections, and to open up the political system, neither of which materialised.

The country’s reportedly poor human rights record and restrictive press laws have drawn comparisons with North Korea – an image the president disputes.

This is the problem of the country – Eritrea’s inability to transition to a normal state after the war with Ethiopia is at the root of the problem. There is a lot of frustration among young people who see no opportunity for social mobility in a country that is increasingly becoming paranoid.

– Kwaku Nuamah, American University’s School of International Service

In a growing list of challenges it faces, Eritrea’s government has to contend with:

  • Data that estimates nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line
  • Most of the country’s working population is in uniform – Eritrea has more soldiers per person than any other country besides North Korea
  • Its young men are enlisted to fend off what it calls “aggression from Ethiopia”
  • The UN claims it is arming and supporting al-Shabab rebels in Somalia, something it denies
  • A growing youthful population is dissatisfied with shrinking opportunities and little choice but to join the army
  • Human rights groups accuse the government of torture and summary executions.
  • Transparency International ranks it as one of the most corrupt countries in the world

Back on the ground, attempts at forcing reform appear to have been put down for now, but with discontent growing among the military and the powerful Eritrean diaspora alike, it may be a sign of things to come.

To discuss this and other issues, Inside Story with presenter Shiulie Ghosh is joined by guests: Abdurrahman Elsayyid from the Eritrean National Democratic Forces, a pro-democracy network committed to the advocacy and promotion of human rights; Jason Mosley, an associate fellow for the Africa Programme at Chatham House; and Kwaku Nuamah, an assistant professor at the American University’s School of International Service.

“I really don’t find comparisons with North Korea constructive in any meaningful way for understanding the Eritrean context – just because the superficial parallels don’t stack up after you start digging a little bit. It is also quite important to keep in mind the regional context that Eritrea emerged into as an independent nation.” 

  – Jason Mosley – Africa Programme at Chatham House