You know, I hadn't actually intended to blog about the escalating violence in the Horn of Africa all week, but honestly, the renewed conflict between Eritrean strongman Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi is too compelling for anyone with an interest in dictators to ignore. I wrote about the tensions leading up to this conflict yesterday, but what I haven't done is talk about the men themselves, or what they've done to their respective nations.
I'll start with Isaias Afewerki, because quite frankly, he's the more authoritarian of the two. Under Afewerki's rule, the newest country in Africa has also become the most paranoid country in Africa. Under his rule, Eritrea has turned into one of the most totalitarian states in Africa, which is no mean feat when you consider the competition for that title.
As the old adage goes, one man, one vote, one time. Afewerki was elected just once after Eritrea's independence in 1993, and has stayed put ever since. A cautious man, he's decided that Eritrea's newfound independence was too fragile to risk multiple political parties or a privately owned press and has banned both. When foreign journalists in Eritrea started using the word "dictatorship", Afewerki simply kicked them out of the country.
"What is a free press? There is no free press anywhere."- Isaias Afewerki
How bad is it for reporters in Eritrea? Bad. Scandalously so, in fact. The international journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea's press freedom as the third worst on earth in 2006, behind only North Korea and Turkmenistan. The situation becomes even worse when you consider that Eritrea will be going down yet another notch to the second worst on earth, because Turkmenistan's rating can only improve after Saparmurat Niazov kicked the bucket. Eritrean information minister Ali Abdou provided a pithy summary of Eritrea's attitude towards freedom of speech and information when he quipped, "it's up to us what, why, when and where we do things." Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the government has noted with classic understatement that Eritrea's tourism industry "isn't living up to its potential".
As if the complete and suppression of political freedoms in Eritrea weren't enough, Afewerki has found a remarkably efficient way to expand the size and scope of his government on the cheap. The government has done this by mandating a compulsory (and often indefinite) "government service" scheme that pays people around $45 a month to work as government employees, whether in an office or providing manual labor. Those not inclined to give up their former jobs that actually provided enough money to support their families were given another option: prison without trial. Afewerki's scheme ran into snags when young Eritreans started fleeing to Sudan to avoid indentured servitude to their dictator. Undeterred, Afewerki ingeniously tackled the problem by simply jailing the families of people leaving the country to escape his state mandated poverty.
Finally, how could I fail to mention the state sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Eritrea? Or the country's appalling record on human rights? It's completely superfluous to note that rights and freedoms he's denied to his people isn't exactly keeping Isaias Afewerki awake at night. If there's any personal or political force motivating Afewerki's actions beyond his apparently intractable hatred for Ethiopia, it has yet to manifest itself any discernible fashion. I don't know if it's safe to presume that Afewerki will survive this latest round of badger baiting with Ethiopia, or if his decision to provide money and weapons to anti-Ethiopian militant groups will wind up backfiring on him.
Perhaps the only thing it is safe to say about Isaias Afewerki is that he won't be stepping down, holding multiparty elections, or going back to the negotiating table with Ethiopia anytime soon. We have a natural inclination to root for the underdog, which Eritrea clearly is in relation to Ethiopia. As long as Afewerki is in charge however, this inclination should be put permanently on hold, effective immediately. And speaking of Ethiopia, stay tuned, dear readers! I'll be taking a look at the other combatant in the Somali proxy war tomorrow; Isaias Afewerki's sworn enemy, Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.