A day-long mutiny by Eritrean soldiers this week signals growing discontent with President Isaias Afwerki’s two-decade grip on power and economic hardship, said analysts including Dan Connell at Simmons College.
The rare show of dissent against what Human Rights Watch describes as one of the world’s most repressive regimes also fuels speculation that Isaias, 66, may be ailing, according to Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based intelligence group. The former rebel leader has ruled the Horn of Africa nation since 1991, when a 30-year war for independence from neighboring Ethiopia ended. Eritrea is a one-party state.
“Dissatisfaction inside the military is widespread, especially at the middle and lower levels,” Connell, the author of seven books on the country, said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “I expect more of this in the coming months, particularly if the regime cracks down heavily.”
Eritrea is among the most difficult places in the world to do business and is ninth from bottom in a ranking of the poorest countries, according to the World Bank. Private industry is constrained by “haphazard” regulations, foreign-currency restrictions and the “high risk” of assets being expropriated, the African Development Bank said on its website.
The country relies on gold and other metals produced by Nevsun Resources Ltd.’s Bisha mine and remittances from a tax it imposes on Eritreans living abroad to generate most of its foreign exchange. About a quarter of Eritrea’s 5.4 million population lives overseas and are threatened with having their entry rights withdrawn, their properties seized or families harassed if they don’t pay, according to the United Nations.
As many as 200 soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information building that houses state television in the capital, Asmara, on Jan. 21 and took its occupants hostage, according to Stratfor. A newsreader then read a list of demands including calls for the release of political prisoner and the implementation of a 1997 constitution, it said on its website.
The occupation ended after troops loyal to Isaias surrounded the building, the mutineers released their hostages and agreed to return to their base, Stratfor said.
The mutiny was “probably a show of force by more senior elements of the military, in an effort to nudge along political and economic reform,” Michael Woldemariam, professor of International Relations and an expert on African politics at Boston University, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The rebellion may have been led by General Saleh Osman, a veteran of Eritrea’s independence war who previously engaged in talks for democratization with the president’s office, according to Stratfor. General Filipos Woldeyohannes, a former confidant of Isaias who “fell from grace,” may also have been involved, it said.
“While these troops did not receive the support from other military commanders that they were apparently hoping for, they were able to cast doubt on the ability of the regime to protect itself,” Stratfor said.
Isaias may be suffering from a liver ailment and has sought medical treatment in Qatar, according to a Feb. 16, 2011, report by Awate.com, a California-based opposition website. The government in April denied what it said was an “intensive campaign of rumor” that the president is terminally ill.
“There is no second-in-command and no single general who could take Isaias’s place, so the only viable option to avoid a major rupture for those in power for a transition is a committee of some sort that brings together representatives of the main power centers,” Connell said.
The dissidents may have been targeting a faction within the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, or PFDJ, and military officials who back the president, Michael said.
Isaias and loyalists have been arresting senior military and political figures since Jan. 23 in response to the rebellion, said Abel Abate Demissie, a researcher at the Ethiopian government-linked Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development, citing unidentified Eritrean sources.
“Isaias knows there are prominent people in a power struggle who are conspiring and he’s started to react,” he said in a telephone interview from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. “I am sure fractures will broaden in the coming days and months. The writing is on the wall.”
The government hasn’t officially acknowledged the Jan. 21 incident. Phone calls and text messages seeking comment to the mobile-phone of Eritrea’s Ambassador to the African Union Girma Asmerom haven’t been answered since Jan. 21.
“The opacity surrounding Eritrea’s government is thickest when it comes to internal power struggles and the fates of political prisoners,” Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a phone interview on Jan. 23.
Eritrea outlawed private media in 2001 and the government has arbitrarily detained thousands of people including journalists and opposition supporters over the past decade, according to Amnesty International, the London-based advocacy group.
The implementation of Eritrea’s constitution has been suspended since war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998 because of a dispute about ownership of the border town of Badme. The two-year conflict cost 70,000 lives. Eritrea is still on a war footing over the unresolved dispute, Girma said on Jan. 16. Conscripts to the army, public services and industry have been “permanently mobilized” since the conflict, he said.
The country has been under UN sanctions since 2009 for supporting Ethiopian rebels and al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants in their battle against a Western-backed government in Somalia. Eritrea denies the charges and says Ethiopia is in defiance of international law for stalling implementation of a 2002 decision by a UN border committee that awarded Badme to Eritrea.
Nevsun, based in Vancouver, said the Jan. 21 incident had no impact on operations at Bisha, which also produces copper and zinc. The stock has fallen 9.1 percent in Toronto since the mutiny, trading at C$4.20 as of 9:58 a.m. local time. Sunridge Gold Corp., which is drilling for gold in Eritrea, has fallen 8.1 percent and traded at 26.5 Canadian cents in Toronto.
South Boulder Mines Ltd., based in Perth, is building a potash mine in Eritrea, while China SFECO, a unit of Shanghai Construction Co., bought the Zara Project off Australia’s Chalice Gold Mines Ltd. last year.
Ethiopia is concerned about a “crumbled” regime “taking down” the region with it, said Getachew Reda, a spokesman for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Addis Ababa will take “proportional measures” against Eritrean subversion and wants negotiations on the border, he said.
“I think the world would be better off without Isaias,” he said. “But it’s not for us to decide whether Isaias should go.”