Last week, soldiers in one of Africa’s most closed and repressive nations — Eritrea — occupied the country’s Ministry of Information and issued demands. The pattern was a familiar one. News spread quickly that a coup was underway.
But feisty little Eritrea, which got its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after defeating successive US- and Soviet-backed armies in a 30-year war, has never fit the mold of post-colonial African states, and it was not doing so now.
In a country where chatting about politics at open-air cafés can get you arrested, this was the only way people with a grievance could get attention and survive: in a large group with guns. Their point was to start a national conversation where none was allowed. And they did.
The government at first admitted an “incident,” then denied anything had happened, while Eritrea’s global diaspora lit up the Internet with debates and celebrations. One group placed 10,000 robo-calls to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, urging people on; thousands of protesters in London, Stockholm, Rome, Berlin and Washington this week picketed or occupied Eritrea’s embassies to show support.
The soldiers who occupied the information ministry were fed up with their dictatorship and wanted everyone to know it. So they marched into the state-run TV studios — there are no private media — and broadcast a call for implementation of a constitution ratified 16 years ago but still gathering dust, and the release of political prisoners, of which there are as many as 10,000. Then they went back to their barracks. Arrests followed, but the message was out.
Many commentators called this a “failed coup,” but they missed the point. The protesters were not asking for power, just a crack in the wall, the payoff the entire society has been waiting for over the past half century of sacrifice and struggle, which the leader of their independence movement, Isaias Afwerki, is denying them. And they are not going to stay quiet any longer.
Tens of thousands have fled a tyrannical regime often compared to North Korea: Eritrea has one political party; no national elections, ever; no organizations not controlled by the state, including religious denominations; no independent media; no space for raising any questions about government policies. Yet when Eritreans escape, usually at great personal risk, they often find themselves treated like criminals — or just turned away.
The worst off are the victims of a human trafficking ring in which refugees are kidnapped from camps in Sudan and taken to the Egyptian Sinai, where Bedouin criminal gangs torture them during phone calls to relatives while forcing them to beg for ransoms as high as $30,000. One I spoke with in Tel Aviv recently, a 28-year old former computer programmer, had lost all use of his badly disfigured hands after being hung from them for weeks while awaiting payments.
There is only one solution for this global human rights crisis: a change in the situation in Eritrea so the exodus can be reversed, not simply blocked or rerouted.
What is needed — and what these courageous young protesters are calling for — is a constitutional framework for a transition to democracy and the release of those detained for simply voicing their yearning for it. Only Eritreans can bring this about, but there are things we could do to lessen the suffering of the victims of this tyranny while helping them stand up to it.
The first is vigorous action to halt the trafficking of Eritreans in the Egyptian Sinai. This is complicated by treaty obligations arising from the 1978 pact with Israel that limit Egypt’s military presence, as well as by Egypt’s unsettled political environment. But the presence of a multinational force with a strong American component would give us a wedge to tackle this.
Meanwhile, borrowing a page from the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, we should pressure international mining companies now throwing a lifeline to the regime to suspend operations until basic rights are extended to the population and the government demonstrates that the mines are not worked by unpaid conscript labor, as a Human Rights Watch report alleged last month. Eritreans will take care of the rest.