A Stalled Democratic Transition – The Personality Politics of Eritrean President Afewerki and the Recent Organization of Civil Society to Move the Transition Forward

There are no alternatives to the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) party and no hope for a future multiparty democracy.  In a recent interview, current President Isaias Afewerki avowed these anti-democratic sentiments, reinforcing the political destitution of the Eritrean citizenry.  Now called the ‘North Korea of Africa’ for its isolationist military style of authoritarianism, the small country of Eritrea has been dubbed one of the ‘least-free places in the world’ by Freedom House.

This was not always the case. In the early 1990s, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) commanded by Isaias Afewerki led Eritrea to freedom and independence from Ethiopia. The victory was followed by the establishment of an interim president—nominating the leader of the liberation, Isaias Afewerki to form a transitional government. Over the next few years, the country saw nascent state structures, an influx of foreign aid for development, a constitution, and the PFDJ preparation for the democratic transition. However, internal issues, democratization pressures, and renewed conflict with Ethiopia derailed the planned democratic transition—placing the elections, new constitution, and multi-party political formations on hold indefinitely.

Today, the country is one of the most ‘brutal and closed dictatorship[s] in Africa.’ Military conscription, forced labor, opposition imprisonment, secret detention facilities, the absence of a privately-owned free or independent press, and religious repression dominate the national scene. President Afewerki maintains power through a single party system whereby he purges dissenters from the party—as demonstrated in 2001 with the imprisonment of hundreds of party members favoring democratization, eliminates the opportunity for competing parties, expands executive powers, undermines the judiciary, shuffles around military generals and maintains monopolistic economic control over productive sectors of the economy.

His cult of personality has in large part driven these changes—while other countries with like histories including Angola, Guinea Bissau, Namibia, and Mozambique have not seen the same level of authoritarianism. The paranoid politics of Isaias Afewerki drives his targeting of assumed political enemies both within the state as well as in neighboring countries. This activity coupled with his tyrannical rule drives the exodus of more than 1,500 citizens a month from the country.

Is there any hope? With an increasing amount of Eritreans living abroad, the global influence of the Arab Spring and anecdotal stories of unsuccessful Eritrean attempts to escape the tyranny; the international environment and diaspora communities have created the political space to develop grassroots activism. A civil society is organizing.  The ‘Freedom Friday’ campaign was formed a year ago by activists in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Israel. The movement extends back into Eritrea with the establishment of an underground newspaper—Echoes of Forto—to provide dissident voices of domestic discontent. Separate from this movement, a number of conscripted military officers commandeered a state-owned television station to broadcast demands for a multiparty constitution and release of political prisoners. And the Forum for National Dialogue was established to unite the international opposition-in-exile, diaspora communities and covert dissenters within the Afewerki administration towards the common goal of removing Afewerki from power. The organization of civil society through these activities could realize tangible progress towards freedom; if consensus can be reached on the strategy and methods to realize this goal.

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One Response to A Stalled Democratic Transition – The Personality Politics of Eritrean President Afewerki and the Recent Organization of Civil Society to Move the Transition Forward

  1. agebremedhin says:

    Great post on an oft-forgotten nation in Africa. In particular, I think the ability of Afewerki to establish such a stronghold of power early on in Eritrea’s government, dating to the early 1990s, is based on the idea of nationalism and an unquestioning loyalty to certain military leaders. Afewerki no doubt helped lead Eritrea to independence, particularly away from the dictatorship of the Ethiopian Dergue in the 1980s. So pride and loyalty to him was particularly high at that time. From this, I do think that he began to exploit the idea of nationalism (being distinct from Ethiopia) and his early image as the liberating father of the nation into an accusation that those who are against him somehow become fundamentally against the existence of Eritrea. He has done a particularly good job as creating much of his rhetoric, as dissidents to his regime are framed as traitors and allies to Ethiopia. This is a really distinct and interesting example of personality politics in a relatively young state structure that has had no changes in governance.

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