On July 8th, Abyi Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new reformist Prime Minister touched down in Asmara, Eritrea capital, marking the first time that an Ethiopian and Eritrean leader met in twenty years. Young and old, everyone in Asmara came out to welcome him, not just because Ahmed is popular, but because of what his visit represented: it gave Eritreans hope, that after twenty years, something would finally change.
For twenty years, Eritreans had been told that peace with Ethiopia would mean peace in Eritrea. Five months after the rapprochement, however, there seems to be a peace deal but no sign of peace.
Phone lines have been restored, commercial flights have resumed and the border has been opened at many different points allowing for the free movement of goods and people, for the first time since 1998. As great as it may seem, the more important issues concerning human rights and fundamental freedoms have yet to be addressed.
President Isaias Afwerki, a man who has ruled for the entirety of Eritrea’s twenty-seven-year existence, has continued to imprison political opponents, most recently his former Finance Minister for publishing a book that criticized his leadership. He has also indicated that he is not ready to end the indefinite national service program, even though its entire justification was based on the need to protect Eritrea from Ethiopia.
After months of government silence on the meaning of the new peace deal, the President finally gave an interview to the state media, EriTv, this past Saturday in which he reaffirmed that there would be a continuation of the same old ways. It represents nothing short of one more betrayal made by a President who is struggling to find a reason to hang on to his throne.
The international community has been quick to applaud the recent “wind of hope” in the horn of Africa. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his address to the UN General Assembly this September said that “I see winds of hope blowing” in reference to the recent events in the horn and the general spirit of reconciliation. However, he failed to mention that the promise of reform that Eritreans were once promised has been put on permanent hold.
Unless international pressure is applied on Eritrea to ratify its constitution and to free political prisoners, among many other things, nothing will change and a peace deal that should have solved a humanitarian and refugee crisis, may only just add fuel to the fire.
According to reports, the pace at which Eritreans are leaving the country is increasing rapidly. In a report published in September, Professor Mirjam van Reisen, of Tilberg University in the Netherlands, said that “Visiting the area we saw the joy of people crossing into Ethiopia, but the numbers are now huge. This is becoming an uncontrolled flight from Eritrea.”
At the height of Eritrea’s previous exodus, before the peace deal, it was estimated that 5,000 people were fleeing the country mostly through Sudan. However, with an open border in Ethiopia that allows for a safe exit, it is estimated that the numbers will increase significantly. This will add additional strain on immigration camps and the refugee crisis that has washed up on European shores. There are already estimates that around 20,000 people will leave per month.
President Isaias Afewerki is largely overestimating the power he can yield over Eritrea in this new epoch, and there is a reason to believe that change will come about one way or another.
That is because Ethiopia is moving ahead with political reform aimed at declassifying political opposition groups as terrorist movements, freeing political prisoners and liberalizing its economy. Moreover, with a free trade system now in place between the countries, that allows for the free movement of people and goods, Eritreans will leave for Ethiopia en mass, given that wages, opportunity and political freedom is substantially better on the other side of the border.
The winds will be too strong for Eritrea to maintain a regime that restricts fundamental freedoms and labour mobility without losing a great deal of its labour force and legitimacy. Whatever support the ruling party enjoyed in the diaspora is starting to fade away, and there are reports of discontent among prominent Eritreans, from the church to cabinet.
The Eritrean people are already speaking with their feet and if nothing changes, the exodus will continue, leaving President Isaias Afwerki with no country to govern. Eritrea may be small in size, but for its citizens and the region there is a lot at stake. Now is the time for the international community to advocate for reform and change, if not out of humanitarian interests, at least for their own.
Sam Yacob, [not Jacob], is a second year EurAm student. Born in Asmara and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, he spends most of his time following the stock market, Canadian politics and the horn of Africa. He is a hardcore Maple Leafs and Raptors fan.