Africa Report N°200
28 March 2013
Nairobi/Brussels, 28 March 2013: Change is in the air in Eritrea, a highly authoritarian state, but any political transition will require internal political inclusion and channels for external dialogue if it is to preserve stability and improve Eritrean life.
Concerned Western partners, neighbours and other governments with special relations with Asmara need urgently to pay more attention to the small, isolated country that has remained mobilised on a war footing since a ceasefire ended its conflict with Ethiopia in 2000 and undertake planning and proactive measures to help avert internal chaos and wider regional troubles. Eritrea: Scenarios for Future Transition, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the regime’s vulnerabilities, maps out six possible forms an eventual transition may take and identifies the main risks and opportunities.
“While the mounting number of incidents suggests that President Isaias Afwerki’s government is vulnerable, the country would face numerous institutional, socioeconomic and geopolitical obstacles during and after any transition”, says Cedric Barnes, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director. “A careful assessment of these is urgently needed to help avoid a violent power struggle that could prove dangerous for the Horn of Africa and potentially – as Eritrea is a littoral state – for the Red Sea region”.
It is difficult to predict what an eventually post-Isaias Eritrea will look like: after and in spite of 21 years of forceful nation-building, fault lines, especially of ethnicity, region and religion, are still there. The opposition is mainly in the diaspora, divided and mostly out of touch with both potential domestic constituencies and the young people who have been fleeing in large numbers for years and who crowd refugee camps. Since the state lacks any institutional mechanisms for peaceful transfer of power or even a clearly anointed successor, instability is to be expected, with the army the likely arbiter of who will rule next.
To reduce the risk of instability in Eritrea and its neighbourhood, a broad coalition of international actors should take precautionary moves, including immediate and decisive efforts to promote dialogue on avoidance of internal power struggles and mediation of a peaceful transition. This could lead to opening of political space and normalisation, both domestically and internationally. UN sanctions imposed on the regime for support of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and other destabilising activities need to be kept under active review. The European Union (EU) and U.S. should work with those, such as Qatar and South Africa, that maintain close relations with the leadership. Member states of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should welcome Eritrea back and encourage normalisation of relations.
Specific attention should be paid to new, younger leaders emerging outside Eritrea, including in refugee camps. Attention should also be paid to the socioeconomic and psychological side effects of the crisis. When a transition begins, the security sector will need to be reformed, and projects will have to be created simultaneously that focus on reintegrating those who fled their country.
“There is an urgent need to pursue stability in Eritrea. Events in the last twelve months indicate growing discontent inside its tightly controlled regime, as well as deepening political and social divisions”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “If instability intensifies, that would be bad not just for Eritreans, who have suffered enough, but for the broader region”.