Understandably, most of the U.S. was preoccupied with Barack Obama’s second inauguration yesterday. However in the midst of the celebrations of yet another peaceful transfer of power in the U.S., word began to trickle out of an attempted coup in Eritrea. It appears that the attempt, led by a group of military mutineers at the Ministry of Information, ultimately failed but it is hard to determine exactly what happened. A large part of that is because press freedom is an unknown element in the small African country. Thus, those we typically rely on to inform the world of new events are more likely to be found in prison rather than filing a wire report.
Eritrea topped Reporters Without Borders list for worst countries for press freedom in 2012, beating out totalitarian North Korea, while the Committee to Project Journalists listed it as the most censored country in the world. Information is so tightly controlled that even the whereabouts of the Minister of Information, Ali Abdu Ahmed, in unknown to the population after not being seen in public since at least November. There is speculation he is currently seeking asylum in Canada and reports from diaspora sources saying his family in Eritrea has since been detained. However, these reports – concerning the fate of the man who typically controls all information within the state – cannot be found inside Eritrea.
The lack of press freedom is not the only constraint on human rights in Eritrea but it wasn’t always like this. When Eritrea initially got its independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, there were high hopes for the new country whose revolution strengthened notions of gender and ethnic equality. But the man who led the independence struggle, Isaias Afewerki, turned out to be far more tyrant and far less visionary once he took power in 1993.
From there, freedom after freedom disappeared. A long and brutal border war with Ethiopia led to the creation of a police state and constant paranoia amongst government leaders. The country officially ratified its constitution in 1997 but it was never implemented; subsequent public pushback on the lack of elections and a constitution only led to arrests of opposition leaders on charges of conspiracy and terrorism. Attempts by the independent press to cover such developments likewise led to their arrests, also usually on charges of conspiracy or terrorism.
And so the world remains in the dark about the true nature of what happened yesterday in Eritrea. There are numerous reports that the mutineers made it as far as announcing on state television that the 1997 Constitution would be implemented before the signal cut out. If true, then it serves as a sign that the lack of freedoms is wearing on more than just beleaguered activists. Regardless of the failure of the attempt, the break in the tightly controlled typical calm suggests that all may not be well in the country often dubbed the “North Korea of Africa” and could be just the first disturbance of many.
Originally published on January 23, 2013 at www.foreignpolicyblogs.com