It is rare to hear about Eritrea internationally. Often referred to as ‘the North Korea of Africa’, this small country in the horn of Africa, gained its independence from Ethiopia twenty years ago and is today governed by the all powerful President Isaias Aferwerki.
One of the most militarised societies in the world, Eritrea conscripts all men and unmarried women to military service, which many times translates into forced labour. In January 2013, HRW/UN released a report accusing the government of using forced labour to build a gold mine. Human Rights Watch denounced appalling working conditions, where workers were forbidden to leave the workplace without permission at the risk of being arrested. Yet it is always hard to obtain reliable information about the domestic situation of Eritrea as not only all press outlets were closed in 2011, but no independent civil society organisations nor nongovernmental organisations are allowed in the country.
The increasing number of defections is the proof that “Eritreans are voting en masse with their feet”. Today the country stands as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) over 5% of the population has fled during the past decade. Putting it differently, around 4000 people escape from Eritrea every month.
While the majority of defectors are ordinary citizens, the elites are also fleeing the country. In 2013, two high-ranking Air Force officers stole the president’s luxurious private plane and fled to Saudi Arabia. Ironically, they were followed by a third pilot who was sent by the government to retrieve the plane but who also chose defection. In 2012, a dozen members of the Eritrean Olympic Team asked for political asylum at the end of the London Olympics and in 2013, nine players of the Eritrean national football team disappeared and refused to return at the end of the CECAFA Cup in Kenya.
The United Nations estimates that there are between 5000 and 10 000 political prisoners in the country. The detention conditions are said to be brutal, formal charges rarely exist and the majority of prisoners has not even been tried. Furthermore, Eritrea has repeatedly denied visa entry to the UN and it seems unlikely that the situation will change in the near future.
Still, the unprecedented event of January 2013 – where a group of soldiers occupied the Ministry of Information to force the director to demand on air television the release of political prisoners – shows growing discontent and might challenge President Aferwerki.