Coup Rumors and Reports from Eritrea and South Sudan

Eritrea

Martin Plaut:

At around 10am on 21 January a contingent of Eritrean troops stormed the state television station. They rounded up the staff – all employees of the Ministry of Information – and forced the director of Eritrea TV, Asmellash Abraha Woldu, to read a statement calling for:
the freeing of all prisoners of conscience
the implementation of the Eritrean constitution
and stating that the ministry of information was under their control.
Almost immediately the television broadcast was interrupted, and remained off the air for several hours, before resuming its broadcasts with pre-recorded material. This is about all that is clear.

Al Jazeera:

The small country in the horn of Africa remains isolated and is often described as repressed.

With thousands of political prisoners, a constitution that remains in limbo, and a president who has failed to keep promises of reform, analysts say more challenges are inevitable.

The BBC has more reporting, while Think Africa Press takes a look at Eritrea’s present and its possible future. Jay Ufelder, meanwhile, reminds us that there’s more to events like these than the equation “poverty+repression=coups.”

South Sudan

The BBC:

South Sudan has denied to the BBC that the dismissal of more than 30 top army officers has anything to do with a rumour about a coup attempt.

The country’s information minister said the changes were been made to bring younger people into top positions.

On Monday, all six deputy chiefs of staff were removed and 29 major generals were dismissed.

It is the biggest shake-up of the military since South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

More here and here is the official document from the Government of South Sudan, via their website.

What do you make of these events?

Ethiopia: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Illness and Potential Political Changes in the Greater Horn

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi missed an African Union summit this past weekend, rumors spread that he was ill. News agencies reported yesterday that Meles was in “critical condition” in Brussels. By late in the day the Ethiopian government had announced that Meles was “in good condition.” Under Article 75 of the 1994 Ethiopian constitution (.pdf), Deputy Prime Minister (and Minister of Foreign Affairs) Haile-Mariam Desalegne will act on the Prime Minister’s behalf in his absence.

Meles, a former rebel leader who took power in 1991, has previously stated his desire to step down when his current term ends in 2015. If Meles leaves office, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front will almost certainly retain power, but Meles’ absence would represent a significant political change for Ethiopia.

Indeed, Meles’ illness potentially foreshadows a coming period of political change (specifically the installation of new heads of state) for several countries in the greater Horn of Africa. Change could occur in several ways.

First, there is retirement. Meles is not the only leader in the region who has said he will step down in 2015 – Sudanese President Omar al Bashir made the same promise during a small wave of protests in early 2011, and Djibouti’s President Ismael Guellah has stated that he will step down in 2016. Some observers have doubted the sincerity of these pledges, but Meles in particular sometimes seems fatigued and ready to give up the job, an appearance that this illness underscores.

Elections will bring changes in leadership elsewhere in the region. Many observers expect Somalia’s ongoing political transition, which includes presidential elections next month, to produce a government fairly similar in personnel to the current Transitional Federal Government. But in Kenya, presidential elections set to take place in 2013 must produce a new head of state. President Mwai Kibaki, who has reached the limit of two five-year terms, cannot run again, leaving the field open to a number of major politicians, including current Prime Minister Raila Odinga and current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta.

Other transitions, as Meles’ case reminds us, could come about because of sudden illness or death, a grim possibility but one that must be mentioned. These leaders are not old: indeed, all of them (not counting Kibaki) are short of seventy – Meles was born in 1955, Bashir in 1944, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir in 1951, Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 1964, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki in 1946, Djibouti’s President Ismail Guellah in 1947, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni around 1944. Yet four of them have been in power for over nineteen years (Museveni came to power in 1986, Bashir in 1989, Meles in 1991, and Isaias in 1993). The high stress of being head of state seems to accelerate aging in some leaders. There remain only six African leaders who have been in office longer than Museveni.

Finally, no leader in the region has faced a monumental threat from mass protests, but significant anti-regime protests have occurred in the last two years in Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti. If nothing else, such protests add to the pressures these heads of state face in other areas.

It is possible, of course, that in three or four years only Kenya, out of all the countries in the greater Horn, will have new leadership. But a combination of factors could produce transitions in Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere, potentially shaking up, within a relatively short period of time, what has long been a fairly stable roster of leaders.

A Glance at the Eritrean Opposition Online

Yesterday AFP broke the news that an Eritrean opposition figure has disappeared:

An Eritrean opposition party official has been missing for two days in eastern Sudan and there are fears he may have been kidnapped by Asmara’s security agents, the party alleged on Thursday.

Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, a member of the People’s Democratic Party central council, left his house in Kassala town at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) on Tuesday and has not been seen since, the party said in a statement emailed to AFP.

See a map of Kassala here.

Eritrea, which took official independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is infamous for the tight control that the regime of President Isaias Afewerki exercises over the country’s politics, media, and economy. Human Rights Watch has called Eritrea a “giant prison.” Eritrea is a pariah in the regional politics of the Horn, and its neighbors have accused it of supporting rebels, such as Somalia’s al Shabab.

The story about Mohammad Ali Ibrahim’s disappearance made me curious about the Eritrean opposition. Given everything that one hears about the political repression inside Eritrea, it is not surprising that a figure like Ibrahim had taken up residence outside the country. It is also not surprising that the Eritrean opposition has made substantial use of the internet for broadcasting their message. What did surprise me was the sophistication of their websites and the speed with which they are updated – by last night, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), to which Ibrahim belongs, had already posted a story, in English, about the fears of a kidnapping.

The EPDP was established in 2009/2010. It is a union of three parties, the Eritrean People’s Party (EPP), the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP), and the Eritrean People’s Movement (EPM). The EDP still has its own functioning website, and the EPM’s is online but apparently not functional. The EPDP emerged out of a pre-existing opposition umbrella group, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), which also has a website. This cluster of websites is impressive, but I imagine it is only the beginning, as far as Eritrean opposition activists’ online presence is concerned.

The websites of the EPDP, the EDP, and the EDA all have content in English, Arabic, and Tigrinya, one of the main languages of Eritrea. Clearly the proprietors have multiple audiences in mind, national, international, and diasporic.

That the EPDP seeks an international audience is even clearer in its Frequently Asked Questions, a document that emphasizes (in English) the party’s commitment to electoral democracy, nonviolence, secularism, media freedom, human rights, and capitalism. I believe that the party holds these values, and I do not want to sound overly cynical, but I also believe that these values are carefully presented with an eye toward winning Western governments’ sympathies.

Since at least the 1990s (see Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large), observers have been thinking about the powerful ways in which diasporic flows and new media might change/are changing local and global politics.

In some ways, nothing has changed. Opposition figures in exile have used the cutting-edge media of their time to distribute political messages for decades (think Khomeini and casettes). But the Eritrean opposition’s heavily diasporic character and strong online presence exemplify the new kinds of political strategies that are emerging. If nothing else, the movement of ideas and people is getting faster. And I think that the internet has brought ways of addressing multiple audiences at once that are new.

Controlling events on the ground, physically, has not lost its importance, and I do not believe the Eritrean opposition’s sophistication online means it is anywhere close to toppling Afewerki. But if one needs a sign of the importance of the internet, there is the fear it inspires in governments. For example, during periods of protest in Burkina Faso and Uganda last year, those governments attempted to block text-messaging. And if it turns out that the government in Asmara did kidnap Ibrahim – despite an imbalance of power that strongly favors Afewerki – then it may indicate that the Eritrean opposition, confined to exile and the internet though it partly is, still worries the president.

A Shift in Eritrean Regional Policy?

Barry Malone at Reuters says Eritrea is taking a less confrontational line toward its neighbors:

In recent months, some analysts say they’ve detected a “softening”.

[President] Isaias [Afewerki] reached out to Djibouti and a peace deal was struck. He sounded more conciliatory tones towards neighbours in interviews. His foreign minister went on a serious hand-shaking spree on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Uganda.

And, last weekend, a meeting took place that surprised many. Isaias welcomed UN special representative for Somalia, Augustini Mahiga, to his capital Asmara for talks. The Eritreans could not have been more diplomatic in their statement afterwards.

“President Isaias pointed out that the UN has a higher responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the Somali issue and expressed Eritrea’s full support for the initiatives being taken by the world body,” a statement posted on an Eritrean government website said.

“Moreover, President Isaias expressed his conviction that the Somali issue would be resolved in a politically inclusive manner and emphasized the UN’s responsibility in creating conducive grounds for the Somalis to resolve their differences.”

Some analysts see the moves as proof that Eritrea – on the brink of a potentially lucrative gold mining boom – is worried about becoming isolated. It has also tried to forge friendships with Qatar, Iran, Israel and Egypt.

Malone asks whether the shift is purely tactical, echoing a statement that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi gave to him. My questions would be, rather, how much of a shift has occurred? And if a major one, then why? It strikes me that most of the changes relate in some way to Somalia (Djibouti hosts French and American soldiers, after all). If thousands of Ugandan troops are going to pour into Mogadishu, and if America is going to increase its involvement in Somalia, perhaps the Eritrean government wants to make sure it ends up on the right side of the struggle. Is Eritrea just putting a finger to the wind?

Eritrea-Ethiopia Tensions Continue as Ethiopian Elections Approach

Ethiopia will hold parliamentary elections on May 23, and in the run-up to the vote tensions between Ethiopia and its rival Eritrea are high.

During the weekend of April 25, “a bomb blast at a cafe in Adi Haro, an Ethiopian settlement close to the frontier with Eritrea…killed at least five people and injured 20 others.” An Ethiopian official accused “Eritrean agents who crossed the border to sabotage the upcoming elections” of perpetrating the attack.

The problems between Ethiopia and Eritrea have, in the former, complicated the ruling party’s campaigning and caused dissent even in the party’s political strongholds.

On Monday, the stakes increased as “Ethiopia arrested an undisclosed number of people from the rebel Oromo Liberation Front and Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabaab militia who crossed into the country with alleged plans to disrupt Ethiopia’s May 23 elections.” The Ethiopian government accused Eritrea of training these would-be saboteurs.

The regime in Eritrea strongly denies these charges.

Eritrea, meanwhile, faces unrest of its own, some of which Ethiopia encourages.

Eritrean rebel groups are building a joint military front to depose a government they say is pursuing ethnic persecution and becoming a growing threat to regional security, an opposition leader told Reuters.

The Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) — one of many opposition movements based in nearby Ethiopia — said the government of President Isaias Afwerki targets ethnic groups, such as the Afars, and will soon face military attacks.

In short, the hostility between the two countries is thriving, and as the elections approach in Ethiopia both sides are expressing it openly.

Fighting in the Horn of Africa: Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia

Incidents with potentially serious political ramifications recently occurred in at least two places in the Horn of Africa: Eritrea and Somalia.

Eritrea vs. Ethiopia?

The rival governments in Asmara and Addis Ababa are trading accusations of violence:

Eritrea’s government has said its troops killed 10 Ethiopian soldiers after they attacked Eritrean positions on New Year’s day, something Addis Ababa has denied.

[...]Bereket Simon, the Ethiopian government’s head of information, accused the Eritrean government of trying to cover up an attack by Eritrean rebels in which 25 Eritrean government soldiers were killed.

“This new allegation that it killed Ethiopian soldiers is an attempt by the regime in Asmara to deflect its internal crisis by implicating Ethiopia,” he told Reuters.

AFP has more quotes from the Ethiopian government:

“There was never an incursion from our side. It’s a diversionary tactic by the Eritrean regime to deflect attention from its domestic problems,” spokesman Shimelis Kemal told AFP.

An Eritrean rebel group earlier this week claimed they carried out raids against government positions, while another movement said it was “prepared to launch attacks” after the United Nations imposed an arms embargo and other tough sanctions on Asmara.

“The (Eritrean) government has become internationally outlawed and is bankrupt. The rebel claims indicate growing discontent from within the country,” Shimelis added.

Without much information to go on, it’s hard to read the significance of this incident. At its worst, it presages mounting tensions that could lead to another border war like the one the two countries fought from 1998 to 2000. Or it could be a minor disturbance, quickly forgotten. Or, if Addis Ababa’s assessment that domestic problems provoked these allegations from Eritrea is correct, we may see more erratic behavior from the government in Asmara.

If you have any insights or predictions, feel free to share them in the comments.

Somalia

Major fighting in central Somalia this weekend pitted Islamist rebels al Shabab against the pro-government Ahlu Sunna movement. Dozens have died, but Ahlu Sunna claims to has maintained control of Dusamareb, “the capital of the central region of Galgadud, coveted by al Shabaab, who would like to extend their area of control between Mogadishu and the pro-government northeast region of Puntland.” Ahlu Sunna originally pushed al Shabab from the town in 2008.

The attack on Dusamareb fits with Dr. Michael Weinstein‘s observations about “Al Shabab’s Encirclement Strategy,” in which the Islamists hope to gain control of areas around Mogadishu before taking the capital itself. Here Weinstein explains the significance of the battle over Dusamareb, using the acronym “H.S.M.” for al Shabab, “A.S.W.J.” for Ahlu Sunna, “T.F.G.” for Transitional Federal Government, and “H.I.” for al Shabab’s rival Islamist group Hizbul Islam:

Should H.S.M. succeed in capturing Dhusamareb and then extend its sway to strategic towns in Galgadud, such as Guri-el, Abudwaq, and Balanbal, which remain A.S.W.J. strongholds, the balance of power between H.S.M. and the variegated coalition resisting it in the central regions and in southern and central Somalia in general will be decisively altered. Although A.S.W.J. is only partially aligned with the T.F.G., the former’s control over Galgadud – a buffer region between the Hiraan region to the west, in which the nationalist Islamist Hizbul Islam movement (H.I.) and H.S.M. are dominant and dispute and collaborate; and the Middle Shabelle region to the east, in which H.S.M. predominates – has been one of the most important pillars of the anti-H.S.M. coalition’s aim of rolling back H.S.M., which is currently dominant in most of southern and central Somalia; the noose around the T.F.G. will tighten, which is the aim of the encirclement strategy. At the least, Galgadud has been thrown into contention and A.S.W.J.’s credibility as a resistance force against H.S.M. has been thrown into question.

Weinstein goes on to discuss Ethiopia’s involvement with Ahlu Sunna and how al Shabab’s attack has likely caught everyone by surprise, give the Islamists a great degree of momentum.

For its part, the TFG is preparing an assault on al Shabab in Mogadishu. Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke predicts Somali government troops will drive al Shabab out of the capital by the end of January. Unlike al Shabab’s attacks to the north, however, the government lacks the advantage of surprise; al Shabab has apparently been preparing for weeks for the coming fight.

The weeks ahead may see some key battles, then, as al Shabab tries to encircle the capital and the government tries to expel them from it.

Eritrea Sanctions

Yesterday, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea, 13-1, with Libya voting against and China abstaining. The UN charges Eritrea with supporting the al Shabab rebels in Eritrea; according to the BBC, “the resolution places an arms embargo on Eritrea, and also imposes travel bans and asset freezes on businesses and individuals.”

Much of the international community has considered Ethiopia Eritrea a pariah state since the early Bush administration, so the sanctions come as no surprise, but I wonder whether they are effective politics. We will judge the tree by its fruits – Does the flow of weapons to al Shabab decrease? Does Eritrea’s behavior change? Does the Horn stabilize? – but frankly, there is no reason to expect shifts in Eritrean policy.

One effect of the Security Council’s decision is already clear. With relations between countries in the Horn of Africa and the US strained, the sanctions exacerabate hostility between the US and Eritrea. A statement by the Eritrean government on the sanctions focuses on America’s role in the process:

The United States has simply employed its preponderant influence to ram through unjustifiable sanctions against a small country. What is shameful is that the United States has been allowed to use the platform and authority of the United Nations to perpetrate injustices against the people and Government of Eritrea; for the second time in recent history. What is shameful is that other major powers in the UN Security Council cannot go beyond expressing their disappointment, mostly in private meetings, to check the excesses of Washington. What is shameful is that the United States can turn the tables and victimize an innocent nation for the very crimes that it is responsible for in the first place. Because the truth is, the United States is mostly responsible for the mayhem and suffering that is bedeviling Somalia today. Indeed, it is common knowledge that as intractable as the Somali crisis is, there were real hopes of a turnaround for the better in 2006. For reasons that defy reason, the Bush Administration then acted to roll back those promising developments to instigate and support Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia. That single debacle claimed the lives of thousands of innocent Somalis, made half a million people homeless and aggravated the humanitarian crisis in Somalia to unprecedented levels. But then, the Security Council is not taking action on the basis of justice and legality. It is taking action on the basis of the existing power balance in a largely unipolar world. This does not bode well for international justice and peace. This is why today is a shameful day for the United Nations.

I do not quote the Eritrean government to agree with it, but rather to say that when the US and the UN make decisions, those decisions have political consequences. If this measure does not improve conditions in the Horn, one could call it bad politics. And if it proves to be bad politics, who gains? China, the abstainer, and Libya, the would-be African hegemon. Now everyone’s anted up. We’ll see how the cards fall.

A Tangled Web of Relationships in the Red Sea: Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen

Readers have likely heard about the ongoing military conflict between Saudi Arabia and rebels in Yemen. But did you know that Eritrea stands accused of aiding the Yemeni rebels?

Iran is using Eritrea as a base to provide weapons to Shi’ite insurgents in Yemen, an Eritrean opposition leader alleged on Sunday.

“They (rebels) are receiving their arms from Iran through Eritrea,” Bashir Eshaq, head of external relations for the opposition Eritrean Democratic Alliance, told AFP in an interview.

“The weapons arrive in Eritrea’s coastal towns – mainly Assab, and from then onwards, Huthi rebels smuggle the arms to Yemen at night,” he added.

Eritrea lies just across the Red Sea to the west of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Horn of Africa nation has frosty relations with the West, but has recently fostered close economic ties with Iran.

I cannot judge the truth of Eshaq’s claims, but this remind us that we can’t neatly separate the political world of the Horn of Africa and the political world of the Gulf. It’s all interrelated. Here are just a few of the important connections:

Despite the human, economic, and military ties between East Africa and the Gulf, we’re not getting the nuanced media coverage of this region that we need. It’s hard to find a sophisticated public discussion in the American media of how the relationships between these countries and the domestic situations in each one are affecting conflicts that are too often depicted as self-contained, like the Somali civil war, or as bilateral, like the fighting near the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border.

asmara

Asmara, Eritrea

If we’re not getting the coverage we need, is Washington formulating nuanced and effective policies toward the region?

Clearly, the administration is aware that problems have regional dimensions. US policymakers who are concerned about terrorism and instability in Yemen and Somalia recognize that these problems are connected. Speaking in August in Nairobi with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Secretary Hillary Clinton displayed an impressive knowledge of the effects of the Somali refugee crisis on its neighbors, and took questions about the possibility of the Somali civil war destabilizing Kenya. The US has taken a hard line on Eritrea for alleged involvement in Somalia. I am still concerned, though, that policies toward different players in the region are at odds with one another. Is close friendship with Ethiopia conducive to promoting stability in Somalia? Can we pressure Kenya’s leadership to reform (a move that has already evoked backlash) while still demanding their cooperation on Somalia? If accusations of Eritrean intervention in Yemen turn out to be true, I hope that the Obama administration will carefully examine all the strands in this tangled web.

On a related note, here’s a video from NTV Kenya about recent arrests of terrorist suspects: