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Is the Horn of Africa facing another collapsing state?

Just as the Horn of Africa is witnessing the slow restoration of one collapsed state - after more than two decades of anarchic conditions in Somalia - it may be facing the collapse of another. The small country of Eritrea,

Just as the Horn of Africa is witnessing the slow restoration of one collapsed state – after more than two decades of anarchic conditions in Somalia – it may be facing the collapse of another.
The small country of Eritrea, only 20 years after gaining independence from Ethiopia, has emerged as one of the largest sources of refugees in Africa – as well as one of the most militarised societies in the world. It is increasingly displaying signs of withering state structures and an unsustainable humanitarian situation.
Although Eritrea is sometimes referred to as the North Korea of Africa, a more appropriate point of comparison may be Somalia and its descent into civil war. The already fragile security conditions in Eritrea’s neighbouring states means that its collapse could have major implications for regional stability.
The Eritrean state has, since a 1998 border war with Ethiopia, been caught in a negative spiral of autocracy and deteriorating conditions. President Isaias Afewerki – the only leader this young nation has known – used the threat posed by Ethiopia as a pretext to eliminate all domestic opposition and indefinitely defer implementing the constitution and holding elections. Meanwhile, Eritrean society has been almost totally militarised. An indefinite, compulsory and universal military conscription policy applies to most of Eritrea’s adult population. Its army is now one of the largest on the continent, and has the highest number of military personnel per capita in the world next to North Korea. In 2011, Afewerki took the additional step of arming a large section of the civilian population believed to be loyal to his party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.
Although huge amounts of resources have been devoted to Eritrea’s military, the institution appears to be split by personal and group rivalries, both within the leadership and between the rank-and-file and the leadership. Political power is very much personalised in contemporary Eritrea, and remains largely in the hands of the president and a handful of military generals, who are rivalling and contesting each other over power, influence and control over financial resources.
The increasing number of political and military defections is another symptom of what looks to be Eritrea’s crumbling state apparatus. This includes former Information Minister Ali Abdu, believed to be the president’s right-hand man; tens of thousands of soldiers who have sought political asylum in neighbouring Sudan and Ethiopia; and the very embarrassing case of two military pilots who defected to Saudi Arabia with the president’s private jet, who were also later followed by a third pilot in April 2013, sent by the government to retrieve the plane. Other defectors include members of Eritrea’s Olympics team at the London Games in 2012, 13 players on an Eritrean football team, and artist Michael Adonai.
The growing frustration among army officers manifested itself this January with a revolt led by a colonel and members of his brigade. Their desperate actions – they occupied the Information Ministry and forced the director of the national TV station to read their demands for political reform on air – further demonstrated the emerging cracks within Afewerki’s regime.
Reliable data on the size of Eritrea’s population is hard to come by, but estimates range between 3 and 4 million people. Of these, several hundred thousand have fled over the last decade, and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Eritrea reported earlier this year that the number of people fleeing every month has now reached 4,000. While the regime is in denial of the deteriorating conditions, Eritreans are voting en masse with their feet. The vast majority of the refugees are young males, and hence a significant portion of Eritrea’s productive workforce have either fled the country or find themselves indefinitely conscripted in the military.
Many of the refugees are trafficked out of the country through Egypt’s Sinai desert, where they can be kidnapped, tortured, and their families in the West extorted for ransom money by regional criminal networks. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has identified the involvement of leading figures in the Eritrean military in these criminal networks. The participation of high-level military personnel in these activities – which also include the trafficking of weapons and forced labour – reveals the blatant role illicit economic structures have assumed in Eritrea today.
A continuation of the country’s current trajectory is unsustainable, and some form of change is inevitable in the near future – the most objective indicator of which is the country’s demographics. Given the absence of institutional mechanisms for managing a leadership change, and the mistrust and insecurities that Afewerki’s divide-and-rule strategies have generated, a collapse of the government could lead to civil war.
Lessons from Somalia
A refugee crisis, high-level military defections, a divided military, ethnic tensions, and a leader displaying irrational behaviour are some of the ways in which Eritrea today resembles Somalia in the years before its collapse in 1991. The case of Somalia also illustrates the difficulty of re-building state institutions once central authority has disintegrated and several armed factions take control.
In the event of state collapse in Eritrea, the security and humanitarian repercussions may in fact outstrip those seen in Somalia. Given the high number of weapons in the country and its near total militarisation, the collapse of state authority and civil war may lead to conflict and deaths on an extraordinary scale. Making this prospect more daunting is the deepening of the country’s ethno-religious divisions in recent years. Nearly every individual in Eritrea’s military and political leadership, for instance, now hails from Afewerki’s Hamasien tribe, and are of Christian background. This has alienated the other ethnic groups and created tensions on a sub-ethnic level as well.
Somalia and Yemen have demonstrated how terrorist groups take advantage of the absence of state authority to recruit members and plan and execute attacks. Groups such as al-Qaeda could find a fertile breeding ground among the politically marginalised and increasingly frustrated Muslim population of Eritrea, which make up somewhere between one-third and one-half of the total population.
Though Eritrea is poor and small, with few natural resources, it has a long coastline along the Red Sea, shares borders with Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia and is close to Saudi Arabia and Yemen – making it important in terms of global trade and security.
The Horn of Africa is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, and most of Eritrea’s neighbours happen to be rather fragile sates. Given the symbiotic nature of conflict and state fragility in this region most of these neighbours would be severely destabilised by the collapse of Eritrea’s state apparatus. These states are themselves overburdened by their own internal security challenges, and do not possess the resources and capacity to handle the challenge of another collapsing neighbour. Such a situation would thus require a substantial international engagement.
While Eritrea’s authoritarian system has so far proven to be surprisingly resilient, if the refugee crisis continues on its current trajectory, the regime is unlikely to survive for much longer. This silent mass exodus will, if not stopped, lead to a humanitarian and security crisis of enormous proportions.
Kjetil Tronvoll is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes College, and Senior Partner at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has written Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War and The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea: Human Rights and Political Development, 1991-2009.  
Goitom Gebreluel is an advisor at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has previously worked for the Norwegian government (Norad) and taught foreign policy studies at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Al Jazeera

Review overview
  • February 4, 2014

    This for the brain washed asses if you Google the flowing (((((A Chat With Prof. Kjetil Tronvoll))) you would have pretty good idea bcz uR not going to find this kind of info in HEGDF.COM or That box called (EriTv) I mean the bandits TV about Prof. Kjetil Tronvoll in lighten your self Instead of some of the useless argument I see in this Form

  • Sidi abdu February 4, 2014

    Our dear leader comrade Issias who has no idea how to play polotics lead us into abys (war and destruction). It is about time he switch place with where ever he is holding our beloved men and women who oppose him internally.

  • Zen February 4, 2014

    you do not need to give up. eritrea is culturally rich and multi ethnic nation with nine ethnic groups, the Tigre and Tigrinya making 85% of Eritrea. some people do not know Eritrea or some of them do not want to know the true Eritrea with real people such as the Kunama, Afar, Bilen … people exist with distinct identity with every natural right to protect their own ethnic identity.
    I will not be surprised if someone rootless ignorant who grew up in Kidanemhret-shuq of Asmara or shuq keren defining Eritrea in two religions only. such people do not know who they are or they are trying to cover up their true identity.

    geje said,

    “I gave up on Eritrea long ago, when I heard a would be opposition member who went to Keren as a child from Wukro – Tigray told the people of Keren that they should not use Tigre or Bilen languages except Arabic.
    Eritreans should be ready re-design their nation. If Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya are failed states or semi failed states, then Eritrea’s fate will not be better.
    There are more than 30 so called opposition movements who hate each other, and some hate their own languages, identity and history to become somebody else.

    It is hard to swallow but it the fact on the ground.”

    • February 5, 2014

      Where did u get %85 number Tigry+Tigrinya ? Do not tel me u got it from hegdf information Ministry

  • aus 17 February 4, 2014


  • aus 17 February 4, 2014

    We need an action plan and stop the fear of failed state in which Isayas himself invests in. Believe me anybody is better than this regime, if you are sane and logical.
    What could a worst man do worse than him?

    • Bokre February 4, 2014


      The Somalis used to say who could be worse than Gen Siad Barre, look Somalia now.
      Iraqis said who could be worse than Sadam, Syrians said who could be worse than Assad?
      Go to Afganistan, Yemen, Mali, Libya and Egypt’s Mubarek …

      Yes, there are people worse than dictators. people who want to rule by divine power on earth or people who may want to burn other Eritrean languages. Eritrea can not stand on borrowed alien identity.
      Eritrea’s problem is not Issaias alone, the problem is within us when we are ashamed of our own identity and true selves.

      • Kalighe February 5, 2014

        “Eritrea’s problem is not Issaias alone, the problem is within us when we are ashamed of our own identity and true selves.”


        On every page you keep dropping a comment that says, something to the effect: “people ashamed of their identity and burning their language”. Occasionally, you even make it clear that the group you are insulting are Lowlanders, Muslims ..etc.
        No doubt, you are on a mission to instigate in-fighting along confessional lines ..
        You are trying hard where Hailesellasie failed. Let me tell you one thing, no matter how hard you try, Eritreans will never hate and kill each other because of religion. If you are misbehaving because you are not happy with your new identity [Eritrean], think of some other ways of expressing your grievances, instead of posing as “indigenous Eritrean” and spreading hate and mistrust on the blog.

      • selamawit2 February 5, 2014


        first of all we should separate superstition and religion analysed based on fact.
        you input is based on superstition (i jump to the conclusion, that you are not anti-eritrea without knowing you).

        let me explain why:

        1. about 46% of the world population live in democratic states – i man factual democratic not pseudo!
        and you take 6 nations with bad destiny out of the whole world and conclude eritreas future will be like theirs. this has no tooth and nail!

        2. if it was not superstition, you could also call it your own life style: you could take 6 states with positive development but you choose 6 with negative. you could also be called a pessimist and not an optimist AND ABSOLUTELY NOT a realist! (by the way: i prefer optimistic realists)

        3. eritrea is a very small country. you can assume, that there are about 3.5 miliions eritreans in eritrea – that is as much as in a lot of big cities in the world.
        it is much easier to manage a country with the “size” of a big city than countries like e.g. egypt. this is a fact!

        4. you could also have adviced the jewish in nazi-germany to accept hitler – with the argument, it could come worse. i am sure you would NOT have been right

        • selamawit2 February 5, 2014

          please read “analysis based on facts”

      • Anti HEGDEF February 6, 2014


        That is an Amharic name. Who made you to be Eritrean and speak about Eritrea. Get lost from this noble site.

    • Sase February 6, 2014

      Hi Aus!
      You said it all RIGHT. There isn’t any worse creature than the DEVIL himself. What worse can happen to Eritrea and its people if the devil Isayas and his generals are gone once and forever? It is only the hypocrites who may shade some crocodile tears while the rest of Eritrea will celebrate.

      GOD/ALLAH Bless Eritrea and its people!

  • Abiti February 5, 2014

    Eritrea is not a failing state . It is a failing prison .it can’t get any worse.

  • Kalighe February 5, 2014

    Dear compatriots

    Before replying to a divisive comment, think for a while who could be doing this dirty joke to us ?
    Do you think there are nowadays ordinary Eritreans out there, so stupid to wish a civil war for their own people ????
    I don’t think so. Comments of that nature are either coming from people who hate Eritrea (such as a rootless element who is at work for some time, trying to capitalize on current crisis of dictatorship to instill hopelessness), or an operative of the regime who want people to stick with DIA, because the alternatives are too scary (the devil you know is better sort of conspiracy theory). In either case they are not doing it out of naivete but on purpose.

    Please do not tolerate comments that are divisive, sectarian and try to spread hopelessness. It could be the work of an enemy that want us to remain under the yoke of dictatorship, or go back to square one under an megalomaniac neighbor.
    If you want freedom fight for it, using all possible peaceful means, and above all stand for unity of your people and in honor of your country, because that is the only one you have, and if not you who will do that ???

    • Genet February 5, 2014

      Well said?
      I may add, we need to remember this issue is everybody’s problem and we should not take any things for granted.

  • Tezareb February 5, 2014

    Most of the comments written here are full of insight but some of the responses are paranoid.
    Most Eritreans do not want to burn their own languages, they are very proud of. The Afars are only forty kms from the Arab Yemen but no Afar had burned or hated his Afar language, so are the speakers of Tigre, Kunama and others. They had defended their ethnic identity and languages for centuries and they will do so.
    The people who hate themselves are the elites who suffer of identity crisis. Like the dinosaur from Shuq-Asmara who lived in Saudi Arabia for a while believing he was an Arab only to be disappointed of the rejection by the Arabs then run away to Australia or like the young boy who was brainwashed from childhood about his true Habesha identity from Shire-Tigrai who went to the city of Keren with his parents and later to Kuwait but failed to find the none existent “Arab” in himself then run away to California when the Arabs rejected him.
    All Eritrean ethnic groups have pride in their own heritage, ancestral villages, customs, beliefs and languages. The problem is only with few lost undereducated souls who have lost their own compass. These lost ignoble ignoramus do not know the true and the real Eritreans who live in Eritrea. It was in the recent past that some of these lost ignoramus tried to burn Eritrean languages but not again.

    • February 5, 2014

      @Tezareb you sound like the head of the bandits( Issais Afewerq) in 1993 here is check out this on Isayas Afewerqi 1993

      • Tezareb February 5, 2014

        do you mean like the bandits who claim they are Arabs and trying to brainwash Eritreans away from their proud Bilen, Tigre and Afar languages ?
        All Eritrean ethnic groups have pride in their own heritage, ancestral villages, customs, beliefs and languages. The problem is only with few lost undereducated souls who have lost their own compass. These lost ignoble ignoramus do not know the true and the real Eritreans who live in Eritrea. It was in the recent past that some of these lost ignoramus tried to burn Eritrean languages but not again.

    • Tamrat Tamrat February 6, 2014

      Good analysis. One of the reason isaias have stayed in Power for so long time was the extremists who promots araba’s interests. The mass know exactly why the Arabs interested in Eritrea. Not to help eritreans. Which reatrded arab org or leaders put the interest of eris People first than its own People. Because they treat us like slaves, because they helped Syria, palestine, yemen, or the millions Arabs exodusing to the west? As any forgine policy of forgieners and some of Our greedy People Eritrea is a Peace of expensive meet.

      One of eris oppostions which is oppssessed With arabzing propaganda is Groups. Thier excuse is to unite the none tigrinya eritreans we need some strong instrument ie arabic Language. Which is easier to teach tigrinya People to co-exist With the rest of their Brothers or introduce forgine poisen hidden in the Language. Besides after uniting the smal Groups to create Balance against tigrinya People, then what after victory? Punish isaias or tigrinya People. Why People thing desperate when we need rather the opposite of desparate and opportunits leaders. Why the force us to worship a leader like mengistu or isayas while there are million other Choices. why, why, why.

      In syrian Schools they teach the geocgraphy of arab land. That include Somalia, djbouti and Eritrea. I told onee syrian who is proud of his gegrophy study that he is somalian. He said he would rather die than to be called somali. But you told me that somalis are arabas. He did not like the jock at all. He doesnt mean litteraly he killes himself but that much was about somali is arab at least in this individual mind.

      So, Eritrea is not arab land. If it has to be then it is for the worng reason.

  • February 6, 2014

    Your the product of hate speech like the one (((Isayas Afewerq 1993))) so do not repeat your self like broken record , and who are you to tel others what the good or bad for them ,your problem is you hate whoever differ to you,in belief and culture , the bad news for you , you’re in the minority with in minority so keep chewing the air bonehead

  • Axumawit.W February 10, 2014

    Once you go down to the bottom,all what is going to happen is bounce up.period!I have full confidence in Eritrean people,when they bounce,they are going to make a lot of corrections.