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Eritrea – Africa’s North Korea

Secretive Nation

Eritrea, the 22-year-old nation navigated a treacherous terrain to get to its independence in May 1993. From Italian colonial control-to-British administrative control-to-full annexation by Ethiopia, and then independence, it had been a contentious land. Despite Eritreans’ hope that the nation would be democratic and prosperous, their country is leading from behind in almost every metrics but leads in secrecy. Isaias Afwerki turned out to be Africa’s Kim Jong-Un, short of the nuclear weapon.

This Horn of Africa nation is one of the most secretive nations in the world. Political dissent is punished by prison and torture. Free press is banned. International human rights activists and foreign journalists are not allowed to enter the country.

Historical Background Summary

Italian Eritrea was officially created in 1890. Rome was obsessed with Eritrea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries even though acquisition of lands started in the mid nineteenth century. According to New York Times Feb. 2, 1902 article titled, “To Attract Italian Emigration to Africa,” the Kingdom of Italy had a hard time to get Italians settle in Eritrea. At the time, Rome discovered gold and believed the mineral existed throughout Eritrea.

The Italian colonial era ended in 1941, and Eritrea fell under British administrative control. According to CIA Fact book, UN established an autonomous state of Eritrea within the Ethiopian federation, 10 years later. Shabait – Eritrean government’s mouthpiece claims the goal of the British administration at the time was expanding its colony and leaving the parts it didn’t need to Ethiopia.

The annexation of Eritrea by Haile Selassie in 1962 gave birth to a rebel movement led by Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which later gave birth to Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)—now called People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). In 1991, the rebel forces kicked Mengistu Hailemariam’s forces out of Eritrea.

Eritreans unanimously voted for independence in 1993. Despite the jubilations that followed independence from Ethiopia, another dictator replaced Mengistu Hailemariam—former dictator of Ethiopia currently residing in Zimbabwe. Isaias Afewerki is not known for his democratic principles. Eritrea never had an election since the strongman took over.


The latest report on the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea is whopping 484 pages. However, you don’t need to read all the pages to get the general understanding of the human rights abuses in Eritrea. A single page summarizes all the misery happening in this isolated nation. The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea published drawings by an Eritrean torture survivor. The Horn Post has not requested a permission to publish the drawings from the artist. Instead, we have decided to publish the descriptions from the report.

Helicopter: the hands and the feet of victims are tied behind their back and they are made to lie on the ground, face down, or suspended in the air.

Otto: the arms are tied behind the back of victims who are often made to lie on the ground, face down.

Almaz (diamond): victims are generally hung to a tree with their back and forced to stand on tiptoes.

Torch: victims have their hands and sometimes legs, tied or handcuffed, a stick placed under the knees. They are hung upside down and beaten, especially on the soles of the feet.

Ferro: victims are often handcuffed with ferro during interrogations. These ‘special’ iron handcuffs have bolts that can be screwed from underneath to tighten them, which creates severe pain and stops the blood flow. Depending on the replies given to the questions of the interrogator, the ferro are tightened or loosened.

Toilet breaks: inmates can generally go out for toilet breaks once or twice a day to urinate and defecate, often in open spaces covered with human waste while guarded at gunpoint. Former detainees reported being forced to release themselves under extreme time pressure and in humiliating ways.

The above descriptions of the torture mechanisms were word-for-word from the Commission of Inquiry report.

The report concludes, “The enjoyment of rights and freedoms are severely curtailed in an overall context of a total lack of rule of law.” The areas of violations included extrajudicial executions, torture, national service and forced labor. Citing denial of access to the country, the commission could not rule out international crimes in other areas.

‘At least 10,000 political prisoners’

In its May 8, 2013 press release, Amnesty International says “[It] believes that at least 10,000 political prisoners have been imprisoned by the government of President Isaias Afewerki.” The organization also included the map of secret underground prisons, where political prisoners are locked up without any charges, and isolated from their families.

The Opposition

Eritrea has at least half a dozen opposition groups, all of which are banned from operating inside the country. Some of them operate inside Ethiopia, since the foe on the southern border hosts about 200,000 Eritrean refugees. Not to be outdone by the Ethiopian oppositions operating inside Eritrea, they form coalition now and then, to intimidate the government in Asmara.

On Oct. 2, 2012, two Eritrean Air Force pilots defected to Saudi Arabia and later sought political asylum.

Eritrean soccer players have a habit of disappearing in every country: 12 in Kenya in 2009, 13 in Tanzania in 2011, and at least 14 in Uganda in 2012.


Eritrea is one of the major contributors to the current European migrant crisis. The most recent report by the Guardian puts Eritrea’s contribution to the refugee crisis at 8%. The current estimate of migrants is about 500,000, to which Eritrea roughly contributed 40,000.

These Eritrean refugees risk their lives by taking the dangerous routes often dominated by kidnappers.

By United Nations’ estimate, there are 260,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan alone.

The Dictator

Eritrea’s leader since independence, Isaias Afwerki is known for his repressive rule. He created a mandatory, and lengthy national military service with no exemption even for the elderly. Even though international community has criticized him for his dictatorship, he has some of the most vocal supporters inside and outside the country. The paranoia of Ethiopian invasion and the memory of the bitter 30 years of armed struggle left him with loyal supporters.

Isaias Afwerki was born on Feb. 2, 1946 in Asmara. He is married to Saba Haile, and the couple has two sons and a daughter. He joined Eritrean liberation struggle in 1966 after quitting college.

He is said to be in a “perfect health,” except in 2012, Eritrean oppositions circulated rumors of his death, which prompted him to get on national television, and accuse the people who were running with the rumors of being “sick” themselves.


It seemed Eritrea and Ethiopia were getting along at first, and then Eritrea adopted a new national currency, Nakfa in Nov. 1997. Disagreements over taxes, Assab port and land ensued.

A year later, a fight broke out. The border war, which involved on-and-off offensive from both nations, and mediations from Rwanda and the United States, took place from 1998 to 2000.

Both nations suffered a significant loss of human lives, and are currently waging a proxy war in Somalia.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1907

The resolution adopted on Dec. 23, 2009 imposed significant sanctions on Eritrea: arms embargo, travel restrictions on its leaders and asset freezes. The Security Council imposed the sanctions “gravely concerned” about Eritrea’s support for Somalia’s armed groups and failure to withdraw its forces following clashes with Djibouti in June 2008. The resolution was adopted by 13 votes in favor, 1 against (Libya), and 1 abstaining (China).

Araya Desta, Permanent Representative of Eritrea to the United Nations wrote a letter to the Security Council a week prior to the vote calling the resolution, “ ludicrous punitive measures”.