Tuesday, 8 October 2013
The news of the sinking of a ship full of African immigrants off the island of Lampedusa is tragic and one's mind ties itself in knots trying to figure a way round stopping things like this happening. What makes it more tragic is that most of the people on board were Eritreans. There were some Somalis amongst them and we all understand why they would wish to leave their country which has been a failed state in total turmoil for more than 30 years.
But Eritrea is a different case altogether. Ask most people about Eritrea and you get a blank look. Nobody seems to know anything about Eritrea. To the south of Sudan and the east of Ethiopia it has an eight hundred kilometre coastline on the Red Sea. It is a land of endless possibilities, rich in minerals, with a landscape that reaches from the depths of the Danakil depression, one of the hottest places on earth, to the heights of the plateau, about 3,00 meters, on which the capital, Asmara, stands. With wonderful scenery and wild life it is an ideal spot for tourism. Rains are fitful (as can be seen from my book Dear Chips), but in general they get enough to grow sufficient food for their needs.
In 1941 British forces helped by Ethiopian nationalists, defeated the Italians in Ethiopia and Eritrea which had been an Italian colony, was liberated too. The British Government was given the task of administering Eritrea under a 10 year mandate from the United Nations. My father went there in 1946 as a legal advisor to that administration. In 1951 the UN sent a team to Eritrea to determine whether they wanted independence or federation with Ethiopia. My father was an observer and I accompanied him. He told me, years later, that it was a done deal and that federation had been promised the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie so he could have access to the sea.
My father was asked to stay at his post in Asmara by the Ethiopians when federation was completed. He remained their chief advisor till he retired in July 1973. By then there was a mounting movement for independence. Two groups set up, the ELF and EPLF. The later joined forces with the movement in Ethiopia fighting the dictator Mengistu Haile Miriam and the promise was made to give Eritrea its independence if the coalition won. Well, they did and Eritrea became independent in 1991.
The leader of the EPLF Isaias Afewerki became the first president. He had, during the years of fighting, promised a full democracy in Eritrea. However, like so many African leaders he quickly built up an internal spy system that would make the Stazi proud, started intimidating any opposition and has ended up as a thorough-going Maoist dictator. He imprisons anyone who talks out against him and the democracy he promised and led his followers to believe in has vanished. Before he came to power he spoke out in favour of a free press and immediately after independence Eritrea boasted a number of new and free newspapers. Most of their journalists now languish in prison. Only the state media is allowed and any reader of the official Eritrean web site will instantly recognise simplistic, boring, repetitive praise for the President and various comities.
I still have contacts there and when on the phone I can't ask any questions relating to politics because the phones are tapped. Afawerki has turned a land of promise into the tragedy we see there today, where hundreds of his fellow Eritreans will do anything to escape the country. He is a brutal man and he is brutalising his people. All the deaths over the past ten to fifteen years can be laid squarely at his feet.
My book Dear Chips gives a vivid picture of sleepy Eritrea before the war for independence. A really good factual read on Eritrea during and after the war is I Didn't Do It For You by Michela Wrong, ISBN 0-00-715095-4.