Despite Historic Rapprochement With Ethiopia, ‘Nothing Has Changed’ in Eritrea

ASMARA, Eritrea—The streets of Eritrea’s capital in the runup to this year’s Independence Day celebrations on May 24 were unusually quiet. But cafes and restaurants were full of many Eritreans from the diaspora who had traveled back to mark 28 years of national independence. “I come every year on this occasion,” an Eritrean living in Germany told me, “to celebrate my country.”

Most of the people I know who put up with life in Eritrea the whole year, however, do not feel like celebrating. For them, the holiday is a day off work that they will spend at home, in part because security tightens, with soldiers or police on every street corner. In the past few months, arbitrary arrests have apparently increased, so everyone is cautious and seems to avoid the center of the city. It is impossible to verify these stories, or other rumors of splits within the ruling party and increasing forms of dissent, given how opaque politics are in Eritrea. The only visible sign I encountered last month was anti-government graffiti inside a building, profanely calling out the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Photos of other anti-government graffiti have recently circulated on Eritrean social media.

The government seemed nervous enough to block social media sites like Facebook and its messaging app in the weeks before Independence Day. The internet itself was also much slower than usual. “They cut down the allowance of everybody during the celebrations,” one internet provider in Asmara admitted to me.

What exactly were the authorities afraid of? Shouldn’t this year’s Independence Day, the first after the end of the “no peace, no war” stalemate with neighboring Ethiopia, have been a celebration?

“Nothing has changed,” one friend told me. “For some time, at least we had some material benefit,” referring to the influx of Ethiopian goods when the long-closed border was finally open for a few months last year, as part of the peace deal struck last September after the sudden and surprising rapprochement. I had witnessed some of these dynamics from the Ethiopian side then, including excited Eritreans who took trips to the city of Mekelle, in northern Ethiopia, and further afield to stock up on goods that had been hard to get in Eritrea for over a decade. But for now, the border is closed again, officially to finalize proper trade relations and policies about the movement of people as part of the two countries’ political normalization. The general expectation was that in his Independence Day speech, President Isaias Afwerki would outline these future relations and indicate a date when the border will be opened again.

Most people acknowledge that when the border was fully open without any checks, Ethiopian businesspeople took full advantage, so this unregulated flow of goods could not go on; similar complaints of Eritreans could be heard from the Ethiopian side as well. At the same time, whether Ethiopian businesses made undue profit or not, everybody had welcomed the sharp decreases in the price of many goods that followed the original border opening last fall. Prices have now crept up again, unsurprisingly, even if not to the old levels during the long stalemate.

But for now, the Ethiopian cars and trucks that briefly clogged Eritrean streets have disappeared. On a trip to the southern border, one passes the remains of a big “Mekelle market” on the outskirts of Asmara, where people used to fill their car trunks with Ethiopian products. A few pickup trucks and the remains of some temporary stalls are all that are left. The Red Sea port of Massawa is sleepy again, too; the only traffic is the loading of metals from the Bisha mine onto ships bound for China. In the town of Senafe, near the Zalembassa border crossing that was the first to open last year, just a trickle of goods arrives from Ethiopia on public buses, only occasionally checked by local police.

For now, the Ethiopian cars and trucks that briefly clogged Eritrean streets have disappeared.

While they weren’t in the mood to celebrate on Independence Day, most of my Eritrean friends and acquaintances still waited in anticipation for the president’s speech. Most of them were deeply disappointed. Afwerki made no mention of the peace process with Ethiopia, only vaguely referencing how Eritrea had to “overcome political subterfuges.” There had been rumors, even among circles in Eritrea’s ruling party, that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would attend the speech and celebrations at Asmara’s main soccer stadium. But in the end, he wasn’t even mentioned by name. Afwerki said nothing about Eritrea’s future relationship with Ethiopia, or when the border might be reopened. He only offered a wooly call for a “patient appraisal of the unfolding reality,” whatever that reality may be in the government’s interpretation.

Eritreans are used to making the best of bad situations and adapting. Some got more hope by listening to Ethiopian radio and watching Ethiopian TV, which provided some more information about when the border might reopen—but of course only with Eritrea’s consent. Some Eritreans who visited Ethiopia during what many already are calling “the golden weeks of an open border” are now sitting on packed suitcases back in Asmara, planning to leave for good next time. Having seen how easily even any small opening can be reversed, they will not make the same mistake of “thinking something will really change,” as one of my acquaintances put it. 

The frustration of the situation is how little is really known. The lack of information around the border, supposedly key to the peace process, reflects a dynamic that has characterized Eritrea’s politics for almost 20 years now: the feeling among ordinary Eritreans of being left in limbo by the authorities. “We give 100 percent to our country,” as a friend in Asmara said, “but they do not even talk to us.”

Other dynamics are equally hopeless. The system of mandatory national service is supposed to be ending, according to an official proclamation, but the real change is that people are now being paid a salary—not that they are no longer forced into national service. “We still cannot leave and build our own future,” one recruit working in a civilian role told me. “It is not about money but freedom.” 

For the many Eritreans abroad—the ones who didn’t come back to Asmara to celebrate this year—there is more visible debate about the political future and what role they may have in it, if rapprochement with Ethiopia means the authorities in Eritrea might loosen their grip on political life.

Finally, there is the situation next door in Sudan, which Eritreans are acutely aware of, as well as the still-rumbling political unrest in parts of Ethiopia. “We do not want a situation like that here,” is a common phrase among critics of the Eritrean regime. The official reaction of the Eritrean authorities to events in Sudan is hardly encouraging. While Ethiopia’s prime minister has tried to mediate between the Sudanese military and protesters, even if with limited success, the message from the Eritrean government is clear. It strongly opposed Sudan’s suspension from the African Union after last week’s massacre of protesters in Khartoum, slamming the African Union for its “posturing” and what it called “external intervention” in Sudan.

These are not hopeful signs that better ties with Ethiopia could lead to a political opening of any kind in Eritrea, or a shift in how the government does business.

Tanja R. Müller is reader in Development Studies at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, U.K. She first traveled to Eritrea as a journalist in the mid-1990s and has subsequently taught at the University of Asmara. She has conducted research in and on Eritrea for more than 20 years, and published widely on aspirations and political space, as well as Eritrean foreign policy, in key academic journals.

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