Renegade soldiers stormed Eritrea’s information ministry on Monday, briefly seizing control and breaking the government’s stranglehold on public broadcasting to send their own message. This wasn’t a coup attempt, or at least not a very good one. But it was a warning to President Isaias Afwerki that his autocratic regime can’t last forever. By SIMON ALLISON.
The very first instruction in the dummy’s guide to staging a military coup (not yet available in a book store near you) is that any would-be plotter’s first goal must be to take control of the flow of information. And so, in a pattern repeated in every unstable country in every continent, the first target in a coup attempt is almost always the state broadcast facilities, be it TV or radio or both. He who controls the information usually controls the country.
This is a lesson that Isaias Afwerki, the president of Eritrea, knows all too well. His government has such a firm grip on all media and information in the country that the Committee to Protect Journalists describes Eritrea as the most censored country on earth. Free, independent media is effectively extinct, while state media toes the party line with such devotion that casual readers might get the impression that Eritrea is a sensible, functional nation, a role model to others. It’s not: read this Daily Maverick piece on why Eritreans, including their national football team, keep fleeing the country. It might have something to do with the endemic poverty, high unemployment, routine human rights violations and forced, indefinite conscription.
The centre of Eritrea’s comprehensive censorship effort is the Ministry of Information in Asmara. It’s from this building that articles for the state newspapers are written; from here that state radio and television are broadcast. He who controls this building controls information in Eritrea.
On Monday, Afwerki’s control slipped. Not for long, and not enough to pose an immediate threat to his regime, but just enough to allow the rest of the world – and Eritreans, of course – to get a peek behind the propaganda-coloured curtain.
Here’s what we can piece together, although facts are nearly impossible to confirm: sometime on Monday, around 100 junior soldiers and two tanks seized the Ministry of Information building. They may or may not have been led by a war hero named Saleh Osman, who according to opposition websites has a reputation for being incorruptible. As sieges go, this one was very calm and orderly: there were no casualties, and women with children were released. Among those detained may or may not have been President Afwerki’s daughter, who was at the ministry doing an internship.
While in control of the ministry, the soldiers used their platform to broadcast a message on state radio and television. They called for the release of political prisoners – there’s between 5,000 and 10,000 of them – and the implementation of the 1997 constitution, which was suspended before it ever came into force (Afwerki blames “external interference” for this, whatever that means). The message did not call for the removal of Afwerki from power.
In response to the siege, loyal government troops quickly surrounded the Ministry of Information and eventually the renegade soldiers left the building on Monday evening. According to Voice of America, they piled into armoured personnel carriers and drove back to their base just south of the capital. It is unclear whether this was in response to negotiation, or what has happened to them since.
By Monday night, Eritrea’s state broadcaster was back on air with a pre-recorded news bulletin that made no mention of the unscheduled interruption.
“It looks like it's an isolated attempt by some soldiers who are completely frustrated by what is going on. But it wasn't done in a coordinated manner,” said the BBC’s former African editor Martin Plaut, speaking to AP. “They did seize the television station, they did manage to put this broadcast out, but the government is still functioning calmly. There is nothing on the streets.”
From the little that we know, it seems clear that the Ministry of Information siege was not a fully-fledged coup attempt. It was not designed to get rid of Afwerki. More likely, it was designed to warn him that, unless he changes his autocratic ways, the opposition to his rule is getting strong enough to remove him by force.
While being the most serious, it’s not the only unsettling bit of news that Afwerki has had in the past few months. Another major blow to his leadership was the recent apparent defection of none other than the minister of information himself, Ali Abdu. Abdu was Afwerki’s right hand man and staunchest defender, the outward face of the Eritrean regime in international media. He has not been seen in public for five months. Some reports suggest he has sought asylum in Europe or Canada, and that his relatives left behind in Eritrea have been rounded up and thrown into prison, but these are unconfirmed. All we do know is that the government has steadfastly refused to comment on what is becoming a highly embarrassing incident; an unlikely stance if Ali Abdu remained happy and loyal in Asmara.
Then there was the mass defection of the Eritrean national football team in December, who sought asylum in Uganda after losing an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. A spokesman for the team cited Eritrea’s extensive human rights abuses and the forced conscription as their main motivations for leaving so abruptly, although he added that President Isaias Afwerki was the “main problem”.
Slowly, but steadily, cracks are beginning to appear in Afwerki’s tightly-controlled regime. Unrest is growing, and becoming more serious. For now, he’s still in charge; but for how much longer? DM
Coup attempt by rebel soldiers is said to fail in Eritrea on New York Times
Soldiers seize Eritrean information ministry on Voice of America
Why would anyone defect from ‘flawless’ Eritrea? on Daily Maverick
Photo: Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki speaks during an interview in Asmara May 13, 2008. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti