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Eritrea: The Perversion of Exports

Eritrea: The Perversion of Exports


Aynalem Sebhatu 07-14-21

I would like to begin by stating that Eritreans were inspired by the brisk economic development of countries like Singapore and Hong-Kong when they started drafting economic policy for their newly independent country.  They sought various ways to revive the war-torn economy and they mainly based their strategy on export-led development, none of which had succeeded.  The plain fact is that economic rationalism has not had a chance since Isaias’ leadership was put in place.  

While there is nothing wrong with its vision of trade for its development, Isaias Afewerki and his henchmen have no clue what takes to court markets of the region to engage in trade and its implication of international cooperation.  They have a radical understanding of what export led development means and there are indeed plenty of lessons to draw, but they are all negative in nature.  That is, broadly they are lessons about how the resoluteness, aspiration and dreams of Eritreans (tested in 30 years of armed struggle) have been smothered by a brutal dictator.  Specifically, they are lessons about how the Isaias regime miserably failed to recognize the significance of maintaining the economic underpinnings of a strong military machine.

The Eritreans and the Tigrayans fought together to throw off the yoke of one of the most brutal Ethiopian dictators, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. But the suffering of the Eritreans did not end with the overthrow of Colonel Mengistu. Currently, Eritreans are suffering and have suffered for more than three decades of brutal dictatorship by Isaias Afewerki. After 30 years of sacrifices (1961-1991) and hard-won independence, the people of Eritrean found themselves, politically and economically, in dire straits. 

When Isaias Afewerki became the President of Eritrea in 1993, it was a milestone in ushering in a new era and people were jubilant about the bright future of the country. Eritreans started to see the devastating and protracted war in their rearview mirror and began to dream of building their country to a prosperous one.  Even though the country’s economy was in a debilitated state from the long devastating war with Ethiopia, the aspirations, the dreams and the determination of Eritreans to build their newly minted country were overflowing.

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In the first few years of Eritrea’s independence, the expats returned back with sufficient foreign investment to participate in rebuilding the country and Eritrea experienced strong economic growth. However, to the disappointment of the people of Eritrea and to the betrayal of the cause of the long armed-struggle, Isaias was not accountable to, or representative of, the Eritrean people’s aspiration of building a democratic and prosperous Eritrea.

With Isaias’ brutal dictatorial leadership in place, the lack of tangible economic gains and the repressive political environment pushed away the best and the brightest of the country whose long-term interests are not compatible with those of the military and with the security apparatus of the country.  Eritreans hopes and aspirations quickly disappeared and the prime-aged (20 to 55 years) Eritreans, if not all age groups, invested their time in search of greener pastures outside the country.  Young and old Eritreans lose their trust and devotion to their loved country and they increasingly vote with their feet subjecting themselves to an exile. The high migration rate (or “export” of people) from a tiny population base and the migrants' harrowing journey to the green pastures of the world is really heartbreaking.  

The consequences for the country are profound. The acute shortages of prime-aged in manning the military and in the productive sectors of the economy increasingly threatened the system as a whole.  More severely, the Isaias dictatorial regime has responded to the economic, social and political insecurities of the people with efficient clamp down of public legitimate grievances. Thereby silencing, jailing and exiling of its citizens for the last thirty years of the country’s existence as an independent country.

If there is one thing which comes out of thirty years of dictatorship in Eritrea, it is the perfection and the efficiency of the security apparatus in terrorizing and subjugating the people of Eritrea. A major tool of conduct for the Isaias regime seems to me to spring from the enlargement of the security apparatus and the military. It is predictable and is classic of a totalitarian state that no national life can exist free from the political control of Mr. Isaias. Everything from the smallest urban and rural informal sectors of the economy and worshiping places to the formal sectors of the economy must pay strict loyalty to Isaias’s objective, must, if demanded, serve the country in never ending national service in the military. The state of Eritrea became the only “real” organization, and all other institutions are obedient to it. In effect, Mr. Isaias runs the state of Eritrea as his private security company that provides military and security services to dictators of the region, like Abiy Ahmed.  Providing military and security services to Somalia, the UAE and others who are in search of hired guns in the region are prime examples of exports of Isaias’ Eritrea.  

The predominant thinking of the Isaias regime is that Eritrea should export military and security services to regional states and that the revenue should be used to expand the country’s treasure. The military and security henchmen of Isaias think that these exports would allow the country to have a bigger and more powerful army and navy and more Eritrean influence in the region.  The problem is the provision of such services to one regional state or political group leads to offending others thereby seen as a direct hostile act.  In turn, this leads to frequent entanglement of inter and intra-national state tensions and conflicts across the region. Then the dilemma for the Isaias regime becomes that in fighting off the Yemenis, the Sudanese, the Djibouti, the Ethiopians and the Tigrayans challenges, Eritrea would most likely weaken itself as well. The Ethio-Eritrea war of 1998, for its ups and downs, essentially confirmed those concerns of economic and social decline.

In the last three decades, Tigray, one might say, has built successful political and economic infrastructural orders in relation to Eritrea.  Tigray and Eritrea came out of the Derg war era in a devastated state.  Looking back to the early 1990s, it was by no means apparent that Tigray was destined to rise above Eritrea in economic and political development. It was not obvious to the people of Tigray that Tigray was poised to overtake the Eritrean economy.  Despite a relatively better economic base and great resources (such as ports) possessed by the Eritrean government, the Eritreans steadily overextended themselves in the course of repeated wars and became militarily top-heavy for their failing economic base.

A large proportion of Eritrea’s material and human resources are diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to the national security apparatus and to the military. This led to the Eritrean economy to collapse and to the devastation of the social fabric of Eritreans.  This is likely one of the leading causes (in addition to the indefinite mandatory national service and the repressive political environment)  for Eritreans to leave the country in a significant number.  In essence, Isaias Afewerki and his close cronies (mostly high-ranking military men) never transform themselves from leading a guerilla army into leading a country that is aspiring to develop economically, politically and socially. Instead their leadership reverted back to what they know best from the days of guerrilla warfare: toying with guns.

Isaias has developed the capacity of exporting his internal problems to neighboring countries and beyond. He blames the people of Tigray and the USA for all the ills of Eritrean society rather than admitting any role in it.  He always points out that an abnormally large mixture of exogenous factors is responsible for Eritrea’s lack of development for the last three decades.This is a classic fascist way of externalization of domestic problems. The scary part of it is that a significant number of Eritreans accepted his explanation without question and it became the main rationale for the genocidal war in Tigray.

Isaias has also a well-developed habit of exporting his reign of terror to the neighboring regional states. As if thirty years of draining out the oxygen of Eritrea is not enough, Isaias Afewerki is so determined to suck and gulp the vitality of Tigrayans as soon as he could. He wished he could bring Tigrayans into submission like what he did to the people of Eritrea. Unfortunately for him, the fiercely fighting spirit of the Tigrayans are forcing him for his desperate last gasp of air.  At first, he believed that the Tigrayans would simply cave in as soon as they got a taste of the massive cruelties of the allied forces. And even later, when it became apparent that the Tigrayans, instead of caving in, were matching the allied forces' escalation, Isaias and his allies thought the genocidal war against Tigray would go the way it was planned.  Come Operation Alula, the allied forces are in disarray and it is noticeable that the allied forces are, at least, forced to go back to redrawing their war plan against Tigray.  

Despite of the destruction of Tigray, Isaias could not in the end succeed against Tigrayans. What he did achieve is the devastation of Tigray’s economic and social infrastructures and the weakening and speeding up the disintegration of Ethiopia. What is appalling about this genocidal war is that Abiy's and Isaias’ unimaginable vindictiveness is dragging the entire region into a debilitating cycle of violence and thereby condemning the people of the Horn of Africa into crippling poverty. What is even more tragic is that the Amhara elites’ mobilizations of broad segments of the population, which became directly or indirectly complicit in ethnic cleansing, as if the country is chugging along the rails of peace and prosperity.  To what end? To exterminate Tigrayans that they viewed as a threat to the grand political ambition of the Amhara elites, Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki. 

Tigray is Prevailing!

Eternal glory to our martyrs!

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