News / Africa

Eritrean Siege Stalemate Sheds Light on an Opaque Society

Peter Heinlein
A day-long siege at Eritrea's information ministry Monday ended in a stalemate, with disgruntled soldiers retreating to a strategic location outside the capital, Asmara.  That the incident provides rare insight into the inner workings of one of the world's most opaque societies.

International observers are wondering what happened Monday after a group of soldiers drove to Eritrea's information ministry and demanded that a statement be read out over state-run television.  The statement asking for the release of political prisoners and for respect of the constitution was being read when the station suddenly went off the air.

Nearly 12 hours later, the station resumed broadcasting with no mention of the cause of the disruption.  The troops that had occupied the ministry simply climbed back into their armored personnel carriers and drove off.

Information gathered from a variety of sources indicates the operation was led by Colonel Saleh Osman, a legendary figure of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war from 1998 to 2000.  A usually authoritative opposition website reports that Colonel Osman and several dozen supporters retreated to the suburbs of Asmara, where they are in talks with President Isaias Afewerki's government.

Information is tightly controlled in Eritrea.  The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranks the Red Sea nation last out of 179 countries in press freedom, below North Korea.

Former Reporters Without Borders Africa director Leonard Vincent is the author of a book titled The Eritreans, and a close follower of the country.  In a telephone interview, Vincent said Monday's siege appears to have been a show of force, and not an attempt to seize power.

"Yesterday's operation was not aimed at overthrowing by violence the government, but still it's a standoff with the government," said Vincent. "It's an operation aimed at showing defiance toward them.  So this shows the level of frustration in the army is very high."

Vincent says the standoff at the information ministry suggests Colonel Osman has broad support within the military.

"If this was an isolated operation led by a rebel colonel, this kind of move should have been met by violence and severe repression," he said. "This hasn't happened, so there might be negotiations going on, and this unit might not be so isolated as we thought yesterday."

Vincent believes it is too early to tell whether the operation was successful.

"We cannot say if it has succeeded or failed," said Vincent. "What we can say is a faction of the army is showing its strength and is talking with the government on the basis of what they are capable of doing in terms of taking control of parts of the country."

Vincent says the dissidents' demand of freedom for political prisoners, particularly those jailed in a 2001 purge, has deep resonance among ordinary Eritreans.

"It's the sine qua non [essential] condition for change in Eritrea," he said. "The situation of political prisoners is awful.  Reformists and journalists who were jailed in 2001 have vanished.  According to sketchy reports, they are detained in high security prison in the far northeast of the country, and the majority have died from disease or by suicide.  This is a method the government uses against any dissent or criticism."

Human rights groups have long criticized Eritrea's record of jailing government critics. The United Nations last year estimated there are as many as 10,000 political prisoners in a country of six million people.

You May Like

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid