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

Video British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid