A mass round-up of thousands of young Eritrean men for evading military service, and reports that at least 20 of those detained were massacred after a disturbance in the Adi Abeito prison in Asmara, are the latest indication of serious human rights problems in Eritrea.
The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the 30-year Eritrean war of independence against Ethiopia, had a global reputation for having made important advances in health and literacy campaigns, participatory democracy and women's liberation, despite the obstacles of underdevelopment, war and famine.
However, Isaias Afeworki, who became EPLF leader toward the end of the independence struggle, began subverting democracy within the EPLF. Since independence in 1993 there have been no elections, and actual and potential opponents of Afeworki within the EPLF, renamed the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in 1993, have been ruthlessly purged.
“The problem in Eritrea is that there is just one party and one leader”, Tewelde Kidame, the Australia and New Zealand representative of the opposition Eritrean Democratic Front (EDF), told Green Left Weekly, “It is an autocratic government without a constitution.”
Kidame said that the Afeworki regime held thousands of political prisoners, sanctioned torture and rape, and press ganged large numbers of youth into the armed forces. This mass conscription is related to the regime's conflicts with its neighbours. Despite Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi having, as leader of the Tigray Peoles Liberation Front (TPLF), been an ally of the EPLF in the war against the pre-1991 Ethiopian military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the two countries fought a senseless, but extremely bloody, border war in 1998, which ended with a cease-fire but no permanent resolution. Tensions also exist between Eritrea and Sudan, with the governments of both countries supporting armed opposition groups in the other.
The EDF is one of many banned opposition groups in Eritrea. It was formed by dissident cadre from both the EPLF and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), an older group that initiated the armed independence struggle in 1962.
Kidame told GLW that the EDF was committed to work with the all other Eritrean opposition groups with the hope of creating a united front against the government. The basis of a common platform, Kidame said, is the demands that the government should resign, political prisoners should be freed, and there should be freedom of speech and a free press.
Speaking by telephone from his headquarters in California, EDF chairperson Abraham Negasi told GLW that the EDF was, in the short term, going to unite with the Eritrean Peoples Movement, founded in May by former EPLF leaders Adhanom Gebremariam and Abdella Adem, and former ELF leader Mohammed Ibrahim. “We are committed to unity”, Negasi said.
From Green Left Weekly, November 24, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.