The Uninvited To The US-Africa Leaders Summit: The Tyrant Of Eritrea

Written by Andrew Friedman

”Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.”

This is how former US Ambassador Ronald McMullen described the situation in the tiny East African country of Eritrea according to cables leaked through Wikileaks. The “unhinged” dictator McMullen was describing is Isaias Afewerki, the country’s President since its independence in 1993.

Eritrea is among the six African states that were excluded from the first of its kind US-African Leaders Summit to be held from August 4-6 this year. Along with Sudan, Western Sahara and Zimbabwe, Eritrea’s President was not asked to join.

In this AFKInsider exclusive series we will examine “The Uninvited,” a group of countries under African Union, United States and/or United Nations sanction, forbidding them from participating in what will be the most prominent act of US-Africa top-level engagement in history.

A White House official told The Hill via email that “Eritrea will not be invited because the U.N. continues to sanction Eritrea for its efforts to destabilize Somalia and because Eritrea has not accepted full diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting our offer of an ambassador.”

While this may be the official reason for the exclusion, the underlying psychosis of Afewerki and continual tyranny experienced by the small, idiosyncratic state go well beyond shaky diplomatic relations.

Eritrea emerged from the wake of a pronounced, bloody civil war with Ethiopia. The war would begin in 1961 and last more than three decades. It would also cost more than 150,000 Eritrean and “hundreds of thousands” of Ethiopian lives.

After an Eritrean victory and US-brokered peace talks, Ethiopia recognized Eritrea’s right to an independence referendum, which, held in 1993, would result in near-unanimous support for independence.

While many states that are the product of such bloody civil wars (see South Sudan) do not emerge as human rights respecting democracies, Eritrea has been a particularly horrific case.

 Freedom House, the US-based non-governmental organization that rates freedom across the world not only designates Eritrea as “not free,” the country has been included on its “Worst of the Worst” list for each of the last two years.

When describing political space in the country Freedom House puts it simply. “Eritrea is not an electoral democracy.” This has been the case since independence and “instead of moving toward a democratic system, the [Afewerki] government has become harshly authoritarian since the end of the war with Ethiopia.” While the country ratified a new constitution in 1997 and was supposed to have elections in 2001 that are yet to materialize.

Strictly Subordinate

According to Freedom House, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (the President’s party) and the military are the only two functioning institutions in the country, and both are “strictly subordinate” to him.

The authoritarian dominance of Afewerki extends to nearly all areas of life in Eritrea. Independent media is not allowed to operate in the country and the government controls all outlets. Internet infrastructure is also controlled by the government, allowing for near constant monitoring.

The only way individuals can receive information without any government interference is through a satellite dish, a difficult to afford luxury for a country where the CIA estimates that half the population sits below the poverty line.

The government also regulates religion, only officially acknowledging four faiths. Those who subscribe to a faith outside Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism or the Lutheranism professed by the Evangelical Church of Eritrea are subject to tremendous official discrimination.

Freedom House estimates that “as many as 3000 people from unrecognized religions are currently in prison because of their beliefs.”

In case Eritreans have an inclination to test the government in other areas, Afewerki’s government has ensured they will not succeed. The rights to assembly and association are not recognized and the government controls all imports, meaning all food imports are controlled by the government. This spells tremendous trouble for dissenters.

Additionally, any legal challenge to government policy is a fool’s errand.

According to Freedom House, “The judiciary, which was formed by decree in 1993, is understaffed, unprofessional, and has never issued rulings at odds with government positions. Constitutional due process guarantees are often ignored in cases related to state security.

The International Crisis Group has described Eritrea as a ‘prison state’ for its flagrant disregard of the rule of law and its willingness to detain anyone suspected of opposing the regime, usually without charge. ”

The troubles of Eritrea are institutional. All roads go through Afewerki and his government and any dissent is simply not tolerated. This extends to traditionally sacrosanct areas such as religion and academic freedom. Afewerki controls the country through fear, a complete disregard for the rule of law and utter dominance of all institutions.

For this reason, along with the role the small country has played in destabilization of its neighbors, President Obama simply could not include Afewerki in the upcoming US-Africa Leaders Summit. Hopefully the exclusion of Afewerki and other despots like him casts a glow on the horrors of life experienced every day by ordinary Eritreans.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.