While the world struggles to confront what can only be described as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Somalia, the people of neighbouring Eritrea are faring little better.
Contrary to the claims of dictator Isaias Afewerki that this year’s harvest has yielded at bumper crop; satellite imagery and thousands of malnourished refugees crossing into Ethiopia every month suggest that Eritrea has been hit just as hard, if not worse, as the rest of the Horn of Africa. Ominously, some reports from the Ethiopian government have gone as far as suggesting that up to half of the Eritrean population may be now be starving.
Of course it is difficult to verify anything coming out of Eritrea. Lingering at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index (below the likes of Equatorial Guinea, Iran and North Korea), this is one of the most closed-off societies in the world. This year’s Amnesty International Report, gives a taste of the level of authoritarianism, highlighting how Afewerki’s thugs hold control through throwing dissidents into underground cells and metal shipping containers where they are routinely beaten and left without food or water. Thousands of ordinary citizens have been detained for taking part in un-authorised religious services and eleven of the G-15, a group of parliamentarians who spoke out against the regime back in 2001, have spent the last decade locked away with no public confirmation of whether they are even alive.
Foreign ambassadors find it hard to move around Eritrea and UN peacekeepers (monitoring the fragile peace with Ethiopia) have been kicked out along with the majority of aid agencies, compounding the difficulties in confirming the precise situation when it comes to food security and famine. With the burden of proof resting on Afewerki, the tyrant has given nothing other than empty rhetoric to back up his claim that Eritrea has somehow been insulated from the regional disaster.
Such denials, along with the prohibition on aid agencies, are undoubtedly exacerbating starvation across the country and underscore the political nature of this famine. Climate change, soil conditions and wider poverty issues have all played a part, but it is the actions of tyrants such as Afewerki, along with the Islamist militia Al-Shabab and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) across the border in Somalia, that are costing the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. An interesting UN Dispatch article recently suggested that exacerbating the famine through hindering the relief effort could be considered a crime against humanity, citing the precedent of the Herero Genocide, where Imperial German troops deliberately starved thousands of Herero people in what was then Southwest Africa.
In this case, Afewerki stands out as particularly culpable. As well as preventing any relief effort (or even serious assessment of conditions) in Eritrea itself, his government has long stood accused of providing financial and logistical support to Al-Shabab, and even of sending troops to support it’s insurgency. It is highly likely therefore, that Eritrean authorities are at least indirectly responsible for much of the open hostility against civilians and aid workers currently taking place in Somalia, and rendering relief so ineffective there.
Eritrea is already subject to sanctions and regular vocal criticism, but if the lives of Eritrean citizens and those throughout the region are to be saved, pressure must be seriously stepped up. Failure to reign in Afewerki is just one more sign of the world’s ineffective response to the crisis in the Horn of Africa…and a death toll that is growing by the day.