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Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Eritrea "the most censored country in the world." That unsurprising conclusion is only the latest dubious distinction for Eritrea, a state that often seems frozen in an authoritarian limbo in the midst of a region characterized by profound changes.
The much-heralded 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia removed the Eritrean government’s primary rationale for its vice-like grip on power and disregard for the civil and political rights of its people, but it did not in fact lead to the opening of political space. In June, over a hundred prominent African intellectuals wrote to President Isaias Afwerki, expressing concern about political prisoners and the steady stream of young asylum-seekers desperate to escape the constraints of life in the Eritrea that Isaias has created. In response, the Ministry of Information questioned their motives, declared them uninformed, and noted that policy formulation and implementation is the responsibility of “the government and the people of Eritrea alone.” But Eritreans are not free to express themselves on these issues, and the government’s claim to legitimately represent the will of the people rests on its own self-regard and delusion.
President Isaias and those who continue to enable him are right about some things. Eritrea’s history is a painful one, and they should not dismantle the machinery of repression that is so pervasive in Eritrea because of pressure from outsiders. They should dismantle it because Eritreans deserve better. A ruling elite so consumed by the past should be aware that history, including very recent African history, is replete with liberators who became oppressors. It is difficult to see the appeal in emulating their examples.
The status quo doesn’t just condemn Eritreans to languish under stifling state control, and it doesn’t just irrevocably tarnish Isaias’s legacy. It threatens the integrity and future of Eritrea itself. By denying citizens the right to freely debate their aspirations for Eritrea’s future, by refusing to implement the constitution to provide a frame for future decision-making, by conflating dissent with treason, the current government renders the state more and more brittle, and closes off avenues for peaceful, progressive political development. The autocratic paralysis at the top may achieve what so many years of international treachery and indifference could not—it may irreparably weaken the resilience of one of the world’s most resilient nations.