Hopes were high in May 1991 when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) captured the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and helped the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian military dictator. It was thought that the movement which had been fighting for decades for independence would usher in an era of peace, unity and equality for the Eritrean people, explains Professor Keith Somerville in this review of Martin Plaut’s ‘Understanding Eritrea. Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State’.

The EPLF had extensive international sympathy. Support in the form of advocacy and aid donations to the movement’s Eritrean Relief Association came from, among many others, the British Labour Party, Oxfam and Scandinavian development NGOs. The veteran commentator and Horn of Africa analyst, Peter Woodward, wrote that it ‘was arguably one of the most respected liberation movements in Africa’ and that it was expected to base its policies on egalitarianism and ‘be capable of integrating into the society within which it set out to build its new government’. Despite its reputation for single-minded and strong leadership from a small cadre group, Woodward and another leading analyst, David Pool, believed its success, its high standing in Africa and its ability to recruit from most sectors of a diverse population, would lead to inclusiveness and the building of a popular mass party.

According to Martin Plaut, a British journalist and specialist on Eritrea, these expectations were to be cruelly betrayed by a movement and a ruthless leadership, for whom undivided loyalty and total subordination to the diktat of the government created by the EPLF would make it Africa’s most repressive state. He had been highly supportive of the EPLF when it was fighting successive Ethiopian regimes under Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The October judgement by a British court that to return Eritrean asylum seekers would expose them to severe risk of harm, demonstrated how the early hopes had been replaced by despair – for Eritreans and those who have closely watched its development as a state. Reporting the court’s decision, which reversed British Home Office policy, The Guardian (which also took a very sympathetic line to the EPLF) said that the country had ‘an appalling human rights record, forced labour, indefinite compulsory military conscription and widespread use of torture [which] has earned Eritrea the sobriquet “Africa’s North Korea”.’

Glenys Kinnock, Britain’s former minister of state for Africa and MEP, herself a supporter of the EPLF’s liberation struggle, was quoted by the Guardian as saying that ‘there must be no compromise with the tyrannical Afwerki regime’. Eritrea is ruled with an iron fist inside an iron glove by Isaias Afwerki, who led the EPLF and has been head of state since formal independence in 1993.

This court judgement was key not only in improving the chances of Eritrean refugees being granted asylum in Britain, but also because of the very serious issue for Europe and for countries neighbouring Eritrea of the flood of people fleeing tyranny and forced labour.  Professor Gaim Kibreab, a specialist on refugee issues, has written that 400,000 people out of an estimated population of around five million have fled Eritrea in the past decade to avoid forced national service conscription (which often becomes an endless sentence to forced labour) and he quotes the UN as saying that every month around 5,000 escape from the country.

Writing for The Conversation in May last year, Professor Kibreab said that the plight of Eritreans is under-reported and tried to put that right in the article. He highlighted human rights abuses, the forced national service, the closing down of any vestiges of civil society and freedom of speech or media, and the progressive development of a militarised and repressed state from independence, through the disastrous 1998 border war with Ethiopia (still used as a pretext for condemning the young people to years of servitude) to the present – a grim picture of a dream turned into a nightmare.

To dig deeper and to explain how and why this metamorphosis of hope into hell took place, Martin Plaut, a former BBC World Service Africa editor and long-time Eritrea watcher, has turned his experience and knowledge of the country’s passage from poster boy of the liberation struggles in Africa to an international pariah into a fascinating and detailed account of the stifling dictatorship that is modern Eritrea and, particularly illuminatingly, of the role of Isaias Afwerki.

Martin Plaut’s lucid account, Understanding Eritrea. Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State, traces the development of the movement and the man. It locates the crux of Eritrea’s betrayal in the politics of autocracy and an extreme form of vanguardism practised by Afwerki through the existence of the party inside the party, and its continuation within the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the party into which the EPLF morphed after independence), of the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party. Known simply as the People’s Party, it is the hard-core secret group that ruled the EPLF and now rules Eritrea with a ruthlessness that mirrors the single-minded pursuit of power and absolute control over a people that has marked would-be totalitarian regimes across the 20th and now the 21st centuries (Plaut, 2016, p. 108).

While it is always perilous to pin the blame for excesses and repression on one man, Plaut makes a convincing case for the way in which Afwerki was able to gain control of the EPLF so that he was ‘effectively answerable to no one but the inner-circle of the People’s Party’ (Plaut, 2016, p. 117) and yet could dominate even this inner core. He played the effective game of discarding and imprisoning or executing all who stood in his way or made the mildest criticism of government policy. Even his closest allies could be treated in this way and those who remained loyal did so by backing his supremacy, perhaps fearing they had gone so far in supporting him there was no possibility of turning back.

Afwerki was part of a tight, disciplined ruling clique ‘none of whom was his equal’. His willingness to destroy those who were perceived as questioning him was at the heart of his control. The author quotes a former EPLF fighter as saying Afwerki ‘uses and disposes of human beings as if they were plastic shopping bags’ (Plaut, 2016, p. 126).

And what is the future for Eritrea? Martin Plaut concludes his book pessimistically. Afwerki’s ruthless repression and his hold over his close circle of acolytes is unremitting. Assassination is possible, but security around him is tight and who would dare risk an attempt?.

International pressure seems unlikely to succeed both because of Afwerki’s history of intransigence and because, as the author says, Western nations, China and India – all of which have economic and/or strategic interests in the region – would  be concerned that ‘the termination of President Isaias’s grip on power might lead to something worse’. In that region it means the growth in the strength of Islamists among the underground opposition movements drawing support from the country’s Muslim population, which makes up about 48 per cent of its people. (Plaut, 2016, p.214). But it is hard to see what could be worse for Eritreans than the current situation.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London and teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. His book, Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa, is published in November 2016.

Martin Plaut will be discussing ‘Understanding Eritrea. Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State’  at King’s College London on 17 November. Details are available here.