There’s a joke about the US state of Ohio that goes something like this: “Twenty-four astronauts were born in Ohio. What is it about your state that makes people want to flee the Earth?” One might be asking something similar about Eritrea, which recently saw nine members of its national football team and their coach disappear after the recent CECAFA Cup football tournament in Nairobi.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Last year, 17 players and the team doctor absconded to and were granted asylum in Uganda after exiting the CECAFA tournament in the first round. The 2010 CECAFA games in Tanzania saw 13 players disappear, while a dozen went missing after the 2009 tournament in Kenya. Overall, fifty players and team officials in the past four years have boarded a plane for the regional tournament with no plans to return to their native country.

With all the attrition in the national football team, one has to wonder how (or why) the country keeps fielding players. The disappearing footballers are only one of a number of high-profile defections that have hit the country in the past several years, all of which have given a peek into one of the most repressive states in Africa.

In November 2012, Ali Abdu, Minister of Information and close supporter of President Isaias Afewerki, fled the country. He is still in hiding. A month earlier, in a feat of brazen absurdity reminiscent of East Berlin during the Cold War, two high-ranking air force officials fled the country in the presidential plane, landing in Jizan, Saudi Arabia, where they were granted asylum. In addition, according to al-Arabiya, an envoy sent to reclaim a fighter jet used by earlier Eritrean defectors herself defected and was granted asylum by the Saudis. No reports were ever made as to whether Eritrea got its planes back.

If elite defections have captured media headlines, few have paid attention to the refugee crisis that has hit Eritrea, with over 300,000 people fleeing the country over the last decade. According to the UNHCR, 5% of the country’s citizens are external refugees, a huge number for a country not currently in conflict. Though some are emigrating to Europe and Israel in search of increased economic opportunity, many more are fleeing one of the most repressive states on earth.

Eritrea is a small country of six million bordering the Red Sea coast, however it has one of the highest number of active duty soldiers per capita of any nation in the world. While Eritrea has often been called the “North Korea of Africa,” a more proper denunciation might call North Korea, the “Eritrea of East Asia,” as Reporters without Borders (RSF) has ranked Eritrea 178 out of 178 in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There is no independent media sector in Eritrea, and there hasn’t been for over a decade. The country’s jails overflow with political prisoners – an estimated five to ten thousand of them and mandatory conscription applies to all males from the age of 18 to 50, with no limits on time served.

For those that try to defect without the cover of an African football tournament, the road is long and arduous. Troops along the border have a standing “shoot to kill” order, according to UN Special Rapporteur Sheila Keetharuth. Crossing over to Sudan, refugees are in danger of abduction by local Bedouins, who ransom individuals for upwards of $30,000, taking advantage of relatives living abroad in the US, Israel, and Europe to collect money that is normally sent home as remittances.

These aren’t stand-alone kidnappers, however. Several senior-level military officials have been implicated in human trafficking, especially of young men and women inside of Eritrea. The victims are typically subjected to torture, rape, and violence, and many die en route to the deserts of the Sinai.

Those that are ransomed and survive may still face the dangers that await them crossing the Mediterranean, such as the 300 Eritrean and Somali immigrants that died recently after their boat capsized en route to Lampedusa, a small Italian island in the Mediterranean sea. Even reaching Europe is no guarantee of safety, as recent video evidence has revealed the humiliating and degrading treatment of asylum seekers, an unspoken reality that has shocked many across the continent.

Things aren’t much better in Israel either. Though the Israeli Supreme Court recently struck down a law that allowed undocumented migrants to be detained without charge for a maximum of three years, the conservative-led Knesset recently passed a law that allowed for the government to detain migrants for up to a year without trial. Undocumented immigrants will be held in an open facility in the southern Israeli desert, where they will have freedom of movement during the day but will be locked up at night.

Eritreans in Europe and Israel fear deportation back to their home country, and rightfully so. Besides the arbitrary detention, forced conscription, and reports of torture, President Afewerki has worked hard over the last decade to turn Eritrea into a pariah state. The country has been accused of providing weapons and support to Somali terror group Al Shabaab. According to the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki planned a bomb attack on the 2011 African Union summit in Addis Ababa, a conspiracy that undoubtedly would have cost dozens of lives as well as disrupting the summit and the Ethiopian economy.

Most dangerous of all, however, are the long-simmering tensions that lie just below the surface. Though the president has tried to forcibly level potential ethno-religious fault lines, the arbitrary restrictions on religious expression have more than likely only exacerbated difference. Afewerki’s support of dissident groups in neighboring Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia have set his country against its neighbors and enabled their support of dissident Eritrean groups. If civil war does erupt, there will be no shortage of external actors waiting to take advantage of the chaos.

Finally, the question of Afewerki’s succession is on everyone’s lips. The president runs an arbitrary and vicious state, one in which nearly all power is vested in his rule. A 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks called him an “unhinged dictator” who “remains cruel and defiant.” A report by the International Crisis Group earlier this year questioned the president’s health and the loyalty of senior military commanders. Afewerki’s rule is one of the few in Africa that still rests on a cult of personality, and his decision to keep the state on a permanent war footing has left the country awash with weapons and a population that knows how to use them.

It is little wonder, then, that the country has known a series of high profile defections over the last five years. As the secretary general of CECAFA, Nicholas Musonye put it so wryly, “We will discuss the issue of Eritrean players absconding in the next general assembly meeting to get solution on this matter…We don’t want to have problems in the future. This is becoming chronic to the association.”

When nearly every member of the country’s national football team jumps ship for four consecutive years, one must start questioning the boat’s captain, and the safety of the ship.

Sterling Carter writes on the intersection of political economy, arts and culture, and human rights. He has over five years’ experience on African development, violence and conflict with organizations including Human Rights Watch, Global Witness, and Search for Common Ground as well as an MSc in the Political Economy of Violence, Conflict and Development from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. His passport is American, but he prefers traveling, meeting new people, and discovering new stories.


Source: Compare Afrique, Jan. 02, 2014.

Content gathered and compiled from online and offline media by Hornaffairs staff based on relevance and interest to the Horn of Africa.

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