By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
When the tiny east African nation of Eritrea first declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a brutal 30-year struggle, there was a fleeting moment of hope that the Horn of Africa might, at long last, know a semblance of political stability and social development.
But no sooner had Asmara proclaimed its political sovereignty from Addis Ababa than seething border tensions between the two sworn enemies again erupted, boiling into a full-fledged war in May 1989 that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers and civilians, but no real solutions regarding concrete boundaries.
Dissatisfaction on both sides with a foreign-imposed re-carving of the disputed Badme region left open wounds and covert hostilities between the two countries that have contributed to smoldering Cold War tensions that continue to this day, with frequent outbursts of heavy gunfire and ominous allegations of mass murders and torture.
On the military front, Eritrea is severely outgunned by Ethiopia, despite the smaller nation’s infamous conscription policy that allows its one-party government to draft young recruits and keep them in service for decades against their will.
And it is not only with Ethiopia that Eritrea has problems.
Its ongoing hostilities with virtually every one of its neighbors has earned Eritrea a dubious reputation as a rouge state by the international community, as well as heavy economic sanctions from the United Nations for its alleged support of terror groups, particularly al-Shabaab in southern Somalia.
With an imploding economy and a president for life who pumps a full 20 percent of the country’s budget into military warfare, Eritrea is a textbook example of a failed state.
The situation of human rights in Eritrea is abysmal.
There have been no elections and no legislature for the last 16 years.
The United Nations has accused the government of a “wholesale disregard for the fundamental freedoms of its citizens.”
National and international media coverage of Eritrea is even more controlled than in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, ranking the country number 175 out of 175 nations surveyed in the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Asylum is the only refuge for most of the nation’s starving masses, 80 percent of whom survive on subsistence farming and have been hard hit by a five-year drought.
Because of rampant poverty and institutionalized violence, Eritrea, with a total population of just 6 million, is now ranked as the African country with the highest number of economic and political refugees applying for sanctuary in Europe, and the second-largest source of asylum seekers worldwide.
Future prospects for those few Eritreans who choose to stay are grim.
Unemployment and underemployment are so high that the government has stopped keeping records, and the country’s only university was closed in 2006.
To make matters worse, Eritrea is now on the verge of war with Djibouti over shipping access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and that, in turn, is threatening to reignite Asmara’s longstanding conflict with Ethiopia.
If Eritrea were to reengage against Ethiopia, the entire region, which is already politically unstable and economically fragile, could turn into a tinderbox that could spread unrest throughout all central Africa and into the Middle East.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.