Stony silence from Eritrea as Ethiopia basks in Nobel glow

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, receives Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki at Gondar Airport, last year. (AFP)
Updated 18 October 2019

Stony silence from Eritrea as Ethiopia basks in Nobel glow

  • Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was acknowledged for accepting Abiy Ahmed’s peace offer in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement
  • Afwerki has conspicuously failed to offer his congratulations to Abiy

ADDIS ABABA: While Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was praised for efforts to end years of bitter tension with Eritrea in his Nobel Peace Prize award last week, his Eritrean partner in the peace-making has conspicuously failed to offer his congratulations.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki was acknowledged for accepting Abiy’s peace offer in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement, which held out hope of “positive change” in both countries. But he was not given a share of the prize and has made no public statement on the award.
That silence is consistent with the deeply isolated nation, where hopes that peace could spark domestic reform to end years of repression are fading.
Initially when Abiy and Isaias embarked on a whip-fast rapprochement last year, leading to the formal end of a 20-year-old stalemate between the countries, some analysts speculated that peace would contribute to a new era of openness.
Embassies reopened, flights were resumed and meetings held across the region, but progress has since stalled and the border between the two nations is once again closed.
Abiy, who has said he hopes his Nobel prize will inspire peace-building by other African leaders, was also lauded for an array of reforms at home, including releasing jailed dissidents and welcoming home exiled armed groups.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres credited Abiy as one of the main reasons why “winds of hope are blowing ever stronger across Africa.”
But little has changed in Eritrea, where a system of compulsory national service, which forces citizens into specific jobs at low pay and bars them from traveling abroad, has led to descriptions of the nation as an “open-air prison” akin to North Korea and forced thousands to flee.
Now prominent dissidents are worried that the situation is getting worse.
For Dawit, a former education official who fled Eritrea shortly before Abiy and Isaias first embraced on a tarmac in Asmara, the fact that little has changed is deeply disappointing.
“At least before there was hope. We thought maybe if there is peace, maybe if this changes, things will go the right way,” said Dawit, who wanted only his first name used for safety reasons.
“But now there is no hope. There’s nothing.”
Eritrea fought its way to independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, and Isaias is the only ruler the country has ever known.
For several years it enjoyed smooth relations with Ethiopia.
But in 1998 skirmishes erupted after Eritrean forces entered the area around Badme, claiming the town under borders drawn during Italian colonial rule.
Two years of fighting cost nearly 80,000 lives before the stalemate took hold in 2000.
The human rights situation in Eritrea quickly deteriorated as Isaias sought to stamp out criticism.
Eritreans continue to flee the country en masse and the country’s national service system remains in effect, forcing thousands of Eritreans into military training even before they finish secondary school.
One thing that has changed since the peace deal is Eritrea’s global standing.
The UN has lifted sanctions, and the European Union is funding a road-building project — though critics contend it relies on forced labor.
Asia Abdulkadir, a Nairobi-based Eritrean activist, said steps to bring Eritrea in from the cold alarm those who see Isaias’ isolation as “one of the things that might speed up” his exit.
Border tensions — particularly with the political party that controls Ethiopia’s Tigray region that borders Eritrea — remain as bitter as ever.
These “present a major obstacle to deepening the peace process, reducing the chances of a political opening in Eritrea,” said William Davison of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Recent months have also seen signs that the political space is shrinking.
In June, officials ordered the closure of Catholic-run health centers after church leaders published a letter expressing concern over the lack of reforms.
There are also reports of a new wave of attempts to nationalize private schools.
“The government clearly feels empowered to once again go after individuals or bodies, including the Catholic church, who have taken the risk to critique — however mildly — some of their policies and practices,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
For those hoping for political change, the timeline is even more uncertain.
But Dawit, the exiled education official, said he believed the world would one day get a glimpse inside his country.
“A lot of bad things are happening in Eritrea,” he said. “One day it will come out and the world will say, ‘Wow, all of this was happening. Was it really happening?’”


Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

Updated 14 November 2019

Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

  • Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined a sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks
  • Firebrand cleric leading the protests called for nationwide demonstrations

ISLAMABAD: Anti-government protesters in Pakistan blocked major roads and highways across the country on Thursday in a bid to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign.
The demonstrators — led by the leader of opposition party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), the firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman — have taken to the streets as the start of their “Plan B” to topple the government and ensure a general election after failing to push Khan out through a fortnight-long sit-in in Islamabad, which ended on Wednesday.
That same day, Rehman told his party workers to spread their protests to other parts of the country.
“This protest will continue not for a day but for a month, if our leadership instructs,” said JUI-F Secretary-General, Maulana Nasir Mehmood, to a group of protesters who blocked the country’s main Karakoram Highway — an important trade route between Pakistan and China that also connects the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province with its northern areas.
The JUI-F protesters also blocked other key routes in KP and a major highway connecting the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. The party’s Balochistan chapter also announced its intention to block the highway connecting Pakistan to neighboring Iran.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined the sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls in the country following allegations of electoral fraud last year and the mismanagement of Pakistan’s economy. The government denies both charges.
Rehman is a veteran politician who was a member of the National Assembly for 20 years. He enjoys support in religious circles across the country. His party has yet to share a detailed plan regarding which roads will be closed when, or how long this new phase of protests will continue.
The JUI-F and other opposition parties have been trying to capitalize on the anger and frustration of the public against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ruling party, which came to power last year promising 10 million new jobs for the youth, 5 million low-cost houses, and economic reforms to benefit the middle class.
Since then, Pakistan’s economy has nosedived, witnessing double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment. The government signed a $6-billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan has stabilized the deteriorating economy, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman ‘Plan B’ will fail like his ‘Plan A,’” Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, said in a statement to the press.

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