Leading Africans reach out to Afwerki, but will Eritrea respond?

(Africa Times, By Laureen Fagan, 11 June 2019) More than 100 African thought leaders have appealed to the Eritrean president to allow a delegation to visit the isolated Horn of Africa nation, meet with its leaders and citizens, and open a dialogue with a view toward democratic reforms.

Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea ( source: Government of Eritrea file )

The letter to President Isaias Afwerki was created on May 25 for Africa Day and made public on Monday. Its first signature is from Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, a Nobel laureate who is one of dozens of artists and creatives, journalists and lawyers, human rights advocates, politicians and civil society heads from nearly every African nation who express hope that Eritrea will move forward in step with the continent.

Uganda’s musician-turned-MP Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, signed it. So did Maina Kiai of Kenya, a globally recognized human rights campaigner and founder of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, and Gambian journalist Fatoumata Camara. From Benin, Comoros, Libya, Namibia, Chad – these African leaders from 52 of 54 nations fully embrace a pan-African vision that seeks to include Eritreans in their future.

“Africa’s many disparate nation states have undergone significant and diverse changes over the course of the last two decades,” the letter said, noting that more Africans now live in freedom than those still under repressive systems. “Importantly, those African countries that have made the most progress – including attracting investment and tourism – over the last 25 years have been those whose citizens enjoy greater freedom of expression, press and movement, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and political pluralism.

“Sadly, in these critical areas, Eritrea has not kept pace with the changes seen elsewhere,” the letter signatories continued. “Over the past two decades Eritrea has been described as the most closed society on our continent, an unfortunate situation for a country with such rich human capital and potential, with so much to offer not only Africa but also the world.”

The fate of long-imprisoned journalists is a priority of the group, as are the drivers of migration that send Eritreans fleeing into other countries and, far too often, into Libyan slave markets and other abusive situations. Rather than isolating Afwerki, this representative community seeks to engage him.

“We trust that by opening this channel of communication with Your Excellency, we may be afforded the opportunity to work with you to restore your country and the great people of Eritrea to their rightful place in the family of African nations,” the writers note.

Afwerki in a new era

Whether Afwerki is quite ready to open the door remains to be seen. Africa Day nearly coincides with the national Independence Anniversary in Asmara, and the Eritrean president signaled in his keynote address that he’s not planning to make any sweeping changes or implement immediate reforms.

Afwerki, who is rarely seen in public, acknowledged a “new era” in the Horn of Africa just one day before the letter was dated, and he said he welcomes it. He equally welcomed an end to the bitter, decades-long border dispute with Ethiopia – one that Eritrea celebrated as “history in the making,” and integrated this year into its May 24 celebrations.

The letter writers praised Afwerki’s decision on Ethiopia and said a similar gesture in responding to them would “go a long way towards ending Eritrea’s isolation from the larger African family, and could help usher in a new era of prosperity and freedom for your people.”

Afwerki, however, stops short of the kinds of reforms that they and many governments, NGOs and activists have pressed for in the past. His fiery speech highlighted the resilience of the Eritrean people in the framework of its victimhood at the hands of the global community, but was equally passionate about resisting any immediate change.

“Naturally, these are times of jubilation, lofty aspirations and euphoria!” Afwerki said, but “these momentous events should not prompt us to underestimate the challenges the new era brings.”

The Eritrean president says he wants to avoid acting prematurely on economic programs or political and security structures. “We cannot make hasty and emotional conclusions before we collect adequate information, analyze these data comprehensively with patience so as to have a clear picture,” he said. The new era is here, but Afwerki entertains no thoughts of immediate action on sorely needed reform.

If or when Afwerki intends to create democratic space for Eritreans, release journalists and opposition political prisoners, and step back from the permanent war footing that has forced so many Eritreans to flee for opportunity elsewhere, all remains to be seen. So far, he has cracked a door on the possibility but paid lip service to its realities.

On the other hand, these African luminaries recognize and are responding to that sliver of possibility with the utmost respect and in a spirit of solidarity. Afwerki may well respond positively to their overtures, and it would be a credit to his leadership and his legacy if he were to do so on behalf of his people. Until then, as has happened so often in the past, both sides will still be talking past each other.