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Posted on Friday, 20 November 2015 11:00

Eritrea Country Profile 2015: A pretence of progress

By The Africa Report

altFaced with a stunted economy and a dismal reputation abroad, Eritrea is taking small steps towards keeping up appearances with the international community, engaging with foreign investors and changing its heavy-handed approach to the large-scale flight of its citizens.

The political landscape in Asmara shows no signs of accommodating real change. The ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice retains complete control, using surveillance and corruption to keep tabs on the population and confer benefits to its highest-ranking members.

President Isaias Afewerki announced plans to create a new constitution in May, but few saw it as a sign of change as the government has not implemented the 1997 constitution. For average citizens, it remains difficult to secure basic foodstuffs, cooking fuel, clean water and electricity.

Eritreans continue to flee the country at a rate of more than 3,000 each month. Many of them are young people who want to avoid possibly indefinite national service. But the government's response is evolving.

Shoot-to-kill policies at the border are increasingly giving way to a more corrupt system whereby officials use deserters' money – in the form of ransoms, bribes and eventually remittances – to prop up the faltering economy.

Mutual suspicion

With so many dissidents absconding, those who remain are less likely to mount a resistance to the regime. However, the various opposition groups abroad remain fragmented and mutually suspicious, making it difficult for them to present a united front.

One such group, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation, claims to have some military clout. It held a conference in Ethiopia in August to reiterate its grievances against Asmara.

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Meanwhile, Isaias continued with his government restructuring programme in 2014, including the appointment of Major General Filipos Woldeyohannes as chief of staff, making him one of the government's most powerful strongmen.

Analysts see the move as a response to ongoing problems with military cohesion, with a rise in mid-level defections disrupting chains of command and complicating outside efforts to assess Eritrea's military capacity. 

Morale is reportedly low among national service conscripts, who are forced to work on infrastructure projects for low wages. Eritrea still refuses to engage with its neighbour Ethiopia and denies accusations of supporting the terrorist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The country is also at odds with Djibouti due to a border dispute, culminating in the arrest of a Djiboutian soldier in July 2014.

In 2014, flag carriers Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways finalised agreements to begin flights to Asmara. Nonetheless, Eritrea's relations with Qatar soured as the tensions with Djibouti mounted.

Diplomatic gestures

Despite its pariah status, the Isaias administration has hinted at dialogue with international actors. In 2014, it renewed requests for the UN to independently investigate regional human trafficking.

Officials have engaged in technical meetings with the EU on human rights since 2012, and the latest took place in January 2014. In April, several top officials took part in an EU-Africa Summit in Brussels. Analysts say these diplomatic overtures are driven more by economic necessity than by any real desire for change.

Gross domestic product growth in 2014, projected at just 1.9% by the African Development Bank, is driven almost entirely by promising developments in the mining sector.

Canada's Nevsun, with a 60% stake in the Bisha mine, began commercial copper production in late 2013 and has launched a new zinc expansion project.

Australia's South Boulder Mines, with the Eritrean National Mining Company joint venture called Colluli Mining Share Company, has identified more than 1bn tonnes of potassium-bearing salts suitable for potash production.

China Shanghai Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technological Cooperation expects to finish works at the Zara gold mine and to begin production soon.

Apart from mining, Eritrea has few areas of economic potential. About 80% of the population works in agriculture, and output is heavily dependent on increasingly volatile weather patterns, though rainfall was relatively abundant in 2014. High public spending, especially on the military, remains unsustainable.



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