S E C R E T ASMARA 000429
EO 12958 DECL: 12/10/2019
TAGS PGOV, MOPS, SOCI, PREF, ER
SUBJECT: ERITREA’S SQUABBLING COLONELS, FLEEING
FOOTBALLERS, FRIGHTENED LIBRARIANS
Classified By: Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen for reason 1.4(d)
1. (SBU) SUMMARY:
Things are getting worse and worse in Eritrea. The regime is facing mounting international pressure for years of malign behavior in the neighborhood. Human rights abuses are commonplace and most young Eritreans, along with the professional class, dream of fleeing the country, even to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan. The economy continues to sink; exports for 2008 totaled only $14m and vital hard-currency remittances have fallen to 43% of the 2005 level. “He is sick”, said one leading Eritrean businessman, referring to President Isaias’ mental health. “The worse things get, the more he tries to take direct control–it doesn’t work.”
The following three vignettes highlight the current state of affairs in Eritrea.
2. (C) THE DEFENSE MINISTER AND THE COLONELS
Defense Minister Sebhat Efrem convoked army colonels in late November for a three-day conference on professional and career issues. On the second day a serious row reportedly broke out among the conferees; the acrimony rose so high that General Sebhat cancelled the rest of the conference and sent the quarreling colonels back to their units. The bone of contention? Perceived differences in the quality of the villas (often confiscated from the original owners) given to the colonels by the regime to maintain their allegiance.
3. (SBU) SOCCER TEAM 1 – REGIME 0
Eritreans are mad about soccer. Many dusty streets in Asmara are filled with urchins kicking an old sock stuffed with rags back and forth between goals made of piled stones. Senior government and party officials are avid fans of the British Premier League and sometimes leave official functions early to catch key matches. Despite tight control of the domestic media, satellite TV dishes are allowed, probably so folks can watch international soccer. Impressive numbers of senior regime officials attended the World Cup pool draw reception thrown by the South Africa embassy last week. The BBC and diaspora websites are reporting that the entire Eritrean national soccer team defected after playing in a regional tournament in Kenya. If true, this will be stunning news for the Eritrean population. Only the coach and an escorting colonel reportedly returned to Eritrea. (One wonders why, given their likely fate.) Isaias has previously claimed the CIA was luring Eritrean youth abroad; if the soccer team has in fact defected, he will undoubted try to twist logic in some way to blame the United States.
4. (C) [Content removed]
Eritreans are fearful of associating with foreigners, as they are often grilled afterwards by security thugs. XXXXXXXXXXXX
5. (S) COMMENT:
The brittle Isaias regime is one pistol shot away from implosion. However, Isaias is clever, very good at operational security, and two decades younger than Mugabe. While many in Eritrea long for change, few are in a position to effect it.