Eritrea: failed state of the future?

Over Christmas I’ve been re-reading the latest ICG report on Eritrea (dated Sept 2010).

It’s a comprehensive summary for anyone wanting to read in to the subject, and we should thank them for that.  (BTW I’m intrigued by the regular references in the footnotes to ‘analyst’s field notes and interviews in another capacity’ which seem to be dated from 2001 through to 2006.  Former UNMEE staff members perhaps?)

They conclude their introduction with:

It is vital that the international community engages with Eritrea, politically and economically, and rigorously assesses the country’s internal problems as well as its external pressures. Development assistance and improved trade links should be tied to holding long-promised national elections and implementing the long-delayed constitution.  At the same time, in particular the UN Security Council should pressure Ethiopia to accept the border ruling.

which we heartily agree with.  Bang on the nail.

However, I had to think a little bit more about the next bit.

 All this is necessary to prevent another failed state from emerging in the Horn. That outcome is otherwise distinctly possible given the widespread lack of support for the government within the country and the deteriorating state of the army, whose ability to either sustain Isaias Afwerki’s regime or to successfully manage regime transition is increasingly questionable.

There must have been considerable discussion within the ICG about using the phrase ‘failed state’ – its not something you bandy about lightly as an analyst – and I can see why they’ve done it.  For diplomatic institutions stability is desirable (even if it’s not attractive to individual diplomats at a personal level), because it maintains the balance of power.  (Look at how China continues to support North Korea, even though it’s a pain in the Middle Kingdom’s bum.)  In contrast failed states are a power vacuum, and could lead to all sorts of unimaginable/unpredictable problems for foreign services departments. 

And so I assume that the ICG is attempting to attract the political spotlight by raising the threat of increased unpredictability in the region.  And well done to them for wanting to do so.  However, I have a rather dispiriting feeling the Isaias regime is actually relatively stable.  Indeed the authors indicate this fact throughout the paper: the omnipresence of the security services, the carefully managed internal politics of the Isaias regime, the repression of the Eritrean people, the history and myths of the country, and the lack of a united or effective opposition in Eritrea or abroad.

And you just have to look at the titles of the previous reports they’ve published on Eritrea:

  • “Ethiopia and Eritrea: stopping the slide to war” dated November 2007
  • “Beyond the fragile peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea: Averting new war” dated June 2008

The ICG crystal ball needs a bit of a polish…  But I’m sorry if I sound carping, or have focused too heavily on one small aspect which I’ve quibbling with.  My emphasis on the point about failed states is a reflection of the high quality of the report…

…. and the fact a blog post saying “Read this, it’s great” wouldn’t have been terribly interesting.

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