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Jan 21, 2013 | 15:01 GMT

A Possible Coup in Eritrea

A Possible Coup in Eritrea
PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

It appears a coup attempt may be unfolding in Asmara, Eritrea's capital. Dissident soldiers have reportedly taken over the Eritrean Ministry of Information facility and possibly the country’s central bank. Tanks and troops loyal to Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki are reportedly headed toward the ministry to retake the building, the site of the country's sole television station. Eritrean opposition radio outlet ERENA has reported that Afewerki, his wife and some army officers have been arrested.

The extent of Afewerki's control in Asmara is not clear, but if a coup is under way it is likely an internal military power grab triggered by the president's poor health. Afewerki, who has in the past traveled abroad for closely guarded medical treatment, may finally have died. Rather than let events spiral beyond their control, army officers who had been the foundation of the Eritrean regime may have launched a power grab to avoid a breakdown in order or to prevent a rival military or political faction from securing power.

Afewerki had in November 2012 arrested his long-standing military adviser, Maj. Gen. Filipos Woldeyohannes. Some media outlets have identified Woldeyohannes as being the leader of the possible coup in Asmara. Woldeyohannes was in charge of the military district of Asmara, and previously served as military commander for the western region bordering Ethiopia and Sudan. Woldeyohannes has extensive fighting experience, including leading the wars of independence in the 1990s against Ethiopia. Woldeyohannes has been a senior military-political figure ever since, though with his arrest in November it is not clear how large a military faction he has been able to retain influence over.

Locator Map - Eritrea

Woldeyohannes' arrest and replacement by Gen. Tekali "Manjus" Kiflai is standard procedure by Afewerki to prevent rival military commanders from developing a sufficient base of support to challenge the president. If Afewerki has finally died or his health is failing, Woldeyohannes may have conspired with officers loyal to him to block Manjus — who had been in position only three months — from securing the vacated presidency. If Woldeyohannes takes over, he will have to maintain strong military control over the state. Using a threat emanating from Ethiopia as justification, Woldeyohannes could attempt to use an extended state of emergency to try to consolidate his control internally. It is reported that Eritrean troops on the southern border are on alert for attempts to arrest their commanders in support of the coup or to further an internal lockdown.

The prospect of a coup in Eritrea does not have significant international repercussions. The country is not a significant recipient of foreign investment, and while there are small crude oil exploration and gold mining activities going on, no major production is occurring.

The greater significance is for foreign relations, especially with Ethiopia, with whom Eritrea fought an extended war of independence in the 1990s. All Eritreans likely agree that absorption by Ethiopia is not an option. Woldeyohannes would not want to lose Eritrean independence to the Ethiopians any more than any other Eritrean would, so he will not ease the internal military presence. Woldeyohannes does not have any more resources than Afewerki did to support proxy militias in neighboring countries, so a renewed conflict with Ethiopia in Somalia is probably out of the question. Woldeyohannes will want to consolidate his internal control through a state of emergency that may last a long time, which also prevents Eritrea from focusing on conflict outside the country. Though Ethiopia likely already has a deep file on Woldeyohannes, it will want more insight on him, but Woldeyohannes will work to keep the possible coup internalized to prevent Ethiopia from interfering and avoid the risk of losing Asmara's independence. A disorderly transition in Asmara presents an opportunity for Ethiopia to reassume control over the country that has fought proxy campaigns with it and that has cut off Ethiopia's direct maritime access to the Red Sea.

Even if there is no coup, or if the coup fails, Afewerki's apparently deteriorating health means that there will likely be a transition of power in Eritrea at some point in the near future. 

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