Eritrea: Exclusive Interview with Eritrean Security Expert

Pretoria (HAN) May 16, 2014. According to Simon Allison who spoke to Dan Connell, a long time Eritrea security and social issues watcher, about the perils that await Eritrean refugees, and why they are so desperate to leave in the first place.

Outside of Eritrea itself, there are very few people that know the country as well as Dan Connell, a journalist, an academic, and now a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Center. As a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, he spent months in the trenches with the Eritrean freedom fighters. Post-independence he worked closely with the new government, before becoming one of its fiercest critics – his outspokenness earning him permanent Persona Non Grata status. He’s now one of the world’s leading experts on Eritrean politics, having published seven books on the subject.

The South African journalist Simon Allison caught up with Dan at the University of Pretoria, where he was giving a guest lecture at the Centre for Human Rights. He’s here to highlight one of the many under-reported consequences of Eritrea’s decline: the vast exodus of young Eritreans into surrounding countries, looking for a better life but often falling into the clutches of human traffickers.

SIMON ALLISON: Despite its perils, many Eritreans are risking a dangerous border crossing – the army is authorized to shoot would-be refugees on sight – to escape their country. What are they fleeing from, and why in such large numbers?

DAN CONNELL: Firstly, the UN has counted some 300,000 Eritreans leaving in recent years, out of a population variously estimated at 4-5million, and there are many who are not registered and the UN doesn’t have count of. So you’re really talking a significant share of the population. What distinguishes this flow of refugees is the very significant percentage, maybe 45%, are young people, say 16-25 years. The factor that is driving most is the imposition of an indefinite program of national service, the conscription of the young people into military service and also in many cases indentured servitude to the state, working on government or ruling party enterprises. Terms that were initially defined as 18 months have turned into eight or ten years or longer and I think many of the young people just see absolutely no future for themselves. They fear the possibility that if they get out of line in the situation they’ll end up detained, perhaps tortured, perhaps killed.

Getting out of Eritrea is not a solution in itself. Eritrea’s neighbors (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen) have their own problems. What makes Eritrean refugees particularly vulnerable?

Many of the Eritreans coming out are of Christian background and particularly when they move into Sudan, a country into Islamist rule, they find themselves isolated, cut off from opportunities within the country and in some cases targeted for discrimination or worse – the human trafficking operation. [Human trafficking] has involved the kidnapping of refugees, the transport to the Sinai in the past and increasingly now the detention within secret spots in Sudan, where they are tortured and forced to demand ransom payments from relatives living abroad, anywhere from the US to Europe to Israel or sometimes inside Eritrea. These ransoms have run into the area of $30,000-$40,000 dollars so the trade here has become a very lucrative business for the traffickers and a very ugly one for the Eritreans. I think what is remarkable about this is with the dangers of being caught up in this trafficking ring, coupled with the dangers of simply trying to cross the Sahara or to get out through other means, where so many have died trying, illustrates just how driven people are to leave in the first place.

Coming into today’s talk, I know you were concerned about possible disruption from pro-government supporters, and I know you’ve had disruptions before. Even for myself, writing about Eritrea, the comments get very personal and very threatening. What sort of issues have you faced trying to cover Eritrea?

I think the Eritrean community itself is clearly deeply divided. There are people who are passionately supportive of the country, there are also people who support the government more by default because they fear the threat of Ethiopia, and they buy the argument that they can’t criticise the government without weakening its defence of the country. On the other side, there are people who are extremely disturbed over the political repression and the lack of economic advance within the country that everybody believed was possible in the 1990s. And there’s a very large middle ground of people who really want to see everybody somehow have a chance to get back and engage with Eritrea and get along, and are the so-called silent majority in this. The two extremes are fairly passionate. The response to criticism of the regime of course inside Eritrea has been arrest, detention, disappearance, torture…it’s not really surprising that the mirror to that outside is disruption and efforts to stop conversations about opposition.

My general take on this is that the comments on articles, the shouting at events, is really from a fairly small minority of people. In the case of the event we had today, there was a set of talking points five pages long that was distributed – we heard two of the questions from the talking points asked today, I saw a copy of it before I came in [So did the Daily Maverick. Sure enough, questions from the talking points were asked verbatim]. So it was a very well-organised and orchestrated attempt…The questions that were asked obviously didn’t reflect somebody who had even listened to what I had to say. They were pre-programmed, and I think that again is an indication of how the government tries to deal with criticism. It just can’t tolerate it.

Who would be distributing the talking points?

Supporters of the government or members of the ruling party who are here in the diaspora. They are a minority. Eritreans in South Africa, I think a significant number, are here trying simply to keep their heads down and get by. Many fear public criticism will make it difficult for them to go home, difficult for their relatives who are at home, because repression is often visited on families inside Eritrea, but there is a significant contingent here of Eritreans supporting the transition to democracy, the recognition of the country’s long-dormant constitution, and some of them were also here today.

Speaking to South African diplomats, they paint a very different, a very rosy picture of what’s happening in Eritrea. What do you make of this position?

…You know, the sheer numbers of people fleeing the country tell a story itself. The people are voting with their feet, and to try suggest that a population known for its fierce nationalism would be churning people out to go elsewhere, it just doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry, when the diplomats make that argument I think the answer is alright, open up the country, let us come in and see for ourselves.

You’ve been involved in Eritrea for a long time – in the trenches during the civil war, working alongside the new government after independence. Now you’ve been madepersona non grata. You can’t go back. How does this make you feel?

I feel like a part of me has been cut off. It’s my second country in many respects…I am deeply invested in the country, I have many very close personal friends there, and I believe deeply in Eritrea’s possibility as a society and as a new kind of state in Africa. I look forward to the opportunity to go back once the regime changes, and I am hopeful that that will take place within the next 3-5 years.

That’s a very specific time frame. What’s your logic?

I think the president Isaias Afewerki has complicated health problems. This is not the kind of country where you’ll see a popular uprising. Fear is too great. Fear not only of the regime, but also of course Ethiopia outside, and as long as they can wield that stick they will manage to keep the repressive regime in place. This is one of the reasons I have been repeatedly calling for international efforts to end the border conflict between the two countries to strip that away from the regime as an excuse to keep their heel on the population. Sources daily maverick

The latest updates Follow

Geeska Afrika Online (1985 -2014) – The International Gateway news and views about the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda), the best IGAD news and information Online Site for the last 20 Years.

HAN & Geeska Afrika Online (1985-2014), the oldest free independent Free Press in the region, brings together top journalists from across the Horn of Africa. Including Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Oromo, Amhara, Somali, Afar and Harari. Plus, we have daily translations from 150 major news organizations in the Middle East and East African regions. Contact at


  1. Let me tell you the real reason for what you refer to as “The factor that is driving most [Eritreans] is the imposition of an indefinite program of national service…” It is in fact President Obama’s speech at the Clinton initiative: ”I recently renewed sanctions on some of the worst abusers, including North Korea and Eritrea. We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers. …..And we’re seeing results”

    What young brain would want to miss an offer (even if it turns out to be a poisoned chalice) from the leader of the world’s leading economy to green pastures?

    By the President’s own admission the US is involved in the “escape” of the people and all the associated abuse, extortion, degradation, detention they face from being trafficked.

    As for the role of “partnering”, who better than Dan Connell, the mysteriously elevated “security expert” on Eritrea, to fit the bill? Dan Connell’s constant unrepresentative, unbalanced, desperate talks at notable world centres and cities have only revealed his unprofessional qualities, and as far as Eritrea is concerned, he remains to be insignificant. Peace.

    • Dan Connel cares more about Eritrean deeply than does the so called president of Eritrea. We are witnessing an exudes from Eritrea of biblical proportions. We don’t need programmed people by TV ERI. We need people to rationalize what is happening. Sanctions has not hurt anyone, goods have always been smuggled by Rashaida, the beloved people of shabia. These same people are kidnapping and selling our sisters and brothers to be killed and tortured again. So what does shabia do , they reward them by doing nothing. I am first hand in the front lines of the refugee plight of Eritreans in Africa. The best thing Ethiopia to do to hurt this criminal government in Eritrea is to hand over bademe (by the way President Isays personally started the war) and the The fake Eritrean government will have no excuse to enslave the Eritreans inside. But I dont expect eritreans that have never lived inside Eritrea to understand this. They are brain washed by ERI Tv. The real Eritrean government was overthrown in 2001 by the arrest of 15 top eritreans who were arrested for their support for democracy, justice and constitution. If these people in power really care for Eritreans, they would have abolished this agelgulot slavery and let people free just by the fact that over 4,000 youth bodies have been found in the desert of Sinai including organ harvesting , as well as the tens of thousands that have died crossing the sahara and drowning to get to Europe. These numbers far exceed the death toll of the war of Bademe. So you do the math, The bademe excuse is just an excuse. They need a reason to enslave the population.

      • You are made of Hypocrisy: Its Shameful how you describe your fellow Eritreans in the diaspora as if they don’t have any right to speak their mind about Eritrea and yet you give the full right and credibility to foreign rather Ferinjis (Non -Eritreans) as if they were born in Eritrea and know Eritrea more than an Eritrean.

        If you think Eritrea is in a bad situation then why are you living and talking from the diaspora, who don’t you go and fix the problems from inside.You are Disgusting.

        Mr. Dan Connell is looking to play us all Eritreans and I believe we are smarter than that. Wake up brother Mike, look at his latest sinister line of mayhem, Dan is telling us that most of these people who are leaving Eritrea are ”Christians”, Do you know why is he saying that…he’s saying that because he well knows that over the last 2 years migration from inside Eritrea has drastically went down but as we all know there are hundreds of thousands of Eritreans living in Sudan starting from the 1960’s and mostly are even Muslims; it is these people who are migrating right now >>>… <<< Dan Connell might disguise himself as Pro Eritrean nationhood but he is the devil at work specially when he describes Eritreans by religion as that is the most irrelevant matter to us Eritreans. The fact Dan Connell is describing Eritreans by their religion is being used as the latest misinformation by him because he want to hide that these Eritreans who are currently in the move are not recent migrants from inside Eritrea but are the ones who have being in camps for the last years including decades.

        Can you bother yourself to help Justice and Legality Please, and as my fellow citizen you must watch the ''Watchers''. Don't fall trap.

    • just a quick recup

      Seble is a women which she didn’t have a normal life. we have been suffering gratly about our inheritances and the young Eritreans by inlarge.
      she is like a donkey which she feels a nothing but eat sleep and if she is lacky enough she may get an attention from one of the authority. she won’t get the enjoyment a young women gets due to she has passed the age by far so, what i can say to her is that she is not in position to cretisize Dan.
      Seble, Sofia Tesfamariam….. these wonen are crazy. well ut least Sofia had done a little homework.
      Seble…. please go to church stop messing about.

  2. Mr .Connell is a man who loves freedom for Eritrea, peace in the region and a dedicated journalist who brought the plight of African people to international attention. I am not From Eritrea ,but I know Isias reduced this mini state into an insane asylum unparalleled since Inver Xoja of Albania,Iddi Amin of uganda, and the Duvalliers of Haiti.

    • right, you are not from Eritrea and you know nothing about it, let alone who and what Isayas and the GoE did and do for Eritrea
      What you know is just copy and paste someone else writings or opinions.
      Please, let the subject alone as you will never be able to master it anyway

  3. let the boarder issue be solved first then it is up to us (Eritreans) to deal with this government. It is the people who brought the government to power, any time we Eritreans can make the change when we feel the time is right.

    • Mr Minor head, not super head !

      You hypocratically say “… let the boarder issue be solved first then it is up to us (Eritreans) to deal with this government. It is the people who brought the government to power, any time we Eritreans can make the change when we feel the time is right. … ” Can you my country man tell me if you have ever made any change in the Eritrean government system as a people? Definitely noooooooooooo!

      How will it be possible now if you have never achieved it yet?

  4. Dan connel is one of the respected ,dedicated eritrean fighter for independent even though he is not an eritrean by birth.he fought un equality un justice along side of eritreans for the better of us. He brought our sufferings to the attention of community of the world before independent and after. If there are eritreans who said under estimated for the good job of dan may be they know nothing about eritrea history at all.well dan dane and you deserve to get the highest prize for job wel dane during our independence but you know the leadership of eritrea.

    • I cant agree more Nakfa, Dan Connell invested tremendous amount of time and recourses on our Eritrea and like most of us he hopped and wished to see a prosperous and democratic Eritrea with an elected government and constitution. He witnessed first hand when our heroic TEGADELTI gave up their life’s to free our country, witnessed our heroic handicapped TEGADELTI going through rehab and unfortunately he witnessed too when our freedom hijacked by self-serving unelected dictatorial regime (ISAYAS AFEWORKI) and his criminal thugs. It will not be too long before we honor freedom fighters, people like DAN CONNELL.

  5. Security Expert? Who??!!

    No wander why the US policy on Eritrea revolves in an endless loop. How desperate can one be to depend on security matters on desperate individuals like Dan Connel?

    Daniel Connell had cultivated a good relationships with several senior EPLF leaders well before Eritrea got independence. As such, Eritreans did consider him as a friend before things get unravelled following the inistigated so called Badme war. Then, Eritreans discovered the other face of Daniel.

    If the “security expert” was passing information to certain interested quarters, as the outcome of the inistigated war shows, he and his ilk must have MISINFORMED them on the nature of the Eritrean resistance and its values.

    Out of curiosity , got to google “security expert” if there is a new meaning? Browsed more and more pages and to no avail before I added “Dan Connel” in the search field and got back this article at the top and no other relevant piece.

    Happy Independence Day to Eritreans and to REAL FRIENDS of Eritrea!!.

  6. John Foster Dulles said: “From the point of view of justice, the opinion of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and world peace make it necessary that the country be linked with our ally Ethiopia.” (U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, 1952). Don’t blame President Isaias or PFDJ for the plight of Eritrean people for the last 60+ years. The seed was planted by U.S. long before Dan was born and he cannot know about Eritreans thinking or sufferings because he is an American with the mentality ‘Right or Wrong, my country is Right’. It is inconceivable for him to criticize his country, so he has to invent ‘Eritreans’ to be responsible for their suffering.

  7. If the US and the likes of Don can not solve a clear cut border issue that has an international verdict, on what bases can you trust them to solve a complex internal issues? Let Don focus on solving the border issue first if he has the best intentions and wants to help the Eritrean people. Government come government goes but the people will live forever. FOCUS on helping the Eritrean and Ethiopian people by creating a peaceful environment and stop there. Don’t mess around with internal politics, it is non of your business. Stick to the international issues.

  8. Well, like some of the freedom fighters who went sour for any number of reasons (I might add mostly economical reasons), I believe Mr. Connell too went that route – – – regardless of his anointment by his peers (the pseudo journalist), one importing thing we all need to understand is that Dan is entitled to his opinion. Who cares what he said, the country is marching in a constant phase that is what matters. As for me I am not happy on some of the aspect of the government handling of internal business. Like not allowing privet construction renege on its promises. unplanned suspension of business activities and some collective punishments.
    As for youth migration. Bless Obama. The bright side of the so called exodus is a strong Eritrea American community – – remember Irish American? A way to go to a dynamic Eritrean American community. Rest assure 99.7% of the migration is economical means Eritrean do not have a squabble with the country or PFDJ. Do not forget PFDJ means people or Eritrea

  9. I was very pleased to discover this website. I wanted to thank you for your time for this fantastic read. Lol Dan Connel Security Expert!!! wow can someone tell me where to buy this freedom fighter, journalist and security expert, horn of Africa expert all clap trap!!!!!

    Dan we have seen yu majority suppoeters, and if you drreaming about Eri gove falling just forget it like you forget your mum’s breast, stop day dreaming our freedom fighter!!!!

  10. Dan Connell warped logic: there’ll be change in Eritrea in 3-5 years because: “president Isaias Afewerki has complicated health problems”. Since Dan is not a comedian, I assume he really meant it. I’m embarrassed for him. That is like saying: “since the goalie’s arms are skinny & weak when he breaks his arm in the next big match, then the team will be removed from the tournament…”

    The problem with the so-called Eri opposition is they make president Issayas like he’s some kind of God, if he does not exist PFDJ doe not exist. My goodness!! How Idiotic. Even the deeply divided, divisive, hated, scums of the earth called Weyane’s did not have such issues when their leader Meles Zenawi bit the dust.

  11. Dear Mr. Connell thank you for being the voice of the voiceless and thank you for bringing the suffering and hardship of our Eritrean youngsters in the deserts of Sinai, Sudan and Eritrea into the light. Over the years you were and are the true friend of Eritreans, and contributed your deep knowledge about our beautiful Eritrea so the world knows it better. It is shame our country is temporarily governed by a self appointed idiot (Isayas the pol pot of Africa) reducing our Eritrea into a stone age era. After twenty three years we still do not have an elected government, no constitution, thousands of our brothers and sisters are in prison, our only university is chained locked, thousands of our youngsters are abandoning our country on daily bases for better life, our infrastructure is dysfunctional, our economy is in shambles, in general we have a dysfunctional country disconnected from the world community led by a clueless drug addict.
    Dear Mr. Connell We Eritreans will not be silent any more, it will not be too long before we get rid of the blood thirsty dictator and his criminal thugs and join the peace loving world community and celebrate people like who fought hard for the freedom of others in our capital Asmara. It is amazing and saddening to watch “GEORGE ORWELLS” book “ANIMAL LIFE” played out in real life in our Eritrea.
    Dear Mr. Connell please don’t discourage by the rubbish comments and insults from the thugs of Isayas supporters like their murdered boss they can not tolerate different opinions and do not believe in diversity.
    God bless my brother and Eritrean people need you more than any other time. Thank you and we love you very much.

    Hi George it is because after thirty long years of struggle for freedom and independence, when we thought we reached the end of the tunnel, we Eritreans were so gullible and let ed our hard earned freedom HIJACKED by a blood thirsty dictator (ISAYAS AFEWORKI) and his criminal thugs. He reduced our beautiful country into a stone age society. our youngsters are forced to slave in the name of national service for endless years. In the name of protecting our borders the tyrant and his thugs put our country in a lock down. our university is closed, our infrastructure is dysfunctional, no freedom of religion, speech or writing or what so ever. In the dictators eye every Eritrean is a suspect and guilty till proven innocent that is why he jailed thousands of men and women. In general our Eritrea at present is a major prison cell. That is why you see our brothers and sisters in your cities. Do not worry our dictator is on his last ropes and before too long the trend of migration will reverse and we will go back home soon.
    If you Google “worst dictator” or “north Korea” or “Idi Amin” or “Pol-pot” or “Hitler” our unelected Idiot’s name Isayas Afeworki will pop up and you can read more about him how atrocious and a murderer he is and why our young men and women are fleeing from their country. Till then be kind to our youngsters.