Failed States

Africa's North Korea

Inside Eritrea's open-air prison.

As dusk fell on Asmara, the wide, tree-lined sidewalks of Harnet Avenue began to fill with pedestrians. It was a lovely spring Saturday, cool with a light breeze, and Eritreans of all ages strolled beneath a canopy of palm trees, pausing in the evening shadow of Italian-built Art Deco buildings to greet friends and sip macchiatos in sidewalk cafes.

As I watched the scene from one of those cafes, it was hard to imagine a more pleasant city anywhere in Africa. It was harder still to believe that this was the capital of the continent's most aggressive government -- and almost impossible to comprehend the depth of the domestic tragedy unfolding in one of Africa's most enchanting and unpredictable countries.

With a population of just 5 million people, Eritrea has clashed with all four of its closest neighbors in the 17 years since it broke off from Ethiopia. Eritrea still keeps as many as 100,000 soldiers stationed along that frontier, just in case. Before that conflict, it fought Yemen over a chain of islands that lay between them. And just two years ago, Eritrea launched a brief, surreal attack on its tiny neighbor, Djibouti, in which some 35 soldiers from both sides died. Many of the deaths occurred when Djiboutian troops refused to hand over Eritrean soldiers who had defected -- whether in hopes of escaping hardship at home, finding better training abroad, or even just getting a few sips of clean water.

Eritrea has also periodically sponsored rebels in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, occasionally and unapologetically giving refuge to their leaders in Asmara. It has been believably accused of supporting rebels in Djibouti, too. Its involvement in Somalia has been particularly egregious. In December, the U.N. Security Council announced sanctions to punish Eritrea for its support of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab and similar organizations. It was the first time the African Union had ever supported sanctions against one of its own members.

But though Eritrea has been amassing an unrivaled track record of international provocation, the regime's real masterpiece of destruction has been at home, where the former Italian colony has taken on the aura of the Soviet Union's final days. This has been an especially ironic turn of events for a country whose independence came about after its improbable and inspiring 1991 victory against the Soviet-backed military dictatorship in Ethiopia.

That revolt's popular, Chinese-trained military leader, Isaias Afwerki, became Eritrea's president in 1993 and has continued to agitate for the same national ethos of self-sacrifice and self-reliance that motivated his highly disciplined rebel movement. Nearly two decades later, Afwerki insists that his people's ongoing deprivations are the price of investing in the future. Private and deeply defensive, Afwerki bristles at criticism, whether foreign or domestic, and fiercely rejects the idea that Eritrea could benefit from any external aid. Having never faced a popular vote, he has no plans to start now, telling the Washington Post in December that Eritreans will not be ready for elections for "a long, long, long time."

Now 64, he has traded his camouflage for a suit, which sits squarely on his slim figure. In fact, he bears a striking resemblance to the dictator of the other pariah state to which Eritrea is so often compared: North Korea. His alleged offenses are not as much the usual suspects in Africa -- corruption and graft -- as they are calculated tyranny at home and a hand in arming and granting sanctuary to the Somali Islamist militants next door (a charge he has denied). Once hailed as the vanguard of a "new generation" of responsible African leaders, he has long since won the dishonor of being one of the continent's most repressive.

So though Asmara today looks like a charming Italian hill town circa 1930, that Soviet feel is never far away: shops full of empty shelves, citizens lining up with ration cards, shortages of basic goods, and a government dedicated to sustaining a military machine it cannot afford. With the economy stagnant, there is no hard currency to buy imports. Corner stores stock the same paltry selection of shoddy domestic goods: cleaning detergents, old fruit, a few bottled drinks, perhaps some canned food.

Restaurants are able to serve only a handful of items on their menus, and Coca-Cola halted local production a few years ago for lack of syrup. The bicycles that crowd the streets betray the desperate shortage of fuel; hiring a car to leave Asmara requires at least a day's notice so that gas can be arranged. Hospitals have reportedly run out of essential supplies; a friend working for the United Nations asked me to smuggle in basic antibiotics no longer available in town. At a popular market that specializes in recycled goods, I watched one metalworker transform castoff artillery shells into coffee urns.

Why the desperate privation? Because the military has taken over virtually every aspect of Eritrean life. Despite its tiny size, Eritrea has the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, with as many as 320,000 soldiers. Its number of soldiers per capita puts Eritrea second only to North Korea, a feat made possible by the ruthless enforcement of mandatory national service for all citizens, men and women alike. Over dinner one evening, a resident U.N. staffer whispered to me about a new expansion of the requirement. To graduate from high school, she explained, youth were now required to attend "national camp" during their final year. Although the government claims this amounts to only a week or two of military training, it in fact lasts much of the year. Her agency had learned that the threat of physical and sexual abuse was causing increasing numbers of students to drop out rather than attend. But by failing to complete their service, they put themselves at constant risk of arrest.

Indeed, arrest is an omnipresent threat in what has become a police state. Every vehicle I took outside Asmara was stopped at frequent checkpoints, where police inspected papers and closely scrutinized the documents of young men to ensure they had official permission to be traveling. The state punishes the families of those who escape, but defections are nonetheless on the rise, fueled in part by a growing food crisis. Based on the limited information they've been able to gather, international agencies think millions of people are at risk of starving after last year's poor harvest. Eritrea, however, continues to reject food aid. One indication of just how desperate the situation has become came in December, when the entire national soccer team sought asylum in Kenya. That same month, Eritrea's ambassador to the European Union told the BBC, "Foreign food aid demonizes the local people and makes them lazy."

Although it's clear that Eritrea is in disastrous shape, precise details about what is happening are near impossible to come by. This is the only African country with no privately owned media, and the movements of foreign diplomats and aid workers are tightly restricted. For three years running, it has been named by Reporters Without Borders as the worst place in the world to be a journalist, and while I was there the entire staff of one radio station -- around 50 journalists -- was arrested. Political dissent is no more tolerated; many would-be dissidents have been detained indefinitely, held in a shadowy network of desert prison camps.

Despite it all, I still encountered Eritreans who were unwilling to acknowledge how badly their government has failed them. Particularly among the older generation, those who had spent their formative years as rebels in the "Struggle" against Ethiopia, I found an inability to accept the collapse of their dreams, at least in front of a foreigner. I spoke with one elderly man who had devoted 18 years of his life to fighting the Ethiopians. Pointing out one charming Asmara feature after another, he told me proudly, insistently, "Eritrea is not in Europe -- but Eritrea is not in Africa."

He was right, but not in the way that he meant. Isolated abroad and collapsing at home, Eritrea has entered a lonely purgatory in which even the daily parade of evening walkers isn't enough to sustain a semblance of normalcy. Many of the younger generation have found some brief escape in Western entertainment; people in local bars and Internet cafes spend hours downloading American television programs over one of the world's worst Internet connections. They then hold screenings of the latest episodes. As I walked around Asmara, advertisements for one show were particularly numerous. The series Eritreans most wanted to watch? Prison Break.

NEXT: Mr. Lonely: The Twilight of Chad's Paranoid Tyrant

PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images

Failed States

A Literal Disaster

Things are just what they seem in the Central African Republic.

A charming tic of Central Africans is a tendency to label things as literally as possible, including their own country, a republic in Central Africa that calls itself the "Central African Republic." For a few dollars, street vendors in the capital city of Bangui sell framed collages of butterfly wings as souvenirs of Central Africa; they are emblazoned with the helpful slogan, "SOUVENIR OF CENTRAL AFRICA." The only Chinese restaurant in town is called "Chinese Restaurant."

So it was a surprise and a disappointment to be warned that for World Food Day, the one thing I could not depend on finding was something to eat. François Bozizé, the Central African general who declared himself president in 2003, had chosen to celebrate the U.N.-sponsored holiday last December in Obo, the country's worst-off region. Obo suffers from the triple whammy of extreme remoteness, proximity to perennial basket cases Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and -- worst of all -- constant raids by the Lord's Resistance Army, the Ugandan terrorist group that is the African answer to the Manson Family, only less predictable and with better musical taste. Bozizé brought his own food, while the people of Obo prepared to survive on their usual diet of manioc, a crop easy to grow but about as nutritious as sawdust.

The Central African Republic is a black hole of governance at the center of the continent. Since declaring independence from France in 1960 it has served up a veritable tasting menu of African despotisms: military dictatorships, civilian kleptocracies, and even an "empire," complete with an emperor on a golden throne. None lasted much more than a decade before the chef brought out an equally unpalatable new course. Bozizé has fared no better than his predecessors, ruling a territory the size of Texas with a GDP significantly smaller than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As it has for the last two decades, the CAR under Bozizé gets by only through massive quantities of foreign aid, which has familiar corrosive effects on government. As one traveler has written, "Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Colombia."

But that aid has helped Bozizé, now 63, establish a firm if thieving grip on the country. A general of the George Custer variety -- last in his class at the officers' academy in Libreville, Gabon, yet canny enough to rise through the ranks -- Bozizé first found a patron in the late 1970s in Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who promoted him after witnessing Bozizé beat an insolent soldier. After Bozizé rose to army chief of staff in the 1990s, Chadian President Idriss Déby -- a neighborhood power broker and enemy of Bozizé's predecessor -- eventually smiled upon him, and Bozizé took power almost unopposed in 2003. He continues to have a Chadian praetorian guard, along with a surprising reputation as an improvement on his predecessors, at least when it comes to consolidating corruption inside the state. What Rudyard Kipling once wrote of police in colonial India could apply to him: He may be a thief and extortionist, but at least he does not suffer any rivals outside his own circle.

But aid money -- and the power that flows with it -- extends only so far in the CAR. And the republic under Bozizé is now rotting at the edges. Bozizé took power through force, and a thousand revolts have blossomed following his example. His procedure to deal with them is now routine: Rebels seize a prefectural capital for a day or two, scaring off ill-equipped government forces. Bozizé sends in his own soldiers with French support to take back the town. The rebels negotiate, and eventually they come to the capital as Bozizé supporters, their leader reincarnated as a trusted presidential advisor and each of his lieutenants upgraded to colonel. Like doomed planets, the rebel movements are pulled into Bozizé's black hole and then eliminated by being bought off. The cycle continues, and paradoxically it is almost sustainable: Having mini-rebellions on every border means no single one gathers enough force to threaten the capital. The best one can say about this equilibrium of anarchy is that the CAR is modestly better off than its neighbors, which are saddled with a malevolent strongman in Chad, the permanent menace of civil war in Sudan, and the wholesale discontinuation of government in the Congo.

At least that appears to be the cause for celebration when I follow Bozizé to the farthest edge of his domain in Obo, which lies near the border of the plagues in Sudan and the Congo. The authorities had been determined to make an occasion of the visit. Bozizé ordered the road cleared so his entourage could drive there in five days, when before if they had tried the journey, they would have arrived sometime between a week later and never. He also sent a generator, and in the days before the World Food Day party, Obo had the unbelievable luxury of whole nights of power. When Bozizé arrives, those lined up to meet him include vendors of illegal elephant ivory, kindergarteners, and a group of pratfall artists who clown around the presidential dais in whiteface, pretending to hunt monkeys.

When the strongman addresses the crowd, he promises more attention from the government, but the people of Obo seem unsure what to think of this, given that power around there is associated with banditry and they might actually prefer their government to stay far away. Bozizé resolves their ambivalence: "Applaud!" he commands, and they do.

Bozizé really has two constituencies: the Central Africans, whom he addresses in the Sango language, and the U.N. and diplomatic delegations, whom he addresses in French. The messages diverge brazenly, with paternalism for the citizens ("amolenge," he calls them, or "children") and pious talk of responsibility and development for the international donors on the dais next to him. French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Vidon is resplendent in an all-white suit, like Tom Wolfe just back from the dry cleaner. U.S. Ambassador Frederick Cook, who at $12 million per year represents CAR's single largest humanitarian donor, recently quarreled with Bozizé about dispersal of funds to build roads (Bozizé wanted to spend the money to rent his government's grader; Cook wanted to pay manual laborers directly). Today he is not present.

In Sango, Bozizé ends with the best-received promise of the afternoon, which is to step up security enough to allow the World Food Program to cart in its troughs of aid. The state has so withered outside the capital, however, that the only guarantee of security Bozizé can offer comes from the Ugandan military forces that prowl the forests outside Obo in search of the Lord's Resistance Army. It's a reminder of just how little the government has to offer; Bozizé can promise nothing but benign neglect and protection provided by a foreign state with only its own terrorist-hunting expedition in mind.

The president has brought food, but for Obo's people, it is strictly look-but-don't-touch, smell-but-don't-taste. Bozizé (wearing an orange shirt emblazoned with his party's logo and no fewer than six photographic likenesses of himself) convenes his cabinet and foreign dignitaries around a specially built concrete platform in an open area of the town. The catering is lavish: cold beer and French wine; cold cuts; and a buffet with potatoes, bread, couscous, and a Nile perch as thick as my thigh. Soldiers keep back the rest of Obo -- thousands of people -- about 20 yards from the tables, close enough for the rich grainy smell of the couscous to romance their nostrils. If I were not among the dignitaries, shamelessly profiting from my pale skin, I would probably be seriously annoyed at the arrangement. But the people of Obo think somewhat differently. The only Central African leader whose rule they claim to remember more fondly is Emperor Bokassa, who spent $22 million, or about 5 percent of the country's GDP, on a ceremony to have himself installed on a golden throne, Napoleon-style.

When Bozizé leaves Obo the next day, his entourage stays behind to finish the wine, even licking the bottlenecks clean. The generator that Bozizé sent in stops running that night (Where would it get fuel? No one seemed to know), and the buffet stands abandoned, like circus grounds after the elephants and big tops have been crated up and moved out. To the east in the darkness is Sudan, to the south the madness of Congo. North and west, Ugandan soldiers and rebels are shooting at each other. So how can hungry Obo complain?

NEXT: Eritrea: Africa's North Korea

PHOTO BY JUAN VRIJDAG