December 09, 2013

Eritrea's botched kick-off – Football players defect

Once more it is not going well for the oppressive regime of Eritrean's President Isaias Afewerki. Desperately trying to find some honour abroad, at least in the field of sports, something keeps going awfully wrong.

Yesterday nine members of the Eritrean national football team, currently in Kenya for the 2013 CECAFA Cup, disappeared from their hotel and defected. With them is the team coach, which leaves the rest of the players stranded.

Already a week ago two players of the team had gone in hiding, so that now eleven Eritrean football players have turned their back on the regime that send them to the tournament. It is expected that they will file an asylum request with the UNHCR in Kenya.

Defecting athletes, something well known of Eastern Bloc nations during the time of the Cold War, are always an embarrassment to the regimes they flee from. Nothing shows so intensely the desperation of a people as when its national athletes make use of a sports event abroad to abscond. Eritrea however almost has a running tradition of this by now, and President Afewerki will have to think once more about the honour he tried to gain and lost double by the defection of national football team members, a situation he knows well from the past.

A running tradition of defection

In 2006, four players of the national team defected after a CAF Champions League match in Nairobi, Kenya. One year later, 12 members defected after a game of the 2007 CECAFA Cup in Tanzania.  Another 6 players sought asylum in Angola in March 2007 after a game in the qualification group 6 for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, and three more players from the national team sought asylum in Sudan.

As this was clearly getting out of hand, heaping shame after shame on the regime of President Afewerki that was so desperate to keep up the fairy tale of normality in the oppressed country, the plug was pulled, and Eritrea withdrew from the 2008 CECAFA Cup. With no players abroad, no shame by defection was to be feared.

Not participating however in the most important football tournament of Africa was shame in itself. So one year later Eritrea decided to take part again and hastily assembled a new team of football players for the 2009 CECAFA Cup in Kenya. In only 12 days the young team was drilled and this time a security payment of 100,000 nakfa (around $ 6.500) was demanded from the athletes before leaving to ensure they would return.

It went awfully wrong. 12 players – half the team Eritrea send to the tournament – failed to report for the return flight and filed asylum requests with the UNHCR in Nairobi. At first Eritrea pretended not to be aware of the defection, then it promised the defectors a "good welcome" on return despite them having "betrayed" the country. At the same time Eritrea however urged Kenya's police to find and arrest the defectors who for good reason did not fall for the temptation of a "good welcome" and remained in hiding for eight months. They were then granted asylum status and are now living – and playing football – in Australia.

In 2010, vowing to this time have a police escort that keeps a watch over the players at all times, Eritrea tried once more and send a new national team to the 2010 CECAFA Cup to Tanzania. But again 13 players defected, asked for asylum and are now living – and playing football – in Houston, Texas.

The streak of bad luck for the Eritrean regime was far from over. In 2011 it once again withdrew from the CECAFA Cup citing lack of funds, though everyone was convinced it was to prevent even more players to defect. By 2012 however the regime had pulled itself together and gave it another go. It turned out not to be the best of ideas.

During the 2012 CECAFA Cup in Uganda, 17 members of the Eritrean national football team and the team doctor left the hotel in Kampala to 'go shopping' or 'visit friends' – but never returned. They defected and filed for asylum. Only five players and two officials were left to return home to the once more deeply shamed regime of Eritrea. The defected players were granted refugee status by Uganda in February this year.

After such a tradition of losing its football players on practically every African tournament year after year Eritrea should have perhaps known better than to give it another try. But overzealous national pride yearning for at least some acceptance abroad despite the horrific human rights situation in the country seemed to have won over reason. With no good result.

It happened yet again

The 2013 CECAFA Cup proved to be yet another Eritrean Waterloo: 2 players ducked into hiding at the beginning of last week, 8 more players and the team coach disappeared from their hotel last night, are now in a secret place and will ask for asylum with the Kenyan Office of the UNHCR. Once more the plane taking the Eritrean national football team home will be half empty.

Eritrea, dubbed the 'North Korea' of Africa, has a serious problem. According to estimates, around 3,000 Eritreans are secretly leaving the country every month trying to get out of the terror grip of the ruthlessly authoritarian regime. High ranking air force pilots fly their planes to nearby Saudi Arabia to defect, where three planes have by now accumulated on the tarmac. A female pilot, sent by Eritrea to pick up one of the planes, immediately asked for asylum herself. And one of the most famous Eritrean singer, Yohannes Tikabo, defected only two months ago. It just doesn't work out well for President Afewerki.

With the new embarrassment now at the 2013 CECAFA Cup in Kenya, Eritrea has shown the world once more that its botched kick-off at African football tournaments is becoming tradition. There is no doubt that the lean, well trained Eritrean football players can run. Sadly for the President and his oppressive regime however, most of them – at least in the eyes of the President – keep running in the wrong direction.

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