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The brutality of the repressive Eritrean government coupled with deep seated economic problems in the tiny country provide deep-seated reasons why Eritreans are a people under siege seeking escape and fundamental change in their country

Eritrea has no oil, gas or strategic minerals. It has no nuclear weapons or remnants of a settler-colonial population. Yet it is one of world’s most repressive regimes whose brutality is highlighted by fleeing refugees losing their lives in the waters off Europe’s southern coast.

The African Union declared 3rd November as a continental mourning day to be commemorated by all its member states for the hundreds of African refugees who perished off the Italian Island of Lampedusa on the 3rd of October. The AU decision is to be welcomed and is in accordance with the African tradition and custom to respect the dead and their spirit. However, it remains to be seen whether the AU will go another step beyond remembering the dead to prevent the lives of thousands of Africans by addressing the root cause of the tragedies. In fact, since the 3rd of October there were already reports of another capsized boat carrying more than 200 refugees, of which the majority were Eritreans. At least 50 people were reported drowned of which were many children whose bodies were seen floating in the Mediterranean Sea. The government of Malta, responding to the growing crisis and deaths, described the Mediterranean as becoming a ‘mass grave’.According to the official report of the Italian Interior Ministry the average age of all those who died or survived was 25 years. The overwhelming majority of them were Eritreans.

The question that many outsiders are not asking is: Why do Eritreans, especially the youth, leave their country in droves? What do they have to flee from in order to go through such dangerous and risky routes in their search for safety?


After a protracted thirty-year war of liberation, Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in May 1991, as a de facto state, which was formalized by a popular referendum held under the auspices of the United Nations in May 1993 when the people of Eritrea overwhelmingly voted for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Those outsiders who happened to be in Eritrea or speaking to an Eritrean in any part of the world, they cannot help but get infected by the confidence and the sense of optimism of the future that Eritreans oozed. Indeed, the optimism was not unfounded and neither was the triumph that resulted from the military success over the mighty Ethiopian army. The New York Times issued an article titled ‘Eritrea: African Success Story Being Written’ on 30 April 1996. In that article it was stated that ‘Five years after winning the war that led to independence, former Eritrean rebels are rebuilding their shattered country with the same tenacity and self-sacrifice that served them well in the longest civil war in recent African history.’

The Eritrean liberation struggle was waged for two main objectives. One objective was the attainment of national independence; another was social transformation. These two objectives were highly integrated and constituted the pillars of the strategy of the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF). In fact, one of the slogans of the EPLF was liberating land and people piece by piece with total reliance on the country’s own resources. In accordance to this strategy the EPLF had incrementally built not only a formidable and highly disciplined military force that stood against successive military operations of the Ethiopian army and eventually defeated the latter, but also created a network of mass organizations and administrative structures based on popular participation and mobilization of the people of Eritrea. It was indeed the total support of the Eritrean people that sustained the globally isolated Eritrean revolution for such a long time. The participation of women in all aspects of the revolution was remarkable and was expected to form the basis for the creation of a gender equal society.

Reflecting this nature, the EPLF in its 2nd Congress in 1987 drew its vision for an independent state of Eritrea. In its program, the EPLF saw an independent Eritrea as being a democratic state built on the experience and gains of the liberation struggle which would emphasize on active participation of the people in a pluralistic political system. The EPLF envisioned to continue along the principle of self-reliance and mobilization of domestic resources for socio-economic reconstruction and development with equitable distribution of national wealth. This vision was once again reiterated at the 3rd Congress held after the independence in 1994.

However, the trends in the immediate years of post-independence were mixed, if not contradictory. On one hand there were genuine efforts towards establishing democratic institutions of the nascent state in the form of functioning courts, national assembly and ministries that were to some extent responsive to the demands of the people. The constitution making process that took almost two years was highly inclusive. Its outcome, the draft constitution largely reflected the popular aspirations held high during the liberation struggle and expressed by different sections, including the Eritreans outside the country. The draft constitution was adopted by a constitutional assembly in May 1996. Meanwhile, the reconstruction program started to show its positive impact on the economy and living standards of the majority of the people.
Meanwhile the EPLF, renamed the Eritrean Peoples’ Front for Justice and Democracy (EPJDF) at the 3rd Congress, continued to be highly secretive and the leadership increasingly authoritarian. Those political prisoners who were under custody during the liberation struggle were not brought to justice under the conditions of peace which now prevailed, but many more faced arbitrary arrest without trial in the immediate period of independence. Victimisation was widespread against those who questioned the EPLF/EPJDF leadership. The leadership remained silent about the fate of its opponents or reverted to propaganda-filled justifications for its human rights abuses. Arbitrary arrest and disappearance of alleged Muslim radicals; the day-light killing of liberation war-disabled demonstrators in the early years of independence and the arrest and disappearance of freedom fighters who demonstrated against the unilateral decision of the President to force the fighters to continue to serve without any remuneration were the most dark clouds that shadowed the optimism of the immediate years of independence.

Neither within the closed circle of the leadership, nor in public were these actions spoken about, let alone discussed. What was known at the time was from the lengthy interviews that the president had with the state controlled media in which he explained and justified the actions with the usual dogmatic nationalist rhetoric. In the absence of criticism and opposition the concentration of power in the hand of the President increased at the expense of a collective leadership that is said to have been practiced in the EPLF. Prominent liberation veterans, high-level public officials and even ministers were either removed from their positions or said to have been made ‘frozen’ – a phrase used to mean that an official formally continues to hold his/her position, but with no actual authority. The national assembly was chaired by the president who has the veto power to impose and/or block any decision.
Despite all these, the hope was set on the new Constitution which was expected to bring an institutionalised way of dealing with public affairs, division of powers, checks and balance and also upholding of the rule of law and human rights. Before the draft constitution was acceded to by the president, the war with Ethiopia over the border town of Badme started in 1998. According to several accounts and the report of Eritrean-Ethiopia Claim Commission Eritrea is said to have started the war. Besides the disastrous humanitarian cost and the deaths of more than 150, 000 young people on both sides, one of the major implications of the war was rift within the closed circle of the party’s leadership and closure of nascent private media that began to provide an alternative space for public debate on national issues. Consequently, the rift within the leadership grew and those members - ministers and top generals – were rounded up on the 18of September 2001 and remain in unknown places since then with some rumoured to have died. The same fate encountered journalists from the private media. As with the draft constitution, the war with Ethiopia became a reason to hold up the implementation of the draft constitution. When the President was asked by a journalist from a foreign media house about the time when draft constitution will be implemented and elections will be held in Eritrea, he responded by saying ‘a constitution is just a paper; we are not interested about elections that are conducted for the sake of conducting them. We are not going to hold such elections, not even in three generations….’


The war with Ethiopia albeit its disastrous implication, is not the first one that the young nation had. Eritrea had war with Yemen over the Hanish Archipelagos of the Red Sea; Eritrea had also several skirmishes with Sudan; and also with Djibouti. The Eritrean government sent fighting commando units to support late President Laurent Kabila. Eritrea has waged war practically with all its neighbours in less than a decade of its existence as a nation. Some observers explained this phenomenon as problem-solving based on the logic of gun. According to them, having functioned in almost an autarchic environment for decades without any influence by external forces and having managed to sustain a popular liberation war which they came out with military success, the Eritrean leadership deeply believed in this logic and referred to it as a first call of reference in tackling political problems, both within and outside. It is probably this logic that led also to the institutionalization of a military service program in a society which was already over-militarized and fatigued by thirty years of war. Since its institutionalization in 1995, the military service continued to graduate between 15,000 and 25, 000 young people every year. The number is in addition to the national army from the EPLF time and the militias and other specialized units. Consequently, measured in population ratio the Eritrean society is the most militarized society in the world.

Though initially a young person was required to serve in the program for only two years, the duration has become indefinite. A young person of 18 years, for instance, who was conscripted in the first round in 1995 could be still serving in the army until now. After university students protested against such practice, they were arrested collectively and sent to Danakil depression where the temperature reaches more than 50 degree Celsius. While many died of dehydration and heat stroke, those who survived either escaped the country or became destitute with deep trauma. Since then the only university in the country, the University of Asmara remains closed.

As a replacement the government established obscure and unstandardized colleges under the military’s command. Not only is it the case that the curriculum is not internationally benchmarked, the whole management and administrative system of these colleges falls directly under the generals most of whom have never attended tertiary college and even completed high school. Besides, graduates from these colleges as bright and hardworking as they may be, have no opportunity to practice their professions outside the military. If they do so, it is under the military service with a monthly allowance of 45 USD a month. These are the few who are considered fortunate under the circumstances. Most of the young people, especially those who come from rural areas, just idle themselves in the trenches and barracks for years, if not a decade. Some are drawn to work in party’s and high military officials’ private projects under conditions of slavery. Human Rights Watch also reported that youth from the military service were also said to work under conditions of slavery in the gold mines in which some South African and mainly Canadian companies are involved.
In the attempts to escape the unlimited military service, bleak future, servitude and gross human rights, Eritrean youth continue to fall victims of tragic incidents as the recent one near the Italian Island of Lampedusa. It is said that between 2011 and 2013, more than 4000 young Eritreans died at the hands of human and organ traffickers between the Sudanese and Sinai deserts. More than equal numbers became victims of kidnappers who tortured, raped and abused them to extract tens and thousands of USD from their families and relatives. The Israeli Association of Doctors for Human Rights has documented the atrocities committed against Eritreans in a very detailed manner. During the height of the war on Libya a boat carrying more than 500 Eritrean refugees leaving the cost of Libya disappeared and did not arrive at any costal line on the European side of Mediterranean Sea, neither did it return to Libya. It just vanished and is alleged that it was hit by one of the NATO fighting jets and sank; the people drowned. No media outlet reported on this, except some Eritrean Human Rights groups. The exodus of Eritrean youth indeed has increasingly become a burden to the neighbouring countries, in particular the Sudan and Ethiopia, who are hosting tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees.
Meanwhile families are denied their breadwinners and are put in a very precarious situation in which they entirely rely on government’s hand-outs as a means of survival. By this the authoritarian system gained a total control over the population. Once highly compact and self-reliant the Eritrean social structure based on the family as a unit is being disintegrated as s direct result of the regime’s actions. Children growing in a household with absent parents are a common phenomenon. Young people are either in military service or in refugee camps outside the country, villages are left without able bodied adults and a productive work force.


These all are the implications of the social re-engineering exercise that the leadership of the EPDJF, the President in particular, set out to create in a uniform society devoted to the national identity as defined by him alone. As the experience of other countries has shown ideological driven social re-engineering that is not embedded in the socio-economic and cultural reality of a society is bound to have deep-reaching negative consequences that stretches for generations. In fact, despite the ideological and nationalist sugar-coating, the mere purpose of such social re-engineering is revealed to be the attainment of total control and preservation of power of the political elite. This is the case in Eritrea. The only difference is it is happening in the 21st century global context without learning any lessons from the 20th century experiences of other countries.

Through its tentacles and structures the regime managed to exercise total control of the society. Even those outside the country are not spared. Through its embassies who have nothing important to do than extorting 2 percent of monthly income, spy on Eritreans and involve themselves in the daily private and social lives of Eritreans, including taking control of the churches and social clubs of Eritreans. Anyone who is perceived to be standing against such action is reported. Many have been arrested when they visited families in Eritrea; others have their loved ones in Eritrea put under tremendous pressure by the security services of the regime to effect surrender. Indeed, the regime has also sent its operatives as asylum seekers to countries where many Eritreans reside. These operatives work full time for the regime and are major tools in controlling causing disunity among Eritreans and Eritrean communities in the diaspora. This should not come as a surprise from a regime which accounts for the largest number of political prisoners in the world; more than 10, 000 is reported by human rights groups.

For instance, the Eritrean Embassy in South Africa is not known to do much on the diplomacy front. Its major focus has been the Eritrean refugee community in South Africa. It has involved itself in the initiative of Eritreans aimed at establishing the Eritrean Coptic Orthodox church and sows division among the members. Six years down the line, the church has not been established.
Moreover, few Eritrean professionals came together to establish an association of Eritrean Professionals in Southern Africa with the aim of supporting the communities, especially young members, in education, health and entrepreneurship. Yet, the initiative could not take off because the Ambassador himself met almost all the initiators and intimidated them not to go ahead with the initiative unless it is under the control of the Embassy. Recently, as most Eritreans were in deep grief about the recent incident in Italy and moved to organize a memorial service, the embassy organized a ’youth day’ with the intention of sabotaging the memorial service which was initiated outside its control. This is in a country, South Africa, where people suffered and fought for centuries to ensure the freedom of everyone who lives in it. Yet, tentacles of an authoritarian regime exploit the freedom guaranteed under the South African Constitution to intimidate and curtail the freedom of Eritrean refugees who came to this country for safety.

This practice is part of the overall aggrandizement agenda as encapsulated in the personality of the president. Boosted by the military triumph over Ethiopia to win Eritrean independence, the regime was relentless in its attempt to position itself as power broker in the regional landscape. Its involvement in the DRC is just the first attempt at power brokering. The regime involved itself in the Sudan, especially hosting and supporting various armed groups fighting the central government in Khartoum. It also trained and armed a number of Ethiopian armed groups.

The question observers ask is: where does a government of an impoverished country find resources to fund such adventuristic actions? In one of its issues discussing the UN sanction against Eritrea, the respectable online journal ‘The Current Analysis’ stated that ‘The Eritrean 'state' is not the conventional kind of state. It abhors legal transactions, and adores illicit trade. It largely depends on informal trade. While other states try hard to avoid it, the Eritrean 'state' flourishes on it. The way Asmara does things is totally different. Before the sanctions the leaders in Asmara had at least a choice to go legal, but now they will comfortably join the illegal and underground world in full force.’ Precisely, the regime is engaged in a lot of shady business activities through the tentacles of business ventures of the party in countries such as Ethiopia, the Sudan, the South Sudan and as far as Uganda and Kenya. The business ventures are often registered under individual names whose bigger parts are underground in their operations. As reported by the UN Monitoring Group, which was established to oversee the compliance of the regime, known top military figures with direct link to the President were said to be masterminding the massive human trafficking, illicit cross border trade and smuggling of weapons. Indeed, a number of Eritreans have attested to the fact that they or their relatives paid ransom money in Asmara for the release of their kidnapped loved ones in the Sudan and Sinai deserts. In a country where every movement of the citizens is monitored, it is unthinkable that such big and frequent transactions could take place without the knowledge and consent of the regime.


These all are indications of bankruptcy of a system; a system which refused to adjust itself to a new reality; a system which wrote a blank cheque to a person with a megalomaniac personality; a system which will not stop at anything to preserve itself. It can only preserve itself by continuing what it has been doing best.

Recognizing the nature of the regime, the African Union has mobilized itself to push for the UN Resolution 1907 (2009) in which the regime is considered as threat to regional security and stability through provision of support initially to the Islamic Courts and later to its predecessor Al Shabab in Somalia. The conflict with the neighbouring Djibouti has also added to the isolation of the regime and led to the suspension of Eritrea’s membership from the regional organization of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD).

The regional and international isolation of the regime has also found resonance domestically. Due to its continued brutality and oppression, the regime is highly unpopular and rules just by fear with increasing paranoia. The massive exodus of young Eritreans and the accounts of gross human rights violation in the recent report of the Special Human Right Rapporteur on Eritrea are, but indications of the increasingly precarious political situation in that country.


In January a unit of the mechanised brigade mutinied against the regime. After controlling the national TV station, it was easily subdued. While the fate of the mutineers is quite obvious in the hands of the system, their action was indeed a clear indication of what is inevitable, namely a military coup. As the experiences in Africa have s shown time and again, the military takeover does not necessarily guarantee the advent of democracy; even if it can dislodge a regime as brutal as the one in Eritrea. It is also possible that the regime may take time to go and would fight tooth and nail to drag the country to a devastating civil war with unforeseen implications to the regional stability and security. Africa cannot afford another Somalia.

Therefore, it is critical that the African Union mobilizes its preventive measures sooner rather than later. This has however to be done in the terms of Eritreans as represented by various groups in and outside of the country. In so doing, the concerns and the interests of the neighbouring countries, in particular that of Ethiopia, has to be taken into consideration, but should not override the position of the Eritreans. For this purpose, the African Union should urgently call for Reconciliation Conference among Eritreans in a neutral place to draw a transitional political roadmap towards the peaceful exit of the regime and establishment of a democratic and inclusive system in Eritrea. The role of South Africa is central in planting and pushing the idea forward in the AU structures and also in convincing Ethiopia and the Sudan to support such processes. The Organization of African Unity did not say anything in the thirty year war during which Eritreans suffered heavily under the Mengistu Hailemariam regime which went on not even 1000 km away from its headquarters in Addis Ababa. It is said that the African Union will not be as indifferent as its predecessor in cases of gross human rights violations and violent conflicts in the continent. Yet again the people of Eritrea are looking to Africa and the African Union to uphold its principles and values and demonstrate in deed their solidarity and support to the Eritrean people in their efforts to bring the suffering to an end and establish constitutional democracy in the country.

*Adane Ghebremeskel (Dr) is Regional Program Advisor in the Peace and Security Council of the SADC NGOs. The above piece reflects his own personal views.



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