Eritreans still denied freedom 25 years after independence
Young people are fleeing at an alarming rate, preferring to face uncertainty in Europe rather than oppression at home,
The Conversation reports
Eritreans celebrate during the war with neighbouring Ethiopia in 1998.
Photograph: Sami Sallinen/AP
Valerie Frank for the Conversation, part of the Guardian Africa Network
Wednesday 25 May 201608.30
Twenty-five years ago the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front marched into
Asmara, sending the Ethiopian forces they had been fighting for 30 years
scrambling out of the city to safety.
People were elated. The underdogs had triumphed and the streets were
filled with war-wearied citizens, who were free at last.
But this excitement was short-lived. The liberation forces quickly morphed
into the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, a political party that has
ruled ever since. It turned Eritrea into one of the most isolated countries
and saddled it with the nickname: “Africa’s North Korea”.
Hundreds of young people are fleeing each week, from a country of just 5.1
million, and Eritreans now make up a significant number of those entering
Europe on dangerous crossings from Libya. What was once a relatively
unknown and underreported country is now at the forefront of the EU’s
mind, as it scrabbles for a way to “stem” the movement of people to Europe.
But how did it come to this?
Ex-fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front depart from Asmara to the Ethiopian border in 1998.
Photograph: Sami Sallinen/AP
Optimism for Eritrea’s future was high in the 1990s. The Liberation Front’s
discipline and impressive achievements in undermining the Ethiopian
forces resulted in a strong belief that the new government could produce
But the outbreak of the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in
1998 fundamentally altered the nation’s course. It wreaked devastation
around the countries’ shared borders and entrenched Eritrea’s
To this day, senior members of the ruling party maintain that the border
conflict is still unresolved, and that Eritreans must remain in
indefinite national and military service in case of Ethiopian aggression.
Young people feel smothered by the lack of opportunities within the country
This sense of constant threat has been used to legitimise the government’s
restrictions on freedom of speech, association, movement and the press.
With tens of journalists in jail, many held in secret prisons for decades, the
country ranks among the worst in the world for press freedom.
More recently, the UN imposed sanctions on the country over its alleged
support for al-Shabaab and refusals to withdraw its troops from Djibouti
following an inter-state conflict. Though no recent evidence suggests Eritrea
backs the terrorist group, the UN appears reluctant to drop the sanctions
until the government permits observers to enter the country.
Restrictions on movement into and around Eritrea makes understanding its
conditions extremely difficult. More foreign journalists have visited in
recent years, but reports of what is going on inside are largely provided by
state-controlled sources, who closely follow the party line . Laudable
successes in reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and
combating infectious diseases must therefore be viewed with caution.
What we do know is that people are leaving Eritrea at an alarming rate: an
estimated 5,000 young people a month.
This is driven by harsh conditions, poor pay across civil and military
employment and disproportionate punishment associated with national
service, where individuals are condemned to a life of
debilitating servitude in the interests of “national security”.
Beyond this, young people feel smothered by the lack of opportunities in the
country. Obtaining exit visas to study elsewhere is notoriously difficult even
though further education within the country is under-resourced.
Young Eritrean refugees are the third-biggest group trying to reach Europe, after Afghans and Syrians.
Photograph: Vincent Defait/AFP/Getty Images
Given this rather grim picture of conditions in Eritrea, are there any silver
In the past few years, the Eritrean regime has suggested that it will reduce
the length of national service, pay conscripts more and draft a new
constitution. As yet there is no evidence of developments on any of these
Eritrea’s modernist capital city, Asmara, is edging closer to being
givenUnesco World Heritage status in recognition of its unique
architectural style. This would provide money for much-needed restoration
work and, perhaps, put Eritrea on the tourist map.
But the greatest success stories are arguably on the sporting front. Eritrean
middle- and long-distance runners are gaining podium placesin major
international races. The nation’s cyclists have also shot to global fame after
two riders – Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus – became the first
black Africans to race in the Tour de France last year.
But if emigration from the country continues at the current pace, it is hard
to imagine where Eritrea will stand in the coming years. Those leaving may
provide vital remittances to their families back home, which in 2006 were
understood to constitute just under 40% of gross domestic product, but
their loss is depriving the country of its youth.
Tour de France rider Daniel Teklehaimanot has become an Eritrean success story against a backdrop of mass emigration. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Agitation for political change from those who have left appears to have
achieved little, though some insurrection has been documented within the
The most notable were the events of Forto 2013, when the country’s
Ministry of Information was surrounded by disgruntled soldiers demanding
political reform, and the Freedom Friday Movement, which encourages
citizens to undermine the government through small, subversive acts.
For now, 25 years after it gained freedom, Eritrea’s political system remains
unchanged. It is unclear who or what will follow President Isaias Afewerki,
who is 70 years old and unlikely to stand down.
For many of those celebrating 25 years since independence there is thus a
heart-breaking truth being simultaneously acknowledged: that the
respected fighters who so valiantly won them their freedom after decades in
the trenches are so painfully and egregiously failing the next generation
Valerie Frank is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the author. A
version of this article first appeared on the Conversation