Twenty-six years ago today, Eritrea’s 30-year war of independence against Ethiopia ended with Eritrean freedom fighters marching to the capital, Asmara. Unfortunately, it took less than a decade for the grand hopes and ideals that Eritreans initially had for the future of their country to evaporate into thin air.
But the Eritrean story is far more complicated than these one-dimentional labels.
After independence the country gradually descended into a fiefdom, serving as a grand laboratory for the negligent and oppressive government experiments of President Isaias Afwerki and his clique. Over the past two and a half decades Eritrean authorities have been accused of a variety of abuses. These accusations culminated in a report by the the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in 2016, which declared the Eritrean state guilty of “crimes against humanity“.
As a result of short-sighted economic policies, the country has been mired in abject poverty. Citizens are left with two options – flee at any cost or stay and slowly rot in their homeland. In a country that is not even close to supporting itself on local commodities, importation of goods has been outlawed since 2003. The ruling party (PFDJ) and its organs are allowed to import and ration basic food items – they ration chewing gum at the party’s stores and alcoholic drinks at bars.
There is no rule of law or constitutional underpinning in the country. The president long ago shelved the national constitution that was ratified in 1997 after a four-year drafting process. Yet, in his Independence Day address in 2014, he announced that another constitution would be drafted. This ended up being just another excuse to buy time and divert attention from the country’s problems.
A prison state
Eritrea has devolved into a prison state where military commanders maintain underground prison centres to extort money from innocent citizens. More than 360 prison facilities operate in this small country with a population of fewer than five million people.
Apart from the extortionary prison centres, the other means of generating money is human trafficking, with some Eritreans paying as much as $6,000 to be smuggled out of the country.
This is a nation ranked last (No 180) eight years (2009-2016) in a row on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and named the most censored country on earth by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As they have done for many years, Eritrean authorities continue to ruthlessly restrict and punish both independent and state journalists. Denial of freedom also extends to religious practices, where all Protestant denominations of Christianity have been banned since 2002. State interference also extends to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is supposed to be permitted to operate in the country. The church’s 3rd Patriarch, Abune Antonios, was ousted and placed under house arrest in defiance of Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 2007.
Education in tatters
Although Eritrea boasts about expanding basic education and building schools, various factors effectively have turned the schools into ghost houses. Some schools operate with a single teacher who is expected to do all the teaching as well as covering administrative chores. Eritrea has been applauded for achieving some of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, yet most Eritreans who can afford it seek basic medications in neighbouring countries. All private clinics have been banned since 2010. Most government clinics and hospitals are regularly short of basic supplies, and patients are often asked to get intravenous drips and other medical supplies from private pharmacies.
Construction of new houses has been outlawed since 2005 despite acute shortages, and so is fishing in coastal areas where locals depend on it for their food and livelihood.
In a society that places a high value on education, the state wages a systematic war against education.
This started in 2001 when the regime ordered most teachers to work on national service salary, and the decline was exacerbated two years later when the government moved the final year of secondary school to a military training centre, Sawa, where students combine military training with regular studies. As another impediment to education, the only university in the country, the University of Asmara, was closed in 2006, replaced by underequipped, semi-military colleges.
With the systematic discouragement and prohibition of business, construction, private clinics and the university, much of the country’s productive human resources and capital have fled. As a result, many of the remaining citizens, those with a small amount of capital, have started investing in farms that aren’t reliant on imported goods. Yet, the state makes this difficult, too, by frequently fixing prices and confiscating privately owned tractors during the high season.
Apart from the trivial exercise of democracy in schools (electing class monitors), free elections have never been permitted in Eritrea. From the smallest unit to the highest ministerial level, all officials are appointed, not elected.
Recycling state propoganda
The national media ceaselessly recycle state propaganda. Print and online media have deteriorated into private photo albums of the president, while the national TV station, ERI-TV, is essentially a giant selfie-stick for the president.
Recently, hype has been generated about the booming mining sector in Eritrea, yet every day the country is being pushed closer to abject poverty. Eritrea’s share of mining income and the way it is spent is closely controlled by the president and his close associates.
While every Eritrean state action since independence has disregarded the rule of law and worsened living conditions, the negative effect of these policies has intensified since 2012. In addition to the regular military conscription, the regime decreed a “popular army” programme that requires all civilians between the ages of 18 and 70 to be armed and available to perform free manual labour at a moment’s notice.
These draconian policies were coupled with local currency redemption at the beginning of 2016. According to the new policy, Eritrean nationals can withdraw no more than 5,000 Nakfa (about the cost of a month’s rent for a two-bedroom house in the capital) in a single month from their savings. This rule is in effect despite the fact that the nation’s economy absolutely relies on cashflow.
With the resulting severe lack of currency flow and other extreme restrictions, prices for most items have been skyrocketing. Yet the government, in an attempt to balance the market, forces local farmers in Eritrea to sell their products at fixed prices. For example, during the most recent Easter holiday, police were deployed to the marketplace to make sure consumable products such as tomato and onions were being sold at fixed prices.
While the opposition to the Eritrean government from the international community and the Eritrean diaspora has gradually been increasing, geological developments in the region have been strenghtening the regime’s hand. At a high cost to local residents who have been pushed away from fishing and other jobs in the port of Assab, Eritrean authorities have leased that port to the United Arab Emirates for coalition forces to conduct their joint military operation against Yemen. Another island has been leased to Egypt to destabilise Ethiopia. Apart from President Afwerki and his group, nobody in Eritrea benefits from such dealings.
For the past three to four years, the president has been isolating himself and growing increasingly paranoid, depending more and more on his military and security forces. Afwerki has launched poorly planned and researched capital projects that drain material resources and manpower from the small nation. A blatant example of this is the many dam projects for which the whole nation is required to provide free labour and the president serves as site manager. He moved his office to the construction site and handles daily presidential tasks from his new location.
This is the exceedingly gloomy situation in which Eritrea found itself while celebrating its hard-won independence. Happy Independence Day, Eritrea … anyways.
Abraham T. Zere is a US-based Eritrean writer and journalist who is serving as the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile. Among others his articles – that mainly deal with Eritrea’s gross human rights abuses and lack of freedom of expression – have appeared on The Guardian, The Independent and the Index on Censorship Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @abraham_zere
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
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