Eritrea: Hopes for Democratic Change and

Reform of National Service?


Following the recent rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia dated 7 July 2018, a number of media commentators, diplomats and foreign government officials have expressed hope that the political situation in Eritrea would be normalised soon. Attention must be given to the system of arbitrary and indefinite national military service programme of the government of Eritrea.

The National Service programme is characterised by forced conscription, persistent human rights violations and slavery. It is the main reason behind Eritrean migrant exodus witnessed over the course of the last two decades. (See the findings of the UN Commission Of Inquiry).

The hope is that the programme would cease to be indefinite and that the period of service would be limited to 18 months. For Germany’s development minister, Gerd Mueller, who personally met President Isaias Afewerki on 24 August, his hopes go further and he predicts the introduction of “democratic structures” in Eritrea soon.

This far, there is no material evidence to justify the hopes expressed by media commentators and foreign government officials like Minister Gerd Mueller. Their hopes appear to be based merely on their personal encounters with Eritrean officials, or perhaps on the contents of the series of interviews made by Eritrean officials with international media outlets.

From long experience, Eritreans do not take statements made by Eritrean officials seriously, simply because of the constant inconsistencies and discrepancies between words and actions. Above all, the promises they make normally do not materialise.

Nevertheless, in so far as they appear to draw the attention of international media and foreign government officials, perhaps it is important to review the statements made by Eritrean officials over the course of the last four years.

Statements of Eritrean Officials

Concerning  a transition to a constitutional governance in Eritrea, in May 2014, in an interview with local media, President Isaias Aferwerki announced the “death” of the 1997 constitution – a constitution that was ratified in 1997 but never  implemented.  Instead he promised the drafting of a brand-new constitution.

Two years later, in February 2016, a Presidential Adviser, Yemane Gebreab, informed the UN Commission of Inquiry that a committee was established to consider the drafting of a new constitution. Four years since this initial announcement, what happened to this “new” constitution?  Or is there any “new” constitution at all?

With regard to the programme of national military service, in April 2015, in an interview with the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialog, Yemane Gebreab stated that Eritrea would limit national service to 18 months, in line with the provisions of the 1995 decree. He also added that “the challenge is to be able to find jobs, skills, training and business opportunities when conscripts are released”, indicating that the problem is mostly an economic issue.

However, after one month, Yemane Gebreab’s assertions were contradicted by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press statement released in June 2015, which made it clear that there are no plans to limit the period of National Service to 18 months, owing to Ethiopia’s refusal to abide by the decision of the Border Commission.

Similar assertions were made by the Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel, in February 2016, in an interview with Reuters in which he stated that there were no plans to limit national service, and that “demobilisation is predicated on removal of main threat”, that threat being Ethiopia’s refusal to withdraw its troops from Eritrean territories. In the same month, President Isaias made an announcement of salary increases to conscripts. It is important here to note the pattern - “we-will-limit, we-won’t-limit, and salary-increase”.

With peace declared between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July this year, similar statements are once again emerging from Eritrean officials, and following the same pattern observed in 2015/16.Immediately after President Isaias announced his impending visit to Ethiopia, it was reported that officials at Sawa military training camp informed new conscripts that National Service will be limited to 18 months. The news found its way to international media and produced some level of jubilation.

Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel was aware of the reports, and he stated that “an official announcement has not been made so far”, suggesting that such an announcement would be imminent.

Later in August, Yemane Gebremeskel told Bloomberg that “work on the constitution would begin soon”, indicating that whatever the President and his Adviser had said about a “new” constitution thus far had been nothing but another empty public relations exercise.

On 25 August 2018, the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, met with the German minster, Gerd Mueller. Mohammed appeared so emboldened that after the meeting with Minister Mueller, he held an interview with the Germany radio service (Deutsche Welle). In the interview, he blandly stated that his government was not the cause of the Eritrean migrant exodus, as if the national service decree has been implemented in Eritrea by the German government! Implicitly indicating that the political situation of Eritrea is back to normalcy (or national service is limited to 18 months), he also called for Eritrean migrants to come back home.

A new addition to the “discourse” (a discourse normally carried out by the president, the Minsters of Information and Foreign Affairs, and the presidential adviser) is the Minister of Labour and Human Welfare, Mrs. Luul Gebreab. On 2 September, Mrs. Gebreab told Bloomberg that Eritrea will cut its army numbers and that the remaining conscripts “will concentrate on developmental work”. Like the excuses presented by Yemane Gebreab in 2015, she also stated that the government is studying the “economic effects of demobilization”, i.e. issues concerning to availability of employment for conscripts.

At the same time, Yemane Gebremeskel asserted (also to Bloomberg)that at the moment there is no  prospect of returning to “statutory” terms of 18 months national service.  Instead he raised the matter of reviewing and considering salary increases for conscripts. It is important to note that conscripts are normally deployed (with no more than nominal pay) in every sector where labour is needed - be it in the army, construction companies or civilian administration. 

Bloomberg has learned that Eritrean officials maintain the position that “demobilisation depends on Ethiopia concluding its parts of the peace deal and withdrawing its troops from Eritrean territories”. This means that conscripts will not be free until such time as Ethiopia acts in a specific way. In this way, the officials are determined to convince everyone that the “Ethiopian threat” persists. With the issue of “salary increases” again raised, the repeated pattern of delay and excuse becomes complete.

The National Service: what is it?

For nearly three decades, Eritrea has indeed faced a human tragedy of epic proportions where thousands were subjected to a practice of slavery and servitude, many lost their lives in wars, and a significant proportion of its population was forced to flee the country at great cost to preserve their lives. Central to all of these tragedies is the programme of national military service, and as such it is quite normal to see the issue receiving constant international coverage.

However, there appears a flawed understanding of what exactly the programme is, especially among those who report it; a misconception that appears to exist among diplomats and government officials, such as Gerd Mueller, who therefore simply propagate unrealistic hopes.

The National Service programme started in 1994 with a different proclamation from that of 1995. The first proclamation (71/94) strictly limited the period of national service to 18 months. Supported by the then dominant narrative of “liberation struggle”, it was warmly accepted by the Eritrean society without any noticeable form of resistance. But by the end of 1995, that decree had been quietly rescinded and replaced by the infamous 1995 proclamation (82/95). 

By incorporating a provision known as “special obligation” (Article 21(1)), the 1995 decree subjects every adult citizen to its draconian administration, where everyone is duty bound to “serve as a volunteer” for the whole of his/her adult life. To use a more precise definition, for Eritreans the decree effectively stripped their citizenship status from them and turned them into stateless slaves. 

One can thus see that the process of building an institution of forced conscription and slavery started long before the “border war” with Ethiopia, with the quiet implementation of the 1995 decree. Slowly over the years, it ensured a Master-Slave relationship in which Eritreans have effectively become the personal property of the president that can be sent to different wars and whose labour can be exploited at a whim for the benefit of the president and his loyal lieutenants. Additionally, it provides the president with a political tool that ensures effective crowd control. (One has only to refer to the list of testimonies submitted to the UN Commission of Inquiry to learn how a certain lieutenants or administrative office-bearers personally benefit from having conscripts under their command).

Parallel with the institution of slavery, a culture of terror has also been established to silence any voices and/ or to curb any actions that appear to resist the system of institutionalised slavery. This system is propagated through a network of national security agents, and a franchise of torture and imprisonment of hundreds at concentration sites countrywide.

A whole list of abuses and crimes against humanity continue to be committed under such institutions of terror and slavery. The Eritrean migrant exodus which the world has witnessed over the last decades is fundamentally a result of such inhumane practices.

We now hear Eritrean officials and international commentators suggesting the return to “statutory” terms of 18-month national service. One wonders whether this means a return to the original 1994 decree or a partial implementation of the 1995 decree? Most importantly, is that truly a solution for the tragedy?

Again, there are persist statements which indicate the economic challenges the government is facing as far as demobilisation of conscripts is concerned. For the outside world, this presents an image of a caring government that is concerned about the future of the conscripts once they are free. But for those who are going or have gone through the institutions of slavery and terror, now only too well that the president and his military commanders are worried about the loss of personal, political and economic benefits as a result of the loss of slave or conscript labour.

One may be tempted to present question to Minister Gerd Mueller and others who are propagating hopes of democratic change in Eritrea: “Why would a Master opt to free his slaves when the consequence of doing so is a loss of personal political and economic benefits? Would appeasing such a slave-master, giving tax payers’ money to him, and providing material and political incentives to that Master, help to free the slaves? Wouldn't it be much more appropriate to support and empower the slaves to free themselves, or to support those who are fleeing persecution as refugees in Europe and elsewhere?”

In the end, it is perhaps important to recognise that the pressing political issue in Eritrea is a question of citizenship status, which can only be addressed by the introduction of a truly democratic constitutional system that guarantees the enjoyment of citizenship rights. The first step is therefore to put such a constitution in place. To put it in simple terms, the slave must be upgraded to a citizen.

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea

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10 September 2018