Eritrea: 19 Years Of Independence Amidst Deep Uncertainties

June 8, 2010
4 mins read

The 19th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence was celebrated on the 24th of last month in Asmara, the capital.  Last year, I travelled in Eritrea as part of the independence anniversary. Independence was marked by a spectacular series of events such as cultural dances; street parades and the grand finale was the even more spectacular cultural display, military parade and fly over by aircraft of the Eritrean armed forces. I placed a call to Asmara early this week and was informed that a similarly spectacular series of events were put up to celebrate the 19th anniversary of independence. Last year, I also held an extensive interview with Isaias Afewerki, the Eritrean president. The main issues that we examined included the impasse in the Ethiopian/Eritrean border war and issues arising therefrom; the situation in Somalia and the persistent accusation that Eritrea was  backing Islamist militants in Somalia.

Isaias afewerki’s Independence Day speech last month, examined all the issues surrounding the imposition of sanctions against Eritrea, stating that it lacked “any legality and is essentially designed to cover up other fundamental issues, and thereby diverting matters to meaningless direction…” For the Eritreans the “fundamental issues” include the lack of resolution for the border conflict which took place with Ethiopia and claimed a lot of lives. Afewerki stated in his address that “following a legal arbitration process involving massive interference, a ruling was given in 2002, and still [Eritrean] sovereign territories remain under occupation”. This above all else seems to be the most important issue for the Eritrean government, and is one major reason why the country remains on a near-permanent war footing, leading to one of the most severe national military service regimes in Africa.

A vital background for understanding Eritrea’s national policies must also be sought in the complicated situation in the Horn of Africa, especially the continuing instability of Somalia. Ethiopia, which is Eritrea’s persistent antagonist, had invaded Somalia in 2006 to expel the Islamic Courts Union which was in tandem with the wishes of the American administration of George Bush. Eritrea which seemed to reject the broad regional policies which the United States has promoted in the Horn of Africa has therefore suffered isolation by regional countries that share the American platform. It was pursuit to the above, that on August 2, 2009, the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, claimed that Eritrea was supplying arms to the militant Somali group, al-Shabab, an accusation which Eritrea denied; but the United nations was nevertheless pressed by the US administration, with the backing of the African Union, to impose sanctions and an arms embargo on Eritrea, under Resolution 1907. These were said to have been as a result of its role in Somalia and refusal to withdraw troops from its border with Djibouti, the latter obviously a bizarre ground for sanctions.

While the external issues here have conditioned life in Eritrea, there are internal tensions which have also marked its years as an independent country. For example, the two year border war with Ethiopia, led to a 60 percent drop in food production, because the most fertile areas of the countries could not be cultivated. Yet it was also a remarkable feat that even in the midst of the war against Ethiopia, there were giant strides in infrastructural development, especially in road construction and the rehabilitation of the Eritrean railways. But a fall out from the obsession with security is the increasing disenchantment amongst the young people in Eritrea, with the endless and mandatory national service. Officially, it is obligatory for 12 to 18 months with the youths earning around $20 per month, but it can last for years, and all Eritreans from the age of 18 but below 40 must take part in the service. It is a source of disenchantment amongst young people in Eritrea, leading to an increasing number beginning to flee the country. It is estimated that up to 25,000 Eritreans leave the country illegally, often crossing into Ethiopia and Sudan, to make the way to Europe or the Middle East.

The World Bank says that at least 320,000 Eritreans serve in the army out of an estimated population of 5 million people. On the other hand, the international Institute for Strategic Studies said that Eritrea has the largest army in Africa, ahead of its regional rival, Ethiopia. The Eritrean authorities defend the size of the army, saying that there is the continuing Ethiopian threat and the unresolved border crisis between the two countries. “Eritrea is forced to have the army it has now due to the threat it has had since the border conflict [with Ethiopia]”, according to an article on the website of the governing party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDI). It is also true that in Eritrea, the army works on development projects. Even the IMF reported that Eritrea’s GDP grew in 2007 by an estimated 1.3 percent due to construction work and a better harvest, after the economy shrank in the previous year.

Eritrea is known to be rich in gold and industrial metals and on flights into and out of Asmara it has become usual to find entrepreneurs from different countries of the West looking for opportunities to cash in on the mining opportunities in Eritrea. Remittances from the well-heeled Eritrean Diaspora is said to account for up to a third of the country’s GDP; the Diaspora which is estimated to be a quarter of the entire population of the country had helped to fund the war of independence. When I interviewed the president, Isaias Afewerki last year, I had raised the issue of the closure of the private press and the imprisonment of journalists working in the independent media. He had engaged me polemically on the essence of free press in a country which faced the challenges of development after three decades of war of independence; the hostility with Ethiopia and the geopolitical issues in the Horn of Africa.

It must always be remembered that the Eritrean struggle for independence had been misunderstood by many people in Africa, because the wisdom in the immediate post-colonial period was the inviolability of colonial boundaries. African countries which knew how artificial those boundaries were saw the near-unraveling of countries like Congo and Nigeria during the 1960s. They therefore could not understand the de-colonization essence of the Eritrean struggle. Eritrea fought for thirty years, receiving little sympathy from the other African countries; but despite the absence of support, Eritrea won its independence. The arrival of erstwhile Eritrean guerillas in the halls of African meetings was often uncomfortable for leaders that scoffed at their struggle. Eritrea for too long had been used to its own ways of doing things, an attitude which the imperialist masters of the new world order have found difficult to accept. In that context, an effort has been put into isolating Eritrea within Africa and beyond. Yet, it has continued a silent march on the road of independence which it achieved nineteen years ago. It is clear that these are not easy times for Eritrea; it is caught in the vortex of the regional projects of the imperialist powers in the Horn of Africa while attempting to walk an independent way. It is a ball-juggling act which demands remarkable dexterity.

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