Eritrea: why is the country in this terrible situation now?

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Eritrea: why is the country in this terrible situation now?

In Eritrea there is now a one-party political system, a lot of people disappear, and there is a ban on private media. Alex Jackson of Amnesty explains how there was a good possibility of Eritrea changing from its colonial past but it is now one of the biggest producers of refugees in the world.


Eritrean refugees at an UNHCR registration office in Ende Baguna, Ethiopia. Credit: Sven Torfinn/Panos

I first arrived in Eritrea more than 25 years ago to begin a new job and a new life. Most of my friends and family did not know where Eritrea was at that time, as now, Eritrea is a silent and unknown country.

But I knew about Eritrea! New Internationalist reported then that ‘there will be multi-party elections in 1997’ and that ‘the Government is still popular and there is freedom of speech and the rule of law’. That was in 1994 when things in Eritrea seemed very optimistic. In 1991, the 30-year armed struggle finished. A small Eritrean guerrilla army were the winners.100,000 people died. The guerrilla army defeated the forces of Mengistu Hailemariam, the dictator of Ethiopia. Two years later, there was a referendum by the UN. 98.5 per cent of the people voted and 99.83 per cent voted for independence from Ethiopia.

There were seven different ethnic groups in the new country, with their own languages, 50% Islam and 50% Christianity. But the people seemed united in their celebrations.

People told me that Britons and the rest of Europe and North America might be richer than Eritreans but this was only because Eritrea’s colonial masters held it back. Italy occupied it first in 1882, and then Ethiopia in 1962. Now that its people were free and the young had a good education, a happy future seemed certain. I was very optimistic and excited about being part of it.

One of my friends fought in the anticolonial struggle. He told me how free speech and democracy grew during the Struggle. People could talk about anything but when the group voted for an action or policy, it was the duty of everyone to support it. In that way there would be Awet N’Hafash, or Victory to the Masses. There was also a lot of discussion about neo-colonialism. The Eritrean argument was, and still is, that in many countries, there seems to be independence. But there is neo-colonialism with economic and political power held elsewhere.


President Isaias Afwerki (right) celebrates at the Eritrean Constitution Party in May 1997. Hebheb321/WikiCommons

One important thing in Eritrean politics is the role of the President, Isaias Afwerki. When I arrived in Eritrea in the mid-1990s, you could often see his photograph but I saw no evidence that people thought he was a super-human dictator. You often saw him walking along the streets of the capital, Asmara. He was often sitting having a coffee.

Of course, everything is not always as it seems.

To be sure of stability between the many different sects, religious groups were not allowed to give opinions about politics. The first group to suffer were Jehovah Witnesses. At the time of the independence referendum, some were arrested and ‘disappeared’ for refusing to vote. They were a small minority, and so there were no protests.

In 1995, the Government stopped religious groups from being involved in politics. And religious groups had to register with the Government but only four were permitted: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. If people from other faiths met together, arrests were possible. We think about 1,500 Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are in prison for practising their faith. Jehovah Witnesses were in prison for many years but, in 2020, they set 28 free. Some disappeared in 1994, with many political prisoners.

In 2006, the Orthodox church lost all independence from the government when their leader, Abune Antonios, now aged 92, was deposed. He has been under house arrest ever since. All faiths are punished for being involved in non-religious matters. For example, in 2017, the Government said that it would take over all schools run by religious groups. There were open protests by some Muslims and there were arrests and hundreds disappeared. In 2019, the Government took over and closed down 22 health clinics run by the Catholic Church.

In1997, there were promises of multi-party elections but there were none. There was, of course, only one political party. My fighter friend was optimistic about democracy but he decided with most people that silence about one’s ideas was safest.

No-one presented themselves as an alternative candidate for president and so there was no need for a presidential election; or so people thought. Also there is no legislature and there are no independent civil society organizations, such as trade unions. Now, in 2021, there are no private newspapers or other media and there is no independent judiciary. There have been no elections since independence in 1993 and the government has not put into action the 1997 constitution guaranteeing civil rights and some executive power.

The events of 1998 made sure that the position of the President was safe. In June 1998, war started again between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Before the ceasefire in 2000, about 100,000 people died and many more were injured. There was no peace treaty and some Eritrean territory stayed in the hands of Ethiopia. But with a ceasefire, many people began thinking about the future. Some politicians spoke about the need for more democracy and the private newspapers reported it and supported it.

But on 18 September 2001, with the rest of the world thinking about 9/11, the government arrested all opposition politicians. Then they closed down private media and arrested mainstream journalists. There were no charges with any crime and no trials. In the 20 years since then, the Eritrean Government has never given any information to their family or friends about the ‘disappeared’.

The government decided that Eritrea must always be ready to defend itself from another attack and so it introduced National Service, military service, for all adults – male and female – between 18 and 50. Now many people have been in National Service for over 20 years. They receive no salary, only a little pocket money. They are separated from their families and the government sends them to where it decides and they do the work the government wants: teaching in remote schools, building roads, digging mines, or anything else. The UN says that at least 10 per cent of the Eritrean population are held in slavery in this way. Eritrea is a land of ‘gender equality’ and so women and men can be in National Service. But mothers are free from National Service and this puts a lot of pressure on girls under 18 to make sure that they become wives and mothers.

The fears about National Service mean that Eritrea is now one of the world’s biggest producers of refugees. The UNHCR says there are over 600,000 Eritrean refugees worldwide; that is more than 10 per cent of the Eritrean population. And an unusually many Eritrean refugees are young women.

Many refugees are unaccompanied minors. Many parents have their children sent abroad before their 18th birthday. It has to be long before they are 18 because of the Eritrean institution: Sawa. This is a big military base in the hot western lowlands. All school students must do their twelfth grade, the final year of school there. The Government says that Sawa helps national unity between all Eritreans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or family background. Of course, as soon as Grade 12 is finished, the students go directly into military training.

The only political party in Eritrea is still the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice – only in name. But September 2001 saw the end of this idea. Eritrea is a dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders says it is the worst country in the world for press freedom, at number180, below North Korea and Turkmenistan. And now the Ethiopian Federal Government is at war with Tigray on the border of Eritrea, and its soldiers have killed Ethiopian civilians in Tigray.

During the Struggle the government executed many people for political reasons but most people did not know about it because very few spoke about it. Mohammed Maranet was a Fighter in the Struggle for the Liberation of Eritrea for 30 years. In July 1991, only seven weeks after Liberation Day, the government arrested him. There is no information given to his family or friends. Mohammed was a teacher in the Islamic Institute, the school at the mosque in Keren, Eritrea’s second biggest city.

It was about five years after Mohammed Maranet ‘disappeared’ that I came to live and work in Keren. I loved that town and its people. Friends and colleagues told me many things about its fine history and culture. For many years, I was a visitor at the Islamic Institute. I spent many hours discussing many things with its director, Abdulaziz Mohammed-Ali; but no one spoke about Mohammed Maranet. And I never heard the name of Abdulaziz’s brother, Abdulalim. He also disappeared in 1992. It now seems likely that in 2009 the security forces came for Abdulaziz and he disappeared into the gulag.

One of the very good things about living in Eritrea was that it felt so safe. I never worried about crime - theft or assault. But there was no municipal police force; they told me that police officers were not needed because no one would steal anything or assault anyone. And in all my years in the country, I never heard of theft or assault. The other reason for this was that the citizens do the policing. Parents, siblings, or best friends could all report you to the authorities, and so of course it is a good idea to say nothing negative about the country or its government.

In more recent years, there is a new kind of police force. They ask many citizens over 50, and so above the age for National Service, to patrol a village or town. They are armed with Kalashnikovs. One of my friends ran way from Eritrea. He told me that his father is still in Eritrea and was one of these policemen. He said that he was a much-loved son, but he would never suggest that his father use his gun against the authorities because he might point the gun at the son. Silence is safest.

Of course, most dictators are suspicious of silent obedience and so they increase the control. Not only politicians, journalists, and religious people have disappeared. The government has arrested many tens of thousands of people without charge or trial because an unknown person made a complaint about them. And so, Eritreans remain silent and unheard.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)