One of Africa’s more miserable countries, and one of the main exporters of human capital (refugees) to Europe is no doubt Eritrea. Eritrea’s Human Development Index is .381, giving it a rank of 182, only just above Sierra Leone.
Eritrea is a country that gained independence – not from a European power, but from Ethiopia – only in 1993, 22 years ago. In more than twenty years of freedom, one might imagine, the country must have had a chance to get its act together and to offer its citizens a modest quality of life. Yet this is not what has happened.
Today, Eritrea has no freedom of the press. Since independence, there have never been elections. NGOs are not allowed. According to a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, more than 5,000 people flee from the country per month – often to fall into the hands of the most ruthless of traffickers.
This seems to be caused at least in part by the draconic national and military service. Officially, this service is for 18 months – but under exceptional circumstances (and there are always exceptional circumstances), this can be extended almost indefinitely. Apparently, this situation is especially difficult for women, who run the risk of sexual abuse with no possibility of redress.
Why is this? Where to look for a solution for this horrible problem?
Eritrea’s troubled history
Perhaps we need to look at the unfortunate history of Eritrea first of all. These arid lands were never very densely populated and did not play a prominent role in history. However, for many centuries, in the Northern part of what is now Eritrea, there was the Kingdom of Medri-Bahri or Hamasien, centered on the capital Debarwa.
It did not have the present borders of Eritrea, although to the South its border was the Mereb river, which even today forms a large part of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Medri Bahri was a coherent Christian Kingdom that was able to withstand pressures from outside.
However, it was undermined starting from the 16th century by the Ottoman Turks, who started to occupy the port of Massawa and gradually spread along the coast. In so doing, they also introduced Islam into the region. Divisions, persisting to this day, between the peoples along the coast and those in the highlands were first introduced. Later, the area came under the influence of the Egyptian part of the Ottoman Empire.
In the South, there was the Sultanate of Aussa, basically covering the area occupied by the Afar people, so including also present-day Djibouti.
Both parts of the region were contested between the Egyptian rulers and rulers of Abyssina, to the South. In 1889, all of this changed, when the great Abyssinian Emperor Yohannes IV died and the Italians seized an opportunity to get their part of the African pie. The Italian general Oreste Baratieri managed to occupy and combine the territories that the Ethiopians knew as Bogos, Hamasien, Akkele Guzay, and Serae and to combine them into the colony of Eritrea.
The lead up to independence
Independence came to Eritrea after a war that lasted almost 30 years. The resistance first started in the coastal areas, and was muslim-dominated. However, the heavy-handed and feudal Haile Selassie administration soon also drove Christian Eritreans to join the independence movement.
Yet, right from the start there were divisions in the independence movement, leading also to fights among the various groups that were fighting for independence. At some point, however, the EPLF became the dominant force.
It is interesting to note that the EPLF recognized that many Eritreans did not see themselves as such – they considered themselves Tigrayan, or Tigre, or one of the other ethnicities. During its guerilla years, the EPLF actively sought to overcome this by propagating the idea of an ‘Eritrean’ national identity.
In 1974, Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. In order to regain control over Eritrea, the new regime resorted to massive violence, including massacres among civilians. This tactic was followed not only in Eritrea but in other parts of the country as well – leading, in part, to the emergence of various liberation movements throughout Ethiopia, movements that worked together to try to overthrow the regime.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union withdrew its support, the regime fell and Mengistu had to leave. Peace talks led to Ethiopian recognition that Eritrea should decide on its own future through a referendum – in which an overwhelming majority pronounced itself in favour of independence. That referendum was at the same time the last election held in the territory.
The EPLF seized power, and transformed itself into the ill-named ‘People’s Front for Democracy and Justice’, PFDJ, with Isaias Afewerki, an ethnic Tigrayan, as its President. At the same time, in Ethiopia a comrade of Afewerki came to power, also Tigrayan, Meles Zenawi.
After independence: more misery
So what we have now is an amalgamated country of six million people. Most people speak either Tigrinya (55%) or the related Tigre language (30%). These languages are both Semitic languages, like Arab is as well. The remainder is divided over several languages, both Cushitic and Nilo-Saharan, so quite different from the Semitic languages. Roughly half the population is Christian and half Islamic.
But why didn’t peace and prosperity come to Eritrea after independence? There are no real explanations easily to be found in the literature. (For an attempt, see for example O’Kane, David; Hepner, Tricia (2011), Biopolitics, Militarism, and Development: Eritrea in the Twenty-First Century, Berghahn Books, p. xx, retrieved 15 November 2015.)
One factor may be that Afewerki and Zenawi know each other only too well – and therefore have good reasons for not trusting each other. Sure enough, after independence, there have been many problems between Eritrea and Ethiopia, culminating in the traumatic border war of 1998 – 2000.
Another factor may be the long and bitter history of cruelty and war, both with outsiders but also among Eritrean groups themselves.
A third factor is the experience of the independence war. Afewerki and his comrades, trained in Maoist China, were able to achieve remarkable successes during the liberation struggle through self-reliance and strictly-enforced discipline. After independence, they sought to keep discipline through a strict military control of society – a control which now has become oppressive, rather than liberating.
There is another factor – the almost universal law that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Officially, the regime still embraces the austerity that it practised in the days of the liberation struggle. But why, then, did Transparency International rank Eritrea the 25th most corrupt country in 2013 and the 10th most corrupt country in 2014?
Clearly, the party élite must have found ways of enriching itself, at the expense of the country – probably made possible because of the opening up of a mining industry. Corruption, although it exists, is well-hidden, because officially there shouldn’t be any. Yet, the SwissLeaks project for example showed earlier this year that the HSBC bank has one client from Eritrea with nearly US$ 700 million deposited in one of their accounts.
Is there no way out?
So, what, in summary, is the sad picture when looking at Eritrea?
We see one more country whose borders were formed not through any involvement of the people living in the country, but purely through colonial machinations. The national identity, insofar as it exists, was formed not because of any positive experience, but through a shared experience of brutal oppression.
We see a regime that has not managed to rise above these divisions, but that has felt besieged. Now, sadly, the regime seems more interested in clinging to power (and its benefits) than in bringing welfare to its people. Most sadly of all, we see that the peoples of Eritrea are so desperate that its best talents are fleeing the country – only to reach more misery.
Something radically different and better will be needed, if this cycle of despair is ever going to be broken…
Bert is a Dutchman who was trained as a social scientist. He has been active in the environment and development movement in the Netherlands and elsewhere, starting his ‘career’ in the Anti-Apartheid movement. Bert has lived in Kenya for four years and is passionate about anything related to culture and intercultural communications. He is a world citizen with a particular interest in Africa, loved for its diversity and richness.