Eritrea is Africa’s youngest state and won its independence in 1993 following a long liberation war from Ethiopia. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) took power and promised development and peace, and the establishment of democracy and respect for human rights. Today, these laws are only vague memories for the Eritrean people, who are still living in poverty and distress in one of the world’s most totalitarian and human rights-suppressing countries.
Again, Eritrea is one of the world’s largest producers of refugees; young men and women escaping the hopeless situation created by the previously so popular liberation movement and the country’s once-powerful dictator Isaias Afwerki.
The designated Eritrean parliament passed a new constitution in 1997, while a general legislative revision was carried out. The Constitution and legislation basically define Eritrea as a democracy where human rights must be respected and protected. The country has also ratified a number of international human rights conventions. But the Constitution has never been implemented, nor is national or international law respected by President Isaias Afwerki and his regime (the Liberation Front changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice in 1994, but is still largely referred to as the EPLF). The courts of Eritrea are subject to political control, and judicial decisions rarely run counter to the regime’s interests. Judges are often military without any legal education.
No political opposition is allowed in Eritrea, no independent media exists, civil society is completely controlled by the EPLF and state institutions are largely under military control and command. All free civil society voices – including human rights defenders, journalists and trade union leaders – have been sacked and imprisoned by the regime. All individuals who are critical of the regime’s policies, regardless of their political position, are in danger of being jailed without trial. The same applies to Christians who belong to newly established denominations (only the Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran churches are approved denominations), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahai, and other religious minorities. Also, some ethnic minority groups are subject to persecution based on their ethnicity.
There are an estimated many thousands of political prisoners in Eritrea today. Prison camps and prisons are scattered throughout the country, and conditions in prisons are very poor. Some prisoners are stored in shipping containers in desert areas, where the temperature is above 50 degrees heat. Others are held in caves or under the open sky. Extensive torture and abuse in prisons have also been reported. Several inmates have died due to unworthy conditions, torture and lack of food and medical help. Many have also been executed, without any trial or verdict.
After thirty years of liberation war, many Eritreans had hopes and dreams of sustainable peace and development of the country. But the wars have continued for Eritrea, probably precisely because of the long war of liberation, which socialized the EPLF’s leadership into a culture of war and violence. Since the liberation, the regime has driven the country into armed conflicts with Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. The second major Ethiopia war of 1998-2000 began as a border war, but was probably caused by deeper political and economic competition between the ruling parties in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians were killed before a peace deal was signed after Ethiopia won the military war. An international court decided where the new border should go; a border crossing Ethiopia has not accepted.
Eritrea started a new border conflict with Djibouti in 2008, while the UN also accused Eritrea of supporting militant Islamist groups in Somalia with the aim of destabilizing the country’s development. In light of these events, the UN Security Council in December 2010, at the request of African member states, decided to sanction Eritrea politically, militarily and economically.
Eritrea maintains full military mobilization and has an estimated approx. 350,000 women and men in the military. Given that it is approx. 3 million inhabitants of the country is thus Eritrea the world’s most militarized country. There is little indication that President Isaias Afwerki will conduct any demobilization in the near future.
Lack of development
Eritrea began on the slopes in 1991, with a land in ruins, but also without any debt obligations. Many had hopes that a hard-working people and a targeted government would succeed in creating rapid and stable economic growth. But because of the party’s control over the economy, the second Ethiopia war, and the strong militarization of society, the country’s economy has been greatly weakened. The regime has taken up large international loans, including to finance massive arms purchases to militarize the country. Furthermore, the regime’s brutal human rights policy and the aggravation of civil society have meant that international aid donors have either abandoned their development projects in the country or been thrown out of the regime. Also, the great Eritrean diaspora has reduced their money transfers to their homeland,
The authorities use the army force for organized forced labor and thus manage important social functions. The despair many Eritreans feel about working year after year without pay on projects that favor the country’s military and political elite is a major reason why many desert and flee the country.
Eritrean authorities are now investing heavily in obtaining revenue from mining and utilization of the country’s rich mineral resources. Several international mining companies are exploring for gold and other minerals, and commercial operations are expected from approx. 2012.
Although the authorities have implemented some development-promoting measures, such as school building and well drilling, Eritrea is still considered one of the world’s least developed countries. The people live in great poverty, and due to the regime’s isolationist policy, adequate humanitarian relief does not reach a hungry population.
A divided people
The Eritrean people stood together to fight for the liberation of their land. The unity and optimism of the early 1990s is now gone. Today, the people are divided in the view of the regime and the way forward. Tens of thousands of young people escape Eritrea every year; and hundreds of thousands of Eritreans now live in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. Eritreans are also one of the largest asylum seeker groups in Norway.
The Eritrean diaspora is divided in the view of President Isaias Afwerki and developments in the country. The refugees who escaped during the liberation war have largely supported the EPLF, while today’s refugees escape from the EPLF’s authoritarian policies.
Since no independent organizations are allowed in Eritrea, the diaspora has a great responsibility to build civil society alliances that can positively impact developments in the home country. New measures to organize professional Eritreans in exile, such as an Eritrean Law Society, have been established, but much remains. The political opposition in exile is weak and lacks broad popular support. Since today’s regime is dominated by Tigrinya Highland residents, there is also a tendency to deepen cultural and religious contradictions in the Eritrean people.
There is little to indicate that conditions in the country will improve in the near future. President Isaias Afwerki has recently stated that he has no plans to withdraw from power in the foreseeable future, and free elections have been postponed indefinitely.
Area: 117 600 km2 (37th largest)
Population: 4.9 million
Population density per km2: 42
Urban population: 20 percent
Largest city: Asmara – approx. 600 000
GDP per capita: USD 299.5
Economic growth: 1 percent
HDI Position: 165