Home Africa A long hard look at Eritrea’s National Service

A long hard look at Eritrea’s National Service


The Eritrean National Service: Servitude for “the common good” & the Youth Exodus
Giam Kibreab

As an Eritrean scholar specialising on the Horn of Africa, I have spent the last three decades writing about forced migration, its causes, consequences, host governments’ policies, international responses, relationship between refugees and their hosts, as well as the changes and transformations refugees and forced migrants undergo as a result of their experiences of displacement. Before embarking on writing Eritrean National Service, I had published eight books, 31 refereed journal articles and 22 chapters in edited volumes. These works have provided insights into the complex issues this book comes to grips with. Eritrean National Service will be of interest to anyone concerned about the role of the military in African development and the role of conscription not only as a driver of forced migration, but also as a mechanism of promoting economic development and national unity.

Theoretically, national service is conceived as a civic duty and as an expression of political and civic rights, which create and reproduce values that are amenable to greater cross-cultural understanding, mutual respect, national unity and greater commitment to the common good. Exponents of national service argue that a well-thought-out programme can engender democratic values, promote good citizenship, national cohesion, a common sense of purpose, mutual respect and, as well as commitment to the common good. These core values are said to be valuable to the national community concerned and to the individual participants themselves. The latter is due to the changes and transformations servers are expected to undergo as a result, as well as the fundamental contributions they are likely to make to their national communities. Although I cannot determine whether the architects of the Eritrean National Service (ENS) were familiar with the philosophical foundation of national service, its aims and objectives as spelled out in Proclamation No. 82/1995 seem to be informed by similar principles.

This book—based on 228 interviews with Eritreans who have fled from their country after serving in the ENS for an average of six years, and supplemented by hitherto untapped wealth of sources derived from interviews with the head of state and the defence minister, the main architects of the programme, and other government officials published in Tigrinya in the ruling party’s and government’s newspapers, magazines, websites and others—provides a clue to understanding a puzzle that continues to baffle the international community. A small nation, on the edge of the Red Sea that is at peace and suffering no real major natural catastrophe is hemorrhaging a substantial proportion of its single most important resource—the youth. In 2014 and 2015, Eritreans were the largest number of asylum-seekers who attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of protection and a new life. Some observers have fittingly described Eritrea as the “fastest emptying nation.” When considered in the light of the promises of the national liberation struggle which was costly in terms of loss of lives, property and foregone opportunities; the unhappy scenarios that have been unfolding in post-independence Eritrea are heart-breaking.

This question has come to dominate the attention of EU officials, European politicians and other observers, yet they fail to understand why it is taking place. The answer, in a nutshell, is the multi-faceted Eritrean National Service (ENS) and its detrimental multiple consequences, originally conceived as a legitimate multi-layered undertaking to promote national unity, nation building, post-conflict (re)-construction and secular and common national identity. When the ENS was introduced, the country was just embarking on the arduous journey of recovery from the consequences of a devastating thirty-year war of national independence. The country’s economic, social and physical infrastructures were destroyed during the war and more importantly, the two most important resources indispensable for post-conflict (re)-construction—namely, financial and human capital were lacking.

The only resource that existed in abundance at the end of the war was the country’s labour force and social capital reflected in deep sense of cross-cultural understanding, heroism, dedication, mutual respect, dense social network across the social cleavages of faith, ethnicity, class, gender, national unity and dedication to the common good of the country and society developed in the process of fighting a bitter war against a more populous and physically stronger common enemy. The main aim of the ENS is therefore to build on these vital resources and to transmit these core values to the present and future generations, as well to build a new, progressive and secular society based on these shared values—social capital. Inasmuch as the latter was the single most important factor that determined the successful outcome of the liberation struggle; the architects of the ENS rightly thought that a process of nation building and post-conflict (re)-construction of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society would be successful based on such foundation.

The proclamation on the ENS requires all citizens—women and men—to undertake 18 months national service—six months military training at the Sawa military camp in western Eritrea and 12 months participation in varieties of activities that contribute to nation-building, economic development and social progress. Given the enthusiastic participation of the overwhelming majority of the Eritrean people in the liberation struggle and the high expectations this had engendered in the process, the requirement to serve the country and the people for 18 months without remuneration was regarded as a badge of honour and therefore was embraced warmly by the large majority of citizens. The only reservation expressed by a small section of the population was concerning women’s participation on the grounds of alleged tradition and religion, as well as fear of sexual abuse.

Nine ethno-linguistic groups who adhere to two religions—Christianity and Islam, inhabit Eritrea. The fact that the liberation struggle succeeded in spite of such diversity in a historical period when ethnic and religious differences represented a major cause of violent conflict elsewhere was remarkable. One of the major achievements of the Eritrean struggle was the ability to turn ethnic and religious diversities into an opportunity rather than liability. The war of independence produced bonding and bridging social capital that inter-connected Eritreans within and across the social, cultural and class divisions. The ENS is therefore conceived and enforced as a mechanism of transmitting these core values to conscripts, their families and neighbourhoods and over time to the whole society.

Most analysts who have commented or written on the ENS focus exclusively on its current harmful effects without considering its initial towering aims and objectives. It is important to observe however that regardless of its lofty objectives, after it became open-ended in 2002, it has degenerated into forced labour or modern form of slavery. Contrary its legitimate initial aim, the ENS has become not only the single most important driver of forced migration, but also it has become one of the factors leading to the collapse of societal livelihoods. The nationals affected by the ENS are predominantly young and this is reflected in the statistics on deserters and draft evaders. The findings of the study show that not only has the national service and its negative consequences forced hundreds of thousands of conscripts and draft evaders to “vote with their feet,” but also equally, if not more importantly, the ENS has become a cancerous growth which has been eating into the Eritrean polity.

Eritrean society is predominantly agrarian in which diversification of income sources resulting from allocation of family labour to varied economic activities coupled with the strategy of spreading the potential risks of failure are the lynchpin of the livelihood systems. At the heart of this survival strategy lays allocation of the single important resource—family labour—to different income generating activities by taking advantage of the variations in the environment and in the job market. Each family pulls together the meagre incomes earned by each family member to make ends meet. This survival strategy developed through trial and error has been perfected over time and has been enabling the communities to cope in adversity.

The Eritrean national service has struck a deathblow to this long-standing survival strategy by depriving families of their single most important resource—family labour. On top of the gross violations of human rights suffered by conscripts, it is the inability of family members, especially the youth to play the culturally determined and historically transmitted roles—the duty of fending for their families and vulnerable members of their extended families and communities which have been forcing tens of thousands of Eritreans to risk their lives in search of opportunities that may enable them to regain their lost dignity and to play the culturally prescribed responsibilities and roles.

The uniqueness of this book lies in the fact that it is the first of its kind, using extensive narratives of those who fled from the ENS after serving on average for six years analyses its impact on the social fabric of Eritrean society and assesses its effectiveness as a mechanism of preserving and transmitting the core values of the liberation struggle—sacrificial nationalism, self-lessness, heroism, dedication, relinquishment of self and familial interests, rejection of sub-national identities and allegiance, as well as secularism  to the warsai (conscripts) and the rest of society. If the evidence suggests otherwise, the book explains why this has been the case.

The findings of the study show that that the ENS has been an effective mechanism of transmitting the core values of the liberation struggle, but after it became open-ended in 2002, its achievements were squandered due to the fact that a substantial proportion of those who were expected to undergo transformation and become agents of change have been voting with their feet in search of protection and livelihood. It is not only the open-ended nature of the ENS that is the problem, but it is also implemented in the absence of regulatory rules regarding annual leave, sick leave, punishment regimes, protection of conscripts’ rights against all forms of abuse, including sexual violence. Everything is left to the arbitrary whims of commanders with no remedies provided. Many of those who joined in the 1990s are still serving in ENS against their will under the threat of inhumane punishment without remuneration. It is not surprising therefore that hundreds of thousands have been “voting with their feet” to disentangle themselves from unending state enslavement.




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