As part of reforms in Eritrea after the East African country finally signed a peace deal with Ethiopia earlier this month, the country has told its latest batch of army recruits that their national service will not exceed 18 months. The peace deal signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia last month has ended more than 20 years of tension between two countries that were once an entity.
This was revealed to Reuters by relatives of new recruits who were present at a graduation ceremony for Eritrean conscripts. “Last week, they were told that they won’t serve beyond 18 months because the dynamics have changed,” the source which pleaded anonymity said.
Eritrea first introduced a compulsory 18 months national service for Eritreans aged 18 to 50 in 1995, to help in ‘rebuilding’ Eritrea after it won a 30-year secession war against Ethiopia. National service for Eritreans includes six months of military training, with an additional 12 months to work on developmental projects in the country. However, unlimited national service started in Eritrea after tensions over the border with Ethiopia boiled out into a major war that lasted 2 years.
After both countries signed a ceasefire deal in 2000, Eritrea still continued to recruit anyone aged 18 for an indefinite national service, drawing comparisons with North Korea’s.
As a result, many young Eritreans have braved harsh conditions while traveling through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in a bid to escape being forcibly conscripted into national service. According to a 2016 report by Amnesty International titled “Eritrea: Just Deserters: Why indefinite national service in Eritrea has created a generation of refugees,” boys and girls as young as 16, as well as old people, were conscripted into the army, often by force and immediately after high school.
Eritrea’s national service is not only indefinite, it is also massively underpaid. The basic monthly salary for a conscript is between $43 – $48, making it nearly impossible to meet family needs. Many young Eritreans believe it is better to emigrate from their country, than subject themselves to a life of servitude and low pay for their country.
A reduction in national service time will for many of Eritrea’s educated young be good news, as many of the country’s best-trained professionals in the diaspora have refused to return home for fear of being stuck in a cycle of servitude in the Eritrean army. Tens of thousands of Eritreans are stuck in Europe, with them being one of the largest group of migrants from Africa.
This report is the latest achievement in a series of reforms in Eritrea and Ethiopia after their historic peace deal earlier this month. Flights between both countries resumed last week, with many people witnessing the first commercial flight from Ethiopia to land in Asmara, the Eritrean capital in 20 years.
The Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa has also been thrown open for the first time in two decades. And now, an end to forced conscription in Eritrea, a country in constant fear of being attacked by its neighbor Ethiopia for 2 decades, will mean that peace has indeed come to stay.