On September 26, I set off from Kampala to visit Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, arguably the most controversial country in Africa today. There is a tendency by commentators on Eritrea to write and talk about it in negative terms.
The more I read, the more I sought an opportunity to find out what they thought about all the stuff I “knew” about their country and, specifically their president.
The Eritreans I met challenged me: “Go and see for yourself.”
And I did. For six days.
Eritrea is often presented as the “North Korea” of Africa. I have never been to North Korea. However, courtesy of media, I have heard many things about it. Apparently visitors are followed around or are monitored by government minders. It is therefore difficult to talk to ordinary people and find out what they think.
I was able to go to where I wanted in Asmara, freely. People were happy to talk about their circumstances, with some being quite outspoken about how difficult life is. On the basis of this alone, and assuming reporting about North Korea is accurate, the “Eritrea is North Korea” label is misleading.
The difficulty of life in Eritrea stems from many things.
The border war with Ethiopia and the sheer investment in financial resources that went into it had a massive effect on the economy. So the imperative to remain alert with a fully mobilised army and population, in the event that the war started again. Mass mobilisation in the context of the “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia, which ended only a few weeks ago, has not come cheap. Nor did it allow for the country’s human resources to be channelled entirely into productive endeavours. They have had to be ready for war at any moment.
And then there were the sanctions Western powers imposed on the country. These were ostensibly because of Eritrea’s destabilisation of the region through, among other activities, its alleged support for insurgencies in several countries.
There is a view inside the country that these reasons were merely a cover for the desire by Western powers to topple the Isaias Afeworki government because of its perceived threat to their interests. The sanctions have made it impossible for normal economic activity.
One of the sources of notoriety for the government has been the much-publicised flight by thousands of its young people to the West. The media have been active in publicising the nasty things that happen to them along the way. But why do young people flee?
I have read about “brutal repression” as the reason many Eritreans will not stay at home. The real reasons, however, are: Economic hardship and the requirement to do national service for an indefinite period of time. Economic hardship means there are very few prospects for young and ambitious people to advance in their lives.
Indefinite national service, which by the way is not only in the army contrary to the popular portrayal, means there is no knowing when one may one day dedicate their time and energy to doing those things that benefit them directly, allowing them to live the kind of lives they always dreamt about.
These two factors, not brutal repression per se, are the key drivers of the mass migration of Eritrea’s young people. I did not encounter a single official who does not recognise out-migration as damaging.
They and some ordinary Eritreans insist, however, that indefinite national service, which fuels it, has been a necessity since the border war with Ethiopia broke out, for which there was no alternative if it was to stand a chance of safeguarding its independence and sovereignty against its bigger and better-endowed neighbour, were war to break out again.
Should this be simply believed? Perhaps not, but making it known is important.
Does any of this mean there are no rights abuses in Eritrea? No; it does not. One respondent put it all in perspective, without sugar coating it: “In a state of war and heightened mobilisation, you do not use only incentives to rally people; sometimes compulsion is necessary. That is why some people rebel and leave. People who rebel will be incarcerated. Parents that want to help their children to escape will also suffer. It causes disaffection, even in families. The issues raised outside are about human rights abuses,” he said
“But the real reason for exile is the economy. Eritrea has been hurt by isolation and lack of resources, with government spending a lot on the military. That has caused suffering and disaffection. But the government has no choice.” he added.
It doesn’t sound pretty, but it does deepen one’s understanding of the context and possibly lessen the temptation to think that it is all for the self-gratification of the country’s leadership.
What of the issue of democracy? Eritrea has a constitution that is based on far-reaching countrywide consultations. It was supposed to be implemented from 1997. Then Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia and everything to do with democratisation was put aside.
And so things remained that way for as long as renewed war with Ethiopia remained a possibility. According to one of my interlocutors, political competition can be divisive.
As a result, the leadership has not wanted to put the country on a war footing through potentially divisive and disruptive political processes. Some dismiss this as an excuse.
Perhaps it is. Given what we know about political competition elsewhere in Africa, however, it is hardly farfetched. But the question is: Does the leadership see an end in sight to this situation? They do.
The situation of “no war, no peace”” with Ethiopia, the greatest existential threat the country and the ruling Peoples Forum for Democracy and Justice have faced, is now over. That has opened up all sorts of possibilities.
First, it means that as soon as it is clear that Prime Abiy Mohammed in Ethiopia consolidates his grip on power, enough to guarantee the success of the peace process, Eritrea will no longer have any reason to channel vast financial resources into the military.
Nor will it have reason to continue with forced conscription. Nor even will it have reason not to revive the process of implementing the Constitution and moving the country towards the much-awaited transition to a new leadership.
Peace with Ethiopia will begin to deprive Western powers of whatever excuse they have had to maintain sanctions. That would open up the country to investment and attract exiles to return to rebuild their country.
There is no guarantee that these things will happen soon or at all. However, there is no denying that the ground has shifted in favour of Eritrea becoming the normal country it was during the first few hopeful years of Independence.
*Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org