Eritrea: The Unfinished Revolution

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

Eritrea is a small country in the Horn of Africa. No state census has been released since 2003, but its population is estimated to be around six million. Eritrea’s a coastal state that borders Ethiopia to its south, Sudan to its west, Djibouti to it south-east, and the Red Sea to its north. Because of the country’s strategic geo-political location – nestled in between a turbulent Middle East and a defiant Somalia – it has become sought-after real estate in America’s global surveillance project. But I digress. The point of this article is not to analyze Eritrea’s place in the ‘War on Terror’, Arab Spring, Somali intervention etc. Nor does this article examine Eritrea in any other regional context. Instead, I focus almost entirely on the internal politics and power relations that have plagued Eritrea since emerging from a 30-year armed struggle in 1991. This article has two goals. First, I want to analyze the recent coup attempt that unfolded at the Ministry of Information on January 21st, 2013, and the diaspora’s response through a digitized international social movement.  Second, I want to discuss the January 21st movement as a reaction to – and an extension of – Eritrea’s unfinished national liberation struggle. In entering the topic, my story doesn’t begin with the events of January 21st, but rather travels back in time to the fist days of Eritrean ‘independence’.

I visited Eritrea for the first time at the age of nine. As a young Eritrean born and raised in the diaspora, my visit helped to inform the far-removed homeland my parents always spoke of, but that I never knew myself. I arrived in August of 1993. Just two years after a bloody and protracted liberation war came to an end, or so we thought. And three months after the United Nations and Organization of African Unity recognized Eritrea as Africa’s newest state. The ironically named People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (formerly the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) was in power, and the new Eritrean state was being hailed by the West as a beacon of what President Clinton referred to as the ‘African Renaissance’. Alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, Eritrea was said to be spearheading a new crop of accountable, transparent, and socially responsible government. The interests of former liberation fighters, peasants, women, the urban poor, and other marginalized groups would now govern the state, and not the other way around. Under a framework of democratic socialism, women, youth, ethnic and religious minorities would all be entrusted with leading ‘post-independence’ reconstruction in the bourgeoning nation. As an early gesture of such radical democracy, the PFDJ announced that a minimum of one-third of parliamentary seats would be reserved for women. The gesture was meant to recognize women’s active and sacrificial role in the revolution, during which they comprised one-third of all tegadelti (guerilla fighters). As a reward, the rights of women were to be enshrined in the power structures of the new state.

If Eritrea’s history came to a close alongside the armed struggle, then the guerilla-turned-President Isaias Afwerki would have been remembered as a tireless liberator. His legacy would have been one of feverish work ethic, courage, discipline, and boundless optimism. But Eritrea’s history wouldn’t end there. Like Isaias, history is also stubborn.

I arrived in Eritrea with romantic expectations. Part of me expected to walk the streets of Asmara and see families reunited by peace, parades for heroes returning from the front, and children lined up outside schools excited to begin an education uninterrupted by war. What I saw instead surprised me. It shook me from the idealism of what I hoped Eritrea to be, and woke me to the besieged reality of what it was. Driving around the country’s highlands I saw rusted tanks abandoned along the roadside, beautiful mosques split in two by bomb blasts, and mothers in the streets still grieving the loss of their children. Thousands of nameless martyrs swallowed up by the sea, rivers, deserts and hillsides became one with the landscape. Their bodies still scattered across the nation’s many battlefields. In the absence of a proper burial, friends and families created urban tombstones by carving their names into the sides of buildings. The half empty houses along my grandparents’ street were a chilling reminder that not everyone returned home from meda (the front). Those who survived had done so at a cost. They lived with the psychological tolls of war. From the scars of war engraved on the national body and consciousness, as well as the possibilities that were opened up for the future, I quickly realized that the Eritrean liberation struggle was a sacrificial and visionary process.

As jarring as some of these images were for a young child, I came to understand them as the inevitable costs of protracted anti-colonialism. These images were the scars that accompany a new nation forcing itself into existence, but also the seedlings of a new optimism.  

National Liberation and Its Discontents

2013 is an important year to reflect on the legacy of the Eritrean revolution. In entering the twentieth anniversary of Eritrean statehood, we should take time to critically reflect on the first two decades of ‘independence’. If Human Rights Watch describes Eritrea as “a country under siege – from its own government”, then I hope to explain some of the ways this ‘siege’ is taking place.

Since the optimism of the early 1990s, the people of Eritrea have largely lost faith in the state. The PFDJ has used the last two decades to advance a counter-revolution premised on media repression, the criminalization of dissent, and by building a military industrial complex heavily reliant on forced (particularly youth) labor. Parliament has been all but disbanded and the 1997 Constitution remains un-ratified. Unlike the PFDJ’s early 90s lip service to women’s empowerment through state participation, women have been shut out from key posts. Including the omnipotent inner circles of the President’s Office.

In September 2001, while the world’s eyes were still fastened to New York City and the events 9/11, the PFDJ carried out a large-scale crackdown on its political opponents. Deep Party purges through arrests, torture and even executions ensured that President Afwerki was left with a consensus of support. September 19th, 2001 marks an important historical moment in Afwerki’s genesis. On this day he jailed (and later had executed) Vice-President Mahmoud Sherifo, banned all private media, and advanced his imprisonment of an estimated 10,000 political prisoners. In an ironic reproduction of colonial violence experienced under the Italians, Afwerki reopened Alla and Nakhura Island. In the early twentieth century, Italian colonists used Alla and Nakhura Island as prisons to house Eritrean nationalists in particular, and anti-colonial resisters more broadly.

In a sense, state violence in Eritrea is very much architectural in nature. Like in the case of Alla and Nakhura Island, it’s built right into the walls of prisons and underground torture centers used by the Italians, then the British, then the Ethiopians, and now Eritreans themselves. State violence in Eritrea is layered to reflect those forgotten colonists who mentored the revolutionaries-turned-statesmen in their current campaign of imprisonment and torture. Indefinite and mandatory conscription ensures that the military has a steady supply of young bodies to police the people. The final grades of all high schools nation-wide are relocated to Sawa, the country’s largest military training camp. Sawa is notorious for its ‘shoot to kill’ policy for escapees seeking to cross the border into Ethiopia or Sudan. Those who make it out tell stories of routine rape, violence against women, torture, murder, and public humiliation rituals used to beat compliance into dissenting minds. For the country’s young people, whose labor is predetermined by the Warsay-Yikealo campaign, Sawa represents the final destination in a school-to-prison pipeline. For many, but for women in particular, dropping out of secondary school before Grade 12 poses better prospects, and allows them to delay forced national service.

For those lucky enough to avoid Sawa, or at least survive it, national service continues in other forms. Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing Canadian mining companies who use forced labor made available through Warsay-Yikealo.

Although the Eritrean state operates behind a cloak of mystery and paranoia, the most recent statistics reveal that it spends as little as 1.4% of GDP on education. Whereas 20.9% of GDP is spent on military buildup. The former number is good for a bottom-rung score when compared with other African states. (Which explains why the University of Asmara was closed in 2006 – leaving the country without a single active university). The latter number is good for Eritrea’s top spot worldwide in military spending proportional to GDP. We should be asking ourselves, what does a little country that hasn’t been to war in over a decade need with one of Africa’s largest militaries, if not to deploy it against its own people?

The Eritrean military is relied upon to guard the country’s borders. Not only from external threats seeking to transgress state borders, but also to police Eritreans seeking to escape them. The PFDJ’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy doesn’t just apply to Sawa, but the country at large. Those brave children, families, and military deserters who test the policy are routinely hunted down in the northern border region. In spite of the grave dangers facing escapees, 2011 witnessed 222,460 people escape into lives as refugees. Some registered by the UNHCR, but many more who live life under and beyond the reach of UN documentation. Some lucky enough to make it out with their families, but many aren’t. Eritrea remains one of the top refugee producing countries in the world. For refugee producing countries per capita, it ranks number one in the world.   

So why does it seem like Eritrea’s internal crisis is under-reported by international media? Because it is. This is the case for two reasons. First and foremost international media tends to show a disinterest in African stories that aren’t told through tag lines of war, famine, disease, ethnic cleansing, or claims of ‘tribalism’. In the Western imagination in particular, Africa must remain a place of perpetual backwardness. It must exist not just outside of history and civilization but also against it. The continent’s problems are believed to unfold beyond the reach of the ‘aid’ and ‘development’ handed down by the West. To put it candidly, the information gap on Africa is primarily the result of a general disregard for African life. Even within an already marginalized continent, international media is especially unfamiliar and disinterested in Eritrea. Caught in between the occasional interest points of Ethiopian famine and Somali Islamists, Eritrea isn’t quite as sexy a story as its neighbors.

This brings me to the second reason for Eritrea’s underrepresentation in international media. Given the banning of all domestic media in 2001, the world beyond Eritrea’s borders is left with no local news sources; or at least no sources that aren’t monopolized by the state. In their 2012 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea last in journalistic freedom. A title Eritrea’s maintained for six straight years. The combination of domestic and international media neglect has worsened the global information gap on Eritrea. Forcing many Eritreans to visit or phone home for updates on the political situation.

January 21st: The Unfinished Revolution

fter January 21st, 2013, what media coverage lacked was a historical analysis of the coup. We can only understand the events of January 21st in light of the incompleteness of national liberation, and the resulting state violence experienced by Eritrean people in the ‘post-independence’ period.

More than anything else, January 21st was a response by segments of the military to the PFDJ’s false promises of democratic socialism, free speech, open media, de-militarization of the border, women’s participation in governance, and youth empowerment through education. Rather than recognize this, mainstream media opted for overly-simplistic explanations of the coup as just another ‘military takeover in Africa’, ‘a stand-off between the President and his critics’, and so forth. What these narratives ignore is that the international social movement that January 21st ignited has very little to do with President Afwerki the individual, or even his party. (Although these things are inevitable focuses of the movement). Instead, the January 21st movement is about completing the national liberation struggle that began with the first shots fired in 1961, and can only end with a truly decolonized Eritrea. It’s about restoring an Eritrean national consciousness and direction premised on self-determination, justice, education and popular participation. The movement’s driven by a holistic vision of what it wants to create for itself and for Eritrea. To understand the courage and political vision that characterizes the movement, one only needs to take to Twitter, Facebook, PalTalk or the many other digital outlets where diaspora activists lay out their demands.  January 21st, and the hope that its restored to Eritreans around the world, is yet another reminder that even a people exhausted by thirty years of war will find the energy to push forward.

Like many other post-national liberation nations, Eritrea remains unsettled. Its visions of African socialism from decades ago have been hijacked by state bureaucrats and elites. But Eritrea still remains haunted by the expectations of what it was meant to become. This haunting will continue to take shape through more coups, rebellions, and acts of everyday resistance by Eritreans – both at home and abroad. Even though the front-turned-state has turned its back on the promises of national liberation, the Eritrean people, steadfast in their commitment to full and unrelenting liberation, will see it through. They are not simply fighting to overthrow the post-‘independent’ government, they are fighting to complete a revolution started long ago.

Aman Sium is an Eritrean activist and doctoral student at the University of Toronto. His writings focus on Indigenous communities and social movements in the Horn of Africa. His most recent publication is From Starving Child to Rebel-Pirate: The West’s New Imagery of a ‘Failed’ Somalia (Borderlands E-Journal, 2013).


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