The Genesis Of Eritrea’s Slavery Project

This an article from the archives. It was first published by the Awate Team on October 23, 2007. Many developments took place in the last decade since the article appeared, but the deteriorating situation was clearly evident since then. On this occasion we would like to acknowledge Ambassador Adhanom Gebremariam the first person to write extensively about the so-called national service in a series entitled “Wefri Warsay_Yeka’alo, Wefri Barnnet (The campaign of slavery). Awate Team

On October 23, 1995, exactly 12 years ago, the National Service program took effect in Eritrea.  Over the years, as the prewar, war and post-war environment came to define Eritrea, clauses in the proclamation that were applicable for exceptional situations such as states of emergency became the norm, resulting in a nation where practically all citizens over the age of 18–anywhere between 400,000-800,000 people–are in a constant state of mobilization for the last 12 years. There are Eritreans who were 18 in 1995, who had every reason to expect to resume their lives in 1997, but who have been in the front-lines for the last 12 years. This, then, is the genesis of Eritrea’s enslavement project, the so-called “Warsay-Yeka’alo Initiative.”

Under the proclamation, all Eritreans between the age of 18 and 50 are required to participate in the National Service.  This is because the National Service program is defined as “active national service and reserve military service.”  Those recruited for active national service (18-40 year olds) are supposed to avail themselves for 18 months: a six-month military training followed by 12 months of service in national security or national development programs overseen by the military. The Reserve is for the 40+ Eritreans.

Only four classes of Eritreans are exempted from National Service: (1) Those who already gave national service prior to the promulgation of the law and (2) “fighters and armed peasants who “have proved to have spent all their time in the liberation struggle”; 3) those who, for health reasons, are unable to participate in the national service (but are still required to participate in 18 months of public service.) and (4) those participating in an approved educational program. Non-exempt individuals may travel out of the country if they post a “60,000 Birr” bond.

The Creeping Enslavement

There are several factors that contributed to the establishment of a campaign-without-end in Eritrea.

  1. Absence of Democracy: Like all laws in Eritrea, the National Service was presented as a proclamation. It was not debated by the people, nor the people’s representatives, nor was it voted on.  It was simply proclaimed as law. Thus, there simply is no mechanism for the people to register their approval or disapproval of the law or whether its harm outweighs its benefits.  Not coincidentally, the loudest exponents of the National Service are those who have made sure that they, and their loved ones, are out of its harm way.
  1. Bait and Switch: National Service was presented as a noble duty on all citizens and only requiring 18 months of sacrifice. But the proclamation has an escape clause: 18 months of service unless Eritrea is facing mobilization or a state of emergency.  And the nation, mostly due to the rash decision of its self-declared leaders, has been in an undeclared state of emergency for more than half of its existence now. Consequently, most of the National Service members have been pressed into service now for 5, 8 and 10 years.
  1. Vague Goals: Many Eritreans state that the youth would have been demobilized if the Eritrea-Ethiopia border were to be demarcated.But this assumes that the purpose of the National Service program is purely of a military nature. Depending on the priorities of the regime, this is subject to change. The National Service is a military program (national security), as well as an economic program (national development) and a social program (integration of the society.)  A government without any constraints to its power can invoke any reason at all to press the youth into indefinite military service, if it is in its interest to do so.
  1. Corruption: The Proclamation speaks of non-existing institutions like the “ministry of local government” and “board” that is supposed to have oversight over the proclamation. But ever since the arrest of Mahmoud Sheriffo, the ministry of local government has been dissolved and its functions divided up among the military command zones and their “desks.”   The board was supposed to review applications for exemptions from applicants claiming exemption from the service. This is now done by the generals who require huge fees and bribes to bestow the “unfit” certificate on the children of parents with means.


The Eritrean government, which is made up of the leaders of a guerrilla movement whose fighters had no breaks, nor vacations, and knew nothing but work, wants to apply its culture to a younger generation—under the guise of passing over a proud legacy of determination, resolve, and hard work.  But there is no professional army in the world that requires of its active-duty members to serve without pay, rotation or breaks.  The consequences of trying to apply guerrilla culture to a professional army have been devastating: Eritreans are flowing out of the country by the hundreds and those who remain are embittered by their experience of being the slaves of corrupt and abusive generals.  At the root is: the National Service Proclamation.


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