New Internationalist

Eritrea’s wretched independence

May 2012

The country’s 30-year war with Ethiopia has been followed by 21 years of repression, says Saleh ‘Gadi’ Johar.

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Successful liberation armies seem to follow the same formula: long, entrenched warfare that appears hopeless to all but those who believe in it, followed by a long period of maladministration which is predictable by all but those who believe in it.

Eritrea is no exception. A 30-year armed struggle against larger and more powerful Ethiopia succeeds against the odds; it is followed by 21 years – and counting – of repression.

On 24 May 1991, Eritreans were overwhelmed by the euphoria of independence. They didn’t realize that the end of Ethiopian military rule was simply ushering in Eritrean military rule by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.

It didn’t take long for the new regime to show its true face. It began by persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, who were beaten and stripped of citizenship. Bearded Muslims were accused of being Jihadis and jailed. Anyone who fell out of favour was branded a ‘fifth columnist’.

Within four years, the Eritrean regime – presided over by liberation hero Isaias Afewerki – declared that all students of high school age must enlist for ‘National Service’ for 18 months. As the new regime embroiled the citizenry in one military conflict after another – four so far – the catchment expanded to all able-bodied persons, for an indefinite period.

The line between education and indoctrination was soon blurred: the country’s only university was closed and boot camps and high schools merged into one.

The military also took control of the whole sphere of public administration, including the Special Courts, which tried, convicted and sentenced ‘violators’ without due process. And those were the lucky ones who got a day in court; many ‘suspects’ simply disappeared.

Army commanders formed their own private hearings and prison system and tried, jailed or executed young people for trivial violations.

A free press that blossomed in 2000 lasted only one year, then all private media was shut down, their editors and reporters jailed. Some died in prison; others ‘disappeared’. The lucky ones escaped the purge and fled the country.

Such violations go unnoticed because of the secretive nature of the regime. To this day, no-one even knows the size of the population of Eritrea, said to range between 2.5 and 5 million.

After 21 years of independence, Eritreans are living the life they fought for 30 years to avoid: no freedom of expression, no freedom of assembly, no elections, no religious freedom, and no rule of law. Eritrea is a police state where the cynics and pessimists of the world can find justification in their belief that the bad is often replaced by the worse. And this belief, ironically, is the repressive regime’s strongest weapon. The fighting spirit has waned and Eritrea is now best known as somewhere to flee from: it is one of the top-10 refugee-producing countries in the world.

Saleh ‘Gadi’ Johar

Founder and publisher of

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 452 This feature was published in the May 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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