Rethinking national duty in Eritrea: After 18 months – set them free!

As I am preparing a keynote speech on Geopolitics, Betrayals and Narratives of Oppression: Understanding Eritrean Foreign Policy in the wider context of the Horn of Africa to be given at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków next Thursday, 14 April, news from inside Eritrea dominate my thoughts. It has over the last two days emerged that on 3 April a shooting incident occurred in the Eritrean capital Asmara, in which soldiers (as reported by an opposition website and then circulated by journalist Martin Plaut) who were escorting convoys of conscripts opened fire when some of those conscripts jumped off the trucks they were travelling on in order to escape – allegedly the conscripts were to be sent to Assab in order to work in the construction of the Assab-Massawa road.

While one should always take reports from the opposition website in question with a pinch of salt, and concrete details might be somehow different from what was reported there, in a conversation with a trusted friend in Asmara the incident was confirmed to me, accompanied by the remark ‘but nobody talks about it because everybody is afraid’. Meanwhile, the names of some of those allegedly killed or seriously wounded have also been released via internet sources, while no mention has as far as I am aware been made in any official Eritrean media sources.

The keynote I am about to prepare, as well as a review of a new book by Jennifer Riggan entitled The Struggling State: Nationalism, Mass Militarization, and the Education of Eritrea that I promised to write by the end of April, had already before these recent reports made me look through my previous work on Eritrea. It had also made me recall encounters with many of those who have helped me understand the country, those (fewer and fewer over time) who decided to stay and those who have left and are now part of the increasing diaspora.

It made me initially remember the first time I encountered the senseless death of young people who should have had a promising life and future in front of them: in the summer of 2001, when the whole cohort of University of Asmara students were sent to Wi’a in the Danakil desert as an act of ‘punishment’ for the ‘unwillingness to serve their people’ as some officials put it at the time. Two students died of heatstroke in one of the hottest places on Earth, and only then was the whole batch transferred to a slightly less inhospitable place. One of their professors voiced outrage at the time ‘how can you do this to young people?’ – but as not least Riggan shows in the above mentioned book with examples from a different sphere, in many ways this was one of many acts where a government interprets national duty in a way that almost automatically necessitates that it turns against its own people and becomes, in Riggan’s words, a punishing state. The deaths in Wi’a then were not planned as such, but they were also never publicly regretted but seen as the unforeseen consequences of an act of just punishment.

In the latest incident, it seems some of the deceased were mere bystanders who were at the wrong time in the wrong place, and it might well be that some of those who fired the shoots were driven by a similar panic as the soldiers who at the time had to guard and ensure the ‘punishment’ of those students. Back then, as one of my students told me after returning to Asmara in the autumn of 2001, ‘the soldiers felt pity for us and tried to help us, but when those students died they could not do anything as it was too late when they realised there was something wrong’. In fact, another of my former students subsequently had a room in a compound where she met one of those soldiers who guarded them in Wi’a, and I happened to be present when they first met there and realised. It was a warm encounter and both felt they had escaped a potentially lethal situation – my student had told me during the first week in Wi’a she felt she would simply not wake up one morning and die, and it was futile to resist this slow death – and both could now get on with their lives: In 2001 this still seemed a possible option, when national service was not yet indefinite in the way it is now for many, and the prospect of normalised relations with Ethiopia not as distant as it has since become.

It may also be the case that this time was different, and shots were deliberately fired to cause death and act as a deterrent for such actions of defiance in the future (even though I personally have my doubts about that) – and with hindsight it is probably surprising how few such incidents have actually happened in the last 15-plus years. Whatever really happened on that fateful Sunday, it brought home once more the fact that the interpretation of national duty and its betrayal by Eritrean organs of the state, and the aspirations of its youth in particular are increasingly at odds. And changes that sections in some government departments envisage, most prominently a limitation of national service to 18 months, might be too little too late on its own. Thus, why not give everybody who has indeed completed their 18 months national service an exit visa, if they wish to leave?

This brings me back to the keynote I still have to write, as such a move would at the stroke of a pen provide Eritrea with more constructive agency in its international relations than it had since 2003, when it was still viewed as a potential key alley in the fight against international terrorism. While the Eritrean government has used various pretexts, most prominently the non-implementation of the border ruling by Ethiopia and no pressure on Ethiopia to do so, too easily for its own repressive policies, Eritrea in many ways behaves in line with wider foreign and domestic policy patterns in the Horn – but it is singled out as the Horn’s rogue state (together with Sudan but for different reasons). Ethiopia in contrast very skilfully managed its geopolitical position and its relationship with major powers and the UN – Ethiopia’s interpretation of policy dynamics in the Horn more generally has become the widely accepted ‘truth’, and many of its own repressive policies are widely ignored. Issuing exit visas to its population once 18 months of national service have been completed would thus be a smart move by the Eritrean government: It would not only remove the major self-proclaimed reason for the exodus of Eritrean youth (and their Ethiopian counterparts for whom to pose as oppressed Eritreans has become an easy way to make asylum claims). It would also in all likelihood force more constructive engagement with the international community that would go beyond the piecemeal approach of distinct development funding in selected areas. And it would provide visions for a future to Eritrea’s youth again, and with it for Eritrea and its people as a whole.

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