In Eritrea, 25 years of independence hasn’t delivered the freedom it promised

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In 1993, the situation in Eritrea looked remarkably positive after 30 years of civil war, as part of Ethiopia. People danced on the streets of Asmara when the country gained independence on May 24 and the country’s newly-elected president Isaias Afewerki promised a bright future for the nation with such a dark history.

“Today is the day that Eritrea is born again. It’s the reward for everything that we have fought for,” he told Eritreans, after leading them to independence.

Twenty-five years later and Eritrea provides the second largest number of refugees attempting to reach Europe, despite having a population of little more than five million people. Thousands of Eritreans try to leave their country every month in hopes of escaping what has become known as “Africa’s North Korea”.

Isaias Afewerki is still Eritrea’s president, more than two decades after promising his people a better future. However, the children of those who fought for his independence crusade are now risking their lives to escape the country their parents gave everything to create.

Early celebrations for an independent Eritrea

The celebrations following Eritrea’s independence lasted for a number of years. Many Eritreans who had fled the during the 1970s returned to the newly-independent country, bringing new skills and investment funds with them. Asmara rang with the sound of construction as new factories and building were spread throughout the capital. Eritrea looked everything like a country on the rise and there was genuine positivity about its future prospects.

While it might be hard to believe it now, Afewerki’s government had a reputation for being highly-transparent, uncorrupt and open. Foreign journalists came away amazed by how easy it was to enter the country and speak to any minister they wanted – an easier task than in their own country, in many cases.

Sadly, the optimism was abruptly cut short in 1998 when war between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted once again. This time Eritrea would lose the conflict and succeed part of its territory to Ethiopia along a border dispute that still runs on today.

During this period, Isaias Afewerki’s popularity declined and he reacted to criticism by imprisoning those who spoke out against the state. What followed was an increasingly authoritarian regime that would turn the country into one of the world’s largest refugee crises and worst performers in press freedoms and human rights studies.

The situation in Eritrea today

Today, all Eritreans over the age of 18 are forced to enter national service, which authorities continue to extend indefinitely. Citizens are forced to work for the military in exchange for wages insufficient to feed one person, let alone a family. Rights groups insist the programme equates to forced labour and many people spend the majority of their able-bodied lives serving the state.

Meanwhile, government critics disappear and journalists are only allowed to operate under strict government observation. President Isaias Afewerki rarely makes public appearances any more but he maintains a regime of division that helps him hold on to power.

Modern Eritrea is divided by ethnic and religious tensions with figureheads all appointed by the president. The only common enemy is the constant threat from neighbouring Ethiopia, which acts as a convenient target of blame for Eritrea’s ongoing struggles. Meanwhile, political prisoners continue to be locked up in shipping containers indefinitely and thousands of people try to escape Afewerki’s regime every month.

Featured image: By Freedom4E – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35065034

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.