Eritrea May Alter Army Draft That Forced Thousands to Europe

  • End of war-footing may lead to reform in national service
  • Program sparked exodus from Horn of Africa country, UN says

Eritrea’s government is “definitely studying” the economic effects of demobilization

Eritrea says it will cut the size of its army as part of changes to a system of mandatory national service that the United Nations blames for propelling tens of thousands of people to flee to Europe and neighboring countries.

The official end to a two-decade warwith neighboring Ethiopia means the country that sits on a key shipping route to the Suez Canal may be able to place some working-age people in industries such as infrastructure and agribusiness, and spur self-employment, according to government officials.

Rights groupsand the UN said the conscription policy fueled a wave of migration. At its peak in 2015, Eritreans were the fourth-largest group illicitly crossing the Mediterranean, adding to Europe’s refugee crisis. Eritrea, which is about the size of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, describes them as economic migrants.

Luul Gebreab

Photographer: Nizar Manek/Bloomberg

“Definitely a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned,” Minister for Labour and Human Welfare Luul Gebreab said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.

Eritrea’s military is the Horn of Africa nation’s oldest institution, with roots in the rebel movement that won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of struggle. A 1998-2000 conflict between the two destroyed their relations and Eritrea, citing the threat of Ethiopian aggression, quashed dissent and indefinitely prolonged national service, which includes civil servants who can be deployed to the front-line. Officials wouldn’t disclose the army’s size, citing national security.

Population Discrepancy

Eritrea’s population is an estimated 3.2 million, according to a non-public labor force survey for 2015-16 by the labor ministry that Bloomberg obtained independently and Luul said was authentic. A public reportby Eritrea’s foreign ministry last year cited a 2015 estimate of 3.65 million — a discrepancy of 450,000 people in two official documents that both cite Eritrea’s National Development Ministry. The survey was funded by the UN Development Programme and Eritrea’s government.

“People are saying the population is fleeing, fleeing, fleeing, but that’s the scenario not only of Eritrea: look at Chad, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali,” said Luul, who declined to clarify the discrepancy. A census that’s “on the verge of preparation” will detail the reasons for the different figures, she said.

Border Demarcation

Eritrea’s army partly demobilized two years after independence, only to return to a war-footing in 1998, while another attempt 10 years later had to be suspended because Ethiopia failed to implement a Hague-backed commission’s decision on the demarcation of their border, according to Luul.

Military vehicles captured by Eritrean forces during earlier wars in Asmara.

Photographer: Nizar Manek/Bloomberg

Eritrea’s government is “definitely studying” the economic effects of demobilization, according to Luul. She described “potential areas of intervention” to diversify the primarily agrarian economy that include natural resources, agro-industry, fisheries, and infrastructure. Only a few foreign companies such as Nevsun Resources Ltd. of Canada and China’s Shanghai Sfeco Group operate in the country.

“Could we add value and employ a large sector of the population? At this stage, we will take it slowly, step by step,” Luul said.

Salary Reviews

Government salaries, which vary between $120 and $267 a month before automatic deductions for items such as housing, will also be reviewed this year after they were raised in 2016 for the first time since the 1998 war, Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said in an interview.

National service, which begins with six months of military training, has been “elongated” beyond a statutory definition of 18 months because Eritrea has been on a war-footing, Yemane said. No announcement has been made to reverse this, the officials said.

“People are asking me whether national service has been reduced to statutory terms, I say not yet,” Yemane said. “When that will be announced will be a question of time.”

Ethiopian Withdrawal

Demobilization depends on Ethiopia concluding its parts of the peace deal and withdrawing its troops from Eritrean territory, according to the officials. The countries agreed “there is no need to maintain a huge number of forces on that border area,” said presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab, who’s on a joint committee with Ethiopia to settle the issue.

“We are in the process of change and the peace agreement is in the process,” Luul said. “If this continues and solidifies, for sure the original plan of the national service will be one pillar, not the only pillar.”

The survey, dated January 2018, describes itself as Eritrea’s first-ever wide-ranging national labor force survey: it shows 18.5 percent of working people — 265,193 — serve in “public administration of state and community,” while agriculture is the biggest employer, with 43 percent. That description includes “national service,” Luul said.

The survey concludes that Eritrea is experiencing a “national urgency,” seeming to “suffer more from underemployment and inadequate employment than unemployment itself.”


  1. “Definitely a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned,” Minister for Labour and Human Welfare Luul Gebreab said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.
    I do not see how this would change anything. They have been performing “developmental work” for decades. Slavery remains slavery, be it called military or civil service.

    • How is engaging your young unemployed men and women in public projects “slavery”? Would you rather see them roaming around creating havoc to their lives and society?
      And are you suggesting then that the hundreds of thousands of Eritrean freedom fighters that served in the struggle for Eritrean independence for 30 years and those that served the last 20 years protecting the independence of Eritrea were “slaves”?
      Look, there is no need to play overly smart here. Everybody knows that it would have been better for the country and the young Eritreans in particular if the latter could be gainfully employed in their chosen professions and fields in the private industry. But Eritrea, for whatever reason, it is not there yet. One has to deal with what one has and with what the objective conditions are at the moment. It is what it is, as they say.

  2. She is one of the puppets of the cruel dictator. Eritrea is already deserted. The only option is to return bach home and overthrow the regime.
    All are lies. My village had 2160 residents before 14 years when I was there, but Know it remains with 400 peopls. This is the fact that happen in Eritrea.


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