Eritreans have peace, now they want freedom

On this year’s Independence Day, Eritreans are dreaming of a post-Afwerki Eritrea.


  • See President Isaias’s Independence Day speech at the end of this article
Eritrean President Afwerki attends the country's Independence Day celebrations in Asmara on May 24, 2007 [File: Jack Kimball/Reuters]
Eritrean President Afwerki attends the country’s Independence Day celebrations in Asmara on May 24, 2007 [File: Jack Kimball/Reuters]

Today, Eritrea is celebrating its hard-won independence, a victory earned after 30 years of fierce and deadly armed struggle, followed by 20 years of deadlock with neighbouring Ethiopia, after the border conflict of 1998-2000.

Like previous years, the Eritrean authorities have made extensive preparations to mark the anniversary with a major festival in the streets of Asmara. But this year, the celebrations will also feature a new element: two mannequins representing Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who in a landmark move last year opened the common border for the first time in 20 years.

The regime clearly wants to celebrate the peace agreement and rapprochement with Ethiopia, still brandishing it as a major achievement. However, it will do so under tight security. While round-ups, patrols and checkpoints have been routine features of Independence Day security, they have reportedly been significantly boosted this year as a clear warning to the general population.

The Eritrean people, who initially also rejoiced at the peace agreement, hoping that the resolution of the cold conflict could bring them much-desired relief, are yet to see any change in their daily lives.

For two decades, they had been told that they have to live under a virtual state of emergency because Ethiopia is still posing an “existential threat” to their country and their freedom. All possible justifications for the continuing repression and austerity the regime could manufacture ended with the peace deal, the lifting of UN sanctions and the country’s admission to the UN Human Rights Council.

Today, Ethiopia is no longer a threat, given all the documents signed and all the official visits exchanged.

Yet the Eritrean president has clearly demonstrated that he will not relax the chokehold he has had the country in for so many years. As a result, little has changed for most Eritreans since last year.

After the border with Ethiopia was opened in September 2018, which allowed free movement of goods, the Eritrean market, which had suffered from an acute shortage of goods for years, briefly enjoyed stability and the sharp decline of prices.

But over the next eight months, Asmara gradually shut down all border crossings unilaterally without giving an official reason for doing so and put an end to the short-lived trade boom.

Having their hopes for economic opening and prosperity quashed, Eritreans have continued to flee the country, resorting to alternative routes to bypass the closed border crossings. Those who make it to neighbouring countries abroad are facing a precarious situation and the risk of having no valid documents, as some Eritrean consular offices have started rejecting requests for issuing passports to nationals who have left illegally after the peace deal with Ethiopia. 

Meanwhile, mandatory military conscription continues both for the regular army and the “popular army”. Conscripts to the latter, both men and women, are required to attend military drills, carry guns, and guard government buildings in night shifts after they are done with their regular government jobs.

After the peace deal and following Ethiopia’s announcement of amnesty for political prisoners, Eritreans were hopeful that their government would follow suit. But they were again disappointed. Repression continues against the population at large and specific targeted groups.

In May, around 140 followers of banned Christian denominations, including minors, were rounded up and taken into custody in Asmara. Since 2002, all religious groups that are not affiliated with the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Lutheran Protestant churches or Sunni Islam have had to undergo mandatory registration, including giving up personal information of their members. Those who have failed to do so have been persecuted.

At the same time, the Eritrean president continues to keep not only the general population in the dark about the peace deal with Ethiopia but also members of his regime.

While the agreement was signed on July 9, 2018, in Asmara, Afwerki didn’t bother to conduct his first interview with local media until November 3, 2018. The president took 80 minutes to respond to a few preapproved questions and only addressed regional geopolitics and emphasised that Eritrea is still under threat from its many enemies. Yet neither he nor any regime officials ever addressed any of the domestic implications of the deal.

The most important issues for Eritrea’s general public remain unaddressed: when the indefinite national service will be suspended, the demarcation of border finalised, the rule of law restored and the ban on trade and construction lifted.

At the same time, the regime has sought to limit other sources of information Eritreans have been trying to access. In the past few months, the authorities have started trying to jam certain TV channels broadcast from abroadm, including opposition satellite TV Assenna.

Since early May, social media has also been blocked in Eritrea with the exception of selected officials and cadres, according to recent reports. Sources within the country have confirmed to me that certain websites are also being blocked, while most internet cafes – where a majority of Eritreans access the internet through a very slow connection (kept so intentionally) – instruct their customers to use proxy servers and VPN.

Having seen no improvements in their lives since the peace agreement was signed, Eritreans inside the country are growing increasingly frustrated. There may not have been protests – for those put down almost immediately by security forces – but public anger seems palpable. People who have visited the country recently have shared with me their impression that many citizens are openly voicing their criticism in public places. This was unheard of a year ago. “People are waiting for change more than ever,” a contact from inside Eritrea told me.

The revolution in neighbouring Sudan has certainly left its mark. Eritreans have watched carefully the events in Khartoum and have rejoiced at the show of solidarity by Sudanese protesters with their suffering.

Meanwhile, the diaspora has become increasingly active. In January, a social media campaign was launched under the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough which aimed to encourage Eritreans to talk openly about their post-peace-deal demands.

The campaign gradually spread across the world and recently resulted in various Eritrean communities holding official meetings to discuss how to bring lasting change to their motherland. Bigger public events in the United States and Canada have also been organised. In Washington, DC, for example, a two-day event is under way that includes public demonstration, seminars, and concerts.

Never have the Eritrean diaspora been so united. Until the recent past, regular meetings among the Eritrean opposition, let alone such festivals, were impossible. The turnout was always small, as many feared retaliation against family members back at home. Today, not only there is an unprecedented activity, but also an open conversation about a post-Afwerki Eritrea.

Up to now, the regime has ruled by fear, violence and endless excuses. Slowly but surely, all justifications for keeping the country in deliberate isolation and austerity are crumbling, while the population is growing increasingly bold in the face of extreme repression.

While it is impossible to guess how this anger will express itself, it seems certain now that political change is inevitable in Eritrea. Today, more than ever before, Eritreans are dreaming of celebrating their true liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


Keynote Address by President Isaias Afwerki

Source: Shabait

  • Keynote Address by President Isaias Afwerki, 28th Independence Anniversary Asmara, 24 May 2019.

Dear Participant and Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first convey my heartfelt congratulations to the Eritrean people inside the country and in the Diaspora.  I also wish to express our gratitude to all those who stood on the side of the Eritrean people, on the side of truth and justice, for their invaluable solidarity.  My thanks to the Commission of Culture and Sports and all compatriots and foreign institutions for their endeavours to imbue commensurate magnificence to this auspicious occasion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The theme of the 2019 Independence Anniversary is “Resilience for Higher Progress”!  Because this is a historical juncture in which the extraordinary resilience of the Eritrean people has been elevated and emerged triumphant once again.

The Eritrean people deserved to be independent, like other colonized peoples and even more so, in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Second World War.  But their inalienable national right was suppressed as the great powers of the time felt that “an independent Eritrea would not serve their strategic interests”.

For fifty years, the people of Eritrea had to overcome political subterfuges aimed at creating divisions and cleavages amongst them; challenge and triumph over annexation and occupation; and, conduct a thirty-year long armed struggle with unparalleled heroism and sacrifice to achieve independence on the basis of the supremacy of the rule of law.

In those fifty years, the Eritrean people confronted and vanquished the machinations of their external enemies.  They also secured their independence and sovereignty by combating internal divisive and toxic political tendencies, including a painful internecine war; by constantly strengthening their political cohesion.

To highlight a few of the principal values that underpin our resilience: Not to succumb and yield to force and intimidation!…. Not to cede to illicit and duplicitous machinations!  Not to compromise one’s dignity and values for cheap rewards and inducements! Not to be distressed under extreme duress!  Not to be disheartened by overwhelming challenges! Not to tire with hard work!  Not to spare one’s toil and blood, including one’s life!… Not to relent until objectives are achieved!

These firm convictions go beyond sheer beliefs and pledges.  They have been repeatedly demonstrated and have become the defining characteristics of the Eritrean people’s heritage.

How about in the last 28 years of independence and sovereignty?

As the Eritrean people embarked on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of their nation liberated through heavy sacrifices, they faced relentless hostilities designed to subdue, weaken and hold them hostage.

To this end, senseless border disputes were concocted! Unwarranted sanctions imposed!  Naked military attacks launched!  Political ruses, economic subversion, human trafficking as well as psychological warfare and demonization aimed at isolating Eritrea were perpetrated.  One can say: “thwarting all these wrongs would have been unimaginable without the resilience of the Eritrean people”!

Ladies and Gentlemen,

And today?

Our considered approach – when it was deemed that “all past machinations” have ceased and until the illicit sanctions were lifted –  was based on recognition of the unfolding events and realities “as the beginnings of a new era”.  Naturally, these are times of jubilation, lofty aspirations and euphoria!  But these momentous events should not prompt us to underestimate the challenges the new era brings.

Before prematurely charting out new and permanent sustainable development programmes, it is imperative that we conduct extensive political, economic and security appraisals so as to properly diagnose the unfolding realities with requisite depth.   We cannot make hasty and emotional conclusions before we collect adequate information, analyze these data comprehensively with patience so as to have a clear picture.  Hence, our focus should be geared towards patient appraisal of the unfolding reality. Our tasks and priorities today as well as for the near future should be to guarantee a conducive climate and basis for the new era.  This precept emanates from our values that have crystallized over time.

In this new era and without departing from the fundamental principles of nation-building, our cardinal objectives consist of creating and augmenting national wealth through hard work and efficient productivity, and, ensuring equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.  Our principal aim is to transform the primordial subsistence economy to a modern and developed industrial economy to bring sustainable change in the quality of life to vast segments of the population; especially those deprived in the past.

In order to pursue our nation building endeavours with a steady pace by marshalling our resources, and to capitalize on the momentum for greater rapid growth, we need to rigorously review fundamental programmes that will buttress real economic growth through higher productivity and increased output.  These development programmes can be distilled as follows:

o    Water infrastructure and distribution: To further refine our programmes of water supply for household, agriculture, and industrial consumption with the utilization of modern technology and associated means.

o    Road, rail, cableway and oil pipelines:  The three phases of i) renovation of existing systems; ii) expansion to ensure higher efficiency; and iii) implementation of new schemes that we have been pursuing in all these categories should be pursued with greater efficiency and expeditious scale of implementation.

o    Ports and coastlines: To revive projects that were obstructed and interrupted, with upgraded plans and implement them within a wide framework of cooperation and partnership.

o    Power generation and electricity supply:  To replace the old and unreliable power generation system with a functional grid in the interim period and focus on the design and implementation of an expansive system that will adequately meet all long-term needs and requirements.

o    Efficient and effective modern domestic road; rail, sea and air transport:  To link these systems with regional networks within a revised plan.

o    Housing:  To implement  –  with revised plans, better technology and efficiency –  various housing projects that have not been successful so far as provision of housing remains one of the fundamental yardsticks for measuring the quality of  life.

o    Health and Education Services:  To modernize the health infrastructure to address wider category of health needs and services; to prioritize effective and all-rounded investment in education in order to improve access at all levels and thereby bolster our human capital which is critical for development and nation-building.

o    Industrial sector: To undertake comprehensive review – of each programme and each enterprise –  in order to formulate and implement a refined investment road-map.

o    Implementation: To polish existing implementation mechanism in all the Development Fronts for higher effectiveness and to especially expedite the review of programmes and modalities underway to match the decisive contributions of our citizens in the Diaspora.

o    Ensuring efficiency and effectiveness: to strengthen the relentless fight against corruption and speculation.

o    Regional partnership and stability: to actively create a conducive regional climate for mutual respect and genuine partnership that enhance domestic development programmes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The above listed programmes are not new.  Comprehensive revision of the detailed programmes and implementing them within the framework of the new era cannot be accomplished through simplistic solutions and short-cuts.  They will depend, as always, on the full participation of our people and their relentless toil and resilience.   This will not be difficult as the inherent values and traditions of resilience – encapsulated in the mantra of “Resilience through Resilience”  – is intact as ever.

As it has been the case throughout our history, and more so in this present era, there are those who are exemplary in their selfless dedication; who give their all without any reward; and, who give us moral gratification.  I avail of this occasion to express our profound gratitude to all these exceptional people, who work the most and hardest, and to members and leaders of our Defense Forces”.

Resilience for Higher Progress!

Our Progress will continue with good rains!

And above all, Glory to our Martyrs!

Victory to the Masses!


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