Conscription in Eritrea: ‘Slavery’ or driver of national unity?

A new book explores the ideal of ‘sacrificial nationalism’ of the Eritrean National Service and the consequences of long-term involuntary conscription to the programme.

The book’s author Giam Kibreab says it will be of interest to anyone concerned about the role of the military in African development and the role of conscription not only as a driver of forced migration, but also as a mechanism of promoting economic development and national unity.

Eritrean National Service: Servitude for ‘the Common Good’ & the Youth Exodus is based on interviews with 228 Eritrean ‘warsai’ (conscripts) — young men and women who fled from their country after serving in the National Service for an average of six years. The interviews are supplemented by research in the official Tigrinya-language outlets of the government and ruling party, including what the president, defence minister and other officials have to say about the national service.

This book is particularly timely because large numbers of Eritreans have crossed into Europe in recent years, or have died attempting to do so. Eritrea is at peace and suffers from no major natural catastrophe; yet in 2014 and 2015, Eritreans were the largest number of asylum-seekers who attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of protection and a new life.

But the book, published by Boydell and Brewer, is about more than just deserters and draft evaders who fled from Eritrea to escape the national service. It is also about the idea of the Eritrean nation, the ideals of the Eritrean revolution, and the economic motivations leading many young people to flee from the National Service.

Author Kibreab, an Eritrean scholar specialising on the Horn of Africa, says the National Service was “originally conceived as a legitimate multi-layered undertaking to promote national unity, nation building, post-conflict (re)-construction and secular and common national identity.”

“Exponents of national service argue that a well-thought-out programme can engender democratic values, promote good citizenship, national cohesion, a common sense of purpose, mutual respect and, as well as commitment to the common good,” he writes.

First proclaimed in 1995, soon after Eritrea’s independence, the National Service (ENS) required all citizens—women and men—to undertake 18 months national service, including six months military training and then 12 months participation in varieties of activities that contribute to nation-building, economic development and social progress. Kibreab says the programme was initially “regarded as a badge of honour” and “embraced warmly by the large majority of citizens,” even though servicemen and women were not paid for their time and labour.

National Service aims to ‘transmit core values to conscripts, their families & society’

The ENS built on the wartime experience of successfully uniting Eritreans of nine different ethno-linguistic groups and two major religions to each other in common purpose. The stated values of the liberation struggle included sacrificial nationalism, selflessness, heroism, dedication, relinquishment of self and familial interests, rejection of sub-national identities and allegiance, and secularism. “The war of independence produced bonding and bridging social capital that inter-connected Eritreans within and across the social, cultural and class divisions. The ENS is therefore conceived and enforced as a mechanism of transmitting these core values to conscripts, their families and neighbourhoods and over time to the whole society,” writes Kibreab.

He says that this success in the liberation struggle was all the more remarkable given that such ethnic and religious diversity in the same historical period represented a major cause of violent conflict elsewhere. Inasmuch as the Eritrean National Service seeks to replicate the liberation-era experience of forging inter-class, inter-ethnic and inter-religious solidarity, passing it on from one generation to the next, it represents an important element of Eritrean nationalism.

Kibreab points to a 2002 decision to make the term of service in the ENS indefinite as a turning point for the youth programme. “The findings of the study show that that the ENS has been an effective mechanism of transmitting the core values of the liberation struggle, but after it became open-ended in 2002, its achievements were squandered…” he says.

Eritrean Defense Forces Sawa
Eritrean Defense Forces at Sawa (madote.com)

“Regardless of its lofty objectives, after it became open-ended in 2002, it has degenerated into forced labour or modern form of slavery,” the author contends. He also points to abuses by ENS commanders who lack accountability and oversight. “It is not only the open-ended nature of the ENS that is the problem, but it is also implemented in the absence of regulatory rules regarding annual leave, sick leave, punishment regimes, protection of conscripts’ rights against all forms of abuse, including sexual violence.”

“Everything is left to the arbitrary whims of commanders with no remedies provided. Many of those who joined in the 1990s are still serving in ENS against their will under the threat of inhumane punishment without remuneration. It is not surprising therefore that hundreds of thousands have been ‘voting with their feet’ to disentangle themselves from unending state enslavement,” writes the author.

The National Service & Agrarian Livelihoods

Eritrean National Service also argues that the ENS has become one of the factors leading to the collapse of societal livelihoods. Historically, farmers in Eritrea’s predominantly agrarian society have developed survival strategies that depend on diversification of income sources resulting from allocation of family labour to varied economic activities.

This spreads the potential risks of failure. “Each family pulls together the meagre incomes earned by each family member to make ends meet. This survival strategy developed through trial and error has been perfected over time and has been enabling the communities to cope in adversity.” The Eritrean National Service has “struck a deathblow to this long-standing survival strategy,” according to Kibreab, because the ENS now deprives families of their single most important resource—family labour.

MSF145193
African migrants attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Europe are exposed to many dangers (Photo: MSF.org)

“On top of the gross violations of human rights suffered by conscripts, it is the inability of family members, especially the youth to play the culturally determined and historically transmitted roles—the duty of fending for their families and vulnerable members of their extended families and communities which have been forcing tens of thousands of Eritreans to risk their lives in search of opportunities that may enable them to regain their lost dignity and to play the culturally prescribed responsibilities and roles.”

Giam Kibreab is also the author of Eritrea: A Dream Deferred (James Currey, 2009) and People on the Edge in the Horn (James Currey, 1996). He has published elsewhere on the migration experience, host governments’ policies, and the relationship between refugees and their hosts. He is Professor of Research and Director of Refugee Studies at London South Bank University.

Eritrean National Service is available from Boydell and Brewer publishers: https://boydellandbrewer.com/the-eritrean-national-service-hb.html.


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