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Eritrea: The Wasted Decades

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Eritrea: The Wasted Decades

By: A/Rahman Sayed (Bohashem)

13th May 2011


In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the independence of Eritrea, the state-owned Eritrean TV (Eri-TV) has been featuring creative spots to camouflage the failure of the government in leading the nation toward economic and social development in the past two decades. To this end, Eri-TV and the other limited media outlets of the pfdj have been presenting us with over-consumed and abused rhetoric of “self-reliance”, few footages and pictures of roads, schools and sub-standard labs that depict chronic under development in all areas, instead of the long sought economic growth, political freedom and social justice for all of its citizens. It is hard to believe how someone can claim victory on poverty in the face of starvation, progress in agriculture, industry, communication and literacy in the face of economic decay, crumbling infrastructure, retreat in educational accomplishments and political isolation. In retrospect, it could have been different. The following are some commentary on the painful realities of the nation under the current rule.





Education is a corner stone for any country’s sustainable development. Although in a small, mediocre sense, the PFDJ regime has managed to build some schools and develop some school curriculum in the last 20 years, if we take the time as a measure, then such actions are insignificant. Normally, school curriculums are regularly evaluated and updated and subsequently improved. Further, if we take the official demographics as indicator, which equally divides Eritrea’s population (4.5 to 5 million) between Christians and Muslims, we can deduce that the school system in the country has left about 50% of Eritrea’s non-Tigrigna speaking population deprived of education in their chosen language – Arabic. The so-called mother-tongue education at primary level has not progressed nor met the educational needs of Eritrean non-Tigrigna population.  This is proven by the meagre number of schools that use either Arabic or other “mother-tongue” languages as their medium. In the pre-1998-2000-border-conflict period, which is considered relatively better than what followed, there were only 71 primary schools that used Arabic as medium of instruction, compared to 366 for Tigrigna[1].   


The educational partiality gets worse in secondary and higher levels of education.  For example, at the last “Zaghre Award” ceremony for best high school graduates, which was presented by President Issayas himself, out of 350 awardees only 20 were Muslim graduates.


The same treatment applies to post-secondary educational opportunities. The proportion of Muslim students in such meagre institutions is an estimated 10% at best. The disadvantage for Muslim students can also be seen in the higher education scholarship opportunities offered to Eritreans.


The Schools further operate under an environment of military mobilization to ensure the students are nurtured to be submissive PFDJ partisans. High school students are made to spend their final year in a military camp where they are treated like military conscripts. Many avoid this harsh environment by either failing their pre-final year exams or fleeing the country to make Eritrea one of the largest “refugee producing” countries in the world.




About 80% of Eritreans depend on agriculture for their livelihood. As such Agriculture is one of the most important economic sectors of the country.  Unfortunately, this sector is not only the most under-developed, but also the most abused by the PFDJ administration. Agriculture in Eritrea is still labour-intensive and requires rainfall, Oxen, Camels + the Youth to plough the land and produce what is barely enough to sustain the livelihoods of families and small communities. The fertile land is confiscated by the regime and the youth are forcibly conscripted to the army to then be made to work on the land using some machinery, but only to profit the PFDJ entrepreneurs.  This reality added with the usual rainfall shortages makes the lives of farmers and agro-pastoral communities simply unbearable, which has been resulting in acute food shortages in the country, affecting about 60% of the entire population.


The mining sector, from which the regime hopes to earn hard currency, is still at its embryonic stage. In the absence of good governance, it is expected that any income generated from this sector will not benefit the population, but the PFDJ leadership to continue with their tyrannical and repressive policies.


The PFDJ through its business conglomerates monopolise Eritrea’s public and private economic sectors. Foreign investors, apart from the few mining companies attracted by the 90/10 share offer, have stayed away from Eritrea. This is expected considering the lack of progress in addressing the absence of institutional infrastructure and constitutional system of governance, and the level of domestic and regional instability.


Eritrean investors who attempted to take risk and still benefit their nation by investing in their own country had to leave either because their investments have been taken away from them by the PFDJ that often insists on being a partner with 60% share in order to enable the investors to run their businesses. Those who submit to such unfair deals soon find themselves either out of business or lose their remaining 40% share to their powerful partner. Some even end up losing their lives under mysterious circumstances.  For these reasons, the economic sector in Eritrea is monopolised and paralysed by the PFDJ.




There were opportunities that would have made PFDJ one of the most popular and successful ruling parties in Africa, had they resorted to the following:-


Reconciliation:- as soon as they entered Asmara in 1991, the then EPLF leadership could have insisted on holding a reconciliation (if not truth and reconciliation) conference to heal all the wounds caused by internal conflicts and unfair elimination of opponents etc. This would have paved the way for a good start of nation-building process based on all inclusive and solid ground. Instead they resorted to tyrannical rule victimising the entire Eritrean people, including EPLF/PFDJ members and leaders who tried to voice their concerns or call for constitutional democratic governance.  


Constitution:- the constitution drafting process was another missed opportunity to bring together all Eritreans to contribute and decide on the supreme law of their land. Ideally, Reconciliation would have preceded such process. However, even as it were, it would have still been a less better opportunity to bring about national unity through inclusive process in the drafting and ratification stages. But both of these stages were heavily dominated and dictated by the EPLF and their supporters. Issues of resentment among Eritrean Muslims and Ethnic groups were simply ignored as non-existent. Thus the constitution was “ratified” by the ruling party’s rubber-stamp parliament in 1997, and was subsequently thrown in the dust bins. The country remained under an autocratic rule of one man – the President.


Border-Conflict:- Ironically, at times of major disasters and conflicts, national unity is a pre-requisite to overcome the challenge an endangered nation faces. The 1998-2000 so-called border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was another opportunity for the incumbent PFDJ regime to revise its misguided policy and strengthen the nation’s defence capabilities through national unity instead of drugging hundreds of thousands of the country’s productive youth to spend their youthful years in trenches and or working for the businesses of the party. The result was clear. The Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi, which was embarrassingly looked down upon by President Issayas and his cronies, came out of the conflict victorious, after defeating the PFDJ first politically, legally and diplomatically and later militarily by controlling Eritrean skies, over running Eritrean trenches and demilitarising 25,000sq of Eritrean territory. This painful blow should have been a useful lesson for any responsible government to evaluate what had gone wrong and address them, a process that would have put political reforms at the helm of addressing the wrongs. The G15 seemed to have realised this when in 2001 (soon after the end of the war in December 2000) called on President Issayas to start a reform process by holding evaluation seminars within the PFDJ party as well as in the rubber-stamp parliament etc. Their fate was: indefinite detention since 18 September 2001. All that followed from year 2000 onwards is only increased abuse of human rights, total absence of rule of law, mass exodus of young Eritreans, and subsequently stagnation and uncertainty of what the future holds for Eritreans under PFDJ leadership, a leadership that has run out of any convincing vision for Eritrea and has chosen to live on borrowed time.


One last opportunity may still remain for the PFDJ regime to change course and start political reform that would save them from a total demise. This is particularly true in the absence of credible and effective political opposition. The current situation gives the PFDJ some space to start and lead political reform from within before it is too late. If they do that, they will have a better chance of surviving a popular onslaught on their very existence. The Tunisian and Egyptian peaceful civic revolutions proved that tyrannical rulers are far weaker and that once people take it to the streets, they do not need political opposition groups to lead them. They can dictate and direct change themselves and bring down despots. It is therefore up to the PFDJ rank and file to stop behaving like followers of a “cult leader”. Instead, it is best if they can move on alongside their people to demand immediate political reforms or the removal of the President and his handful cronies to pave the way for achievable democratic governance and economic progress.


In conclusion, 20 years of independence have not yet brought security, stability, economic revival and growth in Eritrea. Hence there is no achievement of benefit to the Eritrean people to celebrate on 24 May 2011 (20 years after liberation and independence), except to commemorate our fallen heroines and heroes for Eritrea’s liberation and defence. Eritreans see their neighbours to the South, West, East and North….they understand that Eritrea is far behind them at every level, including economy and politics. It is therefore about time that the PFDJ regime is told “Enough is Enough!!كفاية ይአክል!!” The people of Eritrea deserve better! They deserve Peace and Democracy NOW!  


May Peace and Justice prevail in Eritrea!!

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[1] For detailed analysis on the topic, see Professor Gaim Kibreab’s paper  -“Some Critical Reflections on The Language Policy of the Eritrean Government”-  presented at CDRiE’s symposium organised in London on 9 January 2010.

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