Continued mandatory indefinite conscription of Eritreans is at the center of an influx of Eritrean refugees in Sudan, according to the BBC’s reporting, many of whom are young men and women yet to finish their formal education. Completing their final year of high school at a military camp, young people are assigned to military and civil posts, requiring them to stay in these posts until further notice. For many conscripted, they spend several years serving the government for little freedom and compensation. Former soldiers even liken service to slavery. The national service program has driven over half a million citizens out of the country, with flight the only alternative to forced conscription, abuse, and limited future prospects, according to Human Rights Watch. President Isaias Afewerki defends the manner in which the state has chosen to implement the national service program in Eritrea, rightly pointing to the fact that it is not uncommon for states to have some form of mandatory national service. However, the Eritrean government should re-examine its implementation of indefinite national service as it is hindering its future political and economic prospects and is creating a hostile environment that has people leaving in masses making the dangerous journey to seek a better life elsewhere.
Afwerki introduced mandatory national service in 1995, pledging that it would be integral to the growth and development of the emerging nation. From 1998 to 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia were engaged in conflict over border demarcation just years after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia, having fought a 30-year war from 1961 to 1991. Although the two nations came to a peace agreement in 2000, tensions remained until 2018, when the countries reached a more substantive agreement that included the re-opening of the previously-closed border and a move toward a more amicable political and economic relationship. The signing of the agreement prompted talk that newfound peace would delegitimize the use of such an intense and rigorous form of mandatory national service. In an article from July 2018, Reuters reported that families were told that after the historic peace deal, conscription would last no longer than 18 months, as was originally intended. Fast forward over a year later, there were no changes to the national service program following the 2018 peace agreement that reopened the border and was the new basis for cooperation between the neighbors, and Eritrea has closed its borders again.
Given that mandated national service was not re-evaluated in the wake of peace negotiations and that there is still little hope for the future prospects of Eritreans, they continue to flee to neighboring countries such as Sudan. Recently, it has been reported that refugee camps in Sudan were unable to accommodate the high volumes of Eritrean migrants and needed more resources to sustain these camps. Many have spoken of having to make the choice between their freedom and performing forced labor for little compensation. One former soldier was quoted in a study as saying, “The government has held the youth hostage.” Soldiers also recounted stories of being separated from their families for extended periods of time or, for some, indefinitely according to Amnesty International.
Looking beyond the refugee crisis itself and the conditions described, the administration of education services in Eritrea plays a large role in the conscription process. Every student is required to complete their final year of high school at Sawa Military Base. The future of these young men and women is contingent upon their mandatory service, as they are unable to attend university or pursue work without proof of completion. However, as has been demonstrated, it is not guaranteed that a student will complete an 18-month term and be allowed to leave. Rather than be funneled into forced indefinite conscription by completing their secondary education at Sawa Military Base, many young people will drop out of school and begin planning a future elsewhere. The government is doing itself a great disservice in the long run by limiting youth’s career options and not developing youth capacity, neither of which is conducive to inspiring young people to come up with unique solutions to the pressing issues that the country faces. Instead, the government has a direct hand in exacerbating them.
National service is also having detrimental economic repercussions by severely limiting the type of work that people can engage in. Eighty percent of the population are subsistence farmers, according to the Economist. However, as a result of drawn-out conscription, people are unable to tend to food production, there are labor shortages in key economic sectors, and resources are diverted to the military.
Additionally, taking seriously the importance of regional stability, the highly militaristic, realist approach to security that Eritrea has embraced is not doing much to promote regional peace, despite making a commitment to peace with Ethiopia. Furthermore, it is important to consider that Sudan, who has seen Eritreans flee in large numbers and seek refuge in Sudan, is in a critical historical moment with the recent ousting of Omar al-Bashir and discussions about the future of its political institutions. The refugee crisis places additional strain on a region that is already in a major transitional period and will have negative consequences for stability in the Horn of Africa moving forward.
But what can the government do to significantly reduce migration from Eritrea and restore trust in its political institutions? First and foremost, the state must put an end to indefinite national service and adhere to the determined 18-month conscription period if it is going to continue to require mandatory service. Not only is this important in strengthening and diversifying the nation’s workforce but will also be a pivotal move in rebuilding trust among its people. Only after taking such a step can the Eritrean government begin to address the mass displacement taking place as a result of the national service policy. Following this action, the government needs to hold serious talks about how to create a robust education system throughout secondary and high school to maximize and promote the success of the country’s youngest demographic. Given that youth will be at the center of political and economic revolution on the continent, it will be crucial to develop education systems that will cultivate and positively reinforce the younger generation. Lastly, establishing substantive, cooperative political and economic relations in the region will be critical to peace and conflict resolution. Moving toward an open dialogue with its neighbors and establishing the foundations of cooperation will be more productive in the long run as opposed to taking a combative, realist approach to national and regional security concerns.
In addition to placing set limitations on the duration of national service, Human Rights Watch further suggests Eritrea’s financial partners make their condemnation for these practices clear. They also advocate for there to be investigations of the abuses that allegedly took place at the Sawa Military Base and accountability for these actions.
It is time for the government to rethink indefinite national service for the sake of a better future in Eritrea.
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