One of the aims of the Eritrean National Service (ENS) is to preserve and transmit the core values engendered during the liberation struggle to the present generation. This chapter examines the extent to which the ENS is an effective mechanism of preserving and transmitting these values to the present generation. It also discusses the impact of a war fought against an external enemy on internal solidarity and on citizens’ willingness to serve and sacrifice their lives in defence of these values, as well as in the service of the nation. As discussed in Chapter 4, the relationship between the warsai and the yikealo is hostile, and understandably these inauspicious relationships between those who are supposed to transmit the values of the liberation struggle and the recipients is likely to impact upon the effectiveness of the ENS as a mechanism of transmission. This chapter also identifies the virtues and vices the conscripts developed and internalised in the process of participating in the national service. Some abuses unrelated to the aims and objectives of the ENS, such as exploitation of conscripts’ labour power for commanders’ personal gain and how these corrupt activities and practices reduce the effectiveness of the ENS to function as a mechanism of preservation and transmission of the values and culture of the liberation struggle are also discussed.
As evidenced in Chapter 2, national/military service is perceived as a civic duty and as an expression of political and civic rights; this is said to create and reproduce core values that are amenable to greater crosscultural understanding, mutual respect, national unity and greater commitment to the common good. More often than not, these values are developed and reproduced in conditions of war fought against a common enemy. As set out in Chapter 2, war fought against a common enemy produces social capital, which is the glue that holds a society together, including those marked by ‘super diversity’ (on the latter concept see Vertovek 2007). The gluing effect of war on solidarity and social cohesion is well documented (see Chapter 2). This is due to war's ability to engender a set of values and a sense of common purpose among citizens that are necessary conditions for solidarity and unity. Edward E. Carr (1942: 115) observed that war engenders meaning and purpose otherwise absent in modern societies.
Prior to the most recent Country Guidance on Eritrea, eightyseven per cent of those who were refused under the Home Office Country Information and Guidance, Eritrea: National (incl. Military) Service, August 2016 and Country Information Guidance Eritrea—Illegal Exit, September 2016, had their refusals overturned on appeal. In October 2016, the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) in a country guidance case—MST and Others (national service – risk categories) Eritrea CG  UKUT 00443 (IAC) rejected the much-criticised UK Home Office policy on Eritrean asylum-seekers by concluding:
Accordingly, a person whose asylum claim has not been found credible, but who is able to satisfy a decision-maker (i) that he or she left illegally, and (ii) that he or she is of or approaching draft age, is likely to be perceived on return as a draft evader or deserter from national service and as a result face a real risk of persecution or serious harm. (Para. 10) (Emphasis in original)
The UKHome Office Countryof Origin Information, whichinfluencesthe decisions of judges and case workers was based on the flawed assumption originating from the muchcriticised and discredited Danish Immigration Service report on Eritrea which concluded that if an Eritrean deserter from the ENS or draft evader who exited from the country illegally signed a repentance letter and paid the 2 per cent diaspora tax, he or she is free to return to Eritrea without facing any risk of persecution. The UK Upper Tribunal categorically rejected this flawed conclusion stating in para. 334:
Suffice to say for the purpose of this section, that we do not accept that the evidence goes anywhere close to establishing that the payment of the tax and the signing of the letter would enable draft evaders and deserters to reconcile with the Eritrean authorities. In relation to the letter of regret, we also have serious doubts that it can properly be described as a basis for reconciliation, since its terms amount to a confession of guilt by the person who signs it to what the Eritrean regime considers “appropriate punishment” in the context of a regime with a very poor human rights record.
When I went home on a short leave, I found my parents in a wretched state. Most of their livestock died because there was no one to look after them. Weeds overtook all their farms except the small plot near the village, including the irrigated farm. I found my family reduced to abject poverty. This was the most painful thing I ever witnessed in my life. I crossed the Rubicon (mewedata betsihe) the moment I saw my mother and father on the verge of starvation. I love my country and I recognise that I have a duty to defend it against an external enemy. However, the government's claim notwithstanding, in 2005 there was no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Eritrea's sovereign existence was under threat. In the absence of a real threat to Eritrea's national security, my primary duty became to alleviate the plight of my family by any means.
This chapter analyses the impact of the Eritrean National Service (ENS) on the livelihoods of families, and conscripts’ careers, survival and wellbeing. Further, the dissenting opinions of a few respondents who see the ENS as the ultimate good and worth sacrificing one's own and one's family's present and future interests are considered briefly. Eritrean society is predominantly agrarian. The large majority of households and individuals derive their livelihoods from subsistence agriculture and other related or unrelated off-farm income-generating activities. Agriculture and allied activities, such as crop production, livestock herding, forestry, and traditional fishing constitute the basis of livelihood for about 80 per cent of the population (World Bank 2015a). Given the rudimentary nature of the technology in use, agricultural production in the country is labour intensive. Due to a shortage of capital, a lack of credit facilities and small farm sizes, the overwhelming majority of subsistence farmers depend on family, rather than hired, labour. Given the arid and semiarid nature of the environment within which nearly 80 per cent of the population eke out their meagre existence, rain-fed farming is a highly risky enterprise and, as a result, food security remains one of the major preoccupations in the country (Kibreab 2009a, 2009c; World Bank 2015a).
Your question regarding whether the ENS has built Eritrea's defence and fighting capability is misplaced. The President knows very well that a well organised and institutionalised military with a robust fighting and defence capability represents an imminent threat to his tyrannical rule. Rhetoric notwithstanding the tacit, but principal aim of the ENS is to control the youth and stifle their autonomy and ability to become agents of change.
This chapter uses the perceptions of the respondents and key informants to examine the extent to which the Eritrean National Service (ENS) has contributed to the development of Eritrea's fighting and defence capability. The factors that have contributed to the failure of the ENS to build an efficient and capable defence and fighting capability are also discussed. We saw in Chapter 2 that participation in national service engenders a powerful sense of patriotism, inducing the affected not only to surrender their interests but also their lives in defence of the nation and the common good (Montesquieu 1989 ; Hart 1994; Farar-Hockley cited in Board 2006). Contrary to these views, some of the respondents who served in the ENS before they fled believed that a country's military manpower and its fighting capability could not be built through coercion, blackmail and intimidation. The construction of a robust military manpower and an effective fighting capability, in their view, is a function of the readiness and wholehearted dedication of members of the armed forces or, in this case, of conscripts. The large majority said that although most of the conscripts were ready and willing to defend and die for their country, this initial powerful predisposition vanished after the ENS degenerated into forced labour. As one respondent put it succinctly, ‘The ENS cannot build Eritrea's fighting capability as long as it remains compulsory’ (R #106). Another respondent said, ‘An armed force that is kept by force against its will for ten years or more cannot build the fighting capability of the country’ (R #147). Not only are the conscripts forced to serve against their will indefinitely, but also noncompliance is punished by detention and torture. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, states, ‘National service keeps most young Eritreans in perpetual bondage’ and ‘[t]orture and other abuses during detention are routine.
Given its magnitude and indefinite duration, the ENS has affected, directly or indirectly, every aspect of Eritrean society's economic, social, cultural and political life. Nevertheless, in any socially and economically differentiated society, where power is concentrated on an unelected personal ruler and a few of his cronies, none of whom is accountable to citizens, and where actual and perceived levels of corruption are rife (Chapter 7), the impact of an open-ended national service on various sectors of society is likely to be highly differentiated.
Drawing on the experiences and perceptions of the respondents and the key informants, who served on average six years before fleeing the country, and supplemented by data derived from studies conducted by United Nations agencies, the International Monetary Fund (2003), the World Bank (2002b), the African Development Bank and independent analysts, this chapter assesses the overarching impacts of the national service on all aspects of Eritrean society. As expected, the conscripts, notwithstanding their shared experiences throughout the time they served in the national service in a variety of capacities, do not speak with a single voice. The ENS has profound impacts on the social fabric of the country. Here these impacts are documented and examined in detail. The incidence of sexual violence perpetrated by military commanders and military trainers against female conscripts is also discussed briefly. The question of sexual violence perpetrated by male conscripts against female servers is beyond the scope of the book. (On sexual violence see Kibreab 2017). The chapter also discusses the level of militarisation and securitisation of the educational system in the country. The plight of conscripts who suffer at the hands of ruthless traffickers and smugglers while en route to Israel via eastern Sudan and the Sinai desert, as well as to the EU+ countries through Ethiopia, Sudan, the Sahara desert, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea are discussed very briefly in the chapter.
THE IMPACT OF THE ENS ON THE COUNTRY
Since one of the main aims of the ENS is to (re)construct the war-torn economy of the country, the respondents were asked to assess the impact of the ENS on Eritrea's economy.
There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.
THE BUILDING OF ERITREA's DEFENCE AND FIGHTING CAPABILITY
Theoretically, the decision of the postindependence Eritrean government to adopt and implement a universal and compulsory national service was legitimate and groundbreaking. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, for a small country with limited resources and small popula tion recovering from a devastating thirty years’ war (1961–1991), it was prudent to limit the size of the standing army and boost its defence and fighting capability through compulsory conscription, provided the duration of the latter is limited and strictly regulated by law. Secondly, the remarkable victory of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) over sub-Saharan Africa's largest army was chiefly due to the devotion of the volunteer combatants who served their country, not only without any remuneration, but also at the expense of their interests, including their lives. Although the realities of the two periods, namely the liberation struggle and the post-independence era, are fundamentally different, the government's attempt to build a defence capability based on the historical success of the liberation struggle is an innovative idea. Justifiably, one of the central aims of the Eritrean National Service (ENS) is to establish a strong defence force by drawing on the experiences gained during the liberation struggle. All things being equal, the approach might have provided an opportunity for safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country cost-effectively.
Nevertheless, in spite of this initially worthy endeavour (which later went woefully wrong, partly due to the fact that, rhetoric notwith standing, the ruler of the country, Isias Afwerki, is not committed to the development of an autonomous, professional and institutionalised military), the findings of the study based on the perceptions of the conscripts interviewed show that the national service has failed to build Eritrea's defence and fighting capability.
People are so docile right now. It is almost as if good government means when the politicians lie to us for our own good, for the public good…
The Eritrean National Service (ENS) constitutes the nerve centre of postindependence Eritrean polity without which it is difficult to understand and analyse the causes of the successes and failures of the Grand National projects, such as nation building, nurturing of national unity and common Eritrean national identity, post-conflict (re)construction and the building of efficient defence capability. During the liberation struggle, also called the thirty years’ war (1961–1991), the idea of ‘the common good’ in which individual interests were sacrificed in pursuit of the grand cause – independence – was the single most important lynchpin. Its pursuit created a politically and socially acceptable moral justification for the sacrifice of individual interests.
Although the war ended, the ENS continued and has become openended; though intended as a common good, it has degenerated into indefinite forced labour or a modern form of slavery. Consequently, thousands of citizens are forcibly held in endless servitude against their will, under the threat of severe punishment. It affects every aspect of the country's economic, social and political situation, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of households and conscripts.
There has not, to date, been any in-depth and critical scrutiny of the ENS's achievements and failures. There is also a dearth of data on its overarching impacts on the social fabric of Eritrean polity. This book is a partial attempt to fill the lacunae. The main aim of this book is to examine the extent to which the stated goals of the ‘national service’, as stipulated in the proclamation on the ENS, various government policy declarations and practices, have been, or are in the process of being, achieved. Unlike other wide-ranging national service programmes discussed briefly in the book, in which the main focus is on citizenship, independence, equality, responsibility and participation, in Eritrea the main emphasis has been on control, loyalty and service. Since 2004, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have fled the country, risking their lives in order to disentangle themselves from an indefinite state of entrapment.
The primary achievement of the EPLF was to bring about a level of bonding, in opposition to the Ethiopian ‘other’, that was sufficient to sustain the long and extremely costly conflict that eventually resulted in victory. Even if this bonding never reached the level of unanimity that official discourse suggests, and some Eritreans maintained alternative viewpoints – in favour either of the Moslem ELF, or of continued union with Ethiopia – it was still an extraordinarily successful project.
Military training brings a man into contact with his fellows solely upon the basis of fellow-citizenship. For the time, at least, the differences of wealth, education, locality, taste, occupation, and social rank, which divide Americans as effectively as though they lived on different continents or in different centuries, are lost sight of. Men are brought face to face with the elemental fact of nationality.
We have nine languages. But we are all from the same ethnic group and the same background. We have been living in this region for centuries. This is what distinguishes us in addition to the maturity of the people that they gained from their experience during the period of struggle. They triumphed because they were united; they lived in harmony; and they had one goal despite the differences in the cultural and denominational structure and other matters. This is one of God's gifts to this land.
This chapter examines the extent to which the Eritrean National Service (ENS) functions as a vehicle for national unity and social cohesion. It examines whether national service functions as a ‘sociological mixer’, enabling conscripts hailing from disparate ethnolinguistic, geographical, religious and cultural backgrounds to bond and forge a secular Eritrean national identity at the expense of their subnational identities and alle giances. The chapter also discusses the factors that enhance national unity and greater trans-cultural understanding through enhanced knowledge of different places and communities in the course of performing national service. The chapter also discusses whether transethnic, transreligious and transregional friendships have developed among the conscripts. It also devotes some space to the dissenting opinions of a few respondents concerning whether the ENS promotes national unity and social cohesion.
The assumption that universal national/military service promotes national unity and social cohesion among ethnically and religiously diverse, or divided, societies is an old one.
This chapter presents different theories and perspectives on national service. It also briefly discusses the philosophical foundations of national/ military service. Some analysts perceive compulsory and universal national service as the ultimate good, benefitting not only conscripts, but also the whole society where such a policy exists. Others view compulsory national service as the antithesis of a free society, because citizens are forced to relinquish their freedom in order to perform the obligation. The exponents of the latter school of thought equate compulsory national service with forced labour or a modern form of slavery. Some analysts also equate compulsory national service with the feudal institution of posse comitatus (the inherent power of the state to call upon its physically fit citizens to serve their country).
Opinions among political theorists and other analysts are so divided that no other topic in social and military history is probably as controversial, and perhaps none arouses such strong feelings of sympathy or antipathy as that of compulsory military and/or national service. Scholarly opinions on national/military service are fervently divided into two mutually opposed schools of thought. One perceives national/military service as a civic duty and as an expression of political and civic rights, which create and reproduce values that are amenable to greater cross-cultural understanding, mutual respect, national unity and greater commitment to the common good. The prominent exponents of this school of thought postulate that well thought out national service programmes engender democratic values, promote good citizenship, national cohesion, a common sense of purpose, mutual trust and commitment to the common good. These values are said to be valuable to the national community and to the individual participants themselves. The latter is said to be due to the changes and transformations servers are expected to undergo as a result, as well as the fundamental contributions they are likely to make to their national communities.
The other school of thought perceives compulsory national/military service as antithetic to a free society, because individuals are forced against their will to undertake compulsory national/military service at the cost of their interests and future careers.
In this important and innovative book, Gaim Kibreab examines one of the most secretive states in the world, Eritrea, through the prism provided by its system of ‘national service’, which subjects a very large proportion of the population, and especially the youth, to an indefinite period under the control of the state. Drawing both on the analysis of reports in the country's state-controlled media, and especially on interviews with a large and varied number of refugees who have – at the risk of their lives – fled from Eritrea, he is able to provide an insight into many aspects of Eritrean life that have hitherto evaded the attention of researchers. In many ways, the findings of the study confirm what might have been expected. Even though two of the key objectives of national service have been to strengthen the country's defensive capabilities and promote its economic development – its official title is the ‘Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign’ – the actual effects have been quite the opposite. An army of disgruntled conscripts is unable to replicate the heroism and sense of purpose that drove the epic liberation struggle that culminated in Eritrea's independence in 1991, while the impact on ‘development’ has been disastrous. Particularly important here is the impact on subsistence agriculture and the complex survival mechanisms that have enabled families to spread their risks in an extremely uncertain environment. The gender equality that characterised the liberation struggle has given way to the widespread exploitation of women within the national service system. Yet it is a tribute to the professionalism of the research – in a field often marked by a high level of partisanship on either side – that the author shows how some of the objectives of national service have been achieved. In particular, it has indeed served to promote an enhanced level of national identity and helped to bridge ethnic and religious differences within a country with nine distinct ethnic groups, divided roughly equally between Christianity and Islam. This is ground-breaking research, essential to the understanding of modern Eritrea, and with much to teach us beyond its boundaries.
The only defence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it.
As seen in Chapter 1, according to the proclamation on the Eritrean National Service (ENS), all ablebodied Eritrean nationals aged between eighteen and forty are required to perform eighteen months of national service. Following the 1998–2000 border war against Ethiopia and the introduction of the WYDC, the ENS has become openended. Since then, with few exceptions, no demobilisation has taken place. At the end of 2012, the President intensified the process of militarisation by establishing the socalled Hizbawi Serawit (people's militia) comprising citizens up to the age of seventy for men and sixty for women, who were directly accountable to him. The level of militarisation in the country is unparalleled in modern history (see Hirt and Mohammad 2013; Pool 2013; Tronvoll and Mekonen 2014). The reality in Eritrea is almost identical to the archaic feudal institution of posse comitatus which, as seen in Chapter 2, refers to the intrinsic ‘power of the country’ to call upon a posse, that is, ablebodied men and women, to provide military service and to serve in national defence, law enforcement, maintenance of peace and so on against their will and without remuneration. Herein lies the link between the ENS and the old tradition of posse comitatus, or bondage. The accounts of the respondents interviewed in this study clearly show that Eritrean citizens are required by law to relinquish their rights over their labour power, and indeed their lives.
This chapter discusses the background of the Eritreanmilitary, especially the state of the military and its relationship with the government before and after the implementation of the ENS. The organisational structure of the Eritrean military and the constant changes it has been undergoing over time are also discussed. The rationales underlying President Isaias Afwerki's decision to constantly reshuffle the higher echelon of the army and to alter its organisational structure erratically are analysed. Notwithstanding the fact that in May 2016 the government had just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, ironically, the organisational structure of the Eritrean military still remains in a state of flux.
Each citizen should be accustomed in good time…to considering the fortune of the state as his particular fortune. This perfect equality and this kind of civil fraternity, that makes…all citizens like a single family, makes all equally interested in the good and evil of their fatherland…Love of the fatherland is becoming a kind of amour-propre. Loving the fatherland, one loves oneself, and finally grows to love it more than oneself.
The government may do almost whatever it pleases, provided it appeals to the whole community at once; it is the unequal distribution of the weight, not the weight itself, that commonly occasions resistance.
The Eritrean National Service (ENS) is both compulsory and universal, with all citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty required to take part without exception, except for the veterans of the liberation struggle and those who are physically disabled and mentally infirm. The former are only exempted from the military training component of the service, and are still required to perform national service commensurate with their physical and mental capabilities. The aim of this chapter is therefore to examine the extent to which the national service is equally enforced, notwithstanding class, religion, sex, ethnicity, wealth, power, region and family connections. The chapter also examines the prevalence of corruption and the extent to which it is possible to buy oneself out from the service and/or to influence the decision regarding the place of assignment subsequent to the sixmonth military training at Sawa.
In light of the compulsory and universal nature of the ENS, every Eritrean citizen is supposed to be treated equally, regardless of class, gender, religion, region and ethnicity, based on the principle of forced equality. The principle of forced equality or equal sacrifice in bearing the burden of serving in the national service is in theory absolute. Although the ENS, as stipulated in Proclamation No 82/1995, is marked by the principle of absolute equality, there are a few exceptions and exemptions, as well as deferments. For example, Eritrean citizens who performed national service before the promulgation of Proc. No. 82/1995 and all the fighters and armed peasants who ‘spent all their time in the liberation struggle’ are exempted from performing national service.
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