HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS: HOW THE EUPHORIA OF INDEPENDENCE TURNED INTO A NIGHTMARE FOR THE ERITREAN PEOPLE
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A prominent Greek speech writer, Demosthenes once wrote “every dictator is an enemy of freedom and an opponent of law.” This has been proven exactly right when it comes to modern Eritrean political reality. Some of us are lucky enough to have lived in democratic societies where leaders are elected to serve the people; where people have all the fundamental rights to shove them out of office when they failed to live up to their promise. Just through ballots not bullets. This is universally defined as democracy-government of the people, for the people and by the people. On the contrary, it is heart-breaking to learn the existence of tyrannical government who treat their people like slaves. Eritrea is the home of one of the worst dictators Africa has ever produced. It has been branded as North Korea of Africa. A totalitarian regime typically led not by institution but by one man and a group of very small percentage of the total population who benefit from promoting, protecting and maintaining the status-quo. It is a government of the cronies, for the cronies and by the cronies. The self-proclaimed president of the country, Isaias Afwerki has been in power for 20 years, aided and abetted by his immediate entourages, who expects to drive considerable socio-economic benefits for themselves from the most despicable man-made humanitarian crises in the country.
It is historically documented fact that the people had collectively paid an ultimate price for independence, freedom, peace, liberty, justice and the rule of law, where all ethnic groups can live in a state of harmony. The thirty years of armed struggle was not only to free the land and the people from foreign colonizers, but also to achieve political, social, economic, cultural and physical security. But it didn’t take much time for the Eritrean people to learn that liberating the country was not the end of the road. The freedom fighters that the people had enthusiastically received as liberators turned into monsters. The people were initially blinded by the joy of independence and unable to see the dictator in the making. According to many freedom fighters however, Isaias Afwerki once a revolutionary now a totalitarian leader has had the hearts and soul of a cold-blooded dictator all along. But, he managed to conceal his true colors until he secured his base by abolishing the power of the civilian administration and legal system and replacing it with everything military, monopolizing the entire economy, mass communication and restriction of freedom of speech, movement, worship etc. Eventually, the armed forces became a law unto themselves. The military regime has ultimately subjected the people to repression, imprisonment without due process, denial of all fundamental human rights and reduced the people to extreme poverty and exile. This is the current Eritrean tragedy.
Isaiais Afworki, along with his cliques has slowly proceeded to transform the country into a paranoiac and personal military dictatorship committed to isolationist foreign policy and outrageously repressive domestic one. Its policies are more of reactionary propensities
which lack both total ideology and party to support and embody it. That being said, the
regime operates under a party name PFDJ (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice), although it doesn’t have a party function. In addition to the fact that the “party” members have never had a meeting for the last 17 years, they were actually not recruited freely. The members are often chosen by their personality, attitude and dedication to keep the status quo. It is more of a membership to specific club where the aggressors and intransigents make top candidates. The PFDJ has neither popularity nor a deep root within Eritrean society. Thus, Isaias is obviously bigger than the party itself. And therefore, there is a higher probability that his death would mark the death of the party. As PFDJ popularity at home decays in an exponential manner, Isaias has recently established a Hitler Youth “Hitler Jugend” like movement in diaspora under the name of Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) who apparently are anti-constitution and antidemocratic entity.
REFUGEE EXODUS TO ESCAPE MAN-MADE FAMINE AND TYRANNY
Eritrean Youth crossing the Saharan Desert
Recently, the natural famine in the Horn of Africa has received enough attention by the world media. As a result, humanitarian organizations, governmental and non-governmental agencies have been generously investing their time and resource to save the sub-region. But, the Eritrean people have painfully been watching aid distribution in the neighbouring countries from distance; because they have been denied to foreign aid by their government. Ironically, neither aid organizations nor international media is allowed in the country to assist, monitor, evaluate or report the crisis. Regardless of how hard the dictator tries to hide the extreme starvation in the country, the people are evidently the hardest-hit by the drought than any country in the sub-region. This is because they are facing a triple jeopardy: dealing with a deliberately imposed famine, the natural famine and deprivation from receiving food aid from the international community. Therefore, famine has been used as a weapon to control the population way before natural catastrophe had visited the land. Prior to the exposure of widespread natural famine and human suffering throughout the sub-region, Eritrea has been gripped by a devastating man-made famine for all most a decade. Here is how and why the people have been reduced to extreme starvation, poverty, illiteracy, exile, degradation, exploitation and gross human rights violations:
Although the people fought for equality, socio-economic justice and the rule of law, they are now being compelled to live under the most brutal dictator in the world. They have become victims of oppression, economic and physical exploitations, corruption, nepotism, and horror. Thus, all men and women below the age of 50, including young boys and girls are conscripted against their will, destroying their traditional and educational futures. Consequently, the most productive sectors of the population are conscripted into perpetual military service where they are forced to provide free labour for the private companies owned by the military junta. The cult owns farms, construction companies and businesses for which they use ‘national service’ personal as slave labour. The inconvenient truth is that, fathers and husbands are denied their rights to take care of their spouse and children; sons and daughters are deprived of their rights to look after their aged parents; and the youth have ultimately been stripped off their future just to serve stratocracy. This is a regime where a small group of people has an absolute control over virtually all aspects of the social, economic, religious, cultural, and political life of the people. They run the state like a personal enterprise. The very people are now claiming that there is no famine in Eritrea.
In a firmly knitted totalitarian set-up, Isaias Afwerki has secured an absolute power over the country, bounded neither by the moral nor by the legal laws of the society. In an attempt to micromanage the local political process and expand its socio-economic control over the people, the regime has replaced the traditional leadership ‘Bayto Adi’ and customary laws ‘bahlawi Higtat’ by centralized government authorities; expanded its military presence and involvement in every area of the country and all aspects of life. He seeks to get hold of the entire population in every area in away never seen before in the continent. The country is now, replete with lawlessness, rape, corruption, favouritism and abuse by this kleptocratic(Mihdera bigujile serekti) group, where the culture of impunity (freedom from retribution for major crimes) is often cited as the growing public problem. Consequently, they have been using the total immunity they enjoyed and the enormity of power conferred upon them to enslave, arrest, torture, rape, and kill.
When the political power fall into the hands of military commanders, lawlessness, corruption, economic extraction and human exploitation and abuse become the daily occurrences of the people and women become the principal targets of their insensible crime. Sexual violence is therefore one of the products of the oppression and lawlessness, where the commanders have absolute power over the powerless. Fear and terror have been the regime’s typical tools to seize and retain control over the physical, social, economic, cultural, religious and political livelihoods of the people and systematizing the violation of human rights by employing arbitrary detention, torture, murder, and disappearance, against those it deemed enemies.
The regime has destroyed the religious and social institutions for fear of public solidarity, social networks and oppositions. Therefore, Eritrea is a typical example of deteriorating traditional institutions: social-economic order, community bond, customs, values and family institutions which disrupts the socio-economic functions and coping mechanisms of the society. The regime’s absolute control over the traditional, social, economic and political order has broken-down the fundamental social pillars and safety net such as, social norms, laws, values, marriage institutions, and family unit that have kept the social fabrics and pride as well as enabled to preserve itself in times of hardship for generations. In Eritrean tradition, the family unit and the social bonds are strong sources of security and coping mechanisms during economic and social hardships, as members would depend on one another. So, the destruction of the social bond and family unit would ultimately threaten their existence as people. As Amartya Sen, the Economist has diligently explained:
the stipulation of economic and [social] freedom [are] one of the most important social justices that allow individuals to enjoy the kind of life he or she ‘reasons to value’. The economic deprivation on the other hand is individuals’ capability deprivation which undermines a communities’ or individuals’ survival possibilities leading to loss of work motivation, skills, psychological harm, self-confidence, increase in ailments and morbidity (and even mortality rates), disruption of social and family relations, social exclusion, political tension and exposes for an impoverished life.
Thus, the economic deprivation and social disruption of the Eritrean case has been clear that the most economically active, socially responsible and productive sector of society has been held in the army indefinitely, from which, 54% of the 350,000 soldiers are between the ages of 20 and 29 and 78% are heads of households. Sen has explained this kind of scenario by saying “economic oppression is the violation of fundamental human rights which robs people of the freedom to establish family, to cultivate, to satisfy hunger, to achieve sufficient nutrition, the opportunity to adequately sheltered and flourish.” Eritrea is a country where more than 80% of the population depends on subsistence farming. And there is mainly one farming season which would have a grave consequence on their livelihood if peasants miss the farming season for there is absolutely no others source of income for an entire year. Sadly, however, farmers are forcefully conscripted into the military services that agricultural lands remain unfarmed and the regime cares less to provide socio-economic or psychological support for those families whose survival is mainly dependent on the breadwinner. There is nothing more painful and disempowering feeling than watching your family die from starvation and related disease and there is nothing you can do about it. Breadwinners are taken away, leaving their families unassisted and disintegrated. It is extremely hard to imagine, let alone to condone the generalized human rights violation in the country.
Under normal circumstance, a breadwinner would work hard to meet his/her moral, legal and social obligation of supporting their family. As peculiar as it may sound, in present Eritrea, it is considered to be illegal to earn a living while in the “national service.” Like all other professionals, school teachers are also being forced to teach unpaid. Consequently, teachers usually do private teaching jobs secretly to students who can afford to pay for their service, which disproportionately affects the majority student population from gaining access to their fundamental educational rights. Not to mention the closure of the only university in the country-Asmara University.
Now that there is a drought in the sub-region, it is extremely hard to quantify the level of starvation and misery in the country. Deprived their fundamental human rights and tormented by the degrading and dehumanizing treatment of the government’s agents, frustrated both by the absence of state protection and political intervention against the unwilling or unable government; men, women and children are forced to flee across borders to look for international protection and justice outside their country. Hence, extensive numbers of Eritreans are abandoning their homes, friend and livelihoods to seek freedom, liberty, security and international protection. The massive refugee flow is a self-explanatory proof of the climate of horror in the country. The Eritrean regime may be able to abuse its people arbitrarily, deny all the fundamental human rights, silence dissidents, restrict access to information, imprison potential opponents and sympathizers and it may also deny that any violation is occurring, but they can rarely stop desperate people escaping. Desperate Eritreans are crossing the international borders in their thousands, regardless of the shoot-to-kill policy, landmines and dreadful smugglers. Now, there are more Eritrean refugees in the Sudanese and Ethiopian camps than any other time in Eritrean history. Others are taking the maximum risks in life to cross the Saharan Desert, Sinai Desert and Mediterranean Sea to cross to Israel and Europe. According to several international sources, Eritrea, the country of 5 million people is one of the largest refugee producing countries in the world. This is a living proof for anyone who wants to see and feel the pain and suffering of the Eritrean people under a tyrannical regime.
Bahlbi Yemane is a PhD candidate in PRDU, at the University of York, UK. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Alfred A. Knope, New York.PP.3,4,11
Healy S. (2007). “Eritrea’s Economic Survival. Summary record of a conference held on 20 April 2007. The conference was held at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs). PP.8
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Alfred A. Knope, New York.PP.3,4,11