By Fisseha Tekle

30 July 2018, 15:05 UTC

The recent peace agreement with Ethiopia presents the Eritrean authorities with the opportunity to end the indefinite national service, a widely-criticised practice that has robbed the country’s youth of their dreams creating a generation of Eritrean refugees.

The Eritrean government introduced compulsory national service in 1995. By law, every high school finalist undertakes 18 months of national service, which include six months of military training. When relations deteriorated with neighbouring Ethiopia following the bitter 1998-2000 border war, the national service was extended indefinitely.

The indefinite national service has torn apart many families and ripped apart the fabric of society. Many children are growing up without both parents and girls are married off early to avoid conscription.
Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International's Researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea

The indefinite national service has torn apart many families and ripped apart the fabric of society. It is common for several members of the same family to be conscripted at the same time and posted to different parts of the country. Many children are growing up without both parents and girls are married off early to avoid conscription.

Binyam, 18, told Amnesty International that his father was conscripted before he was even born. The family are lucky to see him once every six months. Some conscripts go years without seeing their families because they are not granted annual leave.

I don’t want to have children who see me once every six months; I want to see my children every day.
Binyam, Eritrean youth

“I don’t want to have children who see me once every six months; I want to see my children every day,” Binyam told us in a previous report published in 2015. Nothing has since changed in Eritrea’s indefinite national service.

Mariam, another 18-year-old, told us about the heavy toll national service had taken on her family. Both her father and her eldest brother had been conscripted, and when it was her turn, she fled because she couldn’t tolerate the idea.

In their final year of high school, students attend the infamous Sawa Military Camp, where food and water are abysmal, and temperatures are extreme. Harsh punishment is meted out for minor infractions.

Students have come to view the education system as a trap that delivers them right into the jaws of national service. Some drop out of school to escape conscription.

Students have come to view the education system as a trap that delivers them right into the jaws of national service. Some drop out of school to escape conscription, but this is a dead-end choice because without a clearance certificate from national service, they cannot access food rations, or register a business, acquire a mobile phone line, a driving license, or open a bank account. Furthermore, the military conducts impromptu house to house searches to round up anyone suspected of trying to evade national service.

Not only is national service never-ending, it pays a pittance – certainly not enough for people to live with dignity and enjoy their rights to food, shelter and healthcare.

Filmon, 29, fled Eritrea a month after deserting military service. He had done seven years before deserting in September 2017. Like many Eritrean youth we interviewed, Filmon lamented the lack of freedom and absence of bankable prospects in his country.

“My salary was a mere 1,500 Nafka (US$100), which was higher than that of people assigned to the military service, because I held a civilian job. I lived with my mother who had no income. It was impossible to support her and live on my income,” he said.

Eritrean youth have only two life options: undertake the compulsory, indefinite national service in conditions that amount to forced labour, or flee the country, risking their lives in search of a better life overseas.

As such, Eritrean youth have only two life options: undertake the compulsory, indefinite national service in conditions that amount to forced labour, or flee the country, risking their lives in search of a better life overseas.

Former conscripts compared national service to modern day slavery, saying they suffered torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest, and lacked basic sanitation and hygiene.

A UN Commission of Inquiry concluded in June 2016, that "crimes against humanity have been committed in a widespread and systematic manner in Eritrean military training camps and other locations".

In addition to military service, the recruits also worked in farms, mines or construction sites for less than US$60 a month. This system of indefinite, involuntary conscription amounts to forced labour, and is a human rights violation under international law.

It is therefore not surprising that thousands of Eritreans flee the country every year taking treacherous journeys to Europe at the risk of being kidnapped by human traffickers, imprisoned by hostile governments, or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is therefore not surprising that thousands of Eritreans flee the country every year taking treacherous journeys to Europe at the risk of being kidnapped by human traffickers, imprisoned by hostile governments, or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea border conflict has been a convenient excuse for compulsory conscription and wide- ranging human rights violations in Eritrea. With the stalemate now resolved, the government of Eritrea must end compulsory and indefinite national service and allow the people to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, movement and fair trial.

The authorities must now urgently come up with a clear, time-bound plan to demobilize those trapped in endless national service, while ensuring new conscripts are not forced into national service. The government must also make provision for conscientious objection to military service.

The time to end compulsory conscription is now.

Fisseha Tekle is the Amnesty International Researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea.

This article was first published in the EastAfrican on 28 July 2018.


Since this was written I have learnt that talks to end the conflict had been under way for more than a year.

Originally published July 10, 2018 in The Conversation.


This week Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed visited neighbouring Eritrea, to be greeted by President Isaias Afwerki. The vast crowds that thronged the normally quiet streets of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, were simply overjoyed. They sang and they danced as Abiy’s car drove past. Few believed they would ever see such an extraordinarily rapid end to two decades of vituperation and hostility between their countries.

After talks the president and prime minister signed a declaration, ending 20 years of hostility and restoring diplomatic relations and normal ties between the countries.

The first indication that these historic events might be possible came on June 4. Abiy declared that he would accept the outcome of an international commission’s finding over a disputed border between the two countries. It was the border conflict of 1998-2000, and Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the commission’s ruling, that was behind two decades of armed confrontation. With this out of the way, everything began to fall into place.

The two countries are now formally at peace. Airlines will connect their capitals once more, Ethiopia will use Eritrea’s ports again – its natural outlet to the sea – and diplomatic relations will be resumed.

Perhaps most important of all, the border will be demarcated. This won’t be an easy task. Populations who thought themselves citizens of one country could find themselves in another. This could provoke strong reactions, unless both sides show flexibility and compassion.

For Eritrea there are real benefits – not only the revenues from Ethiopian trade through its ports, but also the potential of very substantial potash developmentson the Ethiopia-Eritrea border that could be very lucrative.

For Ethiopia, there would be the end to Eritrean subversion, with rebel movements deprived of a rear base from which to attack the government in Addis Ababa. In return, there is every chance that Ethiopia will now push for an end to the UN arms embargoagainst the Eritrean government.

This breakthrough didn’t just happen. It has been months in the making.

The deal

Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September last year the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground there was on both sides. Donald Yamamoto, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and one of America’s most experienced Africa hands, played a major role.

Diplomatic sources suggest he held talks in Washington at which both sides were represented. The Eritrean minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh, is said to have been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s long-standing adviser. They are said to have met the former Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, laying the groundwork for the deal. Yamamoto visited both Eritrea and Ethiopiain April.

Although next to nothing was announced following the visits, they are said to have been important in firming up the dialogue.

But achieving reconciliation after so many years took more than American diplomatic muscle.

Eritrea’s Arab allies also played a key role. Shortly after the Yamamoto visit, President Isaias paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia – aware of the trip – encouraged the Saudi crown prince to get the Eritrean president to pick up the phone and talk to him. President Isaias declined, but – as Abiy Ahmed later explained – he was “hopeful with Saudi and US help the issue will be resolved soon.”

So it was, but one other actor played a part: the UAE. Earlier this month President Isaias visited the Emirates. There are suggestions that large sums of money were offered to help Eritrea develop its economy and infrastructure.

Finally, behind the scenes, the UN and the African Union have been encouraging both sides to resolve their differences. This culminated in the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, flying to Addis Ababa for a meeting on Monday– just hours after the joint declaration. Guterres told reporters that in his view the sanctions against Eritrea could soon be lifted since they would soon likely become “obsolete.”

It has been an impressive combined effort by the international community, who have for once acted in unison to try to resolve a regional issue that has festered for years.

Risks and dividends

For Isaias these developments also bring some element of risk. Peace would mean no longer having the excuse of a national security threat to postpone the implementation of basic freedoms. If the tens of thousands of conscripts, trapped in indefinite national service are allowed to go home, what jobs await them? When will the country have a working constitution, free elections, an independent media and judiciary? Many political prisoners have been jailed for years without trail. Will they now be released?

For Ethiopia, the dividends of peace would be a relaxation of tension along its northern border and an alternative route to the sea. Families on both sides of the border would be reunited and social life and religious ceremonies, many of which go back for centuries, could resume.

But the Tigrayan movement – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – that was dominant force in Ethiopian politics until the election of Prime Minister Aiby in February, has been side-lined. It was their quarrel with the Eritrean government that led to the 1998–2000 border war.

The Eritrean authorities have rejoiced in their demise. “From this day forward, TPLF as a political entity is dead,” declared a semi-official website, describing the movement as a ‘zombie’ whose “soul has been bound in hell”. Such crowing is hardly appropriate if differences are to be resolved. The front is still a significant force in Ethiopia and could attempt to frustrate the peace deal.

These are just some of the problems that lie ahead. There is no guarantee that the whole edifice won’t collapse, as the complex details of the relationship are worked out. There are many issues that have to be resolved before relations between the two countries can be returned to normal. But with goodwill these can be overcome, ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity from which the entire region would benefit.


UAE and Saudi Arabia’s mediation to bury decades-long enmity of the Horn of Africa nations a strong step towards sustainable peace

By Salem Al Ketbi, Special to Gulf News


Ethiopia and Eritrea have forged peace after a stalemate in their relations. Since 2000, the Horn of Africa nations have been in a state of “No war, no peace”, a situation that crippled their economies and divided families. So the warming of relations is indeed a welcome development.

Published: 16:35 July 27, 2018

The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, played a crucial role in the detente. Abu Dhabi played host to leaders from the countries, facilitating talks that paved the way for the peace accord. His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, held a discussions with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki that helped iron out their differences.


Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu said the rapprochement was a result of the efforts made by Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the reconciliation was “illustrative of a new wind of hope blowing across Africa”.

“The march towards peace might have been a long time coming, but we have faith in the love and solidarity of our people,” Ahmad said. “We can now imagine a future where we see no national boundaries or high walls dividing us. The people of our region are joined in common purpose.”

Two weeks after the two nations signed a peace deal on July 9, their leaders made another trip to Abu Dhabi, this time as friends. Shaikh Mohammad appreciated their efforts to normalise relations and bestowed on them the Order of Zayed.

Such efforts are vital to achieving comprehensible and sustainable development for all the people globally, Shaikh Mohammad said. “This would help establish security and stability and bring in development to this important region,” he added.

Solving the conflict in a short time was unthinkable. The two countries had fought a bloody two-year war (1998-2000), that killed more than 80,000 people besides displacing at least 350,000. A Cold War-like atmosphere prevailed for nearly two decades after a border commission set up under the peace agreement ruled that the flashpoint town of Badme was part of Eritrea. Ethiopia refused to accept this and relations remained frozen.

The two leaders have now pledged to implement the commission’s decision as part of the peace agreement. Ethiopia asked the United States to lift sanctions on Eritrea and the positive step set in motion a series of confidence-building measures. The two nations will reopen embassies and the border between them. Direct telecommunication services have been restored and commercial flights began operations last week. Plans are now afoot to resume diplomatic, trade and transport links.

So the spinoff from peace is an economic revival in both the countries. Ethiopia’s Ahmad has already lifted a state of emergency, freed political prisoners and unveiled economic reforms.

The deal was important for the stability and security of the region. Extremist elements and terrorists had taken advantage of the enmity to spread their agenda and ideas besides carrying out criminal activities. The absence of political will made their task easier. The successful mediation, therefore, is a powerful blow to all those players who used the conflict to serve their selfish interests. Arab states and the countries in the region suffered the most. Now they can breathe easy.

Dr Salem Al Ketbi is an Emirati political analyst, researcher and opinion writer.


Adi Harush refugee camp EthiopiaSource: Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) summary for May 2018

There are approximately 169,252 Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia who make up 18.4% of the total refugee population in Ethiopia. The number of Eritrean refugees who have arrived in Ethiopia in 2018 stood at 4,055 at May 31st.

In the same period, Kenya was host to 1,439 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers while Somalia was hosting 90 persons. Egypt hosted 13,748 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers as at 30thApril 2018.

Note: this does not include Eritrean refugees in Sudan. RMMS reported that  Sudan hosted 101,751 Eritreans in May 2016.

Deaths at sea

Between January and 15thMay 2018, 1,810 Eritreans migrants had arrived in Italy by sea. The Missing Migrant Project had recorded 62 deaths of migrants from the Horn of Africa in the same period.


probe into UNHCR fraud

%AM, %27 %405 %2018 %10:%Jul Written by
Source: IRIN
23 July 2018
Sally Hayden

Refugees have told IRIN that since the investigations began, they’ve been intimidated and harassed by some Sudanese staff at the UNHCR office in Khartoum, as well as by state security agents and officials of the Sudanese government’s Commission of Refugees. Refugees say they have been called on the phone or asked to meet with these officials and then been pressured not to testify on pain of having their cases for resettlement closed or losing access to other assistance. The Sudanese Commissioner of Refugees did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On 15 May, IRIN published a reportbased on interviews with more than a dozen refugees and a former UNHCR staff member. They alleged that decisions on which refugees would be permanently resettled to a third country were often made on the basis of bribes rather than standard eligibility criteria. Two days later, UNHCRsuspended resettlementfrom Sudan and confirmed that in February and March it had launched investigations into alleged corruption, and would soon deploy an anti-fraud team.

In a statement announcing the suspension, UNHCR encouraged anyone with information to contact its Inspector General’s Office(IGO), an oversight body that investigates complaints of misconduct, “without delay”.

Over the past 10 weeks, an IGO investigator has contacted refugees and asked them to do phone or Skype interviews. In an email seen by IRIN, “potential witnesses” were told their interviews could be recorded and details could be disclosed on a “need to know” basis with both the subject of the investigation and those involved in taking disciplinary action. The email also stated that they would be asked to swear an oath to tell the truth and shouldn’t discuss the investigation with anyone without prior IGO approval.

But refugees told IRIN they didn’t believe the investigation process offered sufficient confidentiality, and expressed concern that the UN’s refugee agency could provide little help if they were retaliated against. They said they didn’t believe they could come forward safely because of ties between some UNHCR staff and the Sudanese state, and feared reprisals from corrupt Sudanese and UN officials who may be exposed by the investigation.

“Refugees are afraid to speak because those at UNHCR have connections with the [Sudanese] security and can do whatever,” one refugee said.

In an emailed response, UNHCR said it is concerned by refugees’ allegations to IRIN of harassment by local UNHCR Khartoum staff and Sudanese officials. “We take these allegations very seriously,” the email stated. UNHCR encouraged refugees and others to report such behaviour to the IGO.

The IGOreceives hundredsof complaints around misconduct every year, including allegations of fraud in the resettlement and refugee status determination processes. When the IGO launches an investigation, they interview witnesses, the people accused of wrongdoing, and may gather documentary and other forms of evidence, according to investigation guidelines published in 2012.

Protection and privacy

Resettlement is a complicated process taking anywhere from several days (in emergency cases) to several years.

“Refugees are afraid to speak because those at UNHCR have connections with the [Sudanese] security and can do whatever.”

As IRIN reported in May, refugees in Khartoum allege that middlemen and local UNHCR staff with close ties to the refugee community have been requesting bribes to speed up and corrupt the registration and resettlement process. The going rate to do that for unregistered asylum seekers in Khartoum was about $15,000, refugees said. Resettling a whole family boosted the price to $35,000-$40,000 – money usually raised by relatives abroad. Around 1.2 million refugees are now in Sudan, and more than 2,000 people were resettled from there in the year ending September 2017, according to UNHCR.

In Khartoum, many refugees and migrants live in a constant state of concern over security and safety, analysts and researchers report. “In Sudan, migrants are vulnerable to a litany of abuses,” Human Rights Watch Sudan researcher Jehanne Henry, now the associate director of the Africa division, wrote last year. “Many live in legal limbo; can be rounded up and arrested at any time and summarily tried for immigration violations; and can be jailed, fined, and deported without due process or transparency.”

They face endemic abuse and harassmentfrom the Sudanese police, who regularly arrest them to solicit bribes and are accused of physical violence and sexual assault. Just last week, a video emerged online allegedly showing an undercover police officer raping a refugee woman in a Khartoum street, provoking debate around the sexual abuse of refugees by police officers.

Amid this atmosphere, refugees are anxious and constantly worried about their own safety. This is compounded by their confusion over who is actually carrying out the UNHCR investigations. Several told IRIN that UNHCR officials in Sudan not affiliated with the IGO, as well as some international UNHCR staff, had asked them to visit the Khartoum office to be interviewed. This scenario worried the refugees, who said they would be at risk because the very people they are making allegations against would see them. They were also concerned that translators might feed details of their testimony to the accused personnel.

“I thought it was going to be confidential,” said one refugee, after taking part in an interview in the UNHCR compound in Khartoum. “I don’t like the idea of going to that office,” the refugee said, adding that those accused were not good people and had a “network of people in key areas”.

“There are many refugees who [have] witnessed the corruption but are afraid to [say] it,” the refugee said. “The consequences [of coming forward] will be life-threatening.”

Another refugee recounted an incident in the reception of the UNHCR office in May in which Sudanese staff involved in the resettlement process warned refugees not to share any information about their cases with a visiting international team who were asking about the corruption allegations. “The local staff spoke to the refugees in Arabic, saying ‘don’t tell them’,” the refugee explained, adding that the international staff who were present did not understand Arabic.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said last month that protection is provided for witnesses in certain cases. “Witness protection is a top priority, and where serious safety concerns arise UNHCR has mechanisms in place to respond,’’ he said. “However, as you will understand, for obvious reasons, we won’t be able to discuss details publicly.”

UNHCR did relocateseveral witnesses during a similar investigation surrounding Kenya’s Kakuma camp in 2001. And IRIN was told by a UNHCR official who is not based in Khartoum, and who requested anonymity, that some refugees whose testimony was deemed sensitive have been moved elsewhere for their safety during other investigations, including another one in Kakuma in 2016-2017.

Yet two refugees in Khartoum who are potential witnesses to the Khartoum investigations told IRIN their direct pleas to the IGO and UNHCR for protection, including to be moved to a safe place, had been declined or ignored. Both told IRIN they fear for their lives.

“What they should be doing is resettling them,” a current UNHCR resettlement officer, who has witnessed IGO investigations elsewhere in East Africa and requested anonymity, said. “It’s a perfect resettlement case.” Without emergency resettlement or the option of witnesses entering a safe house, the officer said: “No one talks. No one will tell them what’s happening. So it just keeps happening.”

Fear of the Sudanese state

UNHCR has previously highlighted the concerns it faces around protection during investigations. A March 2018 overview of the IGO’s workstated that “lessons learned from key investigations” included that “the support that UNHCR can provide to witnesses who face security risks when they are involved in investigations is limited” and “the primary responsibility for witness protection lies with the host State.”

“No one talks. No one will tell them what’s happening. So it just keeps happening.”

Several refugees who said they were afraid to take part in the Khartoum investigation said they knew they couldn’t turn to Sudanese officials if testifying led to problems. They referred to an incident in April 2017 when dozens of refugees protested at the UNHCR Khartoum compound to draw attention to their allegations of corruption in the resettlement process. Six refugees who were present told IRIN that UNHCR staff had called the police, who set upon the protesters, leaving one woman with a broken leg.

When asked about the incident, UNHCR Sudan spokesman Steven O’Brien initially denied the police were called. Later, when provided with a video that appeared to show police inside the UNHCR compound on the day of the protest, UNHCR spokesman Baloch clarified that police officers had been present but said there was “no evidence of force being used”.

It is unclear how many people have voluntarily come forward to participate in the Khartoum probe, and UNHCR does not comment on current investigations. However, some refugees told IRIN they have long been too afraid to report exploitation and would not participate if asked, particularly out of fear of losing the protections and services associated with refugee status.

“We have never dared to complain because the UNHCR refugee card is the only thing that protects us from Sudanese officials,” one Eritrean woman said. Several refugees told IRIN they feared reprisals could take the form of their files with UNHCR or the Sudanese Commission on Refugees being closed or “lost”, which would mean losing their right to legal protection and the services that go along with it.

The 2017 human rights reportfrom the US State Department notes that refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan are “vulnerable to arbitrary arrest and harassment” in urban areas for incorrect or missing identity cards and authorisation documents.

“We fear retribution and jail, because if we’re removed from the protection of the UNHCR, we have no protection from the Sudanese government,” the Eritrean refugee explained. “So, I would love to file a complaint but fear the consequences of doing so. I feel like nobody at the UNHCR really cares about what we go through.”

A process on hold

As the investigation continues, the impact of the suspended programme is unclear, beyond the fact that hundreds of resettlements have been delayed for at least several months. Around 170 refugees were resettled from Sudan each month in the year ending September 2017, according to UNHCR.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, several former UN staff in Khartoum and elsewhere said they were worried that the suspended programme might put refugees waiting for resettlement at risk.

“So, I would love to file a complaint but fear the consequences of doing so. I feel like nobody at the UNHCR really cares about what we go through.”

“Sometimes these investigations take months and months and months to get to the bottom [of],” the former Sudan head of another UN agency told IRIN. “If people in urgent need of resettlement are sitting around for months, [UNHCR is] certainly not supporting their protection.”

Since mid-May, as the investigation has gone on, refugees and former UNHCR staff in Sudan interviewed over the past two months by IRIN have gone from being hopeful about the prospect of change to worrying that the situation may get worse.

“Maybe, once the media is gone, they will keep doing it,” a former UNHCR Sudan staff member said, referring to the alleged corrupt practices. “The situation is complicated in Sudan.”


Hey, all you Abyssinians out there.  While you are wasting time squabbling with each other and not talking to each other, the governments of the Arabian Peninsula are eating your lunch.

Have you noticed that warships from the United Arab Emirates are operating out of the port of Asab 24/7?  Their interest is in Yemen, not in Eritrea or Ethiopia.  There are reports that Saudi Arabia has taken a 50-year lease on Asab.  If that is true, the next step will be Sharia Law in the Horn of Africa big time.

I think it is time for Abyssinians to take back control of the west bank of the Red Sea before it is too late. 

One way to accomplish this is for Eritrea and Ethiopia to finally end the war of 1998-2000 and normalize relations. It can be done as a win-win.

Eritrea and Ethiopia should send delegations to a neutral venue, like Geneva.   With the two delegations present, the following agreements will be signed:

  • Badme will be returned to Eritrean control pursuant to the Algerian arbitration agreement.
  • Immediately after the symbolic return of Badme to Eritrean control in a brief ceremony in the morning, that afternoon, the two delegations will negotiate the following agreements:
  • Each government will guarantee that its territory will not be allowed to be used by elements hostile to the other government as a base for destabilization of the other government.
  • Pre-war economic relations will be restored to the status quo ante, including a dedicated duty-free Ethiopian section of Asab Port under a 50-year lease at an indexed rental.
  • The IMF will be requested to establish a currency exchange daily settlement regime between the Birrh and the Nakfa. 
  • There will be free movement of persons between the two countries, including the right to work and establish businesses.
  • There will be embassies established in both countries with an exchange of ambassadors.
  • The border will be totally demilitarized. 
  • Merchandise produced in each country will not be subject to trade duties in the movement between the two countries. The two countries will have a common external tariff.
  • Establishment of security control and the exploitation of resources in the Red Sea will be joint.

Upon the signature of a final normalization agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the following will take place:

  • The United Nations Security Council will lift sanctions against Eritrea.
  • Eritrea and Ethiopia will jointly negotiate Red Sea security agreements with Arab countries bordering on the water way.
  • Eritrea and Ethiopia will jointly guarantee the security and neutrality of the State of Djibouti. 
  • Eritrea and Ethiopia will agree to exchange intelligence about terrorist activity in the Horn of Africa.

The foregoing is a list of ideas that are out on the table. It is imperative that Ethiopia and Eritrea begin to normalize. Otherwise, the countries east of the Red Sea will make major inroads west of the Red Sea to the detriment of both countries as well as to American interests.



An abandoned tank by the roadside in Eritrea. Shutterstock

July 19, 2018 2.39pm SAST

The end of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been met with relief in the region as well as globally. But what does it mean for Eritrea, which has been dubbed the North Korea of Africa. The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina spoke to Martin Plaut about the implications for the small and reclusive state.

How did Eritrea earn its reputation as a reclusive state?

Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president, has operated on the presumption that no-one would come to Eritrea’s aid after it launched its armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia in 1961. It was never entirely true, but they certainly didn’t have the support of any major power.

When Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 he saw no reason to alter his view. As a result, major international aid agencies were made unwelcome. Even the United Nations has found it difficult to work in the country.

After 2001, when the president cracked down on all opposition – including from within his own party – all major news organisations, including the BBC, Reuters and AFP – were banned from having offices in the country. International journalists have only been allowed to visit sporadically. This has left Eritrea under-reported.

Isaias is moody and reclusive by nature. Since the regime is a dictatorship which has never allowed elections of any kind, the country reflects the politics of its leader.

The country has been named as a sponsor of regional terrorism. To what extent is this still the case?

Following Eritrea’s bitter border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, the government in Asmara became a sponsor of the Somali Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, and a number of Ethiopian rebel groups . It did so to undermine the Ethiopian government, which was fighting a war in Somalia against the Islamists. Eritrea’s support for Ethiopian rebel groups had a similar aim in mind.

These activities – as well as a border clash with Djibouti – led to the UN Security Council imposing an arms embargo against Eritrea in 2009. The embargo didn’t include economic sanctions.

UN appointed experts monitored the arms and logistical support Eritrea provided to Al-Shabaab in great detail. In recent years they’ve reported back that they have no evidence of current Eritrean backing for Al-Shabaab.

In the last few weeks the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has said he thinks the sanctions regime will become obsolete, since Eritrea and Ethiopia have resolved their differences.

How will recent events affect politics and commerce in the Horn?

The prospects for the Horn could be transformed if the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement holds and their border dispute is truly resolved.

The closure of their mutual frontier for the past two decades has had a terrible effect on people all along the 1,000 km long border. Family ties and trade patterns were severely disrupted.

The people of the two countries have never been at loggerheads: there is little real animosity between them. The divisions have been between the ruling parties of both countries.

With these apparently resolved, life in the Horn can resume as normal. The Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab will hum with life once more, as Ethiopian trade flows through them. And the potash deposits on their border can be developed. Since Ethiopia is currently Africa’s fastest growing economy this could ease bottlenecks such as international investment in Eritrea which will no longer be viewed as a war-risk. And instead of competing to fund and support rebel movements in each other’s countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea can combine to tackle the real enemy: poverty.

What will the impact be on Eritrean society?

This is the most difficult question and predictions are fraught with difficulty. Having been such a closed dictatorship it is impossible to say with any certainty how the country will be transformed.

On the one hand, Isaias could allow democracy to emerge, since he no longer has a foreign enemy on his doorstep. The constitution, which was ratified by the National Assembly, could be implemented. Free and fair elections could be held and a multi-party system allowed to emerge. The president might even decide to retire now that peace has been achieved – he is 72 years old.

This is all possible. But it’s not very likely. The president is extremely cautious and believes he is indispensable to the country: without him it will lose its way. He is more likely to move only gradually towards allowing limited freedoms. This could include ending indefinite conscription, since the rationale for this has ended. Such an approach would be consistent with his past behaviour. But it might result in growing frustration from citizens who have accepted economic hardship and a lack of democracy during a time of war, but might do so no longer. What forces this might unleash and how the citizens will react, only time will tell.

How do these developments affect Eritrea’s refugee outflow?

The end of hostilities should mean that Eritrea’s indefinite National Service is ended. National Service (or conscription) is required of all citizens between 18 and 40 years old. In theory this lasts for no longer than 18 months. Yet many Eritreans have served for 20 years and more. Pay is minimal and conditions harsh: for women there is the threat of rape or sexual abuse. This has been – by a long shot – the main driver of the refugee exodus that has seen up to 5,000 people leaving the country every month.

Freed from conscription, some servicemen and women will return to their farms or seek employment in towns. One possible consequence is that unemployment could become serious, unless inward investment takes up the slack.

If the border with Ethiopia is opened up again thousands of people in refugee camps in Ethiopia might return home. The refugee outflow might even be reversed. This is an optimistic prognosis. More likely, refugees who have risked everything to reach safety will remain in the camps until the outcome of the dramatic changes can be assessed and the transformation is made permanent.

Eritrea’s refugee outflow will only end when both prosperity and freedom become established facts. Until then it is likely that some will continue to seek a better life abroad, even if in smaller numbers.



The Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afeworki, has the other day appointed Semere Russom as his Ambassador in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where many Eritreans opposed to the repressive regime in Asmara have taken refuge since a long time. This is a sincere warning to them and other Eritreans who intend to visit Addis Ababa in the future.
Semere Russom was dictator Isaias Afeworki's envoy in the Sudan for many years since the mid-1970s. Prominent political and military leaders of the ELF were among the many victims inside the Sudan of Semere and his boss, Isaias Afeworki, in the years before and after independence. For example Yemane Teklegiorgis, a veteran EPLF fighter and member of its security outfit (Halewa Sewra) was with Semere Russom the day Haile Gharza was murdered inside Khartoum in 1984. Yemane, now an author of a book on those and similar grisly killings organized by Semere Russom in the Sudan, will hopefully retell the story himself as he already did in writings and his bold interviews with Eritrean opposition mass media.
Semere Russom 1Among Semere's ELF victims were: Haile Gharza, Saeed Saleh; Woldedawit Temesghen; Idris Hangela, and Mahmoud Hasseb
But Haile Gharza was not the only victim of Semere Russom and his master, Isaias Afeworki. Earlier on 5 June, 1983, Saeed Saleh was murdered in Kassala. Woldedawit Temesghen fell on 20 July 1985  followed by the murder of Idris Ibrahim Hangala on 20 September 1985; Mahmoud Hasseb on 3 September 1989.
Even the former leader of the ELF army, Abdalla Idris, was targeted personally by Semere Russom in Khartoum although the targeted figure could skillfully escape death.
Semere Russom 2   
Other assassination/kidnap victms: Michael Ghaber; W/Mariam Bahlibi; Teklebrhan G/Tsadiq, Mohammed Ali Ibrahim.
Semere Russom and those who followed in his footsteps in the Sudan also continued the killings and kidnappings  from the Sudan.  Among the earliest victims were: Michael Ghaber who was targeted for killing by two identified assassins in 1989, and later killed in a mysterious "accident" on 25 May, 1922.  Earlier to Michael Ghaber's death/murder,  two top leadership members of the ELF-RC, Woldemariam Bahlibi and Teklebrhan Ghebdretsadiq (Wedi Bashai) were kidnapped from Kassala on 26 April 1992 and their whereabouts is not known to this day. Tens of other leading freedom fighters were assassinated kidnapped by the likes of Semere Russom, among them the EPDP leadership member Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, who was kidnapped from Kassala on 12 February 2012.
"Ambassador" Semere Russom's mission in Addis Ababa as of this week will be organizing work for the security agents of the Asmara regime who reportedly  numbered not less than 230 as of the date of dictator Isaias Afeworki's visit to Addis Ababa between 14-16 July 2018. Semere Russom was not only an enemy of rival freedom fighters but also was anti-Eritrean struggle for freedom until the 1970s.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked makes promise after new batch of Eritrean army recruits say they expect to serve 18 months

Source: Haaretz

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaking to members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community during a visit to a synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 22, 2018.Mulugeta Ayene/AP

Israel will begin deporting Eritreans back to their homeland the moment it ends mandatory military conscription of indefinite duration, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tuesday.

Reuters had reported earlier Tuesday that the latest batch of recruits drafted into the Eritrean army had informed relatives they were told their service would end in 18 months.

Speaking at a gathering of her Habayit Hayehudi party in Tel Aviv, Shaked said the government was closely monitoring the implementation of the peace agreement signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia earlier this month, which has raised hopes that Eritrea will end mandatory conscription of indefinite duration.

“If, following this agreement, the conscription requirement is canceled, Israel could return the infiltrators to Eritrea – and that’s great news for residents of south Tel Aviv,” Shaked said, referring to the area in Israel with the highest concentration of African asylum seekers.

But sources involved in the issue said that even if the Eritrean army announces an end to indefinite army conscription, this is still just an initial promise – which is a far cry from the actual end of forced conscription in Eritrea.

In 1995, two years after declaring independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea instituted mandatory 18-month military service for everyone between the ages of 18 and 50, with the goal of furthering state-building after its 30-year war for independence. This service was supposed to consist of six months of military training, followed by a year of working on development projects.

A man walking past the ruins of a building in the port city of Massawa, Eritrea, July 22, 2018.A man walking past the ruins of a building in the port city of Massawa, Eritrea, July 22, 2018.\ TIKSA NEGERI/ REUTERS


But the Eritrean government has maintained unlimited military service ever since a two-year border war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998. The dispute dragged on despite the signing of a cease-fire agreement in 2000.


Tens of thousands have ended up in Europe, making Eritreans one of the main constituencies among refugees and migrants on the Continent.

Relatives of the new recruits said they were informed of the new 18-month limit at a graduation ceremony for conscripts on July 13.

The peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea has led to warming ties, which have included reciprocal visits by the countries’ leaders, the opening of embassies in each other’s capitals and the restoration of telephone service between the countries.

Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel did not deny the reports but said there had been no formal announcement, noting it was “early days” in the rapprochement with Ethiopia. “Policy announcements of this significance are invariably made through our official outlets, and that has not been done so far,” he told Reuters.

Earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean leader signed a historic deal in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, declaring an end to their “state of war,” which was one of the longest military stalemates in Africa.

The neighbors agreed to open embassies, develop ports and resume flights – concrete measures that have swept away two decades of hostility in a matter of weeks.

The Asmara government has long insisted that conscription is vital for national security, saying it fears attack by Ethiopia.

The president said at the ceremony earlier this month it had “special significance” because it was occurring after Eritrea and Ethiopia had made peace.

In Asmara, some people told Reuters they were awaiting official announcements declaring an end to their duty.

“I have been in service for the last 20 years and am proud of the role I played,” one resident said. “But hopefully we will now be friends with our Ethiopian brothers, rather than enemies, and I hope to move on with my life


Asmara’s feud with Ethiopia’s had a huge bearing on Eritreans in the country and diaspora. Now there’s peace, we have a lot of questions.

Eritrea peace: What will peace in Eritrea mean for ordinary citizens. Credit Andrea Moroni.

What will peace in Eritrea mean for ordinary citizens? Credit Andrea Moroni.

Like many Eritreans, the sudden warming of relations between the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments has filled me and my loved ones with both hope and fear. The no-war no-peace stalemate that defined the politics and identity of my country for 20 years is apparently over.

This newfound peace is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, and one that will transform politics across the region for years to come. Yet for many of us, the most pressing questions this new situation begs are far more immediate.

We are asking things like: Will my sister in school still be conscripted into compulsory military service next year? Will my cousin, who is looking for ways to be smuggled across the border, be allowed to leave legally instead? Will my aunt, who has criticised the Eritrean government from outside the country, be allowed back in? Will my uncle, languishing in jail for political reasons, finally be released?

[Isaias out of character: Why Eritreans are getting nervous]

[Ethiopia-Eritrea peace: Some unanswered questions]

Lives on hold

For two decades, Eritrea has been one of the world’s most secretive and isolated countries. To begin with, it has been extremely difficult to get in and out. The first time I applied for a visa to enter as a tourist, I was met with puzzled laughter at the consulate. I was only able to get a visa because I had some contacts that could pull strings in the capital Asmara.

Getting out of Eritrea is much harder and much more dangerous. Very few are permitted to exit by the government, and so most who want to leave rely on human-smugglers and risk being arrested or kidnapped for ransom. Everyone knows someone who has embarked on these uncertain and treacherous journeys. Thousands consider the conditions in the Eritrea to be so dire as to do so every single month.

Life in Eritrea is restricted and tough. The country is poor and the economy extremely closed. People are not allowed to access non-state media. There is practically no Internet or access to smart phones. And there has never been a single election. Asmara’s defining features – the crumbling, modernist architecture; wide, palm-lined avenues; Italian-style pastry shops; and classic 60s Volkswagen beetles – are all reminders of a vibrancy that has long ceased to exist.

Worse still, all young people in Eritrea are required to undergo compulsory national service. Their passports, university diplomas and lives are put on hold as they undergo military training, after which they may be sent off to labour in any outpost that the government sees fit.

At the moment, one of my relatives spends his days painting arrows and divider lines on the few one-lane roads of Asmara for virtually zero pay. Another, who was finally released from national service after over a decade, is still required to guard a government building from 10pm to 3am once a week. National service is indefinite. In his words, this serves “as a reminder that the government has power over me”.

Divided families

For 20 years, President Isaias Afwerki, who effectuates total control, has used the pretext of Ethiopian hostility to entrench his totalitarian rule and shut Eritreans off from the outside world. This has incurred huge political and economic costs, but the human costs of this enforced isolation have been just as high. They can be measured in every Eritrean family, each of which has its own stories to tell.

I had an aunt, for example, who lived in Addis Ababa. When she received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, her relatives in the US and Canada could visit her to say goodbye, but her loved ones just over the border in Eritrea were not allowed.

I have another friend nicknamed “Baby”. When the 1998-2000 border war began, he was in Eritrea with his mother. The rest of the family was visiting Ethiopia. With transit no longer permitted, they were suddenly split in two. In an instance, the tight-knit unit was unable to reunite and could only communicate with great difficulty. My friend was called Baby, because that’s what he was the last time the rest of the family saw him.

The separation between Eritrea and Ethiopia has never been of two nations, but of two populations made up of thousands of families. That’s why headlines such as the New York Times’ “After 20 Years of Silence, Strangers in Ethiopia and Eritrea Call to Say Hello” fail to capture an important element of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. We are not strangers.

What now for us?

With war declared over, the status quo of the past two decades will fundamentally change. Asmara’s apparatus of control will necessarily shift, marking the end of Eritrea as we (don’t) know it. But this brings us back to the question of what will happen to the Eritreans’ lives both in the country and in the diaspora.

Now there is no longer an apparent threat of Ethiopian attack, will military conscription end? Now that flights are open to Eritrea, who will be allowed in? My dad, having written critically of the regime in the past, has not dared enter the country for the past ten years. Will there be a place for him and other dissidents in this new opening?

What about the thousands who have fled? Several of my family members have sacrificed the prime years of lives in refugee camps and transit countries for the chance to begin anew elsewhere. Will they be able to keep these lives that they’ve worked for?

Some Eritreans remain sceptical about Asmara’s genuine capacity to act differently. “Having seen the injustice in my country, I don’t think anything will change without a change in leadership,” a compatriot told me. That’s not the feeling of most Eritreans, but our new hope remains tinged with fear and uncertainty, our long-held fear and uncertainty now tinged with hope.