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30 years young: Eritrea reaches a milestone but struggles with legacy of its past

Eritrea is widely considered to be one of the most repressive states in the world. Three decades after gaining independence form Ethiopia in 1993, the impoverished Horn-of-Africa nation is still ruled by the same man – Isaias Afwerki.

Eritrea has never conducted a census, but estimations place the population at between three and six million, with nine ethnic groups, half of them Christians, the others Muslims. Tigrinya, Arabic and English are the most frequently used languages.

Eritreans are expected to join today’s public commemorations, including school children singing patriotic songs and hours of television programmes celebrating important battles.

Yet, for Bereket Teweldemehdin, who served in the army, the excitement of 1993 has long gone.

“Today, no one supports the government except, perhaps, those with a financial interest,” he told RFI’s Leonard Vincent.

“The others – all the others – are simply afraid because if we say anything that displeases President Issayas, we end up  in prison.” Teweldemehdin now lives in exile in Uganda.

There have been no elections in Eritrea since the country formally declared independence.

With only one president – Isaias Afwerki – the authorities consistently crack down on political opposition. The state has also been accused of arbitrary arrests and detention without trial.

Human Rights Watch describes the regime as a “one-man dictatorship”, with no legislature, no independent civil society organisations, and no independent judiciary.

The situation for journalists is also appalling: independent media has been banned since 2001. Religious freedom is also curtailed.

The regime also put into place compulsory national service, which rights activists say amounts to slave labour for the state.

Consequently, in the past three decades, hundreds of thousands have fled the country.

The United Nations also classifies Eritrea as one of the world’s least developed countries, ranked 176th out of 191 countries on the UN’s human development index (2021).

Troubled history

The Red Sea nation was an Italian colony between 1890 and 1941 before it became a British protectorate after Italy’s defeat in World War II.

For its colonial Italian modernist architecture, the capital Asmara was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.

In 1952, Eritrea decided to join Ethiopia within a federation, but 10 years later, the Ethiopian regime annexed the smaller territory as a province.

Eritrea then launched a war for independence that lasted nearly 30 years. Eritrean rebels finally seized Asmara in 1991. They also helped overthrow the Marxist regime of Ethiopian Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The rebels installed a government and achieved statehood in May 1993, after an independence referendum, with the blessing of the Ethiopian authorities.

Yet the move deprived Ethiopia of its only access to the Red Sea  with the result that border disputes increased in number in the 1990s to finally blow up into a war between the two nations.

The 1998-2000 conflict left about 80,000 people dead and 1.3 million displaced.

A new border between the two countries was set by an independent international commission in 2002.

However, it was not respected until 2018, when the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally accepted the demarcation.

The move facilitated the reopening of embassies in Asmara and Addis Ababa as well as the re-establishment of air links and telephone lines. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The war in Tigray

When a war broke in Tigray in northern Ethiopia, in November 2020, Eritrea sent troops to support Ethiopian forces against the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front ), a longstanding enemy of Asmara.

Eritrean soldiers were accused of brutal atrocities against civilians, and sanctioned by the United States in 2021 – an allegation that Isaias dismissed as “a fantasy” at a rare press conference during a visit to Kenya in February 2023.

Abiy’s government finally signed a peace deal with the TPLF in November 2022 to end the two-year war, without Eritrea. Since then, a UN report presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2023 showed that the Eritreans’ withdrawal from Tigray remained “very slow and largely incomplete”.

 (with AFP) 

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