By - Tobi Idowu
This year, Eritrea, one of the four countries in the horn of Africa, is marking 25 years of the commencement of its national service “conscription” policy, a widely divisive and controversial programme, officially christened, “Sawa,” which has taken in more than half a million of mostly secondary school students, who have been subjected to military-style discipline training and thereafter made to “labour” for the country.
Notwithstanding the barrage of criticism that the policy has received over the years, the Eritrean government, a unitary contraption, has refused to budge to plea that it should scale down on the policy or at most put an end to it, insisting that it has greatly benefited the country.
Notably, one of the strident accusations levelled against Eritrean government is that it has been using the programme as a decoy to forcibly enlist its citizens into a cheap labour system akin to slavery – school pupils and teachers are continued to be drawn into a repressive system of national service that appears to have no end in sight, in spite of hopes that a peace deal with Ethiopia last year would end the cycle.
Genesis of Sawa
After a three-decade long liberation war against Ethiopia, which culminated in a de facto independence in 1991, the provisional government of Eritrea introduced a compulsory national service, which included a military service. It was not until three years later, after a recognised independence from Ethiopia in 1993 had been achieved, that the decree began to be implemented; it got revised a year later, in 1995.
In theory, the law obliges all Eritrean citizens, between the ages of 18 and 40, to perform a national service, which is supposed to last for 18 months – six months military training and twelve months enlistment for sundry military services or other national development project.
However, a part of the decree states ominously that even after completing the compulsorily prescribed 18 months of service, the national service can be extended until 50 years of age ‘under mobilisation or emergency situation directives given by the government.’
There are principally two models of recruitment; one, an institutionalised call-up structure, which, according to a report by War Resisters’ International, relies on a “formalised militarisation of the education system.”
In this set up, secondary school students are recruited directly in their penultimate year so that they can have their final year in the Sawa military camp, which commences after the six-month military training. Reportedly, since 2003, yearly intake of students have ranged between 8000 and 9000 students. Effectiveness of this method of recruitment has been ensured due to the inability of students who refused to get enlisted to get their school leaving examinations results and thus become ineligible to proceed to the University.
On the other hand, a more sinister method of recruitment often involves raids in areas where people have not willingly responded to the conscription. This is dubbed, ‘giffa,’ in Tigrinya, one of the languages spoken in Eritrea. Those who appear to be of military age are rounded up and taken to military camps. It has been reported that those who resist being ‘captured’ are often shot.
Gruesome fate of deserters
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Eritreans that have been arrested and consequently detained for evading the national service usually face bleak prospects. They are often ‘held incommunicado indefinitely without formal charge,’ and often have to endure prison conditions which include overcrowding, solitary confinement, no sanitation, rationed or no food, hard labour and psychological abuse.
In the same vein, Amnesty International reports that, ‘military courts were not functioning. Military conscripts accused of a military offence such as desertion, attempted desertion or being absent without permission were arbitrarily imprisoned or punished with torture, or possibly executed in the most serious cases, on the order of their military commander.
Notably, these untoward treatments are often extended to the family members and relatives of the deserters due to the practice of substitute service and punitive fines/imprisonment in Eritrea. It was in the year 2005 that the Eritrean government instituted very harsh measures at preventing evasion from the programme; this has resulted into wide sweeps of hundreds of family members and relatives of those that evaded conscription. Often times, they are made to pay prohibitive fines and, at worst case scenario, are jailed instead.
End-of-border dispute with Ethiopia and false hope
A peace deal to end a two-decade long border dispute with Ethiopia last year had been greeted with optimism that the conscription policy would be scaled down, leading eventually to its termination.
President Isaias Afwerki had cited the conflict with Ethiopia whenever he was defending the merit of the policy. He argued that his country needed to remain on “war footing,” so as not to be militarily caught off-guard in the dispute with its neighbour. Moreover, his government had also justified the linking of education and compulsory military service, in the last year of secondary education, as means towards making young citizens cultivate ethics of nationalism and hard work.
He also maintained that the programme was providing jobs for the country’s teeming youths.
Yet, using the dispute with Ethiopia as a facile excuse has become untenable since last year. Once the peace agreement had been signed and the United Nations lifted sanctions on the country, it was expected Eritrean government ‘freed’ its citizens from the repressive modern slavery. But, surprisingly, it has not, and seems unwillingly to do that.
Negative impacts on education and fleeing young Eritreans
A lot of young Eritreans continue to flee the country as they could not survive under the repressive policy of the government. Moreover, the policy has been having negative impacts on education in the country.
In an 84-page report, ‘“They Are Making Us into Slaves, Not Educating Us’: How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People’s Rights, Access to Education in Eritrea,” HRW notes that, “instead of developing a pool of committed, well-trained, career secondary school teachers, the government conscripts teachers, also for indefinite service, giving them no choice about whether, what, or where to teach. These policies have a devastating impact on education and lead many young people to flee the country.”
It leaves observers curious as to what continues to make the policy attractive to the Eritrean government, even after it has exhausted its reasons for sustaining it for the last 25 years, when it chases its young citizens to foreign lands.
The policy only offers a lose-lose conundrum for Eritrea, as its impacts on economy, education and relations with foreign governments have been on the downhill spiral, that can only change with the abolition of the repressive Sawa programme.
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