Eritreans have peace, now they want freedom

On this year’s Independence Day, Eritreans are dreaming of a post-Afwerki Eritrea.

Eritrean President Afwerki attends the country's Independence Day celebrations in Asmara on May 24, 2007 [File: Jack Kimball/Reuters]

Today, Eritrea is celebrating its hard-won independence, a victory earned after 30 years of fierce and deadly armed struggle, followed by 20 years of deadlock with neighbouring Ethiopia, after the border conflict of 1998-2000.

Like previous years, the Eritrean authorities have made extensive preparations to mark the anniversary with a major festival in the streets of Asmara. But this year, the celebrations will also feature a new element: two mannequins representing Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who in a landmark move last year opened the common border for the first time in 20 years.

The regime clearly wants to celebrate the peace agreement and rapprochement with Ethiopia, still brandishing it as a major achievement. However, it will do so under tight security. While round-ups, patrols and checkpoints have been routine features of Independence Day security, they have reportedly been significantly boosted this year as a clear warning to the general population.

The Eritrean people, who initially also rejoiced at the peace agreement, hoping that the resolution of the cold conflict could bring them much-desired relief, are yet to see any change in their daily lives.

For two decades, they had been told that they have to live under a virtual state of emergency because Ethiopia is still posing an “existential threat” to their country and their freedom. All possible justifications for the continuing repression and austerity the regime could manufacture ended with the peace deal, the lifting of UN sanctions and the country’s admission to the UN Human Rights Council.

Today, Ethiopia is no longer a threat, given all the documents signed and all the official visits exchanged.

Yet the Eritrean president has clearly demonstrated that he will not relax the chokehold he has had the country in for so many years. As a result, little has changed for most Eritreans since last year.

After the border with Ethiopia was opened in September 2018, which allowed free movement of goods, the Eritrean market, which had suffered from an acute shortage of goods for years, briefly enjoyed stability and the sharp decline of prices.

But over the next eight months, Asmara gradually shut down all border crossings unilaterally without giving an official reason for doing so and put an end to the short-lived trade boom.

Having their hopes for economic opening and prosperity quashed, Eritreans have continued to flee the country, resorting to alternative routes to bypass the closed border crossings. Those who make it to neighbouring countries abroad are facing a precarious situation and the risk of having no valid documents, as some Eritrean consular offices have started rejecting requests for issuing passports to nationals who have left illegally after the peace deal with Ethiopia. 

Meanwhile, mandatory military conscription continues both for the regular army and the “popular army”. Conscripts to the latter, both men and women, are required to attend military drills, carry guns, and guard government buildings in night shifts after they are done with their regular government jobs.

After the peace deal and following Ethiopia’s announcement of amnesty for political prisoners, Eritreans were hopeful that their government would follow suit. But they were again disappointed. Repression continues against the population at large and specific targeted groups.

In May, around 140 followers of banned Christian denominations, including minors, were rounded up and taken into custody in Asmara. Since 2002, all religious groups that are not affiliated with the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Lutheran Protestant churches or Sunni Islam have had to undergo mandatory registration, including giving up personal information of their members. Those who have failed to do so have been persecuted.

At the same time, the Eritrean president continues to keep not only the general population in the dark about the peace deal with Ethiopia but also members of his regime.

While the agreement was signed on July 9, 2018, in Asmara, Afwerki didn’t bother to conduct his first interview with local media until November 3, 2018. The president took 80 minutes to respond to a few preapproved questions and only addressed regional geopolitics and emphasised that Eritrea is still under threat from its many enemies. Yet neither he nor any regime officials ever addressed any of the domestic implications of the deal.

The most important issues for Eritrea’s general public remain unaddressed: when the indefinite national service will be suspended, the demarcation of border finalised, the rule of law restored and the ban on trade and construction lifted.

At the same time, the regime has sought to limit other sources of information Eritreans have been trying to access. In the past few months, the authorities have started trying to jam certain TV channels broadcast from abroadm, including opposition satellite TV Assenna.

Since early May, social media has also been blocked in Eritrea with the exception of selected officials and cadres, according to recent reports. Sources within the country have confirmed to me that certain websites are also being blocked, while most internet cafes – where a majority of Eritreans access the internet through a very slow connection (kept so intentionally) – instruct their customers to use proxy servers and VPN.

Having seen no improvements in their lives since the peace agreement was signed, Eritreans inside the country are growing increasingly frustrated. There may not have been protests – for those put down almost immediately by security forces – but public anger seems palpable. People who have visited the country recently have shared with me their impression that many citizens are openly voicing their criticism in public places. This was unheard of a year ago. “People are waiting for change more than ever,” a contact from inside Eritrea told me.

The revolution in neighbouring Sudan has certainly left its mark. Eritreans have watched carefully the events in Khartoum and have rejoiced at the show of solidarity by Sudanese protesters with their suffering.

Meanwhile, the diaspora has become increasingly active. In January, a social media campaign was launched under the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough which aimed to encourage Eritreans to talk openly about their post-peace-deal demands.

The campaign gradually spread across the world and recently resulted in various Eritrean communities holding official meetings to discuss how to bring lasting change to their motherland. Bigger public events in the United States and Canada have also been organised. In Washington, DC, for example, a two-day event is under way that includes public demonstration, seminars, and concerts.

Never have the Eritrean diaspora been so united. Until the recent past, regular meetings among the Eritrean opposition, let alone such festivals, were impossible. The turnout was always small, as many feared retaliation against family members back at home. Today, not only there is an unprecedented activity, but also an open conversation about a post-Afwerki Eritrea.

Up to now, the regime has ruled by fear, violence and endless excuses. Slowly but surely, all justifications for keeping the country in deliberate isolation and austerity are crumbling, while the population is growing increasingly bold in the face of extreme repression.

While it is impossible to guess how this anger will express itself, it seems certain now that political change is inevitable in Eritrea. Today, more than ever before, Eritreans are dreaming of celebrating their true liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.