Amanuel Ghebre
The National Service Myth in Eritrea

National service is of utmost importance to Eritrea, a country that has not only been ravaged by decades of bloody struggle for independence, but, also as a state that was brought into existence by a revolutionary struggle. The vital role of national service in rebuilding Eritrea politically, socially and economically is hardly contested. National service has historically been an indispensable tool in state building process. As such, my purpose here is not to discredit the importance of the national service in the redevelopment process of our country, but to highlight how the national service in Eritrea in its current format, contrary to serving the objectives it was set out to achieve, has condemned the Eritrean society into deep socio-political and economic quagmire, and how that in turn threatens to undermine the very future of Eritrea as a politically autonomous nation. My argument is that the so called national service in Eritrea constitutes an existential threat to Eritrea’s continuity as a nation. As such, targeting the current form of the national service and recommending ending it in order to serve the best interests of the nation should be of central significance to any movement that tasks itself with changing the tragic trajectory and safeguarding the long-term future of our hard earned nation; Eritrea. Following, I will attempt to corroborate my aforementioned stance.

Is the National Service in Eritrea truly a National Service?

To answer this, one needs to look at the nature of the post-independence governance structure and trace out and understand the direction the PFDJ (People’s Front For Democracy and Justice) have pursued to shape the future political landscape of independent Eritrea. The tendency by the Isaias Afewerki regime to centralize power can be traced back to the establishment of the governance structure following independence. According to the Proclamation No. 23 which was issued in 1992, Isaias Afewerki became the President of the Eritrean State Council and as head of the executive council; he was accorded the authority to issue laws; undermining the responsibility of the National Assembly. The president as the head of the National Assembly had also the authority to decide on whether or not the National Assembly should convene. Political power was thus highly centralized and the judiciary as an independent entity was essentially non-existent. Thus, the political structure allowed the President to operate with political impunity as he was accountable to no one and as there existed no institutional checks and balances.

The core element of the PFDJ regime’s project for rebuilding the Eritrean state was the idea of voluntary, and where required forced, mass participation in the reconstruction process. This way, it was thought, the Eritrean society can be united and transformed; and in the process the Eritrean national identity can be consolidated. The voluntary or otherwise mass participation in the reconstruction of the country was also designed to rebuild the wrecked Eritrean economy. One vital development was deliberately neglected from this reconstruction project; the inculcation of political culture in the Eritrean youth, and therefore, the political development of the country.

One of the primary objectives of the national service in Eritrea was to instil in the Eritrean young generation the qualities that helped bring independence; resilience, resoluteness, endurance in the face of multi-layered difficulties, and purpose. The nurturing of these qualities was consistent with the PFDJ ideal of ‘democratizing’ the state through a duty based trend that rendered the idea of political accountability moot and irrelevant; since, as was told several times by officials of the regime, political accountability and rights based trend can wait for a more ‘convenient’ time. This massive ‘nationalization’ project required the Eritrean youth to have unquestioning obedience, to be ready when called upon and to sacrifice private aspirations for the greater good: national reconstruction.

To ensure that the qualities of the Tegadelti that brought independence were transferred to the new generation, the young generation had to pass through similarly excruciating path the Tegadelti encountered. The new generation were, however, to be politically disempowered; for instilling in them such a power would threaten the very project of nationalization and the regime’s power base. The military training and the ensuing involvement in the construction works under strict military command were all meant to shape the young generation in such a way as to demand for one’s rights was regarded as a misdemeanour. In short, the PFDJ, through their project of national service, set out to produce a compliant Eritrean with no active political involvement and bereft of political awareness. Such a project was a perfect fit for the kind of organization the PFDJ is; an entity with a fragmented and obscured decision making and power yielding mechanisms; while the state’s formal political institutions remained merely a façade. The PFDJ, by its very nature, could not nurture a culture of political accountability; thereby undermining democratization and respect for the rights of the citizen. Rights based trend was simply a luxury and an antithesis to the PFDJ ideal of nation building. The crashing of external or intra-PFDJ dissenters who advocated for rights based democratization trend, such as the G-15 opposition, ought to be seen in this context. The consolidation of dictatorship in Eritrea can be traced back to the proclamation No 23 which paved the way for the concentration of power at the hands of the executive and the implementation of the aforementioned PFDJ ideal of state building. Since then, there have been numerous crucial developments that have further led to the consolidation of IA’s dictatorship.

The PFDJ regime enjoys exclusive control of the country’s economy through its exclusive ownership of the several firms that have monopolized the economy. These firms enjoy the benefits accorded to them by the regime. The issuing of laws regarding the state ownership of land, and the initiation of the national service provided these monopolies free access to land and labour, however their contribution to the people of Eritrea is minimal if not inexistent.

The leadership, as we have seen above, is, thus, not of the state, or more importantly, of the people and for the people due to the obscured mechanisms of power wielding and the exclusive ownership of firms that enable it to run the country with total political impunity. The lack of mechanisms of accountability and the opaque and ad hoc way policy decisions are implemented, has enabled the PFDJ owned firms to utilize the free access to land and labour and drive out firms owned by private citizens. This has led to the deterioration of the Eritrean economy. These firms, without regulative state apparatus, engage in an unbridled exploitation of the labour of the conscripts, not to the benefit of the nation but to fill the coffers of an unaccountable regime that is hardly serving the state. The very economic and political setup of the PFDJ is, therefore, antithetical to the objectives of the national service. It is in light of this nature of the regime that one can question the legitimacy of the national service as a state led policy and as one that benefits the state and its citizens.

The open-ended national service, contrary to what some would have us believe, is, therefore, not a result of the national security emergency the country finds itself in. It is, rather, the result of the very foundational character of the PFDJ regime, and ending the indefinite national service would signal the demise of the economic enterprises owned by it. The regime can hardly allow economic competition and forgo the free access to the labour of the conscripts its firms enjoy. Not only this, but normalizing the national service would also threaten the PFDJ’s grip on political power as it would unleash the conscripts who would, when discharged, become aggrieved at the inevitable lack of jobs and public services. The end of the open ended national service would thus bring with it socio-economically motivated political threat to the regime.

Meanwhile, the open ended national service and the exploitation of the labour of the conscripts by the PFDJ owned firms have led to the rise of discontent and resistance among the conscripts. Such resistance, in the form of evasion and border-crossing, has in turn produced serious humanitarian violations by the PFDJ regime. The massive raids across cities and the imprisonment of caught ‘evaders’ in inhumane conditions and the shoot-to-kill policies are cases in point.

The indefinite nature of the national service and the exaction of forced labour by the firms owned by the ruling party is the main cause of the mass youth exodus from Eritrea. The labour of the conscripts is exploited under a threat of penalty and with a mere pittance. As a result, they continue to flee the country in droves. The risk these escapees face en route to safe havens is well documented, as are the tragedies across the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea that have consumed the lives of thousands of Eritreans. As these escapees are direct effects of the open-ended national service, the PFDJ regime is directly responsible for the Eritrean refugee crisis and the tragedies that have befallen the refugees.

The damages of the mass youth efflux are of incalculable magnitude. The country’s social fabric continues to quickly unravel. The army has been weakened, both quantitatively and qualitatively. As a result, the forecast for Eritrea is dim: Eritrea’s capability and resolve to defend against external aggression is undermined. The population continue to live through socio-economic hardships as the country loses its productive youth, who leave the country in search of better prospects. The psychological impact on the Eritrean society as a whole can hardly be quantified, but, its severity can never be overstated.

Considering the aforementioned points, it is easy to see that the national service has not only been used by the ruling party as an instrument to consolidate its dictatorship but also the conscripts have been exploited for benefits that are hardly enjoyed by the general public.

Therefore, the open-ended national service and the unlawful exaction of forced labour must be brought to a halt. The overhauling of the duty laden ideology which was behind the implementation of the national service should be balanced out by rights based culture. Then and only then will the national service that resonates with the Eritrean spirit be safeguarded and the continuity of Eritrea as a sovereign state secured.

Having saying this, it is imperative to re-iterate that national service, when lawfully set up and implemented by politically accountable state institutions, remains a vital mechanism through which the nation-building process, as outlined by the explanation of the purpose of the national service, can be consolidated. The national service is necessary to re-construct a country that was wrecked by a generation-long war. The national service is a vital tool to consolidate national identity and to ensure that the unity, determination and overall the spirit that brought independence is transmitted to the generations of independent Eritrea. The national service is an important mechanism of ensuring active youth participation in the socio-economic and political development program.

It is also necessary to underline the fact that standing against the open-ended national service, which is akin to modern day slavery, and the exaction of forced labour of the conscripts does not in any way amount to undermining the efforts of, myself and my friends, the dedicated Eritrean youth and the honest services we rendered to our country. Rather, the motive, my motive, is to highlight how the PFDJ regime, through the enterprises it owns has and continue to unlawfully exploit us under the guise of national service and how this threatens to damage Eritrea’s short and long term prospects.

The bottom line is that the so called ‘national service’ is working against the very objectives it set out in its inception and it must come to an end before it is too late.

At the start of the year, a large group was formed comprising, mainly, of youth who took part in the indefinite national service; with a mission to raise awareness, mobilizing Eritreans against the indefinite national service and to also engage in extensive international lobbying. It is a mammoth task that will ultimately take all of us, Eritreans, to address fully. Please support us by signing the petition and engaging in the various lobbying activities we will organise in the next six months.

To sign the petition or learn more about the campaign, please, follow the link here: