Eritrea declared its hard-won independence on 24 May,1993, after an internationally monitored referendum. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front led the final push for freedom and formed the first government with President Afeworki as head of state. In 1997, the rubber-stamp parliament ratified the first constitution, which called for immediate elections. An electoral commission was appointed to enact legislation for the election of the president and parliament. The commission’s mandate was abruptly suspended when the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia broke out.
It was an open secret that the president suspended the commission’s work on the grounds, believing it to be unsatisfactory and hindering the process leading to elections.
Thousands of young people were victims of the war, but the main casualty was the march toward democracy. Hopes of change and sound governance plummeted in the first year after the war. In September, 2001, President Afeworki rounded up members of the Group of 15 (G15), who had campaigned for political change and sound governance. At the same time, there was a move against the free press. To this day, the whereabouts of journalists arrested in September 2001 are unknown, with no hope of their release in the near future. It is little surprise that Eritrea has for the past seven years been bottom of the list of countries in the World Press Freedom Index published annually by RSF.
Freedom of religion and belief is number three on the Eritrean government’s hit list. The former Special Human Rights Rapporteur for Eritrea has estimated the number of those imprisoned for various reasons including religious observance at 10,000. These abuses of human rights were compounded by political isolation resulting from sanctions imposed against Eritrea by the United Nations in 2009 and 2011 over a border dispute with Djibouti in 2008 and a proxy war in Somalia against Ethiopia. With the free press silenced, arbitrary imprisonment and restricted freedom of movement, the country turned into a massive prison camp.
From the mid-1990s, Eritreans aged between 12 and 57 have been locked into to the so-called National Service Programme of military conscription. It has restricted the movement of young people inside the country and stifled their hopes of a normal life. As a result, forced migration became a fact of life in Eritrea, with tragic incidents such as the Lampedusa disaster, when more than 300 people – many of them Eritreans — lost their lives when a boat carrying refugees sank off the Italian island, compounding people’s misery under a ruthless dictatorship.
Eritrea’s regional and international relations have been poisoned by disputes and hostility. In 1994, the country was in open war with Sudan. In 1995, conflict broke out with Yemen in a dispute over a group of islands in the southern Red Sea. While the case was being arbitrated by an international tribunal, the country became entangled in a bloody conflict with Ethiopia which cost thousands of Eritrean lives. Underlying Eritrea’s belligerent behavior is the government’s desire to tighten its grip on the country, permitting no political or economic change. In order to maintain its iron grip, the dictatorship shifted its alliances with regional powers. From early 2000 until 2015, Eritrea had been a faithful ally of Iran. As a result, its relations with its vast eastern neighbor Saudi Arabia were tense.
Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen forged an alliance to confront Eritrea’s hostile policies in the region. The Yemen conflict, and the death of former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, sounded the death knell of the alliance. With Saudi Arabia leading the war in Yemen, Eritrea ditched Iran and shifted its loyalty to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Arab alliance, which launched the war in Yemen in 2015, used Eritrea’s southern port of Assab as a base for launching raids against Houthi militias in Yemen.
The election of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s prime minister in spring 2018 was a godsend for Asmara, since it meant the removal of its arch-enemies in Addis Ababa, the Tigray Liberation Front. This was followed by peace overtures by Ethiopia, leading to a settlement, although Eritrea has seen few benefits so far. There were hopes that the normalization of relations with Ethiopia would mean an end to conscription and usher in an era of economic prosperity. Eritrea has yet to see any positive signs and hopes have faded.