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Eritrea celebrates independence with borders at peace

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 21 May 2019 14:27

Eritreans fly their flag. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

It is party time in Eritrea, as the country holds its annual weeklong celebrations that lead to Independence Day on 24 May.

This week marks 28 years since the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) liberated Asmara from Ethiopia after a brutal three-decade war.

For Eritreans and diaspora communities, it is one of the most important national events and is marked by a week of music, dance, and reflection on its unique history.

  • Although a lot has changed for Eritrea in the last 12 months, it remains one of the most oppressive states in the world. BBC’s Tigrinya Service reported on May 15th that the Eritreans could not access social media. The internet shutdown has been attributed to a security measure to prevent protests during the Independence celebrations.
  • Internet penetration in Eritrea is shockingly low, with only 71, 000 users – 1% of the population has internet access as at December 2018. But the country has a vibrant diaspora community, which also marks the week in pomp and colour across the world.

Independence Day in London…

… and in Las Vegas

What is different about this year’s celebrations is that they come as two of Eritrea’s neighbors, and lifelong antagonists, undergo major overhauls.

  • A peace treaty in Asmara between President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ended a long-running conflict. The two countries resumed diplomatic links and reopened air and land borders in July 2018.
  • Just a week before his ouster and arrest last month, Sudanese President Omar el Bashir was fighting off claims by Asmara that Sudan, Turkey, and Qatar have been supporting radical Islamist groups.
  • In January last year, yet another conflict between Sudan and Eritrea was brewing after Sudan temporarily handed over a strategic Red Sea Island to Turkey. It drew in two other players, Ethiopia and Egypt, on either side.

With Omar el-Bashir no longer in power and his Ethiopian flank peaceful, President Afwerki is now making friends with the emerging power structures in Sudan.

  • As Asmara boogies, Eritrea’s foreign minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser Yamen Ghebreab are in Khartoum, following in the footsteps of Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs minister.

For years, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan blamed each other for hosting and arming opposition groups.

  • Since 1995, the Horn of Africa nation has been among a few countries in the world that still have, and utilize, mandatory conscription. Shortly after the peace treaty with Ethiopia was signed, the government hinted to an end to conscription, according to a report by Reuters.
  • Other than its conflict with Ethiopia, Eritrea has also been involved in armed conflicts with Yemen, Sudan, and a three-day war with Djibouti in 2008. It was also involved in the First Congo War.
  • Ending conscription, which is supposed to last for 18 months but for some has lasted more than two decades, means Eritrea will have to find a way to boost employment and deal with critical economic and social deficiencies.

Eritrea’s commitment to the peace deal with Ethiopia is already in question after it unilaterally begun closing road border crossings just months after they reopened. The first reports of a border shutdown came in December last year while the last functional crossing, Assab Road, was closed a month ago.

  • Reports indicate that the Eritreans began asking for travel documents from Ethiopians late last year. While Ethiopia has been quiet on the border crossings, Eritrea has said that “the unstructured border crossing in some areas was partially restricted for legal arrangements,” according to post on its Ministry of Information’s website. Other than the lack of border posts on the border crossings, Eritrea has also said it is working on the road networks on its side of the border.
  • Shortly after the last border crossing was closed, a government source told Eritrean Press, a popular Facebook news page, that “Eritrean troops and heavy duty machinery are working seven days a week from Senafe and Assab to the border areas to upgrade the Serha-Zalambesa and the Assab routes.”

Nearly three decades after winning its independence, Eritrea’s set of challenges in 2019 are different from what they were just a year ago. External aggression has been the major reason for keeping a large standing army and an oppressive military state with no political or press freedoms.

The end of Eritrea’s antagonisms with its neighbours means its existential threats are now internal.

Bottom line: For Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since 1993, this could mean the beginning of the end. This week though, Asmara is party town.

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