Eritrea’s National Service ‘A Cancerous Growth’

(, Daniel Nelson, September 6, 2016) National service in Eritrea “is like a cancerous growth” that has been eating into people’s lives, a London-based Eritrean academic told an MPs’ group in the Houses of Parliament on Monday.

Prof Gaim Kibreab of London Southbank University told the All Party Group on Eritrea that national service had initially been a useful nation-building tool but was now largely responsible for turning Eritrea into the world’s “fastest emptying nation”.

Kibreab argued that Eritreans had always lived and worked in a fragile environment, but had evolved a coping strategy: “It was not a comfortable life, but they managed to survive.”

However, national service had “struck a death blow to the survival strategy”.

Its impact was not only on the economy – particularly by the removal of productive labour from agriculture – but on social relationships such as the high incidence of parents marrying off young girls for fear that they would be sexually at risk in the military, and a rise in the number of fatherless children and single mothers.

Charlotte King, a senior Economist Intelligence Unit analyst, painted a bleak picture of the economy. Party-controlled firms were dominant, she said, and independent private activity had come to a halt. The much-heralded “mining boom” had not, as had been hoped, triggered growth in the rest of the economy. Military expenditure meant the government ran huge fiscal deficits and public debt was among the highest in the world: “The economy remains hugely below its potential.”

Eritrea is to receive $2 million from the UN Emergency Fund “to support humanitarian partners in Eritrea in responding to current needs due to arid conditions and poor rains”, but in a statement released on the day of the London meeting the human rights group Eritrea Focus said that the government had consistently refused to declare a state of emergency and made it extremely difficult to get aid into the country.

“Until the Eritrean government admits the severity of the drought and allows aid agencies to operate with less restrictions, the impact of the drought will remain unknown,” the organisation commented.

It also said that last year Eritreans represented the largest group of unaccompanied children arriving in Italy.

“The rate at which children are fleeing Eritrea is at an all-time high,” it said, “with 300-400 Eritrean children arriving in Ethiopia per month. Many then go on to make the dangerous journey to Europe.”

Only 20 of the estimated 88,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe had arrived in the UK, it added.