In secretive Eritrea, historic reforms across the border have sparked hopes for the future

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Global and Mail: Yacob, a thin young man in jeans and a T-shirt, glances nervously at the café entrance as he confesses to the crime that could send him to prison at any moment: He has dared to walk away from his mandatory assignment to a menial government job.

Instead of toiling at his conscripted job, Yacob uses illegal U.S. currency to buy smuggled cellphones, which he sells to customers at a tiny shop in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. To dodge prison, he avoids the streets late at night, when police could check his documents and demand proof that he is complying with his compulsory state service.

“It scares the hell out of me even to talk to you,” he says, watching the café door for anyone who might spot him talking to a foreigner.

“There is no freedom here. You can’t hide anything from the government. If they know you have dollars in your pocket, you go to prison. If they want to get you, they can get you in a second. And in prison, they torture you.”

Eritrea, an arid and impoverished country on the Red Sea, remains the most isolated and tightly controlled dictatorship in Africa – despite political changes in the Horn of Africa that have sparked growing demands for a loosening of the chains.

Sometimes called the North Korea of Africa, although the analogy is imperfect, Eritrea has never held a national election since its independence referendum in 1993. Much of the private economy is banned, thousands of prisoners are held incommunicado for years without trial and most adults are conscripted into service in the military or government for indefinite terms that can continue for 20 years or more.

These abuses are largely hidden from the global spotlight. Most foreign media outlets are routinely barred from entering Eritrea, with their visa requests ignored or rejected. Even if they manage to visit Asmara, they are prohibited from travelling outside the capital without a travel permit, which can be impossible to obtain. The regime is so secretive that it would not confirm the attempted assassination of a senior cabinet minister on Dec. 19, despite widespread reports in foreign media.

But after repeated attempts, The Globe and Mail was recently allowed to visit Eritrea for a week. In dozens of interviews, ordinary Eritreans spoke of their frustration at the conscription rules, their continuing fear of the regime and their dreams of freedom to travel or open their own businesses – basic rights that are often prohibited here.

A Canadian company has played a key role in propping up the Eritrean regime. For years, Vancouver-based miner Nevsun Resources has been Eritrea’s biggest private investor. Its mine is the government’s largest single source of revenue, providing more than $1-billion in taxes and other official payments. But its activities in Eritrea will soon become a crucial test case for Canadian corporate responsibility. Next month, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a landmark case on whether Canadian courts have jurisdiction over legal claims against Nevsun for alleged slave labour and human-rights abuses at its Eritrean subsidiary.

Nevsun owns 60 per cent of Eritrea’s first modern mine, the Bisha gold and copper mine, in partnership with the state. In the past, it has acknowledged that conscripts at a state-owned company may have worked at Bisha in 2009 during its construction phase. It says it has obtained assurances that no conscripts are now being used at the mine. After three Eritrean refugees filed suit against Nevsun in 2014, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed Nevsun’s argument that the case should be heard in Eritrea rather than Canada. The company has appealed to the Supreme Court.


As the winds of change sweep through the Horn of Africa, Eritrea faces enormous pressure to open up its system to the outside world for the first time in decades. There is growing impatience and frustration among Eritreans as they watch the dramatic reforms introduced by a dynamic new leader in neighbouring Ethiopia.

Those changes have led to a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the opening of their border to trade. At the same time, the United Nations has lifted its sanctions on the Eritrean leadership, offering an olive branch to the regime. The peace agreement and the lifting of sanctions have removed two of the main pretexts for Eritrea’s conscription policy. So far, however, the repressive system has remained unchanged, while the desperation of its people increases.

Despite its tiny economy and its small population of about four million, Eritrea holds an outsized importance on the African continent. Its location on the Red Sea, gateway to the Suez Canal for 8 per cent of global shipping traffic and 2.5 per cent of the world’s oil output, gives it a strategic value to the world’s superpowers. Its ports have long been attractive to larger countries. A senior U.S. diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy, visited Eritrea in early December – one of the highest-ranking U.S. visits in the past decade.

Eritrea, located near the hot spots of Yemen and Somalia, has played a role in several regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. One of its Middle Eastern neighbours, the United Arab Emirates, has already opened a naval base in Eritrea, allowing its troops and military aircraft to strike targets in Yemen in the current war there. Until recently, the UN has accused Eritrea of providing weapons to Islamist militants in Somalia. Eritrea has also been among the leading sources of migrants to Europe, leading to an outpouring of development aid from the European Union to try to stem the migration flow.

Eritrea’s system of mandatory labour – known as “national service” – remains pervasive in the country today, almost two decades after the end of the border wars with Ethiopia that were cited to justify the policy. “It turned into slavery,” one Eritrean told me.

National service is officially limited to 18 months, yet in practice, it often continues indefinitely, leaving many Eritreans locked into unlimited servitude for as little as $2 a day.

“Vision through toil,” the government exhorts its citizens in propaganda posters throughout the country, illustrated by images of industrious factory workers and mine workers. Jobs and travel require proof that citizens have fulfilled their national-service obligations.

An inquiry by the UN in 2016 concluded that the national-service system amounted to “enslavement.” Conscripts are sometimes subjected to 72-hour work weeks and physical abuse.

“There have to be changes,” says Abraham, a middle-aged man nursing a glass of tea in an Asmara café. “If there are no changes, we can’t survive – it’s over, we are finished.”

He blames the country’s long-ruling regime for killing the economy by banning private construction and imposing indefinite conscription. Like many Eritreans, he spends hours on satellite TV watching the speeches of Ethiopia’s new 42-year-old Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who has brought extraordinary changes to Ethiopia’s political and economic landscape. “We need a young smart leader like Abiy,” he says.

“Abiy is a brilliant man. I admire him so much. When he came to Asmara, people were crying with joy. That’s the kind of leader we need.”

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed talk during the inauguration of a hospital in northern Ethiopia, on Nov. 10, 2018.


For many Eritreans, one of the biggest grievances is the ban on private construction, which has meant a housing shortage and soaring rental costs. “Your salary is 2,000 nakfa a month [about $175] and your living costs are 4,000 [nafka] a month,” Abraham says.

Zemen, a middle-aged woman who sells tea and coffee in a tent in an outdoor market, says her biggest dream is that the unlimited conscription system will be ended. Her 26-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son are serving in Eritrea’s army with no end in sight. Her daughter has served five years in a faraway district, while her son has served two years, and nobody knows when they will be home.

“This is the biggest question that everyone has,” she says. “It’s been very difficult to see my children constantly separated from me. I miss them a lot. I want them to come home and get married and build their own lives.”

She says she can’t understand why the national-service system is still imposed. “The conflict with Ethiopia is over. Ethiopia is not a threat now. So people are asking, ‘Why does the government need to keep people for longer than 18 months?’”

For fear of imprisonment, ordinary Eritreans are unwilling to be identified when they discuss politics with a foreign visitor. One man recalled how he was jailed for two weeks for speaking to a foreign journalist. Others said that they have been interrogated and threatened by the secret police for working with foreigners. To protect their identities, The Globe has used only first names in this article, omitting any identifying details and sometimes changing their names to ensure that they cannot be tracked down by the regime.

“Don’t write my name,” one panicky Eritrean man says when he saw me jotting down notes.

“They could be following us and we wouldn’t even know,” another warns.

Government officials were also reluctant to talk to The Globe. Those who did talk were scathing in their attacks on Eritrea’s critics – especially the Eritrean emigrants who became activists after migrating to countries such as Canada.

“Those people sitting in Canada eating ice cream are trouble makers, trying to blackmail us,” says Mokonen Goitom, a senior official in Eritrea’s Culture and Sports Commission. “They are lazy people who sit in bars and criticize the government.”

Asked about the conscription system and when it might finally be limited, he insisted that Ethiopia is still a potential threat to Eritrea, despite the peace agreement in July. And if national service is to be ended, he says, the government must provide jobs and houses to those who leave their assigned posts. “Change is a slow process.”

Ethiopia, with its internal factional struggles and its population of more than 100 million, could still turn against its smaller neighbour, Mr. Goitom says. “We are four million people against 100 million. Do people want us to be kicked by Ethiopia? There is no political stability in Ethiopia, so we have to be very patient.”

The tower of a Catholic cathedral looms over Asmara. A succession of foreign empires – Egyptian, Ottaman, Italian and Ethiopian – have laid claim to Eritrea over the centuries.


Two men talk in front of a cinema in Asmara. The capital’s architecture and Italian signs bear the legacy of decades of colonial occupation.


Train tracks lead toward Asmara through Old Massawa.


Eritrea, whose name is based on the Greek term for the Red Sea, has a tangled history of domination by foreign powers. It was once a series of independent kingdoms and sultanates that fell under the control of Ottoman, Egyptian and Ethiopian rulers. In the late 19th century, after the Suez Canal opened, Italy began acquiring territory on the coast, including two ports. Eritrea soon became the first Italian colony, and Italy’s colonial rule expanded into the highlands, including Asmara.

By the 1890s, Italian soldiers were killing hundreds of rebels and committing atrocities to entrench colonial rule. By the 1930s, under Benito Mussolini’s fascist rule, a system of apartheid was in place, with strict racial segregation enforced in schools, restaurants, hotels and cinemas.

The legacy of Italian colonialism is still vividly seen in Asmara today, with crumbling Art Deco and Modernist architecture across the city, but Italian dominance stoked a strong yearning for independence. “In its day, it was the most racist regime in Africa,” British author Michela Wrong wrote in her portrait of the country, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation.

“When a white man walked along the street, you always followed a couple of steps behind, never alongside,” an elderly Eritrean told her.

In the early 1940s, after Italy’s military defeat, the country came under British administration, but the racial laws remained in place. The British dismantled and hauled away much of the Italian infrastructure in Eritrea, including factories and port docks, and then allowed the United Nations to hand the country over to Ethiopian control.

In the 1950s, Eritrea became the site of a key Cold War spy station for the United States, adding to its strategic value. Ethiopia increasingly tightened its grip, until an Eritrean rebellion erupted in 1961, igniting a 30-year fight for independence. The struggle, known as Africa’s longest war, was waged by Eritrean guerrillas who dug themselves into mountainsides and built underground hospitals and schools to resist the much larger Ethiopian army. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Eritreans died from conflict and famine.

After winning independence in 1993, Eritrea was peaceful for only five years before a border dispute sparked another war with Ethiopia, killing another 80,000 fighters on both sides over the next two years. The war ended in a peace agreement but no permanent treaty, and the border tensions continued as Ethiopia refused to accept a UN-brokered border deal.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled since independence, has used conscription and a brutal crackdown on dissent as part of his strategy to keep the country on a war footing. A former political commissar in the guerrilla army, the 72-year-old President is an austere and reclusive figure. Unlike the dictators of North Korea and other countries, he has eschewed an official personality cult. Portraits of him are rarely seen in the streets of Asmara. But his rule has been merciless: He has jailed many of his former rebel comrades, banned any independent media or non-governmental groups and refused to allow elections or opposition parties.

With little private investment, Eritrea has fallen into deep poverty. Scholars have called it the world’s “fastest emptying nation.” An estimated 12 per cent to 20 per cent of the population has fled the poverty and oppression. The money they send home is crucial to the survival of their family members who remain behind. Eritrea’s financial system is so isolated from the world that credit cards cannot be used here – but the government makes sure to allow money to be sent from abroad, a vital lifeline for the economy.

The streets of Asmara, especially at night, are filled with child beggars and elderly hawkers who sell a few cheap items on the sidewalk: a few cigarette packs, candies, tissues, eggs or peanuts. The capital has the atmosphere of a half-forgotten colonial relic. No construction is visible anywhere. No billboards are permitted, except for propaganda posters. There are no traffic lights – they were removed because of the frequent power cuts in the city.

But this year, the historic reforms across the border in Ethiopia have sparked hopes for the future. Ethiopia’s energetic Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy, who took office in April, has brought new freedoms to his country, releasing political prisoners, freeing jailed journalists, ending a state of emergency, liberalizing the economy – and normalizing relations with Eritrea for the first time in 20 years by accepting the UN border agreement that his predecessors had rejected.

In July, the Ethiopian leader was welcomed by huge crowds in Asmara as he flew into the country to sign the peace agreement. Flights and phone calls between the two countries were permitted for the first time since the border war. Families had tearful reunions with relatives they hadn’t seen for 25 years.

Within a few weeks, vehicles were allowed to cross the border. By September, a fast-growing informal trade in Ethiopian goods had developed, allowing a steep reduction in the price of basic food supplies in Eritrea. The price of pasta, potatoes and other staples has dropped by two-thirds or more – a rare glimmer of economic good news for the country.

On the outskirts of Asmara, a vast new market has sprung up to sell Ethiopian goods, with plastic-roofed sheds and tents stretching into the distance. People call it the “Peace Market.” Trucks and cars, many with Ethiopian licence plates, rumble in and out of the market with loads of goods. Horse-drawn wooden carts enter and leave, carrying purchases to shops in Asmara.

“Life is much better now than before I left,” says Bakretsion, 28, who returned to Eritrea in late October after spending four years in a refugee camp in Sudan.

He buys Ethiopian fuel in jerry cans from the Ethiopian traders, then sells it for a small profit at the Peace Market, making up to $10 a day. “I’m surprised at how much I’m earning,” he says. “But this is just a beginning. I don’t know the future.”

Yonas, a young man who sells bread in the market, has spent two years in national service at a low-paying job at a state-owned construction company, and nobody has told him when the job will end. By managing to temporarily take time off from his state job and working 12 hours a day at the market, he has been able to double his meagre income. But he craves more freedoms. “The people have big expectations,” he says.

“If national service isn’t changed, there will be huge problems. Most people will leave the country.”

With the border open and a peace agreement in place, this is a time of rapidly rising expectations in Eritrea, especially among its younger generation. This also makes it a volatile time, when anger bred by the dashed dreams could turn against the regime.

“The peace deal was a bridge to the future, but it didn’t lead anywhere,” one young man says. “On the ground, we are still living the same life. The control is still there, the military is still there, the prisoners are not released, there’s no freedom of speech. So people are unhappy. People have tasted peace, but they haven’t gotten any freedom yet.”

Yacob, the young man who sells smuggled cellphones in Asmara, dreams of someday becoming a tech innovator, like the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that he reads about. But in the Eritrea of today, he says, it is an impossible dream.

“Politics here is all about monopolization,” he says. “I can’t do anything here. Everything is closed. If I’m smart, I’m dead.”

Global and Mail