On September 26, I set off from Kampala to visit Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, arguably the most controversial country in Africa today.
The visit was a culmination of some years of planning to go and experience the country first-hand.
I had been reading about Eritrea in books, media, and academic articles for some time. And whenever I attended a seminar or conference where Eritrea appeared on the programme, I made a point of attending the relevant sessions. I did this in order to listen out for anything that is new and different from what I have read and heard.
There is a tendency by commentators on Eritrea to write and talk about it in negative terms.
I am not new to controversial countries. It is now almost two decades since I first set foot in Rwanda. Things may have changed somewhat in recent times, but there is a time when Rwanda would be written and spoken about as if it was led by monsters that were up to no good.
Living and working in the country, the mismatch between many of the things I saw and heard and what people, almost all non-Rwandans, would say and write was striking.
Not every negative thing that was written or said was inaccurate. Rwanda is no paradise. However, a lot was. Much of it was gratuitous criticism of a government and leadership that, in many ways, were experimenting and learning as they went along.
Trial and error entails a great deal of making mistakes. Many Rwandans I spoke to about their country’s reputation would despair at the "badmouthing". I would wonder, how it was that a country could be seen in such starkly different terms by its observers and inhabitants.
This is how my curiosity about Eritrea was piqued. If a lot of what I was reading and hearing about a country I knew well could be so inaccurate, sometimes even exaggerated, could it be that it was the case with Eritrea as well?
The more I read, the more I wondered, and the stronger the urge to visit. Then in some of my travels to Europe and the United States, I chanced upon Eritreans, mainly taxi drivers, all of them self-confessed refugees. They presented me an opportunity to find out what they thought about all the stuff I "knew" about their country and, specifically their president.
They were, all of them, dismissive of what they characterised as “lies”. I am sure they did not mean to say that every negative comment was a lie. I understood their reactions to mean that they disagreed with much of what was being written and said. That came as a shock.
The Eritreans I met challenged me: “Go and see for yourself.” Then I would wonder why would refugees defend so strongly the very country they fled from and the very leadership that presumably forced or caused them to flee?
One Eritrean told me that far from having fled because of politics, he had left for economic reasons. He was in Europe to earn a living. The money he was earning, he told me, enabled him to look after members of his family back home. He had even built a house in Asmara, in which he stayed each time he travelled home on holiday. He told me he plans to go back home once he retires.
The man insisted that Isaias Afeworki, Eritrea's president, who is regularly portrayed as perhaps Africa’s most brutal dictator, was “a good man”. He pulled out his mobile phone and showed me images of President Isaias mingling with a large crowd of flag-waving Eritreans in Asmara. He asked me: “Why don’t those people kill him if he is so bad?”
I had to visit Eritrea. And I did. For six days.
Of course, six days is not long enough to claim to know a place well enough. However, a few days is more than enough to experience a place and to talk to some people about what is going on. And I was luckier than most first-time visitors.
A useful contact managed to arrange for me to meet and talk to some senior people in government. And so I spent several hours in conversation with people who do not only know the place, but also participate in running it.
It complemented what I heard from the ordinary people and what I saw in cafés, my hotel, on the streets, and other public places.
Eritrea is often presented as the “North Korea” of Africa. I have never been to North Korea. However, courtesy of media, I have heard many things about it. Apparently visitors are followed around or are monitored by government minders. It is therefore difficult to talk to ordinary people and find out what they think.
I was able to go to where I wanted in Asmara, freely, or in the company of Eritreans I chanced upon who voluntarily offered to show me around.
People were happy to talk about their circumstances, with some being quite outspoken about how difficult life is. On the basis of this alone, and assuming reporting about North Korea is accurate, the “Eritrea is North Korea” label is misleading.
The difficulty of life in Eritrea stems from many things. There is a lot I wasn’t able to find out. However, this is what I was told by officials and ordinary people alike.
The border war with Ethiopia and the sheer investment in financial resources that went into it had a massive effect on the economy. So the imperative to remain alert with a fully mobilised army and population, in the event that the war started again.
Mass mobilisation in the context of the “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia, which ended only a few weeks ago, has not come cheap. Nor did it allow for the country’s human resources to be channelled entirely into productive endeavours. They have had to be ready for war at any moment.
And then there were the sanctions Western powers imposed on the country. These were ostensibly because of Eritrea’s destabilisation of the region through, among other activities, its alleged support for insurgencies in several countries.
There is a view inside the country that these reasons were merely a cover for the desire by Western powers to topple the Isaias Afeworki government because of its perceived threat to their interests. Whatever the real reason, the sanctions have made it impossible for the country to engage in normal economic activities of the kind other countries engage in to grow their economies.
One of the sources of notoriety for the government has been the much-publicised flight by thousands of its young people to the West. The media have been active in publicising the nasty things that happen to them along the way. But why do young people flee?
I have read about “brutal repression” as the reason many Eritreans will not stay at home. The real reasons, however, are: Economic hardship and the requirement to do national service for an indefinite period of time. Economic hardship means there are very few prospects for young and ambitious people to advance in their lives.
Indefinite national service, which by the way is not only in the army contrary to the popular portrayal, means there is no knowing when one may one day dedicate their time and energy to doing those things that benefit them directly, allowing them to live the kind of lives they always dreamt about.
These two factors, not brutal repression per se, are the key drivers of the mass migration of Eritrea’s young people. I did not encounter a single official who does not recognise out-migration as damaging.
They and some ordinary Eritreans insist, however, that indefinite national service, which fuels it, has been a necessity since the border war with Ethiopia broke out, for which there was no alternative if it was to stand a chance of safeguarding its independence and sovereignty against its bigger and better-endowed neighbour, were war to break out again.
Should this be simply believed? Perhaps not, but making it known is important.
Does any of this mean there are no rights abuses in Eritrea? No; it does not. One respondent put it all in perspective, without sugar coating it: “In a state of war and heightened mobilisation, you do not use only incentives to rally people; sometimes compulsion is necessary. That is why some people rebel and leave. Compulsion may entail imprisonment. People who rebel will be incarcerated. Parents that want to help their children to escape will also suffer. That becomes an issue. It causes disaffection, even in families. The issues raised outside are about human rights abuses,” he said.
“But the real reason for exile is the economy. Eritrea has been hurt by isolation and lack of resources, with government spending a lot on the military. That has caused suffering and disaffection. But the government has no choice,” he added.
It doesn’t sound pretty, but it does deepen one’s understanding of the context and possibly lessen the temptation to think that it is all for the self-gratification of the country’s leadership.
What of the issue of democracy? Eritrea has a constitution that is based on far-reaching countrywide consultations. It was supposed to be implemented from 1997. Then Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia and everything to do with democratisation was put aside.
And so things remained that way for as long as renewed war with Ethiopia remained a possibility. According to one of my interlocutors, political competition can be divisive.
As a result, the leadership has not wanted to put the country on a war footing through potentially divisive and disruptive political processes. Some dismiss this as an excuse. Perhaps it is. Given what we know about political competition elsewhere in Africa, however, it is hardly farfetched. But the question is: Does the leadership see an end in sight to this situation? They do.
The situation of “no war, no peace”” with Ethiopia, the greatest existential threat the country and the ruling Peoples Forum for Democracy and Justice have faced, is now over. That has opened up all sorts of possibilities.
First, it means that as soon as it is clear that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia consolidates his grip on power, enough to guarantee the success of the peace process, Eritrea will no longer have any reason to channel vast financial resources into the military.
Nor will it have reason to continue with forced conscription. Nor even will it have reason not to revive the process of implementing the Constitution and moving the country towards the much-awaited transition to a new leadership.
Equally important, peace with Ethiopia will begin to deprive Western powers of whatever excuse they have had to maintain sanctions. That would open up the country to investment by both foreign investors and the large diaspora running successful businesses all over the world, not least in East Africa.
That would then begin to create jobs that could give young people hope in their future, stem the tide of flight abroad, and attract exiles to return to rebuild their country.
There is no guarantee that all these things will happen soon or at all. However, there is no denying that the ground has shifted in favour of Eritrea becoming the normal country it was during the first few hopeful years of Independence.
*This is the longer version of the article that appeared in the print edition.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]