The Promise of Liberation and the Reality of Oppression

The Africa Garrison State: Human Rights and Political Development in Eritrea
By Kjetil Tronvoll and Daniel R. Mekonnen
James Currey, 2014, pp. 212, ISBN-13: 978-1847010698

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which successfully brought about the country’s independence, was expected by the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens to build a democratic state that liberates and transforms society. As the authors of this book note, many observers also saw the country during the early years of its independence as a promising “model of African renaissance”. Roughly two decades later, however, Eritrea is widely regarded as one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world.

The EPLF, as a liberation front, was a highly centralized military organization that did not tolerate any dissent. With the country’s independence the Front changed its name to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ),with the aim of signaling its transition from an armed liberation front to a governing political party that would bring about development with democracy and justice. Unfortunately, the Front failed to shed its highly centralized structures, which was perhaps, essential for its success during the war. Failing to transform its structures of centralization, the PFDJ continued to suppress dissent and to bar other organizations from participation in the country’s political affairs. As it  erected a monopoly of the country’s political life it slid into a cruel betrayal of the liberation goals of the 30-year armed struggle for which thousands of patriots sacrify their lives. In less than a decade after independence, the once very popular EPLF metamorphosed into a highly repressive organization completely inept in establishing inclusive governance and unwilling to build the structures of a democracy-fostering state.

The authors of this book grapple with this dramatic shift in Eritrea’s political developments and their impacts on society. The book revolves around two interrelated principal objectives. One is to describe the type of state structures the ruling party has imposed on the Eritrean population and the magnitude of repression and human rights violations perpetrated by the Eritrean state upon its citizens. The second objective is to explain how a once hugely popular liberation front came to establish a “garrison” state characterized by (1) a totalizing political ideology that does not allow any political organization  other than the ruling PFDJ party and (2) a repressive personal rule devoid of the rudimentary principles of the rule of law and relies on violence to crush any dissent against its decrees and policies.

The book is organized into eleven chapters, the first chapter introduced the objectives and organization of the book abd defines the concept of garrison state, which serves as the theoretical anchor for the analysis. Chapters two through ten build up empirical and analytical support for the claim that the Eritrean state equates to a garrison state. More specifically, chapters two and three examine the workings of the country’s judiciary and the state of rule of law. Chapters four through six examine the structures of totalitarian rule that the EPLF has erected and its obliteration of the country’s civil society. Chapters seven, eight, and nine discuss the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Kunama, the Jeberti, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and social groups, including journalists, human rights defenders, and dissenters of the PFDJ. Chapter ten revisits the book’s conceptual framework to ascertain that Eritrea matches the criteria of a garrison state. The concluding chapter makes a modest attempt to suggest some policy recommendations to change the country’s current predicament.

The modern state is composed of a set of interlocking organizations that include the government with its executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, the constitutional court, the security forces, the bureaucracy, the central bank, the electoral commission, the auditor general and others, depending on thepolitical system. A democracy-fostering state establishes structures that allow its different constituent organizations to enjoy a measure of independence from each other (and especially from the executive branch) in performing the tasks within their spheres of authority and ensure horizontal accountability by acting as checks and balances on each other. In an authoritarian political system, by contrast,the roles of all the different organizations of the state would be concentrated in a single organization, the executive, or an individual leader. In such a situation there would be little distinction between the state and the government, or even between the state, the government, and the individual leader.

As the authors of this book ably show, the EPLF has created a highly centralized authoritarian state dominated by the individual leader, who is accountable to no one. Since the country has no functioning national assembly and the government has not implemented the 1997 ratified constitution, the president functions as “the premier de facto lawmaking body ….” He serves as the party chairman, head of state and government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. He also controls the judiciary since he appoints and dismisses chief justices. The Special Court that he has created with hand-picked judges with little legal training also operates outside the judicial system undermining the integrity of the regular courts. The country has not had any presidential elections since its de facto independence in 1991 and,as noted already, political parties and independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Under such concentration of power, there is little to restrain the president’s power. For all practical purposes he is the government and the state. In the absence of any structures of accountability, there is also little to protect citizens, especially those who express dissent, from excesses of the government and from violation of their human and civil rights. Dissenters are imprisoned for decades without formal charges let alone trials. Various human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Commission have documented various forms of torture. The number of political prisoners is unknown but many observers view the country as an ‘open-air-prison’. The authors meticulously document such violations by the regime. Perhaps the single largest group whose human rights are grossly violated is the country’s youth, who are locked in an open-ended national service with minimal pay and often forced to provide free labor in the firms controlled by the PFDJ or firms associated with it. Some are said to have been kept in the service of over a decade wasting their productive age unable to develop skills and careers or to support their families. Since the conscripts are given little education beyond High School or skill training, the country is also losing the opportunity to build up human capital that would be essential for its development. It is also losing labor power as the youth are the country in large numbers. There is little doubt that the disruption in human capital development is certain to retard the country’s development for years to come.

In general the authors provide a very strong documentation of the regime’s human rights violations. In a few cases, however, the book either fails to provide a historical perspective or reliable empirical evidence on the allegations of abuse targeted at certain ethnic identities. The claim that the government targets the Kunama is a good example. There is little doubt that the regime suppresses any dissent regardless of the ethnic or religious affiliation of the actors. The regims victims of abuse come from all corners of Eritrea. If groups or individuals express any dissent it matters little whether they are from the Highlands or Lowlands or if they are Moslems or Christians. Rather, what seems to matter is the presence or perceived presence of dissent and how dangerous the government perceives the dissent to be. The alleged collaboration of some Kunama with Ethiopia during the wars between the two countries, of course, is bound to attract the government’s wrath. Yet, alleged collaborators from other ethnicities are also not spared.

The authors’ claim that the government targets the Kunama, thus,needs more concrete and comparative evidence than is provided in the book. The authors’ claim that the state expropriates land from the Kunama also lacks both comparative evidence and historical perspective. The Italian colonial state, like many other colonial states in the African continent, expropriated much of the land in Eritrea’s lowlands and placed it under state control (demaniale). By contrast in the highland areas, the colonial state expropriated only pockets of land, perhaps due to the population density in those areas. The Eritrean state, like many other post-colonial states in Africa has failed to restore land appropriated by the colonial state back to its rightful owners. Instead, it promulgated a land reform proclamation, which transferred control of all land to the state. Despite the proclamation, however, land use rights in the highlands largely remain in the villages while in the lowlands the state has used some formerly demaniale land for expansion of commercial farming and for settlement of returning refugees,infringing on the customary use-rights of pastoralists in the lowlands. There is little doubt that there prevails inherited injustice with respect to land in the lowlands and it needs serious attention. However, the authors fail to give this historical perspective of the land tenure problem in the lowlands, including the Kunama areas. They also do not provide any data on how much land has been alienated from the Kunama relative to those from other ethnic identities in the Gash Barka and Semhar regions of the country, where the land was brought under state control by the colonial state. Similarly, the authors give little historical background on how the Jeberti (Moslem minorities in the Christian dominated highlands) came to be denied access to and in Highland Eritrea. Historically land in the highlands is generally under the control of villages or kinship groups. In order to get access to use-rights of land one has to be native to the village or a member of the kinship that controls a parcel of land. Villages hardly have the authority to deny any native person access to land for changing one’s religion. It is also not customary for villages or kinship group to give land to non-natives or nonmembers regardless of how long they live in the villages. It would have been a useful contribution for the authors to clarify how the Jeberti came to be denied access to land in the highlands. In any case, landlessness of the Jeberti precedes the Eritrean state.

Another important omission by the book is that it does not explain why the Eritrean population has failed to prevent the emergence of such a repressive regime or why the regime continues to garner support from segments of the Eritrean population, including those in the diaspora, despite its record of repression. The factors may be several; however, the regime has ably exploited the existing ‘no-peace-no-war’ situation with Ethiopia to divert attention away from domestic repression. It is likely that the country’s security risk is viewed by many to be a greater concern than domestic repression even though domestic repression also puts the country’s security at risk.

Despite the identified limitation the book makes a valuable contribution in explaining Eritrea’s political structures and their repercussions. It provides readers with meticulous documentation of Eritrea’s dismal human rights record. Readers will obtain a clear understanding of why so many young Eritreans leave their country fleeing the open-ending compulsory national service that forces them to provide free labor in the firms controlled by the PFDJ. The government claims that the refugees are economic migrants leaving the country for better economic opportunities neglecting the fact that open-ended compulsory service denies the young people the opportunity to work and lead normal life during their productive years.



Kidane Mengisteab


6 - 7 

Africa Review of Books/ Revue Africaine des Livres 

Volume 11, N° 02 - septembre 2015






















































































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