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Eritrea’s Struggle to Invest in Democracy and the Economy While Remaining Sovereign

I disagreed with roughly the first half of responses. My disagreement is not with the inherent basis of the proponents argument, but rather with what I interpret the lack of comprehensiveness. The two major criticisms are based on “democracy” and the economic argument. (Note: this turned to a short essay – sorry! – if you would like to see my opinion on the soccer team though, skip to the last paragraph.)

First, lets be clear, the two are strongly interrelated. To that end I will broach the former (“democracy”) with the latter. As I think everyone can agree, our economic growth has been retarded by conflict with our southern neighbor. This conflict has diverted much needed hard currency and human capital from our primary goal (investment in physical and human infrastructure). It is the human capital that is most at issue in this question; our human capital has been diverted from the economy to the military because of the existential threat to Eritrea. To be clear the existential threat is the same one that has existed for hundreds of years – encroachment by southern neighbor (the Romans had a similar problem with the Germanic tribes to the north, or the Chinese with the Mongols to their northwest, etc.). Another country that has recently been threatened in the same way is Israel. The most poignant example of this came in 1973 – the Yom Kippur war – when Israel was attacked by the United Arab Republic through both Egypt and Syria on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. At that time, Israel was able to mobilize an army of 250,000 soldiers in 72 hours.

Unlike Israel, Eritrea was neither blessed with such a comprehensive infrastructure nor has it been able yet to construct one (consider the tremendous differences with Israel including geographical distances and much more sparsely organized, mobile populations) while having to simultaneously move forward with the rest of its development and securing the borders. This is part of the reason that Eritrea has necessarily had to maintain its mobilization of troops, which using recent estimates, constitutes some 5% of Eritrea’s population (or some 16% of the conscript-able population). Eritrea has been able to maintain this for nearly 14 years, at a calculable minimum personnel cost of some $100MM (a double diversion of hard earned Eritrean assets [personnel and currency]). This is the consequence of Ethiopia’s continued occupation of Eritrean territory, namely Badme. But is this really important to the Eritrean economy?

In short, yes – for two reasons. Eritrea needs its young, productive population to drive its economy and additionally, it needs its financial resources to multiply the effectiveness of the human capital. So why doesn’t the government of Eritrea do this? Badme – the value of the land itself is likely trivial (though there have been signs in the past that there may be precious resources underfoot), but the real value is the people. Nearly a decade ago, Ethiopia attempted to change the demographics of the area by moving in settlers from the Ethiopian interior. The fact of the matter though, is that the people of Badme (the original inhabitants) are Eritreans. Just because the land of may not be of strategic consequence is no reason to leave these eritreans and their homes in the lurch; “all for one, and one for all” if you will.

Remember, that this hardship on all Eritreans is not without purpose, but to safeguard Eritrea for Eritreans. In the mean time though why has Eritrea seemingly cast away the dream of democracy? Arguably Eritrea hasn’t, it has continued on its path to “full democracy” – albeit by focusing on other necessary pillars of democracy. What are these?

To understand what these pillars are you must understand the definition of democracy that Eritrea has embraced. The typical definition of democracy is: a system of government by the whole of the population or all eligible members. An additional (possibly supplementary or explanatory) definition is: the practice or principles of social equality. (New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition) So in the meantime, while waiting for National elections, what seemingly are the elements of social equality that are being moved forward with? Social equality should be explained not through socially equal ends but socially equal opportunities; it is to the end that Eritrea invests.

So how does the investment towards social equitable opportunity manifest itself? The building of roads (and literally bridges) to far flung sub-zobas – as well as the centralization of small villages (access to roads to these historically underserved parts of Eritrea allows access to markets [read: output] and the provision of services [read: inputs, i.e. infrastructure]). Similarly, the construction of schools, clinics and hospitals (in the previous description these would be the provision of services). Finally comes the next layer of services such communally elected magistrates and telecommunications (roughly 60% of Eritrea has mobile phone coverage – some of the highest on the continent). If there is so much improvement, why have so many young people left?

In my opinion it comes down to two very real issues. As a consequence of the massive mobilization Eritreans have had to endure they cannot have the certainty of returning to their personal pursuits (in other words, most are happy to serve, even prolonged periods but they would like to pursue their own careers). Additionally, as a consequence of the mobilization the government cannot improve the services as quickly as it would like and people find access in other countries. To this end, they emigrate.

The emigration of our countrymen in Uganda this last weak is a blight on the Eritrean story today, but certainly an explicable one. We must understand the economic hardships on our countrymen and homeland. We must do what we can to improve upon their lives, and that improve the country constructively. Some have taken the route of destroying Eritrea to remake it in a new image; I believe however, in the end this will harm Eritrea/ns and instead I believe that we must take what ever role we can to engage in constructive pursuits and make Eritrea the better place we all envision. I have always considered Eritrea a beacon – and with all of our constructive efforts, through the available avenues, we can make its light brighter.

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