Breakups can be hard. Such is lesson that Eritrea and Ethiopia have learned over and over again as they have continued to exchange fire over seemingly insignificant border disputes. Despite having already fought a decades-long war of independence and a border war in which tens of thousands lost their lives, the two countries went at it again this week. While it may seem odd that Eritrea, the younger and much smaller of the two countries, has not yet tired of war, a state of perpetual tension is, in reality, extremely advantageous to the Eritrean government.
Ethiopia is a massive country and Eritrea a very small one. With over 90 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa in terms of population. Favorable economic conditions have allowed it to maintain a high growth rate and significant development. Eritrea, on the other hand, has only about 6 million citizens. It is widely considered one of Africa’s most repressive countries and its economy has ground to a halt. As a result, its population is hemorrhaging and around 4000 of its people flee per month.
Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia for decades, but it fought for independence for much of that time. When most of the world’s communist governments collapsed in 1991, so too did Ethiopia’s. With the country plunged into chaos, Eritrea was finally able to claim its independence. The leader of the independence movement, Isaias Afwerki, became president.
Despite having recently secured peace for his country, Afwerki led it into yet another war. From 1998 until 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought for control of disputed areas along their border. An estimated 70,000 were killed. After the war, the United Nations awarded most of the disputed territory to Eritrea despite a military victory by Ethiopia. With most of its demands met and thousands dead in a military defeat, the end of the war in 2000 may appear to outsiders as an appropriate time for the Eritrean government to seek an end to hostilities. Yet tensions have persisted throughout the 16 years since then.
While most leaders would try to avoid a state of perpetual military tension, the Eritrean government actively works to nurture one. To understand why, it is important to understand how the Eritrean government runs the country and maintains its power. At the center of Eritrea’s governing structure is its system of indefinite conscription. Under this arrangement, the vast majority of Eritrean youth are conscripted into the military as soon as they exit school. They are then assigned to various jobs around the country. An arrangement of mandatory conscription is not uncommon, but Eritrea is unique in that the conscription may last decades.
The effect of this conscription is threefold. First, it is a means by which the Eritrean government can manipulate its labor force. Most work done in the country is done by conscripts. Second, it allows the government to remain in power with little opposition. Disloyalty is quickly identified and then repressed in violent prison camps that have been condemned by the United Nations. Third, considering that most conscripts work for little pay under conditions that the United Nations has described as slavery, the system is the primary reason why so many people are leaving Eritrea.
Forced indefinite conscriptions is a boon for Eritrea’s government, allowing Isaias Afwerki to maintain and iron grip on the country. Yet it is slowly destroying Eritrea. It is the foundation of an inefficient economic system that is enforced by human rights abuses, and it is driving the country toward economic and demographic collapse. In light of these terrible effects, Afwerki must somehow justify this system to a restless population and concerned international community. This need for justification is the root of Eritrea’s constant desire for military tension.
As long as Afwerki is able to claim that Eritrea is on the brink of war with the much larger and very menacing Ethiopia, he will be able to justify keeping his country on a constant war footing. Exploiting tensions with Ethiopia allows him to maintain the nationalistic spirit of the independence movement and to convince his people that conscription is needed to preserve the nation. In reality, however, all it is preserving is Afwerki’s repressive grip on power.
Thus the events of this week do not risk heightening tensions in the region. Instead, they are simply the byproduct of tensions that have been artificially heightened by Afwerki’s regime for decades. For as long as the tensions remain, so will the Afwerki regime’s primary claim to power. As a result, the tensions will remain as long as the Afwerki regime remains. And until the day when both come to an end, young Eritreans will continue to leave their slowly atrophying homeland and embark on dangerous journeys to across Africa to Europe.