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Border Wars, ‘Freedom’ and Eritrea’s Totalitarian Regime: Eritrea Independence Day

May 20, 2021 08:00AM ● By Oga Africa
eritrea cinema roma

(Cinema Roma, Asmara, Eritrea. Photo by Clay Gilliland:,_Asmara,_Eritrea_(30688622321).jpg)

In honor of Eritrea Independence Day, we are exploring Eritrea’s political climate. Through delving into the country’s stringent totalitarian system and history of conflict, including its involvement in the Tigray Crisis of Ethiopia, the debate of whether the people of Eritrea are truly free arises. 

Eritrea gained independence on May 20th, 1993, from Ethiopia. Situated along the coast of the Northern Red Sea, Eritrea’s post-colonial legacy has been marked by excessive violence over the control of borders. This East African country has battled with Ethiopia for over 30 years, first during its struggle for independence, and then, after seven years, during the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border War, which claimed the lives of over 90,000 people. Other conflicts include the Hanish Islands conflict with Yemen.

Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president and leader of People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, has been in power since the country’s independence. He is known for keeping the totalitarian regime in tight grips. 

Eritrea-Ethiopian War Map, 1998. Photo by Skilla 1st )

Eritrea has been dubbed as one of ‘the world’s most repressive countries' and the world’s most censored. The totalitarian dictatorship regime is known to jail journalists, as well as conscription or forcibly enrolling citizens in the Eritrean national service from age 18-30. In 2001, the country closed all independent media centers. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Eritrea had 16 journalists in prison.

Due to its oppressive systems, many Eritreans seek asylum as refugees. In 2018, the UNHCR reported that over 500,000 Eritreans were counted in their United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees program. The regime is so iron-fisted that at one point, the Eritrean government would imprison or fine family members of citizens who fled.

(Eritrean Christians)

Ironically, after over 2 decades of opposition, Eritrea’s current involvement with the Tigray Crisis is one of camaraderie with the Ethiopian government. Eritrean troops have been deployed to the Tigray Region near the Ethiopia border, and have been accused of committing crimes towards Tigray populations, such as mass murder, rape, and more.

There are over 200,000 Eritreans in the diaspora, one of them including the late rapper and entrepreneur Ermias Joseph Asghedom, also known as Nipsey Hussle. Homegrown activists who have survived the repercussions of speaking out against the regime, and managed to leave the country, fight for freedom as exiles. Yirgalem Mebrathu, Eritrean poet, journalist, and former political prisoner writes about suppression and the idea of profound change in her poem ‘I am not a poet’:

“The poet abides with struggle, for the sake of beauty

Listens to his heart

Advocates for the oppressed, whose tongue is imprisoned

Self-sabotaging to pay with his gasp.

The pen is his candle, emotion is his sword

The poet is the light and the candle

I cannot accept an honor I cannot uphold

I want to be, not to act.”

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