27 April 1993: Eritrea declares official independence from Ethiopia after a referendum which saw a 98.5% turnout with a 99.83% vote in favour.
The vote took place nearly two years after the defeat of Ethiopian forces in Eritrea in May 1991, which brought with it an end to nearly three decades of civil war. The referendum installed the leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF, which later became PFDJ – People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) Isaias Afewerki as president, and it was hoped that he would lead the Eritrean people into a just and democratic future – then-US President Bill Clinton even referred to him as a ‘renaissance African leader’.
Sadly, this did not occur. Afewerki remains the only ruler Eritrea has ever known, and under his leadership the nation’s heroic liberation struggle has been resolutely betrayed due to his obsession with absolute power.
First to be targeted was the country’s Jehovah’s Witness community, who did not vote in the 1993 referendum on account of doctrinal exigencies, and later announced they would participate only in non-military aspects of national service, in line with conscientious objection.
In October 1994, Afewerki issued a directive effectively revoking their citizenship rights and denying them access to government employment, accommodation, schools, hospitals or other services generally available to other Eritreans. Most significantly, they were denied the official identity cards necessary for, among other things, registration of births, deaths and marriages, purchasing property, and gaining passports, internal and external travel permits, and commercial licenses. In addition, four conscientious objectors were detained arbitrarily, and were only released 26 years later.
Soon after this, the Muslim community also began to face open repression. In December 1994 several hundred men were detained either under the pretext of having links with various Muslim or jihadist movements, or of opposing the government-installed Sunni Grand Mufti. Many endured torture; others simply ‘disappeared’ and around 150 are believed to have been killed extra-judicially. Arrests of members of the community have continued intermittently ever since.
For Christians, repression began largely within the context of Eritrea’s compulsory, and in practice indefinite, military service. Christians were and continue to be routinely discouraged from participating in prayer and reading the Bible, and prevented from attending religious gatherings.
In 1995 the government began to impose open restrictions on the activities of the Protestant community, obliging them to register all assets, including bank accounts, with the Department of Religious Affairs within the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Next, any remaining hopes for a better future were dealt a significant blow when an unnecessary and costly war with Ethiopia was followed in September 2001 by the indefinite detention of prominent officials who signed an open letter criticising the slow progress towards democracy, and the closure of independent media, whose journalists were also jailed.
Then on 13 May 2002, Eritrea effectively outlawed all religious practices not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian denominations, or Sunni Islam. Since then, other religious groups have been subjected to onerous and overly invasive registration process which amounted to surveillance. Moreover, it ultimately led nowhere – the four religious groups that followed through with all necessary documentation are still awaiting final sign-off by the president over a decade later. Meanwhile, even the four government-sanctioned religious communities continue to experience repression and harassment.
This has remained the direction of travel in the country ever since. In June 2016, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE) found ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that the regime was responsible for crimes against humanity, including ‘enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.’
Despite this, no significant steps have been taken to put a stop to Afewerki’s cruelty, even as his blatant disregard for human life and human rights became even more apparent when Eritrea played a major role in the war in the Tigray region of neighbouring Ethiopia, where its forces are implicated in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity that continue to date in the Irob area. Afewerki seeks to place himself at the helm of affairs in the Horn of Africa and is currently linked to the violence in Sudan, where fighting has broken out in cities between the army and paramilitary forces, including in the capital, Khartoum.
The picture in Eritrea itself remains bleak, a far cry from the nation its citizens dreamed of when they voted in favour of independence 30 years ago.
Tens of thousands of Eritrean prisoners of conscience continue to be detained without charge or trial in life threatening conditions in over 300 sites across the country where torture is practised routinely. Among them are around 400 Christians and 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses, imprisoned in inhumane conditions where many have experienced torture and some have died.
150 Christians were arrested in September 2022 in a raid on a gathering in the Godaif area of Asmara; 98 of them were detained in the notorious Mai Serwa prison, as were a further 44 Christians arrested in raids on two homes in January 2023. Mai Serwa is notoriously overcrowded, with detainees reportedly held 20 to a cell – usually a shipping container – or in 2x2m rooms for solitary confinement.
Every day that this is permitted to continue is a blight on the conscience of the international community. It is now clear to all that Afewerki is not the ‘renaissance African leader’ Bill Clinton hoped he would be; in reality he is one of the most malevolent dictators in the world. As the Eritrean people mark 30 years of de jure independence the international community must assist the process of transforming this pathocracy into the genuine democracy the Eritrean people had anticipated.
Most importantly, the international community must establish judicial mechanisms to hold Afewerki and other identified perpetrators of severe human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Eritrea to account. It must refer the situation in Eritrea to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and it must impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on individuals who there are reasonable grounds to believe are responsible for crimes against humanity or other gross violations of human rights.
By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley