ANALYSIS. The construction of national identity in the second youngest state of Africa, Eritrea, has much to do with the decades of struggle that Eritreans fought against Ethiopia. Almost twenty years after independence, the country tries to cement this identity. A comment by the head of the Research Area of CIEMEN, David Forniès.
Eritrea is back in the news since Ethiopian forces carried out earlier this month a military attack on rebel bases within the Eritrean boundaries. This has again been used by the media to remind people of the extremely harsh conditions undergone by political opponents and human rights activists in Eritrea, a country that got its independence in 1993 and has since been ruled by a dictatorial regime led by Isaias Afewerki, the long-standing leader of the former armed organization Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) and current president of this African country. Afewerki belongs to the Biher-Tigrinya, the larger of nine ethnic groups officially recognized in Eritrea.
When CIEMEN launched its magazine Europa de les Nacions in 1988, the Eritrean struggle for independence was a major focus of attention, still if it was rapidly shadowed by the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia. The founder of CIEMEN, Aureli Argemí, wrote in 1991 one of the then few articles in Catalonia dealing with the issue of the Eritrean national identity. He pointed out that "one of the key factors for the cohesion [of the Eritreans] and their awareness of belonging to a different group has been their former condition as a modern European colony, different from the neighbouring ones, and also the fact that they united to fight, first against European colonialism and then against the annexation by Ethiopia". The Constitution of Eritrea can be seen as the distillation of this kind of thought that gave sense to the idea of an Eritrean national identity that was not (only) built on ethnic differences from the Ethiopians, but on values related to the decades-long war against them: "With Eternal Gratitude to the scores of thousands of our martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the causes of our rights and independence, during the long and heroic revolutionary struggle for liberation", its preamble reads.
Now it seems that trying to build a national identity on a continued struggle has been a very heavy burden since independence. Reproaches are addressed to the extreme austerity through which the regime in Asmara pretends to bring all Eritreans together. As an example of this, Christian Bundegaard wrote in 2004 that "in the eyes of the Eritrean leadership [...] Eritrea, with its patiently disciplined population, resembles a hardened battalion of stubborn soldiers". The leadership's "insistence on pursuing their ideology of "self-reliance" may thus turn out to be at best counter-productive, and at worst disastrous. The government simply cannot afford to scare away donors, NGOs, and UN agencies (not to mention foreign investors) by adhering to a nationalist narrative based on "stubbornness"". Barcelona's CIDOB has dubbed this attitude as "pettifogging nationalism". "This "Calvinism"", Bundegaard went on, "becomes a deadlock for initiative, creativity, and motivation" if there is no "trust in the civic structures of society". And "the lack of civic political culture causes an insufficient level of civil participation and responsibility that furthermore strengthens tendencies towards tribalism and nepotism".
Military expenditure is the other side of the coin. SIPRI's database puts Eritrean military expenditure almost at 21% of its GDP in 2003 (no more recent data are available). Such a high share of expenditure is unparalleled in the world (possibly with the exception of North Korea, whose data are not available either) and contributes to the strengthening of two pillars of the identity of the Eritrean state, as Italian Africanist Matteo Guglielmo wrote in LiMes in 2008: boundary and militarization. "Every Eritrean", he said, "lives in a constant state of alert and is immersed into a propaganda that emphasizes the danger of an imminent invasion". This is coherent with the warring relations that the Afewerki regime has maintained with Yemen (1996), Ethiopia (1998-2000) and Djibouti (2008).
In the aforementioned article, Guglielmo wrote that, right after independence, Eritrea chose to call for the compulsory conscription for all men and women aged 18 or more: "Uniting in a single army young Kunama, Afar, Beni Amer and Tigrinya, the new government sought to increase and cement the same nationalist spirit that had been experienced during the years of struggle for liberation". But peoples usually fight for independence with the prospect of eventually having a better life rather than permanently remaining a people in arms. It would be wise to bear in mind what Alexandra Dias wrote just a couple of years ago in Secesionismo en África (Barcelona, Edicions Bellaterra): "Although it seems that loyalty to the Eritrean national identity has not diminished, Eritrean citizenship has lost much of its appeal [...], especially among young people that are about to serve their compulsory military service. Therefore, national identity could start to fray".
David Forniès is the head of Research Area of CIEMEN.