Interview with FM Osman Saleh: Limiting National Service

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Foreign Minister Osman Saleh interview about National Service program
Foreign Minister Osman Saleh : “Can we not work with Germany as partners without preconditions?” (Photo: Ulrich Coppel)


Sixty years of war, permanent mobilization and widespread isolation by some Western countries paralyzed the country of Eritrea. But since the peace agreement with Ethiopia in the summer of 2018, there are high hopes. On the sidelines of a private visit to Münster, Germany, our colleague Ulrich Coppel spoke with the Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh.

Q : In Germany, “fighting the causes of flight” has become a household word. What are the causes of flight for the people who are leaving Eritrea for Europe?

Osman Saleh : Many people in Africa, and not just Eritrea, have the idea that Germany and Europe are countries where milk and honey flow. In this context, almost all of the Eritrean refugees claim the “National Service” as the reason for fleeing. This applies in Germany and other countries on the basis of the “Eligibility Guidelines” of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which in 2019 singled out Eritrea in 2009.

The UNHCR guidelines provide for the automatic granting of asylum and “refugee status” to Eritreans for no good and credible reason in so-called “subsidiary protection”. It is true, however, that many of the refugees do not come from Eritrea at all, but from our neighbouring countries, especially Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

And these people, too, claim Eritrea as their country of origin as soon as they arrive in Europe. They do so because they hope for a better chances of obtaining asylum than revealing their true origin.

The “eligibility guidelines” thus trigger the migration of Eritreans and people from other countries in the region, who find it convenient to pretend to be Eritreans.

Q : What is the “National Service”?

After independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea introduced the National Service in 1994 through Proclamation No. 82 against the backdrop of massive demobilization. It essentially generates a reserve contingent that allowed the then young nation to give up a large professional army in peacetime. So similar to the military or civilian service that used to exist in Germany and in many other countries.

In normal times, the National Service is limited by law to 18 months. Of these, 12 months are usually spent on civil and public works. But in 1998, Eritrea was attacked again by Ethiopia. In defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, Eritrea was forced to extend the duration of the National Service.

A second demobilization program, which began after the signing of the [Algiers] peace agreement, was suspended in the medium term after Ethiopia remained aggressive and continued to carry out hostile attacks in the border areas. This is despite the fact that the border conflict was resolved through the UN mediation in the so-called ‘Algiers Treaty’ or ‘peace agreement’.

The arbitration decision was final and binding on both sides in accordance with this Agreement. However, in the absence of appropriate action by the UN Security Council and almost all Western countries against Ethiopia, which are explicitly stated in the Algiers Agreement, Eritrea had no choice but to defend itself.

Q : After the [recent] peace agreement with Ethiopia, is there a chance to limit the National Service back to the statutory 18 months?

Now that the international sanctions that was imposed on our country has been removed and Ethiopia has accepted the decision of the International Boundary Commission, that is one of our main tasks! But there are obvious prerequisites for this: tens of thousands of people who have been doing national service for many years cannot simply be said: “Thank you – goodbye”. Believe me, nothing bothers us every day more than this – the orderly transition from a state of permanent mobilization to normalcy. But, as I said, this is not a new thing. We have already carried out demobilization program on several occasions.

The first act undertaken by the Eritrean government after the end of the War of Liberation in 1991 was the massive demobilization of 65,000 EPLF freedom fighters, reducing Eritrea’s defense forces to around 35,000. This is also a visible sign to the outside world that Eritrea really wanted peace.

Once again, demobilization happen in 2001 with all national service members up to and including the 13th round of recruitment after the second war with Ethiopia. At the time, the process was supported by the World Bank and the EU.

Q : How has Eritrea evolved since the recent peace agreement?

Since last summer’s peace agreement, the external threat situation has eased significantly. Compared to all our neighbours, Eritrea is the most stable country with its organized structures. We can build on that. Job creation will be crucial to maintain this stability. This requires, in addition to our own resources, international investors, and that is what we are promoting. We hope that Germany will support us in our quest for a solid and sustainable partnership.

Q : Germany calls for concrete improvements in the human rights situation, the establishment of democratic structures and the creation of legal security in Eritrea.

It is important for me to make it clear that all these points are just as important to us [as it is to Germany] and that, in terms of the opportunities we have, we are much better off in direct comparison with our neighbours. As one of only few African countries, Eritrea has achieved the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing maternal and child mortality by two-thirds from 2000 to 2015.

Despite the same climatic conditions as our neighbours, we have no shortage of food and clean drinking water. That’s because we built large dams. There is compulsory education, free education until graduation. Everyone has access to free medical care. Are these not human rights? I too take respect for human rights very seriously, but I ask for fairness towards Eritrea. Can we not work with Germany as partners without preconditions?

Q : How can that work?

We want to fully implement our Constitution, which has been in place for a long time but has not been fully implemented because of the war situation. We want to get people into civilian work and we want to achieve democratic elections in the future. However, we can only achieve all this if the economic situation of our country improves, in other words through us, in partnership with international investors, large-scale civil jobs are created.

I am absolutely sure that many of the diaspora Eritreans would like to return home on their own. And with that we are back to the beginning: since globalization, the world has become a village: are we not all in the same boat?

(* software translation from German)