The People of Eritrea
Eritrea is a country with a rich history wrought with instances of domination by imperialist nations and a struggle for independence. Its ideal northerly position made it the envy of many powers during the early years of trade through the Suez Canal. The Egyptians, Ottoman Turks and the then Kingdom of Italy had all shown interest in this particular swathe. Eventually, it was the Italians who managed to overrun the territory during the annexation of Abyssinia. Italian rule was however short-lived as they were soon kicked out by the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Keren in 1941 (Welde 34). It would now remain under the stewardship of this Allied force until the end of the Second World War when the Allies would discuss its new status. Many historians see the complicated political intrigues that surrounded this nation at this particular time in history as the cause of all the problems that soon followed. As the liberator, Britain proposed to have Eritrea subdivided and shared with its immediate neighbors. No one took into consideration the voice of its inhabitants, and it wasn’t long before the matter got even more complicated. Emperor Haile Selassie I also claimed this territory and was soon rewarded with it by the United States or its loyalty during the war. The Eritreans soon formed the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM) which merged with the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) to resist this forceful occupation of their lands. After a protracted conflict, Eritrea secured its independence from Ethiopia and has been under the one-party rule of Isaias Afwerki since 1991. Some independent human rights organizations have explicitly claimed that the conditions in Eritrea are akin to slavery. In this essay, I will discuss the oppression of the people of Eritrea and why the situation is similar to slavery in America.
Totalitarian rule is the basis of slavery in any given situation. During the heydays of European imperialism, the British commanded the high seas and thrived in commerce, a precursor to their territorial conquest of new territories. The New World was an appropriate location to expand its influence leading it to acquire its 13 original colonies eventually. Since Native Americans were thought to be weak and prone to diseases, the British became an active participant in the trade of human cargo. African slaves were transported to the New World, a long voyage the lasted nearly four months coupled with a high cost in human lives. At this point in history, the white man had total control over his African slaves. He decided when they would, eat, work and sleep. A slave’s destiny was in the hands of his Master and could not make any decisions that were meant to guide the course they intended to take in life. In modern times, these conditions correspond to those witnessed presently in Eritrea. Many independent actors refer to Eritrea as one of the few remaining dictatorships that have still pitched camp in Africa. Isaias Afwerki is the first and only president that the country has known after the end of the Eritrean War of Independence. As a paranoid leader worried about the annexation of its nation by Ethiopia, President Afwerki rules with an iron fist. Pundits are unanimous in supposing that Afwerki is the epitome of dictatorship. Forceful conscription of all able-bodied Eritreans is a requirement that takes center stage in the country. The primary reason for this attitude has to do with its mistrust of Ethiopia. A large standing army is meant to protect the sovereignty of the state in case of future incursions by Ethiopians. Eritreans are therefore trapped in this cycle of compulsory military service and are unable to pursue their dreams.
African slaves were transported to the United States to provide forced labor. The need for slaves came during the development of nascent industries in Europe that required a constant flow of raw materials. The United States and island colonies such as Jamaica, Bermuda, and Trinidad were ideal localities to produce these raw materials en masse. Sugar was mostly grown in the wet-warm tropical climate of Jamaica while cotton was primarily raised in the American South (White et al. )African slaves, therefore, served as ideal sources of free labor, purchased for life and the perfect example of a gift that kept giving. African slaves have mainly viewed the best investment any settler farmer could make as they were owned for life. As long as a slave was well-fed and healthy, a farmer could harness their labor at no whatsoever. It is this very reason that made the early slave owners of the American South some of the wealthiest people during their time. Nonetheless, their wealth was built on the back of African Slaves who toiled for their Masters. Similarly, the reports out of Eritrea indicate that government forces are increasingly abducting individuals for baseless accusations such as being spies working with the Ethiopian government to infiltrate the Eritrean society. Most of these individuals end up being incarcerated for re-education and are under the control of the state. Additionally, conscripts have also fallen victim to this trap and often serve as forced laborers. Under the guise of “national service,” President Afwerki has made forced manual laborers out of the thousands of conscripts who are forced to work in for international corporations. Most recently Nevsun, a Canadian firm received backlash from various human rights groups when it soon became apparent that forced laborers provided the labor provided by its subcontractors. Bisha mines were the focal point of this investigation that reveals the manner in which Eritrea has been transformed into a haven for contemporary slave owners who thrive on forced labor.
Slavery was maintained using a system that espoused torture, rape, and violence. These were often the first threats that most of these individuals received when they set foot on this alien land. They were required to work their fingers to the bone without pay for their Master’s benefit. Occasionally, a bold slave would abscond in protest of the conditions that they were put through. In response, the overseer would use violence to remind the slaves of their position in society and who was in control. During this epoch, whippings were a common sight in the American South, as a strategy to dissuade any other slave thinking of skipping duty or working nonchalantly on the plantation. A simple offense such as looking a white man straight in the eyes was not tolerated and would be met with violent beatings. Things were worse for women as rape was common in these plantations. A combination of these extreme measures was employed to ensure that the slaves were concerned only by work and focus on providing the labor. Cases of violence meted out on slaves in America were common throughout the South and permeated all states found in the region. Presently, Eritrea uses the same methods when dealing with is many conscripts to avert any military junta or mutiny from taking place among its ranks. Violence is often to ensure that new recruits follow all orders provided by their seniors without questioning. A strong environment such as the one created by the security forces in Eritrea ensures that all personnel follows the directives offered (even if it means providing back-breaking compulsory “national service” for international mining firms. The military is one of the most critical assets that Eritrea possesses and the reason why it would ensure that it uses coercion to provide that all its officers are loyal to its cause. Furthermore, reports on sexual violence in military camps are rife with most of these involving female conscripts.
Dissent was never tolerated among slaves in America with troublemakers often executed. The aim of having a plantation was to ensure that one made the highest possible fortune and therefore improved their standing in society. Having obedient slaves was one of the best assets a plantation owner would have as they would always work hard to please their Master and avoid punishment. Slaves could not talk most of the time freely and had to wait for an opportune moment when the white man was not within their locality to communicate with each other. The slightest whiff of rebellion or a rabble-rouser among the slaves was treated with the utmost violence with most of them meeting violent deaths. Slaves who were often tired of their situation would incite others to fight back and resist any attempt to hold them against their will. In most occasions, this ended badly for those caught up in this intricate web as they would be summarily executed or hung from a tree. Servitude came with obedience and anyone who went against this doctrine often faced. Such was the case in 1831 when Nat Turner decided to incite a group of slaves who went on a killing spree from one plantation to another and finally retaliating. Eritrea has a similar system where any individual marked by the government as being opposed to is often abducted and murdered. Extrajudicial killings are a common phenomenon in this young country with security forces spying on its citizens (Plaut 13). Censorship is also a standard feature of life in Eritrea where the local media is permanently gagged from expressing any dissent towards the totalitarian regime of President Afwerki. Those who are brave enough to attempt and speak against the one-party rule of this strongman are often the subjects of a violent response by the security apparatus. These policies are implemented to avoid a popular uprising that would possibly oust the ruling party from power.
Conditions during 1699 and 1885 when slavery was common were so adverse that slaves were known to cross state lines and flee in search of freedom. Their best chance at a life of freedom and liberty was to escape to the North which was more liberal and even had most of the first abolitionists. Slaves from the American were aware of the consequences that awaited those who tried to run, but some only wanted a taste of liberty. They were ready to risk it all, even if it meant dying in the process. A similar trend is presently taking place in Eritrea where the youth who are often forced to enlist decide to flee from their country of origin in search of a better life elsewhere. In the beginning, most of these individuals would land in refugee camps in Sudan and Eritrea. The migrant crisis in Europe is also a product of President Afwerki’s oppressive regime which often sees waves of Eritreans escape from their country on a yearly basis. Most Eritrean citizen’s head to Europe where they hope to live a better life. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya is usually the most challenging part of the journey, especially considering nearly half of this number never succeeds. These persons are typically ready to have a brush with death so long as they escape oppression and tyranny.
In conclusion, Eritrea is one of the youngest countries in Africa and still struggles to maintain its sovereignty. Under the one-party rule of President Afwerki through the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) a system of compulsory conscription has been responsible for a classic case of modern-day slavery. The conditions in this Horn of Africa country are similar to those experienced by slaves in America where forced labor, violence, rape and repression were commonplace.