According to periodic reports, Africa has been experiencing more than a decade of nearly consistent economic growth. However, large-scale poverty continues to prevail, and the continent remains among the most deprived in the world. Not only is the gap between rich and poor extremely wide, rights and entitlements are unknown to many. Injustices, marginalization, discrimination, and conflict on the continent destabilize not only Africa but the globe.
Countries across the world have developed the habit of boasting about the increase of GDP and other measures of economic growth. Practically, however, that economic growth alone cannot basically address issues of poverty, exclusion, and inequity. In order to practically improve the lives of the impoverished people, social justice is required. Social justice, by its very nature, targets the marginalized people in society. It is the only hope for the disadvantaged. Social justice is crucial to achieve social harmony and to create a viable nation.
Social Justice is the foundation and fundamental law of Eritrea, enshrined and reflected in the National Charter, national policies, regulations, proclamations, and other documents. To rectify long-standing socio-economic ills has based its policies on a commitment to social justice and equality. The National Charter of Eritrea defined social justice as follows: “social justice means narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots, ensuring that all people have their fair share of the national wealth and can participate in the political, social and cultural life of the country, to create balanced development, [and] respect human rights…” Eritrea diligently works to create equal opportunities to ensure the fulfillment of citizens’ rights to social justice and economic development and to fulfill their various needs. The national education policy also states that “Sustainable development cannot be realized without the full and equal participation of all social groups” (MOE 2003: 15) while the national health policy also stipulates that one of the guiding principles of health service in Eritrea is to promote equity in the provision of health service. This refers to the distribution of costs and benefits of health service to all people regardless of their location, ethnicity, gender, age, social, economic, cultural and political status (NHP 2010: 16). The National Union of Eritrean Women, the Workers Union and the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students also state in their constitution that one of their objectives is to promote social justice.
The moral test of a government is how it treats those who are the most vulnerable, marginalized, and down-trodden in society. Usually the disadvantaged sections of society do not need compassionate words but compassionate action and attention. In order for people to benefit from justice and security, the government has to accumulate enough power to implement and enforce its policies. Claiming Social justice and public security without any deeds are only compassionate words. In this case, the GSE has accumulated experience, understanding and capacity of monitoring, regulating and enforcing laws in cities and remote villages. Asmara, the capital city, Qarura in the north, Omhajer in the west, and Ras Dumiera bordering Djibouti are governed with similar laws and they have a reasonable share of the national wealth. Thanks to our accumulated experience and political beliefs, we are moving in the right direction although we still have much to achieve.
Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is a state of mind attained only when security, hope, confidence and social justice exist. Eritrea has been victimized by the unfair and unjust international order. Independent Eritrea faced Ethiopian armed aggression, planned isolation, demonization, unjust sanctions, and many other economic and diplomatic challenges. However, despite these challenges, Eritrea, as Minister Osman Saleh pointed out at the recently concluded 72nd session of UNGA, has “emerged intact, more determined, experienced, and, in many ways, stronger. It is peaceful, stable, secure and harmonious, a haven of stability in a turbulent neighborhood.” The peace and security prevailing in Eritrea are the outcome of the policies of social justice and equity. Equal distribution of resources and services remains one of the key guiding principles of the government.
The policy of social justice induces a sense of community amongst people of the nation. The policy directives of the government and the extraordinary sense of unity of the people may evoke questions and be interpreted as a threat abroad. As it has been said, the right way is not always popular and easy. Standing for what is right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character and Eritrea has been severely tested on that. Right is right, even if everyone is against it.
There are genuinely sufficient resources in the world to ensure that no one, nowhere, at no time, goes hungry. The problem is not the availability of resources that enable decent life. The basic problem lies in values and priorities. Eritrea, like many other developing nations, has capital deficiency. However, this deficiency has been compensated by the commitment to social justice that gives priority to the disadvantaged. We now have a glorious opportunity before us to inject fresh energy and hope into the veins of our country. In this case, we agree with Pearl S. Buck’s statement that “To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”
Eritrea achieved its independence by the struggle of its people for 30 years. The current government, which led the bitter struggle for independence and self-determination of Eritrea, from the outset was determined not to become like the system it opposed. When the EPLF fought against Ethiopian colonization, its true revolutionary posture and nature were slandered: Shifta and other negative connotations were attached to it. After independence, when the popular revolutionary front assumed power and established a government committed to social justice and self-reliance, it was subjected to various denunciations. The people and government of Eritrea may not have the power to prevent discrimination and unfairness, in the world, but under no circumstances will we ever fail to protest. We shall not fear anyone on Earth and we shall not submit to injustice from anyone. The reason why Eritrea has been deeply disappointed by injustice is because it has a deep love of justice. Giving priority to the underprivileged, providing equal opportunities, promoting national harmony, supporting economic and social progress, and committing to social justice and building a “citizenship based nation” are our inflexible objectives that we struggled toward for so long. And we will not stop our struggle. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said “until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
We have not copied social justice and self-reliance from others. They emanated from the realities of our revolution, our social organization, and our contextual reality. We adopted these as guiding policies by critically examining our realities and our experience. Eritrea is a country that came to existence after a united sacrifice of all Eritreans. During the arduous times of our struggle, every Eritrean sacrificed against colonization. As we fight together, we are all equally destined to enjoy the resources of the country. Since the struggle took from everyone, independence shall give to everyone.
President Isaias Afewerki, in one of his interviews, has said that “our economic development is not vertical; but an economic development with equitable distribution and growth… If every citizen is equal from the principled perspective, then they should be equal in practice as well.” The development policy of Eritrea values social justice and equality rather than strictly focusing on simple quantifiable measures such as GDP. It gives a preferential option for the underprivileged by equalizing opportunities and the means to participate fully. In any country, failure comes when the actual realities are misrepresented and resources are squandered by very few. Development programs concentrated only in the large (or capital) cities and state budgets dedicated to satisfying the elite are the proven symptoms of failure. In Eritrea, prioritization and focus are given to the least advantaged, the rural, and the vulnerable. Our development plan is designed to bridge the gap between remote rural areas and towns.
President Isaias Afewerki, who shuns pomp, ceremony, and lavish displays of wealth (unlike many other global leaders), has further linked the distribution of state resources with peace and development. He stated that “For us, our priorities…have been distribution of the available resources in such a way as to bridge the gap and reduce the differences between the different social classes, whether in regions or within their territorial sub-divisions. If this problem is not handled properly, there can be no stability and no development can take place in any part of a country.” Any development initiative that does not bring social order and enforce social justice cannot be sustained. The various tribal, regional and religious intra-state conflicts across Africa (including in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, DRC, CAR, and Kenya) showcase this point.
Let me conclude with President Isaias’s remark on social justice: “Finally, what I would like to say is that because social justice is the foundation, there is no other alternative except to have a frank political order which ensures social justice.” Social justice is the foundation and fundamental law of Eritrea. It helps to strengthen national unity, promote social harmony, and support inclusive socio-economic growth and development.