National Service is broadly defined as “the involvement of people in activities which provide benefits to the country whilst developing the abilities of young people through service and learning.
” In Eritrea, the youth are considered the country’s reliable present and future capital. As a result, young Eritreans are called to participate meaningfully in the political, social, and economic life of the country. National service fosters a spirit of service and a common sense of nationhood, stimulates patriotism and promotes intergenerational understanding. In line with this, national service supports the youth to participate constructively in the progress and development of their country and allows them to develop an understanding of their role in the national reconstruction of Eritrea.
National service also helps Eritreans to increase their self-confidence, discipline, and sense of responsibility, ability to identify, analyze, and solve problems. Despite its difficulties and challenges, national service harnesses Eritrea’s important human resources in order to enhance the delivery of the country’s development objectives.
Eritrea’s national service program began in 1994. It aimed to reconstruct and rebuild the country following the long and arduous war of liberation. It was also focused on developing the youth and enhancing the sense of nationalism, patriotism, solidarity, and unity among the population. The guidelines stipulate that those engaged in national service would serve in military and civilian roles for 18 months.
Prior to the 1998 invasion by Ethiopia, those who were enrolled in the first five rounds of national service did their national service according to the established guidelines. However, due to the “no war, no peace” situation, to ensure Eritrea’s national security, sovereignty, independence, and even existence, the national service has been extended.
In Eritrea, as in many other countries, human resources take precedence over capital and technology in planning and implementing national development projects and in ensuring national security. Those enrolled in national service, commonly referred to as “Warsay”, are the fundamental backbone of national development projects. Today, many Eritrean youth have been able to develop important skills, enhance their education, and acquire practical work experience. They are contributing towards building the nation, on behalf of themselves, their families, and communities. Ministries and organizations, including the armed forces, provide their national service members courses and training, which can certainly be expanded and increased. National service offers a range of opportunities for personal growth and development and it improves recruits’ life skills, such as resilience, communication, discipline and honesty.
The potential impact of national service programs on the Eritrean society is remarkable. Undeniably, the extended duration of national service has not been ideal and it has had negative effects. However, through the youth’s active participation, the national service promotes patriotism and national development, and, in the process, it reduces social evils like backwardness, illiteracy and disease.
Many countries have established different policies to create a sense of national identity and foster national unity among their populations. National service is one policy that has been used in many countries to facilitate the nation-building process. It can often be seen as a “rite of passage” from adolescence to adulthood or a tool to build responsible citizens. By encouraging recruits’ interaction with others from different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds, national service can also contribute to national peace, tolerance, understanding, unity, and solidarity.
When Eritrea was liberated in 1991, large parts of the country had been destroyed. The people and the government realized that the present and future generations had the responsibility to build the nation from its ashes. Eritreans had and have to fulfill the will of the thousands of martyrs and ensure the continuity of the freedom. Pursuant to the National Service Proclamation (82/1995), every national between the ages of 18 and 50 has a duty to participate in national service. The aims of national service, clearly described in the Proclamation, include building a strong people-based defense force, transmitting revolutionary values and the culture of heroism to the new generations, and creating a hardworking generation that participates in reconstruction efforts. In addition, national service seeks to cement the unity of our people by promoting unity and nationalism and by eradicating sub-national attitudes (Article 5). The military training, political socialization, and education in Sawa also play an indispensable role in the process of nation-building and reconstruction of the country. Over the last two decades, the various rounds of national service recruits have made their own history by safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty, laying the ground for nation-building, and honoring our martyrs.
There are many negative narratives about Eritrea’s national service. The Western press and NGOs have even labeled it as “national slavery”. The politicized, one-sided allegations lack balance or honesty. No one can deny that Eritreans often serve in national service for an extended period. Additionally, no one can deny the fact that national service members have often received low wages. But these unfortunate and undesirable circumstances have to be understood within a larger context and framework. The period of national service, as stated in the National Service Proclamation, is to be 18 months. However, the period was extended due to vital matters of national security and defense. Until July 9th, 2018, when Eritrea and Ethiopia formally agreed to peace and cooperation, Ethiopia’s occupation and the “no peace, no war” situation placed Eritrea in a situation where national security, existence, and territorial integrity were the priority. Under such circumstances, and with the international community additionally imposing unjust sanctions and failing to ensure the implementation of the EEBC, extended national service was required.
Like many other citizens throughout the country, I have been in the national service for years with low wages. Although it has certainly been challenging, I have accepted it because I understood the realities. The reality was that my nation was illegally occupied, and there were existential threats, regular military provocations and unjust international sanctions. As well, Eritrea is a new, young country – less than 30 years old.
Now, with peace and cooperation finally emerging things will naturally change. Of course, the EEBC decision is still to be fully implemented on ground and the existence of spoilers is clear to all. Eritrea also requires a constructive engagement from the international community for its development efforts. History shows us how the present-day developed countries were able to attain economic, social and political advancement through the capabilities and sweat of their citizens. In this context, it’s not reasonable to express attacks on the government for mobilizing and leading Eritreans toward development.
Following the new Ethiopian government’s announcement that it would fully accept and implement the EEBC, many analysts foolishly suggested that the Eritrean government would not welcome peace since it would remove the “excuse” for national service. These analysts conveniently overlooked the fact that Eritrea had accepted the EEBC’s decisions when they were first rendered! Today, as the winds of peace and cooperation blow across the region, change is inevitable. As far as national service is concerned, there is no doubt that the government and the people of Eritrea wish to – and will – set it right.