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National Service: Synopsis of Underlying Rationale and Past Trajectory

NB - This article was published on October 14, 2019.

Underlying Rationale

The Government of Eritrea enacted the law on National Service in 1992, in the immediate aftermath of the country’s independence after a tortuous, three-decades long, war of national liberation.  The original law was further amended in 1995 and enacted as Proclamation 82/1995.

The overarching reasons for launching the National Service Programme were profound and multi-faceted.  The wider objective was prompted by and encompassed security, developmental, cultural, educational and nation-building considerations and dimensions.

In regard to security, the exigency of charting out a comprehensive demobilization programme of the relatively large liberation army was evident from the outset.  The liberation army consisted of over 100,000 freedom fighters – with varying levels of education and professional expertise – at the time of independence.  This was necessary as the EPLF had to confront and vanquish sub-Saharan Africa’s largest army.

This configuration had to change in view of the new regional reality.  Eritrea was not only independent but it had also forged new ties of friendship and cooperation with Ethiopia and with all its neighbours in the Horn of Africa and Middle East region in the new climate of peace.  The prospect of new or renewed hostilities was not, thus, looming on the horizon or contemplated, even as worst-case scenario, in the calculus of policy makers in the region in those promising times.

In the event, Eritrea’s security architecture and military doctrine were mapped out on the basis of minimal defense expenditure to build and sustain a very small professional army.  In this spirit, 65% of the freedom fighters were demobilized between 1992/3 within the framework of a remuneration package that was limited to cash payments without associated training and credit components.

The National Service was conceived in this context; merely as a long-term contingency plan to buttress a small, professional army, in the event of war, improbable as it seemed in those times although not entirely inconceivable in abstract terms in the distant future.  In brief, this was really a residual option whose actual application was more abstract and hypothetical than concrete and real.

As intimated above, security considerations were merely one component within the much wider objectives and features of National Service.  Indispensable contribution to nation building was a more important and urgent element as National Service entrants were expected to render 12 months (after six months of military training) public service in critical sectors of development in the nascent nation.

Fostering national cohesion within the social setting of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nascent nation was another objective whose fruits were distinctly illustrated in the decades that followed.  The reality was National Service had become a melting pot where the youth in the same age group from different ethnic groups and socio-economic status mingled and shared transformative experiences for the entire 18-months duration of National Service of their specific group.

Past Trajectory

In the subsequent years too, when the duration of high school education was extended from 11 to 12 years and all 11th grade graduates went to Sawa both for the four-months long military training and 8 months of education and examination for the National High School Leaving Certificate (University admission exams), the National Service became a useful tool for educational standardization.

In the early six years until the eruption of war with Ethiopia in May 1998, the National Service programme functioned seamlessly in accordance with the explicit statutory provisions in terms of its duration as well as the obligations and rights of NS members.

When Ethiopia declared war against Eritrea in May 1998 and unleashed a huge force of invasion, the non-active members of the National Service had to be recalled and mobilized.

The Government of Eritrea launched a second phase of demobilization in September 2001 following the UNSC-guaranteed Algiers Peace Agreement between the two warring parties.  This was done long before the announcement of the Arbitral Award of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, which was in fact delivered on 13 April 2002.  Eritrea had wrongly assumed that the internationally guaranteed arbitral award would be strictly accepted and adhered by both parties; especially since there were explicit clauses in the Algiers Agreement that provided for imposition of punitive measures by the UNSC against the recalcitrant party.

But Ethiopia rejected the EEBC decision, formally and without equivocation, in September 2003 after obstructing implementation of the Award for more than a year through various dilatory tactics.  As it happened, the then Prime Minister wrote an ignominious letter to UN Secretary General stating that Ethiopia cannot accept what he termed as the “unfair, unjust and irresponsible” Award of the Arbitral Body.

Ethiopia’s reckless action and flagrant violation of international law should have elicited appropriate punitive action by the UNSC.  But this never happened as the US used its diplomatic clout and leverage to block any lawful action.

In the circumstances, the GOE had no option but to extend the duration of the National Service.  The subsequent 16 years until Ethiopia’s full and unequivocal acceptance of the EEBC decision in June last year, was a period of intermittent provocations and military assaults by the TPLF regime against Eritrea and the resultant situation of permanent regional tension.

This imposed reality entailed onerous obligations to members of the National Service and to the Eritrean people as a whole.  Eritrea’s earnest determination and drive to funnel all its resources, energy and time towards nation-building and development – after thirty years of war – could not but be adversely affected in spite of the GOE’s desire not to be entangled in and be kept hostage by Ethiopia’s policies of pronounced belligerence and “regime change”.

Some of the negative economic consequences included a total freeze in the salary of all Civil Servants, and a nominal and uniform pay to all National Services members irrespective of seniority and academic/technical qualification.  Prolongation of National Service beyond its 18-months statutory limitations also entailed other restrictions, including derogation of the right to travel abroad etc.

The adverse conditions notwithstanding, the GOE continued to periodically take various measures to mitigate the hardship.  For women, National Service was usually limited to few years and not beyond the age of 27.  Marriage was another factor that women could invoke for demobilization.  All national service members were allowed to travel abroad for educational and compelling medical reasons. National Service members of both sexes were demobilized in cases where initial or periodic medical check-ups established lack of physical fitness.

Prolonged National Service also rarely meant deployment in the army.  The majority (90%) of National Service Members were usually and routinely assigned to civilian jobs in the Civil Service or other public institutions.

In August 2015, the GOE began to implement the first phase of salary increments and adjustments in the Civil Service and Eritrea’s Defense Forces.  The new Salary Scale, which envisaged a substantial improvement of the economy as a whole in the period ahead, involved almost three-fold increment in all categories of employee professional qualification and job classification.  (Table of Comparative Salary scales for new entrants in the Civil Service/Army attached below).

In the new Salary Scale, priority was given to National Service Members.  As a matter of fact, all National Service members with post-secondary academic qualifications as well as those assigned to the Army are remunerated in accordance with the new, much higher, Salary Scale.  A new Salary Scale for Permanent Civil Servants who hold 2nd degree or above and for those whose academic qualifications is high school or below has not been implemented as yet.

Two issues that are often confounded – unwittingly or for some ulterior motives – are the presumed use of unremunerated or underpaid National Service labour in commercial enterprises – public or foreign – and deployment of National Service in public infrastructural projects.

In regard to the first issue, the presumption is false and unfounded.  National Military Service members have to be demobilized first to be employed by commercial enterprises.  But in regard to non-profit public infrastructural projects and programmes, National Service members can be engaged fully.  This is an accepted and normative practice everywhere; members of the Army can always be deployed in major infrastructural work when required by the circumstances; (publications by the US army deployed in AFRICOM, for instance, routinely highlight the developmental contributions of the various units in commendable projects of road, water and other infrastructure in the host country).

The Period Ahead

The Peace and Friendship Agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia in July last year will certainly entail policy implications on a raft of vital domestic and regional issues in both countries.  In terms of National Service, the elimination of war and the threat of war and the full restoration of peace will have far-reaching consequences on its future configuration.

A congenial security environment both in terms of Eritrea’s ties with Ethiopia as well as its neighbours is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for adjustment of the National Service; in its duration and other institutional features.  This will not require new statutory acts as the substantive law has not been altered in the past 25 years.

Indeed, there are other vital parameters that need to be addressed in a satisfactory manner for demobilization and the peace-time, normative, re-configuration of the National Service.  There are important lessons that have been gleaned from the previous demobilization programmes.  The viability of the various packages implemented, their current relevance and ways and means of enhancing them for greater outcome for the prospective beneficiaries are issues that will require comprehensive and meticulous appraisal.

In brief, the challenge is not one of policy but the design of comprehensive and concrete blueprints and programmes that will ensure full and gainful integration of National Service members in a vibrant economy.  These are tasks that fall within the purview of relevant government institutions and sectors.  They will be accomplished meticulously and with the necessary detail in due time.

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