Today marks the 27th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, hard-won after a 30-year war with Ethiopia. On this day, as we rightfully celebrate, we should also reflect on the overall state of the country. To do this, there is no better way than looking back to a landmark speech Eritrea’s first and only president, Isaias Afwerki, gave over two decades ago.
On September 8, 1997, in a public address at the Walton Park Conference in West Sussex, England, President Afwerki delivered profound remarks on democracy and the rule of law in a speech titled “Democracy in Africa: an African view.”
In this address, the president listed six fundamental principles that he believes are the most essential pillars of a modern democracy, particularly in Africa:
1 – The right of a citizen to an equal share of natural resources, including access to basic necessities and protection from hunger and deprivation.
2 – The right to equal opportunity, including education and other services that are essential for personal development.
3 – The right to full respect and protection of one’s dignity – as a human being, citizen and member of a community – without any discrimination on the basis of social status, religion, gender and race.
4 – The right to life, unhindered movement, and freedom of expression and opinion.
5 – The right for and the provision of, appropriate legal and institutional guarantees consisting of, among other things, a constitution and a judiciary.
6 – The right for and the provision of a responsible, transparent, and non-corrupt government to uphold the rule of law and defend the national interest.
Despite the progressive views expressed by the president in this speech, Eritrea has moved further and further away from democracy in the last two decades under his rule.
First of all, Eritrea is still being ruled without a constitution. After a three-year-long drafting process, the country’s constitution was ratified in 1997, but it has not been implemented to this day.
Also, the country is still run by a single party – People’s Front for Democracy and Justice – whose last congress convened over 20 years ago, in 1994. The last meeting of the national assembly, on the other hand, took place over 16 years ago, in January 2002.
The president, in his Independence Day address of 2014, promised that the country would draft another constitution. But four years on, it is clear that promise was yet another excuse to buy time and divert attention.
Let’s examine whether Afwerki managed to adhere to any of the six fundamental principles of democracy that he mentioned in his landmark Walton Park Conference speech more than two decades ago.
On citizens’ well-being and unhindered movement
In 1997, Afwerki advocated for the citizens’ right to unrestricted movement. In today’s Eritrea, however, the overall level of surveillance and control resembles the draconian measures taken in order to contain the plague epidemic in 17th-century Europe,