Building the new State (1993-1998)
Recognition of Eritrea’s independence opened a future of hope for the country, devastated by 30 years of conflict. On 19 May 1993, the PGE adopted Proclamation 37/1993 creating a new government to oversee a four-year transition to constitutional rule. The legislative branch of the Government consisted of a National Assembly composed of the members of the Central Committee of the EPLF and 75 elected representatives. None of the exiled political parties and organizations (including the ELF) was represented since the PGE had not authorised them to return to Eritrea. On 21 May, the National Assembly confirmed Isaias Afwerki as President of the country.
At the beginning of June 1993, the PGE Advisory Council was transformed in the executive branch of the government. The Judiciary, for its part, had already been put in place since 1992, with applicable legislation based on a combination of Ethiopian civil codes, local customary laws and policies adopted during the liberation struggle. In May 1993, Ms. Fozia Hashim, appointed two years earlier as head of the High Court, became Minister of Justice, a post she still occupied in 2015.
On 20 May 1993, however, while the country prepared to celebrate its independence, former EPLF fighters launched a protest after President Afwerki’s announced that veterans would remain mobilised for four additional years to rebuild the country war ravaged infrastructure. The protesters blocked Asmara airport and threatened to jeopardise the celebrations. President Afwerki eventually met them in the stadium of Asmara and, by promising them demobilisation benefits, convinced them to disband. Yet, two days later, hundreds protesters were arrested and imprisoned for several years.
Other signs of a lack of openness of the new authorities to criticism and forms of expression other than the EPLF-dictated ones could be observed. In 1993, for example, the EPLF decided to suspend the activities of the Regional Centre for Human Rights and Development (RCHRD), the first Eritrean national NGO created in 1992, after it had organised a conference on “NGO policy, multilateral policy and rural credit in Eritrea” and recruited hundreds of independent observers to monitor the April 1993 referendum.
Soon afterwards Isaias Afwerki made his first speech to the OAU and the United Nations. He laid emphasis on self-reliance, a notion forged during the armed struggle against Soviet-backed Ethiopia. The concept of self-reliance was discussed in February 1994 during the Third Congress of the EPLF, which restructured the Front into a political party renamed People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Self-reliance became one of the six core principles outlined in the National Charter adopted by the Congress and aimed at guiding the PFDJ and the Government; other principles included national unity, participation, self-sacrifice, social justice and the strong relationship between the people and the leadership. The Charter stated the aim of building a secular State, independent from regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and social affiliations.
In this context, the congress did not reconsider the existing ban on political parties, instead it argued that introducing a multi-party system at this stage in Eritrea would favor the formation of organizations along sectarian lines and jeopardise the national consensus built during the struggle. The Congress also reconfirmed Isaias Afwerki as the PFDJ Secretary General and created a 19-person Executive Council and a 75-person Central Council to replace the Central Committee of the EPLF.
The National Charter of the PFDJ also called for the establishment of a constitutional commission to draft a national constitution by 1997. On 15 March 1994, that commission was created with a mandate of two years. It comprised a 32-member council and a 10-member executive committee chaired by Mr. Bereket Habte Selassie, a lawyer and leading figure during the armed struggle. Mr. Azien Yassin, an intellectual from the left wing of the ELF, served as vice-chair and Mr. Zemhret Yohannes, a prominent member of the secretariat of the PFDJ, was its secretary.
The Commission, which included 20 women and representatives of each ethnic group, met for the first time one month later, on 17 April 1994. Throughout 1994 and 1995, commissioners travelled across Eritrea and abroad to discuss with local communities and the diaspora the principles to be outlined in the future constitution. The consultative process continued in January 1995 with the organization in Asmara of an international conference to debate the proposed constitution. Representatives of foreign countries were invited, but again exiled Eritrean political organizations were excluded.
The day after the Constitutional Commission was set up, on 16 March 1994, registration for the national service began and implemented with some delay the Proclamation adopted by the PGE on 6 November 1991. The Proclamation required all Eritrean citizens aged between 18 and 40 years to undertake a 18-month national service, comprising six months of military training and 12 months of duties in the army or the military reserves. The official goals of the national service were to constitute a reserve force able to defend the country, forge a sense of national unity and rebuild the country. It also intended to put men and women in a position of equality for 18 months, just as they were during the liberation struggle.
At first the Proclamation was met with some resistance but, by August 1994 the registration process, promoted by a media campaign highlighting the values of sacrifice, led to the enrolment of 200,000 recruits. A first group of 10,000 was sent to receive military training in the camp of Sawa, a former Italian garrison located along the Sawa River in the Gash-Barka region that had served as an ELF and EPLF base during the war for independence.
In September 1994, a group of Jehovah Witnesses was arrested for conscientiously objecting to perform military service. More would be detained and imprisoned in the years to follow. In addition, on 25 October 1994 President Afwerki announced a presidential decree revoking the citizenship of Jehovah Witnesses on the ground that they refused to vote in the 1993 referendum.
Suppression of dissenting voices by the Eritrean Government was also to be witnessed in July 1994. Veterans with disabilities incurred during the armed struggle, protesting against their living conditions, decided to organise a demonstration that would take them to the capital city. After attempts by the police to stop them failed, a commando unit intervened and shot at the protesters, killing some. The leaders of the march, like those of the May 1993 veteran protest, were imprisoned. This was the last public demonstration to occur before the early 2000s.
In November 1995, the Proclamation 11/1991 on National Service was amended to include citizens aged between 40 and 50 years in the national reserve army. Later on, provisions were also added to ensure compliance with National Service by all citizens, including those in the diaspora, by making it a requirement for the renewal of passports. Similarly, Eritreans wanting to leave the country without completing their national duty were required to post a bond.
In 1995, the Government also adopted a Proclamation which prohibited local religious institutions from involvement in politics and from providing social services, managing development projects and advocating on issues related to social justice. The following year, the Government suspended the activities of two national NGOs, the Eritrean Women War Veteran’s Association (BANA) and the Tesfa Women Association, both created in 1994 by veteran fighters, seemingly because they competed with the PFDJ-controlled National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW). The Government also expropriated their assets, including large sums of money. On 25 February 1997, the Chair of the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission (ERRC) announced that international NGOs would have to restrict their projects to education and health sectors, which resulted in many NGOs leaving the country.
With regard to the judicial system, in 1996 the Government announced the creation of a Special Court – a tribunal constituted of senior military officers appointed directly by the President – with the aim of reducing the backlog in civilian and military courts by hearing cases involving high level officials accused of corruption, misuse of public funds and other major capital offenses. In a short time, the Special Court started operating as a parallel justice system. Lacking independence from the Executive, trained personnel and guarantees of fair trial, it quickly became a means for the suppression of dissent and critics.
In July 1996, the Constitutional Commission submitted the final draft of the constitution to the National Assembly. Between January and March 1997, the first election since independence took place to designate the members of the assemblies (baito) of the six regions (zoba) set up in 199661 to replace the historical nine provinces (awraja) of Eritrea. Alternative candidates to PFDJ-affiliated ones were not allowed. The 399 elected representatives of the regional assemblies eventually formed, along with 75 representatives appointed by the PFDJ and 75 others elected by Eritreans in the diaspora, the Constituent Assembly which adopted the Eritrean Constitution in May 1997.
The new Constitution provided for the creation of a secular State, based on social justice, democratic principles, equality between men and women as well as all ethnic and religious groups, human rights and public freedoms. President Afwerki, however, refused to implement the Constitution until the holding of national elections but the long awaited elections were to be postponed due to the border dispute with Ethiopia that broke out in 1998.
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