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Monday, 30 October, 2000, 18:16 GMT
Eritrea confronts the future
War wounded veteran and child
Time to reflect in a war-scarred country
By Alex Last in Asmara

Over the last few months Eritrea has been experiencing an unprecedented level of debate, introspection, and self-criticism.

Ever since the last round of fighting, which saw large swathes of the country occupied by Ethiopia, discussion has been pouring through the media on what happened in the war, the state of the country and its future.

Soldiers on cliff top
Questions are being asked over the government's conduct of the war
Debate via e-mail from the Eritrean diaspora has been one source of articles highly critical of President Isaias Afwerki, the practices of the government, the bureaucracy and the affairs of the ruling party, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (FPDJ).

The most common call is for transparency, accountability and for more popular participation in government.

The most famous criticism appeared in an open letter to the Eritrean President called the "Berlin Declaration", signed by 13 Eritrean academics and professionals, including the former head of the Constitution Commission, Dr Bereket Habte Selassie and some senior veterans of the war of independence.

The letter appeared in Asmara through a private e-mail servers.

Critical press

The government and private newspapers have on occasions been publishing own articles calling for reforms. The private newspapers have a loyal following - albeit limited to Asmara.


How can we publish? We want guarantees. We feel intimidated

Independent journalist
The government has given the newspapers tax exemption and had given the journalists waivers for national service so they could continue to function.

But recently, eight journalists from the private press were arrested for avoiding national service - something which impacted heavily on the young private papers.

Most of the journalists were released after four days because they had valid exemptions.

Still, some papers chose not to publish for a week.

Isaias Afwerki
President Isaias: Government coming under unprecedented criticism
"How can we publish? We want guarantees. We feel intimidated," said one journalist who did not want to be named.

The government strongly denies that there is any link between the journalists' arrest and the rise in critical articles, insisting that the papers can publish whatever they want.

The private newspaper Keste Debna went ahead and published an edition last week - including an article demanding the release of its editor and another journalist, who remained detention.

Warfare

The debates are driven not only by the desire for political and economic reforms to make Eritrea a richer, democratic country. They are also driven by a desire to strengthen the country militarily, so Eritrea would be in a better position if another round of fighting takes place.

Damaged mosque in Massawah
Eritrean culture is essentially conservative
For many Eritreans, the recent fighting has raised many questions concerning the government's conduct of the war.

However, Eritrean culture remains conservative and fervently patriotic; national unity and defence of the nation are on everyone's agenda.

Current Eritrean public debate, though at unprecedented levels, would still be considered relatively mute and respectful by anyone else's standards

Some Eritreans simply do not care about such discussions - others feel that the time is not right for such debate.

Political change?

Yet discussion seems set to continue, and maybe there will be some changes at the top - most likely in ministerial personnel.


Any changes are likely to be gradual, and to come from within the party, not from without

Eritrea's first general elections have been scheduled for December 2001 - even though there are still no political parties. A commission to decide the rules for political parties has first to make its report.

The present government comprises essentially the same people who won Eritrean independence. The liberation movement has a basis in popular culture, for which there is no obvious alternative.

Any changes are likely to be gradual, and to come from within the party, not from without.

The question then will be whether those asking for change are satisfied and - if not - will it make a difference?

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