ASMARA, Eritrea – Twenty four years since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia after one of Africa’s longest wars, people are bowed down by a repressive government and increasingly frustrated at the lack of rights they fought for.
Opposition parties are banned and anyone who challenges the president – a former rebel commander who led the war against Ethiopia – is jailed without trial, often in the harshest of conditions.
“Things grow worse by the day,” said one Eritrean who recently followed in the footsteps of tens of thousands of his compatriots and fled into neighbouring Sudan.
“People are tired, and want a solution,” he added, in the run up to the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of independence due on Friday.
The Eritrean – now in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and who asked not to be named – escaped amid rounds of arrests that followed a mutiny by soldiers in January.
Soldiers in tanks took over the information ministry in Asmara for a day before peacefully surrendering, in one of the most dramatic incidents to rattle the regime’s iron grip in years.
“People look at the president as a hero of yesterday but not of today,” he added, citing the tense stalemate with neighbour Ethiopia, with troops still facing off either side of their frontier following a bloody 1998-2000 border war.
While the dusty village of Badme that sparked the war was declared by an international court to belong to Eritrea, Ethiopian troops still occupy the poverty-stricken settlement.
“Even the greatest supporters cannot ignore that electricity cuts are growing, that life is getting harder, and the government rhetoric is seen as just that, not the truth,” the exiled Eritrean said.
On May 24 1993, Eritrea marked its formal independence, two years after then rebel troops marched victorious down the elegant boulevards of the highland capital Asmara, and a month after the people voted overwhelmingly to split from Ethiopia in a referendum organised by the United Nations.
Government celebrations this week include street dramas and concerts, with state-run media lauding a show it says proves the still present “spirit of popular resistance against external conspiracies”.
But the euphoria of independence has faded.
Cedric Barnes, from the International Crisis Group, notes “growing discontent” inside Eritrea as well as “deepening political and social divisions”.
The tanks that took to the streets in January to challenge President Issaias Afeworki marked a sharp shift from the armour that paraded down the streets of Asmara to celebrate two decades ago.
“Crime in Asmara has increased as a result of deteriorating economic conditions,” the US State Department said in a warning to its citizens earlier this month, citing inflation and food, water and fuel shortages.
Children spend their last year of school at a desert military camp, before conscription into national service, that can go on for decades, involving working in the army, mass labour forces or private companies.
“The combination of forced, open-ended, low-paying, national service for many Eritreans and severe unemployment leads some Eritreans to commit crime to support their families,” Washington added.
Last year, the government began issuing civilians with automatic rifles, drumming up popular support against Ethiopia, although critics say it is a move by Issaias to keep factions of the army in check.
“These armed civilian militias patrol at night and are ordered to check individuals for documentation,” the US warning added.
Eritrea’s economy is struggling, with remittances from diaspora – including a government-enforced 2% income tax – dropping off.
Fiercely independent and proud officials – who have outlawed most foreign aid agencies – hope that a slew of mining ventures for gold, copper, zinc and potash will provide a much needed influx of foreign currency.
Since independence, Eritrea has made some steps forward, with conscripts toiling away on state-run projects such as road repair, lifting mines and reforestation.
Since 1995, life expectancy has improved from 52.5 to 62 years, and gross national income has risen by 17%, according to the United Nations’ human development index.
But the same figures also place Eritrea 181st out of 187 countries for the same development measurement, and thousands continue to flee the hardline regime, including successive national football teams whenever they play abroad.
Even former information minister Ali Abdu, who used to be Issaias’ most loyal backer, has fled the Red Sea nation.
Eritreans who have escaped recount grim tales of kidnap and ransom as they try to travel north through Sudan and Egypt.
“The country is fragile… it has limped on in steady decline for many years and the regime has succeeded in holding it together,” one Western diplomat said.
“But there are only so many times you can paper over the cracks… there are only so many people the government can arrest before there is no one left to blame.”
Ethiopia has recently eased its pressure on its rival, reportedly nervous of the stability of the Eritrean state.
“Since the state lacks any institutional mechanisms for peaceful transition of power or even a clearly anointed successor, instability is to be expected, with the corrupt army the likely arbiter of who will rule next,” Barnes wrote in a recent report.
“But even the generals appear split over loyalty toward the president.”
Exiled in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Eritreans sing a song that has become an almost unofficial anthem, far different from the martial national anthem played at celebrations in Asmara.
“Tackling all that comes my way, smiling is what I do,” they sing, dancing with shuffling shoulders to a tune by Eritrean singer Abraham Afwerki, whose mournful songs of stoic resistance have deep echoes for many.
“Even if it is hard now, I will overcome,” they sing along to the tune.