Eritrea is Africa’s strictest dictatorship with no freedom of speech or expression. Along with a totalitarian government, Eritrea is known for its hellish conscription.

The Eritrean national conscription is considered to eclipse North Korea in terms of slavery and human rights abuses. The cruelty of the national service is causing one of the world’s most significant mass exodus’ with no end in sight.

Africa’s North Korea

Eritrea, a prior colonial entity in the Italian Empire and a former federal subject of Ethiopia, has not held a national election since achieving independence in 1993. Asmara has only one party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

In Eritrea, freedom of the press or expression does not exist. According to the Freedom House country monitoring organization, Eritrea’s ranking is 3/100, one of the bottom ten lowest rankings of all nations today.

The current dictator of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, refuses to ratify a constitution allowing more than one party to be eligible for government. All activist organizations and alternative parties for Eritrea operate abroad and are banned from the East African state.

Reports of torture and extrajudicial executions are frequent in Eritrea, and all protests are banned. The Eritrean army is under international scrutiny for alleged war crimes during the inhumane siege of the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Graduation of new Eritrean conscripts via Dehai News

Eritrea’s Overly Cruel Conscription

Eritrea currently has the world’s cruelest compulsory military service, eclipsing North Korea. Compared to Pyongyang, where North Korean men and women are required to serve ten and eight years, respectively, Asmara’s forced conscription is indefinite.

Taking inspiration from hardline revolutionaries who turned their armies into being utterly obedient to all orders, regardless of how cruel they were, such as Mao Zedong, Kim Jong Il, and Mengistu, Isaias converted the Eritrean army into a form of personal servitude.

In Eritrea, men and women must serve “only” eighteen months, but the conscription is indefinite. An Eritrean can be kept in military service for anywhere between eighteen months to twenty to thirty to forty years.

Military duties and billets of Asmara are vastly different from standard services. For starters, the state can legally deny secondary education to Eritreans unless they serve. In some instances, citizens are directly conscripted immediately during secondary schooling.

Conscripts do not get the leisure to choose potential billets they want to specialize in. Instead, the state forces a billet onto a recruit, and even then, the military conscription turns into modern-day slavery.

Aside from intervention in the Tigray War and minimal border dispute with Ethiopia, Eritreans are indebted to the state. Instead of learning the basics of military service and the skill sets needed to transition back into civilian life, Eritreans in conscription are used for forced labor.

Akin to the North Korean military and current conditions of Russian forces in Ukraine, Eritrean military personnel are used for often degrading and humiliating tasks. Powers include cleaning high-ranking officer houses, reconstruction projects in the blistering East African heat, and other questionable orders given to low-level conscripts.

Sexual violence, especially against female soldiers, is rampant in Eritrea, and women face fear of execution and death if reported. As the country already has one of the worst human rights records in the world, female conscripts are left at a crossroads. They could end up pregnant or infected with sexually transmitted diseases with few options for health in an authoritarian regime.

A migrant boat intercepted en route to Europe that carried Eritrean migrants fleeing conscription via NYT

Mass Exodus of Eritreans

Eritrea, already a hardline nation with minimal human rights, also faces a mass exodus due to the conscription laws. Over 580,000 Eritreans have fled the country due to the brutal civil service, the overwhelming majority being aged 18-24 (military-aged persons).

To put the number of exiles in perspective, Eritrea’s population is only 3.7 million as of 2023, meaning close to 15% of the total number of Eritreans are now refugees from the oppressive regime.

In a sick yet twisted way to combat the growing number of deserters and exiles, Isaias has a government policy of directly breaking into civilian homes and punishing the families of soldiers who flee the national service. Families of deserters are stripped of their homes and sometimes abused and tortured by security services.

Eritrea in Foreign Policy

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the United Nations Human Rights Council have all presented scathing reports on Eritrea’s modern-day policies of slavery hidden behind compulsory conscription.

Nevertheless, Eritrea, being an authoritarian nation, has made partnerships with other kleptocracies and autocrats to protect Asmara’s ruling dictatorship from international scrutiny. Countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Syria, Belarus, and the Islamic Republic of Iran are part of the joint axis with Eritrea, working in tandem to not only evade human rights criticism but also vote in the United Nations.

Eritrea staunchly votes pro-Russian and justifies Putin’s illegal annexations of Ukrainian lands, and models forced labor for military personnel directly from Russia’s longtime practices of using conscripts as disposable cannon fodder.

The more Eritrea descends into authoritarianism through hardline labor practices in conscription, the more the country will face a mass exodus, a declining labor force, and more international isolationism, greatly diminishing any economic potential the East African country may have.