National Service in Eritrea: Binding, Defending and Building the Nation
National service programs seek to instill the basic national values of duty, responsibility, service, and citizenship. The united service of citizens to their nation is one of the best ways of building citizenship and civic responsibilities.
Especially for developing and diverse, multi-cultural societies, national service provides the much needed social glue. It plays an important role in creating a cohesive bond that connects individuals together within a society. National service promotes civic engagement and the spirit of community service and volunteerism.
In Eritrea, national service has a long history that dates back to the period of liberation struggle. Before 1991, Eritrean youth dedicated their service for the liberation and independence of the nation. The Eritrean revolution served as a melting pot of Eritreans. Eritreans from all parts of the country joined the struggle regardless of their differences and together they struggled. Regional, ethnic and religious differences were overcome and Eritreans fought in unison. This experience of national service for independence must be enhanced and adjusted to the defense, rehabilitation and construction of the nation. The people of Eritrea gave services for fifty years (1941- 1991) for national independence and justice. And after independence, since 1994, national service has been used as an institution to promote the engagement of the youth in the country’s cultural, social, economic and political processes for nation building.
The idea of creating Sawa and national service after independence was a continuation of the popular participation of Eritreans in the struggle for independence. As in the liberation struggle, Sawa brings together Eritrean youth from different parts of the country and all walks of life. National service has also facilitated the interaction between the Sawa generation and Sahil generation. The interaction between these generations has been a vital means of building a nation and facilitating the political process of the country.
One of the objectives of the national service in Eritrea is to foster national unity among the people of Eritrea and eliminate sub-national feelings. To do this, the national service presents young Eritreans from the nine ethnic groups, six administrative regions and two religions with a unique opportunity to study, work, and struggle together. By studying, working and struggling together, Eritreans form strong social bonds. National service is one of the few institutions of post-independence Eritrea that put together Eritreans to solve common problems. It helps Eritreans to know one another and deepen their relations in the defense and construction of the nation. The Eritrean youth have come to realize that they have become a single body of a nation. Giving service to the nation is a tradition in Eritrea and Sawa is the place for the restoration and continuation of that tradition. Throughout Eritrea’s history, Eritreans have come together to defend their dignity and liberty. Nations stay together when citizens share enough values and preferences. In Eritrea efforts have been made to ensure unity in diversity.
After thirty years of bitter armed struggle, the need for National Service became clear when Eritrea gained independence. Like the revolutionary generation, the present and future generations have the historical responsibility of preserving a free and sovereign Eritrea. The final objective of the Eritrean revolution was not merely to achieve national independence and sovereignty. Independence marks not only the end of colonial oppression but also the beginning of a new chapter of struggle for nation building, prosperity, equality and justice.
There cannot be a firmly established political state unless there is a teaching body and institution with clearly defined and recognized principles. The citizen ought to be taught from the beginning the value of being always ready to respond to national demands. Following the start of the armed struggle, especially after the formation of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), important institutions were established that made independence possible and laid the ground for nation building. Eritrea and Eritreans were made for the first time in Sahil with the formation of the EPLF. After independence, Sawa became a center of political, military, academic and vocational training for the Eritrean youth. The Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) is a harmonious amalgam of the Sahil and Sawa generation, which strengthen the national unity of Eritrea. EDF is so productive an army that behind every development project in Eritrea there are members of the defense forces.
History shows us that almost all the developed countries undertook various steps to unify their populations. Some adopted state religions while others instituted national languages and so on. The Eritrean project of building a nation has been achieved with great regard to diversity of the people. Participation in the service to the national cause makes Eritreans one people. There is no question that nation building is a formidable task and requires that citizens feel they belong together. The struggle for independence and the national service have reinforced among Eritreans the sense of belonging together and the resolve to work for the development of their country.
Sawa, as a place, and national service, as an institution, encourage the Eritrean youth to understand the value of giving back to the community. Given the historical and current condition of the country, national service is critical for nation building in Eritrea. National service enables Eritrea to survive in the face of adversity, to lay the basic foundation of development and to tighten the rope of national unity. National service in Eritrea instills in the youth tenacity, heroism, cohesiveness, vigor, inventiveness and other needed values. Sawa and national service enable the eventual transition from nationalism of war to nationalism of peace. Members of the national service fight against poverty as much as they fight against external enemies.
Sawa and national service bring together young people from different walks of life to form a renewed sense of Eritrean identity. They create an opportunity to apply the energy and talent of Eritrean youth to national priorities, facilitate the connection between generations and develop the connection between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Sawa and national service create a pool of citizens ready to give both military and civilian service to the nation.
A nation is not defined by its borders. It is defined by a diverse people who have been unified by a common national cause. National service is a great unifier and leads to the adoption of a common vision. It gives the new generation the opportunity to belong to the ‘great generation’ because it has participated in a common cause.
The Eritrean experience of national service cultivates nationalism and unity among the Eritrean people. Sawa became a melting pot of thousands of Eritreans who came from different backgrounds. Through its inclusiveness, it cleared the ground for national unity. The national service of Eritrea makes the country stronger and secure in a region that is not stable.
In Eritrea national service has become a rite of passage to become a responsible and acceptable citizen. It is a training ground for building good citizens and fostering national unity. Members of the national service are gallant fighters, vigilant guards of national identity and sovereignty and productive members of the Eritrean society. As an institution, national service makes the diversity of Eritreans their beauty. National Service in Eritrea has been a successful experience in Africa that has to be adopted by all developing nations. It has been playing a significant role in uniting, defending and building the Nation.