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Treading Water in Asmara

The streets of Eritrea's capital in the run-up to the 2019 Independence Day celebrations on May 24 were unusually quiet. But cafes and restaurant were full of Eritreans from the diaspora who had traveled back to celebrate 28 years of national independence.

Most of the people who put up with life in Eritrea for the rest of the year, however, do not feel like celebrating. In theory, this year's Independence Day, the first after the end of the 'no peace, no war' stalemate with neighbouring Ethiopia, should have been cause for celebration. But for many, little has changed.

For a brief period, after the opening of the border with Ethiopia for a few months from September 2018, there were at least material benefits in the form of an influx of Ethiopian goods. But by May 2019, the border was closed again, officially to finalise proper trade relations and policies about the movement of people as part of the two countries' political normalisation. People expected that President Isaias Afewerki would outline these future relations and indicate a date when the border will be opened again in his Independence Day speech. They were quickly disabused of their hopes.

Most acknowledge that when the border was open without any checks, Ethiopian businesspeople took advantage and flooded the market. Thus the unregulated flow of goods could not go on. But Eritreans appreciated the fall in prices of essentials that had previously been kept artificially high due to the country's economic isolation.

For now, Ethiopian cars and trucks that briefly clogged Eritrean roads have once again disappeared. On a trip to the southern border, you pass the remains of Mekelle market on the outskirts of Asmara, where people used to fill their cars with Ethiopian products. A few pickup trucks and the remains of some temporary stalls are all that's left. In the town of Senafe, near the Zalembassa border crossing that was the first to open in 2018, just a trickle of goods arrives from Ethiopia on public buses, sporadically checked by local police.

Despite a muted atmosphere on Independence Day, most Eritreans waited in anticipation for the president's speech, expecting declarations pertaining to cross-border relations. President Afewerki, however, made no mention of the peace process with Ethiopia. There had been rumours, even within the ranks of Eritrea’s ruling party, that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might attend events in Asmara's football stadium. Eventually, he wasn't even mentioned by name. Afewerki said nothing about Eritrea's future relationship with Ethiopia, or when the border might be reopened. He only made a vague call for a 'patient appraisal of the unfolding reality', leaving most listeners in the dark.

Eritreans are used to making the best of a bad situation and adapting. Some have turned to Ethiopian radio and TV, hoping to get a sense of when the border might reopen. For this to happen, though, the Eritrean government needs to consent; and it's current position is unknown.

People's main frustration is the lack of information which reflects a dynamic that has characterised Eritrea's politics for the past decades. Ordinary Eritreans are kept in the dark by their government, leading to resignation and apathy. The feared system of mandatory national service was supposed to reformed yet the only difference now is that serving soldiers get paid. Their service, however, is still compulsory for every able-bodied man and woman, officially lasting 18 months but almost always extending to years of involuntary service.

These are not hopeful signs that better ties with Ethiopia could lead to a political opening of any kind in Eritrea, or a shift in how the government does business.

Stefan Boness travelled with Tanja Müller to gauge the mood in this isolated nation.

Text by Tanja Müller
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