As Feyisa crossed the finish line in the men’s marathon on the final day of the Olympics, winning a silver medal, and fully aware of the glare of the international community and media, he lifted his hands over his head and crossed his wrists in a symbolic anti-government protest. He repeated the gesture as he received his silver medal – the gesticulation is a trademark sign of protest, often used by the Oromo from where Feyisa hails, against the violent repression of the government.
At the time Feyisa made this gesture the Oromo territories, home to more than a third of the population of Ethiopia, was under siege from the Ethiopian military. More than 400 Oromos had been killed and thousands arrested during protests by the Oromo in the space of several months when Feyisa demonstrated the plight of his people to the world. Feyisa knew full well that such open protest was dangerous and admitted that he could be killed if he returned home. Speaking to the media after the race, he said:
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, taking their land and resources, so I stand with all protesters everywhere as Oromo is my tribe. My relations are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights, they are killed.”
The intersection between sport and human rights highlighted above brings me to the main issue of this article – how Eritrean sportsmen and women indirectly reveal the state of human rights at home, but how very few people are taking notice.
A few days ago, five players from the Eritrean under 20 football team absconded from their hotel in Jinja, Uganda in the middle of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations Challenge Cup. The players are likely to seek asylum in Uganda and turn their backs on Eritrea for good if the political situation remains the same.
While there is a long history of African athletes abdicating from national sports teams while representing their nations at international sporting events, the peculiarities that force many Eritreans to do so are quite different.
Many of the sportsmen and women from other African countries who leave their camps during international sporting events target mainly countries in the global north with buoyant economies and sometimes better policies on asylum seekers. They do so mostly to seek green pastures and better economic opportunities. Admittedly, some also do so to escape conflicts and civil war. Eritreans for their part have used sporting events as a means to escape from compulsory military service that has been described by some as a form of slavery.
In October 2015, 10 players from the Eritrean soccer team the Red Sea Camels defected after playing in a World Cup qualifying match against the Botswana national team.
Military service is compulsory for all Eritreans at 18 years old and above. While the policy governing this stipulates military service will be done for 18 months, in practice the military service is indefinite.
For example, since the practice was made official by the government in 1994, no Eritrean has been officially released from military service. Conscripts receive meagre monthly wages (approximately $60 on average) that do not cover basic living expenses and others are not paid. Many spend months at the infamous Sawa military camp with limited food and water, often in very high temperatures. Those who violate even the most basic instructions are subjected to harsh punishment. Others work in mines and construction sites and females are often forced to do domestic work and sometimes subjected to abuse and ill-treatment.
Eritreans, therefore, face two options – undertake military service or flee. Until recently, the Eritrean government often cited the existential military threat from its neighbour Ethiopia as the main reason it continued the policy, but even after the two countries signed a joint declaration of peace, friendship and comprehensive co-operation in July 2018, forced conscription continues.
The compulsory military service and the abuse that comes with it should not be viewed in isolation and must be seen within the context of the nature of the Eritrean state.
Eritrea became a closed state in 2001 when the government shut down all independent newspapers, arrested journalists and government representatives that called for democratic reforms and who were critical of the government of President Isaias Afwerki. The whereabouts of most of those arrested in 2001 are not known and many have not been in touch with relatives since. There has been no election since independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the rule of law is absent, the state is heavily militarised and a constitution approved in 1997 has never been implemented.
Forced conscription is the main driving force pushing Eritrean sportsmen and women to abdicate and not return to Eritrea, but the propaganda of the Eritrean government and the conflict “fatigue” experienced by the United Nations and African Union often preoccupies the international community and limits discussions on actions against the Eritrean state that will force it to implement reforms.
After all, they argue, it is a sovereign state and not at war, so other countries engulfed in intra-state conflict should be prioritised. The closed nature of the Eritrean state and the absolute control of the media by the government means up-to-date information on the state of human rights is mostly obtained from Eritreans who have fled from home.
Eritrean authorities have used diplomacy and coercion to force governments of countries where Eritreans have abdicated, to force them to return home. The Eritrean government has also adopted some stringent measures to ensure Eritrea’s presence at major sporting events by recruiting Eritrean athletes who hold dual nationality into its national teams. It has also now imposed compulsory financial bonds on Eritrean professional soccer players who intend to represent Eritrea in international sporting events to deter sportsmen from abdicating and to guarantee they return after sporting events.
Sport is a major unifier among all nations and the plight of Eritrean athletes should be enough to force the international community, particularly states that now host many Eritreans, to exert pressure on President Afwerki to implement reforms, 26 years after taking power.
As a first step, all states should respect the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and provide Eritreans with the administrative, social, and psychological support they need to enable them to settle when they abdicate. Family members of those who abdicate sometimes face the wrath of the Afwerki regime. Anyone who may be forcefully repatriated after they abdicate may never be seen or heard from again once they arrive in Eritrea.
The long-term solution is for other African states, the African Union and the United Nations to stop treating Eritrea like a normal state because it is not. The joint declaration of peace, friendship and comprehensive cooperation signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea last year seems like a missed opportunity for the international community to hold President Afwerki accountable for his human rights record.
Many Eritreans will continue to flee as long as the status quo remains the same but where politics has not been enough to jerk the international community into action against Eritrea, perhaps sports can. DM
David E Kode, advocacy and campaigns lead, Civicus.
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope