“…the African state has failed to perform the basic functions it is ought to do; physical protection of its subjects, sustaining law and order, rendering fundamental services such as health, potable water, education and other basics. Sadly in many other instances the African state has turned itself in to a predatory monster…”
By Gebretinsae Damr
[Minor Editing by YPFDJ-NY]
More than two decades ago the area I was born, with wreckage of freshly abandoned and destroyed enemy trenches and houses piled everywhere on its outskirts, was a typical village that have come out of a thirty-year destructive war. The people, after decades of oppression where scared to silence. Yet as is the case with all revolutionary societies that have took their fate and freedom in to their hands successfully, their faces were reflecting hope and a certain bright future. In their mind they had already started building the country and future they have dreamt to have for too long.
However no one would have guessed that the future will be visible too soon. Two years ago when I went there to see my parents, I was disarmed by how quick things has changed within the four months since my last visit. It is not that something happened dramatically. But what had been done within that short period of time -the implanting of electric poles and the subsequent distribution of electricity in that remote part of Eritrea forcefully drags the attention of any one to all the things that has changed for good.
Part of the reason that made me get fascinated by such an obvious thing was of course my failure to read what was going right under my feet. Truly I have failed to record the important social service providing installations that were put on place incrementally after independence. The main reason however has to do with my information about the realities of many African countries that remained independent for more than a quarter or half a century and are still struggling to provide their people with the most elementary services.
Quite in a lot of instances the African state has failed to perform the basic functions it is ought to do; physical protection of its subjects, sustaining law and order, rendering fundamental services such as health, potable water, education and other basics. Sadly in many other instances the African state has turned itself in to a predatory monster by directing its coercive power against some sections of its constituency. Consequently, beginning in the last decade of the 20th century many of the social contracts between the African state and society started to unravel. To the dismay of many it seemed as though the state and its institutions where unsustainable in the African landmass.
And here I found myself face to face with an inspiring unique African experience that has easily slipped my attention, simply because I happened to be too close to it to take it as anything but phenomenal. Unique because, seen against the backdrop of the rest of African countries, what the Eritrean people has achieved in between the two decades of their independent existence is worth of admiration. The fact is Eritrea started from scratch; the Government of Independent Eritrea inherited a shattered economy, empty banks, completely obliterated infrastructure and an impoverished society.
Contrary to this, communities that used to share the same spring with their animals are now drinking potable water from modern water taps almost in 80% of the eight hundred or more villages around the country. This has not only ensured the prevention of waterborne communicable disease, but also freed women from one of the most tiresome domestic tasks- fetching water.
Before independence, there were only 126 health facilities throughout the country. The majority of them were located in urban and semi-urban areas where they could not be easily accessed by the most needy. People used to walk more than half a day to get basic health service even for minor injuries.
The health strategy of Eritrea after independence focused on primary health care, and this was ensured through providing basic health survives at the local level to reach more people at a fraction of the real market fees. Even though Eritrea’s health indicators show that they are below the level of some countries that share the name LDCs with it, the pace at which they were scored is incredible.
As the 2008 reports of the Ministry of Health has clearly put, now there are 380 public and private health facilities functioning all over the country. And as I can testify people are walking a mere half an hour to get a medical help in almost all the villages around the place I was born and grew up. Definitely the same is true to many Eritreans living in the rural part of the country.
In testifying to this, Eritrea has scored achievements that earned international admiration and medals in many aspects of the health service provision. It has achieved a great deal in preventing and controlling the four communicable killer diseases, malaria, polio, diarrhea and smallpox. Besides, infants’ mortality rate was reduced from 72 per 1000 life births in 1995 to 48 (EDHS: 2002). Maternal mortality rate was also reduced from 998 per 100000 life births (EDHS: 1995) to 630/100000 as per the CCA of 2004.
The same goes with education. After independence, the number of schools increased impressively when compared with the colonial period. As a result the enrollment of students in to schools, even in the most remote parts of the country was more than the expectation of any observer. It increased dramatically during the subsequent years of independence. As the statistics from the Ministry of Education shows, the enrollment for elementary level students, which was 24.8% of the population, of age 7-11, in 1991/92 increased to 54.6% by the year 2005/06.
This was possible due to the unconditional commitment of the Eritrean government toward a “free for all” education which is visible in the investments the government has made to realize it.
What explains the Eritrean exception is the nature of the state that came to represent the organized interest of the Eritrean people. A state that was dedicated on principle to provide its constituency an indivisible justice and led by a government that was committed to the development of the state and society from the onset was at a variance to what the African continent, particularly south to the Sahara has seen so far.
Any serious attempt to test those claims should start by studying the background, political and ideological orientation of the elites that staffed the senior state apparatus after independence. Regardless of their revolutionary confessions, which apparently morphed from radical Marxism to new leftism, the values and norms they came to stand for defines the leadership of the PFDJ more than anything else.
Social Justice, the guiding principle Eritrea pursued after independence was based on the notion that Justice is indivisible and the fact that every citizen is entitled to an equal and fair share of all the privileges the state can afford to provide. Their determination to protect the unity of the Eritrean society at any cost, the distance they were willing to go to safeguard Eritrean sovereignty are testimonies to the commitment they have to these principles.
That said the imperative of organizing the Eritrean society according to specific ideas and rules that were born of historical experience and the Eritrean revolution substantiates the choice of social justice as a guiding principle. One can tell on sight that in Eritrea social justice is not an ideological truism employed to sustain the rule of an irresponsible elite as is in many parts of the world not to mention many African countries, nor is it a necessary political altruism pursued by a privileged few to insulate themselves from the potential outrage of a marginalized majority disgruntled by the abuse of power.