Eritrea, the Dictator Against the People: “Demolish their Houses”


Makeda Saba
Somewhere inside Eritrea, March 15th 2015

Since the start of March 2015 the Eritrean websites:  Asmarino, Awate, Radio Erena are reporting on the Eritrean Government’s campaign to demolish houses. The villages and towns that we know are affected, by the current demolition campaign are: Kushet; Adi Abieto; Zelot, Kahawata, Adi Keyh. In Adi Keyh alone 120 houses are scheduled for demolition. The current demolition campaign is not the first and I fear it will not be the last. In the past houses have been demolished in: Keren, Hashela, and Massawa.

This time more people are reacting, more news (i.e. images, voices etc…) is escaping the tightly controlled country. This time people are throwing stones at the authorities and standing in front of bulldozers these are actions and scenes that are reminiscent of the Palestinian rebellions against Israel or the student rebellion in Beijing in 1994.

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From the reports of the Eritrean websites and from friends and family we know that  in Adi Keyh shots have been fired and that people have been killed and injured. Confirmation of the number of people that have been killed and injured difficult, however there seems to be consistency around the reports of at least 2 dead and 13 injured.

These numbers are in no way a real indication of the number of victims. The experience of the past is that is that many people faced with such destruction and contempt loose hope, lose their resilience succumb to depression and many commit suicide.  Within a very religious and conservative society the act of committing suicide is devastating because the families and friends are never able to share their pain. Suicide happens in Eritrea but it is taboo hence it is never talked about and it is never shown in the records.

Why is this happening? Why the government wants to demolish that houses? The official  reasons are:

  1. Houses have been built illegally
  2. Building  permits have been obtained illegally
  3. The land is  not  for  residential  purpose – therefore  building of a dwelling is  illegal
  4. The land  use has been  reassigned  – therefore  the  current use if illegal

Illegality is the explanation –

On the surface this seems a simple problem – there is a law, the law was not followed, and therefore there are consequences. In fact in Eritrea the situation is not so simple.

camion militare

In Eritrea the situation  is  more like this  – there is a law, however we ( the Government) will make sure  to put you the public in the  condition of never being able to  access the law  or  to comply with it  and then  – without any regard to the  role  we the Government  have played in  creating the chaos, the many exceptions to the legal process and  generally your misery,  we the Government  will punish you  and if you  dare complain  we  will make you disappear – It is  easy  we the Government have done it many times now….

According to the Land Proclamation NO 58/1994 all vacant land in Eritrea belongs to the Government Article 3 – State ownership of land. According to Article 4 of the same Proclamation Eritreans only have the right to use land for particular purposes (Article 4 Usufruct Right). The following are the usufruct rights recognised:

  1. Farming
  2. Housing –
  3. Tiesa – land for housing in own rural village.

In each case when you are allocated land – you have a specific period to use the land for the purpose for which it was given. In the case of land allocated for Housing the Proclamation states that a dwelling must be built within 3 years.  If no house is built within the period then the land must be surrendered to the Government. Vacant Land  anywhere in the country  belongs to the Government

poster contro il 2 per cento

The people whose houses have recently been demolished have not only lost their shelter, they have been damaged psychologically as well as financially. In addition as their plot of land is now technically vacant, they are liable to lose it. As soon as the dwelling is demolished the land is vacant and therefore, technically it reverts back to the Government.


In the current contextEritrean citizens are placed in the impossibility of applying any legality. For years the authorities responsible for issuing building permits have either limited the number of building permits issued or completely frozen the process. This is despite the high  demand for housing in Eritrea

In   2008, under the pretext of corruption, the Government arrested the majority of   qualified architects, engineers, surveyors then privately operating. We should note that though  many were fined and  asked to pay  retroactive penalising  taxes,  none  were actually brought to  court  and in many cases those  arrested were never even interviewed or  questioned  by the Government once  arrested.

The result of these arrests and subsequent penalties imposed on the building sector professionals is that the building industry in Eritrea is in disarray . Many  of the e professionals  working in the industry have not been able to recover and have been  forced to sell their assets and give up their licences to pay fines and back taxes imposed by the Special Court.  The Special Court is a tribunal whose judges are military and are not known, it operates according to conscience, does not allow representation and there is no appeal from it.

Private contractors have been replaced by party /military owned companies that use national service workers at slave labour thus engaging in unfair competition with private contractors, who have  to pay  labour in accordance with the provisions of the Labour  Law. This unfair competition  has  further disrupted  the building sector. The result is simple   Eritreans qualified in construction, both from the private as well as the public sector, have left the country. At best you find them in South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. At worst we are losing them in the deserts of Libya or the Mediterranean Sea.

free our heroes

We have lost and are continuing to lose the professionals and we are also losing the qualified labourers / tradesmen.  The Goverment is  telling us that the  national service is training such people but the reality is that it is not. If you want to build anything in Eritrea and somehow you have managed to  navigate the on and off  again  bureaucracy of the  building  permit and you  have found  a qualified  Engineer,  Surveyor or Architect then  your next challenge is finding a  qualified  work force.

It is not around it is sucked into the black hole of the National  Service and as I  said  previously the National  Service is  not producing  a skilled labour force. If you  are not a General or  a member of the ruling elite then  you may have access to  people who:

(a) are  avoiding the  national  service;
(b) are of Ethiopian  Origins  and are desperate for work ;
(c) are doing their national  service but  are able to  work on the sly –  a black market if you like .

Basically you are getting your work force on the black market. The Generals and the ruling  elite  have no problem because they simply use the  workforce of the National Service. Unfortunately it is a common site in such places as Asmara to see National Service personnel  working on the newly  acquired private house of  the ruling  elite (Generals etc…).  The  result of such  as system  is that  nobody is legal  –


The bulk of building materials in Eritrea is imported and is very expensive In fact because of lack of hard currency and the resulting restraints on letters of credits for importation, building materials are   smuggled into the country.

In addition in an effort to control  the sector  the Government  has put  restraints on the internal movement of  such  building materials  as  sand and stones ( both  available in Eritrea in good  quantity)

Given that  :

a)     To leave land  vacant is tantamount to  forfeiting your land to the Government

b)   Officially  more often than not  the process of issuing building permits is  frozen – that is  Government  Authorities  are stopped from  issuing permits

c)    Building  materials are not  easily available and in many cases are  accessible only through the black  market

d)   There is  a lack  of  building professionals in the country due to the persecution of the same by the Government

e)    There is a  lack access to a skilled  work  force  because  the youth is  taken up by the National  Service and the National  Service has  in  fact  de-skilled the population and many young people  are leaving the country

The action of the Eritrean Authorities to declare any houses built illegal and to demolish them is questionable. Such actions are particularly questionable when we realise that in the same areas where the houses are being demolished there has been a tug a war between the Eritrean Government and the people since mid-2014.

MDG : Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv protest against immigration crackdown

Specifically, since last year, both the youth and the older people in these communities have refused to report for National Service. In  the case of the older people  ( up to  65 years of age )  we  are talking about former  fighters, as well as people who had  been demobilised  on  medical ground. We are talking about people who are of the same generation as the President of Eritrea.  Since mid-2014 two generations of Eritreans have defied the order of the President. To force such people   to report to the military bases the Government resorted to threats and to arresting family members. The tactic was not successful Not only did the people refuse to  report, they also  refused to surrender their weapons , which had been given to as a result of a  security campaign  started in 2008  to  train local militias  .

The Government’s 2014 efforts to draft the youth as well as the older fighters into the national service was timed to coincide with the harvesting months and impacted on the gathering of the harvest causing losses. In this  way a good harvest following  the  good  rains of  2014  was  jeopardised by the actions of the Government . .

In December 2014 ERI TV  (The State Television) questioned President Isaias  on the timing   of the National  Service  round up. His attitude was: “……since training is a priority, harvesting can wait, we can  afford  weeks and months  to do  that….. and one has to make a decision. ………..  Regardless of whatever happens to the harvest, the government opted to have farmers lose their crops instead of missing scheduled training…… We made   a trade-off.”[1]

Clearly the people did not think that military drill was a priority . Clearly the people thought that the harvest was a priority so they disobeyed. Towards the end of  2014  the matter reached  a stalemate  with the President issuing  a God Father like  warning –   much  in the same tone as he had  done in  2001  when  the Government  Ministers  that made up the  G15 insisted to  correct the direction the government  was taking . Twelve of the  G15 minister disappeared  without any trial  and in  2015 it looks like  the people of  Kushet,  Zelot, Kahawta, Adi Keyeh  are paying for their  defiance  and are being made homeless.

Makeda Saba

[1]  –  Isaias’ Trade Off:  Military Drill  as Crops  Perish- December 2014


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