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Eritrea has a long history as a heavily militarized nation, dating back to its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. Militarization is a core component of Eritrean nationalism and state formation, which is arguably forged out of war but is also implicated in Eritrea’s problematic human rights record. Following Eritrea’s 1991 independence, the country was poised to democratize and liberalize. At that time, the country also began an intensive process of nation-building of which militarization was a central part. In 1995, Eritrea introduced the national service program. Eritrea’s national/military service, which requires 6 months of military training and 12 months of free military or civil service for all Eritreans (male and female), initially enjoyed widespread public support although there were always concerns about harsh living and labor conditions. In 1998, a border war with Ethiopia broke out. At this time, those who had military training in national service were recalled. Although fighting ended in 2000, the border war deepened Eritrea’s adherence to militarization as a key strategy of national defense, nation-building, and development. A condition of no-peace, no-war followed the border war. The long period of no-war, no-peace with Ethiopia allowed Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, to consolidate his power, deepen authoritarian rule, and extend the national service program indefinitely. The indefinite extension of national service meant that conscripts were not demobilized and new recruits into national service could not be assured that they would ever be released. Due to the indefinite extension of military service, harsh conditions in the military, and extreme punishments for those who try to escape the military, Eritrea’s national/military service requirement is at the center of concern about human rights and civil liberties in Eritrea. Militarization has since become fused with state control and punishment, leading to human rights and civil liberties violations and the mass flight of close to half a million Eritreans over the past decades. Despite the announcement in summer of 2018 that Eritrea and Ethiopia had finally agreed to peace, no one has been released from the military and Eritreans continue to flood out of the country to avoid national service conditions which have been equated with slavery.

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The peculiar politics of the Horn of Africa derives from the region’s exceptional pattern of state formation. At its center, Ethiopia was Africa’s sole indigenous state to remain independent through the period of colonial conquest, and also imposed its rule on areas not historically subject to it. The Somalis, most numerous of the pastoralist peoples, were unique in rejecting the colonial partition, which divided them between British and Italian Somalilands, French Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, while formerly Italian Eritrea, incorporated into Ethiopia in the post-World War II settlement, retained a sense of separate identity that fueled a long struggle for independence. These differences, coupled with the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, led to wars that culminated in 1991 in the independence of Eritrea, the collapse of the Somali state, and the creation in Ethiopia of a federal system based on ethnicity. Developments since that time provide a distinctive slant on the legacies of colonial rule, the impact of guerrilla warfare, the role of religion in a region divided between Christianity and Islam, the management of ethnicity, and external intervention geared to largely futile attempts at state reconstruction. The Horn continues to follow trajectories of its own, at variance from the rest of Africa.

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Liberation movements in Africa are nationalist movements that have resorted to armed struggle to overthrow colonialism, white minority rule, or oppressive postcolonial governments. Claiming to represent the national will, some are intolerant of opposition, others dubious of the legitimacy of multiparty democracy: this difference is a reflection of whether the military wing of the liberation movement dominates the political movement or whether the reverse situation applies. In the post–Cold War era, liberation movements espouse notions of the “developmental state,” continuing to ascribe the state a primary role in economic development event though they may simultaneously embrace the market. The extent to which they subordinate political considerations and freedoms to the pursuit of economic growth dictates whether they pursue paths of authoritarian development or developmental stagnation