Colonels and Teachers: The Ravages of Militarized Education in Eritrea
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By Ahmed Raji - Mar 14, 2010   

(This piece is a shorter version of the original article)


The immediate, systemic reasons and the underlying socio-economic and historical causes of the problems of the education sector (including the direct effects of war) are amply described in the literature about Eritrea[i]. However, the contribution of the domestic political and policy environment to these problems have so far received minimal attention. Yet, more than any other factor, it is the government’s own autocratic policy setting that has negatively impacted on the education sector. The political environment in Eritrea is highly repressive and is characterized by high levels of societal mobilization in the name of national defense. A particularly pertinent aspect of this situation is the militarization of education along with other sectors.

In the government’s rhetoric, education is touted as a main (if not the main) route to the country’s development. However, assertive declarations and campaigns for expanding access to education are not sufficient for achieving education’s goals if the overall political and policy environment in which they are embedded is not conducive. Eritrea’s repressive political environment in general, and the militarization of education in particular, has significant adverse effects on education in the country.

First, Eritrea remains in a state of high mobilization with an estimated 15% of its population mobilized in the army. A substantial part of the civil service, including thousands of teachers, has been drafted. This situation continues despite the fact that the border conflict with Ethiopia, the trigger for the recent war (1998-2000) between the two countries, has been resolved through international arbitration following a peace agreement in December 2000.

Second, the government’s mobilization policies affected the education sector in more specific ways such as forcing all final-year secondary students to pursue their schooling in a military camp. A constellation of draconian policies and practices have turned the education sector into a semi-militarized institution. As a result, the efficiency, quality and equity of the education system have suffered.

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Political and policy environment

Eritrea is a highly controlled society. Political opposition is banned, all forms of independent media have been closed and hundreds of political opponents and journalists are in prison (HRW 2009:17-19). Society remains in continuously high levels of mobilization. This repressive political environment in general and the militarization of education in particular, have significant adverse effects on education in the country. First, we consider the general political environment in the country. Subsequently, specific policies pertaining to the education sector will be discussed.


An estimated 13-15% of Eritrea’s total resident population is mobilized in the army or in militarized service[ii] - an alarmingly high proportion of people in productive age. If we add the number of students who are under the virtual authority of the Ministry of Defense, the figure is even higher. Indeed, Eritrea is the most (or second most) militarized country in the world[iii].  According to the country‘s national service act of 1994 every able-bodied person between the age of 18 and 40 is required to do 18 months of service. In practice, however, conscription has become indefinite, while the upper age limit has been raised to 50 and, on occasion, 55 years.[iv] The massive mobilization has affected every facet of life in Eritrea. When the border conflict with Ethiopia flared up in 1998, an estimated 60-70% of the civil service was drafted to the army (WB 2004:14). Among the mobilized were thousands of school teachers and other Ministry of Education personnel (World Bank 2004:2). The state of heightened mobilization continues despite the fact that the border conflict with Ethiopia has been resolved through international arbitration. A plan to demobilize 200,000 soldiers, about two-thirds of the wartime army, started only tentatively and soon stalled (Healy 2007:8). Instead, the government in May 2002 announced a virtual extension of the open-ended national service system by announcing a new mobilization drive termed the ‘Warsai-Yikealo development campaign’ (WYDC) (Kibreab 2009:44). Human Rights Watch described the latest state of mobilization in the following terms:

Unlike earlier military mobilizations for the war of independence and the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, the current mass and indefinite mobilization of the population into national service—ostensibly in readiness for a potential Ethiopian invasion—is increasingly unpopular. The repressive apparatus required to keep so many unwilling people conscripted and mobilized is extensive: summary executions, brutal punishments, reprisals against families, and a huge prison infrastructure outside the rule of law in which acts of torture and cruel treatment are commonplace and committed with impunity. National service conscripts serve in the army, work on national development projects, or are loaned to private firms controlled by army officers and government allies for their gain. Compensation is minimal and non-compliance is not an option. (HRW 2009:25).

Even those formally demobilized, provided they are still physically fit, remain members of the National Reserve Army and are frequently called up for military refresher courses or even renewed active military service or duty in the militarized work service (Healy 2007:8).

The net outcome of the mobilization, limited demobilization, remobilization and new recruitments may be that there are currently more people serving in the open-ended national service system than there were even during the height of the conflict. Healy (based on a paper by Amanuel Mehreteab) estimates that between 350,000 and 420,000 may currently be under military service (2007:8). The conscripts receive only a token wage (HRW 2009:24).

Militarized education

The government’s mobilization policies also affected the education sector in more specific ways. For example the government in 2003 decided that no school in the country, other than a new facility established in Sawa, Eritrea’s main camp for military training, would provide grade-12 instruction (Freedom House 2005:2). Instead all students completing 11th grade would have to go to Sawafor the final year of high school and for their matriculation exams. This practice is now in its seventh year. The students’ association with the camp is more than mere physical. The Sawaschool (officially known as the Warsai-Yikealo school) operates under the camp’s military command, with students undergoing several weeks of military training before the start of the school year and otherwise subject to the camp’s military regimen (HRW 2009:50). This fact was most unequivocally affirmed by Sawa’s military commander, Col. Debesai Ghide, who told the Eritrean TV’s program, ‘Wefri Warsai Yikaalo’, that “as far as we are concerned, these are members of the Eritrean Defense Forces.” The teachers are also treated as being a part of the Ministry of Defense‘s staff. The school is often isolated from civilian life. For example, it was reported that parents were denied permission to visit their minor children in Sawa(US Dept of State 2008). The practice led UNICEF to express concern that the government could be violating the rights of minors, as most of the students are under the age of 18 (BBC 2004).

Tertiary education has also come under increased pressure from the rising militarization sweeping the country. The University of Asmara, the country’s only university ceased accepting new students as of 2002, while a number of tertiary training centers (optimistically called ‘colleges’) were hastily established in various parts of the country. While this was touted by the government as a move to decentralize higher education, there is evidence that the government’s main objective was the dismantling of the university following the events of the summer of 2001 where students participated in a short-lived pro-democracy movement (Müller 2004:123). The new ‘colleges’ were, indeed, been announced as part of the WYDC and are mostly run as military units.

School governance

After Eritrea’s independence, the EPLF’s education system had to adjust to a new civilian environment, even though management at all levels remained in the hands of former fighters. The renewed conflict with Ethiopia only served to strengthen centralization and enhance the autocratic aspects of education management. One observer who worked as a teacher in Eritrea remarked that “the whole education system was run by liberation front fighters, from the Minister of Education to the director of each school.” (Hill 2005). Some of the fighters deserved their positions — others did not. He further noted, “The ministry preserved the command-style system of management that they had used in the war, but which was unsuitable for civilian staff and civilian life.” This was “a highly centralized system of control, with no question of discussion. Management was a matter of issuing orders.” (Ibid).

As we saw earlier, the Sawa school is fully incorporated into the military structure. Other training institutions are also in the same situation. For instance, Mai Nefhi College, one of a few institutions where students can receive post-secondary instruction following the virtual closure of Asmara University, is a militarily regimented institution led by an army colonel. Its “administration is based on a military structure. Students are organized in military groups and guarded by military personnel. They are also not allowed to choose what subjects they can study.” (Kidane 2006)

Most decisions in the education sector are made centrally and many of the management functions are highly centralized (World Bank 2002:22). Instead of focusing on overall quality monitoring, the Ministry of Education maintains responsibility for even school-level monitoring. From such distance the Ministry “cannot effectively monitor the effectiveness of individual schools” (Ibid). School or even district level accountability is non-existent. Hence, the Ministry “needs to relinquish more responsibility for monitoring quality at school and zoba [region] levels to the zoba and equip them to perform this role by more meaningful decentralization.” (Ibid). The role of central government is dominant not only in relation to local government but also relative to civil society and the private sector. The latter’s role in education provision is minimal. As to civil society, only a handful of local NGOs are allowed to operate in Eritrea, mainly in relief and rehabilitation work.

Impact on the performance of the education sector

The implications of the above-depicted policies for various dimensions of the education sector performance are discussed below.

Impact on participation (particularly girls’ education)

Participation of girls has visibly suffered in the years since 1998. While the impact of the renewed conflict with Ethiopia is always cited as the main reason for this and other setbacks in educational performance, official documents of the government and its aid partners seldom question the government’s draconian policies.

Since the government announced its above-mentioned decision regarding the final year of secondary education, classroom attendance, particularly female student attendance, plummeted ( 2003a). It is common knowledge that many families hide their children rather than let them go to Sawa. Comparing the period 1991-1995 with 2001-2003, Eritrea’s MDG Report found that female participation had dropped significantly in the middle, secondary and tertiary levels. As a ratio to male participation the decline was from 0.836 to 0.798 for the middle level, 0.65 to 0.57 for secondary, and 0.17 to 0.15 for tertiary levels (State of Eritrea 2005:16).

The common reasons for the low participation of girls are duly identified. They include such cultural factors as early marriage, unwillingness to send girls away from home, burdening girls with household chores and girls’ responsibility for looking after siblings (AfDB 2004:05; Chapman et al 2003:2), as well as remoteness of schools (Chapman et al 2003:2). In recent years, however, the militarization of the education system has become the main culprit. Many female students simply failed to enroll for their final year of secondary education while many others, both male and female, “elected to repeat grades or dropped out of high school after the 11th grade to avoid being forced to go to Sawa.” (US Department of State 2008). While female-to-male ratio in secondary schools in general is 0.57 to 1, girls represent only 5% of students among 12th graders ( 2003b). Given the dread and fear with which Sawa is regarded, this dramatic drop is not surprising. As reported by the US State Department, “reports continued that some female conscripts [in Sawa] were subjected to sexual harassment and abuse.” (US Dept of State 2008).

The dearth of female teachers has also contributed to low female enrolment. Women’s participation in teaching at the elementary, middle and high school levels declines from 40% to 12% and 10 % respectively. This is because of the high dropout rates in the education system for girls who do not in large numbers make it to higher levels to qualify for teaching positions at the said levels (AfDB 2004:5). Hence, the vicious circle where low female enrolment and fewer numbers of female teachers feed into each other.

Impact on student flow (progression)

The education system in Eritrea is plagued with high repetition rates. While pervading the whole system ¾ 16% per grade (18% for girls) on average of the combined primary, middle and secondary levels, they are more acute at the higher levels (World Bank 2002:17). As noted in the World Bank’s Education and Training Sector Note for Eritrea: “By all accounts, there is a high level of wastage throughout the education sector in Eritrea. The performance of the system deteriorates as one moves from primary to upper levels as illustrated in repetition and dropout rates seen in all [regions]” (Ibid).

Again, many of the familiar reasons are adequately documented, including ‘stringent selection examinations’ (World Bank 2003:3-5). However, a peculiar factor that has become increasingly common is deliberate failure on the part of students. “Some students, aware of their fate once they reach 12th grade have begun to deliberately fail classes so that they can remain in the lower grades.” (HRW 2009:50).

Dropping out altogether is another ‘option’ forced on students by the dreaded prospect of militarized schooling. Indeed, drop-out rates have been increasing, particularly in post-primary levels (UNESCO 2008:27; Rena 2006a). “Other Eritreans at the age of conscription and final year secondary school students fled the country in their thousands or went into hiding.” ( 2008). Human Rights Watch’s 2007 report (2007a) states: “Spurred by the rigors and abuses of the national service system, draft-age Eritreans and high school seniors have been fleeing the country in the thousands over the past five years or have gone into hiding.”

Impact on teaching capacity and quality

The government’s stringent policies have aggravated the already precarious teaching capacity in various ways, including: (i) removing teachers from their profession for military purposes, (ii) the dwindling of trainable human resources pool as a result of the exodus of mainly young people out of Eritrea, and (iii) making large numbers of teachers receive nominal ‘national service‘ stipends rather than their regular pay.

Many teachers who were drafted into the army are yet to be demobilized. As the World Bank reported,  “[t]he slow progress with the demobilization process and the continuing high levels of mobilized skilled manpower in the army has had a very negative impact on HR capacity in [government] institutions.” (World Bank 2004:8). The education sector has been hard hit leading to “shortage of skilled people at all levels of the system from school-level to Ministry of Education.” (World Bank 2004:2).

The wide-scale mobilization also means less human resources available for training as teachers. An African Development Bank report concluded, “[t]he mobilization for the war front of over 250 000 men and women 18 to 40 years of age, a significant portion of whom could have otherwise joined the teaching profession, also contributed to the decline in the number of teachers” (AfDB 2004:2). The pool of trainable human resources is further depleted because of the large numbers of educated young people fleeing the country. Moreover, while during the first years of independence, foreign-educated Eritreans were flocking back to their country, in recent years, most of those who were sent for higher studies abroad did not return ( 2003c). Refugee agencies estimated that each month in 2006 about 700 Eritreans fled to Sudan and another 400 to Ethiopia. In recent years, Eritrea has become a major refugee-producing country (Kibreab 2008:53).[v]

The implication for female teachers, and thereby girls’ education, was even more evident. As we saw in the statistical profile, the proportion of qualified female teachers dropped sharply between 2000 and 2002, and that, overall, enlisting of females in the teaching profession has been less than satisfactory.

Naturally, the effects are not confined to teaching capacity, but, similar to other sectors, pervade the entire management of the education system. The UNICEF situation analysis highlighted the inadequacy of technical capacity in the social service sectors which was attributed to “unavailability of personnel, largely due to their placement for military service and the lack of adequate numbers of educated females to take responsibility for the delivery of social services.” (UNICEF 2003:50).

Moreover, teaching capacity is affected not merely in the quantitative sense, but also qualitatively, as many of the teachers who remain in the system perform under par. It is true that quality problems, including the prevalence of under-qualified and/or underperforming teachers have been present in the system all along - even before the advent of the policies in question. However, the evidence points to these problems not only persisting, but also becoming more acute. According to the government’s own MDG report “most teachers and administrative staff belonged to the National Service and received only a stipend that is much lower than regular pay”, which “adversely affected morale, leading to absenteeism and attrition.” (State of Eritrea 2005:10). The report predicted the situation would improve as more teachers revert back to regular pay, but new reports from Eritrea indicate that the government continues to delay demobilization indefinitely (Kibreab 2008:44; US Dept of State 2008; HRW 2009:43), thereby impeding the regularization of the civil service.

Meanwhile, the government has resorted to importing teachers at a comparatively high cost to fill the shortage. These make up 19 percent of the secondary teaching establishment and cost on average eight times the cost of an Eritrean teacher (World Bank, 2003, GoE, 2003). The same is the case with other higher learning institutions in the country where more than 70 per cent of the faculty are expatriates (Rena 2006b:12-13). Even though this measure is meant to be temporary, there is no sign, after eight years of practice, that enough Eritrean teachers are replacing the expatriates.

Implications for public spending on education

Eritrea’s public spending on education is deficient. By contrast, military spending remains substantial. Even according to the most conservative estimates, 6.3 percent of GDP in 2006, Eritrea’s military spending is among the top ten in the world (CIA 2008).[vi] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s database the figures are even higher - standing at 24.1 percent of GDP in 2003. In the latest estimates (2009), BICC put the figure at 20 percent of GDP. Military expenditure is, indeed, a major drain on the country’s limited financial resources crowding out other sectors.

Impact on the quality of education

In addition to hampering access and undermining girls’ education, thereby slowing down progress towards Eritrea’s EFA targets, the government’s policies, by impacting all of the above-listed aspects of education, have also negatively impacted quality. Moreover, classroom disruptions are common. Especially in Sawa, students could not study without disruptions, as they were frequently being asked to do some kind of military-service-related tasks (HRW 2009:50).

Low quality is “manifested in low learning outcomes, and high repetition and dropout rates, especially for girls and disadvantaged groups.” (UNESCO 2008:27). Low learning outcomes are “caused by inadequate time-on-task, poor teacher quality and unsatisfactory physical learning environment” (World Bank 2003:3). Learning hours at school are no more than 4 hours a day for many children (World Bank:2). Other manifestations of low quality include “increasing pupil-teacher ratio matched by increasing enrolments, and limited access to quality curriculum and instructional learning materials” (UNICEF 2003:56).


A combination of an instrumentalist belief in education as a tool of economic transformation and a growing trend of militarization have turned the Eritrean education system into a huge mismanaged project of social engineering. Schools have been turned into semi-military boot camps, and students are treated as mere inputs in an economic formula without much academic freedom. Thousands of teachers and education administrators who have been among those drafted in the national service corps have yet to return to their jobs. In addition, the open-ended military service system has been holding up precious human resources which could have otherwise been used as teachers, for which there is huge unmet demand. All this has significantly affected the system’s capacity to expand access, improve quality and meet other sector objectives. The impact on girls has particularly been severe. The government’s repressive policies have undermined its own purported goals of expanding education.

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[i] See, for example, World Bank 2002, World Bank 2003, The Eritrea Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report (The State of Eritrea 2005), UNESCO 2008, African Development Bank 2004.  

[ii] Based on a figure of 350,000 to 420,000 out of a resident population of 2.9 million (Healy 2007:8).

[iii] According to the Bonn International Centre for Conversion’s (BICC) 2009 report, Eritrea ranks number 1 in the world in terms of militarization.;  The Global Militarization Index  for 2009, issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ranked Eritrea as the second most militarized country in the world.

[iv] In 2002, with the announcement of the Warsai Yekealo Development Campaign (WDYC), a national social and economic development effort, the statutory national service of 18 months was indefinitely extended so that all male and female adults must be available to work at the direction of the state in various capacities until the age of 40—now often 50 or 55 in practice (HRW 2009:6).

[v] According UNHCR, Eritrea was in 2008 the second largest refugee producing country in the world, next to Zimbabwe:

[vi] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI):

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