The Eritrean Defense Forces are highly disciplined and ready to respond at a moment’s notice to natural or human-made disasters anywhere in the country. Despite its spectacular military beauty and critical role played, Eritrean army is the least understood army by foreigners. Overtime, Eritrea has developed the most powerful, disciplined and effective military force in the region. Since the present EDF does not created out of vacuum, we need to examine the past to understand the true nature of and the guiding principles and ethics of the army. EDF is the continuation of Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Army EPLA which was widely admired as one of the most effective fighting force in the world. EPLA fought for and won independence in 1991 and become the symbol of national pride.
The effectiveness of EPLA was not only limited in military operations but also on nonmilitary area. Militarily it changed the balance of power in the region and evaporated the hope of Derg to bring a military solution to the question of Eritrea. On non-military activities EPLA provided various services like health, education, construction and relief. Eritrean armed forces are competent fighting organization that defeated the brute force of colonization and later the TPLF war of aggression. During the struggle for independence it played a great role to remove the military dictatorial regime of Derg from power in 1991. In collaboration with various Ethiopian opposition groups EPLA carried out decisive military operations including the final battle in Addis Ababa. The vital contribution of EPLA has been remembered by people of Ethiopia with high regard.
Following independence in 1991, the government undertook massive demobilization and the army dwindled drastically. But later when TPLF waged a war of aggression in 1998, Eritrea forced to introduce new mobilization to neutralize the aggression. Again, following the signing of the Algiers peace accord a second major demobilization happened in early 2000s which later halted due to TPLF’s disobedience to agreed principles. Throughout history the military have played a great role in the making of the nation and national development of Eritrea. Eritrean army has always been at the forefront of securing the sovereignty and integrity of the country as well as achieving socioeconomic transformation of Eritrean society.
The primary role of EDF is to defend Eritrean territory from external aggression. Without security there can never be any meaningful development. The national security of Eritrea is achieved through the combination of the military strength of EDF and the political acumen of the leadership. The Military capabilities of EDF allow Eritrea to defend itself against all adversaries. During the TPLF military invasion the Armed Forces were able to restore and maintain peace and security by bringing war to an end and on terms favorable to Eritrea’s national interest. During the subsequent “no war no peace” situation they ensured the highest operational readiness for deployment in the event of war and participated in major development projects.
Eritrea has nine different ethnic groups. In a multi-ethnic society, the role of the military has been one of integrating different ethnic groups. EDF has become an instrument of unity and harmony among the diverse nature of Eritrean society. As a secular and national institution Eritrea’s ethnic groups are represented in the army equally. It is comprised of men and women from Muslim and Christian, rural and urban parts of Eritrea. Workers, farmers, skilled and non-skilled, and people with higher education and less or not educated are part of the army. The unity and diversity of Eritrean people is reflected in the army.
EDF is known for its sufficient internal discipline and a functional hierarchy of command. The internal management of the army is a mix of centralization and democracy. Integrity and honest appraisal were the glues that held the army together. These values are greatly assisted by criticism and self-criticism. The conduct of unreserved, honest or sincere expression is common throughout the units of EDF. If something is not right, they have the tradition of discussion and every member has the moral and personal courage to discuss on the issue raised. The behavior and conduct of Eritrean Army are based on core values cherished and upheld by the society.
Eritrea as a poor developing country provides meagre resources to the military. The military doctrine of EDF however has developed the capacity to transform the fewer resources into effective military power. The material and numerical disadvantages were effectively compensated by correct military doctrine, effective training, experienced and dedicated leadership, functional organization and the loyalty and discipline of the army. The capability of a military force, therefore, depends on more than just the resources and number. In numerous confrontations EDF has inflicted defeat over an army with sophisticated technology, large mass of soldiers and heavily supported by western powers. The camaraderie, trust and cooperation among members are rare among any fighting force.
Military’s ability to use its power effectively lies in the doctrine. Doctrine is the first vital determinant of power. Doctrine refers to the body of principles that specify how a military uses its assets on the battlefield and on times of peace. EDF is known for its mantra “leave no one behind.” No soldier, wounded or killed, is left on the field of battle. The army did everything to save the body of fallen comrades in order to bury honorably. The fallen bodies of all Eritrean martyrs are well kept in the Martyrs’ cemetery constructed throughout the country.
Back during the revolutionary struggle Eritrean army had the professional army ethics comprised of loyalty, duty, selfless service, and integrity. These were the core values of the freedom fighters that has been inherited and enhanced by EDF. Both at institutional and individual level commitment, proficiency, truthfulness, courage and character are the identifying values of Eritrean Defense Forces. EDF is a doctrine-based, ethics-guided and values-centered institution. Values such as resiliency, respect on the civilian life and property, critical thinking, self-restraint, obedience to law, ethical conduct, and rapid adjustment all define the character of EDF. Rape, looting, damaging, misuse of power and other negative behaviors that are rampant in armies across the world have no place in EDF. The impeccable track record of Eritrean army can serve as a model if it can be introduced to and emulated by others.
Another peculiar characteristic of Eritrean army is its friendliness with the people. EDF as a peoples’ army has a close and cordial relations with the civilian population. Eritrean army has enjoyed a competitive advantage over any army in the region in terms of close relations and coordination with the people. The army is fully aware of the social, political and economic status of the country. The unity of the people, army and the leadership of Eritrea is the foundational basis of the national power. The army as a guardian of peace is constantly aided by the people and the army aided the people in times of need. Practically the army proves itself as defender of the interests of the majority of the population.
Eritrean army possesses dual skills of winning a war and organizing peace. After the signing of Peace and Friendship Agreement with Ethiopia in 9th July 2018, the role of the military has gradually been expanding into other areas of development. This change has been accompanied by changes in the role of military forces from being a fighting and deterrent force to acting as development force. The capabilities of the Eritrean armed forces directly applied to poverty alleviation, renovation and expansion of roads, construction of dams, bridges and other economically important infrastructure development. In the combat to development the government has been mobilized and directed all instruments of state power to defeat the prime enemy-poverty. Poverty and backwardness are identified as threats to peace and security. Therefore when the threat of aggression was partially removed EDF has adjusted its strategy bearing in mind that the main enemy of the country is poverty and therefore formulate military strategies that will assist in defeating this enemy.
By Simon Weldemichael