Eritrea is often in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Scores of young Eritreans have fled human rights abuses in their country. A recent high-level panel tried to charter new ways for an Eritrean-German dialogue.
"To compare Eritrea with North Korea is the most inaccurate thing I have heard in my life. It is totally wrong," Uschi Eid, a seasoned politician and president of the German-African Foundation said.
Eid, a long-time observer of Eritrean politics, made the remark at the opening of a panel discussion on the current political and economic situation in Eritrea and the future of German–Eritrean relations. The discussion, co-hosted by DW, brought together Eritrean delegates, including Yemane Gebreab, head of the ruling (and only party) People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and a number of high ranking German officials, media professionals and representatives of NGOs working in Eritrea.
For some of the experts gathered in Berlin, the often-cited comparison between Eritrea and North Korea was not too far-fetched. Eritrea's clandestine foreign policy agenda, a forced military service, alleged human rights violations and ongoing cross-border skirmishes with arch-enemy Ethiopia, but mostly the exodus of young Eritreans applying for asylum in Germany, have set alarm bells ringing.
When it gained independence in 1993 Eritrea was paraded as a beacon of hope for Africa. But critics point to the fact that the Eritrean government has still not implemented the constitution drafted in 1997, thus setting the newly-independent country on a path towards the authoritarian, one-party state that it is today.
In response, Yemane Gebreab, Eritrea's head of political affairs and a close advisor to President Isaias Afewerki told DW that many African countries have dysfunctional multi-party systems and constitutions that only exist on paper. He argued that Eritrea is simply pursuing its own, unique governance approach.
National Service: 'a very important project'
On of the main reasons for young people to leave Eritrea is said to be its forced conscription to the military or "national" service, which can take 10 years or more. The country is listed among the world's top 10 source countries of migration. In late 2015, the Eritrean government pledged to shorten its national service to its original 18 months. One year later, very little has changed on the ground and youngsters continue to flee in droves.
Undeterred by the criticism, Gebreab told the Berlin panel that for the sake of nation-building and in the light of persistent threats from its neighbor Ethiopia, his country "should be commended" for its national service. He also said that it secured much-needed job opportunities for young people. It's a "very important project" and has "proved its value," he told DW later.
In an emotional challenge to Gebreab's argument, Almaz Zerai, a representative of the diaspora Network of Eritrean Women, said the reality on the ground totally contradicted the statements made by the Eritrean government. She said it was high time for them to "go out of the state of denial." The announcement of the government to increase the payment to conscripts holds little value for the activist: "They tell us that now that the salaries are increasing, the problem is going to be solved," she told DW. "No. It [should be] about letting the youth live their lives - to let them live free as they want to," she argued.
Eritrea today receives very little foreign assistance. Official development aid stood at $83.3 million (74 million euros) a year in 2014, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (DCD-DAC).
Although agriculture takes the first position as a driver of the GDP, the country is said to have huge natural resources, including gold, copper, zinc and potash. It currently has one new mine and three more are expected to be working by 2018. However, for Gebreab the current cash flow from mining "cannot even cover the bill."
To keep the economy afloat, cash-strapped Eritrea greatly depends on remittances sent home from exiled citizens around the world. It has been alleged that the government, desperate for money, turns a blind eye to the mass exodus in expectation of euros and dollars.
Where to go from here?
So where does that leave future relations between Germany and Eritrea?
The reported human rights violations have so far made German officials reluctant to engage publicly with Eritrea. "We cannot give development assistance to any country, be it Eritrea or any other, without any guarantees that political and civil rights will be respected," Christoph Straesser, a German MP and former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for a parliamentary group of the Social Democtrats (SPD) party, tells DW on the sidelines of the conference.
The recent EU decision to award an additional 200 million aid package to Eritrea to stem the wave of refugees has been questioned by many. Critics argue that the allocation of funds could result in strengthening the Eritrean government's muscle in silencing dissent, thus increasing the magnitude of the migration crisis.
Straesser, who led a group of German MPs on a recent fact-finding mission to Eritrea, asserted that the fund should be channeled to fight the cause of migration rather than supporting the regime.
Echoing his sentiments, the exiled campaigner Zerai told the panelists that pouring millions of dollars would not change anything unless the regime "diagnosed itself and was ready for treatment."
Georg Schmidt, the Foreign Affairs Office's Sub-Sahara representative, summed up the state of affairs: The Eritrean people have a "hunger for bread and a hunger for justice," he said. What this means for Germany's re-engagement with Eritrea is something that needs careful consideration.