Monthly Archives: September 2016

Eritrea: Some Clarifications

In Tancred, Benjamin Disraeli tells us how “[t]he East is a career.” Eritreans may be forgiven for thinking that likewise, for many mainstream analysts and experts, “Eritrea is a career.” Earlier this year a story on polygamy being mandatory in Eritrea was widely circulated across international media, and this week, an outdated, fictitious report about a North Korean ambassador commenting about Eritrea received considerable attention on social media. Although the stories were hoaxes and satirical, littered with innumerable fabrications and falsehoods – quite easily revealed by simple, perfunctory background research – their broad dissemination and attention poignantly encapsulate how coverage of, journalistic practice toward, and understanding about Eritrea are so problematic. The latest example of this trend is the article, “How the World Forgot ‘Africa’s North Korea’ Eritrea, and What This Means for Migration,” featured in the New Statesman, a British magazine (published 9 September). Not only is the article overly simplistic and lacking in context, it is strewn with inaccuracies and errors, and heavily tinged with paternalistic overtones.


Lacking originality, the author frames Eritrea alongside North Korea. In recent years, it has become quite common to see Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the volatile, politically-fractious Horn of Africa region, derogatorily described as secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom.” While such statements suggest Eritrea remains detached from the global community, closer analysis (of a number of objective measures) reveals that they are clichéd, cursory, and incorrect. In fact, one seasoned Western ambassador based in Asmara quipped, “those who compare Eritrea with North Korea have not been to North Korea and certainly do not know Eritrea,” while, last year, Norway’s Minister of Justice, reflecting upon his working visit to Eritrea, noted that descriptions of Eritrea (e.g. as the “North Korea of Africa”) were highly inaccurate.


Describing Eritrea, the author also utilizes phrases such as “self-isolation” and “a country that tries to seal itself off from the world,” suggesting that it has somehow chosen to isolate itself. This is, yet again, grossly inaccurate. The truth is that the international community, largely led by the United States, has pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea. Specifically, the country has been the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals. According to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated 1 November 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to, “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Moreover, a cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece (30 November 2009) reveals that the “USG [US Government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” while another cable (2 November 2009) mentions that the German government’s rescinding of a credit guarantee to banks for a commercial loan of $US146m to Eritrea’s Bisha mining project was the result of “caving in to…American pressure.”


Even within this context, however, Eritrea has sought to establish beneficial partnerships and develop productive ties with a range of countries, organizations, and institutions. It is quite telling that on the same day the New Statesman published its article, the European Union (EU) and the State of Eritrea announced a new contract worth €18.7 million for the supply and installation of drip irrigation systems in Eritrea, while the signing of a bilateral Cooperation Protocol between Germany and Eritrea was also announced after a week of meetings in Germany involving Members of Parliament and a Senior Eritrean Government delegation. Notably, these announcements by Eritrea are only the latest in a growing series of significant agreements and partnerships with a range of countries and institutions, including – but not limited to – Finland, Cuba, China, Turkey, Japan, Russia, the UN and UNDP, GAVI, the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Development Fund (EDF).


It is likely that the author’s insinuations about Eritrea’s supposed isolationism are rooted in a lack of understanding about Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to development and external aid. Specifically, Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged  aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.


Unfortunately, this approach is often misunderstood or even dismissed. However, the country’s determination to rely upon itself and promote independence should be encouraged, and external organizations and potential partners should be committed to working with it on that basis. In fact, according to Christine Umutoni, the UN-Eritrea Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Eritrea, which made considerable progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, “has a lot to share that could help formulate, shape and implement the post-2015 development outlook for the good of humanity.”


Importantly, the author’s hints about a famine are in stark contrast to observations by Eritrean ministries and international organizations. For example, consider the words of the head of an international NGO working in Eritrea: “at this time, East Africa is suffering massive hunger brought about by drought and El Nino. In the seven recent field visits our teams have made to five different regions of Eritrea and our work with communities and government, we have not observed acute levels of malnutrition. This is testament to the policy of storing and providing subsidised food. This perspective is shared by our development partners such as EU.”


The author also makes several other glaring errors. For example, the author refers to Eritrea’s economy as “decaying,” when in fact, according to several sources (including the IMF, World Bank, AfDB, and others), the economy has actually been growing. Additionally, in contrast to the author’s claims regarding Eritrea’s policies regarding national service and Sawa, students actually enter the program for their final year of secondary study and upon reaching 18 years of age. It is also important to note that since some students in Eritrea may start school late or even repeat grades, many entering Sawa may be in their late teens by their final year of study. Furthermore, since the author devotes considerable attention to national service, it would have been useful to note important ongoing efforts at reform (e.g. changes to pay-scales).


As well, the author’s comments regarding youth marriage lack understanding. Youth and child marriage in Eritrea were rooted in the country’s historical, cultural traditions. Viewed as a sacred societal institution, marriage was seen an integral component of society. Although specific rules and customs of marriage (e.g. dowry, familial arrangements, etc.) differed slightly amongst various ethno-linguistic groups, an underlying common feature was that girls were married at an early age. However, Eritrea has taken important steps (dating back to the independence struggle) to eliminate youth and child marriage. It has enacted laws and established strong enforcement mechanisms, including stiff penalties for physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as pornography. Encouragingly, there are many indications of an important reduction in child and youth marriages.


Ultimately, the author’s lackadaisical approach to these basic, simple details arouses doubt about his understanding of broader, more complex topics. Additionally, the author’s revisions to his errors in translation, after suggestions from Eritrean readers, raises the question of why such an approach to validity and clarification was not extended to other parts of the article prior to publication.


In addition to the above, the article is particularly troubling because in referring to Eritrea as a “child,” the author reveals a residual attitude from the bygone colonial era. Not only does it reflect paternalism and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority, such racist assumptions and ideologies were fundamental to the practice of colonialism. In the battle for the spaces of Africa, the so-called “dark continent,” European powers not only employed force, but also an array of theories and rhetoric to justify their plunder. Colonialism donned the dignified cloaks of la mission civilisatrice, civilizing the benighted heathens, and the white man’s burden. Africa was “the land of childhood,” and Africans were seen as inherently and naturally less than Europeans. Consequently, colonialism was characterized not by brute force or plunder, but the pursuit of a noble ideal.


Overall, in pointing out the many and considerable flaws of the article, the attempt is not to suggest that Eritrea is free of problems. The country is confronted by a myriad of significant issues and considerable challenges. However, it is critical to recognize that properly understanding the country (which can potentially help address many issues) requires a more grounded, objective, contextual approach and less resort to simplified, clichéd perspectives and cursory discussions.

Eritrea: Understanding September 1st

Today, as I walk the streets of Asmara, highly grateful for the nice, cool, periodic breeze, I cannot help but notice the great number of banderas (flags) waving elegantly atop city buildings, from apartment balconies, perched upon storefronts, and from streetlight fixtures. Likewise, taxicabs and merchants’ windows are adorned with stickers or posters of the red, green, blue, and gold. Today is not just another day on the calendar. It is September 1st – a national holiday, an occasion filled with patriotism and utmost pride, and among the most significant days for Eritreans of various ethnolinguistic or religious stripe, young or old, male or female, and in the country or across the world.


But why exactly is September 1st such an important day for Eritreans? Quite simply, it marks the beginning of the tortuous, winding, sacrifice-filled road that ultimately ended with independence and Eritreans having a bandera that they could proudly call their own. In reality, there is no May 24th without September 1st.


On September 1st, 55 years ago, the Eritrean independence movement transitioned from street demonstrations, non-violence, and peaceful protest, to active, armed resistance. After all other options were exhausted, it was all that was left. Years before, on 20 September 1949, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) decided to send a second commission of inquiry into Eritrea to explore a potential “solution [to] the problem of Eritrea” (UNGA 1949). During the delegation’s subsequent report about their visit to the country, Sir Zafrulla, the Pakistani representative, warned, “An independent Eritrea would obviously be better able to contribute to the maintenance of peace (and security) than an Eritrea federated with Ethiopia against the true wishes of the people. To deny the people of Eritrea their elementary right to independence would be to sow the seeds of discord and create a threat in that sensitive area of the Middle East” (GAOR 1950: 346; Haile 1988: 21). How prophetic.


September 1st is a day to reflect upon and remember the monumental contributions and immensely heroic exploits of the thousands of freedom fighters – those selfless, mythical-like, legendary men and women who spent over thirty years in the barren, dusty, rocky deserts and harsh mountains of Eritrea, persevering in the face of adversity and ultimately delivering freedom against all odds.


As I walk, I think.


September 1st is about confronting adversity and overcoming it. It is about being faced with challenges or problems and persistently seeking solutions. It is about perseverance, contribution, and sacrifice.


Of all the independence movements throughout Africa in the 1900s, Eritrea’s was one of the few that emerged “victorious” via an outright military defeat of its colonial oppressor. Importantly, not only was Eritrea’s struggle the longest African independence war of the 1900s, the three-decades long struggle targeted far more than just political emancipation. Rather, it sought to usher in a complete and radical transformation of society. Powerful traditional systems of inequality and subjugation (e.g. regarding land) were targeted, with the aim of producing a more just society. As well, a vitally important dimension of the struggle, giving special attention to egalitarian, popular democratic principles and ideals, was a particular focus on women’s and gender-related issues. No longer would women be narrowly viewed as secondary, subordinate figures within society; instead, they would stand proudly as full equals to men. For example, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), controlling large swathes of what was then Ethiopia, introduced an array of initiatives to abolish female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), forced marriages, bride price, child marriages, kidnappings, and dowries.


Today, although a large number of states across the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and the Global South have been “politically” independent for decades, many are still mired in economic dependency and shackled by the oppressive chains of neo-colonialism. Corruption, nepotism, and theft reign, while tyranny, subjugation, persecution, and repression are all far too common. Moreover, even with an abundance of precious natural resources, many of these countries remain poor and continue to suffer from the many blights of underdevelopment. Recently, a prominent international report found that although sub-Saharan Africa receives $134bn each year in loans, foreign investment and development aid, over $192bn leaves the region (producing a massive $58bn shortfall), through tax evasion and the flight of profits earned by foreign multinational companies. Across SSA and the Global South, resources, which can and should promote development, have instead fuelled conflict and bred vast inequalities, while foreign exploitation has sustained debilitating poverty. Sadly, independence has often only translated to being in – dependence.


In contrast, however, Eritrea has taken steps to control its considerable resource endowments, firmly grasp the reins to its national and economic development, and navigate a pragmatic, peaceful path towards true national emancipation, social-based development, and a tangible, sustainable improvement in the lives of its people. For many observers, Eritrea’s approach, particularly toward aid and foreign assistance, is “unconventional” if not “misguided” or “wayward.” Specifically, Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid the aforementioned crippling dependence that plagues many countries and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.


As I sit in Shida square, I realize how it is in this context, as well, that September 1st is so very significant. Not just as the mark of the beginning of the struggle towards freedom, but also as an important reminder of the necessary continuation of work towards independence, development, and social justice. Thus, September 1st is additionally about understanding the immense example set by those before us, and striving to bring about the prosperous, harmonious nation that was sought so many years ago. Reflecting on September 1st here in Eritrea, one quickly grasps how the journey toward that vision continues.


It is apparent when visiting the numerous dams that are found across the country. Small and large, these are filled not only with the much-appreciated rains that fall from the sky, but the toil and sweat of thousands of upstanding, hard-working young men and women.


It is apparent on the long, winding paved roads, so critical for development, that connect the towns, villages, and cities. Driving along, one may overlook or not fully comprehend that these roads were not always there, their place being taken by mountains, rock, desert, and bushes. After deeper reflection, however, one may come to appreciate how these vital roads are only possible as a result, again, of the great efforts of so many who remained (and still are) dedicated and perseverant.


It is apparent also in the classrooms, in the elementary schools or institutions of higher learning, filled with young minds eager to learn and acquire the means to improve themselves and their country. As per an anecdote told to me by a proud professor with experience teaching across Africa, the West, and Eritrea,


“The students here [in Eritrea] are hungry. In other places, ten minutes prior to the end of class, papers begin to shuffle, books begin to close, bags and zippers are opened, and students’ eyes peer anxiously towards the clock. In Eritrea, however, no matter how early or late the class, the entire classroom remains utterly transfixed upon my every word and movement, right until the very last second. Not just that, even after the bell rings, they plead to forego recess in order to be able to continue the lesson!”


It was also apparent when I had the opportunity to speak with a young, recent Sawa graduate, and a nearly forty-year veteran of the independence struggle. After separately asking them each how it felt to have played such a positive role in the country, both smiled and confidently responded (nearly exactly the same), “I am not done…there are still so many things I hope to do in order to contribute to building my country.”


“Yes,” I think to myself, now traversing the narrow lanes of the shouk (marketplace), quiet today, but often buzzing with a dizzying mix of unique sights, sounds, and smells.


September 1st is about confronting adversity and overcoming it. It is about being faced with challenges or problems and persistently seeking solutions. It is about perseverance, contribution, and sacrifice.


Not just within the context of the long struggle that brought freedom, but also in terms of the ongoing work that seeks to produce a prosperous, harmonious future.

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