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.


Sport and Resistance: Lilesa’s Brave Stand for Freedom in Ethiopia

According to the late Nelson Mandela, the great South African anti-apartheid revolutionary who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, “Sport has the power to change the world.” It brings people together, offering unity and shared celebration. At the same time, however, sport frequently serves as an important outlet for social and political resistance. Specifically, for those suffering oppression, discrimination, and despair, sport is often so significant because it provides a vital means of retaining humanity, dignity, hope, and inspiration.


On Sunday in Brazil, as he crossed the finish line to take the Olympic silver medal after a grueling marathon race, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head. Later, at the conclusion of his press conference, Lilesa repeated the gesture in front of the world’s media. Although at first glance the gestures appeared somewhat innocuous, they were strong and courageous acts conducted in solidarity with the thousands of people in Ethiopia and across the world protesting against the Ethiopian government. Hundreds of anti-government protesters have been killed and countless others arrested by authorities amid the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. For months, hundreds of thousands of people from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups (primarily the Oromo and Amhara) have rallied to protest political marginalization and systematic persecution by the minority-led government. In Brazil, the young Lilesa, from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, not only won silver, he utilized his platform to stand up for justice and emphasized the underlying socio-political significance of sport.


For years, the banned colles castelleres (human towers) or trekking excursions and support for FC Barcelona were a reflection of Catalonian resistance against Franco’s fascistic regime in Spain, while support for Spartak Moscow was, at times, seen as a symbol of political resistance against the official establishment in the former USSR. Additionally, in Korea, football within the curricula of physical education created a platform for Korean resistance to Japanese colonialism (Numerato 2011: 109-110).


Similarly, in Eritrea, the most popular sport, cycling, became a symbol of resistance to Italian colonialism. The first sighting of a bicycle in the country was in the latter half of the 1800s in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on 21 April 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race. In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ spectacular destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.


During the turbulent 1960s, in the midst of the growing black power movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as the best boxer ever, became a global symbol of resistance to racism, militarism, and inequality. He unapologetically raised troubling questions and forced society to come to terms with civil rights, race, religion, war, and imperialism, defying all convention and the US government (Rowe 2016; Zirin 2016).


“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Ali stated forcefully. “They never called me ni–er.” With that, despite being at the peak of his career and understanding the implications, he refused to serve in the US Armed Services. Subsequently, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion (facing a 5-year prison sentence), fined thousands of dollars, and banned for several years. While he would eventually make a glorious return to the ring, it was his strongly principled stand and unwavering activism that truly made him “the greatest” and an inspiration for millions worldwide.


In 1968, a year after Ali was convicted of draft evasion, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 meters, made history at the Mexico Olympics by staging a silent protest against the continuing racial discrimination of blacks in the US. They stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American national anthem played during the victory ceremony. Although they were immediately booed and castigated by many, and then quickly suspended by their team and expelled from the Olympics, Carlos and Smith’s brave act, which soon gained much support from black athletes around the world, “shifted dissidence from the periphery of American life to primetime television,” and “was understood as an act of solidarity with all those fighting for greater equality, justice and human rights” (Younge 2012).


Although the authoritarian Ethiopian government has attempted to forcibly crush the protests and rules the country through the politics of fear, Lilesa’s gesture embodies strength, hope, courage, solidarity, and defiance, while poignantly illustrating the broader socio-political significance of sport.




Image 1: Fiyesa Lilesa crossing the finish line and showing solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia.






Image 2: Fiyesa Lilesa showing solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia

Lilesa 2

El Nino in East Africa: Update on Eritrea

In the Horn of Africa, a drought exacerbated by El Niño has directly affected the region, leading to an increase in food insecurity and malnutrition. This post presents an update on Eritrea.
According to a recent summary report by FEWS NET (a USAID-funded initiative),

“Consistent and above-average rain over the past few weeks has led to moisture surpluses throughout much of Eastern Africa. Torrential rain is forecast to continue over western Sudan and the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, likely to elevate the River Nile and Al Gash River levels further and potentially resulting in flooding over many areas of Sudan during the next week.”

Furthermore, the report notes that,

“While the abundance of seasonal rain is expected favor cropping activities over many areas of the region, frequent and above-average rain over the western Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands also raises the Nile and Al Gash River levels and thus increases the risks for river flooding along downstream areas in Sudan. For next week, the probability for above-average precipitation remains quite high…”
As well, a late July 2016 report by the FAO and the Global Information and Early Warning System, Good Prospects for Yields of 2016 Main “Kiremti” Season Crops, details that,

“The 2016 “kiremti” rains (June to September) started on time in Debud, Anseba and Gash-Barka regions, favouring land preparation and planting operations. As shown by satellite imagery, crops and pasture in most inland areas are currently in good conditions due to abundant and well‑distributed precipitation.”
Encouragingly, although vegetation health in some areas in the northern Anseba and southern Gash-Barka regions has been negatively impacted by soil moisture deficits, the report also states that the,

“Latest meteorological forecasts for the period from June to September 2016 indicate an increased likelihood of above normal rainfall amounts over most of the country, with expected positive effects on crop yields.”
This positive outlook is paralleled by the WFP which recently claimed that “the forecasts for the main rainfall season of July-October indicate on or above average rainfall across Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.” This is significant since it should promote favourable and improved crop production and pasture resources across the country. Furthermore, the FAO and WFP’s recently published 2016/2017 El Nino Seasonal Overview, which explores the ongoing and future impact of El Nino, suggests that Eritrea will be “moderately affected.”
Additionally, on 16 August 2016, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, released US$50 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in six neglected emergencies, including Eritrea. Specifically, the press release states,

“An allocation of $2 million will support humanitarian partners in Eritrea in responding to current needs due to arid conditions and poor rains. Additionally, gaps in health care, water, sanitation and hygiene services will be addressed.” Furthermore, the aid will also help address the multi-sector needs of over 2,200 Somali refugees in Eritrea.

Importantly, this will continue to support Eritrea’s broad developmental aims. Notably, the United Nations and various other international partners have had a long presence in Eritrea, collaborating with the Government and other stakeholders to work towards a variety of socio-economic and development priorities. For example, the UN operational presence in Eritrea includes the WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA, UNAIDS, FAO, OCHA and UNDSS, while the WFP  maintains a liaison office, and non-resident UN Agencies (such as IFAD, IAEA, UNIDO, ILO, and UNEP) are also represented and work in Eritrea.
In 2015,  US$ 3 million was allocated by UN CERF to support a range of development programmes (e.g. health, nutrition, etc.) in Southern Red Sea (SRS), Northern Red Sea (NRS), Debub, Gash Barka and Anseba regions. This was undertaken in close alignment and coordination with the 2013-2016 Strategic Partnership Cooperation Framework (SPCF). The  SPCF, jointly signed by the UN and Eritrea, focuses on an array of programmes in the nutrition, health, food security, and water, sanitation and hygiene sectors.
As a final point, it is important to properly understand Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to 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). Instead, 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.

Figure 1: Total US Foreign Aid – 2016/17 ($US Millions)


Figure 2: UN CERF Project Allocations by Sector (2006-2015)


Image 1: Local market in Eritrea


Image 2: Local market in Eritrea


(Image 2 credit: Solomon Abraha [@solomonasmara])



Politics of Fear: Crisis in Ethiopia and the Role of the International Community

Dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed and arrested by government authorities amid ongoing unrest in Ethiopia. For months, hundreds of thousands of protesters from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups have rallied to protest political marginalization and systematic persecution by the government. In June, a 61-page human rights report was released, condemning the Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed response to the protests. According to the report by Human Rights Watch, Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests, during the widespread protests, largely arising within Oromia (but now extending to other regions), Ethiopian security forces have resorted to excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, engaged in the harsh, ruthless mistreatment of those in detention, and restricted access to information. Estimates suggest that over 400 protesters or others had been killed by security forces, while tens of thousands more have been arrested, figures that will now have risen significantly.


Corruption and poor governance remain deeply embedded within Ethiopia’s socio-political structure, and the country consistently scores extremely poorly on a range of international governance indicators. The Ethiopian government has been consistently criticized by an array of international rights groups for its broad range of human rights abuses including its harsh repression of minorities and journalists, press censorship, draconian anti-terror laws that are utilized to silence all forms of dissent, and brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protestors.


Although the ongoing crisis encapsulates the government’s utter contempt for basic human rights and the overwhelming “politics of fear” that pervades the country’s socio-political landscape, it also reveals, in crystal clear detail, the highly troubling role played by much of the international community, led by the US and the West. Specifically, while the government’s brutal crackdown warrants a strong rebuke and condemnation, there has been a severely muted international response, with many of Ethiopia’s foreign supporters remaining silent.


Rather than condemn or censure Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown, the international community has turned a blind eye, abdicated its responsibility, and instead been acquiescent to Ethiopia’s persistent violations and repression. Last year, both US President, Barack Obama, and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, granted legitimacy to the Ethiopian government by praising its “democracy” – even though the country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Ruling Democratic Front (EPRDF), swept the national elections by winning 100 percent of the parliamentary seats.


When the French statesman, Talleyrand, was told by an aide of the murder of a political opponent, the aide said, “It’s a terrible crime, Sir.” In response, Talleyrand answered, “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” Likewise is the West’s propping up of the Ethiopian government. Unwavering support for and appeasement of Ethiopia are part of a policy approach based upon the misguided belief, dating back to the immediate post-World War 2 period but rearticulated more recently in terms of regional “anchor states” designations, that Ethiopia is vital to protecting US and Western geostrategic interests and foreign policy aims. However, not only is this approach morally reprehensible, with the US and West being directly complicit in the mass crimes, transgressions, and reign of terror perpetrated by the Ethiopian government, the misguided policy approach has largely failed to achieve its objectives, to even a minor degree, and instead only served to stunt regional development and destabilize both Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa region.


In seeking to address Ethiopia’s flagrant dismissal of international norms and blatant disregard for human rights, a number of measures could be undertaken (e.g. sanctions). However, the first, and possibly most far-reaching and effective, response by the international community should be to withdraw its unwavering support for the repressive Ethiopian government.


George Galloway, respected British politician, broadcaster, and writer, has frequently voiced concern of how the West’s support for dictatorial, tyrannical regimes in the name of security only results in “blowback” and harming the populations of those countries. Regarding Ethiopia, Galloway has decried how the UK and US policy of encouraging, arming, training, financing, and facilitating the Ethiopian government’s “reign of terror” is “morally vacuous.” Similarly, respected international economist, William Easterly, has recommended that the international community “stop financing tyranny and repression” in Ethiopia.


For decades, Ethiopia has been highly dependent on external economic assistance. In 2012, it was the world’s seventh largest recipient of official humanitarian aid and received $3.2B in total assistance, the latter figure representing between 50-60 percent of its total budget, while its 2011 share of total official development assistance – approximately 4 percent – placed it behind only Afghanistan. Problematically, however, even while it is one of the world’s leading recipients of foreign aid, and is currently requesting even greater financial support, the Ethiopian government also annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons and arms – which are now being used against its own civilians.


With such a critical dependency on and misuse of foreign aid, threats to “turn off the tap” unless Ethiopia changes course may be a viable step toward improving the country’s rights record. Alternatively, rather than providing aid directly to the Ethiopian regime, which has a long track record of corruption and misappropriation, the international community should consider directly supporting local human rights and democracy groups (although this may be difficult due to Ethiopia’s draconian laws on civil society and NGOs).


An indication of the possible far-reaching effects of removing external support from a harsh, brutal regime can be seen in the example of Indonesia. Noam Chomsky, internationally renowned professor and activist, has written and spoken extensively on how US and Western support for the despotic regime in Indonesia played an indirect, yet extremely harmful, role in the carnage and deaths of hundreds of thousands in East Timor. However, in 1999, after much pressure, the US finally “pulled the plug” on its support for the Suharto regime, quickly leading to the end of Indonesia’s brutal campaign. Specifically,


“[f]or 25 years, the United States strongly supported the

vicious Indonesian invasion and massacre, a virtual

genocide. It was happening right through 1999, as the

Indonesian atrocities increased and escalated, after Dili

the capital city was practically evacuated. After Indonesian

attacks, the US was still supporting it. Finally, in mid-September

1999, under considerable international and also domestic

pressure, Clinton quietly told the Indonesian generals “It’s

finished.” And they had said they’d never leave, they said

“this is our territory.” They pulled out within days, and allowed a

UN peacekeeping force to enter without Indonesian military resistance.

Well, you know, that’s a dramatic indication of what can be done.”


While the socio-political dynamics and historical contexts of Indonesia and Ethiopia are admittedly quite different, the comparison also offers relevant and striking similarities. Both regimes received decades-worth of external economic, military, and political support (particularly from the US). Additionally, both regimes systematically and persistently violated human rights, transgressed various international laws (such as through military occupation), and engaged in large-scale campaigns described as “genocidal.”


With Ethiopia continuing to overlook basic international norms, standards, and laws in its brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protesters, the international community must end its complicity in and indirect support for the government’s various transgressions. As Clinton relayed to Indonesia’s leadership, the international community must tell Ethiopia, “it’s finished.”



US President Obama Discussing Ethiopia



Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Discussing Ethiopia


Figure 1: US Assistance to Ethiopia


Figure 2: Ethiopia Military Expenditure


World Hepatitis Day 2016: Examining Eritrea

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day (WHD), one of eight official global public health campaigns marked by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHD aims to raise global awareness of hepatitis and encourage prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Viral hepatitis – a group of infectious diseases known as hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E – affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide, causing acute and chronic disease and killing close to 1.4 million people every year.


The year 2016 is particularly important in the global fight to eliminate hepatitis. Earlier this year, on 28 May, 194 WHO Member States made a historic commitment to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. During the 69th World Health Assembly, governments unanimously voted to adopt the first ever Global Viral Hepatitis Strategy, signalling the greatest global commitment in viral hepatitis to date. The strategy sets a goal of eliminating hepatitis B and C by 2030 and includes a set of prevention and treatment targets which, if reached, will reduce annual deaths by 65% and increase treatment to 80%, saving 7.1 million lives globally by 2030. Furthermore, as part of the commitments made during at the 69th World Health Assembly, Nohep, a global movement to eliminate viral hepatitis, is being launched on 28 July to bring people together and provide a platform for people to speak out, be engaged, and take action to ensure global commitments are met and viral hepatitis is eliminated by 2030.


Hepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver, can be self-limiting or can progress to fibrosis (scarring), cirrhosis or liver cancer. Although hepatitis viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis, other infections, toxic substances (such as alcohol and certain drugs), and autoimmune diseases can also cause hepatitis. Globally, viral hepatitis affects approximately 400 million people, with 6-10 million newly infected annually.


While hepatitis is a global problem, sub-Saharan Africa is particularly burdened. For example, hepatitis B prevalence is highest in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, where between 5-10% of the adult population is chronically infected, while with a prevalence of between 5-8% and an estimated 32 million people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), sub-Saharan Africa has the highest burden of the disease in the world (Karoney and Siika 2013; Schweitzer et al. 2015). Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa has a high prevalence for the other viruses as well due to generally poor sanitary conditions and hygienic practices, lack of access to safe water, and poor awareness and education.


Eritrea’s efforts to combat hepatitis have involved a multidimensional, cost-effective, pragmatic approach and broad participation. A range of general public health and development initiatives that have been undertaken have helped to combat the prevalence and spread of hepatitis in the country. These include: sexual health education; widespread advocacy and awareness campaigns; the provision of condoms, the expansion of access to basic sanitation and safe, clean water, particularly in rural areas; improved disposal of sewage within communities; and harm reduction programs.


Another vital step has been immunization and vaccination which, according to the WHO, is, “the most effective and cost-saving means of prevention.” For many years in Eritrea, immunization and vaccination programs have been conducted through an array of cooperative agreements with various international organizations and partners, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF, the WHO, and the GAVI Alliance. These partnerships have increased important supplies such as vaccines, syringes, and other materials, while strengthening support for the development, production, and dissemination of social mobilization materials, regional plans, and logistics.


In 2002, Eritrea introduced childhood immunization against hepatitis B as part of the Ministry of Health’s Expanded Program on Immunization, which also delivers immunization for children against seven other vaccine preventable diseases (i.e. Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, Whooping Cough, Tetanus, Polio, Measles and Homophiles influenza type B). According to recently updated data from the WHO and UNICEF, national HepB3 coverage (measuring the number of third doses of Hep-B vaccine administered to infants) in Eritrea is approximately 95%. By comparison, the global average national coverage rate is 87%, while the average for Africa is 81%. In terms of Eritrea’s neighbours, national coverage rates are as follows: Djibouti 84%; Ethiopia 86%; Kenya 89%; Somalia 42%; South Sudan 31%; Sudan 93%, and Uganda 78%.


Table 1: East Africa National HepB3 Coverage Rates 2015 (WHO 2015)



Hepatitis B vaccination programs are particularly important because they gradually result in the reduction of HBV-related chronic hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer. Ultimately, Eritrea’s vaccination programs have played an important role in reducing the prevalence and spread of hepatitis, and recent research studies estimate that the country’s prevalence of hepatitis B is approximately 2.49%, the lowest in Africa (Schweitzer et al. 2015).


Table 2: East Africa Estimated Hepatitis B Virus Prevalence (Percentage)



Overall, Eritrea’s multifaceted efforts have had a positive impact in combating and controlling hepatitis. With renewed commitment, effective immunization, vaccination, and prevention programs, an expansion of treatment and health services, as well as continued support from international partners, Eritrea can move towards eliminating viral hepatitis and continue to protect and improve the health and development of its greatest asset – its men, women, and children.

eritrean newborn - health

Reflections on Graduation at CASS – Eritrea

For the last year I have been teaching in Eritrea. On Tuesday 12 July 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in the 9th annual graduation ceremony at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, located in Adi Keih, Eritrea. A total of 180 students proudly received a Diploma or Bachelor of Arts Degree. The College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), currently within its sixth academic year as a stand-alone institution, has an annual enrollment of approximately 1500 students, nearly evenly split between males and females (specifically, 51 percent of students are male and 49% are female).

College of Arts and Social Sciences (Adi Keih, Eritrea)

Located near several significant traditional and historical sites, the school has ten total academic departments, nine of which award degrees while one awards diplomas. Of note, CASS has also developed a new and exciting Master’s Degree program in collaboration with the University of Helsinki. The college also boasts a traditional and digital library, a growing collection of resources for visually impaired students, a bookstore, staff and student cafeterias, a recreation lounge featuring satellite television and games, several all-weather outdoor sports courts, highly successful intercollegiate athletic teams, and various student clubs.

Hours after Tuesday’s memorable ceremony, I retreated to my office to quietly reflect on how amazing it was to have been part of such a wonderful occasion. From the beginning of the ceremony until the end, things ran very smoothly, serving as a reflection of the hard work, dedication, sound planning, and selflessness of numerous people from across the close-knit CASS academic community and the surrounding areas. The organization committee’s large investments of time and effort in preparation were not overlooked or unnoticed, but were instead deeply appreciated and highly admired.

While graduation represents the culmination of a student’s academic journey, it is important to remember that it is only possible with the strong support and backing of friends, family, and communities. Simply, graduation is not a day so much about “me” but “we.” One glance into the CASS auditorium helped to illustrate just how so. Seats were filled by people from all walks of life, all sharing some connection, small or large, to the graduates. I will never forget the great pride exhibited by fathers, the loud, piercing ululating and tears of joy shed by mothers, or the sheer admiration expressed by friends and siblings as the graduates slowly, confidently strode across the stage, faces beaming with sheer happiness, to collect their certificates.

Earlier this year, I went back to the place I was born, visiting my family’s old home, as well as various family and friends. It was particularly special and especially moving since it was my first time meeting many of them, while others I had only met as an infant, over 20 years ago. When I was child, my family left Eritrea. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to visit and live in many countries around the world throughout Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Last year at about this time, I fulfilled a long-time family dream and goal – completing my Ph.D.

Shortly after graduation, I had the possibility to pursue a variety of different jobs and opportunities, but I kindly turned them down. My heart simply wasn’t into it. Somewhat perplexed, some classmates and colleagues asked me “Fikre, why?” I told them the answer, in just four words, “I’m going to Eritrea.”

Thereafter, many would respond, “Eritrea? Why?”

First, and most simply, it is home. No matter where you are in the world, you’ll always have a special bond with home. While it had been many years and although I traveled thousands of miles, I don’t think I’ve ever really left home.

However, another important reason I chose to come home to Eritrea is because of the youth and the students, such as the 180 new graduates of CASS. Not due to some egotistical rationale or saviour-type complex. But instead, because of the inspiration they provide and the admiration they elicit. I admire what they represent and the high-standing principles they wonderfully reflect. I tremendously respect how, regardless of whatever challenge may arise, instead of shirking responsibility or hesitating, so many of them choose to address it directly and head-on. I greatly admire their deep passion for learning, growth, and individual development and commend their pursuit for more.  I can only applaud the fact that the young graduates have already faced and overcome obstacles, barriers, and challenges that many others could barely fathom, let alone begin to face.

Last year, shortly before arriving at CASS, I recall preparing a large collection of materials and lessons I wanted to teach and share. As a teacher, I’d like to think I’ve been able to accomplish a lot of that. But never, in my wildest dreams, could I have expected to attain what I have from the students, many who graduated on Tuesday. Accordingly, to them, I humbly say Yekinyelay. Thank you for your efforts and hard work. Thank you for what you have taught me and for providing amazing lessons and wonderful examples that simply cannot be found in books.

On Tuesday, walking across the CASS campus and around the auditorium, I felt a slight hint of sadness because I understood that students that I had come to know, admire, and appreciate would soon be leaving. However, those emotions were soon overtaken by a deep and profound sense of happiness, anticipation, and pride in the realization that the young, limitless graduates were moving on to pursue their individual or family dreams and aspirations, and play a positive, constructive role in establishing a prosperous, harmonious nation.


Botswana – Eritrea: FIFA 2018 World Cup Pre-Qualifying – Match Analysis

This past Saturday, Botswana defeated Eritrea 2-0 at Asmara’s Cicero stadium in the first leg of FIFA World Cup pre-qualifying. Botswana scored a goal early in both halves to take a firm grip of the home and away series, with the return leg to take place in Botswana later this week.

Arriving at the stadium nearly three hours prior to kick-off, I was instantly positively struck by the loud, boisterous atmosphere. The stadium was already nearly full, local music and horns were blaring, a plethora of Eritrean flags were being waved enthusiastically, and the surrounding environs were buzzing with chatter full of excitement and anticipation. By kick-off, the stadium was completely packed, leading some eager fans without tickets to scale the high fences and perch themselves atop the elevated walls of the stadium (thus arousing memories of Barcelona fans – affectionately referred to as “los cules” – of a bygone era).

The Botswana team was well-organized and implemented their game plan effectively. The aim was to maintain a clean sheet (i.e. no goals conceded) and possibly nick a vital away goal. Botswana was generally strong in defence, tidy and conservative in midfield, and efficient in possession. Having scored relatively early in the match, they were able to continue with their stifling containment strategy and thus minimize any risks of an Eritrean reply.

The Botswana goalkeeper was calm and assured, looking particularly impressive and commanding when coming out to collect crosses or through passes, and he was constantly directing and organizing his defenders. In front of him, the players comprising the “spine” of the team were all very strong. Botswana’s rugged central defenders competed for and won many physical duels (i.e. tackles and headers), and they took few risks, often clearing the ball at the first sign of trouble or playing direct, diagonal passes for the attackers to chase. Botswana’s two central midfielders consistently offered their defenders help, frequently winning the vital “second ball” (thus regaining possession) and also tracking the potentially dangerous forward runs of Eritrean attackers or midfielders. Additionally, the midfielders made themselves available for passes from other players, often quickly receiving the ball and changing the direction of play. Although not an outstanding side, Botswana played to its strengths; the team was well-organized, minimized mistakes, was efficient in possession, and ultimately delivered a positive result.

For Eritrea, the two goal deficit means the team now faces a stern – yet not impossible – task to overturn the result in Botswana. While the stadium was full of anticipation, not enough Eritrean players performed well enough to offer the home team a great chance of winning the game. Botswana’s two goals both involved mistakes by the Eritreans. The first goal came off of a corner kick, with Botswana’s Galabgwe Moyana left completely unmarked in the box – a mistake of criminal proportions – to head the ball into a gaping goal. The second goal was from a speculative volley from distance by Joel Mogoros, which should have been challenged by a defender and with which the Eritrean goalkeeper, Haylegiorgis Gebregziabiher, could have done better with.

Although many performances were underwhelming, several Eritrean players positively stood out. After a slightly shaky start that saw several Botswana attacks on his flank, the right-sided defender Arefaine Gebregzhabhier performed well. He won a respectable share of tackles and headers, closely marked the Botswana winger, both received and played the ball confidently (often to the midfielders or strikers), and even ventured forward on several mazy dribbles. On the opposite flank, the left-sided defender Russom Andebrhan also showed some positive qualities.

In central defence, one of Eritrea’s foreign-based players, Senai Birhane, had a relatively strong, steady match.  Although he committed several minor errors, he was generally quick to sense danger, frequently snuffing out promising Botswana attacks. As would be expected of a central defender, he was strong in the air and he won many tackles. Additionally, he was very calm with the ball at his feet, distributing it to the flanks effectively, and also playing several long diagonal passes for Eritrea’s attackers.

Eritrea’s gritty central midfielder, Tium Muruts, also had a commendable performance. One particular episode that was typical of his overall performance occurred after the 90th minute; Muruts chased down and tackled a Botswana defender deep within the Botswana half, even though the result appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Throughout the duration of the match, Muruts recovered many loose balls, was generally neat and tidy in possession, and was a nuisance to his opposite marker.

To have a realistic chance of progressing to the next round, it will be imperative for Eritrea to be more creative in crafting genuine goal-scoring opportunities. Although they did enjoy notable spells of possession and showcased some silky skills, many of Eritrea’s shots were from distance, rather than as a result of clear-cut openings. Part of the focus for the team must be ensuring that striker Henok Goitom is more involved. The Sweden-based striker was frequently left isolated upfront, seeing little service and infrequently linking up with the midfielders or other strikers. At times, passes to Goitom (or the other forwards) were hit more in desperation than with specific aims or direction, and it was notable that Goitom only had a few “half-chances” to score. In the second half, it was quite noticeable that Goitom began to drop deeper to collect the ball and spread the play. While this did see him increase his overall involvement and touches on the ball, it also meant that he ended up much farther away from where he is most dangerous – in the opposing team’s penalty box. As well, the team will need to vary its approach (for example, utilizing a mixture of both long and short passes to remain unpredictable) and possibly its personnel or formation (through adding an extra striker, such as the home-based goal-scorer Hailemichael Gebremichael, or including an extra creative influence in midfield).

Regardless of the final outcome against Botswana, it is encouraging to see Eritrea participating in such a significant, globally-renown competition. Furthermore, it is important to recall that although football in Eritrea has a long, rich history, Eritrea’s contemporary footballing tradition is still in its infancy. Many aspects of the team, its play, and decision making can and only will be improved through further investment, training, and competition. For example, several times throughout Saturday’s match, players failed to properly communicate or “read” each other, facets of the game which can only develop after a team has spent much time working closely together and developing understanding.

Recent weeks and months have showcased Eritrea’s pedigree in athletics and cycling, with the country’s athletes making history and breaking various records in several prestigious competitions. Eritrea’s proud footballers and passionate fans no doubt hope and expect that the “Red Sea Camels” will soon follow suit.

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