Conclusion: Eritrea’s State of Exception and its Broken Mirror

Tekle Mariam Woldemikael

Postliberation Eritrea: Quo Vadis?

In 1993, Eritrea burst onto the international scene with a strong sense of direction and potential. Since then, the country and the state have come a long way, but have long since departed from their original lofty purpose and vision. Today’s scholarship on Eritrea reflects this outcome, as it consistently points to the worrying signs of emerging crisis in the management of the state’s affairs. O’Kane and Hepner (2009) and Hepner (2009), for example, note the state’s extreme militarization and its devastating outcomes, while Tronvoll and Mekonnen (2014) contend the state is in a constant “state of siege,” and Bozzini (2011) has revealed the government’s obsession with mass surveillance. This is all consistent with Mengisteab and Yohannes’ (2005) verdict on Eritrea as a dismal economic, political, and diplomatic tragedy, one that conforms to the archetype of an African failed state. Other scholars, however, remain hopeful, and argue that the state in Eritrea is at a crossroads, struggling as it is to find its bearings and establish itself. They see the current problem as a temporary crisis in governance that might be remedied through the emergence of a more accountable leadership (Georgis 2014; Riggan 2016). For still others, Eritrea is a wounded nation personified (Selassie 2010), a nation of deferred dreams (Kibreab 2009), and a state challenged by alternative Eritrean nationalisms that are rising among the Eritrean diasporas (Bernal 2014). And there are also scholars who see Eritrea, in spite of the vast challenges it faces internally and externally, as the “the strongest postcolonial state” in Africa (Dorman 2006, 1999), a verdict justified by that state’s ability to consolidate its power and control the loyalty of its population. This control, however, is often organized through both consent and through the use of a strong machinery of security and surveillance (Müller 2012). Perhaps, at its core, it is a persistent sense of vulnerability that makes the Eritrean state discipline its wayward politicians and youth with such severity. A key feature that is evident throughout the literature on Eritrea is that the Eritrean state has been unhinged from its sense of direction and stated purpose “to build a stable political system which respects law and order, safeguards unity and peace, enables all Eritreans to lead happy and peaceful lives, guarantees basic human rights, and is free from fear and oppression, and “guaranteed through a constitutional political system” (EPLF 1994). 

The Western democratic practice of civic participation and respect for individual rights and civic action provides an open field for transnational individuals and agents of foreign governments to operate with free rein to influence diaspora and refugee communities. Organizations and individuals representing the government of Eritrea view the existing diaspora and refugee crisis as an opportunity for the control and discipline of the Eritrean people. Although intensifying transnational links have produced new instruments for the state to exert control over Eritreans in troubled situations, recent events have demonstrated the weakening grip of the state. The state’s lack of control is demonstrated in the people’s death in multiple situations. For instance, hordes of refugees from Eritrea have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Other defectors have been abducted from refugee camps or captured by smugglers while travelling and held captive for ransom in the Sinai Desert in Egypt and Libya (there, the most unfortunate are routinely killed). 

The proliferation of such stories in the global news media shows that the Eritrean state has little control over its international image. This erosion of the state’s image is further shown by the diasporas who write openly and defiantly about conditions in Eritrea, and who openly voice their disappointment with the disastrous policies of the regime. These critics in the diaspora, who are often refugees themselves, have been increasingly emboldened by their success in mobilizing themselves in public arenas abroad. Through political protests and demonstrations in Europe, Israel, the United States and Australia, and through their writings, songs of protest, and conferences, they are challenging Eritrean officials and seeking international support for their positions against the regime. The continuing, and increasingly negative, image of Eritrea has potentially grave consequences for the economic recovery of the pariah state, which is already an international outcast (Woldemariam, this volume). 

The isolationism of the state has not only had a negative impact on Eritrea, but has also impeded scholarship on the country. With almost all the avenues for conducting research closed, academics have relied on their ingenuity to find ways of studying Eritrea. Novel sources of data about Eritrea have been identified by contemporary scholars working on the country—through online communities and newly arrived refugees. As a result, these have led to the neglect of ethnic and religious diversity issues among Eritreans. So far, Eritrea’s Muslims and ethnic minorities have been invisible to most researchers, and silent in such research-based academic writing. Nevertheless, the increasing focus of scholars on Eritreans abroad in Europe, Africa, the US and Canada reflects a deeper crisis of management on the part of the Eritrean state. Thus, the mismanagement of the Eritrean state has not only impacted scholarship inside Eritrea, but has also created a crisis of scholarship in Eritrean studies in general, which I have described as a broken mirror. In the next section, I explore what I mean by this. 

The Broken Mirror

Today, Eritrea is not only a country in a state of exception (Agamben 1998, 2007) administered through arbitrary rule, but also in a state of crisis of scholarship. Many scholars are not allowed to legally conduct research in Eritrea, and even those who manage to enter and conduct research in Eritrea work under fear of being arrested or summarily expelled from the country. The government of the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (the PFDJ, the single party that runs the Eritrean state), has allowed little space for scholars to freely conduct research and write about Eritrea. This is something that is entirely consistent with its demand for total nationalist commitment by the population to the nation. Researchers suspected of being critical of the regime’s social and political policies are barred from gaining entry into Eritrea. To understand the dangers that domestic and international scholars face when writing about critical issues on Eritrea, one needs only to read the first chapter of Hepner’s Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors, and Exiles, and her harrowing story of the fear of being arrested and subsequent escape from Eritrea in 2005 (Hepner 2009). 

This blocking of access to Eritrean research sites has not, however, prevented scholars (such as the contributors in this volume) from working on Eritrean issues; nor has it stopped them from finding Eritreans. Dan Connell discovered Eritrean refugees in nineteen countries around the world, Gaim Kibreab studied the research group in Europe, Magnus Treiber was able to gather ample data in Switzerland, Victoria Bernal encountered them through online networks, and Milena Belloni studied them in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Italy. All the scholars represented in this volume have found Eritreans almost everywhere, in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East and in the archived voices, pictures, and written texts online. Even those whose articles dealt mostly on Eritreans inside Eritrea, including Amanda Cooper, Jennifer Riggan, and David Bozzini, have written pieces that provide crucial analysis of Eritrean conditions, especially those that have driven so many Eritreans into the diaspora. 

Together, their chapters itemize the economic, social, psychological, and political pressures inside Eritrea that pushed the youth to flee. And it is not only the youth that have exited Eritrea without sacrificing their national loyalty (Müller 2008; Kibreab in this volume): there are also the scholars also have migrated or exited from Eritrea without compromising their voices. These scholars focused on the plight of the people and have taken sides with those of lowest status in the Eritrean world, the refugees, who are mostly young people. This has enabled their development of novel research sites, because they took the displacement of Eritreans seriously, as a serious subject of study, and sought to explain the fundamental causes of that dislocation. 

In response to these critical voices, several pro-PFDJ elements, and most prominently Eritrean-American writer, Sophia Tesfamariam, have made it their specialty to be the watchdog of academic and journalistic writings. They provide favorable perspectives on the present state of affairs in Eritrea. Sophia has targeted scholars who criticized current conditions in Eritrea, such as its militarization, the lack of rule of law, and its abuse of human and civil rights of the population. She labeled them all as “modern day carpetbaggers and scalawags” (Tesfamariam 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). She used those terms in order to discredit those writers, foreign scholars, journalists, humanitarians, and human rights activists who were critical of the state of affairs in Eritrea. She used the word “carpetbaggers” to attack all those from outside Eritrea seeking to understand the crisis in Eritrea as opportunistic outsiders. Her writings implicitly accuse them of exploiting the crisis for personal fame and profit. Moreover, she applies the word “scalawags” to smear Eritrean scholars, journalists, human rights activities, writers, and humanitarians as traitors, and unprincipled or dishonest persons. One should recall, as she apparently does not, that these are two words loaded with historical significance. They should not be employed lightly without proper discussion and justification in any situation, let alone that of Eritrea, which bears no resemblance to the original place and time in which those words were used. That place and time was the south of the United States during the Reconstruction era (1865–1877), when those terms were first used for propaganda purposes: to discredit progressive whites (supporters of President Abraham Lincoln’s faction of the Republican party) and prevent the full emancipation of blacks from the legacies and crippling effects of slavery. The term “carpetbagger” meant those northerners who were profiting or gaining power from the economic and political crisis in the South, while “scalawag” smeared progressive whites as traitors. These are odd words to apply to scholars on Eritrea. The condition of the US South during the reconstruction does not match that of postliberation Eritrea (Blight 2002; Tunnell 2006). In order for Tesfamariam’s analogy to work, the current Eritrean government and its supporters would have to be viewed as similar to the post-civil war conservatives of the American south, who waged ideological battle on progressive and radical republicans. Despite using derogatory terms against scholars with whom she disagrees, Sophia Tesfamariam’s smear campaign failed to identify any real weakness in the critical writings of those whom she attacked and vilified. 

Eritrean leaders (and, to some extent, Eritrean society) do not seem to understand that a good society is one that allows free and critical engagement of scholars through their writings and speech. Scholars work to provide a critical gaze into society and, in the scholarly world, differences of perspectives and diagnosis are valued. Leaders and governmental elites must be able to listen to others’ perspectives without treating them as an affront to their personhood, nationhood, sovereignty, or citizenship. Scholarship could serve as mirrors to states and societies and the relationships between them, and could provide critical reflections on the relationship between state and society. Free and critical scholarly engagement gives state managers and leaders mirror images of their performances in local and international arenas, and reflects back to them their society’s ills and shortcomings. 

However, in order for scholars to conduct their fieldwork-based research access to their field sites is essential. In Eritrea, both the state and the society lack a culture of appreciation of critical perspectives on the state and society. The Eritrean regime conflated the criticism of its policies and actions with attacks on personhood and character of those elites in positions of power. Critical perspectives towards the existing regime and the state of affairs in Eritrea are very often seen as politically motivated acts to dismantle the sovereignty of Eritrea as a state. There is little space inside Eritrea to critically engage the public. 

The problem in Eritrea is not that the dominant, hegemonic group is uninformed or does not read what is written about it. The issue is that once its members see what is written about them, and encounter critical assessment of their strength and their inadequacy, they personalize it and they become defensive. The public are still important, however: the state in Eritrea is aware of the need of gaining popular consent as an instrument of establishing its hegemony. To be hegemonic, the state has to be always learning about itself through reading what is said about it and correcting its ways through such self-reflection. Among the upper echelons of the Eritrean government, reading what is written about Eritrea is highly valued; however, they often appear unable to cope with critical comments and hence reject those criticisms as unmerited accusations, while basking only in praise. Even though these may be natural human reactions, what is not normal is the state’s overreaction to all critical perspectives, to minor and major criticisms alike, and its inability to separate the criticism of a person from criticism of the practices or actions of that person. Diversity of perspectives and explorations of social and political issues is healthy and normal in the scholarly world, and should also be so in politics. State managers and leaders need to be able to listen to others’ perspectives without treating other voices as an affront to their personhood, national sovereignty, or legitimacy. There should be public space for free speech, free press, and mobility inside of the country. 

However, we should listen to how new researchers who seek to conduct fieldwork in Eritrea are affected by the current paralysis of scholarship in Eritrean studies. Georgia Cole hints that she found the challenge not only from the state control of her activities inside Eritrea, but also from what she called “the polarized context within which academics operate” in the country. She found, as a new arrival in Eritrean studies, that the production of balanced analyses was challenging and, sometimes, impossible. She pondered whether it was even possible to find a fence that could serve as a middle ground for scholarship in Eritrean studies (Cole 2016). I believe the current crisis of scholarship in Eritrean studies needs to be mended through opening up spaces for free exchange of ideas and thought in and among scholars in Eritrean studies without fear of one another, or of the state’s intervention and censure. For example, the state should take initiatives in greater confidence building measures towards those scholars whose works have been unnecessarily tarnished. The cases of new researchers who, like Cole, are struggling to find a stable point within the polarized field that is Eritrean scholarship indicates that many reputable scholars have been previously enchanted by the fascinating twists and turns of the Eritrean state of exception. Such forms of enchantment can have a crippling effect on new scholars. 

Policy Implications

Most of the scholars in this volume have concentrated on Eritrean youth, those who left Eritrea after its liberation in 1991 as refugees. Each of their chapters provides nuanced, theoretically informed explanations of the lives and experiences of Eritreans in the diaspora. This nuanced and theorized stand did not happen by chance. I strongly believe that it is related to the state of scholarship in Eritrean studies, which I have called a broken mirror. When mirrors are broken, solutions to public policy issues become more difficult. I will give two illustrations of this point. First, I will focus on the unresolved issue of Eritrean refugees in Sudan. Second, I illustrate some ways the impasse of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia could be broken through a revival of the border relationships between the two peoples and reconnecting the divided families and relatives across the border. A focus on their interests would, I suggest, be more important than a concentration on the views of the power holders in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

First Illustration: 

We have to start by acknowledging the existence of an important political issue whose resolution is long overdue: that of the Eritreans who have been living in refugee camps in Sudan since the mid-1960s. Their case is rarely mentioned and, indeed, often seems forgotten. The United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Government of Eritrea, and the Sudanese government have all, in the past, made efforts to facilitate the return of these refugees to their homeland. According to Georgia Cole (this volume), the main cause of the problem of Eritrean refugees not returning to Eritrea after Eritrea’s independence was the failure to find a solution that would satisfy both the Government of Eritrea and the UNHCR and donor countries. The cost and logistics of their return would have been near impossible and the failure was therefore a mutually satisfying solution for the UNHCR and the Government of Eritrea, though not a permanent or just solution for the refugees. Using the case of the 1993 Program for Refugee Reintegration and Rehabilitation of Resettlement Areas in Eritrea (PROFERI), Cole shows how the mutual construction of misunderstandings and miscommunication led to this failure of public policy in resolving the impasse of returning Eritrean refugees from Sudan. 

Sadia Hassanen’s study of Eritrean refugees who settled in Kassala, a city in Eastern Sudan, where a number of Eritreans moved from the refugee camps, complicates the issue further (Hassanen 2007). She shows how the refugees would not return to Eritrea until the present government of Eritrea respects the demands of the Eritrean Liberation Front (the ELF), a rival liberation movement of the EPLF/PFDJ, even under the most ideal situation. These refugees continue to identify with and support the ELF, but the present government of Eritrea does not recognize any other competing political organizations as legitimate representatives of any segment of Eritreans (Hassanen 2007). Trying to meet the demands of those Eritrean refugees in Kassala that Sadia Hassanen studied, would mean allowing for social and cultural pluralism even at the risk of an emergence of a divided society inside Eritrea, thus dismantling the whole edifice of the nation built on a unifying slogan, “One heart, One people,” (Hade Libe Hade Hizbi, in the local language, Tigrinya). At this point in its existence, such a demand would not be acceptable to the current regime in Eritrea, because it sees such demands as an existential threat to its status quo. The present “no-war-no-peace” state of affairs in Eritrea, however, is not a conducive situation for refugee’s safe return to their homeland.

Second Illustration: 

The end of the Border War between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 did not usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the two countries. Instead, Eritrea, and to a lesser extent Ethiopia, entered into an unwinnable no-war-no-peace relationship with one another, an outcome which has had disastrous consequences for both countries. One of the important unappreciated consequences of the 1998–2000 Border War was that it revealed the existence of a regional economy encompassing Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. This thriving regional economy had included both Eritrea and the Ethiopian provinces of Tigrai, Begemeder, Gojjam, and Wollo. It was a huge, unregulated regional market economy with intricate economic interdependences and reciprocities, and the war destroyed it. As a result of the dismantling of this regional economy, the people in Northern and Western Ethiopia and Eritrea have faced, and continue to face, dismal economic lives. There is, therefore, a need today for confidence building through small-scale initiatives linking the two peoples. The two states could let people-to-people diplomacy work its way without political interference and commitment from either side. Both should be permit the reestablishment of the abruptly and arbitrarily broken family and kinship ties of those communities that straddle the borders of the two countries, something whose significance to peace building cannot be underestimated. This measure has not yet been tried or taken, but it is one that I believe should be explored. 

Finally, as an endnote to this volume, I want to reemphasize the point that scholars have a responsibility to reflect on society’s ills and success. In the case of Eritrea, those who dare to criticize the status quo are bitterly resented and banned. This has resulted in a state of stagnation and crisis in Eritrean scholarship. Scholarship anywhere, including in Eritrea, is at its best when tolerance and respect for scholarship exists, and when scholars are allowed to enter society at will. In return, vast and varied scholarly work serves as a mirror to the ills of the state and society, a mirror which could help state managers to pursue policies based on clear thinking and strategy. 


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