The good news is that the Eritrean opposition and the Eritrean government have started talking to one another. The bad news is that it is proxy talks: it is discussions by our favorite foreigners. Pro-oppo Foreigner Narrative: Eritrea is one of the worst violators of human rights and exporters of asylum-seekers; an outlaw regime that governs without constitution. Pro-Government Foreigner Narrative: The Eritrean government is obsessed with peace, social justice, development whose policies are working despite the strong forces rooting for its failure. In this corner in red trunks: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Transparency International. In the opposite corner in blue trunks: French documentary film-makers Petit OEil; Russian TV host of “Going Underground” program; the Asmara-based think tank “Africa Strategies”; the UNDP Resident Representative in Eritrea (Christine Umutoni), the South African Ambassador to Eritrea (Professor Iqbal Jhazbhay) and a new player: the Deputy Director, Africa Center for the Atlantic Council (Bronwyn Bruton.) Let’s have a clean fight!
I. Come And See: Brownyn Bruton
The supporters of the Eritrean government have been trying to recruit Ms Bruton since 2009, with the coming out-party memorialized on April 12, 2014 when she joined a panel with fire-breathing government supporter Dr. Ghidewon Abay-Asmerom and moderated by Dr. Asgede Hagos, boss of the badly-named Organization of Eritrean Americans (OEA). So if we hope to persuade her to see things a bit differently, some investment is needed and that requires accurately summarizing what she said in an interview with Voice of America’s “Press Conference USA”, and then rebutting them. Here’s my attempt:
1. Size of Eritrean Exodus: Ms. Bruton argues that not all people who claim to be Eritrean refugees are Eritrean refugees. Some are Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopians representing themselves as Eritrean to take advantage of Europe’s treatment of Eritreans as automatic asylum recipients.
The problem here is with the word “some.” Is it 50% or 5% or 0.5%? Since the context here was the recent tragedy of yet-another-sank boat which claimed the lives of 350 Eritreans, Ms. Bruton’s answer sounded dangerously close to the talking points of the Eritrean government which is always disowning its own citizens. Those who have had first-hand experience in interacting with asylum-seekers and authors who have researched and written about this issue could clarify it by publishing surveys so we don’t have to rely on anecdotal information.
2. The Border War & Its Aftermath: Ms Burton states that the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict resulted in the death of 30,000 Eritreans. One of the causes of the war, she says, was Ethiopia’s refusal to accept Eritrean independence. Then she explains that despite the fact that the terms [of the Algiers Agreement] were “firm and final” and despite the fact that the United States is the guarantor of the Agreement, Ethiopians have refused to abide by its terms, because they can: the US won’t pressure them because it needs them in the war against terrorism.
The death-toll from the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict was officially announced at 20,000 so I am sure that’s an innocent mistake. I hadn’t heard that Ethiopia’s refusal to accept Eritrean independence was one of the causes of the war but she probably misspoke on that and she means Eritrean economic independence? Beyond that, it is really an exhausted issue: is the US a Guarantor or a Witness of the Algiers Agreement? This has been discussed ad nauseum and the US and the UN have said we are only witnesses and not guarantors. Yes, Ethiopia did accept in advance that the ruling of the boundary commission would be final and binding. Yes Ethiopia has refused to unconditionally implement the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruling. Yes, the United States (two administrations now) either can’t or won’t compel Ethiopia to abide by the ruling. Now what? It has been over a decade of stalemate. As an Africa Expert, Ms Bruton is offering no breakthroughs, just taking us back to a decade-and-half long argument.
3. Sanctions and Censure: Eritrea is a shell-shocked nation. I saw the World War II type of trenches and photographs. Eritreans feel under siege due to the economic sanctions, the UN censure and Ethiopian strikes. I am a long-standing expert on Somalia. I have talked to a lot of Somalis. Nobody says Eritrea was a primary driver of the Somali conflict but almost every Somali will say Ethiopia was. There are no grounds for maintaining those sanctions in Eritrea. There is no evidence for maintaining those sanctions. The second reason Eritrea was sanctioned was for demanding 2% tax from its Diaspora. The Eritreans haven’t disowned their citizenship, when they leave they say they are oppressed to get asylum but they leave for economic reasons.
Ms. Bruton would have benefited from talking to exiled Eritreans to see who the guilty party is for Eritreans being shell-shocked. If she saw the World War II type of trenches and photographs, I am sure she saw the Tank Cemetery in Asmara. There are containers in the premises of the tank cemetery holding Eritrean prisoners. Prisoners in a container. That’s what’s shell-shocking us: holding Eritreans in containers. (video below, courtesy of the BBC.) Ms. Bruton believes that Al-Shabab evolved from an armed re-liberation group to a terrorist. If they had been engaged, perhaps they wouldn’t have been radicalized. While Ms. Bruton was expressing this viewpoint in writing, another person who held the same view, President Isaias Afwerki, was doing more than writing op-ed pieces. He became a conduit of arms for Somalia armed groups, AS DID MANY MANY other nations, including Ethiopia. The problem is that both Bruton and Isaias Afwerki are on the losing side of the argument: the rest of the world believed that the Djibouti Conference, which excluded Al-Shabab, was the path to peace and stability for Somalia. While Ms. Bruton can continue to write essays bemoaning this, Eritrea has been punished for holding a “spoiler”view. Unfortunately, that is how the world works, particularly if, as Eritrea did, you choose to isolate yourself by withdrawing from IGAD and then your head of state uses his State media to insult the world. It is another in a series of miscalculations by the Isaias Afwerki administration and it is Eritreans who are paying for it.
Eritrea was sanctioned the first time not just for its role in Somalia but because it, astonishingly, repeatedly refused to acknowledge and deal with its conflict with Djibouti. (It did, but only AFTER the sanctions.) The sanctions weren’t imposed by the United States strong-arming the UN Security Council. The vote was 13 votes in favor, 1 against (Libya) and 1 abstention (China.) Russia voted for it. Moreover, the sanctions were mostly targeted: arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on political/military leaders who would be named later: they haven’t been named to this date; no asset has been frozen. The second sanction was for Eritrea’s refusal to comply with the first sanction which had, among other things, demanded that it stop hosting armed agitators in the region and release Djibouti prisoners of war. During that period, Eritrean state media was essentially an expo of armed Ethiopian opposition groups training and declaring phantom victories against Ethiopia. Isaias Afwerki was essentially daring the Security Council to sanction him, and it did. The resolution for the second sanction was passed with 13 votes in favor and 2 abstentions (China and Russia) and without any no-votes.
The point is that after the first sanction, rather than moderating its behavior, the Eritrean government went full-retard and got an even more draconian sanction. So who is responsible? Ms. Bruton is also out of her element when discussing the 2% tax when she compares it with the US expatriate tax. An American who doesn’t pay expatriate tax is a tax dodger and, after due process, receives penalties, which may include jail term. A Diaspora Eritrean who doesn’t pay 2% “rehabilitation” tax for a country that continues to need rehabilitation for policies pursued by a government we didn’t elect, may lose his/her Eritrean identification card and will, just like any foreigner, ask for a tourist visa to travel to his/her country. And since, unlike Ms. Bruton, there is little chance that s/he will come back to his/her adapted country to sing the praises of his/her native country, the embassy may deny him/her a visa. Such an Eritrean can’t even fly the remains of his dead family members to be buried back home and cannot deal with simple matters–inheritance, power-of-attorney designation, school transcripts, birth certificate issuance–that are fee-based and/or dealt with a family court here in the United States (whether you are a tax-dodger or not.) So, it is apples and oranges.
4. They Deserve A Lot Of Credit: I am calling for lifting the sanctions and re-engaging…because there is such lack of opportunity in the country. Nobody has jobs: there is nothing but the national project. If there is one thing Eritreans are terrified of is non-conformity. Despite this, Eritrea has managed to move forward. If you look at the education system, healthcare system, welfare system, they have accepted their isolation. It is amazing. I have to say I was astonished. And they have done it, they really have done it. They deserve a lot of credit.
The argument here is that the Eritrean government is doing well despite the fact that it is severely handicapped. This is like saying, “I saw a man with one leg finish a race” without considering why he has one leg to begin with. Would you reconsider your viewpoint if you learned he amputated his leg? The reason some of us are reluctant to give them credit is because, unlike Ms Bruton, Professor Jhazbhay, Ms Umutoni, we are not comparing Eritrea with its amputated version, but with the one that had a massive outpouring of goodwill from every Eritrean citizen and how the government squandered and continues to squander this goodwill by demanding that everybody kiss its ring and agree with its vision for the country.
The reason for the lack of opportunity is not the sanctions but because the government has pursued totalitarian policies that have robbed and emptied out the country of entrepreneurs and job-creators who are now busy creating jobs in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. The reason there are no jobs is not because Eritrea doesn’t have a good relationship with the US—it has excellent relationship with China, the most relevant country in Africa—it is because the government insists on dominating the market and has the worst record in the world for encouraging private businesses.
5. Change Is Coming: There is a process of change. Eritrean officials say they have stopped indefinite conscription. They have quietly demobilized 100,000 in the last year, without anyone knowing it. Only 5% of the National Service have been there for more than 18 months, at this point. They have re-started the re-writing of the constitution. The president has appointed a chairperson to take on that task. In his interview with me, the president affirmed his commitment to equality and human rights and said those are the foundations he uses to govern. And Eritrea did spontaneously release six journalists in January [2015.]
Years ago, in the middle of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, I had a flame war with a Western NGO worker then stationed in Mekele, Ethiopia who told me that I should take Ethiopia’s version of events because he had “information advantage.” He, by virtue of his position, knew things I didn’t know and therefore I should yield to him. This is what Ms Bruton is saying.
This part of the interview of Ms Bruton was the cringe-worthy, “peace in our times” Chamberlain like moment for me. First of all, none of what Ms Bruton is claiming are publicized in any of the government press. True, the Eritrean government sometimes finds it more useful to share information at the “seminars” it conducts (seminars now attended only by true believers) and via its wahyo (cells.) But the reason it does this is so it can deny them. If you announce news “quietly” you can disown it “quietly.” It is not, as Ms. Burton suggests, a case of people who don’t like to publicize their work, but a case of a government that wants no accountability and wants the flexibility to reverse in the afternoon decisions made in the morning. Even if it is true, if it announces it, people will ask: why now? why not 10 years ago.
Listening to this part of Ms Bruton’s representation brought to mind two words: Linda Loman. In The Death of A Salesman, everybody except Linda Loman knew that her husband Willy was a compulsive liar. “Senior government officials told me”, “the president told me…” Ms Bruton, that and $2 may get you a tall coffee at Starbucks: they are notorious for their empty promises, all of which are communicated privately and verbally. Does she even know what the president means by “human rights”? It is not what she thinks it means. If only she knew what else happened in January 2015 when the government “spontaneously” released six journalists (were they sentenced? Were they given a verdict? Did they have visitation rights? Was there due process? Ms. Bruton either didn’t ask or didn’t get an answer.) If she only knew multiples of six were arrested, tortured, disappeared or, having given up hope, exiled, she would see how ridiculous her assertion sounds. Did she ask why the Eritrean constitution, which took two years to write and was ratified in 1997, was dropped and by what authority since a head of state can’t unilaterally write, re-write, adopt, orphan constitutions? Did she ask what is the name of the “chairman” who was appointed—because the State media forgot to mention that too. Ms Bruton would be well advised to listen to the BBC interview linked below (I know, I know, they provide the “conventional narrative”) but it would give her an insight how the Eritrean government has made deception its currency.
6. Change Is Coming to Eritrea With or Without the United States. I believe firmly in bringing ‘Eritrea in from the cold.’ Eritreans anger at the US is justified. I am frustrated I don’t see any change on our side [American.] There is stubbornness on both sides. I don’t expect change because there are senior people in the [American] government like our National Security Advisor [Susan Rice] who are bottlenecks. The real actors here are the Europeans: that is who is engaging Eritrea.
So, in the end, for Ms Bruton, this is not about Eritrea but the United States and her personal role in it. It is not a coincidence that a long Africa-hand, Herman Cohen, had also called for “bringing Eritrea in from the cold” (to which Isaias Afwerki replied: what cold?) Ms. Bruton, an American patriot, is agonizing about American loss of influence in Africa. What Ms Bruton is doing is perfectly acceptable, legal, moral, ethical in the United States: polishing your resume to navigate better between think tanks, NGOs and government. These have their own convention and Ms. Bruton is following them. Consider: Ms. Bruton is an Africa expert working for a think tank. Said think tank (Atlantic Council) has a very busy revolving door to and from the government–Jon Huntsman, Scrowcroft, Chuck Hagel, James L Jones, Richard Holbrook, General Shineski, Ann-Marie Slaughter and, yes, Susan Rice, just to name a few all have revolved in and out of the Atlantic Council and the government. Her immediate supervisor, the ubiquitous J Peter Pham, was a consultant to the doomed presidential candidacy of John McCain. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say, but context is important.
For an Africa Expert, there is a formula. If the US has a bad relationship with an African country, you advise that the US reconsider its position; if the US has a good relationship with an African country, you also advise that the US reconsider its position.
For example, the US has a bad relationship with Somalia. So Ms Bruton wrote an essay entitled: “Somalia: A New Approach.” The keywords used in new approaches are “reboot”, “reset”, “rethink”, “reconsider.” For example, the US relationship with Kenya was deteriorating after Kenya’s election. J. Peter Pham just described Kerry’s visit to Kenya as “reset of the relationship.” In contrast, the US has a good relationship with Ethiopia. Following the formula, Ms Bruton wrote an essay entitled: “US Policy Shift Needed In Ethiopia.” (The one that made the Eritrean government officials her fans.) In “US Policy Shift Needed In Ethiopia”, Bruton argued that the US should not be supporting a government that imprisons journalists and provides no political space to its opposition and does not have an independent civil society. Sounds good to me. But in its Eritrea equivalent (let’s call it: US Policy Shift Needed in Eritrea), she is recommending that the US engage Eritrea DESPITE the fact that its treatment of journalists and opposition is much worse than that of Ethiopia and there is no civil society period in Eritrea and elections, as she said knowingly after she was so charmed by the intelligence of Isaias Afwerki, “won’t happen any time soon.”
So it is all a game. The same week that the supporters of the Eritrean government were giddy about Bruton’s endorsement of their government, the supporters of the Ethiopian government bagged a bigger fish: Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs which described Ethiopia as a democracy. (Bruton was chortling at that.)
So, to me, this is an American-experts feud that has little to do with us. It is likely that Bruton and Rice will trade places: Rice, after the end of the Obama term, will be back to think tanks and Bruton may become an “adviser” to Hillary Clinton or whoever runs against her. And the band marches on. And, in the end, Ms Susan Rice and Ms Bruton and Ms Sherman are likely to meet at some cocktail function and have a pleasant conversation about us Africans. Unlike us foolish Eritreans who are good at marginalizing our tiny population and would never mingle.
II. Come And See (BBC)
“Come and see!” is a common refrain from the Eritrean government and its supporters. Every government supporter who tours Eritrea and comes back challenges any assertion with “go and see for yourself!” In his interview with Petit OEil, French-documentarians, President Isaias Afwerki invites the viewers, “come and see!” Another documentary by Petit OEil is entitled “Come and See.” Meanwhile, in the documentary by African Strategies (Africa: The Other Narrative), the Dean of Halhale College, Dr. Estifanos Hailemariam, says “Come and see: seeing is believing!”
What shall we see if we come? We will see, according to “Eritrea: The Other Narrative”, a country which believes in resolving conflicts through dialog (tell that to the G-15); a country which has shown impressive improvement in health, literacy, education, agriculture, environment, water conservation, roads, telecommunications and construction. A country where education is free from elementary to post-secondary and, sometimes, even post-graduate studies. A country that has replaced one university with 7 colleges. A country which is focused on long-term sustainable development based on its pillars of self-reliance, social justice and ethnic/religious harmony. A country that has, despite externally driven political and economic challenges, built four major dams and is well on its way to guaranteeing food security; a country built brick-by-brick by its youth; a country where citizenship is not defined by birth but contribution to country; a country where National Service is multi-purposed: productive use of youth labor; socialization process for a multicultural society. A country which has registered tangible progress in the living standards and quality of life of all its citizens, particularly those in remote areas. Add a nice island-music to this, as African Strategies does, and it is “where is the Eritrean embassy and how do I get a visa?”
Isn’t it odd that a government, which so wants to showcase its success, is so limiting of access? Why does a government, which is so proud of its accomplishments, expel journalists and/or admit them conditionally, as it did with the BBC a few weeks ago? Why are embassies in Eritrea restricted to Asmara and require special permits to travel outside Asmara? The answer really is that the “come and see” is “come and see what we want you to see.”
“Development, Heroism, Blah Blah Blah”
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) put this to the test. It was invited conditionally: we want you to come in and celebrate our achievements in Millennium Development Goals 4, 5, 6 (those dealing with healthcare.) In other words, its was the standard “Come and See What We Want You To See” invitation ten years after the Eritrean government had expelled the BBC correspondent who was there to see what he wanted to see and had the nerve to report it. The BBC agreed and visited clinics and hospitals spread throughout Eritrea. The UNDP Resident representative played host to some of them (Does she pay 2% rehabilitation tax, by the way?)
But the BBC is also concerned about things like journalistic integrity so it kept telling its viewers that throughout the visit it had Eritrean “minders” who controlled its every move including who it talked to or didn’t talk to. For example: the Eritrean members of National Service who are seen building a house. Are they, as Eritrean asylum-seekers assert, building houses for Eritrean colonels and generals and doing it against their will? Or are they, as the Eritrean “minder” asserts, individuals who “volunteered” to help build a neighborhood house? The BBC tells us: it can’t help us because it was not allowed to interview the youth. In fact, the BBC tell us its producer evaded his minders and attempted to interview Eritreans without their minders and that 37 out of 37 Eritreans refused to be interviewed. Is this because Eritreans are “shell-shocked” by Ethiopia or by their arrest-disappear-torture happy government? That’s what the BBC reporter saw and that’s what she reported.
In fact, one of the most stunning pieces of the BBC interview is a visit to the “tank cemetery” in Asmara. This is a historic place where all the war instruments the Ethiopians used in the 30-year long revolution are stacked as a museum piece. But somewhere within the wreckage are shipping containers. The BBC reporter who had heard from asylum-seekers and human rights organizations say that these shipping containers are used as jails, asks her minder to approach a group of Eritrean men guarding the containers to ask questions. The guards tell the BBC reporter that they have work to do and that she shoot her documentary elsewhere. Unbeknownst to them, the BBC keeps filming and, if you understand Tigriniya, and if you have family members who are arrested (and who doesn’t in Eritrea?) what they say may send shivers down your spine if you consider that the container in the background may house tortured prisoners. Here’s what they say at the 7:27 mark:
እንታይ ኢልና መስለኪ: ኮንተይነራት ኣይትስኣሉ ኢና ኢልናያ። ብዙሕ ‘ውን ብዛዕብኡ ክሓቱና ኣይንደልዮምን ኢና:: ጥራሕ እቲ ናይ ዕብየት ናይ ጀግንነት ናይ ገለ ናይ ገለ ፤ እዚስ ናይ ስራሕ እዩ ናይ ገለ ኢልኪ ዕጸውዮ::
Translation: “What we told her is: don’t videograph containers. And we don’t want them to ask questions about it. Just [focus on] development, heroism, blah blah. Just close the issue by telling them that this is related to work [operational issues.] blah blah.”
The minder follows the instructions of her minders and in a transparent and comical attempt at quickly-changing-the-subject, literally says, “look, over there, there is an old train!”
III. Development vs Cost
Actually “look, over there, an old train” is not just figurative but literal. In the 1990s, the government turned down a loan from the Italian government to reconstruct and modernize the Asmara-Massawa train tracks that the Italians had built in 1932. It brought back retired old men (this was before the National Service) to lay-down the tracks which had been dismantled and used for setting up war bunkers for decades. The tracks are now good for tiny steam-engine trains. This now has two narratives: for the government and its supporters, it exemplifies self-reliance. For the opposition, it is an example of lost opportunity because a modernized railroad, with the right government policies, could have made Eritrea a mecca for tourists.
We in the opposition focus on the cost being paid for “development”—a country without laws, due process, verdict, constitution, accountable government—and the government and its supporters focus on the development— health, literacy, education, agriculture, environment, water conservation, roads, telecommunications and construction and national defense. On balance, I think, we in the opposition have the moral high ground. This is because a country can develop without torturing, disappearing and killing its citizens. A country can develop while taking measured, guided, baby steps towards democracy. A country can develop while having an independent press.
For the Eritrean government, the “Look! Over there! An Old train” used to be the Human Development Index (HDI), a metric developed by a Pakistani and Indian economist who argued that the key performance indices (KPI) used by the West were inapplicable to developing country. The HDI completely did away with any concern of what type a government a country had—democracy or tyranny—and what matters is whether a country is developing. Consequently, according to HDI, Cuba (a police state), is considered “Very High Human Development” state, ranked higher than Croatia, Latvia and Russia. Cuba is a model state for Eritrea, apprently. The HDI morphed into Millennium Development Goals (MDG), quantifiable targets to be met by the developing world between 1990 and 2015.
Now, whenever the Eritrean government points to MDG 4,5,6 (the healthcare related performance), the healthy response is, “it is good for our people and good on you!” In fact, the avatar I use in Disqus is the image that is on the cover of UNDP’s “Health Millenium Development Goals Report Abridged Version: Innovations Driving Health MDGs in Eritrea.” But this should always be followed by (a) what about MDG 1,2,3,7, 8? Particularly MDG 1? Isn’t that crucial? (b) Is MDG really an adequate standard to measure a country’s performance since it doesn’t address issues like governance: the only place “parliament” is mentioned in the MDG is when asking about gender parity: how many parliamentarians are male, how many female? Well, we are at parity: we have 0 men and 0 women in parliament. Yay.) (c) Doesn’t MDG favor small countries like Eritrea since, statistically, it is easier to to meet its goals (reduce by half, by 2/3, by 3/4) when dealing with small population? (d) Is Eritrea’s case truly unique or is this success shared by other African countries? And if it is shared by other African countries, is the price that Eritreans are paying for this outcome—no constitution, no justice, no due process, no voice in choosing the national government—a price too steep? What percentage of the population is not benefiting because they are exiled or in jail?
These and other issues are what Eritreans, pro-government and opposition should be discussing and debating among ourselves just as the Brutons, Rices and Shermans are discussing what is in the best interest of the United States. Why do we need proxies?