Bronwyn Bruton was one of the three individuals who provided their personal testimonies at the US Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee (Subcommittee on Africa) on September 14, 2016. This fact alone is an incredible feat for Ms. Bruton: a person who would have struggled to find Eritrea on a map 5 years ago is now an expert witness on the country. More impressive, she is such a gifted polemicist she can get the Government of Eritrea (GoE) to publish her testimony and her articles in government-friendly media, despite the fact that she admits that the Eritrean government is guilty of massive human rights violations. In this regard, she might be the only person on Planet Earth that publicly acknowledges the Eritrean government’ abysmal human rights records AND is still granted multiple visas to enter the country. (Quick: name someone else.) Even more impressive, she has shown over the last 18 months, that she is willing to change her mind on her core beliefs if presented with new facts, thus the title and purpose of this article.
Let me begin with the latter. If you are like me, you may have heard of Ms Bruton as you were following developments in Somalia (2006-2013) but she was presented to you as an Eritrea witness/expert for the first time in April 2015 by VOA’s “Press Conference USA.” No need to rehash that cringe-inducing interview (all rookies need a break) other than to highlight the evolution of Ms. Bruton and the rationale for my belief that she is open to changing her mind when shown new facts.
From that interview, two issues come to mind: (1) the role of the Government of Eritrea in Somalia during its civil war; (2) the size of Eritrea’s migrant population and the triggers for the migration. In the interview, Ms Bruton said that, as a Somalia expert, she knows that Eritrea had minimal or no role in Somalia, certainly not worthy of being sanctioned. She also dismissed claims of the massive size of Eritrea’s migration: many of the migrants are Sudanese and Somalis, the trigger is financial: people lie and claim political persecution to “get their green card”, then once they get it, they reinstate their relationship with the Eritrean government and visit their country every summer.
The Deputy Director of the Africa Desk of The Atlantic Council gig comes with a research department and since then she has discovered that the “Eritrean government didn’t help its case by giving military support to Al Shabab, a Somalia-based affiliate of Al Qaeda.” In her testimony on Wednesday, she also showed some empathy for the migrants: she conceded that even 3,000 a month is a large number and one of the push-factors is the abysmal human rights record of the government.
Here’s why I see Ms. Bruton eventually withdrawing her support from the Government of Eritrea and perhaps being one of its fiercest critics: Unlike the native supporters of the Government of Eritrea, whose support is intertwined with powerful emotions–Ghedli Romance, Custodians of Eritrean Sovereignty, The Last Guardians of African Independence–and unlike companies like Nevsun–whose support of the GoE is driven entirely by the profit motive–Ms. Bruton claims that her support is data-driven. In fact, her criticism of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (CoI-E), as well as the State Department, is precisely because she thinks both suffer from selection bias (cherry-picking witnesses who agree with your conclusions.) Ironically, she is guilty of the same infraction: her entire read of Eritrea is based on selection-bias: in Eritrea she speaks to government officials and whoever (tiny minority) of people who are bold enough to speak their mind (more on this later) and, in the Diaspora, she speaks not just to supporters of the government but fanatical supporters of the government like the Y-PFDJ and the Organization of Eritrean Americans (OEA.)
This is not speculation: after the testimony, my colleague Dr. Khaled Bashir asked her whom she speaks with in the Eritrean opposition to have a balanced view and she couldn’t name a single Eritrean name. That can change, if she wants it to. And I think she will want to because the career she has chosen–being a country expert–is brutal on people who get it wrong.
And none is bigger than this one that emerged during the hearing: the totalitarian nature of the Eritrean Government. In her written testimony, Ms. Bruton had listed “myths” that persist about Eritrea which are, according to her, wrong, and # 5 is this: “The Eritrean government exerts pervasive and stifling control over every aspect of life in Eritrea.”
In the Q & A, she expounded on this and I had to rewind the video twice to make sure I got it right and I will transcribe it and provide the link:
Start 1:32:57 and ends at 1:34:06
Representative Karen Bass: So, what’s the human rights situation from your vantage point, from your viewpoint? What are the human rights abuses?
Bronwyn Bruton: I think all the human rights abuses that have been described are absolutely real. I think that the question is, and the reason that I asked the question earlier from the intelligence officer who asked, “is there a government in Eritrea?” Are these abuses systemic? Are they the result of deliberate government policy or how much are they the result of poverty, the “no-peace-no-war”, bad behavior by people outside of Asmara that the government has poor grip on, what is the relationship between the political side of the government and the military? We have virtually no knowledge of that. I have no doubt that the military are bad actors, the extent to which their behavior is condoned by the government? I don’t really know. I’ve talked to people, senior people, in the government, in Asmara and I may be super naive, but sometimes I think they believe human rights abuses don’t really exist, and if they do, they are very few and far in between…
Now, really, Ms. Bruton. If you want to understand why your two fellow panelists (Father Habtu Gebreab and Dr. Khaled Bashir) were frustrated to the point of exasperation, and the reason Dr. Khaled Bashir, who had read your testimony, kept referencing your limited knowledge of Eritrea, is precisely because of your assessment of the nature of the government. Your newness comes with information gap that is causing you to have gotten it so devastatingly wrong on Eritrea 101: one that supporters and opponents of the government readily concede: the very nature of the People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ) which is a continuation of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and its top-down structure and hierarchy. If you spoke Tigrinya, you would be able to listen to President Isaias Afwerki’s annual interview with State TV where you are left with one and only one conclusion: he is a micro-manager who is in charge of everything. (One year, he spoke of how he knows that there are people trying to violate the prohibition of moving grains from the countryside to the city by smuggling it in the form of dough.) A few feet from you at the testimony, the reason the pro-government Eritreans were taking pictures of the Eritreans who testified is not because of curiosity but because they are part of the spying network.
There is an easy remedy for that: interview individuals who used to be part of the EPLF, or PFDJ, or the Government of Eritrea for any length of time, they will open your eyes to the fact that you are disastrously wrong on your assessment of a government that has “poor grip on” on the country outside the capital city. A country where the presidential office has no control over the military when in fact, the pervasive corruption is the price that had to be paid to maintain his absolute power.
You should follow your own advice and your recommendation to the Government of the United States: just like they should conduct due diligence and engage other parties besides Ethiopia when assessing the situation in the Horn of Africa, you should talk to Eritreans who are either active members of the opposition or those who were in senior governmental positions. I recommend you start with Dr. Khaled Bashir. Then, maybe Ambassador Andeberhan Woldegiorigis who is scheduled to host a conference in Winnipeg, Canada just next week entitled: “Stop! 25 Years of Crimes Against Humanity in Eritrea.”
And, one more free advice on Nevsun. As a US official once told me, the reason that the former US Chargé to Eritrea Louis Mazel appears to be on the opposite end of the State Department and a de-facto propaganda minister for the Eritrean government is because he is confined to 25 kilometers of Asmara and he is grateful anytime he is allowed outside Asmara city limits. Nevusn is the kind of company that is a prime target for Wikileaks: a Western company that colludes with a dictatorship to exploit the free labor of young Eritreans. Then we will learn from internal emails about financial transactions (and their rationale for donations, how they pay the secretive Gov of Eritrea to avoid transparency) and how Nevsun looked the other way (they don’t work for us! they work for an Eritrean subcontractor!) when tens of thousands of Eritrea’s youth were enslaved. Oh, and don’t be surprised if it becomes a prime target of SEC investigation: somebody has to pay for the tears and the exile of thousands of innocent Eritreans and you and the Atlantic Council want to be as far removed from the debris when the you-know-what hits the fan.
My email, just in case you want to eliminate your selection bias: email@example.com