Atlantic Council: Leaving Eritreans In The Cold

On December 8, the Atlantic Council, an American think-tank, organized a panel discussion on Eritrea. Entitled “Rethinking Eritrea”, the event was moderated by Bronwyn Bruton,the deputy director of the think tank’s Africa Center; and the panelists were Seth Kaplan, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University; Anthony Carroll, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Dan Connell, visiting scholar, African Studies Center, Boston University. Ms. Bruton and Mr Kaplan presented papers, which you can read here and here. Mr Carroll and Mr Connell had notes and you can watch and listen to what they said here and here.

If you are thinking that this article will focus exclusively on the presentation by Ms Bruton (a frequent guest in this column), you will be mistaken. If you are thinking why Westerners who study Africa (and not Eritrea) are prescribing its medicine, in a town (DC) that has one of the densest population of Eritreans, you will also be mistaken.

What is it which motivates Ms. Bruton? Her paper, “Eritrea: Coming In from the Cold” has a resemblance (coincidental?) to ambassador/lobbyist Herman Cohen’s article 3 years ago: “Time to Bring Eritrea In from the Cold”.  Moreover, a few years ago, Eritrean Chargé d’Affaires to the United States had directed Ambassador-Now-Lobbyist Herman Cohen to change American public opinion about Eritrea by conducting symposiums exactly like the one just organized by the Atlantic Council. She also appears to share Herman Cohen’s view that US policy towards Eritrea is not merit-based, but the outcome of grudges held by Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor.

In any event, “Eritrea: Coming In From The Cold” is basically the same paper she presented in her testimony to the US Congress in September 2016, and I would be repeating myself if I offered a counter-argument. In support of my claim that Ms Bruton is a work in progress and that all you have to do is wait a couple of months for her to learn new facts and to espouse them more passionately than you did, I submit this exhibit: in her testimony to the US congress, she had said “nobody knows” who controls Eritrea outside the capital city.  Really. Not “I don’t know”, but “nobody knows.”  Why? Because an American intelligence officer who learned she was going to Eritrea had asked Bronwyn (in hushed tones, I imagine): “Find out if there is a government in Eritrea, outside of Asmara.” (This, in a totalitarian country that has a ruling party office in every hamlet.) Now she is saying (in her role as moderator) that “like it, or not”, the Government of Eritrea controls all of Eritrea’s territories. So she learned at least one thing in three months; although this one thing she learned completely undermines the argument she was making to the US congress—”nobody knows” who is in charge in Eritrea and we can’t afford a power vacuum in Eritrea; so, let’s engage.

As the saying goes, “Africa is not a country” and people can’t be “Africa experts.”  They can barely be regional experts (after decades of toiling) and so it is always absurd when individuals present themselves as “Africa experts” after a few years.  The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center was opened in….2009.   Are there “Europe experts”, by the way? But, after listening to all the cringe-inducing “questions” from Eritreans in the audience, I am sympathetic to why the Atlantic decided to exclude us.  We Eritreans are hot heads: we have not developed the skill set required to listen and to have dispassionate discussions and intelligent discourse.  Example: “Dan Connell, how can you say Ethiopia has vacated Badme when clearly you didn’t say that and I just imagined it because my government ordered me to hate you?”  Example: “I am from the opposition and this is perhaps the first time the Atlantic Council has ever heard from the pro-democracy opposition so let me begin my question, which is actually a statement, with ‘I like dictatorship.’”  I wish I could blame only the Eritrean government for the deformity in our discourse: 25 years later, there is no parliament in Eritrea, and the government’s idea of discourse is: we talk, you listen which it names “seminars” without any irony.  Seminars have one indoctrination message; love whom we order you to love; hate whom we command you to hate. But there is more. I think something in our culture is broken. This is why the (it’s not even close) by-far-most-knowledgeable person in the panel—Professor/author Dan Connell—appeared to be the least comfortable, because the audience was packed with pro-Government Eritreans trained and coiled to attack.

Yes, we Eritreans should have been in the panel and we would have provided context to all our Mzungus.  But first we have to learn to keep our emotions in check.

All of the above, by way of setting the scene.

What I found most interesting is the paper by Professor Seth Kaplan. And by interesting I mean surreal, and by surreal I mean that it feels like we just boarded a time machine and were transformed to 1991 and we are discussing what the new government should do. There is even a picture of Asmara’s tank graveyard in Professor Kaplan’s paper: yep, it all happened yesterday in this virgin country.  It is as if Eritrea hasn’t had the same government in power for 25 years. The topic he discusses—what form of economic policies should the government of Eritrea pursue—is (if you are nerdy enough) captivating and well researched, with over a hundred endnotes. But not one of the end notes is Eritrea’s macroeconomic policy, investment policy, or industrial policy.  They exist but nobody, including the government, takes them seriously.  It’s like he just stumbled on a post-war country with a new government and no laws. This is because Eritrea is a blank slate: what happens in Eritrea is that the policy is whatever a government official says it is in an interview (preferably, if not exclusively, with a Westerner), as was apparently the case here, when Professor Kaplan went to Eritrea in March 2016 and conducted “dark research.” (Interviews without attribution.) Mercifully, President Isaias Afwerki was not one of the officials he interviewed so we are spared from creating a Bruton Unit, i.e, the number of times she says “when I interviewed President Isaias.”

The problem with the “when I interviewed President Isaias” argument is that President Isaias says a lot of contradictory things in a meandering and rambling way, and the one he repeats often—one he used when he removed the life support from Eritrea’s constitution and mercy-killed it in 2014—is “over the past 15 years, we have learned a lot,” without specifying what is it he has learned.  So, there is no enduring “value”—neither EPLF Marxism, nor revolutionary-chic, nor neo-liberalism of the 1990s, not anti-terrorism coalition of 2000s (although it was a nice touch to add the Isaias-Rumsfeld picture, btw)—nothing that people can refer to as the guide-post of the government except for: ‘what does it take to stay in power, what does it take to be relevant in the region, and where do we get the money to fund it?’ Consequently, stalls, half-starts, u-turns, imaginary constitutions, imaginary penal codes, imaginary raises for conscripts, imaginary limits to conscription, and soapbox railing against the US are not a bug but a feature of Eritrean government policy. But let’s review Professor Seth Kaplan’s arguments and try to also add the major points of Mr. Carroll and Mr Connell to complement his earnest report.

Seth Kaplan’s Assessment & Recommendations

I probably won’t do justice to his paper and I strongly recommend you read it. Sure, you will have to gloss over lines (helpfully excerpted in bold) like “The birth of the Eritrean state resulted entirely from the tenacity, resilience, and keen organizational skills of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF)” and shrug them off as the hyperbole of a newbie who has just had a sip of the EPLF/PFDJ Kool-Aid and focus on his assessment and recommendations.  It is so because the EPLF/PFDJ told him so.  It is what “Africa experts” do: talk to African leaders.  Next!

The assessment is worth it: because he is using the same sources (EIU, AfDB), he is saying the same things we have been saying. But perhaps now the government supporters will accept it (instead of waging war against data) when it comes from a government-friendly source. (“Government-friendly” broadly defined to mean, in the Eritrean context, someone who is given a visa to enter the country.) His assessment of the challenges to Eritrea’s economy, quoted verbatim:

• Eritrea has few exports and thus consistently runs a large trade deficit;
• Reserves have rarely, if ever, climbed above the amount required for three months of imports, the internationally recommended minimum (they generally hover at a number between two and three months now). Such a low level of foreign reserves leaves the country susceptible to any crisis that might affect its finances;
• The price of copper, which made up 94 percent of total Eritrean exports in 2014, has fallen by more than half since 2013;
• The government is estimated to have “a highly unsustainable public debt burden, estimated at 108 percent of GDP in 2015,” making it “among the most heavily indebted countries in the world”;
• Fiscal deficits averaged a whopping 16 percent of GDP between 2005 and 2015. There has been a modest decline in deficits since Bisha opened and brought an increase in revenue, but the figure remains around 12 percent;
• When the government prints money to pay its bills, it increases the money supply faster than it should. Inflation has been in double digits since at least the early 2000s, peaking at about 20 percent in 2008–2011 before dropping to around 12 percent in 2014;
• Demand for goods and services has significantly declined in the months since the new tender was introduced [November 2015]. Businesspeople—whether they drive a taxi, manage a retail store, run a restaurant, or own a hotel—bitterly complain about the currency change;
• Since 2008, the private investment rate has been between 2 and 3 percent of GDP, an extraordinarily low figure. FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] per capita is among the lowest in Africa, with only Burundi, the Central African Republic, and Malawi doing worse in 2014;
• Foreign investors face an almost impossible task if they wish to involve themselves with Eritrea in a way that completely avoids the entanglements the program [National Service] brings from almost every direction. National service thus creates a litigation and public relations risk that is not present in any other developing country. As such, it is a severe drag on Eritrea’s economic development.
• Emigration has devastated the country’s human resources, weakened the capacity of its institutions (likely including the military), and limited its geostrategic and economic options. It has also had a debilitating effect on Eritrea’s image abroad and the morale of the people at home.
• The lack of capable middle managers (and the risk-adverse atmosphere generated by the Eritrean political context) enervates most institutions in the country. This dynamic is exacerbated by the emigration of many educated young people who should be filling up middle management positions in key organizations.
• The country ranks last out of 189 countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business indicators, scoring especially low on issues related to regulation (e.g., starting a business, dealing with construction permits, and resolving insolvency), international trade, and access to credit.
• The country has major deficiencies in energy supply, roads, telecommunications, and ports.
• Eritrea ranked forty-seven out of fifty-three countries across the continent in the 2013 Africa Infrastructure Development Index “due to poor road networks, water and sanitation, energy, and ICT [information and communications technology] deficiencies.”
• It ranked 156 out of 160 countries in the 2014 Logistics Performance Index, which measures, among other things, perceptions of the quality and efficiency of a country’s trade- and transport-related infrastructure and logistics services. Only Congo-Brazzaville, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia fared worse.
• It had the lowest per capita numbers of mobile phone subscribers and Internet users in Africa in 2014.
• Eritrea has one of the lowest scores on the Human Development Index, ranking 186 out of 188 countries worldwide in 2014, far behind the averages for Africa as well as the low development group of countries. Of the countries assessed, only the Central African Republic and Niger did worse. Over four-fifths of students finish high school without employable work skills, and this produces legions of people unemployable for any job requiring specialized knowledge.

Now if we replace “Eritrea” with the name of any generic country which had the same government for 25 years, the prescription would be “these guys have failed; we need a change of government in this generic country.” Especially if you conclude, as Kaplan has, that “the anti-business sentiments of many top government officials do not help matters.” Even more, when you conclude, as Kaplan has, that the Eritrean revolution has forged a  leadership with a set of rigid values (like a religion) that makes it very unlikely for them to change. Even more so, if you learn, as Kaplan did (and notes in his endnotes), the government doesn’t even like the word “reform.”

What we need is regime change.  “Regime change” simply means change of one government by another, a right recognized as universal by the UN: the power to hire and fire your government.  But “regime change” now has entirely different meaning: change of government by force by external powers (thank you George W Bush.) People are so terrified of recommending the former (peaceful change of government) because it will be mistaken for the latter (external military enforced change) that they suspend their critical thinking and strain to recommend things that won’t happen.  We have to hold one constant–the government must stay in place–and demand that everybody else change and that the government, which we just described is not open to change, actually change its behavior. We externalize.  Three things that are allegedly entirely outside the control of the government of Eritrea–Sanctions, Demarcation, Indefinite National Service–have to change, we are told, before anything changes.

1. Sanctions: the PFDJ narrative is that the UN, under the direction of the US, sanctioned Eritrea for no good reason. This is having disastrous consequences and the US is to blame. Stretching the argument to its limit, Kaplan says that investment in Eritrea froze up as early as 2005 when the UN was hinting at sanctions, not just when it imposed it in 2009. Well, OK: but what was the Government of Eritrea doing when it was being warned by the UN to reverse course in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and most of 2009? What was it doing in 2009 and 2010 to get the sanctions strengthened in 2011? Does it bear any, some, most, all of the responsibility for getting Eritrea sanctioned? Is there any clue in the fact that only Libya voted no for the 2009 sanctions?  Does it bear any responsibility for getting the African Union to do something it has never done since South African apartheid: vote for sanctioning a fellow African country? Does it, or its supporters who were telling it “you are on the right track”, bear any responsibility for the disastrous consequences? Kaplan, an economist, is agnostic on that.

Inconvenient as it may be, one has to remember that there are three sanctions on Eritrea: by the US, the UN and the EU. If what people like Herman Cohen and Bronwyn Bruton claim is true—that the sanctions are there only because the US (Susan Rice) insists for personal reasons, a dubious claim given the absence of a single NO vote the last time the issue was voted on—what is stopping the EU and the UN from lifting their sanctions? Specially, as we keep being reminded, since EU is fully engaged with Eritrea?

Given that the Government of Eritrea was sanctioned for two reasons–its role in Somalia and its role in Djibouti–are there any assurances that the irresponsible government won’t get Eritrea sanctioned again for yet another self-destructive policy?

2. Demarcation: Since April 13, 2002 when the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) gave its ruling, the three parties have not changed their positions: Eritrea says that there is nothing to negotiate here: the ruling is final and binding, get out of our land. Ethiopia says, maybe, kinda, here’s a five point plan and first we have to talk about it. And those who are described as witnesses (in writing) and as guarantors (in oral representation)—the UN, the US—say, “it is up to the two parties to figure this out.” For more than fourteen years, this has remained the position of the three parties. Fourteen long years.

Why is Ethiopia refusing to abide? Because, explained Ms Bruton—proving once again that every time she learns something, she unlearns something else—because of Ethiopia’s “irredentist” claims.  An “irredentist” is “a person advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it.” Now, let’s be honest and take off our pamphleteer hat for a second: does this description fit the Government of Ethiopia or some of the Ethiopian opposition hosted by Eritrea which still claims that the Eritrean Red Sea belongs to Ethiopia?

To the surprise of nobody, the panelist who has been following the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict since before it began—Dan Connell—gave the only coherent and workable plan to extricate Eritrea from the conundrum it is in.  Unless, of course, you still believe moral indignation and scolding Ethiopia, the US and the UN will work.   He says that in an outcome-focused proposal, both countries can maintain their positions, and the US or Europe can have proxy talks and proximity talks to ensure that each party gets what it wants: for Eritrea: Ethiopia vacating lands ruled Eritrean; for Ethiopia, an assurance that once it vacates the land, it will never have to worry about war from the Northern front; for the UN-US, to close that file permanently (I don’t agree with Dan that Europeans have to drive this: it can only be done by the US.)

It is insane to not take a single initiative to solve this problem, given that, as two of the panelists told us, the most impactful economic stimulus to Eritrea would be opening up the Eritrea-Ethiopia border for trade.

As a government which has successfully negotiated the Sudanese conflict (Eastern Province vs Khartoum), the Eritrean government has the diplomatic acumen to resolve this. But three things stand on its way: one, it doesn’t just want the Government of Ethiopia to reverse its policy unconditionally; it wants such about-face policy to result in its downfall as it sees it as the destabilizer of the Horn and it sees itself as the Savior of the region, including Ethiopia; two: it has painted itself into a corner of “there is nothing to talk about” for 14 years, that it can’t show any flexibility and eagerness to talk (never mind all the catastrophic data that the good professor cited) without losing face with its Parrot Constituency; three: once in a while, somebody from the West springs out of the blue to give it false hope that the US policy of benign neglect is just about to be reversed.

3. National Service: Kaplan here makes the same point I have made: that Eritrea can copy Israel’s national service which is time-limited. I have argued that if there is a single country in the world that can rationalize extreme mandatory conscription on the basis of hostile neighborhood, it is Israel; yet, Israel doesn’t have a military conscription policy as crazy as ours. It is for limited time, and it has conscientious objection exemptions.

What is the rationale for indefinite national service?  It is, we are told, to enable Eritrea to defend itself if (or when) Ethiopia attacks.  But given that indefinite national service is the key driver of emigration and the attendant terrible consequences of that (hallowing out Eritrea’s human resource, death and carnage; denying Eritrea its traditional trading partner), given that nobody will invest in Eritrea for fear of litigation or ruining its reputation by using forced labor (National Service), how long is that policy supposed to be pursued until new initiatives are introduced?

The Government of Eritrea–and its Mzungus–hopes to shame Ethiopia, the US and the UN into doing the right thing. What if they don’t? Well, Kaplan has an answer: one of the guiding principles of Eritrea’s government is: “Backing down from difficulties is unacceptable; instead, efforts should be doubled to achieve one’s goals.”  Doubled, quadrupled, quintupled, ad infinitum.   First of all, this is suicidal.  Secondly, it is (thank God) not always the case.  The Government of Eritrea famously reversed two long-standing major policies just recently:

(A) On Eritrean Ports: April 1 Editorial by Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Eritrea is the only country in the world that does not allow its territory to be a camp of foreign powers. It will never allow its islands, ports, land to be leased or sold.”

(B) On joining alliances: (editorial in Haddas Ertra) ኤርትራ ኣብ ፖሊሲ ኪዳናት ኣይትኣምንን፣ ስለዚ ድማ ኣይትጽንበሮን – ኣይትድግፎን’ውን። በዚ ምኽንያት ኣብ ዝኾነ ይኹን ተመሳሳሊ ምትእኽኻባት ኣባልነት ከምዘይብላ ደጊማ ተረጋግጽ፣ (Translation: Eritrea is against the policy of alliances and interventions and it will never join nor support them.)

Both these “never!” statements were made in April 2014. And we know what happened since then: Eritrea leased Assab to the United Arab Emirates and it joined the Saudi Alliance.

The truth is: even if the most Eritrea-friendly person is named as US Sec of State (Ambassador Bolton), or holds some senior position dealing with Africa, he will follow exactly the recommendation given by Dan Connell because Ethiopia is too important to the US.

But in the meantime, 14 of Eritrea’s post-independence lives have been wasted resulting in massive militarization, indefinite national service, and migration with thousands of the lives of our youth wasted away.  And as long as there is national service–which is a different name for “forced labor”–there will be no investment from companies who care about the risks associated with their reputation and litigation, as Mr. Carroll and Professor Kaplan reiterated.  Those of you who have interacted with Eritrean refugees know this–and Dan Connell has interviewed exponentially more–have you heard anyone of them say “if only Weyane/Ethiopia would vacate our lands!”  What they say is, “if only my government wasn’t so monumentally stupid.”

And what exactly will change if the sanctions are lifted tomorrow and the boundary is demarcated the day after? Professor Kaplan recommends that the Eritrean government learn from the practices of China and Vietnam. Of course, China and Vietnam–unlike Eritrea–have actual functioning political parties which meet regularly.  They are not One Man shows, like the one in Eritrea which hasn’t had a party congress since 1994 (its first and only.)  Moreover, whatever change happened in China and Vietnam was only after they shed their “liberators.”  And, have you ever heard Vietnam rail about China the way Eritrea rails about the US?  The government and its supporters are more inspired by Cuba: in fact, this guy and this guy are pushing “Eritrea the African Cuba” narrative.  It so happens that both are exempt from the National Service policy of the government, and it so happens that both conveniently forget Cuba was a client state of the Soviet Union from the beginning of its revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Questions.  Will we have peace or will have another war somewhere because the PFDJ’s national charter says Eritrea’s foreign policy should be ambititious “notwithstanding our limited capabilities” [Page 26 of the National Charter]? Will Eritrea take advantage of its massive shoreline, will it have a decent tourism industry, or will we cede the Sea to Djibouti, as we have for two decades now? Will the Eritrean government transform the country into a service hub, a manufacturing hub, or will it continue to micromanage it to oblivion? Will it allow the entrepreneurship of Eritreans (that Anthony Carroll witnessed in Ethiopia were critical to its economy) to thrive or will it insist on dominating all economic space? Will it pursue policies to welcome back the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who still languish in refugee camps or will it hope their die off or adopt Sudanese nationalities? Here’s an easy one: Will the Atlantic Council video be aired by the Government of Eritrea or its satellites like EastAfro or will it be edited to eliminate Dan Connell?

If you just discovered Eritrea, all these are mysteries. If you have been following everything Eritrea’s ruling party has done since it came to power, it’s all predictible: take the most rational thing to do, then do its opposite.  It will remain so until those in power convince themselves or are convinced by others that they should pursue some other interest besides the one they are terrible at: governing.  The best contribution all our Mzungus can do for us–and oh, we will be so thankful we would name streets after them–is to convince Eritrea’s rulers to go away.

But they won’t, and you can see it in the cold detachment of the Atlantic Council presentation. The fact that a UN body found the leaders of the Government of Eritrea guilty of crimes against humanity is barely mentioned.  Not a single panelist, with the exception of Dan Connell, appears to have spoken to a single escapee from Eritrea. There are hundreds of thousands of them giving testimonies that contradict the whitewashing of the Atlantic Council.  The massive human rights violations the Government of Eritrea commits are normalized: meh, everybody does it–despite the fact that those who study this for a living–Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Council– say Eritrea’s is far worse. So, it turns out, the “Eritrea” the Atlantic Council wants to bring in from the cold is made up of Eritrean officials they interview and have on their speed dial.  The average Eritrean?  Well, he can just stay out in the cold: the government will eventually give blankets to those who didn’t freeze to death.  Eventually.  Maybe.  Who cares?


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