The Engagement Party

In mid-December 2013, Hank Cohen argued that it was time for the US to rethink its policy towards Eritrea and there was over-reaction everywhere. Some in the opposition were alarmed by this, and some in the Isaiasist camp were thrilled:     The argument in itself is not surprising, particularly given the publication where Cohen’s article appeared—African Arguments.  In the same pages where one could read Cohen’s “Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold”, one could also read Rethinking Zimbabwe, a series of articles questioning and criticizing Britain’s policy towards Zimbabwe.  This is because African Arguments is a website which is part of the Royal African Society, a UK foreign policy franchise; and the World Peace Foundation (WPF), which is a franchise of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; and Guardian Africa Network, a franchise of the Guardian media conglomerate.   It is where the engage-disengage parties have their debates with little or no input from the bride-to-be.   Sure, some bridesmaid may show up with a bouquet of flowers or Areqi to the gated community (“can I have my picture taken with you?”), but it is mostly an exclusive club of nerds and wonks who are as engaged with the daily lives of the parties involved as the players of the video game Call of Duty are with actual warfare.

There were two unrelated issues working in tandem to give this particular engagement party a bigger buzz than it deserved: (1) the (mostly undeserved) legend of the author, Herman Cohen; and (2) the vacancy within the Eritrean Spin Troika after Ali Abdu demobilized himself.  Let’s look at each.

Herman Cohen

Whenever we Africans complain of the inexperienced bureaucrats who shuffle in and out of the Africa Desk or are assigned to the Assistant Secretary Bureau of African Affairs post within the US State Department (quick, no googling: who occupies the post now? Exactly), we are comparing it with the “glorious” years of years gone by when senior people held the post for more than two years.   And since, for us Eritreans, our case was brought to the attention of the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we are talking about two “legendary” Assistant Secretaries of State: Crocker and Cohen.

C and C were appointed by and served Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, back in the days when there was a Cold War and Africa was relevant and it made sense for the US to appoint experienced diplomats to the post.

In the US, it is customary for government employees to seek greener pastures after they resign their posts: regulators join the lucrative world of the regulated; the aging seek job-security in academia, etc.   Within that context, what Herman Cohen has done since he left his post is entirely American: he, along with long-time colleague Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, Jim Woods, formed a lobbying firm (he is a registered agent) to represent the interests of African countries whose image needed a little polishing.

Part of what lobbyist-to-be do is what feeds into world cynicism about American foreign policy. Let’s consider Cohen’s contribution to world cynicism: Angola held elections in 1992 and the contestants were two liberation-era fronts: MPLA and UNITA.   The latter, headed by Savimbi, was a darling of the US in the Reagan era but, by the time the Bush administration was in charge, the nuttiness of Savimbi was clear to all and what was needed was an election where there would be one decisive winner.   The MPLA rigged the election on massive scale—disenfranchising UNITA, massacring opponents, the usual African horror show.   Every human rights group, including those who hated Savimbi, cried foul, nonetheless.  But Cohen, who was one of the “observers” of the engagement party, declared that the elections had been largely free and fair.

His lobbying firm, Cohen and Woods International, represents Zimbabwe—and, coincidentally, African Arguments has a page dedicated to “engaging” Zimbabwe. I need to emphasize here that in the norms and customs of American politics, there is nothing wrong with this: there is transparency: it is disclosed, and people can make their judgements.  Moreover, there is absolutely nothing wrong with African countries hiring lobbyists to influence opinion because, many times, very ill-informed US congressmen are writing legislation based on misinformation campaigns from the opponents of African governments.

So, coming back to Eritrea, where did this article come from?  Is this a case of the US foreign policy establishment using an old Africa hand to float a policy change?  Is this a case of the Eritrean regime hiring an experienced diplomat-lobbyist to polish its image? Is this a case of Herman Cohen taking an initiative to un-stick a stalled relationship and drum up some business for his lobbying firm?

I rule out the first possibility because of one thing: his article gets one huge fact wrong.  In the article, Cohen claims “In 2008, the George W. Bush Administration declared Eritrea to be a “state sponsor of terrorism”, thereby triggering US trade, investment, and travel sanctions against Eritrea and its leaders.”  No such thing happened.  Somebody ostensibly following the Eritrea-Ethiopia, and the Eritrea-US, relationship closely would not get that part wrong.  (What’s strange is that none of the other authors, all luminaries of the US-Africa policy wonk establishment, who responded to his article corrected his assertion.)

I don’t rule out the second possibility—that he may be consulting for the Eritrean regime—but, if he were, he would have disclosed it.  In any event, his lobbying firm is required to, by law, disclose it and we will know in time.  Despite his claims that he is squeamish about which dictators his firm chooses to represent, he did, at one point, represent Taylor, so methinks the lady doth protest too much.

The third possibility—that he is free-lancing—is the most likely one.  The Lobbying-for-Africa industry in Washington, DC is highly competitive and the ones who are sought out are those who have had very recent experience in US government, particularly the executive office.  It has been 22 years since Cohen served an administration and the article, in my opinion, is a way to stay relevant and drum up business for his lobbying firm (not that there is anything wrong with that.)  He may have calculated that Ethiopia has enough representatives and friends and Eritrea needs some help. The narrative of his article–its omissions, its de-emphasis of certain developments, particularly the hilarious downplaying of Isaias Afwerki’s support of Somalia’s Al-Shabab (“In view of the absence of any intelligence, real or fabricated, linking Eritrea with Shabaab for over four years”)—supports this possibility.

The Spin Troika

The second reason that Cohen’s article received bigger buzz than it deserved is due to the changes that have occurred within Eritrea’s Spin Room ever since its Minister of Information, Ali Abdu (disclosure: he is my younger brother) left the regime.  For years, Eritrea’s Spin Masters have been three people: Ali Abdu, Yemane Gebreab and Yemane Gebremeskel.  Each had, in my view,  a relatively well-defined role: Ali Abdu focused on the populist constituency (mass media: particularly its over-sized Eri-TV); Yemane Gebreab and Yemane Gebremeskel focused on the opinion-shapers in the Diaspora (the professors of; the weapons of mass destruction like Sophia Tesfamariam; the cadres of YPFDJ and other assorted political moths. ) Isaias Afwerki was the Bull in the China Shop, the free-floating steroid undoing—or-reinforcing—the message of the day.  By the way, I haven’t watched his announced interview yet (scheduled for Sunday night) but I expect him to undo whatever little promises his regime made in its Universal Periodic Review report to the UN in weeks prior.

Within this dynamic, particularly after Ali Abdu left,  Yemane Gebremeskel (the Director of the President’s Office) and Yemane Gebreab (the Director of Political Affairs) have become the Dispensers of Good News and they have been working overtime to account for the vacancy in MoI.  Yemane Gebremeskel does this mostly through his twitter handle, where he drops “news flakes” about under-reported “good news” about Eritrea.  The two Yemanes were hyperactive in December hanging good news ornaments on the PFDJ Tree: Eritrea will have the world’s fastest-growing economy; the sanctions will be lifted; the “fabricated” human rights issue will be addressed; the MDG goals will be met, mining industry will explode, etc.

And where (RIP) has gone dark, two pro-regime websites with relatively (by which I mean “they don’t make you cringe”) dynamic content have stepped in: and  These websites have now become the go-to sites to hear happy talk about Eritrea.  It is where the two Yemanes send their prophesies: of electricity restored (I particularly like the reference to a percentage met, as if the regime has any metrics at all), of explosive economic growth (never mind that the main source for that claim, The Economist, has got this wrong in the past; never mind also the Economist’s disclaimer: it says that it doesn’t expect this growth to translate to anything meaningful given the government’s record of mismanagement); of sanctions about to be lifted (never mind that the mandate goes all the way to December 2014); of MDG goals met (never  mind the fact that this is self-reporting from a country that has neither a budget, nor a census–critical to having a meaningful MDG); of human rights accusations addressed (by having human rights monitors meeting with Eritrea’s “civil society”, the PFDJ mass organizations, who are a conduit for the human rights violations)… And what the two Yemanes send are dutifully, and uncritically, jotted down by Tesfa News and Raimoq. Curiously, none of this happy talk makes it to Shabait, the official ministry of information website; nor to, the official website of the ruling party.

The Cohen article fit this spin perfectly.  What will come out of it?  Is there going to be an engagement party? And if so, how long before it’s broken off?

Two-Party and One-Party Engagement Parties

In two-party states like the United States, it is customary for one party to take the exact opposite position of the other—on every single issue.  I don’t know how much of this is policy and how much of it is politics but it’s eerie how the two parties, Democrats and Republicans, take diametrically opposed positions on everything.  Don’t get me wrong: they don’t exactly do the exact opposite things once they assume power; but they will take an opposing view to help them achieve power.  One of these issues is whether the US should engage with, or continue to disengage from, an “unfriendly” country.

The list of countries that the US has been advised to engage with include Cuba, Iran, North Korea—the entire “axis of evil.”  In the 1980s, there were those who were for confronting/containing the USSR, and those who were for engaging/cooperating with the USSR.  Now, since Americans (the people) are very disinterested about what happens in the world, this debate among Americans (the policy/politics community) has been at the margins.  When the country involved is considered of less strategic value, like Eritrea, the debate is even more marginal—it is conducted at the intersection of Nerdville and Wonkistan, which is unfortunate for those of us who consider Eritrea our home.  Particularly so since We the People are never consulted about policy issues. All we get are “seminars” about “the objective situation on the ground.”

That’s the prism that we should view the Engagement Party that was proposed by Herman Cohen.

The Cohens are not stakeholders: they do not have to answer details as to why we are where we are.  All they need to know, from their perspective, is that whatever the reason was, and whatever the US policy is now, it is not working.  The word they use in foreign policy circles is “reboot.”  I don’t know why my computer is acting up, I will just turn it off and on.  Reboot!   The implication is, well, maybe you are wrong, maybe we (the other party) is wrong: let’s have a fresh start.

One party-states, like the one in Eritrea, do not have a reboot or reset button.  That’s why there are no initiatives that come from Eritrea to resolve any conflict: everything must come from another party because to offer initiatives, changing initiatives, is to admit error and, as we all know, one party states are infallible.  This is why problems fester for years and sometimes over a decade.  Even our little dispute with Djibouti—now approaching its 6th year!–required a third party, Qatar, to mediate it.  At least on paper.

The only option available to one-party-states to present old initiatives as new is to change the face of the presenter.  That is, shuffling people.  However, Eritrea’s ruling party, cannot even do that since it has not successfully recruited “new blood” into its party.  Not only does it not have new blood, it regularly bleeds out old blood—particularly when they show any signs of deviating from orthodoxy.  That is: it is institutionally designed to serve the initiatives of one man—Isaias Afwerki—who hasn’t had a single, fresh idea since 1969.

So, yes, some “engagement” from the US is likely—it is the essence of two-party states—and the biggest clue for that will be whether the US will invite Isaias Afwerki to the US-Africa Summit scheduled for August 5 and 6.   The invitations have been extended to 47 African leaders who are in “good standing with the United States or are not suspended from the African Union.”  There are 54 states, that leaves out 7 including (sadly for Herman Cohen) Zimbabwe. Who are the other 6?

Whether the engagement party is started or not, it will be met with the usual rigidity and inflexibility from the one-man state.  The engagement party will then change to a disengagement party.   And, a few years later, some other version of Cohen will emerge calling for a re-boot, as Eritrea will be crouching towards failed statehood.  Unless, of course, we in the opposition have our own engagement party and create that formidable force we have always wanted to have. Remember that?  Too hard, huh.  There is another option: a cabal of reformers from within the PFDJ have Forto 2.0 and then we in the broad-based opposition moderate them from their years of exclusionary conditioning just like we did with the EDP reformers.  Consider me intrigued.


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