Same old, same old…
In Tancred, Benjamin Disraeli tells us how “[t]he East is a career.” Eritreans, similarly, may be forgiven for thinking that, for mainstream analysts and experts, “Eritrea is a career.”
The last several weeks, featuring a slew of sensationalist, one-sided, decontextualized pieces about Eritrea, suggest that although it may be a new year, analyses of Eritrea will continue to lack objectivity, while remaining shortsighted and inaccurate.
Days ago, a fictitious report about polygamy in Eritrea allegedly recently becoming national policy began to circulate across various media outlets.
While the story was a complete and utter hoax, littered with innumerable fabrications – easily revealed by simple, perfunctory background research – its broad dissemination underscores how coverage of and journalistic practice toward Eritrea is so problematic.
The only things missing from the whole fiasco – beyond rationality and critical thinking – were the stigmatized, clichéd imagery and descriptions about “lions in the backyard” and natives brandishing spears while decked out in traditional loincloths and war paint.
Ultimately, the story and the broader imagery of Eritrean women and sexuality reflect Edward Said’s notion of orientalism, a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab [and Global South] peoples and cultures.
For centuries, the Global South – and here Eritrea, in particular – has been depicted as an exotic and mysterious place of sand, harems and belly dancers, reflecting a long history of Orientalist fantasies which clearly continue to permeate our contemporary popular culture.
Several weeks ago, prior to even a single week of 2016 being completed, and before Eritreans even had an opportunity to slice their panettone festive cakes and wish one another “Ruhus beal ledet” (or “Merry [Orthodox] Christmas”), another article about Eritrea was published in African Arguments. In The Questions No One is Asking about Eritrea, the author claims that the wrong questions about Eritrea are being asked, before providing a series of flawed assumptions.
To begin, one (minor) correction is that, unlike the claim by the author, there has been no change of the currency. The currency is still the Nakfa; the only change enacted was that of the currency notes.
The author would do well to ask – and investigate – why. Although this error is minor in comparison to the others within the rest of the article, it does reflect the inadequacies and shortcomings of the broader body of work. If the author is lackadaisical with such details, what does it imply about their potential understanding of larger, more complex topics?
Problematically, the author completely fails to analyze, either deliberately or out of ignorance, one of the key external “pull factors” contributing to the “spike in refugees” – specifically, the de facto policy of Western countries to grant automatic asylum to anyone from Eritrea.
If one of the author’s key questions asks, to paraphrase, “why the sudden spike in refugees,” this would be an area worth exploring. Doing so would reveal how such policies (i.e. favorable treatment of certain groups of migrants) are not unique, are often intricately tied to broader foreign policy and geo-political machinations, and have often directly impacted patterns of migration.
For example, Susan Eckstein, a respected Boston University professor, has conducted extensive research on how, for half a century, patterns of Cuban migration to the United States have been an outgrowth of the fact that Cuban immigrants to the United States have been awarded unique immigration privileges with a path to citizenship offered to no other foreigners.
The granting of special privileges is firmly grounded in U.S. foreign policy and, according to Eckstein, was implemented in order “to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism.”
In relation, while Haitian migrants face challenges in posing as Cubans once they reach American shores, nationals of countries bordering Eritrea face a much less difficult time in posing as Eritreans. Accordingly, the questions to ask should question the special treatment of Eritreans and the implications of this special treatment on patterns of migration from the Horn of Africa?
Rather than examine this significant issue, the author instead ponders whether Eritrean families are consciously pushing their own young children (i.e. under 10 years of age) to make dangerous, perilous journeys. Questionably, the author raises this point in lieu of any reliable evidence, and starkly in the face of more credible claims that many young children actually migrate either without the knowledge of their families or against their wishes.
However, what is particularly troubling is what the author implicitly suggests. Reflect upon what the point assumes about Eritreans and their basic valuation of life or family.
Simply, Eritreans are caricaturized as savages, much in the same way that for Western colonizers, Africans were the benighted heathens – inferior, barbaric, backward, less developed, and uncivilized. The point serves to paint Eritrea as an arena of barbarity and lacking in basic humanity in a manner that highlights outsiders’ own ethical superiority.
Ultimately, the author illustrates, whether [s]he is aware of it or not, that as Frantz Fanon put it, for outsiders “the native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values…” and “the customs of the colonized people, their traditions…are the very sign of that poverty of spirit and of their constitutional depravity…” (1963: 32).
Additionally, the author claims that “[i]t is interesting that the PFDJ is choosing to publicise itself to an international audience,” seemingly suggesting Eritrea had chosen to isolate itself and is only now actively seeking global or regional engagement and cooperation. This is, yet again, grossly inaccurate. The truth is that it is the international community, led by the United States, which has pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea.
Peaceful and cooperative regional and international co-existence and integration have long been bedrocks of Eritrean foreign policy. However, at the same time, the country has been the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals.
For example, according to a leaked U.S. embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated November 1st 2005), the strategy of the U.S.- backed Ethiopian proxy was to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Moreover, a 2009 cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece reveals that the “USG [U.S. government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea.”
Thus, it is not “interesting that the PFDJ is choosing to publicise itself to an international audience”; rather, it is interesting that the international community is now choosing to reassess its isolationist approach. In the spirit of article then, one can ask questions, such as why or how, when faced with isolationist policies and sanctions, is Eritrea food-secure and able to feed itself, while neighboring countries, favored and coddled by the international community, have millions suffering starvation?
Moreover, in light of the ongoing conflagrations across the Horn of Africa (e.g. Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Somalia) and broader Middle East and North African region (e.g. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen), what has been the exact role of Western policies and interventions in the tragedies and nightmares from which so many of the world’s migrants flee?
It is also quite puzzling that the author notes how journalists and academics have “documented” human rights abuses, offering a veneer of legitimacy and credibility, while avoiding how the standards of research utilized within these processes is extremely low and would fail to meet basic, even elementary, academic standards of research.
In contrast, the author raises suspicion of Eritrea’s developmental progress, presenting critiques of data collection and research processes. This overlooks the fact that numerous developmental organizations have been working effectively and cooperatively on a range of projects and initiatives within the country for years.
Moreover, it fails to acknowledge that in many situations and contexts around the world, data is often collected from government surveys and institutions, thus making Eritrea not unique in this aspect.
It is almost as if the author cannot bear to concede that Eritrea, choosing to take complete ownership of its own destiny and utilizing a unique developmental model, contrasting the accepted, orthodox tenets of the international developmental establishment, has been able to produce tangible, positive outcomes.
Instead, the author’s point, essentially that information from Eritreans is questionable and illegitimate, borders on the ethnocentric and hints that Eritreans, to quote from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
Ongoing misguided understandings and analyses of Eritrea reflect the enduring general notion that the “Third World” and its people exist “out there,” to be known through theories and intervened upon from the outside.
It is quite telling how an outlet titled African Arguments consistently features non-Africans pontificating about Africa’s problems and proposing externally-derived solutions. The “Third World” has “needs” and “problems” but few choices and no freedom or capability to act. Such assumptions illustrate a paternalistic attitude and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority.