This article comprises the final part in our “2015 in Review” series and will put into perspective and context the totality of events in the 2015.
Despite a number of challenges, 2015 was a year of many positives for the Eritrean people.
With great pride and joy, we witnessed Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot peddle down the raceway of the Tour de France and flash a thumbs-up signal as he crossed the finish line to became the first native black African to wear a jersey at the event.
Only a couple months later, we also witnessed 19-year-old Girmay Gebreselassie enthusiastically grab an Eritrean flag from a fan and dash down the final leg of the world marathon in Beijing to become the youngest person ever to win the IAAF World Marathon. These victories came only one year after Meb Kiflezghi won the world’s largest and most prestigious marathon, the Boston marathon.
When one considers that even Eritrean sports has been politicized as part of the isolation strategy against Eritrea that employs strategic depopulation, one begins to understand the significance of the wins, which served as major successes in cultural diplomacy and soft power projection, helping to escape isolation.
Would one believe that Eritrean football players are actively pursued and encouraged to defect from Eritrea by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)? Could they be that vindictive? It may be hard to believe but we now know this to be the case from the testimony given to the Eritrean-Australian community by a group of regretful, former Eritrean soccer player-defectors, who were settled in Australia after only a few months. This is the outrageous depth at which UNHCR and its principle backers in Washington are willing go to promote migration from Eritrea.
In a May 2014 American University publication by Audrey Vorhees entitled What Would a Nonviolent Resistance Movement Look Like in Eritrea, Vorhees strategized a nonviolent resistance movement for regime-change in Eritrea through the use of popular sports figures like Eritrean- American Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi. She cited the use of “nonviolent action” strategies first outlined by Gene Sharp, who just so happened to also mention and target Eritrea by name for regime-change.
With this context, think about what the epic wins and subsequent returns home by Daniel and Girmay implies. As we have previously highlighted, the media and human rights reports have made out Eritrea to look like an isolated state that resembles a hell-on-earth, where joy and personal success are seemingly impossible in the face of “crimes against humanity” by the state.
If this is the case, how is it that riders and runners, despite being relentlessly lobbied and offered money to leave, return home to cheering fans, who watched them on satellite TVs showing uncensored Western channels?
We must also understand how significant it is that Eritrea is pumping out successful athletes in the face of so many challenges. Consider the take of the Let’s Run blog: “Think about Eritrea’s performance for a minute. In a single race, the country of 6 million had five men run 60:12 or better on a non-aided course. The US’s population is more than 50 times bigger at 313 million plus and in the history of the US only two men have ever run under faster than 60:12”
Such an amazing feat is hard to imagine had the conditions not been made suitable on the ground in Eritrea. To maximize the production of effective runners requires certain protein requirements to build and maintain muscle mass broken down during training. Professional cycling isn’t a cheap sport, requiring investment in equipment, training and daily caloric intake. Peaceful ground conditions and good health, though not absolute necessities for individual stories of success, are needed at the population level to maximize production of successful athletes.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that Eritrea, despite having a long ways to go, has made tremendous progress in health care that has not gone unnoticed by the world.
When one looks around at the younger generation throughout the cities and villages of Eritrea, it easily becomes clear that they tower over their grandparents’ generation. Scientists have debated and theorized that such growth spurts around the world are the collective result of improved nutrition, democratization of wealth, genetic factors and the natural selection. All would be positives for Eritrea.
However, when locals peered upon Dutch-born Eritreans visiting Eritrea during the summer months last year, it became clear that factors beyond genetics were in play. In the case of the Dutchman, who grew from an average height of 1m 63cm tall (5’4”) in the mid- 1800s to 1m 83cm tall (6’0”) today, it is thought that dairy consumption is a significant factor. It is worth noting that milk in Eritrea, despite being greatly limited, is growing in availability through investments in agriculture and food security such the Hamelmalo College of Agriculture and the training center there for milk production.
Unlike the case of the Dutch, Eritrea’s anecdotal height-change assessments have yet to be confirmed by objective census or health data. Then again, some of the recent funds from the 11th European Development Fund, secured through ramped up state diplomatic efforts in 2015, are slated to address this very issue.
If one is to look more objectively at existing health data in 2015, it becomes clear that Eritrea has, in fact, made significant progress in health care and appropriately used foreign funds. For example, according to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report, Eritrea has surpassed Australia in immunization coverage for a number of childhood diseases including measles.
However, Dan Connell writing in the Guardian last year following a Mediterranean migrant shipwreck tragedy, tried to convince European lawmakers otherwise, warning that “if EU and individual states jump too rashly and simply throw money at Eritrea, they risk entrenching the very practices that lie behind much of the exodus, while doing precious little to stem it.”
Such a claim seems hard to substantiate and understand when Eritrea became one of few nations in the world to meet all of health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), concluding this year, despite having the lowest health expenditures in the world, according to the World Health Organization data.
Christine Umutoni of the United Nations Development Program and head of all humanitarian operations in Eritrea, told the BBC last March that there was a lack of corruption in Eritrea and that “we’ve seen value for money and accountability. You know, you invest a little and you get a lot.”
Ironically, this came from BBC’s Yalda Hakim, who sensationalized her story about the country to fit narrow political ends through a singular, orientalist doom-and-gloom narrative on the nation.
What Hakim’s article highlights is the fact that, despite all the negatives forwarded about Eritrea, the increase in “Inside Eritrea” stories and visits to the nation have inevitably led to a growing body of literature that testifies to the many positives that have now become impossible to ignore.
The media was forced to make concessions on the Eritrea narrative in 2015 as journalists were unable to write off Daniel Teklehaimanot and Girmay Gebreselassie; unable to ignore the fact that Eritrea was achieving the MDGs; unable to hide the fact that Eritrea, a supposedly isolated nation, was to become the highest per-capita recipient of EU funds; unable to overlook the fact that Eritrea, unlike the rest of the Horn of Africa, did not suffering from post-El Niño famine following one of the worst droughts on record.
These realities are being increasingly recognized by the world community and international diplomats today. It is partly on account of the changing understandings on Eritrea and the modifications to the formerly singular narrative on Eritrea that we are starting to see the growing number of visits to Eritrea by not only state diplomats but also leaders in the private sector.
Yes, it’s true that the Foreign Commonwealth and Home Offices of the UK have visited and continue to visit Eritrea in a more positive spirit of diplomacy and state-to-state engagement. However, we cannot forget the High-Level Roundtable Discussion in the UK in February 2012 held between Eritrean and British statespersons that also brought together leaders of private industry, including those of no less than 22 UK firms. Present were UK’s corporate leaders from banking and finance, oil exploration, hedge funds, mining and other sectors.
To explain and curtail this sort of rush to Eritrea, largely coming from Europe, the Gulf and the East, we were told that it was due to Eritrea “opening up”. As recently as this past month, an article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs explained that “Researchers, humanitarian organizations, and international NGOS have had limited access to Eritrea for over a decade – though there is increasing evidence of Eritrea ‘opening up.’ A BBC team was allowed to visit the country to report on the health care system.”
If the “opening up” meme is what it takes to bring business to Eritrea, then that’s great. So be it: Eritrea is now open. In reality, however, it seems the world is opening up to engagement with Eritrea as a result of changing understandings on Eritrea and hard, global geopolitical realities.
We are living in increasingly multipolar world where the geopolitical machinations predicated on promoting chaos are giving way to greater cooperation among nation-states. Facing common enemies, as we see even with ISIS in Syria, states are now forced to enter into cooperation to solve common issues.
Though there remain many challenges and cautious optimism moving forward, it will become ever more difficult, in an increasingly multi-polar world, to maintain sanctions on Eritrea and move forward with plans to advance the “human rights agenda” against Eritrea.
With that said, there are serious efforts being made to take Eritrean leaders to the International Criminal Court through the work of the Commission of Inquiry, which issued its politically-motivated report on Eritrea in June last year.
In response, the Eritrean people and state fought a valiant fight in 2015, which continues into the current year. Refraining from cynicism towards the inertia of the so-called “deep state” in the United States and its proxies, the aggregate body of Eritreans worldwide have lobbied, demonstrated and worked tirelessly behind the scenes to stop the march of the human rights agenda in the name of a protracted attrition war.
As a result of these efforts and the collective work of all Eritrean people and friends of Eritrea, 2015 has proven to be an auspicious year in Eritrean history, ushering in an even more auspicious 25th anniversary of Eritrean liberation to be celebrated this year.