In Tancred, Benjamin Disraeli tells us how “[t]he East is a career.” Eritreans may be forgiven for thinking that likewise, for many mainstream analysts and experts, “Eritrea is a career.” Earlier this year a story on polygamy being mandatory in Eritrea was widely circulated across international media, and this week, an outdated, fictitious report about a North Korean ambassador commenting about Eritrea received considerable attention on social media.
Although the stories were hoaxes and satirical, littered with innumerable fabrications and falsehoods – quite easily revealed by simple, perfunctory background research – their broad dissemination and attention poignantly encapsulate how coverage of, journalistic practice toward, and understanding about Eritrea are so problematic. The latest example of this trend is the article, “How the World Forgot ‘Africa’s North Korea’ Eritrea, and What This Means for Migration,” featured in the New Statesman, a British magazine (published 9 September). Not only is the article overly simplistic and lacking in context, it is strewn with inaccuracies and errors, and heavily tinged with paternalistic overtones.
Lacking originality, the author frames Eritrea alongside North Korea. In recent years, it has become quite common to see Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the volatile, politically-fractious Horn of Africa region, derogatorily described as secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom.” While such statements suggest Eritrea remains detached from the global community, closer analysis (of a number of objective measures) reveals that they are clichéd, cursory, and incorrect. In fact, one seasoned Western ambassador based in Asmara quipped, “those who compare Eritrea with North Korea have not been to North Korea and certainly do not know Eritrea,” while, last year, Norway’s Minister of Justice, reflecting upon his working visit to Eritrea, noted that descriptions of Eritrea (e.g. as the “North Korea of Africa”) were highly inaccurate.
Describing Eritrea, the author also utilizes phrases such as “self-isolation” and “a country that tries to seal itself off from the world,” suggesting that it has somehow chosen to isolate itself. This is, yet again, grossly inaccurate. The truth is that the international community, largely led by the United States, has pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea. Specifically, the country has been the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals. According to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated 1 November 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to, “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Moreover, a cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece (30 November 2009) reveals that the “USG [US Government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” while another cable (2 November 2009) mentions that the German government’s rescinding of a credit guarantee to banks for a commercial loan of $US146m to Eritrea’s Bisha mining project was the result of “caving in to…American pressure.”
Even within this context, however, Eritrea has sought to establish beneficial partnerships and develop productive ties with a range of countries, organizations, and institutions. It is quite telling that on the same day the New Statesman published its article, the European Union (EU) and the State of Eritrea announced a new contract worth €18.7 million for the supply and installation of drip irrigation systems in Eritrea, while the signing of a bilateral Cooperation Protocol between Germany and Eritrea was also announced after a week of meetings in Germany involving Members of Parliament and a Senior Eritrean Government delegation. Notably, these announcements by Eritrea are only the latest in a growing series of significant agreements and partnerships with a range of countries and institutions, including – but not limited to – Finland, Cuba, China, Turkey, Japan, Russia, the UN and UNDP, GAVI, the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Development Fund (EDF).
It is likely that the author’s insinuations about Eritrea’s supposed isolationism are rooted in a lack of understanding about Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to development and external aid. Specifically, Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.
Unfortunately, this approach is often misunderstood or even dismissed. However, the country’s determination to rely upon itself and promote independence should be encouraged, and external organizations and potential partners should be committed to working with it on that basis. In fact, according to Christine Umutoni, the UN-Eritrea Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Eritrea, which made considerable progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, “has a lot to share that could help formulate, shape and implement the post- 2015 development outlook for the good of humanity.”
Importantly, the author’s hints about a famine are in stark contrast to observations by Eritrean ministries and international organizations. For example, consider the words of the head of an international NGO working in Eritrea: “at this time, East Africa is suffering massive hunger brought about by drought and El Nino. In the seven recent field visits our teams have made to five different regions of Eritrea and our work with communities and government, we have not observed acute levels of malnutrition. This is testament to the policy of storing and providing subsidised food. This perspective is shared by our development partners such as EU.”
The author also makes several other glaring errors. For example, the author refers to Eritrea’s economy as “decaying,” when in fact, according to several sources (including the IMF, World Bank, AfDB, and others), the economy has actually been growing. Additionally, in contrast to the author’s claims regarding Eritrea’s policies regarding national service and Sawa, students actually enter the program for their final year of secondary study and upon reaching 18 years of age. It is also important to note that since some students in Eritrea may start school late or even repeat grades, many entering Sawa may be in their late teens by their final year of study. Furthermore, since the author devotes considerable attention to national service, it would have been useful to note important ongoing efforts at reform (e.g. changes to pay-scales).
As well, the author’s comments regarding youth marriage lack understanding. Youth and child marriage in Eritrea were rooted in the country’s historical, cultural traditions. Viewed as a sacred societal institution, marriage was seen an integral component of society. Although specific rules and customs of marriage (e.g. dowry, familial arrangements, etc.) differed slightly amongst various ethno-linguistic groups, an underlying common feature was that girls were married at an early age. However, Eritrea has taken important steps (dating back to the independence struggle) to eliminate youth and child marriage. It has enacted laws and established strong enforcement mechanisms, including stiff penalties for physical and sexual abuse of children, as well as pornography. Encouragingly, there are many indications of an important reduction in child and youth marriages.
Ultimately, the author’s lackadaisical approach to these basic, simple details arouses doubt about his understanding of broader, more complex topics. Additionally, the author’s revisions to his errors in translation, after suggestions from Eritrean readers, raises the question of why such an approach to validity and clarification was not extended to other parts of the article prior to publication.
In addition to the above, the article is particularly troubling because in referring to Eritrea as a “child,” the author reveals a residual attitude from the bygone colonial era. Not only does it reflect paternalism and perpetuate hegemonic ideas of foreign superiority, such racist assumptions and ideologies were fundamental to the practice of colonialism. In the battle for the spaces of Africa, the so-called “dark continent,” European powers not only employed force, but also an array of theories and rhetoric to justify their plunder.
Colonialism donned the dignified cloaks of la mission civilisatrice, civilizing the benighted heathens, and the white man’s burden. Africa was “the land of childhood,” and Africans were seen as inherently and naturally less than Europeans. Consequently, colonialism was characterized not by brute force or plunder, but the pursuit of a noble ideal.
Overall, in pointing out the many and considerable flaws within the article, the attempt is not to suggest that Eritrea is free of problems. The country is confronted by a myriad of significant issues and considerable challenges. However, it is critical to recognize that properly understanding the country (which can potentially help address many issues) requires a more grounded, objective, contextual approach and less resort to simplified, clichéd perspectives and cursory discussions.