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Views and Musings about Eritrea

  • 1. All I know is that I know nothing…

Socrates, the classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited by many as being one of the founding figures of Western philosophy, is alleged to have said, in response to the claim that he was the wisest, “all I know is that I know nothing…” Setting aside the important lingering questions regarding the veracity of accounts attributing this statement to Socrates, its underlying messages certainly merit consideration and offer useful lessons. Here, Socrates is revealing that he may not know the ultimate answers to the questions he is faced with, but he knows himself. While acknowledging that he was only absolutely certain that he was ignorant, he found that people wrongly believed that they knew all kinds of things. It is this self-knowledge, awareness, and integrity that constitute the true wisdom of Socrates. A significant lesson for everyone is that we all should genuinely ask ourselves how much we truly know about that which we claim. Humility is a valuable and necessary element if one is to learn or properly understand something.

The core messages from Socrates’ profession of ignorance (or wisdom) seem particularly timely and relevant when considering the events that have transpired in the Horn of Africa during recent months. Specifically, as developments toward peace and cooperation across the region have quickly unfolded, numerous regional observers and pundits, many of whom have long promoted highly flawed, error-ridden, and problematic narratives, analyses, and predictions – which are so clearly being revealed as abjectly wanting by current developments – have audaciously shifted to condescendingly pontificating or directing what the next steps for Eritrea ought to or will be.

Of course, failed prognostications or misguided analyses of Eritrea are not new or unique. In fact, there is a long, undistinguished record of confident, purportedly informed, forward-looking analyses and predictions that later ran aground on the rocky shores of unexpected reality.

For example, recall how Brigadier General Stephen H. Longrigg, head of the British Military Administration in Eritrea for approximately two and half years beginning in 1942, in the preface to his book forwarded a dreary outlook for Eritrea and its people: “Rich or great, Eritrea will never become; it may, indeed, disappear as a political unit completely from the map” (Longrigg, 1945). In another article, “The Future of Eritrea,” published by African Affairs, he would go on to claim that, “there are no important minerals: the gold mines are barely – or perhaps definitely not – worth working, other mineral traces amount to nothing” (Longrigg 1946: 121). Within the same article, after proposing an arrangement to “dispose” of Eritrea, he concluded by stating that, “Eritrea, politically most artificial and least stable of units, is dissolved and vanishes…” (Longrigg 1946: 127).

As well, throughout the duration of Eritrea’s long liberation struggle, the Eritrean independence movement was continually written off and frequently believed to be on the verge of defeat, with most of the punditocracy regarding it as outnumbered, outgunned, and far too weak to possibly succeed. Each offensive prepared by Ethiopia was invariably heralded as being just the one that would crush the “bandits” and extinguish the “rebellion.”

Over the decades, Eritrea has also regularly been described as being too small or feeble to constitute a viable independent state, while numerous prognostications were forwarded suggesting that the country would undoubtedly be home to incessant sectarian strife, infighting, and bloodshed. More recently, analysts, afforded wide-reaching platforms, bearing lofty titles, and boasting long publication records, have regularly penned the country’s obituary, in various instances predicting its ever-imminent economic collapse, looming state failure or disintegration, and announcing that it was definitely about to “blow” if not already in the process of imploding.

It is particularly interesting that much research has shown the dismal performance of political pundits and experts. In fact, they often “boast” analytical and prediction records hardly any better or more accurate than the general public. However, in stark contrast to the approach espoused by Socrates, underpinned by humility, experts and pundits often continue to impudently assure themselves and anyone who will listen that they remain formidable analysts. Despite their penchant for consistently being proven wrong by history, they rarely admit that they are mistaken and even when they are inevitably found out, they are rarely held accountable.

In terms of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, while regional observers and pundits are, of course, entitled to their opinions, however flawed or misguided, it would probably be a considerable favor to us all if they saved us from their breathtaking presumption of superiority. Instead, it would seem much more appropriate and they would likely be much better served if they exhibited greater humility and more genuinely considered the perspectives, views, and aspirations of local actors.

  • •    2. Disregarding international laws and norms…

As I have noted, while peace and cooperation agreements have been unfolding across the Horn of Africa, there have also been lingering misconceptions surrounding the EEBC. One specific point of misunderstanding is in regard to the long period of “no war, no peace” between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with many commentators attributing it to alleged flaws and shortcomings of the EEBC process and ruling. Previously, I described how this was inaccurate for a number of reasons.

One reason presented was that the international community, led by the US, actually supported – actively or implicitly – Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the EEBC ruling (for example, through raising unrelated issues and exploring options for “an alternative mechanism” to the EEBC, as per Ethiopia’s requests). The simple fact of the matter is that Ethiopia could not have managed to violate fundamental pillars of international law to occupy sovereign Eritrean territories with impunity, without overarching international, mainly American, political and diplomatic support and protection. And, of course, American support for Ethiopia’s flagrant violations of international law should hardly have been surprising, both in light of the long historical ties between the countries and since the US itself frequently disregards international laws or norms associated with global agreements and rulings.

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