One day a Harvard economics professor asked his graduate class: “Who has ever been in Sierra Leone?” Students raised their hands, most of them non-Africans and none of them from Sierra Leone. And he continued: “Who has ever seen a cow in Sierra Leone?” This time, no more hands were raised. Believe it or not, he then went on developing a savings theory linking the civil war to the absence of cows in that country. No kidding! I then wondered: “I am in the United States but have never seen a cow here – I guess that it is due to the 1861-1865 U.S. civil war, isn’t it?” Obviously, it would have been more intelligent for that professor to first ask: “Who has ever seen a cow farm in Sierra Leone?”
This incident motivated the launch of this new blogs series titled “The Unknown Africa”. This is a myth buster initiative aiming to shed light on hitherto misunderstood areas, civilizations or events in Africa. It shall educate those people who, after a couple of short trips to Africa (if any), imagine themselves to be experts on that region.
The first post in this series is dedicated to Eritrea, a country that the so nobly called “mainstream” media mention only when something amiss is happening therein, much like they do in their coverage of Black neighborhoods of the U.S. (think of the number of times you have heard of the Bronx in these news outlets beyond crime-related stories). The first time I ever heard of Eritrea, it was about its conflict with neighboring Ethiopia. On another occasion, Eritrea made the headlines as it was said to be as reclusive as North Korea and its President had not been seen in public for a long period of time. More recently, I watched on a TV journal that massive flows of Eritreans illegally tried to enter Italy by sea and that those who succeeded would be victims of human organ traffickers.
Aware of the biased coverage of mainstream news outlets, I decided to do my homework and learn more about the country before reaching out to an Eritrean friend for more insights. I began my knowledge quest with my electronic history library, which includes the eight huge volumes of African history, from prehistory to modern days, published by UNESCO. But I was surprised that searching the keywords “Eritrea”, “Aksum”, “Medri Bahri” or “Italian Eritrea” (historical names of Eritrea) yielded no relevant result in any of these eight voluminous books which I had hitherto thought to be exhaustive in their treatment of African history – All of the search results were in the bibliography section and none were in the main text.
It is from Wikipedia that I learned a little about the history of the country: With area 117,600 square kilometers and population of less than 7 million, Eritrea is a small single-party presidential republic whose strategic location at the Horn of Africa, along the Red Sea, has earned it attacks throughout its history from Goliath nations wanting to annex it. At around the first and second centuries, Eritrea was part of the Kingdom of Aksum but the latter would decline at around 940 AD and Eritrea would next form the Medri Bahri Kingdom. The territory was conquered by the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey) by 1597, then by the Kingdom of Italy (today’s Italy) in the late 1800s, and subsequently by the United Kingdom during World War II – it was placed under British military administration when Italy signed armistice in September 1943.
The UK handed its trusteeship of Eritrea over to the UN, which at the behest of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie – and against the wishes of Eritrea – created the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Selassie would later dissolve the federation and annex Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia.
After a 30-year war with Ethiopia (1 September 1961 – 29 May 1991), Eritrea was victorious and in a 1993 referendum the Eritrean people overwhelmingly voted for independence. Hence my question: Is Eritrea Africa’s North Korea or merely an African survivor?
Now, I can turn to an Eritrean friend of mine for more insights on the country. Fnot Gebremicael is an Eritrean-American and has worked extensively on community development initiatives in the Eritrean diaspora. Below is what she has to say:
Eritrea has earned the unfortunate distinction as the “North Korea of Africa”. This is often repeated in news articles from major media outlets that, as William stated above, only report on Eritrea when something is amiss. Perhaps journalists draw this conclusion because the two countries rate similarly in various indices that measure numbers of political prisoners, jailed journalists, or lack of religious freedom. However, while Eritrea is a tightly controlled country, it is still a far cry from the cult of personality that North Korea has built its very existence and raison d’etre upon. Eritrea is a country with its own history that has brought it to its current political situation. Eritrea is not alone in its shortcomings, as several developing countries fail to meet the political, economic, and service delivery expectations of its citizens. This by no means absolves the Eritrean government from its responsibilities, but needs to be understood within its own context, rather than assigning it a lazy short-hand, so as to give a Western reader an easily digestible proxy to understand this ‘unknown’ country. There is no need to analogize Eritrea.
This is not just an issue of Western outlets reporting on Eritrea. There is lack of knowledge and understanding of Eritrea within Africa as well. Many still see it as an extension or appendage of Ethiopia, and lament the fracturing of Africa’s ‘only un-colonized’ country, rather than seeing Eritrea’s independence struggle within the context of Africa’s larger liberation movement. Furthermore, Eritrea’s domestic troubles should be viewed against the backdrop of its regional relationships, and looking beyond Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa is unfortunately the site of many over-lapping and interconnected regional problems.
Eritrea can be characterized as a survivor, having emerged independent after years of colonization. However, the story does not end here. Eritrea’s history of surviving successive intruders should not be its defining characteristic. Eritrea must move past survival mode and redefine itself as a country that is able to deliver both physical and economic security to its citizens. Though it has made progress towards meeting key Millennium Development Goals, it still has great strides to make.
Eritrea is a fascinating and diverse country with a unique history and much to share with the world. It deserves more than a throwaway tagline that hardly sums up its complexities and innate qualities.
William J. Azébazé is the Senior Editor for Blogs of the Harvard Africa Policy Journal. He is in the MPA/ID (Master in Public Administration in International Development) class of 2015 at Harvard Kennedy School.