(Published in Al Jazeera English; May 24, 2018)

On the 27th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, Isaias Afwerki should remember what he once said about democracy.

Isaias Afwerki is the first President of Eritrea, a position he has held since its independence in 1993 [Reuters]
Isaias Afwerki is the first President of Eritrea, a position he has held since its independence in 1993 [Reuters] 

Today marks the 27th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, hard-won after a 30-year war withEthiopia. On this day, as we rightfully celebrate, we should also reflect on the overall state of the country. To do this, there is no better way than looking back to a landmark speech Eritrea’s first and only president, Isaias Afwerki, gave over two decades ago.

On September 8, 1997, in a public address at the Walton Park Conference in West Sussex, England, President Afwerki delivered profound remarks on democracy and the rule of law in a speech titled “Democracy in Africa: an African view.” 

In this address, the president listed six fundamental principles that he believes are the most essential pillars of a modern democracy, particularly in Africa:

Click here

(Published in Africa is A Country; May 24, 2018)

Recycling old images and tired ideas is also at the heart of what Eritrean state media does. Unless covering President Isaias Afwerki (since 1993), the state media continuously re-use the footage and stories of the 30-year old independence war. Flimsy development projects are disproportionately hyped. Newsworthy events are routinely ignored unless they get out control, and then the Minister of Information only responds in a tweet.The Eritrean government attempts to control its narrative in two ways: outright denial and widespread policing, which promotes fear and extends to the diaspora. Whether in the news media or asylum offices of the West, the Eritrean narrative has been reduced to the bare minimum.

Here I want to challenge this stale narrative by using personal testimonies and small incidents that paint a clearer and more detailed picture of life in Eritrea. Personal testimonies make the elites nervous and agitated. Recounting small incidents is like taking snapshots from different angles. And as the viewer and reader, I rely on you to interpret and to create a coherent narrative.

Here there is no script. Click here

(Published in Africa is A Country; March 29, 2018)

In mid-February 2018, rapper Nipsey Hussle released his first studio album, Victory Lap, a paean to his complicated relationship with Los Angeles gang life. While making the rounds on American hip hop radio stations and podcasts, if he wasn’t breaking down gang codes or marketing his various businesses, Nipsey kept returning to his roots beyond his South Central, Los Angeles neighborhood: that of his Eritrean immigrant background.

Ermias Asghedom’s father had fled the ongoing war and settled in US. By celebrating his father’s background (his mother is African-American), Nipsey was partly reflecting what Boima Tucker described elsewhere on this site as “a resurgence of an unbridled enthusiasm for Africa in black America.” In recent times, American artists of African immigrant background have openly made connections to their parents’ homelands public and explicit. Issa Rae has done so on television, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya on film and Wale and French Montana have done so in music. The comedian Tiffany Haddish, another LA native, also has recently foregrounded her Eritrean background. Haddish recently traveled to Eritrea then wore a traditional outfit to the The Oscars. It is obvious that Haddish’s new found connection to Eritrea, has added to her confidence as a public figure. This is in contrast to a generation ago when the children of African immigrants to the US downplayed their family connections in fear of attracting ridicule.

In 2004, when he turned 18, Nipsey traveled with his father and brother, Samiel “Black Sam” Asghedom, to Asmara, the Eritrean capital and stayed three months. This trip would have a profound influence on him. Beyond just a celebration of his African heritage, it would become part of his personal mythology. It appears as inspiration for his brand of capitalism.

He admits that at first it wasn’t so easy arriving for the first time in his father’s home country: Click here to continue

ከምዚ ዝበለ ቅሉዕ ዓፈናን ውሁድ መስርሕ ኲናት ድንቍርናን እናተኻየደ ትም ኢልካ ምርኣይ ምትሕብባር’ውን ምዃኑ ስለ ዝዘከርኩ’የ እዚኣ ዝጽሕፍ ዘለኹ።

(ሕስድና’ውን ይኸውን።)

ንነፍሲ-ወከፍ ቈርበት ዘአፍፍ ተርእዮታት ክመጽእ ከሎ ከንፈር ጥራይ ረምጢጥካ ምሕላፍ’ውን ብተመሳሳሊ ምትሕብባር ወይ ድማ ታሪኻዊ ሓልፍነት ምጕዳል መሲሉ ይስመዓኒ።

ኣብዚ መስርሕ በበይኑ ደረጃን ዓይነትን ምትሕብባር’ዩ ዝርአ። ኣብ ዝለዓለ ቅርጺ ዘለዉ እናፈለጡ ዘሕሽዉ’ዮም። ካብኡ ውርድ ኢሎም ድማ ከከም ደረጃኡን ዓይነቶምን ተዓሽዮም ዘሕዕሽዉ፣ ብልቢ ዝዕሸዉ፣ ንኽዕሸዉ ባዕላቶም ባይታ ዘጣጥሑ ኣለዉ።

“ዓለማዊ ሽልማት ረሚ”

ኣብ ዝሓለፈ ኣርባዕተ-ሓሙሽተ ዓመታት ኣብ ፊልምታት ኤርትራን መራኸቢ-ብዙሃንን ሃገርናን ድሙቕ ከበሮ ዝተሃርመላን “ምስ ዓለም ተወዳዲርና ፊልምታትና ክሽለማ በቒዐን” ዘብል ተርእዮ ምርካብ ሽልማት ረሚ’ዩ ነይሩ። እዚ ኣብ ህዩስተን ቴክሳስ ዝመደበሩ ዓመታዊ ፈስቲቫል ፊልም᎓ ብንኣሽቱ ቋንቋታት ንዝፈረያ ፊልም ዘተባብዕ ደኣ ይዅን እምበር᎓ ደረጃኡስ ክንድ’ቲ ኣብ መራኽቢ-ብዙሃን ኤርትራ ዝወዓወዖ ኣይኰነን። ሓንሳብ እታ መስርሕ ምስ ተፈልጠት’ውን ዳርጋ ብዙሓት ኣፍረይቲ ፊልም ኤርትራ ተወዳዲሮም “ዓወት ክጓናጸፉ” በቒዖም’ዮም። (ኣነ ዝጸሓፍኩዋ ሓጻር-ዛንታ “ድሕሪ ውግእ”’ውን ናብ ሓጻር ፊልም ተሰሪሓስ ኣብዚ ውድድር “ተዓዊታ” ነይራ። ዝዀነ ተራ ግን ኣይነበረንን፣ ክህልወኒ’ውን ኣይደልን።) ተገዲሱ ንእሽቶ ንዝፍትሽ ደረጃ’ዚ ውድድር ፈስቲቫል ንምግምጋም ኣየጸግምን’ዩ። ኣብ መርበብ ሓበሬታ᎓ ኣዳልወቲ᎓ ፊልምታት ኣወዳዲሮም ክሽልሙ ድሌት ከም ዘይብሎምን ከም ዘይኰኑን ኣቐሚጦም ኣለዉ። “We do not believe in awarding just one Gold, Silver & Bronze, as it is impossible to pick just three winners with so many wonderful entries.” ከኣ ይብሉ።

እንተስ ሰኣን ምስትውዓል ወይ’ውን ብፍላጥ ነብስኻ ምዕሻው᎓ ኣብቲ ተደጋጊሙ ዝግበር ሸፈነ መራኸቢ-ብዙሃን ግን ኣብዚ ውድድር ክንደይ ዕዉታት ከም ዘለዋ ዘይምሕባር’ዩ። ወይ’ውን መምዘኒ እዚ ውድድር ከይገለጽካ ምሕላፍ ሓደ ካብቲ ኰነ ኢልካ ዝግበር ሃስያ’ዩ። ተወዳደርቲ ስራሕቶም ክልእኩን ምስክር ወረቐት ከዳልዉን ገንዘብ ስለ ዝኸፍሉ እቲ ዳርጋ እንኮ ቅጥዒ ውድድር’ዩ። ንኣብነት እዘን ናይ 2017 ዕዉታት ረሚ ምስ እንርኢ ልዕሊ 900 ምዃነን ንግንዘብ። እታ ብደረስቲ᎓ ዳይረክተራን ጋዜጠኛታትን ሸፈፍ ኢላ እትስገር ነጥቢ ግን ብዝሒ ዕዉታት ዘይምግላጽ’ዩ። እቲ ተራ ተዓዛቢ ከኣ “ወርቂ”᎓ “ብሩር” ወይ “ነሓስ” ተሸሊማ ክሰምዑ ከለዉ ምስኣ ኣማኢት ከም ዘለዋ ኣይፈልጡን።Continue reading

(Published in African Arguments; March 7, 2018)

The death of a respected elder while in jail has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Asmara.

Screenshot from a video of the recent protest in Asmara, Eritrea.

Last week, the respected elder Hajji Musa Mohammednur inspired aggrieved crowds in Eritrea‘s capital and shook the confidence of the regime. This was the second, and last, time he will have done so in the past few months.

This first occasion was when the well-known Eritrean figure was arrested last October. The 93-year-old had recently criticised a government decree to nationalise Al Diaa Islamic School, whose board he chaired. His detention was one of the triggers that prompted hundreds to take to Asmara’s streets in an uncommon show of defiance a few days later, leading to a brutal crackdown.

Speaking to parents and teachers before his arrest, Mohammednur had said he was prepared to sacrifice his life in resisting the state’s plan. The second time he stirred people to mobilise was last week when he did just that.

Mohammednur’s condition deteriorated during the months of his incarceration. In December, his poor health reportedly prompted the office of President Isaias Afwerki to instruct that he be released and put under house arrest. The nonagenarian refused to leave prison unless those arrested along with him were also let out. “You can carry my dead body out of here, but I am not leaving alone,” he is reported to have said. He died a few months later. Click here to read

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; March 1, 2018)

The alleged death in detention of veteran freedom fighter Durue deeply saddened, but also angered the Eritreans abroad.

The Eritrean regime follows the script of George Orwell's 1984 to erase prisoners of conscience from the country's collective memory, writes Zere [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Since February 19, Eritrean social media have been flooded with tributes to Haile “Durue” Woldensae, the country’s former foreign minister who had been in incommunicado detention since September 18, 2001.

The social media reaction was ignited by a post bySacttism, a Facebook page run by an anonymous regime whistle-blower, which announced the death of Durue.

The Facebook post stated that the veteran freedom fighter died in the infamous Eirairo prison on January 25. According to the report, he was allegedly buried in the bushes near the grounds of Eirairo by guards, like many others who died in the prison camp before him.

The post received nearly 2,000 shares on Facebook and garnered a thread of comments that went beyond 4,500 in just a couple of days.

The comments reflected a wide range of feelings, including vulnerability, sorrow, anger but also a sense of guilt.

This surely must be a cause for all of us to do something,” one commentator said.

“I urge all justice-loving Eritreans to reserve a wall in their home. This wall must be filled with pictures of all prisoners of conscience,” added another. Click here to read

(Published in African Arguments; February 13, 2018)

Musicians in Eritrea used to have to sing the government’s praises to pass the censors. Now there are other ways to get heard.

Screenshot from Aytitehamel, by Eseyas Debesay and the Yohannes sisters.

In 2005, Eritrean singer Ghirmay Andom had just completed his latest album. As required by the government, he submitted the lyrics to his ten songs to the censorship office (officially known as “evaluation unit”) in the Ministry of Information.

The artist was hopeful that his uncontroversial songs of love and life would pass the censors and that he would be allowed to start distributing it. But when he finally heard back, all his lyrics had been rejected. Along with some more nitpicking comments, he was informed that: “When the country is facing lots of adversaries, it is unjustifiable to consistently sing about romance”.

Andom’s experience was far from unique. The government in Asmara has long tried to maintain a close control on artistic expression. It not only shut down the independent press in September 2001, but has also imposed a medieval practice of censorship on literature, art and music.

Before being able to broadcast or print their work, artists have had to endure long waiting periods to hear from the censorship unit, which consisted of a single official. Artists would not dare submit anything sensitive, and gaining approval was effectively reduced to appealing to the personal tastes of the censorship chief. Click here to continue

(Published in Africa is A Country; Jan. 27; 2018)

The comedian Tiffany Haddish has been hailed by Vanity Fair as “the funniest person alive right now.” She was also the first black female stand-up comedian to host Saturday Night Live; an American television institution. Just recently, Haddish presented at the ceremony for the announcement of The Oscar Award nominees, which, like everything else she does, endeared her even more to her fans. Her breakout role came in the 2017 ensemble comedy Girls Trip with Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Regina Hall where she stole every scene she was in. That earned her a Best Supporting Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

One more little known fact about her is that she is also half Eritrean. She recently visited the country for the first time, and this American rising star’s visit to one of Africa’s most repressive states presented all kinds of political minefields.

Her father, Tsehaye Haddish — from whom she was estranged and finally met in his final days — was originally from Eritrea. He had migrated to Los Angeles, where he met her mother. When Haddish was about three years old, her parents drifted apart. What followed was a traumatic childhood, as she bounced between foster families and living with her maternal grandmotherClick here to read


(Published in African Arguments; Nov. 29, 2017)

The student protest in Asmara last month was rare and unique, but not unprecedented.

Are Eritrea's young people saying enough is enough? Credit: David Stanley.

On the 31 October, Eritrea experienced a rare protest as hundreds of people took the streets in opposition against the nationalisation of an Islamic school. Government forces reacted in characteristically brutal fashion and dispersed protesters with gun-shots in the capital Asmara.

A protest in the hugely repressive state of Eritrea is remarkable in of itself. But last month’s demonstration was additionally notable for the make-up of its participants. Many of those who took to the streets were secondary school students. An article on the Ministry of Information’s portal dismissively referred to the protestors as “a group of teenagers”.

For over 16 years, there has been virtually no space to challenge the government of Eritrea. There is no independent press or right to free association and movement. Internet penetration is almost non-existent. And extreme militarisation and surveillance pervade society. All the government’s former critics have all been imprisoned, disappeared or have fled.

However, that does not mean there is no opposition to the regime in the country. They may be disconnected from one another and uncoordinated, but 31 October was not the first time “a group of teenagers” has expressed its frustrations and openly defied the all-powerful Eritrean government. Click here

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; Nov. 11 2017)

On October 31 there was a rare protest in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]
On October 31 there was a rare protest in the capital of Eritrea, Asmara [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]

Amid the standard heavy military presence and the regime’s ban of any associations and gatherings, Asmara experienced an unusual protest on October 31. As the widely shared video clips captured by mobile phones have shown, demonstrators in Eritrea’s capital city that day were met with gunshots and violence from government forces.

The Asmara regime rarely acknowledges such incidents unless they get out of control. Apparently realising it’s impossible to conceal what has been widely shared, Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel instead chose to downplay the incident, tweeting “Small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty, hardly breaking news”. On November 4, an opinion piece appeared on theofficial organs of the Ministry of Information claimed that the demonstrators were “a group of teenagers” chanting “Allahu Akbar”. Click here to read more