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.
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.
The death of a respected elder while in jail has prompted an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets of Asmara.
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
Musicians in Eritrea used to have to sing the government’s praises to pass the censors. Now there are other ways to get heard.
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
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.
The student protest in Asmara last month was rare and unique, but not unprecedented.
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
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
(Published in the Fall 2017 issue of Dissent Magazine)
Journalist and writer Abraham T. Zere has been a key figure in raising awareness of human rights violations in Eritrea. Under President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the country has earned the nickname “The North Korea of Africa.” The Asian country is the only one to rank below Eritrea in the World Press Freedom Index. In June, a coalition of human rights lawyers, activists, and institutions submitted a joint letter to the UN, urging them to reinstate an investigator to track torture, enforced disappearances, and other violations in the country. Among the signees was the Eritrean office of the literary and free speech advocacy institution PEN, of which Zere is executive director. For the past three years, he has represented a membership that comprises exiled writers and journalists scattered throughout the world. Three of its active members, including Zere, are based in Ohio, where Zere went after escaping the country, and where he is able to safely document the regime’s ongoing crimes. Other Eritrean journalists, who make up a sizeable number of the country’s many political prisoners, are not so lucky.
As a fiction writer, Zere’s expatriation has also allowed him to fine-tune a particularly poignant style of satire. His story “The Flagellates,” is exemplary. Set in one of Eritrea’s infamous underground prisons where torture and cruelty are commonplace, “The Flagellates” concerns a new “benevolent” prison commander who attempts to have a civil discussion with the inmates on how they prefer to receive their requisite lashes. The ensuing Life of Brian-like hysterics offer an unnerving consideration of Eritrea’s present-day prison conditions.