(Published in Al Jazeera English; June 11, 2018)

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki cannot afford to ignore Ethiopia’s peace offer.

Isaias Afwerki has been Eritrea's president since 1993 [Reuters/James Akena]

On June 5, Ethiopia announced it would fully accept and implement the 2000 Algiers Peace Accord that ended its border war with Eritrea. It also said it would accept a 2002 ruling by the UN-backed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), which awarded several disputed territories, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea. Ethiopia had been ignoring the commission’s ruling and refusing to withdraw its troops from these territories for the past 16 years, making the demarcation of the border practically impossible.

Adis Ababa’s announcement last week was welcomed as a major step towards permanently calming the deadly tensions between the two warring neighbours. Click here

(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

(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; 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

(Published in Al-Jazeera English; September 18, 2017)

Eritrea’s transformation into a police state started with a ban on independent media 16 years ago today.

By demolishing the independent media, ceaselessly recycling tired propaganda, and introducing pervasive censorship, Afwerki has created a grim state, writes Zere [Reuters]

People who haven’t experienced Eritrea’s descent into totalitarianism first hand cannot truly understand what daily life looks like there. Even the infamous labels associated with the country – such as “most censored” country on Earth or the bottom-ranked nation on the Press Freedom Index for 10 consecutive years – do not help understand Eritrea’s day-to-day reality. 

So let me share my first-hand experience.

Exactly 16 years ago, on September 18, 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his clique banned seven independent newspapers and imprisoned 11 of the most senior government officials. 

That “Black Tuesday” was the start of Eritrea’s transformation into the police state that it is today. Before this happened, despite various challenges, Eritrean independent media briefly had created space for open discussion, even providing a forum for dissident political leaders.

Exactly 16 years ago, on September 18, 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and his clique banned seven independent newspapers and imprisoned 11 of the most senior government officials. 

That “Black Tuesday” was the start of Eritrea’s transformation into the police state that it is today. Before this happened, despite various challenges, Eritrean independent media briefly had created space for open discussion, even providing a forum for dissident political leaders.

Crushing dissent

The first official response to the promising signs of a vibrant press and open political forums in Eritrea came in early September 2001 when President Afwerki appointed Naizghi Kiflu as minister of information. Kiflu had acquired a bad reputation for being a brutal and merciless commander during the struggle for independence. He had served as chief of the infamous military prison then called the Revolutionary Guard. Never shy about his dark past, in his first meeting with the ministry’s staff members and journalists, Kiflu reminded them that he had been “a cruel cadre and ex-chief of the Revolutionary Guard”.

After banning private newspapers and ordering a swift wave of arrests, the minister circulated an order to Eritrea’s printing houses to immediately cease printing any material, including wedding invitations and nightclub posters. 

Thus, began the country’s steady descent into the abyss. Click here to read the article

“I’m not from here, I’m not from there; I don’t belong anywhere.”

 

A man's suit hangs off a street marker as a cab carrying asylum seekers pulls up near the US-Canada border in Champlain, New York [Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

If exile is characterised by an endless feeling of estrangement, seeking political asylumis a perpetual state of anxiety.

When I started the process of claiming asylum in the United States, an apparently safe and democratic country, I assumed it would help seal off the trauma of my life in Eritrea, the country I had fled. I hoped it would open a new chapter.

But as I embarked on the journey of asylum, I realised that there is a comprehensive dehumanisation process at the heart of it all. The deeper you descend into the legal process of escape, the more you are required to prove who you are, prove the horrors of your experience, while all the time revisiting the very things that forced you to flee. Click here to read the article from Al-Jazeera