(DailyMaverick, South Africa) Eritrea in 2015: Where the streets have many names

From: Biniam Tekle <biniamt_at_dehai.org_at_dehai.org>
Date: Sun, 27 Sep 2015 22:06:10 -0400


Eritrea in 2015: Where the streets have many names



28 SEP 2015 01:10 (SOUTH AFRICA)


“Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea.” This glib comparison has defined
Eritrea in the minds of the (very) few outsiders who have afforded it
any consideration since it became a pariah state in the early zeroes.
But Eritrea is defiantly different from anywhere on Earth—a nation
apart, certainly, but one still deeply connected to the world is
surprising and tragic ways. What will become of the place? A
concluding essay in three-part a Daily Maverick series, by RICHARD

Harnet Avenue, Asmara’s main drag, is Eritrea in microcosm. The street
has been rechristened on several occasions, most notably as Viale
Mussolini in the 1930s, and it is lined with the rationalist and
modernist architecture that has earned the capital a certain measure
of renown. Some of the buildings are austerely beautiful; some are
gaping portals into a still vibrant Fascist-landia.Asmara — Africa’s
Secret Modernist Capital is the title of a publication detailing the
nearly 750 structures built during the colonial years, but the authors
could easily have dropped the qualifier “modernist”. The city is
secret, to outsiders, and to itself. If Asmara didn’t exist,
psychogeographers would be forced to invent it.

On this palimpsest of pre-colonial and colonial follies, the visitor
is able to make out the faintest glimpse of the present day. The city
rocks a certain swagger. The youngsters have crafted a style that is a
vibrant mash-up of 1970s Black Power, 2015 Manhattan chic and timeless
Horn of Africa practical. The cafés and bars bustle. All of this life
suggests that Eritrea’s middle class are on the up, and the economic
data backs up the anecdotal evidence: the country has one of the
fastest-growing economies in the world. According to the World Bank,
Eritrea’s gross domestic product grew by 8.7% in 2011, 7.5% in 2012,
and 8.7% in 2013. The accuracy of these numbers is up for debate (the
government does not publish a budget), but the energy on Harnet Street
is indisputable. Eritrea is booming.

But imagine a place where energy doesn’t behave according to the laws
of physics, and all this kinetic force is neutralised by an even more
pervasive enervation. Harnet Avenue’s buzz ends in the shadows, under
the shrouds worn by the emaciated beggar women who haunt every corner.
Thirty-two percent of the country’s economy is driven by remittances
from abroad; Harnet Avenue’s so-called middle-class is in fact
evidence of a vast, resourceful Eritrean diaspora. While this fake
economy keeps the café espresso machines humming, the rest of the
country remains trapped in purgatory. Canada’s Nevsun Resources
completed the Bisha goldmine in 2011, a hint at what would await
Eritrea if recalcitrant President Isaias Afwerki were to crack open
the borders and the economy to outside investment. The country is rich
in just about everything, most notably potash, although prospecting is
inhibited by the countless landmines laid during the war years.

Harnet Avenue’s beggar women exist to tell another story. A lugubrious
ex-pat I met in Johannesburg explained to me that these women, war
widows, serve a dual purpose: to remind the city’s promenaders what
has been lost; and to tether the country to the past rather than to
the future. Whether or not one buys that theory, war is most certainly
an Eritrean constant. The country battled the Italian colonialists and
after the United Nations (UN) effectively gifted the country to the
Ethiopians in 1950, it began one of the longest unbroken conflicts in
African history. The war properly began in 1962 after Emperor Haile
Selassie annexed Eritrea, and ended almost 30 years later, after
liberation in 1991.

When independence was formally declared in 1993, Isaias Afwerki,
leader of what has now become the People’s Front for Democracy and
Justice was in no mood to reach out. “(I)t was the UN that decided (…)
at the beginning of the Cold War, to deny the colonised people of
Eritrea their right to self-determination, thereby sacrificing their
national and human rights on the altar of the strategic interest of
the superpowers,” he barked at the gathered luminaries in the august
institution’s New York headquarters. It was a declaration of
non-belonging, and Isaias dug a virtual moat that followed the
contours of his country’s borders. This would be a one-party state,
ruled by one man, with no room for concessions. In 1998, Isaias
pursued a war against Ethiopia over a border town of no strategic or
economic importance. Two years later, 70,000 people were dead on
either side, and the country was all but reduced to their burial

The accumulated trauma infected everything, and in 2001, Afwerki
doubled down on doubling down. As a response to mounting criticism of
his governance, he closed independent presses and arrested senior
officials, all but kneecapping what remained of the country’s
administrative capabilities. The judiciary was severely curtailed, and
the courts became de facto adjuncts of the military. Mandatory
conscription in some cases dragged on for decades, a form of
indentured slavery that has done its grim part in powering Eritrea’s
growth rates. The information ministry became all-powerful; eyes and
ears were everywhere. As the country sank into itself, its prisons
filled with dissenters, or those who looked like dissenters, or those
who might one day, possibly, consider dissent.

If Eritrea has made the news at all in the last several years, it is
for two reasons. The first followed the publication in June of a
horrific UN Human Rights Council document, entitled Report of the
detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in
Eritrea. Although the report’s compilers did not visit Eritrea, they
interviewed 550 witnesses in the diaspora, and received a further 160
written submissions. Numbering over 480 pages, the commission’s
discoveries make for ugly reading. They reveal a country that
'freezes' its officials, that disappears its people, that arrests en
masse for the most spurious of reasons, and in which the concept of
freedom — in any of its myriad socio-political permutations — does not
exist. Reading the report feels like examining in detail a gangrenous
wound: this is what happens to a country that cannot heal. I include
the following excerpt, which I chose entirely at random:

An orphan reported that he had been detained after asking that his
social benefits be paid to his siblings: “I asked the government if my
siblings could receive my war compensation since I was an orphan. Due
to this request, I was sent to prison for three months. The conditions
at this prison are bad and I was treated worse than prisoners of war.
They pointed a gun to my head and I was told never to ask for anything
from the authorities. I lost three months of wages.”

And so the people leave. According to the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees, as of December 2014 over 363,000 refugees have originated
from Eritrea, along with a further 54,000 asylum seekers. Those
numbers represent almost 10% of the country’s 4.5-million citizens.
Three thousand people are said to flee a month, most of them into
scorching Sudan, contributing massively to the single largest global
refugee crisis since World War II.

Reading this report in Eritrea is a strange, dislocating experience.
The compilers would likely have tempered some of their conclusions had
they been able to visit the country, sit in the cafés, promenade the
streets, and weigh stories of death against the lived experience of
Eritrean esprit. But there is no escaping the meaning in the tens of
thousands of words that poured from the mouths of the Afwerki regime’s
victims into the UN's word processors. There is also no dodging a
terrible irony: the world body that left Eritrea to the devices of
Selassie’s ministrations, that for three decades ignored the country’s
pleas on account of Ethiopia’s strategic importance — first to the
Americans, and then to the Soviets — is now excavating the virtual
graves of those it betrayed.

I said there were two reasons for Eritrea’s recent low-grade
newsworthiness. The second is, of course, the performance of its
endurance athletes in major international races over the course of
2015. While I was in the country, a local teenager named Ghirmay
Ghebreslassie won the marathon at the IAAF World Championships in
Beijing. Meanwhile, cyclist Daniel Teklehaimanot, along with his
MTN-Qhubeka (now Team Dimension Data riding for Qhubeka) teammate
Merhawi Kudusperformed remarkably at the Tour de France. It’s tempting
to view these triumphs as anomalies, but that would be a mistake: they
indicate a strength and competence in the Eritrean institutions that
remain outside the rubric of presidential or military authority.
Precisely because cycling means so much to Eritreans, the cycling
federation is allowed to function as it should, connecting local
brilliance with outside expertise in a manner that suggests a possible

Eritrea is small, but it casts a long shadow. It connects one of
Africa’s most important countries, landlocked Ethiopia, with the
coast. It could — should — serve as a ballast of stability in an
unstable region. It could — should — generate great wealth for a
small, patriotic population who can draw on a diaspora of nearly
half-a-million, many of whom have earned education and expertise all
over the world. “After Isaias, tomorrow,” that same, sad ex-pat told
me. “Anything can happen.”

Meanwhile, on Harnet Avenue, everything and nothing happens. Commuters
are in a rush, and yet they aren’t. The country is booming, and yet it
isn’t. All the country’s manifold contradictions are on display,
promenading in front of each other, as if on a catwalk. When Afwerki
goes, decisions will be made. And all of this endless waiting will be
over. DM

Photo: The plane-shaped "Fiat Tagliero" building is seen in Asmara,
May 12, 2008. Eritrea's remote capital Asmara is one of the world's
most fascinating centres for Art Deco -- boasting a treasure trove of
around 400 buildings mostly constructed during the last years of
Italian colonial rule. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti
Received on Sun Sep 27 2015 - 22:06:49 EDT

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