Armed Struggle and Better Future: Dubious Connection

A review Article
By Tekeste Negash
Dalarna University, African Studies program
Submitted to: Africa Book Review, March 2010

ERITREA: A Dream Deferred. BY Gaim Kibreab. 2009. ISBN 978 1 84701 008-7. 448PP. Hard cover. £50. James Currey. Published in association with the Nordic Africa Institute

Eritrea: A Dream Deferred has eight long chapters. Statements by foreign observers made In the 1980s provide the justification for the subtitle. Between 1961 and 1991, Eritrea fought against Ethiopia.   From 1981 onwards, the Eritrean landscape was dominated by the Eritrean Peoples´ Liberation Front (hence forth EPLF).  Kibreab cites three authors. Adbul Rahman Babu [a famous socialist activist and writer]  after two weeks  in the areas controlled by EPLF wrote that experiences with “liberated Eritreans give you confidence in the capacity of the African masses to take history in their own hands during the challenging journey from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” (p. 13). Basi Davisdon, an author of many works on Africa wrote that “emergent Eritrea was the composite of stability and capacity for peace in the region of collapsing regimes (p. 14).  The third author is a journalist who wrote that “Eritrea´s revolutionaries hold out the possibility of an efficient and self-sufficient African nation, run by Africans who have had 26 years to learn from the failures of independent Africa” (p.14).   By the end of 2007, Kibreab concludes that Eritrea was not only one of the most food insecure country in the continent but was also one of the most closed and repressive states (p.394).

How did Eritrea end up in such a blind alley and why?  Kibreab informs the reader in a very well composed preface that Eritrean intellectuals are socialized not to wash dirty linen in public. Of course this is not true. There has been a constant flow of critical literature – some of it quite good - on the internet since the defeat of Eritrea by Ethiopia in May 2000.

The metaphor of washing dirty linen is not strictly relevant to an academic undertaking  (as research worth its salt does it all the time) but it is useful because it explains the predicament of an African academic who is expected to either bend the ethics of research to political considerations or remain silent.  Eritrea´s dirty linen had been aired, if not washed ever since the mid 1990s – few years after independence. Most of the key documents that Kibreab uses to portray the malaise of the Eritrean economy and society are from international agencies such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Bank and the UN.

However, what has been kept hidden (hence in need of proper washing) is the step by step process of the deterioration of the basic conditions of life (in the political, cultural, social and economic levels) and hence the shattered promises and expectations.  In eight lucid chapters Kibreab takes the reader down the abyss into the blind alley. It is very well written but it is very depressing book to read. That is the greatest merit of this book.

In chapter two Kibreab reframes the war for liberation also called the thirty years war (fought between Eritrea and Ethiopia between 1961 and 1991) where Eritreans were deprived of all forms of democratic rights – freedom of expression, of movement, of association and of fair trial and due process – as a war to bring about a democratic government that respected human rights and the rule of law. Further, Kibreab, categorically states that independence was not seen by many Eritreans as an end in itself, but as a means to achieving an end. They [presumably the Eritrean people] fought for a government that ruled within the framework of a democratic constitution (p.28).  But soon after the EPLF and its leader Isaias Afwerki assumed legal power in April 1993, it became clear that its system of governance was far from what many Eritreans have fought for.  Isaias Afwerki did not want to be accountable to anyone (p.30). The Eritrean government  writes Kibreab , had enough time between May 1993 and May 1998 to establish a constitutional government resulting from multi-party elections, but the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was retroactively used as a convenient alibi for the government´s deliberate stifling of  the process of transition to democracy.

In 1994, the government promised in its national charter to establish a constitutional political system. It reasoned that for democracy to develop it was necessary to have people-based institutions, political parties, various grass-roots associations, mass media and decentralized government agencies. But these were certainly empty words. Kibreab notes (p.33) that Isaias Afwerki was unequivocal on one point: for him it was impossible to expect an alternative political organization to that of his own (EPLF later changed its name to PFDJ - People´s Front for Democracy and Justice in 1994).  

The government went to the extent of drafting a constitution and having it approved by a constituent assembly in May 1997.   But then first the constitution was simply ignored by the president and his party and later it was shelved for good as the country was put on war-footing ever since 1998. Kibreab documents the mindset of the president and his followers and concludes that their commitment to transition to democracy was hollow.

Kibreab glosses over the impact of the humiliating peace agreement signed in Algiers in June 2000 where Eritrea accepted the presence of Ethiopian soldiers inside its own territory as a result of its defeat in May 2000. As the war was conducted by Isiais Afwerki without proper and formal consultation with the Central Council, his colleagues (the Minster of Foreign Affairs, the vice president of the country and others who later came to be known as the Group 15), begun to put pressure on the president to use the Central Council in running the affairs of the nation (p.34). In September 2000, the G 15 succeeded to persuade the president to establish two committees to develop guide lines for elections and the formation of political parties. These were headed by Mahmud Sherifo, the country´s vice president. That was the extent of the pressure that the G15 could bring to bear.  Mahmud Sheriffo was first sacked from his office in February 2001 and then put incommunicado detention in September 2001 together with the other members of the G15. Their whereabouts is unknown and no third person has seen them since. Nine journalists who in one way or another collaborated with the ideas and the writings of G15 were also put under indefinite detention (pp.34-40).

What are the reasons that the Eritrean government adopts policies and practices that are detrimental to Eritrea´s national interest and contrary to the promises made during the liberation and the goals set by the National Charter?  The most plausible reason Kibreab can provide is that the president has become a tyrant (although we are not told since when) and wants to exercise power without restraint and that he has been systematically undermining the promises and the goals of the National Charter. What facilitates a ruler to become a tyrant is the absence of a constitution, an independent judiciary, an independent and rigorous mass media and vibrant and autonomous civil and political societies, without which there can be no constraint on democracy (p.50). This is a theme that Kibreab constantly hammered in a rather Manichean manner - a society is either democratic or autocratic - and where neo-liberal values from politics to economy are, as the only game in town- unambiguously accepted.

The third chapter, by far the best researched, examines the intricate relations between the government [EPLF/PFDJ] and local and international organizations. In 1981 a consortium of Lutheran Churches (most of them from Norway and Sweden) established an Emergency Relief Desk in Port Sudan. From that time onwards, neither the EPLF nor the people under its sphere of influence had very little to worry. The Emergency Relief Desk had unlimited supplies from food to machinery as long there was a credible recipient of the supplies. The Eritrean Relief Association headed by Paulos Tesfagiorgis was an ideal partner.  The Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) was an organ of the EPLF that succeeded to maintain considerable autonomy from 1981 until the end of the war in 1993. ERA solicited aid from Europe and North America and channeled its material support to the EPLF.  On the basis of an assessment of the Emergency Relief Desk and the Eritrean Relief association activities and contributions, Kibreab draws a plausible conclusion when he writes: “Most of the activities, such as the celebrated health, education, transportation systems, the plastic sandal and pharmaceutical factories, the printing press and the trench hospitals that constituted the central plank of the EPLF´s strategy of self reliance, would never have been possible without ERA´s connections to International NGOs” (p. 106-7). Kibreab then maps the landscape of eight civil society (both secular and religious) organizations and documents case by case how these were systematically harassed and finally closed down by the EPLF which since 1994 has renamed itself as the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).  The organizations that formed the Emergency Relief Desk had expected to continue their work presumably openly and with support of the newly independent government. But these hopes were soon shattered. The Eritrean government came out quite early about the negative role of International NGOs (p.124) and underestimated the quality and quantity of support it accessed from the International NGOs through its Eritrean Relief Association.

The remaining four chapters are further elaborations or in Kibreab´s words explanations of the path to the blind alley. In chapter four Kibreab identifies some of the causes for the making of autocracy in the ideological make up of the EPLF (later government). In the course of the 30 years war of liberation, the EPLF developed views  on dependency syndrome, virtues of self-reliance, extremist notions of sovereignty and its vanguard role in the future of the country. It is indeed plausible that the training that the leadership of the EPLF got in China in the mid and late 1960s might have contributed to the notions of dependency, self-reliance and the role of the EPLF vis a vis other civil and political associations.

Kibreab explains cogently the mismatch between the Eritrean government´s disastrous goal of self-reliance and the hard facts on the ground. On the aftermath of the expulsion of International NGOsin 1997 and the termination of external food aid, Kibreab on the strength of UNICEF report, noted that 53 per cent of the Eritrean population depended on humanitarian assistance and required food aid. Moreover, Eritrea has never produced more than 30 percent of its annual food requirements during the last forty years (p. 153). The Eritrean government´s notion of sovereignty is discussed in global terms but it is worth to note that Kibreab faults the Eritrean government for not recognizing the positive role of International NGOs (pp.160; 164; 174; 189) on the one hand and for its conception of sovereignty as an end rather than as a means. Kibreab offers useful analysis as to the nature of the Eritrean economy (with GDP of about 600 million USD) and a defence budget of 23 percent of total GDP.  But most damaging was the economic impact of the prevailing “no war and no peace” condition. Prior to the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, more than 60 percent of Eritrea´s exports were destined to Ethiopia.  Moreover, Eritrea gained a great deal from its sea ports as outlets for Ethiopian imports and exports. All this was lost, thus plunging the tiny Eritrean economy on the path of disaster. Between 2002 and 2005, the total amount of foreign investment was about forty million. (p. 184).  “In forming a new nation”, writes Kibreab, “the Eritrean government failed to transform itself from a military organization with no room for dissent, to a democracy that could embrace difference. This outlook was a continuation of the culture of intolerance and denigration of the “other” that was developed in the war of liberation. For almost three decades the leadership of the EPLF had not been held to account for its actions and failures. By the time the country achieved independence, the privilege of not being questioned had become entrenched as a culture”.  (pp. 187-8).

At this stage, the reviewer is tempted to ask as to why the Eritrean intellectuals manifestly failed to scrutinize the democratic content of their organization, namely the EPLF?  Kibreab provides extremely revealing insights based on his extensive interviews (conducted from 1992 to 2002) on the political behavior of the government and on the general views of the Eritrean people of all walks of life. Not only does the Eritrean government believe in the righteousness of its monopoly of knowledge, but many of its supporters in all walks of life concede the government such a right. Kibreab interviewed formally and informally many government officials of various ranks and in different regions for over ten years. Kibreab writes that, “most of them genuinely believe that they have unrivalled knowledge of Eritrean culture and history, as well as all the solutions to the problems faced by the communities.  They also strongly believe that the task of the “outsiders” including Eritreans in the diaspora, is simply to help the government realize the goals set long before independence. When this exclusionist approach is questioned, many ask, “why do you think we fought all these years?”(p.204).

According to this reviewer, the governance that Kibreab meticulously analyses as a system based on wrong notions of sovereignty, self-reliance, national unity is not only the product of President Isaias Afwerki and his cronies, to use Kibreab´s favorite description. The EPLF/PFDJ system of governance has a wide acceptance among the people that Kibreab interviewed over the years. The threat of demonization of those, like Kibreab, who dare to wash dirty linen in public is according to this reviewer an evidence of the efficiency of the Eritrean government to silence its critics and of its considerable support base in inside and outside of Eritrea who carry out its bid. The EPLF used widely the threat of demonization since its inception in 1973.

One of the effects of the system of governance in Eritrea today is the growing status of Tigrniya as the official language and the marginalization of Arabic as the second language and also consequently of the other eight languages. If the war of independence was fought to defend Eritrean identity as it had developed between 1940s and 1950s with Arabic and Tigrinya as the official languages of the country, then that objective was definitely lost on the way.  Kibreab argues (pp. 213-4) that this sad development is based on the government´s false notion of the oneness of the Eritrean people. Kibreab does not deal with the implications of such policy, partly because he is not a historian and partly because it is beyond the scope of his research. But it is important to note briefly that Tigrinya is not only a language; it is predominantly a Christian culture, even if allowance is made to the small but dynamic Jeberti - Tigrinya speaking Muslim community that has coexisted within the Christian Tigrinya culture over the centuries.

Chapters five and six deal with the demise of the private sector and the government´s domination of the Eritrean economy, probably facilitated by the fact that the Eritrean economy as Kibreab notes is very tiny indeed. “From its inception the EPLF exhibited a powerful proclivity for exercising hegemonic control over every aspect of social, economic, political and cultural life of the communities in the areas it controlled”. (p. 230).  This was made possible as Kibreab has wonderfully described in chapter three by the rather unlimited supply of material support (in terms of food and machinery) and immaterial in terms of uncritical support of foreign experts (Basil Davison, Abdul Rahman Babu) in the construction of one rather than multiple dreams of Eritrea moving from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Soon in power, the Eritrean government condemned the private sector (that had survived the socialist/communist economic regime of the Ethiopian state) as a sector whose wealth was acquired when the country was under foreign occupation, through theft, corruption and other similar means without any concern with the country´s situation and its peoples plight (p. 231). With such world view the government pursued an economic policy where the private sector, tiny as it might have been, was completely demolished. Whatever was left was appropriated by the companies organized by the government. There are two categories of Eritreans. Those who fought for liberation are the real citizens whereas those who either remained in the country or fled to exile are considered as second class and regarded with great suspicion (pp.227-9). The Eritrean economy fared well up to the war with Ethiopia in 1998. Remittances continued and Eritrea had good revenues from its ports (servicing Ethiopia) and a stable destination for its exports. This state of affairs did not in any way affect the agricultural sector where Eritrea continued to produce only 30 percent of its food needs, but this problem was mitigated by imports from Ethiopia. The economic landscape changed dramatically during and after the 1998-2000 war. In addition to loss of revenue, the Eritrean government decided to introduce a national service system of indefinite duration of all people from 18 to 50. This massive conscription, described as a form of serfdom, deprived all the sectors of the economy of much needed labor thus further plunging the country into a deep and severe economic misery.

Kibreab asks quite rightly why a country whose economy has been devastated by 30 years war and in which nearly 66 percent of its population live below the poverty line of 60 US cents a day, has dismally failed to embrace private sector led market economy?  Kibreab believes that the government loathes the private sector because of its potential democraticising  and pluralising effects (p. 256).

In chapter six Kibreab discusses in great detail the consequences of the government´s domination of the economy.  The entire Eritrean economy (the productive sector) is under a Trust Fund established in1995 founded and chaired by the president. Kibreab lists the number of firms owned and managed by the Trust Fund all in all 37 companies (p. 270). These companies constitute more or less the entire economic sector. The sole beneficiary of the Trust Fund is the only and ruling party (p. 271) and the Trust Fund committee has according to the charter the obligation to hand over every year the profits derived from the Trust companies to the chairman of the Trust Fund (p. 271). Kibreab´s detailed description of the personalization of the Eritrean economy as well as the informalization of power (where important decisions are given by phone) and the complete absence of a semblance of rule of law gives a picture [to this reviewer] of a country led by a quite tightly organized political class whose prime objective is its own survival. Kibreab´s concluding reflection is indeed worth noting: “The government, by stifling the process of transition to a democratic future, by destroying the diverse livelihood systems, private enterprise and consequently the fledgling middle class, has undermined the foundation on which the country´s socio-economic structure rests. By doing so, not only has it caused irreparable damage to the country, but also to its own medium and long-term interests unless the ruling clique considers presiding over the death of an ailing economy as a worthwhile end in itself” (p. 298).

In chapter seven Kibreab devotes a good deal of space discussing on the virtues of civic associations, liberal market economy, political parties; the rule of law. This is by far the least interesting of the chapters as it has nothing to offer apart from the obvious that Eritrea needs fresh democratic innovations and new solutions (p. 311).

In the final chapter Kibreab assesses the shattered promises and somehow felt compelled to compare the performance of the post independent Eritrea with the Ethiopian regime that ruled over Eritrea from 1974-1991. Kibreab writes: actions taken by the post-independence government clearly show that the latter is not substantially different from the Dergue [the Ethiopian military regime that fought to keep Eritrea and Eritreans within Ethiopia as citizens of a multiethnic state with all obligations and privileges]. During the Dergue´s reign, those who survived the disappearances, assassinations by death squads and the torture chambers were transferred to the main prisons. Such prisoners, including those awaiting trial, could hire lawyers if their relatives could afford the fees, and if they were paupers, the courts appointed lawyers to represent them (p361). “During the Dergue”, Kibreab concludes, “after the detainees were transferred to prison, their relatives knew their whereabouts, they had visitation rights and in most cases they served sentences issued by courts that applied the provisions of the Ethiopian codes of criminal law and procedure. The term incommunicado detention which is currently in most Eritreans lips and which has wrecked thousands of families´ lives did not even exist in the Dergue´s lexicon. Many of the author´s informants were therefore right to ask the heart-breaking question: is this what we fought for? (p. 362).

By way of conclusion, Kibreab identifies the source of the problem in the failure of the Eritrean government to set in motion a participatory democratization process. The process of democratization would have set in motion a learning process that would have socialized into democratic norms of respect and empathy for the other. It is only through the democratic process that citizens and their political organizations including the ruling class can get together to seek common solutions to common problems (p.374).   In a postscript, Kibreab sends an appeal to the readers that the Eritrean government has presided over the meltdown of the economy; that the country is on the brink of famine and that nearly the entire population is facing an imminent threat of starvation. All this is brought about by failure of the government in all sectors of economy and society.

Eritrea: A Dream Deferred is undoubtedly an important contribution, and by far the most exhaustive. It is unnecessarily big book with a great amount of repetition and repetitive passages. The book could have benefited greatly by cutting down chapters six and seven altogether and by a severe shortening of the third chapter.  Kibreab´s eulogy of the prescriptions of the World Bank and the good that International NGOs bring with them to developing countries is uncritical manner, rather embarrassing, as he fails to take into account t the growing literature to the contrary.

From the perspectives of a historian Eritrea: A Dream Deferred leaves a great deal to be desired. There is a complete absence of the state of research. Admittedly the state of research is quite thin. Nonetheless not only does Kibreab fail to spell out who did what he misses all the relevant authors as well.  Almost all the issues that he dealt with either en passant or as part of his own research have been dealt by others before. For instance alternative issues about:  Eritrea not only as a site of a single dream but as a site of competing imaginations or dreams (Mesfin Araya, 1988; Tekeste Negash, 1994); the genesis of the EPLF (Tesfatsion Medhanie, 2006); the manufacturing of political consensus in the 1940s and 1950s (Tekeste Negash, 1997); the various types of Ethiopian presence and Ethio-Eritrean relations (Shumet Sishagne, 2004); the dynamics of Tigrinya ethnicity across borders (Alemseged Abbay, 1998) are all absent from the text and the bibliography.  Kibreab´s methodological and theoretical fault lines are certainly not due to oversight; he knows all the authors quite well. Rather, I am inclined to believe that the fault lines have to do with a deliberate disregard of ethical aspects research. A good research has ethical parameters and is directed towards the production of new knowledge almost always in relation to what we know or what we ought to know, in spite of post-modernist assault on the limits and kinds of knowledge that humanities and social science research is capable of delivering.

Mesfin Araia, 1988. Eritrea, 1941-52. The failure of the emergence of the nation-state. PhD thesis, City University of new York.
Tesfatsion Medhanie, 2007. Towards a confederation in the Horn of Africa. Focus on Eritrea and Ethiopia. Frankfurt am Main: IKO
Shumet Sishagne, 2004. Unionists and Separatists: The vagaries of Ethio-Eritrean relations, 1941-1991. Hollywood, Ca.: Tsehai publishers.
Alemseged Abbay, 1998. Jilted Identity, or Re-imagining Identity: The divergent paths of Eritrean and Tigrayan nationalist struggles. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press
Tekeste Negash, 1997. Eritrea and Ethiopia: The Federal Experience. NJ: Rutgers;
Tekeste Negash, 1994. “Competing Imaginations of the nation: The Eritrean nationalist movements, 1953-81”, in  Tekeste Negash and Lars Rudbeck eds. Dimensions of Development with emphasis on Africa.

Tekeste Negash
Professor of Modern History, African Studies Programme,
Dalarna University, Sweden.