“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 POPLAK.
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 ground.
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 Kudus performed 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 future.
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