Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea: A 75-Year Ruse Exposed (Part 1)

This article is the first in a series on the “Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea.” The series is a response to the frantic campaign over the past year by a special group of Eritrea-Ethiopia experts to reframe understandings of emerging unfavorable news on the countries to fit a false narrative on Eritrea designed to justify Ethiopia’s militaristic territorial expansion in the name of regional stability, economic growth and global strategic interests. The series will contextualize the extraordinary claims of these perennially wrong “Greater Ethiopianist” experts (e.g. “no famine,” “economic miracle,” etc.) and their deceptive narrative that has misled the world, bringing endless conflict and profound human misery to the Horn of Africa. Part 1 gives a broad introduction of the narrative, its origins and impetus, its main peddler’s and its evolution towards today’s understanding.

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.” – Hopi Proverb

A narrative is simply a story. These stories are built by news reports—sometimes accurate, sometimes inaccurate—framed by expert analysis. Due to lack of coverage, the conventional narratives on African nations have been notoriously inaccurate. However, narratives can be challenged and changed for the better. As such, a recent barrage of news reports on political developments transpiring in the Horn of Africa have poked new holes in the checkered conventional narratives on two notable, disputing states within the region—namely, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

For the better part of the last year, Ethiopia, which has been trumpeted in the media as an economic powerhouse of “stability” and a Western ally, has undergone a dramatic sociopolitical and economic unravelling that now challenges the very survival of the Ethiopian nation-state. Some of Ethiopia’s many growing problems include looming famine, mass protests, political repression, mass incarceration, ethnic warfare and genocide. These developments challenge the notion of an economically successful and stable Ethiopia.

In contrast, Eritrea, which has long been portrayed by the media as an isolated, failing state and an unruly force of regional instability that is unfriendly to Western interests, has very visibly strengthened her relationship with Western nations and entrenched herself as a critical piece in promoting regional stability. Some of Eritrea’s recent actions towards these positive ends include entering into Red Sea security agreements, strengthening diplomatic and financial ties to the EU and becoming a leader in achieving all health-related Millennium Development Goals. These actions challenge the notion of an isolated and unfriendly Eritrea.

This recent turn of events inside the Horn have led to growing criticisms about the dominant narratives on both Ethiopia and Eritrea. For instance, respected French journalist René Lefort, who has reported on Sub-Saharan Africa for Le Monde and other publications since the 1970s, rang the alarm bells in an article from February this year concerning the growing unrest in Ethiopia’s Oromia region triggered by the government’s failed “Master Plan” that Lefort called “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Listing a host of issues, including drought affecting 20 million citizens, and reminding his readers that the overthrow of the last two Ethiopian regimes came after the “famines that preceded them”, Lefort went on to predict that the “worst is yet to come”, that the Ethiopian state was “a crumbling pyramid” and that “faced with these challenges…maintaining the status quo, has become untenable.”

Such negative critiques are growing and fly in the face of much more sanguine reporting this past year that has heralded Ethiopia as an “economic miracle”, “East Africa’s big success” and “Africa’s next hegemon.” Contradictions have sparked new questions: How can there be an “economic miracle” when more than 20% of Ethiopia’s population survives on foreign food assistance? Likewise, developments this past year have also poked holes in the story on Eritrea. American diplomat Herman Cohen wrote in February that Eritrea, which the Western media has called a regional “spoiler” and a candidate for the US’s “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list, had joined a regional anti-terrorist coalition where “the list of countries in that coalition are all good friends of the United States”. How can one address this contradiction? Is the narrative on Eritrea correct?

It has been impossible to ignore the gaping plot holes that have emerged this past year, which have invited radical academic critiques that attempt to reframe the national narratives to fit—rather than contradict—ground realities in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Over this same interval, a special coterie of Western academics on the conflict-riddled Horn, who wield unparalleled status as authoritative experts, have taken up a new, insidious campaign to reframe the national narratives in creative ways that address outstanding contradictions and rehash storylines to fit the same “Greater Ethiopianist” narration that has shaped US policy in the region for almost three-quarters of a century.

One is at loss to explain how the very same people who initially created, shaped and promoted the checkered narratives on Eritrea and Ethiopia, which has turned the Horn into the most conflict-riddled region on Earth, are now the ones who provide the world—via leading foreign policy mediums—with their same “expert” analyses on the two countries that appear to only reiterate rehashes of the same Greater Ethiopianist narrative.

Before providing background on “Greater Ethiopia” and the “Greater Ethiopianist” narrative, the names within the special coterie of experts that have helped to create and/or shape it are as follows:

  • Paul Henze (American);
  • Christopher Clapham (British);
  • Patrick Gilkes (British);
  • Alex de Waal (British);
  • Dan Connell (American);
  • Martin Plaut (British).

With the exception of the late Henze, who’s now deceased, all of these individuals have been busy writing, touring, interviewing, advising and lecturing this past year to stifle all critiques against them, mislead the public and obfuscate the truth on Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Take for example, Alex de Waal’s article last week in the New York Times entitled “Is the Era of Great Famines Over?” Shockingly, he declares that “20 million Ethiopians—one-fifth of the population—desperately short of food…aren’t starving to death” to suggest that the democratic governance of the Ethiopian regime, which won 100 percent of the vote last year, is mainly responsible for “success in averting another disaster” since “there is no record of people dying of famine in a democracy.” His claims are so exquisitely absurd and so unfitting for toleration by the NYT’s editors who deemed them worthy for publishing that it behooves all rationale thinkers to challenge those claims and question NYT’s decision to publish them.

What’s more surprising—and the primary impetus for this article series—is the disconcerting fact that de Waal and the aforementioned experts are publishing these very types of articles in major publications regularly and are the most authoritative voices in the Eritrea-Ethiopia discourse, framing the official narrative on the two countries. This narrative adopts the “Great Ethiopianist” version, which leads us to the following important question: What, exactly, is the Greater Ethiopianist narrative?

75 Years of Greater Ethiopianism

According to a May 2000 article by Eritrean historian Alemseged Tesfai:

Apart from strategic interests in the Horn, which obviously gives priority to huge Ethiopia over its smaller neighbors, our problem with the West has also been their blind and total acceptance and fascination with the Ethiopian myth. An array of their own scholars – the Pankhursts, Clapham, Gilkes, Erlich, Marcus, Rubenson and a former American spy named Paul Henze, to name a few – have seen to it that the Ethiopian ruling class version of history is firmly implanted in the minds of Western thinking. These are career Ethiopianists whose every prediction about Eritrea has been disproved by its present existence and status. They can’t wait to see it go, even re-conquered by Ethiopia, if it were possible.

This “myth” was given a popular name three decades prior. In his 1974 book Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, Donald N. Levine introduced the name and concept of “Greater Ethiopia,” which he candidly admitted was an arbitrarily contrived “image” based on a “popular” historical “assumption”. In the name of creating one common, indigenous “Ethiopian” identity for “autonomous and distinct ‘African’ tribes” native to the Horn that was not defined by subjugation to an “alien Semetic minority…of the first millennium B.C.”, he proposed creating an older pre-Semetic “Greater Ethiopia” as an “image of an arbitrary empire composed of numerous isolated and vastly diverse subject peoples with the image of a vast ecological area and historical arena in which kindred peoples have shared many traditions and interacted with one another for millennia.”

After arbitrarily proposing the “image” of Greater Ethiopia, he further proposes to arbitrarily impose “unity” upon the peoples in its realm, in spite of their divergent histories, on the grounds that they share the following: “(1) a continuous process of interaction of the differentiated Ethiopian peoples with one another; (2) the existence of number of pan-Ethiopian culture traits; and (3) a characteristic mode of response to the periodic intrusion of alien peoples and cultures.”

Thus, Levine defined, for Western academia, a mythical polity superimposed over the Horn region that would give the modern Ethiopian state a popular name for an ensuing narrative (i.e. “image”) that gave it the justification and pretext to expand its territories for the “unity” of all Ethiopian peoples (Note: The cogency of the argument that the existence of Greater Ethiopia is indeed a myth, never existing in the Horn—even in name—hitherto the late 19th century, will be thoroughly elucidated and expounded upon in later parts in this series).

Though Levine may have introduced the official term into the public lexicon that would inaugurate an official narrative, the principle ideas and conceptual framework behind the Greater Ethiopia narrative actually emanate from the 1940’s machinations of British colonialists in Eritrea, who previously allied themselves with Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia for an Allied victory in World War II.

It’s hardly a coincidence that a disproportionate majority of today’s leading Greater Ethiopianist figures (e.g. Clapham, de Waal, Plaut, Gilkes, etc.) arise from Britain, a nation with perhaps the most enduring colonial legacy; a nation that brought Africa the globally-unmatched barbarism of Cecil Rhodes and the most masterful—yet subtle—application of imperial Roman “divide and conquer” tactics upon its colonial African subjects, whom still have yet to recover. In fact, it was the British, itching for their “Cape to Cairo Red Line,” that were key in the Italian colonialization of Eritrea that “was connived at and, indeed encouraged by the British, who saw in the development of Italian influence in the Red Sea a useful counter to the French.” (Trevaskis, G.K.N. Eritrea: A Colony in Transition, 1941-1952. Oxford University Press. London. 1960. pp. 7-8.)

From the earliest days of the British Military Administration (BMA) in Eritrea, the British worked to dismember the nation and extinguish all aspirations for independence by portraying it as fragmented and non-viable. Rather than using direct force, they employed cunning, covert action and political sabotage in order to deceive Eritreans into willingly buy into the illusion of a democratic “choice” and “free press”; to instigate division among the people and ultimately weaken their final bid for self-determination.

It is at this critical juncture in history, under the decade-long rule of the British that the seeds of the Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea would be cultivated to develop the sturdy roots of a conceptual framework, based on mythology and revisionism, that would mislead international audiences on the Eritrea-Ethiopia discourse for the next 75 years. Brigadier Stephen H. Longrigg, the BMA’s Chief Administrator from 1942 to 1944, wrote in his 1945 book A Short History of Eritrea that “rich or great, Eritrea will never become; it may, indeed, disappear as a political unit completely from the map.” Much like today’s Greater Ethiopianists, Longrigg employed fraud and propaganda to meet his objectives for Eritrea.

In an illuminating 2006 study published in the Nordic Journal of African Studies, Tufts professor Astier Almedom’s contextualized retelling of the account by Eritrean national hero Ato Woldeab Woldemariam about a high-profile fraud scandal involving Longrigg (first captured in Alemseged Tesfai’s popular history book Aynfalale 1941-50), highlights the essence of the British narration on Eritrea as well as the elaborate and deceptive lengths at which they went to divide Eritreans and procure dominance of their narrative in the public mind.

Writing under the pseudonym “Hade Ertrawi” and impersonating a Tigrinya-speaking Christian highlander, Longrigg penned a highly incendiary essay in the August 3, 1944 issue of the Eritrean Weekly News (EWN) that cast the writer as a well-educated ethnic and religious chauvinist who argued, by misleading yet convincing reasoning, the following points: (a) Eritrean independence was no longer possible; (b) the need to partition Eritrea with the lands of Muslim Arabic-speaking lowlanders going to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the lands of Christian Tigrinya-speaking highlanders going to imperial Ethiopia; (c) the superiority of Tigrinya speakers; and (d) the reality that Tigrinya and Tigrayan ethnic groups were “one people” responsible for Ethiopian civilization that peaked when center on Axum (i.e. Northern Ethiopia).

With the essay, Longrigg crafted the precursor to the Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea that, much like today, markets the interior Ethiopian highland as the most natural and historic center of the region’s political gravity (Abyssinian-/Axumite-centrism) with the historic right to absorb the otherwise politically unstable peripheral territories of their long-lost Christian Tigrinya kin, who occupy Eritrea’s highlands and central coastlands.

The essay instigated tensions and was followed by a campaign of similar inflammatory submissions to EWN, both real and fraudulent. Violence followed. The BMA countered by reducing the police force patrolling streets. The ensuing crime was branded as “banditry” by politically divided peoples (Foreign Office, 371/90319) and, according to Nene Mburu’s 2001 study, was used to portray Eritreans as “hopelessly fractionalized along ethnic and religious lines” so that “the international community could accept [Britain’s] recommendation on Eritrea’s sovereignty”. In 1945, Longrigg’s publication “Disposal of Italian Africa” in the journal of Royal Institute of International Affairs echoed his fraudulent essay and proposed that Eritrea be partitioned and absorbed into imperial Ethiopia and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (see Figure 1).

longriggs map

Figure 1. Longrigg’s map of proposed partitioning of Eritrea with (1) North going to Sudan; (2) the southeastern “Dankali coast with Assab (useless to Eritrea, invaluable to Ethiopia) should be handed without restriction to the Emperor” and (3) the central region (shaded dark) that he infamously called “Greater Tigrai” to be “administered, at least for a considerable term of years, on the Emperor’s behalf and authority, by a European Power in alliance with him” because central Eritrea was “highly developed: it has superb roads, a railway, airports, a European city as its capital, public services up to European standards” that its conferral to imperial rule that has the “sort of administration seen today elsewhere in Ethiopia” would usher “the loss in progress, the increase in human misery, would be too tragic.” Source: International Affairs [Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-], Vol. 21, No. 3 [Jul., 1945], pp. 363-369.

Though Eritrea was the second most industrialized country in Sub-Saharan Africa after only South Africa, the British misled the world about its economic viability as a sovereign state, going so far as to dismantle, destroy and uproot entire Eritrean industries to strengthen its case. On April 18, 1946, a memorandum from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the British Cabinet deemed British-administered Eritrea as “disunited and economically non-viable” such that it provided “no good reason for preserving it as an administrative unit under any form of administration.”

By 1952, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, addressing the UN Security Council on the Eritrean question, infamously stated, “From the point of view of justice, the opinion of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and world peace make it necessary that the country be linked with our ally Ethiopia.”

In essence, it was the British narrative that portrayed Eritrea as unfit for sovereignty and in need of Ethiopian unification that afforded the US to present before an unwitting world public the claim, on superficially reasonable grounds, that Eritrea had negative strategic value as a sovereign state and would make for a more peaceful world under Ethiopian rule. Ethiopia ultimately federated and illegal annexed Eritrea, leading to the Eritrean people’s 30-year liberation war (1961-91)—then Africa’s longest.

The Rise Greater Ethiopianist Experts

In the same vein as the British colonialists, a small circle of Ethiopianist academics and experts, some of which linked to intelligence agencies, surfaced during the twilight, famine-stricken years of Haile Selassie’s reign to undermine Eritrean liberation war efforts by marketing Longrigg’s narrative on Eritrea—rebranded as Levine’s “Greater Ethiopia”—and perpetually reframing it thereafter to withstand the inevitable barrage of honest critiques without ever veering from the same false storyline.

The leading voices among the pre-liberation Ethiopianists were the following three: (1) Paul Henze, CIA Station Chief in Ethiopia from 1969-72 who wrote on Eritrea and Ethiopia for the RAND Corporation from 1985-92; (2) British former journalist Patrick Gilkes, who covered the HOA for BBC, worked for Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and lectured at Haile Selassie University; and (3) British professor Christopher Clapham, who lectured on African studies at Addis Ababa, Lancaster and Cambridge Universities and has written extensively on Eritrea and Ethiopia since the 1960s.

All three spent extensive time in Addis Ababa and served as the go-to academic authorities on the unfolding “insurgency” in “northern Ethiopia” (i.e. Eritrea). All three were notorious for repeatedly failing to acknowledge major Eritrean battlefield victories, blatantly lying, downplaying the changing tides of war, peddling anti-Eritrea bias and projecting unduly gloomy forecasts about Eritrea’s prospects. Other journalist and academics followed in suit, misinforming policymakers and public opinion.

Attempting to tie the myth of Eritrean disunity into supposed Eritrean battlefield weaknesses, Henze wrote in his January 1985 RAND report that “There is no Eritrean nationality or Eritrean language. Eritrea is a patchwork…language and religious divisions overlap. Eritrean insurgents were sharply divided…and these cleavages remain important today.” Knowing full well that any connection to the Soviets would deter Washington support for Eritrean liberation fighters, he alleged, “Soviets played an active behind-the-scenes role in supporting [the Eritrean] insurgency through East European and radical Arab proxies and…Cubans.” In actual fact, were it not for staunch Soviet support for the beleaguered Derg in 1977 bringing endless MiGs, tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers and advisers liberation would have likely came a decade earlier.

His December 1985 report prepared for the US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy warned that “Catering to separatist delusions serves no purpose. Tactical support…serves no purpose…They are more anti-Derg than anti-Soviet.” Boldly, he asserted, “An independent Eritrea could never secure broad recognition in Africa.”

In their book Ghosts and Shadows, which explores African immigrant communities’ varied perceptions of their home-nations, John Sorenson and Atsuko Matsuoka explain that the “discourse on Eritrean nationalism remained marginal until the final years of the war, when an EPLF victory began to seem inevitable. Even then, many journalists and academics continued to endorse Ethiopian hegemony.” For example, only eleven months before the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) March 1988 victory in the Battle of Afabet, which saw 20,000 Ethiopian troops killed in 48 hours and hailed by Basil Davidson as “the most significant conventional battle in the Third World…since Dien Bien Phu”, Clapham published a paper claiming that the Derg’s socialist economic transformation was a success and would lead to a defeat of Eritrea—a nation “of marginal economic importance” (African Affairs, V86, No. 343, 1987).

Contrary to their assertion and distorted misrepresentation of facts on the ground, the Eritrean people, under the leadership of the EPLF, militarily and politically defeated the Ethiopian occupation army and declared Eritrea’s independence on May 24, 1991. On May 27, 1991, the forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) also took full control of Ethiopia. From 1991 to 1998 peace prevailed between Eritrea and Ethiopia with free movement of goods and people. The Ethiopian people were given full access to the ports of Eritrea free of charge.

In the wake of liberation in 1991, a traumatized and disgruntled Gilkes, writing in African Affairs, complained that “writing on Eritrea has been…a product of the ‘guerilla groupie'” that has taken “EPLF, at its own evaluation, and its historical claims as fact” resulting in a “distorted national mythology” (V90, No. 361, 1991). In essence, Gilkes, who witnessed EPLF’s popular nationalist narrative wholly supplant his own anti-national Greater Ethiopianist version, was simply making a case to support development of new, revisionist, non-nationalist narratives mirroring his own.

With peace between the Eritrean and Ethiopian people after 1991, the veteran Greater Ethiopianists all went into hibernation disgraced by their analytical failures. In 1998, however, Eritrea and Ethiopia returned to war under the pretext of the contested border town Badme. Immediately, Henze, Gilkes and Clapham resurfaced.

As proven, long-time Greater Ethiopianists, their biased coverage of the war was not lost on Eritrea-Ethiopia observers. According to Sorenson and Matsuoka’s book, “Gilkes’s own coverage of the war conveyed sympathy for Ethiopia, although he hardly matched the fervent boosterism of Paul Henze…Henze’s 18 January 2000 essay ‘Eritrea’s War Against Ethiopia,’ posted on Ethiopian government websites, claimed that ‘all problems derive from Eritrea’s invasion of Ethiopian-administered territory…Historian Christopher Clapham consistently attacks any scholar he judges favorable to Eritrean or Oromo nationalism, deriding them as blinded by sentiment while denying his own emotional commitments.”

Although there were certainly other notable pre-1991 Greater Ethiopianists, which included Peter Schwab, Hagaii Erlich, Richard and Sylvia Pankhurst, Harold Marcus, Sven Rubenson and John Markakis—just to name a few—these experts lacked the (1) authoritative agenda-setting status, (2) longevity of Eritrea-antagonism and (3) close association to the British, American and Ethiopian foreign policy apparatus. However, all were toxic to improving public understanding, opinion and debate on the Horn to varying degrees, while some were employees of intelligence agencies. For example, while driving from Filfil to Asmara during a visit to Eritrea in 2015, a geriatric Markakis revealed to a group of three others, including this author, that he was recruited in his youth by the Central Intelligence Agency and sent to Ethiopia to field intelligence under the cover of conducting “research.” Notably, Markakis is an editor of journal Review of African Political Economy.

A New Generation  

Emerging alongside the three bona fide pre-liberation Ethiopianists was a new generation of academics and experts, taking a more leftist, activist position that would be palatable to Eritrean audiences tired of overt Greater Ethiopianism, to continue propagation of a rehashed Greater Ethiopianist narrative in the ensuing Eritrean-Ethiopian War. The new breed included Martin Plaut, Dan Connell and Alex de Waal.

British journalist Martin Plaut, a former Africa editor for BBC World Service news and adviser to both the UK FCO and US State Department (USSD) with a leftist leaning that spans back to his days as a Young Fabian in Apartheid South Africa, worked under the tutelage of his close friend and fellow BBC journalist Gilkes. Writing books together and covering the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, they used their influence within BBC to tailor reporting against Eritrea and worked incessantly to portray Eritrea as the aggressor in a petty “border dispute”, exactly as suggested by Sorenson and Matsuoka. Plaut, unlike openly anti-Eritrean Gilkes, was considered friend of Eritrea during his time there as a journalist in the 1980’s.

Alex De Waal, a social anthropologist by training who studied famine in Sudan during the mid-1980’s, worked for the Africa Watch division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 1989-92 and was peace mediator in the Darfur crisis. In September 1991, four months after Eritrea was already liberated, he published his “Evil Days” report for HRW chronicling the egregious human rights abuses in the 30 years hitherto by the Ethiopian occupying regime, giving him just enough credibility in his Eritrea dossier to call him an expert on the Horn. Like Plaut and Connell, de Waal was initially considered to be a friend of Eritrea.

His political bias towards Eritrea first surfaced in 1999, after he cofounded the London-based human rights organization Justice Africa with an Eritrean regime-change activist of dubious history during his time as leader of the once-prominent Eritrean Relief Association (ERA). De Waal’s own ex-wife and former colleague at Tufts, Astier Almedom, gave some background on de Waal’s collaborator:

Brutal disinformation campaigns aiming to penetrate and break up the Eritrean leadership continued even after the border conflict ended. Eritrean (insider) pundits also played their part. For example, the organizer of the meeting of Eritrean ‘intellectuals’ who drafted of the so-called ‘Berlin Manifesto’ of 2001, a former civilian member who had deserted the EPLF in 1990 amidst allegations of fraud and misappropriation of ERA funds in Khartoum…working for reputable European NGOs who funded in good faith his campaigns against Eritrean unity cloaked under a ‘human rights’ banner.

Interestingly, this same Eritrean collaborator, in addition to others, worked closely with Connell in South Africa following the signing of the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace agreement in Algiers in 2000.

Connell worked as a freelance journalist in Eritrea since the 1970’s and, like Henze, appears to be linked to US intelligence (agent or asset). According to a leaked September 23, 1978, US embassy cable from Khartoum, he was sent under the cover of a journalist “to observe the military situation” in Eritrea “as a guest of EPLF” and “expected to brief [EMBOFF] after.” Since his emergence as an Eritrea “expert” in the late 1990s, Connell has published a large body of publications, ignoring Ethiopian failures and aggression while vehemently attacking the failures of the Eritrean leadership, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ; formerly EPLF). Later articles in this series will cover Connell in greater detail.

According to Sorenson and Matsuoka’s book:

Those journalists and academics who have lived and worked in Ethiopia echo the discourse of Greater Ethiopian nationalists while denouncing opposing views as biased. They emphasize Eritrea’s belligerence by citing previous disputes with Sudan, Yemen, and Djibouti, even while downplaying Ethiopia’s own disputes with neighboring states. Under the guise of objectivity, they exclude alternative perspectives, thereby denying identity and history to groups such as Eritreans or Oromos. Their goal is less to defend truth than to produce a version of it that excludes and discredits dissident voices.

In this fashion, Connell, de Waal and Plaut have worked together against Eritrea, citing each other’s publications as once did Henze, Plaut and Clapham, and are now the leading proponents of the Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea. Unlike their predecessors, who spent significant time inside Addis Ababa, they have focused more of their work on human rights activism from Western capitals.

Whereas the pre-liberation Ethiopianists focused on cold geopolitical strategy and propaganda that sought to shape pro-state perceptions of the war (pro-Derg), the neo-Ethiopianists instead focus more on civil society activism and human rights campaigning that seeks to promote anti-state sentiments (anti-PFDJ). In both cases, the target remains the same: the Eritrean people’s leadership.

Connell, de Waal and Plaut, all of whom have histories of leftist orientation and/or human rights advocacy, may have been recruited by older Greater Ethiopianists on the basis of their progressive resumes better enabling them to make prodigious use of the rapidly growing body of institutions, instruments and treaties designed to enforce international human rights law.

With the grooming and subsequent rise of their protégés following the 1998-2000 war, Henze and Gilkes went to Addis Ababa to work as advisers of the ruling ethnic minority regime, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Henze sat on the Ethiopian National Security Council until he passed away in 2011. After working as a Horn of Africa expert for the UK FCO from 2002-04, Gilkes has since moved to Addis Ababa (married to an Ethiopian), serving as strategic advisor to the Ethiopian Foreign Minister. Clapham, continues to publish and speak at seminars about Eritrea-Ethiopia, using his global influence as former, long-time editor of African Affairs and as professor at the Centre of Africa Studies at Cambridge University to sully Eritrean leadership and depict Eritrea a “tragedy”.

Instead of the MFA in Addis Ababa, the post-1991 Greater Ethiopianists convene at invite-only conferences on Eritrea under the banner of “African studies” or human rights activism in Western academic and political centers such as London, Brussels, Boston and Washington. However, the downward spiraling of the situation in Ethiopia has forced this new generation to Addis Ababa and take on new frenzied campaign to allay concerns about Ethiopia and provoke fear about Eritrea.

Notably, there are a number of honorable mentions for other supposed experts who help buttress official narrative on Eritrea and Ethiopia to fit the Greater Ethiopianist agenda. One can point to Richard Reid, Michaela Wrong, Kjetil Tronvoll, Nicole Hirt, Mirjam van Reisen, David Bozzini a handful of other names. However, unlike these smaller players, Connell, de Waal and Plaut have been groomed, like Henze, Gilkes, and Clapham to become the agenda-setting experts that collaborate closely with the USSD, UK FCO and Ethiopian MFA to ultimately continue the same divisive 1940’s Greater Ethiopia policies in the Horn of Africa.

It appears that the common thread among most of today’s Greater Ethiopianists experts on Eritrea is that most of them started their careers as friends of Eritrea (e.g. Connell, Plaut), lived or taught in Eritrea (e.g. Hirt, Wrong) or were in intimate relationships with Eritreans (e.g. de Waal, Reid). After gaining a following during an incubation period, they often turn against the state—almost overnight—referring to their former closeness to Eritrea as proof of their credibility. Soon enough they publish papers with the older, more established Greater Ethiopianists, repeating their same narrative and working to turn their honest Eritrea-sympathizing colleagues against Eritrea (as Connell attempted to do with the renowned Africanist scholar Basil Davidson). This is the modus operandi of today’s Greater Ethiopianists.

This concludes the first part of this series. Subsequent parts will cover the recent publications and work of the individual Greater Ethiopianist over this past year, who have essentially told us that “everything is okay in Ethiopia” and that “everything is falling apart in Eritrea.” We give these claims by these specific persons a closer look.

Invisiblizing and Politicizing Eritrean Cycling and Sports

This past week, Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus cemented themselves in history alongside names like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Steve Mokone, and Arthur Wharton by becoming the first black Africans to compete in a previously all white professional sport–namely, the Tour de France.

Many ululated and were in tears as they saw Daniel peddle down the raceway as the first rider of the entire 198-person race. It seemed that this epic moment in history, a moment of pride for African and Eritrean peoples around the world, would be covered around-the-clock by an international press thirsty for these sort of feel-good stories; that Daniel and Merhawi would become instant households names. Oddly, however, this was not the case.

Instead, we saw a very tired and hostile media downplaying, misrepresenting and denigrating the Eritrean cyclists and their young Red Sea nation.

Virtually no major news outlets—and especially their headlines—pointed out the fact that the riders were native black Africans and not merely the progeny of the remnant colonial aristocracy as was the case with last year’s Tour winner, the Kenyan-born British national Chris Froome.

It is not the intention to be divisive or petty by dwelling on race issues. Surely, race on the African content should be a concept of the past. However, current outstanding racial inequalities stacked against black and colored African peoples and a global caste system buttressing white privilege on African toil necessitates that race be adequately covered until the impending, hypothetical “post-racial” world arrives.

It is for this reason that the feats of Joe Louis, Lamine Guèye, and Mohammad Ali, against all odds, are held in such high regard and why there is so much media coverage of the “No to Racism” campaign in European football.

It is within this context, that the world spectators would reasonably expect the following bold headlines: “Eritreans Become First Black Africans in Tour de France” or “First Black Africans Cyclists in Tour de France”. However, the words “Eritrea” and “Black” never make the headlines.

An article in the UAE newspaper The National comes closest with its headline reading, “Daniel Teklehaimanot becomes first African to compete in Tour de France.” The second paragraph acknowledges that he is “the first black African to ride the Tour de France.”

Major newspapers in Europe and America were shockingly worse.

No mention could be found in the European papers with the exception of a July 4 piece by the Guardian’s Barry Glendenning. Glendenning buries the fact that Daniel is a black African and Eritrean in a blasé side comment in the middle of the sixth paragraph: “Its multiple bends were sweeping rather than sharp and in the course of becoming the first black African rider to participate in the Tour de France, the Eritrean will need to make fuller use of his brakes, gears and bike handling skills in the days and weeks ahead.” Acknowledging Daniel’s accomplishment while criticizing his cycling skills in the same sentence trivializes his accomplishment.

Some articles were overtly racist. According to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, “Daniel Teklehaimanot, one of two Eritreans on the Tour team – Eritrea being one African country where there is a culture of cycling thanks to their former colonial masters Italy.”

One can only imagine the reaction of the British if Britainia, the Ancient Roman-era precursor island to modern Britain, which was devoid of a script prior to Roman conquest, was said to attribute its entire writing culture, which produced Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Telegraph, to their Roman “masters.”

Though it true that the Italians brought with them a culture of cycling to Eritrea in the late 1880s, the reality is that native Eritreans were barred from participating in local races until 1939, during the twilight years of Italian colonial rule, when Ghebremariam Ghebru won the first integrated race.

Worse yet is the politicization of cycling and sports, historically acknowledged as one of society’s few activities that transcends divisive global politics.

According to a piece by AFP, misleadingly entitled “Eritrea gives green light for Tour de France team,” the article states that “Eritrea’s president has given his backing to the first two cyclists from his country to ride in the Tour de France, despite a spate of defections by sports stars at past international events, state media said Saturday.” In reality, the cited state media made no claims of “backing” or presidential approval, stating only that the president congratulated the cyclists.

The AFP piece goes on mention the recent UN Commission of Inquiry report, human rights, and unsubstantiated migration statistics. What does this have to do with sports, exactly?

In the American press? Total silence. Surprisingly, no mention of the Eritrean cyclists by the New York Times. If one Googles “new york times daniel teklehaimanot”, the first NYT article that appears is a highly politicized November 17, 2011 piece by James Montague headlined “Eritrean National Team Heads Home Intact.”

As the headline suggests, Montague expresses surprise that the Eritrean national soccer team returned from Rwanda without defecting, goes on a unwarranted and tangential diatribe on UNHCR and migration and suggests that the Eritrean National Cycling Team, which included Daniel Teklehaimanot, similarly pulled out of the Tour of Rwanda to avoid any potential defections.

Montague ignores the fact that UNHCR gives prima facie status to and takes an exceptional policy position on all Eritrean migrants, making the Eritrean asylum application the easiest and quickest one processed in the world. Despite this reality, amazingly, not one cyclist has yet to defect.

The yellow journalism and highly politicized nature of media coverage vis-à-vis Eritrean sports has effectively served to invisiblize and shame Eritrea in the eyes of the world. Additionally, the near total blackout on this major cycling event and the sort of homogeneity and conformity of reporting throughout the global media makes one wonder if this reporting, or lack thereof, is deliberate and coordinated among media agencies.

Although we already know about the incredible and expansive role of the CIA in the media following Carl Bernstein’s groundbreaking 1977 publication on the topic, we’re not going to pull the CIA card. That would be too easy.

Prepackaged and coordinated politicized coverage of something as seemingly apolitical and innocuous as Eritrean cycling may seem farfetched but some evidence suggests that this may be the case.

Radio journalists for BBC Africa, who often report on African cycling but fail to mention 5-time African cycling champ Eritrea, have been repeatedly engaged on Twitter by multiple Eritreans, seeking more coverage, to no avail. Only excuses are given.

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In a May 2014 American University publication by Audrey Vorhees entitled What Would a Nonviolent Resistance Movement Look Like in Eritrea, Vorhees strategizes a nonviolent resistance movement for regime-change in Eritrea and suggests that diaspora Eritreans recruit Eritrean-American Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to be the “face of this movement to the international community” due to the fact that he “has been in the news several times.” Gene Sharp, the godfather of colored revolutions closely linked to the US State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency, explicitly named Eritrea as a target of these “nonviolent action” tactics.

Rather than taking part in such actions, Meb, who ran himself into Eritrean history in heroic fashion, chose instead to visit the Eritrean delegation to the UN in New York, driving a cold stake into the heart of Vorhees’ strategy.

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Let us not also forget the 2013 Twitter account hoax, in which a Bloomberg journalist created a fake account in the name of Eritrean Olympic runner Zersenay Tadesse and claimed that one of his family members had been taken hostage in the Sinai by human traffickers. Reuters picked up the story without verifying the account, promoting the false image of an Eritrea overrun by state-sanctioned trafficking and hopelessly crippled by repression-driven migration. Interestingly, the story was tagged as “Arab Spring” by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting that it played into the broader nonviolent action strategy for regime change.

Instigating the defection of popular sports figures also seems to be part of this strategy. Former U.S. Ambassador Ronald K. McMullen acknowledged in a 2010 diplomatic cable under the derisive subheading “SOCCER TEAM 1 – REGIME 0,” that “Eritreans are mad about soccer” and that the defection of four Eritrean football players in Kenya “will be stunning news for the Eritrean population.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that many of the defecting Eritrean football players go straight to the local US Embassy, receive expedited asylum and resettle almost immediately to the US, as was highlighted in painstaking detail by Susan Carrol in a May 23, 2012 article in the Houston Chronicle. Many of these football players, unable to make it big in the pros, are now working as gas station attendants, janitors, and other remedial laborers. Instead of speaking out against the Eritrean government, a number of the these young players actually attend nationalist youth conferences and events with government officials present.

In light of the evidence, it comes as little surprise that Eritrean sports are subject to invisiblization and politicization. It has long been recognized that Eritrea is entrenched in a protracted, asymmetrical war with the world’s sole super power, America, and is facing a hostile 15-year-long isolation strategy.

According to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston on November 1, 2005, the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Additionally a November 5, 2009 cable by CDA Roger Meece states that the “USG [US government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea.”

If there is an isolation strategy in place, then it must be recognized that any effective isolation strategy dictates that all forms of international power and influence of the targeted state in question must be contained. This includes international cycling, falling in the realm of “soft power,” which serves to change and influence social and public opinions of Eritrea.

One can only imagine the difficulty the US State Department would face in forwarding the standard, doom-and-gloom narrative on Eritrea, marked by state repression-driven poverty, hunger, despair and migration, when malaria-free Eritrean cyclists with healthy bone structure smile for the French cameras as they board the plane headed back to Eritrea. One can only imagine the image that would send to the world. UN sanctions and Commission reports alleging “crimes against humanity” wouldn’t make much sense. Soft power would flex its muscles.

It is for this reason that even the slightest victory for the Eritrean people, the slightest bit of hope that a brighter tomorrow is on the horizon or that personal success is, in fact, possible in Eritrea must be mercilessly extinguished and asphyxiated in the cradle by any means necessary. It is for this reason that even something as simple as an Eritrean cycling or running success must go unacknowledged, downplayed, politicized or wildly misrepresented.

There can be no wins for the Eritrean people so long as the current government is in place. Montague of the aforementioned NYT article highlights how Eritrea must fail in every way and in every possible metric imaginable.

In his book “Thirty-One Nil” he explains that “Eritrea is one of the worst countries in the world by almost any metric. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, torture, poverty and, of course, football.” Painting a dystopian, hell-on-Earth image of Eritrea, he conflates failure in sports with political failures.

Despite this hostile campaign against Eritrea, which Chatham House expected to collapse in 2008, the underpaid runners and cyclists continue to run and peddle—not for themselves—but for their nation and people, effectively un-invisibilizing Eritrea and depoliticizing portrayals of the nation. This desire runs deep in many politically-conscious Eritreans and their cyclists who feel their nation has not been properly made known to the world, rightfully exposed to the global public, and accurately portrayed. The feeling is that the nation’s very sovereignty is being challenged.

This is perhaps the reason why large throngs of crazed Eritrean citizens travel long distances to support their cyclists on short notice in the same way 8,000 citizens demonstrated the Commission of Inquiry report in Geneva on only five days’ notice.

This is perhaps the reason that, following a question by Jenny Vaughn of AFP to Eritrean cyclist Meron Russom about why he cycles, he responded, “when I race in Europe, the aim is to introduce our country to the world.”

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Viva Eritrea! Viva Africa!

ADDENDUM: On Thursday, July 9th, Daniel Teklehaimanot was crowned King Of the Mountains and became the first African to win a jersey, the polka dot jersey. Although CNN picked up the story–reluctantly and begrudgingly–indicating that Daniel “became the first African to don the polka-dot jersey”, the article was buried in other news on Le Tour that took priority over this epic achievement (stage wins, Tony Martin dropping out, etc.). While the masses in the Twitter-verse gave credit, the mainstream media spoke with pursed lips.
The New York Times, among the worst, did not even acknowledge the event and the gravity of Daniel’s epic performance: “…a French rider who was joined by Daniel Teklehaimanot, an Eritrean, and Kenneth Vanbilsen of Belgium. While the sixth stage was more hilly than mountainous, Teklehaimanot, riding in the Tour for the first time, gathered enough points to wear the polka-dot jersey of the best climber by the end of the day.” That was all they said. No mention of the historical precedent set by the young African hero. Instead, his performance was trivialized, downplaying the grueling “mountainous” terrain as just “hilly” and robbing him of due credit. Why can’t Eritreans and Africans simply receive the respect they deserve? Is the media not aware of the obstacles they face to reach the podium?

Africans face unspeakable odds. This fact becomes all the more clear in light of recent news that fellow Eritrean rider Natneal Berhane, competing in the Tour of Austria on the same day as Daniel, was called an “effing nigger” by CCC rider Branislau Samoilau. These and many other social, political, and economic obstacles cannot be downplayed. The intention is not to perpetuate the “us” versus “them” mindset but, instead, to merely highlight the cold, hard fact that Eritrean and African people are battling unspeakable odds and not given due credit by a complacent media for reasons that range from racist to geopolitical. It’s time the world recognize this reality and move forward.

The Traffic Racket: The Pied Pipers in Tigray (Part 3)

Part two of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” investigated the shadowy syndicate behind Eritrean migration. This third piece will look into the role of Ethiopia and its refugee agency in promoting the escape of Eritrean children from Eritrea.

Luring Eritrean Children to Death

German legend has it that a pipe-playing rat-catcher was hired by the city of Hamelin to draw rats out of town with his music. When the city reneged on its payments, the rat-catcher took his revenge by playing his pipe to lure children out the city, leading to their mass drowning in Weser river.

Today this tale is recounted around the world as the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, symbolizing the death of children at the hands of criminals.

David Kirkpatrick, writing in his May 5 article for the New York Times, brings to light the emergence of modern day pied pipers in Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State luring Eritrean children to death in the Mediterranean Sea.

His piece, “Young African Migrants Caught in Trafficking Machine,” though checkered with some errors, is significant for raising two important issues: (1) the groundswell of unaccompanied minors from Eritrea in Ethiopian refugee camps and (2) the claim that the Eritrean smuggling/trafficking racket originates in Ethiopia.

We are told that unaccompanied minors in Ethiopia are unable to return to Eritrea. Kirkpatrick explains, “Most children who make the trek without telling their parents regret it as soon as they arrive, aid workers say. But Eritrea considers them defectors and criminals, barring any return.” Quoting Meron Estefanos, who he explains is “an Eritrean rights activist in Stockholm who works with migrants,” he notes that “They get stuck there in the camps….It is very common.”

Kirkpatrick and Meron put the blame on the Eritrean state for the children’s inability to return to Eritrea. This claim is unsubstantiated.

Both ignore the evidence that suggests that Eritreans are trapped in Ethiopia as a result of the Ethiopian state’s refugee agency, the Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs (ARRA), which has unprecedented control of refugee operations.

Unlike any other state in the world Ethiopia runs refugee operations in its own country—not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This key fact must be firmly understood when we’re talking about the rise of Eritrean unaccompanied minors to Ethiopia and beyond.

No Escape

According to a May 2013 report on Eritrean unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) by the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) entitled Young and Astray, “Voluntary return is not possible for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Having claimed asylum in Ethiopia, and thus having sought protection from the government of Ethiopia, ARRA would insist that return to Eritrea could not be in the best interest of any refugee…Geographically, the newer refugee camps are located far from the Eritrean border and simply walking back across is almost impossible.”

The report also goes on to highlight the nightmare for Eritrean children in the Mai-Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia:

UASC in Mai-Aini said that they have repeatedly asked UNHCR, IRC and ARRA to support their return to no avail. They expressed concern for children who had gone missing from the camps, some of whom new arrivals reported had arrived home safely, though the number of children missing, perhaps lost or deceased on the long journey through the desert-like plains, is unknown. All of the children under 13 involved in the focus group discussions in Mai-Aini expressed a desire to return home, in stark contrast to Sudan, where all but one member of the mixed under 13-years-old discussion group were waiting for family sponsorship to Switzerland, Germany and Canada.

In so many words, Eritrean children are trapped by the Ethiopian state apparatus with the complicity of UNHCR; a fact overlooked by Kirkpatrick.

Making the situation worse, UNHCR itself opposes voluntary repatriation of Eritrean migrants, arguing that conditions in Eritrea are so bad that their support for repatriation is impossible. UNHCR knows better than the Eritrean migrants themselves, apparently.

Such a position is unprecedented. Every refugee has the right to voluntarily return to their homeland if they so wish and UNHCR, in regards to repatriation, has a limited mandate to protect asylum rights by advocating against “forced” repatriation rather than those of a voluntary nature. For some reason, its mandate limitations do not apply to Eritreans.

According to a 2011 study, Getting Beyond Politics and Bad Blood: The Protection of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia, by Sara Webster at American University in Cairo, “UNHCR refuses to support this repatriation [of Eritreans] due to the mass violation of human rights in Eritrea, as well as the danger to returnees. Due to the dangerous nature of the border crossing, these individuals rejected the possibility of attempting such repatriation on their own.”

Like the WRC, Webster also points out ARRA’s unusual level of control over refugee operations within Ethiopia:

“In contrast to the asylum systems of neighboring countries, the role that Ethiopia assumes is quite unique. Despite being one of Africa’s poorest countries with the third largest population, Ethiopia’s governmental refugee agency, the Association for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), performs most of the functions that UNHCR does in the rest of Africa…The Ethiopian government does not conduct individual refugee status determination per se. In the case of Eritrean refugees, ARRA conducts “screening” of individuals soon after crossing the border, at Inda Abaguna.”

Webster doesn’t stop there. She notes that even UNHCR itself, referring to its international staff, is almost entirely manned by Ethiopians (this means their international staff).

…Of those who complained of serious discrimination and those who expressed positive experiences with Ethiopians, there was a unanimous declaration of mistrust of Ethiopian officers at the various agencies responsible for refugees. ARRA, as an Ethiopian state agency, is staffed entirely by Ethiopian nationals. In addition to this, the vast majority of UNHCR staff members are Ethiopians.

Notably, this doesn’t even include all of the Ethiopians staffing UNHCR headquarters and crafting destructive policies towards Eritreans to ostensibly ensure Ethiopian “national security.”

It’s no secret that the EPRDF government of Ethiopia, the poster-child for the humanitarian-industrial complex financed by mostly by Western donors, has many of its nationals commanding humanitarian aid organs and developmental bodies.

Smuggling as Ethiopia’s Official Foreign Policy

It seems Eritrean children have become the hapless victims of Ethiopian foreign policy towards Eritrea.

Let us consider a 2015 report by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development entitled “Support for Refugees in Ethiopia: 2012-2015.” The report states, “there are concerns that ARRA at times dictates refugee policy and operations to UNHCR from a standpoint of national security as opposed to International Refugee Law, resulting in compromised levels of assistance and protection for some groups. Reporting and accountability for the majority of UNHCR funds that are channeled through ARRA for administration and operations has also been the subject of donor concern.”

US Chargé d’Affaires Deborah Malac, in a 2008 Wikileak went as far suggesting that ARRA was using its humanitarian operations to train an Eritrean opposition. Malac explained:

The presence of Eritrean opposition activity in the camps was not surprising. The defensive tone in EmbOffs discussions with UNHCR, ARRA, and international NGO officials suggests that they had a vested interest in denying any knowledge of it, otherwise they might be required to address opposition harassment of refugees. The visit was yet another reminder that a priority of ARRA’s refugee program was to address Ethiopia’s national security concerns with Eritrea. Post cannot confirm complicity between ARRA and the opposition groups, but we do note that ARRA, as an organization, falls under the purview of the Ethiopian National Intelligence Security Service.

One can hardly trust the Ethiopian state and ARRA with the wellbeing of Eritrean children. Given the long, tumultuous, and war-riddled history between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the ongoing, unresolved war between the two nations, and the ongoing Ethiopian occupation of sovereign Eritrea land, one can hardly trust the Ethiopian state to preserve the interests of the Eritrean peoples.

According to Kirkpatrick, Ethiopia seems to be primary launch pad for Eritrean smuggling.

The “Mastermind”

He indicates that Ermias Ghermay, an Ethiopian national, is behind the smuggling of Eritreans out of Ethiopia and across the Mediterranean. He writes, “From the refugee camps in Ethiopia near the Eritrean border, Mr. Ghermay’s crew packed the children in the back of a truck with a dozen other migrants to drive west to Sudan and then north to Libya, children and adult passengers said.”

The critical take away message from this revelation is that Ermias’ network stretches not only to Italy from Libya but also from the very source of the migrants: the Eritrean refugee camps located in the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State. From this NYT article, it’s not quite clear whether or not his networks extend directly into Eritrea however other evidentiary sources now suggest this to be the case.

Although Kirkpatrick also mentions the involvement of Eritrean national Mered Medhanie, who goes by the nickname “The General,” he makes it clear that Eritreans like Mered fall under “Mr. Ghermay’s crew.”

According to Charlotte Alfred writing for the Huffington Post, “Sicilian prosecutors said they had busted an international smuggling ring and were issuing arrest warrants for 24 people, including 14 in Italy. They said the group’s mastermind is an Ethiopian man, Ermias Ghermay, believed to be currently in Libya. Ghermay has been wanted since the last major migrant tragedy in 2013, when some 366 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa.”

Thus, the alleged leader of Eritrean smuggling is Ethiopian. Working under him are Eritreans.

Simply being an Ethiopian national, however, does not necessarily equate to Ethiopian state involvement. One must look elsewhere for evidence to support this assertion.

Evidence from leaked diplomatic cables do shed some additional light on Ethiopian state involvement in smuggling Eritreans. According to a 2010 Wikileak from the US embassy in Addis Ababa, it seems the Ethiopian military is a central piece in the international racket:

Last year, 86 Eritrean nationals applied for immigrant visas in Addis Ababa…One F-1 immigrant visa applicant told Conoff he began his journey on August 8, 2009 and paid a smuggler 40,000 Nakfa (around USD 2,600) to cross the Ethiopian-Eritrean border near Rama, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. After a 10 hour night walk the applicant said he was met by members of the Ethiopian military, who took him to the Endabaguna transit camp. He stayed in the transit camp for three days before moving on to the My Ayni refugee camp, and eventually Addis Ababa….An Eritrean 2009 diversity visa lottery winner had a similar story. He told Conoff he met his smugglers at the Asmara bus station on August 15, 2009 and paid 50,000 Nakfa (around USD 3,300) for the 12-hour trek across the border. Nearly two weeks later, on August 29, 2009, the DV applicant crossed the border near Rama with his smuggler and another person fleeing Eritrea. Like the F1 applicant three weeks before, the DV winner stated he received assistance from the Ethiopian military.

The fact that the Ethiopian military is implicated in smuggling Eritreans, suggests possible state sponsorship of human trafficking, which, at the minimum, calls for an international investigation.

On the other side of the border, there seems to be the opposite response by the national government at large.

US Chargé d’Affaires in Eritrea, Matthew D. Smith, confessed in another leaked diplomatic cable from Asmara entitled “How To Escape From Eritrea” that “the GSE [Government of the State of Eritrea] is very keen to break these human smuggling rings and dispatches agents to pose as potential customers. Other agents pose as facilitators, making all of the supposed smuggling arrangements prior to having the unsuspecting person arrested.” He goes on to explain that “passage from Mendefera (30 miles south of Asmara) to Ethiopia costs $1,000 to $1,300/person.”

Smith’s cable certainly does not suggest the absence of trafficking in Eritrea but rather highlights the nature of the official Eritrean state response to the criminal enterprise. In light of the Ethiopian state’s alleged involvement in smuggling, it is not unreasonable to link the recent spike in Eritrean smuggling as a partial result of Ethiopian state organized, facilitated and financed trans-border smuggling that has made Eritrean smuggling a highly lucrative business.

Ethiopia’s Child Smuggling Industry

One cannot underestimate the scale of this illicit enterprise. It seems the Eritrean refugee industry has become a cash cow for Ethiopia. Though Ethiopia was not known for its refugee operations in the early 2000’s, the nation opened up its first of four camps targeted for Eritreans in 2004 (Shimelba) and went on to become the largest refugee hosting nation in Africa by 2014, beating both Sudan and Kenya. As a result, UNHCR has now earmarked Ethiopia with the highest budget for Africa in 2015.

That Eritrean refugees were at the heart of Ethiopia’s growing refugee empire was well known to diplomatic officials in Addis Ababa for quite some time. John M. Yates, US Ambassador to Ethiopia, wrote the following in a 2010 diplomatic cable:

“While it is commendable that the GOE [Government of Ethiopia] continues to be willing to host refugees, the GOE, particularly ARRA, has strong political and financial reasons for doing this. The GOE has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees as a part of its greater foreign policy towards Eritrea. In addition, ARRA is 100% funded by UNHCR and thus views the creation of new refugee camps as job security. UNHCR operates in Ethiopia at the invitation of GOE and ARRA and is very well aware that it is at the mercy of ARRA and cannot easily push back on such issues as the development of Adi-Harush if it wants any ability to effectively program activities in the other camps.”

Although the extent of trafficking within Ethiopia—of not only Eritreans but also Somalis and Ethiopians themselves—remains largely unexplored, there is strong evidence that the nation has become a premier hub for human traffickers and smugglers like Ermias Ghermay.

No other nation in the Horn of Africa region, including Sudan, which is thought to also be a hub for traffickers, has seen more trafficking-related rescues and arrests by the INTERPOL-supported Eastern Africa Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (EAPCCO). In August 2013, EAPCCO’s “Operation Usalama” led to the rescue of more than 300 victims of human trafficking and the arrest of 38 suspects in Ethiopia.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the Ethiopian government restricts humanitarian agencies from visiting their refugee camps. According to the former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto, the “ICRC is also currently prohibited…from accessing a number of sites in the north of the country including Shimelba refugee camp.”

What do they have to hide?

Another leaked US diplomatic cable from Addis Ababa sent in February 2010 and marked “confidential,” describes ARRA’s arrest and summary execution of Eritrean refugees in the camps and denial of UNHCR’s request to access the arrested. The cable concludes that the actions by ARRA “suggests an increase in targeting refugees in violation of the GoE obligations as party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 OAU Convention on Refugees.”

Following the fatal shooting of Eritrean refugee Yohana Gebreyohannis Kahsa near the My Ayni camp, the cable also highlights the continuing preoccupation with Eritrea by ARRA, which, according to a My Ayni staff member from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “is very concerned and embarrassed about this incident as it has long advocated for preferential treatment of Eritrean refugees and does not want any negative publicity.”

In October 2013, Voice of America’s Amharic Service (VOA-Amharic) reported on a crackdown by ARRA security personnel against Eritreans refugees protesting in the Adi Harush and Adi Ayni camps located in the Tigray region, killing 3 and detaining another 150 Eritrean protestors. According to video footage posted online, protestors expressed that they were far worse off in Ethiopia than they were in Eritrea and demanded that ARRA provide better conditions for the marginalized Eritrean refugees.

Many of these marginalized refugees are adolescents that have been lured into the exploitative and politicized refugee industry by the piping of ARRA from their several camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State. Making matters worse, the international media and UNHCR have been joining in on the piping, failing to mention the role of ARRA and the Ethiopian government in smuggling Eritreans.

Meanwhile, Eritrean children are drowning in the Mediterranean. When will the world wake up and stop this madness?

The Traffic Racket: The Activist Syndicate and the EU (Part 2)

In part one of our series on the “The Traffic Racket,” we spoke about the dubious roles of Eritrean “activists” Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos, and Elsa Chyrum. We spoke about the role of misinformed journalists and sometimes outright biased activist-journalists like Dan Connell, who have been promoting the work of the activists to bring about regime change in Eritrea. Do these ties go deeper? Part two looks into the shadowy links between these activists, journalists, and state officials vis-à-vis Eritrean migration, in a loose syndicate, and looks at the consequences for Europe, Eritrea, and the migrants.


Emerging evidence suggests that regime change activists Mussie Zerai, Meron Estefanos, and Elsa Chyrum have all been involved in facilitating the smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean youth.

Before any formal cooperation on trafficking and smuggling took place, the three activists and Dan Connell—an activist himself—were all closely linked to one another, meeting under the framework of human rights cooperation prior to their alleged smuggling cooperation. A proto-syndicate to the traffic racket, perhaps.

All four were present at a conference in Brussels hosted by the European External Policy of Advisors (EEPA) in November 2009 entitled “Joining EU and US policy towards Eritrea and the Horn of Africa: for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights.”

Also in attendance were former US Ambassadors and State Department notables alongside a smorgasbord of today’s most quoted, press-approved Eritrean human rights activist. As the conference title suggests, the aim of the gathering was to get the EU to go along with US policy towards Eritrea under the mantra of promoting human rights.

It’s critical to note that prior to this conference, Eritrea and the EU, despite their differing views on modes of governance, shared cozy relations. EU Commissioner Louis Michel felt that Eritrea was a “key player” in the Horn of Africa and proposed that Eritrea receive €122 million during the 10th round of the European Development Fund, which would make Eritrea the highest per-capita recipient of EU development funding.

The US felt this was too much to bear. According to a diplomatic cable sent from Brussels on April 22, 2009 by Wayne Bush, acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Phillip Carter was actively lobbying against Eritrea-EU engagement: “he questioned the wisdom of giving EUR 122 million to a regionally-destabilizing pariah regime in Eritrea.”

In the end, the deal was never signed and Eritrea was sanctioned by the UN the very next month, which would have been unlikely without an EU change of heart and the EU’s tacit support.

Though the diplomatic inertia between the EU and Eritrea has kept relations between the two relatively unchanged, save for recent positive developments, the US-supported and financed activists and UNHCR, which itself receives 30% of its funds from the US, have worked incessantly since then to create a rift between the two—or, more precisely, the image of a rift.

It appears that separating Eritrea from its international partners was part and parcel with the US and US-backed Ethiopian regime’s plan to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically,” as revealed by a leaked US embassy cable by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston on November 1, 2005.

US State Department Involvement

Further evidence suggests that the isolation strategy employed by the likes of Mussie, Meron, Elsa, and Connell had official support from the US State Department.

In a May 5, 2009 leaked US embassy cable sent from Asmara, entitled “Promoting Educational Opportunity for Anti-Regime Eritrean Youth”, the then US Ambassador to Eritrea, Ronald K. McMullen outlines US plans for politicized smuggling of Eritrean youth, explaining that “Post plans to restart visa services (completely suspended in 2007) for student visa applicants; we intend to give opportunities to study in the United States to those who oppose the regime.”

So great was US state sponsorship for smuggling Eritreans out of Eritrea, that Obama himself—who never before uttered the word “Eritrea” publicly—said in a 2012 speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, which inaugurated human trafficking as “modern slavery,” “I recently renewed sanctions on some of the worst abusers, including North Korea and Eritrea. We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their abusers.” Who are these partners, exactly?

The statement was seen as symbolic and a re-declaration of the position taken during the 1884 – 1885 Berlin Conference, which provided a moral justification for Europe’s infamous Scramble for Africa on the basis of “human rights” enforcement that sought to relieve Africa of the Arab slave trade.

Obama’s admission of “partnering” with smugglers was concerning given the US State Department’s own definition of smuggling: “the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation or illegal entry of a person or persons across an international border, in violation of one or more countries’ laws.”

Often the smuggled émigrés are exploited and killed en route to Europe’s southern shores, making the US and the human rights activists potentially party to not only the smuggling but also the trafficking of Eritreans.

Europe Suffering the Consequences

Thus, it’s only within this backdrop of trans-Mediterranean smuggling and trafficking, exploited by the US state and US-supported entities, such as the aforementioned activists and UNHCR, that one can make sense of the latest mass-casualty shipwrecks, the reporting of these incidents, and the EU’s policy responses.

On Monday, April 20, the EU Joint Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Council met in Luxemburg to hold an emergency meeting, which led to the release of a 10-point plan aimed at addressing the dangers of growing trans-Mediterranean migration. A follow-up summit of the European Commission was held in Brussels on Thursday, April 23 to further address the issue and expand upon the 10 point plan.

In essence, EU leaders agreed to double emergency aid to frontline member states Italy, Greece and Malta to the tune of €50 million per year. They also pledged ships, aircraft and equipment to assist with humanitarian efforts for migrants, such as support for reception centers and medical personnel to deal with the influx.

EU leaders also decided to address growing smuggling activities, pledging to triple funding to €9 million a month for Frontex, the EU’s border operation patrolling the Mediterranean. Frontex ships will travel closer to the Libya, the starting point for 90% of all smuggled trans-Mediterranean migrants, to prevent illegal migration before it starts.

The funds for Frontex are earmarked for its Triton mission, which will not conduct active search-and-rescue operations but will instead focus on military operations against smugglers.

Protest by UNHCR and Human Rights NGOs

The new EU position led to criticism by the media and protest by UNHCR and human rights groups. At the helm was UNHCR’s Commissioner Antonio Guterres, who explained that the most recent shipwreck “confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe.”

“It doesn’t mean it has to be Mare Nostrum,” Guterres said, referring to the Italian search-and-rescue operation that was suspended last year due to cost. “It can be European Union-sponsored operation but different from Triton.”

According to USA News & World Report, Guterres’ logic that justifies a boost in search-and-rescue operations, is predicated on the observation that “42,000 migrants arrived in Italy via sea in 2013, but that number increased to 170,000 in 2014.”

On the surface, these numbers seem to provide support for search-and-rescue but Guterres, UNHCR, and human rights NGOs fail to mention that Operation Mare Nostrum was actually in operation during the majority of that period in which the migrant spike occurred, running from October 18, 2013 – October 31, 2014.

In contrast to Guterres, last year’s EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom indicated that the success of the Italian operation has created a pull factor and made the sea crossing attempts more dangerous.

In the wake of the October 2013 mass-casualty shipwreck near Lampedusa, Italy, the Swedish commissioner warned, “The tragic backslide of this [search-and-rescue operation] is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean, which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved.”

Two years after her warning, it appears that traffickers and smugglers have become emboldened by search-and rescue-centric EU. According to a recent study by Frontex, traffickers have started openly marketing their smuggling services on popular social media sites like Facebook.

Despite the statistics and realities behind migration, human rights groups remain seemingly averse to the facts on the ground.

According to Amnesty International’s Deputy Program Director for Europe and Central Asia, “Europe has scaled back search-and-rescue capacity based on the flawed argument that such operations were acting as a ‘pull factor’, attracting more migrants. But the reality in the Mediterranean is exposing that fallacy, since the numbers of desperate people seeking to make it to Europe are only going up.”

The Other Solution No One’s Talking About

Absent from virtually all arguments by UNHCR and human rights group as well as the EU’s debate on migration are the root causes of the phenomenon, both push and pull factors. Responses to migrant shipwrecks by both UNHCR and the EU seem to ignore these two key factors and focus entirely on symptoms—namely, the facilitation of migration en route to Europe.

Such facilitation comes in the form of search-and-rescue and boosting asylum quotas. Although this sort of facilitation is undoubtedly much needed, allowing for more humane treatment of migrants and legal routes of entry for those in distress, there’s essentially nothing being done to address the root causes and to curb migration.

In fact, the causes of migration are even worsened.

The oft quoted Eritrean activists, who often work with UNHCR and human rights NGOs, seem to go a step of further by playing an active role in worsening the causes of migration, calling for an end to the EU’s development aid to Eritrea and engaging in illegal smuggling activities.

By working with these political activists, UNHCR is stepping beyond its mandate, limited to purely humanitarian operations, enshrined in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

In UNHCR’s frame of thought: forget about addressing the instability in Libya resulting from the European war of aggression; forget about addressing Ethiopia’s ongoing illegal occupation of Eritrea; forget about busting the trans-Mediterranean smuggling racket; forget about the real causes of desperate journeys; just focus on symptoms—rescuing migrants.

Given UNHCR’s logic of facilitating ever-expanding search-and-rescue without addressing root causes, why not cut the smugglers out of the loop and simply provide the recently pledged European rescue vessels at Libyan ports to directly transport willing migrants from Libya to Italy, provided they pay the right price? Why stop there?

Or, better yet, why not rescue persecuted Eritreans from directly inside of Eritrea? After all, according to UNHCR’s 2009 and 2011 Eligibility Guidelines on Eritrean Asylum Seekers, the entire state of Eritrea is deemed the “persecutor,” making flight a virtual necessity for all citizens and making Eritrea the only nation in the world with such an exceptional designation.

Justification for this exceptional position by the UN’s refugee agency is provided by the “continuous high numbers of asylum applications by Eritreans.” However, even these number are hotly contested given the rampant asylum fraud, in which non-Eritreans are claiming Eritrean identity. Much like the prematurely estimated 150 versus 350 dead in the recent mass-casualty shipwreck, the numbers of Eritreans are often questionable, at best, and largely inflated, at worst.

In a recent Voice of America interview, Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council, explained that people all over the world are claiming Eritrean identity to gain entry into Europe, which ascribes to UNHCR’s exceptional asylum recommendations for Eritrean:

When I hear a number like 400 people on a boat, I have to suspect that at least some of those people were actually refugees from another country, taking advantage of Europe’s automatic asylum policy. If you’re from Eritrea or you can convince a refugee officer that you’re from Eritrea, you get an automatic green card in Europe—no questions asked. And that means that Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somalis…everyone has an incentive to walk through this open door from some of the poorest countries in the world to some of the richest countries in the world.

UNHCR’s policies towards Eritreans have made it far too easy and tempting for Eritrean youth not to take the transnational journey in spite of the dangers. Questions of moral hazard come into the picture. The agency’s claims of an increasing number of Eritreans “fleeing” Eritrea have become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy, making migration socially fashionable among teenagers unaware of the horrors that lie on trek ahead of them.

The EU is also largely to blame for the current migrant spike and is misguided in its focus on petty migrants-turned-traffickers.

The chaos currently seen in Libya is largely the doing of Europe’s “humanitarian” R2P war that has destroyed the Libyan state and given new life to criminals like Ermias Ghermay. Declaring war on his foot soldiers and burning every rubber dingy lining the Libyan coast will likely do little to stop trafficking into Europe and deaths in the Mediterranean.

No one is talking about the ongoing illegal Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea, forcing thousands of young Eritreans mobilized against a foe 15-plus times its size. No one is talking about the unjustifiable and now internationally discredited sanctions, choking foreign direct investment and serving to isolate the nation from its would-be international partners.

Life in the militarized nation is hard and punishing as it’s locked in a protracted existential crisis exacerbated by a hostile US-Ethiopian isolation strategy that resulted in unjust UN sanctions in 2009. Writing for Al-Monitor, Israel’s former deputy minister of defense Ephraim Sneh indicated, “Over the last decade, the United States has espoused a policy designed to isolate and weaken the country.”

The EU, as a guarantor of the 2000 Algiers Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, can curb migration by pushing Ethiopia to abide by the terms of the peace agreement and demanding its unconditional withdrawal from Eritrea. Additionally, it must push to end the UN sanctions and break-up the trans-Mediterranean smuggling networks by arresting criminals at the highest levels of the racket.

It is only when such holistic efforts are carried out in earnest that search-and-rescue makes sense; that one can expect search-and-rescue to lead to more favorable outcomes for the EU, Eritrea and, most importantly, the migrants.

Instead of designing policy responses based on reporting from a media that uncritically trumpets the words of regime-change-oriented activists, human rights NGOs, and UNHCR with an axe to grind against Eritrea, the EU and world public must push for more rational, evidence-based responses to stem the growing tide of migrants washing up on the shores of Europe.

Part three of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” will look closer into the role of Ethiopia and its refugee agency in promoting the escape of Eritrean children from Eritrea.

The Traffic Racket: The Eritrean “Activists” (Part 1)

This piece is the first in a series of articles on the “The Traffic Racket.” The series will look into the shocking evidence of a smuggling and trafficking network facilitated by human rights activists working with refugee agencies, state governments and officials, NGOs and international bodies to smuggle Eritreans, particularly children, from Eritrea. Exploited Eritrean migrants often show up on European shores with few observers understanding that the growing tide of trans-Mediterranean migrants is the result of a larger trafficking racket. Part one looks into the role of Eritrean “activists.”

Tragedy on the Mediterranean

Sunday, April 19 witnessed the deadliest migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean since World War II. More than 850 migrants from multiple countries were pronounced dead the next day after their boat capsized during a voyage from Libya to Italy.

In less than forty-eight hours following the tragedy, before the proverbial dust had settled, the majority of migrants were said to be Eritrean. According to Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Catania, Sicily, “there were Syrians, about 150 Eritreans, Somalians.”

Observers found it somewhat odd that, of the 20 different nationalities aboard the ill-fated vessel, only the number of Eritreans were tallied and definitive. This did not appear to be a one-time exception or anomaly, either.

Only a couple hours after Cami’s statement, an updated UNHCR statement by Adrian Edwards, declared that “among those on board were some 350 Eritreans, as well as people from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.”

Again, no definitive casualty figures for any groups other than Eritreans. Thus, how was the official number established? How were the bodies identified and confirmed to be Eritrean? Why were numbers not established for other groups?

With a number in hand, Eritrea immediately came to the fore of the horrific international tragedy. Journalists wasted no time in turning to the nation’s domestic politics and human rights situation. From the ensuing barrage of sensational headlines, it was clear that the plight of Eritrean migrants would be singled out and politicized.

Just a few of these headlines, for instance, highlight this reality: Eritrea: Africa’s land of exodus (Stefanie Duckstein, Deutsche Welle); Crushing repression of Eritrea’s citizens is driving them into migrant boats (Dan Connell, The Guardian); and Escaping Eritrea: ‘If I die at sea, it’s not a problem – at least I won’t be tortured’ (Mark Anderson, The Guardian).

Unlike the reporting on other ‘first nations’ that regularly produce Europe-bound asylum seekers and migrants, reporting on Eritrea mainly centered around alleged domestic repression rather than conflict and poverty, which have historically been the leading causes of flight by asylum seekers and migrants worldwide, respectively.

“If you look at the numbers last year,” explained Volker Turk, the director of international protection at UNCHR, “over 50 percent of the people who crossed the Mediterranean were people in need of international protection. Mostly Syrians, Eritreans, some Somalis.”

Tim Lister from CNN, however, noted the exceptionalism of the Eritrean migrants. According to Lister, “Eritreans want to escape repression or military service; Somalis flee Al-Shabaab and clan warfare; Syrians have given up hope of returning home.”

Again, Matina Stevis of the Wall Street Journal echoed, “The continued Syrian war is pushing ever more refugees out to Europe, where they seek asylum and safety. Sub-Saharan Africans are fleeing their homelands because of either conflict or deep poverty. Eritreans, the second-top nationality of migrants reaching Europe last year, are leaving in hordes because their country enforces mandatory conscription in the army, does not pay them and does not allow them to return to work.”

While Business Insider’s Editor Armin Rosen explained that “Eritrea has a population of around 6.3 million and accounted for 20% of the total [asylum seekers in Europe]”, Dan Connell, writing for the Guardian, explained that “Eritreans are second only to Syrians in the number of boat arrivals, though the country is a fraction of Syria’s size and there’s no live civil war there.”

Most reporting on Eritrea was more or less the same and the emerging post-tragedy narrative on Eritrean migrants suggested that they, unlike all other migrants groups (with the exception of Gambians), were fleeing their homeland due to government repression rather conflict and poverty.

Absent from this narrative, unfortunately, were any voices of dissent or more nuanced analyses for a more contextualized understanding of Eritrean migration.

Credible Sources?

Naturally, the question thus emerges: Upon what evidence do the aforementioned journalists base their claims about the domestic situation in Eritrea?

One cannot help but notice the glaring fact that none of the authors have either visited Eritrea to field their reports or based their writing on entities that report from Eritrea such that claims behind the domestic situation can be substantiated firsthand. In fact, many of the entities cited—and some of the author themselves—have already demonstrated compromised credibility and bias vis-a-vis Eritrea.

Take for instance, Connell from The Guardian. In a May 2013 speech in Washington, D.C., later posted on YouTube, he instructed a group of Eritreans to campaign around migration and human trafficking to help bring about the ulterior motive of regime change and topple Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki:

What’s going to generate the most response from a wider public that is not familiar with Eritrea? And what would weaken Isaias’ ability to govern? I don’t think you can organize a campaign for regime change but you can organize campaigns that can make regime change more possible…I would certainly suggest an end to unlimited conscription into national service partly because it’s so easy to tie that together with so many other issues: the refugee issue, the trafficking issue, and so on. And partly because the pressure on Isaias would weaken his ability to govern.

…A campaign should be simple direct and uncomplicated. Other obvious issues that can be in some way linked, focusing our attention on the trafficking issue and always linking it to the source of the refugee flows. This trafficking issue is a consequence of the situation inside Eritrea. No other issue is likely to generate attention and support from the American public. Calls for increased financial and technical support for refugees in the support and for far better security in the camps are also simple issues to link them to this. Pressure on the US, Canadian, European and Israeli asylum seekers is another one that comes directly out of this.

Despite his obvious bias and plans to opportunistically exploit the plight of Eritrean migrants for political ends, Connell’s latest piece was published in The Guardian, making recommendations to the European Union to restrict development—not military—aid to Eritrea worth hundreds of millions of euros.

He warned that “if EU and individual states jump too rashly and simply throw money at Eritrea, they risk entrenching the very practices that lie behind much of the exodus, while doing precious little to stem it.”

Such a claim seems hard to substantiate and understand when Eritrea is the only nation in sub-Saharan Africa thus far that is on track to meet all of health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) despite having the lowest health expenditures in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

Christine Umutoni of the United Nations Development Program and head of all humanitarian operations in Eritrea, told the BBC last month that there was a lack of corruption in Eritrea and that “we’ve seen value for money and accountability. You know, you invest a little and you get a lot.” If Umutoni is indeed correct, restricting developmental aid to Eritrea seems to make little sense.

However, Michela Wrong, like Connell and the majority chorus of American and European journalists, disagrees, writing in another post-tragedy article that any support for developmental programs in Eritrea will not make the situation in Eritrea better. According to Wrong, “Man cannot live by MDGs alone.”

Although Wrong’s claim about the limited scope of MDGs is certainly true, it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that suggest Eritrea has used developmental fund effectively. It should also be noted that when Eritrean President Isaias was asked about Eritrea’s success with the MDGs, he stated, “It’s true we might have met global standards when it comes to malaria and other diseases, but that should not put us at ease. It would be wrong to compare your excellence with others’ mediocrity. You need to have your own standards.”

Citing ‘Eritrean Activists’

Duckstein’s aforementioned piece in Deutsche Welle, also cited a dubious source, this time an Eritrean. Duckstein interviewed and quoted Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean Catholic priest from the Vatican’s Ethiopian College living in Rome, who has been implicated in facilitating and abetting trans-Mediterranean human smuggling following 2012 investigations by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

According to PACE’s report, Lives Lost in the Mediterranean: Who is Responsible?, Mussie allegedly served as a smuggling intermediary between the ‘captains’ of Italy-bound vessels and the Italian Coast Guard. Without his call, the migrants rescue was unlikely:

The “captain” had the phone, but nobody knew where he had got it from or who had added Father Zerai’s number to it. In a short conversation Father Zerai was informed that they were having problems…The Priest informed them that he would contact the Italian authorities to request assistance. Father Zerai subsequently contacted the Italian Coast Guard…

…However, in the meantime, the “captain” had thrown the compass and the satellite phone overboard when he thought the helicopter was going to rescue them. He explained that he did not want to be arrested for possession of the telephone and the compass. He feared that these items would be used as evidence of his involvement in a smuggling network….

If the captain is afraid of being implicated in smuggling, then how about Mussie Zerai, the man on the other side of the phone? What makes the coast guard willing to pick up the call from Mussie but not the captains themselves? Why does Mussie have this special monopoly?

The actions of the smugglers are in line with the modus operandi, whereby the smugglers deliberately sink the boats, triggering a rescue mission from the National Guard, and satellite phones are thrown overboard to hide one’s involvement.

The UNODC report Smuggling of Migrants by Sea states, “Where vessels are unseaworthy and not intended for reuse, there is no risk to the smuggler in assigning an unskilled person, possibly even a migrant, to captain and navigate the boats. Fishing vessels used to transport migrants generally end up at the bottom of the sea and were never intended for use in more than one journey.” The report continues:

Upon interception by authorities, mobile phones, GPS and any other equipment allowed on board to navigate the sea journey will be thrown overboard. Before doing so, smugglers or others on board or on land may call the coast guard with a satellite mobile phone, telling authorities to rescue persons on board boats. A frequently reported modus operandi put in place upon interception is for smugglers or migrants to force a rescue by sinking or scuttling boats. Rubber dinghies for instance may be punctured so authorities are forced to assume responsibility for persons in the water. Wooden vessels may be set alight to ensure that authorities assist persons on board, sometimes motivated by the perception that intercepted vessels will be turned back otherwise.

The fact that wooden vessels are set alight is critical to understand. The October 2013 migrant shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, which led to the widely publicized and politicized death of 366 migrants—almost entirely Eritrean—was said to have been triggered by the Tunisian captain Khaled Bensalam, who lit a fuel-doused rag on fire and set the vessel ablaze.

The lighting of the rag was likely deliberate as it is in line with the smuggling modus operandi. Bensalam was the subject of much public outcry, leading to his swift apprehension by the authorities.

Like Bensalam, multiple smugglers and traffickers were taken into custody following the latest mass casualty shipwreck. Instead of an ‘accidental’ fire this time around, the captain, Mohammed Ali Malek, another Tunisian, was said to be “drunk and smoking hashish.” He allegedly rammed into another ship 3 times, suggesting that his actions were deliberate as well.

Traffickers higher up in the food chain, like Ethiopian national Ermias Ghermay, pocketed £72 million in profits in the last two years and is believed to be the mastermind behind both the October 2013 and current shipwreck, had his phone wiretapped and was under pursuit by the Italian authorities.

Thus, note the differing approaches in dealing with the alleged smugglers: while the captain was taken into custody and the higher-level traffickers have become fugitives, Mussie Zerai was seen as a human rights activist, an esteemed man of the cloth, and, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize alongside Pope Francis—ostensibly, for ‘helping‘ migrants.

Mattathias Schwartz of the New Yorker even goes as far as comparing him to Haile Selassie: “Behind him, in a glass case, was an Ethiopian Bible, its cover adorned with a gold cross. In front of it was a laminated printout: ‘The gift of H.I.M.; Haile Selassie I; The last emperor of Ethiopia.’…Though Zerai lacks Selassie’s imperial pretensions, he, too, is on the receiving end of a great deal of hope projected by a great number of desperate people.”

Beyond the eulogizing, do Mussie’s action’s not warrant an investigation, at the least?

Like Duckstein’s piece, which quotes Mussie, Anderson’s is also notable for citing two other Eritrean potential smugglers and dubious characters: Meron Estefanos and Elsa Chyrum. Robyn Dixon’s recent post-tragedy article for the LA Times goes into a little more detail about the former’s alleged role in smuggling operations.

Dixon tells us that “When desperate Eritrean migrants go to sea, they keep [Meron’s] phone number with them, in case things go wrong. When their relatives go missing at sea, she’s the one family members call.”

Like Mussie, Meron seems to serve as a liaison between the smugglers and rescuers. She often bears in hand a list of the smuggled Eritrean travelers, frequently tweeting from the scene of the tragedy, arriving before humanitarians and UNHCR officers, and giving quotes to the media.

Tweeting to a BBC Field Producer from the ground following the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, she wrote, “I have been passing names to UNHCR Italy and lampadusa center so that they can check for us. Will take days to get name list.” Two days later, she tweeted the list.


Regarding Elsa Chyrum, the director of her Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRC-E), Anderson explained that she “hopes the deaths of at least 800 people…will compel European leaders to rethink their approach to Eritrea when they hold an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday.”

“She is fiercely critical of the EU’s recent decision to try to halt the exodus of Eritreans by sending development aid to the country, arguing that the money will stay in the hands of the political elite,” Anderson wrote. Again, it beggars belief how ending developmental aid can help the people of Eritrea.

In 2011, a HRC-E press release called for expanding sanctions on Eritrea as “forced conscription and endless military service have caused a mass exodus of the youth from the nation.” This position is very much in line with Dan Connell’s ‘national service equals human trafficking’ narrative. In fact, both Connell and Elsa have gone on speaking tours together under the title “Eritrean Refugees Risk Death to Escape Tyranny.”

According to the ‘Eritrean opposition’ website, Elsa Chyrum apparently played a strong role in getting Sheila Keetharuth, a former colleague from Amnesty International (AI), appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea.

AI employees like Keetharuth are hardly trusted by Eritreans since AI has been seen as hostile to the state of Eritrea, which was perhaps made most obvious in a leaked confidential memo from AI headquarters in 2011 that instructed its employees in the field to “bring about change [in Eritrea] as has happened in other African and Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.”

Notably, the memo goes on to state that AI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have “received a reasonable grant from the US State Department” and should “work with the oppressed Eritrean people” as a “combined force of human rights defenders.”

Thus, these are the facts behind the oft-cited Mussie, Meron, and Elsa. The three regime-change hopefuls cum human rights activists represent a motley crew, frequently interviewed and quoted by the American and European media ad nuaseum, in search of the official Eritrean perspective.

When a tragedy strikes, they’re first on the scene. With prepared sound bites and a ‘death list’ in hand, they express their sorrow, shed tears, and immediately proceed to call for action against the Eritrean government.

As Meron recently tweeted, in reference to the alleged ‘350 Eritreans’ that died at sea, “no one is [talking] about the pain but their identity. When ever an Eritrean dies I blame the Eritrean government for it.” Such a position is hardly impartial, let alone, rational. Taking the moral high ground should not absolve one of presenting the hard facts as it only constitutes a veiled ad hominem fallacy.


When Eritreans other than the activist trio themselves give statements to the press and work with private and state entities to facilitate humanitarian operations at the scene of shipwrecks, they complain of interference by other Eritreans, suggestive of attempts to box-out other Eritreans from their current reigning monopoly on the humanitarian affairs of fellow compatriot-migrants.

For instance, Mussie told the AFP that other Eritreans on the ground in Lampedusa following the October 2013 shipwreck were “actually there to collect names, sensitive information. [They] are also there to spread disinformation, to defend the regime, to claim these people have fled their country for economic reasons.” Similar attempts to brand other Eritrean voices as ‘government agents’ have served to render them virtually non-existent in the press.

Despite the Nobel peace prize nominations and willful neglect by journalists, the actions of these “activists” over the last several years have brought to light the makings of what appears to be a multibillion dollar smuggling racket that likely involves not only long-entrenched criminals but also human rights ‘activists,’ non-governmental organizations, UNHCR, state agencies and state officials across multiple nations.

Their opportunistic use of smuggling for personal gain in the form of political gain and exploitation of migrants, potentially makes them traffickers in a broader human trafficking network—or, the traffic racket.

Part two of our series on the “The Traffic Racket” will look closer into this Eritrean trafficking racket to address the following questions: Who are the major players behind the racket and who is supporting these activists and journalists? What are the current policy changes in the EU regarding trans-Mediterranean migration? What can be expected moving forward regarding Eritrean migration?

Setting the Record Straight: An Open Letter to Jihan Kahssay

September 19, 2013

Dear Miss Jihan Kahssay,

I write to you today regarding two particularly concerning articles, which you recently penned in different mediums regarding a conference held by Eritrean youth at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). The first piece was published on September 13, 2013 on under the title “Brainwashing The Young: YPFDJ Panelists Redefine Human Rights.”  The second piece was published two days later as a letter to the editor in The California Aggie, a UC Davis daily newspaper, under the title “Letter to the Editor: Eritrean campus conference.” As I do with all new articles written by unfamiliar authors, I read both of yours with an open mind and heart in the hopes of gaining some new perspective, even if the containing views run starkly counter to my own. After reading both of your articles, however, it became clear to me that your work was not only based on serious factual errors but also served as defamation of my character and those of others.

The first article initially came to my attention on the day it was published via friends on social media who explained that my name was mentioned in the article. Prior to opening the link, I couldn’t help but grow concerned about the article’s factuality as it was published to, which has long been known for its pattern of publishing material based on rumors and lies. For example, consider that the website, which was described in recently leaked emails from Stratfor Global Intelligence as “Eritrean opposition, Islamist, Ethiopia-friendly,” was caught lying about the death of the Eritrean president just last year and did not issue any apology to its readers for the error. However, I gave your piece the benefit of the doubt as your name was unfamiliar and I considered that you may have reluctantly published it to the website due to limited publishing options.

You started off the article by describing Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa,” citing the work of someone who has never visited Eritrea. Conversely, as someone who actually has visited the nation on multiple occasions, I can assure you that I saw no cult of personality, no speeches about a nuclear program, no wide-scale famine, or no signs of dependence on China for food aid and survival. I did, however, catch a glimpse of some of the 100,000+ annual tourists, who I often found aimlessly strolling down the streets of Asmara and or drinking cappuccinos while sitting al fresco at one of the many café’s lining Freedom Avenue. I should also mention that even the Addis Ababa-based AFP reporter Jenny Vaughn, who actually did visit Eritrea, recently admitted that “Eritrea is not the ‘open air’ prison or the ‘North Korea of Africa,’ as it has been crudely labeled in the past by its enemies.” I certainly wouldn’t go as far as labeling you Eritrea’s “enemy” since we’re just getting acquainted and you may be the hapless victim of propaganda or, as your article’s title ironically suggests, “brainwashing.” However, it seems that saying that you’re brainwashed without truly knowing you amounts to mere name-calling and I was raised to treat strangers with respect. Be that as it may, I kindly suggest that you witness the truth for yourself by visiting Eritrea and sharing your experiences instead of deferring to pundits.

Next, your article goes on to explain that the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) was holding a conference at UC Davis, which you “affectionately” describe as a progressive school. You then state that the host of the event is the “Eritrean ruling party, which is to say the government.” This statement is false on two levels.

First off, there are no parties in Eritrea but there is instead a broad-based popular movement called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which is currently leading a provisional government tasked with steering the nation as it transitions towards a fully developed and institutionalized participatory democracy from which genuine political parties can eventually form. YPFDJ takes inspiration from the PFDJ movement and has the mission, as you rightfully state,  “to build a strong, conscious and patriotic Eritrean youth movement.” You may perhaps disagree with what PFDJ and the government truly is, which is completely fine, but the reality is that you do not even afford your readers with descriptions of what these entities themselves claim to be, as clearly outlined in the Eritrean National Charter.

Second, the organizers of the event, who I personally know, are Eritrean-American youth and student volunteers that are neither paid by the Eritrean state nor obligated to fulfill any directives given by the State. It may come as a bit of a surprise to the misinformed that such voluntary service to Eritrea and support of its government is widespread in the diaspora but the truth, as even a 2013 V.I.C.E. article reluctantly concedes, is that “there is still a significant amount of support for [President] Isaias in the Eritrean diaspora.” Therefore, it is erroneous for you to claim that the conference was hosted by either the Eritrean “government” or a “ruling party.” The fact of the matter is that all the unpaid volunteers, which you failed to acknowledge as the true conference planners, worked very closely and frequently with UC Davis’ Conferences & Event Services staff. In fact these same volunteers along with the Eritrean-American communities across North America raised funds to cover the conference expenses through various means that include car washes, benefit dinners, and other events.

Next, your article claims that you attended the conference after an invitation from “conference organizers.” Although all youth are welcome to attend the conference so long as they fulfill the registration guidelines, it appears that there has been no official endorsement of your invitation by any of the conference organizers. I know this because I personally asked them. In fact, two of the organizers revealed to me that they know exactly who you are; that you walked in uninvited and unregistered on Friday, August 30 during the session entitled “Human Rights and Eritrea’s Image.” According to their account, one of the members caught you standing in the back because you had no conference t-shirt, no official registration lanyard and were wearing regular street clothes. You explained that you were a UC Davis student from Oakland, CA, who coincidentally walked in on the session and was interested in taking part in the rest of the conference. They also noted that you were instructed to follow-up with a member in charge of registration, who told you how to officially register. They said you actually visited the conference premises at two different times—unregistered both times. After being caught the second time, you left and were never to be seen again. That’s their account.

What you may not know is that everything that conference planners told me has been caught on video because the experience of the Eritrean community, which has been a victim of sporadic illegal acts over the last decade (vandalism of Oakland community center, fire-bombings in Sweden, disruption of public seminars by intruders, etc.), led YPFDJ to videotape most of the conference premises as a precautionary measure. The audience, outside area, lobbies, and other areas were taped. Not only are you seen standing in the back of Freeborn Hall but you are also seen walking in and out of the venue. By walking in unregistered, you violated the policies of YPFDJ, which rented out the venue for the weekend. Of greater concern to you, however, is the fact that you violated UC Davis policies stipulated in the contract with the organizers. I’ve been told that the organizers have yet to take official actions with university authorities, as they are often reluctant to needlessly put other Eritreans in professional or academic jeopardy. However, I’m told that your case is still being carefully reviewed. Aside from a legal breach, your alleged actions are the subject of great shame in Eritrean culture. As the saying goes, “keyte’adime zimetse key’tsegebe kede” (“The uninvited guest leaves the party hungry”).

After lying about the fact that you were invited, you went on to state that you “studied, researched and worked with international human rights law” and that “it was quite serendipitous that [you] happened to sit in on the human rights presentation.” I find it quite miraculous that, of the 95 total hours spanning the conference, you just so happened to walk-in on a 45 minute human rights session. The odds of that occurring purely by chance is 0.7 percent (7/1000). Add in the fact that UC Davis is the largest campus in the UC system (7,309 acres) in America’s most populous state and it becomes nearly impossible for me to believe that an Eritrean-American with a background in international law just so happened to serendipitously walk into a session on human rights in Eritrea. I was also informed by the conference planners, who spoke with you, that you had a copy of the conference itinerary booklet in your hand. This suggests that you came to the conference with a very specific and preset agenda.

Your article moves on to indicate that this year’s conference broke with YPFDJ tradition in that it was not held in “major metropolitan areas with substantial dissenting diaspora communities.” Ironically, this conference venue was much more urban that the many of past conferences. This fact was made obvious to the serial conference attendees and veterans who noticed full bars on their cell phones and ate in a dining hall alongside non-members—namely, UC Davis students—which was not the case with the last three conferences. Most of these veteran conference goers will tell you that five of past nine conferences—with the exception of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th, which were held in the D.C. Metro area—were located at venues that were surrounded by 360 degrees of forest and wilderness. Not this one, however,  which is exactly why it was relatively easy for you to walk right on in.

So what exactly was your impression of the human rights session while you were trespassing? Well, it seems your article claims that the session promoted “indoctrination,” “rhetorical sidestepping on critical issues” and “brainwashing” of youth. I can state with confidence that all of the above are false since I was among the four panelists, as you later indicate in your article. As conference videotapes will attest, my concluding statement to the youth touched on my personal journey in discovering the truth about Eritrea and I challenged all youth to read the news daily and think critically about what they read. To indoctrinate and brainwash is to do the exact opposite:  to promote uncritical thinking. Therefore, how is it that the other panelists and I were brainwashing and indoctrinating youth as you claim?

You also state that “panelists denied outright the occurrence of human rights events of significant proportions.” None of the panelists denied—nor endorsed—the existence of human rights “events,” whatever that means. Assuming that you meant “abuses,” suffice it to say that there exists no government on this planet that is not in breach of some human rights. The truth is that we simply asked our audience to consider a more holistic interpretation of human rights that extends beyond the myopic focus on Civil and Political (CP) rights—as exhibited by hegemons like the US—and includes the equally important Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights. We even outlined the great breadth and diversity of ESC rights relative to CP rights that are stipulated in the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let me remind you that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) clearly states “that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing and that all human rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner on the same footing and with the same emphasis.”

Even in spite of the equality among rights, OHCHR still makes the observation that “no social phenomenon is as comprehensive in its assault on human rights as poverty.” If you don’t believe this is true, just ask yourself why African Americans, whom followed the path of W.E.B. Dubois (demanded civil rights) as opposed to that of Booker T. Washington (demanded economic rights before civil rights), are still effectively disenfranchised and trapped in a state of destitution that renders them effectively unable to enjoy the fruits of their civil freedoms. Perhaps they put the cart before the horse. In any case, does it not make the slightest bit of sense why panelists would express to the audience that focusing exclusively on the Eritrean government’s record on CP rights, which will always be a work in progress, while ignoring ESC rights goes against both historical experience as well as the wise words vis-à-vis poverty by the OHCHR, the world’s preeminent human rights body?

Your article recalls words used by panelists to describe human rights. You then state that “this selection of words is more closely associated with collective and national rights than the rights of individuals.” How is it that words like “dignity” and “justice,” among the four mentioned, confer greater association with national as opposed to individual rights? Is it not the case that people seek individual freedom so that they can have the dignity to make their own decisions rather than those dictated under tyranny? Without justice how can one preserve anyone’s individual rights? Clearly, these terms and ideas are critical for individual rights. In fact, these words were so integral to human rights that both of them are included in the very first sentence of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had its own dedicated slide in our presentation: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Clearly these words are important.

Just for the sake of argument lets us even assume that you are right that the words “justice” and “dignity” had a preference for national rights over individual rights. We must still consider that Eritrea’s national culture may preferentially value national rights (or “state rights”) over individual rights.  If this is true, who are you—or myself for that matter—to say that individual rights should be given greater precedence against the Eritrean people’s wishes? It’s a well-known fact that Eritrea as well as most non-Western nations (particularly the Global South) tend to place greater emphasis on the community and less on the individual (as the African proverb goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”).

To simply default to the right of the individual over that of the nation amounts to a form of cultural imperialism. It is for this very reason that international law, set by the Western-centric Great Powers following World War II, placed greater emphasis on substantive law over procedural law such that the law preferentially protected individual rights at the expense of state rights and effectively reduced requirements for evidence by individuals claiming abuses  by the state. Therefore, is it not understandable why such laws may be culturally incongruent among Eritreans, many of which—whether we agree with it or not—share a culture of martyrdom for the sake of “the community” or “the nation”? Is it not understandable for the panelists to ask the audience to simply consider that Eritreans recognize the importance procedural law, in line with their indigenous culture? However, it could be the case that your Western upbringing may have instilled in you an unconscious aversion towards the Eritrean values that YPFDJ works tirelessly to preserve. This aversion to even the most widely accepted Eritrean values was made starkly obvious to me after your article crudely described a  “skit honoring the freedom fighters (or ‘martyrs’)” as a sort of tactic to get the audience “primed to experience a sense of gratitude for not living during the time of colonization and occupation, thereby drawing attention away from the severe human rights violations that are taking place today in Eritrea.” It actually hurt me to read these words written by a young, and probably bright, Eritrean.

It should also be emphasized now, if it wasn’t emphasized enough during the session, that the overwhelming focus on substantive law at the expense of procedural law isn’t only out of touch with our Eritrean customs but it is also illogical and unjust, particularly against smaller states without great international influence. Consider for example that unverifiable claims by nameless and faceless asylum-seekers are brought to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) under their confidential complaint procedure (1503 procedure). Do you honestly believe that their words—presented to the UN HRC by non-independent, U.S. State Department-funded NGO’s like Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW)— should simply go unverified, taken at face value, and accepted without critical analysis? In response to this question, the panelists encouraged their audience to demand hard evidence and think critically about all claims instead of simply taking at face value all the unverifiable human rights abuse claims by alleged victims. It must be noted that your article’s spouting off of a laundry list of unverifiable human rights allegations by AI and HRW, both of which were not present in Eritrea to investigate the truth of any claims, will not suffice as hard evidence of human rights violations (Note: both NGOs were expelled after failing to meet regulations regarding transparency of external finances). Encouraging the world to take an approach of blind acceptance and downplaying procedural law may even worsen any existing abuses by governments. It may draw their energies and resources into a inefficient and dysfunctional system when energy and resources can instead be spent by citizens, like you and me, on pushing the governments to use their energies to genuinely address outstanding human rights issues and by providing them with the legal know-how such that they can effectively accomplish this goal.

Alas, after forcing my way through the nauseating constellation of factual errors in your article, I finally arrived at the section in which you mention me by name. You falsely label me as a “self-proclaimed activist” in spite of the fact that such a proclamation was never made. At any point during the session, did you hear me say that I’m an activist? If not, then you lied once again. Your article proceeds to say that I “blatantly denied the occurrence of human trafficking in the Sinai desert or attempted military coup of January 2013.” You emphasize that my message to the audience was that “human trafficking of Eritreans is not happening in the Sinai desert.” Much like your claims that I flatly denied human rights abuses, I found this to be an outright lie and defamation of my character. Contrary to your claims, I actually explained to the audience multiple times throughout my portion of the presentation that human trafficking was as old as history and that it occurs all around the world—including the Sinai.

The reality is that you have mentioned me, in print, by name and field of academic study, deliberately lying about my regard for human suffering, which effectively tarnishes my public reputation, exposes me to contempt, and places my professional future at risk of injury. As such, you are defaming me and, sadly, questions of legal recourse against another Eritrean may now enter the discussion. I must stress that there is video evidence to back up my claims that you are deliberately lying about what I said as well as the fact that you broke university regulations. There are also additional charges and items of evidence for those charges, which I do not wish to openly discuss for your professional sake and for undisclosed legal reasons. Once again, it pains me to even consider taking action against a fellow Eritrean, who seems quite well accomplished and may still be an asset to our community one day, but your case must be considered in the name of upholding justice, absent your efforts to resolve this quietly. Without pursuing justice how can we enjoy and exercise the aforementioned individual freedoms, which you value so dearly? I digress, however.

The truth about my positions on human trafficking of Eritreans in relation to human rights and on the alleged “coup” attempt have both been well documented on my blog. Regarding the former, I cited 134 references for any critical thinker to carefully analyze and to come to their own conclusions about the human trafficking of Eritreans. The latter also has numerous external links and screenshots of social media publications to show how baseless claims of an Eritrean coup d’état propagated on social media were able to make it within less than 24 hours onto to the pages of the world’s largest circulating newspaper, the New York Times. Instead of citing and challenging the aforementioned works, which was the primary basis of my segment of the panel presentation, you instead chose to simply dismiss my arguments as “conspiracy theories of re-occupation and neo-imperialism.”

In regard to so-called “conspiracy theories,” let us turn to the words of Professor Noam Chomsky: “If something comes along that you don’t like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion…but if you’re an educated person what you use are complicated words like ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘Marxist’.” Additionally, “re-occupation” is not a theory about some pending event but is actually an established fact as of 2008. As a recent AFP article wrote, “Ethiopia still occupies land ruled by a UN-backed court as belonging to Eritrea.” Furthermore, your use of the word “neo-imperialism” shows your ignorance of my views and of Africa’s ongoing struggle with imperialism. I don’t even know what “neo-imperialism” is, honestly. However, I suspect that in your haste to brand me as a purveyor of, as you claim, the “’them-versus-us’ rhetoric of radicalism,” you unwittingly created a somewhat entertaining portmanteau of anti-imperial buzzwords—neo-colonialism and imperialism. The buzzword that you were likely looking for is “neo-colonialism,” which Kwame Nkrumah, one of modern Africa’s most celebrated heroes, dubbed as “the final stage of imperialism.” Given that you’re an African-American who attends one of a collection of historic universities that turned the Bay Area into a bastion of American radicalism and progressivism, I find it absolutely deplorable that you deem neo-colonialism as a conspiracy theory. What an absolute shame.

Moving on to your segment on the presentation by fellow co-panelist Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam, you express disagreement with her criticism of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth. In contrast to Ms. Sophia, who pointed out that the Special Rapporteur was unfit to accurately and impartially report on the human rights situation in Eritrea, you state in reference to Ms. Keetharuth that “there would probably be few qualified candidates for the position than one who has extensively studied human rights in Eritrea.” What you fail to mention or perhaps even recognize is that Ms. Keetharuth has never been to Eritrea. Thus, how is it that she could have “extensively studied human rights in Eritrea” without ever witnessing the ground realities? Additionally, Ms. Keetharuth’s bias was revealed to the UN HRC when her report’s data on human rights in Eritrea was discovered to come almost exclusively from asylum seekers dwelling in two countries that have active and/or unresolved conflicts with Eritrea—Ethiopia and Djibouti. Much more information can be found in E-SMART’s latest report regarding Mrs. Keetharuth and the human rights situation in Eritrea. The report even highlights how the Special Rapporteur’s previous employer, AI, went as far quoting visiting foreigners in a report after they complained that “we had to eat by our hand” in order to make the case that the human rights condition in Eritrea was dismal. How can an Eritrean, who was likely raised to eat with their right hand, take biased AI reports or Ms. Keetharuth seriously? It simply boggles my mind.

Reaching the end of your article, I must say I was truly disgusted by the dizzying number of lies, misrepresentations, misquotations, (unconscious) assaults on displays of Eritrean patriotism, and defamation of characters. I was less surprised to find almost the same lies regurgitated two days later in more condensed form in a letter to the editor of the California Aggie. Thus, I feel no need to comment on this any further except to say that you have misguided your unsuspecting UC Davis colleagues, who may have potentially assisted in easing our people’s suffering through engagement but may now instead turn their efforts towards other nations where they feel they can actually make more of difference. Propagating misunderstanding via our pens kills our people. When I considered the potential consequences of your actions and writing, I felt compelled to look into what could motivate such maliciousness and/or misunderstanding from a seemingly bright young Eritrean. Thus, I took to the web.

A cursory Google search of your name landed me on, which contained an article entitled “Introducing Jihan A. Kahssay.” The piece explains that you are Eritrean, that you worked in Ethiopia to resettle refugees in partnership with UNHCR, and that you authored an introductory post for the website. Interestingly, the article goes on to state that “Jihan dedicates her post to Zewditu I…who reigned as Empress of Ethiopia.” Quoting your post, the article writes, “Empress Zewditu held the title of ‘The Queen of Kings,’ and was the first woman head of an internationally recognized state in Africa. Under her rule, Ethiopia entered the League of Nations and abolished slavery.” I found this to be quite repulsive coming from someone who calls themselves Eritrean. Although the Empress may have nominally abolished slavery for public consumption, the truth is that the practice continued unhindered long beyond her rule and many Eritreans consequently joined their Oromo counterparts in becoming the victims of abductions and slavery after the illegal annexation of their nation. The Empress’ measure was merely for international show such that Ethiopia could win favor within the League of Nations and continue practicing the lucrative and unjust practice with even less public scrutiny. One would think that an Eritrean who is supposedly concerned about her people falling prey to human trafficking, which has been called the “modern slavery,” would be cognizant of and would point out the historical realities surrounding Eritrean and African enslavement. It also wouldn’t hurt for such a person to look internally for inspiration—though not exclusively—from Eritrea, whose rich history has been deliberately and systematically undermined by successive regimes ruling its hegemonic southern neighbor. Though you and I aren’t technically obligated to do anything for Eritrea we all know that there’s an unwritten responsibility to use our every seemingly small opportunity to usher the critical mass of world attention necessary to curb our nation’s perpetually ongoing marginalization, which perpetuates issues like human rights. Touching examples of this abound. Just consider Eritrean cyclist Meron Russom’s words when recently asked by an AFP reporter about his career plans he explained that his “aim is to introduce our country to the world” and that he races “because of our people.”

As seen with Meron, a sense of Eritreaness and obligation to Eritrea is a powerful motivator of what we say and how we act in matters involving Eritrea. When it sometimes comes to questioning someone’s Eritreaness after they raise an argument about anything Eritrean, I generally prefer to avoid sharing my answer to that question for fear that it may serve as an ad hominem attack. However, when someone makes a bold statement of questionable Eritreaness via their own argument—in their own writing—I feel that I’m obligated to simply present that fact and let others be the judge. Though your article harped on about the Eritrean government’s role in sponsoring the conference, I found it interesting that you went on to state that “there were very few people in Davis…to protest, witness or even notice what Eritrea was doing in Freeborn Hall.” Notice that you didn’t say “what the Eritrean government was doing” or “what brainwashed Eritrean youth were doing.” Instead, you said “what Eritrea was doing.” In other words, the conference was the work of Eritrea rather than the government. Thus, why would an Eritrean who is for Eritrea encourage the protest of work by Eritrea or by any of its manifestations? Honest error? Perhaps. Freudian slip of your fingers on the keyboard? Perhaps. I will let you be the judge but suffice it to say that your article is riddled with constant and subtle—almost unconscious—signs of a deflated sense of national pride that can only be described as self-defeating.

Finally, I would like to point out that UC Davis, contrary to your opinion, was a natural venue for the conference. As you state, the university is “progressive, liberal, eco-conscious, and bike-friendly.” If free education and free healthcare isn’t progressive and liberal then I don’t know what is. I also think Eritrea’s remarkably low carbon footprint, pristine coastline, and numerous alternative energy investments place the nation at the forefront of eco-consciousness. Lastly, everyone knows that Eritreans love their bikes. In fact, the AFP article that quoted Meron,  dubbed Eritrea as a “cycling-mad Horn of Africa state.”  Therefore, it seems that UC Davis was a natural venue for a broad-based, popular movement of Eritrean youth.

It’s a painful shame that you chose to misconstrue the facts about the conference and about individuals like myself. I would have preferred that you approach me personally so that we could share divergent perspectives or even debate in the name of our community and personal growth. Perhaps we could have even found fresh alternatives to the conference that better serve our nation, if we jointly saw fit. As the freedom fighters used to say, “Aynfelale!” (“Let’s not be torn asunder!”). When both of us succeed, we all succeed. Therefore, I sincerely hope that you favor Eritrean unity over division and take all the necessary measures to resolve this issue quietly. I do not wish to escalate this issue and put you at any unnecessary risk. However, the ball is not in my court and I await your actions. I want to make it very clear that Eritrean youth, such as those in YPFDJ and other nationalist organizations, are increasingly refusing to sit quiet in the face of such brazen transgressions.

In spite of your actions, I continue to assume the best in you and feel that you may have been a victim of misunderstanding, which in turn may have cultivated the internal angst that sent you down a hasty and misguided path. I can only guess the real motivation of your actions but if your intent was to spoil a fruitful gathering or its public image, it’s clear that such plans have failed. If those were indeed your plans, then the irony of your piece—and similar ones that have come before it—is that it will likely serve the opposite of its intended aim of casting doubt on YPFDJ’s credibility. It will instead serve to remind members and non-members of the pitiful extents at which misguided individuals or Eritrea’s detractors will go to meet misinformed aims or personal ambitions at the expense of Eritrea. Therefore, I would like to send you a bittersweet thank you for further galvanizing our youth and reminding them that the price of freedom is their eternal vigilance.

Sudan Tribune and NED Support “Terrorist” Awramba Times

Is it a coincidence that Berhanu Nega, an influential Ethiopian opposition leader, is being called an Eritrea-funded “terrorist” on the same exact day that he was supposed to testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in a session labeled “The Future of Democracy and Human Rights”? These accusations against Mr. Berhanu originate from a June 20, 2013 article published by Awramba Times, which links to an allegedly leaked audio with the alleged voice of Mr. Berhanu claiming to have received $500,000 from Eritrea to support the work of the opposition movement Ginbot 7 and Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT). Furthermore, the article alleges that “the original source of this grant is the Egyptian government” citing “confidential informants” but providing no hard evidence of these claims. Despite the Awramba Times relative novelty and obscurity, Sudan Tribune picks up the story and publishes an article under the headline, “Eritrea provides Ethiopian ‘terrorist’ organization with $500,000.” The very first sentence of the article goes on to state that “the Eritrean government has offered $500,000 to Ginbot 7, an exiled Ethiopian opposition political organization designated by Ethiopia as terrorist entity.” The original Awramba Times article, however, never used the word “terrorist” but did label Mr. Berhanu as “Ethiopia’s Ramirez Sanchez,” the Venezuelan terrorist also known as Carlos the Jackal.

What do all these allegations mean and why now? It must be understood that in these two articles, the Awramba Times and Sudan Tribune attempt to (1) link Eritrea to terrorism by loose association, (2) brand Eritrea as an Egyptian proxy in the wake of recent Ethiopian-Egyptian tensions, (3) discredit both Ginbot 7 and ESAT,  and (4) discredit Behanu Nega and his recent testimony before Congress.

In a post-9/11 world, the “terrorist” label is a serious allegation that requires meticulous scrutiny by all media sources. Simply because the ruling Ethiopian regime labels a political organization as a terrorist group does not automatically deem that organization as terrorist. It’s quite odd that Sudan Tribune chose to promote such a label, using it multiple times throughout the article. Why not simply call all suspected entities by name instead and let the readers be the judge?

Eritrea, once again, is branded as a supporter of terrorism even though all indications point to the fact that the Ethiopian ruling regime, which is dishing out the terrorist label, has been the primary proponent of terrorism in the region. Consider that Ethiopia committed the following: armed al-Shabab; bombed itself during an African Union summit and blamed it on Eritrea; openly supported and hosted the terrorist organization known as the Eritrean Islamic Jihad which killed a British national in 2003; illegally invaded Somalia in 2006 at the behest of the US; illegally occupied and continues to occupy sovereign Eritrean territory; allegedly murdered 5 European tourists in the Afar region, according to a military communiqué by the ARDUF (doesn’t recognize state of Eritrea); and committed an unprovoked attack on Eritrea in 2012 in clear violation of international law. Therefore, how can Sudan Tribune use the Ethiopian government’s terrorist label when the Ethiopian government itself takes part in terrorism?

In contrast, Eritrea has a long history of fighting terrorism, even before it was fashionable. As a Congressional Research Service analyst once pointed out, “if there is one country where the fighting of extremists and terrorists was a priority when it mattered, it was Eritrea.” According to American Forces Press Service on Eritrea, “Donald Rumsfeld said that the United States can learn much about combating terror from the people of this small African nation.” That was back in 2002. Since then, paradoxically, there have been multiple attempts to link Eritrea to terrorism. All have failed.

The Egypt connection is also an interesting twist to this story. The aforementioned article doesn’t represent the first instance that Awramba Times has tried to brand Eritrea as a proxy of Egypt.  On April 17, 2013, the website ran headlines reading, “Eritrea supports Egypt’s ‘historic rights’ on the Nile River” but lacked any evidence that Eritrean officials made such claims. To the contrary, the Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki stated in 2011 that “the Eritrean people do not entertain ill-will against the Ethiopian people. We cannot take sides with Sudan or Egypt, and thus maintain an anti-Ethiopia stance because of the prevailing border conflict.” Connecting Eritrea to an adversarial Egypt or Sudan is not new. This tactic goes back to the Ancien Régime of Haile Selassie, who tried to brand exiled pro-self-determination Eritrean students, leaders, and activists taking refuge in Cairo as extensions of the Egyptian government. This tactic was and continues to be a play on the Ethiopian people’s emotions to distract them from domestic issues and the government’s brazen unwillingness to peacefully resolve issues with Eritrea. It’s now half a century later and nothing has changed. Awramba Times is either knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating this myth. Perhaps, a closer look at the website may give us a better understanding of its role in the sphere of Ethiopian politics.

In 2011, Awramba Times was awarded $36,000 grant by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED; see Fig. 1). For many decades now, the NED has been a known source of destabilization of nations in the interests of the United States. As Allen Weinstein, a co-founder of NED admitted in a 1991 Washington Post article, “a lot of what we do now was done covertly by the CIA 25 years ago.”

Figure 1. NED grant for Awramba Times (Source: National Endowment for Democracy website).

Figure 1. NED grant for Awramba Times (Source: National Endowment for Democracy website).

Since receiving the NED grant, the US-based Ethiopian opposition site has went on expand its influence among the Ethiopian masses opposing the current regime in their country, leading some Ethiopians to see the website as a fifth column. Its editor Dawit Kebede and deputy editor Woubshet Taye are frequently and preferentially cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In fact, Mr. Dawit was the winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Since then, however, Awramba Times has went on to take a hostile position against other forms of Ethiopian media–namely, against ESAT. The website claims that ESAT gives preferential coverage to Ginbot 7, co-founded by Berhanu Nega. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: ESAT has been enormously popular in comparison to Awramba Times. As of June 29, 2013, Awramba Times’ global  rank is 107,724 while ESAT stands at 24,836. Interestingly, a bump in traffic is seen following June 20, 2013 when Awramba Times released the allegedly leaked audio, momentarily catapulting their rankings to almost 50,000 (see Fig. 2). Could this be the reason for the attack on ESAT and Berhanu Nega?

Figure 2. Alexa's global traffic rankings as of June 29, 2013 (Source:

Figure 2. Alexa’s global traffic rankings as of June 29, 2013 (Source:

The odd thing is that in spite of the fact that both Ethiopian opposition media sources are externally funded (allegedly or proven) and both are considered terrorist entities under Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism laws, only one seems to take on the terrorist label that the Ethiopian ruling regime often likes to dish out. ESAT is the terrorist, apparently, and Ginbot 7, Berhanu Nega, Eritrea, and Egypt are all terrorists by alleged associations based on unproven claims. Why does Sudan Tribune spare Awramba Times of such a label?  Why not associate the US and the NED with the “terrorist” like they do Eritrea?

In addition, it’s quite hard to ignore the fact that the leaked audio fell on the same day that Berhanu Nega of the Ginbot 7 testified before Congress. He referred to ESAT multiple times in his testimony and by the end of the session,  U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) called for the reintroduction of the Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2010 with some revisions. Major changes may be afoot and this last Awramba Times article may be a means of distracting–or perhaps dividing–the Ethiopian opposition and redirecting those changes in favor of the website and their backer’s interests. It’s critical for all observers, particularly the Ethiopian people, to look beyond repetitive Eritrean scapegoating and direct their scrutiny towards the Ethiopian regime, which continues flout and violate citizens’ human rights, unabated, in a post-Meles Zenawi Ethiopia. Lies about Eritrea only serve to perpetuate the suffering of all the people of the Horn of Africa. The lies must come to a stop.