Martin Plaut and Ethiopia’s Politics of Famine

This past year has not been so kind to Ethiopia’s beleaguered, ruling regime, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). After rigging the 2015 parliamentary elections, the regime has faced incessant protest by predominantly Oromo and Amhara activists, which has led to thousands of deaths, mass incarceration, an internet ban, killing of foreigners and destruction of foreign firms, triggering the government to declare a state of emergency and drawing international condemnation.

In November 2016, Oromo activist and former Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Ademo wrote, “Barely a year after ‘winning’ 100 percent of parliamentary seats both at the federal and regional legislatures, [TPLF] now faces an absolute and total legitimacy crisis.” As legitimacy evaporated over this past year, it seems the misfortunes of the regime will continue through 2017 with the latest reports indicating that Ethiopia is on the brink of famine.

Lacking legitimacy, TPLF can ill afford to take responsibility for yet another catastrophic failure. So what does it do? What it always does—point the finger at Eritrea. With growing international concern for famine in Ethiopia to start the New Year, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published its January 13 edition of A Week in the Horn web publication expressing concerns not for Ethiopians but Eritreans supposedly at risk:

UNICEF published a report this week, “Eritrea: Humanitarian Action for Children”, which said since 2015 Eritrea had experienced serious El Niño drought conditions which had undermined household food and livelihood security, particularly for women and children, and contributed to a cholera outbreak across three of the country’s regions. The report concludes that half of all children in Eritrea are stunted, and vulnerable to malnutrition and disease outbreaks.

Claims like these are perennial. Literally, there isn’t a single failure in Ethiopia that the TPLF regime has not either (1) blamed on Eritrea or (2) claimed is also happening in Eritrea. In doing so, the so-called international community (read: America) has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely and punished Eritrea senselessly, which can be explained by the dictum uttered by one Washington official: “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass. Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.”

While the Eritrean government doesn’t seem to entertain—or even care about—most of these petty, desperate and oft child-like allegations by TPLF, it is in the interest of concerned international observers to investigate this more serious “famine” claim to better discern the legitimacy of regimes in the Horn of Africa.

On January 17, the UN News Service reported that the TPLF government was seeking $948 million to help feed 5.6 million people in need of emergency food assistance. The week after that, AP journalist Elias Meseret—an Ethiopian and TPLF regime stenographer—covered the issue, quoting UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, who “cautioned, however, against ‘dramatizing by saying this may degenerate into famine.'”

Why the reservation with using the “F” word? Is it not obvious that absent the solicited food assistance, many Ethiopians would in fact be at risk of dying of starvation and the complications associated with acute malnutrition?

Writing for Deutsche Welle in a March 8 article, Jefferson Chase explained that German NGO Menschen für Menschen was sounding the alarms on Ethiopian famine and stated, “Some 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 98 million suffers from food shortages resulting from a catastrophic drought in the eastern African country. But that doesn’t qualify as a risk of famine for the United Nations, which defines the term as 20 percent of a country’s population having fewer than 2,100 kilocalories of nutrition per day.”

Evidence suggests that Ethiopia may have crossed the 20% marker. According to USAID’s Food Assistance Fact Sheet on Ethiopia, last updated on January 4, the agency has “identified 9.7 million people as in need of relief food assistance. This is in addition to the nearly 8 million people who are chronically food insecure and covered by the GoE-led Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), supported by USAID and the donor community.”

What this data highlights—and what the UN and AP seem to overlook—is the quite critical piece of information that there are already 17.7 million Ethiopians in need of chronic food aid (9.7 + 8 million) who might otherwise perish without assistance. This alone makes Ethiopia the hungriest nation on the planet but adding the additional 5.6 million brings the total to 23.3 million, or roughly 23% of the Ethiopian population. Many of the victims are children.

For those critics who think the 9.7 million acutely hungry Ethiopians from 2016 are somehow no longer hungry in 2017, think again. Post-drought recovery doesn’t work that way, or that quickly. Dead cattle don’t come back to life. Internal displacement doesn’t resolve overnight.

According to the Ethiopian Government’s own Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD) for 2016, 1.0 metric tons of food aid were needed for 10.2 million people. Interestingly, the HRD for 2017, calls for 0.9 metric tons for only 5.6 million people. How is it that TPLF is asking for almost the same amount of food aid as last year, in which 20% of the population was at risk of famine, for roughly half the number of people this year? Are Ethiopians suddenly twice as hungry? The evidence suggests that TPLF is cooking the books. Some of the missing hungry may be covered by USAID money for “water sanitation” under the WASH program. In any case, there are anywhere from 17 to 23 million hungry Ethiopians.

In spite of these ominous numbers, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, seemed to have forgotten Ethiopian children when he announced on February 21 that 1.4 million children were at risk of famine in four countries: Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. UNICEF even hashtagged it, calling it the #4famines crisis. While the four war-ravaged nations were paraded on social media to the chagrin of their governments, Ethiopia was provided cover from international criticism. As the campaign picked up along with the Ethiopian regime’s need for humanitarian aid, Ethiopia’s looming famine could no longer be concealed.

Following in the footsteps of German counterparts, the British NGO Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) officially launched its East Africa Crisis Appeal on March 15, soliciting aid to combat famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and South Sudan that endangered 16 million people. That same day, the UK government, via personal donation by the Queen, announced that it would match “pound for pound” the first £5 million donated by DEC while the AP reported of a “surprise” visit to Somalia by Boris Johnson, who would also be visiting Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

When it came to Somalia, the media made it clear that famine concerns were central to Johnson’s visit. News articles included photos of a smiling Johnson loading UK Aid packages onto Somalia-bound cargo planes.

With Ethiopia, however, the reasons for the visit were nebulous at best. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release stated, “Together the UK and Ethiopia can work to make our countries and the region stronger, safer and more prosperous, from combating the devastating drought to enhancing security for people in neighbouring Somalia.” So are they fighting famine in Ethiopia or Somalia? It’s not clear.

On the Ethiopian side, the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) left less room for ambiguity, stating only that Johnson was on an “official work visit” to Ethiopia and then oddly  pivoting to Somalia in regards to drought: “[Johnson] visited Somalia on Wednesday for talks with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmajo’. The two leaders discussed issues devastating the country including drought and insecurity.” No drought or insecurity discussion in Ethiopia? One headline in the Ethiopian Herald was quite sanguine: “UK State Secretary Applauds Ethiopian Growth.”

With growing German and British concerns, Save the Children campaigns on YouTube, public pledges of support for hungry Ethiopian children, TPLF—facing its existential legitimacy crisis—moved to deflect international attention and criticism of its catastrophic failure by, once again, pointing the finger at Eritrea.

As though on cue, the TPLF’s go-to journalist Martin Plaut, former BBC Africa editor, enters the scene with an article in The Conversation UK reminding the world not to forget Eritrea:

The international community has finally woken up to the critical situation across the Horn of Africa. Conflict and drought have left millions at risk of famine. In the UK, an appeal has been launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for assistance for 16m people from Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. To underline the gravity of the situation, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson visited Somalia on March 15 to observe conditions on the ground. But in the rush to provide help to those facing starvation one community has been ignored: Eritreans. [Emphasis mine]

To support his claim, Plaut quotes the same UNICEF report referenced by the Ethiopian MFA’s weekly publication, which is published by the TPLF regime-consultant and former BBC journalist Patrick Gilkes, who is Plaut’s friend and frequent co-author of numerous counterfactual books and articles on Eritrean-Ethiopian issues. Explaining that “there is no doubt about the scale of the need” in Eritrea, Plaut quotes the following from the UNICEF report:

Malnutrition rates already exceeded emergency levels, with 22,700 children under five projected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2017. National data also indicates half of Eritrean children are stunted.

In actual fact, he misquoted the report, which instead states:

Data from the Nutrition Sentinel Site Surveillance system indicates an increase in malnutrition rates over the past few years in four out of six regions of the country, with 22,700 children under five projected to be affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in 2017. National data also indicates half of Eritrean children are stunted.

Why did Plaut feel the need to add “emergency levels”? Well, it turns out that Plaut, instead of quoting the UNICEF report directly, was simply copying and pasting from the Ethiopian MFA’s website (i.e. Patrick Gilkes’), which misquoted the UNICEF report (webpage headline: “UNICEF appeals for urgent support for Eritrea’s drought-affected children”). Think about that for one second: a supposedly independent, ex-BBC Africa editor copies and pastes his work directly from the Ethiopian foreign ministry.

The real UNICEF report makes no mention of any looming emergencies. Even if true, Plaut’s argument would still be a non sequitur since the premise that 22,700 Eritrean children are malnourished does not equate to “famine,” which, by the way, he has no problem explicitly indicating in the article’s headline: “Appeals for aid to fight Horn of Africa famine ignore the plight of Eritreans”. There are more malnourished junk-food consuming London street children for him to concern himself with. (Note: The UNICEF report itself, which cites the 2010 Eritrea Population and Health Survey, seems to have erred in its claim that half of Eritrean children are stunted. The EPHS data claims 25 percent of children, which is the global average for the developing world.)

This isn’t the first time Plaut has created or used falsified information on Eritrea at critical times in ways that seek to delegitimize Eritrean state leadership. In June 2016, he tweeted a picture of a massive crowd of Albanians at an Eid al Adha prayer and wrote, “Vast number of Eritreans demonstrate against the regime and in support of the UN Commission of Inquiry in Geneva.” In November 2012, he tweeted that “Eritrea votes against a Palestinian state at the UN,” only to be fact-checked on Twitter minutes later by a member of Eritrea’s UN delegation, who tweeted that the vote had yet to even take place. Both of Plaut’s tweets were deleted—silently, of course.

Knowing the power of images, his latest famine piece bears a photo of a girl with a nasogastric feeding tube in her nose, which was supposedly “smuggled out of Eritrea by the network Freedom Friday” because Eritreans supposedly “are forbidden from taking their mobile phones or cameras into the feeding centres.” First off, such a photo can be found in any hospital in the world. Second, to suggest that photos have to be “smuggled” in the era of smartphones, anonymous email accounts and WhatsApp, all of which are used frequently by Eritreans in spite of slow internet speeds, is quite laughable and ludicrous.

The reference to the “Freedom Friday” smuggling network, however, is somewhat interesting. Under the cover of “journalists”, “academics” and “human rights activists” this network has worked to promote the image of repression and famine in Eritrea in order to justify the illegal smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean children and to draw heavy-handed humanitarian intervention.

Writing in the New Statesman in March 2014, Plaut explained that the Freedom Friday smuggling network was led by “three Eritrean women” who “teamed up with Professor Mirjam van Reisen, a foreign policy adviser to the European Commission. Together they produced a major report on the issue: ‘Human Trafficking in the Sinai’. The campaign has been a considerable embarrassment to the Eritrean authorities, who like to portray the country as being fully behind President Isaias Afeworki.”

Plaut, who himself works closely and incestuously with van Reisen and these Eritrean activists—speaking at conferences together, coauthoring articles and books, engaging in activism together—seems more concerned with regime change than genuinely helping the Eritrean people. Van Reisen’s recently released book Human Trafficking in the Digital Era includes the work of these activists and forwards the allegation—without citing evidence—that the Eritrean state has sanctioned the trafficking of its own citizens. The only official evidence thus far of state sponsored smuggling of Eritrean children comes not from Eritrea but rather from America after US President Barack Obama stated in 2012: “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.” Obama the smuggler?

In a letter to the editor of The Guardian two days after Plaut’s Eritrean famine article, one of these Eritrean activists wrote, “As members of the Eritrean community, we were deeply moved by the appeal for assistance in the Horn of Africa, launched by British aid organisations. … But we cannot understand why Eritrea is not included in the appeal.” In line with the Ethiopian foreign ministry, she then quotes verbatim Plaut’s misquote of the UNICEF report (i.e. Ethiopian MFA misquote), which suggests that she is copying and pasting his and the Ethiopian MFA’s work. Perhaps this “activist” is simply following in the footsteps of her father, a well know Derg-era colonel and butcher of Eritreans, conducting war on Eritrea by other means.

Beyond a public relations gimmick for TPLF, the Eritrean famine allegations by these smuggler-activists also serve the regime in another useful way. According to USAID, one justification for food assistance to Ethiopia is that the “lack of humanitarian access in Somalia and conflict in Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea has resulted in an influx of refugees into Ethiopia.” First off, what “conflict” in Eritrea? Ah, yes. The ongoing illegal Ethiopian occupation of Eritrean territory, which the largely US-funded UN refugee agency refuses to acknowledge as a cause of migration since only “repression” is accepted as a grounds for asylum by UNHCR employees in the field.

Second, it appears that the pretext of “refugees” is the reason that the UK government, the European Union, and the World Bank gifted TPLF with a whopping $500 million in October last year. The Partnership Framework initiative “plans to build two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, with Ethiopia required to grant work to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal.” Why not create the industrial park inside Eritrea to prevent migration, smuggling and trafficking of Eritreans?

According to James Jeffrey, who covered the story for IRIN, “Many have harsh words for both the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, ARRA. There’s talk of thousands of dollars changing hands so Ethiopians can pose as refugees for resettlement in Europe, of scholarship funding meant for refugees being given to Ethiopians, and of the numbers of refugees in Ethiopia being inflated to ensure foreign funding keeps coming in.” There is good reason to believe that Ethiopians from the Somali region, harder hit than Somalia with over 90% of cattle now said to be dead, might be the “refugees from Somalia” we’ve been reading about flocking to UNHCR camps. Again, cooking the books.

Jeffrey’s claim of TPLF politicizing refugees, particularly Eritreans, was initiated in 2010 by US Ambassador to Ethiopia who wrote:

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.

In the final analysis, it seems that Plaut’s article, parroting the Ethiopian MFA, seeks to make the case that Eritrea, like Ethiopia, is hiding famine. Since Eritrea cannot be blamed for Ethiopia’s famine, which TPLF and the obsequious media blames on the long-over El Niño weather patterns from two years ago—an excuse that keeps on giving—Eritrea must have a famine itself. Following Plaut’s March 15th piece, a number of liberal mainstream and alternative news sources have sprouted claiming that Eritrea is hiding famine.

For Plaut, the Ethiopian MFA and regime-change activists to claim that there must be famine in Eritrea solely because the Eritrean government does not provide evidence disproving the contrary is sort of like claiming there are UFOs at Roswell, New Mexico because the American government refuses to indulge conspiracy theorists. Plaut is engaging in a classic argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, seeking to shift the burden of proof from himself to the State of Eritrea since he seems to lack such proof.

Just last year, Plaut claimed in a blog post that a speech by Ethiopian opposition leader Berhane Nega, comparing drought responses in Eritrea and Ethiopia, was proof that there was 100% crop failure in Eritrea and, thus, hidden “famine” in the country. Quoting Berhane, he states, “This year there has been a 100% crop failure in Eritrea.” Aside from ignoring the obvious fact that Berhane was using hyperbole rhetorically to make a larger point, Plaut altogether ignores that larger point made by Berhane. According to Berhane, famine was averted in Eritrea, not after begging for international aid, but after the government “realized that the rain had totally failed, [they] bought food to feed everyone for a whole year. … By doing this they managed to feed people and also control the market.”

The fascination expressed by Berhane suggests that Eritrea’s ideas of self-reliance and economic justice could perhaps spread to Ethiopia one day and win the hearts and minds of Ethiopian people, who for too long have become unnecessarily dependent on the whims of unjust leaders beholden to hegemonic powers rather than their own people’s faculties.

Contrast the Eritrean response with the one in Ethiopia, the most food-assistance-dependent nation in the world. According to USAID data for 2016, Ethiopia was granted more than half a billion dollars its American benefactor for 796,964 metric tons (MT) of food aid. Compare this astronomical number with the amounts disbursed to other drought-affected nations: South Sudan ($307.0 million, 173,451 MT), Somalia ($71.0 million, 20,080 MT), Yemen ($199.8 million, 121,810 MT), Kenya ($63.8 million, 51,150 MT) and Nigeria ($50.8 million, 2,270 MT). Keep in mind that USAID’s food program has an annual budget of only $2 billion, which means that the Ethiopian government alone swallows 25% of USAID’s budget.

This slavish state of dependency is perhaps best encapsulated by the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s response to the famine concerns last year: “It is the responsibility of the international community to intervene before things get out of hand.” The audacity of this statement directly contrasts with the equally audacious statement made by Arkebe Oqubay, advisor to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, who told Bloomberg Business—with a straight face—in March 2016, “We have achieved food security.” The only thing secure is the money from USAID.

Following Eritrea’s 2005 expulsion of USAID, which has been accused of deliberately fomenting unrest in Cuba and other nations, the Eritrean government has not accepted a single dollar from the agency. In fact, this is the reason that the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning System, used by most humanitarians to track famine risk, doesn’t track data for Eritrea. Thus, for Plaut to assume that the absence of data on Eritrea is evidence Eritrea is hiding famine is highly misleading.

The depths at which Plaut and TPLF are willing to go to implicate the Eritrean government in a phantom famine, signifies the scale of the real and looming famine in Ethiopia and the existential legitimacy crisis that awaits the TPLF regime. Crisis of this magnitude could be the final death knell of the illegitimate regime that has wreaked havoc against the masses of peasants and working peoples of the Horn of Africa. It is for this reason that veteran Ethiopia observer and French journalist Rene Lefort observes that TPLF must respond to famine “vigorously, especially as they are haunted by the correlation between the overthrow of Haile Selassie and then the Derg and the famines that preceded them.”

If history is any indication, TPLF may soon be on its way out the door.


Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea: Agent Dan Connell (Part 2)

This article is the second part in the series on the “Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea.” This part takes a closer look at the central role of Dan Connell in promoting the Greater Ethiopianist narrative. See also: Part 1.


Dan Connell. Source:

Over this past year, a small coterie of individuals branded by the media as “experts” on Eritrea have initiated a dogged campaign to buttress the checkered Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea. Chief among them has been Dan Connell, a former journalist and professor covering Eritrea.

On March 28, 2016, Connell gave an interview in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on Tefera Gedamu’s Meet EBC show about the current situation in Eritrea. Note, the subject of conversation was not Ethiopia but rather Eritrea.

In the interview, Connell talks about Eritrean migration, calling it an “exodus” and painting migration from the country as a totally exceptional phenomenon without compare elsewhere in the world. Despite worldwide acknowledgement, including the European Union’s, that “pull factors” in Europe are largely responsible for driving Eritrean migration, Connell calls these factors a “myth” and states, “the reverse is true that it’s the push—first from Eritrea.”

He blames Eritrea’s national service program while wholly ignoring the fact that military service policies in Eritrea, a nation of only 3.5 million people, are merely a secondary response to the very real and unrelenting existential threat from Ethiopia, a nation of almost 100 million people whose military is currently occupying Eritrean territories.

What does he prescribe as a solution? Rather than decisively addressing root causes like the ongoing illegal Ethiopian occupation of Eritrean territories, surprisingly, he tells Tefera, a long time media and culture spokesman for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regime in Ethiopia, that the world should invest in—instead of Eritrea—Ethiopian refugee camps to “stabilize the flow and keep people in the region.” Why not directly invest in Eritrea or in ending Ethiopian occupation?

He adds a divisive ethnic dimension to his analysis of Eritrean migration, focusing on the alleged persecution of the Afars and the Kunama by the Eritrean government. He states, “the Kunama and the Afar—those two—have a distinctive experience. They have gone through everything that the Tigrinya speakers have gone through in terms of political repression and manipulation with the additional fact of ethnic discrimination.”

He then goes on to corroborate the politically-motivated accusations made in the UN Commission of Inquiry report about human rights abuses in Eritrea. According to him, abuses emanate from “the system”, which he says “resembles Pinochet’s Chile….where terror and fear were basically used to cow a population into submission”, rather than from the isolated actions of individual state officials.

He states that “every armed liberation front that has made a transition into governance has had problems with that transition,” which seems to echo claims in a 2012 paper by Connell’s predecessor and elder Christopher Clapham, which attributes the failures of the Eritrean government to the inability of all African liberation movements to transition to functioning governments.

These extreme views of Connell regarding Eritrean migration and human rights are more propagandistic than evidence-based and clearly play part in a politically-motivated “Greater Ethiopianist” agenda against Eritrea. Although Connell purports to be a “journalist” and, more recently, a “researcher”, the evidence on Connell strongly suggests that he is a U.S. intelligence officer that has long sought to dethrone Eritrean leadership through covert action in order to reverse Eritrean sovereignty.

History in Intelligence

Dan Connell’s intelligence activities have long been known to the Eritrean leadership and people as far back as the 1970’s, a period that included the 1974 fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, the rise of the Soviet-backed Derg regime in Addis and the exit of US intelligence chief in Ethiopia, Paul Henze.

At around this time, members of the Eritrean student movement active in Washington, D.C. were approached by two American journalists seeking to gain more information about the Eritrean liberation war. They set up a meeting in a Washington home and started asking the young students about the inner workings of the budding student movement in Asmara in an interrogation-like manner. Surprised by the obvious bait-and-switch from journalism to intelligence gathering, they dismissed the questions and left the house, deeming the “journalists” as likely intelligence agents. They later learned that they were employees of the US State Department.

Sometime later in the late 1970’s, Connell returned to the U.S. from reporting in Eritrea and stopped by the Eritrean community center in Washington, asking to be dropped off at home after his visit. In what appears to have been a case of the “left hand not knowing what the right is doing”, Connell directed the aforementioned EPLF members to drop him off at the very same Washington house as the other suspect “journalists.” Concerned, the Washington-based Eritrean students sent word back to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in Eritrea warning their leadership about Connell’s intelligence links only to later learn that EPLF leadership had already been long aware of his clandestine work from their observations of him in Khartoum.

Evidence of Connell’s intelligence links run much deeper than mere anecdotal evidence and are, today, revealed by Wikileaks and the Kissinger cables. On September 23, 1978, a leaked diplomatic cable entitled “Eritrean Liberation Front Appeals to USSR and Cuba; Claims Victories” was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan to the U.S. State Department in Washington stating the following: “American reporter Dan Connell told Emboff September 21 that he would enter Eritrea to observe military situation around Keren. As guest of EPLF, Connell hoped to make extensive tour of battle areas. He did not know how long he would be able to remain in Eritrea, but can be expected to brief us after his return to Khartoum.”

By Connell covertly gathering intelligence on the field movements of EPLF, the precursor to the current ruling government of Eritrea, he was clearly engaging in intelligence operations on behalf of the US government. This cable strongly suggests that Connell, working as a journalist—or, at least, under the cover of a journalist—served as an intelligence officer or asset.

A follow-up cable was sent on December 18, 1978 from Khartoum to Washington. The cable is classified and unreleased. From the withdrawal card, however, one can evaluate available metadata. Quite tellingly, the cable is entitled “Observations on Eritrean Fighting Summary: American Journalist Dan Connell Who Was In Eritrea During Campaign For Keren” and marked with the tag “EPLF”, “Combat Operations” and “Foreign Assistance”. Thus, any rational person can reasonably surmise that Connell did indeed report back with intelligence for the US embassy in Khartoum.

Connell did not work alone. Notably, he was married to his now ex-wife Gayle Smith, a former State Department official and National Security Adviser to President Obama who was recently appointed as head of USAID. According to a 2002 article by Peter Rosenblum in the New York Times’ journal publication Current History, “Smith was an activist and sometime journalist in the Horn of Africa, known for her contacts in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but particularly close to the Tigraean leadership of Ethiopia” [emphasis added]. Furthermore, Roy Pateman’s 2003 book Blood, Land and Sex indicates that Smith “developed extremely close links with the leaders Of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—most notably with Meles Zenawi” and after “May 1991, Smith became an advisor to Meles Zenawi.” In other words, Connell’s ex-wife Smith is a long-time and ongoing supporter of the very TPLF regime that is currently in an all-out war of attrition against Eritrea.

The Connell-Smith marriage is significant for the fact that it took place in October 1980 in Khartoum while they were covering two separate “Ethiopian” guerilla movements in a common struggle against the Soviet-backed Derg regime that occupied Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Tigray province—EPLF and TPLF, respectively. In his 2003 book Taking on the Superpowers, Connell described the marriage with Smith as a “stormy relationship that ended in less than four years”. Under the cover of this temporary marriage, TPLF-journalist Smith and EPLF-journalist Connell were afforded a very convenient excuse for regular cross-border meetings to exchange intelligence notes in the nascent Soviet period immediately following the exit of Henze and US intelligence in Ethiopia and Ethiopian-occupied Eritrea.

Misappropriating Aid to Fund Subversion

Connell and Smith’s work did not appear to be limited to merely intelligence-gathering but also included lead and integral roles in covert action funneling US and Western aid across the Sudanese border (illegal under Sudanese laws) and across enemy lines into rebel-held territories under the guise of humanitarianism. Such aid operations in conflict zones have long been considered murky business with little accountability whereby donor funds are often diverted by conduits for their own political and economic motives. Today, the evidence suggests that this was most likely the case with Connell and his then wife Smith.

Citing the director of TPLF’s Relief Society of Tigray (REST), Teklewoini Assefa, a leaked June 11, 2008 diplomatic cable from Addis to Washington indicated that “Gail Smith worked for three years for REST, working, eating, and sleeping with the TPLF’s relief arm. Teklewoini also noted that USAID began funneling humanitarian and relief assistance through REST in 1985.” Thus, Smith, who ostensibly was an impartial journalist, worked for the rebels and took sides with a war party.

A May 31, 1991 Christian Science Monitor piece reaffirmed that Smith “worked for Tigre’s relief agency, REST, during the 1985-6 drought”, coinciding with the exact same period that, according to a March 2010 BBC investigation, saw TPLF steal a staggering 95% of $100 million in humanitarian aid raised by the global LiveAid and BandAid campaigns in order to purchase weapons. After the war concluded in 1991, Smith, who actively worked for REST as it diverted USAID relief and misappropriated funds away from more than one million Ethiopians who would later starve to death, was immediately hired to work as an adviser for USAID and, astonishingly, became the national agency’s Chief of Staff by 1994. Today, she is USAID’s leader.

The controversial USAID program, which was expelled from Eritrea in 2005, has a long and checkered history of politicized operations in developing nations that provide cover to US intelligence agents. According to the Washington Post, “In South Vietnam, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided cover for CIA operatives so widely that the two became almost synonymous.” An August 2014 investigation by the Associated Press of USAID in Cuba, found that the Agency established a fake HIV-prevention workshop that used “young operatives posed as tourists…to recruit political activists” and “to gin up opposition in Cuba.”

In 1983, Connell founded his own relief organization, Grassroots International (GI). Claiming to be a disillusioned employee of an increasingly centrist Oxfam America that he felt failed its Lebanese relief-needy subjects in 1982, he explained that he started GI to be a more genuinely leftist relief organization. Along with GI and Connell’s humanitarian organizing in the early to mid-80’s emerged a dubious group of Eritreans working within the humanitarian wing of the EPLF, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), that were later found to be closely linked to the U.S. State Department and engaged in nefarious and/or clandestine activities anathema to EPLF’s founding principles based on self-reliance.

These characters included Paulos Tesfagiorgis, Kassahun Checole and Bereket Habte Selassie, who were the founders and leaders of ERA that used the organization to meet ulterior political and personal aims and would, a decade later, work in concert with Connell and TPLF leadership to cultivate a US-sponsored, Eritrean regime-change movement.

The 1975 head of the Khartoum office of ERA and adviser to Connell’s Washington-based GI, Bereket Habte Selassie, from his very beginning, demonstrated links to US-intelligence and dogged Greater Ethiopianism in support U.S. anti-Eritrean policies. Diplomatic cables from the mid-1970’s identify him as an American World Bank employee in direct contact with the Bank’s powerful President Robert McNamara. A leaked confidential cable from Addis sent on November 25, 1974 states that he “was playing sensitive role as intermediary” between the Derg’s top leaders and was in fear of his life in the wake of the murder of his supposed Derg friend and interim Head of State, General Aman Andom (Eritrean officer of imperial Ethiopia).

A follow-up cable from Asmara dated February 17, 1975 and classed as confidential reveals a fleeing, Khartoum-bound Bereket as an unmistakable U.S. intelligence operative: “Source reports that Dr. Bereket AB is now in Kassala and plans to return to us. According to source Dr. Bereket Ab has taken many pictures of Eritrean scene in past month.” Joined by common efforts to scope the “Eritrean scene” for the US, Bereket and Connell were natural comrades in their clandestine assignments to protect U.S. interests.

The last cable of note, sent on July 23, 1974 from Addis, highlights Bereket’s anti-national position on the “Eritrean Situation”, which he states is “now in critical stage and Eritreans must now be granted ‘something more’ than just basic democratic rights in [a] unitary state. Good solution would be regional autonomy for both Eritrea and Ogaden.” Joining the EPLF in the liberation struggle only one year later, one might find it paradoxical that he opts for mere appeasement of his fellow Eritrean people by giving them “regional autonomy” rather than the genuine support for their common, collective aspiration—total national liberation by self-determination.

Concealing his Greater Ethiopianist desires, they inevitably resurfaced in his more honest moments almost two decades later whereby he rather frankly admitted, “I’ve been part of Ethiopia. We are all Ethiopians—historically, culturally speaking—as I tried to explain today and my wish and my hope before I die is that we will come back together in a larger unity transcending all these divisions.” Keep in mind that this is the same guy that served as leader of Eritrea’s Constitutional Commission, which puts into perspective recent efforts to write a new constitution.

Likewise, naturalized US citizen Kassahun Checole, an early board member of ERA and an official adviser to Connell’s GI organization, also worked very closely with Connell since the days of the Eritrean struggle. His Red Sea Press, a publishing house founded in 1985 as a subsidiary of his Africa World Press, has served as the principle publisher of all of Connell books on Eritrea promoting his regime-change propaganda.

Similarly, Paulos Tesfagiorgis, the head of ERA’s Khartoum office from 1975 to 1989 and close collaborator with Connell in South Africa in the early 2000’s, has worked very closely with Connell since his early days leading ERA’s Khartoum office to funnel money and supplies from USAID into various activities in Eritrea and Tigray. According to USAID annual reports, the Agency gave money to Connell’s GI, which was then given to ERA. However, it appears that Paulos was later found to be misappropriating these funds. According to EPLF leaders working in ERA, Paulos was forced to leave ERA in 1989, following a meeting of Eritrean leaders in Germany in which he was present and was accused of embezzling ERA’s funds. Before he could be formally charged and stand legal judgement before EPLF’s military courts, he defected from his EPLF post in Khartoum for Canada where he attended McGill University.

In the early to mid-2000’s, Paulos went on to work closely with Connell in training and organizing regime-change activists in South Africa within an organization going by the name of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) that was supported by the U.S. State Department through grants by the National Endowment for Democracy. Since their time in South Africa, Connell and Paulos have gone on to strengthen their ties to the TPLF regime in Addis Ababa.

In his 2015 book The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, fellow Greater Ethiopianist Alex de Waal wrote about clandestine meetings, as of 2007, between his good friend Paulos Tesfagiorgis and former PM Meles Zenawi:

These encounters began when Paulos Tesfagiorgis, a veteran Eritrean freedom fighter, patriot and staunch advocate for human rights and peaceful cooperation, approached Meles discreetly in 2007 to explore for peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Meles asked Paulos to convene a small group to engage with him on a wider range of issues, in a confidential but frank setting. Other members of the group were Abdalla Hamdok, Charles Abugre and Andre Zaaiman.

Paulos, persona non grata in Eritrea on allegations of treason and sedition, clearly cannot act as a shuttle diplomat for “peace” in an Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict in which he can only engage one side (i.e. Ethiopia) and would surely focus on these mysterious, so-called “wider range of issues”. Again, another convenient excuse for him to make his way to Addis Ababa.

Back into the Field

Like Paulos, Connell found his convenient excuse to frequent Addis, the seat of the TPLF regime. Formerly reluctant to visit Ethiopia for fear of losing the long dwindling support of the oft-vigilant Eritrean population, desperate measures have forced an about face. Left with little choice, Connell has recently taken a new cover as a “researcher” of Eritrean migration in need of regular travel back-and-forth to Ethiopia in support of the famine- and protest-stricken TPLF regime. Thus, one now may understand and contextualize his recent and unusual interview with Tefera Gedamu.

In an interview in Addis Ababa in September 2015 with a group calling itself the UnitedVoices Media Center, he explained, “I started in 2012 by coming to Ethiopia and going to the Shire camps. I was teaching full time so I can only travel during my breaks. So, in June I came to Ethiopia…then in June 2014 I retired from teaching and took this issue up full time…While I have been here I have been up to the four camps in the Shire region and up to the Assaita camp in the Afar region.” Once again, Connell finds himself as a roving journalist on an Eritrean border without a clear sense of who’s financing his paychecks.

Of late, it appears that Connell has sought to become the resident expert on Afar persecution, focusing much of his work on the persecution of the Afar ethnic group by the non-ethnicity-based Eritrean government, which he himself even admitted multiple times in his book Against All Odds, while turning a total blind eye to the laundry list of inter-ethnic crimes of the openly ethnocentric minority TPLF. By focusing on the Afar and the Kunama, both of which are cross-border ethnic groups located along Eritrea-Ethiopia borderlands contested by  the two countries during the 1998-2000 war, Connell is setting the ground for yet another pretext for TPLF invasion.

As suggested by the very telling headline “Addis banks on Afars against Afeworki” from a September 5, 2014 article by African Intelligence, Addis is pinning its hopes on the Afar issue to bring about regime change in Eritrea.

As now TPLF adviser Patrick Gilkes wrote in a March 2, 1999 BBC article, “Ethiopia…has recently set up an Afar Red Sea Democratic Organisation to try and build up Afar resistance to the Eritrean government.” It is worth nothing that Ethiopia, an official U.S. ally in the war on terror, created and supports RSADO, which is a known international terrorist organization according to the Global Terrorism Database that is financed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Writing in an article in Foreign Policy in Focus in December 2015, Connell—much like de Waal has recently done—circumstantially links the Eritrean government to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, forwarding the anecdotally reported claim that when the “Houthi militiamen captured Mokha [an Yemeni port], Djibouti Afars came to evacuate the many Eritrean Afars there” who “feared staying in Djibouti because Eritrean security services sometimes kidnapped high-value refugees.” Taking this anecdote at face value, the retired professor’s “research” methodologies hardly signify sound research and analysis. As will be shown later in this series, Eritrea’s links to the Houthis are based on politically-motivated, unsubstantiated and erroneous claims.

Exploitation of the Afar issue has long been on the CIA’s docket. The Agency’s October 1995 Report on Ethnic Conflict stated, “Now, with Eritrea an independent state, Ethiopia is landlocked—its political future far from certain. In addition, Eritrean ethnic unity is a myth; for example, the Afar (who extend into Djibouti and whose domain centers on the port of Assab) have a claim to nationhood that will reemerge in the future.” Thus, Connell is only forwarding a narrative and acting on CIA intelligence.

Undue Influence

It’s worth noting how Connell has been able to garner significant, undue attention of Africanists, the scholars on Africa. According to his website, Connell is a “visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Center”, which is well known as a historic CIA hub within the nation’s African Studies community, teeming with intelligence agents and activities. Ami Chen Mills’ 1991 groundbreaking book CIA Off Campus explained that “while not all university foreign studies programs are CIA-inspired, a number have worked in close cooperation with the Agency. Spinoffs of the CIA-founded African-American Institute include Boston University’s African Studies program, created in the same year [1956] and headed by William O. Brown, a member of the State Department’s Office of Intelligence.”

The largely non-black-led ASA, a recipient of the CIA’s National Security Education Program funding, has long been seen as a stooge of the State Department and CIA, which led to an internal crisis that drove the pan-African black caucus within the ASA, led by John Henrik Clarke, to form the African Heritage Studies Association in 1969 as a more independent alternative with blacks in decision-making positions. Conferences of the ASA, which often came to Boston, were attended by CIA representative agents (Louis Wolf, “News Notes,” CovertAction Information Bulletin, No. 30, summer, 1988, p. 68.). Thus, it’s little surprise that Connell chose his 2003 official anti-Eritrea coming-out party to take place at the meeting of the ASA that year. published an article set in Boston, reprinting his coming-out paper prefaced by the following note:

Having marched and sheltered under fire alongside the liberation fighters, he came to know the leaders of the country intimately. But in recent years, increasingly troubled by the repressive stance of the Isaias Afwerki government towards the press and political opposition, he has found himself shifting from being a longstanding supporter to a critic. He chose to make that shift public at the just-ended African Studies Association meeting in Boston…That Connell has undergone such a change of heart will be seen by all who know Eritrea – not least, the leaders themselves – as a tipping point.

Connell and his Eritrean collaborators often present at ASA events and receive awards from the organization. Connell has presented his work to the ASA almost annually since 2008. Kassahun Checole was the 2013 recipient of the ASA’s Public Service Award. ASA presidents, have also been playing into the Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea, like UCLA Professor Edmond Keller, who explained on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 1999 that “The OAU [African Union] had to accept the reality of an independent Eritrea, which it didn’t want to accept to begin with…if they could undo the situation and, you know, have Eritrea become a part of Ethiopia, I think a lot of members of the OAU would like to see that happen, too.” Thus, the presenters, award-winners and presidents of the highly-centralized and influential ASA are Greater Ethiopianists playing integral roles in forwarding the skewed narrative on Eritrea that has led many astray. One can, therefore, understand the public’s confusion about the narrative on Eritrea.

Even if one were to totally ignore Connell’s links to intelligence agencies, he still would be found to have little credibility as an independent and impartial journalist or researcher on issues related to Eritrean migration or Eritrea vis-à-vis Ethiopia. In a May 2013 speech in Washington, D.C., later posted on YouTube, Connell instructed a group of Eritreans—like a general before an army—to campaign around migration and human trafficking to help bring about the ulterior motive of regime change and topple the presidency of Isaias Afwerki:

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.

Eritrean migrants appear to be cannon fodder or collateral damage to Connell in his war against the Eritrean government.

Thus, there are few questions regarding his neutrality and integrity since both seem to be compromised by his likely role as an employee of the CIA working to forward the Greater Ethiopianist narrative on Eritrea. He is part of the tradition of Paul Henze, Christopher Clapham and Patrick Gilkes but takes a disingenuous leftist, activist leaning to conceal his militant Greater Ethiopianist agenda and to promote greater acceptance of his propaganda. He must be seen for what he really is.

This article concludes this part in the series on the “Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea”. Subsequent parts will investigate the specific roles of different experts in forwarding the Greater Ethiopianist Narrative on Eritrea.

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?