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.


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