Solidarity in the times of COVID-19 or: the misnomer of ‘social distancing’ (when the issue is physical contact)

As a traveller who lives between the UK and mainland Europe, now being in a half-locked down Berlin, I can see the myriad ways in which the Corona virus will accelerate changes to lifestyle and biographies – changes that were about to come anyway with Brexit among other issues, changes that question our understanding of what solidarity many mean in numerous ways.

Distancing during air travel

I was still in Manchester when the virus started to accelerate in Europe, and listened with some horror to the theory that all that was needed was herd immunity, which may mean an awful lot of deaths but hey, the general population can be asked to suffer a bit for the benefit of all. Only. it is not the general population (whatever that may mean anyway), but it are those who live in precarious circumstances, those who cannot stay at home as they have no sick pay; those who for various reason feel they cannot afford to follow all the official health advise, who will suffer most and pay the price (well, not unlike in wars with which the Corona crisis is now often compared). Much has been written on how Corona will expose and widen inequalities in society – in contrast to what others have said about epidemics and likewise events, including wars, that they actually flatten inequality – a dynamic I speak about in a Masters course I teach on Global Inequalities and Social Development at the University of Manchester, I might have to rethink this message for the next academic year.

I was worried for a while that I would not make it out in time before some shut down was coming my way while still in the UK – but I needed not to have worried, as the UK response was too little too late, as many scientist who actually know something about epidemiology (instead of being behavioural economist or the like) now agree.

So here I am in Berlin, where a very different approach has taken hold. While one can endlessly debate the pros and cons of school closures and others shut-down measures, what seems striking to me is that Germany, a country with comparatively high confirmed infection rates (12327 at the time of writing, the 4th highest number) has a very low death rate (28 thus far), compared for example to the UK (2642 confirmed infections and 72 deaths) – I am not sure what the reasons are for this and how much they might be connected to bleeding the NHS dry over the last decades, but it is a puzzle to note. And reports that NHS staff lack protective equipment are not very reassuring.

But whatever the different political approaches across Europe – and it is, in many ways, disheartening to see they vary so much, as one would have hoped for a more general consensus, even if measures of course need to be tailored to individual countries in a way that respects how the pandemic has unfolded in them. Even though, countries like South Korea and Singapore among others, seem to teach us some general truth, not least in relation to wide-spread testing

A key element in Europe’s response, including the UK, is what is now almost everywhere called social distancing. I find this term very troubling indeed. In times of a global pandemic, it is solidarity what one would think is most needed, globally and locally, and at all levels in between.

What we really want is keeping a physical distance between people – be it 1.5 or 2 meters – I am not quite sure where the different ideal distance comes from and it seems puzzling that even here there is no universal agreement. Thus yes, physical distancing by all means, but social distancing is exactly the wrong thing to do. Social closeness does not need to involve being in the same physical space at all, and even if so does not need hugging or touching, even if in our cultures these are common expressions of affection.

But maybe there is more to the use of the misnomer of social distancing than meets the eye: In many ways, some of the measures of so-called social distancing are, well, elite issues. Not only in relation to those who work for example in the gig economy and can not afford such means (at least as long as businesses still operate), but also in creating the phantasy that the virus can be contained by keeping people separated and behind some form of a border. Actual border closures have now been put in place even between a number of Schengen countries and beyond – a sheer nonsense in many ways and unnecessary if people would head the sensible advise not to travel unnecessarily, and when travelling, in particular on public transport, it does not make a difference if one does so in one country or across a border.

And then there are communities on the European continent to whom the advise of social distancing and washing hands must sound like a bad and cruel joke: Those for example in the refugee camps on the Greek islands, like Moira on Lesbos, as well as on the European mainland, cramped into accommodation at close range and with too little water to go around at the best of times. Not to speak of refugees, migrants and other population groups in camps or informal settlements worldwide, where health and living conditions are often precarious over long periods of time.

What we needs is not social distancing but solidarity with those who struggle to adhere to even the most basic measures the epidemiologists and health professionals tell us to adhere to. Solidarity that provides the physical space needed to remain safe, the water and soap needed to wash hands, and a means to live a life with some dignity, in the times of Corona and beyond. We might have got a glimpse that this may be possible when some European countries, not least Germany, opened not only their borders but many people opened hearts and minds to the refugees who arrived in 2015 – even if that is now seen as a mere footnote in subsequent history where border closures, nationalism and a doggy deal with Turkey have taken to upper hand.

Crises may be devastating when they strike, but they are always opportunities as well, for better or worse, as Naomi Klein reminds us when talking about disaster (or corona-) capitalism: they can lead to an even more unequal world where those who are at the top can ignore the vast majority of humanity. There are reports of some of the very rich escaping to bunkers on remote islands, or in less extreme form go via private jet to a place perceived as a safe haven, or a remote second home – just avoid mingling with the rest of humanity, if you can afford it, seems to be the message. This is social distancing taken to the extreme.

But a pandemic like COVID-19 does also provide an opportunity to think again, to remember we are all humans and while the virus affects people differently, not only based on age and medical preconditions, but maybe more importantly based on class, wealth and status, it also is an equalizer in the sense that it changes everybody’s life, if we acknowledge it or not. This is where the phantasy that to control borders, those of nation states and those between people, will bring a lasting solution ends. At the end of the day, we need to survive as humanity on the planet, as humans who are first and foremost social beings. It is ultimately up to all of us if and how we show solidarity in the times of Corona (and hopefully in its aftermath when other more pertinent threats to humanity like the climate emergency dominate the headlines again) – and avoid falling for the trap of social distancing. Give physical space to everybody (and wash those hands) – but at the same time, keep your heart open, would make for so much better advise.

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Unhappy performatives of statehood: What we can learn from Austin about the disfunctionality of Eritrean politics

Sometimes things come back in circles in unexpected ways: I started my university career as a Masters student at the Freie Universität Berlin in West-Berlin in 1980s. The wall was still up and West-Berlin was a laboratory for alternative life-styles. It offered welcome respite from the conservative and distinctly boring reality of everyday life in then West-Germany, a reality in many ways mirrored by then East-Germany only based on a different ideology and state doctrine.

Eritrea Independence Celebration, photo: Stefan Boness,

This was the time before the so-called Bologna-process that sliced university education in ever smaller parts that had to be measured and examined at every turn, and before the notion of ‘students as customers’, in Europe perhaps most prevalent in the UK higher education system with its unhealthy student fee structure. At the time when I entered the Freie Universität in 1985, you studied to come out with a Masters – Bachelor degrees did not exist in Germany then – and, more importantly, to develop your intellectual capacity and grow as a thinking person, at least in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Thus, it was up to you if you attended lectures or what essays you wrote – you were treated as a responsible adult and it was taken for granted that you joined university because of intellectual curiosity. If you would ever get a job in the exact field you studied was not the central point, and many of my fellow students who graduated successfully went on to do exciting things often unrelated to their actual subjects. But we all grew as thinking people and I would claim our time spent at university was a good foundation for our future lives.

I studied Socio-linguistics and philosophy, and was lucky enough that some of the great thinkers in analytical philosophy at the time were teaching at the Philosophy Institute in Berlin, including Michael Theunissen and Ernst Tugendhat, with whom I did my final oral exams on the thought of Gottlob Frege and John Searle. In retrospect, I owe you both a lot! Another thinker very influential to my study work and dissertation was John L. Austin, whose main contribution to bringing sociological study, language and philosophy together is summed up in his best known book ‘How to do things with words’.

When I graduated with a distinction masters from the Freie Universität in 1991, the wall had fallen and I went into the wider world, working first in language teaching and later as a journalist and educationalist. Belatedly I decided to return to formal academia, as a mature PhD student in 1999, and the critical thinking I had engaged with in my earlier Berlin life was present, but mainly as an undercurrent.

But once I started to work for what is now the Global Development Institute (GDI), I realised that the legacy of thinking I was brought up with, so to speak, is more relevant than usually acknowledged. In international development, but also in politics per se, performance and ‘doing things with words’ is omnipresent. In turn, a performance studies lend can add valuable analytical insights, and provide lessons for practical solutions and failures. Unfortunately, this aspect is too often either given short thrift or put to the background, in teaching and research. At GDI, for a few years we had a module, taught by my colleagues Uma Kothari and Dan Brockington, on Representations of Development – but that has not run for many years and would be hard to fit into the overly narrow parameters that now structure research and teaching. At the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, during the time I was its research director, we had a research stream on Humanitarian Performance – that was when James Thomson still had an active role at the Institute and sadly that has also fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps it is hard to demonstrate how understanding the performances of humanitarianism and development improves your job prospects and future income, measures that seem so much more important these days than the propensity for critical thinking and engagement. So maybe I am writing this from a luxury position, as somebody who has a permanent post and thus more freedom to think about quirky issues – and one could start an interesting analysis here on unhappy performances of universities, but that is for another day.

Why do I tell the reader all this? Because I did just publish an article in the main performance studies journal that not only brought me back in many ways to my intellectual beginnings in 1980s Berlin, but also, as I argue in the piece, offers important insights into how to address or not address real world dilemmas. The article deals with Eritrean politics and the opposition to it, and how in their different ways the way they perform their agendas will continue the unhealthy, unproductive and often vicious divides that dominate Eritrean politics and its diaspora. In my article I use the example of the staging of two academic conferences on the occasion of the Eritrea silver jubilee – but in the age of social media, performances of highly charged ideological discourses are everywhere. One only needs to for example look at the Brexit debate, or the reaction to refugees arriving at European shores – the way policy answers and solutions to these issues are being propagated and presented as serious policies are too often unhappy performatives. Thus to understand and analyse them as such can be a first step to engage with the real issues behind, and come to a solution that holds up what global development and humanitarianism should in essence be about – underneath the show that is often performed in its name.

My article ‘Unhappy Performatives of Statehood: Staging Incompatible Narratives of Eritrea through Academic Conferences’ can be accessed via Project Muse if your institution is a subscriber, alternatively please email me for a copy.

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Sorry we miss you? … perhaps not any longer: the first step of actual Brexit

After a painful more than three years – at least for EU citizens who had decided to live and work in the UK following EU freedom of movement rules, finally it is over, sort of. Brexit, at least the formal exit of the EU, is upon us. My own emotion went from astonishment that a smug Tory leader could throw his country in front of the bus and then walk away whistling and making millions out of it, to despair and back too many times in the last few years.

Photo: Stefan Boness,

But since I have seen too many strange things that I did not deem possible: People whose work and opinions I admire and respect (many of whom voted remain, but that is beside the point), who usually live in London and find a trip even to a Northern City like Manchester a challenge, suddenly agree with the populist voice of Brexiteers. A whole discourse has emerged that ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ are equally to blame for derogatory hate speech – the fact that the whole leave-bandwagon is built on exclusion, racism and imperial phantasies being simply ignored (and I am not even talking about illegal donations to the Brexit campaign; foreign interference; and Cambridge Analytica – and if I would I would be accused of being ‘undemocratic’ and ‘ignoring the will of the people’ – ditto!).

While my own feelings went from disbelief to a humorous take –goodbye UK and thank you for the music – but were always accompanied by a certain sadness that the space for conviviality and tackling global problems in a spirit of cooperation has further shrunk – a move that will undoubtedly accelerate in the transition period to come and beyond, if the rhetoric and use of words of the current PM and some of his ministers is anything to go by.

Looking at the front-pages of some of the major UK papers today says it all: Some new dawn of Britain First is going to emerge. Pooling companies for many months now have declared that, actually, within the country a small majority exists to remain. That may or may not be the case, we will never know because a highly successful Tory party has managed to capture public imagination with its version of zero-sum politics, and an opposition incompetent beyond disbelief fell in all the traps laid for them.

At the end, it does not matter, as it does not feel that way. Rather, every time one enters the UK as a EU citizen, settled status or not, one is queried and eyed somehow suspiciously – I personally was even insulted as a ‘queue jumper’ one day by staff at Manchester International Airport. Yes, my employer says all the right things about how valued we are as EU citizens for a global university – but beyond offering to pay the negligible amount of the settlement status fee that has now even been abolished, little support was forthcoming. The psychological impact of the last more than three years, the anxiety and mulling over one’s future, is our own problem.

Luckily I am actually not in the UK on this day of national madness or euphoria – I probably could not bear it. And fittingly, I am watching Ken Loach’s new movie: sorry we missed you, where those that might suffer most from Brexit economic upheaval are at the forefront: those in precarious jobs and on zero hour contracts. Maybe in the brave new world of global Britain the Tory elite will come to their rescue. I have my serious doubts. I know too many people in the North-East of England especially who are now at or near pension age who are still traumatized by some of the changes Margret Thatcher and her economic policies brought to their region, their way of living and the forms of solidarity they used to rely on. I hope for those who went for Brexit to get foreigners out and feel self-important again, it will turn out better this time.

Goodbye UK, and I am one of the lucky ones: I can stay or leave, and, unlike many of my UK friends who are very much aggrieved about this loss, I have a European passport. Of course much is wrong with the EU – but walking away will not help make that better. And if the vision proclaimed in many of today’s papers and what we heard from government sources since the general election comes true, the UK will be a much worse place for anybody who believes in democracy and an open society. But then, maybe, the UK will cease to exist in its present form in future – and there seems little reason to mourn its demise as it stands.

Thus, goodbye UK, and thank you for the music seems the right farewell.

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The long legacies of dictatorship: Chile as a beacon of hope once again?


Graffiti, Valparaiso January 2020

On 4 December 1970 Salvador Allende won a democratic election in Chile. He won on a programme that would not have raised eyebrows in any of the social-democratic welfare states of Northern Europe for example, a programme that promised to combat the great inequalities that characterised Chilean society then (as now). It included land reform and the nationalisation of some industries, as well as access to health services and education for all of Chilean citizens. The election result was close, and it was not the first time Allende had run for President, in fact he had been a presidential candidate three times before, 1952, 1958 and 1964. He lost by only a small margin in 1958, and that fact triggered sustained US support for Allende’s political adversaries: after Cuba, another socialist leaning country in Latin America had to be avoided at all cost.

Allende’s government had to pacify different factions – from a radical left to Christian-conservatives and the coalition that had elected him was never stable. But still, he was Chile’s elected President and tried under difficult circumstances to establish a more just and socialist-leaning society by democratic means. In fact, already his predecessor had started to partly nationalise for example the copper industry, Chile’s biggest export earner, a policy Allende continued and accelerated.

The country was deeply divided when Allende came to power, visible in his narrow victory, and political violence escalated, from both sides in different ways and to different degrees. Groups of the radical right eventually started a sustained campaign of terror, and as the situation escalated in various ways, Allende on 10 September 1973 offered a plebiscite to decide if he should stay on as President or not.

But important actors had no interest in such a democratic process, thus on 11 September 1973 General Pinochet led a coup d’état and started his dictatorship with the forced death of Allende and a reign of terror. To this day, most commentators including the supposedly liberal Economist defend the Pinochet dictatorship as it created order and an economic model that made Chile the darling of capitalist development. Human rights abuses were to condemn, but there is always a price to pay for capitalist progress!

The hope that Allende and his belief in social justice and equality offered seemed crushed forever, or at least for a long time. One of the most heart-breaking testimonies of the time of the coup are pictures in a documentary film of workers who just learn what has happened, and the despair and disbelief on their faces. They understood immediately what the coup meant, and how it would brutally destroy any hope for a better future.

But many vested interests in the highly unequal society of Chile did not mind a dictatorship as long as it served their interests. In the plebiscite that ended it formally in 1988, votes were close in many regions and a few regions indeed voted to keep Pinochet in power, even if the overall result was a 53% to 44% in favour of ending his rule.

Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile has seen various governments of a conservative and more left-leaning nature, but the fundamental problems that stifle Chilean society and the hopes and aspirations of too many of its people have remained: deep seated inequalities that do not allow a life in dignity, relevant affordable education, reasonable access to health services, and a pension that secures a decent living standard for large parts of the population. Protests had erupted in the past under the leftist government of Michelle Bachelet, mainly carried by students and demanding a different system of education. Now, it was a on the face of it small increase in the metro fare that triggered a whole country to become a social movement, or at least a sizeable population. Chile Despertó, Chile Woke Up, is the slogan under which a different future is being imagined once again. While in mainstream media often vilified in similar ways Allende once was, the movement is much more than a couple of troublemakers trashing buildings and setting fire to the metro, banks, pharmacies, exclusionary health providers and other symbols of the state of affairs that has made Chile a country that works for a corrupt elite only, be they of the left or the right. A key issue is that real, fundamental chance never happened even after Pinochet. The revised constitution that was created under his dictatorship is still in place, as are the fundamental structures that determine the workings of the state in Chile, both entrenching the power of a narrow elite.

Those who now take to the streets, who sit in neighbourhood assemblies and other forums to bring their voice in, want to finally change all that – and once more Chile has become a hope for many who believe in bottom-up politics and the power of social movements to change things for the better.


Graffiti, Santiago de Chile, January 2020

Throughout the land, from Arica to Punta Arenas, political activism has been born again – and much of it relates back to the beliefs behind the ideas of Allende and his compatriots, and many of those tortured and murdered by the dictatorship, like artist Victor Jara, indirectly get a new voice.


Friday gathering in Punta Arenas, December 2019

Will the outcome be different this time? There is a big drive for a Constitutional Assembly to give everybody a voice in drawing up a new constitution. But thus far President Piñera has not stepped down, nor has anybody been prosecuted for the harsh reaction of the military and policy during the state of emergency he initially declared. Armed soldiers shot at people with pellet guns and blinded many of them or caused severe eye injuries – thus an important symbol for the movement are those tortured eyes, sprayed on many walls and showing up in numerous artworks. The symbolism could not be clearer: blind the people so they do not see what the state does to them, only they have woken up and refuse to be blinded. When talking to people a mixture of hope and sorrow becomes evident: Many fear an army-putsch could happen again – and while the Cold War is over and we live in different times, will anybody come to the rescue and stand with the Chilean people this time? It seems more likely that leaders like president Trump will pop up Piñera or another puppet for the oligarchy in his place.

So for now it is wait and see. It is weekly gatherings, protest, artistic engagement – whole galleries of new graffiti have been created that skilfully provide a rallying point for this wider movement for social justice that has engulfed Chile. But the fascists are never far away, as one is reminded too often. In broad daylight, they can enter Santiago’s Central Cemetery and spray ‘Viva Pinochet’ on Allende’s gravestone in blood red colour.

For now, hope seems stronger than the fear of defeat – let’s hope it stays that way.

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Eritrea and Ethiopia: The illusive peace dividend

Much has been written about the illusive peace dividend for Eritrea in the wake of Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed having received the Nobel Peace price – in addition to all that could be said about developments within Ethiopia itself, but that shall not concern is here for the moment.

Farmer near Senafe, Photo: Stefan Boness,

With the border between both countries being still closed again at the time of writing, and rising frustrations from the Ethiopian side who claim they sent detailed documents on future border arrangements to Eritrea quite some time ago and never received a response, a state of peace-but-no-change seems to have replaced the no-war-no-peace stalemate that characterised the situation in Eritrea until July 2018.

In this scenario, a journey from Asmara to Senafe undertaken in May 2019 feels like a reminder of what could have been, or what has been called the brief period of “the golden days of the open border” by Eritrean informants.

Local people still cross the border and informally also some goods make their way, but in much smaller quantities. Where before the renewed border closure trucks crossed the Serha-Zalambesa border, people now carry those goods on their backs or their heads, or use donkey carts. They navigate the un-demarcated border informally, then take a shared taxi or bus to Senafe, the closest town on the Eritrean side, where donkey carts wait to receive these goods. Some local police and army checkpoints are stationed at various points on the short stretch of road between the border and Senafe. Sometimes buses and people are being searched, sometimes they are waved through.

Goods that travel this way and often onwards to Asmara are not necessarily those most needed, but those who promise most profit. For example, plastic water bottles from Ethiopia can be sold at a 100% profit and thus are one of the goods one can see put on pick-up trucks to Asmara – even though there is no shortage of bottled water in Eritrea.

Cement, on the other hand, a much needed good in Eritrea, has become harder to come by again, visible in many construction or extension projects that were started when the border opened and have been paused for lack of materials. On the outskirts of Asmara on the way to Dekemhare, the leftovers of what was until recently called the ‘Mekelle market’ can still be seen: a few pick-up trucks and abandoned market stalls. I am told that until the border closure it was a vibrant market fed by Ethiopian trucks who had come from the border with many commodities usually scarce in Eritrea – with cement and other building materials being one of the commodities highly sought. An informant in Asmara puts it this way: “Until peace, you could not even built a new water pump when the old one collapsed, as you could not get the materials”.

A business-person who regularly covers the Asmara-Massawa route, spoke about roads clogged with Ethiopian trucks as goods also started to arrive at Massawa port again for a short time. In May 2019, the port of Massawa was as sleepy as it had been since the 1998-2000 war, the main activity the uploading of minerals from Bisha mine onto ships bound for China, now that the mine has been sold by Canadian firm Nevsun to Chinese company Zijin. And the town of Massawa itself, always crumbling as little investment had taken place in the old city since the end of the liberation war, is now falling apart. Houses where a few years ago I sat with locals living there for an evening coffee ceremony are now so derelict that they are uninhabitable and left until reduced to rouble. It thus is rather ironic that from the Ministry of Tourism in Asmara one can get a small brochure that describes Massawa as the pear of the Red Sea, praising its “extravagant villas” dating back to the 17th century and its coral buildings.

More generally, even during the months when the border was open, multiple restrictions on private business activities were officially still in place. Buildings started or altered without the necessary permission could still be put down by government enforcement as this was illegal – thus most construction activities, at least in Asmara where such regulations have always been enforced more strictly, were renovations rather than new constructions. The further one moved away from Asmara the more new construction took place. Even those with legitimate businesses had to follow practices that are strictly speaking illegal in order not to go bankrupt, such as getting imported and other needed supplies through black market channels. What was different, at least in relation to the latter activities, was that people spoke about them openly, and some of the results of black market behind the scenes trading could be seen in shops and premises, but nobody cared. Thus, either a blind eye was now turned to these activities by government or ministry officials, or, and that seems more likely to me, there is no capacity to follow up.

This raises questions about capacity within Eritrea to re-envisage the future, and counters some of the scenarios devised by either profit-driven entrepreneurs or the political diaspora with its own not necessarily democratic agenda. Many of those who decided to stay in Eritrea and “fight for change within, if we do not do it who will?” or returned from for example studies abroad, and who are deeply sceptical about both of these diaspora groups and their agendas, might need all their wit about them to have a say in Eritrea’s political future.

This is a shortened excerpt of an Analytical Research Note written for the Observatoire Afrique de l’Est at Sciences Po – the whole Note can be freely accessed here:

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In spite of everything: Congratulations to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Nobel Committee

On the morning when it was announced that Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed would receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, I sat in a Café in Manchester’s Northern Quarter with Hannah. Hannah (not her real name) is an Eritrean woman who I first met as a student in the Eritrean capital Asmara in 2000. She was among the generation at then Asmara University who were contesting additional national service demands in the summer of 2001, and thus sent to a military camp in the Danakil dessert for a few weeks as punishment. That same generation, however, subsequently were mostly allowed to graduate, and Hannah was assigned a good graduate position for her post-graduation professional national service, a position where she was even paid a salary. A position that also included the occasional travel abroad, and from one such visit to London she did not return.

Figures of Abiy Ahmed and Issayas Afewerki celebrating peace at Indepedence Day Carnival in Asmara May 2019. Photo: Stefan Boness,

I had kept loosely in touch with Hannah for some years but eventually we did lose contact – only to bump into each other by accident a few years back at Manchester Piccadilly Gardens. Last Friday we met for coffee, and when the news of Abiy’s prize came through she simply said: I am happy, I wish we had a President like that. Hannah has meanwhile British citizenship and her children, the oldest a teenager, all feel British. But she misses Eritrea, as well as her now elderly parents, and she would go back – if the political situation changed. Hannah has no illusions that having awarded Abiy the Peace Prize will trigger change in Eritrea, but still feels it is greatly deserved – because he tries to do things differently. And that is roughly what the Nobel Committee has said- the prize as a recognition for a brave effort.

I am aware that everybody expects me to be critical of the award, as many of my colleagues and friends have been, and as is the job of an academic – never celebrate but be critical and suspicious. But I am thrilled and in the mood to celebrate, even if many of those who are critical of course have valid reasons to be so, some more, some less, in my opinion.

Starting with the latter, it first needs to be noted that Abiy did not get the Prize solely for making peace with Eritrea, but for his more general politics of changing Ethiopia, in for example lifting its state of emergency, releasing political prisoners and playing a role in efforts for peace and reconciliation in the wider region. The Nobel Committee does acknowledge that there is a long way to go in many aspects – and one can of course debate more generally whether one should ever award a Nobel Peace Prize to a politician still in power and rather at the beginning of his of her political career – remember Obama?

But I think there are many differences with Obama and in any case, the Nobel Peace Prize always carries symbolic value that one may or may not like. But the complaint by some Eritreans, that the Prize should have been jointly awarded to him and the Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki, is really off the mark. There was no movement from Eritrea towards any form of peace, but the insistence on a legalistic position before Abiy simply declared he would accept the border commission ruling and offered his outstretched hand. And even if Eritrea was right, legally speaking, its stance was the opposite of being bold and courageous in an effort to achieve peace. And one should not forget, it took Asmara quite some time to actually accept the peace offer – and many feared at the time it would not even do so. At this year’s independence day celebrations in May 2019, the first since the peace accord was signed, while the pair of Abiy and Issayas featured as puppets in the street carnival, in his independence day speech the Eritrean President did not make a single reference to the peace process.

But to conclude from that, as the other side of the Eritrean reaction does, that Abiy did not deserve the prize because the peace process has stalled, and little has changed inside Eritrea, is equally misguided. Surely, it is not Abiy’s responsibility to sort out Eritrean domestic policy, in fact, this would be a turn back to an imperial hegemonic Ethiopia that caused so many problems in the wider Horn in past decades. And the claim that in advancing peace he at the same time acknowledged an authoritarian dictator as an interlocutor is equally absurd – love him or hate him, President Issayas is the President of Eritrea and as such the rightful person to sign any peace accord under international law.

In addition, the fact that nothing changed in Eritrea is only partly true – the connections being made in the few months when the border between both countries was open, the scenes of people hugging and welcoming each other on the first flights and when the border crossings actually opened, they all did trigger an emotional momentum, even if that has stalled on the ground for now. It was and is a powerful emotional trigger. Whether the pressure on Eritrea to open up will increase with Abiy’s prize, or whether it will lead to more resistance to any opening, remains an open question – but is really not the point when considering if Abiy is a deserving recipient, as his side did what could be done. I quite like the idea floating around half jokingly that Abiy should bring the Eritrean President with him as part of the delegation going to Stockholm and put him on the spot – but that is unlikely to happen.

And then of course there are all the problems within Ethiopia: The question if the centre can hold, or if the ethnic and regional tensions that have erupted as a side effect of the opening of political space in Ethiopia will lead to a splintering of Ethiopia into ethnic or regional mini-states and new uncertainty and conflict in the Horn. How will the future of the up to three million internally displaced people in Ethiopia, also acknowledged by the Nobel Committee, look in the long term? Then there are the unresolved questions of economic growth that is forever too slow to provide enough jobs for Ethiopia’s young population. Human rights abuses and police brutality have not stopped entirely – but change always takes time and free speech always brings with it the danger of flaring up of old conflicts. In fact, the danger of such conflicts too often serves as justification not to allow free speech or democratic elections (not least in neighbouring Eritrea). Thus the elections to be held in Ethiopia in 2020 might be messy, but also brave and hopefully a risk worth taking.

Abiy is not the messiah-like figure that some have seen in him in bouts of Abiymania, and one may legitimately question his agenda and leadership style. Also we should not forget that he played a crucial part in the old regime with key responsibilities at times for its repressive policies. But still, the Nobel Peace Prize is not a prize awarded to saints, but for courage in order to advance peace, and to contribute to positive change in the world. Thus in my book, and in spite of all his shortcomings, Dr Abiy Ahmed is a worthy recipient.

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Black Lives in the White City: Expat Eritreans in Tel Aviv

One of the main problem of our time is migration, we are being told. The Brexit vote to leave the EU seems to have been strongly related to migration fears. When people speak about migration, they usually do not think about Brits in Australia or South Africa. Or British pensioners in France and Spain. Some may think Polish plumbers or Portuguese fruit pickers. For migrants who are black or brown or non-white, the public often does not see individuals, but masses of so-called ‘illegals’. Or ‘swarms’ in the ugly words of a former UK Prime Minister.

Hey, wait a moment, this is pure racism. We do not question the right of British expats to live in Australia for example. Why then do we question for example the right of an Eritrean from Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, to live in Tel Aviv?

Both cities, Asmara and Tel Aviv, are united by the fact that they are UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE sites for their modernist architecture.Asmara, Eritrea - Modernist Architecture Tel Aviv is called ‘the white city’ for its large ensemble of white buildings in the International or Bauhaus style. Both cities look very similar in their architecture. The urban features aralike. An Eritrean from Asmara will easily feel at home in Tel Aviv. At least in the built environment, in the city’s neighbourhoods, parks and cafés. Not always among its people.

I will now tell you the story of Michael (not his real name), an Eritrean who came to Tel Aviv in 2008. At that time, quite a number of Eritreans and Sudanese came to Israel – and I was interested in their motivations, the stories behind their arrival – and if these stories are in essence so different from the people we call expats: The story of people in search for a life that fulfils their aspirations. To call them refugees, migrants, illegal migrants or infiltrators, as the Israeli government did in due course, was maybe beside the point. What if they were driven by the core human longing for a life that made sense to them, helped them achieve their aims, their ambitions? I was motivated to find out if they are in essence not like all of us who have worked or lived outside our countries of birth at some point, or planned to do so. As Lemn Sissay, the UoM Chancellor said in his installation speech: ‘Migration is at the heart of who we are – it is the process of action, of learning. Migration is a natural celebration of human nature’.

So let’s turn back to Michael: Michael was a first year university student in Eritrea. He was active in student political activities and had to leave Eritrea for that reason. Once in neighbouring Ethiopia, he had to make a decision where to go to. Michael’s first priority was to be able to complete his bachelor’s degree. But people like Michael cannot simply apply for a visa to go to Europe or the US, and then take either an entrance exam or follow the usual application procedures for a university place. They would not get a visa. Thus they cannot board a flight, but have to take their chances in a different way, across land or sea borders.

When Michael had to make a decision about where to go, two options were the most promising: Either trying to make it to Europe across the Mediterranean, which was dangerous and he was terrified of water crossings. Or go to Cairo in Egypt. Cairo University is well know as a great seat of learning, so he made his way through Sudan to Cairo. Once in Cairo, there was a crackdown on black people. They were seen as a danger and it became impossible to live there safely or apply to study at Cairo University. At that time, in 2008, many Eritreans and Sudanese had moved on to Israel, as then there was a shortage of unskilled labour in various sectors in Tel Aviv in particular and Israel in general. And in line with many settings were migrants arrive, the first step towards employment and settlement is often a job for which few skills are required.

Michael thought that was his chance, Israel was a democracy, he could work and save some money, and then join the university. After two years of hard work mainly on building sites, he applied to one of the universities in Tel Aviv where education is in English, was accepted and got a scholarship. So far so good. Michael on the face of it made it in Tel Aviv. He could be seen as a successful expat who managed to continue his career in a city partly of his choosing. Only that he was not.

When he came in 2008 he was given a temporary work permit, thus in that he was lucky. Once he secured a place to study, his residence permit was extended. In parallel to his studies and to pay for expenses not covered by his scholarship, he opened a small Eritrean restaurant. Only to do so was not legal, strictly speaking. As an African, he was denied the necessary paperwork and permissions to open a place of his own. At the same time, people in the permit office made clear to him they would not intervene should he open his place.

In fact, Tel Aviv his full of businesses run by Eritreans and Sudanese to cater for the community, and the city is grateful that these exist. Still, the place Michael opened, while being extremely successful, always was in legal limbo. In theory, the police could come by and close it down anytime. In addition, periodically anti-African protests were organised by right-wing nationalist that threatened such businesses. And while, as in this picture,Rally of Jewish nationalists against foreign immigrants from Africa many business owners argued with them in fluent Hebrew, the reality of never being completely safe always remained.

Eventually, Michael felt he could not make a life in such a limbo, and he secured a visa to North America where he now lives. The way to do so was through a refugee resettlement programme – this was in fact the only way to do so. Michael would have liked to stay in Tel Aviv – not least because the city reminds him so much of Asmara. But with no proper rights and no perspective of ever securing them, this became a daily struggle.

He is not keen on the refugee label – even if it allowed him the freedom to fulfil some of his life ambitions. In essence, he in many ways is like expatriates the world over: he embarked on a journey in order to fulfil his ambitions. The only difference is that he cannot easily go back to his homeland, Eritrea, for political reasons, thus in that sense he is a refugee. But in reality he is a human being searching for a proper future, like so many of us with whom we share the cities we live in.

Let’s not forget the motivation behind journeys such as Michael’s in this times of Brexit and increasingly hard borders.

The story above will be told in a live performance as part  of the Research Uncovered Event at the Manchester Museum on 27 September 2019 from 18:00 onwards. Thanks to British Academy for funding the research on which this talk is based, and to Stefan Boness for allowing the use of his photographs, see

For background academic papers to the story see for example Citizenship Studies and Africa Spectrum.

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