From ‘international scholar’ to ‘so-called expert’? – Reflections on the second International Conference on Eritrean Studies in Asmara

A few days ago, a little after midnight, once everybody had finished their work-shift, a group of young women and a few men gathered for an elaborated coffee ceremony in the Eritrean capital Asmara. They were joyful, giggled, showed around pictures of one of their close friends. The ceremony was in fact held to celebrate this friend, let’s call her Asmeret (not her real name), and her safe arrival in Germany after a three months journey on the usual, often dangerous, migrant-track. A photo of Asmeret, smiling into the smartphone camera, was passed around, and the ceremony in her honour was photographed and the pictures sent back to her.

photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

I don’t know how many celebrations like this happen in Asmara or other parts of Eritrea every day, but what struck me about this one was the fact that it took place a few days after a major International Eritrean Studies Conference in Asmara that I attended. The conference was a major event not least for young Eritrean students and recent graduates, as it was the first big international conference of its kind since the Eritrean Studies Conference in July 2001 that at the time ended with so much promise for a new area of open debate and discussion – only to be radically curtailed in the following crackdown of September 2001. The 2016 conference was exceptionally well organised and provided ample opportunity to (re-)connect with Eritrean and international scholars in an atmosphere characterized by excitement and a real buzz.

Whereas the 2001 conference – and I belong to the smallish group of scholars who has attended both conferences – was characterised by critical debate and intense discussions not only about developmental issues in a broad sense but also the political situation in Eritrea, the framing of the 2016 conference was clear: the ‘truth’ about Eritrea was to be discussed here in order to counter those scholars who do not pay enough attention to the particular conditions of Eritrea. One could also say it was meant to be a public relations exercise to counter the negative narratives about Eritrea, but do so in a way that left little room for critical debate, as the ‘truth’ about Eritrea can ultimately only be grasped by Eritreans themselves. The main trope in this framing was the ‘so-called expert’ – an academic from outside who makes a claim to knowledge that only an Eritrean could have, but whose work is seen as expertise on Eritrea more broadly. The line between welcomed ‘international scholar’ and ‘so-called expert’ is thin, and one can easily mutate from one to the other. Thus almost by definition, if one questioned the tightly framed boundaries of allowable critique set ultimately not by the academic committee that was the visible face of the conference organisation, but by government and party rationale, one was in danger of being put into the ‘so-called expert’ group.

Many positives can be said about the 2016 conference, not least that it tried to bridge the gap between academic research and its potential applications for developmental benefits and included a large amount of government personnel, foreign diplomats and UN personnel among its participants. It also gave young (and not so young) Eritrean researchers a platform to present their often excellent work – at least the work that dealt with uncontroversial, development centred topics that outlined achievements and future challenges. That was as far as critique was welcomed: as an analysis why progress had not quite occurred as planned for (yet).

Thus the two issues that are at the core of life for many Eritreans, national service and/or the fact that too many Eritreans do not see any prospects for their future in Eritrea, were astonishingly absent or discussed away as aberrations of little significance. People like Asmeret, who have lost faith in a viable future within Eritrea, are a small aberration in a country whose youth in its majority is committed to support national development – or so the narrative goes. A nuanced understanding of the struggles to combine often overbearing national obligations with people’s aspirations, and the different ways in which those are being enacted, had no place at the conference (in fact, I had intended to present a paper exactly on those issues, but this was rejected).

To somebody who does believe in development alternatives and who has always been supportive of and sympathetic to the Eritrean government’s developmental agenda, this is a rather despairing state of affairs. I have repeatedly made the case in the past that narratives about Eritrea are one-sided and partly underpinned by geopolitical dynamics, but the same is true of the overarching narrative that the conference tried to enforce, and that was repeated with vehemence at its closing session: all is well in Eritrea and the reason it is being ‘demonised’ by ‘the West’ is due to its focus on self-reliance. Those researchers who fail to grasp this are denigrated as ‘so-called experts’ and can be ignored. Both discourses will do little to advance Eritrean Studies as a critical discipline, nor will they transform the mind-set of too many of Eritrea’s young people who see little alternative to either inward resignation or outward migration.

The paper I wanted to present would have engaged with those dynamics based on 20 years of research in Eritrea. It would have outlined the balancing act between an overbearing state and peoples’ aspirations and analysed those in relation to concrete life histories of graduates from the former University of Asmara, who are all committed to contribute to national development. Some are still in Eritrea, others have left, and their life trajectories show in concrete detail what it may mean to be Eritrean and navigate global society at the same time. I have never claimed to be an ‘expert’ on Eritrea, I am a social scientist who over a long time-period has engaged in predominately qualitative research on various aspects of Eritrean Studies. When government or party officials end private discussions (which are as everywhere more frank than public ones) with a version of the dictum ‘but there are things that you do not know, thus you have to trust me that what you say is wrong’ – of course they are right, at least with the first part of the statement. But social science research is not about trust or indeed about treating official statements as truth, it is about interrogation, debate and analysis. And when I compare narratives of ordinary Eritreans with how their lives are being presented in official discourse, there might be things that I can comment on from a unique vantage point.

This year’s conference is meant to be the start of such gatherings on a regular basis. Maybe or rather hopefully its most enduring legacy are the many young Eritrean scholars and students who in private showed their appreciating for the sparks of critical debate on controversial issues that scholars mainly from outside Eritrea tried to encourage, and the panel on foreign policy in the Horn that I co-organised and presented on was a small step in that direction. Hopefully these Eritrean scholars will take up such debates, and a future conference will critically engage with the issues that dominate Eritrean perceptions globally: migration, human rights, and national service and citizenship obligations.

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The day after the day of the shock: Personal reflections of a EU citizen (still) working in the (still) UK (England) on Brexit

When you get an email from the vice chancellor of the academic institution where you work not to panic (not the exact words but the tenor) something seems to be seriously wrong. When you get the same email from another vice chancellor – from the institution where you obtained your PhD more than a decade ago and with which you actually have had no links since then, something seems to be even more seriously wrong. And when you hear from colleagues at other academic institutions in little England and across the wider UK that they got similar emails, you really start thinking if you have time to jump on the next boat before the déluge.

Manchester, England

© Stefan Boness, iponphoto.com

Lucky for me, I was on that boat a while ago, as I am currently on sabbatical that I spend partly on the European continent – bound to return in September to a country whose majority apparently does not want me to return. Having been away on referendum day also saves me of a direct reminder of the fact that I was not even allowed to vote on my own future. The EU might be remote from its citizens in many ways and driven by narrow elite agendas, but in my case it are the British elites who welcome my tax payments and other contributions, but feel I have no right to decide on my own future among them. So much for ‘the people’ taking back decisions over their lives, one of the battle cries of the Brexit campaign that exposes its narrowly conceived nationalist and xenophobic underbelly.

Still, as a perennial optimist, I have always felt certain things will not happen in my lifetime: the possible collapse of the EU, or a demagogue like Trump becoming president of one of the major democracies in the Western world are among those. The first might just have started, the second does not seem too far off – maybe it is actually time to panic!

As with many of my colleagues and friends in the UK, my first reaction when it became clear that Brexit would happen was a sense of shock followed by a debilitating inability to do anything useful on the day. I was joined in that state by a number colleagues from within the UK via social media, and we exchanged views on what to do on such a day, ranging from cleaning windows or doing one’s tax returns, to simply going to the pub and have a drink. The latter was what apparently the staff of the German diplomatic corps in Brussels did, according to a twitter feed that went viral: ‘We are off now to an Irish pub to get decently drunk. And from tomorrow on we will again work for a better #Europe! Promised!’.

On the day after the day of the Brexit-shock, as the state of disbelief slowly subsides and the many messages from friends in the UK who speak of how aghast and ashamed they feel makes me feel partly reassured, I also wonder why I did not see it coming, why did I always feel in the end it would be OK?

After all, Britain now had a majority government run by a party that had a long history of cheap anti-EU propaganda, not least to put the blame for its own failings firmly unto distant ‘foreign’ institutions in Brussels, as if Britain was actually not a vital partner in shaping these institutions. In his reaction to the Brexit vote, in a speech that also became his resignation speech, PM Cameron said that he has ‘always believed that we have to confront big decisions, not duck them’. This alone showed how removed from reality he is: He was for many years one of those in the Tory elite who put the blame for unpopular decisions on ‘Europe’, so how could he now convincingly campaign in favour of remain? To hold a referendum in the first place was in fact his way to get rid of inner-party rivals and the destructive force of the hard-core anti-European contingent. His bet was, in holding a referendum and winning it, he would lay those ghosts to rest for good. That this bet would not necessarily come off became clear when he made the perhaps most stupid mistake of his premiership: to allow even ministers in his own government, a government that he declared as pro-EU, not only a free vote but free campaign rights. If you are unable to unite your own government behind its own policy, how can you expect to unite the electorate or even encourage a grown-up, nuanced debate?

I was briefly back in the UK during the weeks before the referendum date, and I was taken aback by the almost hatred with which the campaign was fought – certainly not a good omen, but also by its personalised character. A campaign where one of the main arguments in a TV panel by leading people in the remain camp deteriorates to personal attacks on Boris Johnson, accusing him of occupying the leave position out of personal power calculations, is in a sad state. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson might have been driven by those exact motivations and I would regard it as a complete disaster were he to become the next PM, but surely a campaign that seeks to motivate people needs a different strategy. The biggest flop here was the Labour Party, or at least its current leadership, for whom going back in history should have provided important lessons.

The last EU referendum in 1975 was called by a dis-united labour government whose members were, equally as was the case now, free to campaign on either side. Then, it was a highly efficient pro-EU campaign by the then Tory opposition under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher that carried much of the vote, campaigning then under the slogan ‘support your local continent’ among others, and making famous a Thatcher pro-EU jumper (that has actually been reproduced again during the current referendum). Lesson to be learned: if the governing party is too disunited it depends on the opposition to carry through the vote that it says it supports. Most of the labour campaign was lukewarm rather than engaged, and what was largely absent was the defence of the EU as a post-war project based on important values.

Of course there is much to critique about how the EU has developed in practice, its bureaucracy, its almost exclusive focus on neoliberal doctrine, corporate entities and the free exchange of goods and services – and the neglect of its vision as a community of values, as a promise for the future, as an entity who managed to overcome nationalist rivalries and in spite of everything united the people of Europe as citizens of more than small nationalist enclaves. Also the feeling by too many, that Europe has turned from a promise for a better future for all to a threat for some could have provided much room for constructive engagement and debate. But that debate remained largely absent and a labour party, some of whose members were inept enough to say that Brexit was wrong now, as it would lead to an even more right-wing alternative project, but would be fine if only the Left had a majority, can not wash its hands off a result that many now lament. And that among the few who did actually raise issues about the EU as a community of values, one the most prominent was past PM Tony Blair, highly controversial within his own party and righty so, together with John Major, should be a source of great embarrassment for the current Labour party leadership. Instead, what we hear are continued accusations against the Tories for dividing Britain, and statements that imply it was rally the task of the government to win the referendum for remain.

Looking back, 23 June was thus a sad day for Europe in many ways, and only the next few weeks and months will show whether it translates into the rise of more nationalist xenophobic agendas elsewhere, or whether solidarity in a real sense gains ground (again). The EU certainly is at a turning point, and if the Brexit vote is the start of a process that makes the EU as a whole remember its core values and become a place focused primarily on its citizens – instead of predominately on markets and companies, it might actually have done all of us a favour – well, almost all of us, excluding the citizens of England and Wales (unless a petition to re-think the referendum result is successful) – and about Scotland and Northern Ireland we will see.

I will end with these words from an English friend who grew up in an area that voted Leave, but for decades has lived in Manchester that voted Remain (and I am proud to be a resident, even if not a citizen in the full sense of the word, of Manchester for that reason). In her response to Brexit she wrote to me: You are lucky, you are still a citizen of Europe, whereas I’m now a citizen of a crappy little island of small-minded fools.

Yes, I am lucky indeed – for now. And hope to remain so for the rest of my lifetime and for future generations beyond.

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Human rights as a political tool: Eritrea and the ‘crimes against humanity’ narrative

For those who follow the politics of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, the verdict of the second report by the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI), that Eritrea has indeed committed crimes against humanity in a widespread and systematic way, was a foregone conclusion. The COI, established by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in June 2014, presented its first Report in June 2015 and received a revised HRC mandate until June 2016 in order to further investigate violations of human rights in Eritrea, including where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

The verdict was announced, or maybe staged is the better way of describing the process, at a press conference held on 8 June in Geneva, followed by a press conference from the Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea at the same location challenging its findings. I have no intention to enter the acrimonious debate that followed via social media on who can prove or disprove which findings – even though in order to make such a grave accusation and demand the referral of Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), one would expect a comprehensive investigation, and not an in essence one-sided document whose authors did not include experts who do not share their views.

A few words about the methodology of the report as a whole seem in order here: While not allowed access to Eritrea itself, the report is predominately based on interviewees with self-nominated participants in the diaspora. Their testimony is indeed disturbing and at times heart breaking. But it remains the testimony of a number of individuals, the main core made up of 550 witness statements. They in different ways left Eritrea, often experiencing abuse on their journeys, and have learned to navigate international refugee law and asylum systems. This does not make their testimonies wrong, but would call for a nuanced understanding or interpretation in any social science discipline. Human rights advocacy might not be social science, but one would at least expect inconsistencies to be followed up. A prime example of those has travelled the internet widely, when a representative of Canadian mining company Nevsun, accused in the 2015 COI report to use slave labour to dig underground tunnels at Bisha mine in Eritrea, made the point that Bisha is in fact an open-pit mine.

For the new report, a high number of other self-nominated Eritreans came forward in order to contest the first report’s findings. The authors refused to engage with those and partly explained it by the fact that they had been actively recruited by the Eritrean government who also put pressure on some to give this testimony. This may be the case, and maybe actually interviewing some of them would have provided more clarity. It may equally be the case that some of those whose testimony made it into the report were recruited by human rights activists who have their own means of advocacy and persistence, and for example hire public lobbying companies in order to spread their narrative of Eritrea (I was for a while bombarded by emails from such a company with sensational news until I contacted them and asked to be removed from their list). One can also make the case that an inquiry into human rights abuses has no obligation to consult those who reject that such violations are taking place. Fair point.

What is harder to justify and exemplifies the flaws in the COI report is the fact that all additional experts that were consulted came from the spectrum of human rights advocates in a broad sense, and included hardly anybody with recent first-hand experience of Eritrea. Chairperson of the COI, Mike Smith, explained at the press conference that one did not see the torture and other violations when visiting Asmara. That is of course true, but many people exist who live, have lived or continue to visit Eritrea, have multiple connections within the country and could have contributed to the COI’s understanding. They were deliberately ignored, and the result is a document that describes a country many Eritreans do not recognise.

Perhaps most problematic in the COI report is the claim that those crimes against humanity were in fact committed since Eritrean independence in 1991. This claim brings, perhaps in unintended ways, the highly political character of this exercise premised on absolute prioritisation of human rights, regardless of history or context but in line with wider geopolitical agendas, clearly out into the open, as it shows complete disregard for (or ignorance of?) Eritrea’s post-liberation history.

In essence, the new report updates but adds little of substance to last year’s report, but in removing the ‘potential’ preceding the crimes against humanity dictum opens the door to refer Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations Security Council. In that, it has many similarities with the discourse around human rights violations and in that case ‘genocide’ in relation to Sudan and Darfur in particular. The eventual indictment of Sudanese president Bashir by the ICC and its aftermath should make one pause for a moment: Not only was the arrest warrant highly political, but more critically a sustained political solution to the various conflicts and fault lines in Sudan is as far away as ever.

As a side, the way the numbers game is being played in such performances is also quite interesting: In relation to Darfur, numbers were always contested and at the time of Bashir’s indictment the ‘fantastical’ claim of 5000 people dying every months was made and used as ‘proof’ for genocide. The figure 5000 has also made the rounds in relation to Eritrea in the claim that 5000 people per months are escaping the country – with little evidence of what time period we are talking about and how those exact figures can be obtained, other than through indirect means. Maybe 5000 has become a magic figure in relation to when to trigger a ‘crimes against humanity’ claim? In Eritrea this is now being supplemented by the widely repeated claim of 400.000 people being ‘enslaved’ in the country – and as some mud always sticks, the benchmark for substantiating that figure gets lower and lower.

COI chairperson Mike Smith had also indicated in his press conference that Eritreans would not cross borders freely, but under danger and often dependent on people smugglers. I have always advocated to give all Eritreans exit visas once they completed 18 months of national service, but even if that were the case, they would in all likelihood still employ people smugglers, as few (if any) European countries would give them entry visas thus they still needed to come as refugees. In contrast to citizens from a different African country, the Gambia, who top the list of those having entered Italy illegally this year, Eritreans are predominately given asylum and thus it pays to be Eritrean or rather pose as such. There are multiple reasons to leave Eritrea – or any other African country for that matter, and many reason why people actually return, including to Eritrea.

In an ideal world, everybody who has committed human rights abuses would be held to account eventually. Looking at the Horn of Africa as a region, grave human rights violations persist in all countries, and are committed by all sides, governments and opposition groups alike. The Horn is also a region where mutual interferences into each other’s affairs and proxy wars are an important part of foreign policy conduct. Eritrea itself has a long history of its own rights being violated by international bodies and the UN, not least in being denied independence – even if the Eritrean government uses past grievances too easily as an excuse for repressive policies.

A potential referral to the ICC, or the alternative suggestion to set up an African Union tribunal like the one that recently convicted former Chadian president Hissène Habré, would not only and unjustly continue a politics of ostracizing Eritrea. It would also do little to either release political prisoners or give them a fair trial, nor to stop the exodus out of Eritrea.

Mary Harper in a recent BBC report from within Eritrea sums it up nicely when she says it might be high time to look at the country afresh, and that Eritrean reality is far more complex than the picture painted by both sides of the divide. A useful next step of the COI would be to acknowledge that the picture painted in its report is by necessity one-sided – and with it step back from the moral high ground human rights campaigners too often seem to take by definition of their mandate. Chances for such a move are slim. But any progress for the future of Eritrea and its people will ultimately depend on a more balanced and creative policy approach that moves beyond the vilification and isolation of Eritrea, and acknowledges the deeper fault lines of politics in the Horn.

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Forgotten Humanitarians – reflections on the death of Rupert Neudeck, founder of the German humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur

Many called him naïve, and he certainly showed little interest in the structural conditions or the violence that caused people to flee their countries of origin, nor in wider geopolitical dynamics that often determine the concrete parameters of humanitarian action. He was moved by individual destinies, the bare life of people who suffered and needed to be helped, full-stop. And in 1979, the people in dire need of such help were people drowning on un-seaworthy boats while trying to flee Vietnam.

Rupert Neudeck thus became famous for the rescue of these so-called Vietnamese boat-people when in 1979 he, together with German writer Heinrich Böll and some friends, started the organisation ‘a ship for Vietnam’ that rescued more than 10.000 of destitute Vietnamese most of whom would in all likelihood have drowned otherwise. It later mutated into the humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur with the general goal to help refugees and displaced people worldwide. The Vietnamese boat-people were then seen – not by him, he did not care for such labels – as refugees from communist dictatorship and most were settled in Europe or the US, Canada and Australia.

Little such luck for most of the contemporary ‘boat-people’ in the Mediterranean, 700 of whom are feared dead in one of the deadliest weeks of late, the week before Neudeck’s death. They increasingly meet barbed wire, fences and walls instead of a warm welcome, a hug, or a dry place to sleep. And one can rightly question – as I myself have done often enough– the symbolism of the picture of a dead baby or toddler that also accompanied the latest tragic deaths, causing short-lived outrage combined with ‘business as usual’ and the refusal to search for sustainable solutions. At the same time, what Neudeck, however infuriating he could be, propagated, was that human tragedies of any proportion were ultimately felt at the level of simple, individual human beings. Those fellow humans needed immediate help – his credo was the humanitarian impulse in its purest form. This made him successful in explaining to plumber Jo why a Vietnamese boat-person needed his help– not always, but often enough. He got a great many people to believe that the stranger about to drown had more in common with them than they might have ever imagined. He was, a rare quality in this rather cynical world, authentic.

Neudeck was also highly controversial, not least within humanitarian circles, and arguably with good reason. People who worked for him were supposed to live on good will and enthusiasm in order not to use resources for themselves that could be used for those who suffered. And while his own lifestyle was reportedly Spartan, much is to be said for a proper meal, a bed for the night and a good rest for those at the humanitarian forefront, things he felt were unnecessary luxuries. In many ways, he was the antidote to the increasing professionalization of humanitarian action – and as such people like him might have a lot of value in some ways, but also create a lot of problems further down the line.

He also did not trust technology and surveillance in the humanitarian field, as in his view one could only understand how people really lived and suffered when one engaged with them, on the ground and on their terrain. He thus went, was touched and tried to help as best as he could. One cannot run the international humanitarian system on such impulses – but more immersion and less simulation, as Mark Duffield points out in a recent article, might indeed have a lot of value. A reflection on the life and death of Rupert Neudeck and his legacy in the German publication die tageszeitung says it well: One does not need to agree in any way with his views or actions to mourn his death as a loss to humanity.

This is particularly true at a time when the contemporary ‘boat-people’, the refugees and migrants that see no other way into Europe as to embark on similar rickety boats as the boat-people of Vietnam in the 1970s, start drowning again in increasing numbers. Another German organisation, Sea-Watch, founded and driven by similar personal concerns for the suffering of others, feels like a fitting tribute.

About: Sea-Watch e.V. – Secure maritime escape routes

Since the year 2000 more than 23.000 people died trying to reach Europe’s shores. After the end of Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean Sea three business partners from Germany decided to found the non-profit NGO Sea-Watch e.V. The organisation is acting politically, economically and religiously independent and has two boats that patrol the Mediterranean. For more information see: http://sea-watch.org/en/

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Happy birthday? Reflections on Eritrea’s silver jubilee and moments of future challenge – or: ‘maybe next time in Asmara’

The date of 24th May 2016 marks the official 25th anniversary of Eritrea, the silver jubilee not of formal but de-facto independence of this small country in the Horn of Africa in 1991. Poster, Asmara, EritreaAsmara, the Eritrean capital, will be full of celebrations, celebrations also attended by many Eritreans who reside in the vast diaspora, including in all likelihood some of those who not so long ago came to Western countries to claim political asylum. The latter has raised eyebrows in some of the countries where these self-proclaimed refugees reside, and suggestions have been made to monitor such movements and deny those who return from celebrations in Asmara protection under the refugee convention. While the latter seems a justified move as it clearly contravenes the spirit of the convention to protect those who return to the country that allegedly threatens them to celebrate it, it is also a move that fails to account for the often contradictory loyalties of Eritreans.

More generally, the silver jubilee celebrations have by and large been business as usual when it comes to Eritrea: On one side are those who see the anniversary as an opportunity to enforce the depiction of Eritrea as a dictatorship that violates human rights and commits crimes against humanity, a country where nobody can lead a normal life – a depiction that hurts and angers those who decide to stay and try their best to lead such a life. On the other side are those who praise Eritrea for its developmental achievements and lay the blame for all that is wrong, including human rights violations, firmly at the outside world. When those interpretations clash in diaspora settings, violent incidents are often the result. One recent example were clashes in Tel Aviv, when Eritreans who attended an embassy-organised celebration (something many do regardless of their own political beliefs) were attacked by opposition supporters, and similar incidents have happened in other settings in Europe and the US in the past. In a more civilised way, these deep divisions are performed for the international public in large demonstrations by both sides, as happened for example in July last year in Geneva in impressive fashion.

Part of the official celebrations in Asmara itself will as always –or so I assume – take place in the stadium with access by invitation only (I was once among those with such an invitation, in 2001, thanks to the fact that I was working at the now defunct University of Asmara then). The narrative of Eritrean history performed there usually includes military parades and representations of bravery against all odds. The event is thus staging Eritrean post-independence history following the script of the ruling PFDJ-party or rather ‘front’. It is symbolised by posters like the one above, where living up to the moment of challenge is best exemplified through the image of a soldier. In this case it is a soldier who fought in the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, one of the young fighters meant to symbolize how the values of the liberation war fighter generation have been engrained in the subsequent generation of soldiers or national service recruits. I have always wondered whether this particular soldier has ever seen his face on the posters that can be found at various locations in Asmara, whether he is still alive in Eritrea or the diaspora, or whether he is among the large number of those who have become ‘martyrs’.

But does this symbolism not miss a crucial point when celebrating the silver jubilee? Yes, there was the heroic generation of fighters often driven by idealistic motives who against overwhelming odds achieved national independence, and they should rightly be celebrated for their achievements. But is the challenge of today, or indeed has the challenge since 1991, not been of a rather different nature? Is the challenge for any post-liberation society not to build an inclusive state for all its citizens? In Eritrea, this would include Eritreans not only of all faiths and languages, but also different political convictions. Is it not high time to invite those who might have fought on other sides of the barricades but ultimately for the same objective to join in a national dialogue about what type of country Eritrea should become? There might have been valid reasons why such a process did not happen immediately in 1991, but at least by 2001 one would have wished that those who wanted a different polity and raised their voices were embraced and not ultimately silenced through prison or exile.

The silver jubilee could be the chance for a magnanimous gesture: the announcement of an amnesty for all those imprisoned for their political views and convictions and an invitation to enter into dialogue about Eritrea’s future. Sadly, any inclusive dialogue seems like a distant dream at present, within Eritrea but also in most circles in the diaspora. But at times dialogue does happen in small but potentially important ways. One such event was held in Geneva recently, where participants from different angles and convictions discussed Eritrea’s trajectory, not necessarily in agreement but listening to and respecting each other. The parting words for many who attended that event probably symbolises best aspirations and despair when engaging with Eritrea and its future: ‘maybe next time in Asmara’.

I first heard that phrase in 1984 in Eilat, Israel, from an Eritrean friend I then shared a flat with. He was a refugee from the liberation war with UNHCR laissez-passer papers that brought him as far as Israel on a trip that was to unite him with his sister in Italy. ‘Next time in Asmara’ was a common farewell among Eritreans all over the world then. It entailed the promise of liberation, the aspiration to live in a free country, the fulfilment of a dream that many longed for but few expected to experience in their lifetime. In the with hindsight almost golden years between 1991 and 1998, this dream had came true for many, and one could really met in Asmara drinking coffee at Bar Impero. That ‘maybe next time in Asmara’ has become a common farewell greeting again, voiced with a similar amount of hope and desperation as in pre-independence times, is probably the most potent reminder of the moments of challenge for contemporary Eritrea.

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Out of Africa: Movements along the ‘back way’ from Gambia to Eritrea and the ‘capacity to aspire’

The second largest number of asylum seekers who landed on Italy’s coast in the first nine months of 2015 came from a small African country. It is a country with a big diaspora, with strong and long-established links with various European countries where many of its diaspora-citizens reside, and a country for which remittances make up a substantial percentage of national GDP – however imprecise such measurements may be.

Eritrea, Red Sea

(c) Stefan Boness/Ipon Boats off the coast of Eritrea

When reading the above, most people will assume the country in question is Eritrea, this small country in the Horn of Africa that has ranked among the highest when it comes to newly arrived asylum seekers. But no, I am not referring to Eritrea but to the Gambia, a country that does not feature regularly in human rights reports or is being investigated for ‘potential crimes against humanity’ by a Human Rights Council that follows geopolitical considerations as much as impartiality. It may be debatable why Gambians make the dangerous journey across the sea, the so-called ‘back way’, the name by which the Central Mediterranean route via Libya to the European Union is known. A recent blog published on African Arguments argues it is as much for economic reasons as due to political repression, as is usually the case for most Africans who embark on such journeys, no matter what their country of origin may be.

But once in Europe, that country greatly matters, as Gambians for example quickly learn to their cost: Those Gambians who made it to Italy in the first nine months of 2015 (and many more have perished on their journeys) faced an outright rejection rate of 62.9% – a rate that goes up to 67.6% for those from Mali, a country where French troops still battle Islamic extremist groups, but stands at 12.7% for Eritreans, who come with now deeply engrained narratives of oppression. What this shows once more, an argument I have made repeatedly in the past and that is also put forward in the African Arguments blog mentioned above, is the inadequacy of distinctions in EU asylum and refugee law, and the failure of the EU to come up with a proper immigration policy.

More generally, what drives Africans from different parts of the continent into boats and on their journeys is a core feature of what it means to be human: their ‘capacity to aspire’ in the words of cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. For what is usually a combination of political, social and economic motives, they see no way for a viable or half-way desirable future in the towns and villages where they are stuck, linked to the global marketplace via Facebook, What’s App and other social media – be it in Gambia, as a story in the Washington Post recounts – or elsewhere. This is what unites the Gambian rice farmer with his (or her) brethren in Eritrea, who may also flee from imposed national service, or Somalia, who may also flee so-called Islamic State affiliates, or with the fishermen in Senegal who one day found their traditional fishing grounds occupied by European trawlers.

The last time I was in the Gambia and Senegal is almost twenty years ago, in 1997. Even then, the first Senegalese fishing boats had started to be converted into vehicles that brought aspiring youngsters closer to Europe. I had befriended some women mango traders who worked at the main market in Banjul, the Gambia’s capital city. They shared the stories of their lives and hopes with me, and were worried for their children in various ways. At the time the main route ‘out’ for young men (and most of those who go on the journey to Europa are young men) was to engage in a love-relationship with one of the elderly, lonely European women, mainly from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, who then came by the planeload into the Gambia for exactly that purpose. Many of those relationships then really led to marriage and subsequent emigration. Young men should marry for love and to start a family, the market women said then, not be bought by some rich European women, even if they might subsequently sent money home from those business-marriages abroad. I don’t know if the marriage-route to Europe still exists for some, but the dream of an imagined Europe as the promised land has not lost its allure.

During the shooting of a documentary with Senegalese refugees in Thessaloniki, who largely live off street vending activities as due to their unclear status many employers are reluctant to give them proper work, one of the protagonists put it this way: ‘Things are difficult, we want to work but to do so we have to be legal first (…) and to make us legal is not our gain only, we all work to make this country [Greece] better’. If only the countries of Europe would learn to understand that.

Background sources:

I have written on the ‘capacity to aspire’ in the context of AIDS orphans in Mozambique and their aspirations for the future, see for example Journal of Development Studies 46(2), 254-273.

The documentary ‘Refugee Lifelines’ was shot in cooperation between myself and Symßiosis, a refugee advocacy organisation in Thessaloniki, Greece, by a documentary film-maker who himself came as an Iranian refugee to Greece. It was for example publicly screened at an even for Refugee Week 2014 at Z-Arts in Manchester.

A revised version of this blog was published as a Manchester Policy Blog: http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2016/06/out-of-africa-asylum-seekers-europe-and-the-capacity-to-aspire/

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Fidel Castro’s last speech and TTIP: From solidarity between peoples to the supremacy of multinational cooperations

Last week saw two events that seem quite unrelated but in fact tell us a lot about changes in the global political economy over the last decades, changes that have accelerated since the end of the Cold War. The first event was a speech by Fidel Castro on the final day of the Communist Party Congress in Cuba. It was in many ways a farewell speech by the almost 90-year old former maximo líder who has been in poor health for some time, and he acknowledged as much. But at a time when almost everybody I know of whatever political persuasion follows in the footsteps of President Obama and rushes into Cuba to see it ‘before it becomes like the US’, Fidel Castro reminded those preTAZ_TTIPsent of a time when Cuba, in spite of all its faults, served as a beacon of hope for many who believed a different world was possible. The ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervour and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them, Fidel Castro said in his speech.

And while today’s tourists are mainly in search of some sort of nostalgia on the cheap, I remember visits to Cuba during different times. In the 1980s and 1990s – and the last time I have been to Cuba was in 1993, at a time when many of the economic problems Cuba faced were particularly acute, many Cubans were still proud of their attempt to built a society based on different parameters than the neoliberal globalisation propagated by the end-of-history paradigm. Much has been written on Cuba’s progress in the provision of social goods under conditions of scarcity, and on a society not blighted by the vast increase in inequality elsewhere. Less well-known perhaps are the extensive free education programmes, at secondary as well as university level, that Cuba provided mainly for students from African countries with a socialist orientation. It was often the only chance these students had for meaningful education, and indeed many of those who once were students in Cuba now occupy leadership positions in their countries of origin, as I have discussed elsewhere in relation to Mozambique.

Recent visitors tell me that now all Cubans want is getting as rich as US-Americans as fast as possible, and that might indeed be the case – I have no way of knowing. This relates to the second event of last week, the whistle-stop tour of President Obama to Europe with the ultimate aim of a push for TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The trip included a stop at Downing Street to warn the UK of Brexit with a focus on adverse consequences for trade relations, as well as meetings with Angela Merkel and a joint opening of both of the main German trade fair in Hannover, followed by meetings in Hannover that also included Cameroon, Hollande and Renzi, the leaders of Europe’s main trading nations.

Before Obama’s arrival, Hannover saw a large, under-reported anti-TTIP demonstration, and indeed TTIP is a quite extraordinary construct that gives big international co-operations almost free reign but does little to address the real problems of global trade and the flow of international finance. President Obama is in a rush to get the agreement signed as there is the fear that the next US administration will hamper progress and may ultimately kill any TTIP-like agreement. One should always be alert when such arguments are being made to push through a deal that indeed could disempower politicians in favour of CEOs in remarkable ways. One of the major points of contestation in relation to TTIP is thus its provisions for investor-state dispute settlement, a procedure that would allow companies to sue foreign governments over claims of unfair treatment and to be entitled to compensation. More generally, TTIP gives absolute priority to free trade and anything that might hinder such trade, from environmental and consumer protection, to social and labour standards, is suspicious and can in theory be undermined. TTIP also fails to address other core features that distort free trade worth the name but work in favour of the 1%, most prominently currency speculations and tax heavens.

TTIP more generally comes at a time when another pressing issue, the refugee and migrant crisis, has already exposed that free movement and free trade is really about goods, economic interests and extensive profits – but not about people. People are rather the collateral damage stuck in refugee camps in Turkey or on islands on the fringes of Europe, or in exploitative conditions in the Global South. Fidel Castro’s last speech reminds us of a time, however imperfect, when solidarity still had a different meaning.

Background sources:

I have written on socialist solidarity through educational exchanges programmes mainly between East Germany and Mozambique but including links to such programmes between Cuba and a vast number of countries, for example in African Affairs, 109(436), ‘Memories of Paradies’ – Legacies of socialist education in Mozambique, pp. 451-470.

The German daily Die Tageszeitung in its 22 April 2016 edition had on the cover of a special TTIP section the proposal for a revised TTIP that it asked President Obama to sign (see insert above). This Transatlantic Partnership for Eco-Social Transformation (T-PET) includes as core principles the agreement to end preferential treatment of corporations over human rights and nature, a global wealth tax, the misuse of personal data via the internet and respect for intellectual property rights.

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