Revisiting the ICC indictment against Al Bashir in the wake of the current protest movements in Sudan

Since January 2019, Sudan has seen protests in different parts of he country that quickly moved from anger at worsening economic and social conditions to the demand of regime change and free elections. It was initially met with brute force – often carried out by forces originally created and recruited to deal with rebel movements in Darfur – the war in Darfur in turn a key in the ICC indictment. Even if compared to other protests in the past, the repression was arguably much more measured with, according to Africa Confidential, the death toll well below 100 where previously mass killings of civilians were the response. But then how do we know? Many Sudanese journalists have reportedly been detained, and at least six foreign correspondents in Sudan had their accreditation invoked.

As the protest continue, diplomats have started to mull over the question if an offer should be made to Al Bashir to suspend the charges of genocide and war crimes against humanity if he decided to leave power. This would in all likelihood fall short of the democratic transition that various opposition groups have been calling for – even if it might be something parts of the Sudanese population might welcome, but that is hard to judge. While facts of behind the scene negotiations are hard to come by, it seems confirmed that Al Bashir held secret (or not so secret) talks with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres about such a deal on the fringes of an African Union summit 9-10 February 2019 in Addis Ababa. Such an offer has also been promoted by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecom pioneer better known for his good governance foundation.

Any such move would surely be controversial, as it would incite the old debate of justice versus impunity born out of pragmatism. Ever since Al Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the first sitting head of state, a controversy about this indictment raged, not only among supporters of Al Bashir but equally among many concerned with peacebuilding and human rights.

It is thus pertinent that an article I wrote with Allard Duursma long before the recent developments but that has now been published draws our attention to some of the wider aspects of the ICC indictment that proved counter-productive to the quest to protect Darfurians and the human rights within Darfur (and with that foster some form of democratic transition for the whole of Sudan). The major issue that was behind calling for such an indictment was the alleged genocide that was said to take place in Darfur. A particular reading of the multiple conflicts in Darfur as a battle between good versus evil was brought to a world-wide audience partly by the controversial engagement of celebrity humanitarians like George Clooney. A narrative thus emerged that brushed over the complex dynamics of conflict in Darfur that I have written about elsewhere, in which all sides were ruthlessly pushing through their own agenda.

At the same time, Darfur has been home to a hybrid African Union/UN peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), one of whose prime tasks is to provide some form of security for Darfurian civilians and protect human rights in Darfur more generally, as human rights issues have moved to the fore of UN Peacekeeping Operations under the Human Rights Up Front Initiative. The UN Security Council (UNSC) issues the mandate for any UN Peacekeeping Mission – and in the case of Darfur it was the very same entity, the UNSC, that was the referral body for an ICC investigation.

Every Peacekeeping Mission relies on the cooperation with its host country to fulfil its mandate. But how likely is it that a government that is referred to the ICC by the same body that mandates a Peacekeeping Mission on its soil, the UNSC, will support rather than obstruct such a mission? As we demonstrate in detail in our paper, the indictment had quite immediate repercussions not only for UN peacekeeping operations but for humanitarian actors on the ground more generally, as well as for local Darfurians who worked for any of the international actors. And this should not have come as a surprise, but was rather to be expected.

We might all want to live in a world where those who severely violate human rights and incite hatred are brought to justice – but lets not forget, it are often the governments of our own countries that arm far away warlords or seek their support when it suits our needs, in terms of security and migration control for example. In addition, the simple cry for ‘democracy’ whatever that may mean in concrete, is rarely the solution on the ground, as it often results in some form of imposed blueprint that has more to do with outside imposition rather than genuinely local movements, and also too often fails to take into account any of the historical and other legacies of particular places.

Looking at the wider power dynamcis in Sudan, how long Al Bashir can sit out the present revolt seems to be strongly correlated to two internal factors: The strength and endurance of the opposition and those who joined the protest without belonging to any opposition movement, many youth and women, reportedly. More crucially perhaps, it depends on the loyalty of senior figurers in the armed forces. Many of those are bound to have been complicit in atrocities in Darfur or the Nuba mountains, and will worry about retributions for themselves. Thus the ICC indictment seems to remain the elephant in the room. Some have suggested a managed transition maybe akin to South Africa at the end of apartheid, but for many opposition activists this is a non starter, as it would, in their eyes, reward atrocities.

Of course, outsiders will also play a role and there are suggestions that EU leaders, whose countries are all members of the ICC, are much more reluctant than the US, not a signatory, to consider suspension of the ICC indictment.

The trade off between justice, peace and impunity is not that easy and also not as binary as is often suggested, as our paper demonstrates, as we not only see in Sudan but a number of other contemporary crises, the Syrian war perhaps the most prominent. Looked at from the current state of the end-game for Al-Bashir, this particular indictment of a sitting President, an indictment mandated by the UN Security Council (which through this referral loses its impartiality) – raises more questions than answers.

For a detailed discussion see our paper: The ICC indictment against Al-Bashir and its repercussions for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Darfur, available at: (or email me for a copy of the paper). This blog has been re-published as a Global Development Institute blog.

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Academic publishing in the times of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and questions of social responsibility and accountability

In the month when all so-called ‘research-active’ staff at the UKs leading universities are being asked to update their yearly REF profiles, meaning the publications they propose to be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework, the quality of which ultimately decides how much money one’s university may get from the state, it seems pertinent to reflect on some of the perverse incentives the REF creates.

These incentives seem particular odd at a university that is proud to have a firm commitment to social responsibility as one of its key three objectives or ‘missions’, as I will reflect on with a personal story. But the story is not really about me and the choices I made or that others made in a different way, but rather shows how some of the dynamics created by the REF might contravene certain types of social responsibility or accountability.

At the end of 2018 the proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Eritrean Studies, held in the Eritrean capital Asmara from 20-22 July, came out in volume one and two. I have written about the conference before with a different focus, and while a high number of paper presenters came from within Eritrea and its higher education colleges, a substantial number of foreign academics were also present and giving papers. Looking at the proceedings, one would not have guessed that, as the vast majority of papers are indeed from Eritrean scholars.

I had organised with a colleague a panel on foreign policy dynamics in the Horn of Africa for the conference, in many ways a ‘hot’ or controversial topic. Thus, even though we did our best to attract local researchers to it, the panel in the end consisted of four foreign academics from universities outside Eritrea, including myself. I had spoken to the theme of my paper at other events before and a number of journals perceived as prestigious (in REF terms) had expressed an interest in publishing a finalized paper. But once our panel was accepted for the Asmara conference I made a conscious decision to publish its final version in the conference proceedings.

Following the logic of the REF, I should have ‘saved’ my paper for more prestigious publications – this would have been regarded as a rational decision in the light of REF pressures and the general narrative that valid research in REF-terms is only the research that targets top-end journals. And while I felt I was actually OK in terms of what is required for the next REF, there is always the underlying quest to excel even more in the next publication, making it often difficult to simply step back or step out of the spinning wheel that is to propel each publication to new heights. In many ways, one is not supposed to ever feel OK as far as the REF is concerned.

I would have felt rather odd to use a conference invitation to the Global South as a means to publish in a journal that many and perhaps most researchers in the Global South, and certainly in Eritrea, cannot access easily. And even if access can be organised or negotiated, papers travel very differently within local contexts if they are published locally. But this goes beyond my personal choice and what I regarded as my social responsibility to peers and colleagues in Eritrea on this occasion, rather it speaks to a much wider issue: Targeting so-called high impact journals regardless of the circumstances in which research papers were produced, debated or refined, and being socially responsible on how and where one publishes, is often not easy to square. And the pressure always seems to be on that if in doubt, forgo any other concerns but focus on journal rankings. Important questions about knowledge production and the power dynamics behind are obscured by this quest to make it into a tiny number of journals (and that even before reflecting on the dynamics of how publications make it into such journals or not).

For me personally, the decision to be part of the conference proceedings was very rewarding. I received some interesting and thoughtful peer-review comments from the editorial team. In addition, the paper has been read and discussed by many of those within Eritrea who I would have liked to read it, and perhaps more importantly, it is publicly part of the attempt to revive Eritrean Studies as a discipline – even if it will not win me any appreciation in relation to the REF. In a field as ideological as Eritrean Studies, in the eyes of some, publication as part of the proceedings of a conference partly hosted by the higher education and research bodies of the state and the ruling party might put me into a corner where I do not belong, as some sort of regime advocate – but then, those who hold that view might simply read my paper before they pass judgement.

But this is often another casualty of the fixation on the REF: many worthwhile and indeed important papers, book chapters or grey sources easily fall by the wayside, as only those publications that appear in the ‘right’ journals are judged as of sufficient value to be cited or debated.

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The true colours of Brexit: Back to the basics of creating a hostile environment – reminisces of a ‘queue-jumper’

I was almost feeling slightly sorry for Teresa May when she came back with the Brexit deal and got so much flag from all sides, remainers and leavers, within her own party and from all others. She had tried to do the impossible, have her cake and eat it – and those within her own partly or those who bet on the Labour mantra that promises to get a better deal in Brussels are as delusional as the hard Brexiteers. But then, the woman who created the hostile environment was always bound to show her true colours again sooner or later.

Photo: Stefan Boness,

And at a time when I thought the abuse hurled at EU citizens in the UK could not get any worse (who, by the way, are not ‘EU-migrants’ but EU citizens making use of the right of free movement that is still in place – even if border guards already started to behave as if it has been abolished) another slap in the face or punch in the stomach: I have been degraded to a ‘queue-jumper’. Because what Brexit really is about, so the PM tells business today, is to prevent EU migrants from ‘jumping the queue’.

I remember quite well the day I was interviewed for my current job, in the autumn of 2005. It was an interview based on my qualifications for the job. After me came an applicant from an African country – so am I being told today he should have gotten that job, and I simply jumped the queue, as a EU citizen? Sorry, mate, wrong passport then but in future you need not to worry! This is of course nonsense, but this re-turn to a sole focus on migration is nevertheless not only appalling, but also dangerous. It might indeed be that it delivers what the majority of people in the UK want – or at least in England and Wales, as has been argued in a recent blog, and thus makes the PM deliver the idea of a cohesive paradise not disturbed by any ‘foreigners’.

Sadly, this reading of Brexit is more widespread than one thinks in different reincarnations. I was invited to speak at a Fabian society event this weekend on a panel entitled: Hostile Environment: Populism, immigration and the future of social cohesion. I was in the beautiful engine room of the People’s History Museum with nice and in many ways like-minded people, speaking to an agenda that indirectly suggests social cohesion is being ‘threatened’ by migration. I did strongly dispute this in my contribution. Social cohesion is threatened by rising inequalities, by a rising gap between a well-off class and those who struggle in their daily lives to make ends meet, or envisage a better future for their children or their communities. Social cohesion is threatened by a class-based politics that centres on ideological doctrines like ‘austerity’ that has increased inequality in the UK exponently in comparison with any other EU country in the past years – while at the same time managing to create a narrative that blames ‘others’ for a decline in overall welfare.

And sadly, this goes across parties. Yes, there are some great people in the Labour party who advocate for a humane and solidaristic migration regime. But there are also too many for whom slogans like ‘British jobs for British workers’ are the answer – and who have apologized in the past for allowing too many ‘migrants’ in, thus enforcing the narrative that migrants are the cause for declining social services rather than years of austerity.

In particular for a party that has its roots in global solidarity movements among workers, it should be clear that as long as the world as a whole remains a highly unequal place, where people in countries like the UK can afford cheap goods because those who produce them in far away countries work under exploitative conditions, migration is here to stay. Either people in poor countries are given a chance within the global economic system to get richer, or they will move to rich countries – and increasing border securitization will not deter them. Thus policies that for example close tax loopholes globally and hold companies to account in a better way are called for – but such policies are hard to implement in a race to attract new investment through low taxes in a post-Brexit UK.

The various calls within the Labour party that were also repeated in different ways at the Fabian society event, that one needs to overcome the divisions that Brexit caused, are valid, but I increasingly feel I am not part of this community that needs to do so. This is also reflected in the, to my mind, rather ill-chosen name for the campaign for a new vote, the ‘people’s vote’. This has by some been criticized for suggesting the first vote were not ‘the people’, or the ‘mislead people’ – and now ‘the people’ (a different reincarnation of that vague category?) needed to take back control, so to speak. But in fact both campaigns define ‘the people’ as those who are natives of some sort, and EU citizens who came here, some already generations ago, with a legal right to remain, were always excluded. Sadly, I do believe the vote delivered exactly what a native majority wanted – and in that sense Theresa May is indeed the perfect PM. At the end of the day, German writer Berthold Brecht suggested, each country gets the leadership it deserves.

In that scenario, EU citizens have become ’bargaining chips’, however much we protest we are not, and now, to add insult to injury, we are accused of the worst anti-social behaviour in native Britain: queue-jumping. We may have some utility in economic terms, as a number of well-meaning advertising campaigns on what ‘we’ contribute in taxes and other economic benefits proclaim. But very few people apart from ourselves seem willing to publicly speak up for us as fellow human beings, as people who live in the same neighbourhoods and communities, people with similar worries and similar happiness (thanks to London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his statement of public support and the creation of the EU Londoners Hub, I wish my own city Manchester would follow suit). Each additional insult hurts us greatly, but it will also hurt post-Brexit Britain, even if most of its members have not quite grasped that yet.

In a month were the centenary of the end of WWI has brought out powerful reflections on the value of standing united against forces of destruction, hatred and nationalism, this state of affairs in England is truly saddening.

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‘Eritrea is not sweet’ – Personal notes from Mekelle a few months after the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace

A little more than three months after the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I find my self in Mekelle, on the occasion of the 20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies where I present a – suddenly very topical – paper on the importance of territory in understanding Eritrean foreign policy. It is the first time I am in fact in Tigray, that part of Northern Ethiopia that borders Eritrea and whose borders with Eritrea have been a key focal point of the 1998-2000 war, since 1997. Then, I entered Tigray from Eritrea and have rather mixed memories as I have written about elsewhere.

But this time everything is different. Not only is Mekelle a charming and truly welcoming city, full of energy and energetic young people (even if many of them may be unemployed), and a lot of ‘development’ going on. One also runs into the fact that the border with Eritrea is really open at every street corner.

On my first day here, I sit at one of the street coffee stalls and come into conversation with four young local men. The conversation starts around shoes, as two of them demonstrate proudly their ‘American’ boots to me. Then one fishes a, as he says, ‘10 Birr note from Eritrea’ out of his pocket. I correct him and say it is in fact a Nakfa note and he laughs and agrees. Two days ago, he continues, he just went and visited Eritrea, out of curiosity. ‘I do not have any relatives there or anything, but I went to Adigrat and crossed at Zalembassa’ (Zalembassa being one of the two border crossings that are officially open at the moment and where people can cross more or less freely from both sides), he said. He did not dislike what he saw but was surprised about the lack of development. The road was in a very destroyed state on the Eritrean side – quite logically, as this was no-man’s land until very recently – but also overall so many things seemed to be lacking materially. ‘Eritrea is not sweet’ was his overall verdict, meaning it seemed a place where life was difficult and people seemed to carry some invisible heavy burden with them.

In many ways, this seemed a good way to put it. I was reminded of a conversation I had with other Ethiopian youth about two years ago in Gondar, also at a local coffee place. They were all students of tourism at one of the many local and regional universities that have sprung up all over Ethiopia. They spoke good English and were excited about the prospect of one day maybe starting their own tourism agency and show foreigners their beautiful country. At the time I thought if these youth were born in Eritrea, they would now in all likelihood do their national service, or if they were lucky enough to have been admitted to higher education, would have been assigned a subject and be drafted to complete their service afterwards, with a vague ending somewhere in a future that feels to distant to dream about. Here in Ethiopia, youth can go to college and study something they fancy – and while the tourism ventures of my acquaintances might never come to fruition, these youth had a lightness about them that is hard to find in Eritrea. The phrase ‘Eritrea is not sweet’ sumps up part of this state-of-being very well, even if ushered by somebody who only spent a few hours there.

I am also reminded of this gravity that seems to have hung over Eritrea for far too long to remember anything different at the TPLF memorial and museum in Mekelle. As in all these memorial sites in Ethiopia, a comprehensive documentation with photographs from the time fighting against the Derg regime is being displayed – including some pictures from the time when TPLF forces helped the EPLF during a Derg offensive in Sahel – but that is another story. What struck me was one billboard that simply showed joyful TPLF fighters as couples, and most strikingly a couple with a new-born baby in the field. They looked happy and joyful like any other family that just had a child born – and the joy that the picture radiated was quite infectious. It is hard to imagine any EPLF museum every displaying pictures of such a nature, where the lightness of life overtakes struggle and sacrifice even if just for a brief moment (but I am ready to be wronged if a similar kind of museum should be created at any point in the future in Eritrea).

But let’s turn back to the present, and one can encounter numerous Eritreans in Mekelle in various states of happiness and disbelief combined. There is the young Eritrean woman who excitedly speaks into her mobile phone to somebody in Asmara, taking orders of all the things she is to buy in Mekelle and bring back home with her. There is the Eritrean man who enters one of the newer nice hotels in town and says the government must have a lot of money here to afford such a nice building, only to stare in disbelief when the receptionist tells him the hotel is in fact privately owned. Some groups of young men arrive and the first thing they do is get drunk on beer – simply because ‘you can drink ten beer or more, there is no limit’, while in Eritrea most bars run out of beer relatively early in the evening if beer is available at all. Then one can see Eritreans simply driving around town with their video cameras, filming all the construction sites and the new buildings that have sprung up with a sense of amazement.

Others simply arrive at hotels and pay up front for a month or more to stay and try during that time to get a visa to a destination abroad, preferably Europe or the US, via some family they have in the diaspora. It is a coming and going, thus far good-natured and with a stake for both sides. There is the local Tigrayan businessman who is on the phone to somebody in Keren in Eritrea, getting a run down of the local cost of goods needed for construction, making a note and pondering how best to sell his bags of cements and other items to his customers there.

In the other direction some fancy electronic devises make their way from Eritrea to Mekelle to be sold here, as do fashionable clothes and used shoes – a new used shoe market run by Eritreans exists in a part of town. Thus far all is quite ad-hoc and unregulated, but this will of course not be the case forever.

Fittingly, while still in Mekelle getting a glimpse of some of the dynamics that the border opening has created, a piece I wrote for the Horn of Africa Bulletin as a first stab at thinking what it may mean for the future finally came out – more than six weeks since it had been written, but still valid not last in concern over the lack of institutionalisation of the ties between both countries, concerning trade and other areas. On the streets of Mekelle, one can change Nakfa for Birr but ‘Nakfa is very expensive’, as one of the money changers says (180 Birr to 100 Nakfa on 5 October on the street). Too easily it seems to be forgotten that grievances around the fact that the Nakfa-Birr exchange rate, once Eritrea introduced its own currency in 1997, was then seen as predominately advantageous to Eritrea, a feeling that fed into the grievances that eventually led to all-out war.

For now, it might indeed be the time to simply embrace the peace agreement and celebrate to hear so many Eritrean voices on the streets of Mekelle. Time to celebrate the sliver of new found optimism among the Eritreans who visit Mekelle, stock up on items they find hard to get in Eritrea, and return. But eventually a clearer roadmap for the future for people on both sides of the border will be needed.

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September 11th – what’s in a date? Remembering the victims of the Chilean dictatorship and celebrating peace in the Horn of Africa

September 11th has come to symbolise to most people in ‘Western’ countries if not globally the date of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and other buildings in the US by a group of terrorists in 2001, and has been remembered as such ever since. At these memorial ceremonies, the names of those who perished are read out, a powerful performance against forgetting. It is one of those events where many people the world over remember exactly where they were or what they did when they heard the news, and some of the iconic pictures of the day, not only those of planes hitting the twin towers, but also those of people who made it out, almost looking like statues covered in ash, I can still vividly remember.

Demand for justice by Chilean visitors at the Berlin exhibition opening of José Giribás on torture in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Photo: Stefan Boness,

And yes, I know where I was on the day: I was in the flat of friends who had moved away from Berlin but still had their flat, using this as a working space to finish the writing of my PhD that I submitted later that year. I got a phone call telling me ‘switch on the TV’ and I was a bit annoyed at first, as what could be so important to detract me from my research, and then it took me a while to figure out how to switch on the TV that was not my own. But when I managed I sat there in disbelief, a disbelief I shared with the millions the world over who looked at the same pictures as me.

But there are other September 11th dates that changed the lives of countless people from normal to horror, but have no yearly ceremony where names of those who perished are being read out. In fact, the fate of many of those who perished that day or in its aftermath remains unknown. I speak about September 11th 1973 in Santiago de Chile, where a certain General Pinochet, supported and encouraged by the United States, organised a brutal coup against the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende. Almost immediately following the coup, Pinochet’s henchmen, benefitting from the expertise of the CIA and others, filled prisons and transformed normal buildings into detention centres, including the National Stadium in Santiago, where so-called political prisoners were herded into. These were journalists, musicians, artists, union members, part of Allende’s bodyguard or sections of the army who defied the coup, but also simply normal people who were perceived as not supporting the right-wing coup that was to determine Chilean politics for more than a decade. Many were tortured and/or killed, including being thrown from aeroplanes into the ocean so no traces would be left– and all with active support and agreement of powers like the US.

To this day, many of those involved in torture and letting people disappear were never held to account, causing protest in Chile and beyond each year on the coup-anniversary. A recent project aimed at the preservation of historical memory in Chile was created by Berlin-based Chilean photographer José Giribás Marambio. He was one of those lucky enough to be able to flee after the coup, and under the German title Über Folter spricht man nicht (Don’t talk about torture) photographed survivors of the Chilean torture chambers as well as some of the torture sites. In a number of exhibitions in Cologne and Berlin, one in Berlin at the Bundespressekonferenz (the Federal Press Conference) building opened on 11 September 2018, the now elderly survivors of past torture and degradation look dignified at the spectator. Their presence reminds us that the perpetrators were not classified as terrorists or even criminals, but as noble servants of a legitimate state with Western support, not as the henchman of a criminal dictatorship that they in fact were. José also travelled to some of the buildings where torture and executions took place around Santiago and beyond. A few are museums or sites of remembrance in today’s Chile, like Villa Grimaldi that I once visited when it was just made into such a site, others have returned to nice-looking villas where people live (a normal life?), and others are in a state of disrepair and degradation that past victims try to ‘save’ and turn into sites of remembrance. José’s exhibition is a powerful statement not only against historical forgetting, but also of the duplicity of Western powers in acts that were truly terrorist in the real sense of the word, even if never described as such.

To end, and turning back to my own activities when September 11th, 2001 happened, when I was finalising my PhD on revolution and nation building in Eritrea, leads to yet another reading of a different September 11th as a potentially important date, this time hopefully a more celebratory one. Eritrea has for the past 18 years been in limbo, trapped in a no-war-no-peace conflict with Ethiopa that destabilised the whole Horn of Africa, a situation as such partly convenient for those engaged in the war on terror, but that is another story. Yesterday’s September 11th, the start of the Ethiopian Orthodox new year, also marked the celebration of, finally after all these years, the re-opening of the common border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, celebrated not only by both heads of state and local people, but equally soldiers from both sides of what was until recently a bloody divide. September 11th clearly is a date for true reflection on the state of the world more generally, and not least on the suffering misplaced power politics can cause.

José’s exhibition can be seen at the following locations:

Kunsträume der Michael Horbach-Stiftung | Wormser Str. 23, 50677 Cologne, 09.09. to 21.10.2018.

Haus der Bundespressekonferenz | Schiffbauerdamm 40, 10117 Berlin, 11.09. to 25.09.2018

Galerie Tapir | Neue Hochstraße 8, 13347 Berlin, 30.09. to 21.10.2018

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Goodbye UK – and thank you for the music

Goodbye UK – and thank you for the music: this was this year’s title of a series of concerts that happen every summer in Berlin under the broad scheme ‘Water music’ – because the concerts take place every weekend for three weeks on one of the city’s most beautiful terraces overlooking the river Spree. It always has a particular theme, mostly from places far rather than near, such as African island music or Indian rap. This year, the theme was Brexit, and all gigs were either from British bands and musicians or from musicians from all over the world who were inspired or influenced by British music traditWassermusik Goodbye UK and thanks you for the Musicions or composed their music jointly with British musicians.

Food stalls sold British staples like pulled pork sandwiches and chips, and drinks partly were sold at an ‘Exit-bar’. I saw great concerts that included the Zombies, where the highlight was a total replay of their legendary 1968 album Odyssey and Oracle, a masterpiece that had its 50th birthday this year. And I was at the last concert in the series, featuring Scritti Politti who started his musical career as a young communist living in a London squat to later have people like Miles Davis playing on his albums. So far so good and yes, thank you for the music (even is this is a song by Abba but ditto, music is there to speak across countries and continents).

The format of the event features two concerts followed by a movie screening on another part of the beautiful terrace from where one has a direct view onto the building of the German chancellery – and on the last night one could see the lights on well after midnight in Angela Merkel’s office. Her helicopter flew past the first gig of the evening by Bas Jan, when she returned from a meeting with Russian President Putin that was held on the outskirts of Berlin. Noticed also by Bas Jan, the link between music and politics thus was always near, not only in the title of this year’s event.

The closing movie, by accident or planning was Control, the brilliant 2007 film by Anton Corbijn about Joy Division and its charismatic singer and songwriter Ian Curtis, the film ending with his suicide at the age of 23, driven by various demons Curtis did not manage to live with. Was this irony, I wondered when I left the screening, that it all ended on a suicide note, or was that giving too much meaning to the theme of Brexit that directly or indirectly was the underlying theme of this year’s event? In any case, it left a feeling of sadness and nostalgia.

I thought I had said everything I might have to say about Brexit in a number of previous blogs, and while I still find it highly bewildering how a country in the past known for its pragmatism tears itself apart largely driven by a of bunch of gold-plated Tory politician coupled with an equally dysfunctional Labour stance when it comes to Brexit , I had decided that for my own sanity I stand aside from the everyday engagement with this madness. I am a paid up member of the3million, and find it important this public voice exists. But unlike many of my fellow EU citizens in the UK, the UK is not my ‘home’. It is where I work in a job I love dearly, but it does not destroy my life or the life of anybody in my family if I am made to or decide to leave.

Apparently, the state we are in is all down to (the rhetoric) of ‘the will of the people’, a phrase I always found rather insulting: ‘We’ (and in particular those EU citizens who made the UK truly their ‘home’) are also part of the people, as are UK citizens living in the EU, but we did not have a vote even if for many their future has been turned upside down. Quite a few of my colleagues and fellow-sufferers have left, often in circumstances that were traumatic for them or their children, and I can count myself lucky to have the luxury of sitting on the fence and waiting for the edifice to cash (or being rescued last minute), thus I should not complain. I could walk away every day if shit hits the fan, sad, yes, but not overly destructive for me personally. Nevertheless, leaving the screening of Control I felt the depression that had taken hold of me in the first year after the Brexit vote slowly creeping back in – not so much because my own future might be at stake, but reflecting the state of world politics more generally, and the possibility of global solidarity versus narrowly defined national interest.

The prime figure for this inward-turn is the figure of migrant or refugee in all its facets, real of imagined, and any case made in their favour usually does not rest on universal rights but utilitarian calculations, be it in relation to Brexit or beyond. Take one of the new initiatives to help EU citizens in the UK, who proclaim to speak on my behalf but I find rather patronizing: For the record, I did not come to the UK because I saw it as some golden land of opportunity for a better future, like allegedly the migrants and refugees from ‘Africa’ that are usually portrayed in equally patronising terms. I made us of a right I have under EU treaties that the UK has signed to work in any other EU member state. This right has been taken away by a unilateral vote in one member state, leaving me with the only security – that could easily be overturned by a future UK government but I leave that aside here – of ‘settled status’.

Yes, I could apply for this status and would fulfil its requirements easily. But I regard it as an insult that the UK government expects me to apply for a document that gives me fewer rights than those under which I came, and asks me to pay a fee for the privilege out of which the Home Office, it has now turned out, makes a handsome profit. Maybe this is ‘the will of the people’, but it is not an action of a law abiding democracy as I used to understand it. Many liberal thinkers have warned us of exactly that: to interpret ‘the will of the people’ in narrow terms that can easily be incited and used as tools for demagogy and undemocratic means – and, one could add in a Bourdieuan sense, that cements the power of a small, unaccountable elite.

So maybe it is Goodbye UK, as why would one wish to live in a polity where perceived legal guarantees can that easily be undermined? But then there is always the music …

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Ten days that shook the Horn: As Eritrea and Ethiopia make peace, what now for Eritrea?

It does not happen very often: while I was at an aikido retreat in the Swiss Jura, with very limited network coverage to follow news of any kind, the architecture of the Horn of Africa, and in particular the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, was thoroughly transformed, potentially.


Asmara, Liberation Day Celebration 24 May 2001. Photo: Stefan Boness,

It all happened at breath-taking speed and, following the many commentaries written since, has not only taken me by surprise. The pictures of joy, celebration and jubilation from Asmara and Addis Ababa sent a joyous jolt down my spine as well – after all, I had not that long ago written a piece that expressed a faint hope for an end of hostilities between both countries following the first overtones for peace by Ethiopian PM Dr Abiy Ahmed in June.

Some observers were reminded of the euphoria that greeted the end of the Eritrean war for independence and the overthrow of the Ethiopian Derg government in 1991, with large crowds of people dancing in the streets and expressing their joy by various means. But we all know how short this new period of deep friendship and cooperation was to last – a mere seven years, thus maybe this is not the best of comparisons.

In the present, the joint singing of a declaration on 9 July 2018 during Dr Abiy Ahmed’s visit to Asmara marked the re-establishment of formal relations between both countries. It also paved the way for the re-opening of embassies, the restoration of flights and telephone links between both countries, and for Ethiopia to use port facilities in Eritrea again (spare a thought for Djibouti, but that is another matter). Eventually, the border between both countries will also be demarcated on the ground.

Dr Abiy’s visit was reciprocated by a return visit of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki last Saturday, during which the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital was dusted off and reopened. Flights between both countries are to resume this Wednesday, and telephone lines have already been re-opened, reportedly leading to complete strangers calling each other to share the excitement on both sides of the divide.

Thus on the face of it, Eritrea’s stance during those 16 long years since the verdict of the Boundary Commission that was to end the state of war, its insistence that it was ready for peace and that it was Ethiopia who was holding this up through intransigence and the refusal to withdraw its troops from land declared Eritrean, seems vindicated – as sources close to the Eritrean government have not failed to point out. Nobody on the Eritrean side mentions that this acceptance also includes the tacit acknowledgement that Eritrea was responsible for starting the war, as that is also part of the Commission’s ruling.

That nobody seems in the mood to dwell on the past too deeply is in many ways a good thing for a continent and its leaders, who too often carry long memories of past wrongs and grievances, often not only for generations but over centuries. After all it took a while for Eritrean President Afwerki to respond to various efforts of his Ethiopian counterpart to grab the hand outstretched for peace – initially continuing to insist on the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops first before any conversations or actual encounters could take place.

This leaves the question what next, in particular for Eritrea, the country to benefit most from this renewed relationship. Eritrea has in the past years been in the headlines for the large numbers of people who flee the country – mostly due to indefinite national service obligations that should in theory end after 18 months, but were extended with the prevailing state of war as the main justification. Thus will the Eritrean leadership grasp this opportunity and set them free after 18 months? Just imagine, the graduation ceremony in Sawa at the end of their 18 months of service as a real celebration of the start of a new life, a life where citizenship obligations can be aligned with the pursuit of a normal life, the start of a family if desired, the development of a professional career – instead of being determined by a ‘no war no peace’ scenario that has treated such ambitions as a form of betrayal. This to be followed by the availability of exit visas for those who wish to travel (and have completed their 18 months of service) would do wonders to change the political dynamics within Eritrea and in relation to the outside world. Wider political change will undoubtedly follow, in its own time.

Thus far, we know very little about the concrete actions that may follow the initial euphoria, and a number of wise commentators have pointed out some of the potentially disturbing parallels to 1991: In both scenarios, major developments were brought about by charismatic leaders, but institutionalised arrangements to create an underbelly for the euphoria these brought with them remained wanting.

What might be a more worrying tendency is the fact that a blame culture has started to emerge, not least from the Eritrean side: The narrative now blames TPLF stalwarts and Tigrayan networks that captured the Ethiopian state for the long years of suffering – in a not dissimilar vain as the Derg government was blamed for all past wrongs in 1991. This is not only ahistorical but dangerous, as for peace to prevail between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Ethiopia needs to be at peace with itself. A new beginning is seldom served by old patterns of blame – which in the case of Eritrea and Tigray have a rather unhelpful ancient history. And we should not forget, the two countries that went to war in 1998 were until the outbreak of that war characterised by deep economic and social ties, even if undercurrents of tensions were also present for those who wanted to see them.

But while all this is certainly the case, then and now, I am more hopeful: Emotions are important for political developments and breakthroughs, and in this case the emotions of the people on the ground, even if they were not asked or told about the plans of their leaders, have been quite overwhelming. While no institutions are in place that would pass the test of democratic accountability as commonly understood, the sense of joy and relieve of a majority of people should not be underestimated – something did really break free here and there is hope that this makes peace irreversible. In the past, I have heard the phrase ‘the war is between our leaderships not between our people’ in too many conversations with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the divide, without the hope that they, the ordinary people, could do much to overcome the stalemate. Now that the stalemate is broken, it seems impossible to imagine a return to hostilities – regardless of where the actual line of border demarcation falls, as a regime of easy border crossings makes that line, including the line around the symbolic hamlet of Badme, mostly irrelevant.

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