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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