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.
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.