The Two-Percent and the Hundred-Percent – Eritrean global networks and their discontents

Copyright: Stefan Boness,

On a late morning in May 2019 a fancy tour bus stops in front of a new laboratory building in Mai Nefhi, a higher education campus a short ride from the Eritrean capital Asmara. A group of young, fashionably-dressed diaspora Eritreans gets out, posts for pictures in front of the building with their ‘tour-guide’, and admires the impressive new structure.

Unknown to them, inside that laboratory building, a group of last year students in Biology want to conduct a certain experiment for their final year project. What they lack is a key chemical – ‘chemicals have been almost impossible to get from the state-importer since a few years’ one staff member says. Thus, they, based on a video they downloaded from YouTube, try to produce the chemical themselves. They are cheerful and excited as they go through the YouTube guidance and thus far progress looks good.

As the group of diaspora-tourists is about to board the bus again (as I am later told to drive on to the Eritrean President’s compound nearby), a group of three students come out of the laboratory building. One of the diaspora youth says something along the lines of: ‘I don’t know what is wrong with you people, why do you all want to leave if the government does all these things for you, just look at this great new laboratory’. To which an angry reply along the following lines comes: ‘Who are you to say things like that? We live here the whole year, we put up with all the shortages, all the restrictions, you come here for three days and want to lecture us’? A heated exchange of arguments is cut short by the ‘tour-guide’ who ushers the visitors back onto the bus – and off they drive.

Exchanges like this have become more and more common over the years, as the difference between the Two-Percent, those who are in the diaspora and continue to pay their 2% tax duties to the Eritrean state, and those who live in the country and have their live determined by multiple obligations that feel like giving Hundred-Percent of one’s life, have been growing.

I know of heated debates within families between youngsters inside Eritrea and their cousins from afar, and an increasing amount of incomprehension on both sides. But it is not only the gulf between those in the Eritrean diaspora who visit, pay their tax to the state and can often be seen on pro-government demonstrations in the diaspora, that is widening. The gap between those inside Eritrea who are critical of many government policies, and speak their mind – and many of them exist in contrast to the official narrative that this will land one in prison automatically – and those in the diaspora who agitate for regime change, is equally wide.

The latest initiative by the latter is the ‘Enough’-campaign that is carried out mainly by members of the Eritrean diaspora in North America and Europe. It is modelled on the once (in-)famous ice bucket challenge – this fact alone should give one pause for thought. While, as the organisers claim, it may indeed have brought more people who want regime change out in numbers, this type of social media campaign is first and foremost about individuals taking a stand or exhibiting their frustrations, and demonstrating so to their social-media followers. To link this to the protest movement in Sudan is disingenuous at best and cynical at worst, as the people who take to the streets in Sudan put their lives and bodies on the line, quite literally – and they are there.

The campaign claims to have a lot of support within Eritrea as well – that might indeed be the case, but I have yet to meet anybody in Asmara among those who yearn for change who regards the campaign as welcome or even useful. It also seems curious that those behind ‘Enough’ on the one hand complain about the low internet access rate within Eritrea and its control – and on the other hand devise a social media campaign as the solution.

Friends close to the campaign but also critical of it have voiced their concern about its simple message of hate ‘often based on simple narratives about the character of the President’ as one said to me, ‘there is no real basis to the Enough-movement’. The movement is everywhere I am told, partly because people who never paid the Two-Percent tax and had a critical stance for a long time feel they need to be seen to join, but it is not really a continuation of the fight for democracy and social justice. Only time will tell if this judgement is accurate, but in any case, change in Eritrea towards a better future for all its people is unlikely to come as long as narratives of hate or praise dominate wider discourse, and the gap between those inside and outside the country keeps growing.

What is the way forward then? I am encouraged by a number of youngish diaspora Eritreans who I have come to know over the last few years who are not in the limelight of any movement. Behind the scenes they try to overcome divisions and imagine how a different future could look. They are often isolated as such voices are not popular on either side. ‘You are always full of pain’ is how one of my friends describes this state of being, as even if one joins initiatives like ‘Enough’ one remains separate, as the logic of hate and emotions does not allow for a proper analysis of the many contradictions of life in Eritrea and within the diaspora.

In any future scenario, the voices and aspirations of the Hundred-Percent should surely be of prime importance. Thus far, they are rather the target of diaspora activism from both sides, spoken for by others who have little understanding of the many contradictions of their everyday lives.

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