Eritrea: 'Talking Eritrea' Remains Tough Whilst Researchers Are Perceived As the Enemy

analysis

Last week saw the closing plenary of the 'Talking Eritrea' seminar series organised by Justice Africa and SOAS, entitled 'Limits on Research and Reporting in Eritrea: The Implications for Peace and Rights'.

This marked the conclusion of a four part series, with the previous talks addressing the critical issues of: Human Trafficking and Torture in the Sinai; the impacts of Eritrea's mandatory national service programme on Eritrean society; and the phenomenon of survival migration out of Eritrea.

Unfortunately, but rather predictably, it quickly became evident that however nuanced the research presented on Eritrea was during the session, certain audiences will continue to interpret it in purely binary formulations.

Somewhat like the unhelpfully reductionist dichotomy between 'believers' and 'non-believers' in which Rwanda scholars are often pigeon-holed, a series of other well-versed, mutually exclusive categorisations for research on Eritrea pervaded the heated Q&A that followed the presentations.

The reactions of certain (Eritrean) members of the audience showed total intolerance to the middle ground presented by many of the speakers.

One sensed that, to them, it appeared one is either: pro-Eritrea or pro-Ethiopia vis-à-vis the border question and sanctions; pro-PFDJ or conspiring to topple it; and most disappointingly in this context, either pro-government or a researcher, journalist or academic.

It is important to stress here, however, that these views are clearly not illustrative of the Eritrean community at large, who hold a heterogeneous set of opinions. There were multiple attempts to mediate and condemn their peers during the moments of heated interjection.

Nonetheless, the performance of a section of the audience was revealing in itself. This group seems to automatically conflate any suggestion of change within government policy with a conviction that the speaker wishes to bring down the whole regime.

In doing so, the organiser's guiding question for the talk: 'What is the state of knowledge and debate about contemporary Eritrean politics and human rights... ?' was pessimistically answered.

Whilst knowledge on Eritrea may be increasing thanks to the innovative work of scholars such as those seen in this seminar series, clearly in terms of debate between the different stakeholders, if this event is taken as representative, the situation in open forums is pretty dire.

The majority of the Q&A-come-debate that followed the discussants' presentations consisted of defending the speakers from the verbal abuse they patiently received and responded to, or defending the PFDJ.

It was thus a shame that certain members of the audience curtailed the space for further questioning or reflection on what were four very different, but extremely interesting, responses to the event's central focus.

The reason this event descended in to the hostility and argument it did was perhaps that its aim and purpose was not made coherent throughout the presentations.

Fascinating personal reflections on oppositional politics contrasted with moments when it felt like the audience was being directly engaged solely as defenders of the Eritrean regime.

It was thus at times understandable, if not justifiable, that such a didactic tone might possibly further antagonise part of an audience which from the start was hustling for a fight.

Attempts to defend academia to the audience were unfortunately done using more divisive examples which, though fascinating to many, were no doubt inflammatory to others.

Interactions between these groups are valuable and should happen, and all the lectures raised issues in need of further attention and discussion, but the performative space of the lecture theatre with its large, mixed audience may not be the right forum for it.

Though not such a replicable model, the event's real strength lay in the tea and coffee period afterwards when, away from the propensity to self-defence on all sides which comes from debates being pushed towards no middle ground, far more reasonable discussions and reflections were to be had.

The resistance of the Young People's Front for Democracy and Justice, despite having been excessively confrontational, disruptive and aggressive as admitted by several members in discussion afterwards, must not, however, be discounted within that context.

Having attended this seminar series, albeit it under their own volition (as Michela Wrong rightfully pointed out), many felt alienated and frustrated by discussions which focused purely on human rights violations within Eritrea, the abhorrent treatment of Eritrean refugees, and the authoritarian nature of the regime.

In their eyes, such a systematic delegitimisation of their country's governance could only be countered by a strident response.

The obvious irony, however, is that whilst the country remains closed to most journalists, researchers and academics, the capacity to report on successful and interesting developments within Eritrea (such as the decentralisation of the disbanded University of Asmara, the huge success of Eritrean cycling, or the development patterns of real estate in Asmara) is severely limited.

When primary research on Eritrea is methodologically limited to interviews with the diaspora, whether refugees or not, or analysis of internet sources, this causes the kind of reporting bias reflected in the nature of the talks seen during this Seminar Series.

Furthermore, and as pointed out by Michela Wrong, whilst reporters and journalists are granted interviews with governments of the surrounding regimes, they are rarely given access to the PFDJ itself.

Additionally, the dismissal of the panellists as unremitting 'non-believers' fails to recognise that they are all individuals who have, at times, defended the regime when they feel it is being unnecessarily vilified.

Eritrea faces challenges experienced the world over, such as national and regional integration, health care coverage, education provision, environmental degradation, etc. - all issues which researchers should be able to challenge states on, or collaborate with them over without being dismissed as 'the enemy'.

It appears impossible to construct these agenda however when the country remains so closed to outside researchers, and attempts at constructive dialogue as seen last week are so rapidly reduced to 'you're either with us, or against'.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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