Eritrea: The Threat of a Good Example?

In a recent NY Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof writes: “Eritrea is now turning into a thuggish little dictatorship. It is imprisoning evangelical Christians, it jails more journalists than any other country on the continent, and the regime that once empowered women now rapes them.” That paints a very bleak picture of a small Red Sea country that after decades of war finally gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Curiously, after describing the paucity of electoral, journalistic, and religious freedom, Mr. Kristof, in an apparent contradiction maintains, “even now it is an alluring country with a gentle people.” There appear to be two very different kinds of people in Eritrea: those ‘people who rape women’ and the “gentle people.” The Eritrean Ambassador to the US responds: “In Eritrea, rape is culturally unacceptable and punishable by death. Eritrea is one of the safest places in the world.”

Mr. Kristof spoke warmly of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki for avoiding the cult of personality that so many other African leaders have built. Yet Mr. Afwerki is criticized for having “fought a senseless border war with Ethiopia.” To this the ambassador replies: “President Isaias Afwerki did not engage in a war with Ethiopia. Eritrea was invaded by Ethiopia in 1998 and was forced to defend itself by repulsing that invasion.” When on the defensive end-of-the-stick, one can’t very well choose one’s wars.

Thomas Mountain, a long time political activist familiar with Eritrea, was less diplomatic about Mr. Kristof’s op-ed: “More garbage, at least regarding Eritrea. This guy doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know anyone locally he can trust and is supposed to know what is going on?” Mr. Mountain ridicules the notion that “little, resource-poor nation Eritrea, population 3.5 million, supposedly instigated a war with giant Ethiopia, population 60 million, with the largest, best equipped army in Africa? ”

Mr. Mountain also takes issue with the contradictory reporting of BBC’s Peter Biles. Mr. Biles writes that Mr. Isaias’ “government has attracted strong criticism in the last two years and his opponents say he now heads a repressive regime that lacks any genuine popular support.” Yet he notes that his public appearance produced “no sign of that discontent. In fact, they seemed eager to thank the man who for many years, led the fighters of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in their armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia.” Mr. Biles follows up with a seemingly fair criticism: “As the father of the nation, Isaias Afewerki is still able to capitalise on that trust instilled in him. He made no apology for the fact that elections planned for 2001, have still not been held.”

Mr. Mountain laments “the lie that Eritrea has not conducted elections continues to be repeated. Local and regional elections have been completed in the entire country and only the national elections are still pending.”

Mr. Mountain’s pride in Eritrea is manifest. He writes:

The people are friendly, dressed very smartly and there is no evidence of homelessness or beggars…The streets of Asmara are safe to walk, even more so for [anyone], anywhere, anytime of day or night. Serious crime is rare, to the point of being non-existent for most Eritreans… [C]hildren are being taught in their mother tongue. We are talking about 9 tribes, each an ethnic group with its own language, in one of the worlds smallest, poorest country´s, 3.5 million people, actually beginning to educate all their children to literacy, grade 6, in their mother tongue. Eritrea is the only country in the world to actually implement such a program.

Sounds extremely progressive and particularly impressive for a young nation which has been wracked by wars, famine, and big power politics. Mr. Mountain further touts the religious tolerance of the mixed Christian and Muslim nation and the fervent longing for peace.

Mr. Mountain finds so much more to laud about Eritrea and its people. Eritreans voluntarily give money to their government, which he finds “completely unique to Eritrea.” Grassroots, “community based democracy that is practiced in Eritrea. Where the society practices what it preaches. Where the Eritrean people say ‘we are the government and the government is us’ and actually mean it.”

Writing in the Communist Voice, Mr. Frank claims otherwise. Eritrea is “one of the exploitive [sic] and imperialistic regimes in the present imperialist world order.” He further purports that Eritrea is in the thralls of capitalism and the IMF.

Eritrea is now an IMF member country and many claim it to be a capitalist country. An IMF staff team wrote in 1998, “privatization (and development of the private sector in general) became an integral part of the country’s economic policies at an early stage.”

In 2000, Mr. Mountain wrote, “Eritrea soon became known for its independence from western aid institutions as well as for being the most efficient and corruption free society in Africa. To this day Eritrea is the only country in Africa that owes nothing to the World Bank or the IMF.” The aforementioned IMF working paper acknowledged that Eritrea only accepts concessional loans from the IMF. In a recent communication Mr. Mountain replies, “The World Bank loans are so advantageous, that Eritrea, which is paying about 5% on government bonds, took them, after repeatedly refusing to do so.”

Mr. Mountain sees IMF membership and loans as relatively insignificant to another largely under addressed issue: “the fact that Ethiopia has admitted spending $3 billion on the invasion of Eritrea… where did they get the dollars? They only had a little over $300 million in coffee exports which is their only real export in that time period.” Mr. Mountain concludes that foreign aid was diverted to the war effort, $2 billion of which came from the US. It is incomprehensible to Mr. Mountain that the Ethiopian regime could divert such a large sum of money for weapons purchases from the former East Bloc without CIA knowledge or, likelier, approval. “The invasion of Eritrea remains one of the largest covert military operations in US history.”

What inspired this US-sponsored invasion of Eritrea?

The crux of the problem is that tiny, war-ravaged Eritrea poses the threat of a successful example antithetical to the US model. Says Mr. Mountain: “The US elite want Eritrea brought back under their dominance, or at the very least, so devastated that they are no longer a role model for the rest of the world.”

Noam Chomsky wrote at length about the threat of a good example to the US elites:

No country is exempt from U.S. intervention, no matter how unimportant. In fact, it’s the weakest, poorest countries that often arouse the greatest hysteria… The weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny, poor country like Grenada can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, “why not us?” … If you want a global system that’s subordinated to the needs of US investors, you can’t let pieces of it wander off… That’s why even the tiniest speck poses such a threat, and may have to be crushed.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.