Documents published by Wikileaks revealed truth of U.S. motivations
That U.S. policy toward the Horn of Africa has nothing to do with their stated purpose of promoting “human rights” is clear enough from cables released by Wikileaks in 2010. In one conversation between the U.S. Ambassador and then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, they discuss sanctions on Eritrea in a positive light, and then the Ambassador proceeds to assure PM Meles that there are ways around the fact Ethiopia was clearly in violation of the so-called human rights standards that govern U.S. weapons sales.
The real motivations of U.S. policy, the cables revealed, were Eritrea’s obstruction of the US-Ethiopian destabilization campaign of Somalia, and its pursuit of “closer ties with a range of states, including Iran and Venezuela, who do not share our world view.” Debating whether to pursue a policy of engagement or isolation with Eritrea, the US (and EU) likewise complained of “anti-western” elements in the government. Further diplomatic communications state the “the greatest commonality” between Iran and Eritrea is their “anti-US stance," and also referred to Eritrean disagreements with US policy as “bad behavior,” worthy of sanctions. U.S. dissatisfaction with the Eritrean government extended to the broader population, noting it was not “uncommon” for “many Eritreans” to “fully support” their government’s efforts “against the United States.”
U.S. officials also informed the TPLF-led Ethiopian government in 2009 that they were “expanding efforts to undercut support for Asmara, noting for example..[the Ambassador]...sent on a trip to Cairo, Riyadh, Jeddah and other cities both to promote efforts to undercut flows of support.”
There is no doubt that this concerted effort to “isolate” Eritrea in regional politics suffered a major blow with the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal of 2018. Ethiopian Minister of Culture and Sport Kejala Merdasa told BreakThrough that in meetings with U.S. diplomats, they highlighted the deal as an obstacle to good relations between Ethiopia and the United States.
How can the United States be concerned about human rights in Eritrea and objectively, if not openly, be upset about a peace deal?
Even if all the US accusations against Eritrea were true, historically and currently the US offers the broadest of support to totally undemocratic governments. Hypocrisy aside, however, this form of collective punishment aimed at the people of Eritrea is also based on distortions, decontextualization and outright lies about the country’s social reality.
History and Context
Supporters of the Eritrean project are often presented as brainwashed fanatics or speaking only out of fear of their government. This is foundational to the attacks on Eritrea, that it is just one large prison camp and by extension no one really supports the government and most certainly would not willingly sacrifice for it. The country’s history, however, offers a different perspective.
Eritrea is a young country, gaining its independence only in 1991 after a long and protracted armed struggle against Ethiopia, which was then followed from 1998 to 2000 with another bloody war between the two countries. This relatively short period of independence, and of peace, is an important thing to remember in terms of the development of the nation's institutional development and social indicators.
It also means that practically the whole population has some degree of direct connection to the independence struggle. Not surprisingly, our team observed inside the country a strong ethos of national pride, self-reliance, and social solidarity between Eritreans, values that are consistently extolled as part of the national project, and which is observable among big sections of the diaspora as well. The legacy of the armed struggle has created a powerful sense of collectivity and self-sacrifice, which pervades the national psyche. As one leaked U.S. diplomatic cable noted, lamenting the lack of an internal uprising, Eritreans are “fiercely patriotic.”
The country’s ruling party, the PFDJ, is the direct successor of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which led the armed struggle and has dominated the country’s internal politics since the early 1980s when its rival, the Eritrean Liberation Front, was pushed out of the country. It operates with a single party-state structure and has not had elections since independence. Whatever one thinks about its political system, such an arrangement is not historically unusual in the immediate post-independence years, and even decades, of newly formed states.
While we of course did not survey all sections and areas of Eritrean society during our few days there, we did conduct a range of interviews with civilians and officials, who expressed a continued commitment to the Eritrean national project. A leaked cable from a U.S. embassy official stated that “amazingly many Eritreans” supported the government and its rhetoric against the United States. That is understandable for a range of reasons. As another leaked U.S. cable noted, the government of Eritrea: “actively promotes programs in health, education and development with a commitment to reducing poverty.” When U.S. officials met with disgruntled Eritrean opposition members, the latter noted the appeal of the government’s “strong egalitarianism.” Another noted that when embassy officials visited President Isaias Afwerki’s home village they “saw no indication that the village has received any special favor,” and that “there is no cult of personality in Eritrea.”
The fact that these points are admitted even in US diplomatic cables, which are otherwise filled with rumors, innuendo and vitriol, speak to the fact that the government is still seen in many quarters as a continuator of the national independence project, rooted in the country’s recent struggles, and striving for development that improves lives without compromising sovereignty.
Eritrea by the Numbers
Eritrea faces more or less the same issues that bedevil all of sub-Saharan Africa: the legacy of colonial underdevelopment and neocolonial economic structures that constrain growth possibilities. Eritrea, despite years of facing U.S.-EU attempts at isolation, is still above the sub-Saharan averages in literacy, life expectancy, rural electrification, infant mortality, maternal deaths and employment-to-population ratio. In many of these indicators Eritrea is doing far better than countries with significantly more resources available, which have no comparable issue with sanctions and in some instances, enjoy preferential access to U.S. markets.
Eritrea has higher life expectancy than oil-rich Nigeria and Angola, as well as Gambia, Malawi, Mali, Chad, South Africa and Zambia among many others. Eritrea has a higher literacy rate than Rwanda, a darling of the West, and Guinea, Mozambique and Senegal and nearly 20 more sub-Saharan African nations.
Ivory Coast has scores more maternal deaths for every one-hundred thousand deaths than Eritrea. Eritrea also performs better than Cameroon, wealthy Equatorial Guinea and top imperialist “security partner” Chad. Percentage-wise, you have a better chance to be employed in Eritrea than in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, and Lesotho to name a few.
All over the world, rural areas tend to have lesser access to electricity than urban areas. The same is the case in large swaths of Africa, Eritrea included. But Eritrea has a higher percentage of rural people with access to power than the diamond center of Botswana, Chad (where less than 3% have access), Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Togo and Guinea-Bissau.
Notably, in most of these social indicators Eritrea is ahead of Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan in the broader Horn region. It is ahead of Djibouti in a few, including infant mortality, while Dijibouti is ahead in others.
Even in socioeconomic areas where Eritrea’s challenges are much more stark, Eritrea is not even “the worst” and, there is essentially no evidence they are trying to cynically neglect improvements, or that the problem is one of Eritrean elites stealing money from needed infrastructure project.
Logo Dam | Photo: BT News
One major point of critique is access to clean water and sanitation. This problem is not unique to it in sub-Saharan Africa but it is arguably the most severe issue of living conditions in the country. The issue can’t be discussed outside of the objective challenges, in particular, lack of rainfall. Eritrea, on average receives 16-20 inches of rain a year in some areas, below average in large parts of the world. Fertile South Sudan, for instance, averages 30-40 inches of rain a year. This is why Eritrea has built 785 dams in the 30 years since independence, to harness as much water as possible for agriculture, energy and development.
The Borgen project, which has rated Eritrea as having the worst access to clean water in the world, states that because of the “governments involvement,” the situation is improving, going on to note that “this brings hope for the future of Eritrea.” Recently UNICEF celebrated the commitment of Eritrea to providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, noting that 54% of villages, as of 2020, were free of open defecation and that half of schools now had WASH facilities. The government has set a goal of 2030 — eight years from now — to meet all the Sustainable Development Goals around water and sanitation.
UNICEF further recognized the government’s commitment “to galvanize the movement for sanitation for all and to try and meet all water and sanitation related goals by 2030.”
On balance the evidence is clear: in 30 years of independence Eritrea has reached development levels many of its peers have struggled to reach in 60 years or more, including a few with significantly more financial resources and international backing. This is the opposite, frankly, of how its development path is presented in mainstream conversation.
[The video below details an Eritrean doctor's perspective on the successes and challenges of medical care in Eritrea.]