Eritrean identity: My Amicus Curie Print E-mail
By Simon M. Weldehaimanot - Apr 01, 2008   

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on has sparked debate. Amanuel Eyasu seems the main challenger although many others have contributed well-written articles. These include Habtom Yohannes, Amanuel Hidrat, and Ogubai Gebremedhn. As usual, the public has been giving verdicts albeit anomalously. On the same issue of Eritrean identity, I am now a friend of the court – Amicus Curie as the French would say; and my contribution is, as some lawyers would say, to help the court to render fair judgment. Simply put, my aim is to offer literature to the issue at hand so that we can enrich our horizon. I shall be very brief with this article.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and solid study on Eritrean identity is the one Peggy A. Hoyle contributed.[1] The purpose of Hoyle’ article is to explore the concept of national identity as it relates to the Eritrean experience. To place the concept of national identity in proper context, Part II of Hoyle’ article commences with an examination of the significance of national status within the international community.  Part III proceeds to analyze the debates over the definition of nation and national identity. Once the concepts of nation and national identity are defined, the focus of Part IV shifts to an overview of the genesis of the Eritrean nation and a deconstruction of the Eritrean national identity. Part V concludes with a few observations about the relationship between the ideal of national identity and the Eritrean national reality. In developing the article, Hoyle has consulted many noted Eritrean and Ethiopia writers including expatriates that have been unfortunately categorized as historical pros and cons of the two countries depending on their positions.

Olufemi A. AKINOLA has written on the issue at hand.[2] His essay explores the nuances of identity construction in Eritrea from about 1970 to 1991. His essay examines how voix Érythrée took shape in the 1970s and 1980s, the individuals who formed the coalition of insurgent leaders and foot soldiers that nurtured the transformations, and how information about Eritrea in Western journals changed from a trickle to a flood. It also discusses major shifts in loyalties in Eritrea, how such shifts fed into the construction and appeal of liberationist discourse, and the building blocks of the field of Eritrean studies. He adds:

Thirty years of war (from 1961 to 1991) left Eritrea with a legacy of images and their interpreters on the world stage. Less well known, however, is that Eritrea’s would be interpreters only joined in the rebellion after its first decade. While they helped reinvent Eritrea and expand Western support for the war, their actions also fueled new conflicts at home, as some identities had to be filtered, discounted, or displaced. Embodying this process is voix Érythrée, the view of nation making that prevailed at the end of the war.

Sara Rich Dorman has couple of contributions to the scholarship on Eritrean identity. In one of her articles she summarizes her discourse as follows:[3]

In the April 2003 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kaplan describes Eritrea as “newly independent, sleepily calm and remarkably stable”. Electricity is said to fail infrequently, corruption is rare, theft and crime almost unheard of, reflecting, Kaplan claims, “a surprisingly functional social order” Eritrea is said to have “achieved a degree of non-coercive social discipline” by implication, unusual for Africa. The country’s political culture is described as “an almost Maoist degree of mobilization and an almost Albanian degree of xenophobia.” In this account, Eritrea is an exotic specimen, not quite African, atypical in almost all respects.

But is Eritrea accurately reflected or understood in this account? Is Eritrea really as isolated and marginal as this suggests? Is its development agenda and state-building project that divergent from elsewhere? Kaplan hints that Eritrea’s sense of nationhood — “rare in a world of nation-states rent by tribalism and globalisation” — exists despite globalisation. But this is in complete contrast to current research which emphasizes that “transnationalism does not necessarily operate in opposition to nationalism but can at times work to reinforce it”. In contrast, Kaplan’s article takes as read the official account of Eritrean nationalism, emphasizing that it is a product not simply of its history, but also of its having been isolated and alienated from international and regional influences: “we Eritreans are different from our neighbours”.

In another article Dorman summarily observes that Eritrean politics is increasingly captured in competing narratives of nationalism.[4] ‘Official’ narratives, she added, emphasize Eritrea's purported stability, orderliness, and uniqueness. This discourse defends and supports the current government's policies. In contrast, according to her, recent research challenges those policies, and contributes to a nationalist counter-narrative. Thus her article seeks to investigate the discursive power of conventional narratives and the implications of new research for accounts of state and nation-building in Eritrea. The Eritrean case – one of the newest states in the world – intersects with and informs a number of broader debates on nationalism and nation-building: the impact of globalization, secessionism, and war as well as the relationship between ethnicity and nationalism, she concludes. The penetration of state and nation-building projects into every sector of Eritrean life means that all social research is deeply politicised. Journalists and researchers have long been key players in the contested process of conceptualising Eritrean nation-hood, and this continues in the post-liberation period. Research thus both buttresses and challenges official discourses, even where it is not explicitly framed in terms of nationalism.

Other writers opted to approach Eritrean identity from the perspective of Eritrean refugees. Kimberly M. Noronha has thus ventured on the area at hand.[5] Noronha’s paper looks specifically at Eritrean Refugees in the Sudan telling the story of the formation of national identity among a people exiled from a nation in transition. Noronha’s paper examines the existence of Eritrean wartime national identity and its fixation onto refugee consciousness through the formation of a three-way national myth focusing on the construction of the common enemy, suffering masses and national hero. In addition, Noronha’s paper looks at the formation of social capital among refugees in the Sudan leading to the creation of civil society and finally the changing emphasis in land tenure tying Eritrean identity to the nation-state of Eritrea. Noronha argues that often fleeing from the administration of the very state they belong to, refugees present a unique anomaly in the current system of nation-states. In a world where ethnicity and nationalism, two essential components of identity, have been successfully tied to the state via territory, refugees are faced with difficult choices. Solution to the refugee situation focus, Noronha notes, on placing the refugees in a territory to which they can attach their identity in the form of citizenship. Noronha’s concludes:

With Eritrea, the war was a clear fight for the right to self-determination of a people within that territory.

John Sorenson also has couple of contributions.[6] One of Sorenson’s papers suggests that investigation of refugee experience can be informed by consideration of the literature of ethnic identity; and examines the development and maintenance of a distinct Eritrean identity among refugees and immigrants to Canada.[7] Numerous pressures, both internal and external to the group, exist which threaten the persistence of such an identity. However, Sorenson noted, the work of several community organizations strengthen this identity and provide a means of expressing it. According Sorenson these voluntary organizations are seen as a primary means of maintaining a distinct Eritrean identity in the experience of exile.

Redie Bereketeab’s article on supra-ethnic nationalism in Eritrea is another source worth consulting.[8] For those of you who can read and understand French, Gaim Kibreab has also written on the area; and his abstract appears below.[9]

Apres une breve evaluation de l'impact cause par la politique britannique de l'abandon de l'Erythree sur l'identite nationale erythreenne, cet article identifie et analyse les facteurs qui ont contribue d'une part au developpement de la cohesion sociale trans-ethnique et trans-religieuse et, d'autre part a la continuite et au renforcement de l'dentite nationale erythreenne parmi les refugies erythreens au Soudan. Bien que le developpement de la cohesion sociale trans-ethnique et trans-religieuse et le maintien et le renforcement de l'identite nationale erythreenne soient le resultat d'un ensemble de facteurs complexes inextricablement enchevetres, cet article identifie sept facteurs importants: la perte de groupes disparates, et le melange opere parmi ces groupes qui n'avaient eu auparavant que peu de contacts les uns avec les autres; l'affaiblissement du role des chefs traditionnels et de l'autorite morale des anciens et le developpement de reseaux sociaux trans-ethniques sans aucune reference a l'identite ethnique ou religieuse; la politique du Soudan concernant les refugies; la titrisation des problemes de refugies et ses consequences sur la cohesion sociale et la continuite de l'identite nationale, surtout parmi les refugies installes sans l'aide de personne; la mobilisation et la politisation des refugies par les fronts de liberation nationale; les attitudes facheuses des populations locales apparues un peu plus tard; et les differences culturelles.

Michela Wrong’s book, a book I have not yet read, must have something to offer to the issues we have. Since I have not read it, let me offer what others have said about it. The publisher comments:[10]

Scarred by decades of conflict and occupation, the craggy African nation of Eritrea has weathered the world's longest-running guerrilla war. The dogged determination that secured victory against Ethiopia, its giant neighbor, is woven into the national psyche, the product of a series of cynical foreign interventions. Fascist Italy wanted Eritrea as the springboard for a new, racially pure Roman empire, Britain sold off its industry for scrap, the United States needed a base for its state-of-the-art spy station, and the Soviet Union used it as a pawn in a proxy war.

Michela Wrong reveals the breathtaking abuses this tiny nation has suffered and, with the sharp eye for detail and taste for the incongruous that was the hallmark of her account of Mobutu's Congo, tells the story of colonialism itself. Along the way, we meet a formidable African emperor, a pigheaded English suffragette, and a guerrilla fighter who taught himself French cuisine in the bush.

Michela Wrong tells this devastating but important story with exemplary clarity. The way international power politics can play havoc with a country's destiny gives the story of Eritrea a resonance and a tragic dimension beyond imagining.

And a reviewer has commented:[11]

"Much like Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz (2001), covering the reign of Zaire's brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, this book taps at the world's conscience, asking who is to blame for the suffering and neglect of postcolonial African states; it takes Eritrea as case study — and victim. A veteran Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, Wrong writes in a pointedly digressive style full of narrative side roads that accommodate a daunting level of geographical and historical detail. Historical highlights include a colorful profile of the late 19th-century writer and Italian parliamentarian Ferdinando Marini that draws on his extensive memoirs about his tenure as the first civil governor of the region as an Italian colony. The early 1960s conflict, occupation and independence of this small neighbor to Ethiopia also make for a terrible, gripping story, including border disputes and bloody war with Ethiopia. A complicated history so punctuated with violence is not exactly easy to read about, but the author's extraordinary grasp of the postcolonial psyche and tormented national identity of this country makes it fascinating.

And there is ‘Book News Annotation’:[12]

"It's hard to imagine another African country that was interfered with by foreign powers quite so thoroughly, and so disastrously, as Eritrea," the small African nation that recently fought a successful guerilla war of liberation against the much larger Ethiopia, according to journalist Wrong. In this work she intersperses descriptions of her own travels in Eritrea with a history of its experiences with Italian colonial exploitation in the Martini and Mussolini eras, British post-war looting of the country's assets, American and Soviet manipulation in the context of the Cold War, UN exacerbation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, and the national liberation war.

Whether or not the birth of Eritrean statehood is an act of secession or decolonization is also one of the fiercely debated spot. Many Eritrean scholars consider Eritrean statehood as a process of decolonization.[13] Ethiopian scholars on the other hand tend to consider Eritrean statehood as an act of secession.[14] This issue is often emotionally charged. If handled with civility, it is, however, lovely intellectual quest. The Amicus Curie rests.

1          Peggy A. Hoyle ‘THE ERITREAN NATIONAL IDENTITY: A CASE STUDY’ (1999) 24 North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation 381.

2          Olufemi A. AKINOLA ‘POLITICS AND IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION IN ERITREAN STUDIES, c. 1970–1991: THE MAKING OF Voix Érythrée’ (2007) 28 African Study Monographs 47.

3          Sara Rich Dorman ‘ERITREA’S NATION AND STATE-BUILDING: RE-ASSESSING THE IMPACT OF ‘THE STRUGGLE’ QEH Working Paper Series – Working Paper Number 105 Presented at the Conference on Globalisation and Self-Determination, London, 4th April 2003.

Nations and Nationalism 203–222.

5          Kimberly M. Noronha ‘REFUGEES AND NATIONAL IDENTITY: NATIONAL IDENTITY AND ERITREAN REFUGEES IN THE SUDAN’ (Dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MSc. Development Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, (no date)).

6          See for example John Sorenson ‘DISCOURSES ON ERITREAN NATIONALISM AND IDENTITY’ (1991) 29 The Journal of Modern African Studies 301-317

7          John Sorenson ‘Opposition, Exile and Identity: The Eritrean Case’ (1990) 3 Journal of Refugee Studies 298-319.

8          Redie Bereketeab ‘SUPRA-ETHNIC NATIONALISM: THE CASE OF ERITEA’ (2002) 6 African Sociological Review.

9          Gaim Kibreab ‘RESISTANCE, DISPLACEMENT, AND IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ERITREAN REFUGEES IN SUDAN’ (2000) 34 Canadian Journal of African Studies 249-296.

10         See (accessed on March 31, 2008)

11         As above.

12         As above.

13         See for example Bereket Habte Selassie ‘SELF-DETERMINATION IN PRINCIPLE AND PRACTICE: THE ETHIOPIAN-ERITREAN EXPERIENCE’ (1997) 29 Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

14         Minasse Haile ‘LEGALITY OF SECESSIONS: THE CASE OF ERITREA’ (1994) 8 Emory International Law Review 479. See also Derege Demissie ‘SELF-DETERMINATION INCLUDING SECESSION VS. THE TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY OF NATION-STATES: A PRIMA FACIE CASE FOR SECESSION’ (1996) 20 Suffolk Transitional Law Review 165.

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