On Eritrea: Cross-Talk Without Dialogue

What follows immediately below is a letter sent to me via email today. Beneath that is my response.

Academic Research, Intelligence Gathering, and Character Assassination: Is It the Same Everywhere?

We are among an international group of researchers – social scientists, historians, legal scholars and journalists – with decades of experience working on the Horn of Africa country of Eritrea and/or the Eritrean diaspora. We are citizens and/or residents of many countries: Eritrea, Canada, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Germany, and the UK. While our perspectives and orientations differ, our research foci have largely converged around the critical interpretation of patterns of political intolerance precipitated by a militarized, authoritarian regime in power since 1991. Because of these patterns of intolerance we have all been targeted to varying degrees by the regime and its supporters – and sometimes its opponents as well. Some of us have been threatened physically and/or prevented from returning to Eritrea. Many of us have endured repeated attacks on our personal and professional integrity and efforts to discredit our research findings by suggesting that we are working as agents of foreign governments and/or intelligence agencies. In some cases information about our backgrounds and funding sources has been misrepresented to support conspiracy theories about our “real” motives or identities. Such dynamics are not unusual. In countries around the world – especially highly militarized ones, whether of the left, right, or neoliberal variety – researchers have faced similar efforts to discredit, silence, intimidate and curtail freedom of thought, information, and conscience.

Recently we were named in a “controversy” promoted on the website/blog and Facebook page called Zero Anthropology (http://zeroanthropology.net). The “controversy,” as it was named by Zero Anthropology’s principal author, Dr. Maximilian Forte, refers to an article by Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam, a vocal Eritrean-American supporter of the regime. In the article titled “ERITREA: The Modern Day Carpetbaggers and Scalawags – Final” (https://www.facebook.com/zeroanthropology/posts/769446439779607).

Tesfamariam collectively characterizes our research, professional publications, conference activity, and public outreach or advocacy work as constituting an effort to “’sensitize’ the American and European public so that any actions of their governments [against Eritrea] will then be easily accepted.” She lists a decontextualized series of publications we have produced and venues where we have spoken, as well as academic agencies that have funded our work, as “evidence” of our corruption. She equates our empirical findings and the advocacy work some of us have done on behalf of or in collaboration with Eritrean refugees and human rights activists as colluding with interventionist or opposition efforts to destabilize and overthrow the regime in Eritrea. Much of the information she provides is inaccurate or unsubstantiated and she dismisses the validity of our scholarship without engaging its substance.

Tesfamariam’s article, the derisive tone it uses, and the unsubstantiated charges it levels is the latest in a long tradition of character assassination attempts. For decades, similar ad-hominem attacks on researchers and on Eritreans who critique the regime have been launched by regime supporters, including Ms. Tesfamariam. Over the years many of us have tried to correct these inaccuracies and address these accusations by engaging critics in productive dialogue and debate. With few exceptions we have discovered that the use of logic and reason cannot effectively counter the irrationality and conspiracy-theory orientations of these “debates.”

Rooted in such experience and context, we do not see Tesfamariam’s article as constituting “a controversy.” Nor will we here address point by point the many inaccuracies and mischaracterizations she levels at us collectively and individually. Several of us have engaged the substance of similar arguments made by Ms. Tesfamariam and by other regime supporters in our published work and at various conferences and venues because these reflect dominant patterns in much of Eritrean political discourse (particularly in the diaspora). Attempting to correct her misinformation invites further abuse. Character assassination stifles debate under the guise of provoking it. We would welcome a serious critique of our work which would require engaging with the ideas and arguments we advance and the methods and data we use to support them. A debate of that kind, unlike personal attacks, would actually have the possibility of contributing to the understanding of Eritrean politics, as well as promoting the understanding of social science theories and methods.

We are therefore disturbed that Dr. Forte and Zero Anthropology would link to and endorse Tesfamariam’s potentially libelous allegations against a large group of fellow researchers on an online public forum without first examining the context of research on Eritrea and/or contacting any of us. What we find controversial is how Forte facilitated and participated in a very serious attack on his colleagues. His link to Tesfamariam’s article on Zero Anthropology’s Facebook page is prefaced with the following statement: “This article outlines and denounces the work of US anthropologists in Eritrea in US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country. The author of the piece is a prominent Eritrean American activist. Those involved in the AAA [American Anthropological Association] should have a close look and perhaps consider further action.” And in his related article on Zero Anthropology, titled “Militarization: It’s All the Same, Everywhere. Or Is It?” he implies that researchers on Eritrea do not critically reflect on dynamics of militarization in countries other than “tiny little Eritrea all the way across in Africa.” Had he been familiar with our work or knew any one of us personally or professionally, we doubt he would have made such statements.

While it is true that some of us have interfaced with international human rights organizations, stated positions on sanctions and arms embargoes on Eritrea from a critical human rights perspective, or have engaged with officials in various governments about the problems in Eritrea that produce high numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, these are matters of our own conscience and we each take nuanced positions rooted in careful research and years of understanding of the Eritrean situation. Scholars who study Eritrea indeed disagree among ourselves about the merits of these positions and whether these are the best methods for applying our empirical knowledge. Many of us explicitly address these tensions in our work. And while some of us have received research funding from private academic foundations and federally-funded sources, there is a difference between social science funding and that related to national security objectives (e.g. the National Science Foundation is not the Department of Defense). Our activities or orientations do not equate to intelligence gathering, promotion of militarized interventions in Eritrea, or to “US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country.” These are gross misinterpretations that Forte has promoted in a most irresponsible manner.

We understand from the content of Dr. Forte’s work that he is deeply opposed on political, ethical and moral grounds to the use of anthropological and other academic knowledge in the context of interventionism, militarism, and covert intelligence gathering. We respect and appreciate this position. Some of us agree wholeheartedly with him and this same position has informed our own critiques of patterns of political repression and militarization in Eritrea and in the countries where Eritreans reside. We are gravely disturbed that a scholar of Forte’s standing rushed to endorse Tesfamariam’s allegations and helped manufacture a public controversy that is potentially damaging to our professional and personal lives and stifles effective dialogue. We are equally troubled that he responded to efforts by one of us to address this “controversy” on the Facebook page of Zero Anthropology with statements such as the following: “Why not write honestly, and engage in full disclosure of your own services to Western governments that have targeted Eritrea with sanctions?” and “No wonder then that so many Africans hate us…it is with ample justification, thanks to people like you.” Such statements do not constitute the “debate” Forte has claimed he is inviting. They constitute abusive speech and unprofessional conduct.

It may have been Tesfamariam’s aim to silence, discredit, and defame scholars of Eritrea. We do not know if that was also Forte’s aim. However, as a result of his promotion of Tesfamariam’s piece and this “controversy,” several of us have received renewed threats and further abusive messages by regime supporters. We have noted with consternation that the “controversy” is being picked up on various websites and Twitter feeds, highlighting why scholars who use the internet to promote “debate” or air “controversy” must observe careful standards of professional and ethical conduct. We have every reason to believe threats will continue against us for some time.

To reiterate, the controversy here is not that some people find critical scholarship on Eritrea objectionable, but that an otherwise critical scholar like Forte would carelessly promote and publicize ungrounded, personal attacks on fellow researchers. If anything, this episode illustrates the truth of Albert Camus’ observation that “Intelligence in chains loses in lucidity what it gains in intensity.” We hope that this “controversy” can be re-contextualized for what it reveals about how regimes of power can hijack discourses of human rights and social justice, confusing otherwise intelligent individuals regardless of academic credentials.

Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner
Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
USA

Dr. David Bozzini
Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology
CUNY Graduate Center
USA

Dr. Jennifer Riggan
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Arcadia University
USA

Dr. Sara Rich Dorman
Department of Politics and International Relations
University of Edinburgh
United Kingdom

Dr. Daniel R. Mekonnen
Senior Legal Advisor / Research Professor
International Law and Policy Institute
Oslo, Norway

Dr. Mirjam van Reisen
Professor, International Social Responsibility
Tilburg University
The Netherlands

Dr. Nicole Hirt
Senior Research Fellow (Associate)
German Institute of Global and Area Studies
Institute of African Affairs
Hamburg, Germany

Simon Weldehaimanot
Immigration/Asylum Attorney
Oakland, California
USA

Dan Connell
African Studies Center
Boston University
USA

Dr. Victoria Bernal
Professor of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine
USA

Dr. Kjetil Tronvoll
Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies
Bjorknes University College, Oslo
Norway

Anna Arnone
Research Associate
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
United Kingdom

Reflecting on Silences and Silencing

The signatories above initially complained that they had no opportunity to respond to what was Sophia Tesfarmariam’s article on western anthropologists and Eritrea, before it was published. Clearly this would have been beyond my control: I did not author the article, I did not publish it, I did not reproduce it, I did not host it, and I cannot dictate to another site what it must do. However, in the interest of transparency, I did offer to the above signatories a chance to respond, on my website (since they seem to have none of their own)—an offer I never presented to Sophia Tesfamariam. I did this with the erroneous assumption that the signatories above would take this opportunity to clear the air about their research, and address themselves directly to the Eritreans concerned. Instead, much of their letter of denunciation is curiously directed squarely at me. When Eritreans are rightly agitated and understandably suspicious in a geopolitical context that is hostile to their state, then this was probably not the wisest choice of response. I am not sure if they have validated or denied the entirety of the substance of the accusations against them.

First let me clarify what I did say, and what I did do, and why. Then let me address what the critics above think I said, followed by how they make light of what one of their own has said. Finally, I will comment on what remains to be done, by others perhaps, as with this I will now cease to act as a conduit or provide a platform, for either side.

To begin with, as mentioned above Sophia Tesfarmariam published this article, and then forwarded it to me specifically, in a public forum. I thought the article, given the severity of the accusations and allegations presented, required much more in the way of substantiation, documentation, and careful analysis. That does not mean the article is just “wrong,” just that it is not yet convincing enough, at least by my standards. However, would I simply ignore it?

At this point, one could choose to do one of a number of things: One would be to stay absolutely silent, and not mention to anyone that there is this article on the Internet that condemns the work of anthropologists. I gather from the letter above that this is what the signatories wish I had done. That, of course, would not address the fact that the article does indeed exist.

The other option was to give this a hearing. I thought that the accusations were too important, alarming, and critical, and rather than circle the academic wagons like the signatories above are doing, and block out the noisy drumming of angry natives, I decided to pay attention to the article and I asked others to do the same. This is what the signatories above call “endorsing” the article and helping to “manufacture” a “controversy”. Indeed, they repeatedly put quotes around the word controversy, as if it is somehow problematic or questionable to think of such public accusations—with some of the same stakes involved that they themselves point to (including even questions of physical security)—as being anything other than controversial. Rather than say there is no controversy at all, they would instead prefer to mislead readers into thinking that the entirety of the controversy is this Max Forte person, and only secondarily, an Eritrean “regime defender”. Eritrea almost vanishes from view mid-way through the letter.

How did I present Sophia Tesfamariam’s article to possible readers? With these words:

“This article outlines and denounces the work of US anthropologists in Eritrea in US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country. The author of the piece is a prominent Eritrean American activist. Those involved in the AAA should have a close look and perhaps consider further action.”

Since the signatories above seem to be having some difficulty in dealing with the content and intent of this statement, let’s look closely. First, yes there is in fact an article that outlines and denounces the work of US anthropologists in Eritrea, in what the author of the article sees as part of US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country. I am merely stating what the article is about—whether you, as a reader, accept the premises, hypotheses or evidence in the article, is left up to your judgment (and keep in mind the response in the letter above). Second, the author is indeed a prominent Eritrean American activist, as any web search will surely indicate. The third part is the least clear and the most open to misinterpretation: I am not an American anthropologist, nor a member of the AAA, but I do know that a number of individuals and committees try to maintain active oversight on any conflicts involving research practice. And what kind of further action might they consider? Anything from none, to urging that the allegations are countered with better information, to asking their colleagues questions about their research. Indeed, it is at the higher levels of the AAA that one may hear speakers argue that the solution to bad speech is not censorship, but better speech. Do they mean it?

Let me also state the obvious: I am not only the furthest thing from an expert on Eritrea that one could ever find, having studied little and written nothing about a country to which I have never been, I do not know enough about any of the parties to make judgments about their characters. I have never heard of the persons who signed the letter above, nor had I ever seen their names until Sophia Tesfamariam’s article came out. There could thus be little in the way of a personal motive in attacking them—and as actual readers of Zero Anthropology would know, I never shy away from relentless, direct criticisms, elaborated at length, not just across one or two lines, but across one or two hundred essays, or over a period of years—exactly when I feel it is justified to do so. On this issue, I have written not a single article to date, apart from what I am writing now. Indeed, what I have said amounts to little more than a few sentences.

Therefore, to be absolutely clear: I have not accused, nor am I accusing any of the signatories above of anything, because I simply do not know anything about them. I have not made up my mind about anything concerning this subject.

In addition, given the above signatories’ ostensible concern with matters of professional decorum, then why do they so lightly treat David Bozzini’s sneering accusations and mocking derision of readers on ZA’s Facebook link to Tesfamariam’s article? Do they take the standards of their profession seriously? If so, then why back someone whose public utterances in this case were far from any professional courtesy? Are they then, by the same logic of their letter above, endorsing him when he calls me a “regime defender,” when I do not even know enough about Eritrea’s “regime” to know what I should be defending?

There is an old saying, “if you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that barks is the one that got hit”. Enter David Bozzini who, rather than correct wrong information, proceeds to attack the messenger of the messenger. If matters have been made substantially worse for Bozzini, who apparently initiated the rounds of emails that produced the letter above, then it is almost entirely of his own doing. What the authors above would prefer to do, however, is something unpardonable: to cherry-pick certain words and phrases of mine and lift them out of context. My first response to Bozzini challenged his abominable responses to another reader, who was abundantly turned off by his aggression and refused to return to the discussion. My second response to Bozzini was much sterner, provoked by his incessant resort to ad hominem arguments, deflection, and avoidance of questions—and yet I, despite the wording produced in annoyance, stand by that comment. I cannot retract facts: Bozzini only criticizes militarization when it comes to Eritrea, and I stand by my criticism of that logic for the gaze it deliberately averts when it comes to our much greater, far worse militarization. That there was at least some Eritrean outrage with his comments is clearly evidenced for all to see, at one point involving even an ambassador for Eritrea. If some Eritreans were suspicious of Bozzini, I doubt he did anything to placate them.

Finally, I can put myself in the same shoes as the signatories above, which is not difficult to do. If there should be an anthropologist out there, now or in the future, who decides to point—even very approvingly—toward an article by Trinidad’s indigenous Caribs with whom I worked for years, in which they publicly denounce me, then I ask myself how I would approach this. Would I lose as much as a second even addressing that other anthropologist? I would be amazed if I would so easily misplace my priorities. Instead, I would proceed immediately to give a public accounting that directly responds to each and every one of their criticisms and fears, what lies between the criticisms, and what lies beyond them. These are the people in the country where I did my work—if they have something to say, I need to deal with it tactfully, diplomatically, with phenomenal sensitivity, and not just because my personal reputation is at stake, and not just because an entire way of producing knowledge is at risk, but because they were my hosts and they deserve immense respect and gratitude, no matter what they think of me.

Yet none of the above signatories seems to be walking in such shoes after all, and their response is almost precisely what it should not have been. It would not be surprising if they thus continued to fan the flames of suspicion. When they write that, “we have discovered that the use of logic and reason cannot effectively counter the irrationality and conspiracy-theory orientations of these ‘debates’,” then this is precisely the kind of culturally loaded language they should avoid because it has ethnocentric undertones. Some will see their statement as suggesting that their Eritrean critics lack logic and reason, and only produce conspiracy theories, in their phony so-called debates. And no, it is nowhere near adequate to allude to past, alleged responses to unspecified accusations, given in private venues or in pages held behind pay walls. These accusations have now been made in public, so your answers have to be public and very detailed, so as to leave no shade of doubt. This was not done, and it is extremely disappointing to not only witness this failure to grapple with profound ethical and political issues, but to make a supposed colleague bear the brunt for allegedly manufacturing some purportedly non-existent controversy (yet one they claim to have responded to before, in private).

But could I have done a better job? Could I have worded matters more carefully? Absolutely: that is always the case, even with writing that is the product of ten stages of revision, let alone a comment quickly dashed off to Facebook. Do I regret anything? Of course, it is impossible to come out of this situation without regrets: greatly regretting matters if Tesfamariam’s allegations are ever proven right; regretting if they are not proven right (for never deserving a hearing); regretting what academics say, what they do not say, and so forth. There can only be regrets.

What I do not regret is this, however: having been over-exposed to western patterns, logics, and practices of ceaseless demonization of all those who take a different path in the world, or who oppose the west in some way, I have become self-disciplined in constantly counteracting the grossly imbalanced public discourse (whether it is warranted or not). I will thus always be disposed to give a hearing to voices such as Sophia Tesfamariam’s. This is an important role, and in our culture it is one that is more necessary than ever.

If I decided to facilitate the response of the signatories above, it was not out of a sense of duty to them or to anyone, apart from the very confused reader. Having said that, no matter how much more some on any side of this may wish to continue propelling the debate, from this point forwards the parties in question will have to find (if so inclined) their own ways and means of addressing each other directly.

8 thoughts on “On Eritrea: Cross-Talk Without Dialogue

  1. Reblogged this on From Where I Sit… and commented:
    For over 12 years, these “scholars” have produced volumes in academic journals and in journals dealing with African Affairs about the State of Eritrea and its leadership. The “research” on Eritrea is not the issue here and one that has never been questioned or critiqued, because it was never available for the Eritrean public, the issue is their involvement with individuals and groups that are working to overthrow the government of Eritrea. Dan Connell has appeared in several forums, including in Ethiopia, with groups seeking to overthrow the government of Eritrea with the help of the regime in Addis Abeba. Ditto for David Bozzini and his activities in Geneva with the likes of Elsa Chyrum. Daniel Meknonnen is one of the Eritreans recruited by Dan Connell and Paulos Tesfagiorgis in South Africa and it was his NED-sponsored “NGO” the EMHDR that translated Gene Sharp’s book into Tigrinya-and sent to Eritrea. Kjetil Tronvoll and Paulos Tesfagiorgis have worked to undermine and economically, diplomatically and politically isolate Eritrea. I would suggest a re-visit into all their activities and a careful examination of their “research” publications and see if they meet the ethical standards required by their professional organizations. If they have nothing to hide and if was their conscience that was dictating their involvement-then they should have no problems making their publications, statements, presentations available for all to scrutinize.

    Despite their frothing-they don’t seem to be denying that they have engaged in anti-Eritrea activities…hiding behind the scholar cloak!

    “…While it is true that some of us have interfaced with international human rights organizations, stated positions on sanctions and arms embargoes on Eritrea from a critical human rights perspective, or have engaged with officials in various governments about the problems in Eritrea that produce high numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, these are matters of our own conscience and we each take nuanced positions rooted in careful research and years of understanding of the Eritrean situation…”

  2. Please read, Wanted Arab Spring 2.0 in Eritrea by Mirjam van Reisen. She openly demands regime change by force while on the other hand she is the scholar and on the other hand the human rights activist and yet on the other hand the advisor of the EU. Read, Mirjam van Reisen, founding director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), a member organization of Social Watch network. Also member of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees. Claims to do a “research” on Eritrean refugees. But she’s actively lobbying to cut ties between EU and Eritrea. This is all on the record. Just ask the EU commission. She hosts Eritrean political opposition on the University she works and actively lobbies to make them work together with dutch parliamentarians. Yet she claims to be an objective “expert” on Eritrea. She makes accusations without any proof about the government of Eritrea being involved in human trafficking yet she claims the government has a shoot to kill policy if one tries to get out of Eritrea. She has being challeged several time to come up with evidence but she ignores all the critique. She has much and much more positions thanks to all the fabricated work on Eritrea. All this is incomprehensible and Sophia is right to question her motives.. Now crying because her integrity is in question. She can respond if all this is not true like you said.

  3. The so called “anthropologist” suffer from impaired reasoning to address Eritrean issues because their minds and hearts are colluded by the hatred of President Isaias Afworki, in no way they can rationalise Eritrean matter unless and until they stop looking down at the Eritrean people and portraying President Isasias Afworki as a “God” and then accuse his supporter for portraying President Isaias Afworki as a “God”.

    We are yet to see an Academic Research on Eritrea to enlighten the masses, what we see for example the events organised by JusticeAfrica with SOAS facilitation of the Venue was not a Research and Debate based events and defintely not Academic. It was a pure campaign perpetuated by Hooligans with a Moral ASBO the likes of Selam Kidane etc who walked in with Dan Connel.

    ‘’Limits on Research and Reporting in Eritrea: The Implications for Peace and Rights’’ in which Michela Wrong was a panel member, was a naked expose on her intention when challenged in the issues that are implicating “Peace” which was part of the title of the event, as she arrogantly responded to the audiance if you are here to talk about Bademe which is the major factor of “no war no peace” situation then you should leave as you come at your own discreation! These are answers from someone talking about peace without talking about war and cause of war. Clap with one hand Mrs.Expert.

    What happened at SAOS with JusticeAfrica, was launching/promotions of a campaign to do with the ”Stop National Service in Eritrea”. Infact these toothless campaign was launched in an academic instution in disguse of Reaserch and Debate Talk Eritrea Series of four events. The Talk Eritrea Series had nothing to do with the campaign (stop national service in Eritrea) and it was never announced at the official SOAS or JustAfrica website but it was sneaked in sinsterly in between talks thinking no body would realise a campaign is being launched in disguse.

    How do you expect conscious Eritreans to Listen to your sinister campaign that wasn’t event officially part of the ” Talk Eritrea Seminar Series” and accuse the Eritrean youth of ”frustration” and how do you expect to be called an anthropologist rather a western anthropologist while you are there purely to advance your own interest to robe Africa.

    What we need is 1. PEACE: 2. PEACE: 3. PEACE – 1.International Peae, 2. Regional Peace and 3. Internal Peace.

    First Peace to be achieved by the UN shouldering its responsibilty of the EEBC demarcation and ought to implent chapter 7 upon the culprit.

    Second: We need a constructive engagment in the HOA ( example Eritrea or any IGAD member has the RIGHT to suspend and activate their membership when deemed necessary) Eritrea’s right must be respected and the so called “anthropologist” and “experts” must recognise and say it loudly.

    Thirdly: Peace number one and Peace number two will make Peace number three possibly as all or most national assets will be devoted to ensuring good goveranance and internal “Reform” (not reform to another model of copy and paste) what I would like to call it intertnal upgrade which would include the Legistalative, Exective and Juducial branches of the State which would improve the practices of democracy and acountablity.

    If we fully focus at peace number three and make it peace number one then the Traitors of Eritrea will work with the external enemy which are part of peace number 1 and 2. We have history of treason from the 1950th and their breed are still traitors in which they are also decieving a few true nationalist to back up their integrity.

    Until then we will make sure we stay in course, and through work we wil toil. We just need to keep building the uncorrupted country side with a School, a Clinic and a Water dam that no western anthropologist would spend their energy to do. Surely we will be number one of coming out from hegamony of the “superior human being” and “experts on Eritrea” and the belief of “The End of History and the Reign of Liberal Democracy”…as we will keep making history and our own history not a history written by a hired man/woman, by the way when Michela Wrong wrote her book Agaisnt All Odds she wasn’t writting for Eritrea but she was documenting the British Empiral History which she has the right to do but please do not tell me you wrote it for me.

    NB: I think by attacking Sophia T, you are unleashing the Next Generation. Keep it up Sophia and your ink in the pen of truth will not dry even if the enemy uses the waters of the oceans as an ink.

  4. Reblogged this on Natna and commented:
    Another must read from #ZeroAnthropology. The title should more appropriately be “White Scholars and academics Against Eritrea”. Unfortunately there is a level of scholarship gradation that is apparent when it comes to the interlocutors on the opposite side of the isle from Sophia. They are revealing themselves to be from the lower gradation of academic caliber, honesty and quality.

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