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Sad, Unfortunate, Bitter Truth Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea

Sad, Unfortunate, Bitter Truth Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea   The following manuscript is a hasty response to a blog I read couple days ago. It was prepared by a 'Senior Editor' and MPA/ID candidate at Harvard University,

Sad, Unfortunate, Bitter Truth
Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea


The following manuscript is a hasty response to a blog I read couple days ago. It was prepared by a ‘Senior Editor’ and MPA/ID candidate at Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government titled “The Unknown Africa – Eritrea: Africa’s North Korea or African survivor?”


As I get older, the one thing that I try not do is encourage ignorance and tolerate nonsense. So, I would call the piece the best way I know how – using adapted idiom from my straight shooting forefathers – “There was no need to sweat this much to make such a vapid, tasteless and dull porridge” (ነዚ ክትግዕታ’ዶ ትርህጻ)


Worthy Issue

To his credit, the blogger gave his work an issue worthy of academic inquiry. “Is Eritrea Africa’s North Korea or merely an African survivor?” The expression “Eritrea North Korea of Africa” is unique to say the least. Thus, it is only wise not to accept it at face value, or automatically reject it out of spite. One owes it to his /her own self to find out the truth. This is especially true for a scholar such as the blogger.  Thus, I believe, he did the right thing on embarking an academic quest to find out the truth.



Curiously, the blogger starts his piece with a story about ‘a Harvard economics professor and cows of Sierra Leone’, where he tried to show some metaphoric relevance to the topic at hand. As far fetched as the story sounds, the point seems to be, just because one does not see a particular thing, it does not mean that the particular thing does not exist. It could also be that one cannot establish cause and effect without showing the connection. All this was to give him a background on why he believes delving deeper than head lines is important. He then continues with yet another metaphor about Bronx, NY. He tries to make a point that Eritrea, just like the Bronx, gets news coverage only when things are going down. The point again is, one needs to go deeper than what the mainstream news broadcasts to find the truth. Redundant, but also good point.



A – Researching the UNESCO’s Eight Volumes


The blogger, then tells us what he tried to do in an effort to dig below the headlines. He went to UNESCOs Eight volumes of the “General History of Africa”. However, he says, he was not able not find enough information about Eritrea.  Here is where I first questioned the scholarship of the piece. I, sincerely, still wonder how the scholar expected a publication from 1993 (the time 8th Volume was published) can help him in answering the question he set out to answer.
In 1993, independent Eritrea just showed up in the scene. It was its first year of de jure independence. The government was new it was even called ‘provisional’ and its policy was at its infancy. Although, many of the governed knew the person of those in power while they were rebels, people have yet to acquaint themselves to the leadership quality of the same in a government semblance. The domestic policy was just ‘a mood of reconstruction’. The proclamations, legal notices were too general and all over. One may argue proclamations were drafted with good will, but lacked basic consistency and proper legal hierarchy to the say the least. Many of those laws omitted much needed details, which gave rise to an executive overreach early on. The foreign policy of the junta in power had yet to evolve.  True, Eritrea then, in light of the preceding years, could be described as a survivor nation, but that was at least a generation ago.


The UNESCO publication of 1993 has little to say, if any, about geo political status quo of present day. Trying to get present day information for that publication would be just like to trying to learn about the 21st century America from Wizard of OZ. You may be able to pick up some things that would let you know when you are /are not in Kansas, but that’s it.


In short, the UNESCO documents, as good literature as they are, cannot in any way not help any one understand the present day politics of country that did not exist at the time of its writing,  let alone the etymology of the expression Africa’s North Korea.
B- Wikipedia

The blogger then goes to Wikipedia.
I must say the scholar crossed a serious red line. The act of paraphrasing and copy-pasting orphaned statements from Wikipedia is way below a quality of an average scholar, let alone a Harvard Scholar. Nonetheless, a conveniently omitted line in the same Wikipedia page would have given him at least one reason on why Eritrea is called the North Korea of Africa. According to the page, Reporters without Borders ranks Eritrea second to North Korea in its World Press Freedom Index. By the way, in the most recent rankings by the same organization, Eritrea has managed to outdo North Korea and become the worst country in the world.


C – Friend

The blogger then goes to his friend for advice. Whether known to him or not, this friend is, more than likely, the person whose LinkedIn profile states that she worked as an advisor to the Eritrean Mission to the United Nations. The very office that is responsible to be an apologetic mouth piece of the cruel dictatorship in Eritrea – mind you the cruel dictatorship being the reason Eritrea is called North Korea of Africa. Notwithstanding the friend’s current political opinion, the blogger’s demonstrated interest in valuing of history and background of entities, mention of her past employment would have been appropriate. Any inadvertent bias would have been understood by the readers.
The response of the friend, did not answer the question – Is Eritrea Africa’s North Korea? She tried to give some reason why Eritrea deserves another name, a second name, per chance.  However, she did not give enough reason why the expression came about nor why it should be refuted with enough empirical evidence. She just said there was no personality cult in Eritrea like that of North Korea. The blogger could have followed it up by asking, “when was the last time she was in Eritrea.” In my view, the phrase that supporters of the regime repeat “nhna nsu, nsu nhna” ( We are [in] him, he is [in] us ) referring the dictator of Eritrea would have explained things much better.
Why Eritrea is  North Korea of Africa
What is missing in all the blog is that the reason why the author and his friend see the description inappropriate and / or unnecessarily. Many of us find the expression fitting. After all, it does not say ‘Eritrea is North Korea’, it says ‘Eritrea is Africa’s North Korea’ which implies the government of Eritrea puts its own (by extension Africa’s) flavor to the style of dictatorship in North Korea and applies it.  It does not have to be 100 % the same, but enough similarity of the extreme ends of dictatorship would suffice. With that, let me try to list features of the North Koran rule that are evident in Eritrea, and why some of us find it appropriate to call Eritrea African North Korea

  • Single party rule ever since 1991, the year of Eritrea’s de-facto independence
  • No elections ever ever ever
  • The huge size of the active military per total population plus huge number of reserve army
  • the astounding number of prison camps with horrific inhumane treatment including underground dungeons in Aderser, Track-B Asmara, Era-Ero, and more
  • the span of time where one is forced to work for free – free labor some up to 17 years
  • the proportion of governments spending on propaganda and arms in the face of pervasive poverty
  • the imprisonment and continual detention of tens of thousands with no trial
  • religious persecution especially evangelical Christians, Jehovah Witnesses, and some schools of Islam
  • the sudden disappearance of hundreds of political dissidents, journalists, religious leaders never to be seen again
  • the fact that there is no free press and journalists inside the country; around 30 journalists were rounded up and imprisoned in 2000 never to be seen again
  • the arbitrary arrests and sweeping from streets
  • the closed nature of the country no single outside journalists
  • the lack of freedom of movement – one has to flee in order to leave the country
  • shoot to kill policy to those found on the borders
  • the adventurous and belligerent foreign policy and intervening in internal matters of neighbors
  • mafia like money laundering operations done by government and its operatives all over the world

It is with the above and more reasons that Eritrea is dubbed Africa’s North Korea, and rightfully so. Anyone who can legitimately argue Eritrea does not deserve the name should refute the above.


Settled undercut

The blogger whose piece started this response makes one settled undercut to intelligence of Eritreans. In fact, this is why I started to respond. I see contempt in it. He alleges that the term was given by outside ‘mainstream’ journalists. I personally have heard it being said in Eritrea as early as 2003, among other places in Sawa. Eritreans, just like others, be it right or wrong, can come up with their own analogy and term to describe their own situation. Besides, the ruling party used to make propaganda that Eritrea is African Switzerland or African Singapore. That was not from ‘mainstream’ media. Thus, it is only natural for those who were suffering to try to come back with a fitting witty come back.

It is beyond contempt to see one trying to argue anything correct and wise that an oppressed person says needs to be attributed to someone else. This adds an insult to an injury. Don’t Eritreans and the rest of Africans have brains to think and enough sense to compare and come up with the term themselves? Or is one trying to set Eritreans straight, ‘not only should you be content being oppressed, but anything you say has no originality, for no one amongst you can come up with such an apt the description.’ Are Eritreans intellectually challenged to describe their suffering and make analogy of their situation with others in history or in their contemporary world. Reprehensible, it is.
In the last decade, I have seen many Eritrean journalists, activists and others using the expression conscious of its meaning and implications. I believe the collective push to establish the analogy finally worked and many policy makers of other countries and media have come to use it.


This is not to say the ‘mainstream’ media does not  use the expression Eritrea is North Korea of Africa. One may even come up with an evidence where the ‘mainstream’ media usage of the expression predates its earliest usage of same by Eritreans. However, it does not necessarily follow that Eritreans are repeating whatever they heard from the media. As the Socratic argument goes: if two men speak the same truth, they need not be thought to have copied from one another, but from the truth itself.


Parting remark

As a parting remark to the blogger, I advise him that it is not intellectual to raise an issue, develop a thesis and support it with sources like Wikipedia and a personal opinion of a potentially biased friend.

True, written material on Eritrea may be hard to find; but it does not mean there are none. There are many books, articles written by many able Eritreans and non Eritreans. There are lots of intellectuals and first hand witnesses willing to share their time and resources. There are many websites that can be referred for fact checking. The blogger may not have time to go through all the hassle; understandable. In that case leaving it alone would be an honorable thing to do, anything else is intellectually dishonest.
In my view, laziness, trying to simplify sophisticated issues, shallowness etc draw a scholar to Wikipedia. It is unbecoming of a scholar. Unless, of course, the ‘scholar’ believes the gospel from Michael Scott, Steve Carrel’s character in The Office,
Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.”



Bereket (Biko) Stephanos

January 28, 2015

Review overview
  • fact-is-fact January 28, 2015

    you simply etched it beautifully! and add to your plain truth this — if those dishonest, half-hearted Eritreans have the brightest mind to see (rightly so) the crimes committed by Ethiopia & have been dragging Eritrea to ash, then these same Eritreans with bright minds must be bright enough to viciously attack the white many (Italy, England) for the crimes committed upon our people.

    Our ancestors, with all the crimes that they dealt with at least kept their dignity, culture without being saturated by the alien culture. Talk about mental strength & self dignity that they possessed & kept! Even this without being exposed to the enviorns of the white man. Just imagine if they had lived in the West and gotten all the exposure, education that the diaspora “got”. boy are we just so dumb not even knowing it that we are!

    well I better stop. there are those who are so sensitive about criticism of us & the blueprints of EPLF that inevitably were installed at the dawn of independence. It is irony, people who even oppose all the current crimes, do not see the past crimes as crimes or want to selectively acknowledge the ones that occurred after independence. no wonder Eritrea is where Eritrea is now at.

  • AHMED SALEH !!! January 28, 2015

    I don’t have any clue about North Korean people lives but I know their
    government run military style rule isolated from international world .
    In case of Eritrean issues anyone can write his/her political views but
    the one who is living in it know the bitter truth of ourselves .
    We stupidly obsessed with unrealistic political beliefs to minimize
    our government irresponsible reputations . We bear witnesses from
    they fault and it’s destructive consequences to many people and families .
    I don’t have to go in detail because naturally our eyes and ears never lie
    unless acted otherwise like dumb and arrogant people .

  • tamrat tamrat January 28, 2015

    A 27 year old man from Afghanistan who pretends as 16 years in the norwegian immigration office could have been proud to be an eritrean. The time for afghanitan people to get automatically asylum was over years ago while ten thousands of nato soldires fighting terrorists . So adults from Afghanistan as old as 27 pretenfs to b16 because in norway minors asylum seekers have a better chance to be accepted. So a 27 years old man sitting among proud and jubilious eritrean minors has no better wish than to be a proud eritrean.

  • WediHagher January 28, 2015

    “Now the question to those idiots foxes akeleguzay, seraye, hamasein is not Italian words it is Tigrnya our language and those provinces existed for centuries but you keep telling us the Italians created them to divide us. Mebkolkum asriyu.”


    I am not really sure whether the regions’ history goes beyond Italian colonialism. But I am sure they did it for administrative reasons, not to divide people as Higdef claims. When the Italians drew the lines to define regional borders, they didn’t do it under pressure from popular resistance, hence as a security precaution to contain revolts, because popular discontent come after Mussolini came to power, and racial laws where introduced. They just dotted some lines on the map. For instance, from Mes_hal-wedi-kkele (a village close to Zalambesa) to Guzay (a locality past Decamere) so, you get Akele-Guzai.
    But why Higdef is so allergic to traditional provinces, is it really meant to combat regionalism ?, I don’t think so. Although, it’s very normal for any one born in Eritrea to feel “Eritrean”, because actually he/she is, unfortunately, there are a few who were born or lived in our country but because of Ethiopian occupation presence for thirty long years, the naturalization process was not successful. Many such people feel do not belong to traditional Eritrea. They want it “new Eritrea”, without it’s past history and distinctive regional culture, because

  • WediHagher January 28, 2015

    Continued …

    They want it “new Eritrea”, without it’s past history and distinctive regional culture, because, a lot of other issues such as land tenure and indigenous identities are also related to it. So, the attempt to re-draw the regions seem to be politically motivated. That said, we don’t want our regions to be a dividing factor, we want to be proud of our cultural heritage, and that is all.

  • Medhaniye January 28, 2015

    How could anyone compare poor Eritrea with the giant and well developed North Korea? It is like comparing between a chalk and a cheese. To an outsider the comparison is more of a wishful thinking. If Eritrea was powerful and anything close to North Korea, I would have been a very happy citizen under any regime. We have a long long way to get any where close to North Korea and lets just make sure that even poor Somalia doesn’t overtake us to being a better and more developed than Eritrea.

  • Berhe Azbaha January 29, 2015

    Dear Medhane,
    Somalia has long overtaken Eritrea. They had internet connection long before

  • rezen January 30, 2015

    “…lets just make sure that even poor Somalia doesn’t overtake us to being a better and more developed than Eritrea.” by Medhaniye

    Commentary Wow! that is worth more than twenty-thousand words. THE END