Representing Eritrea: Geopolitics and Narratives of Oppression

Narratives of Oppression eritrea
INSIGHTS: Interrogating the crime-against-humanity narrative and its discontents; Eritrea as the main cause of instability in the Horn of Africa?; What the future holds between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

Tanja R. Müller from the School of Environment and Development, Global Development Institute, and Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK have the following interrogation against the geopolitics and narratives of oppression in relation to Eritrea and how those feed into a wider conceptualization that regards Eritrea as the main source of instability in the Horn of Africa.


Two seemingly unrelated events occurred in mid 2015 that in different ways relate to the public representation of Eritrea and its function within the wider geopolitical context of the Horn of Africa. The first was the publication of the Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea in June 2015 by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC 2015) that in its summary suggests human rights violations in Eritrea may constitute crimes against humanity (the ‘may’ has disappeared in most media coverage where those alleged crimes are taken as facts).

The second was the visit of US President Barack Obama to Ethiopia in July 2015. During this visit he applauded Ethiopia’s democratically elected government, ignoring the fact that elections in May 2015 in which the ruling party had won every seat were condemned by many outside observers (Baker and Fortin 2015).

President Obama’s most critical comments were not aimed at the Ethiopian government but came in a speech at the African Union (AU), in which he strongly critiqued those leaders who stayed in power indefinitely. Ethiopia is on safe territory here, even if its rebel movement leader Meles Zenawi did not step down but died prematurely of cancer at the age of 57 in 2012 – and it is indeed hard to imagine that Zenawi would have stepped aside voluntarily.[1]

Both events demonstrate how the Horn of Africa has become a site of strategic importance in the Global War on Terror (now Overseas Contingency Operations). This importance was not to be expected after the end of Cold War rivalries in the Horn that saw the overthrow of the Derg regime in Ethiopia and the emergence of Eritrea as an independent state, when Africa as a whole received little US attention (Ploch 2011; Wiley 2012). But attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, combined with the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA and the more general threat posed by al-Qaeda and subsequently its more localized affiliates, focused the minds of the US and its Western allies on the Horn again (Plaut 2013; Ploch 2011).

It did so in a way that reverted to historic foreign policy patterns in the Horn that saw Ethiopia as the hegemonic power and natural Western ally. Ethiopia had traditionally been the ‘most attractive’ US ally owing to not only its large population, economic potential and strategic location on the Red Sea, but also because of its Christian heritage and African leadership role as seat of the headquarters of the former Organisation of African Unity and subsequently the AU (Schraeder 1992, 578).[2]

It should thus come as no surprise that Ethiopian interests dominate and often determine wider geopolitical approaches by the US and its allies, including relationships with other countries in the Horn, not least Eritrea. In many ways this represents a return to patterns of US engagement during the Eritrean liberation struggle, during which US policy was dominated by the quest for Ethiopia’s territorial integrity. Support for the referendum that led to Eritrean independence came only after facts on the ground made this unavoidable and after being backed by the new Ethiopian leadership (Müller 2007; Schraeder 1992).

In this scenario it is fitting from a US point of view to downplay the shortfalls in human rights in Ethiopia. At the same time, the quite grave accusation of potential crimes against humanity may be used as a first step for more active (military) engagement against Eritrea if deemed beneficial. This state of affairs calls for an interrogation of the narratives of oppression in relation to Eritrea and how those feed into a wider conceptualization that regards Eritrea as the main source of instability in the Horn.

The full content of the report follows [pdf]:

SOURCE: Tanja R. Müller (2016): Representing Eritrea: geopolitics and narratives of oppression, Review of African Political Economy, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2015.1111201