The Role of Eritrean Scholars: the Duty to be Unbiased
By Araya Debessay
I believe the Eritrean people expect Eritrean scholars to objectively and critically assess the ills of the nation and offer bold and constructive suggestions for the good of their country and the Eritrean people. Eritrean scholars should assume this responsibility as their national duty and indeed as their obligation.
I also believe Eritrean scholars should not give a deaf ear and a blind eye to the suffering of their people. They should have the moral courage and intellectual integrity to speak on behalf of the voiceless and the oppressed.
It is with this spirit that I read a News Release posted in Dehai from the Organization of Eritrean Americans (OEA), dated January 16, 2010, titled, “Eritrea's Economic Potential said to be Bright.” This was a presentation Professor Kiflai made at an event sponsored by the OEA at the Eritrean Community and Civic Center in Washington, D.C. on Friday, January 15, 2010, on “"My trip to Eritrea: Observations and Impressions.”
I am aware of Professor Kiflai’s many years of dedicated service to his country and his people starting from his student days as a member of the Association of Eritrean Students in North America. He has served his fellow Eritreans in North America in leadership positions in several Eritrean Civic Associations, Task forces and Lobbying groups, prior and post the independence of Eritrea. I am aware of a courageous stand he took, behind the scene, together with some of his colleagues, during the war with Ethiopia, to urge the Eritrean Government leaders to take the right course of action while actively and publicly working in support of the Eritrean Government’s weakness in the media services.
Having said that, I would have liked him to apply the same courage in his recent appraisal of the path the Eritrean government has chosen.
I agreed with what was described as the conclusion of the presentation made by my good friend that “Eritrea's development in agriculture, mining, tourism, port services (what were called the hardware of development), and education (human resource development) can position it in a bright economic future.” I do not dispute this. Eritreans all knew and know that Eritrea has tremendous potential to uplift the conditions of its people in every respect. What puzzled me was not what my friend reportedly has said during his presentation, but what he did not say. In a time where the whole world is witnessing the dismal conditions of our people, Dr. Kiflai chose not to point out the failures of the government who has placed Eritrea and the Eritrean people in the quagmire they are finding themselves now.
As an esteemed professor in one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the country, I have no doubt that he has the analytical caliber to understand the failings of the Eritrean leaders, yet I wondered how a person of his academic stature could choose to focus on the potential of what Eritrea could be and not utter even a single critical observation of why this potential has not been realized.
Professor Kiflai talked about “how Eritrea can move towards food security using only the water that can be harvested at the two Fankos (Fanko-tsimue and Fanko-rawi) and Gerset. With certain clearly stated assumptions, he calculated that Eritrea can harvest enough food that can feed its population.” The News Release did not state the assumptions made by Professor Kiflai. If he had mentioned that one of the fundamental assumptions for the full realization of Eritrea’s potential is good governance, the prevalence of the rule of law, the respect of human rights, freedom of speech, implementation of the constitution, a market-oriented macroeconomic policy, etc, then I would say kudos to my good friend and shame to the reporter who did him a disservice by not giving us a full account of what Professor Kiflai has stated.
We are told that Professor Kiflai made, a “two-hour presentation, [showing] slides of what he observed in water harvesting, by way of building major and minor dams, river diversion schemes and terracing. He spoke how the sprinkler irrigation system he witnessed at the Gerset irrigation project is the state of the art.” This probably is not new to most of the audience, and if I were in the audience, I would expect more from an esteemed Eritrean scholar than what I usually hear from the government media. Professor Kiflai stated, “The goal of the irrigation projects underway in Eritrea is to produce three times a year.” Professor Kiflai was careful to choose his words; he spoke of the goal but not the reality. A critical perspective should have added a little dose of reality by reminding his audience that there is a difference between goals and accomplishments. We all remember how Eritrea has started soon after independence with the vision (goal) to be the next Singapore in Africa. And we know where our country is today.
Professor Kiflai, according to the News Release, “explained, using data from his observation and the publications of the mining companies, how the potential of Eritrea's mining industry in gold, silver, copper, zinc and other metals from Bisha, Zara, and the Asmara belt is bright.” I wish I could share the optimism of Professor Kiflai. But given the track record of the present government in power, who has recklessly expended well earned political capital, I would not bet a dime on this government not squandering the people’s resources unwisely.
Dr. Kiflai was stating the obvious when he “pointed that Eritrea's tourism industry is well-suited to be competitive because what Eritrea can offer tourists is great; in Eritrea, Dr. Kiflai noted, tourists can enjoy personal safety, clean beaches, unpolluted air, a mosaic of a welcoming population, a spectacular variety of birds and marine life, including Eritrea's coral reef that is predicted to be the "global marine future" in light of the anticipated global warming.” No one questions the potential of Eritrea’s tourism industry with all the natural resources that Professor Kiflai has pointed out. But in order to give a complete perspective, scholars have the duty to point out the government’s failure to develop its tourism industry which could have been an asset helping the economic development projects of the country. What happened to the many recommendations that Eritrean scholars from almost every corner of the world, including Professor Kiflai presented at the National Business Conference and Exhibition which was held on December 9-17, 1995 in Asmara, organized by the then Minister of Trade and Industry, Ato Ogbe Abraha? To the best of my knowledge none of those recommendations were implemented. We all know that Eritrea has a long way to go before its badly damaged image is restored, so that it can fully capitalize on its tourism industry. To claim otherwise is simply to ignore reality.
Dr. Kiflai's final discussion on Eritrea's economic potential, according to the News Release was “on what he called is the software that will drive the above mentioned economic hardware of Eritrea: this is education or human resource development.” I fully agreed with him on the role of education and human resource development as a driving force in helping Eritrea to fully realize its development potential. But, potential is one thing and current reality quite another.
According to the 2007/2008 UNDP Human Development Report, the Human Development Index (HDI) for Eritrea is 0.454, which gives Eritrea a rank of 157th out of 177 countries.1 Contrast this with what Professor Kiflai has stated, that “Eritrea’s good start with the expansion of higher education and its vision is positioned to provide the necessary human resources for Eritrea’s economic development. He particularly noted that the spread of educational institutions all over Eritrea.” I have no doubt that other students and scholars who have a passing interest in the Eritrean current situation, let alone someone who has been recently in Eritrea to witness the state of education, will find this statement a bit surprising.
It has been nineteen years since independence and all that we see is not a good start but the dismantling of Eritrean educational system that started with the unfair and unjustified firing of 33 university professors in 1994. With Eritrean youth fleeing the country in the tens of thousands having lost hope in their future, with underpaid, overworked and ill motivated teachers, who are forced to moonlight working more than two jobs to survive, with under equipped under staffed schools, with a university that has been fragmented into semi military camps, I am puzzled to note Professor Kiflai’s optimism about the future of education in Eritrea. Perhaps he can elaborate and give us a more insightful analysis of the current status of education in Eritrea and what needs to be done to correct the situation.
Despite its potential as pointed out by Professor Kiflai, Eritrea ranks last or near to last in the world and certainly below most countries in Africa, according to global freedom and development indicators. In terms of malnourishment and hunger, a German research institute has ranked Eritrea third from bottom in 2007 - 116th out of 118 countries assessed by the institute.2 Professor Kiflai has told his audience, that the irrigation projects underway “is helping Eritreans from all ethnic groups and repatriated nationals to participate in food production with some help from the government.” I do not doubt his observation about the participation of the people in the irrigation projects, but I am not sure what the end result of this participation is going to be unless the government has a well integrated economic development policy that can provide positive results. There was an extensive discussion on the Government’s Macroeconomic policy at the National Business Conference of December 1995, but it seems that the government has abandoned its market oriented economic policy in favor of an economy that is dominated by the PFDJ.
It is reported that Eritrea is a country exhibiting lowest indicators of socioeconomic development, being ranked as one of 33 least developed countries (LDCs) in Africa3 with GDP per capita in 2007 of US$ 293. And according to a 2007 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Eritrea’s inflation in the same year was the second highest in the world, the first being that of Zimbabwe.4 All these are indicators of poor governance, the absolute lack of democracy and freedom and an economy under absolute control of the Eritrean government.
According to Human Rights Watch and other documents, there are between 20,0005 and 40,0006 victims of detention without trial and enforced disappearance respectively in Eritrea. And according to UNHCR, Eritrea has been ranked the fourth highest refugee-producing country in the world in 2006 and second highest in 2007-2008. In this regard, it was preceded only by failed or chaotic countries such as Somalia, Iraq and Zimbabwe. As a result, tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees are currently languishing in different refugee camps throughout Africa.
The Role of Eritrean Scholars
I do not mean to be overly critical of Professor Kiflai. As I mentioned in my introduction, my problem is not with what he has stated, but what he has not stated that I think is critical. May be Professor Kiflai has a good reason why he chose not to publicly air his critical views on the government’s mishandling of its public trust, but I still believe that the Eritrean people have a right to expect and demand more from their learned sons and daughters.
I believe Eritrean scholars should continue to agitate for the implementation of the constitution, the release of political prisoners, journalists, religious groups that are languishing in prison camps without any due process of the law.
I believe it is the duty of Eritrean scholars to hold their government accountable for its dismal record and offer the way out.
I believe much is expected of Eritrean scholars.
My plea to Eritreans scholars is to remain engaged and to actively participate in civic organizations that believe in democratic rights, human dignity and intellectual integrity. It’s high time for our scholars, academicians and professionals serve as a catalyst in bringing about positive changes in Eritrea through peaceful means.
 UNDP Human Development Report (2007-2008, available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/hdr_20072008_en_complete.pdf (accessed 5 November 2008).
 Welt Hunger Ilfe The Challenge of Hunger (2007), available at www.welthungerhilfe.de/fileadmin/media/pdf/Pressemitteilungen/DWHH_GHI_english.pdf (accessed 4 January 2008).
 UN-OHRLLS “The Criteria for the Identification of the LDCs,” available at http://www.un.org/special-rep/ohrlls/ldc/ldc%20criteria.htm (accessed 25 March 2008).
 IMF World Economic and Financial Surveys (2007), available at http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2007/02/pdf/text.pdf (accessed 5 January 2008).
 Daniel R Mekonnen Transitional Justice: Framing a Model for Eritrea (VDM Publishing: Saarbrucken/Germany, June 2009) 120–121.
 Human Rights Watch Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea (2009), available at http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/eritrea0409web_0.pdf (accessed 16 April 2009), citing Christian Solidarity Worldwide
I wrote the above article, “The Role of Eritrean Scholars: the Duty to be Unbiased,” in February of 2010, I had circulated it among friends for their comments, and decided not to post it. I was therefore surprised to see it posted at Asmarino.com. When I contacted Asmarino staff to inquire how they got the article and the photo, they gave me the name of the person who sent them the article, and that Google was their source for the photo. Asmarino staff expressed their regret and apology for not contacting me before posting it. I also got similar apology from the person who sent them the article. I accepted their apologies and did not see the need to have the article removed now that it is already out, even though the Asmarino staff had offered to do so.
The primary reason why I did not want to post the article initially was because I did not want to create any unnecessary friction or tension among those of us who should be working together for the good of our country. I have high regard for Prof. Kiflai, and although I was not happy with the views he expressed, I understand that we both have the same dream for the future of our country, and did not think publicly airing my disappointment with him was constructive. That was the reason for not wanting to post the article. Now it is posted, I hope we will still continue to be friends and work together on how we can play a role in transforming our country to be the country that we all dream of as we have done in the past.
I am a strong believer that our country needs all of its sons and daughters to work in unison now to bring about fundamental democratic changes in our country and in the future to improve the political, social, economic conditions of our people. I want to see Eritrea willing to forgive even those who are currently blindly supporting the Isaias government for the sake of building a better future for our people. I want Eritrea to follow the example of South Africa, a country that has focused on its future forgiving even those who had committed heinous crimes in the past.