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Review of Eritrea: A Dream Deferred


By Lionel Cliffe

Eritrea: A Dream Deferred. Gaim Kibreab. James Currey, Woodbridge & Rochester, 2009. Pp. xxvi + 420. ISBN. 978 1 84701 4008 7 (hb). £50.

With the publication of this second book covering the Eritrean liberation experience, Gaim Kibreab has provided the most substantial contribution available in English to understanding the dynamics of this controversial country.

Although this new book is not explicitly a Volume 2 of a history, it does build on his 2008 volume Critical Reflections on the Eritrean War of Independence: Social Capital, Associational Life, Religion, Ethnicity and Sowing Seeds of Dictatorship (Red Sea Press, Trenton). The books does cover the post-Independence period of history but has a somewhat different purpose and flavour. But it still helps to situate this new work in the context of the first. Indeed, looking back to the first, its ‘reflections on … the seeds of dictatorship’ already provide one set of answers to “the most important question” addressed in this new book: “how did Eritrea in spite of the high expectations end up in such a blind alley and why?” (p.3). On rereading the first volume it seems to extract from the historical record of movements and events those elements that inevitably point to the later gross human rights infringements and the denial of the rule of law by a repressive regime, that are the central concern of this second book.

In fact what is offered first among a string of explanations of this state of affairs, eight all told (in a pivotal Chapter 4), is that it stems from the inherited nature of a disciplined, secretive and militarised movement - as presaged in the previous work. This perspective implies an inevitability about these outcomes. The historical account in the earlier book is thoroughly detailed but arguably one dimensional: the patterns of the liberation struggle contain not only the seeds of dictatorship, but also the seeds of the promise that he argues has been dashed; this latter is marginalised in his analysis. Likewise in the analysis of post-Independence developments there seems to be assumptions of inevitability about the outcome. For instance, how come initiatives pointing in a different direction, such as the Congress resolution in favour of multi-partyism, or the process of the consultative process of constitution-making and the democratic draft it produced, were even tried. And what explains the policy u-turns on such issues? Clearly too there were many leaders and cadres who espoused these policies, and even felt the escalation of the War was unnecessary - some of whom were to make up the now imprisoned G15 group, and their thoughts as quoted in Dan Connell’s book are cited with approval by Kibreab. But there is no explanation of why all these roads were not travelled. Were such options always destined to be shunted aside?

There is a lengthy and revealing account of some of the economic strategies pursued by the regime: the undermining of the private sector, and the promotion of a string of businesses owned by the ruling party, now known as the PFDJ. We are told that these latter businesses are ‘not a public sector’ but the explanation of why they are promoted is ‘not just out of greed’ but as a strategic instrument to ensure political control. This control of crucial sectors of the economy is pursued not just by inducing dependency but also because it embodies a piece of long run social engineering: pre-empting the emergence of a middle class. That such a goal of political sociology ‘explains’ the motives behind economic strategy is hard to swallow. Apart from the inherent difficulty of adducing motives, this particular thesis rests on another set of assumptions which also underpin the whole work. For this to be the reason behind strategies, the leadership would have to accept the theory that a middle class is the automatic instigator. That seems to be a proposition that the author himself accepts as an article of faith. Indeed he states that “there seems to be general agreement that the market and consequently the middle class and the bourgeoisie are the motive forces of democratic politics” (p. 296) - a line after pointing the reader to a 1992 survey of democratisation, by Rueschemeyer et al., that actually explicitly rejects this thesis. He goes on shortly after to cite Hayek, and elsewhere Arendt. There is no ‘general agreement’ on the democratising role of the middle classes; and no evidence that President Isaiyas sees that as the threat to avoid. But these assumptions do tend to support that the overall critique of human rights abuse and repression, which are in fact the realities, is in his case based on an ideological and idealist belief in free market liberalism.

Partly motivated by such ideas, a large part of the book is spent searching for and regretting the repression of ‘associational life’ - which admittedly are documented in a wealth of welcome detail - but again an assumption: that such associations are the key instruments in democratisation.

That this particular vantage point for critical reflections leads automatically to an inevitable political dead end is signalled when he makes occasional suggestions that such is the fate of all revolutionary movements, and in particular of national liberation movements in Africa, Indochina and Central Africa. The work could have benefited from a more thorough comparative view. But at one level the study, when it raises the classic question ‘what is to be done?’, has nowhere to go. Eritrea’s trajectory is seen as one further confirmation of certain fliberal truths.

This book and its predecessor contains a massive range of empirical material that makes its reading essential for all serious students of Eritrea. It advances a range of arguments with which all such students have to engage. But those who start from a different ideological standpoint may well come up with different views of causation, and of what might be done in the present impasse.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 118-119]

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