There is an old Eritrean adage which loosely translates as: “what is the point of spending a fortune on a brand new outfit in a place where no one else lives?” An equivalent might be the philosophical riddle: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" It is most regularly used in Eritrea to satirise grandiose claims; and that I suppose is exactly how many Eritreans feel about the “achievements” of the country’s government - perhaps most of all proclamations about Eritrea’s self-sufficiency.
In the summer months of 2011, the government in Asmara (via its only media outlet, the ministry of information) regularly announced that there is no food shortage in Eritrea and thus no need for food aid or the kind of emergency attention devoted by international agencies to the rest of the horn of Africa. Its stance - that it is untouched by an emergency affecting 12 million people elsewhere - is reiterated by government ministers in the international media and by Eritreans in the diaspora supportive of the regime of the president, Isaias Afewerki.
The evidence for a sufficiency of food in the country, and insulation from the catastrophe that has befallen other parts of the region, is meagre: some photographs of a few sacks stacked in markets, filled with grain of indiscriminate provenance. The accompanying message is that Eritrea’s ability to feed its people reflects the “government's relentless efforts in creating dozens of micro-dams throughout the country, investing tens of millions in modern agriculture equipment, and introducing modern farming techniques such as the ingenious drip-water irrigation system; which has given many Eritrean farmers the ability of having three farming seasons in one year” (Madote News, May 2011).
This stance is becoming harder to sustain, as evidence accumulates that many Eritreans are suffering acutely from drought and associated food shortages. A new report that gathers information from a variety of sources - including the Famine Early Warning Systems Network - suggests that as many as two-thirds of Eritreans are going hungry; there is an increased trend of severe malnutrition among children under 5 years old; and that 900 emaciated Eritreans risk crossing the militarised border with Ethiopia each month, many of whom describe the withering of their livelihoods (see Martin Plaut, "Drought in Eritrea: hunger despite official denials" (BBC News, 4 September 2011).
The dots joined
There had already been sources available that suggested scepticism over the Eritrean government's claims. The Global Hunger Index Report
(GHI), released in October 2010, indicates that Eritrea was among the twenty-nine countries whose levels of hunger it considered “extremely alarming”. The GHI highlights a key component of crisis, namely the way that a lack of nutrition in early childhood can have a long-term impact on economic performance.
The GHI index is compiled from data collected by governments and international agencies. Thus its conclusions regarding Eritrea cannot easily be dismissed - and the fact that several countries where conditions were not in 2010 considered “extremely alarming” (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda among them) are now seeking assistance has clear implications for conditions in Eritrea. Indeed, Isaias Afewerki had admitted at the end of 2009 - in a meeting with Unicef’s deputy executive director, Hilde Johnson, whose content was later publicised - that the country faced severe problems; as a result, Eritrea agreed to give Unicef total access to conduct a nutritional survey, which probably supplied the information included in the GHI.
The daily grind
The lived experiences of Eritreans, insofar as these can be ascertained behind the iron curtain Isaias Afewerki has erected between Eritrea and the outside world, offers more immediate evidence of the state of food-security in the country (see "'Silent crisis' as more Eritreans flee", Irin News, 5 August 2011).
Today, even the urban middle classes find themselves scarcely able to purchase the necessities of life amid steep food prices which far exceed their average monthly income. Such basics as milk, domestic cooking fuel, and diesel are so scarce that many people resort routinely to unofficial channels to obtain them, and no longer seek them in the market.
Every Eritrean under the age of 50 is supposed to be undertaking compulsory military service, which earns 400 nakfa a month (approximately $26). This alone wouldn’t even cover the price of a single decent meal: for a small chicken costs around 800 nakfa, a small goat or lamb 2,000 nakfa, and local fruits and vegetables on average 80 nakfa/kg. Many families thus sustain themselves on dry bread, which is rationed. Even basic traditional meals prepared from local grains such as chickpeas are now a luxury.
Moreover, the government uses endless pretexts under its “nation-building project” to make deductions from the salaries it pays - usually taken directly under the guise of voluntary “contributions”. The social consequences include damage both to an already frayed work ethic and to the national cause that Eritreans are renowned for. In addition there is evidence of begging, long a taboo among a proud people. A familiar experience of diaspora visitors is to be approached by women asking for help to feed their hungry children and grandchildren (who in many cases have fled the country, and now live in the region’s refugee camps).
When extended family members in the countryside hear that a relative from abroad is visiting, they now flock to share their impossible predicament and implore on their kin’s generosity rather than (as is the Eritrean way) to offer greetings and gifts of local produce. This puts even more pressure on the Eritrean diaspora, already required (again as is customary) to support their relatives at home, but now obliged to support more distant family members; this in addition to the 2% income-tax levied to secure access to their own country, a procedure which can be used as a way of denying entry.
The Ethiopian precedent
Amid these evident difficulties, Eritrea - committed to the ideology of self-reliance - continues to shun external offers of assistance. The government cites inhabitants of part of the southern region as confirming that their needs are fully met, and echoing their government’s resolve to go it alone.
This time, there are no invitations to international agencies to conduct nutrition surveys to confirm this, nor independent media outlets in the country to verify such assertions. In any event, a longer perspective on the history of the region suggests that severe levels of hunger cannot long remain hidden - and when they are exposed they often lead to the downfall of regimes that tried to deny them.
I grew up in Ethiopia. In 1984, a similar pattern of ideological evangelism gripped the then ruler Mengistu Hailemariam. An attitude of utter denial of the realities of life of millions of Ethiopians contributed to large-scale deaths, many of which - following the argument of Amartya Sen - could have been prevented by a policy of openness.
Paul Henze wrote of the time:
“It is easy for the visitor to Addis Ababa to see what the Regime’s priorities were: a huge Conference Hall, a towering Red Star topped monument of stone and bronze, hundreds of triumphal arches, obelisks and billboards extolling Communism and Mengistu Haile Mariam. Every building in the capital that rises more than four stories is crowned with huge revolutionary slogans. All this revolutionary ‘construction’ and large sums spent on TV, whisky, food accommodation, and other inputs into the great celebrations of September 1984 were utterly unproductive expenditures for a country whose foreign exchange reserves were almost exhausted and where seven million people were on the verge of starvation” (see Paul Henze, ‘Behind the Ethiopian Famine’, Encounter, July/August 1986).
When the problem got out of hand Mengistu was forced to adopt a reform programme that produced too little too late and eventually led to his demise. The twist was that he had risen to power on the back of the famine of 1974, ill-handled by his predecessor Emperor Haile Selassie.
The policies of both regimes compounded drought, helped lead to the death of millions of their citizens, and contributed to their downfall. It remains to be seen whether a combination of forced militarisation, draconian economic policies and authoritarian control will set the government of Eritrea on a similar course.
Get our weekly email