Evelyn Groenink

Op-Ed | Why do we allow a celebration of Eritrean dictatorship in our midst?

It was a relief to note that most media in the Netherlands managed relatively quickly to move from outrage about what some called a “tribal clash” or a “foreign conflict” between Eritreans in The Hague to the more sensible understanding that the violent protests had targeted the even more violent Eritrean regime, whose agents and militants had assembled in that city to celebrate a special festive day for the dictatorship. It was even better to receive input from expert academics and actual Eritrean refugees.

But the most enlightening snippet, surely, was an interview in current affairs tv-show Nieuwsuur with the Eritrean ambassador, a man in tweed called Negassi Tekle, who looked the part of a diplomat villain in a secret service action movie, with his beady eyes, little moustache, and twitching mouth. It was a pity that the presenter didn’t ask Ambassador Tekle more specifically about the latter’s military camp country that keeps people scared, underfed, without electricity and often even water, while somehow finding the means to harass, extort, and intimidate the five hundred thousand who managed to escape. Nieuwsuur anchor Jeroen Wollaars admittedly tried for a while to do just that, but visibly gave up after he hit an unrelenting wall of “Eritreans are nice peaceful people. We are all fine people in Eritrea. Yes, many of us are in other countries but that is just to have festive events and be a community,” interspersed with, “Those who attack us are foreign troublemakers who must be punished.”

Just from seeing Ambassador Tekle, one would feel inclined to immediately close that country’s embassy, expel diplomats and riot-seeking agents provocateurs (the Dutch intelligence service AIVD knows them, I hear) and use full force to stop the dictatorship’s practice of threatening not only Eritrean refugees but also their families back home. But then Clingendael expert Christopher Houtkamp told Nieuwsuur, in another interview, that there should not be too much of that, because that would “impact on bilateral relations between Eritrea and the Netherlands.”

Once again, the interviewer didn’t ask the question I wanted him to ask, which was: why that would be so bad? What do the Netherlands, or Europe, or any democratic country, need bilateral relations with dictator Isaias Afwerki (same beady eyes, same little moustache, same ruthless lies) for?

A small potato field

Granted, diplomacy is not about liking one another. There are always a host of reasons to keep talking. The Netherlands still has a Russian embassy in The Hague; I guess Russia is just too powerful to ignore. Nevertheless, even the size of that mission has been restricted, and the country would certainly not be allowed “to have a big party for Putin here” as Dutch journalist from Eritrean descent Habtom Yohannes said on TV. And compared to Russia, or China, or other such big ‘geopolitical players’ as it is called in diplo-speak, Eritrea has all the importance of a small potato field (no economy to speak of but it grows some potatoes, I googled it.)

Western countries maintain their ties with tin pot dictators

Strangely, when it comes to Africa, Western countries seem to want to maintain their ties with a host of tin pot dictators at all costs. Rwanda, too, is still a European favourite, even though it has spied on and intimidated opponents worldwide and is even suspected of a murder in Belgium. The Netherlands have sold police vehicles to oppressors in Uganda, a country where hundreds of opponents have been murdered and jailed. Western development aid also continues to prop up kleptocrat Paul Biya in Cameroon, while Cameroonian refugees drown in the Mediterranean. Talk about “not importing foreign conflicts” all you want (sadly, this is still the gist of many a tragically medieval post on social media) but it is Europe that tries to safeguard its access to Africa’s riches while keeping the natives quiet through what it calls ‘equal partnerships’ with thieving and oppressive political elites.

Eritrea might actually be the easiest African country to break a ‘’bilateral partnership” with. It has very little that "we" want; the dictator (being great friends with Putin) doesn’t even like us, so why would we not choose sides: for the refugees and opponents who want democracy, freedom and dialogue? Why not choose to listen to academics and writers in the refugee communities who espouse “our values”, precisely because they miss such values so much in their home countries?

Leaders who pocket entire state budgets are hated

Taking the “values” road regarding Eritrea might be a good first step to doing the same with other African countries, such as the ones mentioned above. Europe might benefit from fostering bilateral partnerships with African democrats and critical professionals, instead of with leaders who pocket entire state budgets, including development funds, for themselves and their families. Recently, people in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gabon danced in the streets after such leaders were removed by military juntas. It is doubtful that the colonels and brigadiers now in power will be any better for the countries in question than their predecessors, but one thing from the series of coups was clear: the ones who were removed had been hated. For their elite rule, their incompetence, their fat bellies, their Ferraris, and their holiday homes in Cannes and Nice. Hated.

And, since these leaders had been seen as puppets of Western paymasters (France in particular), it came as no surprise that new military juntas subsequently announced that they would break bilateral partnerships with these “colonisers” and rather follow in Isaias Afwerki’s footsteps, seeking friendship with Russia. Naturally, Russia would have influenced such developments, but it wouldn’t have been too difficult for them to do so. The grounds for manipulation had been very fertile indeed.

Barbed wire

It is therefore difficult to understand why Europe and the UK, even after what has happened in West Africa, seem hellbent on continuing the bilateral partnership path with so many other leaders of the continent who are vehemently feared and disliked by their own citizens. Judging by current Africa strategies published by European countries and the EU itself, “we” need to focus on “equal partnerships” with the Kagames, Musevenis, and Biyas. The UK’s Tony Blair Institute even talks of an “ambitious commitment” to such dictators. (We must also support a few NGOs that advocate for democracy, but there is much, much less about that in the strategies.) The point of these partnerships is, I read, to safeguard Europe’s access to markets and resources, and to curb migration (read barbed wire around North Africa and Frontex patrols, for which the dictators will be paid handsomely.)

A cynic might say that this is indeed the way to go. If African citizens could be increasingly imprisoned within their own countries while the minerals will continue to reach Western shores, Europe might get its wish: to import the foreign stuff without importing the foreign conflicts.

It’s still risky though. Because people in Africa may still rise up. New leaders may turn their countries into many more Putin-friendly Eritreas. And then any hope the world had for equal partnerships between north and south, the joint cultivation of resources, or peaceful cooperation to ward off threats like climate change and looming future pandemics, will be gone.

And when that hope goes, we go too.