Eritrea’s internal colonialism is driving mass emigration

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde

Published Jan 10, 2024


Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde

Why are Eritreans leaving their country by the thousands? Why are they dying in the Sahara, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe? Why have they been crossing many southern American and central American countries to reach the US? Are they attracted by the glamour and attractions of upper-income countries?

Why are there hundreds of thousands of Eritreans in Ethiopia and Uganda? Eritrea has a population of a few million and it appears its population is being depleted fast due to mass emigration and hence the country is currently experiencing a demographic catastrophe.

Many are writing about the unprecedented flight of Eritreans from the country and a majority of commentators pin the reason for their flight on a military dictatorship or totalitarianism, but I argue that internal colonialism also explains why Eritreans are fleeing their own country.

Indeed, the situation in Eritrea can be described as not only a dictatorship or totalitarianism, but also a form of internal colonialism where a socio-culturally distinct political class dominates, controls and exploits the economic, political and socio-cultural life of the whole of the Eritrean society. For us to claim that a particular society is under “colonialism” or “colonial rule”, practices of control, subjugation, suppression and exploitation should be present.

The ruling elites in Eritrea comprise a tightly cohesive military and civilian clique who form a web of totalitarian structures and who control and monopolise the economic and financial infrastructure of the country by displacing and systematically suppressing the merchant class and the wealthy.

There is a near-complete control of the banking system, financial transactions, investments and a myriad other economic-financial activities and systems by the ruling class, and the Eritrean society has therefore become economically dispossessed. There is therefore economic subjugation by the military-political ruling elite in Eritrea.

The ruling elites also impose their highly military-suffused cultural values, ideas and philosophies associated with notions of resistance, defence, loyalty, courage, heroism, timeless selfless service, duty and personality cult. These militarised cultural traits have almost superseded and dominated over traditional cultural values and ways of life of the society.

Citizens over 18 are forced into national service and the above militarised values and world views are inculcated into the minds of the youth. Such imposition of military-imbued cultural elements over the entire Eritrean society is involuntary and hence coercively externally imposed.

The elites in Eritrea also impose their ideologies of state worship and personality cult where the Eritrean state is upheld as a sacred or sacrosanct entity where every Eritrean must serve and subjugate themselves. Isaias Afwerki, the ageing ruler, is also upheld as the nation’s saviour, omnipotent and all-knowing leader. Alternative ideas and beliefs expressed through alternative media are seen as “dangerous” to the state’s ideologies and hence the shutting down of the private media in the country.

The faith and teachings of Evangelical/Pentecostal Christians are viewed as a competition to the state’s world views which is based on the supremacy of the Eritrean state over all other religious faiths and hence the closure of all Evangelical churches and the persecution of their members. The Eritrean elite’s ideologies are foreign to the Eritrean society and hence colonialist in their character.

The Eritrean state is also a form of home-grown colonialist state structure because many of the various state institutions and agencies function to primarily exercise control over and subjugation of the Eritrean society. For example, state organs such as law enforcement, the military and security agencies primarily function to enforce the ruling elite’s ideas and whims rather than the security and well-being of the society.

Citizens live in fear, paranoia and terror in their own country due to the massive state surveillance apparatus operated by these state organs to enforce totalitarian rule across the entire social body. The current Eritrean government is the only political organisation imposing its will and way of life on the entire Eritrean population and no alternative political ideas or organised parties exist within Eritrea. The governance system in Eritrea is not an accepted mode of rule for the Eritrean society and hence is an alien political structure imposed on the Eritrean society.

The various elements I cited above which I argue are forms of internal colonialism are externally imposed formations and practices and do not reflect the aspirations, dreams, beliefs, values, norms, outlooks and ways of life of the Eritrean society.

A signatory character of colonialism is external imposition of norms and practices which society rejects as alien. It is due to the rejection of the elements of internal colonialism I enumerated above that there is mass exodus of Eritreans.

Even though the ruling elites in Eritrea are home grown and they look like Eritreans in their physical appearance, origin, ethnic and tribal composition and many other markers, their way of population management resembles that of alien colonists and the Eritrean population as colonial subjects.

Dr Amanuel Isak Tewolde is senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa at University of Johannesburg.

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