Jennifer Riggan’s Latest Attempt to Cement an Erroneous Eritrea Narrative

News Opinions Sophia Tesfamariam

“… Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behavior – based on information collected through fieldwork… ” – Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson

… a desperate attempt to remain relevant?

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

I just returned from a three week visit to Eritrea and whilst there, a friend showed me a 28 January 2016 article entitled “Unraveling the Complexities of Refugee Flight from Eritrea”, written by Jennifer Riggan and published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

Even in Eritrea, I could not get away from these incessant campaigns to vilify the nation and its leadership. Like all her previous articles and ethnographic “research” on Eritrea, this latest piece seeks to cement a distorted narrative on Eritrea and its National Service Program (NSP).

This seems to be another desperate attempt to remain relevant at a time when the carefully crafted “anthropological” and “ethnographic” narratives on Eritrea, her people and leadership are being challenged by Eritreans everywhere. 

There have been many anthropologists and ethnographers that have come to Eritrea since independence in 1991. Jennifer Riggan is one of them. Riggan came to Eritrea as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995. Her personal encounters and emotional responses to events in Eritrea, including her marriage to an Eritrean teacher, her primary informant, make up the basis of her “ethnographic research” on Eritrea.

In subsequent articles, over a span of a decade, Riggan details her relationship with her husband and his attempts to leave Eritrea and the problems he encounters, while his compatriots stay to defend their nation.

Instead of providing context and history, these rather childish personal accounts are examples of the bias and lack of objectivity found in almost all of her articles. Riggan’s “research papers” lack the intellectual and political maturity needed to understand Eritrean statehood and the arduous task of nation building, being gallantly carried out by the Eritrean people, in a volatile and hostile international and regional environment. Riggan insists on provocatively delving into national issues, such as national identity of Eritreans, the relationship of the Diaspora and Eritreans living in Eritrea, emigration, national service etc. etc. and makes blanket conclusions based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence.

Jennifer Riggan feigns concern about the relationship and trust between the people of Eritrea and the leadership-and especially the youth. It is a misplaced concern. Misrepresenting Eritrea’s current status, in her latest piece, Riggan commenting on Eritrean migration to Europe states the following:

“…This number is stunning considering the fact that Eritrea is not currently embroiled in war…”

Ethiopia’s 15 yearlong of occupation of Badme and other sovereign Eritrean territories constitutes an act of war, something Riggan conveniently ignores. Eritrea has also been subjected to unprovoked hostilities from the United States and mercenary states in its employ. The existential threat to Eritrea is real. But equally threatening is the psychological warfare unleashed against the Eritrean people in the last 15 years, with Riggan and her ilk in the forefront. Neither Riggan, nor her informants understand the true nature of the National Service Program in Eritrea and what it entails, but insist on producing volumes to malign it, as she does in her latest article.

Once again, without ever presenting evidence to back up her erroneous allegations about the NSP, Riggan writes:

“…While in service, Eritreans are heavily controlled—they cannot leave the country, choose their occupation, or visit family on a regular basis…”

The rules and regulations of the NSP in Eritrea are no different than that of other countries. Of course there will be some control over the participants. It is after all trying to instill certain values and principles, including discipline. No one is above the law and there are necessary restrictions on movement as the country is technically still at war.

The National Service Program in Eritrea has been influenced by a multitude of historical necessities combined with contemporary cultural, economic, social, and political factors. Just as in the long war for the liberation of Eritrea, the NSP involves almost every family in the state. In fact, it is now so deeply rooted in Eritrean society that it is almost taken for granted. The importance of serving is perhaps the only issue that has full consensus among the Eritrean population.

In the NSP, which has been operating in Eritrea since 1994, it is still the case that more than 99 percent of all eligible youth report for recruitment on their specified date willingly, without any need of threat or warning. Phenomenon such as NSP- dodgers was virtually unheard of until recently – not surprising as the country is still young and its NSP program will undergo certain fluctuations from time to time.

The Eritrean youth is not required to reach a decision about whether or not he should enlist. That decision has been made for him/her and has been upheld by hundreds of thousands before him/her. Serving in the Eritrean National Service Program is a well-established norm in Eritrean society, anchored in a basically positive attitude toward that service, and is supported by all. In short, the NSP in Eritrea, since its early days, has been regarded with great respect and its negative portrayal in the mainstream media has had minimal effect on its eager participants.

The system spares the Eritrean youth the effort of exploring exemption routes-now popularized by exaggerated media reports and exploited by Riggan and her husband. The legal requirement of all Eritreans to participate in military service makes it, in short, a fact of life, not an option. Eritrean youth prepare for SAWA with the same sense of duty and excitement-not to mention competition to excel in the matriculation exams. The legal requirement for military service does not explain the high level of motivation among majority of Eritrea’s youth who proudly serve in Eritrea’s NSP and Warsay Yikaalo Program – but are seldom mentioned in the COIE’s reports or in the mainstream media.

I have visited the SAWA Educational and Training Center at least a dozen times and today, the youth enrolled in the 29th round are busy preparing for the 12th grade matriculation examinations. Contrary to what Riggan states, the students will get to choose the disciplines they want, but will have to earn the grades that will allow them to pursue their choices.

Around 92% of students enroll in the areas of their first or second choice. If, for instance, the medical school this year has space only for 50 freshmen/ women, and eligible applicants are greater than that, the selection criterion is applied on the basis of academic merit. Ditto for the other highly sought disciplines. Those who qualify will head to one of the colleges to pursue their education – for FREE. The others will be offered certificate programs in the vocational training centers. No wastage!

Rebuilding and developing Eritrea is the highest priority among Eritrea’s national goals. The physical threat to Eritrea’s existence is also omnipresent. Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea that led to the bitter 30 year struggle. In addition, one has to add the collective memory among Eritrean population of the brutality of the armed struggle, the razing of entire Eritrean villages, the Ethiopian massacres in Ona, Sheib and other town and cities in Eritrea, the destruction and devastation that ensued, and the displacement of millions from their homes and villages.

Ethiopia’s unprovoked 1998-2000 war of aggression and occupation, and the continued occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, including Badme, in violation of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s final and bindings delimitation and demarcation decisions, as well as the many attacks by groups harbored and financed by Ethiopia make the existential threats to Eritrea a constant reality. The silence of the international community and the inability of the African Union and United Nations to enforce their own Charters is a clear signal that only Eritreans can guarantee Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Eritrea’s defense, stability and security is deeply rooted in every Eritrean citizen. The NSP is the force that guarantees that it.

As for the portrait of the Eritrean people – it cannot be easily altered by ethnographic researchers, no matter their cause…it is one defined by deep rooted cultures and traditions.