My Journey to Capitol Hill

News Opinions
Time for deeper conversation about Eritrea. Simplistic narratives that led to sanctions are no longer acceptable.
Time for deeper conversation about Eritrea. Simplistic narratives that led to sanctions are no longer acceptable.

By Samuel Mahaffy (Ph.D),

I journeyed to the U.S Capital yesterday to talk about Eritrea. No one paid me to go. No one asked me to go. I went because my heart told me to speak up for Eritrea. It was not one of the easiest trips I have made. It required going through security checkpoints and navigating subway transit stations. I was grateful to have an audience with a legislative aide to one of the U.S. Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee.

My message was this:

I am saddened that my great country and the U.S. State Department is reticent to join the growing global community that is normalizing relationships with Eritrea. Eritrea has its faults. There are important challenges and changes that it must face. There are doubtless mistakes that have been made and injustices that have been done. Just as there are here and in every nation. The global community supports justice and peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue and engagement and not through isolation and self-righteous blaming.

On my journey to the U.S. Capital, I carried my copy of a profoundly significant book just published by Cambridge University Press “In Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention“, Severine Autesserre, clearly lays out the case that foreign interventions “based on simplistic narratives” are simply unproductive and do not further the cause of peace. They can, in fact be extremely harmful.

The continuation of the U.S. State Department animosity toward Eritrea grows from reliance on a once dominant and simplistic narrative. Our reticence to face the fact that sanctions against Eritrea are no longer just or useful is the outcome of an outdated and simplistic narrative that does not match geo-political realities.

Implementing international agendas based on narratives that are so over-simplified that they belie the truth has real consequences in real people’s lives.

I expressed on Capitol Hill my perspective that the cause of regional peace in the Horn of Africa is served by respectful dialogue with and recognition of Eritrea. Simplistic narratives about Eritrea that led to sanctions are no longer acceptable.

We can do better than the simplistic and dominant narrative in the U.S. foreign policy that seeks to isolate Eritrea at every turn. The deeper conversation about Eritrea must happen if we are to truly support peace in the region. The more complex narrative must be inclusive of historical perspective and inter-state relationships. It must find understanding of why many families risk their lives to leave–not only Eritrea–but this region of the world. What are the causes of this migration and how have our policies played a role in perpetuating it?

The deeper dialogue about Eritrea must ask how sanctions and hostile stances toward the country play into the much criticized extended national mandatory service and two percent income taxation. There must be understanding of how Eritrean policies are responses to the need to defend its independence and the integrity of its borders.  The deeper conversation about Eritrea must recognize that, more than not aligning itself with extremist groups, the country has been a bulwark against extremism.

I do not know if my visit to the U.S. Capital to talk about Eritrea will make any difference. I do know that as long as I have breath, I will be an advocate for peace and peace never is served by institutionalizing simplistic and dominant narratives.

The international conversation about Eritrea ought to be less about either fair and unfair criticisms of the government and more about the people of Eritrea. The people of Eritrea deserve the lifting of sanctions and respectful engagement. The voices of ordinary Eritreans both in their country and around the world deserve to be heard.

Peace never emerges outside of real relationships that are respectful and mutual. Caring about peace in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea requires letting go of our agendas and stepping into relationships. Peace begins with how we treat our neighbors.

We can and must do better than the simplistic dominant narrative. It is time for the U.S. to catch up with the growing  global community that is engaging respectfully and productively with Eritrea. It is time for a new chapter in our relationship with Eritrea and the Eritrean people.

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was born and raised in Eritrea. He is a U.S. citizen who has been involved in conflict transformation work for several decades. He received his Ph.D. from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Samuel Mahaffy posts regularly on topics relating to Africa, particularly Eritrea, and peacemaking on his website at