Eritrea: Things fall apart without academic Dialogue

Knoxville (HAN) September 21, 2014. Expert Analysis, Your Power & Regional Influence Magazine, opinion page. On Eritrea: Cross-Talk Without Dialogue by Maximilian Forte (zeroanthropologynet), What follows immediately below is a letter sent to Maximilian Forte by email. Beneath that is  academic response.

By what logic, if any, does Zero Anthropology function? If in light of the controversy that erupted with the publication of Sophia Tesfamariam’s outline and condemnation of western anthropologists working to support regime change in her native Eritrea, Zero Anthropology for its part fails to criticize the Eritrean government for its alleged militarization


We are among an international group of researchers:  social scientists, historians, legal scholars and journalists,  with decades of experience working on the Horn of Africa country of Eritrea and the Eritrean diaspora. We are citizens and/or residents of many countries: Eritrea, Canada, the US, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Germany, and the UK. While our perspectives and orientations differ, our research foci have largely converged around the critical interpretation of patterns of political intolerance precipitated by a militarized, authoritarian regime in power since 1991. Because of these patterns of intolerance we have all been targeted to varying degrees by the regime and its supporters – and sometimes its opponents as well. Some of us have been threatened physically and/or prevented from returning to Eritrea. Many of us have endured repeated attacks on our personal and professional integrity and efforts to discredit our research findings by suggesting that we are working as agents of foreign governments and/or intelligence agencies. In some cases information about our backgrounds and funding sources has been misrepresented to support conspiracy theories about our “real” motives or identities. Such dynamics are not unusual. In countries around the world – especially highly militarized ones, whether of the left, right, or neoliberal variety – researchers have faced similar efforts to discredit, silence, intimidate and curtail freedom of thought, information, and conscience.

Recently we were named in a “controversy” promoted on the website/blog and Facebook page called Zero Anthropology ( The “controversy,” as it was named by Zero Anthropology’s principal author, Dr. Maximilian Forte, refers to an article by Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam, a vocal Eritrean-American supporter of the regime. In the article titled “ERITREA:  The Modern Day Carpetbaggers and Scalawags – Final” (

Tesfamariam collectively characterizes our research, professional publications, conference activity, and public outreach or advocacy work as constituting an effort to “’sensitize’ the American and European public so that any actions of their governments [against Eritrea] will then be easily accepted.” She lists a decontextualized series of publications we have produced and venues where we have spoken, as well as academic agencies that have funded our work, as “evidence” of our corruption. She equates our empirical findings and the advocacy work some of us have done on behalf of or in collaboration with Eritrean refugees and human rights activists as colluding with interventionist or opposition efforts to destabilize and overthrow the regime in Eritrea. Much of the information she provides is inaccurate or unsubstantiated and she dismisses the validity of our scholarship without engaging its substance.


Tesfamariam’s article, the derisive tone it uses, and the unsubstantiated charges it levels is the latest in a long tradition of character assassination attempts. For decades, similar ad-hominem attacks on researchers and on Eritreans who critique the regime have been launched by regime supporters, including Ms. Tesfamariam.  Over the years many of us have tried to correct these inaccuracies and address these accusations by engaging critics in productive dialogue and debate. With few exceptions we have discovered that the use of logic and reason cannot effectively counter the irrationality and conspiracy-theory orientations of these “debates.”

Rooted in such experience and context, we do not see Tesfamariam’s article as constituting “a controversy.” Nor will we here address point by point the many inaccuracies and mischaracterizations she levels at us collectively and individually. Several of us have engaged the substance of similar arguments made by Ms. Tesfamariam and by other regime supporters in our published work and at various conferences and venues because these reflect dominant patterns in much of Eritrean political discourse (particularly in the diaspora). Attempting to correct her misinformation invites further abuse. Character assassination stifles debate under the guise of provoking it.  We would welcome a serious critique of our work which would require engaging with the ideas and arguments we advance and the methods and data we use to support them. A debate of that kind, unlike personal attacks, would actually have the possibility of contributing to the understanding of Eritrean politics, as well as promoting the understanding of social science theories and methods.

We are therefore disturbed that Dr. Forte and Zero Anthropology would link to and endorse Tesfamariam’s potentially libelous allegations against a large group of fellow researchers on an online public forum without first examining the context of research on Eritrea and/or contacting any of us. What we find controversial is how Forte facilitated and participated in a very serious attack on his colleagues. His link to Tesfamariam’s article on Zero Anthropology’s Facebook page is prefaced with the following statement: “This article outlines and denounces the work of US anthropologists in Eritrea in US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country. The author of the piece is a prominent Eritrean American activist. Those involved in the AAA [American Anthropological Association] should have a close look and perhaps consider further action.” And in his related article on Zero Anthropology, titled “Militarization: It’s All the Same, Everywhere. Or Is It?” he implies that researchers on Eritrea do not critically reflect on dynamics of militarization in countries other than “tiny little Eritrea all the way across in Africa.” Had he been familiar with our work or knew any one of us personally or professionally, we doubt he would have made such statements.

While it is true that some of us have interfaced with international human rights organizations, stated positions on sanctions and arms embargoes on Eritrea from a critical human rights perspective, or have engaged with officials in various governments about the problems in Eritrea that produce high numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, these are matters of our own conscience and we each take nuanced positions rooted in careful research and years of understanding of the Eritrean situation. Scholars who study Eritrea indeed disagree among ourselves about the merits of these positions and whether these are the best methods for applying our empirical knowledge. Many of us explicitly address these tensions in our work. And while some of us have received research funding from private academic foundations and federally-funded sources, there is a difference between social science funding and that related to national security objectives (e.g. the National Science Foundation is not the Department of Defense). Our activities or orientations do not equate to intelligence gathering, promotion of militarized interventions in Eritrea, or to “US-funded campaigns backing political opposition in the country.” These are gross misinterpretations that Forte has promoted in a most irresponsible manner.

We understand from the content of Dr. Forte’s work that he is deeply opposed on political, ethical and moral grounds to the use of anthropological and other academic knowledge in the context of interventionism, militarism, and covert intelligence gathering. We respect and appreciate this position. Some of us agree wholeheartedly with him and this same position has informed our own critiques of patterns of political repression and militarization in Eritrea and in the countries where Eritreans reside. We are gravely disturbed that a scholar of Forte’s standing rushed to endorse Tesfamariam’s allegations and helped manufacture a public controversy that is potentially damaging to our professional and personal lives and stifles effective dialogue. We are equally troubled that he responded to efforts by one of us to address this “controversy” on the Facebook page of Zero Anthropology with statements such as the following: “Why not write honestly, and engage in full disclosure of your own services to Western governments that have targeted Eritrea with sanctions?” and “No wonder then that so many Africans hate us…it is with ample justification, thanks to people like you.” Such statements do not constitute the “debate” Forte has claimed he is inviting. They constitute abusive speech and unprofessional conduct.

It may have been Tesfamariam’s aim to silence, discredit, and defame scholars of Eritrea. We do not know if that was also Forte’s aim. However, as a result of his promotion of Tesfamariam’s piece and this “controversy,” several of us have received renewed threats and further abusive messages by regime supporters. We have noted with consternation that the “controversy” is being picked up on various websites and Twitter feeds, highlighting why scholars who use the internet to promote “debate” or air “controversy” must observe careful standards of professional and ethical conduct. We have every reason to believe threats will continue against us for some time.

To reiterate, the controversy here is not that some people find critical scholarship on Eritrea objectionable, but that an otherwise critical scholar like Forte would carelessly promote and publicize ungrounded, personal attacks on fellow researchers. If anything, this episode illustrates the truth of Albert Camus’ observation that “Intelligence in chains loses in lucidity what it gains in intensity.” We hope that this “controversy” can be re-contextualized for what it reveals about how regimes of power can hijack discourses of human rights and social justice, confusing otherwise intelligent individuals regardless of academic credentials.


Dr. Tricia Redeker Hepner
Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Dr. David Bozzini
Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology
CUNY Graduate Center

Dr. Jennifer Riggan
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Arcadia University

Dr. Sara Rich Dorman
Department of Politics and International Relations
University of Edinburgh
United Kingdom

Dr. Daniel R. Mekonnen
Senior Legal Advisor / Research Professor
International Law and Policy Institute
Oslo, Norway

Dr. Mirjam van Reisen
Professor, International Social Responsibility
Tilburg University
The Netherlands

Dr. Nicole Hirt
Senior Research Fellow (Associate)
German Institute of Global and Area Studies
Institute of African Affairs
Hamburg, Germany

Simon Weldehaimanot
Immigration/Asylum Attorney
Oakland, California

Dan Connell
Visiting Scholar
African Studies Center
Boston University

Dr. Victoria Bernal
Professor of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine

Dr. Kjetil Tronvoll
Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies
Bjorknes University College, Oslo

Anna Arnone
Research Associate
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
United Kingdom

Photo: Victoria Bernal, Tricia Redeker Hepner, Fabienne Glatthard


Original Related Article: by Stesfa Mariam – Voice of an Eritrean woman 

Eritrea: The Modern Day Carpetbaggers and Scalawags-Final

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  1. Imagine if Scholarly articles about the US and Europe were written by scholars from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and by people somewhat affiliated with Al-Qaeda or ISIS and the UN Security council took their opinions as facts and Sanctioned all the Western Nations.

  2. The so called “anthropologist” suffer from impaired reasoning to address Eritrean issues because their minds and hearts are colluded by the hatred of President Isaias Afworki, in no way they can rationalise Eritrean matter unless and until they stop looking down at the Eritrean people and portraying President Isasias Afworki as a “God” and then accuse his supporter for portraying President Isaias Afworki as a “God”.

    We are yet to see an Academic Research on Eritrea to enlighten the masses, what we see for example the events organised by JusticeAfrica with SOAS facilitation of the Venue was not a Research and Debate based events and defintely not Academic. It was a pure campaign perpetuated by Hooligans with a Moral ASBO the likes of Selam Kidane etc who walked in with Dan Connel.

    ‘’Limits on Research and Reporting in Eritrea: The Implications for Peace and Rights’’ in which Michela Wrong was a panel member, was a naked expose on her intention when challenged in the issues that are implicating “Peace” which was part of the title of the event, as she arrogantly responded to the audiance if you are here to talk about Bademe which is the major factor of “no war no peace” situation then you should leave as you come at your own discreation! These are answers from someone talking about peace without talking about war and cause of war. Clap with one hand Mrs.Expert.

    What happened at SAOS with JusticeAfrica, was launching/promotions of a campaign to do with the ”Stop National Service in Eritrea”. Infact these toothless campaign was launched in an academic instution in disguse of Reaserch and Debate Talk Eritrea Series of four events. The Talk Eritrea Series had nothing to do with the campaign (stop national service in Eritrea) and it was never announced at the official SOAS or JustAfrica website but it was sneaked in sinsterly in between talks thinking no body would realise a campaign is being launched in disguse.

    How do you expect conscious Eritreans to Listen to your sinister campaign that wasn’t event officially part of the ” Talk Eritrea Seminar Series” and accuse the Eritrean youth of ”frustration” and how do you expect to be called an anthropologist rather a western anthropologist while you are there purely to advance your own interest to robe Africa.

    What we need is 1. PEACE: 2. PEACE: 3. PEACE – 1.International Peae, 2. Regional Peace and 3. Internal Peace.

    First Peace to be achieved by the UN shouldering its responsibilty of the EEBC demarcation and ought to implent chapter 7 upon the culprit.

    Second: We need a constructive engagment in the HOA ( example Eritrea or any IGAD member has the RIGHT to suspend and activate their membership when deemed necessary) Eritrea’s right must be respected and the so called “anthropologist” and “experts” must recognise and say it loudly.

    Thirdly: Peace number one and Peace number two will make Peace number three possibly as all or most national assets will be devoted to ensuring good goveranance and internal “Reform” (not reform to another model of copy and paste) what I would like to call it intertnal upgrade which would include the Legistalative, Exective and Juducial branches of the State which would improve the practices of democracy and acountablity.

    If we fully focus at peace number three and make it peace number one then the Traitors of Eritrea will work with the external enemy which are part of peace number 1 and 2. We have history of treason from the 1950th and their breed are still traitors in which they are also decieving a few true nationalist to back up their integrity.

    Until then we will make sure we stay in course, and through work we wil toil. We just need to keep building the uncorrupted country side with a School, a Clinic and a Water dam that no western anthropologist would spend their energy to do. Surely we will be number one of coming out from hegamony of the “superior human being” and “experts on Eritrea” and the belief of “The End of History and the Reign of Liberal Democracy”…as we will keep making history and our own history not a history written by a hired man/woman, by the way when Michela Wrong wrote her book Agaisnt All Odds she wasn’t writting for Eritrea but she was documenting the British Empiral History which she has the right to do but please do not tell me you wrote it for me.

    NB: I think by attacking Sophia T, you are unleashing the Next Generation. Keep it up Sophia and your ink in the pen of truth will not dry even if the enemy uses the waters of the oceans as an ink.