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The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice

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Progress and Repression:


A Journalist's firsthand account of Eritrea's transformation during the struggle for independence


By Kate Hull, Rapoport Center Undergraduate Intern, Fall 2008

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Barbara Harlow, Professor of English and Rapoport Center Affiliated Faculy Member, introduces Dan Connell (r) to the the Human Rights Happy Hour Speaker Series.

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Students from Professor Engle's seminar, Human Rights and Justice Workshop, listen to Professor Connell's presentation.

Dan Connell is one of few westerners who has been able to witness and report the story of Eritrea's long struggle for political sovereignty. The story he tells begins in the 1970s with Eritrea's unique promise for a stable, multicultural society. But the current chapters portray the country as a single-party repressive government in constant conflict with Ethiopia and other neighbors.

During the Rapoport Center Human Rights Happy Hour on October 6th, Connell shared his historical account of the Eritrean government and outlined the ways in which the history of Eritrea's independence movement has shaped its modern role in regional politics.

Connell is a Distinguished Lecturer in Journalism and African Politics at Simmons College in Boston, MA. Connell has experience as a Middle East Projects Officer for Oxfam America, as Executive Director of Grassroots International and as an independent journalist.

Inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S., he financed his first trip to Africa in 1975 hoping to learn more about national struggles for liberation. Connell ended up in Ethiopia and studied the country's socialist revolutions and the conflict between the U.S. and the ruling junta. It was not long before he found himself across the border, living in Eritrea, and working in the midst of an unpublicized conflict against Ethiopia.

“I have been deeply engaged in Eritrea,” Connell said. “I know their government leadership personally. I have been in trenches with them, side-by-side, during fighting.” His first account of the conflict was featured on the front page of the Washington Post.

Present-day Eritrea is divided between Christians and Muslims, and is further sub-divided into eight ethnic groups. After its struggle to break away from Ethiopia in the late 1970s and after finally gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea devised a constitutional drafting process in which a majority of the population participated.

“It had promise as a stable, dynamic, multicultural and self-reliant new state that was, by its own model, challenging its neighbors on the dependence many had on foreign aid and it attracted a lot of attention from many people,” Connell said. “Many thought it was turning in a new direction. The members of the post-war government, drawn almost exclusively from the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front, were able to establish a new state, almost from scratch, with an executive, legislature and judiciary.”

During the beginning of the conflict, Connell was able to make frequent trips to the country to observe progress and conflict present there. But as Eritrea became an increasingly closed society in the 1980s, Connell found it difficult to gain access. Eventually, he was no longer welcome.

He came back to the U.S. to work for grassroots organizations and continued his writing. But in 1998, when Eritrea reverted to conflict with Ethiopia, Connell was asked to return in order to help present Eritrea in a more positive light to the rest of the world.

After spending a significant amount of time in Eritrea over the years and bearing witness to the changes in the society during the conflict, Connell's analysis of the contemporary situation leads him to propose that “ organization, not ideology, is the governing principle, and short-term advantage is the determining value in the country's seemingly erratic regional relations. ”

“Eritrea is not acting out of religious, ethnic, or political affinity, so if you try and interpret Eritrea actions based on conventional notions of ideology, you will make a big mistake,” he said.

Although violence in Eritrea is relatively low, it is using “more effective ways of brutality” that eliminate the possibility of opposition to the current government. “There is far less place for individual or organizational dissent,” Connell said. “An oppositional party is not just harassed, but there are no oppositional parties. The mechanisms are less brutally obvious, but they are more effective.”

Since Eritrea's independence in 1993, no political party besides the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice has been allowed to exist and no national elections have been held. Eritreans are not allowed to meet in groups larger than seven without government approval, and the constitution of 1997 has not been implemented, according to Human Rights Watch. This has left prisoners and persons tried in court without representation and no means to exercise their rights. The government has arrested reporters, researchers and persons from non-governmental organizations to close off dissenting opinions.

Dan Connell bore witness to the Eritrea's transition from a country with the potential for a successful, democratic government to its contemporary form. But, according to Connell, Eritrea is currently modeled more closely on “a guerrilla [movement] than a modern state” and has been in a state of unrest since independence.

Read the abstract of Connell's paper: "From resistance to governance: How the EPLF/PFDJ experience shapes Eritrea's regional strategy" (pdf)

Listen to audio of Connell's lecture (Windows Media Player)