Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is conducting a four-country trip of East Africa, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit the continent in at least 30 years. In addition to visiting Uganda, where 40 years ago an Israeli raid led by Netanyahu’s brother, Jonathan Netanyahu (who was killed during the operation), ended a hostage crisis, Netanyahu is also visiting Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. The trip, which holds great commemorative and symbolic value, will focus mainly on cooperation, diplomacy, business and security issues.
For discerning Horn of Africa observers, the last leg of Netanyahu’s trip, to Ethiopia, where he is scheduled to address the Ethiopian Parliament, is notable since, amongst other things, it serves as another reminder of the poor state of reporting about the region, particularly Eritrea. Last month, a number of experts, analysts, and reporters were quick to circulate a fraudulent report about Eritrea, alleging that Israel had established a strategic military outpost in Eritrea, a claim quickly and vehemently denied by the Eritrean government. Notably, claims about Israeli bases in Eritrea have become common within mainstream coverage of Eritrea over the years, often forwarded, quite ridiculously and illogically, alongside similar claims that Iran, Israel’s longtime regional rival, has also simultaneously established bases in Eritrea. As rather aptly put by the Eritrean Centre for Strategic Studies, “How Eritrea can be thought of simultaneously offering military bases and [hosting] two mortal enemies in adjacent patches of its territory is really mind boggling.” Indeed.
Now, one may consider, if Eritrea was the site of a strategic Israeli military base, Netanyahu may have added a complementary visit to Eritrea to his itinerary. Instead, the Israeli Prime Minister will head to Ethiopia, which just last month launched an illegal military attack on Eritrea and continues to occupy large swathes of Eritrean territory, and will address the Ethiopian Parliament, which houses a ruling party that won 100% of the vote in the country’s last election.
For the record, Eritrea enjoys normal diplomatic and economic relations with both Iran and Israel – in addition to a large number of other countries across the Middle East and North African region. In contrast to misguided assumptions, both Iran and Israel actually have stronger economic or diplomatic ties with other countries in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, the repeated claims about Israeli and Iranian military bases in Eritrea grossly overlook the fact that Eritrea’s foreign policy has long been firmly based upon principles of non-alignment and that the country is willing to cooperate with anyone and everyone, based upon mutual respect and benefit. For example, Eritrea is currently part of an effective partnership with several GCC countries to promote security, maintain stability, and combat terrorism within the Red Sea region. However, “Eritrea’s sovereign choice has always been, and remains, that of aversion to dependency, polarized alliances and the suzerainty” of a big brother.
One plausible explanation for why these reports continue to circulate, even if they remain so blatantly incorrect and utterly far-fetched, is that they are based upon sheer ignorance and misunderstanding of the realities on the ground and throughout the region. However, this raises important questions. Shouldn’t legitimate, respectable, objective journalists and analysts clarify facts before penning and disseminating stories? Moreover, if reports are found to be riddled with significant errors or contradictions, shouldn’t authors move quickly to present acknowledgements and offer clarifications or corrections? Whatever happened to high standing principles like honesty, fact checking, objectivity and neutrality, validity, professionalism, and integrity?
Ultimately, the repeated claims about Israeli and Iranian bases in Eritrea, as well as the general clichéd, sensationalist narrative about Eritrea display, in crystal clear detail, the poor state of reporting and understanding about Eritrea, and they highlight many of the worst habits of mainstream analysis, journalism, media, academia, and activism. Furthermore, it is troubling that many foreign experts and analysts generally tend to quickly dismiss and reject local Eritrean perspectives, viewpoints, and analyses that do not mirror their own, revealing the sad tendency within Western academic contexts, borne of US and European hegemony, to assume that what is said in the West is only what has been said or only what matters (Davies 1994). It would seem to be useful for many to keep in mind Said’s understanding of the role of intellectuals and experts: “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication” (1993: xi). Or, failing that, heed Socrates’ words, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
Beyond ignorance or a lack of understanding, another possible explanation for the repeated circulation of sensationalized reports about Eritrea is that they are not attributable to simple, “innocent” errors. Instead, the unsubstantiated reports about Eritrea are only one component of a broader, deliberate strategy focusing on destabilization, disinformation, delegitimization, and ultimately, as per a Wikileaks cable, “pinning down Eritrea.” Such a strategy has numerous precedents, as revealed by the recent Chilcot report, as well as the historical vilification campaigns endured by Nicaragua, Iran, Granada, Panama, Cuba, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, North Korea, Vietnam, China, and Russia, amongst others.