The world that long turned a blind eye to the ruthless and illegitimate violation of Eritrean sovereignty now focuses its gaze on this country. The gaze is perhaps worse than the blind eye. The blind eye to the plight of Eritrea compelled its people to find the deep strength and resiliency that would win Independence against all odds.
Decades after Independence, inaccurate representations of Eritrea in western mainstream media and certain international reports, serve to shape a distorted narrative on this country. The gaze has been a fundamental aspect of legitimizing illegal and unjust sanctions that harm the people of Eritrea and contribute to the East African refugee crisis.
It is important to understand the gaze on Eritrea in a historical, socio-political, and socio-linguistic context. The gaze on Eritrea is a worthy area of research as an illustration of how hegemony is perpetrated and power-over maintained in international relations. We look first at this larger context of the gaze before considering the case of Eritrea and suggesting a different way for the international community to be in relationship with African and other countries that are charting their own course in a post-colonial era.
To gaze is to stare fixedly at something out of curiosity or self-interest. *1 For decades, much of Africa was subject to the colonial gaze of a world that was ignorantly and predatorily curious about the peoples it was dominating and the continent it was exploiting. The National Geographic Magazine and other publications shared glimpses of African peoples that turned into the gaze of westerners fascinated by the ways and cultural traditions of communities and nations they knew nothing about. But, the gaze is about more than idle curiosity. For countries in Africa, the post-colonial gaze can be more insidious and deadly than the colonial gaze.
The gaze is about dominance and control. It creates a subject-object relationship between the gazer and the object of the gaze. Jean Paul Sartre introduces the notion of the gaze. *2 Michael Foucault expands our understanding of the gaze as a relationship of power-over. *3 Surveillance, through the use of technologies such as drones, is a mechanism by which dominant Western powers perpetuate and globalize the gaze. This hegemonic gaze, through the lens of the drone, is both domineering and deadly. There are no national boundaries respected in the hegemonic alliance’s surveillance through satellites and drones, of identified so-called troubled regions of the world.
The stakes are high for those who are the objects of the hegemonic gaze. The outcomes today of the gaze are indeed deadly. Those who are victims of the hegemonic gaze may be subject to deadly drone attacks and systems of torture. Children playing in the roadways of countries like Yemen can be subject to immediate death and destruction if they happen to fall within the gaze of a surveillance drone.
What does the gaze on the Country of Eritrea look like? The gaze on the Country of Eritrea takes shape in misrepresentative media reports in ‘respected’ western media constructed on clearly biased reporting, such as that by the UN Special Rapporteur–Sheila B. Keetharuth. The outcome of this deadly gaze is the perpetrating of illegitimate sanctions against Eritrea, economic hardships for the Eritrean people and aggravation of the tragic flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa. If we were to accept the easily refutable representation that the people of Eritrea live in a ‘perpetual state of fear’ it is arguably less associated with the actions of an allegedly repressive government and more associated with the brazen distortions perpetuated by the gaze of those bent on discrediting the successes of the Eritrean people or subverting their path to self-reliance.
The notion of the post-colonial gaze is clearly articulated by Edward Said and others. *4 Outsiders seek to define a country and people in terms of their observer’s values, self-interests and the lens of privilege and dominance. The gaze on Eritrea and other countries in Africa serves to both affirm the ‘rightness’ of Western self-identity and privilege and justify and maintain the subjugation of countries seeking to chart their own course. The gaze serves to delegitimize and is an attempt to shape outcomes. *5 The gaze is an attempt to construct an outsider narrative that is self-serving and designed to maintain dominance-over.
What is the self-interest of mainstream media outlets like The Guardian and a handful of power brokers at the United Nations who turn their gaze to the Country of Eritrea to which they long turned a blind eye? There was no gaze on Eritrea in the face of vicious aggression against a people seeking nothing more than the right to self-determination. The present-day gaze on Eritrea serves to legitimize hegemonic power-over and delegitimize the aspirations and increasingly successful efforts of the Eritrean people toward self-defining a sustainable future.
There are great risks in allowing the gaze on Eritrea to shape international and regional policy. The gaze of clearly biased parties is not a good basis for a reasoned analysis of events in the Horn of Africa. The gaze distorts clear thinking and unified action on critical issues such as addressing a refugee crisis of historic proportions or responding to regional challenges such as food shortages in the Horn of Africa. Perpetuating the long-discredited narrative that Eritrea once supported extremist groups in the region, preempts our ability to respond humanely and intelligently to unfolding events in the region.
Accepting the distorted narrative that grows from the gaze on Eritrea and its neighbors, minimizes our ability to understand regional complexities and dynamics in the region including in countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. The gaze on Eritrea by outsiders, without accurate and first-hand information, is a detriment to the cause of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.
The gaze of those who have an agenda against Eritrea results in distorted media reporting and blatantly inaccurate ‘fact-finding’ by the UN Special Rapporteur. It results in intentionally misrepresentative ‘Reports on Eritrea’ which have deadly consequences. In the interest of peace, justice and sustainable development, we cannot afford to take at face value the dominant discourse on Eritrea that grows from the gaze.
It is incumbent on a discerning public to question the motives of those who ‘report’ about Eritrea. What is the self-interest and value system of someone like former U.N. Ambassador Hermann Cohen who comes forward to outline his ‘solution’ to the tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia? What are the insidious motives of the Special Rapporteur–Sheila Keetharuth– who does ‘fact-finding’ about Eritrea by interviewing those who have a clearly anti-Eritrea agenda? This gaze on the Country of Eritrea is often an act of manipulative and subtle aggression.
The way in which Eritrea responds to the gaze is a component of what makes this country the exception to the rule. Eritrea is returning the gaze of a world that long held little care about what happened in this region of the world. The emerging narrative about Eritrea will be written by the Eritrean people. It will be affirmed by the countries that are increasingly forging respectful diplomatic relationships, are visiting Eritrea to see for themselves, and countries and corporations that are forming strategic partnerships based on mutual respect and benefit.
The next chapters for Eritrea, as it celebrates Independence and a progressive course toward self-determination, will not be written by those who gaze in critically from the outside. The challenges that Eritrea faces are real, and they are Eritrea’s challenges. Engagement with the Eritrean people, must be based on global relational presence that is shaped from journeying with the Eritrean people and not gazing upon them from the outside.
To those who gaze on Eritrea and then pontificate on their own interpretations and agenda, it is time to say: “Stop staring!” Celebrate with Eritrea her hard-won Independence. Learn about Eritrea from a source other than the reports of those who gaze in from the outside. Visit the capital city of Asmara. Walk her streets. Sit in her tea shops. Visit with her peace-loving people. Look into the eyes of an Eritrean people who have gazed into the face of death, overcome adversity, and moved forward with dignity and determination toward defining their own future.
We will learn more from and about the Eritrean people by walking with them for a kilometer, than we will ever learn from journalists, Special Rapporteurs, or others who gaze at Eritrea from the outside without ever visiting the country or being in relationship with her people.
Stop staring. Start caring. The cause of self-determination for the Eritrean people is a just cause. The Eritrean people– like all countries and people–have the right to design their own future.
*1. Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/gaze.
*2. Jean Paul Sartre (2001), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Citadel Press.
*3. Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House.
*4 Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books.
*5. Sturken, Marita; Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 94, 103.
Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was born and raised in Eritrea and resides in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He hopes to return to Eritrea this summer to participate in the International Conference on Eritrean Scholarship. The purpose will be not to ‘gaze’ at the Eritrean people, but to listen and learn about the narrative being shaped by the Eritrean people themselves. Samuel Mahaffy is engaged in research based on A Meta-Analysis of the Discourse Structure of Competing Narratives about Eritrea. He may be contacted about this research through his website www.samuelmahaffy.com. Scholarship on Eritrea–by Eritreans–is one of the many ways in which Eritrea is ‘returning the gaze’ that often distorts the Eritrean narrative.