Peeling the Layers, Donald Payne and Obama politics Vis-à-vis Eritrea

10/18/2008 10:40

Amanuel Biedemariam

On Sunday, October 5, 2008, roughly 500 or more Eritrean-Americans attended Rep. Donald Payne’s briefing on behalf of the Obama campaign. The afternoon was successful for Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey and his advisor, a congressional researcher and expert on African Affairs, Ted Dagne.

Eritreans raised about $7000 quickly, and more is in the pipeline. In addition, the diversity of the group, the warm reception, and the support Rep Payne received must have made it a rewarding experience.

It was equally satisfying for the Eritrean-Americans who participated on a beautiful Sunday afternoon led by enthusiastic youth. Sudden schedule changes did not deter participation; people adjusted their time and attended.

Eritrean-American youth deserve praise for being exemplary, particularly when many are distracted by drugs and crime. They are examples of what youth should be; they beacons of hope, pride of their families, and Eritrea. They helped organize and complete a successful event.

The attendees understood the significance of their participation. Congressman Donald Payne noted that they are well informed, educated, and aware of how Eritreans could tip the balance in a contested election.

Eritreans took collective action to elect a Democrat US President for the first time. It doesn’t necessarily put Eritrean Americans in the Democratic block. Still, it is a clear indication of their dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and the propensity of the McCain Palin ticket to follow President Bush’s policies. Eritrean Americans took this collective action as US citizens to oppose deadly American policies against Eritrea because they hoped to bring change, a new attitude, and direction favorable to all.

Representative Donald Payne’s interest to meet with Eritrean-Americans in the metro DC area highlighted many things:

It highlighted our significance in the electoral process, our strength, the importance of our ability to organize, and in this instance, our ability to help on the broader organizing efforts for the Obama campaign.

It gave clear evidence that our views matter. It also showed that we are poised to make a difference by making the necessary sacrifices. One can also conclude that Eritrean-Americans have reached the collective voting age meaning they are pursuing similar goals.

The gathering was a chance for Representative Donald Payne to brief the Eritrean-American community as a Congressman and Senator Barack Obama’s representative. It meant that he needed to walk a fine line and walked it by talking about his background and his long-time interest in Africa. Rep Payne told stories of his youth. He said he was a rebellious young man committed to African-American and African justice. Rep. Payne spoke about the history of Black pride, the accomplishments of Blacks, the Civil Rights Movement, Africa, and the US. He talked about his well-placed attention, knowledge of the issues, and good intentions.

Rep Payne said how he fought the State Department and US policies that undermined African rights, sovereignty, and the rule of law and cited his trip to Eritrea as an example. He talked about the unjust and ill-conceived short-sighted policies of George W. Bush that acted without examination of issues at the cost of many lives and the expense of long-term strategic interests of the US and cited the Somali issue as an example.

He denounced the unrealistic threat to place Eritrea in a list of States that Sponsor Terrorism without any justification or proof to make the point. He then said that the Barack Obama administration would be different. He assured Eritrean-Americans that prudent diplomacy would replace the gun-first my-way or the highway approach.

Representative Donald Payne attested that Barack Obama’s interest in Africa race or ethnicity-based is out of conviction for justice, good intentions, and grasp of the issues and backed by a team of African policy advisors.

 The sticky point

After a long history of US misdeeds and a tumultuous decade by two US administrations that failed Eritrea, Eritrean-Americans have grown weary and suspicious of American leaders and policies. Congressman Payne is different because he is an elected representative accountable to his constituency and independent from the State Department.

Undoubtedly, Eritrean-Americans should consider Congressman Donald Payne, a friend, and do all they can to maintain and nurture the friendship but do so with a healthy dose of skepticism. Here is why?

When the Congressman spoke about his visit to Eritrea, he focused on four issues: Demarcation, freedom of the press, prisoners, and conscription. He spoke briefly and powerfully about the “UNRESOLVED” border issue. He believes the border dispute is at the heart of the conflicts in the Horn of Africa because Eritrea and Ethiopia are waging proxy wars, and a resolution of the border dispute based on EEBC will alleviate the problems. In addition, he wants both Eritrea and Ethiopia to stop supporting each other’s opposition.

Well-meaning and good-intentioned?

Let’s see. According to Eritrea’s government and the UN’s final report, the border issue is resolved. Moreover, it is crucial not to associate unrelated problems, such as the opposition supporters and security matters, to the final and binding border demarcation decision. In addition, it is crucial to recognize that the war raging in Somalia is not a proxy war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Somalis legitimate movement to free Somalia from ill-conceived aggression by the US and US-financed mercenary TPLF regime in Ethiopia. Congressman Donald Payne is either ill-informed or deliberately misleading.

Regardless of who is in power, the rhetoric and seemingly good intentions, the approach to the region will remain the same. US actions are not intended to bring lasting solutions. In this case, it appears that it is designed to pacify the area long enough by appeasing the players so the US can regain control and pursue its agenda at the opportune time.

During the debate on Tuesday, Oct.7, when speaking about Darfur, Senator Barack Obama remarked George Bush’s policies didn’t go far enough and vowed to take stringent steps like the no-fly zone that Susan Rice advocates consistently.

Indeed, the promising future of the people of Sudan is not the primary motivation for American involvement; it is the riches of the continent, in this case, Sudan! They see Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya with the same lens.

Here is what I found troubling in the brief moment Congressman Payne spent with the Eritrean-American community.

Rep Payne failed to talk about a single incentive that can lift the quality of life for the people of Eritrea. He could not envision the Horn in general and Eritrea in particular past, current conflicts. He failed to talk partnership, trade, educational exchange, medical assistance, tourism, and the like. In an election cycle when Americans are focused on the bread and butter issues, Congressman Payne’s narrative had nothing to do with bread and butter issues for Eritrea but a lecture on what is wrong.

Furthermore, it should be clear to all involved  gone are the days when Americans dictated morality, justice, human rights, and the rule of law to the world by claiming they own “Moral Authority.”  It is clear to all that the US can play a destabilizing role but gone are days when they can impose their will because the world is aware and knows how the US plays the games.

Eritrea is living proof of that. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t talk about injustices; it means they can’t use it as a tool for exploitation. Americans can only achieve their long-term strategic objectives by cooperation, not mischief.

Moving Forward

One of the event organizers, Dr. Asghede, said,

“If we were here when they handed Eritrea to Ethiopia 60 years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Eritrea traveled a long way and made history contrary to their wishes by establishing a free country, a forward-looking Eritrea busting the myth about Blacks and Africans. However, every time Eritrea tries to step forward, the US has a hurdle to try to whip Eritrea back into the lines of slavery! For decades, the US hurt Eritrea negatively and without accountability.

Eritrean Americans must accept their limitations as it relates to US foreign policies. There is nothing they can do to it or do about it but go through political motions for inevitable disappointments. Thence, what should the future role of Eritrean Americans be in the US?

Eritrean Americans’ vested interest is Eritrea’s security, prosperity, and well-being, nothing less. That was the primary reason why Eritreans gathered on October 5. So Eritrean Americans’ role is complementary to Eritrean policies and directions!

Eritrea must focus on food security, development, infrastructure, education, health, and economic development.  Eritrea’s future security depends on the people of Eritrea and their capacity to develop Eritrea and expand their human resources because development will ensure stability, security and lower the chances of instability. An educated public is Eritrean salvation from Western mischief.

To help in that endeavor, Eritrean Americans can play a role by increasing their importance, visibility, establishing political capital, like the Obama fundraising event, and developing agendas that could set the trend with broader implications for the Horn with the people of the Horn.

That is the responsibility, obligation, and duty we owe to the people we love and our contribution to positively influencing our region to ensure broader collective security. To achieve that, we must remain relevant, organize and establish capital/cash.


This article does not attempt to persuade or dissuade anyone from voting for or against Senator Barack Obama, and it is an attempt to create a conversation that looks forward. I wrote it to appreciate the organizers’ efforts and encourage others to prepare future events with a plan, mindset and learn from mistakes.

Congressman Donald Payne and Ted Dagne made a positive gesture by engaging Eritreans, a hopeful sign of a future administration. However, some statements required clarifications as well as comments some found unsettling. The Congressman made repeated unnecessary analogies between Ethiopia/Meles to Eritrea and Eritrean leaders. Our organized efforts will help us hold them accountable for what they say and do in the future.

Let history guide; Eritreans are excellent students that can learn from experience and adapt. This was a great experience and a positive indicator of things to come. Eritrea has a convincing history that no matter who resides in the White House, her path is apparent regardless of the messengers and the message. Eritrea knows how to determine her destiny, and there is nothing anyone can do about it!



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