Eritrea’s Nation and State-building: Re-assessing the impact of ‘the struggle’
In the April 2003 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Robert Kaplan describes Eritrea as “newly independent, sleepily calm and remarkably stable”. Electricity is said to fail infrequently, corruption is rare, theft and crime almost unheard of, reflecting, Kaplan claims, “a surprisingly functional social order” Eritrea is said to have “achieved a degree of non-coercive social discipline” by implication, unusual for Africa. The country’s political culture is described as “an almost Maoist degree of mobilization and an almost Albanian degree of xenophobia.” In this account, Eritrea is an exotic specimen, not quite African, atypical in almost all respects. But is Eritrea accurately reflected or understood in this account? Is Eritrea really as isolated and marginal as this suggests? Is its development agenda and state-building project that divergent from elsewhere? Kaplan hints that Eritrea’s sense of nationhood — “rare in a world of nation-states rent by tribalism and globalisation” — exists despite globalisation. But this is in complete contrast to current research which emphasizes that “transnationalism does not necessarily operate in opposition to nationalism but can at times work to reinforce it”. In contrast, Kaplan’s article takes as read the official account of Eritrean nationalism, emphasizing that it is a product not simply of its history, but also of its having been isolated and alienated from international and regional influences: “we Eritreans are different from our neighbours”.