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Simmering Tension Between Islamic School, Government Led to Protests in Eritrea

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Unusual acts of defiance against government demands led to protests last week in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, according to experts who study the region.

The rare protests were the culmination of nearly two years of back-and-forth between the Ministry of Education and leaders of the Diaa Islamic School of Asmara, who defied government orders aimed at removing religion from their curricula. An elderly school board member, Hajji Muasa Mohamed Nur, voiced the school’s resistance in a widely shared video posted on YouTube. “We are not going to change anything,” Nur said as the crowd applauded.

Nur was arrested, and the government threatened to take over the school, sending officials to collect the keys, several opposition groups said. That’s when a crowd descended on the school grounds and marched toward the Ministry of Education to protest the closing, according to state-owned media shabait.com.

Vacuum of information

Videos of frightened crowds dispersing as gunshots ring out have circulated on social media since last week. But the time and place of the videos have not been verified, and no injuries or deaths are depicted.

The government says reports of deaths and violence are part of a pattern of sensationalized stories that dominate news coverage of Eritrea.

“Scoop-oriented media outlets keep churning out false ‘casualty figures’ peddled by Eritrea’s detractors without minimum verification,” Yemane Gebremeskel, the minister of information, posted on Twitter. He said a small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualties.

But press freedom in Eritrea ranks among the lowest in the world, and non-governmental organizations can’t operate independently in the country.

Felix Horne, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on the Horn of Africa, said those restrictions prevent verification and block credible information. In this case, that information could support the government’s side of the story.

Instead, opposition groups have seized the moment to give their version of events, Horne said. “It’s a very self-defeating strategy in our view, if the government has nothing to hide.”

Social media has added to the confusion, but it’s also enabled some information to leak out, including the clip of Nur. “That the government can suppress, but not completely black out news, I think, emboldens people and encourages people to know that they’re not alone,” said Saleh Younis, the editor of Awate.com, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies.

Details of last week’s protests and the government reaction also remain murky because people are scared of reprisals, Younis said. “Even if you know information, you’re hesitant to disclose it because we have a police state in Eritrea,” he said.

Much of the government’s response happens out of the spotlight. According to Younis, police have rounded up hundreds of people at night, and entire areas have been cordoned off.

Years of pressure

The Diaa Islamic School of Asmara was founded in 1968. The school has taught students from kindergarten to high school, and according to Younis has been well regarded. Nearly 3,000 students attend Diaa.

But for nearly two years, the government has had a litany of requests: Girls in high school should not wear headscarves, the school should remain open on Fridays, secondary classes should no longer be segregated by gender and no classes should focus on Islamic teachings, according to an alum.

School leaders were willing to compromise on some points, for example, staying open on Fridays. The government pressed to implement all of the changes, but school leaders refused. “The whole core of the school is being undermined,” Younis said.

Other schools have changed their practices and curricula in the government drive to secularize education, and some have closed, but Diaa appears unique in its resistance.

The key difference, said Semhar Habtezion, a member of the Eritrean Diaspora, was Nur. “He was fearless, and he was, in effect, saying we cannot continue fearing this government. This is our school, and we will do whatever it takes to fight back.”

When the government attempted to take over the school it crossed a red line that caused people to rise up and say “No,” Younis said.

From the government’s perspective, intervening in the school’s affairs was necessary to protect its secular national curriculum. Writing on the Ministry of Information’s website, Mella Ghebremedhin said, “Similar… actions have recently been taken with both Catholic and Orthodox schools.”

Despite last week’s unrest, the Diaa school remains open. VOA’s stringer in Asmara visited the day after the protests and confirmed to VOA Tigrigna that classes had resumed and students were outside playing sports. He also said by phone on Friday that ninth and 11th-grade students at the Catholic Cathedral school had been ordered to begin attending public schools near their neighborhoods.

Africa

VOA Interview: African Union Ambassador to US Chihombori-Quao

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VOA’s Cindy Saine talks with African Union Ambassador to the U.S. Arikana Chihombori-Quao.

Saine: “Ambassador, what kind of reaction has there been in Africa to the derogatory comments on immigrants from Africa attributed to President (Donald) Trump?”

African Union Ambassador to the U.S. Arikana Chihombori-Quao: “Well let me start by saying now that he has denied having said it, we are all neutral. However, prior to his denial, we were outraged, infuriated, disgusted and really flat-out abused.”

Saine: “Right, and … I’m wondering if it’s not just so much the comments – which there is some dispute, did he say exactly this word or was it a different word – with several people in the room saying that he did express the sentiment that he would rather have more immigrants from Norway or European countries and also some of the recent policies from the Department of Homeland Security and … I’m just wondering, not just that particular – one particular remark – but if you feel like the whole America First policy of the Trump administration, has that done any lasting damage to U.S.-African ties?”

Chihombori-Quao: “I think it’s a wound that is going to leave a very deep scar, and -uh- that’s troubling for me in the sense that I’m here to ensure, promote – uh – good relationships between the U.S. and Africa. Comments of that nature make it an uphill battle to try and continue to solidify that relationship. I like to often say in my office, I’m here to make sure that America remains Africa’s BFF. You know, best friend forever. So, it’s important that we relate with each other from a point of equality, and those sort of comments do not help in any relationship really, be it country to country, continent to continent, or even in a marriage. I think mutual respect of each other as –uh- human beings is- is- just the right way to go.”

Saine: “Right … I’m sure you are in touch with ambassadors and with leaders in Africa. Have any formal actions been taken in response or do you expect any to come?”

Chihombori-Quao: “I expect some to come. There has been a lot of calling among the ambassadors, who are still quite outraged. Even as I was on my way here, a couple ambassadors called just wanting to hurry up and have this meeting and certain positions have been thrown around and … we’ll see what happens when we meet.”

Saine: “Right. Is there anything you think the president could say or do to make amends and to clarify the situation? Do you think that he should – he should – make clear that those are not his views?”

Chihombori-Quao: “It would be nice if he would categorically deny… having said that. Um, which of course he has … but what’s really difficult for all of us – we had the comments of Nigerians going back to their huts – that was painful, and then when you look at just the overall picture for us as Africans, we are disrespected so often and how we feel on any issue is irrelevant – uh – at least that’s the feeling we get. Uh – We are exploited, have been for centuries. The exploitation continues. We are taken for granted as Africans and quite often you can’t help but wonder – but wonder sometimes – and it’s not just the US, we’re talking in general by other countries – how much of it has to do with the pigmentation in our skin? Uh- because it’s done so systematically and it gets in the way of development on the continent. We have some of the best tourist attractions in the world and yet we are enjoying just a fraction of the tourism dollars around the globe and a lot of it has to do with the – uh- the brush we’ve been painted with over the years. You know we are the brightest continent. I would like to think that the sun shines brightest over Africa than anywhere else on earth and yet we are referred to as “The Dark Continent”- words like that, you know? Diseased and dying continent – really? Look at me. Do I look diseased and dying? You know? Just outrageous depiction of our beautiful continent that is designed to keep us at a certain place and never allow Africa to take its rightful place on the world stage. To me, that is the most painful thing and it is such an uphill battle unless we come together as Africans and take a position and say enough is enough. We can no longer continue to tolerate abuse of any kind in any way, shape or form from anybody. Ally or Foe. They will continue to do it. And – um – by they I mean really the world.”

Saine: “Right, and you point out other countries, France and other European countries, that are having similar issues with their immigration policies and – ”

Chihombori-Quao: “Right, but Africa becomes – uh — a playground or like a football. They just there go to play, and – uh, exploit – I mean you take for example, you brought in France. I mean if Africans – Francophone African countries – were to decide today that all French companies must get out of Africa. That all the monies that are going to France, estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars annually, if all that funding would stop going to France today, France will immediately become the third world country and Africa no longer needs to be getting aide from anybody. If you look at the billions of dollars France is getting out of Africa every year and then the fraction that they give back to Africa in the name of aide, out of what I like to call loot. They loot from us at night and during the day they come back and give us a pittance of the loot in the name of aide. It is a joke, and how we Africans have tolerated this for centuries is sad. But you know, it’s not too late. We have got to change this situation. We have got to start benefitting from our God-given natural resources. And yet, if you look at our minerals, we get royalties. French companies swoop into Africa. They bring French men to come in, working in the mines, in the industries, in the oil rigs, and we get royalties. 12 to 15 percent. It’s mind boggling. It’s completely mind boggling.”

Saine: “Before this latest incident, how was President Trump viewed broadly in Africa?”

Chihombori-Quao: “Well, let me make this clear. America is Africa’s best ally. That will never change. The Americans that I have lived with and grown to know over the past 40 years that I’ve lived in this country, the Americans that I’ve gotten to really know from a very deep level as a practicing physician have not changed. Amazing people. People that I met first as Peace Corps teachers in my high school in Zimbabwe. People who had such a deep effect on me, that I knew when I grew up that wherever they came from that’s where I wanted to go .Those people -that American – I have always loved and cherished. And so, when President Trump came to be President, he was an American. We respect him. He is the leader of the free world, and so that was our approach to him and we still would like to give him a chance to maintain that position among the Africans.”

Saine: “Right – um – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he is planning his first visit as Secretary to the African continent early this year. Do you think that the secretary should still go in light of these remarks and do you think that he will make this visit?”

Chihombori-Quao: “I think he should go. I have personally met Secretary Tillerson. He’s – he’s — looks like a very nice man. Our relationship with America will continue. This is just a stumbling block, and I am here to see to it that we have the best relationship with America that Africa can have, and yes we will receive Secretary Tillerson with open arms and give him the warm African reception which is the only way we know how to treat our guests. So yes, I think he should go.”

Saine: “Excellent – um – Some critics are saying that the remarks that have been attributed to the president are particularly insensitive due to the fact that immigrants from Africa are the only ones who were brought to America against their will as slaves. Could you comment a little bit on that, on this aspect of how – how – African immigrants perceive – not just, not just- perhaps from the President, but from your day to day experience maybe with others?”

Chihombori-Quao: “Well, I have to say, it’s not easy being a black person on Earth. I take it even further and say the most endangered species on earth is a black man. So when you look at it from that crude reality that we deal with on a daily basis as black people, it is very, very painful. It hurts to think that you can encounter certain situations, on a daily basis, simply because of the melanin – the quantity of the melanin in your skin – I will give you a simple example. I’m a medical doctor. Practice medicine for 26 years in this country, and I remember pulling up into my parking lot at my office and there was a car in the parking lot, obviously of someone waiting to be seen by me, but it had a big bumper sticker that said ‘Proud to be KKK’ and I remember thinking – there is someone who feels that way who is in my building waiting to be seen by me, and yet he still harbors those kinds of feelings towards me. Even though, I may walk into a room and say – uh, sir you need to take off your clothes, and I come back three minutes later and he’s stark naked. I have that much power over him, and yet he still feels he is better than me simply because of my melanin. That’s a tough one. It’s really a tough pill to swallow as we go through this journey that is life as black people on earth. That’s hard.”

Saine: “That’s quite a disconnect, but I know that your job as you say is to promote the best possible ties and how important is the relationship to the United States for the countries of Africa?”

Chihombori-Quao: “Oh my goodness, we love the United States. We value our relationship with the United States which is why we would like to see us continue to get better and like I said be the BFF that we want America to be, and we hope America will reciprocate and also look at Africa as its BFF. We need each other. We must engage from a point of equality where we can mutually benefit from the relationship without one feeling superior to the other, and unless we can operate from that point of view, the new African is not going to put up with that. And, that’s something I am going to do my best to empress to the U.S. government that we can no longer play this game with the old strategies. I like in our relationship to basketball match. You know when the coach calls his team to the sidelines and they’re scribbling on the note pads? I often wonder what they’re talking, but my son then told me mommy, they’re strategizing. We’re at a point where America needs to re-strategize because the game they’re playing with Africa is a losing game, and there’s need for them to re-strategize because the new African is saying uh-uh, not this time.”

Saine: “Um, looking forward what specific steps, do you think that both the U.S. and Africa can do to strengthen their relationship, as you say, with the new Africa and work together. The U.S. is very dependent on a number of African countries to help fight terrorism and to promote economic well-being and prosperity in both continents.”

Chihombori-Quao: “Well we continue to collaborate effectively, for example, terrorism as you mentioned. We are collaborating in various areas with the U.S. government. We have a working relationship, don’t get me wrong. We have a very good, solid working relationship with the U.S. government. That relationship needs to get better. It needs to continue to be solidified, and we need to feel, get the sense, that we are being treated as equals not only by the United States but all countries that are engaged in Africa. More importantly, the uphill battle is with our colonial – former colonial – masters. See the relationship with America is not so difficult in the sense that it’s not weighted down by the legacy of colonialism, so we can engage the United States because we feel like they understand what it means to have been colonized and so that’s an easier relationship to manage which is why I truly believe America and Africa can be the best friends that they are designed to be. And, we both parties just have to work at it with similar spirt.”

Saine: “Can you tell me about – um- the views expressed on immigrants? Is that going to be an issue at the next African Union meeting? Are there going to be meetings in Washington? Can you just tell me if that’s going to be a big item on the agenda coming up?”

Chihombori-Quao: “It is a big item on the agenda, and the heads of states are going to be talking about it. Yes. They are furious, I’m just going to tell you like it is. They are furious. Like my daughter likes to say – fuming from every orifice. [LAUGHS] They are furious. Yes, my chairman, you know he spoke to Ambassador Marybeth, the U.S. Ambassador to the AU and he made position very clear.”

Saine: “So you think we’ll be hearing more- maybe -formal reactions in the days to come?”

Chihombori-Quao: “Um, I don’t about from the AU but I do know that it’s on the agenda. It’s on the agenda absolutely”

Saine: “OK, well is there anything else that I have not covered ambassador that you would like to say to our audience?”

Chihombori-Quao: “Well, I would like to say I am privilege to have lived the past 40 years in- um- one of the most beautiful countries on earth, next to Africa of course [LAUGHS] next to the African continent absolutely. And – um – I am very grateful to the American people for – um – the reception that I have received. I am very grateful to my patients for making me who I am – uh – today. I learnt a lot by going through situations with my patients. I feel like I have experienced so much, and so I am very grateful to my patients. And then, lastly, the Africa Bureau staff – they are amazing at the State Department. I want to thank –Secretary, um – Asst. Sec. Yamamoto. He is an amazing guy. He has an amazing team. Which really makes the job a lot easier, because they really are incredible people. I have worked more closely with them, and I am very grateful, to –uh- their ears. They listen, they care. And – uh – so to that extent they are making my job a little bit easier. As you know, I am a medical doctor. I was not a career diplomatic leader, a career politician and so coming to an African Bureau that has people who are so humble and grounded, it has made my job a lot easier. So, I would like to make sure that people are aware that there are many aspects of what is happening here that are going to be lost in the shuffle. I have met some incredible people working for the State Department and I like to make it clear that I am very grateful for their friendship and how well they have received me.”

Saine: “Alright. Thank you so much. It’s a real pleasure talking to you.”

Chihombori-Quao: “Thank you again for having me.”

Saine: “Thank you”

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Africa

YAMAMOTO: There is greater stability on the African continent

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The US has been talking tough about South Sudan President Salva Kiir, threatening to cut aid to the country. Does Washington plan any other action beyond sanctions?

That was on the minds of the officials of the African Union and regional leaders, and also the subject of discussions in London with our donor community.

When we were at the UN General Assembly in September, we talked to Taban Deng Gai, the first vice president of South Sudan, and laid down clear markers about what we expect. President Salva Kiir has responded to the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a letter outlining what he is doing to address those issues.

We really want to see concrete examples, not words. We support [Ethiopia] Prime Minister Hailemariam and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development [Igad] as well as the AU to push South Sudan to stop the violence, look at the high rates of refugee flows, now 1.3 million into Uganda, and also the large numbers of internally displaced people.

We would like to see concrete measures, and progress towards ending the violence, which jeopardises the stability and security of the countries around South Sudan.

What is the US position on the Igad revitalisation process on South Sudan, and what was your point of discussion with the Ethiopian Prime Minister?

Ethiopia is a critical partner and is the current chair of Igad, leading high-level discussions on South Sudan. Ethiopia contributes troops to peacekeeping operations in South Sudan as well as Sudan.

We discussed the efforts of Ethiopian troops to stabilise Somalia, prevent terrorism and elements from Al Shabaab and ISIS coming into their country. We also talked about internal domestic challenges that face Ethiopia and Somalia, based on ethnic divides, land tenure problems, government procedures and local practices.

There is concern about Ethiopia’s internal stability. What was your impression on the state of the leadership within the ruling EPRDF?

I deferred to Prime Minister Hailemariam and his government on the details of what our discussions were. We talked about domestic issues like challenges in Somalia.

Ethiopia has a high population growth, with 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30, which means increasing unemployment among the youth. We discussed how we could partner to create jobs, support healthcare, education and investment.

You talked with Rwanda President Paul Kagame about reforms at the Africa Union. What role is the US likely to play?

President Kagame is coming in as chair at a time when big changes are taking places in the African Union. President Kagame is well situated to address those issues, considering his leadership in Rwanda.

Over the past 20 years, the number of democratic or democratic-leaning countries with free open elections in Africa has increased. There is greater stability on the continent, and we want to build on that to strengthen democracies in fragile states.

The US suspended military aid to Somalia. What is the way forward considering that a security threat still remains and Somalia needs to build its army?

It is only a temporary suspension that affects about 10,000 troops, and is meant to enhance better accounting. We continue to provide assistance to specialised groups within Somalia.

This is part of our efforts to review how we can form a coherent and effective Somali national army that integrates all groups, military and militia in the regional states.

We have discussed this issue with the Somali government as we establish how to work with the AU, Amisom, the UN, and countries that provide troops like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi.

The national army needs to be trained, and fully coherent under a unified command.

At the Somalia conference in London last May, we agreed that transparent, open accounting practices and financial institutions are critical. These are the same issues we face in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under Monusco.

There has been an increase in terrorist activities on the continent since 2001, and it concurred with the rise in US military presence in Africa. Does it suggest a problem with the American strategy?

It is true that terrorist activities have increased. The leaders and the people we spoke with during this trip were concerned about ISIS fighters leaving Iraq and the Middle East. We’re looking at ISIS formations in Somalia and West Africa. We’re looking at Boko Haram. We’re even looking at the militias in eastern Congo, which are transforming.

We’re working with partner countries, so the US State Department has trained about 300,000 troops from 26 African countries this year, with peacekeeping operations as the main focus.

Our use of military, unlike in other areas, does not take the lead in operations but works with partner countries. Currently, 63 per cent of the UN operations are in Africa. That means you’re taking 87 per cent of the UN troops from Africa, that’s over 70,000.

Could you comment on reports that donors have suspended financial aid to the Kenyan security sector due to recent reports of police brutality?

Our investments in Kenya include security sector reform. Kenya is important, not only in fighting and resisting Al Shabaab, but also ISIS and terrorist groups coming into the country.

As far as detracting or cutting or limiting or setting restrictions, I’ll have to get back to you on that because Kenya is one of our most important countries, just as Ethiopia is, and to my knowledge we have not cut or diminished assistance or investment.

–Compiled by Fred Oluoch.

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Trump criticised over ‘shithole countries’ remark

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AL JAZEERA — A small group of US senators say they reached a compromise on immigration reform, but it has yet to win the support of President Donald Trump.

According to several reports, Trump made vulgar remarks about Haiti, El Salvador and African countries during the discussions, calling them “shithole countries” and objecting to immigrants coming from there.

He suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway.

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