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Mamdani Wrong on Eritrea

Mahmood Mamdani in a paper discussing citizenship and South Sudan uses Eritrea as evidence. Unfortunately his evidence is deeply flawed, and although it does not fundamentally alter the basis of his conclusions, they show tremendous oversight on his part. Of course, his contention regarding unity is critical, “Anyone interested in creating unity must recognise the importance of politics and persuasion … ”1

Unfortunately of course the author continues, and makes what in my opinion is a fatal error. In particular the one that I am sure that everyone here would find frustrating if not offensive (of which I am of the latter). I quote below the entirety of discussion related to the evidence:

There are, in the post?colonial history of Africa, two great examples of self?determination, of the creation of a new state from a previously independent African state: Eritrea was the first; South Sudan is the second. No state in history has agreed to cessation of a part. Cessation is always forced on a state. This is why we need to ask a question in both cases: how was cessation possible?

Eritrean self?determination was the outcome of two important developments, internal and external. Internally, it was the outcome of a struggle lasting nearly four decades, culminating in a military victory over the Mengistu regime, the Derg. Externally, the relevant factor was the end of the Cold War.

The referendum that followed was notable for one reason. In spite of the close relation between Eritrean and Ethiopian armed movements, the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) and the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), and their joint victory over the Ethiopian empire state, the Eritrean people voted overwhelmingly to establish a separate and independent state.

The factual errors embodied herein are a result of laziness and an uncritical eye to the specifics of the evidence. In particular Eritrea was not a new state create from a previously independent state. Although Eritrea could be said to be a new independent state in Africa (owing to the fact that the state itself was not a single entity prior to colonialism, although few parts of it were part of Ethiopia from 1876 to 1890).

The Eritrean referendum was notable for a good deal more than the fact that the Eritrean people voted overwhelmingly for independence2. I mean seriously, 99.8% is amazing!

Finally, I find the mockery of the actual events difficult, the EPLF and TPLF (EPRDF) were certainly not in any measure equals, neither in the political/economic sphere or military sphere. The entities were wholly different in both comprehensiveness and maturity.

I think we can all agree here, although the conclusion of the piece does bring some interesting conclusions and questions.


  1. Transcript from talk given on 17 March 2011 

  2. Eritrea’s Referendum on Independence 

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