Uncovering the Politics of Eritrea

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Faculty members and 11 students embark on a two-week trip to Eritrea


Last summer, faculty from the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution along with 11 Ph.D. undergraduate and graduate students went on a study abroad trip to Eritrea, an isolated country in East Africa. The trip was focused on studying conflict zones between Eritrea and its neighboring country, Ethiopia. Dr. Solon Simmons, who co-led the trip with Carol Pineau, a former CNN journalist who reported on the Eritrean–Ethiopian war, took the opportunity to teach his students about the economic and political development of the country.

“Eritrea is a country with a very difficult past, and having a nondemocratic government, we were very lucky to have students experience a different kind of political environment,” Simmons said.

According to Simmons, Eritrea has a history of being unwelcoming to foreigners. However, this trip was supported by the Eritrean and U.S. governments as a way for students and faculty to study the long history of colonization and war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

“Students were able to have conversations with top-level ministers and government officials, and it is amazing that these government officials were willing to go off the record,” Simmons said.

According to Simmons, one of the biggest impressions that the students left on the government officials of Eritrea was the fact that they were open-minded and curious. Since nondemocratic societies are used to being treated with disrespect, he explained, Eritrean government officials were impressed by the willingness of students to be respectful.

“Eritrea is described very negatively, often [being described by foreigners as] … the North Korea of Africa. The reason for this is because Eritrea is diplomatically isolated, which makes it very hard to socialize and do business there,” Simmons said.

While the trip was a positive experience for students and faculty, it did have its difficulties. Cash is the only medium of exchange that can be used in the economy and internet access is limited. Socializing with many people is often difficult because the country is isolated.

“Even though our group did face these negatives, the trip overall was positive. We enjoyed the people and the government was very cooperative. One important thing to say was that on the trip, an Ethiopian student came as well. This made the trip fascinating,” Simmons said.

Simmons intends to make this study abroad opportunity available next summer as well with another group of students.

“Our presence was not threatening in any way, and overall, Eritreans were impressed by how successful and open our students were,” Simmons said.

Students were able to apply for this trip through the Global Education Office and applications were open to all students, regardless of major. Various credits were awarded to students at the end of the trip.