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AdvocacyBreaking NewsFestival of Fools: Stop Going to “Eritrean Festivals” — You’re Supporting a Dictator

Selfa SolomonAugust 5, 20226707 min
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Modern Eritrea’s short history is often told as a story of triumph. The values of self-reliance, sacrifice, and unity that we fostered during our armed struggle for independence helped us not only win the war but also forged a strong national identity that persists to this day. This proud legacy of heroism is the birthright of all Eritreans and serves as a reminder that it is often the force of a people’s values and not the strength of arms that is the decisive factor in conflicts. Before independence, these values were promoted most vividly in the diaspora at cultural festivals such as the Bologna Eritrean Festival in Italy and the Kassel Eritrean Festival in Germany.

These large events were first conceived by exiles linked to the different armed groups vying for independence. In so much as they were an expression of culture, they were also an expression of the politics of the time. A quick Youtube search of the Bologna Festival of 1991 captures just how heavily politicized these events were.

These weren’t just organic jamborees, as some outside observers would be forgiven to believe; they were deliberately created to raise money and support for the political movements they were conceived by. By the time it became the preeminent power in Eritrea, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), later the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), would come to exercise control over these celebrations.

As the exile population grew throughout the 1980s, so did the proliferation of such festivals. Nearly every continent with a sizable Eritrean community continued to organize them after independence was achieved. The festival hosted where I live, the United States, is set to take place in Dallas, Texas, between August 5-7.

Eritrean government officials and musicians under the strict control of the Cultural Affairs unit of the PFDJ regularly appear at these colorful events. They are, in many ways, cleverly disguised political rallies whereby the ruling PFDJ can cultivate consensus, spread its political themes, and attract new generations of diaspora youth into its ranks. It is no coincidence that the PFDJ’s youth wing, Y-PFDJ, is actively promoting the Eritrean festival scheduled to take place in Dallas. Nor is it a coincidence that another pro-government diaspora organization, the National Council of Eritrean Americans(NCEA), scheduled its conference in the same city during the same week as the Eritrean festival.

In recent years, efforts by Eritreans in Europe opposed to the PFDJ- dictatorship have succeeded in getting these events canceled by contacting the hotels and venues contracted to host them. Perhaps this fact has prompted the organizers of the recent NCEA conference and Eritrean festival to withhold hotel and venue information from everyone but those whose loyalty the organizers do not doubt.

There were cultural celebrations and festivals before the PFDJ, and they will be there after they are gone. Part of emancipating our people from the shackles of dictatorship involves ridding ourselves of the cultural chokehold the ruling party has had on our people through these events. Therefore, not only should we boycott them, we must actively fight to organize to shame any hotel or venue that would agree to host their activities. To continue allowing our culture to be exploited in such a grotesque way cheapens the richness of our heritage and undermines the cause of freedom for which our martyrs fought and died.

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