No, Eritrean protestors didn't disrupt a world peace soccer tournament in Edmonton
Eritrean dissidents got a government-backed event shut down. They say organizers use the guise of cultural festivities to promote government propaganda.
An Eritrean festival serving as a propaganda event for the east African country’s authoritarian government was shut down this weekend due to dissident-organized protests, but not before 80 Edmonton cops showed up at a soccer field in riot gear.
There are two Eritrean organizations claiming to represent the community in Edmonton — Eritrean Canadian Community of Edmonton (ECCOE), a pro-government organization that organized the festival, and the Eritrean Community Association of Edmonton (ECAOE), which is apolitical as an organization but has members who participate in dissident activities.
Festivals like the one organized by the ECCOE are indeed a government propaganda exercise, according to Queen’s University historian Awet T. Weldemichael, who specializes in the Horn of Africa. While they do raise some money for the government, their “principal driving force” is to indoctrinate the Eritrean diaspora in the “message the ruling party wants to get across and cement in its followers.”
You would think in a time of increased scrutiny of foreign government interference in Canada, media might be more attuned to an Eritrean government-affiliated organization using the guise of a cultural event to spread its propaganda among a diaspora community that fled the ruling regime. But alas.
Michael Berhane, a past president of ECAOE who participated in the anti-government protest, told The Orchard that festival organizers deliberately publicized an incorrect address to dodge protestors, so the dissidents and police showed up at the wrong location.
Instead, the event was set up at Grand Trunk Park, the site where the championship of the annual Canada World Peace Soccer Tournament was supposed to take place, but was cancelled the day before due to weather — providing a valuable propaganda coup for the event organizers, which was reflected in uncritical press coverage.
Protestors began showing up at the actual event site before the cops, who ended up reading the Riot Act for the first time since 1999, could establish a barrier between the two sides.
Berhane said police were “a little aggressive” and “pushy” with the protestors at the soccer field, but that the blame ultimately lies with the festival organizers, who sowed chaos by misleading the cops about the event’s location.
“It was hard to tell who started it because it was just a flashpoint where both sides met, made contact and they fought,” said Berhane, who wasn’t at the soccer field when the violence started, because he was helping transfer protestors from the original location. “In general, the police were caught off guard.”
The annual pro-government festivities include a soccer tournament between ECCOE-affiliated teams from Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and elsewhere, one which Berhane emphasized is wholly unrelated to the Canada World Peace Soccer Tournament.
But the festival soccer game itself is “just a disguise” for the pro-government festivities. “They organize a facade of sports activities, kids activities — stuff like that,” Berhane explained.
The festivities scheduled for that evening at Maharaja Banquet Hall in southeast Edmonton, with musical performances providing the guise of an apolitical cultural event, were also called off after protestors threw bricks through the windows of the building and nearby cars.
The Aug. 19 protests were organized by the Eritrean dissident group Brigade N’hamedu, which the ECCOE claims is a violent terrorist organization — as repressive governments tend to label dissidents.
But Berhane says the organization is made up of young people who recently fled Eritrea and are deeply traumatized. “They want to disrupt anything that has to do with the government of Eritrea,” he said.
The ECCOE didn’t respond to an inquiry about the nature of their relationship with the Eritrean state.
A statement from the organization applauded the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) for protecting participants from “violent and harassing demonstrations [that] have no place in a civilized society.”
The EPS didn’t respond to a request for comment about how it determined a tactical unit was necessary to keep the two sides separated.
On its website, the ECCOE lists various community “partners,” including Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), the City of Edmonton, the Edmonton Community Foundation and Catholic Social Services.
An AGLC spokesperson told The Orchard that it provides licensing to charities to use gaming activities, such as raffles, bingo or gambling, as fundraisers. Licensing, the spokesperson added, isn’t the same as a partnership. But its license is for the ECAOE, not the ECCOE.
In Eritrea, which has been ruled by Isaias Afwerki since it secured independence from Ethiopia in 1991, everyone from ages 18 to 40 is required to serve in the military indefinitely under the country’s “national service program.”
Despite its history of anti-colonial struggle against U.S.-backed Ethiopia, Eritrea participated in Ethiopia’s assault on its northern Tigray region from 2020 to 2022 — a war which led to an estimated 500,000 deaths from violence, starvation and lack of health care, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium.
While that war ended with a truce between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopia, Eritrean troops remain in Tigray. The geopolitics here are complicated, since Tigrayans dominated the Ethiopian government that ruled over Eritrea before 1991, and the TPLF has itself engaged in atrocities, but this in no way lets the Eritrean government off the hook.
Another Eritrean dissident activist, who I’m not going to name because they plan on returning to their home country for one last visit in the near future, said the ECCOE promotes a nationalist vision “rooted in a lack of criticism.”
“You cannot critique the Eritrean government. You cannot critique the current conditions or the conditions that have existed for the past 20-plus years,” they said.
According to the summary of a 2016 United Nations Human Rights Council report, the Eritrean government engages in “arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, reprisals for the alleged conduct of family members, discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds, sexual and gender-based violence, and killings.”
Military recruits are often used as forced labour, including for foreign-owned private companies, and rape and torture are commonplace in military camps. The state also operates a militia, the Hizbawi Serawit, in which people as old as their 60s and 70s are required to participate.
In October 2020, Vancouver-based mining company Nevsun Resources reached an undisclosed settlement with three Eritreans who worked at the company’s Bisha copper and gold mine from 2008 to 2011.
The workers, who worked in the mine as part of their compulsory national service, alleged they were forced to work 60-hour weeks in heat approaching 50 degrees Celsius, were housed in huts without beds or electricity, and beaten.
Media, as it so often does, uncritically echoed the police’s version of events, noting that 11 people were hospitalized with injuries, but didn’t question whether the deployment of a tactical unit was excessive.
The false narrative of a world peace soccer tournament descending into violent chaos proved too attractive for many journalists to resist.
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