Unlike most African cities chocking in traffic and pollution, cars are few and far between in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Instead the bicycle is king of the road. Report by Milena Belloni and James Jeffrey.
Residents of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, ride bicycles of all kinds and colours: mountain-bikes, city bikes, racing bikes. Young and old, women and men, athletes and housewives—all seem to embrace the bicicletta, the word for bicycle (borrowed from Italian) in the local language, Tigrinya.
But with the lifting of sanctions and the rapprochement with Ethiopia, will new investment destroy the country’s proud environmental record?
While most African cities are portrayed as, and often are, subsumed in traffic and congestion, buildings under construction and pollution, Asmara offers a very different landscape: a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its art deco architecture in which much of the population hops on bicycles to get around. The reasons behind cycling’s popularity are steeped in Eritrea’s dramatic history and related issues that continue to direct the country’s present challenges.
“Buses are so old and so few!” Salam, a 30-year-old graduate, says about decades-old overcrowded buses that represent the main public transport in the Eritrean capital. “Having a bicycle is life-saving here.”
Asmara only has about 500,000 inhabitants, which combined with low salaries, high import taxes and fuel shortages means the city has few cars. Those you do see often tend to be from a different age.
Roads are not only empty of cars, locals lament the departure of many of their loved young ones. Great numbers of Eritrean youth have fled during the last 20 years due to hardships brought by regional conflicts and enforced national service under a government that brooks no dissent. There are about 400,000 Eritrean refugees worldwide, according to the UNHCR.
A combination of conflict, diplomatic isolation and UN sanctions has contributed to an economy in dire straits – what cars and buses there are, often have to be parked up for a long time – leaving people few choices other than walking or pedalling to get around.
But the opening of the border with Ethiopia and the lifting of UN sanctions last year means that Eritrea is at a particularly important juncture, with many big questions still to be answered about the direction the country could go in.
Despite all the criticism the Eritrean regime comes in for – almost always warranted – there is one aspect of its rule that is rarely discussed, and which partly explains all the bicycles.
For years the government has
made environmental sustainability one of the pillars of its policies, which has included limiting plastic production and usage, reforestation campaigns, the safeguarding of green areas of the country – and distributing bikes imported from Dubai and China.
Bike repair shops that abound all over Asmara speak to a particular aspect of the Eritrean character moulded by its history, and which also informs the government’s bid for environmental sustainability. Eritrea has a long tradition of self-reliance that began during its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia and has become part of the national psyche.
“Whether minister, businessman, waiter or farmer, everyone seemed to think along identical lines,” observed Michela Wrong about researching her book, I Didn’t Do It For You, on Eritrea’s tenaciously long fight for independence, while noting that such attitudes didn’t seem like regurgitated propaganda: “The need for self-reliance, the miracles that could be worked through discipline and hard work, the importance of learning from Africa’s mistakes,” she writes.
After a further brutal two-year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea officially ended in 2000, the two Horn of Africa states remained locked in a Cold War-style standoff, from which Eritrea came off far worse, losing its main regional trading partner.
This was compounded by its increasing international isolation – in 2006, United Nations sanctions were imposed, including an arms embargo and freezing the regime’s financial assets abroad – that has made importing anything, let alone bicycles and spare parts, extremely expensive and difficult.
“Sanctions had a huge indirect effect on our economy,” says an official with the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) ruling party, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He highlights how insurance for ships coming to Eritrea increased, reducing the volume of shipping trade for ports. Bids for international loans to develop national projects were rejected. Even simple import requests became matters of complex negotiations.
“We ordered some computers from Ireland last year, but after a while they finally came back to us and said theycould not sell to us because of the sanctions,” says a researcher in Asmara. “They said the computers could have been used for military purposes.”
Cycling is the most popular sport among Eritreans. Introduced by the Italians during colonisation, competitive cycling is a source of pride among the population. The Eritrean national team has become extremely successful in international races around the continent.
The recent lifting of sanctions and the rapprochement with Ethiopia mean the Eritrean economy now has a chance to grow and even make its mark on the international scene by exporting more to the world than just refugees fleeing the country.
At the end of 2018, the Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emanuela Del Re led a group of about 80 Italian investors representing sectors including energy, constructions, transportation, agriculture, textile and tourism on a visit to the country.
“Of course, Eritrea has a huge potential to export—after World War II, it was one of the most industrialised areas in Africa,” says Nicole Hirt with the GIGA Institute of African Affairs. “Fish could be exported in large quantities, marble, potash, gold, copper, zinc, textiles, processed food, hides, meat, wine, beer, etc.”
Potential markets for Eritrea would likely be the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Hirt says, while Ethiopia and maybe Sudan could be options for its sea fish. But she warns against being overly optimistic, due to systemic infrastructure inadequacies and underfunding by the government.
“I am very pessimistic about the prospects for developing exports, etc., in Eritrea,” says a diplomat who has worked in Eritrea, and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Frankly very little has changed since the peace declaration in terms of the investment and business environment – major obstacles like lack of investment code and laws, severely constrained internet connectivity, lack of energy supply and the need to obtain travel permits to visit even major centres like Massawa remain, with the government making only the same comments that they are working on it.”
Most commentators say that any talk of economic growth potential is a moot point without significant political structural change, including the reinstatement of the rule of law, granting more freedom to private investors and reassurance against the current common practice of incarceration without trial. Until that happens, the bike repair shops of Asmara are likely to be trying to fix the same old parts with the same means available.
Torn between leaving and staying
The peripheral neighbourhoods of Asmara are often knitted together by narrow dirt tracks, more suited to bicycles for getting around. Everyday life in Asmara is far from easy, added to which mandatory national service leaves the vast majority of youth “serving the nation” in the military or in government ministries for extremely limited salaries.
The result has been a wave of young Eritrean migrants leaving, while those who remain are often torn between a desire to leave and a desire to remain loyal to all that has been sacrificed before.
“My parents fought for this country, my uncle died for it, I do not want to leave, but to contribute to seeing it grow and develop,” says 35-year-old Jeremiah who works in a Ministerial office in downtown Asmara. Like many other Eritreans, Jeremiah says the only way to honour the sacrifice of his relatives was to stay.
Those studying Eritrea argue that by maintaining a punitive approach to the diaspora who escaped in the last 20 years, the Eritrean government is wasting an opportunity to harness the huge size of the diaspora and its potential to direct important human and economic capital back to the country. Eritrea, they say, has much to gain from embracing a more liberal emigration policy and promoting circular migration.
For even if migration remains a common desire for many young Eritreans, they often describe it as a temporary solution, highlighting how Eritrea is their home and they want to return eventually. “I cannot see myself living abroad forever,” says Jordanos, who like others says she wants to see the world and pursue further education to make money to help her family back in Eritrea. “I will build a house in my father’s land. By then the village will be a city with schools, and good services.”
Although many Eritreans often comment with a critical tone that “nothing has changed since the Italians left,” no one seems to begrudge the cycling culture left behind.
“Bicycles are part of our culture,” says 25-year-old Tesfalem as he gets off his bike on which he cycles to work every day.
But there is often a darker side to such seemingly innocuous matters in Asmara and Eritrea. The development of competitive bicycle racing in the country, for example, is largely down to Tewolde Tesfamariam, more commonly known as ‘Wedi Vaccaro’ a self-made millionaire who owned a share in Asmara’s biggest hotel.
But he fell out of favour with the ruling regime and was forced into exile, where he became a vociferous voice of the opposition, before dying in 2015.
Similarly, the climate in Asmara – almost Alpine-like with the bright sun and high altitude – combined with the lack of traffic could make it seem that it is a cyclist’s dream. But there remains much more to pedal power in Asmara than meets the eye.
“Their wiry physiques—the result of not years, but generations of going without—spoke of iron control,” Wrong says.
Photo by Milena Belloni.
Article as published in our June print edition.