A musician from tiny Eritrea has caused a stir on YouTube, with a protest song that appears to criticise the government of President Isaias Afewerki.
Eritrea is the kind of a place where protest songs don’t go viral every day. It is one of Africa’s smallest and most tightly-controlled states. Yet a track named Hadnetna (or “Our Unity”) now has over 100,000 clicks. The artist behind the track is Yohannes “Wedi” Tikabo, and while his song sounds gentle and lilting, his words are not.
“It isn’t a secret that two generations of youngsters have perished,” he sings. The lyrics also appeal to the memory of the struggle for independence, known as “Ghedli”. The song has been widely interpreted as being a criticism of President Isaias, who has been in power for 20 years and whose government is regularly rated at the bottom of international tables for its record on human rights.
One of those commenting on YouTube calls him the “Bob Marley of Eritrea” and “the voice of the people”. Another writes: “If this does not wake our people, I really don’t know what will.”
Yohannes is well-known in Eritrea, but what makes this video all the more surprising is that he was once more famous as a nationalist. His songs were widely used as an inspiration for Eritrean troops during the two-year border war with Ethiopia, but he recently joined the thousands of Eritreans who flee the country every year. The BBC has not been able to reach him for a comment.
Activists are delighted. “Music has always been a mass mobiliser in Eritrea – before and after independence,” says Sennai F of the opposition Youth Solidarity for Change movement. Yet internet usage is very low in Eritrea – only 6% according to one estimate – and where there is internet, it tends to be slow and unreliable – meaning the vast majority of those listening are probably Eritreans living outside the country. But the diaspora has found ways to get the song into in Eritrea, according to activists, via the Paris-based Radio Erena.
Reporting by Paul Brown (BBC)