GELI Stories – How to influence in closed Political Systems like Eritrea

March 1, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

In the third of this series of podcasts with UN and other aid leaders making change happen on the frontline, I talked to OCHA’s Vincent Omuga about the challenges of working in closed and informal political spaces like Eritrea (although I think his experiences are probably much more widely applicable)

Duncan: Welcome to GELI Stories. I’m with Vincent Omuga, who is the Head of Office at OCHA (Office of Humanitarian Affairs) in Eritrea. I’ve been talking to Vincent about how you operate as an outsider, (Vincent is from Kenya), in these closed political systems, where nobody talks in formal settings. Welcome, Vincent. Let’s start with the funeral, because that’s the way you got my attention!

Vincent: Yes, very interesting. I developed a particular interest in first analysing the society I am in and the values that they hold dear, and I realised funerals are one of them. I intentionally started investing in funerals. In the Africa in general and Eritrea in particular, there is a lot of respect for ceremonies. A funeral is seen as a last rite, an opportunity to show closeness to relatives and friends who have contributed a lot. In closed societies, you have to find these entry points. In funerals, you are not even doing much. You go there to be seen. Being seen sends a signal that ‘this is one of us’, and starts opening doors.

The first funeral I attended was for a very respected trade unionist, a member of a political party. When I went to that funeral, I met people of different backgrounds. They are military leaders, religious leaders, political leaders. I went there and the person who advised me to do so took me to first to his house. We met the immediate family members, and there I met the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Those are the inner circle – as far as you get with closed systems, including government. We had an informal chat. They were very pleased to see me. You could read from the body language that they were comfortable, they welcomed me there. I had done a bit of my research into how I should behave when I’m in the funeral in a culturally-appropriate way. They welcomed me. We sat down. There is some bread they give with a cup of coffee: I took that, and I could see the smiles. It’s about understanding, and that was the first opening.

After that, the whole dynamic changed. The Minister of Justice invited me after the funeral, ‘Can you join me tomorrow for a walk?’ I said, ‘Why not? What time?’ So at 7:00 in the morning, we did a 30-minute walk, and that is where they open up. She told me one fundamental thing. Don’t call me by informal title anymore. Don’t call me Honourable Minister. Just call me ‘my sister’. That is a big thing. I laughed. I say, Yes, you also shouldn’t call me Vincent, just call me ‘brother.’ That is opening an informal door into the circle.

Duncan: Had you tried to talk to her before?

Vincent: We had two, three formal meetings, very stiff. I could feel that I was not getting entry points because it was within an office setting. I told myself ‘This is a high government official. Formal things. I need to go to the office.’ This experience taught me two things. Number one, you are an official, 24/7, but then you need to go beyond officialdom in closed societies to find your way around blockages. The things I was told after the funeral on the walks were 15 times what I got in formal meetings.

Duncan: That’s interesting. You mentioned coffee earlier… is coffee a big part of this informal networking?

Vincent: Yes, it’s a big thing. Subsequent to the funeral and the walk, I was invited to a coffee ceremony. Coffee ceremonies are traditional in Eritrea, usually for family members only. When they invite you, it is a sign that we are gaining confidence in you, we trust you, you are now a family member. Traditionally they do coffee ceremonies every Sunday afternoon, and it’s a cozy moment that last for two hours. You do three rounds of coffee with popcorn, and you sit on the floor. There are no chairs. They put out a carpet for you, and you sit with your legs crossed.

Duncan: Interesting. The other thing you were telling me earlier was about the importance of your driver. Could you tell us about your driver?

Vincent: Yes. Very interesting. In our normal organagram of the office structure, the driver is among the lowest levels. But I realised quite early that my driver was more than just a driver. He had connections to very senior levels, inner circles within the government. I know the government uses him to also check on me to make sure I behave well!

Duncan: How come he’s so well-connected?

Vincent: He came from a very well-respected family. His father was a freedom fighter during the War of Independence – 30 years of freedom fighting, which they value a lot. After that, there is a system they call Martyrdom, where they recognise you and your family because of the contribution your family made towards the growth of the country. Because of that, there are doors that he opens that even my senior officials cannot open. He’s five steps below my senior administrative officer, but I realised in terms of informal networks, he’s more of an asset than the official hierarchical structure. I decided, as a manager, to go beyond the hierarchical structure to get into the informal institutions within society. In those informal institutions, there is no hierarchy. The driver proposed ‘I’ll take you for coffee’. I said, ‘Okay, what is this about?’ He took me for coffee in a place where I met another layer of government officials; where they chat informally.

We drank a lot of coffee, behind closed doors, among friends. In that coffee ceremony that he took me to as a driver, I met two former ambassadors who are well-connected to the inner dealings of the government and introduced me to them casually. Yes, this one is so and so, this one is so. They told me, Yes, Mezfin, (my driver) talked to us about you. I say jokingly, ‘I hope it’s not horrible things. I hope I have behaved myself!’ They say, ‘very positive things. You are human, you treat him well’. You can imagine if I had treated the lowest level of cadre in my office badly, the ripple effects, what would have hit me, and how treating human beings well regardless of their class, regardless of their labelling, will open things up for you. You don’t know the doors he opened! I realised this was more than just a driver in my third week because I could give him documents. The documents that take my admin official two weeks to get approved, he does it in three days. The appointments that I will request get no response. So I’ll just flag with him: ‘Could you talk to so and so?’ And he fixed the appointments for me in no time. He took me to the offices and he was more welcome than other senior officials around me. I realised there was a layer within the society that I needed to unpack.

Duncan: What does that mean in terms of leadership? Is it, as you say, respect for everybody, knowing that you are being observed 24 hours a day. You can’t treat people badly just because they’re in junior positions, but also being curious about people’s personal histories, finding out about his family’s role and realising that there may be opportunities there. So you need a very open, expansive state of mind to see everybody in that society and who might be able to help?

Vincent: Perfectly. As leaders, we are in these societies to solve problems, and you can’t solve problems if you don’t understand the people. As a leader, I learned a big thing about, number one, humility. Every society has institutions. When I entered that society, I realised that my labelling will not work for me here. I need to unpack it. I need to go beyond the mask of my senior level. I need to simplify my life because I realised this is a closed society whose solutions lie in simplicity and in simple people and is not structured. They work on the basis of relationships and trust. It is not about structure. It’s not whether you are senior level. If I just limit my circle to the expatriate community, I will be missing half of the picture.

Duncan: This is all a bit abstract. What difference does it make in terms of OCHA operations on the ground? What do you get that you wouldn’t otherwise get by doing this thing?

Vincent: It’s about acceptance. If you are accepted into the inner cycle, you can have great influence. As OCHA, we are trained to lead from behind because we support the whole humanitarian leadership system, led by the resident or humanitarian coordinator. OCHA’s mandate is about reaching the most vulnerable people. You can’t reach the more vulnerable people if you don’t have respect and humility for the lowest level rank in the society you are in. This is what I learned, all the more so in a closed society where information will not come through the formal structures.

Duncan: So by behaving in this sensitive way, you get more access, more information, the government is more cooperative? And that spreads to the rest of the UN humanitarian system as well. Does it create a good environment for the UN to work with the government? Is that how it works?

Vincent: Precisely. It’s interesting, I’ll give you an example. When I went to Eritrea, they didn’t want to hear anything about humanitarian response because they view humanitarian work as undermining the government’s broader development policy. I had to take a step back because I have had 23 years of experience in humanitarian work. I was used to a particular template, but I realised in this society, I have to use a completely different approach and template. I found those simple entry points. I used them effectively. I was doing a lot of analysis to understand, to better understand the society. You can never understand enough of these closed societies.

So every day was a new learning experience. Two years down the line, the government officials came to me and said ‘we want to take leadership in humanitarian action. What do we do?’ I used the analogy of the taxi driver: ‘I’ll give you the direction where I want to go and you are the driver. That is my role’. That year, they organised one of the greatest World Humanitarian Days I’ve experienced over my last 23 years in the humanitarian field, real government leadership. They took the lead. We took two months to plan with them, with them as the lead and us in the background. And this coming from a socialist, communist country that sees the broader humanitarian landscape as driven by other [political] agendas. That was the highlight. They invited all the UN leaders to be present there. I had eight ministers coming to that function to celebrate World Humanitarian Day. To me, that is the element of leadership, sensitive leadership that you need to have. It’s not about me, it’s about the community. I’m just one piece of the jigsaw. But if I don’t get it right, everything crumbles. If I spend a lot of time understanding them and investing in relationships and trust, they do the rest of the work for me. For this World Humanitarian Day celebration that I’m talking about, they did 90% of the work. I was doing the background work of building trust, negotiating, drinking more coffee with them, and it has opened doors that I never imagined we would open.

Duncan: I hate to think how much coffee you have to drink for your job! I think it’s a really, really fascinating experience. Thank you very much.

March 1, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Love this conversation. I just got back from doing fieldwork in Tanzania on non-formal schooling and so much of this really resonated with me. The non-formal schools making the biggest impact in their communities are those working outside the political bounds of the formal system, where the policy implementation process breaks down because of information failures and instead, these schools are responding to the informal priorities of the students they serve and not to the formal ones set out by policy. Politics/soft power is everything and doesn’t get addressed as often as it needs to!

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