(II) Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice?

Thursday, 16 July 2009 08:59 Yosief Ghebrehiwet
Some readers are wondering what is it that I am trying to do with my latest article, “(I) Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice?” Am I trying to kill the very idea of “Eritrea”, however feeble my effort may be? Not at all! Some of the emails that I have received reprimanded me for dwelling too much on the problem and not enough on the solution. Let me provide a simple metaphor that shows what is it that I am trying to do before I delve into the subject matter alluded in the title of this posting.

At one time I went to visit an acquaintance living by the ocean, about a half a mile or so from the beach. The lady of the house explained to me the engineering of the house – specifically, on how its foundation was built. You see, the house was built on unstable ground because the ocean water was able to sip into the soil upon which it had been built. But that doesn’t mean the house is less secure than any other house built on solid ground (given that this is an earthquake area). It is only that it needed a special engineering mechanism appropriate to the shifting ground beneath it, as it makes the house move along with it – though undetectable to the naked eye. The lady, in fact, said that the house actually had wheels at its base which enabled it to maneuver with the shifting soil underneath it.

Eritrea too is being built on unstable ground. If we do not come up with an engineering mechanism appropriate to the unstable ground upon which it is being built, it won’t stand for long. If one uses solid-ground engineering to build the house mentioned above, we know what the disastrous result would be the first time earthquake strikes. So is it with Eritrea. The romanticizing ones who believe that ghedli (the revolution) was built on justifiable cause or that this nation of ours is being built on solid ground are actually the ones who are preparing the nation for an eventual collapse. What we need now is to lay bare the unstable foundation upon which Eritrea is being built (deconstruct it, if you will) – that is, if we are ever to come up with an appropriate mechanism commensurate to the ever-shifting ground upon which it stands.

I know so far that I am talking at metaphorical level. I entreat my readers to patiently follow me through my coming postings where I will address the “baring of the foundation”, before any “building up” could be attempted. Now let me go to the subject matter of this posting – a response to Saleh Younis, a great proponent of the solid ground upon which Eritrea is being built; so solid that he believes the only problem the nation has is that of Isaias.

A culture of denial: diversionary tactics

In my article “Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice?” I asked a simple question: Is the cause worth all the sacrifice? An appropriate response would, at minimum, require a sober look at the natures of the cause and the sacrifice. Saleh does neither. When it comes to the cause, all that he does is repeat his oxymoronic mantra, “liberating the land” and “getting rid of the Ethiopian occupation”, the one serving as the other’s reason in circular turns. He doesn’t even make one serious attempt to come out of this vicious circularity and tell us as to why liberating the land or getting rid of the “occupation” was found necessary in the first place. And whenever hard questions regarding the nature of the cause that promise to break this circularity arise, he sees a distinction where there is none and fails (or refuses) to see a distinction where there is one so as to keep this circular game going. [And when it comes to the nature of sacrifice, it is one denial after another – but in this posting, the focus will mainly be on the nature of the cause.] Let me start with three elementary distinctions regarding the nature of the “cause” that he refuses to see before we go to the major one: regarding the founding fathers’ master argument for independence. After that, we will see how Saleh fantastically comes up with a desperate distinction – splitting Isaias into two – where none is needed just to vindicate ghedli.

Again, I am using Saleh as a foil to address important issues regarding the nature of the Eritrean struggle for independence, for he has this propensity to gravitate around the central issues symptomatic of the nationalist ailment that afflicts the larger Eritrean society. The level of denial on the Eritrean public side is so high that they would do anything to avoid confronting the uncomfortable question raised above, and Saleh happens to be an embodiment of that culture of denial.

(a) External vs internal justification

If a lady, in a litigation that she wins against her neighbor, sacrifices her marriage in the process, it is legitimate to ask whether the “winning” is justifiable given the magnitude of the loss. In this case, her action is being questioned not because she is not justified to take the man to the court but because, in the process of doing so, she is not justified in doing what she has done to herself and her family. Even though her act is justifiable in the court of law (external justification), that very same act is not justifiable in the eyes of her family (internal justification). And it is important to remember that when the family raises the question of justification, it has already factored in whatever benefits it has received from the court victory.

Why does Eritrea deserve to be an independent state? The rhetorical answer that most Eritreans love to give is: if every other African nation that has been previously colonized has gotten its independence, then why shouldn’t it be so in the case of Eritrea? This rhetorical answer is, I believe, sufficient as responses go; but only if given as a response to an outsider’s query. It is a legal or technical argument that one provides, for instance, at the AU or UN. But we owe it to ourselves – as insiders – that we come up with a totally different reason as to why we want a different nation when we are addressing the question to one another. Among other factors, the questions of identity, sacrifice, cohabitation and sustainability become of paramount importance in this kind of internal justification: Is there such a thing as Eritrean identity? Is the cause worth the all sacrifice? Is the nation created out of this sacrifice sustainable? Can we – Moslems and Christians – live together to create a free, democratic and prosperous Eritrea that would make it in postmodern 21st century?

Saleh is a prime example of those Eritreans who confuse external justification for internal one. When responding to the question why the armed struggle started, all he says is that the Ethiopians didn’t keep their word; that they unilaterally abrogated the federation treaty, and so on. And as responses go, this might be a sufficient answer when given to an outsider (as in the example given above). His response is equivalent to saying that Ethiopians deserve the armed struggle because they started it. But the internal justification has to do with an entirely different question: do the Eritrean people deserve the armed struggle? He misses the whole point because it is not what we did to them with the armed struggle that is at issue but what we did to ourselves. It is also important to remember that when we ask such a question, it is always after having factored in whatever Ethiopia did to us – be it in treaties it abrogated or in atrocities it committed – and the “victory” that came out of the struggle.

And if, in the end, we find out that ghedli has had no justifiable cause at all, then the loss would go beyond the question of proportions; for there would be no worthy cause at all with which to compare the sacrifice and hence becomes prohibitive and inexcusable.

(b) Economic vs identity sustainability

Saleh has this tendency to line up many of the failed states of Africa to justify the economic viability of Eritrea. Leaving aside the fact that he sets his bar too low, the issue of sustainability, as framed in my last article, has nothing to do with economic viability. I have always believed that those who argue that the nation doesn’t deserve independence because it is economically unsustainable are wrong. If its economy is to be an issue, it would only be so if, prior to such a failure, the state has already failed at a deeper level – at cohabitation level, where identity becomes a primary issue.

The issue of sustainability that I raised has to do with the great divide that exists between Muslim and Christian Eritrea – a divide that has been so recalcitrant that it has out-survived the British, Ethiopian and ghedli eras, and now is set to out-survive the Isaias regime. And what is more, given the divisive tactics of the Isaias regime and the radicalization of Islam in the region, the gap has even gotten wider than at any time before in the short history of this nation. In the process, these two population groups have come to embrace two diametrically opposed visions of where the nation should be heading to that it is very hard (if not impossible) to reconcile. As the one looks to Islam and the Arab world for guidance, inspiration, association and identity, the other looks to the West and Habesha world. These visions are so conflicting with one another that it is impossible to accommodate them without the one displacing the other. Therefore, this divide, in its potentiality, is even deeper and more recalcitrant than the divide that used to exist between Eritrea and Ethiopia. If the Eritrean nation eventually fails to sustain itself, it will be because of this ever-widening, potentially irreconcilable identity divide.

This problem goes at the root of Eritrean identity. The linchpin that supposedly holds these two population groups is the Eritrean identity. But put under scrutiny, no such univocal identity exists. Whenever they talk about “Eritrea”, the two population groups have two different Eritreas in mind. A national identity cannot be built on a grammatical confluence only, where an acoustic or script (or graphic – as in a map) confluence hides semantic ambiguity. At these moments, neither the ear nor the eyes are to be trusted; instead, we have to use our head to disambiguate things – something that has been lacking throughout the revolutionary movement. [Sometimes I honestly believe that the whole Eritrean question is based on a grammatical confusion.]

Saleh pretends that this problem doesn’t exist and, instead, attempts to answer an easier question entirely made up in his own mind. Again, his response is symptomatic of larger Eritrea, which does all it can to wish the problem away rather than tackle it head on – to whatever logical end that may take us.

(c) Determinate vs indeterminate qualities

Saleh, in his article “The Spark, the Fire and the Torch”, mentions seven “virtues” or “qualities” that supposedly made the Eritrean revolution unique in Africa – such as “it was purpose-driven”, “it prevailed”, “it was fought according to conventions of war”, “it was not someone else’s proxy war”, etc. You could clearly see his fascination as to HOW ghedli was conducted, without bothering to tell us as to WHY it was needed in the first place. In his last response, he laments that I unnecessarily visited these issues twice. He could not understand that I was addressing them from their indeterminate and determinate sides.

The reason why I was addressing these “virtues” twice was because I was making two points that could only be dealt consecutively. First, I was emphasizing that, absent a clear identification of ghedli’s justifiable cause, these “virtues” are indeterminate in nature; that is, standing on their own, nobody could tell whether they are desirable or not. The example I gave was meant to elucidate on this phenomenon: just by looking at a man running fast, nobody can determine what the man is doing as good or bad, even as one admires the runner’s skill. One needs to know why he is running prior to making a judgment on the nature of that “running”. And second, I was making the point that even if we assume that ghedli had a justifiable cause – for the sake of argument – thereby providing content to the otherwise neutral “virtues”, it lacked the so-called qualities that Saleh attributes to it. Unlike the former, the latter required a detailed look at ghedli’s past.

Again, Saleh’s malady is symptomatic of the larger society’s ailment: the public has always been fascinated by HOW (the process) ghedli was conducted – the heroism, the selflessness, the victories, martyrdom, the women warriors, self-reliance, the patriotic songs, biddho, tsin’at, tewefayinet, bitsifrna, temokro mieda, etc – without having any clue as to WHY (the goal) it was needed in the first place and where it was heading. The masses were fascinated by ghedli’s running skill, only to find out in the end that all along it had been running empty handed (as in a fool’s errand) and that in its “victory” it had nothing to offer them.

Now let me address the most important distinction that Saleh (and most Eritreans) fail or refuse to see because it strikes at the core of the cause for independence.

The master argument: reconcilable vs enduring differences

Eventually, Saleh does manage to stumble into the true cause of the revolution (at least, the half part of it) although remaining totally oblivious as to the unjustifiable nature of the reasons that he so proudly enumerates (“De-Romanticizing Ghedli: Serving A Toxic Brew To The Young And The Disillusioned”):

“First of all, half of Eritrea, the part that supported Andnet, actually bought that argument. In fact, they didn’t even think they had to ‘struggle’ because, in their mind, Ethiopia was already free and ruled by a benevolent and divinely-guided king. The other half (Ibrhaim Sultan/Adulkadir Kebire at the UN and Woldeab Woldemariam in his writings) argued that Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress.”

The development argument

Let me reiterate the reasons that the founding fathers of the Eritrean revolution had for preferring separation from Ethiopia so that there would be not the slightest bit of doubt in the mind of readers: that Ethiopia was more feudal, more primitive, less industrialized, less developed, and less democratic than Eritrea and it would slow down Eritrea’s progress. If this is true – and I tend to agree with Saleh on this – the revolution (and the nation it wanted to build) must have been founded on one of the shallowest causes imaginable (an unstable ground indeed)! Here is why:

If we are to take the founding fathers’ line of reasoning to its logical end, then the following happens to be true: if Ethiopia had been less (or equally) feudal, less (or equally) primitive, more (or equally) industrialized, more (or equally) developed and more (or equally) democratic than Eritrea, then the founding fathers would have never argued for separation. In fact, if we look at Ethiopia now, not only has it caught up with us in most of these criteria, it has even surpassed us in some. There is absolutely no doubt that it is more democratic than us – whatever shortcomings its democracy might have. It is more developed and more industrialized; and given the pace of its growth, the gap might even get wider and wider. And as for feudalism, it is something that would eventually disappear as industrialization, urbanization, education and development increases, all of which Ethiopia has been doing better than us. And as for the more subjective criteria of primitivism, given the past 50 years of barbarity and the Khmer Rouge like regime that we have now, we are the last people on earth to preach anyone on this subject matter.

If the above is true, let’s now push this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion: had the founding fathers lived to see this day or, better yet, had they had the foresight that this day would come, they would have never clamored for independence.

What, indeed, is deadly wrong with the founding fathers’ master argument? They confused achievable properties for intrinsic ones. They thought that backwardness was in the nature of Ethiopians and progress in the nature of Eritreans. But as the passage of time has shown us, all the differences they mentioned were easily bridgeable (surmountable, reconcilable, etc), especially since Eritrea was not that far ahead in all these categories – despite the illusion of it. But more relevantly, if this was to be seen as a race, both Eritrea and Ethiopia were a few meters removed from the starting line, in a long journey that has yet to be finished. That is to say, given the long march of civilization they had to go through as beginners, the advantage the Eritreans had and were so proud of was totally insignificant.

We can mention three main reasons why the advantage Eritreans believed they had over Ethiopians was illusory in the first place: (a) There was no long history of urbanization in Italian Eritrea. Asmara, as a city, came to emerge in the last six years of Italian rule. Prior to that, for about 45 years it had remained a sleepy colonial town. (b) And when it comes to the urban areas, the natives were confined to the ghettos, performing the lowest kind of jobs. (c) Unlike the British and French, the Italians didn’t educate their colonial subjects; the maximum education that a native could get was a fourth grade. (D) The sudden development growth of Eritrea depended on Ethiopia – even in colonial era!

We Eritreans seem to totally miss that the Italians built Asmara not with Eritrea but with Ethiopia in their mind – that it to say, even the little advantage that we had would have been be inconceivable without Ethiopia. For a very convincing argument on (d), look at Tekeste Negash’s excellent article, “The dilemma of Eritrean identity and its future trajectories”: the paradox that even though Eritreans believed Ethiopia was holding them back while totally dependent on the Ethiopian market for that growth is best exemplified in the rapid urbanization of Asmara in the last six years of Italian rule; it was only when Italy decided to invade Ethiopia that Asmara was suddenly transformed from a sleepy town to a city of about 100,000; within those six years it grew seven fold. And in the 50’s and 60’s, Asmara flourished mainly because of the unfettered access it had to the Ethiopian market.

And now, the downward spiral that ghedli started (what I called “the greatest interruption”) is being accelerated under the PFDJ. Yet, many Eritreans still think they are more advanced. Why? Because they believe that that civilizing aspect (whatever that is), despite all evidence to the contrary, is intrinsic to themselves; that is, they don’t have to point at anything outside themselves to prove that. As all forms of fundamentalisms go, this too is founded not only on the most trivial aspect of one’s imagined self but also on fallaciously making an absolute and immutable “truth” out of it.

The religion argument

But I would like to give more substance to the founding fathers’ motive for independence than the frivolous one Saleh mentions, especially on the Muslim side – the other half of the master argument. According to Saleh, it is the independence bloc that embraced the development argument, which was overwhelmingly Muslim. [Mohammed Birhan Hagos begs to differ, who believes that it is the Christians who argued along this fascist lines.] That would indeed be odd since this group represented that part of Eritrea that was less educated and less urbanized, and hence in no position to argue along the line mentioned above. Even when it comes to feudalism, it was no better than Kebessa or Ethiopia; after all, it was only during the British occupation that the Shimagle/Tigre feudal structure that prevailed in the Muslim area, one that bordered to a caste-system, that came to be dismantled.

That doesn’t mean that the Muslim half of Eritrea didn’t argue along that line though; it did. Besides believing in it, it latched on to this argument precisely because it felt it was the only cause that could hold the two halves together, as weak a link as that might have been. This argument was eventually appropriated by urban Eritrea (populated mainly by Christians) and became the basis for the nihilist foundation of Shaebia. Muslim Eritrea, on the other hand, although still espousing this idea, had a more potent and overriding reason – an internal justification – to seek for separation.

On the Muslim side, it was primarily a religious grievance (buttressed by pan-Arabism) that motivated the independence movement. The names of the movements themselves say it all: the Muslim League and Rabita Al Islamia. The main argument of the main players of the Muslim bloc such as Sheikh Abdulkadir Kebire and Ibrahim Sultan was that they would fare worse under Ethiopia because it didn’t threat its Muslims right. Again, if we push this line of reasoning to its logical end, had Ethiopia been treating its Moslem population fair (“fairness” defined according to them) or, better yet, had it been an Islamic state, this grievance would have never been raised, and with it, the question of independence. It is hard for me to imagine the likes of Ibrahim Sultan and Abdelkadir Kebire demanding independence under such favorable conditions.

If the above is true, what is paradoxical is that the implication of the Moslem bloc’s stand was consistent with the Andnet bloc’s stand. If the Moslem bloc’s fear was that it would not fare better than Christians (which included Eritrean Christians) under Ethiopian union, then they ought to have seen no problem with the Andent bloc’s stand, which – according to them – was set to profit from such a union. This implicit logical agreement though had to remain inarticulate because the Christians were needed as partners in the movement for independence.

Ever since, this strategic alliance had come to unravel many times because of its inherent internal contradictions. Jebha is a good example of an organization that died as a result of the internal contradiction that these logical and strategic demands imposed on it. And it this contradiction that exists now in its most potent form: even though the two population groups feel they need each other to keep Ethiopia at bay (strategic alliance), they don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the kind of Eritrea they want to build. [This has been made stark clear recently with the EDA split exactly along the old lines of the Muslim-Christian divide.] The problem is that no nation can be built on strategic alliance only.

From the above, the paradox that emerges as a result of confusing easily reconcilable differences for irreconcilable ones and enduring differences for easily reconcilable ones cannot be lost on us: while the founding fathers (and most Eritreans) thought the development difference was irreconcilable, they totally ignored the much deeper and more enduring divide based on identity. To understand the severity of this divide, one has to look at the layers it is made up of; it is a seven-decked divide that pits the Muslim against the Christian, the lowlander against the highlander, the pastoralist against the sedentary farmer, the Tigrigna against other ethnic groups, Tigrigna against other languages (and Arabic) and the Arab world against the Habesha world. The seventh layer has to do with the two groups’ different historical trajectories that only came to meet in the last century.

It is important to remember that neither the Christians nor the Muslims were arguing along nationalist lines. No national identity can be built based on an achievable property like development, and for that matter skin-deep only. The moment the nation against which they want to define themselves becomes equally or more developed, that distinguishing identity evaporates. The second, although based on actual identity, the nationhood that it demands is based on a strategic alliance that requires an enemy to hold it together. But once denied of outside enemy, the alliance collapses; and so does the nation.

Non-nationalist causes

If the two causes that ghedli was fighting for were non-nationalist at the core, two critical questions that put the necessity of ghedli itself into question arise:

  1. How is it possible for a non-nationalist grievance to be solved through a nationalist movement, albeit one that is founded on that very grievance only?

The fact that both grievances still persist with us in their pernicious forms after the armed struggle’s “goal” has been achieved (after “mission accomplished”), and the Eritrean nation was born, tells us that the solution doesn’t fit the problem.

  1. Since both grievances were non-nationalist in nature, could they have been solved through non-nationalist means – that is, within proper Ethiopia?

We have seen that urban Eritrea’s (mainly Christian) development grievance would have been met within proper Ethiopia. And when it comes to the Muslim grievance, Saleh Ghadi tells us that under the current Ethiopian government, the Muslims’ lot has “improved many fold” (“More of Red Tears”). If he cannot say so in the case of the current regime in Eritrea, does it mean that Muslim grievances could have been better met within Ethiopia? For instance, if lowland Eritrea had gotten its own Kilil (the dream of federalists), would that have done more to address Muslim grievances than all the 50 years of ghedli insanity? After all, when Dergh was flirting with such an idea, it was getting a good traction among the lowlanders. Under such Kilil, most of the intractable problems that currently haunt Eritrea – the land problem, the settlement problem, the refugee problem, the language problem, the constitution problem, etc – would have disappeared. It seems as if a larger breathing space than claustrophobic Eritrea is needed to address all these issues; after all, there are certain experiments that only larger nations could easily afford.

In our age, absolutism in its pernicious sense takes place when “truths” are made out of transitory or trivial phenomena. It is the easiest and laziest way of coping with the complex realty brought about by modernity. When Eritreans tried to make an easily achievable attribute intrinsic to their identity, it was an easy way of coping with the modern world suddenly thrust upon them with the Italian encounter. The problem is no such “truths” could be fixed permanently without drastically altering the very context in which they find themselves embedded. Instead of the “truths” conforming to reality on the ground, the world has to be violently altered to fit those fixed “truths”. And it is amidst this kind of drastic alterations that human tragedies of epic proportion take place. The current tragedy in Eritrea is a good example where the whole society had to undergo radical experimentation to fit ghedli “truths” that Shaebia dragged all the way from Sahel.

The sad truth is that the Shaebia man was created to provide solidity to a chimera of an Eritrean identity; that is, nationalism had to be imposed after the fact. Realizing that no enduring identity could be built on easily achievable properties or on strategic alliances only, it was felt a new identity that would hold the country together had to be built from scratch – of course, after demolishing all competing identities. This Frankenstein creature came to be in order to supersede (and not reconcile) what were thought to be irreconcilable parts of Eritrea. That is to say, most of the current ills of the nation could be traced to the independence movement’s attempt to create a cause ex nihilo, given that there was no prior cause that justified its creation.

One doesn’t fight to create a national identity; one fights to keep an identity one already has. The whole Eritrean tragedy comes as result of reversing this natural order. Eritreans don’t realize that the unity they have been fighting for is at the root of all their problems. If there are “unionists” to be blamed for the Eritrean malaise, it would be these unionists.

[But since Part III will deal with how the crisis in modernity shaped the Eritrean movement of independence, I won’t explore it further here.]

Splitting Isaias into two

For Saleh, as for many others of his ilk, the only way ghedli could be vindicated is if all the current ills of Eritrea are to be attributed to one man only – Isaias. But there is a serious dilemma to be faced in such an endeavor:

If Isaias is to be blamed for all the ills of the nation, does it mean that PFDJ is blameless? But that would be absurd; for without the huge apparatus of the PFDJ, that has it tentacles spread all over Eritrea and beyond, Isaias wouldn’t survive even a day. But if the ghedli apologists are to hold both accountable (as Saleh does, in spite of his rhetoric, “It is only Isaias!”), then another problem arises: if they cannot hold Isaias and PFDJ separate of one another, how is it possible for them to hold Isaias and Shaebia separate of one another, since he has been at the helm of leadership of both organizations since the day of their inception? Even if Saleh is willing to go as far as attributing all the ills of ghedli to Isaias to get out of this dilemma, thereby exculpating PFDJ also in the process, that would be admitting that ghedli was in as much a mess as Eritrea is now.

So what is to be done? Saleh comes up with an ingenious solution: why not split Isaias into two, and blame only the Isaias-after-the-border-crisis! This way ghedli will be vindicated without going to the absurd length of separating Isaias from the organizations that he has been leading: the bad-half of Isaias will remain attached to PFDJ and the good-half of Isaias will remain attached to ghedli! Here then is a case of a distinction being fabricated where no distinction is called for. How does he do it?

According to Saleh, all the problems of Eritrea started when Isaias became paranoid as a result of the border war (“You Might Be a Ghedli Romantic if …”):

“A step back. Has Isaias always been a tyrant, a dictator of sorts or have events pushed him in that direction? Is the person who gave his consent not only to the constraints of constitutionalism but to a constitution which imposes term limits on his presidency … the same as the one who unilaterally, and without any formal explanation, postponed elections 7 years ago and is now saying the next elections are in 30-40 years? …

“Why is he so cruel to his own people?

“A couple of theories. Why did the frightened man continue to beat a dead snake? Because he is terrified of snakes. Similarly, the cruelty that Isaias shows to his own people can only be due to two reasons: he has lost his bearings or he has lost his balls.”

Although he won’t dare say it loud and clear, Saleh is telling us that before the border crisis Isaias was a full-blown democrat at heart, and ready to implement the constitution. Regarding this, I once wrote (“The Collective Insanity that is Killing a Nation”):

“… And now, belatedly, the ghedli-apologists have discovered that the Isaias-before-independence was a democrat at heart and hence not to be blamed either; for they know, again, they cannot do that without blemishing ghedli in the process. So who actually is to be blamed for all the horrors that the nation is undergoing? The seven year old paranoia of Isaias – when ‘he has lost his bearings or he has lost his balls.’ … And when he had his bearings and balls all intact? He was all for the constitution (figure that out!) …”

Of course, Saleh’s magic wand, by which he tries to make all that implicates ghedli disappear by splitting Isaias into two, is just that – one of those magic shows where one uses the power of illusion to split a man into two with a saw, but with the man coming out intact at the end of the process. [I would rather believe in Mengs’ “The Thing” – it looks more scientific to me.]

Family resemblances with other movements

Even as he believes that PFDJ too is to be blamed, Saleh still propagates his “one man theory” for precautionary reasons:

“… It is unthinkable to them that one man of extraordinary skills (talent, if you are an admirer) like Isaias Afwerki can wreak so much havoc and destruction in a country of five million. Thus, it is concluded, it can’t be him; so it must be somebody else---his colleagues, the revolution that produced him, the society that raised him ...”

We are not talking about a revolution that produced one monster, but a multitude of monsters, enablers, supporters, cheerleaders and romanticizers – a whole culture of martyrdom. The fact that someone comes at the top doesn’t mean that his look-alikes at the bottom have to be exculpated. But even if we are to look at the relation between the system and the leadership only, there is too consistent a connection to be dismissed as coincidence.

It is not a coincidence that nations like the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Communist Romania and Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia all invariably produced totalitarian leaders, and for that, monsters of epic proportion: Joseph Stalin, Mao Tsetung, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot and Nicolae Ceausescu respectively. It could only be something in the system that keeps churning out one tyrant after another. Only a poor observer would reverse this causal process. That doesn’t mean that the tyrants were not responsible for much of the horror that took place in their respective reigns. But to simply attribute all the problems to the leaders would leave the question as to why such a system keeps invariably producing such tyrants a riddle. And more importantly, the totalitarian leader cannot inflict the kind of pain that he invariably does without the totalitarian machine that such a system produces.

The same holds true with many liberation fronts, especially if they are of the “ideological” type and have undergone too much violence in their past. It doesn’t have necessarily to be of a particular ideology so far as it comes in its “pure” form – be it in its fundamentalist, communist, fascist or even nihilist sense. To mention three cases – the Taliban, the Khmer Rouge and the Tamil Tigers. These three movements have done more horror to their respective populations than what the “enemy” has done. So is it with many liberation fronts in South America, which started with leftist aspirations to fight for the downtrodden masses and ended up as drug cartels. So is it with some African liberation movements, which underwent similar degeneration. And so is it with Shaebia. As in the case of the communist states mentioned above, the same question has to be asked regarding these liberation fronts: what is it about the experience that these liberation fronts undergo – be it in their ideological or armed struggle sense – that turns them into monsters? This is especially true if that violent experience happens to be long, bloody and large scale, as has been in the case of Eritrea.

That doesn’t mean some liberation fronts should have never started. What determine a revolution are the clarity and nature of its cause, its periodic assessment on its sacrifice and progress and the nature and magnitude of the “evil” that it is fighting against; all of which have been direly lacking in the case of Eritrea. First, up to this day nobody can tells us the cause that justifies what the people have gone through in the last 50 years or the bleak future they face now. Second, given that the armed struggle lasted for 30 years, there can be no excuse as to why the “liberators” failed to reassess their mission. Saleh reminds us how the Eritrean people gave Aman Andom a receptive ear – ready to reassess their stand. What he forgot to add is that the fronts were dead set against his overtures. They felt he was a threat to their very existence; predictably, they were more worried about their existence than the welfare of the masses. And third, one wonders whether Eritrea did fare worse than other provinces in Ethiopia, even the Amhara ones – take Gojjam, for instance. Or if a comparison is needed to gauge the “colonial” nature of Ethiopia, think of the apartheid system in Zimbabwe and South Africa and the colonial system in Angola and Mozambique (all of which had liberation movements).

Family resemblances from within

Recreating the ghedli environment – and with it, the Shaebia man – has been the obsession not only of Isaias but also of the Yikealo generation. So all that we have to do is trace every problem that the nation is facing now to its ghedli past to see the stark family resemblance between the two. The evidence is so overwhelming and so straightforward that only a starry eyed romantic like Saleh would miss it. Let me start with one man’s testimony before I go to national service and other general similarities.

(a) One man’s testimony

A reader who announced himself as someone who was living around Areza at that time emailed me the following in response to my latest article:

“In the 1980s, the EPLF had taken many underage kids including girls by force. Many of the kids returned home, some ran to the cities, many went to Tigray and others crossed the border to the Sudan. When parents were not able to bring their kids back and hand them to the EPLF, their crops were confiscated. This was during the worst famine of the 1980s. Although the yield of the crops was too little due to the lack of rain, the aim of this inhumane act was to kill the whole family unit by hunger. Many families had no choice but to migrate to Tigray in search of food but Tigray was equally a famine-stricken region during that time.”

And this kind of atrocity was not confined to the EPLF, as the following quotation from the same person testifies:

“… As a child growing up in the vicinity of Areza, Seraye (during Jebha time) I had seen enough of the cruelty of this organization. When it had won the war against Kohain, it had confiscated thousands of their livelihoods cattle and brought many of them to our village. The shepherds of the village, including myself, had to take turns in looking after them until they were all slaughtered one by one. When it won the war against Dembelas, it did the same thing. I had seen the Raya Azebo POWs who were captured by Jebha in the seventies perish of disease, hunger and the few lucky ones who had survived were killed in cold blood during the 1978 retreat. I had seen many innocent Eritrean merchants (negado) been arrested and tortured. I had seen people being hanged in Areza … accused of spying for the Ethiopian regime without any proof …”

If we are wondering now why is it that parents are being penalized for the “crimes” committed by their sons and daughters (army desertion or conscription evasion) either through a hefty penalty of 50,000 Nakfa or imprisonment; why is it that at the middle of famine peasants are being confiscated of their harvest; why is it that a huge chunk of the national service attendants is made up of underage; why is it that the young are clamoring to get out of the nation; why is it that many are arrested, tortured and executed with little or no evidence, all that we have to do is look at one man’s brief testimony of his past encounters with ghedli.

(b) National service: recreating the mieda experience

National service has become the greatest scourge of the land primarily because it is where Shaebia’s greatest experimentation to turn Eritrea into Sahel is being conducted. Almost all the ills that afflict the nation can be traced to this ill-conceived project, among which are bloody confrontations with neighboring countries, mass exodus, perpetual slavery, mass starvation, proliferation of prisons, killings and massacres, parental penalization and sexual abuse of women. And the blue print for this project comes out directly from ghedli’s past.

But if we are to specifically trace how this family resemblance between mieda and national service came about, we have to look at its conceptual beginnings. Incidentally, Saleh, in one of the ugliest moments of his writing, accuses “The Young and the Disillusioned” – the disillusioned Warsai – for having failed to appreciate the “virtues” of ghedli because Shaebia, besides bringing them “liberation” in a silver platter, didn’t sweeten this package by adding to it their education trust fund. Leaving aside his arrogance and insensitivity, I like the fact that he couched it in terms of “inheritance” since that is exactly what their ironically given name denotes – “Warsai”.

The word “inheritor” triggers a positive connotation as someone who has inherited a good legacy or material benefits. One wouldn’t call someone who inherits a debt an inheritor. But the Warsai are meant to inherit the worst: “the fruits of ghedli” – call them “the grapes of wrath”. Ghedli had nothing to offer except its hardships, which it was more than willing to recreate under the slightest pretext. This is what I wrote in “Identity through ‘Equality by Subtraction’” regarding that Orwellian named inheritance:

“Let me now couch the above mentioned irony in ‘appealing’ terms: the Warsai are meant NOT to inherit the fruits of the struggle, but oddly enough, the struggle itself; or rather all the hardships that the struggle offers …

“What makes this undertaking [the national service] sinister is that the Yikealo generation actually believes letting its younger generation go under the same hardship experiences that they have undergone in the struggle years is the best legacy they can leave behind. The fact that the CAUSE that necessitated such a hardship doesn’t exist any more doesn’t bother the Shaebia generation at all. For them, it is the PROCESS, with its potential of reshaping the Warsai in the image of Shaebia, and not the CAUSE, that matters. That is why recreating the ghedli environment, wherein such an experimentation would be freely and excessively conducted, became an obsession of this generation. The beginning of this sinister task was Sawa, one that eventually culminated in the war with Ethiopia. This war was not only willed into existence by Isaias, it was also happily embraced by his generation for providing it the perfect context it had been desperately seeking for to recreate the mieda experience into which it wanted to initiate a whole new generation. The extended military service which the Warsai have been subjected to for the last ten years is not so much a military necessity as it is a conducive environment for this sinister undertaking. Having triumphantly succeeded in recreating the struggle era (minus its cause, of course), the Isaias generation can now proudly point at all the ‘hard experiences’ they have let the Warsai inherit.”

Indeed, the direct family resemblance between ghedli and national service is to be found in the ugly legacy that the latter is supposed to inherit from the former – a cause for all the horror in Eritrea. An education trust fund, my foot!

(c) Other family resemblances

For those who are not yet convinced of the family resemblance between Shaebia and PFDJ, let me add some major policy similarities to what I have said so far:

  1. Self reliance: This misguided policy that has brought havoc to the economy of the nation has its roots in its immediate mieda predecessor: bistifrina. This is the main cause for the forced labor that has enslaved a whole generation, for the mass exodus that has emptied towns and cities across Eritrea and for the mass starvation that is going on right now in Eritrea. Recreating the ghedli years, hundreds of thousands are being made to toil in the wilderness in Sisyphean tasks while their families are living in utter destitution.
  2. Temokro mieda: This one-fits-all-experience is at the root of all incompetence that is the mark of the Isaias regime. Imagine a minister presiding over fishery ministry at one time, health ministry at another time and tourism ministry at yet another time. Only if one thinks that temokro mieda is enough of an educational experience to fit in any job (as Isaias claimed once) would this foolish endeavor be ever attempted. And this is not confined to the top; almost every incompetent job that one sees in all the departments can be traced to temokro mieda.
  3. Anti-intellectualism: The anti-intellectualism that has been causing havoc to the educational system in Eritrea is the direct result of the lethal anti-intellectualism that identified Shaebia from its formative years when it started its witch-hunt against students, in general, and university students, in particular. Throughout its existence in mieda, it not only killed the entire intellectual climate, it left no stones unturned to squash any kind of dissent, even of the mildest type.
  4. A culture of violence: All the confrontations that independent Eritrea has been experiencing – within and without – are the direct extension of Shaebia’s confrontational past. This is a nation that went to war with all its neighbors – Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan and Ethiopia – within seven years of its birth (all at a time when Isaias was not yet paranoid – according to Saleh). And if we go back to the mieda past, we won’t find even a single case where it resolved a festering issue with a peaceful means, be it within itself – Menqae, Yemin, Falul, etc – or without – Jebha, Ethiopia, etc.
  5. Halewa sewra: the security apparatus that has spread its tentacles all over Eritrea now is the exact replica of the Halewa Sewra of the past. The culture of suspicion, lack of rule of law, intimidation, detention, torture and killings that are going on now have been perfected in mieda. After the border crisis, Shaebia changed its gears to its coercive past without a glitch to retrieve all its mechanism of terror, even to the minutest detail of the design of its underground dungeons.
  6. Intolerance to dissident: Those who make the distinction between Shaebia and PFDJ mark the defining moment for this distinction to be the squashing of the G-15 dissent. They forget that what has remained invariant throughout its existence as Shaebia/PFDJ is its ability to devour its dissenters – Menqae, Yemin, Falul and now G-15. What they see as an exception is in fact one instance of a well-established pattern.

Given the overwhelming evidence that is to be found at the surface level, it is amazing to see the tenacity with which Saleh keeps repeating his mantra: It is only Isaias! It is only Isaias!

Demonizing the Warsai generation

Saleh’s fuzzy logic is to be found in every paragraph that he has written. It would require a book to address them line by line. Before I conclude this article though, I would like to say a few words on a subject matter that he is willing to compromise not only his logical but also moral integrity: the demonizing of the Warsai generation, all for the sake ghedli.

Saleh believes that I have found a receptive audience among the young and the disillusioned. Well, the first thing that we have to do is figure out the population group so vulnerable as to be willing to swallow the “toxic brew” that I keep concocting. I am sure that by this vulnerable young generation, he doesn’t mean the YPFDG. The latter group are up to their neck immersed in romanticizing ghedli and hence in tune with Saleh on this critical point. So who could he be pointing his finger at? Well, the only ones left are some of the Warsai generation in Diaspora who, according to him, couldn’t make the distinction between the Isaias regime and ghedli.

In order to make his point, he has to demonize them first: first, he dubs them “Y&D”, hoping to categorically stigmatize them; second, he infantilizes them (“the young”), even though most of this generation are in their 30’s; third, he makes an unjustifiably disillusioned generation out of them, ungrateful of the independence someone else brought them with so much sacrifice; and, fourth, he derogatively labels them (“the Wall Leaners”, among other insunuations).

But the Warsai is the last population group that ought to be accused of having a wrong understanding of ghedli and its teghadelti because they have been living it. Unlike those in Diaspora who are fighting for a bankrupt idea from a distance, the Warsai have the most intimate knowledge of what it is like to be under the terror of ghedli [many of which I have mentioned before]. All the Warsai are asking is to be left alone to live a normal life, as any other human beings in any part of this planet would do. To a generation that has been living under unimaginable horror, to say that they are brats who are disillusioned because Shaebia didn’t put a trust fund for their education is to reach a height of insensitivity I have never seen in Saleh before. How is this supposed to be different from what Isaias has been saying regarding the starving masses: that they are spoiled?

Is Saleh telling us that the Warsai are leaving their country in droves because Shaebia didn’t put a trust fund for their education? If so, perhaps a better comparison would be Ghidewon Abbay, who has been accusing the Warsai generation of abandoning Eritrea for better life in the West. But that would be odd, given what Saleh has to say in response to the involuntary nature of ghedli that I described: “About the Jebha tegadelti and their decision of what to do after they were pushed out to Sudan, he leaves out one critical factor in their decision-making process: the unprecedented generosity of the West and their willingness to accept to exile any Eritrean who happened to be in Sudan at that time …” As usual, he doesn’t seem to understand the implications of his statement on the nature of ghedli. What does it say of those who supposedly chose life over death but when given alternative suddenly chose America over Eritrea – that they were fighting for lack of a better alternative in their personal livelihoods? But if he would believe, like me, that neither ghedli nor national service had any justifiable cause, then it makes sense to abandon both of them for a better alternative. Much more so in the case of Warsai, given the horror of an alternative they had been living under.

Saleh – as many other Eritreans of his ilk do – has developed a huge blind spot for ghedli and, as a result, could only see what glitters. Even the title of his article “The Spark, The Fire and the Torch” has all the promise of a Las Vegas casino – all glitter and no substance. As seen from the above, the logical flaw is as deep as it could possibly get. In each and every instance, whether he is ignoring important distinctions or creating one, he is always fascinated by the technical aspect – be it in the shot that started it all (the spark); in how (as opposed to why) ghedli was conducted, albeit falsely; in how the land was liberated, with no idea what to do with that land once liberated. In all of them, he is reluctant to do some conceptual digging.

It is painful to see an intelligent guy like Saleh Younis torturing himself, going not only through logical but also moral contortions, all to vindicate ghedli. Deep down, I believe that he realizes that if he is going to do what he has got to do, he has to push logic to the sides. But what it lacks in logic, he has to make it up somewhere else; hence the character assassination, the demonizing of the Warsai generation and the naked pandering to nationalists. To borrow the slogan of the pandered upon, I want the original Saleh Younis back – one that was witty, intelligent and honorable.

[I did promise before to post an article on the killings in Eritrea, with a special emphasis on the Kunama massacre at Mai-Dima, but I have been postponing it for obvious reasons. Since it is almost done, I will post it next. After that will follow Part III of “Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice”, where the Muslim-Christian divide, with their defensive identities, will be explored extensively.]

Yosief Ghebrehiwet


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Related Article: (I) Eritrean Independence: Is It Worth All the Sacrifice?