Who dares to disprove our ignorance as we mark its 20th anniversary?
It is unusual for a people to self-criticize. Leaders too do not take to criticizing their people wholesale. More often than not they reckon in terms of their political capital that can keep them in power. It is a rarity to find leaders who take confidence in their critical, measured opinion of their followers when circumstances demand.
If truth be told, I have witnessed this rare quality of public figures in WelWel’s (Welde-ab Weldemariam’s) writings of the 1940s and 1950s. By now you might have noticed from my previous articles my fascination with WelWel. WelWel had in those precarious times the courage and the literary wizardry to tell the Eritrean people of their weaknesses and he also pointed the ways and means. No wonder he enjoyed more than his fair share of enemies and he was not elected in the first round of elections for the first Eritrean Assembly in the Federation period.
Critical interaction depends, among other things, on the presence or absence of a culture of truth-telling in a society. It has also to do with the degree of transparency that exists between the governor and the governed. A point of caution, by criticism I do not mean the culture of criticism and self-criticism which was fashionable in Marxist movements including the Eritrean movements, be it ELF or EPLF, during the field days of the Eritrean struggle. I want to seriously present this caveat because the PFDJ has the habit of laying claim to every fine ideal. It claims to have commenced every venture in Sahel. It is therefore important to guard whatever ideals we bring up for discussion against the usual hijack by the PFDJ and their diehards. It would not be unruly on our part to remind them that their criticism and self-criticism of the old days had to do with grilling the fighters about their day to day relationships and did not permit criticizing the ideology and the overall policies of the liberation front. Why? Because its aim was to instill a sense of grassroots discipline, to give some vent to suppressed feelings, provide a false sense of transparency, and control dissent. It dealt only with the surface issues such as why someone drank from their jug without authorization, why someone tried to date a fellow woman fighter or vice versa, why someone did not speak in fluent Tigrinya but interspersed Amharic or English in their speech, etc. Apart from these trifling matters, it did not have room for thorough and substantive debates on the political and military challenges of the day. Such debates were dismissed as bourgeoisie excesses.
Another proof of the fallacy of the afore-mentioned style of ‘Criticism and Self-criticism’ in the struggle days is the fact that the present regime of PFDJ is not left with a scrap of tolerance towards debate, criticism and transparency. In Eritrea because transparency has long been negated by the present government, a mafia state has developed in the process. The government has made it one of its characteristic hallmarks to call on its population to arms when the latter had no clue of how a war erupted. And for long the majority of the population has been totally credulous and second-guessed its government only after the dear cost in blood, life and property had been paid. One of the dearest lessons we can now learn after years of desolation under the PFDJ is that a government’s word should not be taken at face value. This lesson will have far-reaching ramifications for the future. Governments that come in Eritrea from now on will have a hard time winning the hearts and minds of the people, for in the future the work of a government will be viewed suspiciously, and a government will be thought of as a liability more than an asset.
The government that we have seen in Eritrea for the last two decades has been one versed in subterfuge, lies, unaccountability and let’s not forget its trademark expropriation of people’s money and belongings having been unable to generate income from the country’s rich resources. This kind of regime has totally skewed our attitudes towards the concept of government and ourselves. We have ended up confused of our true identity and what belongs to us and what doesn’t. The government’s propaganda machinery (Dimtsi Hafash, EriTV, Hadas Eritrea in all its versions, Eritrea Profile, Hidri, PFDJ websites, speeches by the president and his lieutenants, pronouncements by loyalist intellectuals, etc) have made it their reason of existence to smother us with messages far removed from the reality and context in which the Eritrean people find themselves. That is why we should not expect such an impostor to tell us the truth regarding ourselves. Our first step then on the road to reclaiming our identity should be the consciousness that we have so far been made to believe the wrong things. It is not unreasonable to celebrate our good and exceptional qualities. But in our case the way we have reveled in our ‘glorious’ past and in our strengths has been so flawed that we have dwelt in the past far removed from the present. This has produced in us fruits of denial while everything around us crumbles. It is high time that we begin to look at ourselves critically. Let’s stop for a moment pointing fingers at others including the swindler in power and deal with ourselves truthfully.
I do not argue that we are intentionally ignorant. For if we were so, we, especially those who are in diaspora, would long have identified the solution; I argue that we have become voluntarily ignorant. A shrewd population under the heavy yoke of cruel leaders usually chooses to be intentionally ignorant until day breaks. But people in similar circumstances as we are now submit their very souls of their own volition to the abracadabra of the leaders and voluntarily become ignorant. In the last twenty years our voluntary ignorance has manifest itself in many countless ways. Only a sample has been given below to take stock of our pitiful selves. After looking at the limited list, I expect that many readers will have their own lists to share and in so doing we will be led to emancipating our caged minds. We should not delay such an exercise for it will help us lay bare the thick darkness that has engulfed us all. Let’s begin the journey.
1. Who are we? Are we, Eritreans, any special from other nations in this world in our physical features, pedigree, intelligence, integrity and the like? Do we have any superior qualities to look down on other societies, be them Africans- by the way we are Africans, which I and you tend to forget so often-, Arabs, Jews, Chinese, Indians, Latin Americans or what have you? Every people has its own virtues and vices. Every people, if they work hard, has the potential to excel. A people that happened to be an underdog at one time can turn out to be a force to reckon with through hard work. For instance, the Ethiopians were the losers in our war of independence. But in the last war we fought over border, they came out victors notwithstanding the huge human and material cost they incurred on themselves. Today they have a superior military capability not to mention their diplomatic and economic supremacy. Hence the times are different today from what they were twenty years ago. But times may not remain as they are now. If we wisely make use of our energies, we will gain the upper hand and the Ethiopians will look up to us. That is the nature of this dynamic world. The Ethiopians have to beware of this timeless principle that is no respecter of people. A defeated party is not bound to remain broken forever. It can reinvent itself through imagination and hard work. And we, the Eritrean people, cannot afford to lose sight of this principle. However, it is never to our advantage to continue gloating over who we think we are. We have mistaken conceit for confidence. In the process, the old adage, “Pride goes before destruction” has been fulfilled on us.
2. On the issue of unity: Our unity has stood the test of time in difficult times for difficult missions as in the thirty year war and the border war with Ethiopia, both on Eritrean soil and away in foreign lands. But our unity has not been tested under the best of times. We have not yet shown whether we will remain united for constructive causes such as freedom from destitution, our shared prosperity, the standing together for liberty and being a voice to the voiceless among us. Our unity has always existed in a context of violence and destruction. Successive generations in Eritrea have given up to an armed struggle all what they had (their lives, youthful years, possessions, with our women giving their treasured jewelry). But all these sacrifices were driven by a passion to see our human enemies vanquished within and on the borders of Eritrea. Our unity is yet to be proven in the field of development and in advancing well being. We have to show whether we can be united for peaceful and beneficial causes. By way of example, let’s take the Germans. The Germans showed in the two world wars that they had the potential of releasing to the world an outrageous amount of evil, having rallied around the destructive cause of brutally crushing and dominating other people in Europe. In the process, they caused tremendous human and material destruction, the death of millions of people. However, there is another side to the Germans’ story. The Germans also showed us that they are a people with an immense potential to get united for innovation, transforming their nation from the ashes of a world war and establishing a just society. Their unity has been demonstrated on two fronts: in bloody wars inspired by people like Hitler and in an antithetical period of building peace and economic miracle. The same thing can be said of the Japanese, who are paragons of technological innovation as the Germans and of managerial savvy. How about us, the Eritrean people? Where are our credentials of constructive unity apart from the unity in the blood stained records of our history?
3. Truly truth-loving? I bet otherwise. We have often hailed ourselves as a truth loving people. The primary recipient of this description have been our tegadelti (fighters) on whom we have bestowed all names that are indicative of uprightness, steadfastness, sense of purpose and other sterling qualities. Let’s look at the present image of tegadelti and the Eritrean public at large. The tegadelti have become a prime example of sadism, greed and surprisingly of double-dealing. Consequently, they have been loathed with as much intensity as they enjoyed our admiration and adoration. But they are not the only morally bankrupt group. We have all fallen to an abysmal level of duplicity, infighting, and betrayal. We have become a people afraid of one another, a people bent on spying on one another, a self-destructive nation. We have become a nation perhaps with the highest number of moles per capita, with the largest number of employees in the active duty of reporting on one another. There are estimates that 60% of taxi drivers in Asmara are government spies (let’s each of us take on the task of verifying this and similar claims). During the last Independence Day anniversary there were more than 40,000 (forty thousand) informants deployed in Zoba Maekel alone. i.e. at least one spy for or in two families in Zoba Maekel. If these had been deployed to offset external threats on the public, it would be a mission worthy of our support. But these spies were mobilized to muffle and haunt the defenseless population. The regime’s perversity is such that even Ethiopians have been forced to go into the security service’s payroll to keep a close eye on the nationals. There are also unconfirmed reports that there is a Special Forces unit in the environs of Asmara composed of Tigreans from Ethiopia (Isaias’ version of mercenaries) to help in an event of uprising by Eritreans. Perhaps Isaias is playing a double-pronged game here. On the one hand, he is determined to sustain his security at any rate. On the other hand, he is intent on creating eternal rift between the Eritreans and the Tigreans. And those Eritreans who have sold themselves to serving this vicious man have simply become instrumental in his repression and relentless grip on power. Many of us are proudly earning a living out of falsely incriminating a fellow citizen to throw them into dark prison cells with no trace. This is one of the strongest testaments to our disunity. Every one of us, the tegadelti, the civilians, you and I alike, has become a liar. And we still claim to have lived up to the decency of our forefathers. If what we are living today is in the footsteps of our forefathers, we have every reason to be skeptical of our ancestors’ legacies and their track records. We need to check if they have passed on to us a gene of self-deception while all has gone wrong.
4. Incompetence for competence? Are we, Eritreans, competent enough in the modern world of globalization? Are we better equipped than other people in our region, if not in other parts of the world, in terms of education, technological know-how, and scientific expertise? Are our doctors, engineers, and other professionals capable of measuring up to the standards of the modern world, of course factoring in the unfavorable situation that exists in our country? This issue of our competence should also be extended to those Eritreans outside the country, because thanks to the PFDJ embassies, consular missions and ever-present festivals, the majority of the diasporic Eritreans have remained on the fringes of their host societies in terms of education and economic status without being able to penetrate into the mainstream sections. How many of the Eritreans in North America, Europe and the Middle East are enjoying the high-end jobs? I had better leave this subject to be addressed more ably by Eritreans living in those places than by someone else like myself locked in Asmara.
5. Sahel, the cradle of Eritrean civilization: Every good thing started in Sahel, goes the official PFDJ version of Eritrean history. They stop at nothing to have us recite that everything from music to painting, from poetry to sculpture, from sports to tourism, from books to education, from libraries to archives, from infrastructure to transport, from health to justice, from vaccination to surgery, from agriculture to mining, from childcare to social welfare and labor relations, from electricity to communications… was pioneered in the blessed womb of Sahel. These are deliberate, though funny, distortions of our history on the part of the PFDJ concocted in their hallucinatory meetings in Nakfa. I have a host of statements and interviews to prove my point. And the recent symposia have capped it all. Who knows tomorrow they might tell us that cappuccino, fashion, art-deco, marriage, religion all started in Sahel. But to go through few of the hitherto-said funny examples:
- On International Postal Day some years ago the then head of the Eritrean Postal Services tried in vain to impress on us that the successes of his organization’s postal services date back to the struggle years when the tegadelti had to exchange mails among their army units. In a word, he said that the mountains of Sahel were the first place in Eritrea to be introduced to modern postal service. However, thanks to the Italians the year 1916 in which postal service was launched in Eritrea has been inscribed on the ceiling of the central post office in Asmara for everyone to see.
- Very recently, only a fortnight ago, the new minister of trade and industry sent us aghast as he gave his official version of the industrial and trade history of Eritrea. He said, I translate from Hadas Ertra of April 26, 2011, Volume 20, No. 228, page 10, column 2, “At independence we inherited forty state enterprises and six hundred private companies. But these were totally dilapidated. As far as trade was concerned, companies existed only on license certificates. Hence, as a starting point we drew on the experiences of the field. Because in the field staunch effort had been exerted in the areas of trade and industry. As of 1975 we had plants that produced for domestic consumption and supplied the market (Which market did he actually mean?). Similar achievements were made in the area of trade by tapping national and international markets. (Which market is he referring to?)” He went on and on to make his baseless case.
- Shall I add a third funny story? In 2009 the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW) celebrated its 30th anniversary. The venue of the anniversary was the NCEW’s headquarters in Asmara. Do you have any idea about this particular building? It was the very first head office of the Eritrean Workers Union during the days of the British Administration. By 2009, it should have celebrated close to sixty years of history. But we are told by the PFDJ that workers union has been in existence in Eritrea for only thirty years. Let’s ask few questions about the ’30-years-old confederation’. Were there employed workers in the field in Sahel? Were there labor codes? How about the tripartite relationship among the government, the employer and the employee? Who was the employer? What forms of labor agreement, pay system, benefits, insurance, allowance, per diem, leave, termination, compensation, etc existed in the ‘entrepreneurial’ days of the field? Was the International Labor Organization cognizant of this Eritrean Workers Confederation nestled in the caves of Sahel? If the PFDJ tried to claim that its workers association was meant to embrace the Eritrean workers who during the struggle lived and worked abroad or under the Derg totally out of the front’s sphere of influence, that claim would be all the more scandalous and unheard of. To shed light on some historical facts: the first national workers union known by its official name as the Syndicate of Free Eritrean Workers was established in December 1952 having had legal recognition previously of the British Administration and then of the Federal Eritrean Government (Eritrean Studies Review, Volume 2, No. 1, Spring 1997 as presented in the paper entitled “Eritrean Workers’ Organization and early nationalist mobilization 1948 – 1958” by Dr. Tom Killion) and having established liaison with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (FEDERESHN ERTRA MIS ETIOPIA KAB MATIYENSO KSAB TEDLA 1951 – 1955, 2005, ALEMSEGED TESFAI, PAGE 313). In the years after 1952 the Eritrean workers commemorated their annual holiday in December. Dr. Tom Killion did his Ph. D. dissertation at Stanford University in 1985 on the history of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Labor Movements covering extensively the history of the Syndicate of Free Eritrean Workers. This syndicate was one of the first of its kind in Africa (Eritrea: A Pawn in World Politics, 1991, Ogbazghi Yohannes, page 15). But now the PFDJ is telling us our institutions and for that matter our civilization started in the mountains and gorges of Sahel, far away from the Eritrean heartland. What a distortion of history and a war that has long been unleashed on our minds!
6. Why have we been in love with Isaias our archenemy? Has Isaias done anything good to us? Does his good outweigh his evil deeds? Are we sure his physical looks have not held sway on our vulnerable minds (particularly on the minds of our poor mothers, both inside and outside Eritrea, and their toy organization the National Union of Eritrean Women)? Why do we measure Isaias’ leadership by the khakis or safari suits he has worn; by the treks he has taken across farms; his frequent visits (no more frequent these days) to popular pubs like Ritta’s Beilul, Tre Stelle, Enda Sellie, Bar Ferrovia etc; by his casual remarks to foreign leaders and international media? And not by the fruits of his leadership such as the exile of thousands of young and old citizens; the fact that market prices have been skyrocketing for over a decade now and he has proven incapable of reversing them; we don’t have food on our tables; begging on the streets and among neighborhoods has become our way of life; the acute and worsening housing problem because of which people are forced out of their homes in the cities and towns to go back to their home villages. In other countries people flock from the villages to the cities for better living and services brought about by urbanization. In our case the reverse has been true every since the PFDJ held the reins of power. Shall we call that ruralization or primitivism or counter-urbanization or what? The flow towards villages is not because the regime has developed the rural areas as it maintains to be doing, but because people have not been able to cope with the ever spiraling cost of living in the towns and cities.
The regime is in the business of selling false hope and disinformation to the population. It plays a game of deceiving one part of the country which has not enjoyed development to be delighted at the prospect of another part which itself is suffering heavily. The game is repeated on different regions so that people would think their losses have been gains to the regions outside their own. While citizens are continually suffering from every shortage under the sun, Isaias’ government works primarily to ensure timely delivery of gas and fuel to expatriates inside Eritrea and at times to our gullible Beles (the Eritreans from the diaspora visiting Eritrea often during the summer). While the country is endowed with natural resources, Isaias is not able to tap into its riches for our use. To give a simple example, eating fish has become a delicacy obtained after weeks of anticipation and hours of long queues. I myself have forgotten that we have a good chunk of the Red Sea in our territory.
Isaias has told us for years that he is making every possible effort to give us food self-sufficiency. Let alone food self-sufficiency, he is not even any closer to food security (in my elementary understanding of the two concepts, self-sufficiency is ability to grow our own food and food security is access to food by buying it with income from other sources). As a matter of fact, he confused food self-sufficiency and food security in his latest TV interview on April 29, 2011 in which he declared shamelessly that unless we produce we will not eat and we will continue to starve. In Isaias’ world of austerities, he who doesn’t produce sugar shouldn’t take a spoonful of it. Has he produced any sugar to merit the three spoonfuls of sugar EriTV told us he added into his cup of coffee during the recent interview?
In this interview, he also lectured the whole world (particularly the oil producing nations) that every nation has to produce all its needs and should never trust in its money to purchase commodities. Here is a man who is daydreaming of a world with no trade among nations, with no buying and selling among societies including among individuals of a single nation. To use his lopsided logic, in hindsight even the old bartering system was totally flawed. To him what the World Trade Organization (WTO), COMESA and other bodies are doing to foster trade among nations is simply a total blunder and hence a waste of time and resources. To Isaias the old and the modern are equally nonsensical. In spite of his dreamland, however, what Isaias has achieved is ensuring that every one of us doesn’t get more than one loaf of bread a day, which by the way we get only if the bakeries work without suffering power cuts.
Why is it then that we, the Eritrean people, cannot tell between void promises and deliverables? Why are we blind to distinguishing between interminable activities the leader narrates in his interviews and speeches and the actual results in our lives? Is it a matter of lack of education on our part or willful ignorance? (Some people suggest that in addition to his people’s naivety and his state apparatus that is bent on cultivating Isaias’ personality cult, there is an element of witchcraft at work for him).
Another important observation is that Isaias indulges in petty activities such as paying a visit to a pub or to Adey Hansu’s garden only in an effort to make up for his lack of confidence in his job. He should have left the farm visits to the community leaders. However, he is such an ineffective leader that he tries hard to cover his failures by way of meddling in other people’s affairs, wasting time out of his office and out of his stated scope of work, hanging out with the second-rate singers in town, going to social functions, and what not. That is him! But how about us, the people who have kept on assuming that all these years he has been laboring and sweating for our sake, while our lives have simply been taking a nosedive? Many a time I wonder, after all the ill treatment that we have received in Isaias’ hands, if we have really given up on him. What if Isaias comes out a victor in the current volatile situation, or he triumphs in an imminent war with Ethiopia? Are we sure we will not applaud him, thumb him up again? Is our difference with him today on grounds of principle? Are we genuinely for change, for a better and freer life?
7. Why do we tend to equate Isaias’ presidency to those of Barak Obama and leaders of other countries? Isaias has not been able to feed and manage a small population that is utmost five million strong. For instance Obama presides over a nation of three hundred million people, without mentioning the billions of people across the globe looking to his leadership in one way or the other. In other countries of the world, including our next-door neighbor Ethiopia, Isaias is the equivalent of a province administrator, in some places possibly a district chief. Men, we are being administered by a district or utmost a provincial governor. But this is only by virtue of our sheer number. It is not our own making. However, it has offered us a comparative advantage by which we should have emulated by now the Singaporeans or the Qataris owing to our huge fish resources and strategic ports. We should now hold Isaias responsible for not making the most out of our fortunes and advantages to overtake in no time other more populous nations or nations of similar economic standing.
8. Isaias, the unabashed liar. In fact one of the most shameful reasons today in being an Eritrean is that we have a president who is as unabashed a liar as Isaias. He doesn’t bother to make good on his promises because first he is a pathological liar and second he has got an eternally foolhardy people. Remember his 1991 declaration that the EPLF will be disbanded after the 1993 referendum to give way to divergent political views; to fast-forward to the recent past remember his 2002 commitment that the Yikealo Warsay Campaign will last only two years and that conscripts will receive wages; remember his January 2005 remarks that the shortage of hard currency in the country would be resolved once and for all in a year; on the subject of his enemies’ fate his claim in 2005 that the Woyanes had entered their 11th hour and 59th minute; his May 2009 assertion during an interview with foreign journalists that the Eritrean people are 100% employed (we have beaten the Germans, the Japanese, every nation on this planet by achieving a zero unemployment. The world has a lot to learn from us and failing to do so will be at its own peril); Isaias’ 2009 pronouncement that there will not be hunger the next year, 2010, which came and has already gone never to return; his 2011 New year plan of action which purported to construct housing units across the country in one year, but here we are into the fifth month in a year of twelve months. Let alone to finish any housing units, he has not even managed to get them off the ground. Notice particularly his 2009 verdict on hunger, which definitively stated to wipe out hunger in one year. This is the same man who in the same year accused his needy people of indulgence. By his own admission then hunger had existed well before his denial of its existence and before he lashed out at his hungry people. Now we have come to realize that his problem is clearly the lack of understanding of basic concepts and terminologies. The truth is in Eritrea hunger exists as late as May 2011 and is being catered to through begging and internal displacement. And if he had vowed to eliminate the hunger God created as a regular human sensation, that hunger is still within and around us. Isaias, leave alone to subdue our natural hunger, he has not even dealt with the extreme hunger. Perhaps the debate I have been anticipating on EriTV between he and I is nearer than ever before. And it will focus on mood swings, terminologies of economics and economic policies, and of course on why he blames the Woyanes for all his incompetence. And, I am sure, he will reply with the simile, ‘As Israel is to the Arabs, so are the Woyanes to us’.
To be continued…