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“No Problem. Any Time.”

Shigir yelen: abzkone gzie.

Those were the last words of President Isaias Afwerki in his “interview” with Shaebia.org staff.  Some hyper eager folks have called Isaias Afwerki Eritrea’s “George Washington.”  Actually, they should call him Eritrea’s first Sahel-bred person who speaks Tigrigna as if English is his first language.

Offered thanks, a Tigrigna-speaking Eritrean might say “genzebkum”, or “yeQenyeley.”  But it takes a president with a weird sense of identity to say “shigir yelen.  Abzkone gzie.”  Is this worth mentioning? Well, yes, because the Isaias groupies are forever trying to convince us of his command of the Tigrigna language, a beautiful language that he and his cohorts are doing everything they can to strip it of all it soul.

Of course, everyone understands that language evolves and borrows and adapts from other languages.  Tigrigina, like most “Third world” languages, cannot offer native equivalent to abstract concepts and words introduced by advanced technology and sciences.  Given this, PFDJ is forgiven when it comes up with word-for-word translations for things like “infrastructure” (tiHti qrSi).   But PFDJ is also on a mission to replace “value-laced” words and replace them with “value-neutral” words.  A friend who shares my misgivings about this campaign points out a good example.  The Tigrigna phrase for “under-age”, for example, is “Aqmi Adam zeybetSHe.”   A curious Eritrean who asks for the origin of this phrase is going to be told about Adam (which is hard to do without mentioning the Bible or the Quran.)  So, the PFDJ wise guys came up with a substitute phrase for “under age”: the decidedly borrowed and offensive “tiHti Edme.”

Back to the “interview” with Shaebia.org.

good old Salome. She made us crack up back then. “maybe between 1000 or 1million eritreans were killed in this round of war, I think only 5 or 6 ethiopians were killed” that sounds like something she would have said. At least ethiopians are funny when they lie, our president’s technique of lying is to talk so slow and be so boring that we ppl fall asleep and miss his speech. – Unregistered, Awate Forums, 2/16/2003

I think the writer above is on to something.   Many well-meaning “friends” nag me about yet another interview Isaias Afwerki gives and, despite my better judgment, I fall for their nagging and I always regret it. The pitch is always the same: “You gotta watch his interview with Dubai, with Al Jezeera, with Middle East News, it is your ‘journalistic’ duty…” There was one he gave some Arab TV station around Ramadan (which I finally got around to watching.) The monotone, the bold-faced and repeated falsehoods, the tired voice… I did fall asleep.  When I woke up, the Arab journalist was still squeaking his questions and Isaias was still droning his monotone…

The Shaebia.org interview had to be different, I thought.  After all, the website’s editor-in-chief, our old friend Elias Amare, is a product of American culture where journalists are aggressive; they ask follow-up questions and they actually take their responsibility to inform the public seriously.  Elias threw so many soft balls I thought the interview was being conducted by Mustapha Nurhussein, Gash-Barka’s Governor and one of the confirmed members of “Fedayeen Isaias”: a soulless group that have concluded they are dark and lifeless entities whose only goal in life is to reflect the light of wedi afom.  To restore my faith in Eritrean journalism, I had to go back to read back issues of Keste Debena, Tsigennai, Meqaleh, Setit from the Eritrean spring (2000-2001) era.  What a great season.  My favorite begins with Qestedebena’s “National Congress Before Party Formation”, an article penned by the great patriot, Dr. Taha Mohammed Nur.  (February 12, 2001); then “Seb zfelto dqala Haniqk’n aytQtela” (Don’t strangulate a well-known bastard) by Tesfai Berhane;  “If You Stumble Upon A Rock Twice, You, Too, May Be A Rock (Tsehaye Welderufael);  Meqaleh’s “The President Has No Legal Authority To Fire A Minister” (Abraham, from Asmara University); Meqaleh’s “To abscond from your responsibility and to rush for authority is not acceptable now” [Mehretab Kidane (Akla)] And so on.  This was a unique time when people like General Oqbe Abraha could defend themselves against defamations that appeared in the government press (Hadas Ertra) by publishing well-articulated arguments in the private papers (Qestedebena.)

It is to cure this “chaos” and preserve the megaphone of the repressive PFDJ that the private press was killed.  So now we are sentenced to a life of ironies: one where people who have never served their country (other than in a capacity of a vacationing patriot) accuse those who have of treason; one where defending suppression and oppression is considered nationalism and defending civil liberties is considered defeatism.

History is a great equalizer.  Years from now, when our grandchildren are reviewing this period, there is no doubt in my mind that the heroic journalists and writers for Eritrea’s private press will earn their rightful place as indispensable state-builders; the current tyrants and bullies and their cheerleaders will be scorned and people will shake their heads in disgust as they utter their names.

Come back home, Elias.

The Myth Maker

The other part of the “interview” that shouldn’t be forgotten is that it was a doomed interview.  By that, I mean that even if the questions were remotely challenging, Isaias would have persisted in giving boring-to-tears answers to them.   This is because he has nothing but contempt for local media, including the government-owned-media.  He said as much in the only interview he gave the private press in 2001.  Dimtsi Hafash is boring; Hadas Ertra is boring.  He gets his news from the BBC (Arabic Service) and other international media sources.   And, if you noticed, the only quotable things Isaias ever says appear in the international media.

The latest one is the interview with the Atlantic Monthly’s incomparable Robert Kaplan.  Years before the Internet appeared and the only way to archive data was to copy print news clippings, many of us used to carry an old copy of the Atlantic’s field visit to Eritrea in the mid-1980s.  That was the article that marveled at underground hospitals, aspirin factories and called Eritreans the “Israelis of Africa.” (The latter was meant as a compliment; although, I am sure, many of the “Zionism this, imperialism that” pan-African, “Free Palestine” Eritrean intelligentsia, like our friend Elias, wasn’t flattered by the comparison.) Kaplan’s follow-up doesn’t tell us whatever happened to many of the people who were responsible for the underground hospitals and aspirin factories…

Kaplan’s 2003 profile of Eritrea and Isaias has won accolades from unlikely sources, including Eritrea’s newest ally, Indiana’s Congressman Dan Burton who submitted the article for the record in the Congress.   Mr Burton is famous for two things: firing a gun in his backyard to “prove” that a Clinton aide, Vincent Foster, didn’t commit suicide but was actually murdered by Clinton; and being one of the loudest critics of Bill Clinton’s philandering ways while he himself, it later turned out, was the father of seb zfelTo dKala.  A verifiable gasbag and a militant Christian fundamentalist extraordinaire is Isaias’s recent fan.

The favorite pastime of my friend and colleague, Saleh Gadi, is to make fun of Muammer Kaddaffi, Libya’s Brother Leader.  Say what you will about Kaddaffi, Abu Selah, but at least he has a guiding principle, articulated in a book, The Green Book.  The man has theories (ok, they are kooky but at least he has thought about them) regarding how society should be organized: economically, socially, politically, culturally.   In contrast, our own Brother Leader, Isaias Afwerki, has no core values or political ideology, unless you count “winning” a political ideology.  He is, as correctly observed by Kaplan, a prisoner of “realism”: fearful of possibilities because they are not controllable.  This fear and mistrust of everything causes him to take tiny turtle like steps—forward steps he immediately regrets and forces him to retreat to his shell while he assesses reactions.  Then he takes reckless steps, often disastrous, which are always blamed on someone else.

Everything Kaplan finds admirable about Eritrea is attributable to the Eritrean people: Isaias did not shape up a criminal society; we were always law-abiding; Isaias did not bring order out of chaos; we were always orderly.  Everything that is wrong with Eritrea—including many that Kaplan never bothered to find out because his sources were government officials and diplomats—are there because Isaias and the regime he represents don’t have the vision, the willingness, the capacity to solve them.

The Real Psychological Warfare

The argument, as advanced by the PFDJ-loyalists, goes something like this: there are Eritreans (a handful) who are engaged in portraying the government and the head of state in the most negative manner.  Their intent is to divide the people from the government; their motivation is to serve the Ethiopian government and other external enemies.  In short, they are engaged in psychological warfare.  Therefore, considering the source and considering their motivation, everything they have said, everything they are saying and everything they are going to say about the government of Eritrea is nothing but lies and should not be believed.  If you so much as consider it as even possibly true, then we have to conclude that you too are either a naive fool or an accomplice.  As a matter of fact, since we have made you aware of this conspiracy for over a year now, we are no longer willing to consider the possibility that you are a naive fool: you are an accomplice.  Desist now.  Or else…

Obviously, this argument should not sway anyone unless his or her mental status is that of a person who is tiHti Edme.  Now really.   I think I am considered an actor in this so-called psychological warfare but I had nothing to do with Isaias telling Robert Kaplan the following:

“If you just leave us alone, we will handle these matters in a way that won’t damage our bilateral relationship and won’t embarrass us or you.” He indicated that he would be more likely to satisfy U.S. demands on human rights in the context of a growing military partnership, but would not do so if merely hectored by the State Department.

Every wound the government and its head suffer from are self-inflicted.  Beyond that, consider what the prez is saying.  If the United States government agrees to establish a base in Massawa or Assab and pours on massive capital infusion, Isaias will entertain the possibility of treating his own citizens with their God-given rights of due process; if, on the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t deliver and Colin Powel keeps “embarrassing” and “hectoring” him, then, they will just rot in jail.  And that is that.

This is the sort of blackmail that was explicitly delivered and is now part of the record of US Congress, courtesy of Dan Burton.  And this is the sort of blackmail that is implicitly delivered to Eritrean citizens: behave, keep your mouth shut and may be, just may be, Isaias Afwerki will find a way to bestow kindness and release your family from the dungeons they are in.

People I admire, people who know well the psychology of a tyrant, actually bought this blackmail and recently asked the tyrant for clemency and mercy.  My question to them: can they recall of a SINGLE time when a tyrant has listened to appeals for mercy and compassion?  Why, then, do they empower him and play into his sadist hands?

Pax Americana

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll, 72% of Americans support the war in Iraq.  But.  According to the same poll, 61% of black Americans oppose the war in Iraq.  Where do Eritrean-Americans fit in this?

No reliable poll on this but I suspect the majority are opposed and here’s the anecdotal evidence.  First, there is the selective news bias.  If one samples the Iraq-related news that is posted at Eritrean websites (Dehai, Asmarino, etc), it is almost always the kind of news that is provided by lefties: either conspiratorial (this war is about oil!) or anti-Bush.  In fact, the most news posting in Dehai was when there was, for a nano-second, a lull in the war and the daggers were all out on Rumsfeld for the alleged “screw-ups.” Vietnam! Quagmire!

Second, there are Eritreans who participated in the anti-war rallies.  At least they thought they were anti-war rallies: once there, they had to endure the usual freak show of tree-huggers, nudists, and transvestites.

Third, there are the news clippings that are forwarded to me by well-meaning (but always wrong) lefties: how Rumsefeld & His Cabal Want To Control The World or something like that.  In this worldview, everything that is wrong with the world is either the work of Satan or the United States.  In some people’s mind, there is no difference between the two.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I support the war against Iraq, which, in reality, is the war against Saddam.  Whenever I read about how Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative friends plan to rearrange the entire Middle East by toppling the regime in Iraq, then maybe Syria and then maybe Iran—news that is supposed to spread fear and loathing—I actually root for it and pray it happens.   Here’s why the Rumsfeld Doctrine, if executed, would be the best thing to happen to the Arab world and, by extension, to the Third World.

First, the war, when waged, would not be against Iraq, Syria or Iran.  It would be against three regimes that have installed themselves by force and refused to leave.  The regimes gain their legitimacy and stronghold on power by terrorizing their people.  With Saddam out of the limelight, I asked a friend who he thought was running Iraq now.  His answer, “BeAl Tesfai iyom Adi yemeHadro zelewu.” (Tesfai is one of the wahyo leaders of our local Eritrean “community.” With Saddam gone, it was the “Bath Party” bullies running the show, waving pictures of Saddam and urging people to fight not for the motherland but for Saddam.)

Second, the principle of “non-intervention in the internal affairs,” originally designed to protect against state-on-state encroachment and violation of sovereignty, has devolved into a tenure-protection racket for tyranny.  Once in power, tyrants use this clause to discourage and dissuade other nations from coming to the rescue of their oppressed people.  It is the principle of “non-intervention” that gave us Rwanda; it is the principle of “non-intervention” that allowed first Haile Selasse and then Mengistu to terrorize Eritreans.  There is so much advance in war technology that entrenched tyrants can effectively obliterate any armed and home-bred opposition.  Consider the case of the Kurds in Iraq or the case of Southern Sudanese in Sudan where the central government uses the oil wealth of the opposition’s home to buy sophisticated weaponry to destroy them.  The odds are strongly stacked against legitimate, home-grown opposition and they need a strong ‘zerai’ to advance their cause.

Third, we are in a unique phase of world history.   The only superpower in the world is not only capable but willing to pay the price (including blood and tears) to advance a cause that serves the interest of the poor and the oppressed.  The paleo conservatives Americans (like Buchanan) are isolationists: they believe the world is too filthy and unworthy of American blood.   The liberals and “progressives” are too idealistic and unreal: they believe that if we could just “talk” and “negotiate” with people like Saddam, there would be peace and tranquility in the world.  The neo cons seem to have a perfectly realistic understanding of the world: the majority of the world’s population live under tyranny.  If we could just remove the most offensive ones, then the rest will either mend their ways or will be isolated.

Imagine a world with no Saddam, no Assad, a world where power is tipped in favor of the reformers in Iran; a world where the Saudi monarchy collapses; a world where all the Arab tyrants whose torture chambers create and nurture the fundamentalist movements collapses…What part of that is not attractive?

I called Rumsfeld to thank him for his vision and to persist on its execution.  He said, “No Problem.  Any Time.”

There are two unattractive things about Pax Americana.  First, there is civilian casualty.  I think any fair-minded person (except people watching wall-to-wall coverage in AlJezeera or Abu Dhabi TV) will conclude that the war is being waged in a manner to inflict the least amount of casualty.   Second, there is the possibility or Pretender Regional Superpowers who will now say to themselves, “if American can start a ‘pre-emptive’ strike against its enemies, why not me?” Answer: those nations with a proclivity to do that will do it regardless whether the US does it or not.  And, unless they are permanent members of the UN Security Council, they will still be slapped when they do that.

Back To Badme

Right after Eritreans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ethiopia (1993), the usual assortment of Ethiopian militants were haranguing Meles Zenawi for acquiescing to Eritrean referendum without consulting Ethiopians.  Meles responded that he was not going to wage war against Eritreans to change their minds but that if they, the militants, wanted to do so, “mengedun Cherk yarg’lach’hu”: good luck and have a nice trip.

Now that the Boundary Commission has verified what Eritreans (some of us loudly and repeatedly) have been saying all along, that Badme is part of Eritrea, the usual agitators are clamoring for belligerence and, this time, Meles is not saying “Cherk yargalach’hu” but “cherK yarglachn.”  The Ethiopian Government has assumed its familiar dual-tongue approach befitting a Federal Democratic Government: its central government says militant things and its Tigray regional government says dangerous things.

There are Ethiopians who argued, all along, that the Algiers Agreement is not in the best interest of Ethiopia: that Ethiopia should not have accepted an agreement which used “colonial treaties and applicable international law” as a basis for resolving a border dispute.  But the Algiers agreement was a culmination of various prior proposals including the “US-Rwanda” proposal, the Framework Agreement, the Modalities and the Technical Arrangement (and the short-lived Consolidated Technical Arrangement) all of which used “colonial treaties and applicable international law” as the basis for conflict resolution.  The Algiers Agreement was signed by Ethiopia when it was in the best negotiation position: after the May 2000, when it had, by all accounts except those of PFDJ loyalists, won the war and, for evidence, was occupying large uncontested Eritrean territory.  It cannot claim that it signed the Agreement under duress; anymore than it can say that the colonial treaties were signed while Ethiopia was under duress because, as the Boundary Commission correctly pointed out, Ethiopia, having decisively beat the Italians, negotiated the treaty fairly and squarely.

There are also Ethiopians who argue that based on the Algiers Agreement Ethiopia could still have been awarded Badme, had it not been for the incompetence of its government.  For evidence, they point out to the Commission’s notes that Ethiopia presented inconsistent maps; did not present strong evidence that its administration of Badme was sufficient in scope to offset the Eritrean evidence, etc.  This is a possibility.  But isn’t there another possibility: that no matter how many lawyers Ethiopia hired, no matter how great they are, the evidence presented by Eritrea was stronger?  That Badme, notwithstanding all the heartbreaking stories of families that will be uprooted, separated, etc, is truly Eritrean territory?

In the Central Zone, many Eritreans—including the government—believe that Eritrea has “lost” territories that are truly Eritrean.  Should Eritreans now ask for “considerations” and “interpretations” or ask that the Algiers Agreement be made null and void because it was negotiated while Ethiopia was occupying sovereign Eritrean territory and we were under duress?

It is fair for Ethiopians to hold their government accountable: particularly TPLF officials (including its Foreign Minister) who celebrated too early (April 2002) that they have been awarded “Badme and every disputed territory.”  But it is not fair to punish Eritreans for the failings of your government, particularly when you were encouraging your government to execute a war over land that was never yours to begin with.

It is in the interest of Eritreans and Ethiopians to consider the matter closed now and to concentrate on worthwhile efforts that alleviate the pain and suffering of our people.  Demagoguery is not one of them.

About Salyounis

Saleh Younis (SAAY) has been writing about Eritrea since 1994 when he published "Eritrean Exponent", a quarterly print journal. His writing has been published in several media outlets including Dehai, Eritrean Studies Review, Visafric, Asmarino and, of course, Awate where his column has appeared since the launch of the website in 2000. Focusing on political, economic, educational policies, he approaches his writing from the perspective of the individual citizens' civil liberties and how collectivist governments and overbearing organizations trample all over it in pursuit of their interests. SAAY is the president and CEO of a college with a focus in sound arts and video games and his writing often veers to music critique. He has an MBA from Golden Gate University and a BA from St Mary's College.

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