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At The Crossroad (3rd & Final Part)

‘’They are capable of loving only the dead.’’ A. Pushkin

The new mantra for the just ended 21st Anniversary of Massawa’s liberation goes: ‘’Fenkel: Apiary of Eritrea’s Independence’’. Sounds cute and clever. Full of meaning. Intelligent. Nationalistic. I am sorry if I am being a spoiler, but frankly, after twenty years of listening to this and other same sounding loaded and unintelligible words, repeated ad-nauseatum in the many such festivals crowding our calendar, my system has become deadened, dumb and deaf! Again sorry for my bad mood, but I am finding these words tiresome, stupid and sarcastic. It’s like telling an increasing line of hungry people queuing for bread to go and try eating cake for a change.

It’s 2011, and almost 20 years after our Independence a monolithic system in our country is still incredibly persisting in enacting rendition after rendition of its old campaigns, refighting its old battles and wars, and drunkenly savoring its old glories.

Let’s ask loudly the following simple questions: what is there to celebrate about after all if the hard fought war of Independence has so far failed to deliver on its promises of liberty and freedom? What is there to be festive about if Eritrea’s whole population is so far denied the very basic freedoms for which it fought for-the freedom to worship, think, write, dissent, gather, move, travel, work…? What is there to feel good about when we still have a home born dictatorship that in some aspects is worse than Eritrea’s former colonizers? What is there to brag about when 20 years after its liberation Eritrea still has no constitution or constitutional democracy and it is still being run like a ‘’nanny-state’’ subject to the whims of a ‘’lumpen militariat”? …or was it that our Independence was an end by itself, and not a means to an end?

Twenty years on, and we are still stranded at this ill fated cross road. A few apologists of the system are continuing to cling to their ideas of a benevolent despotism (or is it enlightened paternalism?) and continuing to be myopic in the face of its glaring deficits. The opposition camp is still as divided as ever and failing to strike a common platform. And the majority of us are finding it convenient to keep our silence.

Currently, the only area where Eritreans can share their feelings, emotions, views, ideas and philosophies is the cyberspace, and this same virtual space is home to every kind of speech: lethal, offensive, false, pathetic, constructive, and innovative. And, in this last part of my unduly prolonged series, I intend to do just that by sharing my views and beliefs on how we can break a national inertia and move forward on the path of nation building, and thus starting to repay our heavy obligation to our tens of thousands of martyrs. Christian, Muslim, or animist, and whether affiliated or unaffiliated across party lines, our martyrs, who were cut short in their prime so that we can live as free men, will always remain cherished and revered by current and future generations, because they are the real saint patrons of Eritrea; and, the least we can do to repay their great service is to move forward by sharing their ideals for us.

A Little Poem for our Leaders

A 16th c poet by the name of Lao Tzu left the following few words for posterity:

True leaders are hardly known to their subjects;
Next after them are the leaders people know and admire;
After them, those they fear;
After them, those they despise.

A few weeks back you might have noticed a whole nation and the whole world pause for a few brief minutes to kneel down and pray silently so that a frail 92 years old black man in a Johannesburg hospital can get back to his feet quickly. He did recover and was discharged after a two day stay in the hospital. May the Almighty God grant him another 100 years! In case you missed that news, the old man I mentioned above is Nelson Mandela, a retired simple government servant of South Africa.

I wish I had the same feelings for my leaders. They were so deserving of canonization, but somewhere along the line they stumbled; and, instead of recovering their balance and reorienting their ways for the general good of the public, they have gambled away their trust and lost the chance of ascension into sainthood. And, currently, if we are to run a litmus test on our society in order to gauge its emotional reaction towards its own leaders, I am afraid that the spectrum will show either fear or contempt.

And nations in the Arab world which for decades have gone into sleep trembling with fear at night are suddenly waking up in the morning no longer fearful. Contempt has taken the place of fear, they are finding out. For 18 incredible days, at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in Alexandria, in Suez, and all over Egypt a whole nation miraculously changed. Hundreds of thousands of police tried to quell this suddenly rejuvenated zombie that was acting ‘’unruly’’; tear gas canisters, water cannon, Molotov cocktails, and even live ammunition were fired at this reawakened giant; and tanks were brought out and fighter jets shrieked overhead threateningly. But the whole population of that ancient country was reborn, exorcised of fear, and it has become one organism, a tidal wave, a colossal and monstrous threatening force that no amount of lethal force can subdue; and, for 18 memorable days this demographic tsunami murmured one chant: “down with the dictator”. And in its incredible discipline and stamina it showed it will not settle for anything less than its one chant: “down with the dictator”.  And inexorably and inevitably another dictator had been thrown into the increasing thrash heap of disgracefully unseated dictators. Simply magnificent!

As I write this, next door in Libya another dictator not worth mentioning his name here is mortally wounded, but he is still writhing viciously and unleashing deadly firepower on his unarmed subjects. What he has forgotten is that others have tried that and utterly failed.

For some time now some writers have been discussing the possibility of similar scenarios unfolding in our country. All the necessary ingredients for such eventuality are there, starting from the socio-economic to political injustices; and the overwhelming young and dynamic population in our country will not attribute the prevailing social injustices to the designs of a Divine Providence or try to seek a metaphysical connection for his or her bad circumstance. But while the political changes they bring are desirable, such kind of seismic shifts in power are also inherently unstable, and the changes they bring are also unpredictable, and sometimes quite dangerous.

But I do hope fervently that Eritrea’s dictators have had much to learn from these events, and instead of trying to build yet more fortifications around their palaces which have already enough perimeter built by blast walls and ‘’decorated’’ by barbed wire, they should instead start to make amends. As they say better late than never, but before it becomes too late.

And the only way to make amends is by taking the following simple and realistic measures:

  • Release all prisoners of conscience
  • Immediately start to curb outsize political patronage of the legal and judicial system, and the practicing of arbitrary power
  • Bring our laws to the level of universal standards
  • Immediately start to engage the opposition, civic societies, and other dissenting voices
  • Start the process of drafting a new Constitution that has the agreement and blessing of a representative cross-section of Eritrea’s society, a constitution that increases minority rights and has a broad political consensus

The Silent, Vocal And Armed Opposition

Truth is generally seen, the sages of old say. And, as we are preparing to celebrate our 20th Anniversary of Independence, one of the unpalatable and tragic truths is that over 500 unaccompanied Eritrean children, their age ranging from 6 up to 14, are currently sheltered at the UNHCR run refugee camp for Eritreans in Mai-Ayni, near the small town of Mai-Tsemri, in Tigray’s western lowlands. What could be the reason that these hundreds of children are living at this barren, arid, hot and malaria infested area far away from the warm and comfortable confines of home and parents? These delicate young creatures, tender of heart, bone and flesh, some still with fresh holes in their mouth where their milk teeth had been, should be attending kindergarten and elementary school, and they should be sleeping comfortably at their beds listening to the gentle lullaby of their mothers instead of spending tormented nights disturbed by the demonic buzzing of blood hungry mosquitoes.

But destiny has brought these future generations of Eritrea’s engineers, scientists, economists, physicians, philosophers and teachers to this camp at Mai-Ayni to lead the miserable and harsh life of a refugee that even an adult cannot tolerate. Why? It will be crude, harsh and uncaring to label these innocent young angels as delinquent runaways. And they are not! Why then?

While you ponder for possible answers to my question, I want to remind you that many of us may agree or disagree on so many issues. But there are certain truths that we cannot suppress or circumvent, or just simply will away. And so let’s not allow our separateness and isolation from each other, geographic, cynical or otherwise, and our frenetic hunt for relaxation and merry making with little regard for the concerns of others, to cloud our capacity for empathy to our fellow country men and women, and especially to our children.

When mentioning the silent majority, let’s not also forget our religious and moral leaders. It is often said that a religious harmony reigns over Eritrea, where the chiming church bells and lilting voice of the Muezzin chanting Koranic Suras create a harmonious ecumenical duet over villages, towns and cities across the wide expanse and breadth of our country. It is time too that our religious leaders raise their voice with moral indignity and in unity. With love, charity, humility, and grace for all, it is high time that the religiously motivated translate their motives into universal, rather than religious specific values. It is also high time that they start to shun an unhealthy and unreligious political influence besmirching their façade by starting to fight in unison for a secular and pluralistic society.

Finally, it is also my belief that the opposition groups should also have much to learn from the recent events in the Arab world. It wasn’t the influence of organized political groups that whipped up this demographic tsunami that is engulfing entrenched dictatorships up to the Red sea coast. And, although much of Eritrea’s population is uneducated, poor, disorganized, and often prey to an emotional and romantic form of politics, these recent events should make it clear that it could too become a unified force to reckon with. And the fractious opposition could ill afford to continue as such, by continuing to tear each other down; or else it risks getting engulfed by unexpected future dynamics.

No one is saying here that all the opposition groups must come to a consensus on every contentious issue raised. But at this critical juncture in our history, the Eritrean body politic can ill afford a divided voice. Intolerance comes in many forms. Arrogance is one of them, as is dismissing one’s opponent as being worthless, ignorant or bigoted, rather than drawn deeply to different principles or priorities.

Reconciliation and common ground are the way forward if the opposition is to break away its inertia or immobility, and start to move forward. And the organizers of the upcoming congress should act with courage, wisdom, discipline, and perseverance and they should not and must not leave any stone unturned in trying to bring all dissenting voices, political groups and other stakeholders into one ‘’hagerawi waala’’ for that is what a deliberative and pluralistic democracy demands.

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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