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At The Crossroads (Part 1)

“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience very much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopter gun sights, then he was full of holes and the sea around him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. Audience shouting with laughter when he sank. Then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it…” Taken from George Orwell’s novel, 1984.

In about six months time, on May 24th, 2011, Eritrea will be celebrating its 20th anniversary of Independence. It has been 120 years since Eritrea became known to the modern world as a political entity, and in these 120 years, Eritrea and its population had seen six political upheavals, each with its own peculiarities, and each living an indelible mark on history books. And these six transitions are: Italian colonialism, British Military Administration, Federation with Ethiopia, King Haile-Sellasie’s and Colonel Menghistu’s reigns, and the current era of Independence.

While working at Senafe town, I used to enjoy my working visits to the health facility at the village of Golo, perched atop Mount Soira. A little further, around the village of Moko, there lived this old Saho man who I used to talk to now and then. In one of our encounters, he used the following very simple, yet eloquent, words in his accented Tigrigna to describe the six different eras I mentioned above: When the Italians were colonizing us, we could eat, but we couldn’t speak. When the British came, we could speak but not eat. With the Ethiopians, we lost both. And, alas, since Independence also, we could neither eat, nor speak.

He was a very bitter old man in his late 70’s. He had lost two sons in the liberation struggle-his eldest while fighting with the ELF, and the younger with the EPLF. The last time I saw him was around 2004, and at his late age, he had the added burden of feeding a daughter, daughter-in-law, and their young families, because both their husbands were away doing their never ending national service.

Some awate.com readers might vehemently object, and rightly so, for my using that excerpt from George Orwell’s book as an introduction for my article. And, yet, while the surreal frightening premonition of a frigidly-controlled state IS not present in our country, no sane and dignified Eritrean can deny the overwhelming fact that the unpalatable and distasteful fallouts of a single-party despotism are starting to disfigure the landscapes of Eritrea. And, again, no sane Eritrean can dismiss the overwhelming fact that fear has started to overwhelm our society by creeping into every city, town, village, home, and the minds and souls of our populace.

In this writing I do not intend to delve into the horror basket of our country. No: I do not intend to walk you through this well trodden path of atrocities, as you are very familiar with them. As Put forth in the heading, my aim is to try to humbly appraise our situation as we approach the 20th anniversary of our Independence by presenting facts and figures, assessing the challenges, and entertaining the possibilities open to us at this critical juncture in our history.

PFDJ’S Monoploy Of Power And Its Achievement Of 20 Years

Starting from the earliest days of Independence, our rulers have been faithfully telling us that the major task of the new Eritrean Government will be on removing poverty and misery through universal education, revitalization of the health sector, overhauling infrastructure, and assuring food security; and that no attention will be given to political liberty or civil rights. And, still now, in 2010, our despot can still be heard saying to us and the whole world that his government will not bother with the finesse of political freedom, civil rights and democracy, given the overpowering grossness of the intense economic need of his people.

And, granted, that many schools, universities, health facilities, roads, bridges, and dams were built, and the whole of Eritrean population was mobilized to realize those proclaimed objectives. But despite the much vaunted and oft repeated claims that significant strides have been made in the health, education, and dietary condition of our population, PFDJ’s dismal record of 20 years can be summed up in the following few paragraphs, as assessed and published by internationally recognized, respected, and reliable organizations:

  • UNDP: According to figures released by this international body in May 2009, Eritrea ranked as number 164 out of 179 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), scoring below 0.350. the HDI is a composite index that measures average achievements in three basic dimensions of human development – a long and healthy life (as measured by life expectancy at birth), knowledge (measured by adult literacy rate and gross enrolment ratio), and a decent standard of living (measured by GDP per capita). This score places our country in the category of ‘low human development’. And there is no lower rung on this ladder!
  • Freedom House: In the ‘Freedom of the World ‘ survey for 2008, which provides an annual evaluation of the state of global freedom as experienced by individuals, Eritrea is grouped among the ‘worst of the worst’ among nations in the world.
  • Reporters without Borders: In its 2009 report, Eritrea occupied the last rank in the world (no.173 out of 173 countries assessed) for the second year running.
  • International Press Institute: In IPI’s review, Eritrea is categorized as one of the most brutal suppressors of independent reporting.
  • Transparency International: On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2008, Eritrea was ranked 126 out of 180 countries surveyed.

What these above figures make clear is that unless programs drafted to remove poverty and misery are conjoined at the hip with parallel and simultaneous legislations guaranteeing and protecting the rights of political freedom, civil liberties, and democracy, they will usually and inevitably lead to disaster.

A Lame And Fractious Opposition

There are around 30 political parties populating the opposition arena in the Eritrean political edifice. Most of these are relatively new and have very few followers. The most visible opposition force is the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), an amalgam of 11 secular, ethnic, and religious political groups, some of them with an armed wing (most notably the ethnic based parties). Under the auspices of the EDA a National Conference for Democratic Change (NCDC) was held a few months back in the Ethiopian capital in order to try to come up with a coherent road map for change in Eritrea. Almost all the political parties, civic societies from around the world, refugees, and some prominent individuals attended this conference. The only glaring and gaping absence was that of the Eritrean Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP), which is also ironically part of the EDA. And, in the past few days, yet another spasm occurred within the EPDP, and we now have two EPDPs’, with the new splinter group likely to rejoin the EDA.

The most contentious issues for EPDP’s continuing reluctance to join the EDA seems to rest on issues relating to federalism and the use of force or peaceful means to bring about change in Eritrea.

As so many have written in the past few months, the convening of the NCDC was a great and commendable achievement for the fractious opposition. It was indeed a historical achievement. The conference ended by electing a 53 member commission representing political parties, civic groups, and refugee communities. 22 of the 53 members were elected from the ranks of the EDA, and the individuals comprising the 53 member commission were given the daunting and colossal task of organizing another bigger Convention that will be held sometime in 2011, a convention that is expected to deal with a highly controversial political, moral and social problem in a concrete and historical manner, and come up with a political charter for a transitional period in Eritrea.

A Silent, Formidable, And Watchful Majority

Many reasons drive the atmosphere of passivity, helplessness, pessimism and cynicism that abounds in this group. Some of the reasons are legitimate, others plausible, but mostly pure hypocrisy. Issues of the volatile Horn of Africa, the fate of Somalia, political Islam, and the unresolved and unstable border situation with Ethiopia usually come up as foremost of reasons. But all the political parties, civic societies, and individuals working for change through the resolutions of the NCDC have come out openly to say loudly and clearly that they will not trifle in any way with the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Eritrea; and they have also made it clear that they are for a secular and democratic Eritrea that respects all the diverse ethnic and religious makeup of our society. Furthermore, they have also made it clear that they will work for a peaceful resolution of the border situation with Ethiopia, according and in accordance with the final and binding ruling passed by the EEBC at the Hague.

It is always hard to tell which is more dangerous: To make a decision which might turn out to be wrong or to decide nothing for fear of making a mistake. I myself have went through that process and I can confidently say that I found nothing wrong when I decided to ‘blubber’ and write my feelings openly in my very inexperienced way.

They say it is called hypocrisy when two moral standards coexist in one person or social movement. By virtue of this same moral squint, most of us continue to close our eyes and mumble pathetically about the higher interests on national security. These silent majority, through its ‘deafening’ silence, is taking the word expedience to a new and unfathomable dimensions.

Justice has been the common patrimony of our culture, in both our customary and religious laws; and, it is obviously inherent in our culture. And this same justice has come under intense and vicious assault in these past 20 years of Independence. To those who will still refuse to acknowledge these glaring deficit of justice on our society and still say ‘why bother? What are all the sacrifices worth for?’, we can say resoundingly: For JUSTICE! There’s nothing relative about justice, as there is nothing relative about our own conscience. For justice is conscience, not a personal conscience, but the conscience of the whole society.

Time For Decision

Today, a gap exists between our past and our future. We all still stand at the crossroads, unable to take a step and distance ourselves from this spot. The Gulags in Eritrea are bursting at the seams with people. The old Saho friend of mine atop the highest peak in Eritrea, on Mount Soira, awaits for deliverance, and more likely Allah will be faster and gracious by terminating his old life. The refugee camps are filling and yet new ones are being opened to accommodate the ever increasing number of our fleeing country men and women. A triplet were born a few days back at the Shemelba refugee camp in North Ethiopia, born to a lucky (or unlucky?) young Eritrean couple who have been living there for years now.

We are the ones who created our problems, and it is completely within our power to solve them. We do not need novel, untested, still-to-be-invented social or political methodologies to solve these problems. If we learn from our own turbulent past, our own future may be brighter than the last 120 years. Our own human volition, responsibility, commitment, and a sense of anger or shame will decide the future course of events.

(To be continued in Part II)

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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