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At The Crossroads (Part II)

A chilly Mediterranean wind is blowing across the stale political landscape of Africa’s Arab north, and it has turned a new page, and a new chapter has just begun. In Tunisia an iron fist that ruled for 23 years was unraveled a few days back by popular unarmed street strikes. Despots in the neighboring countries and rest of Africa are having the goose pimples, and watching events closely.

Predictably, the tightly censored state owned media in Asmara has so far deliberately neglected to acknowledge this ground breaking and sensational phenomenon unfolding on the streets of Tunis, instead preferring to notch up the drumming and hullabaloo for the upcoming 20th anniversary of our Independence Day; and, the opposition camp is still and astonishingly failing to get it right by continuing with infighting ‘’like buzzards over a slaughter house offal’’, still fraught with partisan politics of the 1970’s, the sour gripes of sore old losers drowning out the pleading cries of the absolute majority, most of which was born after May 1991. And in the cyberspace, to which more than 90% of Eritrean citizens do not have an access, an increasingly confusing altercation goes on over the future of Eritrea, filled with bickering, hatred, anger, and the erudite lethal prescription of certain writers who are taking what may be permissible freedom of writing to unacceptable limits by continuing to proffer antediluvian solutions, such as mutilation (Debalkanization), to a nation in torment. And, in the meantime, daily, a sad spectacle of throngs of people continue to cross into neighboring countries, a mass of humanity fleeing from an authoritarian regime, in search of life without fear, life without queuing for food, searching for a decent civilized climate to live, work and die.

In this belated second part of my article, I am intending to revisit the first decade of the new millennia, and by so doing try to give a global perspective of the problems we are facing at home, and thus try to show that what ails our country is part of a global contagion with its own peculiarities, and that a 21st century problem calls not for atavistic solutions, but for sound, realistic and pragmatic solutions that take into consideration our national diversity and unity without excluding the realities of the forward moving times.

A Whirlwind Tour Of 2001-2010

Looking back over our shoulders, it is hard to imagine how 21st century humanity could have sunk to such a miserably lowly point just 10 years after encroaching into the new millennia, which in its first few minutes, hours, and days was welcomed with an overriding universal feeling of euphoria and optimism, except by the tiny group of perennially afflicted doomsayers. How naïve we were! With hardly a step into this new era, all of us watched with aghast fascination the horrific scenes of passenger filled jets ramming into the twin towers of the WTC in New-York, followed by the hellish spectacle of mammoth still and concrete structures crumbling into the ground, and in the process consummating thousands of lives. What followed is recent history, still being written in blood in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in many countries and communities which were previously immune to mayhem and slaughter of a greater scale. Old religious rifts and intolerance are resurfacing, with zealots of every religious color crying for blood. And, thus, all hopes for a new post cold-war order of tolerance, commonsense and peace were prematurely dashed and aborted, and Isaiah’s prophecy of ‘’swords unto ploughshares…’’ will have to wait, it seems, until the present day reality of ‘’human body unto a deadly explosive contraption’’ comes to pass.

Another rude awakening of the last decade was the monstrous ferocity of an indiscriminately exploited and imploding planet writhing in deathly throes as it lashed out indiscriminately here and there visiting biblical calamities all over the world. The foundations of our planet groaned for a few milliseconds deep under the Indian ocean, and the tsunami that followed killed more than a quarter of a million people, and shattered many more lives and livelihoods; leaders of the most powerful and sophisticated nation on earth watched helplessly as one of their metropolis literally sunk under water; and impoverished Haiti, as if it didn’t have enough woes, was unfairly pummeled by a series of physical and biological blows, with devastating results; and, a pathogen measuring one millionth of a meter and carried by birds run a cold shiver down the spine of the whole world as it brought an increasingly interconnected world to a virtual standstill. The lashings still continued in the New Year, continuing to wreak havoc in Australia and Brazil…

These disasters were a reminder to 21st century Homo sapiens that Mother Nature remains raw, unbridled and unpredictable, a force to reckon with, just as it was millions of years ago to our forefathers, the Homo erectus. If anything differs, maybe it is that humanity has managed to significantly increase its predatory number, now approaching the 10 billion mark, and with marked improvement on technological capability for inflicting damage and access to a wealth of information from which humanity is failing to learn, what previously was the domain of science fiction has become real, and the specter of an ‘’environmental holocaust’’ is looming from over the horizon.

The global economy also continues to be rattled by a force no less vicious than that of a tsunami, which has already left millions of hitherto affluent communities destitute, and continues to push unemployment figures higher and higher, with millions in the west wondering whether the good-old-times have come to an end. This ‘’financial tsunami’’ has already bankrupted many establishments, and renowned financial and money institutions are trying their best to stay afloat, and many giant corporations and even countries are on life support which is costing trillions of dollars. An ‘’automated, downsized, outsourced and off shored’’ globalized economy is desperately fumbling to come up with yet new counter measures as a series of panaceas administered to forestall damages and kick start a rebound  are failing to show results. Whether what we are witnessing is a chronically sick world financial system or just one of the periodic gales of ‘’Capitalism’s creative destruction’’, only time will tell.

But one threatening message has already been made clear: Man’s potential for MAD -Mutually Assured Destruction- has now expanded beyond the specter of a nuclear holocaust to include an environmental and financial dimension.

The Dark Continent

As the uncertain winds of change in the North of Africa are being watched closely by Africa’s tyrants, much of the continent continues to languish in its perennial and seemingly preordained curse of wretched poverty, starvation, disease and illiteracy with the background noise of ethnic strife, sectarian violence, civil wars and coup d’états. Decades after unshackling itself from its white colonizers, much of Africa remains manacled by its own kind, and the spirit of Pan-Africanism and the ideals of its pioneers is being brought into ridicule by the likes of Col Gaddafi, an ex-pariah now being given much accolade by an Eritrean dictator and many Western leaders, including a teenage molester premier in Italy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is still very much the same as when Mobutu left it and the Belgians before him. In Zimbabwe, an aging liberator-turned-dictator is all set to celebrate his third decade in power on an orgy of land grabbing by evicting white owners. Kenya stumbled and it took it a mighty last minute effort to save it from the an eerily familiar abysmal cataclysm of ethnic genocide; and, Somalia is already celebrating the 20th year anniversary of failed statehood while Burkina Faso’s fate is hanging in the balance, facing the prospect of another round of civil war. The picture is very dismal everywhere to the south and north of the equator. There were very few success stories, but the best time for Africa in the last decade was when the unique droning sounds of the vuvuzelas started to come out of the magnificent soccer fields in South Africa.  It would have been better if Ghana had not been unfairly knocked out by the Venezuelans.

What Ails Eritrea?

Yes, what ails Eritrea? Simply stated, it is what is ailing the whole god… world! What sickens our country is a global social contagion, which like the pandemic HIV-AIDS, is finding Africa’s peculiarly precarious makeup an easy prey to spread its poisons; and, as it is prone to happen in virology, this social pathogen has also mutated into a more destructive strain or subtype in Eritrea.

Let’s shrug off our arrogance and jingoism and step for a while out of our comfortable tomb of nostalgia and reminiscence to see the glaring reality: a ramshackle government continues to bedevil a whole country by persistently and miraculously finding a scapegoat for each and every one of its mistakes, blunders and failed policies, from the simple to the serious. Lay and clergy, Muslim and Christian, civilians and soldiers, ministers and officers, the UN and AU, neighboring and far off countries…have, at one time or another, being brought in for a series of ludicrous charges and criticisms. And this same accusatory finger still continues to move in myriads of directions, except pointing at itself, that it has now become utterly impossible to distinguish between friend and foe amidst the bewilderingly tangled web of accusations and conspiracies. The latest scapegoat is Israel which, in a recent interview to an Israeli newspaper given by the Eritrean Ambassador there, is being blamed for the Eritrean refugee problem (article posted at http://www.ynetnews.com/articles).

The refugee problem is, of course, not a uniquely Eritrean affliction. Millions of Iraqis and Afghans, Mexicans and Haitians, Ethiopians and Somalis are leaving their ancestral lands, driven by necessity and in search of a better future in affluent countries. And so are thousands of Eritreans; and, the common denominator pushing this human tide away from its shores is that shared dream to live the old and classical immigrant story of ambition and hope, education and work, assimilation and upward mobility. And this human tidal wave also share the same background from which it is fleeing, a background of humiliation, abuse and deprivation, violence and insecurity, inequality and injustice.

But the Eritrean odyssey has a different sinister and sad twist to it. The average migrant, mostly in his young age and deeply nationalistic, is fleeing his country with a fast of fury in his heart, brimming with anger at a cruel system that had wasted his youthful years in a National Service gone awry to become an increasingly anachronistic system of servitude. He had lived through an absurd border war that took away many of his friends and toiled for many years in the high lands and low lands of Eritrea while leaving to dereliction the things that he personally holds dear, hoping against hope that one day soon his efforts will bear fruit and deliverance will come; and even when the seasonal pampered double citizens were rudely thrust upon his face, though deep inside he envyingly and grudgingly acknowledged their presence, he just kept on at whatever he was doing, a daily life of marginal existence, sweat and toil. But, finally and inevitably, there came a point beyond which he just simply couldn’t continue to push on, a point when hope was finally snuffed out, and this time he was forced to set his weary legs and weak frame on an uncertain journey, a journey that he hoped will give him a decent chance for a decent life.

Freedom of worship, freedom of expression, and freedom from fear are under intense assault all over the world, as is also true in our country, Just 30 minutes into the just celebrated New Year, an Old Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt was the target of a suicide bomber with more than 20 worshippers dead. Powerful institutions in the West are desperately running to stifle the whistleblower website- wikileaks. Dictators and despots still continue to grace our world and continue to enjoy respectability in certain quarters…but, even Burma’s rulers have become sensible while Eritrea’s rulers are opening new prisons to accommodate the ever increasing number of inmates.

Glasnost and perestroika still remain exotic words from an equally exotic CCCP. Nepotism, favoritism, and corruption still flourish as they did in pre-biblical times. Money launders and ponzi schemers are a daily reality in the financial and money sectors, sometimes looking as if Mario Puzos’s seedy characters of the 20th century have mutated into a more aggressive and unscrupulous form more adaptive to the contemporary times. Civil service is also becoming lackadaisical and parasitic as meritocracy is being increasingly neglected. But there is another strange twist in our country, because the practice of recycling thrash and waste has been usurped and copied for an entirely different scheme, a system of ‘’recycling’’ ministerial post and other top positions with in a circle of a selected few, who are sheepishly being rotated form one post into another, seemingly pleuripotent, yet stooping, graying and aging before our own eyes. I think we have to be grateful to modern medicine there in so far as it has not yet come up with a novel drug to stop this inevitable physiological decaying process. Furthermore, Eritrean civil service is in tatters as the economy simply couldn’t accommodate it, and large numbers of educated, intelligent and unemployed Eritreans in their 20s-40s are migrating in search of work and the remaining are ‘’pretending to work while the state pretends to pay’’.

And another tragic fact is that many countries, and this is especially true in Africa, continue to seat upon an imaginable heaps of mineral and hydrocarbon wealth that has utterly failed to improve the miserable life of their rightful owners. South and north of the equator, in Africa, the overwhelming majority continues to lead a marginal existence of destitution and deprivation while its leaders and corrupt connivers continue to slurp and gulp the rich top creams of these mineral ores leaving the masses to wallow in the murky dregs. Instead of bringing change and hope Africa’s natural wealth has become synonymous with a curse, a harbinger of destruction and devastation. And, in Eritrea, the tunes of a hauntingly familiar song are starting, haltingly, to be sung. The unwary and uninitiated are repeating the song, and forgetting the intolerant system that doesn’t know the word fair, a system that has stifled and killed the unique entrepreneurial Eritrean quality. The latest causality were private clinics owned by a handful of physicians; similar previous measures had almost totally wiped out the vibrant merchant community, and monopolized the construction and public transport sectors, among others. Announcing the closure of the private clinics, an editorial read on Eri-TV alleged the owners (who survive on less than 40 USD/month) of ‘’skinning’’ an unwary public by charging exorbitant fee.

And the confounding ironic fact in our continent is that Africa continues to stumble in pitch black darkness while its educated middle class enjoys the bright liberal atmosphere in the West. Most of this continent’s brightest, top cream of scientists, intellectuals, writers, activists…have forfeited it for the intellectually stimulating and rewarding life in the their adopted countries. These ones were not brutally snatched from the continent’s hinterland in the middle of the night, chained and transported like cargoes in slave ships;  they went of their own volition, drawn by the allure of western life with its material and intellectual benefits. But Africa and its lumpen leadership has little respect for its intellectuals which, unfortunately, has little appetite for the practical, mundane, not rewarding and sometimes risky task of nation building. Articulating the concerns of a nation and its oppressed people has become for some in this community naïve and out of date, and besides the lack of discipline and arrogance decorating the attire of these people, it is discomfiting to see such degree of deceit to their own people. And, harsh though it may be, education and intellectualism has become nothing more than diplomas and good jobs!

At this critical juncture in our history, Eritreans living in the Diaspora should have had the decency and courage to come out openly to articulate the concerns of the downtrodden mass. But this relatively free segment has decide remain silent, and what lies behind this silence is not fear, but the need for inclusion, the need to participate in the ever increasing social festivities and other worldly needs. These are legitimate concerns, though morally shaky; and, this meal-mouthed silent majority should have had also the commonsense to understand that for the ruling party it amounts nothing more than a mere meal ticket. There is also a very tiny fragment of this majority, which had managed to get itself into a comfortable position by sliding into the nooks and crannies of the system, participating in its lies, becoming vocal in its support in exchange for its appetite for perks and status! Only a few courageous and conscientious members of this sleeping and conniving community are brave enough to make a blip in the faint and weak intellectual cardiogram of Diaspora politics.

And, finally, there is the need to reiterate on the reasons why the predominantly young population of our country is increasingly becoming skeptical and wary of our politicians and is not enthralled by them, preferring the sports channels rather than listening to their lamentations. These crucial majority, at home, in refugee camps or comfortably resettled in the west wants to be recognized by one and all as the major stake holder in present and future Eritrea, and it has not yet found a voice that reflects his feelings and sentiments, a charismatic and arousing voice that makes its heart beat faster, and its hair stand on end. Let it be said that this resounding majority has not yet found a figure having the requisite reputation, integrity, courage and skill to break his inertia.

These young generation, while not being so selfish as to stand isolated only in concern for his own personal dilemma, needs and necessities, ignoring the daily realities of his home and the wide world, he is finding it very sad and ironic to watch his leaders at home championing liberty, freedom and justice in foreign lands while failing to ensure those rights to him. At home and abroad, while plans to celebrate our 20 the anniversary of Independence day are being launched with great fanfare, and luminous phrase being spun to clear the rusting dictatorial edifice, this brave young generation is boldly making it clear through its action that it is no longer satisfied with the same old bone that had been tossed to him so many times in the past; the rings and shout of those early days of freedom had grown dull over the years, and its ephemeral promises of liberty had also almost vanished, and he is in no mood for dancing and merry making this time.

The Way Forward

The new year of the second decade of the new millennia has already started, but all of us remain stranded at the crossroads, weighing options, undeceive as to which direction to choose, paralyzed by real and imagined fears.

I am not such an insensitive brute who goes on as far as to suggest that the pleasant and refreshing cool breezes arising from the Red sea at this time of the year, and the accompanying mist and fog creeping up through the eastern escarpment to the highlands of our country suddenly and miraculously reinvigorate and energize the cowed citizenry to turn out into the streets of Asmara with anger and fury towards its undisciplined leaders. No! This will be very uncaring of me, as the fate of those who dared to confront the state in the past is still fresh in our collective memory…though the story of the proverbial last straw that broke the back bone of a sturdy pack animal should not be lightly dismissed. 

Our society has become a sad spectacle to behold. What used to be stolid and proud people has become exhausted by years of failures, tension, fear, persecution and deprivation, and it has entered a state of numbness and apathy, depression and spiritual disjunction.

Chinese literature has so many wise phrases, and one of it goes like this: the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. And for the ones’ respectable and bold enough to take this first steps, the words are right upfront written clearly in bold outline. Our present predicament calls for a ‘’seismic shift’’ in our attitudes, behavior, words and actions. Instead of trying to continue heaping all the blames for our misfortune at the feet of one guilty party, let’s break off ourselves from the past and its all imperfections. Let’s break out of the current suffocating and almost palpable filthy air of all forms of intolerance, hatred, bigotry, prejudice, hubris and arrogance. Let’s not scamper to derail decent initiative for change.

This modern era calls for attitude and actions that go with it, forward moving and progressive initiatives and ideas that do not have the patience for those who have the weakness to forestall by usually glancing backwards into a troubled past. Yes, the past will need a revisiting for an all encompassing restorative and balmy justice, but the time will come later. Now the zeitgeist calls for a pragmatic self critical stance, that with a critical and clinically incisive bent for analysis and inquiry try to come up with a tried and successful remedy. Let’s not exacerbate the multiple ailments of our nation by doggedly persisting to prescribe an odd and untested assortment of bile concoctions. This multiple ailment, as is medicine, calls for a multidisciplinary approach… (To be continue in Part-III)

About Dr. Bereket Berhane Woldeab

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