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A Call To End The Awate Era

* Awate was a visionary man and a born leader who set out to correct the injustices of his day: lawlessness, property confiscation and violation of grazing rights, colonization, and persecution.

* Awate was a commonplace bandit who was indistinguishable from all the bandits of his day. He used—and was used by—ambitious Eritrean intellectuals advancing causes far too complex to originate from him.

I can think of only two Eritrean figures that are universally acclaimed as being patriots and visionary men: Woldeab Woldemariam (Wel Wel) and Ibrahim Sultan (Am Ibrahim.) Everything and everyone else is subject to interpretation and difference of opinion because Eritreans are, like all free people, a quarrelsome group of people. And thank God for that. Even on the issue of the personification of Eritrean resistance, the man who rang out the first shot at Mt. Adal, Eritreans are divided. To the extent that it is accepted that Awate is a Man To Revere, the view is not the result of historical or scholarly research but years of political indoctrination.

The Right To Disagree

Eritreans disagreed on whether to wage a peaceful resistance (Haraka/Mahber Showaate) or armed resistance (ELF.)

Eritreans disagreed on whether the political movement should restrict is aim towards the liberation of Eritrea (early ELF) or should aim for the transformation of the Eritrean society (early PLF/Selfi NeSanet.)

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on whether the Eritrean field was big enough to accommodate more than one front (EPLF) or it was not (ELF.)

Eritreans disagreed on whether they should wage the armed struggle under the banner of unity (smret) or united front (smur gnbar.)

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on whether the ELF was evolving into a truly representative and nationalist movement (as stated by the ELF) or whether it was a sectarian, regionalist association that could not be reformed (as claimed by PLF.)

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on whether the manifesto of the PLF–selfi nats’net’s “nHnan Ilamanan” (We And Our Goals)– was a rejection of the alleged regionalism of the ELF (as claimed by the PLF) or whether it was a call to arms by an avowedly regionalist movement (as claimed by the ELF.)

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on whether the alliance with the sympathetic Arab world should be tactical or strategic.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on which brand of socialism was more applicable to Eritrea: the Marxist-Leninist brand advocated by the “mainstream revolutionaries” of the ELF or EPLF or the other offshoots advocated by others (such as the “Baath party” or Hruy Tedla’s “Ma. Gu.” movement.)

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on how thoroughly they should disassociate themselves from the failed ideology of Marxism-Leninism once it proved to be a failure.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on what language to use when addressing their government and each other formally.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on what flag to fly to commemorate our sacred days. Eritreans disagree on what days should be their days off.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on how to prioritize values and allocate scarce resource on issues such as justice, freedom, liberty, food security, representative government, building of infrastructures and institutions, constitutionalism and rule of law.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on what type of governmental arrangement best serves the interest of Eritreans.

Eritreans disagreed and still disagree on whether power should be centralized or decentralized.

Eritreans, like all free people, disagree on everything. Many Eritreans will disagree with my catalog of disagreements: it is not comprehensive enough, for example. It is fundamental; no, it is trivial. It used to be but is no more. It is not but it might be if the wrong people—your people–are given a chance to sow their seeds of discord. Leave it all up to _____ and all will be well.

All these disagreements are a sign of vitality because conflict is natural; actually, conflict defines humanity.

The Unintended Consequence of Our Armed Struggle

With rare exceptions, Eritrea, a diverse, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic mosaic society has always found a way to peacefully resolve a conflict. That was until the 1960s. When by firing the first shots at Mt. Adal Awate escalated conflict resolution to armed confrontation, he heralded an era of miracles, a three-decade struggle of David vs. Goliath, a strengthening of the Eritrean spirit, the elevation of duties over rights, the glorification of altruism and self-sacrifice. 1991 was the Big Payoff, the victory against all odds. It was epic: a spectacular victory that should be celebrated forever.

But a less noted phenomenon maybe that 1961 also heralded a new era of intolerance and an era where armed confrontation was not always a means of last resort but a first resort. In the 1960, 70s, 80s, 90s and even now in the new millennium, Eritrea has been bloodied by political organizations who have made armed conflict the default mechanism to solve fundamental problems. Debate, dialogue, compromise became dirty words to be shunned and the maximalist goal became the minimalist one. It was the period of internecine wars, marginalization, and creation of the enfranchised and disenfranchised communities. The leaders of these movements and political associations see the extermination of the other as pre-requisite for a democratic and just Eritrea.

Caught between these extremes, the vibrant Eritrean society—a society of consensus and power-sharing, a society of dialogue and debate, a society of representative government and ombudsman and appeals, a society of defiance an justice—has transformed itself into a society of the resigned, the retired and the apathetic. After all, our recent history shows that airing disagreements leads to confrontation; all confrontation is bloody and all blood-shedding must be avoided. Any dissent is a threat to unity and any threat to unity is a prelude to civil war.

Our political groups—the ones in and out of power–are to blame for this. The Eritrean Government treats dissent as an act that warrants at best suspicion and monitoring and, at worst, treason. To advocate for the fundamental rights of an individual is considered wallowing in self-indulgence and wishing for utopia; to advocate for the fundamental rights of a minority group is considered inciting hatred and divisiveness. In fact, the only group one is permitted to express any sympathy for or attempt to empower are women; the only safe subject to discuss is duties, not rights; the only criticism tolerated is mild and “constructive” that deals not with issues of life and death but potholes and parking.

Dissent is not a threat to our unity; oppression is. Our refusal, our adamant refusal to refuse to talk to one another, to tolerate one another, is creating a society of strangers, separate, unequal and silent.

The solution is not found in the political organizations. The PFDJ seems to operate on the basis of “Why Do Today What You Can Postpone Until Tomorrow Or Next Year.” Every day is the wrong day for reform; every dissenter is an enemy and every enemy must be ridiculed, banished and minimized. No input is welcome: every criticism of every alleged bad practice is unproven and thus not worth discussing; and every recommendation for improvement is one they were thinking of, anyway, so no need for your suggestions.

The so-called opposition groups seem hell-bent on destroying Eritrea. Mind you, they have very good intentions. But their approach is a lot like what the American General said America’s act in Vietnam was: we had to destroy the village to save it. They are just trying to save Eritrea, don’t you see; in the process, if Eritrea is destroyed, well at least we have been warned. What choices did the government give us, they ask. They don’t see a country where they can co-exist with the ruling party and so they want to inflict “Africanism” on Eritrea: a civil war without end, defamation without pause.

We Eritreans must demand that the organizations that did the most to make conflict synonymous with liquidation and elimination must spare us the excesses of the last three decades. We must succeed in getting them to swear off—in the name of their fallen comrades—further bloodshed and death. We should say, “Heroes and Deliverers of Independence! We are independent, now we want to be free. We thank Awate and the children of Awate. But now we want to close the Awate Chapter, the chapter that says change comes about from the barrel of a gun. Following “Awateism” has proven that Eritrea will fight to the end to get and safeguard its independence by any means necessary. Now we need to follow a new “ism” to safeguard its unity and freedom: we need to go back to the future and the promise of Wel Wel and Ibrahim Sultan: the era of vibrant disagreement, debate, dialogue and durable democracy. And all done peacefully.

Of course, this is just one man’s opinion and you are well within your rights to disagree with everything I have said. Just do it peacefully.

About Saleh Younis

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