Let me start by first sincerely apologizing to Awate, the website, for referring to it as “extreme opposition website” (thanks SY for calling my attention). For some reason, I believe, some might have interpreted it as saying “extremist” website. Thank you for tolerating our always unintended transgressing. You have done a fantastic job and we are all very proud. I would also like to thank all those who spared some of their precious time to read my articles, leave comments and engage all of us in discussions.
Back to Topic
Of course, we are still in the initial stages – testing the grounds for a feasible U-Turn – and hopefully an exciting and fruitful debate. What we have done so far and will keep doing in the couple more articles that I have in mind is to set the stage and the key parameters that should govern the way we rationalize and reason as we go forward. We are practically negotiating the rules of the game. The aim of this article is to give clarifications and responses to some of the concerns and comments made to the previous two articles in the U-Turn debate.
Some wanted to know about the personal motivations for making the U-Turn. Well, like all good Eritreans I have been hopping from one opposition to the other. I am one of those people who would not show up for meetings on time. By the time I come to the meeting (thanks to some “abalat”) all the back seats where one could take a nap without being noticed are taken by “gedaym”. I would not care much. But the few “teqebelti gasha” that are awake would take me by the hand and have me sit in the center of the front row, where I am showered under a big mouth bloopering all kinds of stories. By the time we finish with a few screams of “Down – Down”, I am dizzy, cross-eyed and seeing only black & white. One day I managed to evade the procession of “abalat” who usually wake me up and carry me to the meeting, and tried a U-Turn, where beautiful women in “tcherqin-werqin” spoke about heaven on earth. I decided to take your opinion and here I am.
Of course, I do not need to explain that the whole reason I saw it necessary to write articles to tell you that I have made a “U-Turn” is because there is more to my conception of the U-Turn than me going to an Eritrean embassy and signing the “tkhormeyeni teTaEse” form for a few dollars. All I know is that, I am sick and tired of the PURPOSELESS OPPOSITION that has sucked every spirit of goodwill and optimism in our ability to dream of change. I am deeply disappointed at our stubborn insistence on pleasing and appeasing opposition groups and leaders-to-nowhere that we know very well, have the potential to bring catastrophic results to Eritrea as a nation.
Check if this applies to you. I have reached the conclusion that, the Eritrean opposition, composed of the Ethiopia-based organizations and a decisive portion of diaspora-based political groupings operating under guises of civil-society & human rights organizations, is heading towards dangerous territory. In the context of the volatile and unpredictable regional political dynamics infested with dubious state and non-state actors in the Horn of Africa, the damage that can be done by an irresponsible opposition movement bracing for every opportunity of employing whatever means possible to weaken the Eritrean state should not be underestimated. Even where the right to oppose the ruling regime in Eritrea can be justified under the most horrible crimes against humanity imaginable, no courses of action that do not guarantee a better outcome than the one upon which the whole struggle is premised should be allowed to proceed. We cannot afford to wait helplessly for the inevitable to happen, when we can see for ourselves an unmistakable monster hatching under our noses. We should under no condition or excuse – whatever the cost – be part of what we are all convinced is a horrible future waiting to happen. An opposition that has the potential to develop into a real existential threat to Eritrea’s national security interests is a shame and disappointment that no decent Eritrean should tolerate.
The time that we may stand up and stop this madness is long overdue. The latest that we can actually do something to control its direction is right now or never. We should consider ourselves very lucky that things have not worked out so far and that all efforts to institutionalize this irresponsible phenomenon of parasites waiting for a ride to Asmara have failed. We should be very proud of every single Eritrean who refused to bow to dubious interests calling for blind commitment – including those I had made – to an obvious suicidal mission for a nation that deserves better. However, it is only a matter of time before, on repeated trials, the misguided Eritrean opposition and their partners in the region find ways of defeating the resistance of the Eritrean diaspora. Several disastrous examples in our neighborhood bear witness to the potential dangers embedded in the ignorance of unsuspecting activism. No one who has seen or known of horrible experiences of once prosperous cities changed to rubble and proud peoples turned homeless, should allow anything that has even the slightest probability of repeating to happen to Eritrea.
We know better than to be herded like sheep by irresponsible and vengeful attitudes that have nothing to add to our politics. I am suggesting a debate on this alternative way of doing the right thing hopefully the right way, not because I have come up with some golden key to unlock heaven, but because, I think, our challenge is actually easier than we have been led into believing. Our problem is that we have no problem. Hence, the idea –naïve as it might seem – to wake up one day and decide to put every incapable entity and twisted motivation in Eritrean opposition politics structurally out of business.
Several people have noted the obvious contradiction between what I used to say in the “land-grabber” debate and the conciliatory spirit the last two articles attempted to promote – that is why the U-Turn needed no explanation. I do not want to go back to those crazy times. Part of the reason things got out of hand was because of the shocking discovery that every single opposition organization, including extremist Jihadi groups who have armies on the ground blowing up everything that moves in Eritrea under identical slogans of “land-grabbing” PFDJ, were fiercely resistant to pressures to adopt the conclusions that would naturally follow from their own arguments. Contrary to the fears of “yikhdenena” that, the campaign ignited in the presumed “backers of land-grabbers”, those who stubbornly refused to interact and instead came up with face-saving teddy-bear groupings, covenants and a few articles here and there were those that would be expected to rise and torch the planet, based on conclusions that would flow naturally from their whining & wailing about ethno-religious injustice in Eritrea.
The preceding paragraph may sound like I am regretting the finding that people did not cooperate to realize a project that would have great destructive capacity. I am mentioning it only to draw your attention to what might be a defensive mechanism (guarding against irrational outcomes) being produced as an unintended consequence of the collective of our individual and group activities. There are at least four relevant observations that we have learned from that experience, the role of political entrepreneurs in conflict situations and other similar issue-centered debates over the years:
(a) Where an opposition with an objective and holistic alternative that reflects well-defined ideological differences does not exist, obsession with specific grievances selected on the basis of their power to galvanize support may prove catastrophic with implications far from remedies for the grievance at hand.
(b) Obsessive hammering of selective issues, in spite of their power to galvanize popular support behind political entrepreneurs, has the potential to effect qualitative transformation of the subject of conflict and a complete divergence of the end of feasible solutions to solutions that have nothing to do with the initial substance of the conflict.
(c) Where a coalition of “interest groups” is mobilized into an opposition movement, through issues selected for their campaign-value (such as “constitution”, or “Nsu” in our case), the possibility of displacing the existing issues, by a new set of selective issues falls within the domain of political entrepreneuring and is a matter of only proving that the new set has a greater potential to mobilize support.
(d) The enormous difference in the degree of commitment to specific issue (think of any) among Eritrean opposition organizations, and the obsession with the search for unifying instruments of mobilizations, prove the point already made by many writers: that the Eritrean opposition is a coalition of issue-specific interest groups not of political parties in the conventional sense.
Do not despair though. It is actually a blessing in disguise. In our diaspora-based activism, the unrestricted entry and exit (of political entrepreneurs) to the market of organized opposition politics may be maintaining an equilibrium no-go situation (“aylaEli aytaHti”) in a manner that any perfectly competitive market would maintain equilibrium in textbook economics. Not only the “land-grabber” debate but even the ENCDC, the EDA and almost every organization that fell in the indeterminate domain of potential horrible outcomes for Eritrea as a nation were all aborted by the same innovation of every Eritrean hiding in a basement writing “politikawi medeb” in the form of: “Hade: hagerawi Hadinet – Kilte: ahgurawi zimdina – seleste: Awet nHafash”. You may recall situations when we were sure we had 15 organizations and were pleasantly surprised that we actually had 60.
This phenomenon of the capacity of free citizens to innovate in controlling outcomes that affect their collective being through a process of creative destruction is nothing new to Eritrea. The notion that elite groups could control people’s lives by running them to the streets to overthrow governments and stealing their revolutions is increasingly becoming difficult to materialize with the expansion of the infrastructure of individual liberties. The aftermath of the Arab Spring is replete with these examples. The question that this observation should raise in our reasoning is this: “what if in an Eritrea that guarantees free entry and exit to organized politics (like the one we have in the diaspora), the same grassroots basement activists decide to employ the same creative destruction in aborting national development or defense projects?” Since this exactly is the concern of the PFDJ with the “constitution & democracy” argument, it should be seen in combination with realities that may be created by similar incidences of the recent developments in Egypt, where a new dictatorship emerged to protect the revolution that came out against dictatorship in the first place.
The argument I would like to justify on these grounds is that, for the Eritrean opposition (whether inside or outside Eritrea) to produce any form of multi-party democracy, it must first produce a dictatorship that would be able to restrict civil liberties by coercively controlling entry and exit to the market of organized opposition. Based on our own arguments and campaigns in the opposition, “Isn’t that what the PFDJ government is already doing?” Homework: “Why overthrow a dictatorship to produce another dictatorship?”
The President’s Dictum
President Isaias’ definition of “opposition” (the spirit of all statements on the subject) is by no means animosity to the idea of an opposition party itself, as it is to the lack of viable holistic conception of opposition that can be trusted to compete, take over and run government as an alternative ideological paradigm. We should reinterpret the “30 – 40 year statements” that we have all used and abused over the years not as the time needed to construct a micro-dam for every politician, but as a random (rhetorical) guess of the time needed for the emergence of such a meaningful opposition. What he is practically saying is this: “we will keep doing what we are doing until we have a credible opposition that would tell us why our way is not the only high-way”. This conception divides the idea of opposition into two categories: (a) opposition parties as coalitions of “specific-interest” groups that have nothing in common other than backing power-grabbing elite groups; (b) opposition parties born out of a shared conviction on alternative ideological world-views of a coherent perception of national interest. The first is a liability with enormous destructive capacity and the second an asset with indispensable constructive promise.
In the first case, the only thing that ties all these organizations and individual advocates together is the simple statement of fact that they all believe that their concerns cannot be resolved under the PFDJ government. Both the EDA and the ENCDC and any other coalitions that formed and broke before and after them were all nothing but marriages of convenience where each of these interest groups agreed not to impede (not necessarily accept) the issues raised by each of the others. These united fronts essentially postpone the fight over specific interest to the point where there would be no legitimate authority entitled to claim collective property of these rights. While those “dictator-centered” elitist groups are betting on an opportunity where they would use state power in the “new Eritrea” to deal with ethno-religious interest groups, the latter are betting on the obvious fact that reconstituting centralized state power with monopoly over the coercive power of the state is virtually impossible after the destruction of the PFDJ regime.
Primary Target of U-Turn
The concept that my first article was intended to introduce was a U-Turn as clearly stated in the topic. In the Zero-Sum game, where according to every opposition Guru and preacher, PFDJ MUST LOSE FOR OPPOSITION TO WIN, it is understandable that a U-Turn from the opposition is necessarily a U-Turn towards the PFDJ. Where we all revolt against those that have a vested interests in locking our activism to Zero-Sum solutions and stand up to declare ourselves free citizens, we would still make U-Turns without changing directions. That is why I am asking people to wait before making conclusions about where the U-Turn is going. If we do succeed in challenging this vicious cycle, it will be a U-Turn, that we will all be taking together and it will mean a U-Turn from one state to a different state of opposition politics. If we fail, it will be a U-Turn of loyalties that I will go alone. I appeal to all those who were interested in these motivations to wait until we first understand what this particular U-Turn will actually be.
The primary objective of the U-Turn debate is to challenge the consensus on the assumption that the Zero-Sum Way is the right way. The core argument is this:
Where we have assumed good intentions in every effort of every opposition member, from the extreme to the extreme, we should also assume that this irrational behavior and irresponsible brand of activism could have only come incrementally through a protracted process of arm-twisting from within and without the opposition movement. The Zero-Sum Model of opposition is “the invisible hand” that regulates Eritrean opposition politics. It is mysteriously made to hold consistently as the unwritten code of conduct.
A simple proof of the fact that it is an alien and exogenously imposed restriction can be found in the inability of more recent arrivals (especially young refugees) into the business of opposition to meet the prerequisite of washing themselves clean of whatever they had known about Eritrea in order to transition into the Zero-Sum attitude in their new state. The following are four possible sources:
(a) The initial form and attitude was inherited from the historical roots of some opposition groups and remnants of the era of the civil wars of the armed struggle. Opposition for these groups was a continuation of the civil war between the ELF and the EPLF. Eritrea’s independence in 1991 was a new reality in Eritrean politics that must have transformed at least one of the parties (the EPLF). The continuation of the Zero-Sum Model found support in those that could not reason that they would be making the Eritrean government pay for mistakes that were done by the EPLF to the ELF. This is something that had already been challenged successfully, with the help of all our great writers and activists, years ago.
(b) The second source of the Zero-Sum Model was the subsequent reinforcement of inherited forms of struggle to fit the unfortunate circumstances of an opposition movement, which had to suck-up to hostile neighboring countries for assistance and accommodation, in exchange of fighting their proxy wars.
(c) You may think that the strong predominance of the ethno-religious dimension in Eritrean opposition politics reinforced the “we” Vs “them” justification of the Zero-Sum Model. It is actually the other way round – ethno-religious formations were initiated as a response to pull factors and demands to institutionalize the Zero-Sum Model. This is true simply because the composition and structure of active ethno-religious groupings does not explain their exclusive roots in ELF and non-EPLF historical foundations. Ethno-religious concerns (raised by actual citizens for real concerns) as such are of no interest to such organizations as was observed above in relation to the “land-grabber” campaign.
(d) The severe restrictions placed on political spaces that accommodate opposition activism inside Eritrea leading to the almost strict definition of opposition activism as a transnational phenomenon associated with diaspora groups defined the space of opposition activism as anything but Eritrea.
These observations, together with the destructive role that the Zero-Sum Model has played in institutionalizing the effective segmentation of Eritrean politics do indicate that it is a model that does not belong with us. This is true not only because it has its roots in what had nothing to do with current concerns and forms of activism, but also because it has been the principal culprit that may explain the failure of two decades of persistent opposition to become relevant. The whole idea of the call for a U-Turn rests on the belief that there must be a way where we can all win and the principle that no one wins unless we all win. WodeHanka – now go home and squeeze your brain – we need the juices!
Semantics: You May Skip This
I hate wasting your time and mine explaining my use of words and concepts but there are people who read articles word by word, and some are good in employing distractive semantics (“inkilalo” – to quote Bitbito, may he rest in peace). For example, you might be frowning at the characterization of “irresponsible opposition” because the whole argument rests on this key assumption. This would of course go contrary to our agreement in the previous two articles that we would be assuming the best in one another. I do know and believe very strongly that all our politicians and activists are the best that Eritrea can offer. At the risk of sounding a bit chauvinistic, I may add, the best that any nation on the planet – past or present – can ever hope to have.
The use of words, such as “purposeless”, “irresponsible”, and a lot more synonyms that will follow, to describe aspects of our politics or activism must, therefore in no way imply anything about the personal motivations or characters of individual persons involved. If you say we have an “irresponsible opposition”, it does not necessarily mean that every opposition member is individually irresponsible. Concepts such as “opposition”, “government” and anything that refers to the institution of more than one person are relational in nature (i.e. they can only be defined at the intersection of collective relations) and do not apply to single individuals. They do not even apply to linear additions of individuals under any collective names. They refer to phenomena associated with synergies created by systemic relations among individuals (not even between individuals if the system has more than two individuals). They fall in a domain that no individual (in his/her capacity as individual) controls and hence can be held responsible for. Hence words such as “irresponsible” referring to a specific individual implies purposeful action (intention) by that individual, while the same word referring to an organization implies the unintended consequence (outcome) of the synergetic interaction among possibly (in the case of Eritrea) the most responsible people on the planet.
We can, therefore say horrible things about the opposition (or any group of members as a collective) while at the same time maintaining the utmost respect, and the best intentions about individual members and leaders of the collective (including on all their daily activities and dedication to everything they do to save Eritrea). This exactly is the other side of the coin of saying so much horrible things about President Isaias, the generals and other PFDJ members as unrelated individuals, while at the same time maintaining the utmost respect, and good intentions about the PFDJ system as an institution. This is the claim that the “Nsu” and “Down – Down” guys are making, in trying to sell the impression that if the “dictator” goes away everything will be happy and cheerful. Those who stand for this approach tend to dismiss that “dictatorship” exists only and only at the level of systemic synergies of individual relationships not necessarily centered on a specific individual. You do not have to assume evil in the leader as an individual in order to conclude that the system is a dictatorship.
May all the Generals rest in peace!