May 24, 1991. Independence Day! The memory may have faded but few will forget the joy they felt when they first witnessed or heard about the triumphant march of battle-weary EPLF soldiers into the streets of Asmara. Across the board, Eritreans were ecstatically happy and the dancing and celebration would continue for several days. Even former ELF fighters returned to Eritrea after years in exile with high expectations that old grudges would be forgotten or forgiven and healing would commence. When I visited Eritrea in 1991 shortly after independence and again in 1993, Eritreans were still in the mood and in high spirits. The optimism was so universal and so contagious that even those who knew EPLF’s dictatorial tendencies forgot about it and begun to hope for a bright future. In those days, anyone who would even hint that the 30-year struggle for independence was futile would probably not live to repeat it. With memories of the blood of martyrs fresh in the minds of Eritreans and the tegadelti, any such rant would be insanely suicidal. And no one did. People were too busy celebrating and singing hymns of praise to Shaebia to philosophize about independence.
EPLF fully basked in the glory but perceived the situation quite differently from the populace. In its eyes, the victory proved its superiority. By “freeing Eritrea”, it also believed it has earned the right to dominate Eritrea and subjugate Eritreans. It therefore started imposing its will almost immediately and in its brutal hands, Eritreans became virtual slaves. Politically, diplomatically, economically and by almost every societal yardstick, Eritrea started to waste away and the downward slide continues to this day with no end in sight. So it is natural for Eritreans to cry in frustration as I did back in November 2010:
“What is independence worth to me if I find myself hungrier, angrier, and less free after decades under its wing? Keep the flag to yourself sir and just give me the freedom I demand and keep me safe! Then perhaps we can talk about the independence you brought.” (A critical look at the EPLF/PFDJ/GOE Saga)
Such expressions of dismay are fine I think as long as they remain directed at the real culprit (the regime) and as long as we keep the distinction clear in our minds between independence on the one hand and its abuse or misuse in the other by those entrusted to safeguard it. But the moment we start extrapolating from this into thinking that the struggle for independence itself was to blame, we are falling into shaebia’s “we are him, he is us – nhna nsu” mindless world.
Of all the heinous crimes Shabia inflicted on our people in the 22 years it has been ruling, one of the worst was this association it planted in the minds of Eritreans between itself and gedli and between itself and Eritreans. This has been drilled on the national psyche so constantly that some Eritreans have become incapable of untangling the crimes of the regime from Eritrea or Eritrean history. The unconscious thinking goes: if independence was the goal of gedli and the murderous shabeia represents gedli, then the entire gedli enterprise must have been a useless undertaking.
This is of course totally absurd and tells us more about the effectiveness of Shaebia’s propaganda than anything else. Contrary to Shaebia pontification, neither Shaebia nor ELF would have been able to win a single battle let alone independence without the active and full participation of Eritrean people of all ranks. In other words, Independence was a collective achievement in which the country as a whole took part. Whatever the private inclination of individuals and whatever mistakes/crimes were committed by ELF or EPLF during the grim struggle for independence, it is the spirit of Eritreans that steadfastly remained on the path (or that kept returning to it) that finally led to independence.
It is undoubtedly true that we have seen nothing but misery and suffering since independence but that does not take away anything from the intrinsic value of independence. If a child is holding an ice cream cone in its hands and another child snatches it away, does that diminish the value or sweetness of the ice cream? Of course not! Similarly, irrespective of whether a devilish jinni or an angelic being ended up popping out of the independence bottle, its historicity and significance as an important milestone in Eritrean history should always be recognized and valued. Just as a boxer who won over an opponent should not minimize his victory just because he now faces a new opponent, Eritreans should never undermine their significant victory over occupation just because they now face a home-grown tyrant. (Note that I am referring here to “victory over occupation” not advocating gloating over or against Ethiopians.)
The motivation to struggle for independence springs from a lofty inner drive and is a purely human characteristic and can be regarded as an advanced trait even within the human species. No other creature can reach this level of altruistic sophistication. Imagine explaining to a chimpanzee why colossal sacrifices would be justifiable in the quest for freedom! One hopes, however, that humans at least can appreciate these sentiments in others even if they themselves are unable to conceptualize or experience it.
Independence thus – as a victory over occupation – is a grand achievement but it is not something we can put on the scale to measure against the sacrifices it demanded. Eritrean people as a whole were willing to pay whatever price independence demanded and 22 years ago, the goal was achieved when Eritrea became a nation. Two years later on May 28, 1993, Eritrea became the 182nd member of the United Nations.
What is odd about the Eritrean condition 22 years after independence is the fact that despite the exponential growth in the number of Eritreans that oppose the regime, a corresponding increase in the morale and spirit of the resistance movement did not occur. Enthusiasm and confidence remains low or unchanged.
Napoleon famously remarked that “an army marches on its stomach”. An army can also be said to march on its attitudes. A resistance movement cannot achieve much without a high dose of confidence, enthusiasm, and belief in its ability to succeed. In the case of Eritrea, the opposition’s lack of confidence has its origins in shaebia’s vicious, cruel, and sustained propaganda against it which the latter unfortunately seems to have internalized over the years so much so that the regime need not do anything anymore because the opposition is doing a marvelous job all by itself. One almost never hears positive or hopeful thoughts from within the opposition or from without while an avalanche of negativity is constantly hurled at it from all sides. Is it any wonder then that the opposition has not made great strides forward in the two plus decades of captivity?
This erosion of self-esteem has emboldened and made it easy for the predators-in-waiting to pounce upon the weak, the defeated and demoralized Eritreans and to further strip them of whatever faith is left in them about themselves and their country. Softened by many years of defeatist mentality, the demoralized are no match to the subtle manipulations of the smooth talking pretenders and end up succumbing. To their dazed minds, they will even appear free thinking bold individuals and the more boldly and freely they attack Eritrea and Eritreans, the more heroic they will seem in their eyes.
To stop such marauders in their tracks, we need to stop the endless pessimism and seek instead ways of strengthening the resistance. The Forto uprising failed but it showed possibilities and it proved that people could rise and revolt even under extremely difficult conditions. Just as in individuals, it is positive reinforcement and encouragement that leads to reform and improvement not constant nagging, wrangling or cynicism.
I am not one to advocate national arrogance. In fact, I have written critically against such tendencies fostered by EPLF/PFDJ. But I am also not for bashing Eritreans and their history either. Though we should fully acknowledge faults and crimes committed during revolutionary Gedli era, we run the risk of overstating them if we constantly focus on the less than savory aspects of our history. If we go back in history, what country can boast of a totally clean history? How many revolutions can we name that remained clean throughout their duration? We can find dark spots in almost every country we minutely examine as some Eritreans are doing with respect to Eritrea.
Take the US history for example (the country we so admire today). Someone could assert that it was foundationally evil from its inception to this day by citing how the country was established by wiping out indigenous people and how it continued to traffic in slave labor for centuries and how even the founders were slave holders. Racism, income inequality, crime, corruption in Government and a lot of other examples may be given. But such characterization would be skewed and very unfair to the US history and its people. Wouldn’t it?
A similar cool-headed understanding of the Eritrea’s condition is needed if we are to have a comprehensive understanding of Eritrea and its people. As a people, we found ourselves in some difficult circumstances that history weaved around us and we continue to strive within those limited parameters. Considering our cultural, educational, and civilizational level, I think we can even pat ourselves in the back.
There were a lot of bad Eritreans for sure but the vast majority has always been decent and good though they may have been misled, powerless or confused at various times in our history. This is true not only about Eritreans but is an axiom about humans that most sociologists and psychologists would attest to and to a certain extent provable by crime statistics that shows that they are committed by a tiny minority of people. So, let us reclaim faith in ourselves and let us resist all attempts to make us loathe ourselves as a people. If we are to defeat the dictatorship, attitude change is an absolute must! If we can’t come up with our own, let us adapt Jesse Jackson’s “Keep hope alive!” or better yet, Obama’s “Yes we can!”