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Ghedli Defamers And The Appeal Of Inevitability

In “Eritrea: the illusion of independence-liberation dichotomy” (, January 11), Zekre Lebonna attempts to frame the positions of the “gedli romanticizing” and “gedli de-romanticizing” writers debating the role of the Eritrean revolution in the creation of totalitarianism in Eritrea. Regretfully, however, the author, far from clarifying the issue, muddies it up by caricaturing and misrepresenting the arguments of one side and absolving  and trimming the sharp edges of the other side. This is another attempt to see if we can have a breakthrough or, at the very least, a respectful disagreement—one that doesn’t, in his words, “degenerate into issues of identity, belonging and conspiracy theories.”

I think if we are going to have an honest debate about this, it is helpful if we can summarize the main points of the person we are debating with. This is what I have tried to do in my two (three?) previous rebuttals to Yosief Ghebrehiwet; and I will do the same here. The idea is this: if I have failed to correctly capture the essence of my “opponents” arguments, then I am just engaging a straw man. That may be fun, but it doesn’t shed any light on the discussion.  Thus, the summary.

My understanding of Zekre Lebonna’s argument is this: (1) there is a direct link between the Eritrean revolution and the totalitarian state in Eritrea; (2) stating this relationship has outraged some because they believe there is no linkage between the revolution and the totalitarian state because (3) they make no “serious attempt” to study the programs of the fronts but (4) if they did, they would know that they had shifted from defining their mission as liberation (harnet) and not independence (natsnet) and so (5) all the lamentation on the absence of civil liberties, private sector, rule of law in independent Eritrea without noting that this was foreshadowed in the front is hypocrisy.

With all due respect to Zekre Lebonna, I think he is using a straw man. Let’s take his arguments one at a time:

1. Causality vs Inevitability

First of all, I cannot speak for all “Gedli romantics.” (And, by the way, please note that if you are bemoaning the degeneration of the debate, that dismissive phrase was begun by the other side.) Yes, there is a direct link between the Eritrean revolution (Gedli) and the totalitarian state of Eritrea. But, this is different from saying that totalitarianism in Eritrea is an inevitable outcome of the Eritrean revolution. This reverse engineering is the biggest flaw in the argument of the Gedli-defamers. It is like saying having TB makes having AIDS inevitable simply because you looked at people with AIDS and noticed they suffer from TB.  More on this later.

2. Outrage vs Righteous Indignation

I wasn’t—and I don’t know anybody who was—outraged by the claim that there is a direct relationship between the political culture of the Gedli and the totalitarian state of Eritrea.  Not to burst the bubble of the “Gedli defamers”, but they are late to the party and many have been saying this before them.  Some of them were saying it decades ago when they proclaimed that “an Eritrea that becomes independent by the hands of the EPLF is an Eritrea not worth having.” The outrage—actually, the righteous indignation—started when the the price paid for Independent Eritrea was questioned—strongly implying that the martyrs died for nothing.  More than the statement was the tone: it wasn’t uttered in sadness but in a matter-of-fact, insensitive manner.  To this was then added all the greatest vacuous hits of the Gedli defamers: that the founders of Gedli were not enlightened folk, that they were accidental revolutionaries at best; Islamists, Arabists and mass murderers at worst; that there was nothing that justified Eritreans’ demanding independence to begin with; that, in any event, there was no popular support for the Revolution, etc.  In short, the righteous indignation comes from the character assassination and claim that there wasn’t a single redeeming quality about the Gedli.

3. Programs of the Fronts

For most of their existence, the liberation fronts (or at least the secret parties which acted as vanguard movements) were Marxist-Leninist organizations, which advocated for the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This meant emulating as heroes monsters like Lenin, Mao, and Kim Il-Sung. Yes, to be sure, there were some who—on principle—opposed the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and paid for their principles in the dungeons of the two fronts.  Some–particularly in the ELF–left the field saying, “this is not what I signed up for: I picked arms to remove Ethiopian occupation, not to socially engineer my people.”  However, is there really a serious question that during the time in question—the 1970s and the 1980s—that not just Eritrea but that most of the Third World truly believed in the promise of communism?  Yes, the programs, as Zekre Lebonna’s attachment shows, did foreshadow the coming oppression—but, until the late 1980s, it was part of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that everybody had drunk the Kool Aid on. What percentage of Eritreans, then, had a problem with the EPLF saying that it would “strictly oppose all the imperialist-created new counter-revolutionary faiths, such as Jehovas’ Witness, PenteCostal, Bahai, –etc.” What percentage of Eritreans, then, had a problem with the ELF condemning homosexuals to death?  This is not to excuse the cruelty of some of the decisions but to put them in the context of the zeitgeist then.

But, while we are on the subject, is there any question that, by the late 1980s, especially after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Eritrean Gedli—just like the rest of the formerly communism-infatuated world—had given up on communism? In fact, the EPLF had credibility on the issue because it had, in 1987, that is two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, promulgated in its congress that its objective is to  “establish a People’s Democratic State” and that the state will “protect the democratic rights of freedom of speech, the press, assembly, worship and peaceful demonstration…”

Were these just words placed on a piece of paper or were they going to be acted on?  Did the combatants demand assurances that the organization would protect the people’s democratic rights? Yes, they did. (And I believe I translated a copy of an interview where combatants specifically ask the question, and the then Secretary General, after the usual hemming and hawing, gives assurances that the Front would live up to its word: here)   They demanded—and got—the same assurances (if a bit watered down, after Isaias Afwerki conducted his first coup) in the PFDJ congress of 1994.

Beyond demanding their right, did they act on it? Yes, they did at a time when they believed they had maximum leverage: when the eyes of the world were fixed on Eritrea as it prepared for the referendum in 1993. They were mowed down. Some have attempted to dismiss this demonstration by the combatants as a simple case of people demanding better pay and better living conditions and that it had nothing to do with political rights. This, unfortunately, demonstrates ignorance of most revolutions:  the trigger for the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selasse was that soldiers were not allowed to drink water from the officer’s well.  And we all know the trigger for Tunisian revolution.

A point that keeps getting forgotten is the good-will that had been amassed by the EPLF and its leadership then.  To set on a mission—to kick Ethiopian occupying army—and then to actually deliver when the whole world tells you that you can’t, gets you instant—and lasting—credibility. To execute a referendum in the exact same manner that you said you would—when you offered referendum as a way out to Ethiopians and they rejected it decades earlier—earns you credibility. To put together a constitutional commission and to engage the people gets you credibility and goodwill. To commit to a spartan lifestyle commensurate with the meager resources of your country earns you more credibility and goodwill.  This is the context that is always missing from the Gedli-defamers.

4. Independence vs Liberty

I don’t much disagree with the appraisal of Zekre Lebonna and I appreciate that he did something that is never done by the Gedli-defamers: placing things in context.  The Eritrean Gedli, just like every other national liberation movement, was not content just to bring about Eritrean independence (natsnet), but the liberation (harnet) of the people from “reactionary way of thinking.” They were influenced by the liberation fronts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, etc. Military training went hand-in-hand with “political orientation” (which was actually indoctrination):  the bourgeoisie had to strip themselves from their class (their way of thinking), the traditional ones had to reconsider the importance of their faith; the women had to be reassured that they were undergoing double of oppression (at the hands of the oppressive enemy and the male gender), etc.  And anybody who attempted to deviate from this group-think was interrogated, tortured, re-educated, rehabilitated (if lucky) or killed.

There is no disagreement here between the “Gedli romantics” and the “Gedli defamers” on what actually happened. The difference is in the conclusions drawn. The Gedli romantics believe that those who lived this daily knew that it was a terrible thing but something that had to be endured for a bigger cause: that of defeating Ethiopia’s occupying army. The Ghedli defamers believe that this was simply a training ground—a prossimo momento—for what would happen in Independent Eritrea.  It ensured its inevitability. The Ghedli defamers are wrong for the following reason:

5.  Timing/Purpose vs Foreshadowing

Did the absence of civil liberties, rule of law, and disrespect for private property in the field during Ghedli necessarily foreshadow that that would happen in Independent Eritrea? To me, this is exactly like looking at person who fasts for religious purposes and then saying, later, when you meet the same person really suffering from an eating disorder, “yes, I always knew it!”

To simplify things, an American citizen who enlists in the US Army does not have the same rights as a person who works at McDonald’s. The US Army limits the enlisted soldiers freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly.  It tells him when to get up, when to sleep, and his life is regimented. The enlisted soldier (not necessarily voluntarily by the way: one of the frequent harping of the gedli defamers is that people were “drafted against their will! Shock! Horror!” Of course, this means nothing to those who know the history of all wars, including the most noble wars, are full of involuntary recruits) knows that there is a purpose for his limited rights and that it will last for a given duration (their youth, in the case of the Tegadelti.)

Does lack of civil liberties, rule of law, and disrespect for private property during a revolutionary period automatically make totalitarianism inevitable? Well, let’s see: there were three organizations that we can compare and contrast: the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF.)

An American journalist (John Duggan) who had visited the Eritrean field liberated by the two fronts in 1978 had this to say:

When I left the EPLF zone and got back to Port Sudan, I felt as though I had just gotten out of prison…the EPLF is a really repressive organization with no internal democracy…During my stay there, I did not hear a single complaint or criticism of anything in the EPLF organization or its line.  I stress,  not once from anybody… This is not so in the ELF.”

So here, the ELF was trying to show that its chaotic organization was less repressive than the EPLF. The same year the ELF was celebrating its lack of repression by publishing this excerpt from the American journalist (Eritrean Newsletter, January 1982), it disintegrated—largely because of its so-called “internal contradictions.” So, “more repression” would probably have ensured its viability?  Many of the fragmented ELF-ers certainly believed so and tried to recreate a “more repressive” organization from the egg shells.

In 1978, when the American journalist was making his assessment of the ELF and the EPLF, the TPLF was only four years old.   Now, the TPLF (as I am fond of saying) copied everything from the EPLF: how it organized itself—its central committee, its executive committee, its political orientation, its slogans, its repressive security apparatus, its tendency to mow down its competitors, down to the last detail of the emblem with the yellow star. So, the question is: if it is inevitable that a repressive liberation organization presides over a totalitarian state, why isn’t Ethiopia a totalitarian state?

My answer—and that of the “Gedli romantics”—is that it is not inevitable. I believe that this has a lot to do with the dynamics of the state in question and, topping all of them, is the intent and capacity of its leadership. For example, if the G-15 had prevailed in 2001, we can make many assumptions of what kind of state we would have, but it would not have been a totalitarian state despite the fact that the G-15 were also products of the dreaded “Gedli.”  Why?  Consider: ANC…

One thing I admire about what Zekre Lebonna has done is to introduce context and comparison with other organizations.  In his case, he brought the story of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge to make his point that the early warning signs of totalitarian states are visible in their revolutionary stage. But similar alarming conclusions were made about the African National Congress (ANC)—especially when Winnie Mandela was “necklacing” South Africans– about Mugabe by white Rhodesians; about every African liberation organization. Some materialized, some didn’t.  Some reformed and made the transition to some version of a liberal democracy; some didn’t. To claim that totalitarianism in Eritrea was the only outcome given the experiences in Gedli is a fatalist outlook: one that doesn’t believe in people—and organization’s—capacity for change. And, more importantly, one that disregards the history of Eritrea during Gedli and the ten years after independence.

I understand the appeal of inevitability to the Gedli Defamers. It absolves them of any responsibility for Eritrea’s totalitarian state: if it is inevitable that gedli would result in totalitarianism, why, then there is nothing that I could have done to prevent it and, mismatched as I am now, there is nothing that I can do to remove it. If only there was a bigger country, heavily armed, that has already proven it is more than a match…



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