Let’s start with the word itself: Reform, a word often misused and misunderstood. The truth is, when it comes to Eritrea and Eritreans, the meaning of the word ‘reform’ depends on who you ask and the context of what one is talking about. In this case, when we are talking about reform, it doesn’t mean making some cosmetic changes while keeping Isaias Afeworki’s dictatorial system in place. As far as I am concerned, that system needs to be placed in a toilet and flushed; and that toilet needs to be placed in a bigger toilet and flushed as well!
The word ‘reform’ simply means to improve upon, to reorganize, to restructure, to upgrade, to restore, to modernize or to transform. It essentially means to change something for the better. God knows Eritrea needs change and that change needs to happen right now. But unless it is preceded by a sensible reformation of our way of thinking, our way of doing, our expectations and our perspectives, the change we dearly need may not be for the better. In reality-land, there are no toilets to flush or trees to uproot. There are just a series of incremental small decisions that individuals decide to do that will nudge the country’s direction toward what it potentially can be so that the deferred dream can be realized. And yes, unlike what some would have us believe, the Eritrean story is way more complex than its current dictator. There is a deferred dream; an Eritrean covenant waiting to be realized.
For justice, equality and rule of law to prevail, the country needs to reform. Let’s face it, just like most people around the world, given the choice, the Eritrean public would also choose security and stability over freedom. There is nothing unique about this phenomenon. The status quo only benefits the dictator and the hardliners who make perpetual excuse for his actions and failures. There are also hardliner on the opposition side who inadvertently feed the machine of tyranny by providing it with the perfect fodder to fuel its declared reason to exist and continue.
What is missing from this picture is the voice of the moderates who are vast in number but are outshouted and turned off by the choices they face. They have seen what an extremist junta can do once it ascends to power: intolerance, exclusion, zealotry and violence follow. When the alternative does not look viable, credible or realistic at best, and exhibits similar tendencies of intolerance and violence, it is also natural for the public to choose not to invest fully in what is required to bring about change.
The new set of realities we now face call for transformative ideas not only about how the country is governed but also about how its people relate to one another. The false dichotomy of government supporters vs democracy seeking opposition is neither based on truth nor are there a stark black and white choices. In reality, there are extremists and hardliner on both sides of the fence and so far, they have drowned-out the voices of the reasonable voices and moderate ideas which are endorsed by a vast majority.
In order to give a chance for the political moderates within the Eritrean society to rise, we need to usher an era of reform, which can fundamentally change our perspectives, become forward looking and hasten the downfall of the tyrannical rule in our country.
So, how do we get this reform thing jump-started and going?
Of Groups and Individuals
Well … for starters, let’s get one more notion clarified first in case it creates ambiguity about whom or what entity is obliged to reform. It involves individuals and groups. Can organized groups reform without reforming their rank and file members and the leadership they believe in and follow? Do we reform institutions, groups or individuals? What’s a group anyway?
“Any group or collective, large or small, is only a number of individuals. A group can have no rights other than the rights of its individual members” observed the famous novelist, philosopher and staunch defender of individual rights, Ayn Rand (don’t worry; I am not going to preach her Objectivity philosophy here). However, her point about the relationship of groups and individuals is well taken and we can say the same thing about responsibilities as well. Let’s modify the second sentence then. “…A group can have no obligation other than the obligation of its individual members.”
Needless to say, I am stating the obvious here. Of course it is individuals, who have the natural capacity (brains) to reform, mend their ways and make better decisions. The groups individuals create and belong to are only as good or as bad as its members. Therefore, for the sake of this article let’s address the issues facing Eritrea as individual citizens of a country and not as members of any social or political sub-groups that are after all, setup to do the things that individuals cannot do all on their own.
When all is said and done, obligations, just like rights are also the domain of individuals. A corrupt, abusive, unjust, unlawful, dictatorial and cruel system survives only when its orders and actions are conceived and carried out by individual members. The abuser (the perpetrator, enforcer, enabler) and the abused are both individuals. In the Eritrean case, members of the same family are often found on each side of the proverbial fence that separates the jailer and the inmate – as personal and as individual as it gets.
If the field of abusers and victims is indeed made of individuals, then so is the field of activist and change-seekers who speak on behalf of themselves and those who are rendered voiceless. We are all individuals “…born free and equal in dignity and rights” as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Democracy – rule of the people – is ultimately about civil rights of free individuals.
Everything that makes up a community, society, group, family or even a couple of people is affected and effected at the individual level. Individuals are real; everything else is what individuals make up to make sense of life and serve their existence. At least that is the idea. However, in the hyper-organized world we live in, individuality and individual voices are lost in the ocean of self-identifying or group-imposed identities and labels. We belong to families, tribes, clans, villages, regions, zones, sub-zones, religions, denominations, civil societies, linguistic groups, armed groups, militias, refugees, political parties, opposition groups, pro-government cliques, liberation era fraternities, alliances, coalitions and factions.
You may be wondering: Why make so much fuss about individuality; and why at this time?
Because, one cannot talk about truly reforming something, without individuals taking personal responsibility for it. Reformation – change for the better – is best done without hiding behind the façade of group identity. The alternative to Individuality is Conformity – the act of submitting ones thoughts, attitudes and actions to the unsaid rules and customs of a group for the sake of the feeling of belongingness and being accepted by a social group. When we, as human beings (individuals) are infected with this dangerous bug, we start acting in such a way that is usually detrimental to ourselves, our community and our nation. People get lured into supporting dictatorships because they slowly trade their individuality to conformity. Before you know it, they are hauling away their own mother for unspecified acts of treason against the state (group).
The change-seeking opposition also suffers from the same ailment. Conformity and identity politics are often set forth ahead of a broad-based movement grounded in individuality and democratic rights. The result is an ever fragmented movement without a mass appeal and with lackluster outcomes.
So, who needs to reform?
If we truly love our county, we all do.
If you are part of the dictatorial machine that is causing so much pain and gutting the country of its able generation, you need to reform your way.
If you are an enabler and cheerleader of the disastrous policies of the Eritrean government, believing that it’s your patriotic duty, you need to reform.
If you belong to the “silent majority” who refuse to get involved and speak up until the perfect environment is created for you, you need to reform.
If you are a member of the organized opposition who haven’t managed to convince the masses to follow your calls, you need to reform.
Dawn of the Eritrean Spring
Unlike the rapidly moving and mesmerizing Arab Spring of the Middle East and North Africa, mostly likely, change in Eritrea is not going to involve masses of people occupying city squares for days on end demanding for the dictator to resign. Indeed, there was a window of opportunity in the past few years where a momentum for genuine, independent and grassroots supported movement was building up. Alas, that window is now behind us.
For better or worse, the Arab Spring has left us with a trail of lessons. Those of us who were overly optimistic took the narrative of region-wide birth of liberal democracy and prayed the good omens would lead to the toppling of our own tyrant. Who knew extremists of every stripe would rise like hydra heads to replace outgoing dictators? In the Arab world, the violence and bloodshed of innocent civilians that keeps spilling to this day has left the world in shock and caused it to shift from idealism toward realism and pragmatism.
Eritreans are also watching and learning and probably terrified at the prospect of a similar faith. When a confluence of events and circumstances – often negative and unpredictable – come together it is said to be a “perfect storm”, a term made more popular by the movie of the same title. Unless something is done to prepare for and avoid the consequences of Eritrea’s looming perfect storm, the country that paid so much blood to be independent is in real danger. The sudden exit of a dictator, pent up anger from years of suppression, a militarized and armed society, lack of a mechanism for peaceful transition of government, an unsustainable economic system that is near collapse, identities based on administrative region and sub-national affinities, interests of neighboring countries, the general aura of mistrust among Eritrean communities and the fanning of flames by misguided opportunists, will likely result in a chaotic situation that no one will be able to manage, if we leave things to chances. That’s basically the familiar recipe of mayhem and the vicious cycle of violence of countries in transition.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If there are recipes for chaos and anarchy, then there are recipes for peace, order and stability as well. For that to be given a chance however, every Eritrean needs to ask themselves if they are doing their patriotic duty instead of hiding behind a wall of lame excuses in order to support dictatorship or endorse uncalled for violent remedies in the name of democratization.
It may be close to evolution than revolution but the call for change, reformation and renewal from within the country is tangible. For the most part, most Eritreans have rejected the idea of interference by outside forces and the idea of Eritreans solving their own problems by focusing on change from inside the country is now accepted widely. What remains to be seen as things unfold is whether the transition will be as bloodless as possible or if it would suddenly turn for the worst as we continue to see in our region.
No country is immune from the Somalia Siad Barre left after 1991 or what we have witnessed in the Congo, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and many other nations around the globe who find themselves embroiled in bloody confrontations to fill a power vacuum. Can Eritrea avoid this dangerous fate? Well, it depends on what we, her citizens, decide to do or not to do at this critical juncture. It depends if the majority of our people will keep silent as the regime pushes things toward the brink of disaster. It depends if those who are in a position to stop the dictator take a decisive action before it is too late. It depends if the opposition can present itself as a viable, independent, responsible and sane alternative. It depends if individual citizens are capable of reforming their way and changing for the better.
So, what can you and I do as individuals to increase the probability of sustainable change that would lead toward stability and democratic transition? Here are three suggestions.
- Defend Sovereignty Because it Matters
Even in one-man autocracies such as today’s Eritrea, national sovereignty is not debatable. Period. Sovereignty is quite a simple idea: Eritrea is an independent nation; therefore it is up to its citizens only to deal with internal political issues such as regime change. In extreme cases, the world community, under the auspices of the UN may intervene for humanitarian purposes. At this time, there is nothing near that to warrant direct intervention be it from world bodies or neighboring counties.
As the recent alleged incident at one of the Bisha Mining sites shows, perhaps out of frustration or short-sightedness, some Eritreans are still pinning their hopes on a possible Ethiopian military intervention. This will only complicate matters in the region and clearly prolong dictatorship. But more importantly, the Ethiopians have absolutely no right to illegal invade the Eritrean land or airspace. If the recent story has any merit, it should be denounced without ifs and or buts.
- Get Rid of Wing Nuts
Here is a nice definition of what a Wing Nut is: “Ideological extremist from either side of the political spectrum who unquestioningly repeats any and all propaganda and/or conspiracy theories propagated by their side of the political spectrum, no matter how unlikely.” It looks very familiar, doesn’t it? Every society has its own version of Wing Nuts but for anyone who follow Eritrean politics even causally, it is clear that the loudest voices are those of the Wing Nuts. They are the zealots who use our fears, half-truths and bigotry to sow hatred, division, prejudice and clashes. Their tactic usually involves in convincing you that the rest of your countrymen are out there to get you and you should do something about it.
So, what do we do about Wing Nuts?
Here is what a dear friend – a liberation era tegadalay who now lives in the US – told me he did when someone visited him at home to preach to him about joining a region-based political association of ex-freedom fighters. “I grabbed him by the collar, pinned him against the wall and unequivocally told him that I did not spend half my life fighting for Eritrea’s independence to be part of this rubbish!” Ah, despite the melodrama of story-telling-the-Eritrean-way (and I spared you the sound effects that go with it), I simply love what the message he was conveying. We cannot afford for our genuine desire for democratic change to be hijacked by short-sighted sectarian Wing Nuts – no which corner of the political spectrum they claim to represent.
- Pay Attention to Demographics
It may be a cliché to say that the future belongs to our children but no matter how we slice it, the wave of demographic change should be part of our reality. Just like the rest of Sub-Saharan African countries, Eritrea has a relatively young population. The median age is only around 18. Which means, half of Eritrea’s current population is younger than 18.
That’s why no matter what our core beliefs are, they must accommodate the future needs of today’s young and help them live a life of progress, normalcy and national harmony. To reform means to love the next generation more than your current agenda. Consider the following stats and decide in what ways YOU want to reform your circle of influence.
If you are 15 years old, 40% of Eritreans are younger than you.
If you are 25 years old, 62% of Eritreans are younger than you.
If you are 40 years old, 70% of Eritreans are younger than you
If you are 65 years old, 97% of Eritreans are younger than you.
I hope reconciliation, compromise, healing and forgiveness are part of your vocabulary. For some, to beat the drumbeat of unnecessary war and violence may be their way of showing how disgusted they are with the current system. However, the duty to the next generation requires all of us to look inward, consider their future and reform our ways today.
You have a choice. If you love your country, don’t burn it, reform it.
Disclaimer: The above post is my personal opinion and does not represent the official position of any organization or entity I am associated with.