Friday, May 24, marked the 28th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia -Eritrea’s proudest and happiest moment when it finally threw off the shackles of colonialism once and for all. The memory evokes in us a sense of liberty and freedom, but as we learned from bitter experience independence does not equal freedom. While freedom is impossible without independence, one can have independence without freedom. On May 24, 1991, Eritreans did not become free. What happened then is simply a transfer of state power & its organs from one entity to another. In other words, ownership of the land called Eritrea and its administration changed hands from a foreign entity (the Derg) to a domestic one (EPLF). In fortunate countries, independence is quickly followed by an era of freedom. Unfortunately, it didn’t in Eritrea though for a while after independence, such a scenario had seemed possible when EPLF, firmly ensconced in power, solemnly declared:
“The people of Eritrea have forever altered the course of Eritrean history and launched a new phase in the struggle for democracy, equality and freedom” (Eritrea: Birth of a Nation, 1993)
It soon became evident, however, that the above were empty platitudes that EPLF never intended to honor. Far from fulfilling the above promise, EPLF/PFDJ/GOE launched a reign of terror that in terms of sheer brutality and savagery arguably surpassed the worst years of Derg and Haile Selassie regimes combined. Victims of occupation throughout their history, Eritreans are not strangers to suffering but in no period in their long history was their misery self-inflicted as was the case in the years after independence. Twenty-eight years after independence, Eritreans are still searching for the ultimate fulfillment of their aspirations. Alas, the day they commemorate territorial independence is also the day they commiserate the dictatorship that gobbled it whole. It is thus with a heavy heart and mind-numbing frustration that Eritreans reminisce this Independence Day anniversary while also lamenting the great opportunity that was lost in the “post-independence” era. Picture this for a moment:
Eritrea is free. Not just independent but also free. Gracious in triumph, EPLF has invited all Eritreans including former ELF leadership & fighters to return to Eritrea. Responding to the call and eager to serve the country they have longed for years, refugees & expatriates flock back to Eritrea flooding the country with talent, wealth, and experience. Eritrean government cedes power to a civilian government and an inclusive constitution is ratified & implemented. Trade, farming, and businesses flourish as never before. A new, vigorous, and healthy political debate rages on in the country, but all sides are unarmed. Citizens roam freely from one corner of Eritrea to the other secure in their persons and property. Parents bring up their children in peace and sleep soundly confident in the knowledge that their children will be there when they wake up. Carefree, teenage boys and girls prance about playing, learning, and blossoming into fine adults under the loving care of their parents. Independent and free, Eritrea breathes contentedly and is at peace with itself and its neighbors.
That in brief is the golden opportunity that was lost in the post-independence era. It all sounds like a fantasy world, doesn’t it? In reality, this is nothing but a straightforward depiction of basic privileges that every nation deserves & should enjoy. Yet, how far away and impossible such a vision appears to us today! Far from roaming freely across the land, Eritrean citizens cannot even step into or out of their own doorstep without risking arbitrary arrest, abduction, or death. Parents, if they are lucky at all to escape jail, must nonetheless face the nightmarish ordeal of constantly worrying about their young ones frittering away their tender years in virtual slave camps.
After almost 3 decades, the nightmare has not abated, and the brutal dictatorship stands today just as it did in 1991. This ability to retain power despite facing widespread & massive antipathy is one of the most frustrating aspects of a dictatorship. A handful fawning sycophants; a brutal security apparatus; a propaganda infrastructure; and an ever-shifting chain of command is all a dictator needs to stay afloat. Terrifyingly effective, these set of techniques constitute one of the reasons modern dictatorships like ours last as long as they do. Be that as it may, no dictator can indefinitely stave off an eventual doom even when an opposition is weak or absent. Years of reckless mismanagement will take its toll; an internal decay will set in; a day of reckoning will arrive, and the dictator will be no more. With each day that passes, such a situation is closing in on us rapidly. Naturally or forcibly, the end of Isayas’s regime as we have known it is fast approaching and a post-Isayas Eritrea is beckoning us with a pressing but mocking question: now what?
For Eritreans who have been praying for decades for an end to this vicious dictatorship, such a prospect is understandably pleasing. Many envision an era of democratization and other wonderful things to appear once he is gone. “Nsu Ykidelna ember, kulu neger kei’rey eyu” (once he is gone, things will be better/fixed) is a familiar refrain. No doubt such a sentiment emanates from the realization that the opposition (and our people as whole) are for democracy and the rule of law. That is why most of our discussions in the past have revolved around what form of democratic government will be best for Eritrea presupposing that the fall of the regime will automatically usher a stable democratic Eritrea.
But what is the basis for such a belief? Undoubtedly, Isayas is the primary source for many of our ills but a lot of it has to do – we must own – with our weaknesses too. In one form or another, we enabled, prolonged, and precipitated the current state of affairs. As painful as it is, we must therefore ask the question: if we have been unable to effectively manage and organize the opposition right here and now, what makes us think that we will succeed in establishing a vibrant democracy in a post-Isayas Eritrea? What makes us believe that the host of problems that are keeping us from forming an effective resistance force today (egoism, regionalism, mistrust, lack of negotiation skills etc…) will not hamper or frustrate our efforts at democratization in a post-Isayas Eritrea?
The more I ponder over the plight of the opposition (or of Eritreans in general) the more convinced I become that it is not lack of resources or know-how that is crippling the opposition from moving forward and becoming an effective force. Nor can we find sufficient explanation in the military superiority of the dictatorship. Once a mighty force, Eritrean military is a spent force due to lack of motivation and a cause to believe in. Moreover, many in the military are desperate for a way out and will willingly switch sides at the slightest opportunity because they are also tired of the oppressive dictatorship.
So, what is the root of our problems? I think the answer is to be found in the intangible realm of attitudes, behaviors, and habits of thinking. Eritreans must develop new habits of thinking and behaving that are conducive to securing a lasting democratic polity before the looming collapse of the current regime because installing a new democracy will be useless if we cannot sustain it. What are some of these behavioral traits that are conducive to sustaining a democratic government? At a minimum, we need to acquire the following traits:
1. Negotiation skills
Deficiency in the art of conflict resolution is discernible throughout Eritrean history. A lot of the current opposition’s weakness is also attributable to this deficiency. Eritreans have little tolerance for negotiation and reconciliation due to an erroneous belief that negotiation equals weakness surrender but to negotiate is not to surrender. It simply means each side recognizes the needs of others and tries its very best to accommodate the reasonable demands of all parties. In most cases, it is a win-win strategy. Inability to negotiate can have grave consequences and often leads to chaos and disintegration of societies. It is imperative therefore that our political leaders familiarize themselves with the art of intelligent negotiation. They must learn the art of mutually respectful disputation where arguments proceed vigorously (even to the point of almost coming to blows figuratively speaking) and then be able to shake hands amicably. It is a game that all democracies must learn to play to survive. The sooner we master it, the better our future.
2. Critical and independent thinking
Lack of critical and independent thinking is among the reasons Isaya’s dictatorship was able to shape public opinion for decades in its favor. Critical thinking implies that we do not accept claims without subjecting them to careful scrutiny and that we are not swayed by smooth talking charlatans who appeal to our latent prejudices and biases. Independent thinking on the other hand connotes that we are willing to think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions – not by mimicking others but by energetic reasoning & deep reflection. Of all the traits we discuss here, this may well be the most difficult of attainment in these days of social-media-saturated-world where every Tom, Dick, and Harry – even imbeciles- can reach multitudes with a slanted & poisonous message. Nonetheless, it is vital we develop this skill.
3. Produce and honor leaders
In Shakespeare’s world, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Whether born or made, leaders are always crucial to the success of any group effort. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of all successful resistance movements is the presence of at least one forceful leader with a vision. Unfortunately, no such leader has emerged in Eritrea. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that leaders will appear at some point or will be chosen and when they do, we must respect and honor them even if they are mediocre
4. Be an intelligent follower
Leaders, however brilliant, are never all-powerful. They have no power to transform dormant multitudes into a dynamic force. There must be receptiveness and a degree of discipline in followers so that men of vision can arise and galvanize the masses. Unfortunately, deep disappointment in their leaders has developed a general apathy and mistrust in our people of any would-be leader. Both ELF leaders that abandoned their followers at a critical period and EPLF that continues to terrorize its own followers and other Eritreans were instrumental in causing such a chasm between potential leaders and followers. If Eritreans are to heal, we must unlearn such attitudes if we are to surmount the challenges of a post-Isyas Eritrea.
5. Let bygones be bygones – Stop living in the past
Former EPLFers should mentally bid adieu to EPLF/PFDJ once & for all and abandon all dreams of preserving EPLF. ELFers should likewise stop living in the past and firmly ground themselves in the present with their gaze fixed on the future. This does not mean we forget the past, our heroes, or martyrs. No. It just means we need to minimize dwelling on the past & concentrate on creating a new future.
6. Avoid trivialities & shun pettiness.
An example of pettiness is showing off or bragging about your abilities or the virtues of your ancestors, tribe, or region. You may not realize it as you engage in them, but you are indulging in subtle racism. Within bounds, pride in ancestry and country is probably harmless but it is easy to cross the line and move towards racism. If your ancestors excelled in certain virtues don’t delude yourself into thinking they are innately endowed. Complex set of factors are responsible for making us what we are. Beyond that scientists do not have a definitive explanation of how genetics & environment interact to make us who we are. Perhaps, they never will. Another example of pettiness is wasting time and energy arguing over things that have been universally accepted such as the issue of Arabic/Tigrigna. This historically cemented consensus cannot be reversed without risking an ugly civil war. So leave it alone at least for now.
7. Fight egotism
Anyone who has ever attended a large Eritrean gathering will be simultaneously impressed & appalled by the oratorical eloquence that grace the average Eritrean and the rampant egotism that often drive respectively. Ego-driven politics have been one of the hidden stumbling blocks to unity throughout recent Eritrean history but if we insist on ego-less politicians, we will be running around futilely with a lamp like Diogenes. Rather, our goal should be to keep out from vital positions those politicians whose ego is out of control (a perfect example is Pres. Donald Trump).
8. Embrace Diversity and tolerance
What does it mean to embrace diversity? It is primarily an attitude that is deeply rooted in the essential equality of all human beings and societies. To embrace diversity means to genuinely believe that differences among human beings and societies are not innate but the product of complex interaction of genes and environment. It is to recognize that none of us choose to be born in a family, society, or continent in which we find ourselves. Recognizing this should make us tolerant of other people’s beliefs and cultures. This is difficult but an essential prerequisite if we are serious about democracy.
The above of course is not a full list but if we could faithfully adapt even some in this partial list, we would go a long way towards ensuring a better future. But these traits will mean little if they are not complemented by a healthy dose of morality. I have always maintained that democracy without morality cannot thrive or survive for long. This is just common sense. The entire edifice of democratic governance is built on the presumption that citizens will behave responsibly and with integrity. If an official can be bought or lobbyists can sway lawmakers, it vitiates the vitality and reliability of democracy. What value can we derive from institutions (democratic or not) if those we appoint to manage them happen to be corrupt? Of what use are political laws and courts if politicians and judges can be bought? When liars and crooks are rampant, they can derail elections, rig ballots etc…
So, morality is not a ‘nice to have” prerogative for democracy but a ‘must have’ prerequisite. We may not be able to internalize all the above, but we must at least begin the journey of a deliberate process of continuous improvement and self-appraisal. As Benjamin Franklin put it “”be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each year find you a better man.” Nations after all are nothing but a collection of individuals. So, when we improve the character of the individual, we are also advancing the interests of the nation as a whole. If we can do so, a bright future of independence, democracy, and freedom awaits us in a post-Isayas Eritrea. If not, freedom will forever elude us. Ramadan Kareem & may the next Independence Day bring peace and freedom to all Eritreans.