Outrageous things happen in Eritrea all the time. But outrageous things have a scale and sometimes even people who have been conditioned to accept the outrageous as the normal are jolted. The refusal of Isaias Afwerki to allow the body of long-time (40 years) EPLF/PFDJ functionary Naizghi Kiflu to be returned to Eritrea for proper burial in his native country registers high on the Outrage Scale and whenever this happens sane people ask three questions: (1) What is President Isaias Afwerki thinking? (2) What are his followers thinking? (3) How will this thing be resolved? Of the three, the easiest one to answer is the last one—but only if you have been studying how all previous outrages have been “resolved.”
Now, before we get into that, I feel compelled to say two things. First, if you notice a certain level of detachment in my writing, it is not because I think that there is nothing wrong in denying burial rights to a comrade you have known, and has served you well, for 40 years. That courtesy should be extended even to your bitter enemies—how we treat the dead is one of the things that separate normal human beings from psychopaths. I just can’t fake outrage, because, knowing PFDJ, I am not outraged. Secondly, when I say Isaias Afwerki (and not PFDJ) is responsible for this latest outrage, I am not “personalizing the issue” as the inevitable emails will tell me: I have my reasons: when the country’s Foreign Minister, the ruling party’s Director of Political Affairs and Special Advisor to the President tell the family of the deceased [in the UK] that there is no need for the customary fundraising to arrange the burial because the State will take care of it, I have to assume that even they were not privy to Isaias Afwerki’s inner thoughts. That, or they were told to lie and say that to the grieving family: which is just as bad, and demonstrates again that it is one guy, Isaias Afwerki, who calls all the shots.
Now let’s tackle the questions in reverse order:
3. How Will This Thing Be Resolved?
Answer: the same way that every PFDJ crisis has been resolved. And how is that? Well, there is a science to it as some dude once explained in a 12-year old article called “Shaebia Kt’Haqiq Alewa.”
But before we get there, I am sure those of you who have taken Psychology 101 in college read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages Of Grief” as outlined in her book “On Death and Dying.” She says whenever we are confronted with grief—and, increasingly, psychologists are saying that it is not just about dying but about dealing with a major crisis—we go through five stages: denial (this isn’t happening!), anger (Why me! Or, in the words of Adel Imam, “yetlaEli assed! Dana b’khaf mn ‘lkelb!”), bargaining (Dear God, just let me dodge this bullet and I will do anything!), depression (Oh, why even try, it is pointless) and then acceptance (it is what it is.) Many of the Eritreans who seem to be completely unsurprised by anything that goes on in Eritrea are in Stage 5.
Now, lets compare this with Isaias Afwerki’s “Five Stages Of Crisis.” Stage 1: Stall. Stage 2: Do Nothing. Stage 3: Stall. Stage 4: Do Nothing. Stage 5: Express amazement that people are still talking about this old crisis. That case is closed! iti guday tewediu iyu:: Or, as he told a Qatari reporter for Al-Watan about a different crisis: “By God, I do not know about this issue. This issue can be considered forgotten!”
It is a craft he has perfected for 40 years and, from his standpoint, it works flawlessly so he has no interest in changing it at all. Whether it is, as Gebremedhin Zerizghi explained in his “Eyewitness To Eritrean History” about how he stalled the ELF leadership in 1970, or whether it is, as Aklilu Zere explained in his “Birth Of Despotism” how he stalled the EPLF leadership about MenkaE until 1976 and all the way to 2012, it is always the same.
Pick any crisis, any Outrage that has happened since then and try to recall how it was addressed:
The Yemeen movement. The blocking of the return of Eritrean refugees in Sudan. The deportation of Ethiopian families. The Mai Habar Massacre. The arrest of Islamic school teachers. The arrest and humiliation of University of Asmara students. The closure of the University of Asmara. The arrest of Eritrean journalists. The closure of Eritrean private press. The arrest of elderly Eritreans. The arrest of the G-15. The arrest of “non-traditional” church officials and the closure of the non-sanctioned churches. The cancellation of the December 2001 elections. The suspension of the constitution. The unseating and house arrest of the Eritrean Tewahdo Church patriarch.
Before they happened, each one of these incidents was considered unthinkable. Yeah, he may do this, went the smart thinking, but not that! But that is how he has always operated and like a general always using the element of surprise when he does do that, some of us still lose our footing.
To be sure, sometimes even Isaias Afwerki strays from the “say nothing” discipline. For example, when his government stripped the Eritrean citizenship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1994 for exercising their religious freedom and refusing to participate in the temporal activities of voting in the referendum and enlisting in the National Service, his radio station presented a blistering editorial expressing its annoyance at the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their advocates. But that’s the exception. The rest is the rule: and the rule works—for him, anyway. So, if you were, for example, to talk about the Last Big Crisis, the unseating and house arrest of the Eritrean patriarch, it would be you who would be shamed: where did you get this news? Who told you? Did you read it at the websites of the enemies of Eritrea? Why do you want to get involved in the internal affairs of the Church? Are you trying to introduce religious conflict to the exemplary and harmonious relationship our people are enjoying?
So, in six months time, when the Naizghi Kiflu issue becomes a distant memory, if you bring up the issue, it will be you who will be told: this is an old issue. It is settled. What exactly is your motive for bringing it up now? Why do you want to bring pain and agony to his family who are trying to heal? Are you that heartless? Who authorized you to speak on behalf of the family? Don’t you feel ashamed for pretending to have more concern for him than a man who knew him and was his friend for 40 years? Why are you repeating what the enemies of Eritrea are saying? Are you naïve or do you have evil intentions? How do you know he was not buried, in accordance with the wishes of his family and people closest to him?
But for the next six months, it will be total silence, at least officially. So the question will not be how long it will take for Isaias Afwerki to answer the “respectful question of the people” as meskerem.net put it; but how long will it take for meskerem.net to realize the futility of the campaign and remove the ticking clock? I think I am going to start my own ticking clock to see how long it takes for meskerem.net to remove its ticking clock. Clock starts: now!
But as far as Isaias Afwerki and issue of Naizghi Kiflu is concerned: iti guday tewediu iyu:: And if Naizghi’s wife decides to escalate the issue, she will be treated the way George Bush treated Cindy Sheehan (the mother who lost her son in the US-Iraq war.) It will begin with distant compassion (she is grieving and we will not argue with a grieving family member) followed by slow murmurs of: what is her motive? Why is she echoing the words of our enemies?
2. What Are His Followers Thinking?
Anytime some outrageous thing registers high on the Outrage Scale, there is the inevitable question of: why do the followers of Isaias Afwerki still follow him? Once the theories are floated (and they are never new theories, they are always theories that validate whatever it is we always believed), they are followed either by a pessimistic strain (“Oh, my God, if this doesn’t make them see The Light nothing will! They are just as complicit as he is!”) or an optimistic strain (“Finally! Even the most dense, the most stupid among them must now see that it is time to turn their backs against him!”)
But this is exactly what will happen:
One of the mistakes we often make is to believe that because Eritrea is so special to us, then our problems must also be so special, so unique. But they really aren’t. Isaias Afwerki is an authoritarian, and those who follow him are people who are attracted to authoritarians. And if you are thinking that EVEN by authoritarian standards Isaias Afwerki is an extremist, then you just have to acquaint yourself to all the oddballs that have walked the earth.
And how do fans of authoritarians behave? Well, before we answer that, let’s answer this question since most authoritarians and fans of authoritarians are in self-denial: is there some scientific way to know whether someone is a fan of authoritarianism? Yes, says Professor Bob Altemeyer (University of Manitoba) In his e-book, The Authoritarians (available online for free), he has a list of 24 questions that those of you who deny you are fans of authoritarians can take. It was prepared for Western audience, but many of the questions have universal application.
First a definition because he, mysteriously, calls all authoritarians “rightwing authoritarians”:
Someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.
In other words, you would be considered a “rightwing authoritarian” even if your politics were of left orientation but you were highly deferential and respectful and submissive to the left-wing government which is in charge. Got it? Ok.
The 24-question test surveys someone’s level of agreement with 24 statements which have to be responded to using 9 options, all the way from “very strongly disagree” to “very strongly agree.” It has statements like “The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.” I once put on my PFDJ hat and took the test while making minor adjustments (for example, to a PFDJ fan, “our traditional values” means “our Ghedli/Nakfa values”) and I scored 153. According to the test score instructions “The lowest total possible would be 20, and the highest, 180, but real scores are almost never that extreme.”
When taking the test, I was extremely generous to the PFDJ: I assumed that the PFDJ has no opinion about nudist camps, abortion, pornography, gays, lesbians, marriage, protesting for animal rights. I even gave them credit for being advocates of women’s rights—despite the fact that they were the last country in sub-Saharan Africa to, for example, make female genital mutilation illegal; and they have no independent advocacy group for women’s rights; they have made many mothers, wives and sisters miserable, they treat young girls as concubines, etc. But, by golly, they have “high representation of females” in the “government.” So I gave them a positive score (remember, I had my PFDJ hat.) Even with all that, they score 153. Which is very high. So high that it really is approaching the scores you would get from members of a cult.
So, to answer the question: what are the followers thinking? They are thinking that it is best to trust the judgment of the mighty leader (the elect of God) even on matters we do not understand because by questioning his judgment we align ourselves with the enemies of the state and empower them, and things are never so bad that they can’t get worse so we better be patient and all will be revealed to us in due time. Amen, and victory to the masses, and consider yourself severely rebuffed.
Moreover, the Outrage Scale (unlike, say, the Richter Scale) is a subjective tool. Whatever registers high on your Outrage Scale barely registers on theirs. And if you want to understand what I mean by theirs, well I have two stories to tell you. One is about Mesfin Hagos, and the other is about my mom. And when you hear both stories, your only conclusion should be “people are complex”, because if you reach any other conclusion, well, then, I will take it very personal.
2.1 Mesfin Hagos
For years, Voice of America Tigrigna edition had been playing the balancing act of doing real journalism while making sure that it is not so real that it denies them access to temperamental Eritrean officials. They settled for what many journalists always settle for with those who hold power: we won’t do hard-hitting news, so long as you occasionally return our call. And the Eritrean officials said, “occasionally, and only when it suits our purposes.”* So when the Eritrean population was hungry for news about Naizghi Kiflu, VOA was denied access and they had no news to offer—which they felt compelled to explain in a pedantic voice: We called this office, then we called that office, then we called the family. Then: “n’weizero Haregu ‘TsnAat yhab ilna’: ‘Hesum aytrkebu tebahilna.’”
Lacking news, VOA’s Tewelde decided to hold an interview with Mesfin Hagos to get his netsebraq, reflections, (netsebraq being Tigrigna for reflections because, apparently, VOA’s Tewelde is part of the campaign to drive us all slowly insane.) It turns out that the netsebraq of Tegadalai Mesfin Hagos, who knows the deceased (Naizghi) and the denier (Isaias) for 40 years, is as follows: While one expects everything from the Eritrean government, one wouldn’t have expected this, but one shouldn’t be surprised by this, because this is not the first time people were denied burial site, and church services, in Eritrea: there are even people who were removed from burial sites and buried elsewhere.
Now that is some netsebraq. You have to live in a special house of mirrors to get so many dazzling netsebraqs, stated in the most matter-of-fact, droning voice. Like a warehouse clerk cataloging inventory: and over there we have nail # 5, and on the shelf below a hammer, and oh yes, I think we may have a drill: I believe it is the last one, and if I recall, it was just returned by a customer, but it is still in its un-opened box next to the coffin, still awaiting delivery, but that happens often, what are you going to do with cargo delivery these days…
Meanwhile, the netsebraq of Aklilu Zere is that Mesfin Hagos was one of the attendants of the meeting, in 1976, when Isaias Afwerki told his comrades who were inquiring about their liquidated comrades: iti gudai tewdi’u iyu:: Aklilu Zere says: “I reflexively looked at the faces. It was dark and I was sitting between [Ibrahim] Afa and Mesfin Hagos and what I saw froze me in time: abject trepidation. There and then I knew that I couldn’t stay in that organization any more.” I think Aklilu is not being fair: no doubt, Mesfin Hagos probably said “ymezgebeley!!”—I would like to register my reservation!!—because that—“the democratic way”—has been his way of struggling against the long journey to Isaias’s authoritarianism and total outrage. That’s just, bela mu’akheza, my netsebraq.
*also my netsebraq.
2.2. My Mom
For about five years, my mom was simultaneously the mother of a minister and the wife of an elderly incarcerated husband. And during those times, if our long distance phone conversation ever drifted to Isaias Afwerki, it was: “entay emo rekibula iza Adi bzeyka dKham? n’resus entay Erefti reKhibu elkayo? Kenebriyeka dekhimka zeytbluwo?” What has this man received in compensation other than fatigue? When has he found rest? Why don’t you offer your help to relieve his burden? If you are a supporter of the system and you are saying, “You see! You see!” just remember that I am mentioning this conversation because she passed away two years ago and I know no harm will come to her from the regime now. And in every conversation I had with her, I was worried that the eavesdrops, the Ezni, were listening.
The thing is that all Eritreans, including those who are opposed to the regime, even the most fearless, are blackmailed by the regime. Whenever we break a Gedab News story about some terrible thing that has happened to an Eritrean family, the complaints we get from the family members is not about the accuracy of our story but that we have now put them in the spotlight and they now have to add anxiety about what will happen to them, on top of the anguish of what has already happened to them.
1. What Is President Isaias Afwerki Thinking?
Years ago I was at Cape Caneveral, when they used to give guided tours of the space shuttle. The tour guide explains: this (pointing to the incredibly uncomfortable looking vertically oriented seats) is the cockpit. The astronauts are sitting on a rocket, really, and there are two million pounds of rocket fuel and, until they get to orbit level, they are flying at 17,000 miles per hour. One of us civilians asks, “who would do that? why would they do that?” And the tour guide said: because they are astronauts. Astronauts do that.
When we ask “What is President Isaias Afwerki thinking? Why would he do that?” we are saying, “I would never do that. I don’t know anybody who would do that.” Yeah, but don’t we also ask the same question when we watch some Extreme Sports (Jackass, skydiving, ice climbing) where a mistake results in death? They do that because they live for the adrenaline rush. Similarly, Isaias Afwerki does what he does because he is wired a bit differently from me and you. Because he is an authoritarian. Actually: he is a totalitarian.
But what exactly does that mean? How are authoritarians different from me and you? Authoritarians are different from me and you because they LOVE power. It is as essential to them as oxygen. Power is their creed, their religion, their only faith, their entire reason for being. Authoritarians have no empathy: since they can never imagine a life without power, they can’t relate to the powerless. Do you worry about all the flies which have been ensnared by a spider web? No. Similarly, authoritarians have no empathy for powerless people. Once they go soft, then all the authoritarian-lovers will lose respect for them. It is a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship. Totalitarians want you to live in a state of fear: there has never been a case of a clear deputy or vice-president to totalitarians because they want the followers to always think “but who will replace him when he is gone?” This has the added bonus of creating a cult of personality: iza Add’s bzeikakha zserHala zeybla!
So, the answer is psychological: authoritarians have an abnormal personality and you can’t ask an abnormal person, “why do you do abnormal things?” The authoritarian’s abnormal personality makes him crave power and, here’s the head trip: the authoritarian becomes even more abnormal to retain power. (Something for the ghedli defamers to consider.) And, this is even trippier: the authoritarian may not be completely aware of the change.
But where is your evidence, you ask. Ok, let me take you back to November 27, 1999:
Before his incarceration/disappearance, General Oqbe Abraha (one of the G-15) wrote a respectful letter to Comrade Isaias Afwerki. (Those of you who are just outraged that Naizghi Kiflu has not been granted proper burial rights should also consider that General Oqbe Abraha, who died while in detention, was given “proper burial rights.”) A translation of his letter, and the response he got from Isaias was published by Al Nahda here. The first point of Oqbe Abraha was a summation of what he (Oqbe) and his comrades were saying, written in typical EPLF/PFDJ bullet style: “Comrade Isaias has changed; he is not how he used to be: he no longer consults with his closest peers; he thinks there is none like him, doesn’t think that anyone except him is working hard for the country; he has developed a habit of taking lone decisions; the Cabinet meetings are a subterfuge.”
And here’s the answer provided by Isaias Afwerki on December 9, 2009:
“I have seen the private letter you sent me on 27/11/99. After I read it, I was speechless. I did not respond immediately: I said better to choose to deliberate and I thought better to deliberate about the issues you raised–the institutions and the individuals–in great detail. I took time. In the end, I was amazed by it all. I don’t accept it. Who said my personality has changed? When did this change begin to occur? As for “no longer consults” with whom and about what? Although the claim “he thinks there is none like him” is defamatory or emotional, can it be shown how this is so with evidence? Who are the people who say this?”
It is entirely possible that Isaias Afwerki is just doing what he does best—stalling—the stillness of the cobra before the strike. But it is also entirely possible that he is genuinely puzzled that people think he has changed. In the eternal words of Miss Piggy: Moi? It is not like there is anyone out there who is going to tell him he has changed—and if someone thinks that they know him well enough—we go way back, man—to do that, well, he may see that as an affront not to himself, of course, because he is a modest down to earth man, but to the Office of The President. And that, you know, is a dangerous act of sedition, which must be punished. But beyond that, well, sm’Etawi zereba iyu::
The case of Naizghi Kiflu will be resolved the same way all the other crisis have been “resolved”: it will be stalled until he is buried outside Eritrea, probably in the UK, or the sands of time do their thing. There will never be an official explanation. The family will be pressured to “stop embarrassing the government” (I mean thePeopleandtheGovernment, it’s one word); they will be pressured, under threat of imminent and permanent ostracizing, to stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy. “Oh my God, did you see: even the Weyane media are writing about this. Is that what you want? Enough is enough, do the right thing, woman, you have made thePeopleandtheGovernment suffer long enough.”
If you are holding your breath waiting for the fans of authoritarianism to do the right thing, you can exhale now. They will not do the right thing because, in their mind, they are doing the right thing right now: supporting thePeopleandtheGovernment. Perhaps they are being blackmailed, perhaps they are genuinely torn. Just as you can never hope to convince a believer of Christian Scientology to give up his faith by pointing out what you consider to be ridiculous doctrines of his faith, you should not expect the cult members of the PFDJ to abandon their faith on the basis of a crisis that doesn’t involve them personally. If you want to take the long view, what should terrify you about the future of Eritrea is that admiration of authoritarianism is so entrenched in our culture, any future decent, democratic, deliberating head of state who emerges will be judged as weak, vacillating and not worthy of support.
Finally, why is Isaias Afwerki doing what he is doing? Because he is convinced that doing that reduces the chances of power slipping away from him. Absolute power seekers are abnormal people, and the effort to consolidate power requires increasingly large doses of abnormality. Your norms—show decency to the dead—mean nothing to the abnormal. He cannot react to the anger, frustration, wailing of the weak any more than you would react to the mice cowering in front of the cat: it is just par for the course. If you are angry and frustrated, you have options: you will challenge him and win, in which case he will be as nervous as a long tailed cat in a house full of rocking chairs. He will even send you a midnight fax saying, “I accept your terms” and you will earn his grudging respect (see also: Meles Zenawi). You will challenge him and lose; in which case, you won’t be heard from again (see also: Eritrean prisons.) Or you will take your anger and frustration on something or somebody else, probably on another victim just like you (in which case, welcome to the Eritrean opposition!)