This response is prompted by a need to redress misconceptions arising out of Ismail Omer-Ali’s last POINTBLANK whose object of focus is an article by Mohammed Kheir Omar. While Mohammed Kheir Omar is more than capable of deciding what to make of the issue, I believe that when a person of virtue and integrity comes under spurious accusations, it is not uncommon or surprising to see those familiar with that person’s fidelity and righteousness take it upon themselves to have a say on the subject.
I carefully read Ismail Omer-Ali’s recent article, A Short-lived Democracy That Never Was, a critique of another article, August 10, 2001: The Day Eritrean Summer Was Crushed, by Mohammed Kheir Omar. I came out with some serious reservations relating to the accuracy and plausibility of what had been reported in Ismail Omer-Ali’s article.
At the outset, I would like to reiterate the role of critical analysis to the vitality and health of society. Importantly, to be valued and celebrated as positively enhancing our knowledge-base, a critique ought to be sustained through the marshalling of credible evidence and facts. Equally relevant in this connection too is the expectation that a critique benefits from adequate understanding of the subject matter at hand (in this particular instance, the theoretical and practical implications of democratic struggle). Insofar as A Short-lived Democracy That Never Was purports to be a critique not only of a singular article, but also the public stature of its author, MK Omar, I found the piece deficient in at least two respects:
Allegorising and its Suspect Rationale
Firstly, the article commits the error of designating MK Omar as a former supporter of the Eritrean regime. I hail MK Omar a patriot first and foremost and perhaps imagine him as a kind of amenable partisan a distant last.
A remarkably effective yet barely decipherable mechanism in A Short-Lived Democracy That Never Was is the utilisation of a dubious parable as prelude; a pre-emptive gesture in whose wake the reader is prejudiced against MK Omar well in advance of the article’s main thesis. By the time the reader delves into the main section of this article, he or she does so with a characterisation of MK Omar as former acolyte of the Eritrean regime firmly in mind. In place of the standard practice of establishing the case by means of a self-promoting in-text argument, its author opts for the easier measure of an allusive preface that (a priori) frames his target. In the process, IO-Ali illegitimately appropriates the moral high ground whilst casting doubt on the ethics and politics of his opponent – as regime collaborator and accomplice to state crimes. It is a tenuous representation made possible only through insinuation and the sheer act of rendering a straw man of what the MK Omar many know stands for. I am abhorred by the surreptitiousness in IO-Ali’s allegorical mode not least for its corruptive play with the accepted rationale of allegories as wisdom disseminating and instilling cultural expressions/resources.
Who then is MK Omar? I can’t claim to know IO-Ali well enough to reflect on his public record in a manner that could do justice to him. Contrarily, I believe I have sufficiently known MK Omar to be able to venture the following description of his public personality.
To the best of my knowledge, MK Omar never swore allegiance to the Eritrean regime. Meantime, I sense no contradiction whatsoever in conceding that he has spent a good part of a decade in post-1991 Eritrea. MK Omar and others like him relocated to independent Eritrea with the sole aim of contributing in whatever way they could to the nation-building project – irrespective of who wielded power. Unlike many who flocked to the country on the basis of narrower personal calculations, MK Omar and kindred spirits apparently had no aspiration other than responding to a call to serve a nascent Eritrea. For this category of returnees, therefore, the paramount desire to fulfil a simple patriotic duty arguably weighed more than any other factor. To make no mistake, MK Omar’s homecoming involved the prospect of partaking in the educational field as opposed to officialdom. Mirroring the best spirit of his peers, now as then MK Omar’s chief concern proved to be the furtherance of Eritreans’ education. As far as I can judge, his voluntary repatriation was neither motivated by ambitions of securing a ministerial portfolio nor by a longing for a diplomatic posting. He arrived in Eritrea as a private citizen not quite certain what the future held in stock for (a non-EPLF) outsider like himself. In this vein, it is also worth recalling that in making the decision to return to Eritrea, MK Omar left behind a well-paid and secure job in Sudan. And what did he reap in return for his dedication and love to rebuild and develop his native Eritrea? A hefty price in the form of family disintegration and loss! In my opinion, the man deserves to be commended for what he has done and is still doing for a better Eritrea for all. Personally, I would like to take this opportunity to pay homage to MK Omar’s principled life actions.
The Uncertainties of History-Making Struggle
The second issue to visit is the way IO-Ali conceptualises how oppressed people are meant to approach the struggle for democratic transformation. Here IO-Ali seems to toy with what might be regarded as the complex interrelationship between the many and varied forces which impinge on socio-political action. By mishandling and otherwise resisting to workout the correlation attendant to issues of subjectivity, objective reality and contingency, including the ever-present danger surrounding the social transformative equation, IO-Ali confounds the essence of the historical process and its outcomes.
To concretise, IO-Ali reproaches MK Omar for daring to mention Eritrea experienced a vibrant democratic summer in 2001 while the Eritrean authoritarian state remained intact. IO-Ali anchors his challenge to that claim by pointing to the fact that democracy and dictatorship can’t coexist. He moreover contends that the whole saga resembles a dramatic enactment, a trap set up by the state to, among other things, discriminate between friend and foe. Now there is no point in disputing the veracity of all that since with the benefit of hindsight it might well be the case that the Eritrean regime indeed had retained the upper hand. Rather, the real topic of merit is the point of view and actions of those who saw themselves as actively struggling to surmount precisely the kind of objective reality that IO-Ali incorrectly perceives as the negation of democracy. It is hard to comprehend IO-Ali’s proposition here in particular if we accept as norm that a repressive political environment is what in fact necessitates the struggle for democratic freedoms in the first place. One cannot expect the oppressed to wait until (miraculously?) first the right conditions are met before declaring democracy as the order of the day. In countries of the global South, democratic freedoms are attained in the wake of life-and-death struggles. The Eritrean dictator’s designs, foxy and nefarious as they were, were peripheral to the unfolding “drama”. Even if it is granted that the entire affair was a ‘controlled experiment’, still there can be no way of guaranteeing as to the exact trajectory that events would take. A rhetorical question might be of use here: Had Mikhail Gorbachev intended to bring down the Soviet Union when, in the late 1980s, he instituted the twin policies of Perestroika and Glasnost? In the majority of cases, there is no trick in the books for states to fall back on once the floodgates blocking popular democratic surge are raised. One can’t invalidate the agency and will of the people as authors and subjects of their own history.
In conclusion, as far as collective action goes, IO-Ali seems to subscribe to historical revisionism. His is akin to what the historian E.P.Thompson labels “history of the pilgrims’ progress”, otherwise judging the historical process and its outcome in light of present preoccupations. IO-Ali is handing down his verdict on Summer 2001 not only on the basis of the fact that Eritrean democracy was thwarted then, but also because a decade on the country remains undemocratic. A typical statement denoting the conundrum IO-Ali presents reads:
Considering that the period [Summer 2001] refers to a time when the dictatorship was in full force and also considering the fact that these claims [Eritrea had democratic experience] are being made in late 2011, these are truly extraordinary assertions!
Moreover, IO-Ali sidesteps what for all practical purpose and intent should have been the fundamental theme, namely, the fraught relationship between authoritarianism and democracy as it entails a mutually reinforcing perpetual tension and how the dynamics of that plays itself out. Finally, an angry tone coupled with a condescending attitude which permeates IO-Ali’s prose makes it difficult to educate the reader substantively speaking.
Save for the current contribution, I have enjoyed reading IO-Ali’s previous BOINTBLANK postings. I hope I will continue to have a similarly pleasurable time reading his future input.