As a child, I busied myself with my uncle’s books. Ustaz Johar Abdulrahim was a teacher and he taught in Keren, Nackfa and later at Ferovia, in Asmara. He had a bunch of books in a shelf that I ended up owning, and I went through all of them though I had no clue what they were about, unless they had pictures.
Growing up under a dusk to dawn curfew I didn’t know what my hometown looked like by night, and I had the time to flip through the pages of books all night. It was a similar experience to being quarantined due to the coronavirus.
When I visited Keren a few weeks after Independence Day, I was surprised, my aunt, the wingless angel Dahab Adem Mismar had kept much of my belongings in a storage. That’s where I found the book, the 1957 first edition of “Parkinson’s Law” from my uncle’s bookshelf. I remembered the book’s cover; its content I learned later in life, and I brought the book back with me.
Parkinson’s law is often mistaken for Parkinson Disease, but it is a book about bureaucracy. Traditionally, parents tell their children to work hard in school so that they become “TseHafay”, clerks, when they grow up—they didn’t have a word for it, but they had “bureaucrat” in mind. And today’s book is a study of how work stretches to fill the available time, how bureaucracy enables organizations to grow in numbers, and how bureaucrats think. If you are given an assignment to finish a task in one week, you will do just that, finish it in a week. But if you are given a month instead, the task finds a way to stretch to fill the time available–work is elastic.
Also, bureaucrats like to grow their career, and to do that, they need to increase their subordinates and help them grow, provided the subordinates do not represent a risk, a serious rivalry to the boss. And it is important for a boss to have two deputies who will be busy competing among themselves and leave the boss alone.
Now think: why doesn’t Isaias Afwerki have a deputy, a vice president?
To illustrate his conclusion, Parkinson studied the British navy and compared the number of personnel working in it during the heyday of the British Empire and after it shrunk—the number of people didn’t decrease as the ships (and tasks) decreased. Of course, here I am taking some examples from the book, but the book contains theories that are challenged by other writers and thinkers. I am just mentioning what I consider relevant to us in the current situation. Let’s see examples of bureaucratic damages:
- Australia opera houseIts original plan had a four-year timetable and an AU $7 million budget, but it took AU $102 million and 14 years to complete.
- Berlin airportIts initial budget was €2.83 billion ($3.1 billion), but it ended up costing over €7 billion—and after about 15 years of planning, construction began in 2006.
- Boston Highway (The Big Dig).“Planning began in 1982; the construction work began in 1991 and finished in 2007”, a delay of 11 years. Cost was estimated to be about $2.8 billion but ended being $8.08 billion.
We need to learn Parkinson’s Law in order to understand the crippling fragmentation within the opposition and incompetence of the regime. That could help us understand why we failed to create formidable organizations. It seems every organization splits to create more leading positions for the ambitious among its ranks. it splits to satisfy the ego of the cadres. And that is repeated over and over again, and at the end, only fragmented parts of an organization are left–without the ability to even repel flies. That is the reason for the fragmentation. And if we know the diagnosis, I believe we can curb the paralyzing effect of bureaucracy that Parkinson explains.
How about the PFDJ?
Isais Afwerki and his clique understand Parkinson’s Law properly. but instead of avoiding the problems explained in the book, they use them as a manual for the organization and a reference for the leaders.
If you observe, all the ruling party’s businesses have inflated number of employees. A small grocery shop could have as much as four people working. That is driven by nepotism, mainly the ideological type. And the economy’s priorities are the interest of the ruling clique, not the nation.
To the young Eritreans
Let me tell you this: when we were growing up, we had successful people, entrepreneurs and professional we looked up to and wanted to emulate. There were many successful businesspeople we felt like copying. They inspired us; we were determined to be successful like them. But then came the PFDJ which refused to build on top of it and instead, it destroyed the vibrant community of entrepreneurs and professionals. Even our teachers were famous and respected educators; many of us wanted to be like them. Now, when you were growing up, did you have people who inspired you, people you wanted to emulate? Were there any teachers who inspired you? Who are the successful people you can mention?
In our time, we could walk any business district and know all the successful people there. We could go to neighborhoods and learn about the properties and their owners. We sat in the streets and saw brand new cars and felt that someday we will own something like it, a house of our own, etc. Did you have anything that inspired you?
I know, it’s sad. you had very little of that–and that is how the PFDJ destroyed Eritrea, by destroying the dreams of people and making them forget how to dream.
After 1991, I watched Eritreans flock to their country excited to start a business or to settle there. Some carried knowledge, ideas, skills and a wide international network of businesspeople, companies and institution. Still others carried lots of money but their hopes were dashed, and I saw many of them frustrated and disappointed.
In the early 1990s, we met at the Hilton Lobby in Addis Ababa on the way to Eritrea or back. Everybody was excited. But 2-3 weeks later they would come back frustrated due to the red tapes and the unwelcoming business environment created by the PFDJ. They promised to return in six months or so to try again. Slowly their numbers dwindled, and I would ask where is so-and so? He gave up, he is not coming back again.
How about so-and so? Well, he decided to start a business in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya etc. A few started dairy farm business, or small factories, or went into real estate, and a host of other business in Ethiopia. They were successful though a few lost a lot during the deportation after the Badme war was ignited.
I remember a story that happened to someone who wanted to open a pharmaceutical business. He had a product sample and wanted clearance to import it in bulk. After bouncing him between the ministry of health, commerce and god knows what, he was happy. He was almost done and went to the ministry of trade for the final approval on the sales price of the medicine. Yes, it was expensive, and the official’s brows went up and down. “People cannot afford this medicine” the official told him. to which he replied, “Yes, it’s expensive.” The officer was angry, “you mean those who have money will be cured but those who don’t will die?” He sternly added, “no, we will not approve it.”
And Eritreans kept traveling to the Middle eastern countries and Europe for medication because Eritrea has no decent medical service. Hospitalization in foreign countries is also expensive, and costly, But the PFDJ doesn’t think that way. Its logic is, all must die equally. That’s fairness, justice, according to the PFDJ. Unfortunately they are not alone.
In 1831, after his visit to the USA, the French Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
In the nineties of the last century, Italy offered to rehabilitate the damaged railroad system in Eritrea. Then the cast was about $1.2 dollars for every kilometer. had the rehabilitation went smoothly, the railway system would have been brought to the system at par with modern standards—like replacing the narrow-gauge rails, locomotives, etc.
However, the PFDJ would rather do all of that with its fingernails. It did try. It brought old people in their seventies and eighties to rehabilitate the system. The old engineers and mechanics had no knowledge of modern technology and rail system. Instead of transferring technology from developed nations like Italy, the PFDJ chose to revive a defunct century-old technology. Imagine how many young engineers, mechanics, and administrators would have been trained by now! Three decades lost, and counting.
Take solace in the fact that Eritrea is not alone; the failure is manifested in many forms all over our region. Look at Saudi Arabia spending hundreds of billions of dollars to destroy Yemen! One wonders if the Saudis could not have achieved the leverage they needed in Yemen by investing a portion of the resource to develop the poor Yemeni economy!
All the region is inflicted by a disease that makes it misuse and abuse power, and its governments waste resources inefficiently to prove they are incompetent . But in Eritrea, the history of the PFDJ is not only about suffocating freedoms, it is also a project to impoverish the already poor country. So far it has destroyed the hope and dreams of the youth and emotionally damaged the old!