Years ago, in 1977 to be exact, I was visiting the just-liberated Keren. Initially, Kerenites were not in a celebratory mood; being an outsider (and very young), it took me a while to grasp the skepticism: they were waiting for the other “deqna” to show up. Ingrates! The EPLF had a simple plan on how to win over the population: recruit all day, dance all night. If that doesn’t work, then just shock people.
One of my handlers was a kid my age. I am told from people who are good at these things he was a close relative. Abokan adieun kemza iskan gual quston… Agh! My head, stop! Ok, I get it; he is a relative. What angle should he use? How about Marxism. But not Marxism from its Das Capital, rhiSe bela’E stuff… but Marx as a Shock Therapy… Marx from the religion is the opium of the masses line.
“Look here,” he’d said, on a hot day in Ramadan, “ you know why Africa is behind? It is not difficult to figure. Religion!” I am paying attention; Keren is hot as hell, and I am fasting because it is Ramadan. “ Every day is a holiday, every day is an excuse not to work. Every day is a day to avoid looking at reality.” Then he rattled off all the religious holidays, in Christianity and Islam. “Ramadan, a whole month! Eid, two of them! Mewlid Anebi! Ashura! Fasiga! Ldet! Arbi Sqlet! …” He wasn’t done; he started talking about wasted resources. “Look at that mosque,” he said, pointing to Keren’s major mosque, “Look at the wasted space. It should be converted into storage…. We have no electricity in the city; but we have to supply it with one! The waste….!”
Oh, the exhilaration of blasphemy! Specially if you are 15. What a brave guy, what a fearless man, I thought, my stomach grumbling. No fasting for him; he is eating, he is smoking and nobody has come down to smite him. Where do I go to learn such fearlessness? Where do I sign up?
The EPLF, now PFDJ, has outgrown its hostility to the religions (LeEli Papas kutlukna, etc.) At least openly. In fact it has brought its own secular holidays and, unlike our religious holidays, the PFDJ holidays last weeks and months…
Welcome to the PFDJ Calendar. This is July, so it must be festival month. As is August. September has Armed Struggle Day. Don’t worry, there is something marked for October and November. January is New Years President’s Speech And Its Analysis. February is Something Important Month. March is Women’s Month. April is Demarcation Commemoration Month. May is Independence Month. June is Martyr’s Day/Month. And so on, and so on.
And these are just the monthlies. This doesn’t include the decathlons and the silver jubilees. And the dailies: a-dollar-a-day… and the hourlies (TV-Eri.)
Secular holidays make nations; they glue a state together. But not when the PFDJ is involved. Unlike our religious holidays, which have the purpose of keeping us humble, grateful and connected to something much larger than us, the PFDJ’s corruption of our secular holidays have the opposite purpose: to remind us of our enemies, to keep us eternally suspicious of everyone and everything; to divide us into patriots and traitors; The Resolute and The Defeatist; The Altruistic and The Opportunists. To the PFDJ, the people are just one big ATM machine, a back pocket and a wallet.
The PFDJ Holidays have become hollow tools of distraction: the worse the reality about Eritrea, the louder the event to deaden the sound of truth. America says that Eritrea is, even by African standards, failing and now on a par with the Congo? Bring on the gwyla! The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says Eritrea is the largest African jail for journalists? Quick, send them Haben Band!! Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the human rights situation in Eritrea is bad and getting worse? Send the PFDJ officials on a world tour!
There is no bad news that a good gwyla cannot fix. The government has a near-perfect record on the accuracy of its predictions. But don’t be impressed; they are self-fulfilling predictions. Like a bad student who gets failing grades and then uses that as proof that the teacher is prejudiced against him, the Eritrean government continuously fails on every measurement and then uses negative reports about its performance as proof that the world is against it.
Recruit all day, dance all night. And if that doesn’t work, just shock them into silence. President Isaias Afwerki is very good at shocking people; he considers it a sport. In his recent interview with an Australian reporter, he told us that he doesn’t know who Joshua is; that he doesn’t know what free press is and he has no intention of retiring. Ever.
When the world thought he was different, these kinds of utterances would have been considered “refreshingly blunt”, “brutally honest” coming from a “no nonsense politician.” Now, to many, his words are just considered rumblings of a fevered mind.
Did we change? Or did he change? It is neither: and that is exactly the problem, because he should have changed, he should have grown. Parents know this. If you are driving around at night and your child asks, “daddy, why is the moon following us….?” how do you react? If the child is 5 years old, it is cute; but if he is 15, it is not so cute.
The problem is that when it comes to President Isaias Afwerki, plenty of people think that whatever he says is cute. And he plays up to this audience every chance he gets. In his last visit to the United States, when he used to get visas, just before the last war, he had a Q & A that was carried by satellite at the “community centers.” The question dealt with our preparedness vis-à-vis Ethiopia’s amassing of weapons. He gave a flippant answer about the TPLF “catalog shopping” for weapons. I looked around the room and the true believers were slapping their knees at this hilarious bit of insight he provided. What a riot!
My guess is as off-putting as his interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was to many of us, just as many, if not more, found it wonderfully apropos along the “asmiEwom wedi afom!” reasoning. And the side that is put off, the side of the opposition, which was energized and motivated in 2000-2001 seems to have slowly lost its energy and motivation and sunk into, “if that is what you want, if that is who you want, good luck to you” and abandoned the fight. And the lesson remains unlearned: Ethiopia has amassed even more weapons, made more friends, and the PFDJ still talks like it can just walk over and occupy Addis, if it wants to.
Organizationally speaking, those who want to be distracted are in a better position: they have a leader they truly believe in (Isaias), a mission they have internalized (whatever the leader says) and a strategy for achieving it (eternal conflict and war.) If you doubt that the mission is whatever Isaias says it is, think back of 2000-2001: the PFDJ was entirely paralyzed into inaction because Isaias was paralyzed during that period. When he sprang back to action in mid-2001, the whole movement marched. And those of us who want to save the nation from the abyss it is heading to certainly have clarity of the mission (a just and democratic Eritrea) which remains so irrespective of who is leading our movement; but without a leader and a strategy, we are where we are: certain of our cause, but going in circles.
And that is Eritrea’s dilemma in a nutshell: those who want to be distracted and lulled into false comfort are more energized and motivated and better “led” than those who know in their heart that the country is headed in the wrong direction and needs salvation.
What makes it bitterly sad is that everyone knows what price was paid for Eritrea so it would never have a government whose head of state denies knowing its best-known playright/journalist (Joshua), and one who casually mentions that he considers his job a contract for life. Too much was paid so that this wouldn’t happen—including the life of the blaspheming but patriotic kid I mentioned, God save his soul.
None knows this fact more than those who support the president— because they, like all Eritreans, know someone, maybe a few someones, who have given something precious to make a just and democratic Eritrea a reality. But when some shake their head in sadness at what has befallen a nation they love, others drown their fears by the distraction of endless festivals and dances. The louder the agony of the people, the louder the festivals: a new batch of innocents just dispatched to Nakura, crank up the volume, deaden the cries of the innocent. Recruit All Day, Dance All Night.
Ultimately, our side will win. Our mission has truth and justice on its side, which are universal; their side has a leader, who is, after all, mortal. And no amount of music and dancing can silence that truth.