It is that time of year when we review the past and make pledges for the future. To take stock, to assess, to evaluate and then to act: to realign, to repurpose and redirect. Eritrea is not a business and this is not a management course so we owe you plain talk: once in a while, it is good to ask: who are our friends, who are our fellow-travellers and who are our foes. We need, in the words of the great Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu: “Rectification of Names.” Or, in American parlance, kicking ass and taking prisoners. Our friend and great awatista Aklilu Zere (who always seems to have telepathic powers of communication with us) had his list of assertions. Consider this awate.com’s list of assertions and admonishments and divorce papers that we will no longer travel with some of our fellow-travelers because their destination is far different from ours.
1. Eritrea and Eritreanism
Ok, repeat after us: Hdri Swuatna. resalet alsuhada’a. The legacy of our martyrs. These are not punch lines to us. They are not things that make us shrug our shoulders or roll our eyes. We believe in them. And if you don’t, if you are young and impressionable, we will try to persuade you. If you are aging, we will assume you are not really into it. We are no longer willing to entertain the thought that you are one of us. You have a different agenda. And we will not wish you “good luck”: we will plainly tell you that our objective is to defeat you.
This country that we call Independent Eritrea was the dream of giants. They have names like Ibrahim Sultan, Woldeab Woldemariam, Abdulkader Kebire and Hamid Idris Awate. The first died in exile; the second survived seven assassination attempts; the third was assassinated; and the fourth died less than a year after he started our armed struggle. Enlisted in the cause were tens of thousands of boys and girls, men and women: from those who agreed to raise funds for it in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s—businessmen in Eritrea, laborers in the Middle East, maids in Italy and everywhere else—to those who bled, who got wounded and who died for it. Honor them, if you can. Work towards their goals, if you dare. Forget them, if you can’t. But do not, do NOT insult them and demean their contribution.
If you are in exile in the US and Canada and Europe and your adopted country has an insane policy of accepting Eritrea as a sovereign independent state (voting for its sovereignty in the UN) while calling all the people who made its sovereignty a reality “terrorists”, you have two choices: to convince your adopted country that its policy is insane and to exercise your rights as a citizen to change it; or you can exploit your adopted country’s insanity and declare war on those who made Independent Eritrea a reality.
It is a free country. But we are taking stock. We are assessing. And if you choose the latter, you are not our partner. Find new ones because we are. We hate the PFDJ. We have hated it longer and more intensely than many of the “new” ones who want to tell us they hate it even more. But. But. We have always tried to make a big distinction between the PFDJ and Eritrea. We were opposed to the UN imposing an arms embargo on Eritrea not because we love the PFDJ but because UN arms embargoes are never lifted unless the country accepts Security Council imposed “Shalabis” hand-picked by our Southern neighbors in the interest of “lasting peace.” We called for total and absolute isolation of the PFDJ and freezing of its assets—which are, in reality, assets stolen from the Eritrean people—long before anybody did.
We believe Hamid Idris Awate IS the spark of Eritrean nationalism. We do not say this because we share the same ethnicity (we don’t) or region (we don’t) or religion with him; we say it because he is—even by the lofty standards of our founding fathers—unique in that he was transformative person. He took ideas and changed them to reality. He faced one of Africa’s most intimidating armed forces, presided over by one of Africa’s most respected kings, because he believed in Eritrea. He didn’t fight for the Beni Amer, for the Nara, for Gash-Barka or for Islam: he fought for Eritrea and he raised an Eritrean banner. He inspired Eritreans to not just believe in the dream of independent Eritrea but to act on it. We do not take lightly those who want to assault his legacy. Again, they are free to do so—but we are not interested in calling them our allies or our leaders. This is because they are echoing the sentiments of the colonizing forces of Ethiopia who wanted to extinguish the Eritrean spark.
2012 witnessed an amazing phenomenon: Eritrean youth on facebook raised the banner of “We are all awate” on September 1st. And then when one bully came and said “boo!” to them, none of them stood up to explain why Hamid Idris Awate is their hero. Now, consider the following: another group of Eritrean youth has a facebook group called “We Are All Isaias Afwerki”. Now, if somebody asked them, “why do you admire Isaias Afwerki?” do you think they would have no answers? Do you think they would be bullied into taking it down? The difference is: the youth on our side are ill-informed and they flaunt their ignorance. They equate knowing Eritrea’s history as participating in its history. And since, they have been told, there is nothing in Eritrean history to be proud of–”it is all artificial!”- they choose to be militantly ignorant about Eritrean history.
This is our point: the latest fad in Eritrean opposition is to glorify the “youth.” But this is all simple pandering, a fetish–as if the “youth” are godlike creatures. To criticize the Eritrean youth in Germany or Sweden is now considered to attack the youth in Sinai and refugee camps simply because the two belong to the same age group and had similar experiences in Eritrea. It is taken, automatically, as a sign of supporting the “old” opposition. The “old” opposition surely deserves its fair share of criticism but one thing they have going for them is that they know Eritrea’s history. They know its heroes and its villains. And, mostly, they know how much sacrifice was paid to make it a reality. “For the sake of our martyrs” is not a punchline to them. And, consequently, they are not as malleable and flexible as many in the Eritrean youth movements who seem to have nothing sacred, no red lines, no non-negotiable items. There is nothing that they will say “hell, no!” to.
Eritrea is a country whose boundaries were negotiated by Ethiopia, Italy, France and England. We have no patience for those who cry crocodile tears about people separated by boundaries because their tears are selective. Where are the tears for Western Eritreans separated from their kin in Eastern Sudan? For Southwestern Ethiopians separated from their kin in South Sudan? For Southern Ethiopians separated from their kin in Kenya? Southeastern Ethiopians separated from their kin in Somalia? Colonialism, regardless of its source, meant arbitrarily drawing boundaries and, yes, Ethiopia’s Menelik was actively involved in drawing Ethiopia’s borders–i.e. separating people of the same ethnicity and nationality. So please learn history so you won’t become a pawn of people with agendas far different from yours.
We are all for ethnic pride but we consider all the recent wailing from some quarters in the Eritrean highlands for Ethiopian hegemony an affront to the legacy of our Eritrean martyrs. And those who criticize Eritrean culture as too fixated on the culture of martyrdom are, of course, mute when it comes to Ethiopia. Consider this: the all-natural death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was described by Ethiopian media as “martyrdom.” Demonstrations were held in Tigray to pay tribute to the “martyrdom” (meswait) of Meles Zenawi. And, from their perspective, rightly so. But when those who respect their own heroes tell you to disrespect yours, it is not a matter of somebody trying to break your bad habit of having a culture of martyrdom; it is because he wants you to respect his heroes. If you choose to be played on this, if you are ignorant of your history, it is your decision. But we cannot in good conscience consider you a fellow traveler in the journey towards a free, proud, independent, democratic, just, and sovereign Eritrea.
In summary, we are not willing to negotiate Eritrean nationalism for the sake of uprooting the dreaded PFDJ. And those who are willing to say anything, do anything, negotiate anything, discount everything to achieve that end are, at the end of the day, not our partners because their goals are different from ours.
Activism and Journalism
The sad reality in the Eritrean Diaspora is that every activist pretends to be a journalist; every politician wants to be a pundit; and every pundit wants to be a politician. But of all the epic fails of the Eritrean opposition, somewhere near the top has to be that of people who are activists but pretend to be journalists.
Now, we appreciate the importance of journalism. We, at awate.com, never pretended to be journalists but activists. Over the years, we have been made offers. First was the offer by EPLF-DP, the website of the G-15 to “merge” our organizations. We did not see what is it that a content-free website had to offer us by way of merger, so we politely said no. (The man who made us the Merger and Acquisition offer now “struggles” for Eritrea (i.e. EPLF renaissance) two weeks a year, whenever he gets a sabbatical from his day job.) Then, there were pressures from “get united, work together” people for us to “co-ordinate” our efforts with Asmarino.com. We did not get the point of this since one of the things we are striving for in Eritrea is pluralism in media. And, in any event, we are glad we didn’t since Asmarino, which we, for long, considered our sister website to the extent of sharing the Martyr’s Database which we acquired at great peril—and which it now posts on its website gratuitously—has, since the “retirement” of our old friend and dear brother Tes Meharenna, become a hotbed of Ethiopian unionists and Eritrean refuseniks. Tragedy averted. Now comes assenna.com which really seems to celebrate its home base’s (England’s) greatest contribution to journalism: sensationalism.
Now, this is not easy for us. Let’s remember this: there is no free media in Eritrea. And, for years, we said anything that sheds light on the darkness in Eritrea is our traveling partner. And please feel free to insert this after every sentence we are writing: it is all PFDJ’s fault. But assenna has gone off the rails and we have a duty to “rectify names.” And we do this after a long period of patience. Assenna, which is headed by an Eritrean journalist (whose sole journalism experience is working for Eritrean state media) has, it appears, simply changed bosses from working for one kind of autocrat (the Isaias Afwerki regime) to another (European NGO). Consider the following:
(a) When it went off the deep end talking, with absolute certainty, that Isaias Afwerki had died, we did not want to embarrass it. We said nothing. In fact, privately, we did our best to cheer up its demoralized status.
(b) When it, after interviewing Meles Zenawi, hyped his vague statements that Ethiopia may, perhaps, God willing, consider releasing Eritrean journalists in Ethiopian prisons (the same vague ones he had given many others, including awate.com), responsible journalists like Habtom Yohannes did nothing with the “news.” But for assenna, this was too “hot” to sit on: it had to break the news! Because what this meant to the family of the journalists—getting false hopes only to be heartbroken–was irrelevant. One of the broken-hearted mothers of the journalist recently died. We said nothing.
(c) Since November, assenna.com has given you “breaking news” “exclusive news” “blockbuster news” about Eritrea’s “Acting” Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, and his family. Every single one of them has been wrong. When Ali Abdu who, like virtually every Eritrean government official, suffers from some kind of scary organ failure, was being hospitalized, it told you he had asked for asylum in Canada. Then it told you that his daughter, who has dual citizenship—Eritrean/American–was witnessed entering the US embassy in Khartoum. Then it told you that this Eritrean-American child was accepted for political asylum in Canada.
Doesn’t this embarrass us, the entire opposition, collectively? Is Ali Abdu’s 15 year old daughter some kind of celebrity? How would anyone know if she was outside the US embassy in Khartoum? This kind of paparazzi celebrity journalism is big in England and the US—where they have tons of celebrities—but how does this make sense with Eritrean children? And why are we reporting on the family members of Eritrean officials? Is nothing off limits?
Before you could recover from that, you were told that she—an American citizen—had been accepted for asylum in Canada. Now, why would Canada give an American citizen asylum? For an American to travel to Canada, all she needs is a passport—which she, presumably, got from the US embassy in Khartoum (by the way, there is no US embassy in Khartoum after the crazy demonstration they had about something crazy there)—and an airline ticket. That’s it. So why would Canada give asylum?
Lastly, when the parents of Ciham Ali know that their daughter is in Adi Abeyto jail, how does it make them feel to read that she is in Canada?
(d) Now, you may be saying that assenna just trusted its sources and is just reporting what it heard from its reliable sources. Fine. We all make mistakes (although assenna seems to delight in making mistakes.) But here’s where it gets tricky: it published an appeal from an organization asking the Canadian government to not give political asylum to Ali Abdu because he was a member of the “terrorist” organization of EPLF/PFDJ. Then, the next day, when it heard from its EPLF/PFDJ sources/allies/family members/friends that this could endanger their own refugee status, it withdrew it. So, it is fine to do everything you can to deny Ali Abdu refugee status in Canada because he belonged to the EPLF/PFDJ so long as you do not endanger EPLF/PFDJ members who are your family members and friends. Is this principled? Is this activism? Is this journalism?
So, to summarize. When assenna.com broke the news that Ali Abdu had asked for asylum in Canada, he had not. He was in Europe. When it said that his daughter was in the US embassy in Khartoum, that was wrong: his daughter was being interrogated somewhere in the Sudanese/Eritrean border. And when it said that she had been accepted to Canada, she was in Adi Abeyto. When it posted a petition to the Canadian government to deny refugee status to Ali Abdu and then it withdrew it when it found out that that would affect its own friends, relatives, supporters—then assenna showed that not only is it wrong about everything, but that when push comes to shove it has no principles: it will fold to accommodate the priorities of its friends and family members.
This kind of activism/journalism really does a disservice to Eritrea, and particularly to the Eritrean resistance movement. It makes it easy for our opponents to dismiss us. It destroys our credibility. And, if you are being funded by NGOs, European governments, and agencies with noble sounding names, it makes you their pawn because you have to deliver “breaking news” to continue to get your funding. It is better to be broke and near bankruptcy and live off the kindness of Eritreans than to get funding from NGOs and other aliens with undefined agendas. We are just saying—take it or leave it.
Tacticians And Strategists
Meanwhile, there is the question of: Where is Ali Abdu. Is Ali Abdu in a hospital? Is Ali Abdu somewhere in Europe? In Canada? In Eritrea? This is really one of the most disappointing things about not just assenna but all the “youth” groups who are supposed to be Eritrea’s promise. Because they do not know that the “where” is far less interesting than the “why”?
Let’s give you a scenario. Ali Abdu is in British Columbia, Canada. Assenna would not ask why? It would just rush to break the news. He may be there in a hospital. He may be there buying time to get as many of his partners out of Eritrea as possible. But that does not matter. JUST BREAK THE NEWS!!!! NEW!!! EXCLUSIVE!!!!
Our opponents, the PFDJ, are, we are sorry to say, smarter. They keep their mouth shut. They investigate. They ask: how long? Who are his partners? Look for clues. Go to the shabait website. Go to “Contact Us.” See that? Now go to “Government Contacts.” Hidden under your nose. Read it. Now, read all of awate.com’s “Belly of the Beast.” And “President Gone Wild.” And “President Gone Wilder.” And the Qatar mediated Eritrea Djibouti Agreement that we got. And the Al-watan interview translated to English. And wikileaks comments about him not believing what he really says. And the tension between the two youth organizations—the NUEYS and the YPFDJ? And his closeness to murdered businessman Mohammed Saleh Mohammed Hagos. And his closeness to now-arrested military members. It is investigating.
Who are his friends? Who are his allies? What can we find in his computer? What will his maid tell us? His neighbors?
It is also coming up with a story. It has to answer questions of “what do we tell all our followers who were saying that this guy is the next president of Eritrea?” How shall we spin Sophia Tesfamariam (PFDJ’s version of assenna) so she doesn’t pre-emptively write something that doesn’t fit with our narrative? How do we completely destroy him?
Meanwhile, on our side. Is there any corresponding strategic thinking of how do we win over people who have stepped into the light? If today, it is Ali Abdu, and tomorrow it is Tafla, and the day after, it is Sebhat Ephrem, and the day after that, it is Askalu, do we have any strategy of drawing them to us? Or is our idea of struggle “monkey chasing” and petitions to deny refugee status? And how does that encourage anyone from leaving the police state?
All of you who say “tell us what you know about Ali Abdu” our answer is we will, when the time is right. We fail to see the urgency of “breaking news” when there are far, far more important questions. We are not, and we have never been, interested in pursuing the 24 hour news cycle. We are in the middle of a struggle and, from our perspective, the definition of winning is to have as many PFDJ members become ex-PFDJ members and enlisted in the cause of bringing democracy and justice to Eritrea. And everything we try to do is from the perspective of that.
The Eritrean regime has never been weaker—but it is being challenged by even weaker assortment of opposition elements. For years, it was customary to beat up on the traditional opposition, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance, as being “driven by personal grudges” ,as having no national agenda, as being incompetent, as being the lackeys of Ethiopia. Much ink was spilled on this, and much of it was true. But those who are vying to replace it are, we are sad to say, even less strategic in their thinking, less informed about their history, and, since they are far too willing to tarnish all of our real heroes and our armed struggle, are far too willing to accept the lowest standards for heroism and inspiration. In this regard, a person who talks for hours on Paltalk is a “hero”; a person who videotapes something is a “hero”; a person who used to be in prison and is now free is a “hero”; and a person who demonstrates for two hours is a “hero.”
Our media are sensational and short-sighted. Our youthful opposition are even more “grudge-driven” than the old opposition—except that their grudges are based on second, third and fourth-hand information. Those engaged in the campaign to defeat the PFDJ are tewelawelti and always distracted by something else. (For example, we learned the heading of this edition’s of The Pencil from Dawit H. Gabriel. Remember how he came roaring with a sure way to defeat the PFDJ. And all his meticulous plans, remember him? Where is he now? Distracted by something else. )And, we absolutely have not devised a single way to accommodate all those who are leaving the sinking ship of the PFDJ. The “old opposition” had a strategy for this: they welcomed people –the Eritrean Commandos—a day after they had their guns pointed at them ready to annihilate them. Our new opposition has a lot of growing up to do and the tragedy is that the PFDJ may implode before the opposition grows up.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Inform. Inspire. Embolden. Reconcile. And, once a year at least, reassess.
Correction: In an article entitled “Setting The Record Straight…”, Asmarino states that the martyr’s database it is displaying on its homepage is different from the same one we provided it in 2005. It says that “data base Asmarino has now displayed on its website originates directly from Asmara, from what they used to call, “Mingar database”. We apologize to asmarino.com for assuming it is the same database.