Justice is derived from customs, culture, and faith, which in civilized societies, are codified into law. Ask a conservative American what his justice system is based on and he will say it is the Judeo-Christian ethic. Not so, will say a progressive American: only two of the Ten Commandments (“thou shalt not murder” and “thou shalt not steal” progressed from sin to crime.) But both agree that the ultimate law of the land is the Constitution.
In traditional societies, faith is a substitute for law. And with faith, the most important component is having an authoritative person interpreting it, preferably using quasi science. Consider how Monty Python’s Sir Benevere (The Holy Grail) showed the villagers how to confirm to themselves that the woman they were trying to burn was indeed a witch:
- If the woman was a witch, you would burn her;
- But what else burns? Wood!
- What else does wood do besides burning? It floats!
- What else floats besides wood? A duck!
- So, logically, if we put the woman on a scale and she weighs as much as a duck, she is a witch.
“Who are you so wise in the ways of science”, ask the impressed villagers. “I am King Arthur, Lord of the Britons…”
In societies going through a transition, the State uses the Law to arrest you and Faith to convict you. This was the case in 1940s France as told in Albert Camus’s classic L’Etranger (The Stranger), the story about a Frenchman, Meursalt, who kills an Algerian. When it came time to convince the jury of his guilt, his prosecutor does not talk about the details of the killing (crime); instead he focused on the fact that Meursalt was disrespectful to his mother (sin) and to God (a bigger sin.) The jury, convinced beyond doubt that its middle-class French norms were being assaulted, passes its verdict: death sentence.
A magistrate explains why Meursalt’s rejection of God was offensive:
“… all men believed in God, even those who turned their backs against him. And if he were to doubt that, his life would be meaningless. ‘Do you want my life to be meaningless?’ he asked…”
I. INJUSTICE & THE PFDJ WAY
Then you have two ideological groups whose justice system is entirely based on faith: Islamists and communists. The Islamists are at least honest about their belief system: ask the most extremist member of the most extreme Islamist group and he will tell you his faith is based on the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, which act as the constitution and the penal code.
Ask the hardest-core supporter of the PFDJ what Eritrea’s justice system is based on, and he will have to stumble and repeat what Isaias Afwerki, Yemane Gebreab, and the entire PFDJ hierarchy has said: “we have our own way, our own culture of dealing with things.” The Catch-22 here is that part of the culture of dealing with things is not telling people how you deal with things.
The justice system of the PFDJ is actually modeled after those pioneered by Stalin and Mao. Justice is not a matter of crimes and punishment (or vindication) but sins and damnation (or mercy.) And the most unforgivable sin is recanting your faith, or expressing doubt in the ruling party.
This is why the likelihood of finding an Eritrean who can publicly say negative things about the PFDJ inside Eritrea is about as much as finding an Afghani (or Somali) who will say negative things about Islam in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (or Somalia.) Eri-TV will interview all sorts of people except one: those who say, “you know, I just don’t have faith in my party anymore. Can you point me to the exit?”
The difference between how the PFDJ treats its unbelievers—Keda’At—and how the most extremist Islamists who pass fatwas calling on beheading the one who recants his faith—Murtad—is only a matter of style. It is like the difference between a cannibal who uses a fork and that who uses his hands. The Islamist extremists will videotape the beheading and may invite witnesses; the PFDJ will pick and disappear you and will deny it ever heard about you.
And this is why the G-15 who, according to the PFDJ itself, are not all equally guilty of serious crimes are, nonetheless, treated as if they are: because their sin, that of recanting your faith, that of signing an Open Letter (Luther against the Pope) is identical.
And this is why any government report about remorseful Eritreans (like this one about Eritreans who were deported back by Egypt), or testimony of any Eritrean who has escaped from any of the countless hell holes, (like this testimony from the WiA students), or Eritrean Americans over whom the PFDJ has no jurisdiction (like the instance of the priests) all have one thing in common: to receive salvation, you must ask for forgiveness from the Party.
So now in Eritrea we have this indescribably cruel justice system which is more barbaric than anything devised by the most backward, most extreme religious fanatic. How did we get here, and how do we get out?
II. The WAY IN
There have been explanations offered for how we got to where we are. Some have argued that the road to 2009 was set in motion in 1961 (“The Landscapers”); some argue that the attempts made in 2000 to implement change were too much too soon (“The Lion Tamers”); some argue that what was attempted was the right thing at the right time, but not enough energy was applied (“The Blacksmiths”). And once in a while come the shocks to the system to tell us we are just full of it (“The Tiger Riders.”)
1. The Landscapers
The Landscapers say that just as you can’t re-direct a branch long after it is grown and set in its way, you can’t change a Front after you tolerated and encouraged its authoritarian ways. So We The People are all to blame for our mess.
The landscapers trace the birth of despotism in Eritrea to the birth of the Revolution. Some have even traced it to September 1, 1961. The ELF-ers trace it to the day PLF split from ELF. And one of my all-time favorite writers, Aklilu Zere, traces the Birth of Despotism to a specific time (September 29, 1976) and a specific place (Fshei Mrara) when all the giants of the EPLF [“(Mesfin Hagos, Petros Solomon, Drue (chairman) Alamin Mohamed Said (secretary), Beraki, Sherifo, Sibhat, Stifanos Bruno, Ibrahim Afa etc…etc…”)] are in a meeting and they raise the issue of MenkaE and when Isaias Afwerki says that it is a closed case and the issue should never be raised, nobody challenges him.
The Landscapers include within them a subset (the Ghedli Deromanticizers) who are not just mad at Isaias Afwerki but also at the Eritrean People whom they accuse of all sort of vices as well. Another subset are the members of other Fronts who are content to say how right they were about “Shaebia” but are reluctant to talk about the 100 other things they were wrong about.
The way out, according to the Landscapers, is to chop down the tree, learn lessons applied, and get into the habit of pruning often.
2. The Lion Tamers
The skill set that was required to liberate Eritrea is not the same as the one that was required to govern it, say the Lion Tamers. The ideal organization that had to be created to liberate Eritrea had to be: secretive, militaristic, hierarchical, centralized, deceptive, and one that dispensed efficient justice to dissuade spying and betrayal which could literally destroy the organization. What was needed was a beast.
Over time, you could cajole the beast and try to domesticate it. This requires patience and expertise and you have to constantly feed it red meat (Awet nhafash, you are the greatest, the Weyane are evil, there is none like you.) The lion tamers says they were making a great deal of progress beginning with the EPLF’s 1987 congress, when it accepted in principle the concept of political pluralism, all the way to 1997 when Eritrea finally got constitution that protected citizens rights and established term limits to kill a beast found only in Africa: the Big Man. But, they say, with all that noise and light, with all the amateurs and hunter-wannabes who emerged in 2000, you just scared it and the Beast went back to its wild ways. You have nobody but yourselves to blame for trying to do too much, too early. Are you happy now, they say.
The work of the Lion Tamers is so subtle it is hard to know that they are working. But they are working.
3. The Blacksmiths
This group agrees with the Lion Tamers that it was inevitable for Eritrea’s guerrilla movement to have been authoritarian and secretive and undemocratic, but they disagree with their approach of trying to tame an untamable beast. They say that history presents opportunities that should be taken and the year 2000—with a wounded beast, whose self-confidence was severely shaken—was the perfect present. You have to strike the iron while it is hot. The 2000 strategy was perfect: there just wasn’t enough fire raging, they say.
The problem with the Blacksmiths is that if their campaign does not work, they tend to get permanently discouraged and to go back to the background, waiting for the next opportunity to present itself which may be a month, a year or a decade from now. They are not actively involved in setting the iron on fire, so they can strike again.
4. The Tiger Riders
There is another group that comes about once in a while as a protest against The Landscapers, The Lion Tamers and The Blacksmith. Let’s call them the Tiger Riders and Ali Salim certainly belongs to that group. He is impatient with The Landscapers (too backward looking), the Lion Tamers (too timid) and the Blacksmiths (too inconsistent.)
The Tiger Riders take a long hard look at the status quo, find something woefully inadequate in its strategy, and then propose their solutions. They are Idea People. In this group, I would certainly place “Tesfai Sherif” who authored what was the most comprehensive PFDJ-reform paper; Herui Tedla Bairou, with his Adi Strategy; Bashir Ishaq with his concept of regional federalism; Stone Tesfaghabir (remember Stone?) with his “God is the Problem” articles. The Tiger Riders don’t just appear at awate.com: recall Rezene and his “The Road To Asmara Is Via Addis” strategy (Eritreana.com); the deqebat.com website with its “the problem with Eritrea is that there are too many foreigners in charge.” and, of course, Yosief G and his Deromanticizing Ghedli strategy of “the problem with Eritrea is Eritreans” (asmarino.com). And now comes Ali Salim with his Muslim League II strategy.
I say hooray for the Tiger Riders because they are the ones that invite all of us to question our assumptions and to challenge us to sharpen our arguments.
So why does awate.com host Ali Salim and who is he and what does he signify? Sigmund Freud, who was famous for finding symbolism everywhere (almost all of it having to do with sex) was once asked what his cigar-smoking signified. He answered, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” Similarly, sometimes, a great writer is just a great writer–and that goes a long way to getting published at awate. So when I read all manners of speculation about Ali’s identity, I honestly get depressed because it just shows that our side (the opposition) is not blessed with great thinkers, problem solvers and strategists. Just gossip mongers.
I read all the complaints and protests regarding Ali and there is merit to some of it, and Ali Salim, to his credit, has apologized for it. As for the loudest howls against him, I have nothing but sympathy for those who have witnessed horror at the carnivals of yesteryear (gratuitious video). But with respect to folks who have been so shell-shocked by their experience of the 1980s; folks who have been riding the pony on the carousel, going round and round, for years and years, with nothing to show for it except for bad memories and a permanent state of dizziness: you do not make the best judges.
The way I see it, Ali Salim, like all awate contributors, has his own style. We have librarians, poets, lawyers and professors. And we have a more populist corner, where the flame throwers, axe jugglers, tiger riders and hurricane hunters congregate. That’s where I catch Da Ali S Show. Like many of you, I watch it with mixed feelings: admiration for the courage and mad skills of the headliner, and fear that it will all end very badly. But my fear is not that he will hurt others—or that he will inspire some to hurt others. My fear is that he will hurt himself and those closest to him. For such is the risk with axe jugglers, tiger riders and knife-throwers–they have so many loose ends in their arguments, they are bound to be all tied up. But the solution is to rebut his arguments, as many have, not to drop the curtain and pretend the show is not on. Isn’t that one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in?
III. THE WAY OUT
All the alliances, conglomerations, united fronts, consolidations that have been attempted so far have been about trying to get all the people who disagree about how we got to the mess we are in, to work together to devise a way out. They have not worked and they are not likely to work, unless the Opposition considers the following:
1. Groups vs Teams
For the same reason that Eritrea does not deserve one political party (because it is too diverse for one), it does not deserve 13 political groups (it is not THAT diverse.)
Those who study group dynamics say that 7 is the magic number: any number higher than that and it is impossible to create a team; you are stuck with a group. The approach that is being used by different groups is long overdue: there is no reason at all (programmatically speaking) why EPP, EDP, EPM1, EPM2, and for that matter the ENSF or ELF exist as independent entities—other than the bad blood that exists among the leadership. There is no reason at all why there are three Islamist groups in Eritrea, none at all, other than leadership issues.
2. Be Relevant
Identify issues that you consider are important to Eritreans in Eritrea (not Eritreans who write about their local issues for websites) and try to address them. Addressing them does not mean highlighting how badly the PFDJ is addressing the issue, but describe a vision of what you would do if you were in power. Issues such as malnourishment, corruption, lack of housing, military service, border issues, decline of the quality of education, etc, etc. Focus on the biggest weakness of the PFDJ—its injustice system—and pound away.
3. Work Ethic
The PFDJ did not earn the goodwill of the Eritrean people because it is made up of charming people. No, the goodwill it generated was entirely due to its work-till-you-drop ethic, and its ability to occasionally wow you with results. If injustice is its weakness; its work ethic is its strength. Some will say “actions are by intentions” and their intentions were never good; that is how God judges people’s work (by intentions). We mortals judge it by results.
The PFDJ has an impressive insight into what the Eritrean people consider work. This is why even when its cabinet of ministers are having a meeting, the videographers will edit the show in such a way that the actors are never shown talking but—with all their animated gestures—actually working. The PFDJ knows that the people do not care that it hasn’t had a congress since 1994—because “there are men of work; and men of meetings!”
So, it is all good and well to have meetings. But the opposition has to talk about issues that matter to the people, in a way that inspires confidence, and it has to find a way to show results—even if it has to open a basket-weaving factory and produce baskets.
Attention Awate Forum Mathematician: A certain John Ionnidis claims that he has proven the lady in the movie is an actual witch by using something called Resolution Theorem Proving. Check his logic here: http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/90q4/burnher.html