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National Conference: An Affirmation Of Eritrea’s Founding Principles

Yemane Gebreab, the political director of Eritrea’s ruling party, the PFDJ (who is also a “special advisor” to President Isaias Afwerk), was being interviewed by Swedish TV earlier this month. The interviewer wanted to know, among other things: what was the crime of Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak who is in detention since 2001? Is he still in detention? Is he alive?What is he accused of? When will you bring him to court? Don’t you think 9 years is a long time to hold a person in detention without charging him with a crime? The journalist’s question dealt with verdict and justice and it reminded me of a conversation I had with an Eritrean dissident 15 years ago as he was enlightening me about the PFDJ—he had said: Kabziatom’si, ashinkuay do FitHi; wela Firdi Keman ayrkebn iyu:: You can’t get a verdict, much less justice, from PFDJ.

Lies and surrealism are now the official languages of the PFDJ. Speaking to the interviewer, Yemane Gebreab said that even if the Swedes give Dawit Isaak citizenship, he still retains his Eritrean citizenship, and this citizenship affords him all the “rights and privileges” of citizenship, including, presumably, the right to disappear and be held in detention without charges and for his right to keep a mystery his status on whether he is alive or dead. Dammitt, that is how generous we the PFDJ are: your mom is Eritrean? Your dad is Eritrean? YOU get Eritrean citizenship. YOU get Eritrean citizenship! And YOU get Eritrean citizenship, with the same “rights and privileges” as any Eritrean! Dawit Isaak is prisoner # 36 at Eira Eiro where he is handcuffed all day, and next cell is a 20-year veteran of the armed struggle, blinded by diabetes and “enjoying all the rights and privileges” that Eritrean citizenship provides! Match that, Oprah, and your silly car giveaways!

How many Eritreans are enjoying these rights and privileges? Who knows! Yemane Gebreab kept saying throughout the interview that Eritrea has a population of 4 million, which must come with a bunch of asterisks that he is not disclosing, because other sources put the number at 5 million plus.

Yemane wasn’t done: he went on to explain that the leadership of the PFDJ, unlike other guerrilla leaders, did not become a “ruling class” in Eritrea. Exactly. This is why all Eritreans drive an SUV, travel with bodyguards, get subsidized villas, have “unrestricted access” to the Internet, with “no restriction to right of information, something that we encourage”, and get exit visas whenever they like. And this is why the PFDJ hierarchy waits in lines for bread and cooking oil; its political viewpoints never get preferential treatment in the state media and, just like the general public, it spends most of the day cursing the government and plotting of a way to get the hell out of the country.

Sickeningly, Yemane Gebreab, his boss, and the entire PFDJ hierarchy have one answer when they are asked when they will bring the accused to a court of law, when will they specify the charges, when will they pass sentence, when will they give people a chance to defend themselves. And that answer is, “we have our own way, our own culture of dealing with these things.” To make people disappear, to torture them, to deny them their day in court, to let them wither away in dungeons is not a “culture”; it is a form of savagery that was practiced by the world’s cruelest tyrants throughout history. So in addition to its evil nature, it is also unoriginal.

The “They Are Not So Bad” Argument

Some who support the PFDJ think that to call the organization evil is hyperbolic: sure it is tough, they argue, but the toughness it requires of the citizens it applies to itself as well, so it is all good. But the interview demonstrates that these allegedly “tough” guys have thin skin. Yemane Gebreab disclosed that he finds it incredibly unfair that the Swedish media is always negative: isn’t there something to celebrate about our government? “Really, there is nothing positive about Eritrea?” Can’t you write about our successful malaria eradication campaigns, improvement in infant mortality, maternal mortality and increase in the delivery of clean water and building of micro-dams? Notice the double standard: Eritreans are considered whiny and spoiled if they complain about grave crimes of their government (who are supposed to work for them), but it is perfectly normal for the PFDJ to whine about how badly it is treated by foreigners (who, incidentally, owe it no allegiance.) So nobody is allowed to bring up the “mistakes” of the PFDJ, or demand justice, unless it is accompanied with praises to the PFDJ? Is a right a favor that is given by the government only after sufficient “Goitay Feqadkum ente Khoynu…” supplications? But this is what subjects do, not citizens. But no matter: it is a dirty job, but I guess somebody has to do it and if such are the rules required to get justice from the PFDJ, I will volunteer:

The PFDJ, which has an exemplary malaria eradication campaign, has yet to bring people it is detaining to a court of law. This government, which has no functioning constitution, has also vastly reduced the maternal mortality rates. The tens of thousands of Eritrean youth who are escaping the country, are the largest from a country that is not in the middle of war, a war of aggression that was waged against it, and as they run from the country of their birth to the country that waged war against them, the youth can stop by any village and get clean drinking water which is available thanks to the Eritrean government. The tens of thousands of the escapees could have also attended any of the many high quality vocational schools that the government opened with help from nobody. Some of these Eritrean refugees will end up in the US which does not provide free medical care to everyone, unlike the Eritrean government which has first rate medical facilities. Once in foreign lands, some of these refugees will continue to support their government and this may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the government harasses their families back home….

Cruelty, aggression, lying with ease and a total inability to express any remorse are some of the symptoms of psychopathic people.  This mental illness is estimated to affect  only about 2% of any population but it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that psychopathic folks are overrepresented in the PFDJ and that they are holding some of the most important positions in the Eritrean government. (Aklilu Zere’s “What About Then” is yet another masterpiece to help us put the pieces together.)

But, if the PFDJ are so evil, how come the people are not rising up to resist them? The supporters of the PFDJ have used this as the ultimate conversation-ender: no uprising, therefore your claim that the system is hated is false. They make it sound that every day is a referendum and every day the people voluntarily indicate that they stand as one with their government. But this “choice” is coerced and it is as farcical as the “choice” people make to elect their dictators by 99%. On one side you have a government that controls your ability to eat, to support your family, to move from point A to point B, to worship your God, to live, to die, to be buried in your birthplace, and to be spared its “culture of dealing with these issues.” And on the other side you have the choice to be a traitor and subjected to all the “rights and privileges” of a traitor. This is a government whose embassy staff calls musicians in the Diaspora—musicians!—with a threat that if they appear at some little event not recognized by the government, they are putting in question their patriotism. Some choice.

Meanwhile, some in the opposition who are frustrated by the pace of change have chosen to blame the people for not waging velvety or orangy or Beles Revolution. Unless one claims that the people of Iraq loved Saddam Hussein or the Syrians loved Hafez Alasad, or the Cambodians loved Pol Pot, one has to recognize that there is nothing inherently weak or blame-worthy about the Eritrean people. Absence of visible protest does not mean presence of support. Sometimes, people have no choice but to endure because they do not have the capability, yet, to rise up. They choose to express their opposition through passive resistance.

Passive resistance can take many forms, and I believe it is going on in Eritrea. Passive resistance includes refusal to co-operate with the government by sitting stone-faced as a government official is rambling on about the campaign of vilification against the people and government of Eritrea; refusal to obey unjust laws, usually on taxes, on spying on family and friends; refusal to sing the praises of the government; refusal to listen to its propaganda; refusal to raise funds; refusal to volunteer and—this is the one that drives Yemane and company enraged—to become a willing participant in the “campaign of vilification” against the regime by disclosing all the crimes it commits and works so hard to keep a secret.

Dear Yemane Gebreab, take this to heart. That little stubborn gene that Eritreans are famous for, the one that keeps them going when all reason says they should not, is evenly distributed throughout Eritreans—it is not something that only the PFDJ die-hards have. We will pursue and intensify that “campaign of vilification” against your regime with the same dogged determination that you pursue your campaign of extending Eritreans their “rights and privileges” of being disappeared, exiled, tortured and killed. Every year, for ten years now, you have said that this campaign against your regime has lost its momentum, and that you have prevailed but as you admitted in the interview yourself, it is intense and coordinated and you are nowhere near prevailing. Your system can’t help being crude and cruel, and we can’t help opposing it. And at some point, we will all die: you haunted with the ghosts of people whose lives you participated in destroying (including, incidentally, the wife and children of Dawit Isaak) and us feeling guilty for not doing enough. Meanwhile, consider this: thanks to the government, the infant mortality rate is vastly improved, and more and healthier children are being born, who can now drink clean water, courtesy of the microdams. So why aren’t these grateful citizens naming their children after the PFDJ oppressors, Isaias, Yemane, etc? Think of it Yemane.

The “They Are Evil and Must Be Resisted. Period.” Argument

This is what the Eritrean opposition is supposed to be all about. Selam Kidane, whose articles always… bring… a smile… to my face… because she reminds me of Herb Caen, was having a lot of fun… with one of the resolutions of the National Conference…which was to have another conference in 12 months… But this is some progress in a land that has 13 months of… aydelle, Selam?

Selam ridiculed the idea of equating a national conference with a wedding where people are just happy to enjoy each other’s company and to pledge eternal love and unity. While I agree with Selam that what was missing from the conference (at least the published resolutions of the conference) was what MLK called (and Obama popularized) “the fierce urgency of now”—that while planning for tomorrow is great, we have to deal with the issues of today now—I must disagree with her that even if the happy smiles among diverse Eritreans were the sole achievement (and they are not), I would consider that an impressive show for the simple reason that it is a strong rebuttal to The Excluders.

The Excluders actually fall into two categories. The first group, the No Country Without PFDJ, are those who refer to the opposition as the “opposition” (within quotes) to indicate that it is an entity that doesn’t exist. A ghost. So what do you call the nearly 350 Eritreans who met in Addis Abeba? Traitors, of course. Quislings. Sellouts. So this great country of ours has produced only two categories of people: patriots who support their government and traitors who oppose their country? That’s it? What about this worldwide phenomenon that shows a strong co-relation between the type of government in power and the number of accused traitors? Traitors always tend to swell in countries run by dictatorships, in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, everybody but Pol Pot was a traitor or a potential traitor. What is to be done? Those who support the dictatorship will say that if only the dictatorship could take an even firmer stand to show it means business, the number of traitors would decline. But most reasonable people will eventually come to accept that this patriot or traitor classification of the PFDJ is self-serving and a gathering like the one in Addis Abeba emboldens that view.

The second group of excluders are the No Opposition Without Us folks. You know them: they are the ones who predicted the Conference would fail and said so using ominous sounding words strung together courtesy of a Thesaurus. They cried The Mussulman is coming! They see themselves as called by history to carry the burden of leading the opposition (“Oh, Atlas, wherefore art thou?”) and it is their job to mystify things and to keep the people strangers to one another. Because they are the voices of moderation to the extremism of the others; they are the modernizers who will pull the medieval brutes kicking and screaming; they are the “secularists” who will draw a line on the sand against the fundamentalist; they are the unifiers who will protect us from the regionalists and the sectarians; they are the democrats who will shield us from the dangers of authoritarianism (by defying annoying things like being outvoted); and they are the nationalists who will be our centurions against the secessionists.

It is the old hustle of the “ayer-b-ayer” merchant: the seller must never meet the buyer. Remember the old rotary telephone operators (“operator, may I have the number of the party you are trying to reach? Please hold as I connect you to 867-5309?”) and the old elevator operator (“what floor, please?”.) They were rendered obsolete by technology. And some in the Opposition who have attempted to present themselves as the Reasonable Middle by painting everybody else as an extremist know that they  will lose their credibility (and their market share) when the people meet one another face to face. That’s why they have been trying to postpone the inevitable. Here is a first hand report from Tedros Abraham Tsegay (formerly a reporter for PFDJ’s Hadas Ertra) after attending the conference:

Undoubtedly, it is to be the most remarkable event in Eritrea’s post independence history on various accounts; first it gave tranquility for all of the stakeholders, some of whom were suspicious that Eritrea’s political diversity can’t be accommodated in a civilized and democratic fashion. I was one of those skeptics; however, to the credit of the organizers of the conference, I have now been very convinced that I was mistaken to make that assertion, as the reality is speaking otherwise.

And another one from Amanuel Sahle (until recently writing for PFDJ’s Eritrea Profile and now on Eripost, his column at awate.com)

Our differences were our assets. Where else could we expose our differences and aspirations if not in a National Convention? Where else could we air our age-old grievances if not in a National Convention? The turbaned and bearded guy who sat beside me at the Convention or in the study circles or in the courtyard benches during breaks, could have inspired fear to an American from the Bible Belt, but to me he was my brother and will remain one with his legitimate demands and claims. The Afar who looked at me, a highlander, with suspicion and wanted to go as far as secession for his region might have caused the stomach of a Shaebia sympathizer to ooze with bile, but to me he was and remains my brother with the inalienable right to say what he wanted.

And this from Bereket Berhane Woldeab, another Eritrean exile, an “urban refugee” living in Addis Abeba:

The conference brought under one roof a very diverse character of people, a few of them I would not even have thought of meeting even in my wildest dreams. There were early 1960’s veterans of ELF mingling with Sawa national service graduates; ELF and EPLF who have lived through the tragic fraternal wars of the 1970’s exchanging niceties and sharing jokes; ex-ELF die-hards still seething and crying for blood; old royalists vying for elusive power; refugees from Ethiopia exchanging experience with their Sudanese counterparts; serious academicians and internet wizards glued to their laptops in the breaks between session and after session; bearded Islamic scholars and politicians bemoaning degradation of their religion; old and young political activists from all the minority groups; Jeberti’s crying for recognition; journalists interviewing anyone who has a story to tell; human right activists enumerating the endless list of abuses perpetrated by the Eritrean government; a sprinkling of poets waiting for inspiration; veteran and new con artists sniffing for opportunity; and a few banal characters acting and behaving as if they came to the NCDC only to take advantage of the free ride and impatiently waiting for the conference to end so that they can enjoy the sensual pleasure Addis has to offer.

In short, the reports from the conference indicate that the people do not need middlemen and translators. Those whose job it is to become our chaperones and security guards by selling fear and loathing have been denied their main merchandise. Eritreans just need a table and the ability to speak freely and they will always find the answers, as they did for hundreds of years before. We have not lost our voice even after a 50-year history of vanguard fronts and their “democratic centralism.”

That, my dear Selam, is why people are inexplicably happy. They realized that they still have a voice. But the high-fiving and the let’s keep in touch was not the only achievement. As the concluding statement of the conference said it (tsk, tsk, Selam, it is the part that you dot dotted from Gedab News report), (a) they elected a 53-member body (which gets instant legitimacy because it was directly elected by people’s delegates); (a.1) which will place constitutionalism, which has been in the backburner since 97, back to the forefront; and (a.2) address the transition period; (b) they recommitted themselves to Eritrea’s unity and territories as defined by all treaties including the 2002 Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission; (c) they committed themselves to the principle that nationalities, just like citizens, have rights, but that this is subservient to Eritrean sovereignty; (d) they affirmed that land belongs to the people and that (e) Eritrea’s two official languages are Tigrigna and Arabic.

Not bad for a bunch of traitors, turncoats, regionalists and Jihadists. They affirmed all of Eritrea’s founding principles.

So now the choices couldn’t be starker. There is the vision of Yemane Gebreab and company: a man who owes a title he has held (Political Party Director) for 16 years to one man and could lose it tomorrow and could face the same fate (and knows it) as those whose disappearance and being held without charges he is rationalizing; a country where to disappear and be murdered is described as “rights and privileges” and “we have a culture of dealing with things our own way”; a country where fear is considered normal, lying is the official language, rights are favors given by the regime, hope is a delicacy, and lives are disposable. A country without a constitution, a land without a verdict much less justice. Then there is the vision outlined at the National Conference where a diverse group of Eritreans from all over the world met to argue, debate, and elect people who will guide the process of bringing about change and negotiating the terms of our co-existence.

I consider the Conference a breakthrough—an affirmation of Eritrea’s timeless beliefs (unity, democracy, fairness and justice) and a firm rebuke to the practitioners of the politics of stalling and those who want us to be strangers so they can introduce us “when we are ready.”

salyounis@gmail.com This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

About Salyounis

Saleh Younis (SAAY) has been writing about Eritrea since 1994 when he published "Eritrean Exponent", a quarterly print journal. His writing has been published in several media outlets including Dehai, Eritrean Studies Review, Visafric, Asmarino and, of course, Awate where his column has appeared since the launch of the website in 2000. Focusing on political, economic, educational policies, he approaches his writing from the perspective of the individual citizens' civil liberties and how collectivist governments and overbearing organizations trample all over it in pursuit of their interests. SAAY is the president and CEO of a college with a focus in sound arts and video games and his writing often veers to music critique. He has an MBA from Golden Gate University and a BA from St Mary's College.

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