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The Shitara Code

You know those kids who stood outside movie theatres and told the patrons that they were only 5 cents short of the admissions price and could they please get help when, in fact, all they had was 5 cents? You remember those who ate beles “ny sania”: standing in front of the fruit vendor, they would pick and eat their chosen delicacy and then, when it came time to settling their account, they would run in different directions confounding the poor vendor? Every day was a new day: they brokered useless information to tourists; they lied casually; they fought regularly; they were addicted to risk; and at the end of the day, they reveled in telling their daily conquests. Every city has them and where I grew up, they were simply called Asmarino (street smart sons of Asmara) and their activity was called Shitara: outsmarting the fools and the naive. 

 

What becomes of them when they grow up? What career could they choose that rewards thinking on your feet, lying casually, begging without calling what you do begging, stealing from the naive and cheating regularly? You can’t travel? Fake a passport. You need funds? Create an NGO to “rehabilitate” victims of war. You can’t gather intelligence? Befriend the friend of the general. You need weapons? Place them in fishing boats. You can’t gain access to a place? Pretend to be a civilian. 

 

A career in politics and military intelligence. Even democratic countries need people with these skills: the people make a Faustian bargain with their governments: do what you have to do to keep us safe from threats, but don’t tell us precisely what you are doing. And don’t go overboard because, if we know, it will offend our sensibilities, and we will have to fire you. 

 

But what if there is no civilian government, no elected body and the government has no reason to expect retribution from the populace because it has co-opted them in the deception? For 30 long years, the Eritrean people supported their revolution—which means, among other things, that we were part of the necessary deception. Old man, did you see any wembedewoch here? No! You are not secretly feeding and raising funds for them are you? Never. And what is that bulky thing you are hiding in your camel caravan? This, oh, it is just firewood. 

 

There was no adult supervision to keep the Asmarino and their Shitara in check because that was the price of freedom. Once we are free, calculated the people, once we are independent from Ethiopian occupation, everybody would go back to their fountain of truth: their culture, their religion.  And deception, even necessary deception, would be a thing of the past. Nmeqfira ygbero, as a pious friend of mine says after he parties at a wedding.

 

But culture and religion, we were told by the revolutionaries, were divisive and backward, whereas the revolution was progressive and unifying. And the revolution had to be celebrated, while tradition and culture had to be defanged, whitewashed, and sanitized until they became nothing more than mere vehicles for the celebration of the revolution. And our rulers went on with their Shitara, with no constraints, compounding their lies with more lies, creating a mountain from their deception until lying no longer became second nature but first resort.

 

Examples:

 

News Item 1:  Members Of The Eritrean Community In Jeddah Decide To Donate 1% Of Their Two Year Income Towards Enforcing National Resolute Rebuff.

 

The background to this news is that Eritrean citizens in Saudi Arabia (including Jeddah) were griping that they could not afford to pay 2% of their one-year (annual) income. Our rulers “convinced” them to contribute 1% of their two-year income? Here’s how I imagine the conversation went:

 

PFDJ:           How much do you make a year?
Citizen:        12,000 Riyals?
PFDJ:           And you are saying you can’t afford to pay 2% of 12,000? You can’t pay 240 Riyals?
Citizen:        No! I can’t.
PFDJ:           Ok, ok! We will reduce it to 1%!
Citizen:        Thank you! You are so in tune with the heartbeat of the people!
PFDJ:           That is 1% of your two-year income….
Citizen:        Thank you!
PFDJ:           Now you have to meet me half-way! I expect that payment within 3 months.
Citizen:        Of course! Bless you.
PFDJ:           One more thing. You are a “national” so stop calling yourself a “citizen.”      National is a geographic term; citizen is a political term!

 

News Item 2: Members Of The Eritrean National Assembly And German Parliament Hold Discussion

 

The background to this news is that the three words—Eritrean National Assembly—hadn’t been heard of since February 2002 when, if you recall, they met to discuss the G-15 “and strongly condemned them for the crimes they committed against the people and their country” and then told the executive office to disclose the accusations against the G-15 promptly. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and google “Eritrean National Assembly”, and good luck.

 

Then the German parliament said they would like to meet with the Eritrean parliament and presto! Here’s how I imagine the conversation went:

 

PFDJ 1:        The German parliament wants to meet with the Eritrean parliament.
PFDJ 2:        The German what wants to meet with the Eritrean what?
PFDJ 1:        The Eritrean National Assembly.
PFDJ 2:        The Cabinet of Ministers?
PFDJ 1:        No, no, the Eritrean National Assembly!
PFDJ 2:        What is that?
PFDJ 3:        Ata bejaka, kndey zereba tfetwu ikhum!  Just pick any umunat Halefti and call them members of the National Assembly!
PFDJ 2:        How many?
PFDJ 3:        How many Germans are coming?
PFDJ 1:        6.
PFDJ 3:        Then give them 6 Eritreans! Case closed. Eway Hiwket!

 

News Item 3: Dawit Isaac: Jailed 3,127 days in Eritrea without trial

 

The dispute was sparked by Swedish media reports quoting European Union parliamentarian Eva-Britt Svensson as saying that Eritrea’s ambassador in Brussels, Girma Asmerom Tesfay, had promised that his government would formally charge Isaac and take him to court. “During our conversation, he said suddenly, that Dawit Isaac will have a trial,” Svensson told Expressen newspaper. But Negassi Kassa Tekle, deputy chief of the Eritrean Mission in Brussels, described the statement as being much narrower: “The ambassador said only that all Eritreans have the right to be tried. We have no new information about Dawit Isaac.” Still, Svensson is standing by her recollection. “I have my notes and my recollection that he had not talked in general. He spoke very precisely. It was ‘Dawit Isaac has to have a trial,’” Expressen reported.

 

The background to this story is that Ambassador Girma Asmerom is the type of a guy who, if pulled over by traffic cop for driving recklessly, changing lanes without signaling, speeding, driving through a red light, and with a dead body visible in the trunk of his car, he would give as his defense—and he would be adamant—that the accusations could not be true because, “Officer, I have a valid drivers license and I had a perfect score when I took the written portion of the driving test.” When the US State Department accused his government of denying Eritreans their freedom of religion, Girma Asmerom (then Eritrea’s ambassador) countered with a rebuttal citing Articles 14 and 19 of the Eritrean constitution (the very constitution that the State Department was accusing him of violating.)

 

Remember also that when the PFDJ decided to cancel the December 2001 elections, Girma Asmerom was telling the world that the elections have not been cancelled and will be held on time. 

 

News Item 4: Eritrea Refused To Provide Military And Intelligence Facilities To The US

 

Massawa: Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has disclosed for the first time that the US asked him in the past to provide military and intelligence facilities in the Assab area on the Red Sea coast, south of Eritrea, but his government refused.

 

The background to this story is that, in 2002, the government of Isaias Afwerki had employed, at $50,000 a month, full time lobbyist, Greenberg Traurig LLP (made famous by this guy) to, among other things, issue a position paper that asked (lobbyists are not known for their subtlety): “Why Not Eritrea?”  where they explicitly made the case for Eritrea to be the American base in the Horn of Africa. The Washington Post headline of November 5, 2002 reads: “Eritrea Pushes To Get US Base.” (subscription needed.) A BBC Headline from December 10, 2002 said it all: “Eritrea offers military help to US” . 

 

There is a proverb, in Tigre, about a monkey that tries and fails to get some bananas from a tree and then says, “Screw it, they were rotten anyway.” (translation not verbatim.) Isaias Afwerki, has modified this story somehow: the monkey tries and fails to get some bananas and, later on, tells people, “the banana begged me to eat it but I said, nah, I am kinda busy right now.”     

 

News Item 5: Eritrea Has No Deal With Iran

 

[Laughs] We do not have any agreement with Iran to develop the refinery. What was reported in this regard was a part of a wide spread misleading campaign. Thanks to God, you visited the refinery and took photos without finding any such a thing, although we are in 2010 and the misleading media stated that the agreement was signed in 2008 as you said.

 

And the background to this is that in May 20, 2008, President Isaias Afwerki visited Tehran and upon his return spoke of how broad and deep the Eritrea-Iran relations are because Ayatollah Khomeini used to always include a prayer for the people of Eritrea in his Friday prayers. (don’t laugh.) Iran’s Press TV had a report about the visit with the very direct headline of Ahmadinejad: No limits to Iran-Eritrea ties. An excerpt:

 

Speaking to reporters following his private meeting with Isaias Afwerki in Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that various issues of mutual interest, including joint investment in agriculture, industry and energy, and regional and international cooperation were among the topics discussed between the two presidents. Ahmadinejad stated that Iran saw no limits to the expansion of cooperation and relations with Eritrea. The Iranian president stressed that Iran and Eritrea share common views on regional and global issues and have similar stances towards the hegemonic powers.

 

And these are just five very recent news items. If you go a year back, five years back, ten, fifteen, it is always the same: a reckless disregard for the truth, an attitude of “say anything, do anything,” just outsmart them, live for the day because tomorrow will take care of itself. The Shitara Code. It is precocious, and somewhat charming, when small kids adopt this lifestyle of hustle and bustle, but when you have an entire government which is founded on this culture, celebrates it, promotes it, then you begin to have a clue of the depth of morass that Eritrea is in.

 

So, when some of us say that the removal of this regime is of utmost urgency, it is not because we are prone to hyperbole, or because we want to “assume power” but because with every passing day this culture, this Shitara Code takes deeper and deeper root in the State until it becomes—as it has with many African nations—the accepted behavior of not only the government but all those who wish to befriend, benefit from and be subsidized by the government.

 

FAREWELL, Tekie

 

I was saddened to hear that Dr. Tekie Fessehazion passed away.

The first time we met was in Los Angeles in 1995. He was a member of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea (CCE), part of the traveling contingency which was holding meetings throughout North America and I was just another eager Eritrean who believed in the exceptionality of Eritrea. Hold off your mail about chauvinism and supremacy: exceptionalism simply meant that Eritrea had the unique opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of African states—since its independence came decades after the rest of Africa. Somebody* introduced us after he had alerted him that I was the publisher of The Eritrean Exponent, which, much like the country it was named after, had a head-on collusion with the wall of Reality soon afterwards. He said kind words, interrupting himself to ask, “how old are you anyway!” making me feel like a child prodigy when I was already in my 30s.

 

[* Eritrean politics is so polarized now I am sure he doesn’t want his name mentioned here since he has retired from Eritrea’s mixed martial arts, i.e. writing online.]     

 

A professor, he looked the part. Sports coat, collared shirt, casual pants, work shoes, focals. I am probably imagining the sweater vest. The first pleasant surprise was that his field was not political science or even sociology but economics. Economics, like politics and psychology, is one of those fields where people without any training can debate those who are experts in it—and thus, the beginning of our relationship. He found my right-wing approach to economy mildly amusing (he was too much of a gentleman to call it immature and annoying) and I considered his Keynesian approach too conventional (I was too respectful to call it a failed experiment.)

 

It was a good basis for the beginning of a friendship. That and my admiration for his writing style which was pure Hemingway: short, declarative sentences. But our interest was Eritrean politics which we approached from different perspectives: we had overlapping convictions between 1998 and 2000 and they diverged after the end of the Eritrea-Ethiopia wars. He would tease me about Awate using a phrase that I now use when teasing my friends; our conversations got less frequent and, regretfully, eventually phased out.

 

Dr. Tekie was a liberal who believed in Jeffersonian democracy. He also believed that the PFDJ was the best agent to bring about Eritrea’s transition to a democratic republic, and he considered all the movements—the G-13, G-15, etc—catastrophic mistakes because the one thing the PFDJ does not respond to is pressure and, in his mind, the G-13/G-15 set back the cause of democracy by years.

 

But even Dr. Tekie had to do what he hated to do—criticize the PFDJ in public—when they arrested the journalists and the G-15. Along with fellow Constitutional Commissioners Gebrehiwet Tesfagiorgis and Semret Asfaha, he penned an article to express: 

 

“…deepest concern on the recent developments on the Eritrean political scene, in particular the closure of the private press (plus detention of nine independent journalists) as well as the arrest of 11 senior members of the government. Our concern emanates from their implications on cardinal principles on rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Eritrea (article 19), without the observance of which it is impossible to build a tolerant and politically pluralist society.”

 

The PFDJ replied to this gentle criticism with the only response it knows: a vicious counterattack. With that, the PFDJ Shitara experts announced to any doubters that they will not brook any criticism, even the mildest, from even the gentlest. Dr. Tekie, a gentle soul, a scholar more comfortable with journals and peer-reviews, must have felt that the Eritrean idea ring no longer had room for anyone other the mixed martial arts experts, and he gently withdrew, joining the many who had already made that decision.

 

Happy Trails, Doc.

 

salyounis@gmail.com

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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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