Isaias Afwerki, the Muscle Man, model 1966, is a lot like the muscle cars of the 1960s: you never know whether it is a classic worthy of restoration or a piece of junk that should be sent to the junk yard. For muscle cars you need mechanics and for muscle men you need adversarial journalists. And on February 19th, Aljazeera English did its diagnostics and His Nsuness was in his element: argumentative, impatient, derisive, bullying, and coiled like a caged animal ready to strike. As he got angrier and angrier, he reached that sweet spot that only the select few reach: the “Who Gives A F$@%” destination, a place accessible only to the religiously enlightened, the pathological liars, and the criminally insane. (Your fan meter will determine which one he is.)
Isaias doesn’t do well with Aljazeera, but that is to state the obvious: juggling baloons doesn’t prepare you for the more challenging task of juggling balls. Most tyrants (Middle East “leaders”) routinely complain to the Qatar authorities about the “insolent” Aljazeera. If you are only used to softball questions from journalists over whom you have the power of life and death, journalists who would never dare interrupt you and therefore must give you the false impression that it takes 20 minutes to answer 1 question, and the answers are so riveting that the reporter must nod his head in the affirmative and wear a sheepish grin, and never ask a follow-up or challenging question, then you will not be prepared for the give-and-take of the adversarial press. (PS: No blame is directed at the Eritrean journalists; groveling in the presence of the Boss is a universal language: just watch the body language of Neil Cavuto of Fox News whenever he interviews his boss Rupert Murdoch.)
The Aljazeera-Isaias interview was a cringe-inducing half-hour. You know those game shows where they ask you 10 questions in 60 seconds and then see how many you get right? This felt like an exercise on how many lies one can pack in 23 minutes. Eritreans can’t leave their country? Any Eritrean can leave the country any time. Eritrean athletes, the entire Eritrean football team defected in Kenya and a similar group in Scotland? News to me. Alshabab itself says your defense minister visited them. Lies. The UN says you are arming the rebels? Lies. The border war with Ethiopia? Never had any problems with Ethiopia: it was all instigated by the US. If you have no problems, why is Eritrea in war footing? Lies, we are not on war footing. How about your alleged links to JEM and SLA [Sudanese opposition forces]? Distortion of history, facts. But Sudan said it stopped JEM fighters armed by you? They didn’t say that, and they can’t prove that. You have a relationship with Iran? Not at all. It is a surprise to me, a joke to me. People leaving the country in record numbers? Lies. I have never heard anything like that.” Indefinite military service? Again another lie. Your lie. A pack of lies, a pack of fabrications. There is drought in the region, but you have refused food aid? When we have enough food, why do we need help? We don’t need any food, we can feed ourselves. There was an assassination attempt on your life? They are crazy, out of their minds, imagining things that don’t exist. When will you implement the constitution, democracy that you promised? I did not promise anyone democracy. There is no commodity called democracy. Amnesty International says you have converted the nation into a giant prison? A lie. You have a shoot-to-kill order on people who want to leave the country? Not at all. Do you have any friends? The whole world—outside of liars, a few bunch liars, are my friends. The whole world is behind Eritrea. We are # 1 in this continent.
Changing The Subject
The only way out was to change the subject. And he tried, albeit awkwardly: “Did you enjoy the show yesterday? Did you enjoy the show?” The show being the 20th anniversary of Operation Fenkil, the successful 1990 EPLA military campaign waged to liberate Massawa. But that also brings to mind the delusion that the bosses of authoritarian nations have: they actually think that people actually enjoy their “shows.” Think of the May Day Parades of the USSR, the North Korean army parade (and its warsay edition, the Children’s Parade), the China National Day Parade…Did you enjoy those shows?
These command-and-control shows are intended to show strength and unity, but all they show is fear, conformity and an apalling sense of fashion where attires come in three colors: loud, louder, loudest. Clearly, the Aljazeera reporter didn’t enjoy the show as she explained in her blog: watching security officers beating mothers and children with a stick takes the joy out of any show.
The purpose of shows put up by political organizations is to indoctrinate, not entertain you. It is said that Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, produced over 600 movies. That is more than all the movies that Spielberg, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Scorcese and Ford have produced. (But only two more than the teenage movies that John Hughes crapped out in the 1980s.) Subtlety is not what “cultural shows” are aiming for: they will hammer you to death with their “message.”
The unfortunate thing is that the Eritrean shows are not worthy of the events they commemorate. You don’t have to be a history buff or a fan of the military to appreciate Operation Fenkil, Nadew, Togoruba, etc. These were defining moments, milestones really, that made Eritrea possible. Now they are being used as a means to indoctrinate and brain wash: to equate Eritrea with the People’s Army, the army with its Commander, and the commander with infallibility. Thus, the anniversary of Operation Fenkil now celebrates the speeches that President Isaias gave in previous anniversaries of Operation Fenkil.
Stepping Over Your Headline
The 20th anniversary of Operation Fenkil was held on February 13. Everybody knew that Operation Mekete II, a “world-wide” demonstration against the UN, was scheduled for February 22nd. You know this because the front pages of the government-owned Shabait.com, shaebia.org and its affiliate websites told you so relentlessly. The government-owned Eri-TV told you so—daily in Tigrigna, Tigre, Arabic, English and semi-monthly in Amharic. The cellphones and fax machines of all the Eritrean embassies told you so. How important was attending the demonstration against the UN? “A correspondent says it is as important as participating in the Eritrean Referendum [the 1993 vote to determine whether Eritrea should be independent or remain part of Ethiopia],” offered the Eri-TV interviewer, very helpfully. “Yes, I couldn’t have put it better, exactly”, explained Professor Ghidewon all the way from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
So there are these two days: 2/13 (Fenkil) and 2/22 (Mekete II). Any Public Relations expert will tell you that when you have an event scheduled, you do not try to dilute its impact by pre-empting it with headline making news. (Or giving it an unfortunate name like i-PAD, but that’s a different story.) But His Nsu-ness has never really liked rules or conventions and decided to have his interview with Aljazeera English on the 14th (since he is asking her if she enjoyed the show “yesterday”, you can assume the interview was conducted the day after) and the show aired on the 19th.
And what was the headline on the 22nd? Not the demonstrations, but the Aljazeera Interview. This prompted the organizers of the demonstrations to get very upset with Isaias Afwerki for stealing their headlines… Just kidding: Of course this didn’t happen for reasons that Yosief Ghebrehiwot once described as the case of “Terminal 98”: when it comes to his supporters, the pointy finger of blame gets paralyzed when directed at Isaias Afwerki. It is the fault of the stars, it is the fault of Aljazeera, it is the fault of the journalists, it is the fault of the Isaias assistants (“mesarHti indiyu si’inu”), but never, ever the fault of Isaias.
The Exiled Eritrean and Ethiopian Opposition
Now consider the folks who were at the demonstration. There were, no doubt, people who were there because they were genuinely outraged at the UN, which always makes a big fat target of outrage. But there were also people whose outrage had been stroked, whose emotions had been manipulated by the master manipulator, Nsu, and who were there not to support Eritrea, but Nsu.
There were folks carrying signs that read “He is Us and We Are Him”, he being President Isaias, His Nsuness. Those of you who spent some part of your childhood in religious schools are attuned to phrases that emit Biblical tones. Sure enough, if you google “he is us and we are him” or its variation, “we are him, and he is us” you will get pages of religious references. Just as there was an element of “abey ‘adi-a keytibeSiH” in Nsu’s interview with Aljazeera, there was an equally insistent “Hrrir Belu” defiance in the Nsu-t-shirt-wearing- demonstrators, tone-deaf as they were to the easy comparison they presented to yesterday’s Fedayeen Saddam who used to chant “biddem, birouh, Nehmeek Ya Saddam: -with our blood, with our soul, we shall protect you O!Saddam!” Sure you will.
Also present in the demonstrations were members of the exiled Ethiopian opposition. Now here’s something worth saying: the Eritrean opposition is regularly accused of treason, of prostrating at the feet of Meles Zenawi, of being a tool of the Ethiopian government and other adjectives used from the department of hyperbole. But here’s something interesting: you could search the entire literature of the Eritrean opposition and not find a single document, a single quote, that praises the Ethiopian government in anything other than the politest of diplo-speech (“the fraternal people of Ethiopia, and the Sana’a Forum…”) for hosting them. There is that ever present Eritrean pride which is self-conscious about the fact that it is only circumstances that compelled it to ask for help from unlikely places. On the other hand, in 2009, the Ethiopian opposition essentially adopted the EPLF slogan, in Amharic form (tigil eske dil: struggle until victory) and named Isaias Afwerki “Man of the Year” (thereby accomplishing a rare feat of redefining “man” and “year.”) It must be a continuation of the Ethiopian infatuation with strong men (Lebne-Dingl, Atse Tewodros, Atse Yohannes, Lij Iyasu, Ras Teferi, etc.)
You Are A Threat To The US Constitution
Bet you didn’t know that. If you didn’t enjoy the show of Operation Fenkil, or the Aljazeera interview, you could always tune in to meskerem.net. Apparently, those who were demonstrating against the proposed UN sanctions were being subjected to threats and intimidation by their fellow compatriots who, according to meskerem.net, are “Addis-based Jihadist and Taliban dominated opposition.” There was a huge US flag (an audio of the US national anthem and a glimpse of Mt. Rushmore would have been extra sweet), and a reminder that Amnesty International had been approached.
Tsk, tsk, meskerem.net. That is not how you play the religious card: it is too obvious. If you want to communicate the message that the Isaias Afwerki regime is secular and Chrsitian-friendly but the opposition is a bunch of Jihadists, you could take a page from the American lobby of Isaias Afwerki, the Organization of Eritrean Americans (OEA), the way it did it in January 24, 2003, when it sent a letter to US Attorney General John Ashcroft to convey the message that Isaias Afwerki is a secular Christian and those who oppose him are hordes of terrorists and jihadists. Its website does not have archives from that era which must have been blotted out because they go against the zeitgeist of “anti-american, all-the time” fiat of the boss, but you can refer to awate.com’s contemporaneous commentary about what OEA wrote, which quoted them verbatim: (emphasis not in the original):
“The makeup of the Eritrean population is about 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. Neither group is said to dominate the other, though charges have been heard that Christians tend to dominate because the top leadership the last half-century has been largely from that side.”
Nice. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. But that was, as Ali Salim would say, from the Ametelom (just give them a hint) years. Now that, thanks to Ahmed Raji, the Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar and others, the Derguhalom (be blunt) era has dawned, many have come to learn that “largely from that side” was a huge understatement.
You could get multiple majors from the School of Irony, and not come up with a jewel approaching the gem from meskerem.net. An American-based website, which is banned in Eritrea, and which could not be licensed in Eritrea, and whose owner was, only a few years ago, on the receiving end of insults depicting him as a traitor, sellout, Jihadist, etc, had a bleeding heart about the theoretical violation of the rights of people who were demonstratingi in the US for the limitless power of an Eritrean tyrant who, (not theoretically) is arresting, disappearing and killing Eritreans (and lying about it), and spends most of his spare time ridiculing the US system of government which gives his supporters the right to support his tyranny. Meskerem.net reminded its readers that Amnesty International, (which every year writes volumes on the odious behavior of the tyrant) should be involved and “has been approached.” Epic! Students: write that up in your next Creative Writing class and your professor will dismiss it for being too unbelievable.
Particularly charming was meskerem.net’s reference to the Bill of Rights. You would be forgiven if you got tears in your eyes. But the U.S. Constitution is a legal document, written by people composing a negotiated contract for peaceful co-existance. The American Constitution is an outcome of its Declaration of Independence and if you want inspiration, if you want melody to the lyrics, you have to read the words of a people who were placing everything at risk for the sake of a cause:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security….And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The most help that the country where the Declaration of Independence was drafted can give Eritreans is not money, or radio time, or face time for lobbyists. It is to legitimize the struggle against Nsu. Or, more accurately, to de-deligitimize the right of people to stand up and remove a deranged tyrant without being accused of being violence-prone or terrorists but simply a people who are fed up with a “long train of abuses and usurpations.”
Neither A Blessing Nor A Short-Cut
The sanctions provide the pro-regime and the pro-opposition Eritreans convenient covers to do nothing. It provides the opposition yet another reason, yet another prayer for a short-cut to do nothing but to cheer and jeer from the sidelines. Because the alternative—that of organizing, rallying people around a coherent plan—is just too damn hard, and too damn exhausting. And it provides the pro-regime Eritreans yet another bogeyman, yet another entity to excuse the bad behavior of their favorite enslavers: to refrain from demanding accountability, and an elected government under the rule of law. An extension of the undeclared state of emergency for another decade or two (how long it takes, on average, for sanctions to be lifted.) It gives them a blueprint for The Road To Sahel, to re-live a difficult era by proxy.
The sanctions are neither “a blessing in disguise” nor a “short-cut to power.” The sanctions should be used as an opportunity for the pro-regime Eritreans to do an assessment of where the nation is and to use their voice to tell the leader of their party, respectfully but with vehemence, that he is leading the country down to a dead-end. That is not likely because once you have allowed somebody to do all the thinking for you, you can’t think for yourself. And the opposition must not pine away years waiting for the silver bullet of the sanctions (one that history suggests won’t come) and should actually continue on its path of consolidation and streamlining towards a goal: presenting the Eritrean people a credible alternative. People won’t dump their cars, no matter how junky, until they have an alternative means of transportation.