“Look in the mirror, and don’t be tempted to equate transient domination witheither intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.”
(Stephen Jay Gould, September 1941-May 2002)
As Eritrean communities and citizens, it is very difficult for us to see the mistaken assumptions we have when it comes to people who are different from ourselves. How many of us do not close off to those who are different from ourselves refusing to learn about them? Aren’t we perpetuating the cycle of intolerance when we do that? The hard truth which we overlook is that this prejudice has being developing in an uninterrupted
As Eritrean communities and citizens, it is very difficult for us to see the mistaken assumptions we have when it comes to people who are different from ourselves. How many of us do not close off to those who are different from ourselves refusing to learn about them? Aren’t we perpetuating the cycle of intolerance when we do that? The hard truth which we overlook is that this prejudice has being developing in an uninterrupted manner for over half of a century until it reached the most dangerous stage of false self-awareness or ethnocentrism by which some considered themselves as members of a community that is intrinsically superior to members of other ethnic or religious communities.
It is true that all ethnic and religious communities could not be free from prejudice, but only privileged groups would have the power to enforce their prejudice at the institutional and cultural levels. If we look at ourselves, we need to realize that we have propagated prejudice and have used it to navigate throughout our history, of course cheating one another, while knowingly and unknowingly passing along our prejudice and intolerance to our children. The result is that intolerance and prejudice have become so ingrained in our thoughts to the extent that some of our communities have taken injustice as normal aspects of our society.
There is no doubt that Isias and his party, before and after coming to power, worsened and complicated the situation by reinforcing and consolidating the prejudice and intolerance through chauvinistic and racist policies that benefited an ethnic and religious community at the expense of others, making the state identical with the concept of one ethnic and religious group. I am not blaming the ordinary highlanders who are equally oppressed. Is Isias the only person to be accused of these racist policies? Is there a single word in the G15 Manifesto against the injustice committed by the party and the government on the majority of the ethnic and religious communities? Didn’t they swim in the moral sewage of EPLF/PFDJ to finally distance themselves after irreparable damages were done? Aren’t these ethnic and religious communities the people who the independence came for and who should not be condemned the whole of their life as the invisible equals denying them a fair share of power and resources? Did the former G15 members, who have turned into opposition leaders now, try to correct the course of history now by denouncing all types of injustice in which they had a hand? At least, any reasonable citizen would expect these politicians to listen now to the ethnic and religious communities who are speaking out about the injustice committed on them and genuinely asking for a shared future. Could anybody tell me why Eritreans of other ethnic and religious backgrounds should be left on the cold or considered as if they do not count? Should things continue this way? What is the solution?
The first step is that we truly look within ourselves and acknowledge the prejudice buried deep within us. This by necessity is changing the way we think before we start taking action. The second step is for victims to recognize every aspect of their life affected by prejudice and intolerance: political, social, economic, cultural, religious …etc. Once the aspects of their life affected by prejudice/intolerance, before and after independence are identified as the Eritrean National Covenant did, EDUCATION and ACTION become the key.
By education, I am referring to the need to educate ourselves about each other’s differences. The best way to achieve this is through dialogue which enables each one of us to question where his/her assumptions really came from. I hope the Eritrean Conference for Democratic Change will open a new chapter in this regard and kick off a turning point. Another part of this education package should focus on our children. We must educate our children by exposing them to different Eritrean ethnic and religious communities, making sure that their questions are answered and that they are encouraged to speak up about issues. This will create a good chance for our children to unlearn what they had been taught by you and me or picked up from the society so far. As far as action is considered, laws, access to information, individual awareness and local solutions are highly recommended. The laws should be capable of preventing any type of domination of resources and power, facilitating integration and respecting cultural diversity.
The Eritrean National Covenant speaks with credibility; not with authority. Authority is based in power but the credibility with which the document speaks is rooted in truth, facts, experience and knowledge. That is why nobody was able to utter a single word against it but almost all highland intellectuals preferred the “eyes wide shut” approach, creating a situation which I would summarize as, “Qessum Zem Metsafum Zem”. For Eritrean Muslims, to ignore the problems that affect their fate as citizens and the construction of a fair society in future Eritrea, just for the sake of unprincipled peace, is a passive behaviour; not a healthy way of re-constructing a shattered society. No wise citizens should accumulate things that bother them as communities, nationalities, families, and individuals rather than work them out and save the country from a disaster and their bodies from undue stress. As honest citizens, we should always encourage individuals and communities that have the gut to speak out when their conscience, heart, and reasoning mind tell them they have to. People or communities who speak out have always moved progress along and have made this world a better place in every possible way. Many could give them all names including fanatics, disgraceful, extremists, fundamentalists, terrorists …etc. However, they have more courage and are more committed to social justice than their detractors. Of course, the Eritrean National Covenant did pass some judgments but we need to understand that to not pass judgments is to give up your voice. We should not forget that all countries in the modern world have entire legal systems entirely based on judging which actions are legal and which are not. Then according to legal procedures, they give a sentence to a citizen who violated a given law.
As to some extent it gave anti-oppression and anti-injustice education, it was natural for the Eritrean National Covenant to elicit feelings of discomfort, confusion, fear and anger. We know that our folks are unaccustomed to being challenged or demanded to reconsider their belief system and be urged to recognize their own privileges. Clearly, only few would have any interest in or the incentive for honest examination of the expressed grievances and concerns. However, are our brothers and sisters, except Professor Bereket and few others (less than the number of the fingers in one hand), really unaware of the cumulative harm that other ethnic and religious communities have experienced from being harshly subjected to exclusion and marginalization throughout the history of the country? Why do they show their Muslim brothers and sisters, in a subtle manner of course, that for them to seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat? Isn’t the country for all? I could recognize the fact that some could not identify and recognize the Muslim complaints because they have never seen anything different during all ages, concluding that everything is normal and they may even wonder why the Muslims talk about injustice. I am sorry to say that any intellectual, whose feelings were not moved by the statistics the document provided, should be a different creature with non-human mind and instinct. If these are our intellectuals, what could be said about the Eritrean opposition media, particularly, the websites we consider supportive of social change?
The one thing about our media bias that goes unnoticed is that the Eritrean National Covenant has gained cult status in some Eritrean websites. I am very particular about Asmarino and Assena for the great respect I have for their highly appreciated work and assumed commitment to social justice. Though the release of the document was a major event, which cannot be ignored by Eritrean opposition media outlets that I assume cover all stories related to the struggle for social justice, nothing was said about the document, even in the form of news or passing remarks. I do not know if the authors of the document had sent copies to Asmarino and Assena, and as a concerned citizen, I love to hear from the authors on this regard. Nevertheless, whether they got copies sent to them or not, I would expected the two websites to exhibit greater professionalism by chasing the story, posting the document, educating the people on mistakes that should not be repeated in future Eritrea and by doing so, setting the groundwork for shared future. What should injustice consist of and on whom should they be committed before they are appreciated and sympathized with by our opposition media? Don’t you think that the expressed concerns deserve an honest examination by all citizens, irrespective of their religion? Isn’t this the only way a shared future could be built? Am I asking too much from the websites that I thought stand for social justice or taking them too much for their word? As journalists, they usually go looking for stories, wherever they are; they do not expect all stories to come to them. There are many more mind-boggling questions but I will limit myself to a few. Are the journalists in the media average Eritreans who are biased like the rest of us? Are they biased as the result of the society or the society is biased as a result of their media work? Are they attached to any party strings that decide what should be read as news or published as document? I am honestly confused; I want to learn. Please help.
According to my perspective, the media outlets should be open to all Eritreans, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, region, or political affiliations so that the websites reflect the concerns of all communities and enable an extended public dialogue on critical community issues such as diversity, inclusiveness and faith. What type of social justice do they stand for if they belong to the category I described in my first paragraph? Doesn’t this solidify the perception that PFDJ has cut the Eritrean highland society in its own image? Taking this experience as a point of departure, can one say that responsible and non-sectarian Eritrean journalism and diligent public stewardship is alive and well outside the borders of Eritrea? Who can convince me that this silence is not more related to bias than being the result of a lack of meaningful relationships between the authors of the document and the media outlets?
Other institutions that I think have not done enough yet and need to focus more on fighting prejudice and intolerance, are the civic societies. If the civic societies deserve their names, they would focus on preparing the public for fair and all inclusive future Eritrea and for actively building relationships of trust and respect. This is the antithesis of .becoming the tools of political parties aspiring to come to the saddle of power and continue the age-old unquestioned domination by the same master but with a different name (the same wine in a different bottle). It is as well, the anti-thesis of helping the sectarian regime prolong its life with nominal cosmetic changes and without taking radical measures leading to the reversal of the policies that created inequalities and disparities among the different ethnic and religious groups while ensuring concrete benefits and achievements for some during the last 20 years at the expense of the majority of the people. This is to say that the civic societies should study the concerns expressed by the majority of the Eritrean people, in whatever form the concerns were presented or the community they came from, and then set the groundwork for a shared future, influencing events and developments that could redress the concerns. Other details of this noble task could include giving education and training on peaceful co-existence and group conflict resolution, including the distinction between individual, institutional and cultural manifestations of oppression, anti-oppression, anti-discrimination, anti-prejudice, anti-intolerance policies, devoting increasing energy to researching issues of access to power and resources, equity and social justice, along with their underlying emotional, cognitive and developmental influences in Eritrea, and the leading models of prejudice reduction. Am I not sounding too naïve to expect members of the civic society who themselves represent the prejudice and intolerance of the society to acknowledge and confront their own weaknesses?
Nonetheless, with the above theoretical background in mind, one would ask the concrete question: Is there a single civic society that has helped members of the dominating Eritrean ethnic and religious communities recognize their own privileges in present Eritrea or conversely, the dominated communities see that they face systematic barriers? In a side-note, it is important to stress that anti-oppression is every citizen’s responsibility. In this connection, it is very critical to know that anti-oppression education is not to assign blame but for every citizen to take responsibility in confronting social injustice wherever the injustice comes from. The point stands, however, that the focus should be on understanding how systems of oppression operate, who benefits from them, why and how they could be transformed. Of course, this is impossible and ironic to expect the civic societies to do because forces run and guided with the aim of resisting anti-oppression framework cannot educate the public on oppression. This is just like expecting someone to clean another’s face with his/her own dirty hands. But though I raise this to share my views, I cannot resist the temptation to ask: What is civic in them if they do not focus on educating the people on justice and equality? As I see them now and hope that they will change, I will call them rather, the ground soldiers of the party with which they have affiliated, while glaringly lacking a caring and supportive public-focused vision, commitment and style, in exactly the same way the PFJD has its own “Acheb-chabiwoch” and “Agafariwoch”. It is lamentable that some of these civic societies have turned themselves into the primary spokesmen/spokeswomen (not to be accused of male chauvinism) for the parties representing the attitude of domination and craving for power; a disgusting reality we like to see changed. Is this conduct compatible with democratic values and everything that human rights represent?
I am completely sceptical that anything meaningful could be accomplished unless these civic societies distance themselves from parties craving for power and be on the right side of history, change their ways and attitudes incompatible with the abolition of social injustice, including unquestioned domination and the opening of the door wide for the establishment of free and equitable society, and look at the factual evidence that their path has exacerbated the obstacles standing on the way of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance to face the fundamental concerns of different communities and hold effective and successful national dialogue. Although they could be afraid of the truth, the civic societies will not kill us for speaking our minds or for not being gutless sideline sitters because the parties they work for are not yet on power. If they do not learn from the comments written by citizens, the only thing they would do is to manipulate the truth or deny it until they are blue in the face; a matter which will be really depressing for the public and self-destructive for the civic societies themselves.
Still, it is not too late and there is enough room for correction of their path and the taking of the responsibility to educate the public on the issues of social justice and fair society; issues which appear too “indigestible” to many. This remark is just like a mirror on somebody’s wall which helps him/her to see his/her ugly countenance. Of course, without a mirror anybody’s ugly countenance will still remain ugly. Does somebody hate the mirror because he/she does not want to see his/her ugly countenance? I hope the civic societies will see this remark positively and correct their path.
Speaking about political and economic domination in Yemen and the struggle of some circles against moves and deliberations denouncing programs and practices that upheld political and economic domination of some regions and tribes over others (maybe their versions of Nehnana Alamanan), a prominent South Yemeni politician once, of course jokingly, depicted that particular tendency as the failure of the mathematic teachers in the elementary to teach DIVISION as they were supposed to do. He said that they taught them ADDITION, SUBTRACTION and MULTIPLICATION properly while the lessons they delivered on DIVISION were more of a political sabotage. Should we put the same blame on their Eritrean counterparts too or left the bar and stick the blame on curriculum experts and planners who were handpicked for that purpose by the consecutive Ethiopian governments and the current Eritrean Government? I hope some committees in the up-coming National Conference for Democratic Changes will come up with meticulously fair directives to influence all aspects of our future curriculum, teacher recruitment, training and placement so that our kids learn DIVISION and CIVICS properly.
All of this silence towards the Eritrean Covenant and the armed struggle against the regime, the systematic campaign against the National Conference for Democratic Changes and the Eritrean National Alliance, the mushrooming of civic societies that are against working from anti-oppression framework that examines the policies and practices of the regime through the lens of access, equity and social justice, and the holding of controversial and misleading conferences here and there by way of attempting to create a substitute for the Eritrean National Alliance, are pieces of the same jigsaw game that could be put together. The game is aimed at avoiding the acknowledgement of the ethnocentrism of the regime and escaping from addressing the demands of the people to shift power towards inclusiveness, accessibility, equity and social justice in the future Eritrea. Here we see a perfect division of labour between the different actors (parties, civic societies, websites including Meskerem or the image of Shabeit in a mirror, and of course PFDJ by remote control) but the key question remains: Who is the facilitator of all these be-hive activities or the maestro of the concert here? You know it. I know it. All of us know it. But the thing is, they can engage themselves in all activities they want until the cock crows, but the eyes of the public are set on facts on the ground. What is the problem then?
The problem is not politics, religion, honour, integrity, or anything of the nature. The problem is POWER. Those that have it aim to keep it. They want us to spend our lives keeping the POWER for them, voluntarily or through other manipulations if possible, but by force if necessary. The fear keeps it voluntary for as long as possible and here the most important tool in use are a set of accusations that became very fashionable after 911. These include: terrorist, extremist, fundamentalist, Taliban and the like. They use these accusations to scare the weak souls among us. Another tool is encouraging weak souls to sacrifice common interests upon the altar of political animosity or narrow and selfish ambitions or other petty considerations. There are things that our folks should know.
Everybody is born with human rights. The mere fact that I am born a human comes with these inalienable rights. To live in dignity and worth requires that my human rights should be respected and protected. As I live life once in this world, I cannot live it to the fullest if I cannot speak out against injustice. This makes freedom and the ability to influence my future the best feeling I could have. Do I need permission from anybody to speak out for my rights? As long as there is injustice and inequality, there is always resistance. Any social force that stands for justice and equality will finally win, no matter how weak and disorganized they may look. Nothing will undermine their determination to fight for the right cause. They know that giving in means oppression and slavery for another life time.
Look at the sad situation back home. It is really too bad that it is already getting past time for a non-violent change. His Majesty, Emperor Isias, will not allow the freedom-loving people to dictate the direction of his government. The armed resistance in the country is the real indication of the level of opposition in the country. He is using massive lethal force to quell the resistance but the armed resistance has proved to be too big for His Majesty to do anything about. Do you think he will contain it with violence? Just wait to see what happens when an angry people rises up. This is neither a hyperbole nor an insult. It is my way to demonstrate the reality and show that historical precedent indicates that the really hard times are ahead. Once again, I reiterate my disgust of the “custodians” on the people’s right to choose the effective means of struggle they think is appropriate. The heroic struggle of our people is striking and shaking the dark rule of the sectarian regime, proving that this is the only way to rid Eritrea of the cancer. This is not good news for the self-appointed “custodians” or bosses, who are very averse to be told that the means of struggle people choose is totally independent of their will and that intolerable pressures developing from below are unstoppable. When Mengistu Haile Mariam felt the military pressure of the Ethiopian resistance fighters, whose movement towards the capital he failed to stop and the deafening sound of guns and artilleries started to be heard at the suburbs, he privately admitted saying, “Yenaqut Yasragizal.” Finally, his fears turned to be true. Are there lessons to be learned from that? The saddest thing is that, our opposition politicians condemn armed struggle and at the same time ignore and block the moderate ways, like the Eritrean National Covenant, by which citizens present their genuine concerns and valuable suggestions for peaceful co-existence and shared future. They neither want this nor that. So, what do they want? This is what the concerned opposition politicians have to answer. It is everybody’s assignment too.
We understand that no Eritrean community has power to do anything about the concerns the Eritrean National Covenant expressed. However, to deny their Muslims brothers and sisters the necessary moral and political support at a bare minimum, that reflects the commitment towards establishing a shared future, is utterly disheartening. As nobody can stop others from backpedalling as long as betrayal is in their blood, it is impossible to block the desired social changes that achieve equality and justice for all, provided that the forces for change are determined.
Our situation could best be described by a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This sounds as if he was talking about our Eritrean society. It is like the unity of the opposites that cannot EXIST separately. As Muslims and Christians, we are tied up by a dualistic nature, having an oneness in itself. Nobody can break this oneness. At the same time, neither side should try to dominate and tilt the balance in his favour. That is the balance that should be established, maintained and protected. Enough damage has been done to the country and the people throughout our history by the doctrine of unquestioned domination. It is high time to open our hearts and minds for one another and go to the conference for a common destiny and shared future. That is where we could settle our contradictions through principled, frank and honest discussions.