Eritreans who live abroad know this very familiar drill. An inquisitive person asks “Where are you from?” and we proudly say “Eritrea” and get ready for that confused look that nine out of ten people give us. Never heard of our tiny country? No problem. Out comes our plethora of geographic references; East Africa, Red Sea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Yemen. By now, the person who asked is too busy pretending to know where the heck these places might be and we are confident that at least “Africa” will stick and so long as they don’t confuse it with Ethiopia, who cares – really.
There is also another rather awkward situation we often find ourselves in. We run into other Eritreans but we must quickly eliminate the possibility that they could be from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti. “Habesha?” we ask—a generalized term to mean Ethiopian or Eritrean—and quickly kinship-by-nationality is established.
Nowadays though, we better add one more question: Which Eritrea are you from?
Scientists who understand the freaky physics of parallel universe might be able to explain to us if this is even possible; but I for one am convinced that there are two Eritreas. Google maps notwithstanding, and depending who is doing the description and how critical or how enamored one feels toward the nation and what it stands for, we have two distinctly different countries. Obviously, that could be said about any country in the world; but when it comes to our Eritrea, the distance between the two camps is so vast that we might as well refer to them as: The Two Eritreas –two entities who exist in parallel universes destined to never ever make sense to one another. One is based on reality, facts, figures, records and data, while the other is whimsical, fanciful, fantastic, idealistic and rather bizarre.
As humans who live in a world of challenges, chaos and disorder some measured belief in magic and dreamy ideas could not hurt; it might even be necessary. However, if that belief does not take into consideration actual laws of biology and physics, it defeats itself and can be very dangerous. For example, one can believe that humans can fly and get busy inventing some device that overcomes gravity. We can say that the idea and the daring belief are magical, but at the end of the day, scientific facts, figures and natural laws—but not magic—rule the day. Those who don’t believe in these inconveniences can simply find out if they can fly by jumping from the nearest high-rise building. Splattering bodies on sidewalks would be an easy proof and not to mention the added benefit of drastically reducing the number of dim-witted fools. Simple argument to win; right? But herein lies our biggest problem. Firstly, this only makes sense to those who believe in scientific experiments and secondly, what if the other party insists that children should be used to test if humans can fly. So now we have two major predicaments. We must save the children while at the same time trying to change the minds of childish adults who endanger them.
There are two Eritreas—one based on actuality and the other on figments of imaginations. For the sake of this discussion, let’s just call them Real Eritrea and Fantasy Eritrea.
Life in Realityland Vs Fantasyland
The Real Eritrea, is a small but proud country whose people fought and won to make it an independent nation, 17 (yes, seventeen!) years ago. It came into being only when 99.8% of the registered voters voted for independence in an internationally supervised democratic exercise. The then Provisional Government of Eritrea announced Eritrea’s formal independence from Ethiopia on April 27, 1993.
The Eritrea of Fantasy, deludes itself into believing that it became an independent nation on May 24, 1991 and refers to it as its Independence Day. For residents of Fantasy Eritrea, the message was lost on them from the start. They happily surrendered the sanctity of their personal vote to the collective glory of victory at the barrel of a gun.
May 24th will forever be as the day that made it all possible; a day the people won against all odds, but it will never be an independence day and rightly so. In hindsight, it is now pretty clear why April 27th was artfully erased from our memory and history. Just read the news stories from that era and how the world media lauded the popular participation; stories such as that of the mother who insisted on being taken to the polling station only hours after delivering a baby, so her voice can be heard. It must have given Isaias Afwerki the willies, for that was the antithesis of what he really had in mind.
I know this is a moot argument because, hands down, Fantasy Eritrea has won this bout. But we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees; people who value their democratic vote also learn to cherish and stand for the right of others. They also learn the inviolability of solving problems without the threat and use of violence. Isaias is a clever puppeteer, but we can not entirely blame him for our mass hypnosis.
Today, the Real Eritrea is forcibly led by a rebel leader who thrived in the secretive guerilla movement for independence, but proved himself many times over to have neither the competence nor the temperament to lead civilians in peacetime. He literally violated every written rule, from the unimplemented Constitution to the PFDJ charter; and usurped power through intimidation, deceit and fear. He has made it clear time and again that his mission in life is the preservation of his power. Thus, the small progresses that have been made are overwhelmingly overshadowed by the colossal failures that threaten the nation’s unity, its capability to defend itself, the fabric of its culture and its international reputation.
But then, there is the wonderful world of Fantasy Eritrea, where facts are what you make up as you go and unicorns swim over Godena Harnet. In Fantasyland, Isaias Afwerki is a benevolent leader who was forced to postpone elections because his people were not mature enough to handle it. He is building a framework and legal infrastructure that one day will be impenetrable to the Weyane and CIA –and yes, he is the Third World’s only true hope to bring about social justice and economic self-reliance.
In Realityland, where his mistakes result in young Eritreans turning into fish food at the bottom of the Mediterranean, or target practice for Egyptian border patrol, he is simply another African despot, who would risk everything to satisfy his insatiable ego. If he wants, he can wake up tomorrow and start doing the right things. It is within his power to pardon prisoners of conscience, this holiday season, so that mothers and fathers can hug their children again, but he will not. His wicked heart is mean and cold. But alas, as it is our luck, he has positioned us in such a way that even his opponents have no choice but to pray that he doesn’t die in his sleep – for that would potentially mean chaos for the people. Sadistic dictators always create a power vacuum. Go ahead; I dare you to name the vice president of Eritrea.
Citizens of the Fantastic State of Eritrea need not worry thought. In their world, they only trust one man to know and do the right things. If he is “martyred” tonight (no one just dies in that land), his “Hdri” will be relayed to….(honestly, they don’t ever think that far) but somehow even in death their Isaias would know what to do. That is what it means to be hoodwinked into believing that you can just treat politics as a religion; and a dictator as a messiah and somehow avoid the consequence of doing so.
In the Real Eritrea, hundreds of thousands of young people are desperately trying to leave the country, tens of thousands are suffering behind bars and barbed wires, people whisper and look to the left and to the right before they say anything, thousands more live in make shift refugee camps in the Sudan and even in Ethiopia—something that we thought we would never see in our lifetime. The Eritrean dream has turned into nightmare because some of its citizens refuse to let go of the childish Fantasyland that was purely concocted by one shrewd despot so he can seat at the yoke of power for a few more years without bothered by the rule of law.
But if one opts to move to the Eritrea of “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, therefore, there-must-be-no-evil” one is likely to find a nation that is built by an army of happy campers who are free to move around the very country the fought to defend. These youngsters boldly criticize and challenge their battle tested yet compassionate leaders. And…look…one of the unicorns just belched a rainbow…
Eritrea’s Fantasyland is indeed wonderful and we can’t blame people for wanting to hold on to the beautiful image that never was. Some slight exaggerations turn into big lies and the bubble swallowed its own makers. Still, reality and bitter truth are not easy replacements and some people are finding it hard to relinquish their membership in Fantasyland. Inside Eritrea, there are no Fantasylands. If there ever was one, people have quickly come to grips with the de-romanticized aspect of the revolution. Today’s Fantasyland dwellers don’t live in Eritrea. They comfortably live in Western countries where they can afford cheap sunglasses and cell phone cameras and head back to the never ending PFDJ festivals at Sawa, so they can take snapshots of their downtrodden brothers and sisters and cousins as if they were zoo animals born for their amusement.
Realtiy Based Change
In Eritrea, the phenomenon of relying on juvenile make-believe is not limited to the pro-government camp; the opposition side that is fighting to bring democratic change seems to suffer from the same ailment as well. We all know that supporters of the regime live in their own stratosphere and their world reeks with baseless facts that change daily, denials and outright lies rule their day. The vocal opposition also suffers from the same, albeit milder case of self-imposed delusion. At times, the envisioned Eritrea does not take enough consideration of the fast changes that are taken place in the world and worst of all; no one seems to have a concrete and credible idea how to defeat Isaias and his PFDJ–an inconvenience that is largely left to luck, probability and chance. We can have all the faith we want, but if we are waiting for a bus at a location where buses are not scheduled to run, we are simply wasting time. This is of course if you don’t account for those buses who obey only the capricious rules of Eritrean exceptionalism. TsneAt is the oft abused term that stands for perseverance. However, TsneAt is not about stubbornly holding on to a tactic that is not getting the job done, it is about believing your cause is just and worth fighting for.
Eyes on Target
For change to take place, the role of the organized opposition should be primarily set on regime change. We understand that meetings have to take place, so that individuals, groups and parties can work together. But building coalitions and how to administer the Eritrea of the future fall in the realm of wishy-washy fantasy that ignores the facts that there is a man ruining the country with an iron fist and he is determined to stay the course.
Therefore, let the seminars, conferences and rallies continue but the overall agenda should contain only two topics: 1) How to topple Isaias Afeworki and quickly feel the power vacuum 2) How to never lose sight of topic #1.
The albatross that Isaias have been weaving has started to shackle him. Just listening to his May 24th address is enough to tell that he is feeling the pressure. His speech was filled with words uttered by a man whose agenda has failed; and he blamed everyone but himself for his failure. The only thing left to him is the Fantasyland that he likes to draw his supporters into. The music is till laud but gone are the days of hysteria and frenzy. If there was ever a great time to defeat him, it would be now. He is shunned by everyone in the international community and his rabid colonels and generals are being blacklisted like common criminals. The Eritrean Democratic Alliance should work relentlessly to expand the web to include the fundraising apparatus of the PFDJ in Europe, North America, Australia and even the Middle East. However, this requires realizing that the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1907 was not designed to bring about regime change in Eritrea. It’s been 6 months since the resolution was passed but the EDA—the “umbrella” of the opposition parties—has miserably failed at articulating how to capitalize on this.
Theoretically, the change toward constitutional governance and the rule of law can arrive in multitude of forms. But if one uses logic and reason, in reality the options left on the table are not that many. Popular uprising and coup d’état are possible but not until the pressure from outside is really intensified. That essentially leaves on the table the possibility of seeking the help of the United States and Ethiopia—the two countries who were among the first to recognize Eritrea’s independence in 1993 and who would now be glad to see despot exit the scene. The region is better off without a tyrant who is allergic to any notion of democracy and who would go as far as arming world renowned terrorist to make that point known. The US and Ethiopia would of course would be doing it to secure their respective national interests. But if that is the only avenue left to avert disaster inside Eritrea and end the suffering, so be it.
This is where the fake nationalists who keep telling us that the boogeyman America and the Weyane are out to get us. In their Fantasyland, there is battle galactica going on and the great warrior Isaias Afwerki is battling evil by activating his special power. They truly believe that if we give him another 19 or at least 17 years he would show us a miraculous achievement that would be a great example for Africa. Just don’t ask them, who died and elected him to play Hugo Chavez of Africa or Eritrea’s president for that matter? His followers have the right to give him all the support they can muster, but they can not speak for the rest of us.
So, Which Eritrea Are You From?
If you believe, Eritrea should be governed only by democratically elected leaders who follow the rule of law and that the regime must either change its ways or be removed, you should give yourself a pat on the back—for that is a sign that you’re a decent human being. Chances are, your personal life is filled with happiness and your friends and family respect you.
However, if you believe, in this day and age, what Eritrea needs a dictator who stifles alternative voices by throwing them into dungeons; if you believe, the road Isaias Afwerki has followed since independence has been good for the people of Eritrea; then I suggest, you take a very long and hard look in the mirror. Think of the wars, the refugees, the fear, the tears, the lost opportunities and the pain this regime that you are a fan of has caused. Keep looking at the mirror. I wouldn’t blame you if you decide to spit at the image staring back.