21 years after Eritrea’s geographic sovereignty, the things that really matter — like individual freedoms, economic vibrancy, quality education and Eritrea’s long term viability as a respected member in the community of nations still lag far behind. Measured against the high hopes Eritreans had in 1991, the disappointments are far too many; accomplishments scanty little. There is hardly a family that has not been negatively impacted by the regime’s brutality against innocent citizens, disappearances, modern-day slavery, growing poverty, mass exodus that is hollowing out the nation of precious human capital critical to its rebuilding – just to list a few. And the self-delusion that we are, somehow, “number one” continues.
On the brighter side, action oriented movements by the younger generation are warming up. Tireless efforts by fearless individuals like Elsa Chyrum, Meron Estifanos, Aaron Berhane and others (bless your hearts!!) continue to keep the candle lit against the forces of darkness. Renewed challenges against the regime’s various intimidation schemes and innovative approaches by Arbi Harnet team to expand the scope of the resistance inside Eritrea are gaining momentum. But much more remains to be done.
There are serious shortcomings that are impeding the progress towards true freedom. We need expanded and inclusive dialog to replace the unproductive chatter and fratricidal wars of the past (why the movements of the younger generation are relevant). Do we really need 30 plus opposition parties, for example? That this is the best government and the best opposition we are able to assemble so far, in spite of the severity of our problems, is not reassuring. We can and should do better.
First, stop the blame game and own our failures
It has so far been an endless game of shifting the blame away from us; that we are somehow not responsible for things we actively or passively brought on ourselves. The regime blames external forces for its massive failures. Its supporters parrot its claims and falsely label their compatriots who are fighting for justice as traitors and sell outs. And those in the opposition almost exclusively assign the blame to a few in the ruling elite. What is our joint responsibility as people then? Some even reach out to the fringes of psychology to point out Isaias is intentionally destroying Eritrea because he is not Eritrean. That is silly and dishonest at best because it fails to address the other side of the coin. How about the so-called ‘full blooded’ Eritreans (whatever that means), who are enabling or committing horrendous crimes against their fellow Eritreans? What psychological explanations do we have for their despicable acts?
I believe the answer is far simpler than the overly complex scenarios being painted. Isaias is an ill-mannered Eritrean who lacks the grace to cherish the boundless love and respect that was so graciously given to him. He is doing what he has always been able to get away with; where any outrageous act he commits meets no resistance and he goes on to the next outrageous act. Nothing happens when he turns children of his fellow tegadelti into orphans, or when he denies burial rights if that is what pleases him (hint: the message is not for the dead but for the living dead). So, it is really not his problem, is it? It is time to stop blaming him to cover up our failures. The right thing to do to brighten Eritrea’s future would be to remove his abusive regime and to erase the legacy of brutality, poverty and lawlessness it has put in place. Let’s also not forget Eritrea is a small country of 5 million (if that) and fragmenting it through exclusions based on silly ‘blood-tests’ will only deepen the failed state it is trending to become. As team Arbi Harnet put it eloquently: “We either make injustice in Eritrea obsolete or we risk Eritrea becoming obsolete”.
Do we have an ‘environment’ that breeds tyrants?
My first inclination would be to say “no”. But that ‘no’ is put to serious doubt when recent experiences are thrown into the mix. A despot is worshiped as god; as witnessed when Isaias visited the U.N. last year. The timing was particularly significant because the brave people of the Arab world were fighting tooth and nail to rid themselves of failed leaders like him at the time. Essentially, we saw privileged Eritreans giving their unconditional support to one who is victimizing millions. And if not them, who do they think will speak for the victims? (Thanks to the outnumbered member of EYSC, some seeds of hope were also planted then).
We still see highly educated diaspora Eritreans becoming willing instruments of oppression; where we have misused the luxury of our own freedoms to kill freedom itself. We raise funds and hold demonstrations to prop up a regime that we know allows no such rights in Eritrea. Such uncanny adulation for tyranny is deeply demoralizing to those fighting the regime’s injustices everywhere but especially so to those inside Eritrea. Lies and raw propaganda are spread daily through regime owned media and repeated thoughtlessly as eyes witness something entirely different. Richard Pryor’s “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” would have been a fitting tag line for EriTV. Of course, it has to be Orwellian and “serving the truth” is what we have instead.
Disturbingly, one also sees similar undemocratic tendencies in the opposition camp. We see potential allies often undermining each other and breaking short-lived alliances acrimoniously. Severely divided, they pose no threat to the regime and they have unwittingly become the best allies the ruling elite can ever hope for.
Eritrean womanhood and motherhood, normally the core of Eritrea’s good-heartedness, has been one of the regime’s strongest support bases. This happens, in spite of continuing abuses against women and growing single-parenthood (a new phenomenon) perpetuated by the regime’s failed policies – keeping families apart and driving them deeper into poverty.
The heroic tegadelti who made independence possible, can’t seem to help the beautiful baby they helped deliver either. The tegadelti, the only group who could have said ‘enough!!’ with unquestioned authority and credibility to reverse the betrayal, didn’t – at least not with sufficient voice to make a difference. So, maybe there is something about the Eritrean ‘environment’ that breeds tyrants after all. Why do we so miserably fail to raise our voices TOGETHER to protect the country we profess to LOVE from crimes no one denies are taking place, but many either find lame excuses or blame others for?
But an apology before going further: I do admire and acknowledge the brave men, women, tegadelti and diaspora Eritreans who have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and freedom. They have paid dearly – some with their lives – and of course, this broad brush does not apply to these fearless few. They are the ones whose fearlessness we need to honor and emulate.
Do we have what it takes to expand the dialog and to get along?
It is time to find new and better ways to rectify the mess we have gotten ourselves into. Making genuine attempts to listen to the ‘other side’ and forgiving others (as well as ourselves) for past mistakes would be a good place to start. No matter which group we belong to, the fact that we have the same hopes and aspirations for a better Eritrea should not be in question. We can challenge the effectiveness of the methods we want to pursue to get there but not the end goal. It is okay to support the regime, for example, but only conditionally — especially when the crimes are so egregious.
I once tried this logic of all of us having common national goals with one of the regime’s supporters. He fired back saying ‘Hade zeykone Elamana!’ asserting “patriots” like him and people who publicly disagree with the government of the day that is behaving badly cannot have the same goals. Such self-appointed ‘super citizens’ will always be there to impede good dialog but the focus should be on how to engage the vast silent majority that is hedging, reserved, doubtful or afraid to stand up and to demand better – an accountable government with adequate checks and balances s to tame a rogue regime from destroying the nation.
A severely weakened Eritrea with no clear succession plan should be an issue of deep concern for everyone. But a great opportunity to expand the dialog was missed recently when Isaias was rumored to be gravely ill or dead. And a precious moment to elevate the dialog to a relevant national issue of common interest was squandered. The regime had full control to stop the rumors at any time but it chose to create mini-dramas within the drama instead. No surprises there. What was truly surprising, however, is the rest of the population did not demand to know why Eritrea still has no clear succession plan either. As it turned out, Eritrea’s future remains shackled to one sick man’s whims and we are back to the grand strategy of waiting for someone to die. Then what? Wait for the next tyrant to die too?
There are probably more good reasons in Eritrea than in the Arab world to legitimize mass uprising. What could be the chances of that? But this article is too long already. Time to wind it down by repeating team Arbi Harnet (who deserve everyone’s support!!): “We either make injustice in Eritrea obsolete or we risk Eritrea becoming obsolete”. The rewards of not allowing Eritrea to become obsolete are massive — if we can only learn how to get along!