Procrusle was a famous robber who lived in the surroundings of ancient Athens, Greece. He gained notoriety by forcing his captives, tall or short, to lie down on his special couch. If the prisoners’ legs were too long, their limbs were chopped off, and if they were too short, they were stretched out. Either way, violence was used to ensure that the prisoners filled his couch.
Procrusle And PFDJ
The PFDJ has conducted its affairs in a similar manner. In its grandiose scheme of social engineering and its unbridled ambition of molding a new Eritrean citizen, it has chopped off and stretched out so many Eritrean limbs. It has not spared the tall and the short alike. The new robotic citizens must look alike, think alike, walk alike and talk alike.
The “Hade lbi: Hade hzbi” slogan is not a creative metaphor for unity, but, an essential condition for any regime that wants to have unlimited and unfettered control on its people. Totalitarian states hate diversity. The final goal of a totalitarian regime is uniformity and the preferred means is forced assimilation. Our silver lining is that the PFDJ is such an inept and a mediocre regime that it had failed to follow the manual of totalitarianism that has been perfected by many tyrants and authoritarian rulers worldwide. There are still a lot of our traditional values that we can resurrect and reinvigorate.
I remember a funny but true story I was told by one of our medical doctors, Dr. Asefaw Tekeste, a veteran of our liberation struggle, who was responsible for saving the lives of many of our wounded fighters. The story goes: A brother of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, was arrested by the Tsarist regime during the uprising and was later condemned to death by hanging. The soldiers put the rope on his neck and as they lifted him up, the hanging poles collapsed and Lenin’s brother fell to the ground. He got up on his feet and told the soldiers that this is reason enough for the Tsarist regime to be overthrown. He told them that if they do not know how to hang a man, how would they be expected be know about state-craft. These are sentiments that exactly describe the PFDJ, an organization that has outlived its usefulness.
The regime is not interested in Eritrean diversity but in the appearance of diversity and that is only a pretext to buy more time for the homogenization project to take off the ground. No wonder, the PFDJ is a magnet of misfits and alcoholics for these are the people who would be sidelined in traditional and mainstream Eritrean culture. These are the misfits that have nothing to lose and everything to gain in PFDJ’s foolish adventures that sneers upon our cherished and time honored traditions. The PFDJ’s ultimate goal is to domesticate and subdue our society. It knows that it is only from our ashes that it can create a new country in its image.
For the regime to enjoy any semblance of success on its never-ending project of establishing “Hadas Ertra,” any social and historical ties among the populace have to be completely broken or weakened. Any sense of decency and morality are frowned upon. Public indecencies such as alcoholism, adultery, promiscuity, having children out of wedlock, gambling, vulgarism and obscenity are openly celebrated by its highest officials, cadres and the man at the helm of power himself. It has to profane anything that is holy and good and turn everything upside down in order to prepare a stage for its grand, ambitious and ill-conceived experiment.
When a government focuses too much on projects that are never-ending in their nature, that should serve as a sign that the regime is bound to be more destructive. That is a government that does not want to be held accountable and be judged on its results. The PFDJ gets away from giving accounts of its affairs by constantly keeping the society intoxicated by a culture of militancy. It has to constantly beat the drums of war. There is a rational explanation why the PFDJ had picked up or failed to resist fights with all its neighbors: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen, and meddling in countries like Somalia; its proxy war with Ethiopia and in such far-flung countries like the Congo.
It is generally harder to control and subdue people that have a stronger group ties and group identity. The regime is smart enough to realize that the atomization of society—the breakdown of a society in its minuscule elements—is the first step towards this project, but stupid enough to embark on it in the first place. History is full with so many examples of failed social engineering projects, but the PFDJ is incapable of learning from its own mistakes or from the mistakes of others.
The corrosive PFDJ culture is the most insidious tragedy the Eritrean people have to endure. Eritrea is increasingly becoming a textbook example of a once promising nation that has gone wrong. It is not accurate to judge the performance of a nation by what went right or awry. It is very important to consider what could have been if the country had followed a path that matched its realities and potential. Eritrea was posed for greatness. It had all the right ingredients to jump start the vehicle of nation building. Hope, enthusiasm, determination, dedication and a can-do attitude that once characterized our people and country have almost ceased to exist.
The PFDJ has miserably failed to effectively use the many virtues of the Eritrean people. It has instead condemned the people and the country to unprecedented misery and hardship. It is true that there is no sector of our population that has not suffered from PFDJ’s misrule and injustices. But the scope and magnitude of injustice varies from time to time, from place to place, from one individual to another, from one hamlet to another, from region to region and from one ethnic and religious group to another. This is a fact of life that we have to wrestle with. There would always be variation in how things are put into effect.
One can argue if this variation is systemic or intentional, but, it is plain stupid to argue that the suffering is dispensed equally. Even the sacrifices we have made to liberate the country were not shouldered equally. There are families, hamlets, regions, and groups that have made the lion’s share of the sacrifices. This is how things are—it is the human way.
Equal Opportunity: Myth & Validity
Based on the Procruslean nature of the PFDJ, there is some merit to the argument that the regime is an equal opportunity dispenser of injustices. Conceptually, there is validity to this theory, but, even more so, it has a consoling and comforting feeling upon many, and I can certainly understand its appeal. But, even in the time of Procrusle there were few lucky ones who would perfectly fit into his couch and didn’t have to suffer the chopping or stretching off limbs. Practically, it is impossible to dispense anything in an equal way. There would always be some who would benefit more or lose more.
The theory of equal injustice does not hold water upon close scrutiny. Quite often, there is a gap between theory and practice and Eritrea is no different. The chopping and stretching of limbs always starts with groups and individuals that are disproportionately disadvantaged and vulnerable. In Eritrea the first victims of PFDJ were the Jehovah Witnesses, the Muslim clerics suspected of harboring Jihadist sentiments, and the new evangelical and charismatic churches. The educated and the business class were also some of the first targets, not to mention the overall urban centers. These are just the obvious examples but there is a more subtle and more damaging discrimination that has been in full swing since the birth of the country. These ongoing policies would have far-reaching consequences if we fail to address them appropriately. It is no longer enough to be against any kind of wrong doing, but, we also have to be against any appearance of impropriety. Perception is as important as reality. We can not afford to have two Eritreas inside Eritrea. As the Bible says we can not have a house divided onto itself.
There are many religious, ethnic, regional groups that are receiving the brunt of the unjust policies of the regime. To deny this would be to stand on the side of injustice; to remain silent is even worse. Nobody can deny that the Kunamas are on the verge of extinction, and if the practice of taking their land and encroaching on their livelihood does not stop, there would not be a group known as Kunama in a generation or two from now. The Hadith; sayings of Prophet Mohammed, teaches us that, “Whoever seizes a piece of land unjustly will be sunk in the ground to the distance of seven earths on the Day of Resurrection.”
A while back I had a conversation with a PFDJ official. I asked him why they would not allow the Eritrean refugees to return from the Sudan and his response was that the regime did not want to change the demographic balance of the country. Where is the justice in denying people their right to return to their ancestral home and land? If this is not systemic exclusion, then, what is?
I believe that the ultimate goal of any political system is to attain security, liberty and equality so that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights. Keeping these political aims in balance is a good indication of the health and the wisdom of any political community. In any society, there would always be some groups, individuals and factions who would like to have an exclusive right to political and economic power. It is therefore very important to devise a system where the threat of tyranny, whether it comes from the majority or the minority is severely curtailed, if not totally eliminated. The best way to do this is to have many layers of power and many pockets of influence, where the concentration of power in the hands of one group is rendered unwise, unattractive, but above all, very unlikely, if not at all impossible.
The presence of civil societies that transcend blood, soil and linguistic ties are the best safeguards against tyranny. In the absence of these civic groups, it is important to ask how we can quickly create these groups: are there other alternatives that we can capitalize on and build upon?
I’m of the opinion that our traditional communitarian ties could serve the purpose well. The Christian and Muslim ties in Eritrea transcend ethnic and regional links. Eritrean Muslims comprise nine ethnic groups and are spread in eight provinces but there is a feeling of kinship and solidarity among all of them. The Qur’an is the constitution of their moral and spiritual life and one they could use to judge each other and to hold themselves accountable to each other. The same is true with Eritrean Christians that are made of five ethnic groups and pretty much cover six provinces. They have the Bible as a common reference to guide their spiritual and moral life. Likewise, the regional ties transcend ethnic and religious connections. The province of Senhit is the perfect example of a diverse ethnicities and religions living together in harmony.
With more economic, social and political interactions the boundaries of these ties would expand over time. It is unwise to squander the historical ties among our diverse communities. Under the big tent, we call Eritrea; these differences could be a huge asset to the preservation and promotion of freedom. They would have a check and balance effect. The most important threat to freedom and justice is tyranny and the concentration of political power in the hands of few individuals, cliques and factions.
I believe the best revolution is waged through preservation. With a cautious and enlightened approach, we can build upon what we already have. We can not dismantle what we already have for something that might happen or not. The Bible says, “Do not remove the ancient landmark which your fathers have set.” (Prov 22:28) Continuity is a sign of maturity and that is why I think we need to incorporate our various legal, economic and legislative traditions “Hgi indaba” as sources of our jurisprudence and political thinking. Let the Hamasenai say, “fitHi ab Seqela: weAla ab Maybela,” the Serewetai, “ngus ab seqeleom: adkeme melegA ab memeneom,” the akeleguzetai, “bHgi indaba: adgna geleba,” and let the Muslims throughout the country invoke the eternal words of the Prophet as uttered on Mount Arafat, in the Final Sermon, “I leave behind me two things, the Qur’an and the Sunnah; if you follow these, you will never go astray,” …etc (I recommend for anyone to read the Final Sermon. It is simply beautiful. I enjoy it like I enjoy the Sermon on the Mount.)
This approach would certainly make Eritrea a laboratory of democracy and would turn out to be the best way to devolve power and eradicate the seeds of tyranny. This will take politics to its rightful place: the local constituencies. In the famous words of the late US Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, “All politics is local,” and Eritrea should not be different.
A society without history is like an individual without a memory. We need to be strongly rooted in our history if we are to make a giant leap forward. Progress is like a bow—the further you pull it backwards the further the arrow goes forward. Eritrea has to be deeply rooted in its tradition and history if we are to restore its soul and keep it intact. Part of our current and long-standing problem is that we have a fractured soul. The disruptive effect of a series of foreign rule had punctured our soul and some spiritual healing is in order.
The best way to build a structure is to build it on a secure foundation on several beams. Eritrea has diverse ethnic, religious and regional beams that stand on a firm foundation. Diversity is the goose that would lay the golden egg for Eritrea. It is the best weapon we have against tyranny; let’s embrace it.
The Eritrean political organizations should not shy away from tackling the important issues of ethnicity, religion and regionalism. At the heart of these issues lies the stuff of politics: justice. In the short term, these sub-national ingredients could be the best and the strongest safeguards against tyranny. In the long term, they would melt away with more economic, social and political interactions. Integration would come as a natural evolutionary process unlike the engineered assimilation project of PFDJ. It will be wholeheartedly embraced by everyone. The PFDJ has been practicing forced assimilation and we—those of us resisting tyranny—need to advocate for and work towards evolutionary integration. In the former, there would be some losers and winners and in the latter, we will all be winner. There are few winners and the majority losers in PFDJ’s Eritrea.
It is important to recognize that the presence of ethnic and religious organizations is a reflection of our reality and a manifestation of the political malaise that is afflicting our country. The subjects of our denunciation should be the political malaise, and not the ethnic and religious organizations. These organizations are filling a vacuum that have been left vacant by the absence of homegrown national organizations. If we had national organizations that act and appear national and responsible, there would not be a reason for sectarian organizations. Sectarian organizations owe their existence to injustice and disparity and the absence of national and responsible organizations that take ownership of these important issues. The best way to void and nullify sectarianism is not by making arrogant denunciations or by waging war against them, but, by fully embracing and nationalizing their legitimate issues and grievances and rendering sectarian movements illogical and unthinkable.
In reality, unity based on a minimum agenda is no unity. Unity based on a zip code is no unity. Unity based on qibla; direction in which you pray; (Jerusalem or Mecca) is no unity. Unity based on whether you ride a donkey or a camel is no unity. Unity on whether your traditional abode is a hut or a hdmo is no unity. Unity on whether one fasts on Tsom ArbA or Ramadan is no unity. Unity based on elevation and topography is no unity. Unity on whether you border Sudan or Ethiopia is no unity. Unity has to be based on a comprehensive national agenda that brings in everybody.
Transforming EDA into a formidable and effective organization should be the focus of our undivided attention. Mini-mergers and counter mergers should be the stepping stone to a genuine unity and should not bring forth a prescription for the continuation of a power struggle, where there is no power to struggle for in the first place. I’m afraid it will be a colossus misplacement of priorities if we focus on power struggle.
Anyone who is overly excited about the ongoing mini-mergers must either be out of his/her mind or must have very low expectations. I refuse to lower the bar and settle for anything that is less than national. I’m for unity that mirrors Eritrea’s diversity and that can only be reflected through the only umbrella we have, the EDA.
Let me remind everyone that the status quo poorly articulated by one political group’s media team has been in the driver’s seat for far too long. It has suffered from years of lassitude in the no-war and no-peace trenches of irrelevancy. It is an approach that has allowed the grass to grow under its own two feet. Due to their unending bickering, strife, divisions and subsequent gridlock, these people have self-vacated themselves from the passenger seat and they are now wildly barking at anyone who tries to fill the vacuum. With their appalling track record of mediocrity, the front passenger seat should be as good as the driver seat they had forfeited long ago. I’m afraid, though that a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.
There are two groups of people who are disappointing and they have one unmistakable trait in common. They are always patronizing and professorial on the issues of national sovereignty and national unity. The first group is the PFDJ that preaches us on territorial integrity and national sovereignty ad nauseam. I can’t understand their audacity when a big chunk of Eritrea’s land is under foreign occupation. Suffices to mention that they have turned the bread basket of the country, Gash, into a basket case.
The second group is the opposition organizations (more like mom and pop small cottage industries) giving us lectures on our unity while invariably making a mockery of it in their daily practices. Let me invoke the Biblical injunction that, “Those who point out the speck in their brother’s eye should first see the log in their own eyes.” In the final analysis, a tree is known by the fruit it bears. Results rule.
You can also contact me via Face Book or Twitter.
To all my friends and comrades at EPP, EDP, EPM, AlTadamun, organizations in and outside EDA, and the civic societies: Let me share with you one of my favorite Tigrinya proverbs:
“aboy ayteHaleba zbl ngezmey: ‘inoy yteHaleba zbla ngoybey: nay kltiom Hade iyu nTqmwy::” My father does not want to milk his cows because he wants them to be used for my dowry, and my mother wants to milk the cows because she wants to use the milk and its products for my beautification. Both are the same: they are looking out for my best interests, said the bride.
We’re all looking out for the best interests of the bride; Eritrea. It is not wise to question peoples’ motives and intentions and nobody has to ask for a permission slip to discuss issues that matter to our bride; our country. The individual citizen is the source of power and the logic of democracy. Let’s not forget this is not a conflict of right and wrong, but a competition of two truths that are sharpening each other in deciding which idea should have the driver’s seat.