Yosief’s Circular Journey in search of Ethiopia: an identity Crisis or just plain mischief?
When I suggested ignoring Yosief Ghebrehiwet in my last article, I had no idea that he had already netted quite a few disciples or that his views were spreading. Since then, I learned from many quarters including from comments on my article that Yosief is not a lone wolf and that his ideas have in fact taken root in the minds of some Eritreans particularly the young and the gullible. Moreover, after reading some of his articles in their entirety, I now know why some are enamored by him. Yosief is a brilliant writer and his recent articles on “Discontent at the top” did not originate in a mediocre brain but in one that pulsates with intellectual vigor. It is not intellect he lacks; it is wisdom; not articulation but substance. He is good at laying out premises but horrible at drawing valid conclusions from them. That in a nutshell is how I would sum up Yosief: the Eritrean guru of the young, the restless and the confused.
It is with the latter in mind that I decided to reevaluate my previous recommendation to ignore him because if his extremely demoralizing and terribly imbalanced views are impacting others, then silence would not be the best response. On the contrary, we should speak up or at least warn others of the consequences of dwelling on such type of negative thinking. No. That is putting it too mildly. Yosief does not just dwell on the negative aspects of Eritrean history and of Eritreans in general, he literally roars and blurts them out like a Godzilla about to devour everything that Eritreans hold dear!
If we put aside for a moment the validity or lack of validity of Yosief’s views and consider only his brazen assertions in their totality, they are truly astounding! He not only bluntly denies the justness of the struggle for independence and disparages its heroes but also expends a great deal of energy to “prove” that the opposition is not only weak and impotent now but has no future! He further postulates that if any change comes, it will be from within “Shaebia family” and then only at the hands of those close to the seat of power!
By any measure, these are extraordinary claims! Ponder for a moment what all these would mean if Eritreans took him seriously and believed in his theories. It would be a complete disaster! Among other things, liberation movements would lose all motivation to struggle hard because his contentions totally and completely strip the opposition’s justification for existence (its raison d’etre). Why bother when one is destined to fail? Eritrean people would also lose all hope for a better future resigning themselves to another dreadful period under shaebia as a fait accompli.
A political entity or liberation movement survives and thrives on the strength it draws from its belief in its ability to make a difference or to make things happen; even when weak and the odds are stacked against it, this is what keeps it going and here is Yosief telling all resistance movements that they will never be able to effect change in Eritrea! If we keep in mind that these assertions are coming from the same writer who has been campaigning so relentlessly to discredit the entire struggle for independence and its heroes, we will begin to see how detrimental his highfalutin ideas are or can be!
Moral culpability aside, is there anything of value in Yosief’s long rhetoric? In other words, if his views are reproachable in terms of their impact on the morale as we postulated, do they have any merit at all? I would say yes and no. His articles contain some indisputable facts here and there that we can all agree with. Some of his critiques of PFDJ for example are excellent. Unfortunately, even this turns out to be a façade to lull us into a receptive mood for the falsehood that follows. Taken as a whole therefore, his longwinded articles with their wearisome iterations around the same catchphrases have propaganda value but nothing else. Then why are some Eritreans so besotted with him? There can be a number of reasons:
First, his outlandish conclusions have a shock value and as advertisers would tell you, shock works like magic for grabbing attention. Yosief, who seems to have developed a starry eyed child-like fascination for the notion of an “antihero” wants to shock us. So he lampoons the gedli era; the opposition; heroes of the past; the PFDJ; and in fact all Eritreans. Our crime? We resisted Ethiopian occupation.
Second, his articles or views appearing as they are at a time in Eritrean history when the morale of our people is at an all-time low exploit the general despondency of our people. A grueling thirty years struggle for independence followed by decades of tyranny is finally getting to Eritreans which makes them ripe to be plucked by any would-be charlatan that comes along to deliver the final blow to their pride in themselves and their history.
Third (as we alluded to above), his articles are not totally devoid of truth which buttresses his credibility somewhat. To be believable and to puncture through the deep convictions of Eritreans, he has no choice but to begin with facts we can all accept. This is a technique that Socrates used for nobler goals. Yosief uses it for ignoble ones – as a bait to lure us into contrived conclusions. As we shall see in coming examples, facts, scenarios, or possibilities that weaken his thesis are fastidiously omitted while those that support it are relentlessly harped upon. One has to look beyond the ostentatious display to discover that there is really nothing there but tangled logic masquerading as dialectic.
In other words, Yosief is not an impartial researcher but a person who is quite adept at taking molehills of truth and constructing a mountain of falsehood around them. His articles are full of inferences reached in this manner. We all acknowledge for example that we made mistakes in the past and that a high price was paid for independence but Yosief then takes this molehill of truth and blows it out of proportion to reach the hefty conclusion that the entire struggle for independence had been futile and that we would have been better off if we had remained with Ethiopia!
Now, how does he know that? What oracular vision assures him that our lot would have been better if we had remained with Ethiopia or that less people would have perished? This is an attempt to divine the unknown and the unknowable. To reach such a conclusion, we need to know not only the consequences of our decision to struggle for independence but also what the consequences might have been had we opted to surrender to Ethiopia. The latter is unknowable. Absent a crystal ball to show us the two scenarios side by side, we can only conjecture.
And that is exactly what Yosief does. He forces a conclusion by resorting to presuppositions including for example that Ethiopia would have embraced us as equals – an inclination that it has never demonstrated at any time in its association with Eritrea or Eritreans during the period in question. It also assumes that Ethiopia would never have resorted to ethnic cleansing to make room for its growing or exploding population. This is relevant because Ethiopia has reportedly once stated it is Eritrea’s land and access to sea it covets not its people and slaughtered many as if to prove the point. It also discounts the possibility that Eritreans may have been reduced to a permanent underclass. So even surrendering to Ethiopia may not have guaranteed a better outcome nor could we say indubitably that less Eritreans would have died. There were inherent uncertainties in both choices and Eritreans gambled on the side of liberty and honor whatever the cost. And Hurray for them!
Yosief also fails to factor a crucial point: the retarding impact on a revolution of people like him who are ever prone to dwell on negativism and cynicism. There have been many Yosiefs in Eritrea’s history (and world history) and one can hypothesize that success or failure of a revolution or its duration is directly proportional to the number of detractors the revolution spawns (other factors being equal). Perhaps Yosief should first look in the mirror for an explanation of why it has taken so long to liberate our country from foreign occupation and why it is now taking so long to liberate it from a domestic tyrant!
Yosief wants to prolong Eritrean suffering even more since if we believed in his theories, we would have to leave matters in the hands of shaebia family to put its own house in order which brings us to the next point: his contention that only those near the PFDJ seat of power can bring change. What does he base it on? He starts legitimately enough (as is his wont) by enumerating facts we can all agree with: the mass exodus of our youth; the semi-impotence of those inside Eritrea; the dispersion of youth in various camps; etc… but then runs with it to conclude that our only hope is for an implosion from within.
Such a scenario is certainly possible but again Yosief is playing the Cassandra here pretending to see the future without making allowances for human ingenuity and random factors that can and have always changed the course of history. The future is simply inscrutable, unpredictable, and indeterminable. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the Iranian revolution are perfect examples of how the unexpected and the unpredictable can still happen. No politician and no social scientist saw it coming and no one predicted it. In our neck of the woods, who would have predicted that something like the G15 protest would erupt in the highly regimented personality-cult driven culture of shaebia? A few months ago, how many could have predicted anything like the forto operation would happen. (Incidentally, if Forto operation never happened, Yosief’s thesis would have ruled it out. But since it happened, he quickly adjusted his theory to make allowances for colonel-led rebellions! )
To give another example: we all know Eritrean youth are leaving the country en-masse – so no revelation there. Yosief nonetheless finds it necessary to dwell upon it for the sole purpose of persuading us that an uprising is not possible and to that end adorns this simple fact (exodus of youth) with needless complexity and mystery. Is he deliberately obfuscating to ‘wow’ us and to justify his off-the-wall conclusions? It appears to be so. Take for instance his elaborate concentric circles, what do they tell us that we do not already know? Take away his far-out interpretations of these realities, what are we left with? Absolutely nothing! Who doesn’t know about Eritrean prisons? What Eritrean is ignorant of the condition of the slave camps camouflaging as national service? Who doesn’t know about the condition of civilians in Eritrea? Almost no one!
Moreover, despite Yosief’s proclamations, Eritrea is not totally empty of its youth. Nor are those who stayed among the young, the middle aged and the graying as helpless as he portrays them to be. Nor can we rule out other possibilities even if they seem unlikely at present: for example, those who stayed or those in national service may learn to trust one another enough to rise against and defeat their oppressors; those who left can come back armed with help from other countries or in some other way; A war may erupt with Ethiopia or with other neighboring countries that may trigger widespread revolt by the masses who are sick of war; Shaebia leadership may turn against each other thereby providing an opening for the core opposition to launch a grassroots revolution. We know from Tunisia’s revolution how even a single isolated incident can lead to a mass revolt. There is nothing that says the same thing cannot happen in Eritrea. In other words, the future can unfold in a zillion different ways.
But according to Yosief, there is only one way out of Eritrea’s predicament: call for “demobilization”! This is an attractive proposition. As Yosief is quick to remind us this reunites families. What more could we ask for? What he doesn’t tell us is that demobilization will also render them sitting ducks making them as “helpless” as the family they will reunite with. Shouldn’t we instead call for the guns to be pointed squarely at the slave master, the oppressor, and tyrant?
Besides, who is going to demand demobilization? The Diaspora? No, because according to him, they are in the “wrong stage”. Those in Eritrea? Impossible! Didn’t he tell us that there are only helpless women, illiterate peasants, children, and the old? How about the soldiers? Again, no. They are too atomized and too indoctrinated according to him to stage any collective action or demand. Thus, in Yosief’s “disjointed” Eritrea, no one is fit to demand the “demobilization” he is proposing. Perhaps he wants Ethiopia to make the demand? His own words say it all: “the demobilization demand cannot be entertained without the intention of making peace with Ethiopia” (note the emphasis – his not mine). Is “demobilization” a path to ensure Ethiopia a final victory over a disarmed Eritrea and to reverse the achievements of a dearly won war of independence that he openly derides – to somehow wind back Eritrea’s history to square one? We all want peace with Ethiopia of course only not in the manner Yosief wants to bring it about.
To stave off criticism like the ones I lodge against him in this article, Yosief sometimes likes to compare himself to a builder who razes a shaky structure to erect a more stable structure. Is he such a one? Of course not! The analogy is preposterous and totally inappropriate for several reasons: First, a builder works with a tangible entity – a solid structure that he can see, feel, and touch whereas our would-be builder (Yosief) has to grapple (like all of us) with Eritrea’s foggy past (and an even foggier future) which though conceptually imaginable can never be assessed with the same degree of certitude that the engineer has at his disposal. Second, the builder (or his team) work from a detailed blueprint or CAD drawing and are absolutely certain to the minutest detail that they can reproduce the blueprint. Our would-be social engineer on the other hand has no blueprint and could never achieve even a fraction of the degree of exactitude that the builder enjoys. He could only guess and speculate about the future because of the inevitable uncertainties that beset all socio-historical phenomena. Third, the builder and his team have been given the authority to erect, fix or improve a structure. Who gave Yosief the authority to raze or build anything?
In many ways, his polemical style reminds us of another beloved compatriot, Semere Tesfai: both like to dazzle with volume and pomp; both love propaganda-style repetitive formulas; both rely on elaborate use of emphasis (even when unwarranted); and both happen to be Islamophobes (though in different ways). For Semere, the Muslim/Christian dichotomy would be solved instantly if Muslims would only “blend” with Christians. For Yosief, the Muslim/Christian divide is irreconcilable! And while Semere wants the blending to happen within Eritrea, Yosief would “habeshitize” everyone to eventually blend us with the greater “habesha” across the border! At least Semere (May he live long and prosper) had sense enough to limit his ranting against boogeyman “Islamic threat”.
But where is Yosief going with all his campaigning? If there is one goal that can neatly explain his “circular journey”, it has something to do with Ethiopia. Ethiopia factors big in all his theories. Consider the following three-pronged attacks he constantly engages in:
First, as we all know (and as also noted above), he told us in no uncertain terms that the struggle for independence was futile and that we should have opted to stay with Ethiopia. That was the first and crucial step towards his “Ethiopia tqdem” goal. Movements receive their greatest shot of energy and inspiration from their past heroes. So this serves a dual purpose: it discredits the past and demoralizes contemporary movements that draw inspiration from it.
Second, having dealt with the past and marginally swiped at the current opposition, he then turns to deliver a frontal and direct assault on the opposition by ridiculing those in the Diaspora as impotent “cheerleaders” and those inside Eritrea as helpless women, children, and the old.
Third, having “established” the total powerlessness of the opposition movement (its past and present), he then denies it any future potential by assuring his readers that only shaebia family close to the seat of power can bring change as mentioned earlier.
This forces us to wonder: if the opposition (both those in and those out of Eritrea) will never be able to bring change, who is to rescue Eritrea from the jaws of Shaebia? Ethiopia, silly! In other words, Yosief wants Eritrea – which according to his thesis is a rebellious teenager that run away from home against her best interests and suffered for decades as a result – to come back home fully repentant to reunite with “mama” Ethiopia. I can think of no other explanation for what drives his long diatribe against Eritreans particularly when we factor his most recent mantra: demobilization. A disarmed Eritrea will of course be more amenable to re-annexation.
The greatest weapon any movement for liberation possesses is the high morale of its members. Anyone who wages a deliberate campaign to tamper with the collective self-esteem of a nation is therefore by definition an enemy of the struggle for liberation. Only an avowed enemy would so deliberately and so persistently target people’s most prized possessions. If Yosief is not doing it deliberately, then he is the most “disjointed”, clueless, and compass-less Eritrean that ever was.
But I suspect he knows exactly what he is doing and revels in it. Yosief is provocateur extraordinaire. So beware beloved compatriots! If you let his vacuous philosophizing sink into your consciousness (instead of off you), then his predictions will be self-fulfilling and the half a century plus years of struggle would then be truly wasted. Educate yourself; learn to identify such ploys and they will eventually flutter aimlessly and die. But if you let despondency get the best of you, then many Yosief’s will crop up to confuse us again and again and woe to us as a nation!
It is a firm belief in a cause and an unshakable determination in one’s ability to effect change along with a sensible appreciation of the past that sustain movements. Yosief and his likes want to take that away from you. Don’t let them!