A Matter of Perspective: Ali Salim, the Thorn in Our Side

In the recent past it seems to have become fashionable to write (debate perhaps will be a better word) about the ethnic, religious and cultural divide in Eritrea. I have in the past intermittently touched on this sensitive subject, specially when I become agitated as I always am, at what in my own infantile way I  perceive to be  some shallow reasoning behind it.  


The debate became intensified after Ali Salim, whose identity many writers have been trying to fathom, as if that is central to the issue, started to write boldly about this taboo subject. Funny, this reminds me of the time when the dictator speaking at the Press Club in Washington  got agitated at a certain caller for not knowing his true identity, as if knowing  the true identity of that particular  caller would absolve him from the accusations that individual made..  


Anyway, suffice it to say that Ali Salim is probably an Eritrean, and who cares if he is not. The problem want go away anyway. The problem with Ali’s critics is that they still think this is 1952. There is this assumption that Eritrea, at least the historical one, was a much more inclusive and egalitarian country. And if that doesn’t work there is always the fall back position that, once the current hideous regime is overthrown or decays to extinction, things would correct themselves. That is, blame the current rulers for stealing the Eritrean Revolution. An interlocution for saying we betrayed the Revolution. The problem with this reasoning is that we seem to overlook the fact that we all are products of our environment. 


The inter-ethnic relationship that prevailed in the past was never harmonic. At least there is no empirical evidence that can prove that it was. Of course, people lived together or to put it in simplistic terms they coexisted. Hence, to accuse Ali Salim of fanning hatred and ethnic animosity is the epitome of hypocrisy. There are those who believe that compared with many ethnically strafed societies in history, Eritrea is an epic example of the tolerant society. But one does not have to replicate, say the atrocities of Rwanda in order to prove that the society in Eritrean is unique and ideal. But that doesn’t mean it should be the same in the future.   


Today where patriotism and nationalism have become the dominant measures of identity construction, conformity is the norm and if one, as was the case during the struggle era does not confirm to the values and believes of his peer’s, one becomes stigmatized as a traitor to the cause. During that period, one was not allowed to have an independent mind. One was not given space to express his own beliefs. An independent mind or questioning the status qua made one an instant outcast, or a ‘Woyane’ in its current version. But patriotism and nationalism cannot be an Eritrean identity simply because these are petty bourgeoisie characteristics. The problem today is that the ethno/religious divide in Eritrea is being debated in this context. But here is the big flaw, such identities have no life span of their own, because it is counterproductive to the harmonious coexistence of societies. Such identities are false because they are based on propaganda and counterpropaganda designed to serve a certain purpose in the perpetuation of power by certain groups. But even given that, the big question is, where in the World with the exception of some very homogeneous societies pray tell me, have we ever seen harmony between people of different religious persuasions? This has always been an issue that has been more insidious in society than meets the eye.




The point here is that, if this was a religious or a communications issue  we can simply build more mosques or more Churches depending on the balance and if need be we can allow people to speak in any vernacular they want if that will solve the problem.




Historically, different societies have tried different strategies to solve differences among themselves. Basically, there has been the strategy of tolerance. Failing that, there has been the strategy of acceptance. Acceptance of ones’ status in the hierarchy of the State.  But have this ever worked? No, the issue of Nations and Nationalities is much harder to solve even if you are a staunch Stalinist, although you can come close, until the advent of a Yeltsin of course.  


Some one hundred plus  years after the demise of the Plantation States  in the ideal States of the melting pot, there always will be some ‘Tea Partyers’ who yearn for their old freedoms and want to take their  Country back (the emphasis being on ‘their’). But then history doesn’t seem to teach them  that the  Soviet Republic imploded  due to its  inability to solve this problem and  Stalin must has been turning in his grace  ever since.




I have a solution for this. Why not ban all religion if that will solve the problem. As for language, we still have a choice. We can have smoke signals or use sign language if need be or opt for one of the international ones for that matter. But the question is, will these brilliant ideas I have just discovered ever find acceptance as a way out? Ali Salem or one of his nemeses will always render them unworkable which of course they are. 


So as Lenin will say, “What is to be done.” The answer is simple. We should organize our societies on the basis of class. The downtrodden class (which basically includes the whole country) can form an alliance. I am not talking about trade unionism here. And the exploiting class can organize themselves as another entity.  And then as the true heirs of the French Revolution, we can congregate around the slogans of ‘Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite’. I am not sure about the last one but the possibilities of this working greatly appeals to me.   


Throughout history, societies have always looked for something that would unite them. Some of those true and tried approaches are still works in progress. There are many other variations to these. The Old Roman Empire was truly ‘Holy.’ Just see the Spanish Inquisition! But it didn’t survive. The Europeans, after the demise of the old Roman Empire and many many years later have come up with an even more novel idea of a money unity (which has metastasized to the acquisition of cheap labor and resources in the region.) The Latinos, who funnily have the same religion, speak the same language (more or less) and live in the same geographical area and who have been floundering for quite sometime, now seem to have found a unifying rally. Their opposition to the machinations of Uncle Sam. Good luck there.  


And the AU? Three things here seem to unite the countries of the ‘Dark Continent’. Nepotism, corruption and non-interference in each other’s affairs. Now the combination of this seems to be quite appealing to the ruling classes. A bit funny, isn’t it?  


But what more a uniting force could there be than a class identity This may at last lead to a classless society a la Cuba. Shared poverty may not be as bad as inequality after all. But a class society cannot in itself be a panacea for a harmonious society. A class Society needs more than, well! Forming a class or classless Society.   


You see, I believe that society should not aspire to justice and equality for all. That would be a dream. That would be utopia. No, society can only progress forward if it has common beliefs on certain values and rights that reasonable people can agree are essential for a functioning democracy. The emphasis should be on the identification and elimination of injustices that we can all believe in. 


No, seriously speaking here, Ali Salim has touched a raw nerve. But it is not original.  This issue is as old as man himself. And the solution has always been there. The solution is called ‘Empowerment.’ Economic empowerment, political empowerment and resource empowerment’ not necessarily in that order. It all starts at the top. It starts with certain beliefs. Certain creeds that we can all ascribe too, beliefs that can mold us, that can fold us that can bind us. Our value system needs to be redefined, we need to believe in the old cherished universal tenets of our human rights, our political rights, our legal rights, our social rights. 


The tragedy of the Eritrean struggle has always been that, however camouflaged it may have come it was always about Geography, and it was never able to inculcate in the people these ideals. That is why the end ended being self-defeating. Geography doesn’t bind you. Language doesn’t bind you. It is your status, your equality that in the end defines who you are. Am I missing something here am I being very simplistic? Isn’t this within our means?

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