A Matter of Perspective: Nationalism

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

I, as a devoted Awate reader,  most times scan the pages of this site in the hope that I will find there something informative and educational, something uplifting and  inspiring, something original and sometimes something controversial where we all can have an input of our dimes worth.

True, time constraints don’t always allow one to indulge in his favorite quest, of course, but under the circumstances one has to slog on and on because it keeps us all connected. It is in this spirit that in the last week or two I have read some of the articles and a few, two or three of them I feel I need to posit a strong opposition to  and share my thoughts with my fellow Awate readers.

I will start with one written by a certain Mr. Semere T. Habtemarian. The article which purports to be a critique of a book written by the late Mr. Seyoum Haregot could equally have been more appropriately titled “In Defense of Dr. Bereket Habteselassie”. Of course, I, in my humble opinion, believe that Dr. Bereket is a person who is intelligent enough, a scholar enough and patriotic enough of defending himself in the true sense and essence of the word.  Why Mr. Semere felt he has to bear this Herculean task of defending him is not exactly clear to me.

The article starts with the usual run of the mill standard statements you find in book reviews such as ‘it is a great addition to …’ or ‘it is rich or poor in detail although…’ The article,  instead of reviewing the book, sounds more like the writer has a grudge, a long simmering and vented up anger against Mr. Seyoum and instead of  explaining to us what is in the book what is glaringly missing from the book and how correct or incorrect the historical treatise is, seems to be more designed to teach us what a creepy character the author is in Mr. Semeres’s eyes.

Mr. Semere accuses Mr.Seyoum of not being a patriot and of being an opportunist who married into the Amhara royal family and acquired an Amhara identity (honestly!!) for fame and fortune (I would if I could, there is nothing in the Bible which forbids that and am sure in the Quran too). Of course, we all know Mr. Seyoum married the daughter of a prominent Tigrean nobleman, Mr. Abebe Retta, although Mr. Abebes’ role in the rise and shine of Mr. Seyoum could be debatable.

But be that as it may, our Mr. Semere thinks that Mr. Seyoum should have recanted his past missteps, (and, like people such as Dr.Tekeste Assefaw, seen the light and did what is right). He Mr. Seyoum should have apologized to the ‘Eritrean People’ who have in their ‘collective wisdom’ developed a litmus test to discern who has done what for them (watch out those of you who haven’t) and would have been very receptive to his recantations, for his past misdeeds if he had done so.

But above all Mr. Seyoum shouldn’t have criticized Dr. Berekets’ politics because Dr. Bereket was a better student and a more nuanced nationalist than most of his peers, and the good Doctor has accomplished immense deeds for his beloved Eritrea both pre and post independence.

Mr. Semere further accuses Mr. Seyoum of also serving not only Haile Selassie (which I believe many Eritreans did, be it as civil servants or in the ranks of the military) and should not have even temporarily served Isaias in the early years. I could go on and on but it would be too boring to repeat everything here except for the fact that Mr. Semere thinks Mr. Seyoum is not a person fit to tie the good doctors’ shoelaces. I doubt if he would want to do that even it the opportunity were to avail itself even in the spirit of humility the way Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as we are told.

But here is the clincher. Mr. Semere writes ‘Many Eriteans of Seyoum’s generation (and that would include a number of us) have to navigate the uncharted territories of multiple national identities. (I don’t know exactly what  this multiple identity and  uncharted territory and why it is peculiar to Mr. Seyoum’s generation, since national identities constantly change with changes in  national histories and boundaries.) A significant number of them had to straddle between Ethiopian and Eritrean identities while they firmly rooted themselves in the former.’ And he goes on a ‘majority chose…’ Can anyone make any sense out of this gibberish? Please people enlighten me.  And all these years I had thought the Eritrean identity or ‘meninet ‘ as the current rulers called  it  was issued some twenty years ago and Eritrea was recognized by the international community after that. Just for the record Eritrea lived its existence as an Italian colony, as a British Protectorate and as an entity federated under the Ethiopian Crown.

The second article in similar fashion is even more amusing. This one again is a castigation of a certain Mr. Yosief who has been writing articles not to the very liking of the author Mr. Ismail Omer-Ali. The article “Yosief’s Circular Journey in Search of Ethiopia” is a sort of a call to arms and a warning to all the ‘gullible’ as he calls them and the uninitiated (in the field of politics I assume) Eritreans to be vigilant of this individual because he is out to poison their minds with falsehoods that he Mr. Ismail could easily disprove. To be fair to Mr.Yosief, I would like to tell him that I have read some of his articles and to rest assured that I have been enlightened and not poisoned by his articles so far though with the caveat that I will at the same time heed Mr. Ismails’ wise admonishments.

Mr.Ismail tells us that Yosief is on a circular journey, (not straight which could be the shortest or rectangular or triangular) but doesn’t explain why. Mr. Ismail has also been able to discover that Yosief is attracting and rallying quite a number of followers because he is a very prolific writer, although it is implied that he is sugarcoating his evil intentions and that we are to beware of his false projections of how we would be better off if we joined Ethiopia because he has unlike Mr.Isamil no magic wand of prophesying the future that we would be.

He also accuses Mr.Yosief of having identity crises. Why disagreeing with Mr. Isamil should trigger an identity crises is also not clearly articulated although I will be careful not to disagree with Mr. Ismail myself in the future.

Both the above articles seem to have some commonalities. That all Eritreans are supposed to articulate a single opinion not very far from what the two gentlemen advocate. That Eritrean identity is not issued based on origins but based on contributions to the struggle. No tolerance here. That Eritreans who served the previous Ethiopian regimes or who were never a part of the struggle are to atone for past mistakes in order to redeem  their patriotism and love of country and in order to be cleansed and accepted into the fold like the late Mr. Tedla Bairu.

The articles are most times rambling and I found them more emotional rather than rational, at times condescending most often patronizing, insensitive and mawkish but above all I found them to be muddled, fuddled, confused and incoherent. In fact to be blunt they seem to have been written for the consumption of young children. Very very young children.  I found both articles as stellar examples of divisive nationalism.

Which brings me back to the article I found most interesting.  An article written by no other than the respected Mr.Gadi. This is a piece about an old Eritrean ‘tegadalai’ Mr. Adem Melekin whom Mr. Gadi had interviewed some years back but who has passed recently. Now don’t mistake me as an anti Mr. Gadi individual. I admire Mr. Gadi for his dedication to the Eritrean struggle, I admire him for his journalistic accomplishments, his prolific writings, and well informed and well-written articles over the years, but above all for giving us a venue to vent our frustrations against him.

Having penned all those platitudes, though, it doesn’t mean that I always agree to everything Mr. Gadi writes or opines about. But the democratic me will always respect his right to his arguments.

Mr.Gadis’ latest article is titled “Eulogy to a Patriot”. Note the word ‘patriot’. The word in its totality is actually quite harmless and only implies devotion to a specific place.

Let me divert here a little and tell you and anecdote. I once read an article by a certain Mr. Mark Halprin (a columnist for that right wing rag called Time magazine) in which he unadvisedly states he admires the patriotism of the Tea Party.  I sent Mr. Halprin a letter asking his advice if I should join the Tea Party so he could admire my patriotism. He never replied and I will never know. I never joined the party though. But I am not going to bore Mr.Gadi by asking him what I need to do for him to admire my patriotism.

But here is the point .Mr. Gadi’s use of the word patriot in similar fashion is to tell us that Mr. Melekin was a patriot because of his contribution to the struggle. Mr.Gadi and others in the past have used all kinds of epithets to categorize, compartmentalize, departmentalize, fractionalize us in to groups, sub groups and sub-sub groups and into species and sub-species in accordance with what they perceive is our contribution or our lack of contribution to the glorious foundation of our glorious State. And as a consequence I have always found it mind-boggling why anyone has to join this or that struggle or espouse this or that ideology to be labeled a patriot. This of course is a question I will always ponder for eternity for an answer. Why couldn’t we Eritreans simply be Eritreans.

In this his latest article Mr. Gadi tells us that Mr. Melekin was a man who knowingly threw himself into a storm for the sake of the people. Maybe a figure of speech, but a powerful figure of speech. Still it is not exactly clear to me why a person of Mr. Melekin’s intelligence (and I assume from Mr.Gadi’s description of him he was an intelligent person) would want to knowingly throw himself into a storm instead of evading and deftly trying to manage the storm. If there is an unselfish self-emulation that I have heard about, this tops them all. Why a person should throw himself into the eye of a storm for the sake of ‘others’ or why those ‘others’ are worthy of his tragic sacrifice is beyond me. For me Mr. Melekin probably threw himself into the eye of the cyclone because he believed in his own beliefs.

If Mr. Melekin were alive and reading the eulogy Mr. Gadi has written for him I am sure he would be humbled and will tell Mr. Gadi that he like his other compatriots played a role no smaller or no bigger than any other Eritrean who believed in what he then believed.

Mr.Gadi further writes that Mr. Melekin was a brick stone in the foundation of Eritrea. Eritrea if my history is correct was a country I believe cobbled from the highlands of Abyssinia and the lowlands of the horn by European colonialism in the later half  of the 19th. century which could not have made Mr. Melekin (a strapping 84year old when he died) a foundation brick of the State. But that is another story for another day.

Lastly, Mr.Gadi calls Mr. Melekin a giant of the Eritrean struggle. Warfare as Neitchez once wrote “ sorts society into lower and higher ranks”, and because of this experience we have been oriented and Mr.Gadi articulates it very well in his article to believe that of those who participated in any way or form in the struggle , there were some who floated above others. I of course beg to disagree. There were no giants in the Eritean struggle there were no dwarfs in the Eritrean struggle, there were only Eritreans. But above all we should never forget that there were also Eritreans who never came home. Which brings me back to some of the contents of the article that I most disagree with Mr.Gadi.

Mr.Gadi writes, “this column the Fertile Womb celebrates all Eritreans who pushed the wheel….until it reached its final destination with the gallant fighters entering Asmara victoriously…” (woe to those who did not push the wheel !!)  But then he goes to tell us that “Eritrea entered into the unknown era and the struggle was renewed, this time (emphasis mine) for the dignity of the citizen, the acknowledgment of past sacrifices and for the establishment of a just, free prosperous and democratic society”. This is going to be the next phase of our next struggle.

It’s a lofty objective and no one I am sure will reject the desirability of these posited ends. But wait , Mr.Gadi, wasn’t this precisely what the people were told the old objective were or was it a two-tier struggle that we have now to renew to bring it to its final fruition?  Are we going to have an asymmetrical narrative because Mr.Gadi finds it suits our historical biases better? Eritreans died for these very objectives and not the mere physical and geographical independence of the country which I believe was tangential to the issue. Independence and freedom and democracy Mr. Gadi are not values that are mutually exclusive. You can’t have one without the other.

Unlike these committed nationalists, that I often encounter on the pages of Awate or the other sites, I am one that believes Eritrea is a political entity, an abstract construct, that belongs equally to all those who believe they are Eritreans regardless of what their past history is, what their beliefs past and present are or what their wishes are for the country of their origin. No one is supposed to have a monopoly on the Eritrean idea and what Eritrea is or what it should be.

I am not a nationalist and I abhor nationalism because nationalism is a reactionary trait.

Nationalism as George Orwell once said is ‘power hunger tempered by self deception’.  In the final analysis we should never lose sight of the fact that Nationalism is tribal, cultural and ethnocentric. Above all nationalism diminishes the capacity of the individual to judge.

In the lexicon of the ruling class, a nationalist is a “hagerawi”, meaning he has more love (mostly I believe measured through repeatedly shouted convictions and public displays of passion) for the country than a non-hagerawi.  The ruling class has a stake in this, the glorification of war and bestial nationalism, jingoism and chauvinism allows them to command an audience and an influence that is rare and this gives them an ontological status and political authority over the rest of us. Because Nationalism is divisive it is the tool they always employ to manipulate the masses for eventually an end result of self-destruction.

But this has always been the ruse that nationalists from Hitler to Franco have employed in their quest for supremacy. Take the case of the first elected black American to the Presidency of his country. The reaction from the Caucasian tribe was visceral. He was labeled the worst president in the history of the country by some prominent members of the ruling class. An underlying belief of how could he be better than a member of their tribe.

The Caucasian tribe organized in town halls in every major city, they called themselves patriots and, directed their fellow tribesmen to come out en masse on the streets with all the paraphernalia and regalia befitting their tribe. They forced their elected representatives not to cooperate in any way with the usurper. They openly and in no uncertain terms, proclaimed they wanted to take their country back.

They questioned his origin. From the outset the President was asked to renounce and distance himself from everything any member of his tribe said in the last one hundred years to slight their tribe. Further, this black president was constrained from helping his own tribe who were most devastated by the economic downturn (not because his tribe as citizens of the country were less deserving of their Governments help) lest he be viewed as a tribalist himself.

Throughout our brief history to the present we in Eritrea have been subjected to similar manifestations of these traits. Today we observe these traits in the writing of the Awate team and some Awate contributors and in websites like Dehai and Meskerem and what have you that is much more pronounced as what we observe under the current ruling class. The current ruling class derives their power from quarters who feel their support should go the members of their clan and sub clan regardless of the conditions the country is. The ruling class sustains its power from this unfettered support it gets from its base. The ruling class and their base use jingoism, nationalism, chauvinism to silence any opposition both from within their base and from without. This is understandable. They need to do this to perpetuate their rule.

There is nothing new here or different from the culture we live in. Remember, those who by some fortune or misfortune found themselves in the heartland of Ethiopia are referred to as ‘Amices’. Not (tsuruy) pure blood Eritreans. Those who may manifest a different view from those who feel they are best suited to define who an Eritrean is are relegated to the status of a Woyane or a terrorist by the very people who should be hostile to these very ideas regardless of who is articulating them. In its heyday, a Woyane remember used to be called a ‘Ehiwodeg’ by these very people in the first days of ‘Independence’. The overnight conversion of the Ehiwodeg into a Weyane enemy may not surprise us. But the conversion of an Eritrean into a Woyane because he entertains a different idea should have somewhat made us say ‘wait a minute that is not right”.

We, I am sure all understand that the current ruling class has delegitimized the basic unit of democratic discourse the ‘Nation State’. But this is not the tragic part. The tragic part is that in spite of the fact that we have turned to the different websites that have mushroomed and in which we find solace and space to vent our frustrations, we are still mired in the thinking and actions and mores of our history and its resultant base nationalism.

Like the ruling elites, our writers now worship anyone they feel is a real hagerawi. They eulegise heroism and celebrate heroic deeds and what they call heroic deaths. Writers like Mr.Gadi and Mr.Younis still think this is 1968.  To them a few bad apples who have been lording it over us in the last two decades  aren’t going to rob us of our cherished ideals as long as we march lockstep for the light at the end of the tunnel we lit a half century ago. A few tweaks here or a few twists there will not deter us from the relentless march of history. We will continue on the chosen path we originally mapped without having to examine the past which is sacrosanct and not for anyone especially one whose past and love of county is suspect to question.

In the lives of individuals and even societies a half century can make all the difference And in the vast time scale of the struggle for Eritrea, in the our history of once upon a time a thousand sacrifices ago, if this is only what the abundance of the Eritrean experience has though us then we need to rethink and ask what was it all about.

The older generation of Eritreans made a choice and their offspring’s made a different choice, but in the process all Eritreans made a choice intentionally or otherwise. Every one makes a choice even if he doesn’t choose. And as a result we all have to bear the consequences of these choices. We have to put the blame right in the middle of where it is supposed to be regardless of how bitter the after taste may be.

We Africans sometimes overreach and seem to expect our leaders to be bigger than the environment that shapes us all. We seem to forget that them and us we are all products of our environment. The environment of our geography, our tribal alliances our cultures our religion and our herder–farmer way of life. It is naïve to hope that the next leaders are going to be very much different in their banality even when we in spite of castigating their divisive nationalism are practicing in it ourselves. European society became democratic because they were able to learn from their history in response to the stresses of war and the demands of the Industrial age. As for us to hope that once Isaias is gone every thing is going to be dandy and we will be marching on the road to paradise as originally charted is simplistic, naïve and extremely dangerous.

History is not a narration of the past. History is about why things happened the way they did. As Thomas Meany tells us we should learn that the choice is never between an ideal future and a bad one, but between a better future and a worse one.

Eritreans have never been asked what they want freely without fear of repercussion. Members of the elite class has already determined what we want because we all assume no one will reject democracy, the rule of law, inclusiveness and human and civic rights.

But that isn’t enough. The future isn’t something that just happens because we wish it to happen. The future is something we create. Hence we need to know of how we came to be where we are, who we are and what we want to do and where we want to go. We need to recognize each of us is just but one member of the whole and that everyone should have an equal say regardless of education, status, birth or belief. We cannot afford to live in the Orwellian world of “all animals are equal but…” We need to know how we can organize, shape our various ethnic and religious configurations into a viable whole. But above all we need to know our history and what participatory democracy is and as Mao once said ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’.

The approach of our writers like Ismail and Semere and Gadi and Younis, who seem to believe that we need to operate under the constraint of the past without questioning its basic tenet and its failure to achieve its intended end as everyone I believe had hoped is merely an adulation of history without its inconveniences. This history is false and it is exclusionary. In sum it is designed to exclude anyone who shows even the mere appearance of being and thinking different.

We should learn from the outset that we cannot continue on the quest of as Mr. Seyoum has written eloquently the “Holy Grail” under the confines of the you are either a hargerawi or a non-hargerawi with the caveat of the definition of hagerawi being one who toes the line. The Bushian “you are either with us or against us” slogan of our Awate writers. This (an exercise in self flagellation) is doomed to fail before it starts but in its failure it may consume its victims and victimize not only the victimizers but the very entity their beloved exclusionary Eritrea will eventually represent.


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