A Tale of Two Eritreas
“But you just told me that they have been involved in illegal acts but you cannot tell me what the illegal acts are; I have asked you what these people are charged with, you can’t tell me what they are charged with. This is hardly a, you know, an open process.” – BBC Reporter, October 10, 2001
There are two Eritreas. One is real and one is a fairy tale.
In one Eritrea, call it Sembel, the government represents the will of the people; works hard to improve their living standards by combating the scourge of poverty and depravation, constructing schools, roads and hospitals; punishing lawlessness by exposing and punishing traitors and criminals; building the infrastructure for sustainable and true democracy; maintaining exemplary relationships with neighbors and donor nations…. This is the Eritrea that the government and its supporters tell the world of. In this version of Eritrea, everything that is right with Eritrea is thanks to the government and all the “imperfections” are the fault of external and internal enemies including the Ethiopian Government (“our blood enemy”), meddling foreigners, and opportunistic and power hungry Eritreans.
In the other Eritrea, call it Mariam Gnbi, the government is at war with the people: it engages in systematic violation of their civil rights by arresting dissidents, students, journalists and elder citizens; it delays implementation of the constitution and democracy; it taxes people at exorbitant rates; it uses a “Special Court” to target its political opponents; it uses its economic arm to monopolize commerce; it is at war with its neighbors and international opinion ….This is the other Eritrea that the opposition and its supporters tell the world of. In this version of Eritrea, everything that is right with Eritrea is thanks to the Eritrean people and all the horrors are exclusively the results of the Eritrean Government’s flawed policies and power obsession.
Once in a while, something big develops that convinces the world and independent Eritreans that the one set of reality is more credible than the other. A series of events in August and September (arrests, demotions, detention camps, closure of newspapers, etc) began to shatter the image of Sembel. Since then, the government has been attempting to resurrect the Eritrea of Sembel. In the process, ironically, it has been confirming that Eritrea really is Mariam Gnbi and that the fictitious Sembel that had been relentlessly pushed for the previous ten years is nothing but an illusion created through smoke and mirrors. There are two ways it has been trying to restore the fairy tale: by fabricating or exaggerating new realities and/or by brazenly lying when questioned about the real reality.
The “New York Meeting”
How different are the two Eritreas? They are so different they use two different calendars. Quick: what do you remember about September 18, 2001 and October 10? If you are like most people, you will remember that September 18 was the date the government arrested the Reformers: 11 former architects of the fictitious Eritrea who finally began to share what they know about how Mariam Gnbi was made to look like Sembel. October 10, was the date the EU decided to recall all its ambassadors to protest the Government of Eritrea’s authoritarian descent.
But if you are a supporter of the G-1, September 18 is significant because you learned, thanks to Shaebia.org, your vigilant government website, of a “secret meeting in New York” a month later. October 9, 2001 is significant not because the EU recalled its ambassadors one day later (nothing new here) but because Shaebia news “uncovered” the secret agenda of those who attended the “secret meeting in New York.”
Secrets, secrets, secrets. What’s with this entire obsession about secrets? And why do we hear about them through the most unlikely sources? As Eritreans, we were sad to hear about the Gonder meeting through the Ethiopian media; as pro-reformers, we are saddened to hear about the New York meeting through Shaebia.org. What would have happened if those who met were decisive enough to say that on such and such date, a group of Eritreans met and resolved to do XYZ? Nothing. Remember, you can meet freely in a free country. But those who attended the meeting operate as if meetings are illegal and have to be clandestine unless they are pre-approved by the government. Hello? The USA is not ZOBA sger baHri. It is a free and sovereign country. But old habits die-hard and the PFDJ, reformers and hardliners, seem to be incapable of being transparent.
Then there is the issue of trust. The leaders and close associates of the reform movement have to break free of the PFDJ cocoon where they are nesting. The way they are going about with the declared trust building exercise doesn’t rise up to the expectations of many Eritreans. You cannot build alliances based on mistrust and suspicion. The Reformers have got some of it. They need to dust it off. They have to reach out and expand– break this tough shell that is preventing them from making a bold stride towards getting closer to other Eritreans. Listen, you have to stop tip-toeing around; the G-1 will never give you credit for anything.
Then there is the issue of leaks. Mismanaging information, presumably confidential information is not impressive and shatters people’s confidence. What assurance is there that more serious stuff might not leak in the future? We support neither the mafia type secrecy of the PFDJ nor a reckless type of information management. There is transparency and there is organizational discipline. Bungling the management of such a small organization gives credence to the view that the group is not ready for prime time.
Then there is the issue of accountability and responsibility. If and when the information is leaked, it is unseemly for people in positions of responsibility to engage in campaigns of “egrey awtSieni”: I was out of town, I was three time zones away, etc, etc. The appropriate thing to do is to confront the issue head-on and let the chips fall where they may.
Having said that…
Does anyone really believe that there was no relationship between the arrest of the Reformers on September 18 and the disclosure of the news of the “secret meeting” by Shaebia.org on September 18, a month after the meeting took place? Is the latter supposed to explain the former? Are we to believe that the Reformers who were in Eritrea attended the meeting of New York via teleconference? What exactly is the allegation? That even if you didn’t attend the meeting, you were sympathetic with the sentiments expressed? If so, they need to arrest half the Eritrean population. And what is the charge? That some members of “G-13” and “G-15” met in New York and…what? Decided to expand their base? Attempted to communicate their message to Eritreans everywhere? Decided to create “cells”? Didn’t they tell us they would do exactly that in many of their interviews and communiqués? Are they not entitled to tell their side of the story or should they wait for Hadas Ertra and Alamin Mohammed Seid and Yemane Gebreab to fairly represent their views? Didn’t they tell us they would do everything peacefully and legally? And if they didn’t, what specific law did they break? And if they did, why aren’t they being charged with it? Is what they are accused of doing contrary to party laws, the transitional constitution or the ratified constitution? It is not enough to use vague generalities of national sovereignty and security—the refuge of every authoritarian tyrant. And if they are going to be charged with specific violations, will they be tried in an open court and will they have competent attorneys or will they be tried the patented PFDJ way: through meetings and “unanimous resolutions” and articles on the internet? Will they be tried through interviews with the BBC?
Stuttering Yemane Gebremeskel
We were going to ridicule the following interview; but it does a good job of ridiculing itself all by itself. The only thing we need to remind you is that Mr. Yemane Gebremeskel is the official Spokesperson of the G-1. (Unless he was reshuffled in one of the frequent reshuffles.) The BBC conducted the interview on Wednesday, October 10, 2001:
Why is the government muzzling its critics?
Yemane: They were not muzzled. This thing has been going on for thirteen months; the government was extremely tolerant, extremely patient. When people were going beyond the law, playing, when every body in the country sees is illegal…
Like What? Just give me an idea, what did they do? Were they holding clandestine meetings? Were they talking to overthrow the government? I mean, what is the threat, the threat that this group posed?
Yemane: Let’s say they have been involved, clearly in illegal activities that endangered the sovereignty of the national security and sovereignty of this country. And that has been said, have been expressed publicly when they were arrested. Prior to that, these people have been expressing their views without any hindrance. The population of this country have been requesting, everybody have been saying, “this thing should be stopped, it is going beyond limits.”
It is not the activities that you didn’t like or the public statements that you didn’t like… the statements that … they felt the president was not consulting enough and the country was not heading towards democracy fast enough. I mean basically criticizing the leadership?
Yemane: Nobody in this country is arrested because he holds or expresses a different opinion. Nobody in this country, never, ever has been arrested because of his views. I mean, anybody is free. I agree with you [inaudible] the government is doing. You are free to express your opinion.
What are these people going to be charged with?
Yemane: I cannot prejudge that now. It is not my job. I think it is the job of the ummmm, unnn, um .eh…legal authorities.
But they are being held in detention without charge at the moment?
Yemane: Ummm…you know these are legal matters. I am, no… I don’t think I am qualified to- to– to- answer those, but I think the government here operates within the bounds of legality.
One of the dissidents, Mesfin Hagos, has indicated that he is coming back to Eritrea, what are you going to do? Are you going to let him back into the country?
Yemane: Every citizen has the right to return. So, the issue, if he wants to return, I don’t know why he left the country in the first place, if he wants to return he can return. If he is guilty of illegal things then he is not above the law. No body is above the law.
Does he face the threat of arrest if he comes back?
Yemane: not; he is not above the law. That is what I want to say.
Because that is extraordinary; somebody like him, well respected figure; somebody who is a legend in the liberation struggle; former defense minister! It is extraordinary that somebody like him and others who spoke out against the president now find themselves either under the threat of arrest or in exile or [inaudible] under detention?
Yemane: You don’t find it extraordinary that these people are also un, I umhh ahh mm, un er. Ennmmm involved in illegal activities or….
Yemane: Hang on. There is nothing extraordinary here. We have to find out what the problems are; what these people are after…
But you just told me that they have been involved in illegal acts but you cannot tell me what the illegal acts are; I have asked you what these people are charged with, you can’t tell me what they are charged with. This is hardly a, you know, an open process.
Yemane: I think it is a question of time.
Yemane needs time. Yes, time to produce an accusation. Right now, the G-1 is floating various possibilities: regionalism, defeatism, corruption, treason, and treachery. “Defeatism”, mind you, is a “belief”; it is an act. “Defeatism” is a Stalinist word that was used in World War II to ensure that the Soviet Army did not even entertain retreat and is consistent with Stalinist dogma that people can be punished not just for the things they do but the thoughts that cross their minds. It reinforces our belief that the PFDJ is still an unreformed communist-authoritarian system and that people are condemned not just for their deeds but also for harboring beliefs. As Mesfun Hagos said in one of his interviews, what penal code does “defeatism” fall in? And what shall it charge them with? “It is a question of time.” The G-1 has got all its errand boys testing out various theories and flamboyant stories: stories that cast the leader of G-1 as a heroic combatant and brilliant war strategist and the Reformers as frightened cowards and co-conspirators of the Woyane; stories that cast the leader of the G-1 as incorruptible and the Reformers as corrupt. From this grand menu of choices, the story that gets the most votes (in terms of mindless repetition by the uncritical masses) will be the one he charges them with. You see, Isaias IS a democrat who believes in choices. He does give people choices on how to frame people.
Asked about Mesfun Hagos, Yemane Gebremeskel says: “I don’t know why he left the country in the first place, if he wants to return he can return.” According to Mesfun Hagos (Source: news.asmarino.com Mesfin Hagos Interview, Part 3, Page 5 in Tigrigna), Yemane’s government knows why Mesfun Hagos left the country (“…I left Eritrea, with the permission of the government, because I had a medical appointment abroad.”) and what is stopping him from returning to his country (his passport was revoked.) Under these circumstances (where government officials lie even when they don’t have to), why would Eritreans have any faith in the government of G-1 to apply the rule of law, due process and acceptable court proceedings?
It is About Issues; Not Individuals
For months now, we have heard that the Reformers have no agenda and that their issues are personal. The tone was set by the leader of G-1 who told Al-Hayat (June 22, 2001): “there is nothing new to the issues raised by them…their letter is nothing but an empty barrel that makes a loud noise”. This was followed by Alamin M. Seid who told us through the only newspaper now in Eritrea, Hadas Ertra (8/8/01): “it is quite obvious that there exists no fundamental political differences at all” between G-1 and the Reformers.
On August 3, 2001, the Reformers issued an “Open Letter to the Eritrean People”, where, for the first time, they proposed a detailed reform agenda. Do the Reformers have a comprehensive difference with the G-1 that deals on the issues? Judge for yourself:
On the Matter of War, Peace & National Security, they recommend the following steps with respect to the nations involved. Ethiopia: Confidence building measures including mutual reduction of armed forces. Sudan: disengaging from each other’s internal affairs; removing each nation’s army from the common border; allowing the free flow of commerce between the people of the two nations; enhancing co-operation and relationship at the government level; working, with the approval of all parties involved, for the peaceful resolution of Sudan’s conflict. Yemen: continuing with the current policies without looking back. Regional: taking tangible steps to bring peace to the Horn of Africa by pledging to not supporting one another’s opposition groups;
On Economic & Social Issues, they recommend: they recommend: restructuring governmental institutions, strengthening civil society, GO’s and NGOs; encouraging free enterprise; reforming land proclamation; instituting social security/retirement benefits; respecting Eritreans’ right of free movement; expanding vocational/trade education; ending winter student campaigns; presenting to court Eritreans languishing in jail without charge and notifying the family members of those against whom “steps had been taken”; building subsidized housing; divorcing PFDJ from economic enterprise and surrendering its finances (after an audit) to a trusteeship for the benefit of the orphaned and the disabled and the demobilized; abandoning the policy of “mother tongue” in education and implement official languages for Eritrea: “it is our view that they should be Tigrigna and Arabic but that should the subject of debate amongst Eritreans.”
This is a good basis for a party platform, considering that it was put together by a group of people who were told the law forbids them from meeting as a group. The Reformers propose radical change from the PFDJ platform on political, economic and social issues. If, as the G-1 says these proposals are bankrupt and they have no support in Eritrea, let’s test them out. Unfortunately, the G-1, whose only solution to dissenting opinion and to those who challenge their failed policies and leadership, is to refer them to jails on trumped up charges.
Showtime At the Apollo: Ambassador Girma vs Awate.com
Ambassador Girma is very fond of American law. At first glance, this is paradoxical because PFDJ officials are known for their xenophobia: all foreigners are suspect because everyone is against us. America hates us, Russia hates us, the Brits sold us out, the Italians oppressed us, the Arabs are trying to destroy our identity and so on. Look deeper and you’ll understand: the parts of America that Ambassador Girma (and the entire G-1 followers for that matter) likes are not America’s freedom, its civil liberties and its free enterprise system. No, no. They mock all of these as chaotic, unruly and unjust to the “masses.” What he likes, and he likes to quote often, are the aberrations of America: that America enslaved people, that it had a detention camp for the Japanese in World War II, that it detained a citizen on suspicion of spying for China, that it is thinking of revising all its laws to bring them in compliance with the new priority of Homeland Security. Typical Soviet style obsession with the oddities. In other words, the things Ambassador Girma likes about America are the things civil libertarians and freedom-loving Americans don’t like or apologize about America. The G-1 abhors America’s values; if America were poor and powerless and still had the same values it has and it was in the Horn of Africa, the G-1 would probably have had a war with it by now.
In the meeting he had in Washington, D.C., the one he organized for weeks, he went on and on for hours weaving tales of the ingenuity of the Eritrean Government: of how it defeated this conspiracy, how it uncovered that plot. Applause. Wesede, Girma beAl sre. He is not as good as the master storyteller, DeruE, but with time (assuming PFDJ has much time left), he can get there. Quite entertaining.
We were told that they passed a resolution, an important resolution that decides the fate of Eritrea and Eritreans, by using the Showtime At The Apollo method. “Showtime at the Apollo” is an American talent show where the host measures the audience approval for competing performers (comedians, dancers, singers, clowns) by inviting them to applaud when the performer’s name is called. Similarly, attendants at Girma Asmerom’s meeting were invited to express their support or dissent of a political resolution read by a staffer by applauding. Why not? In G-1’s Eritrea, politics is just another performance.
Near the end, he told his audience not to believe Awate.com. (What – no resolution passed by standing ovation? The new “Showtime at the Apollo voice vote”? As an example of Awate.com’s alleged sensationalism, he spoke of our report (Gedab News) that the G-1 has revoked the diplomatic passport of the Reformers and how this had stranded Mesfun Hagos in Germany. You’ll recall that in his press release, Ambassador Girma had regaled us with heart-warming stories about how he gave Ambassador Mesfun Hagos a ride to the airport (maybe he invited him to the Last Supper, too) and how revocation of diplomatic passport is no big deal because a citizen can go to the nearest embassy and get a regular passport. To this day Mesfin Hagos is waiting for a passport in Germany.
Did we exaggerate? We invite our readers to read Mesfun Hagos interview (Source:news.asmarino.com interview, Part 3, Page 5 in Tigrigna). We will let the readers judge as to who is more credible: Mesfun Hagos or Girma Asmerom. Not only did the G-1 revoke the Reformers’ passports, they did not even have the courage to tell people, in writing, that their service is no longer needed and that, therefore, they won’t be paid. If you think the country is your grocery store, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. “We reserve the right to deny service to anyone.” Mr. Girma Asmerom, no doubt, is now busy researching American history to find a time when the US revoked passports of its citizens, how many people were fired but not told, etc, which he might use at his next meeting. By the way, why is it OK for the G-1 supporters to use the US as examples to make their case but dissenters who do so are accused of being “detached” for trying to compare Eritrea with the USA?
The New Guests At Mariam Gnbi
The Awate Team notes with sadness the addition of two more citizens to the G-1’s war on Eritrea. In their latest outrage, they have arrested two Eritrean businessmen in their 70s: Hassen Kekia and Abdu Ahmed Younis, the father of Saleh AA Younis, a member of our Awate Team. Once again, we remind all jailed that to be arrested by a tyrant is a badge of honor and we wish them God’s protection and renew our pledge to fight on until all Eritreans languishing in jail released immediately or brought to a transparent court of law with the opportunity to face their accusers and exercise their rights of self-defense under universally accepted standards.
The Awate Team