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A Book Review of “Desecrators of the Sacred Trust”

Review by Semere T Habtemariam
Title: Desecrators of the Sacred Trust: The Apotheoses of Donald J. Trump and Isaias Afwerki, Two Preening Would Be Kings and their Dark Agendas.
Author: Bereket Habte Selassie
Publisher: authorhouse
Year: 2020, Pages: 183

In Desecrators of the Sacred Trust, Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie has the audacity to compare an elephant with an ant and a giant with a dwarf. This is not a Gulliver making a farcical comparison between Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Dr. Bereket makes a literal comparison of Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States, with Isaias Afwerki, the dictator of Eritrea. The former is allegedly guilty of an attempted murder of an American democracy; while the latter is guilty of an attempted last-trimester-abortion of the Eritrean constitution. 

Many people, among whom the most visible is the Eritrean dictator himself, either deny the ownership of the constitution or assert that it was still-born and not worthy of a proper burial. It is not clear if Dr. Bereket is trying to give Isaias a paternity test or look for foster-parents, who could adopt his ratified and promulgated constitution, but one has to admire his tireless advocacy for its implementation. As small as this book is, the 1997 Eritrean Constitution is included in its Preamble section. In a twisted irony and in a language that is sort of giving the middle finger, Isaias has made it abundantly clear that he has cleaned his bottom with the bottom-up constitution that was supposed to be an Eritrean innovation in the world of constitutional-making. 

What is the statute of limitations, anyway?

After 22 years of irrelevance, isn’t giving up tantamount to growing up? What is the point of wilderness if it does not cut off people from the past and lead them into a fresh start? One of the best ways to come to terms with the present, chart a new path into the future, is to put the past to rest. It is time to jettison all the old baggage and keep the vehicle of democratic change light and nimble. 

Eritreans’ moral and political commitment should be to constitutional rule, a product of an inherently political process, and the 1997 constitution-making was everything but political. How could it be political when all political organizations, except the ruling party, were systematically excluded? How could people express their dissenting opinions and different national visions when they are systematically instructed to toe the ruling party’s line and without leaning on each others’ support and the power-of-solidarity derived from affiliating with political groups?

 As James Madison in Federalist 9 would say, “liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” Afraid that it might catch fire, the constitution-making process was denied the very oxygen it needed to live and thrive.

No constitution-making could be taken as a serious undertaking if it failed to accommodate various factions to participate in an inclusive, open, and fair process. Those individuals, former ELF veterans and its splinters, who participated in the process as individuals, and not representing their respective organizations, were like neutered dogs; they barked, played and wiggled their tails, but did not produce offspring.

I was once a member of the choir who sang the “Implement the ratified Constitution” hymn, but “I was once blind, now I see.” 

My writings and activism might have contributed to the confusion and disarray among the change-seeking-camp, and I apologize for that. I was wrong. My honesty is a testimony to my evolution and my way of making it right. If I am not honest with my own truth, then, I don’t see the reason for writing. Thinking is the way I wrestle with the truth and writing is the way I take ownership of it. It is an atonement of an old truth and the confession of a new one. 

Now this truth is new to me, but it is an old and familiar truth to many of my compatriots who were our canaries in the coal mine. From them I get my inspiration, and to them I owe a debt of gratitude, and from this day forward, I hope they embrace me, at least, as an ally, if not one of them. 

As long as people are continuously learning and evolving, they shall inherit the paradise of enlightenment. It is the prerequisite to action. Learning should lead to knowledge and knowledge to understanding and understanding to action. Action is the ultimate goal but as the old adage shows, “mission without vision is a nightmare.” A society that places zero premium on education and learning is bound to perish. 

The worst thing we can do is fail to be rational and succumb to rationalization. 

Cost benefit analysis might be right and necessary in the realm of business and economics, but it should not have a dominant place in morality. My opposition to tyranny was and still is strictly moral; and to ensure its success I have to embark on politics and activism. Although we have to be very grounded in reality, if we are to be effective and remain relevant, our demands and goals must be infinite. All religions and successful mass movements know this: it is not the plan that matters but the dream. 

One of the most pernicious effects of tyranny is that it blunts peoples’ ability to dream and envision a better future and a world of infinite possibilities. I believe this is what Joe Biden meant when he said, “if I have to describe America in one word, it is possibilities.”

Books loom large in my life; it is how I wrestle with the truth like Jacob did with the angel. The more I read, the more I discover that it is the small piece-meal margins that make the greatest impact in my intellectual growth. I like books that add to my fund of knowledge, understanding and provide me some moral edification. It is rare that I come across books that I don’t learn from and Dr. Bereket’s new book is no exception. That being said, I have to confess that I have struggled big time to make sense of this book. I read it twice (the ebook and paperback) and, although, many nuggets of wisdom adorn its pages, the familiarity of the subject bred contempt in me. I was hoping to see the prosecutorial skills of a highly trained lawyer and the analytical skills of a political scientist, but I am afraid it came a bit short. It read more like a work of a reporter that is rich in details and short on insights. 

Dr. Bereket has written about 20 books and several articles and I have read most of his books but this new one is my least favorite. Its virtue lies in the fact that the writing is snappy, fluid; and it flows like silk. It is often said that “writing a book is like writing a letter and one must have a keen sense of who is being addressed.” I am not sure who the target audiences of this book are. If the Eritrean youth and adults who don’t follow current events and read habitually are the target audience, I can see how this book would be a nice introduction or refresher into some basic concepts on the philosophy of the rule of law, constitution, democracy, a republic form of government, and how to avoid the pitfalls of allowing tyrants to rule.

The title of Dr. Bereket’s book is provocative, and at first glance, it whetted my appetite. I started flipping the pages with zest; I was curious to know what I would reap of what I sow. And like most people, I have to raise the most obvious question: Who among the sane, would put on the same pedestal a petty dictator of a poor country with the president of the most powerful nation on earth, even if it is for comparison purposes? 

Isn’t this giving inadvertently an undeserved compliment to the petty dictator, who has failed to outgrow his small town hustling of the good old days of Asmera, and the radicalism of a young guerilla freedom fighter of Sahel? Isaias’ behaviour could be the self-imposed case of an arrested development or the classic case of a man who suffers from Peter Pan syndrome.

Dr. Bereket does not seem to be a bit concerned if the answer to this question is in the affirmative because the overall, overriding and transcendental goal of the book is to provide an edifying lesson that people should not be confused with yahoos. 

Indeed both Trump and Isaias are yahoos. 

An understanding of human psychology seems to be the answer to stopping unhinged men: “preening would be kings and their dark agendas.” Towards this, Dr. Bereket offers a technique that is adequately iterative, but not intellectually satisfying. After all is done and said, it turns out that the old adage of  “eternal vigilance” is the only antidote to tyranny. The psychological mechanisms in sociopathy are far from being airtight.

History offers us a glut of tyrants who, in their respective time, exercised unbridled power and the question of what could have been done to stanch their rise to unfettered power has been at the forefront of political thinking. The psychological approach is just an old wine in a new bottle and it seems to address the symptom and not the cause of tyranny.

 It is only with the modern institutionalization of inclusive political and economic institutions that societies have been able to hem in the-would-be-dictators. Even democratic institutions are not immune to the threat of demagoguery and populism as evidenced by the election of Donald J Trump. 

The election of Joe Biden is a political victory and not a moral one, for it failed to denounce unequivocally the conditions that made the election of Donald Trump possible in the first place. The glaring fact is that about 70 million Americans have voted for him in his failed reelection campaign and “the soul of America” has yet to be healed.

Dr. Bereket is fully aware that “the two preening would be kings,”  could not be much more different from each other in terms of power and prestige and yet they are so similar to each other in their predilection to act above the law. It looks that there is a human nature template where some would-be-tyrants could be pigeonholed, and the recognition of this could help us avoid tyranny.

Even if we are to believe this is true, it does not tell us when the traits of sociopathy could be identified and when a preemptive intervention could be necessary. 

At one point did Isaias Afwerki morph from being a popular and admired revolutionary leader into a despised and hated dictator? Dr. Bereket does not offer any explanation, but, at the same time, he neither fails to acknowledge isaias’ commendable leadership during the struggle era nor condemn his total grip of power after independence.

Isaias led the Eritrean struggle to victory and for that he was universally praised. 

To the contrary of demonizing Isaias, Dr. Bereket seems to give him almost superhuman qualities. Isaias was the self-made black swan among the galaxy of EPLF leadership, with unparalleled determination, cleverness and cunning, who used Machivellian tactics to bamboozle and hoodwink the EPLF to establish the secret party, which catapulted him to be the alpha and omega of the organization, and subsequently the country.

The making of Trump is a bit different. Trump  did not create the politics of hate, division, nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism. These were the preexisting conditions that made his election possible and people who scored higher on the authoritarian scale were more likely to vote for Trump than Clinton in the 2016 election. In the last few decades, Americans have steadily increased their score in the authoritarian scale, where some keen observers were setting the alarm bells ringing about the inevitable rise of an authoritarian leader in America before the presidential candidacy of Trump was in the offing.

In a system where leaders are supposed to reflect the views of their constituencies, leading from behind and not from the front, the law of average tilts heavily to mediocrity, thus, confirming the old adage that people get what they deserve.

Whether it is Isaias or Trump, there is no dictator who can stay in power without the support of his loyal supporters. Quite often, it is not the dictator himself who pulls the triggers, misinforms, disinforms, intimidates or imprisons people; it is his loyal dogs. 

There was nothing in the EPLF, and later PFDJ’s, structure designed to hemm in the rise of tyranny. The bitter truth is that some of the members of the G-15, that Dr. Bereket generously labelled heroes, were reshuffled from one ministry to another like lap dogs by Isaias Afweriki, without any confirmation process by any branch of government.

Dr. Bereket himself was single-handedly appointed by Isaias to head the Constitutional Commission without any confirmation process. If a highly trained lawyer, a former attorney general, a judge and a law professor could not insist on some adherence to some basic and well-established protocols of normal governance, then, why are we surprised by the fact that Isaias acts like he is the law. 

Sometimes it is also hard to distinguish between genius and mental illness. Studies have shown that people who suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are extremely creative and intelligent. As long as people can function within the established norms, they should not be excluded from pursuing their interests. The focus should be on how we can strengthen institutions where the rule of law is strictly followed, the in-built governmental mechanism of check and balance, and separation of powers are allowed to promote transparency and accountability, and the love of freedom and the the love of truth circulates in the societies like blood circulates in the body. 

Dr. Bereket’s new book, Desecrators of the Sacred Trust, can be purchased at Amazon by clicking on this link: Desecrators of the Sacred Trust
——————

Semere Tesfamicael Habtemariam is the author of Reflections on the History of the Tewahdo Orthodox Church History of Tewahdo Church and Hearts Like Birds Hearts like Birds. He can be reached at his email: weriz@yahoo.com

About Semere T Habtemariam

Semere T Habtemariam is an author and a columnist at Awate. He holds a BA in Government and Politics and a MA in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Dallas. He lives in Dallas, Texas. His two books are: Reflections-History-Abyssinian-Orthodox-Tewahdo and Hearts-Like-Birds.

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  • Tesfay

    Selam Semere,
    I can attest you have a good command of the English language with a bit I know it all mentality, but where you fail time and again is when you review a book 95% of your writing is about your opinions and have nothing to do with the author’s book. You could have easily written a separate article about why the 1997 Eritrean Constitution is not acceptable to you and changed your mind; hell, you can even write a book on the subject and make a few bucks. The debate about whether to adopt, amend, start from scratch, or even adopt the 1952 constitution is up in the air until Eritreans get back their country from the un-elected PFDJ leader. But you were successful in flattering the heart of the former ELFties, and that is good indeed.

    • Sem Habtemariam

      Selam Tesfay,

      I could only presume that you’re a bit young and it is only right that I don’t hold your lack of sagacity against you. Don’t worry, you will acquire it with age; it is one of the benefits of aging, provided you take the time to absorb what you read and ponder, instead of merely thinking. It is for this reason our ancestors say: ዝዓቢ ቆልዓ ኣይትበድል. Keep the course and you will get there.

      Let me share with you a secret: a review is about the reviewer’s “opinion” on the book under review and the reviewer has the literary license to approach it any way one deems preferable. Some reviewers are conventional and others mavericks and there is no right and wrong here; it is just preference, and I have my own way of doing it; and I do it under my own time and dime. In case, you don’t know, I have reviewed several of Dr. Bereket’s books over the years and I have used the same style.

      Now, for your benefit, since I am assuming you’re young, based on what you’ve written; otherwise, I have no idea who you are, the book, as I have clearly outlined in the first paragraph of my review, charges DIA with tyranny and the most powerful evidence is the shelving of the 1997 constitution. I am arguing that Dr. Bereket’s argument is shaky since the constitution-making process was inherently apolitical and therefore it lacks legitimacy. The best model to follow is the inclusivity that was demonstrating by the people of Akeleguzay when they were codifying their law. It is the perfect model that ensures no one is left out or left behind. That is the kind of wisdom, sensitivity and responsibility we should have demonstrated. The 1997 is a far cry from that.

      DIA is not solely responsible for the tyranny that exists in Eritrea. The EPLF didn’t have any institutional mechanism or political culture that was inimical to tyranny. The sociopathy of DIA is the symptom and not the cause of tyranny as Dr. Bereket argues in his book. Sociopathy might explain a piece of the puzzle but it is utterly useless as a policy prescriptive.

      As far as your unnecessary partisanship, I hope you get over it soon. As we say in Tigrinya: ዓሻስ ሙዉት ይናፍቕ. Both the ELF and EPLF are realities of the past and both have made great contributions to Eritrea’s cause (mostly good but serious bad ones too.)

      I am in favor of putting the past to rest and focus on the future and the 1997 constitution should be jettisoned for that purpose only, if not for its botched process.

      One more final point, if we are to criticize Isaias, as Dr. Bereket does, for the reign of tyranny in Eritrea, we also have a moral duty to ask ourselves what our role was in the enabling process. Isaias is not single-handedly responsible for tyranny; many people have contributed to it either through their dereliction of duty, lack of moral courage and even worse actively participating in it. And to those who inadvertently contributed to tyranny, I say, الجهل لا يعفيك من العقاب (ignorance does not exonerate you from punishment.)

      In the words of the Bible: Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

      እዚ ወድሓንካ.

  • Saleh Johar

    Selam all,
    My comment is not about the book or the review. If it was, I would be repeating my repeatedly stated position and it could be boring. My comment is about the reviewer, the man I know for over 2 decades. And he is one of the closest friends I gained in this otherwise losing game of the struggle.

    You can accuse Semere of many things and I wouldn’t care because he is more than able to defend himself. But when it comes to honesty, dedication and integrity, his record is stellar. And this review proves all of my characterization of Semere.

    An avid reader, Semere doesn’t read to learn, but he reads to learn and think, to contemplate, to examine and re-examine his position. And then he makes a decision, putting himself in a moral court to try it himself. His reassessed position is a product of a serious scrutiny. And such position, that are entirely devoid of any emotional element, are purely based on rational and fair grounds.

    I believe Semere’s verdict on the so-called constitution represents the views of the overwhelming majority of the stakeholders. And It confirms that many of us struggle for constitutionalism not to be ruled by “The Constitution.”

    Thank you my friend, you sharpened and polished the tool for a meaningful argument and struggle. One more point why I am glad you are my friend.

    Saleh

    • Ismail AA

      selam,
      Honest testimony about a person who has proven true to himself before being true to others.

      • Amanuel Hidrat

        Selam Ismailo,

        If I could rephrase Semere’s words which he should be remembered of is: “be true to yourself before being true to others.” This is a good lesson to all of us. Thank you Semere.

        Regards

  • Ismail AA

    Selam Semere and the rest, too,
    I am one of those who cherish reading your book reviews. I usual take time, and try to express opinion about the reviewer and the author, especially when the subject matter directly relates to our peoples affairs.
    This time, there seems not much to write about in this review; and much about you, sir. This is the, probably, the first time I read an Eritrean writer being so blunt and declare boldly ” I was wrong”. It is a milestone statement. For the rest, what our good brother, Amanuel Hidrat, has written in his entry represents represents me fully. I would not put those words better than he did. Thank you both, and God bless you.

  • Amanuel Hidrat

    Selam Semere,

    Good to see you to come to this conclusion about the constitution of 1997. It was a constitution drafted by EPLF and its supporters and was intended to serve to them only. It was drafted based on the 1994 EPLF charter as the good doctor told us during the drafting process.

    Haw Semere, if you recall few years back, when you come to my town, we argued one on one about the 1997 constitutional document. During our discussion we raised about the process and the final product of the process. My argument was: since a constitution is a “political document” before it becomes a “politico-legalese document” the constitutional process should allow the participation of all political organizations along the entire Eritrean population, in order the final product of the process to be owned and defended by the Eritrean people and their organizations. I also reminded you if the political organizations and their supporters would have been part of the process, the content of the document would have been different, because the process would have been addressed the grievances of our minorities.

    I admire you when you say the following statement:

    “ My writings and activism might have contributed to the confusion and disarray among the change-seeking-camp, and I apologize for that. I was wrong. My honesty is a testimony to my evolution and my way of making it right. If I am not honest with my own truth, then, I don’t see the reason for writing. Thinking is the way I wrestle with the truth and writing is the way I take ownership of it. It is an atonement of an old truth and the confession of a new one.”

    Very few Eritreans will have the courage to examine their political stand, and when they found their flaws, they correct it as a process of learning and evolving and come out to say, I was wrong. Therefore, I salute you as brother and embrace you as a colleague fighting for the same cause. Thank you very much for bringing to light the book of Dr Bereket. Dr Bereket will defend the constitution he drafted with all its flows. I sincerely believe the document is not a uniting document. It is a divisive document by the nature of its process and the outcome of its content. It is a big move to the right direction by your side, and I tip my hat for you. As a good reader as you are, keep up the “learning and evolving” on the Eritrean politics. Eritrea should be lead by your generation.

    Regards

    • Sem Habtemariam

      Selam Emma,

      Indeed, I do recall our conversation and thank you for being a good host and taking care of our meals. ab khasakha yewEleni.

  • Brhan

    Hello Semere HT,
    Thank you for the book review. The more we read about professor Bereket HT , the more we would like to know about him. There are more questions to be answered: what is his insight about the Ghedli era and of course about the times prior to his leadership to draft the constitution of Eritrea. The later one, include milestones such as the banning of all political parties except EPLF, the Mai Habar incident and persecutions of political opponents.

    • Sem Habtemariam

      Hi Berhan,

      It is a matter of when, but I promise you that you will have that opportunity!

  • Simon Kaleab

    Selam,

    Dr Bereket must be living in an alternate reality.

    His hero, crooked and parasitic career politician Joe Biden, has even more alternate lives than have 100 cats. He has been a scholarship recipient and honors graduate according to him, when in reality he graduated in the bottom of both his college class, and law school class. He’s the best friend of Black people, yet is responsible for sending more of them to jail with longer sentences. He was best friends with former Klansman , Senator Robert Byrd, and called young Black men predators, and voted against the integration of schools. Oh yes, he also claims to have started college at a Black College, which was just another of his many lies. So why would anyone believe that he was not a part of many money making schemes for his family using his brother and son to enrich himself. If we had a curious press, he would be heading to the big house (jail) instead of the White House.

    • EritreanHillBilly
      • Simon Kaleab

        Selam EHB,

        Thanks for the laugh.

        Dr Bereket is trying hard to promote the dumbest idea that the EPLF was democratic and it is the PFDJ and one man, Isaias, who brought dictatorship. Trump is included in the narrative as a well timed cynical ploy to sensationalise the story and help sell the book.

        In short, this shows the lazy thinking and utter bankruptcy of fake Eritrean intellectuals.