Cabbages and Kings: Why the Sea is Boiling Hot (V)

After reviewing historical developments which influenced the divergent mindsets in Eritrea, part IV dealt with the lack of a collective mindset at the eve of independence and the attempt by the PLF regime to impose its values on the public and create the “New Eritrean”.  It was concluded that a positive collective mindset is a prerequisite for an effective democratic exercise for building a nation that stands for the common good of all citizens.  A list of desirable set of mindsets is presented below accordingly. 


Elements of the Desired Collective Mindset


Note: The order of presentation does not necessarily represent their order of importance.


The Community Mindset:  There appears to be a kind of apathy on the part of many Eritreans in the Diaspora as concerns their interest in the Eritrean politics.  There are several reasons for this, but the bottom line is that nearly every body is dissatisfied at the turn of events after independence.  The fervent nationalism demonstrated before independence has simply dissipated.  The vibrant community centers of yore are by and large no more.  Many have returned from the home country disappointed and go to the church or mosque to seek comfort meet their compatriots to exchange notes on the Eritrean front.  They have desisted from attending any rally or demonstration of any kind on national issues and events.   They have given up on the fractured opposition political parties which have not as yet sorted out their differences to form a robust front.  On the other hand former residents of Ethiopia have of recent drawn their attention to Ethiopia with reports that they are more welcome in that country where they had lived the better part of their lives, possibly with some interests still worth hanging on to.  There’s nothing wrong with that so long as they don’t despair of Eritrea and Eritreans. The 2% tax imposed on the Diaspora is serving a double purpose for the regime. It does contribute to its coffers while it is used to keep the non-paying passive dissenters at bay, alienated from their kith and kin, and thus unable to comfort them and encourage resistance at home.  All these negative trends should be reversed.  Now that we are masters of our future and no outside force to blame, we should rise to the occasion and face the challenge of nation building with renewed resolve.  Apathy and the wait and see attitude are counterproductive.   Let’s build community centers at every neighborhood and revitalize old ones and turn them into microcosms of diverse Eritrea.  Let them be the platforms where political parties and civil societies coalesce and flourish, and conversely let all parties take the lead to cooperate in the inclusive community building effort because that is where they can put their acumen to test and mend their ways to draw strength and inspiration.  Individual Eritreans should take every opportunity to get together at any public function of Eritreans, meetings, civic activities, pal talks, festivals, and particularly those organized by the PFDJ.  Endeavor also to travel to Eritrea to get first hand feel on conditions at home and establish contacts.  Networking is the order of the day and it is every Eritrean’s duty to take every opportunity to learn, contribute and get his voice heard on national affairs.  In short, we should avoid leaving national matters to “others” – the PFDJ experience is lesson enough.  The future of Eritrea is every Eritrean’s business and there is no better place to pursue it other than the Eritrean community.


Reciprocity Mindset:  This is a corollary of the Golden Rule of religions.  Human relation and politics should not be about the victory of one side only.  The pursuit of one’s fulfillment should as much as possible cater also for the need of others.  Its application is particularly important in cases of conflicts whereby mutually beneficial solutions should be negotiated that satisfy the parties involved.   It always takes some give and take to live harmoniously even within a family.  Any political party or leadership bent on promoting its own interests without due regard to the plight of even those who happen to differ on issues will face the fate of PFDJ: loss of credibility, antipathy and rejection.


Communicative Mindset:  Listening to the concerns of others in the first place instead of reciting one’s own programs and credentials contributes more to establishing a working communication for the common good.  One should always endeavor to listen to his compatriot’s grievances and get a good grasp of his situation to fend off misunderstanding and outright rejection.  Thanks to the digital age communication has been facilitated and several groups have established their own websites and blogs which should be read by all who aspire for a nationwide reconciliation.   Glossing over or ignoring the grievances which ever angle they come from will perpetuate those grievances to achieve dangerous proportions.   A culture of listening thoroughly to other points of view should be developed to promote understanding and harmony.   


Forward Looking Mindset: Dwelling too much on past wrongs and grievances is counterproductive and a waste of energy and effort which could otherwise be devoted to constructive ends.  A case in point is the ELF-EPLF recrimination which has little relevance to the new generation.  Likewise the mistakes and crimes committed by PFDJ’s regime should not be our sole agenda[1].  One should instead support and encourage human rights activists, lawyers and historians who are better disposed to pursue and seek justice in this respect.  The general public should engage more on putting their acts together and deliberating on policies and programs to be pursued in the short and long term periods.


Pro-Systems Mindset:  How often do we listen to the wrong question: who is going to replace PIA?  That’s the personality cult mindset.  What is actually needed is a system of government accountable to the people.  In the same way that a business management is accountable to its shareholders through its documents of incorporation, government should be accountable to its stakeholders – the people – through the constitution.  In assessing any political group one should not focus on who the members are but judge it according to the policies it is advocating.  The mindset should be reset to hold nobody indispensible to run the affairs of state at any level.  Another mistake often made in Africa and other developing countries is to amend the constitution to allow the incumbent president or prime minister additional terms of tenure.  This should never be allowed to happen in Eritrea.


Anti-Fetish Mindset:  Undue reverence attached to certain objects and concepts and passed on from generation to generation is one of the underlying factors disrupting the harmony that we aspire to achieve.  The most obvious and most disturbing is the land fetish.  This obsession with ancestral land has its roots in the tribal past in the era of adi fiefdoms.  By partly endorsing such land claims in the Highlands the PFDJ is effectively fomenting envy and strife among the people.  This relic of the feudal past should be abolished and a uniform land tenure system that allows free movement of people without the need to produce proof of tribal allegiance should be instituted for better integration of our peoples and diffusing regional tensions.  Eritreans have originated elsewhere, from across the sea and even places as far as Nigeria, and had always been migrating within and outside Eritrea for centuries and if the land issue is to be pursued in this sense it would only be the Kunama who have the ultimate priority to claims over Eritrean territory[2].  Land is in essence a tradable capital.  Treating it in any other manner would not only be a distortion of modern economic principles but maintaining and promoting the obsolete hereditary system of privileges in the feudal tradition.  A recent news item has it that an Eritrean mother – and the mother of a liberation hero (no particular crime has been leveled against him or his mother) – was denied 1 m2 of burial ground because she was from another village is a bloody shame.  If glorifying this act under the banner “Meret – the Mother of All Rights” is not bigotry, what else is it then?[3]  The act is not any better or worse than the Saudi practice of burning the remains of an infidel (a non-Muslim) and throwing the ashes to the sea so that the hallowed ground of Arabia is not desecrated.  This obsession with ancestral land is a fixation near impossible to knock-off, particularly with the older generation, and it is hoped the “New Born” Eritreans will look at it with a new light.   No doubt, it will take more debates[4] and more painstaking efforts to undo this age old fetish for the sake of an integrated and more harmonious Eritrea. 


The Abundance Mindset should be viewed in contrast to the prevalent scarcity mindset that Eritrea is lacking so much in resources that the people are either squabbling among each other or forced to emigrate elsewhere.  It is true, for example, land in the highlands is over worked under traditional farming methods and individual holdings decimated by the communal land system.  But agriculturalists do agree, properly administered and managed; the Eritrean highlands alone can feed the whole population and more.  By world standards Eritrea is under populated per square measure of land, and there is more than enough arable land to share.  We have also plenty of other lucrative resources.  There are proven deposit of minerals such as gold, copper, zinc, marble, granite, etc. waiting an enabling investment environment to be exploited for the common benefit[5].   Fish is a resource which failed to deliver because of the inefficient monopoly of the PFDJ.  Its two sea ports – including Massawa, once known as the jewel of the Red Sea – are natural outlets for significant portions of the Sudan and Ethiopia and could have been important ports of call for transshipment of international trade.  Tourism is another important potential crying for proper administration and promotion.  There are enough natural resources out there to share and exploit, not only for those now living in refugee camps abroad and are not repatriated for a host of reasons, but also for generations to come.  An abundance mentality also endows one with the capacity to celebrate the success of one’s peers rather than be threatened by it – a prerequisite to harmonious coexistence in our jewel of a country.  PFDJ has masked its depravity in this respect through the abused term of “social justice”.


Magnanimity: This is a quality very much in short supply among the “kings” not only in Eritrea, but the world as a whole.  Its antithesis is pettiness, avarice, and a barbaric urge to get even with actual and perceived offence.  It is a quality that marks out the great men from the mediocre.  In the less civilized world, people would do anything to get the head of their enemies chopped off, and could only have peace with themselves after the head was presented to them on a platter.  A dastardly example of our recent history is the cruel disposal of our national heroes – the G-15 – without due process of law by their own comrades-in-arms.  By contrast, magnanimity is amply present in the cabbages – the ordinary folk.  They include those so generous and selfless individuals who even risk their lives to save others in everyday life; and of course, our martyrs who died for our independence.  Unfortunately due to their inherent lack of greed and ruthlessness exceedingly few make it up the financial and political ladder. We should hold on to the principle that all men are innocent until proven guilty, and the least we can do is give every individual who could be in error the benefit of doubt.  The tendency to condemn people because they come from a particular village, the highland or the low land, belong to this religion or that is a mean weakness oft apparent among our compatriots.  Our society is so diverse that all those with Christian names are not necessarily Muslims and vice versa.   The current Bishop of Barentu is called Bishop Thomas Osman.  Saleh (Gadi) Johar tells of the disbelief of an Ethiopian that an Omer could be an Amhara (“More of Red Tears” July 2, 2009 at  We have famous Hagoses and Aberras from our Muslim compatriots, and there are Christians and Muslims both in the Highlands and the Lowlands.  We should be sparing in our generalizations, avoid character profiling as much as possible, and desist from over reacting at the slightest offence.


Concluding Remarks


Rephrasing a famous Italian quote after the Risorgimento (unification) in the mid-19th century, I recall what an Eritrean friend said immediately after independence: “Now that we have made Eritrea, it is time to make the Eritreans.”   In those post independence days Asmara was abuzz with all sorts of Eritreans speaking different foreign languages and strange ideas floating around, with the background of the bewildered resident population trying to host these hyphenated Eritreans on one hand and the arrogant hillbillies with a field concocted culture.  Add to that the current problems discussed such as land, regionalism and religion.  The religious issue is further complicated by the current international hostility between extremists of Christianity and Islam, each one striving hard to exert its influence on weaker nations.  But that doesn’t mean we Eritreans cannot have a go at reconciliation on our own, building on the examples of harmonious lives many reminisce about and still practice in many parts of the world.  Eritreans need to reassert their unique identity, resolving their differences one block at a time, if that nation over which so much blood has been sacrificed is to survive.


Nation building is a long process, actually without an end.  There will always be problems and challenges which have to be resolved.  One cannot prescribe anything short of democracy to mend our ways, with the national interest and the common good given the utmost priority, and hager given prominence over adi.  Once again it is to be underlined that we need to develop a collective mindset enabling us to exercise democracy constructively.  A tentative list has been provided, some shortcomings may be detected, and there is surely room for improvement.  Let us enrich our collective mindset and allow it to bubble.

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[1] Let me digress here and alert that we should avoid condemning every thing that has to do with PFDJ.  For one we should distinguish between PFDJ and members of PFDJ.  Its membership is largely made up of former EPLF members who as a whole have delivered independence.  For them membership in the PFDJ was an offer they could not refuse in the Mafia tradition, and only a limited number had other options.  The G-15 had made a strategic miscalculation in the military sense.  But there are still other prudent ones who have been  frozen or otherwise, and it is they who are better placed to bring any change.

[2]  I cannot put it any better than Omar Jabir: “… there are no insiders and outsiders; we are all immigrants who either came through the sea or through the valleys or through the mountains… even the Kunama whom we consider the oldest settlers have migrated from the Nile Basin.  Nobody can overbid another and [no one] owns an inch more than the other.”  (underline mine) See Awate Team’s translation at Ramadan reflections: Touring the Websites (4 of 5) Omar Jabir, Sep 6, 2009

[3] The remark is not addressed at the author for whose prose and challenging ideas I have expressed my appreciation previously.  We all need to help each other recalibrate our ideas and mindset anyway.  I for one am sport and can afford to receive some punches now and then.

[4] A scholarly treatment of the land issue has appeared at while this piece was in the final stages: The Lost Rainbow: Issues of Equity in Eritrea (IV) by Ahmed Raj. It endorses the free movement of people, albeit  in piece meals and decries the Government sponsored large scale resettlement projects with which I agree.  The question remains, with the whole of Eritrea being claimed by this one ethnic group or the other, where are returnees to be resettled?  It begs for more elaboration by the experts.

[5] I am one of those skeptics who do not wish the gold exploitation project at Bisha should not materialize too soon.  Knowing the mindset of PIA, he wouldn’t stop until he acquires the nuclear bomb; and that’s exactly there where the resources will be wasted instead of improving the lot of the people, building universities and enhancing vibrant economic activities.


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