Detoxifying Our Politics

It’s almost 2014 and Isaias Afeworki is still there, reigning over and ruining Eritrea. Change will come sooner or later. Of course it will! Sooner, if the movement for democratic change manages to quickly create an atmosphere ripe enough for those who can act, take a decisive action; or later, when nature takes its due course, as it always does. To have this decaying system linger for another 4-5 years is simply to sentence the Eritrean people to more suffering and to subject young Eritreans to disasters akin to Sinai, Sahara, Libya, Lampedusa or another godforsaken location where we would once again impotently wail, mourn and brace for the next disaster.

It is still conceivable that the regime can survive the diplomatic, economic and political quagmire it dug itself into in recent years by simply positioning itself that all interested parties have no better choice but to deal with it. The international community, the neighboring countries (including Ethiopia), and even some Eritreans (including the very victims of the regime) are giving signals that they are willing to accept the status quo as the new normal and move on. The recent sectarian politics based crises in South Sudan and the endless butchering in Syria may serve as a backdrop to scare off would be supporters of regime change in Eritrea and lead them to conclude that Isaias Afeworki may be needed as the necessary evil to maintain stability.

This leaves the committed Eritrean activists who are fighting to see a just Eritrea based on democratic institutions in a rather lonely place and swimming upstream. In a world driven by self-interest instead of by the more egalitarian aspiration of the common-good, change becomes that much harder. Is it a worthy fight? Absolutely! But it is also a fight that must be fought not to make a point but to win. That means the opposition camp need to retool, refocus and get rid of failed strategies that are simply working against itself, and to the delight of the dictator and those who upkeep the system.

We have to, we must and we can hasten the downfall of the regime; but not in the state of toxicity our politics is currently in, which only helps create thriving conditions for the venomous mafia regime in power. The fragmented opposition need to realize that to defeat Isaias Afeworki, it cannot afford to be perceived (and perception is reality!) as a sectarian movement, whose members spend more time infighting than laying out their alternative vision. Let’s face it, no one group, sector or political party can defeat a system that has ingrained its cult-like culture deep into the Eritrean psyche. The truth is, we will all need each other’s support more than we pretend not to and create synergy that would take us beyond where we are today. Otherwise, why would 2014 yield a different result than prior years? To detoxify the political environment is then to deny breeding area for a system that needs this toxic situation in order to survive and multiply. We must detox, treat, heal and restore our political environment, if not out of more mature reasons, at least as a smart strategy to defeat the system.

But first, we need to understand what ails us? How did the movement suddenly become so unpleasant to operate in? How can the silent majority jump on this wagon for change if it continues to become uninviting for those who are already on it? Was it always so, or is it getting amplified by technology and simply getting louder? There are no simple answers to confidently say how we got here but it helps to take a glance at the last few years and look for general trends and make a learned choice for 2014.

Fresh Wave

The year 2011 was a game changing year in the long winding road of Eritrea’s movement for democratic change. Thanks to the inspiring accomplishments of young revolutionaries in the Arab world and ease of access to social media tools, a wave of young people stood up to be counted. It was a year to simply declare that enough was “Enough!” and “Down Down Isaias!” The euphoric energy was palpable, veteran Deleyty FtHi whose calls for respect of human rights and freedoms was mostly landing on apathetic ears finally saw the arrival of the long overdue wind beneath their wings, in the form of this youthful energy. The final countdown to the end of Isiais Afeworki’s brutal rule had begun.

The following year, 2012, became the year of organizing this new and unprecedented addition to the movement. Everyone learned that unorganized movement cannot bear fruit. There must be an orderly and more effective way to execute actions and mobilize the public. So the organizing, aligning, structuring, restructuring, strategizing, ideological refinement went on and on with earnest. With that, the opportunities for disagreements multiplied and to some, winning ideological arguments became more important than actually winning – crossing the most important finish line that will remove Isaias Afworki from power.

As the disillusioned and less experienced younger generation tried to navigate these uncharted waters, by the end of 2012, it got entangled by the usual nets that have entangled its older compatriots. Once again, instead of getting encouraged to independently galvanize the public, something those who tried before could not do, the “youth” based movements that were mushrooming all over the world were viewed as either a threat to squash or a shiny new tool to squash others with. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the zero-sum game of either-with-us-or-against-us mentality won the day. The proxy chess game continued, bringing with it toxic attitudes and vulgar languages. And Isaias Afeworki smiled. The proverbial countdown clock seemed to have been placed on hold.

The year 2013 began with a rather surprising but welcoming news of a coup d’état attempt of what came to be known as Forto-2013. Believers, doubters and fence sitters celebrated together briefly, bringing back that organic euphoria and energy back to the movement. However, it was short lived. Now that the post Isaias era is not a matter of if but a matter of when, the pseudo generals of the proxy chess games intensified their do-or-die campaigns to control and “purify” the movement for change along narrow ideological, regional and tribal lines. The aptly repeated buzz word was “unity!” but the desired result was a thinly veiled “uniformity!” – zey semere kabana yfele – an eerily familiar mantra. The defamation, purging, splitting, insulting, bullying and counter-attacking continued unabated and fanned by 24×7 Paltalk sessions, Facebook posts, press releases and gossipy phone calls, all in foolish attempts to control the movement and thereby controlling what happens after Isaias Afeworki is removed from the scene. Very foolish and very insulting to the Eritrean people indeed. For a while there seem to be only two kinds of Eritreans left in the world: patriots and traitors. Of course, which label one is bestowed upon depends on who is holding the label maker. The vitriolic and rather toxic commentary people are willing to use to paint those they disagree with was enough to give a reasonable person to pause and think what this could mean in post Isaias era, the tinderbox Eritrea the dictator is sure to leave behind. The change that we seek, at the very minimum, has to be better than what the PFDJ machine offers, doesn’t it? Could we be playing with fire? But the downward spiraling continued anyway.

Then we were hit with a bitterly cold splash in the face that sent shudders not only among Eritreans but also throughout the world community. The tragic loss of so many lives in one lump sum off the coast of Lampedusa became a glaring symbol of what it means to keep Isaias Afeworki and his PFDJ machine in place, and a shaming reminder that the futile, foolish and dangerous division among pro-democracy Eritreans must stop and fast. Lessons learned from moments of glory and tragedy wane real fast in our political arena, but at long last, the need for true unity seems to be taking hold – not uniformity, not purity, not sameness – but true unity of purpose and action coupled with respect of diversity of strategies, tactics and rights of others to go their own way.

The recent vibe is encouraging but, needless to say, we must correct course and once again restart the countdown clock toward the demise of our brutal dictator in 2014. But HOW do we accomplish that? We always seem to get stuck on the HOW part, don’t we? If we agree that that the current environment is too toxic to practice a movement of hope and better alternative, then we all have a duty to detoxify it. Only the dictator and those who suckle from his dying system can benefit from this contaminated environment where activists are continuously pointing fingers at each other, spreading baseless gossips, accusing each other of ulterior motives, looking over their shoulders for spooky characters borne out of figments of their imagination as well as constantly engaging in endless criticism, counter-criticism and self-criticism. For Delety FtHi, this toxicity should be viewed for what it is: a cesspool of a counter productivity where Isaias Afeworki’s demons take a refreshing bath. That is why, by at least attempting to take some practical steps toward changing the music if not the lyrics of our politics, we have little to lose and a lot to gain in the coming year and even beyond.

Let’s go to the solution then…

Conflict resolution experts might use healing words and phrases such as: anger management, open communication, reconciliation, issue isolation, tolerance, win-win situation, positive feedback, appreciation …….bla bla bla bla ……let’s face it, this stuff never works for us! We hear them but can’t comprehend them. Where does one begin? How about some realistic and more programmatic steps that can be easily applied.

Here are two unconventional, yet more familiar suggestions.

Toxic item #1. Too much criticism and self-criticism (the self-cleaning oven is destroying the … oven!)

Solution: One Month of Fasting (but eat all you want)
Our culture is deeply rooted in religion. Both Christianity and Islam call for a spiritual discipline that involves willful abstinence from food and also from other human temptations. In the Bible it says, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth”. I am sure there is an equivalent verse in the Quran. During the fasting period, one is supposed to try to be a better person as well. How about we take a lesson from that chapter in our religious/cultural book and use it to detoxify our politics? For far too long, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that criticism and freedom to express our thoughts are virtues in and of themselves. We seem to have forgotten that the silent majority is always observing and making decisions … silently. We owe it to the struggle not to scare off potential activists.

To Do: Take one month, preferably the month of January, and abstain from criticizing the shortcomings of the opposition in any shape or form. Instead force yourself to say something positive, something you appreciate or praise someone who’s doing a great job. If you have nothing good to say, say nothing. This must include private phone call, coffee ceremony chit chats, social media posts (yes, ‘liking’ negative posts count) and if you are truly committed your private thoughts as well. Don’t worry, after one month it will be open season again – and you can criticize and self-flagellate to your heart’s desire. Chances are, however, the positive attitude will stick longer. BTW, I am resolving to do my ‘fasting’ in January. Care to join in? Shoot me an email (see below) and let me know how it is going. I think it’s not as easy as it sounds. And yes, this entire article can be qualified as criticism of our movement. Hope it is the constructive kind.

Toxic item #2. Parochialism, Regionalism, Nepotism (these narrow silos of division are cannibalizing the movement).

Solution: Celebrate Individualism, Practice Diversity.

Politics is essentially the competition for power to manage public resources. There will always be those who try to grab power and they will try to tap into our prides, prejudices and egos to turn the movement into “us Vs them” existential fight, if we let them. To belong to a certain linguistic, ethnic, regional administration or village is not a crime, nor is it an accomplishment. All these sub-national tendencies are rooted in elements of ethnocentricity where individual members feel their group is somehow better than others, is more capable, is more nationalistic or more deserving. The problem arises only when individual members are gullible enough to believe it and start to use it as a discriminatory weapon. This is undeniable and something that must be addressed urgently, otherwise we risk making the PFDJ look more mature. What we are suffering can be summed up in the Tigrigna saying: Asha Wedi Qeshi Si amelaK abaHaguu ymeslo (roughly translates to “a foolish son of a preacher thinks God is his grandfather”). Similarly, some foolish activist might tend to believe Eritrean affairs belong only to him and his grouping. This kind of parochial and narrow thinking is simply toxic and unworthy of those who claim they are fighting for equality and justice. It only creates toxicity, division and resentment when practiced by those who are in the opposition. Hopefully we won’t witness this kind of backward thinking in the coming year.

What we all should be fighting for is liberty and justice for all, regardless of region, religion, gender, age and how many of one’s forefathers have purportedly lived in Eritrea.

To Do: This one is borrowed from my friend Saleh Gadi’s recent speech in Bologna. I think it is a good exercise for all of us. Go through your mobile phone’s address book and review your contact list, especially the ones you are in contact with most. Is the list of your Eritrean contacts as diverse as you thought it was? No one is expected to have a list proportional to the mosaic of Eritrea, but it boils down to this: don’t preach diversity, practice it.

And if I may add … If you suffer from unwarranted region of origin superiority complex, just close your eyes, think about how babies are made, and decide if you should take pride in that “achievement” that resulted in … YOU. Every one of us should be judged not by our kinship to some African ancestral village, but by the type of individuals we are. No exceptions.

On to 2014

Will the foolishness of this year follow us into next year? After Lampadusa? After the images of babies in small white caskets? I hope not. I think the lessons have been learned. In 2013, Forto’s Wedi Ali (RIP) has captivated our imagination by showing us that change from inside is possible; Wedi Vacaro has demonstrated that one person with a humble and timely message can mobilize the public; Wedi Tikabo has given us a reason to once again synch our rhythm and dance in unison and national pride: Ere nHadnetna ye sheT meAntana goes his song. 2014 will have its own heroes and heroines. Let’s just resolve to detoxify the political environment for them and the countdown to the end of Isaias Afeworki will start ticking real fast.

Happy New Year to YOU!


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