It is always better to look ahead than to look back; better to propose solutions than to lament the past but the future is so inexorably linked to the present, the present so intimately intertwined to our past, that to ignore the past is to guarantee future failure. As George Santayana once put it “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“. It is by analyzing the past and by sieving through it for lessons that we preempt disasters in the future and attain wisdom and insight. What is wisdom after all but a carefully digested experience and what is experience but the insight we develop as we examine the past and learn from it.
To this end, all societies have a group of individuals that they revere as wise and insightful because among other things of their ability to interpret and learn from the past. Traditionally, such a role belonged to the nation’s elders; today, it is to the elites that the modern nation turns for inspiration and wisdom which raises a question: what are a people to do when the elites themselves are the source of many of its problems as is the case in Eritrea? What is a nation to do when the elites conspire to mislead it repeatedly instead of carrying their sacred historical responsibility of working for the people? Exceptions always exist but it will be no exaggeration to state that Eritrean elites as a whole have been more a liability than an asset; did more harm than good to Eritrea. The problem is not a thing of the past by the way but an ever-present danger that did not go away when some joined the opposition. That is the issue we will be looking at in this article along with other tangential issues.
Who are the elites anyway? I am using “elites” to refer to those highly visible highbrows who were the “elites” in the privileged sense without whose help Isaias’ totalitarian regime would never thrive as it did; they are those who had the opportunity, the skill, and the wherewithal to put pressure on the regime but never did preferring instead to serve as propaganda tentacles for the regime. What sets them apart is not the possession of advanced degrees, technical know-how (or lack thereof) but the factory-produced likeness of their views.
Indeed, if originality and independent thinking are the hallmarks of genuine intelligentsia, nothing strikes us more than their almost total absence in this elite class. Search Eritrean history all you will, you will not find a single instance of innovative, unique, or independent thinking that strays even an iota from the regime’s stated position or from what was implanted in them when they were in cahoots with the regime. Name any subject under the sun be it economy, ethnology, culture, politics, domestic/foreign affairs, or diplomacy, you will find their views to be mirror images of one another. Such bees-in-a-hive behavior – the very antithesis of what we would expect from bona fide intellectuals – was and remains the definitive trademark or insignia of our elite class.
But the culpability of our elites is not just lack of independent thinking or acquiescence while egregious wrongs were being committed but a more serious offense of aiding and abetting the regime in its crimes against humanity (against Eritrean people). It is not my intention here to bring anyone to account or to discourage repentance (if genuine) but if we are to learn any lesson from our past, we need to give full and accurate account of past events. It is absolutely ok to ask forgiveness of the nation (in fact commendable) and it is absolutely ok to atone for past wrongs with good works in the present but it is not ok to persist in the wrong or to attempt to blot out historical facts to sanitize your part in it.
I knew it was too much to hope for our ego-centric brothers and sisters to own their past misdeeds but was it also too much to expect a change in behavior? They were a disappointment on both accounts. Unrepentantly Machiavellian, the attitudes and mannerisms of today’s elites bear the unmistakable stamp of their former selves. The same set of intellectuals that previously misled multitudes into supporting Isaias and the dictatorship are at it again misleading multitudes into working against their own interests be it by urging them to boycott NCDC for example or by making them believe in all sorts of claptrap including that Isaias (and only Isaias) is to blame for all Eritrea’s troubles (past and present).
Consequently, a lot has been written against the “tyrant” but hardly anything is said about the organization he led for so many years or about his long-time associates (enablers). Neither the network of opportunists that supported him in the past (or continue to support him) nor the underlying corrupt political structures of EPLF/PFDJ are included in the blame as if Isaias single-handedly brought the nation to its knees. Yes, there is a dictatorship they concede but only in the person of Isaias. To make matters worse, some innocent Eritreans picked up the chant and are now asking: how did one man (Isaias) succeed in keeping a nation of about 4 million subservient to him for 20+ years? Why didn’t our people rise against domestic oppression as they did so heroically against foreign occupation? How did Isaias manage to hold on to power for so long despite the egregious crimes he has been committing over the years?
The truth – notwithstanding the elites’ self-serving attempt to conceal their complicity – is of course simple: Isaias didn’t do it alone and couldn’t have done it all. He did it with their help as we briefly alluded to above. Isaias no doubt bears the brunt of the responsibility but no matter how clever he was or how diabolically cunning he had been, he could never have done it without the blessing and substantial support of many of our educated who actively fanned his megalomaniac tendencies cheering him along, lying for him, and sacrificing for him throughout his quixotic escapades.
Nor could he have done it without the organization (EPLF) he gave birth to decades ago. I know many Eritreans continue to foster nostalgic “Alice in the wonderland” type of attachment to EPLF finding it difficult to reconcile the image of an organization that brought them the ultimate salvation with one capable of unleashing its own horrors but at some point, the simple truth must be stated and faced (even if painful) because rough hew them how we will, we can’t have one (Isaias) without the other (EPLF).
If you doubt what I am saying, ask yourself: What can Isaias do by himself? What major transgressions can he commit without the help of his organization? Take the fact of Isaias’ extermination of countless number of Eritreans for example: Did he pull the trigger on all these people or did he have some of his followers do it for him? We know it was the latter in almost every case. It is through his organization (EPLF) that Isaias can commit murder; throw people in jail; or plunge us into devastating wars.
No crime boss has ever sprung into existence without a Mafia-like organization to support him nor has a dictator ever risen to power and fame without having a like-minded support base to crutch upon. If we can’t conceive of a Hitler without his Nazi organization or a Mussolini without his fascist organization or a Mengistu without a Derg, then we can’t conceive of an Isaias without his EPLF. In other words, there is absolutely no way to fault Isaias without at the same time implicating the organization that made it possible for him to commit all the heinous crimes he has been committing since the days of Menkae and ever since.
If you are an EPLFer, you may object as you read this thinking “how dare he… it was never like that” and I grant that it was not exactly like that and that EPLF is not comparable to Mafia, Nazi, or Derg but the difference is only in degree not in qualitative substance. Please do not mistake what we are saying here for a vindictive vitriol against EPLF followers. My comments are specifically targeted against the core leadership and the organizational infrastructure of EPLF not against rank and file innocents. The relationship between Isaias and innocent followers of EPLF can perhaps be likened to an abusive household with Isaias as the abusing parent, the elites as his partners in crime, and most of his EPLF followers, his unwary victims. The latter (as in all typical victim scenarios) sometimes retain nostalgic memories to the place where they grew up and often suppress memories of their abuse. Perhaps a similar psychological experience is at work here.
There were some positives we all know; the discipline, the selflessness, the sacrifice, and camaraderie but far more important in a pluralistic democracy is an open and tolerant attitude towards others which EPLF never had. The incontrovertible fact remains that the thinking, beliefs, and mind-set of a close-knit organization like EPLF by definition cannot but be a mirror of the leader’s. Willy-nilly, followers are eventually molded in the image of the chief himself. Rigorous propaganda, systematic indoctrination, and brute force will make sure of that as Isaias did so thoroughly and so successfully.
Now why is it important to recognize or identify EPLF for what it is: an aberrant outgrowth of the liberation movement? First, it will facilitate dialog and reconciliation. We must remember that EPLF was/is a large storehouse of misinformation and propaganda. If you are an EPLFer, think of the elaborate lies you were told and believed starting from Isaias’ saintliness to EPLF’s invincibility. Think of all the lies you were told about the opposition and how you slandered them as sellouts, traitors, jihadists, and weyanes and how the same epithets are now being used to describe you. Think also of how parochial you were in your thinking about Eritrea (equating it with EPLF), about nationalism, about religion, about ethnicity, and about the world. Isn’t it time to break free from this strong compulsion that continues to hamper your efforts to relate to others on equal terms?
To understand this latent psychological barrier EPLFers suffer from is to understand their misgivings towards such initiatives as NCDC. As long as people continue to regard EPLF as a good blameless organization, they will never see a need for a much needed rehabilitative introspection. And without such introspection (deep mental vacuuming) former EPLFers will be ill-equipped to engage in cool-headed democratic dialog. As anyone who has ever debated with them will tell you coolness is alien to their temperament.
Second and more importantly, such distorted views about EPLF will have far-reaching ramifications on how we go about dismantling the current regime. Will we go for a deep surgical removal of the entire EPLF/PFDJ/GOE infestation or for a mere cosmetic touch here and there that leaves the regime basically intact? The latter would be a disastrous route to take because a dictatorship has a way of reconstituting or regenerating itself even from a tiny severed part of itself. We see this phenomenon over and over again in many countries in Africa and Asia where one dictator is replaced by another or by a fake democracy. A totalitarian regime that is so deeply entrenched in the fabric of every part of our society as Eritrea’s dictatorship is would soon relapse into a new dictatorship or a sham democracy if care is not taken to dismantle it firmly and decisively.
To avoid mishaps, the elites must be confronted resolutely and vigilantly scrutinized. If there is a lesson to be learned from the past, it is that we cannot put all our trust in the elites. If you want one more example of elite chicanery in action, you will find it in their recent underhanded attempts to rewrite history by spinning grandiose tales about a supposedly golden era that reigned prior to the arrest of the “G15’s” where things were different and so wonderful that we shouldn’t even think of the regime then as a dictatorship! The fact that people were dying, hungry, being arrested, tortured, and disappearing left and right throughout the first decade of independence is immaterial to them. To them, Eritrea was prosperous and free when they were prosperous and free and Eritrea became a dictatorship when they themselves or their loved ones started getting arrested or killed. They therefore count the period of dictatorship from the time of their victimization.
It is important therefore to debunk (nip in the bud) this deliberate distortion of history and restate as emphatically as possible that Eritrean people as a whole never enjoyed a SINGLE day of freedom in all the 20 years of independence. Incidentally, the 20-year milestone should be a shocker to all of us. It may not seem much in days or months but 20 is a long, long period of time when reckoned in years! To imagine how long that is or has been, consider this: if you were born in 1991 (the year of independence), you would now be a sophomore or a junior in college and already an adult; if you were 30, you are now middle aged; if you were 50, you may have already retired. If you were over 60, I hope you are still with us! Isaias who was about 45 then (in 1991) is now 65 and half deranged. That is how long it has been since independence! That is how long we have suffered under domestic oppression!
But it is not just the years that flew by that make us wail in frustration but how much of those years were wasted on frivolous matters. Though undoubtedly there is some progress on the opposition front, it is too meager when it is measured against the time it took to get us “here” (where we are) and how far away we are from “there” (the ultimate goal). Thanks to the “elite”, an entire decade would pass before a semi-consensus could be reached on weather Eritrea is a dictatorship or not! Another decade would go by before a long overdue national conference could be convened.
It is time for the masses to assert themselves and say or shout at the elites and their ilk: we are tired of decades-full of lies, pretense, and tomfoolery! If you can’t get rid of your old flim-flam habits, please keep out; we don’t want you in the opposition. The opposition cannot afford to add incorrigible diehards to its list of problems and is certainly is in no mood to engage in ego-driven tag games. Tell them: if you are an opposition, be genuinely so in spirit, action, attitude, and behavior. Stop making contrived excuses for the evil regime and stop rattling philosophically arguing that we should forgive and include them in the democratic process. It is an utterly preposterous proposition! What opposition group worth the name a priori assures its adversaries of forgiveness? If I am a PFDJ supporter what incentive will I have to desist from what I am doing if I am assured I will be forgiven of all wrong doing?
I was once accosted (10 years ago) by a diehard shabia supporter who wanted to know who I was and what gave me the right to criticize a leadership that was so overwhelmingly supported by many distinguished professors, doctors, and political scientists and by a majority of our people. I don’t remember how I answered him but the question itself is indicative of the respect the elite and the educated command among our people and also reveals EPLF’s aversion to all kinds of criticisms.
It is also indicative of the mistaken faith many people place in the transformative power of knowledge or education. Knowledge is power it is said but no one has ever said that knowledge is character or produces character … for a reason. It is not knowledge or lack of knowledge that turns people into virtuous or wicked. A thief steals or a murderer kills for example not because one thinks stealing is a virtue and the other killing is good but because they allow themselves to be drawn into vices driven by selfishness, cruelty, vindictiveness etc…It is our actions, our moral beliefs, and our will to do good or to do bad that ultimately determine who we become. In this, the illiterate and the highly educated are equally gifted.
This leaves us with a final question: if we can’t fully trust our leaders or our elites, who can we trust? Answer: Ourselves! I am not a political scientist; nor a constitutional scholar. I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist but what you (dear reader), I, and all Eritreans share in common is our common sense. Democracy is built upon this very belief in the power of people’s common sense. It is a great weapon against tyrants, would-be tyrants, demagogues, and charlatans. Use it and stick to it doggedly and God willing (InshAllah) you will rarely go wrong.
Victory to the masses (in its non-communist sense)!