Eritrea 2010: Shaping Our Future

National Reconciliation Conference.  There is a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Citizens coming together to shed their differences, rectify mistakes, forgive transgressions, vow to make amends and bravely face their destiny to live in harmony and in a spirit of brotherly love. Henceforth, let us usher a new era where every citizen feels she/he is an equal stakeholder who can only be governed by their consent, worship their chosen God, and freely express his and her ideas about the direction and choices the nation undertakes, without fear of retribution from any group or government. 


The hope in the air is almost palpable, and you can hear faint background music. Tears of joy swell in your eyes. Instead of succumbing to the tears though, you fight them back and put your party spirit.  It’s not time to cry; it’s time to celebrate! 


But wait… 


The longer and more elaborate this beautiful dream becomes, the more it resembles like…an actual dream. Too vague and too good to be true; and yet, it is like those dreams that beg you to place your head under the pillow, squint your eyes some more and hopefully continue the dream. It’s too bad that life has its own way of bursting our dreamy bubbles and reminding us that there is such thing called reality.  And in Realityland…the mobile phone alarm just went off (that explains the faint music) to remind us that it is Monday and it is time to go to work. 


The succession of thoughts and sounds may have been a dream but the tears are real. So, can we wipe our tears, face reality and go to work to make the dream that was dreamt by generations of Eritreans, wished by millions of citizens and paid for in life and limb come true?   


Of course we can. Yes, we must. For better or for worse, we are stuck with each other. So, can we the people of Eritrea (more aptly, our leaders, ushers, organizers, coordinators, agenda-setters and activists) agree to finally bury hatchets of enmity and do away with juvenile innuendos and vicious diatribes that pass for political discourse and earn the respect of the pubic that is yearning for leadership and hope? I believe we can.  I believe so do you. I mean, if your answer to this rhetorical question is not in the affirmative, then what is the point?  Why even keep trying?  We have to assume that every activist and every resistance teQalasay has faith not only in his or her ability to contribute to the cause but in their fellow compatriots’ decency to do the right thing.  The era of cheerful naiveté is most likely behind us (and good riddance) but we can’t move forward if we always assume the worst and only expect outcomes of doom and gloom. So, go ahead and indulge me with that Obamasque infectious optimism. Do we have the wherewithal, the talent, the wisdom, the passion and the good-will to conduct a National Conference that truly addresses the mosaic of national issues, without leaving a section of our society feeling left behind and side-stepped? Of course we can. Yes, we can!…..shape our future. 


So, why aren’t we?  


Once again, as it was possible to dream it with our eyes wide open way back in 1991, it all depends on our collective ability to distinguish between the things that are within our power to make happen, and those that are beyond our control.  Therefore, this will not be akin to turning the page into a blank canvas and drawing something from scratch. It will be more like navigating a small sailboat amid a wide ocean.  There are factors to be considered. Wind direction, hurricanes, sharks and pirates. Whether this boat makes it safely to shore and reach its destination is not entirely up to the crew or captain. But what the crew and officers can do is take a solemn oath to faithfully fulfill their duties as servants of the people, to lead only when given consent, to ensure all passengers are treated with respect and every human life preserved and equality. 


So, let us start with Reinhold Niebuhr famous Serenity Prayer…  


God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.


 The wise and courageous among us have recently laid out important and visionary documents chronicling the past and proposing a way forward. Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar’s The Eritrean Covenant: Towards Sustainable Justice And Peace and Dr. Bereket Habteselassie’s State, Religion and Ethno-Regional Politics, an excerpt from his upcoming book, are great examples of the depth and breadth of the issues we can not afford to ignore if we are going to move together beyond the status quo.  Other members of the organized and the not so organized opposition camp are working hard to conduct a National Conference that will hopefully serve as launching pad to bring about a strong and united opposition that will serve a final blow to the decadent PFDJ regime.  However, all these noble ideas and tasks are not being met with high expectations or wide-eyed optimism –a fact that should not be a surprise to all of us.   


Our people have been disappointed so many times, progress has been stalled for so long and dreams dashed so quickly in the past that we can not blame them for guarding their emotions. The Eritrean public is looking for an immediate reprieve and any sign that a viable alternative is out there. They are looking for someone, anyone, to move us away from the road of disaster we are in, back to the road of progress and hope, where we ought to be.  What they are not looking for are empty slogans, unrealistic wishes and impotent actions. 


A few years ago, I was listening to a talk-radio (NPR) and the topic being discussed was race relations in America and how to improve it. Listeners were calling in and offering their opinion on the matter and the unconventional idea of one caller caught the host and listeners by surprise. “You know what we should do,” he started. You can tell from the way he spoke that he is a black man and perhaps an older gentleman.  “A great start would be, for all of us – blacks and whites – to gather in a stadium and sit down and cry.  Just say nothing but cry. Cry for all the hurt we have caused to our fellow human being and vow not to repeat it.” 


Wow! Can you imagine that?  I don’t know what our psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about this group therapy, but it is one man’s vision of reconciliation and healing. There are of course better and more practical ways of reestablishing trust among groups and factions, yet one can’t help but notice that especially for us Eritreans, there is a dire need to cleanse ourselves of all the unnecessary malice and ill-will. Tear jerking crying therapy may be too mushy for the Eritrean pride, but I sure hope our would-be leaders find some face-saving and more dignified ways of apologizing, compromising, asking for forgiveness and adopting humility. The stakes are just too high for meaningless posturing and rigidity. 


On second thought…forget crying. Tselaeena ybke!  Let’s talk about dancing instead. 


Has this ever happened to you? 


Here you’re at this party minding your own business when everyone seems to head for the dance floor. Everyone but you and this other person, that is.  You suddenly realize they are playing your favorite song and you want to join in but you need a dancing partner.  You can ask this other person to dance with you but you hesitate.  To go for it and see how it goes, or to remain silent and wait for the next song and possibly another partner….That’s exactly the question of the day. Wait for the perfect opportunity that may never come or seize the moment and make the most of it. What will it be? 


We are in the midst of an important juncture in our young nation’s history where important choices have to be made; realities on the ground have to be contended with; vast amount of data to be discerned and understood, torches to be relayed to the next generation and disasters to be contained and averted.  We have the people, the resources and the opportunity at our disposal; but do we have the wisdom to distinguish between the factors that we can shape and the factors that will shape us? 


Predicting the Future


There is a Chinese proverb that says “When men speak of the future, the gods laugh.”  Hmmm…that kind of explains why our political and social discourse is full of the past and done and very little of the future and yet to come. We have heard enough of maps of 1920s; of political parties of the 1950s; of civil wars of the 1970s; of victories of the 1980s and of the lost decade of the 2000s. Therefore, at the risk of being laughed at by some Chinese god, let us be bold enough to talk about the future for a change.  But since the future is a vast wasteland by definition, let’s be humble and just try to predict the next decade. As a matter of fact, a decade is so comprehensible and within our grasp that we can even dare say that we will try to shape it. And as the famous scientist Alan Kay put it, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


So, what kind of country do we want to have by the end of this decade? – say, the year 2020? Will we have the nation we have been dreaming about –a place of liberty, tolerance, progress, equality, justice and hope? Or will we find ourselves a suffocating, exclusive, paranoid and miserable fiefdom called Eritrea, being led by a 74 year old tyrant named Isaias Afwerki?


The choice is up to us the people (but not entirely so).  There will be many other elements and catalysts that will sway our ship every which way and where we end up depends on the invisible winds of change and our ability to steer and adapt. To have some kind of understanding of what these possible factors are is therefore, to have a firm grip of the helm – the ship’s steering wheel.


Examples? Let’s look at the factors of that have greatly influenced our past and our present, just to see if it makes sense to foretell what may be around the corner. But let’s be cautious; worse than trying to predict the future is perhaps trying to review the past with the benefit of – no pun intended –20/20 hindsight. But, hey, there is that number 2020 again and we will be back to it.  And you, Chinese god, keep laughing…. 


Rewind to…. 1993 


With the 30 year war behind and the country’s sovereignty legally secured, Eritrea had –generally speaking – two paths to choose from. One path would lead to handing the power to the people, transparency, constitutional governance and accountability.  Since this path was never taken, it would be hard to say where we would be by now. But I bet you, there would be thousands of young men and women alive today if we had we taken that road. Because, say what you will about what actually transpired, but an open society whose leaders debate all the available options would have been able to avoid the disastrous border war of 1998-2000. The present is nothing but the result of past decisions coupled with a confluence of factors. We usually have a say on the former if not the latter; and wrong choices end up depriving people of their very lives.  


It’s so heart wrenching to think that we lost so many brothers, sisters, cousins and friends for naught and by choice. It turns out that their fate was probably sealed with the formation of the PFDJ in 1994 and all the dictatorial apparatus that were deliberately left blank for Isaias to fill in as his wicked heart desires.  A decade and half later, her we are, bewildered and pretending to look surprised. 


Rewind some more to…. 1985 


This time let’s go to Russia. Actually, the former USSR. The Russian version is CCCP. Ahh, nostalgia… growing up in Asmara, us kids use to whisper to each other that “CCCP” stood for “Crazy Crazy Crazy People.”…Any way, in 1985, the leaders of those crazy crazy crazy people, decided to elect a young politician named Mikhail Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union. Over the next few years, Gorbachev’s subsequent decisions would result in major ramifications around the globe and literally the redrawing of the map of the world, including our own Eritrea. 


Let’s pause here. 


I would hate to inadvertently offend anyone by sounding to belittle the bravery, gallantry and insurmountable sacrifice of our brave tegadelti that fought to liberate Eritrea.  The point being made here is not about them, but about the weapons of war that were raining on them and the powers that be who supplied it. 


Ethiopia’s main provider of armaments, funds and political clout was the Soviet Union. In 1976 when Asmara was literally surrounded by freedom fighters and independence was within reach, the Dergue made a strategic move that aligned Ethiopia with the USSR. The result was the unprecedented pouring of military advisors, heavy armaments, fighter jets, transport planes, helicopters and ammunition.  All these directly resulted in the withdrawal of Eritrean fighters’ to the mountains of Nakfa in 1978 and for independence to be snatched from the jaws of victory. 


This imbalance of power continued for another decade until a major shift occurred around 1985-861. Reportedly, Gorbachev told Mehghistu Hailemariam that the Soviet Union was not going to keep providing him with resources any longer that he better seek peaceful means of resolving the conflicts.  The supplies of arms and loans practically dried up over the next couple of years. It would not be a stretch then to conclude that the new dynamics greatly contributed to the liberation of Afabet in 1988, the failed Ethiopian coup attempt in 1989, the unsuccessful peace mediation by president Carter later that year, the liberation of Massawa in 1990 and finally Asmara in 1991.  


But I think I know what you’re thinking. Common’ man, where is the proof of all these? “Chibti” is the new buzzword. Where is the chibti? I don’t really know… but all I can say is the proof is on Mr. Gorbachev’s head –literally!  Check out this picture and I dare you to tell me that birthmark on Gorbachev’s head is not a map of Eritrea? Just don’t ask me about the dots heading south…and you thought Pushkin was the Russo-Eritrean connection. Alexander Pushkin never heard of Eritrea; but as for Gorbachev, you can say that he has Eritrea, err, on his mind. 


The point? Winds of change that spawned from one end of the globe have repercussions and it’s simply a fool’s errand or even futile to try to shape our future without giving due considerations to what is happening globally. Conversely, especially nowadays, where we live in an interconnected and fast moving world, it is empowering to weigh all the factors and make wise decisions based on reason and enlightenment.  So, by all means let’s gather around a table and talk about our dire issues and how to move forward but let us not forget that the world will keep turning with or without us. 


Back to the Future…   


It’s all about the future isn’t it? Even for a relatively small population such as Eritrea’s, we can’t assume that we should all have the same vision of that future.  But it would be nice to agree on some basic principles and ideals that are worth fighting, struggling and sacrificing for.  Needless to say, the idea of secular democracy is an already agreed upon principle in the opposition camp. Constitutional governance that guarantees individual rights and freedoms is an already settled goal that I doubt we would need a National Conference to reinvent the wheel.  There may be several issues to discuss and a lot of confidence building measures to be had, but I sincerely hope everyone remembers that democracy is not a complex principle; it is a brilliantly simple one.   


The word stands for “rule of the people”, which means everything has to be decided by the people or their democratically elected representatives. We all should appreciate and welcome the ideas and position papers that are being proposed at conferences, seminars, discussion rooms, websites and summits, but at the end of the day, the people will have to decide how they would like to be governed and by whom.  That will not happen until the PFDJ is either decidedly defeated or forced to hand over the power to the people.  Therefore, the primary aim of the National Conference or any group that is working for democratic change in Eritrea should be, to pave ways so that the people can defeat the dictatorship and have a say on what comes next. To do otherwise and try to impose issues of land, flag, language and administrative regions is a bit arrogant and impractical.  At the same time, it would also be similarly arrogant to tell other groups what their vision for Eritrea should look like. As political entities they have the right to declare whatever they think works to galvanize their constituency.  At the end of the day, in a democratic system, out of the cafeteria of proposals, acceptable ideas will surface to the top and the people will decide on them. The most important tenets of democracy are freedom and equality.  Freedom of the individual and equality of all individuals under the law –simply brilliant! 


We don’t need an iPhone application or a National Conference to decide this; it’s already been decided. We were all born with this “inalienable right” by whoever placed us on this earth.  The very purpose of any current and future government therefore should be to protect the rights of the individual from undue encroachment by other individuals, groups and the government itself. 


What about ethnic groups, regions and religions?  In my opinion, these entities exist only for the benefit and in service of the individual.  In that respect, we should try to protect them as an extension of individual rights and liberties, but these man-made concepts should not be made to antagonize personal liberties. As a matter of fact, we are better off focusing on the bill of rights for the individual as these other aspects are hard to define and utterly fluid. A person could be of mixed ethnic group, move from one region to the other and change religions many times over a life time.  What better way to protect her or him than ensuring her/his freedom and equality as an individual member, no matter to what group, religion and region one belongs? 


So, how will know that we are moving toward – as they say in America – a more perfect union? Or simply put, toward a country where young people can dream starting and building a life in?  As Mahatma Gandhi said it, “The best test of a civilized society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable and weakest members.”  So, if we roll our sleeves now and start working hard, would we have that kind of country by the end of this decade? Would our minority members feel as included and as proud as those with the resources and power to demand it? I am talking about our ethic minorities such as the Kunama and Afar; our fundamentalist Muslims and evangelical Christians; our disabled veterans; those who don’t like to fit in; those who don’t agree with the majority; and dare I even say it: our future gays and lesbians (assuming we currently have none, we have to make room for them too, don’t we?).  What ?!!! Did I just go overboard and make your head explode? Good! Include me in that list of minorities and weirdos we have to tolerate and whose freedoms will be the yardstick of how civilized our society is. 


Here is my ideal Eritrea boils down to: Fast-forward to the year 2020…..Sitting down at a park bench in Asmara (make that Mai JahJah – my good old neighborhood) I want to be able to open an independent newspaper and read about a Kunama woman, who is handicapped and wheelchair bound, who happen to be a fanatic follower of a religion that is yet to be invented….I want to read that,  without fearing for her safety, she protested all day in front of the president’s office, carrying profane signs and demanding that her constitutional rights be respected. And all these, not because some organized group sent her, but because it’s Tuesday and she feels like it!




That would make my day and I am sure that of millions of people. I know that is not going to happen anytime soon but we better start planting whatever seed is required in 2010 and make steady progress. Otherwise what?  Otherwise, in a globalized world, that feisty woman and millions of young and very mobile people like her will always have a choice.  They will migrate to far away lands and they will keep abandoning the country leaving it gutted out of hope and vitality.  Time is of the essence and the opposition parties badly need to show us they are working with a sense of urgency and with the future in mind. 


Tic, tac, tic, tac …..goes the clock and by the year 2020, in mere 9 and half years, a person born in 1991 will be almost 30 years old.  Over 75% of the population would include those born after independence. Right now they make up over 50%.  So, go ahead talk to them about the Independence Bloc of the 1950s and nHnan Elamanan of 1970s if you must, but I seriously doubt that will resonate -for they will be busy checking their Yahoo Mail and strategizing how to get better opportunities that improve their personal lives. They will be speaking English – the lingua franca of the internet – and making deals with contacts they never met. And short of a great miracle, the legal and illegal migration will absolutely continue for years to come and do so exponentially.  That is the nature of it.  One young person leaving will make the likelihood that his sisters and their cousins will follow suit soon. The brave new world moves even faster than the hasty hare and of course way faster than the sluggish tortoise. Tic, tac, tic, tac….. 


2010 National Conference 


Kudos to those working hard to put some kind of ‘National Conference for Democratic Change’ this summer. Anytime someone is attempting to take an action that may move us closer to our destination, the least we can do is wish them the best of luck and thank them for the personal dedication and sacrifice it must take.  But as an Eritrean, I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed…. I don’t know, may be it’s the laughter of that damn Chinese god or some other bad omen, but forgive me if I feel queasy.  Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that it goes successfully and does not end with some angry politician (usually a man with a big ego) declaring that he has resigned/split/condemned/censured some organization he was a member of.  That usually is followed by the dishing out of some dirty laundry and the tit for tat of countless cut and pasted email exchanges. I hope this time, they take into consideration that most of us do not give a hoot. In short, please, please, please let’s love our children more than we hate our political opponents. There is NO crying in politics.  If you have to, go to your nearest empty stadium and do it in private. Or better yet, just sharpen your skills of compromising and taking chances.  It’s not that difficult.  It’s as easy as…dancing with a stranger. 


We may have missed your favorite song, but there is always the next.  Go ahead, and ask the other person – the one that is squirming and hesitating like you – to go for it and dance.  It’s beautiful when compatriots come together; even if it is just because they don’t have any better choice.  But we all can do it.  You can do it.  That is what it will take to shape our future. Swallow the prides and egos and make us proud. 


But, alas, as luck would have it, this other person you are asking to dance is not a beautiful lady in a festive garb. You wish! It is actually no other than the notorious Ali Salim and the current song they’re playing is a romantic Tigrigna slow music.  Let’s just hope that Mr. Salim’s dancing skills are better than his writing manners. Yes, undeniably awkward…but not impossible!

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