Eritrea, Africa: The Last Big Man Standing

[As I write this, I haven’t heard Isaias Afwerki’s speech. If history is a guide, he will blame his predecessor for the mess who, in turn, will blame his predecessor all the way back to whoever has been presiding over Eritrea since 1991. Oh, wait, he is his own predecessor.  Never mind: did you enjoy the show?]

It’s been 22 years since May 24, 1991. Gather around, Eritreans under 30, as Uncle Sal tells you why that date is a big deal because you were too young to remember what it replaced and what the big fuss is all about. You see, there were successive Ethiopian regimes who told us that we could never, ever, ever, ever think of separating from Ethiopia which had 3,000 years of uninterrupted independence—a country which foiled the repeated aggression of Egyptians and Italians and it certainly would beat back whatever ragtag army of petro-dollar financed and confused Ethiopians in its northern province could muster. Ethiopia, the anchor of the Horn of Africa, the hope and inspiration of all people of African ancestry anywhere in the world, will never allow this to happen—particularly when it had powerful friends who can subsidize every war toy it wanted. All May 24, 1991 did was overcome an Ethiopian mindset, shared by the entire world, that told us we were too weak, too few, too new, too fractured to be an independent state that would govern itself. It did this by, among other things, sharing a vision of what Ertra ny tSbaH would look like (explicitly written in the political programmes of the ELF and EPLF.) That is the Big Deal: it is the stuff of legends. And now?  Now we are haggling on the quality of the governance in much the same way every independent state in the world does.

We have problems. How severe and why? There are Eritreans whom, when we are in righteous fury, we call PFDJistas, Hgdefites, Isaiasists.   Their answer is: Eritrea is, given every challenge that was thrown at it, doing relatively well. Whatever deficiencies exist are due to (a) the war and the no-war-no-peace policy waged upon it by Ethiopia and tolerated/supported by the US and UN; (b) the fact that it is a new country; (c) human error. Every country in the world has its “national security” citizens who, particularly during and immediately following a war, are willing to give the government extended and indefinite powers to “secure the nation.” Our version—lets call them the “9/18 Movement”—are no different. They see the same horror we see, and their families are affected by the same horrors our families are, they just have a different interpretation as to what its cause is and how to stop it from happening.

Some things, kids, you only understand in hindsight. Our problem is a bit older than 1998 (the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war). Some would say it goes all the way back to 1961—and you have read their reasoning—but most of those wounds we inflicted on ourselves during Ghedli were not mortal. Our problem goes back to shortly after May 24, 1991; it was exacerbated in February 16, 1994; it went downhill in May 1995, it hit a rock on September 18, 2001, it hit a wall in May 2002 and it has fallen off the rails (hopefully not in irreversible path) on January 20, 2013.

In short, our problem has been caused by good old fashioned “the winner takes it all” mentality—one that tells the loser “nedeka my wredela.”  As much as we like to flatter ourselves, this is a common malady that affects most new nations–especially in Africa.   National politics is an ecosystem: each decision, each behavior has a domino effect.  But let’s not feel bad: dictators are professionals in power politics, we the people are amateurs.  We had a late start: but we have numbers on our side and it will continue to grow.

Eritrean Principles
Isaias Afwerki’s biggest failure is his unwillingness to manage Eritrea’s diversity. And please note that diversity doesn’t just refer to religion and region only; it also refers to tradition, culture, and political ideology. Back in the day, there was consensus view that Eritrea would be a secular, democratic country governed on the basis of power devolution to localities.   Secular, democratic, decentralization all had explicit meanings so all the mystification of “what do you mean by secular?” “what do you mean by democracy?” “what do you mean by decentralization?” had not been invented yet.

By secular, what was meant was that the country would not have an official religion and government and religious institutions would not interfere in the affairs of each other. By democratic what was really meant was the so-called Western democracy: one based on individual rights and civil liberties (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship (except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, sadly, according to our Fronts.)  The much-maligned Ghedli insisted on putting this commitment on paper, in black and white.  And by “decentralization”, what was meant was the principle of “that which is close to the people is the institution which governs best.” Each region was supposed to be practically self-governing with the central government doing only the things that central governments should do (national defense, monetary/fiscal policy, foreign affairs.)

The leadership of Isaias Afwerki has completely bungled it all—deliberately. Let’s look at each one individually.

(a) Weeks After May 24, 1991
Shortly after Eritrea’s independence, the winner (EPLF) invited the losers (ELF-RC) to a meeting to negotiate the terms of their participation in the nation’s affairs. The ELF-RC, like any political organization looking for leverage, disclosed this fact to a reporter who published the news. An irate Isaias Afwerki cancelled the meeting (the invitees had to fly back) and instituted the policy of “you are free to enter as individuals but not as a party.” Just to underline the point, he said (on June 20, no less) that, henceforth, there would be no political party jockeying in Eritrea. (ny wdbat Hashewye…)

Now, let’s look at the domino effect. When the ELF was booted out of Eritrea in 1981, the cause of “national, secular, democratic, decentralized” (let’s call it NSDD for short) governance had a huge setback because at least half of NSDD governance advocates in Eritrea were members/sympathizers of the ELF. When the EPLF now denied political space in Eritrea to an ELF offshoot (ELF-RC), it was further setback to NSDD constituency. Put differently, it empowered those who were critics of NSDD. And there was no bigger critic of that than the Eritrean Islamic Jihad movement.

In the same manner that critics of Western Democracy criticize democracy, the Eritrean Islamists called “secularism” a Western construct. In fact, they said, secularism was something that came about in reaction to specific Church practices in Western Europe. Since that does not apply to Eritrea, they argued, and since secularism is something that slowly evolved in Western Europe, it is unreasonable to expect traditional and religious Eritreans to completely divorce their religion from how they want to be governed. The EIJM, and its various iterations, is, politically, much less significant than it was in the 1990s. But, the net effect of the ideology it represented is negative: it scared some Eritrean Christians into running to the bosom of Isaias Afwerki and the autocracy he represented; it alienated a significant number of Eritrean Muslims from Eritrea. There is fairly large Eritrean Muslim society in the Diaspora who are, by every strict definition, “selefists”—practicing Islam in a manner completely alien to Eritrea—and their withdrawal from Eritrea and embracing a culture that has nothing to do with Eritrea is at least indirectly attributable to Isaias Afwerki’s decision to humiliate the NSDD.  If you think this is an overstatement, consider what is the logic of Eritrea insisting that “all stakeholders” be involved in the decision-making process of Somalia?  Isn’t the argument that, if you don’t, you radicalize a segment of your population?  Same holds true anywhere–including Eritrea.

(b) February 16, 1994
In 1994, between February 10 and 16, the EPLF had a party congress in Nakfa where it emerged as PFDJ. Not only was that the last congress of the EPLF, it was also the first and last congress of the PFDJ. The sole purpose of that congress appears to have been (a) to demote Ramadan Mohammed Nur (wink wink, he resigned) and (b) to introduce the “National Charter.”

The 1994 charter essentially reversed the promises of EPLF’s 1987 congress (and that of the congresses of the ELF, who were no longer allowed to enter Eritrea—a land they spent half their lives bleeding for.) Whereas the 1987 congress was explicit in its vision of Eritrea’s individual rights, the National Charter made rights as a “Hafash” issue—that individual rights are subservient to “national” rights and duties. Those of you who read the Charter’s “Building a Democratic Political System” should not have been surprised when President Isaias Afwerki told Al Jazeera that political parties may not exist in Eritrea for three to four decades because the charter says: “Our understanding of democracy should emphasize its content rather than its external manifestations. In the context of our society, democracy is dependent not on the number of political parties and on regular elections, but on the actual participation of people in the decision-making process at community and national level…. equating of democracy to the number of political parties and…organized elections… is wrong and dangerous.” So, whatever the PFDJ is doing now, is EXACTLY what it said it would do in 1994 when we the people were in a slumber.

When a ruling party is telling you that you shouldn’t even consider organizing yourself and presenting an alternative view to the people—which is the essence of democracy—isn’t it chopping off yet another constituency of NSDD? And what alternative is there other than to be radicalized and practice exiled politics? This was yet another chipping away at the Eritrean constituency which supported a Nationalist Secular Democratic and Decentralized government.

(c) May 19, 1995
Power decentralization was seen within the context of Eritrea’s traditional provinces: Hamasien, Serraye, Sahel, Senhit, Semhar etc. The idea was that each of these provinces would be semi-autonomous: the central (Asmara) government would be limited to doing only those things that a central government can do: protecting the borders, and instituting fiscal and monetary policy. Everything else was supposed to be run by local government. The exact opposite happened. First, the provinces were re-drawn—under the guise of defeating “regionalism”, solving old disputes, and facilitating national macroeconomic policy. And, ironically, the two things that a central government should do—protecting national sovereignty and having a sane fiscal and monetary policy—were completely bungled. The mismanagement of these two central government responsibilities (commissions on introduction of Nakfa currency, commission on Eritrea-Ethiopia border) is what led to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war. Second, the re-drawing of the maps was supplemented by two proclamations—land policy and macroeconomic policy—that essentially allowed the central government to expropriate any piece of land and to give it to whomever it wanted.  That’s how  you have a fine recipe for disaster.

The consequences? Well, for every person who admires this infrastructure and that microdam in Eritrea, there is at least one nursing a wound for losing land. And those who no longer want to depend on the kindness of future leaders to respect the principle of decentralization are now either calling for a federal system (not once entertained during the armed struggle) or calling for the right of “self-determination up to and including secession.” The emergence of political organizations (specifically advocates for Eritrean Kunama and Eritrean Afar) should be seen within this light.

(d) September 18, 2001
All the criticisms against the Eritrean government up until 2001 could be easily dismissed—and they were—as the grievances of people who have only vague knowledge of post-independent Eritrea because they had been exiled for too long. Then came September 18, 2001, the case of the “G-15.”  Here were government insiders—people who held senior posts of foreign minister, defense minister and veterans of the front—calling for reforming the ruling party. The whisper campaign against them was brutal: those from Akeleguzay were accused of being regionalist; the Muslims were accused of favoring Muslims and corruptions—and these was directed at veterans of the EPLF! When they were given the same “winner takes it all, loser gets nothing” treatment, when they were implausibly accused of being regionalist, then, that too chopped away at the NSDD constituency.

(e) May 2002
Some people think that “secularism” simply means that religious institutions should not have supremacy over the state. That’s only half a definition: it also means that the government cannot impose religion on the people. But that’s exactly what the Eritrean government did in May 2002. It said that the only religions licensed to operate in Eritrea are Islam (Sunni Islam, no Shia allowed), the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea.

This means, in plain language, that the State has told Eritreans who do not worship at these mosques and churches that they either have to give up their religion, break the law and worship secretly, or leave the country.  More stakeholders alienated.

(f) January 20, 2013
We will come to learn that the “Forto incident,” dismissed by the PFDJ and some in the opposition, is a huge deal. The whisper campaigns have tagged it as a Muslim movement. And, indeed, some of the bigger names of those arrested or left the regime—Abdella Jaber, Ahmed Haj Ali, Mustapha Nurhussein, Ali Abdu are Muslims. All these individuals have friends within the party and, as happened with the G-15 movement of 2001, many more whose names we do not know have been arrested or have—or will soon—abandon the regime. Just like many of the individuals mentioned above were empowered when the G-15 were arrested, a new group—gathered from the large pool of the once-frozen and passed-on—will be thawed and promoted and they won’t ask the one question that all job-applicants are encouraged to ask: “what happened to my predecessor?”  But the party base continues to shrink.


May 24, 1991 is worth celebrating because it enabled Eritreans to have the political autonomy to decide our fate. However, like almost every African country which was once colonized and got its independence, we Eritreans have completely bungled our post-independence governance. Those we call Hgdefites will always be with us—even when we have a new government–because every nation has its “national security” lobby who are always reminding the citizens how “soft” they are and how the government is spoiling them with too many rights and not demanding enough duties from them.

Although very many awful things were done during the Armed Struggle—not the least of which was the civil war—almost all Eritreans were willing to deal with those issues in an Eritrea that delivered on the promises made during the Armed Struggle: a country that was governed on the basis of secular, democratic, decentralized system. The PFDJ took measures to mystify democracy (just as South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki mystified AIDS) and in the process Eritrea sustained a heavy loss and lost opportunities (just as Mbeki’s decision caused the premature death of 365,000 South Africans.)

The denial of political space to Eritrean parties radicalized them with some justifying armed struggle.  Others, they just dropped out. The government’s decision to nationalize land, to redraw borders, radicalized those who want the powers of the central government to be restricted. The continuous purging of its own members has given the party a continuously shrinking base, and a recycled (freeze, thaw, freeze again, thaw again) senior personnel who are anything but motivated.  Their only motivation is fear: fear of punishment.

Some of these decisions were made after “studies” and some even have the imprint of a national assembly (such as the re-drawing of the provinces.) Some have popular support—seriously, how many Eritreans are protesting for the rights of Jehovahs Witnesses? All these decisions are completely rational—if your objective is to empower one man, the head of state, and to reduce everybody else to a subject.  That is, they were done methodically and deliberately.   And, if we the subjects want to become citizens, our mission is clear: to call for, and work for, deliberately and methodically, the reversal of all these decisions. If we win, we will become citizens. If Isaias Afwerki wins, he will linger on, and his fate will be that of every African Big Man: clinging to power, relying on an ever-shrinking base, and making promises and prophesies that he can’t deliver on.

Happy Independence Day, Eritrea, and welcome to Africa.


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