Eritrea Asks: Are You Sure You Care Enough?
I often feel perplexed by the mismatch I continually feel between our need for change and our efforts to bringing about this much talked about change. On the left side of this indeterminate Eritrean equation, we find a handful of corrupt generals, more than 300 prisons filled to capacity with uncharged prisoners, more than 200,000 conscripts wasting their precious youth, millions of people barely surviving each day – in short, we have a very sick nation. To the right of this equation, there are less than a handful of human rights activists, some tiny or thin political organizations, opposition websites, part-time writers, bloggers, and a few radios which, by the way, I find to be the most relevant variables to the people on the other side of the equation – where we mostly have wailers.
With this backdrop, I can’t stop asking myself how serious are we when we say we are serious about change while many questions remain unanswered, in spite of the endless empty rhetoric of general statements that occupy a large cyber space. Why is the very important time parameter in the equation of that change totally missing? What is the change we need? Why? How urgently? How desperately? With what plans and strategies? Questions not so many bother to ask any more without the fear of sounding mundane.
In trying to answer these questions, I feel like this sick nation is left to no tangible effort but fate. Well, some of the writers on the other side of the equation, like Saleh Younis, prefer to call it ‘change at the pace of Eritreans’ but not ‘fate’. That is from his article ‘I was wrong’ (about the effectiveness of popular uprising) in March of 2015. Mr. Saleh – our dear Saay – states, quote: The job, the ONLY job, of the Exiled Eritrean Opposition is to present a forward-looking non-scary alternative to the Home Based Eritrean Opposition.
This was about eight months before he wrote his, ayxawet-aymawet letter at the end of the year. After telling that he had served at Awate for 16 years, he writes a line that I found very interesting: “…I have been lampooning African leaders who refuse to give up the post–Musevini, Kagame, and a dozen others. It is time to apply “term limits” to myself.” Yeah, that’s what I am ailing about…16 years lampooning deaf dictator. For change. Lampooning for change! Isn’t that almost there is to it on the other side of the equation – just frustrated discourse?
This article has nothing to do with Saay, but I am going to refer to some of his remarks which I find repeated by many others, too; remarks which could give us an important insight to the mind-set which I think is behind maintaining the status quo of both the opposition and the opposed.
The first is the unnecessary quest for an almighty functional political party ‘that offers an alternative and hope’ to the people inside Eritrea who will bring about change ‘at their own pace’ – to repeat Saay’s phrase. The second is the wasteful endeavour of stating the obvious, which basically is the habit of lampooning and ridiculing the criminals for committing crime and making a big job of telling on them – to the world which never really cares enough.
Whoever planted the idea that the reason Eritrean people and the army are reluctant to find themselves completely committed to bring change is because of the lack of a unified opposition party have devised a good escape strategy from responsibility or as we say it in Tigrinya, atahadma ebuyat. Similarly, separate identification as Eritreans abroad Vs Eritreans inside, presenting the former as powerless for what goes on in the inside is another wrong approach that has encouraged both to turn inward and get themselves insulated from one another. It is, again, stating the obvious to say the final touch towards scoring the big change shall come from the people inside, but it should not be too difficult to see that somebody has to kick the ball from the farthest point of the adversary’s goal and initiate the teamed attack. The Eritrean diaspora, specially the refugees from the last decade, should not be treated otherwise but an extension of the population within.
The role of the media outside, if there is to be a serious impact, should be to act as a channel of energy flow to the spirits under the repression, in one direction; and in the opposite direction, be a means of constant reminder to the freed spirits from otherwise wandering in forgetfulness and denial of their other half – by diligently delivering all the details of the livelihood inside Eritrea vividly, playing out effective journalism and sustaining a sense of urgency that could be put to action. If there is a spark of opposition inside Eritrea, the job of the exiles should be to build it in to a fire by feeding it fuel and blowing it without a stop. The main job should never be the untimely and unrealistic task of creating alternative government or anything to that effect; nor should it be a job directed outwards to foreign powers. The best we could get out of foreigners is condemning, alienating and sanctioning the regime, which it secretly craves for. In its worst shape, it could yield just a little bit and agree to show them around Sembel prison, until they reduce the pressure to a manageable level. So what?
The main job and the practical one should be creating a popular movement and force both outside and inside Eritrea; I refute the argument that claims it is not possible to organize a movement without a great leader and a great party; popular movements are a result of an empowered grievance, which is a collaborative work of all individuals who recognize this. The Eritrean people or the army, which are basically interchangeable, are not looking up towards their fellow men in Europe or America to see if they have consolidated a replacement party in case they dispose of the regime. The first thing they are lacking is the full realization of what they deserve and what they are missing out, and a clear mirror that shows them how bad they look, and how they could look; secondly, they need empowerment, energy and solid ideas on how they could take down the dictatorship. This is where the exiles could have been more practical…empowering the trapped people through relevant media outlets – radios, televisions, pamphlets…etc, by unmasking and exposing the true nature of the oppressor and its limited power and help people convince themselves that it is not as difficult as they think to break the ropes their tied with. That’s when ‘actions’ shall start, first within an individual’s spirit and then collectively. It is in favour of the change seekers that unlike in many other countries, there is hardly a conflict of interest between the army and the masses, in Eritrea; thus, one can’t be easily used against the other.
The second big stagnation factor is the bad habit of stating the obvious. It is sad to see brilliant minds which otherwise should have been laying out strategies and initiating practical actions have found their comfort zones in small intellectual circles endlessly engaged with the written word. I would not say the pen is totally useless in the fight against dictatorship; but, it is mostly useless. The only way it could be very useful is when it is employed strategically to support movements on the ground by feeding Medias that have impact on the majority of the people.
Before I end this mostly useless article which might be useful only for its telling the useful writers to be more useful, I shall think out loud and note down why we need change – without really caring about sounding mundane. My believe is that we most Eritreans, in exile or even inside the country are not feeling the need for change with the urgency it should have manifested itself with; and the underlying reasons, I fathom, may be the way we understand and feel the most repeated word ‘change’ within each of our own totality. According to me, the word change should stand against three giant pillars which should take root both in the mind and heart. I will discuss this in the second part.
In the first part of this article I discussed my frustrations about the way Eritrean change seekers are pedalling around. My basic points were that there is a fundamental lack of urgency and energy that should accompany such a goal, that there is a fundamental lack of strategy such an endeavour must be guided with; and finally, I questioned the validity of the common criticism that is pointed at the opposition parties for their lack of unifying themselves to lead the rally of change, and pointed out that popular movement is the best option we have and it need not be unnecessarily delayed by asking the wrong questions and setting false tasks. In the second part I will just repeat what seems to be the obvious, but I believe we all need to be constantly reminded about, nevertheless – because it is ones depth of faith in an idea that is the key to taking it to action, not its mere acknowledgement.
So, here goes the preaching. Those of us, who let ourselves willingly go to the preaching halls of churches, mosques or other temples once in a while, would understand that those preachers do not mean to accuse us but to bring us together in to a moment of self-reflection. Please take this one as such, if only from an ordinary fellow, much less a politician.
- we are suffering today; we need change today
Today there are our innocent people being tortured in countless prisons: Those Bitwededs who went to jail on the early set after independence, the forgotten Jehova witnesses of 1993 in dungeons for almost a quarter of a century, the Pentecostal followers whose faith has been their crime, the thousands of political prisoners. These people say they need to be released today.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Eritreans whose precious youth years are burning out to keep the dictatorship going. These people say they need to live their life beginning from today.
Today, there are millions of Eritreans whose life has been reduced to lining up for water and meagre food rations. These people say they need their normal lives back.
Thousands of elderly men have been forced to be soldiers, specially in the last four years. These people say they need to rest today.
- We don’t have to suffer tomorrow
As in economics, we need to measure the future value of change against time by reducing it to its net present value. The change the higher officials asked for in year 2000, had it been realized, is a lot more worth than a possible change today. A change five years from now could be five folds less worth than the one we could have today. Like Mr. Dan Conell said in his recent interview with EBC, with time the divisions within the society, be it ethnic or regional could increasingly get wider and create fault lines. I don’t think this phenomenon is particular to Eritreans; rather it is a doubled cooperation of the oppressor and the oppressed that result in such a disaster. The oppressor strives to maintain or create polarizations between the oppressed to reduce the danger of being overthrown, and the oppressed when faced with ruthlessness that they are incapable of challenging, tend to confront each other like children of a dysfunctional family usually do.
In addition, there will be more loss of life of escapees, prisoners and executed ones, but we also have to gravely realize the very long lasting social and economic damages that we shall inherit after the inevitable change; and again, it is going to be us, the victims, who shall pay for that.
It is not hard to extrapolate from the on-going social transformations and be alarmed about the social transformation itself; I never heard of crimes of robbery three years ago, now people from Asmara repeatedly say that the city is getting increasingly unsafe…. the number of Eritrean women who are going in to prostitution is increasing. How about the lost faith in the nation? How about the total aversion of most youth to learning and education even after they are provided the opportunity….the permanent strategic damages in the economic landscape with neighbours….aren’t all these real issues? Just see how long the aftereffects of such regimes extend just glancing at the people who lived under communists for long; Russians, Cubans, and North Koreans – not to mention after decades of meagre food rations stunted their development, they are now three inches shorter than their cousins in South Korea! Hilarious but very sad, because I reckon their mind, too, might have shrank under the heavy weight of the Kims.
I have come across some people who pretend to have made a cost-benefit analysis of a possible political change to justify their reluctance to call upon it full heartedly. When you have the entire situation going on as mentioned in points A and B above, there is no more pretence and moral degradation than arguing over the cost of change. Notwithstanding its factuality, if the regime states the nation went to war because Ethiopians killed six Eritrean soldiers, should there be a question on whether we should go to war with the regime for killing Eritreans by the thousands? And when I say war I don’t mean war with the guns in the field; no, who is there to fight against anyway? The presidential guards? No, I am talking about the war where everyone becomes a soldier without guns.
We Eritreans are the last people to wish to see violence; still, you can’t wish away your enemy. Justice dictates that there is no other option but dispose of the dictatorship, with all means except by pleading for change. Justice also dictates that if you know something to be right, then you have no other option but to act on it and own the consequences of your right choice at the moment. No dictatorship has been abolished in history without paying the due costs; the only question is whether the subjects recognize their inevitable fate, decide justly, and act.
There are two things that assist to take this stand; one is the need to totally be done away with hope; the second is to see your oppressor for the enemy of you it is, and be able to comprehend with your mind and spirit the state of war you are within.
Marx said religion is the opium of the masses; well, I say hope is. Actually, this is sort of rephrasing it, since religion is also a higher level of hope. This hope, I say the masses should stop consuming, is the petty consumptive item that dictators keep tossing to retain the master verses the hungry dog state. It is paralyzing.
And feeling the state of war? Yes, it is only when you truly know and feel you are at war that you can win one.
But if you don’t feel this way, and nevertheless your tongue never tires of talking about change, Eritrea is asking you one simple but the most important question: Are you sure you care enough?