Eritrea: Caught In A Trap

We are stuck in a rut, going nowhere fast, running on a treadmill. There is this crushing familiarity from the headlines of the Eritrean state media; the announcements of the opposition organizations; the polemic writings of the writers; the readers’ responses to the writers; and the non-response of those who have opted to disengage. I could have written what I am writing now 10 years ago, in response to some stupid thing the Eritrean regime did. (Yeah, I too hate the word “regime” but I can’t bring myself to say “government.”  Any suggestions?) If you chose to read it, you would have liked it or hated it.  And if you chose to respond, you would have told me how what I wrote was the equivalent of a cool glass of milk—if you liked it—or, if you hated it, you would have made some menacing reference to what you or somebody will do to me, and how you are not surprised by my treachery given my ancestry (Yawn!)  And if you are completely disengaged, you would ask if I am still writing, maybe you would fake interest—so, what is going in Eritrea?—and then tell me how futile it all is.

David Gergen, who began his career as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, once talked about one piece of advice he got from his boss: “About the time you are writing a line that you have written so often you want to throw up, that is the first time the American people will hear it.'”  And that’s why we do what we do: it is a game of attrition.   If only the Eritrean regime tells you about one more microdam it had built, maybe you will be won over.  If only the opposition told you about how one more congress it had is a “game changer,” you will sign up.  And maybe if some writer told you about the absurdity of it all, maybe you will have an “aha! moment”?  Maybe “this time it is different!” No?

Homer wrote about Eritreans, did you know that?  Here’s what he said:

“And I saw Mo at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain.”

Nah, Homer doesn’t know Mo.  I substituted a word: he was actually talking about the Greek King Sisyphus, who angered the gods and was sentenced to futile menial labor. Besides, there are no Eritreans named Mo: it is my tribute to our politically correct writers whose first thought, even when creating a fictitious character, is: I want to come up with a religion-neutral-let’s-all-get-along name, to show that I have no bias, that I love all our people equally.  So Mo could be short for Mohammed or Mobae.  See? I remember adey Halima who used to give me Sambusa and Fasika was celebrated at the national level with the Mufti reminding us all of our obligation to our government. Oh, will those days come back again, has anyone seen my dentures?

I am disappointed in you Eritrea. Really, I expected better. Now we are all Sisyphuses—but we didn’t do anything to anger the gods.  As far as I know. Besides, this Al Nahda was supposed to be a review of our friend Semere Tesfamariam’s new book, Hearts Like Birds, but how often does your country get accused of plotting to bomb the capital city of your neighboring country?  Semere will understand why it has to be delayed: I was too busy watching Ms. Independence 2011 and the announcer telling me that the Tigrigna phrase for catwalk is “akayda demamu.”  Really, he said that, I am not making it up.  Worse thing I heard since I was told that the translation of rough estimate is Harfaf gmt.   Match that Sem!

Tsk, tsk, tsk, Eritrea: your opposition organizations, your intelligentsia,  your government, your media, your entertainers are all competing to see who will disappoint the people the most.

Let me start with the opposition organizations.  Everybody who hasn’t signed up or fallen out of love has his reasons— his tipping point.  The curious thing is that I didn’t even know I was in love with this one organization until I fell out of love. Although I may have given you a clue or two over the years. It is the ELF-RC, or whatever has become of it.

My disorientation has nothing to do with its “political program.”  Honestly,  given my libertarian instincts, I don’t like–and I never liked–any of the political programs of any of the opposition (and ruling) organizations. It is all communism light. It is a reluctant and grudging acceptance of free enterprise system, capitalism, by people who followed communism to its dead end. So all the “social justice”, “economic justice”, “equitable development”  code word you hear is all politico-speech for command economy, whether it comes from the Islamists, the Federalists, or the secularists.  That is our future and as a realist, I realize my position is in the minority so I made my peace with it.  Therefore, since I reject the political programs of all the Eritrean organizations,I embrace or reject political organizations on the culture they promote.  And the thing I admired about the ELF-RC  (if I am honest, I would say the only thing) was its soul: it genuinely embraced all of Eritrea’s values. It was no fake unity-in-diversity slogan while pursuing hegemony: it was real.  But somewhere in its journey to the elusive mountaintop, it decided that the path to avoiding the rolling stone was to grow huge fingernails to better steady itself and it shredded its sole unique quality, its soul.

It has always been a squabbling organization, almost Italian in its culture of loud stubbornness. Part of its charm. But it always fought about big things, even when it knew it was on the losing end of the fight. It was, in the words of Bob Seger, a “beautiful loser.”  But then it degenerated into fighting about petty things:  because we are mad at Saleh Johar, let’s tell everybody that Saleh “Gadi” Johar is Ali Salim. I mean, really. I am one of three people who knows with 100% certainty that Ali Salim is not Saleh “Gadi” Johar. Of course, if you are a critical reader, you can reach almost the same level of certainty—let’s say 95% confidence level–by paying attention to one simple but major distinction: those steeped in ELF culture (Saleh Johar) write very differently from those steeped in EPLF/PFDJ culture (Ali Salim) because they have vastly different reference points. Ali Salim references articles in Hadas Ertra, or EPLF/PFDJ magazines you have never heard of; he uses EPLF/PFDJ Tigrigna, and mentions frequently the pop culture of EPLF/PFDJ.   Saleh Gadi Johar hasn’t read enough issues of Hadas Erta to write the way Ali Salim does (go ahead check everything he has written since his Dehai days) and certainly doesn’t  know a single EPLF-era singer. Ali Salim writes in smart-alec faux-asmarino language; Saleh Gadi Johar uses traditional Tigrigna.   The two have entirely different prose, vocabulary…ah, wtf.   Those who do not know the difference between these two cultures are forgiven for being duped but the meskerems and arkokobays and harnnets absolutely, positively and with 100% certainty knew it but have chosen to mislead and lie about it to their readers and admirers because it fulfills some political objective they have. In fact, if it was some political objective, I would have some admiration for their Machiavelian smarts. It is just petty, low-rent, kebele politics of personal vendetta which tells me: this is not the culture or value of the organization I once liked, and I want nothing to do with it.

As for Ali Salim.  The thing to do would have been to man up and say, “whoa, whoa! This has gone far enough: I am the one who writes under the pen name of Ali Salim” and defend your position but, as a favorite Awate Forum writer, Qoqah, once said, “Koynuka! Baldongaka tewdi’en!”

And all our Internet writers?  Oh, dear God.  This is an article all its own.  Of course many are great, but not all. I could write a series on Yosief Gebrehiwot alone–how he references everything he writes with links, except for one: his fiction that this website, which was probably the first to call on targeted sanctions on the Eritrean regime, is against sanctions. I will extend him the courtesy of making that case–if he can provide links to something we wrote, and then I will engage him in an honest-to-goodness debate.   Maybe.

There are some Eritrean writers who say that the PFDJ, just like the EPLF was, is on the right path.  The era they admire is 1970-present. Despite the proven, witnessed-by-everybody sadism of the PFDJ: they actually admire the cruelty of PFDJ. They are like the fans of Texas governor Perry who denied a stay of execution to a man who was proven (after his death) to have been innocent. Instead of saying, “well, it is tragic, everybody makes mistakes” they said, “It takes real guts to send an innocent man to his death!”  This is worse than the “men Hamushay mesri’e kunu iluwom!” explanations Eritreans offered in the 1990s when told that Isaias was killing Eritreans.    Eritrea will survive Isaias Afwerki–by God or by man he will go on to meet his maker–but I am not sure Eritrea will survive the Fedayeen Isaias, the violent lumpenproletariat — those whom Marx described aptly as “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society”–  whom he will leave behind.  Karl Rove, the American political strategist has left us karlroviansim: defining the strength of your opponent as a weakness. Sophia Tesfariam, a devout PFDJ supporter, has invented a new Sophism: defining your most glaring weakness as a strength.  Her slogan is: rule of law over rule of the jungle!  Really.

There are Eritrean writers who say that PFDJ betrayed the legacy of EPLF. The era they admire is 1970-1997. They won’t tell us one thing that Isaias Afwerki can do now, that he couldn’t do in 1970-1997  because of the “institutionalization” of the EPLF when they were part of it.  Just one example and I shall be a convert.  But none is forthcoming.

There are Eritrean writers who say the EPLF betrayed the ELF. The era they admire is 1961-1981.

Then there are Eritrean writers who say that the entire Eritrean revolution was a mistake.  Their favorite era was 1952-1961.  They love the days of Mahber Showate when we were struggling “peacefully”–which is to say Ethiopia had the guns, and we had brochures and banners.

Now there are Eritreans who say that the entire Eritrean cause was a mistake, peaceful or not.   Even the leaders of the pre-armed-resistance movement were not struggling to advance liberty but an Arabist and Muslim agenda hell-bent on separating Eritrea from its mother Ethiopia.  Every giant on the cover of Alemseghed’s “Aynfelale” is a crook and a traitor and a possible Jihadist, according to them.   

There is this infinite regress movement in Eritrea and our intellectuals, who are supposed to inspire us and empower us and help us find some Lowest Common Denominator we can all embrace, are in a nihilistic race. It is like an atheist going to a church to rant about his lack of faith: if you don’t believe, why do you go to church. Just for the thrill of provoking the believers?  What is it that we are supposed to do if everything you are saying is true—have a Dugushtetey Day? Will the navel gazing never end? Is the rear view mirror that hypnotic?

And the PFDJ?  Oh, God, Almighty. Thomas Keneally, who was a friend of Eritrea way back when we had no friends (kinda like now, when you think of it) said Eritreans reminded him of Israelis—by which he meant that both should have given up their quest for a homeland long ago but didn’t. Petros Solomon also used the “we are the Israelis of Africa” when he was the Foreign Minister, around the time that he rushed the death-bound marlaria-stricken Isaias Afwerki for hospitalization in Israel.

And how have you paid back Petros Solomon, Eritrea?  He is at Eira Eiro, dead or on a countdown to death. Well, yes, now I remember how we have angered the gods.

Watching the PFDJ is like watching a Shakespearian play—acted out by inmates at an insane asylum. The audience is sitting there and waiting for the inevitable disaster. The disengaged Eritreans have a good question: so why does the audience watch? Because, my bad, I forgot a crucial bit of detail, it is an audience of 1, and it is Shakespeare, and he is watching HIS play.

Yemane Gebreab At The UN

Here’s an Alnahda exclusive (even the awate team doesn’t have this):  it is a video testimony of Yemane Gebreab at the UN.

Sorry, I normally don’t do that but, like I said, I am very disappointed in you, Eritrea.

So here comes Yemane Gebreab who, as far as the insane asylum goes, is not of the frothing-at-the-mouth violent type. He is worse: he is the soft voice who, with calm demeanor,  rationalizes the behavior of violent, frothing-at-the mouth people. There is a surreal quality to outlaws talking about the law, the unjust arguing for justice, the unfair pleading for fairness, the compulsive liars praising the virtue of truth. It is unreal to hear appeals for justice from a man who represents a system which routinely throws people in underground dungeons and dismisses calls for rule of law, due process, with the all-purpose “we have our own culture of dealing with these issues.” Yemane Gebreab was given something his system never grants its victims–the right to face its accusers and the right to self-defense—but that right does not exonerate you, if you are, like the PFDJ, as guilty as sin.

He was at the UN to provide a response (preliminary, he said, which is short hand for “half-assed”) to the report of Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.  In a nutshell, here’s what Eritrea is accused of. Oh, how I hate it when the headline writers use the shorthand “Eritrea” to say “Eritrean regime.”

So, this regime, this parasitical entity which, to our misfortune, will always be described as Eritrean, is accused of providing material support to the terrorist Somalia organization that goes by the name of Al-Shabab; of arming and training Ethiopian and Djibouti’s armed opposition groups; of conceiving and facilitating the attempted execution of a terroristic operations in Ethiopia by one of Ethiopia’s armed groups; and of conducting illegal activities (arms trade, human trafficking, contraband trade, embezzlement, money laundering,  and other scams) to finance its ambitious goals. The goals are inferred:  instability in Ethiopia; regime change in Somalia; and revenge in Djibouti.

Oh, how stupid we have been! This website, among others, was outraged that the Eritrean regime was not speaking up for Eritreans who were being tortured and raped and extorted in Sinai.  Now, says the Monitoring Group, the torturers and rapists are business partners of the Eritrean regime, and the pain inflicted on the Eritreans was part of the investment.  Even now, even those who are supposed to be the most vigilent about the cruelty of PFDJ, couldn’t conceive that it would be THAT sadistic and THAT greedy.

The first line of defense Yemane Gebreab used will be familiar to all you parents who are trying to discipline one of your children: “it’s not fair, because when my sister did the same thing, you didn’t punish her!” So out comes the Ethiopia card: Ethiopia is equally guilty, so how come it is not being punished!

Well, my dear boy, because UN Security Resolution 1907—which is the only topic at hand—does not ban Ethiopia from training or arming opposition groups or buying 50 tanks. It bans you. Now go to your room and think of what is it that you did to deserve that punishment, and no Eri-TV for you for 8 hours.

The second line of defense is called “Throw Colonel Gemachew ‘Kercho’ Ayana Under The Bus.” When Colonel Gemachew (along with Brig. General Hailu Gonfa) joined the OLF back in 2006, Eritrean TV interviewed him and the supporters of the PFDJ were parroting Timbite Isaias which was made following the 2005 Ethiopian elections that zero-hour had approached for the Ethiopian regime. “Weyane abqiU iyu.”    After Gemachew trekked to Eritrea,  for 3 years all we heard was the meAt Awetat that the Ethiopian opposition was inflicting on Ethiopia’s government forces.  Weyane abqiU iyu!  Zero hour is here. But that clock, like everything else in Eritrea, is stalled.  And, as was the case with the Sudanese and the Somali armed opposition,  once the Ethiopian armed opposition made the trek to Eritrea, they became essentially subordinates in the Eritrean National Security Agency chain of command.  And within that hierarchy, if you assert yourself or try to show independent judgment, you will be put under “house arrest” or made to disappear. An Ethiopian opposition website which was such a huge admirer of the Eritrean tyrant that it named him “Man of the Year” came to learn belatedly this sad lesson.    The Somalis were wiser; they learned it in time. Simply put, an Ethiopian, Djiboutian, Somali, Sudanese opposition group which wants to base its political office in Asmara will have to live exactly the way Asmara natives do: obey the PFDJ or disappear.

Notwithstanding this fact of life, Yemane Gebreab is now attempting to present Colonel Gemachew as either innocent–if the facts presented by the Monitoring Group against him are not compelling to the Security Council–or a rogue Ethiopian opposition figure over whom the Eritrean regime had no influence or control (“the OLF can answer for itself”)– if the facts presented by the Monitoring Group against him are compelling to the Security Council.  A two step dance, each step clunkier than the other. 

Why? That takes us to the third line of defense: ignore evidence or facts that are inconvenient: Gemachew wasn’t the only one that the leader of one of the terror teams, Omar Idriss Mohamed, was talking to. He was also talking to Brigadier General Te’ame “Wedi Meqelle” Goitom Kinfu—and there is a voice recording of that.   With the UN.  So, unless General Te’ame was calling Omar Idriss to talk to him about the weather in Metema, or to wish him a happy birthday, then he’s got some ‘splaining to do.  In Asab, says the Monitoring Group, “Te’ame and Gemachew provided them [one of the terror teams] with final instructions and explosives.”  So, Te’ame appears joined at the hip with Gemachew and if Yemane is going to throw Gemachew under the bus, Te’ame will have to be dragged with him. Or, Yemane Gebreab can say, “why do you think we can call him “Wedi Meqelle”! He is not Eritrean—he is from Tigray!” But that would open a can of worms that would feed the Deqebat folks for, oh, about another decade.  So I don’t think they will try that line of defense.

Other pieces of evidence (dear Isaias: the plural of evidence is evidence: please don’t say “evidences”) for which Yemane had no rebuttals include the following: the Monitoring Group’s mention of Solomon Wedi Iyasu and his training camp; Colonel “Hatsaynet” and his FRUD connections; what was Humed Karikari doing being photographed with FRUD leaders? (answer: that was the price of admission to the forgiveness club for signing the original G-15 letter); Were Andeberhan Berhe and Issa Ahmed Issa wiring money from the Eritrean embassy in Sudan to acquire weapons from Eastern Europe? If the human trafficking operation of the Nairobi-based Hanibal Kahsay Menghistie was not condoned by you, why does he fly in and out of Eritrea? What about your human/weapons smuggling profit-sharing agreement with the Sudanese Mabrouk Mubarak Salim and Hamid Abdallah?

Another line of defense used by Yemane Gebreab is the Bart Simpson classic: “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove anything.” Oh, golly, I just don’t know what you mean when you say there were detonation bombs—does anything prove they belong to us?  Or its variation: I have already been punished for that—it predates December 2009!  And the Romanian weapon: can we please stall: that is our favorite activity.  You give the PFDJ time, and then they can say, after sufficient time has passed, what Isaias Afwerki told the Qatari journalist when he asked him about the G-15:  “By God, I do not know about this issue. This issue can be considered forgotten!

And, the last line of defense Yemane Gebreab used  is the witness discrediting method perfected by lawyers. The thing to do, as most of us have learned from years of watching courtroom dramas, is to find something—even something completely un-related to the case at hand– that the witness was flatly wrong about in the past. Didn’t the Monitoring Group say that the Eritrean regime flew in 3,000 soldiers to Somalia in the past? Well, where are they? Or say that the witness was bribed or intimidated into lying.  All these witnesses—the OLF, ONLF—are all in Ethiopian custody and have, no doubt, been subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, so can they really be believed?

It is a good line of argument, but of limited use. And the reason is that not all of the witnesses are in Ethiopian custody. The witnesses include people in your own payroll at your embassy in Nairobi; Eritreans whom you have managed to chase of their own country; ARS officials; SPLM officials; members of Sudan’s Eastern Front, Asmara-based Sudanese diplomat; your own documents, decoded; former Eritrean intelligence officers; law enforcement officials; international bankers; and state spokespersons.

The corollary to discrediting witnesses is to provide character witnesses who will tell the court what a swell dude you are. And this is where Yemane Gebreab’s defense breaks down. Because there is nobody in the world who will come in and say, “I just can’t imagine them doing it!” Sure, there are witnesses who will say that the PFDJ “ was so adorable as a child” but no one will vouch for its character as an adult. So to say, “in all our history as a fighting force, 1970-1991, we never once resorted to terrorism—even when we were facing an existential threat—so why would we now, as a sovereign state?” would have been so compelling, but that is like a lunatic saying I have been sane all my life, why would you accuse me of being insane now? Because you just are, and it is demonstrably so.

On the merits, the Eritrean regime was going to be judged on four things: (a) Is it continuing its spoiler role in Somalia? (b) Is it providing material support to armed groups? ( c )  Is it observing the arms embargo? (d) Has it acknowledged its problem with Djibouti and is it making an effort to resolve it? If one assumes that the Eritrean regime considers applying pressure on Ethiopia as a strategic objective and therefore it is not in its interest to have a weakened Shebab, a weakened Ethiopian opposition groups, or unilateral disarmament, then one can understand why it would fail on (a), (b) and ( c) above.   But it could still have made a token decision to normalize its relations with Djibouti by complying with terms of the Resolution. Instead, what does it do?  It brings FRUD back from the dead and then it continues to deny that the mediation agreement it signed under the auspices of Qatar actually exists and goes to the extent of saying, “There is no Qatar mediation. The emir of Qatar offered to mediate, but it wasn’t necessary because the situation between Djibouti and Eritrea returned to normal.” This really begs the question: what the hell is this guy smoking?  The PFDJ is an evil organization but because it is headed by an impulsive man it is always getting busted.   It has become the caricature terrorist organization, one met with a mix of fear and ridicule. 

To go back to Thomas Keneally: one of the many things that the Australian author had found admirable about the EPLF in the 1980s was what he called its “cult of impersonality,” and its competence.  Now it is nothing but a “cult of personality” (Nehna=Nsu) and incompetence.  And I believe there is a cause and effect relationship between the two.

Eritrea needs to pivot.  To hit the reset button.  For the opposition to gets its act together, for the regime to at least change from unspeakably evil and to have some redeeming qualities; for our writers to be more coherent and stop gazing at their navels.  Really, there is nothing there.  The hope are the youth.  The challenge is this:  will the PFDJ clone itself faster than all of us, its opponents, can agree on a vision that appeals to and mobilizes our youth? I have cause to be optimistic–I see now Eritrean youth as ferocious as Malcolm X, unafraid, immune to intimidation, and full of energy.  They just need to harness all their energy towards action-oriented activities, and to pursue it with a higher sense of urgency that outpaces that of PFDJ.  Otherwise, they will become another debating society of mourners.


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