‘Eritrean Unity’: As Power Over Life

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

The Unconscious Eritreans

We are the worst of the worst; ask any fellow. The global biopolitics has put us in the worst of 1%. Imagine any human parameter of normative value, at a global scale, and line individual values in a curve, and you observe Eritreans falling under the lowest 1% of this normal curve of this imagined parameter.  Statistical theories have long established a higher probability of normality for a population of more than 30 individuals to acquire characters that hold the average and the median. So, ideally, as a collective, we should have been all over this curve: the few unfortunate of us being on the tail, the majority being on the belly, and the few fortunate of us being on the best end. Yet, all of us are persistently in the tail. And this phenomenon has endured for decades now–without us being conscious of it. Then the questions will be: how come this enduring misery can’t create consciousness of the masses? How deep is our rock bottom? When will we start to say “enough! we had it all!”? Are we that much cowards to stand against authority? Is there anything called a cowardly mass to begin with?

I think there isn’t. And we feel we are conscious. We have said and are saying enough, but for an incomplete reason. It’s just that the motivation for our defiance isn’t comprehensive. Our motivation, while it emanates from true desperations, it keep feeding the discourses of power that we should be challenging. PFDJ has an absolute right of death-this is an obvious fact and most conspicuous. As such, opposition is geared towards challenging this coercive power. We think of the government’s power as reductionist, as such we strive to maximize individual, ethnic or religious power. As the right to death is located in institutions, we work to dismantle them. We hate and point to the fact that our people are living in a panopticon style prison where they always feel of being watched and act accordingly. This primitive PFDJ surveillance system is a bummer, and we are all aware of that. But, all these do not amount to consciousness. We still are pushing one side of the wall. Simultaneous with our struggle against PFDJ’s coercive power, we need to challenge its power over our lives.

What is Power over Life?

Foucault, in his brilliant work on “The History of Sexuality”, has outlined the paradigm shift on how power is exercised by the sovereign since the Victorian era.  He argues, what was once socially banal or normal and morally right is now relegated back to the private sphere; in this specific work sexuality. And this is made possible through the discourses of enhancing life. For instance, the power of enforcing a diet regimen is done in the sake of enhancing peoples’ health. This, however, discursively and instantly produces the oppressed in the form of undesired obese. According to him, the classical liberal theories of power, which are useful in understanding judicial power (or right to death), are no longer robust in explaining this new form of power over life. When opposition against the new form of repression over the once banal falls within the frameworks of classical power theories, it becomes more of a supporter than a challenger. Our talks of or resistance toward such repressions bring unintended discourses around the issue in forms of concentric circles, that- in a way- protect and leave the subject matter intact, and, thus, strengthen the oppressing power structure.

Now, for argument’s sake, let’s see the issue of unity in the Eritrean identity discourse through the lenses of power over life. The contemporary discourses on Eritrean identity recognize unity as tantamount to uniformity hade libi, hade hizbi! There were once times when Eritreans were proud of their micro- identities. People were proud of being Muslims, Christians, Tigrignas, Tigres, Bejas or whatnots. And they were very much open about it. It was normal to tease people for their specific identities; and the teased would take it more as a sign of endearment than antagonism. I would argue; we still feel proud of our micro-identities. However, the context of understanding these identities has been changed once and for all (or what was once banal is regressed to be taboo), as such, we see the need to do it in private. The ceiling, below which one is allowed to enjoy his/her micro-identity, has been gradually lowered through time. Consequently, the only identity allowed to surface is the one that banners hade libi. How is that possible and what are the power elements in it? Why is it even important to this discussion?

Our colonial masters, especially His Highness- Emperor Hailessilassie’s regime, saw our comfort in our diversity. And they were astute enough to see the potency in it. Once they got their assumptions right, dividing us along these lines of micro identities came as a solution to their fear. They pursued that solution, and had us divided beyond recognition. When we started the armed resistance, except for the few avant-garde, the majority had this distortion as a backdrop. Then came the crooked (ELF/EPLF Politburo) that used the dialectics in our beauty to satisfy their power hungry egos, which then is culminated, through time, to a synthesis in the form of hade libi. Hade Libi discourse embodies power over life. It plays into this historical awareness of ours, and poses as an ultimate means to our existence. It enables our irrational act of self reservation. It requires us to self- scrutinize and self-form ourselves, and in a process makes us docile. It creates norms around it and even selects words for us when we communicate within its frame. Surveillance is enforced through these norms, not only that the norms act as a disciplining power per se, but also as behavior molders where one’s next step becomes predictable. Resistance against this discourse is, therefore, nearly impossible. When we reconnect with our micro-identity in as a form of resistance, almost instantly, we are dispatched as jihadists, agames, traitors, unionists or CIAs. Therefore, resistance- especially through reconnecting with one’s micro identity-feeds and strengthens the PFDJ power discourse, instead of weakening it. The stereotypes, perceptions and prejudices associated with these name callings share one cognitive domain-that of enmity.  This is an evidence to the postulate that hade libi as a concept can only be comprehended when we visualize Eritrea in a constant and never-ending war. Hade libi, in its pure form as a concept of defense, places the ills as exclusively external. By the time we think we have a clear definition of what it meant to be united, all we have is a hyper vigilance to a non-existing external threat and the negations of these perceived bad. Thus, hade libi is a cherished concept that cannot be independently and reasonably defined. Its definition is not-being-something-else, like not being agame, or jihad or traitor.

By claiming authorship of the contemporary Eritrean identity, PFDJ is at the center of the hade libi discourse. As PFDJ is personified by PIA, an allegiance to hade libi is thus an allegiance to PIA [nihna-nisu, nisu-nihna]. Since it is nearly impossible to attack a concept not defined in principle, the author remain safe by turning any attack back to the originator. Critiquing the concept carries-within it- the stereotypes of the negated, thus puts the criticizer on the disadvantage. As the silencing power of the hade libi discourse persists, it develops into dogma. That is what hade libi is now in Eritrea. Even those of us who loathe the concept cannot shake it off completely; we will remain agnostic. (Haven’t you read comments of people calling others unionists at That is us being tipsy under the influence of hade libi.) As reasonable debate to come into senses becomes impossible; crusade surfaces as an only option. Arguably, none of us would want to go there.

Does PIA have the sophistication and the mental faculty to coin this concept with its elements of power? The Answer is NO! He is as smart as a goldfish. Had he been smarter, as power over life widely functions in liberal democracies, his regime would have been democratic while setting norms of life. But, certainly, he takes an advantage off this inevitable historical occurrence. He does capitalize on it. And those masses who internalize the concept wouldn’t dare to challenge as the concept itself requires self reservation. This is how the regime gets sustenance for its illegitimate rule. It is not because people are cowards, or not because we didn’t commit ourselves enough in challenging the regime’s coercive power; it is just that we do not have a strategy to effectively counter its power over life.

Then how do we form an effective resistance against an oppressor which functions through a norm that is set to discredit resistance? Here are my two cents:

Resistance through Subversion

Now that we know hade libi has an established morale appeal, mobilizing against it would mean immoral, thus is futile. It’s a definite way to treason-treason, at least, in the mind of the masses. However, we can undermine its morale appeal by discrediting the assumptions over which its discourse rests for its comprehension. This method of resistance, when effective, is called resistance through subversion. The assumptions could be one of those: ‘we have to remain united because,…

  1. Our enemies are always at bay working and waiting for our disunity.
  2. We can’t be trusted with our micro-identities.’

The first assumption places all ills on external danger. Means: it readily assumes a perfect internal cohesion worth of envy by others, or whatever internal ills we have are trifling, thus can be relegated. This external threat (though now is more of imagined than real) has its origin in our historical memory. The fallacy however lays in the amount of significance bestowed to this rather insignificant historical occurrence to the point of dictating our national narrative. In our vast historical existence, a decade long conspiracy holds significant weight solely for its relevance as a boogie man. Back in the days, when our colonial masters had us divided along ethnic and religious lines, they were the ones who had a complete reign on our lives. They appointed our political and religious officials, and did other favors for them. Now, we are a country. We do not have foreign masters who would bribe parliamentarians for votes casted against independence. We are independent already. There is no reason for us to live in a state of guarding the federation. Resistance through subversions, therefore, can come in the form of pointing this illogical reasoning. We shall make fun of this line of reasoning and point to the imbecility of believing in it. We have to find a way to entertain the concept of hade libi only when it is forward looking and means to be inclusive; not when it is understood as a necessity to avoid Ethiopianism. We have to entertain unity though. It shouldn’t be forced on us. It shall remain as concept of choice. Otherwise, we will fall into similar form of oppression that, this time around, will have our future and inclusiveness as its context.

The second assumption categorically views Eritreans as incompetent collectives who cannot be trusted with adult stuff. It takes us for babies who would immediately resort to competition with what our parents have given us (the analogy is that of kids saying “my toy is bigger and more expensive than yours” at a play ground). Once I rightly claim what is mine through my parents; this assumption argues; I will instantly belittle what is others for I am a kid, and that is what kids do. Our immatureness, constructed as real and greatly problematized, subject to two obvious ‘elixirs for our own sake’, or so we’re told. One of owning a collective toy (Eritrea in hade libi) and another of having and tolerating an enforcer who does things at his/her volition to guarantee collective ownership of this toy even when it meant of forcing us to abandon our micro-identities. Refraining from being dictated by our egos and accepting the fact that micro-identity is irrelevant to be projected as an accomplishment can thus be waged as resistance through subversion. This shall not be done in a sense of following the conduit channeled by hade libi as a power over life. It has to come as depicting our adultness to discredit the bases, on which this specific assumption rests.

We are the Same Already

The problem is not being Hade Libi. It is the perception that precedes hade libi that begs for a closer look. Once we perceive the risk of our fissiparousness as real, we tend to wish for superglue- in this case hade libi. And this superglue comes with a deceitful enforcer who waives our individual rights for a false sense of unity and security. One of the reasons for our active perception of divisiveness is our failure to see our differences as mostly superficial and socially constructed. We often fail to see ourselves as humans first, and, instead, put more emphasis on aspects that differentiate us from each other; even when we know that these differences do not change the fact that we are inherently the same. We don’t need to change the way we dress, or eat, or talk, or pee; or the God that we worship. We just need to accept those differences as sources of beauty that add color and flavor to the otherwise mundane and uneventful life of ours. Wouldn’t it be boring to have a country that would look like a boarding school exclusively for boys, or girls? Believe me, it would. And who says a country like that would be more secure and united? Go no farther … look Somalia. So the entire argument that we will be safe and secure if we remain uniform is bogus and serves one and one interest: that of PFDJ’s. But, we cannot opt for dis-uniform, no matter how-after the facts- this, as a solution, sounds obvious and alluring. Yet, we can stop believing the single story that makes uniformity appealing and productive.

To discredit the assumptions that dictate the need for sameness with our neighbor, we shall practice our neighbors’ life style by choice. If you are a Muslim, go to church. If you are Tigrigna, wear sarongs. If you are Christian, slaughter a lamb or two during Eid al-Fitr. Resist any ruse (when stated or implied) that discursively constructs us as deserving oppressed in the form of brittles and spoiled babies. And, that is what an effective resistance against PFDJ- which appoints itself as a guardian of unity- looks like. Let’s deprive them of power over our lives.


Related Posts