A Hopeful Scenario For Eritrea
Eritrea’s geography is well suited for the production of abundant electricity that is 100% renewable. There is huge potential for wind energy around Assab. Massive solar power production is possible just about anywhere in the mainland and its 200+ islands. Water from the Red Sea can be channeled to the Danakil depression to generate reliable hydroelectric power. The grid can be powered by all three during the day while wind and hydro take over at night, eliminating the need for batteries.
With full commitment on the Eritrean side and wisely selected implementation partners, the urgency global warming is creating can be leveraged effectively to make Eritrea one of the biggest clean energy producers within a few years. With a booming economy, Eritrea becomes a country where people want to go to, not one to run away from as is the case today.
However, since Eritrea is in a rough and volatile neighborhood, our efforts alone will not be sufficient. We will also need to build strong economic alliances with capable and fairly decent first-world countries, preferably Scandinavian nations, as early as possible in order to make our journey into this bright future as irreversible as it can possibly be.
But there is an elephant in the room. Isaias and his servile messengers — ‘kedemti’ in their foul and arrogant lingo — must exit the scene immediately in order to start Eritrea’s healing process.
Things to Overcome
In 1991, Eritrea’s future seemed destined for greatness. There was wide-eyed optimism that a new era of freedom, peace and prosperity was about to unfold. The adoring population welcomed the triumphant freedom fighters with reverence typically reserved for the gods. Then the liberators turned against their own people – only more vicious and more sadistic than any rulers before them. My friend’s dad worked in the construction sector and remembers the time when people were always encouraged to work, even during Italy’s apartheid era. He said, the only exception during his long working life when honest and hard work was banned or discouraged is after 1991. Almost three decades later, in 2019, the spirit of 1991 has evaporated with little residue left behind. Fear and despair suffocate everyday life. Eritrea sits precariously on a knife’s edge. To stop the bleeding, it is time to heed Berhane Abrehe’s1 advice to get rid of our tormentors immediately.
The positive legacy the liberators could have left behind was enormous. Instead, they launched an era of poverty, torture, murder and disappearances that spares no one — not even their disabled comrades or those who came back from the trenches with their courage and conscience intact. This broad-based viciousness has drained Eritrea’s self-esteem. It now ranks at the bottom of every human development index consistently (Fig 2, 3, 4). The 2019 Index of Economic Freedom2 lists it under “repressed” category; ranking at 177 out of 180 countries. It has become a nation where even the children of the liberators run away from (there are credible reports that even Isaias’s son attempted to cross the border into Sudan). This is a failure of our own making. Eritrea’s previous occupiers didn’t even come close to inflicting this much pain on the Eritrean people.
We also face a renewed external threat from Ethiopia. Although border demarcation was the primary objective of the “peace treaty”, it is now deemed unnecessary and taken off the agenda, putting Eritrea’s sovereignty in question. The optics was all wrong right from the beginning. Why would two African countries choose Saudi Arabia over the African Union as the third-party to witness the event? What drove them to behave that way? The details of the opaque agreement from September, 2018 are still unknown. Even Eritrea’s ministers have no clue.
Through cleverly orchestrated coronation style dramas, Ethiopia appears to have emasculated our despot. Behaving more like Ethiopia’s palace eunuch, he is caged and muted, while Abiy does all the talking. Occasionally, Abiy’s ambitions are amplified by the regime’s messengers. Recently, Eritrea’s ambassador in Japan tweeted: “Changing map/boundaries of sovereign nations is unavoidable but artificial boundaries in people’s minds is avoidable: #Eritrea #Ethiopia now”. For decades, the regime held the whole country hostage by positioning border demarcation as a life-or-death issue. Until our border is demarcated, they said, our sovereignty is at risk. Calling for implementation of the constitution, human rights and rule of law was deemed untimely and unpatriotic. Now, Eritrea is just an “artificial” thing; an “avoidable” figment of our collective imagination. Such naked betrayal of the 65,000 martyrs they left behind makes Berhane’s call a matter of extreme urgency.
For additional historical perspective, Imperial Ethiopia’s Ambassador, Zewde Reta, in his book, ye eritra guday, says: Eritreans should not forget that, we Ethiopians, committed no crimes of any kind against our Eritrean brothers (.. እኛ ኢትዮጵያውያን በወንድሞቻችን በኤርትራውያን ላይ ምንም ዓይነት በደል እንዳልፈጸምንባቸው መዘንጋት የለባቸውም). This is stunning. Even with full benefit of hind-sight — Haile Selassie’s illegal dissolution of the federation, pregnant Eritrean women butchered by Ethiopian soldiers, civilians crushed under Ethiopian tanks in Shieb, Eritrean youth strangled to death with piano wires in Asmara, aerial bombardment of civilians in Massawa3, and countless others – the Eritrean people were invisible to ambassador Zewde then, and still invisible to ambassador Estifanos now. If one has no empathy for fellow humans, extreme insensitivity as exhibited by these two can be normalized — which is scary.
Emboldened by Isaias’s silence and behind-the-scenes collaboration, Abiy’s drip-drip approach – setting expectations of Ethiopian navy on the Red Sea, those who left (meaning Eritrea) returning (to mother Ethiopia) and the resurgence of old Imperial maps – is actively trying to erase Eritrean identity, again. Eritrea does not have a parliament or any representative body of any kind. Yet, to give false legitimacy to renewed attempts to re-occupy Eritrea, references to “parliaments of both countries” working together is deceitfully spread around by Ethiopia. This is a slap in the face to moderate Eritreans who always had tremendous goodwill for Ethiopia. By completely aligning himself with a despot at the expense of our people, Abiy has squandered that goodwill for good. He has become the enemy of the Eritrean people by choice.
There is a much better way for Ethiopia to get to the Red Sea. And that is by putting an immediate stop to its habitual land-over-people obsession. That flawed belief system, that Ethiopia’s only way to get to the Red Sea is by erasing the Eritrean people, must be broken once and for all in order to free all of us (Eritreans and Ethiopians) from the curse of our circular history. We can then have serious talks, as equals, to craft durable treaties based on principles of inter-dependency that are mutually beneficial to both countries.
Breaking Eritrea’s Malaise – A Case for Optimism
The good news is that Eritrea’s despot is a despised old man, waiting for a disgraceful and inevitable exit. If we can muster some courage and heed Berhane Abrehe’s call to accelerate his exit, Eritrea’s salvation will come sooner. Either way, Eritrea will get another opportunity to raise itself from the ashes. Circumstances vary but countries have risen from ashes before. Although still under one-man rule, with all the uncertainties that entails, Rwanda’s rise from the abyss of genocide in 1994 is one impressive example. Germany, Italy, and Japan rising to become dominant global economies after almost total destruction in WW II is another.
Similarly, a vibrant economic future is an achievable outcome for Eritrea too. We have seen Eritrean self-esteem on the rise, briefly, in the 1950s and 60s. Self-driven Eritreans were relatively better represented in business, in education, and the professions until Haile Selassie royally messed things up. During that brief period, Eritrean family values and community ties were strong. Even Eritrean sports teams were among the best — often making up the bulk of Ethiopia’s national soccer team. That potential can be re-awakened again.
By developing the right vision and tenaciously sticking to it, we can surely dig ourselves out of the hole we are in. We are a small nation, and small changes here and there can add up quickly to restore our shattered self-esteem. If we act quickly, we have huge economic opportunities that can remedy our current malaise in a very short time.
Eritrea’s geography is well suited for the production of abundant electricity that is 100% renewable. There is huge potential for wind energy around Assab. Massive solar power production is possible just about anywhere in the mainland and its 200+ islands. Water from the Red Sea can be channeled to the Danakil depression or to artificial lakes on higher elevations to generate reliable hydroelectric power. The nice thing about this is political tensions between upstream and downstream countries that are typical elsewhere (Ethiopia-Egypt, Turkey-Iraq…) do not exist here. So, the peace dividend is high too. With the Red Sea acting as a massive reservoir, costs and timelines are likely to be much less than traditional hydro dams. For rough comparison, Ethiopia’s 7GW Grand Renaissance Dam which started in 2011 had initial cost estimates of $5B USD and it is still under construction.
Thoughtful integration of these three renewable energy sources, probably in the hundreds of GW capacity, can put Eritrea on a very solid economic footing for the foreseeable future (current peak capacity is a measly 88MW). Batteries to store energy for night use won’t be necessary as wind and, more reliably hydro, take over after dark. Typically, other resources in Africa (crude, cocoa, coffee, diamonds etc.) are sold with little or no local value-add. This forces the resource countries to sell cheap and import finished goods at exorbitant prices, keeping them in perpetual poverty (resource curse). External value-add won’t be necessary for Eritrea’s clean energy output – the local products are the finished goods.
Luckily, this is also the right time to launch such a grand venture. As concerns of global warming intensify, renewable energy will continue to stay in high demand, providing us the luxury of creating and/or inviting large energy-intensive enterprises for sustained economic growth. As production capacity increases, energy can be exported to neighboring countries, making Eritrea a positive force on the region’s economies.
With full commitment on the Eritrean side and wisely selected implementation partners (perhaps deep-pocketed and energy-intensive server farm types), the urgency global warming is creating can be leveraged effectively to make Eritrea one of the biggest clean energy producers within a few years. In 5-10 years, Eritrea’s standard of living can be improved drastically. The bad metrics Eritrea is currently known for, as shown in the developmental maps on https://worldmapper.org , will disappear.
Fig 1 shows land mass of the continents as a reference. But see how Africa’s map shrinks drastically (Section A) when key development metrics are plotted for comparison (Fig 2, 3, 4). Section A is the actual map from worldmapper.com. Section B was magnified to make details within Africa easier to see. You can see Eritrea in the area map is proportional to its land mass, but it is hardly visible in the developmental maps (Fig 2, 3, 4) below.
Sub-Saharan Africa and Eritrea are a fraction of their geographic sizes in this Tertiary Education and Science Research map (section A). Better educated Eritreans see no future in Eritrea. Professors and managers are paid the equivalent of USD $100 a month while their non-Eritrean peers, and sometimes subordinates, get $1000 to $2000. Many left the country. Those I came to know, brilliant men and women, are doing well abroad because they are finally in an environment that values their talents and hard work. Eritrea lost big time as this map shows clearly. This bleeding will stop only when Eritrea’s economy is strong enough to pay its own professionals equitably.
Fig 3 and 4 show mobile phone penetration and Internet access, where Eritrea is absent again. With cheap and clean energy, Eritrea’s development size in figures 2, 3 and 4 will be much larger than its geographic size – similar to other developed nations (Taiwan, S. Korea). Without reliable and sufficient electricity, no meaningful development can take place (no Sub-Saharan country is energy self-sufficient). Similarly, with peak capacity of only 88MW today, Eritrea is known for frequent blackouts and an anemic economy.
To realize this level of economic growth, serious long-term alliances with other small but highly developed countries will have to be developed. Given their ethical governance, non-colonial past, and highly rated first-world status, the Scandinavian countries are probably the best partners Eritrea can have to break out into this hopeful era successfully. Hopefully, they too will see benefits in partnering with Eritrea.
These countries may be small (good for Eritrea) but they have the strong backing of the EU and the West if it becomes necessary to protect their economic interests in Eritrea from rogue elements in our volatile region. As Eritrea develops and asymmetries in education and overall living standards narrow, carefully crafted dual citizenship opportunities could further solidify Eritrea’s economic and political stability in the region.
There are many Eritreans living in Scandinavia who can help accelerate the process. In a few decades, perhaps Norway’s prime minister will be a person of Eritrean origin and one of Danish origin Eritrea’s – with all kinds of combinations in between. In such a scenario; a stable, free and economically vibrant Eritrea – where poverty is history – becomes imaginable and achievable. By expanding that circle of safety and economic stability to Tigre, Afar, Saho and Tigrigna speakers in neighboring countries; we can truly become the stabilizing force in the Horn.
But for that to happen, we need to sow the seeds for the new era now, both at personal and societal levels. At the individual level, doing some serious soul-searching based on the writings of our Catholic Bishops — “Where is Your Brother?” (ሓውኻ ኣበይ ኣሎ?) – is a good place to start. Their timely message can help us mend our broken moral compasses. It will also help us defeat the crippling culture of cynicism and pessimism we have internalized for so long. Since “man is free at the instant he wants to be” (Voltaire), my self-liberation is in my own hands. And if I truly liberate myself, then I am not afraid to listen to and trust my inner voice. I am not afraid to reject the noises of propaganda around me; and not afraid to face the truth. The self-liberated me, added to many others, builds up to become the culture of the broader society we belong to. With these two liberations (personal and societal), we can defeat the fear governments and politicians want us to feel. With fear defeated, they cannot go against our wishes. Politicians are the ultimate opportunists. They can only do what we allow them to get away with. And if we are not afraid, we won’t let them get away with anything that perpetuates our own subjugation – as we have let happen so far.
Change the Narrative
Almost all of our current problems are self-inflicted. We are disorganized and unable to advance a coherent vision for our common good – becoming easy prey for clever manipulators. We have allowed the regime to control the narrative of the day for too long. It creates a scenario (imprisons or disappears people without due process) and we react. When that gets old, it creates other scenarios to continue diverting our attention (demolishes homes, imprisons the elderly for ransom, confiscates savings, bans travel, bans imports, closes whole sectors of the economy, etc.) and we react to those too. We are always talking about the regime and never – at least not enough – about our own objectives or about what we need to do, JOINTLY, to free ourselves from our common oppressor. The widely held belief is that we are ineffective because we have many differences. In reality, we are ineffective not because we have differences but because we behave exactly the same way. We project the same predictable behaviors — reactive, cynical, lack of courage to face the truth, dismissive of each other, easily offended, eager to offend, pessimistic etc. etc. Our sameness of character and our very narrow polemical lenses are the root cause of what we wrongly perceive to be “differences”. Unless we tame these negative attributes, any criminal regime that comes to power will subjugate us easily – not because it is strong or good but our inability to act jointly for our common good makes us weak and irrelevant.
To turn this around, we need to change the conversation and own it all the way through. We need to create a proactive narrative that puts the burden of responsibility on us. Our Catholic Bishops and Abba Teklemichael Tewelde4 have done their part to focus our attention on a moral narrative. We need to pick up their baton and amplify their uplifting message in our mosques, churches and immediate circles of influence (families and friends, as well as the social and professional groups we belong to). Wedi Ali and Berhane Abrehe have also tried to lead us towards an action narrative. The moment we find the courage to internalize these moral and action narratives, our true liberation will surely follow. Cynicism and pessimism are forces of inaction that make the possible look impossible. Overcoming these negative forces will open up new worlds where everything is possible again.
We Have Been There Before
We have been in that world of possibilities before. Before independence, education was highly valued in Eritrean society. Illiterate farmers encouraged their children to go to school. Families with limited means and those who migrated from the villages to the cities for a better life worked day and night to create a better future for their children. Encouraged by examples of older brothers and sisters, younger siblings were motivated to go to school and to work hard. By contrast, a child growing up after independence sees older siblings with college education trapped in the regime’s enslavement programs — unable to support themselves, let alone a family. The frustrated older sibling leaves the country. If he/she is lucky enough to survive the tough deserts and high seas, life gets relatively better. Many have flourished. Oddly enough, Eritrea is the one place on earth where Eritreans are guaranteed to fail – by design. The design includes active promotion of poverty to keep people at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid (Fig 5). The design actively diminishes the value of education and professionalism. Our only university is closed. Underpaid and underappreciated instructors leave the country causing a severe deficit of good instructors in schools. The younger siblings see this and immediately set their minds on leaving too – which explains Eritrea’s severe brain drain (Fig. 2).
Solving all our self-inflicted problems by ourselves will no doubt be a great morale-boosting accomplishment. But, although doing so is absolutely necessary, it won’t be sufficient. The Horn is a volatile neighborhood where hardened identities rooted in domination-oriented cultures abound. It is a neighborhood that refuses to learn from its failures and its own past. Ethiopia’s zeal to erase Eritrean identity has come full circle again. Although Haile Selassie’s miscalculations that gave birth to Eritrea’s independence is recent history that many still remember, Abiy’s Ethiopia is trending in that same disastrous direction. His much hyped peace treaty has turned out to be a Trojan horse.
Now that Eritrea is a member of the UN, some Eritreans believe sovereignty is irreversible. That is unrealistic. Think Crimea, think Golan Heights; or closer to home — Haile Selassie and Eritrea. It is very difficult to reverse facts on the ground. The only guarantee is to not let it happen in the first place. It took three decades and massive sacrifices on both sides to reverse Haile Selassie’s error. If the 1952 Ethio-Eritrean federation was not messed with, we could have had almost 70 years of continuous development by now. Instead we got 70 years of lost opportunities in both countries. And it is still not over. The way things are trending, we may even be on the verge of repeating that whole ugly cycle again. 70 years is a very long time to waste. South Korea became a first-world country during that time and it took half that for China to transform itself into a major global economic power.
Saudi Arabia’s rigid culture and its massive wealth is another threat in the region. The brutality it is unleashing on innocent Yemini children and civilians shows how destructive and unpredictable our neighborhood can be. Why did Abiy and Isaias run to the Saudis bypassing the AU? Or were they simply told that was what they had to do?
That is why it is critically important to get our act together now. We need to build strong alliances with capable and fairly decent first-world countries as early as possible in order to make our journey against poverty and backwardness as irreversible as it can possibly be.
Our Collective Shame, We Let This Happen To US
The Eritrean regime has always been at war with its citizens. Protection of its citizens was never part of its agenda. While other nations mourned the loss of hundreds of Eritrean lives in the Mediterranean, it denied their existence. While Eritreans went through horrendous suffering in the hands of traffickers, Eritrean ambassadors in Sudan, Egypt and Libya never came to their aid. The family unit was the strongest social glue in Eritrean society. Under its umbrella, children felt safe and learned good family values that would serve them well for the rest of their lives. After 1991, the family unit was targeted for destruction. Families were depleted. Both parents and children were forced into various use-and-throw programs. Poverty became widespread as never before. No matter what one’s level of education is, almost no one can fully support themselves on their own earnings in Eritrea. Remittances from the large diaspora population are the life line most depend on to stay afloat.
Gold revenues came and went with nothing trickling down to the Eritrean economy. Eritrean soil is exported for mineral processing abroad with no transparency or accountability of what is being sold and where the revenues go. The trucks transporting the soil damage the roads that were bad already. Yet, no revenues come back to repair them. And we can’t coordinate united efforts to get rid of the abusive regime.
Even the once fearless liberators are afraid. Our ministers didn’t challenge Isaias to disclose what he signed on their behalf in Ethiopia, even as they witnessed their Somali counterparts threatening their president with impeachment. They once fought to free others, but like everyone else, they are unable to fight for their own freedom or the freedom of their children now.
Francis Fukuyama’s book (State Building), says: a totalitarian state tries to abolish the whole of civil society and subordinates the remaining atomized individuals to its own political ends. And “abolishing the whole of civil society” is exactly what has taken place. Totally atomized, Eritreans live in fear. Feeling all alone, it is difficult to see beyond the day’s menial existence at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. From sunrise to sunset one is fully occupied with the challenges of that day. There is no physical energy or mental bandwidth left for anything else. By design, the regime makes sure you are never safe. Reckless wars are created to sacrifice the young. Honest work is made illegal, by restricting access to your own savings or by closing centers of employment (construction, imports, and private businesses). This pushes otherwise decent and hardworking people to poverty. Intentional and widespread lawlessness increases the uncertainties of daily life. Family love is sabotaged by taking young adults away on endless programs of servitude. As a result, elderly parents end up alone. Belonging is out of the question. You can be jailed or disappeared for belonging to the “wrong” religion or any group the regime deems illegal.
Chained to the bottom of the pyramid, and spending all my energies to survive the challenges of the day (looking for food, water, shelter), self-esteem and self-actualization, at the top of the pyramid, are nothing but pipe dreams. The only time Eritreans get the opportunity to move up the pyramid is when they leave Eritrea. To willfully engineer so much pain and poverty when, just as easily, we could have created prosperity and abundance for all is our collective shame. Hopefully, it is one we have learned not to repeat.
For a New Beginning, We Need Peace Within
Fig 6 attempts to show how the much needed peace within can be restored. A free nation is a mirror where every citizen should see their image reflected on. How would it feel if you stood in front of a mirror and you only saw images of people standing next to you, but not yours? It is as if you didn’t exist. Today’s Eritrea is exactly like that. You won’t see your image in this national mirror if you belong to the wrong faith group (Pentecostal church, Jehovah’s Witness, members of the Orthodox Church striving to be independent from the regime’s interventions or Muslims the regime falsely deems Jihadists); or you are a young person with a dream, a free-minded writer, a scientist, ambitious politician, entrepreneur, or a care-free teenager.
We need to re-build this national mirror so everyone can see themselves in it. And that can only happen if everyone is safe and at peace with oneself first, free to choose one’s own affiliations – atomized no more. But to be truly liberated, I must also see beyond myself, to have empathy for “others” and to be ready to speak for them if they cannot speak for themselves – and vice-versa if I am not able to speak for myself. Then and only then will we have a fighting chance to restore the dignity and self-esteem Eritrea’s very first government has shredded to pieces. Only then will the brief Eritrean renaissance of the 1950s and 60s mentioned earlier bloom again. Only then will the dream of economic liberation through 100% renewable energy become reality.
Just like Eritrea as a nation needs to make macro peace within itself, we also need to make micro peace with ourselves at the individual level. Too often, we make excuses for the regime’s bad behavior even when we are fully aware it is the wrong thing to do so. Someone gets jailed without due process and we say: “they must have found something on him”, “he must be pente, jihadist, woyane …”. One even told me recently that when Isaias told Abiy to “lead us”, he really did not mean to lead Eritrea and Ethiopia; that he was actually telling Abiy to lead Africa instead. This level of insanity, where the victim tries to beautify the ugliness of his oppressor, is amazing. This kind of submissive behavior is what has kept our ruthless regime in power for so long. We have become our own worst enemies. A truly liberated self, with a well calibrated moral compass would not make such excuses on behalf of his/her oppressor. Instead he/she would side with the underdog to make sure no one becomes invisible in that national mirror.
The Leadership Gap
Fig 7 attempts to show a deeper layer where durable peace within can be solidified when supported by inclusive organizational structures that remain valid regardless of who is in power. This is the kind of leadership we need
- to accelerate the removal of current and future despotic regimes from power
- to ensure any vacuum left behind is managed well during the transition period and
- to build a durable and fair system of governance where everyone feels safe and represented
This requires wide representation from all sectors of society; people of wisdom and integrity coming together to lay the foundations of an inclusive system suited for a new era. Knowledgeable technocrats should be given the freedom and responsibility to present and implement their best ideas. The transition body’s primary objective can be along the lines of Berhane Abrehe’s recommendations. I disagree with some of his points (especially his views about the people of Tigray), but he does have sound recommendations that can get the ball rolling. Although restoration of Eritrea’s Assembly is a good objective, it may not be practical since the well-being of most of its members is unknown.
Perhaps a new body, along with the remaining former Assembly members, can be organized to fill the gap. To be effective, this body must include new blood and some of our best minds – people of high caliber and temperament like Selam Kidane, Dr. Daniel Rezene, Sal Younis, Fessehaie Abraham (former ambassador to Australia), Isayas Sium, Beyan Negash, Kubrom Dafla, Ephrem Naizghi, Mussie Ephrem etc. These are only few names I am familiar with, mainly from their writings or interviews. But I am also sure there are many, many others who can make significant contributions. Those mentioned here can also tap their own networks to pull in others.
The disempowering cynicism we have adopted over the years will probably bubble up to disapprove why this or that name won’t do. We must resist such temptation. This is the time to make a clean break into a new era. While we should always challenge our leaders to be true to the stated mission, we also need to support them fully. We should not look at them as individuals we like or don’t like. Rather, we should ask: can this person help us lay down solid foundations for a new system, with sufficient checks and balances that no cabal can hijack? If this individual cannot help the transition team, who can? We should retire our old habits that only criticize without providing well thought out alternatives. This is the time to jump in with both feet and really work hard to ensure our future gets to be much brighter than our past has been.
The transition body needs to include knowledgeable change agents in the key areas listed in Fig 7, so roles and responsibilities are well defined and understood by those who will eventually occupy those offices. Education, expertise and professionalism are devalued in today’s Eritrea. We mostly have undeserving illiterate or semi-literate individuals who are put in positions of power with the sole intention of extracting maximum loyalty for the regime. As a result, we have generals engaging in demolition of homes as Eritrea’s national defense falls apart. Eritrea has no institutions today. The succession pipeline is completely empty. The old guard, mostly figure- heads, occupies the top with no technocrats to fill the gaps. Eritrea doesn’t even have a defense minister during this critical time when Ethiopia is itching to create a navy in the Red Sea. This leadership gap needs to be addressed by the transition body in order to rebuild the institutions the regime has destroyed. As is typical with despots, his son is the next despot in waiting if we let it happen.
An inclusive and liberal system, where minority rights are respected is critical for Eritrea’s future. But a robust economy is the real glue that will hold everything together. Bad politics is a symptom of a poor economy (“it is the economy stupid” still rules). To keep as many people as possible engaged, we must enrich the conversation beyond politics to include the economy and other topics that people care about. Clean energy can be a transformational force in shaping Eritrea’s future. All kinds of experts from “members” and “influencers” groups in Fig 7 should be invited to assess the feasibility of various economic options to maximize our chances for success.
We truly have a great opportunity to turn things around for the better. With good strategy and hard work, Eritrea’s economic vibrancy is a realistic goal. Our triple sources of renewable energy can keep Eritrea’s economy humming for a very long time. Clean and cheap energy across the full breadth and length of the country makes investments in clean water projects (including desalination), high quality education and health care, as well as good overall infrastructure realistic and achievable. Our long coastline with unspoiled coral reefs, including its many islands, is another unexploited resource to tap into for added economic security.
But all this is just potential at the moment. And potential is of no use until realized. There are two things blocking the doorway into this bright future. First, we must get rid of the regime and its sadistic culture immediately. Every day it stays in power is a day Eritrea’s chances of recovery diminish – more people will die in its prisons, new ones will disappear, the young will continue to leave, poverty will get more entrenched; and the country itself may cease to exist. Isaias’s buffoonery in Addis and ambassador Estifanos’s tweet above certainly suggest as much. So, removing the regime is simply one hugely courageous act of self-defense.
We must remember those who tried to talk sense to this regime have all disappeared. After three decades of lived misery, we know with certainty that this regime cannot be reasoned with. It just needs to go. But how?
Berhane Abrehe has outlined one approach. I am not aware of other suggestions that are as specific. So, we can adopt his and adjust as we go. Everyone benefits from the demise of this regime – even the despot’s children and the children of his misguided loyalists will be much better off. They will be free from the culture of guilt-by-association their parents practiced. That culture needs to die with their parents — no more holding 80 year old grandmothers for ransom because a grandson in his 30s escaped the regime’s enslavement program; or someone getting locked up for asking about a disappeared friend.
Second, we need an organized body to manage the transition (Fig 7) and to lay a good foundation for a new era. This body should include change agents from the various groups. Faith leaders have large audiences in Eritrean society. They need to be included not only for moral leadership among their followers but to be agents of peace across faiths as well. Women, who are half the sky were betrayed many times over and should be represented in force now.
To have more skin in the game, it is also good to have a few ambitious types from civil society who aspire to have various leadership roles as future presidents, ministers, judges etc. Not only is there nothing wrong with this, it is a desirable outcome we need to accept and call for. Those ambitions need to be tamed by the laws of the land for sure, but men and women with healthy ambition will eventually have to emerge to lead the nation and its various organs. We should nurture and welcome this missing link.
Seasoned leaders like Dr. Tesfai Ghirmazion and ambassador Haile Menkorios can also play a critical role here. First, they can help set the right tone within the transition body to ensure the transition is as smooth as it can possibly be. Second, given their expertise and broad networks, they can bring credible and influential third-parties to the table. Third, they will be good mentors for aspiring future leaders.
Obviously, this body cannot be successful without our full support. Again (along the lines of Fig 6), self-liberated individuals can become effective change agents within our circles of influence. We can all be good conduits in propagating the larger mission to our respective families, friends and affinity groups. The transition body is going to need funds to carry out its duties and we should be ready to chip in. Just about anyone in the diaspora can afford to contribute $5 to $10 a month. There are probably around 400,000 Eritreans in the West. Hopefully, we can do better but if 40,000 (10%) of us contribute $10/month; we will be able to raise almost $5M a year to advance the cause. Just think: your $10 a month contribution now can create a healthy economy worth billions of dollars in 5-10 years. Not a bad return for your investment!
To motivate the larger population, the transition body must be as transparent as possible. It should find ways to engage the larger population continuously with relevant “action of the day” challenges. If partnership with Scandinavian countries is worth pursuing, perhaps the “action of the day” could be for Eritreans in those countries to be tasked with something specific to advance that goal. Frequent reminders to send contributions so momentum can be maintained, could be another. Participation in relevant letter writing, email or phone call campaigns to influential bodies, etc.
Guided by wisdom and good judgement, the transition body should set the right tone from the very beginning. Avoid the inflammatory language we have gotten used to over the years and lead with a language of reconciliation instead. We need to look beyond the opposition/pro-regime walls we have caged ourselves in and be ready to welcome everyone. We need to reject the few criminal elements at the top of PFDJ for sure, but we have to find ways to re-purpose the remaining core to become an integral part of Eritrea’s renewal. We made that mistake before. It is one we should not repeat again.
When the regime came to power in 1991, it dismissed experienced civil service workers (in banking, judiciary, government bodies) in mass. Its unsubstantiated justification was that they were corrupt and incompetent. They could have been easily trained for the new reality. Since the regime didn’t have the skill sets to fill the vacuum it created, Eritrea’s downward spiral deepened year over year. Now, here we are with far worse corruption and incompetence than existed in 1991. Another example of how destructive such an approach can be is the mess the US created in Iraq by dismantling the entire Baath party structure.
The PFDJ core without its top mostly consists of Eritreans who live at or near the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid anyway. In other words, they are ‘us’ who just happen to be on the other side of the fence.
A strong economy is the vehicle we need to create a better future for all. What is missing is our collective will to act JOINTLY. If the transition body, with our full support, takes on Berhane Abrehe’s advice or develops its own road map along the same lines, Eritrea’s recovery can be quick and wholesome. And the gentler Eritrean culture this regime has so mercilessly trashed will have a good chance of making a comeback. Good education and hard work will be valued again. Then Eritrea becomes a country where people want to live in, and not one to run away from. And that would be a good thing.
- Berhane Abrehe, Hagerey Book 2, pages 161-181
- Ted Koppel 4/4/1990 Nightline:
- Youtube clip