How To Win Eritrea’s “Political Legitimacy” Argument

Since 1991, the debate between Eritrean regime supporters and the opposition has been that of legitimacy. Back in the 1990s, the arguments were crude. The opposition would ask “who elected you to lead me?” and the regime spokesperson would answer: “And who elected me to fight for your independence?” Ah, good times. The State was cashing in on its revolutionary legitimacy. Now, the arguments have become a bit more sophisticated–emphasis on “a bit.” This is because the government supporters still use the revolutionary legitimacy argument—they dismiss their opponents as people with checkered past during the revolution and/or they dismiss them as people who are not even Eritrean and, in all likelihood, Ethiopians (it is never Sudanese or Djibouti or Somali, by the way.) And some in the opposition have fallen hard for its counter-argument: “what is this revolutionary legitimacy you speak of? Even during the revolution you didn’t have the support of the people: you were carrying on some misguided and ruinous campaign.” Or: “the leadership of Eritrea’s ruling party are all foreign plants with one mission: to destroy Eritrea.” Assuming these arguments are outliers, I would like to focus on the other battlefront where the legitimacy argument is being waged and how we in the opposition can refine our arguments.

Political Legitimacy

Once in a while, something that is really obvious surprises me and here’s one: an Eritrean who is in his 20s and early 30s can recall only one government in Eritrea: that of Isaias Afwerki. And they may think all governments are like that.  Kids: the government that preceded Isaias Afwerki, that of Mengistu Hailemariam, used “ideological legitimacy”: we have a right to govern because communism is a scientific truth (synsawi haqi!) and therefore the only way to govern. The government that preceded Mengistu, that of Haile Selasse, used “divine legitimacy”: God Himself hand-picked Haile Selasse (His official title was “His Imperial Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God”) to govern and to argue with this decision is to pick a fight with God, you heathen. The ones before Haile Selassie, the Brits, used “victor’s legitimacy”: we won in World War II so we get to do what we want with the property of the vanquished.   The ones before the Brits, the Italians, used “European legitimacy”: Africans are unfit to govern themselves and it is the White Man’s Burden to civilize them (and it is our luck that in the Scramble for Africa we got the parts that the other Europeans didn’t choose first.)

The point is that those of us who have a few grey hairs can put the Isaias Afwerki government in context. It is a system which relies on (a) “charismatic legitimacy” — yes, such a thing exists in political science–of Isaias Afwerki, which was the case since the formation of the EPLF (when he was Tekhelakhalai Tanki (tank destroyer) despite the fact he hasn’t been in a single war) and, in our culture, it is not uncommon for some people to say that he was hand-picked by Him; (b) ideological legitimacy:  “self-reliance then, self-reliance now, self-reliance forever”; (c) revolutionary legitimacy: we liberated the land and now we, and only we, have a right to govern it; (d) Exceptional African Legitimacy, which is the exact argument used by European colonizers: we have to govern because we are exceptional and the other Eritreans are unfit to govern. It is the PFDJs Man’s Burden.   Entay’mo kngeber zebriyena s’een’na!

Refer back to every interview, every “public seminar” given by representatives of the ruling system. You can see all the ruling party’s claims to political legitimacy marshaled, depending on the situation:

  • An Eritrean in Israel is testifying in the Knesset that the Eritrean ambassador to Israel has no political legitimacy? Allow me to retort, says angry Eritrean ambassador to Israel: I do have legitimacy, because I carried guns and liberated Eritrea; so, if you are a REAL MAN, seb’ay enter quenka, raise arms and defeat me! Revolutionary Legitimacy, Part 1!
  • Have you seen the supporters of the Isaias Afwerki regime (Nehna Nsu gang) holding pictures of Isaias Afwerki in his 20s? Or Shabait and Eri-TV showing still images of back-when-he-was-young-and-handsome Isaias Afwerki? Or TV-interviewers who quote back to Isaias his own words and ask him to expound on his prophecy? That’s Charismatic Legitimacy!
  • Have your read and watched interviews and attended meetings of Eritrean government spokespersons (official and unofficial) trashing Africa, African leaders, African organizations? That’s Exceptional African Legitimacy!
  • You have read and watched and heard a stream of songs, festivals, military marches, commemorating Nadew,  Fenkel, Independence Day, Martyr’s Day, September 1…? There is an entire bureaucracy to deal with festivities. That’s  Revolutionary Legitimacy, Part 2!
  • How about the avalanche of great news: dams built, hands shaken, agreements signed, enemies bested, schools built, hospitals inaugurated, MDG exceeded, vitamin A vaccinated, access to clean water increased…. contrasted with mayhem, disorder around the world (of course Eri-TV covered Ferguson: ab america xelim americawi Michael Brown) ….  That’s Ideological Legitimacy!

These are not haphazard arguments: they are coherent arguments the ruling party is making: we have the legitimacy to govern because our principles are sound and we deliver results. We have the legitimacy to govern because the people and the government are one. We have the legitimacy to govern because all those who oppose us may have their own personal interest (power, money, etc) but do not have Eritrea’s best interest at heart.   You should continue to support us because we are winning and everybody loves a winner.

For the most part, we in the opposition have taken the position of ignoring the ruling party, the PFDJ, and tried to come up with our own narrative.  But sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, we have attempted to chip away at each legitimacy argument:

  • Revolutionary Legitimacy 1: Ok, we too will raise arms. And defeat you. If we can’t defeat you, we will at least give you headaches.
  • Charismatic Legitimacy: We will show pictures of Isaias Afwerki in most unflattering ways. We will have his head photoshopped to that of a rat. We will have pictures of him when he was in a hospital in Israel in 1993. We will take video clips of Isaias at his most arrogant and most angry and most uncharismatic. We will show that his disastrous prophesies far outnumber his accurate one (to my knowledge he had one and only one accurate prophesy: Amma ktHaqeq Iya: the ELF will be dissolved.)
  • Exceptional African Legitimacy: We will show that, statistically, Eritrea is just another African country. We will show that it is poor and malnourished. We will show that African countries have actually learned from their mistakes and are doing better than Eritrea under PFDJ. (At least in the area of human rights and mass exodus.)
  • Revolutionary Legitimacy 2: Although all these achievements also belong to us, we will be totally silent and will have nothing to say about them. Except for September 1: that we will definitely make a lot of noise about. But the rest, we will yield: and we will just allow the PFDJ to take all the glory for them.
  • Ideological Legitimacy: We will marshall a team of media to tell Eritreans and the world that its ideology has led to Eritrea’s ruin.

Political Legitimacy – Opposition Style

Overall, we do not make a concerted effort to identify and combat the ruling party’s “political legitimacy” claims.  Our view is that, in the 21st century, the only way for a government to claim political legitimacy is to demonstrate—in free and fair elections—that it has the consent of the people to govern. Period. Full Stop. Charisma fades, ideology is never “scientific”, revolutions don’t have a self-perpetuating legitimacy: when Eritrea was liberated, their legitimacy terminated; and, by all measures, Eritrea is, was, will be just another African country which shares all the strengths and all the weakness of African countries. Fini. The End.

This is an excellent argument. But, like all arguments, it needs supporting evidence. It needs rebuttals to skeptics of “free and fair elections” in Africa. It needs to demonstrate that a multi-party system based on whatever criteria we in the opposition agree upon is the right path for Eritrea. It needs to address skeptics’ questions of: “give us an example of African countries which have had free and fair elections and how are they faring in comparison to those countries which haven’t.”

In other words, where the opposition is failing is in DEMONSTRATING how free and fair elections will have an incremental change in Eritreans quality of life, their sense of security, and their ability to build a nation that lasts.

Put yet another way, our “free and fair elections” cry appears as dogmatic as PFDJ’s “vanguard party” approach: it is what we should do because it is what we should do. Actually, we use our own “revolutionary legitimacy”: it is what we should do because that was why the revolution was waged.

We are also assuming that the Eritrean people, who have never had in their entire lives “free and fair” national elections, will agree with us. Why? Because it is so!

On the one hand, we say that the Eritrean people are no different from Africans on all things that matter—a nation-state built by colonizers; boundaries created with no regard for traditional tribal, ethnic affiliations; low literacy rates; high superstition rates—but then, when it comes to actually making the EFFORT to persuade them that the only sort of legitimacy is democratic legitimacy—consent of the governed—we make no serious effort BEYOND our version of revolutionary legitimacy: it should be so because tens of thousands of Eritreans died for it to be so.

How To Win The Political Legitimacy Argument

  1. Drop Our Liabilities: We have people on the “opposition side” who are arguing that (a) the PFDJ has no legitimacy to govern because its “revolutionary legitimacy” is fake because the revolution itself was fake and artificial. To compound matters, this position has a shockingly large number of EPRDF/Weyane ideologues who are making the claim that the Eritrean cause for independence was based on flimsy arguments; (b) the PFDJ has no legitimacy to govern because its populated by “non-Eritreans.”   This is a pandora’s box you do not want to open because you do not know where the argument will take us.I have argued, and often, the position of “No Eritrean Left Behind” so when I say “drop our liabilities” I do not mean AT ALL that the people who hold this view should be ostracized. What I mean is that it can’t be the argument used to win over the people to our side.
  1. Develop Our Own Charismatic Legitimacy: Instead of spending all our energies photoshopping Isaias Afwerki images to argue that he is not a charismatic leader, let’s develop our own charismatic leaders. Let’s not downplay the importance of charismatic legitimacy: a message falls into the void unless the messenger is dynamic and captivating.   In a multi-cultural society, the minimum requirement of charisma is somebody who can transcend ethnic/religious divides and communicate in a way that inspires and emboldens and raises the optimism of the people.
  1. Develop Traditional Legitimacy Arguments The Right Way: If I had a political party (and I never will), my slogan would be “Never Judge Before Hearing Both Sides.” This is an Eritrean custom that is lethal to the PFDJ: it is an argument for which the PFDJ has absolutely no answer for its habit of arresting, indicting, sentencing, imprisoning, torturing, disappearing and killing Eritreans. It will appeal for patience, it will lie and say that the evidence will “soon” be disclosed, and when it is done stalling, it will say “the case is closed” or “we have our own culture of dealing with these things” (the Halewa Sewra–Revolutionary Guard-way), but it simply has no answer to the powerful Eritrean tradition which demands fairness and justice in matters of law.   When I say the argument has to be made the right way, I mean it can’t be made by those who embrace every Eritrean tradition, warts and all (including its horrible treatment of women’s rights, its embrace of superstitions, etc): I mean it has to be made by those who are brave enough to criticize elements of Eritrean tradition which are bad while embracing those that advance justice, fairness and individual liberties.
  1. Develop Democracy Arguments The Right Way: Democracy is a collective word for consent of the governed expressed in free and fair elections, people’s participation in decisions that affect their daily lives, people’s ability to hire and fire their government, and accountability of the governors to the governed.   From all of these, the PFDJ has dismissed “free and fair elections in multi-party system” as something that Eritrea is developmentally unready for; it has attempted to show that the people participate in every decision that affect their daily lives (Eri-TV is wall-to-wall coverage of people meeting, meeting, meeting and passively listening to PFDJ officials explaining the “objective situation on the ground”), and the issue of the accountability of the governors-to-the-governed has been dealt by creating a supra position for Isaias Afwerki (above the government) where he fires, freezes, arrests those who are not accountable to “the people” (aka, him.)The Isaias regime knows that none of these are adequate which is why it continues to lie about why it doesn’t have elections: it needs a new constitution, it needs permanent demarcation, and by the way it is already having local elections (which, apparently, are never endangered by lack of demarcation.) Now, with all due respect to my opposition partners, the argument for democracy and multi-party elections is most lethal when it comes form within the EPLF/PFDJ. This is because it combines “democratic legitimacy” with “revolutionary legitimacy”: they can argue, credibly, that that is what they fought and died for. It is the one that disarms the PFDJ, makes them stutter.   Example: when Isaias Afwerki was in New York a few of years ago, an Eritrean couched the argument for democracy the right way, and Isaias did what he does when confronted in such situations—lie through his teeth and say all the right things (we won’t be held hostage by lack of demarcation) and promise that democratic reforms are underway.  Of course, nothing happened.  Example: Operation Forto—Said Ali Hijay’s revolution demanding democracy, constitutionalism, release of political prisoners—made the Isaias Afwerki regime wobble: that’s what resulted in Isaias Afwerki’s declaration that the 1997 Constitution is dead and a new one will be introduced (no timeline, of course); that’s whats leading to the new ID cards (disenfranchising political opponents); that’s whats leading to the completely farcical claim that the National Service will be cut back to 18 months plus 10 months of senior high school education.In short, what matters is not just the argument but WHO is making the argument. And some of us, in the interest of the people, should humble ourselves and recognize it. When those from outside the EPLF/PFDJ make the arguments, it sounds like, “hey, can you put together a system that will put you out of business and maybe in jail and put us in power?” When it comes from within the EPLF/PFDJ it sounds like, “hey, can you reform the system so that Eritrea doesn’t disappear from the map of the earth?”  Again, I am NOT saying that if you are not from within the EPLF/PFDJ you do not have a RIGHT to advance democracy; what I am saying is that it is more effective when it comes from that corner.
  1. Revolutionary Legitimacy:   If we are claiming that the Eritrean revolution belongs to the Eritrean people and not the EPLF/PFDJ, then we must commemorate all the dates that make the Eritrean revolution significant.   It is not “militarism” or “chauvinism” to mark Fenkel Day. It is not “conceding to the EPLF” to mark Martyr’s Day on June 20, and if you think June 20 is completely arbitrary, go ahead and commemorate it on June 20 and December 1.   May 24 is not “EPLF Day”; it is Independence Day: go ahead celebrate it.   The problem, as I see it, is that our anger at PFDJ has allowed us to make so many concessions that we have yielded all signs and symbols of patriotism to them.   In the process, we have essentially isolated ourselves from our people in the same way that the PFDJ has isolated itself from the world.
  2. Ideological Legitimacy: Last year, around this time, Eritrea’s ruling party was filled to the rim with Good News stampeding over each other. Did you know that Eritrea was going to have one of the fastest-growing economies in 2014? Did you know that King Solomon’s gold mine has been traced to Eritrea: Bisha is now producing copper on target: building the copper plant and its infrastructure was 15 million less than budgeted! Malaria is down by 90%! DTP3 immunization is at 94% (at parity with US, son!) More than 85% of the population has access to improved drinking water! The Chinese have gotten a contract to rebuild Hirgigo Plant: electricity will be blanketing Eritrea. SFECO and Shanghai Installation Groups Join Hands to Complete Massive Eritrean Agricultural Projects! A 400 km road was constructed to directly connect Karora, Eritrea to Port Sudan, Sudan. Deals were made, hands shaken, swords waived. Orphans raised, sewing machines distributed.  Nomads encouraged to pursue sedentary life styles in She’eb. Bicycle races won, marathons trekked, enemies foiled.  Housing mortgages settled.  Insurance premiums waived for overturned trucks. Turkish Airlines!

If you haven’t guessed it by now, what this column is all about is tackling the “Ideological Legitimacy” argument of the Isaias regime. Yes, occasionally, it criticizes how the rest of opposition is dealing with the other legitimacy arguments (particularly those who discount the revolutionary legitimacy argument) but for the most part the author concedes that while many of the other legitimacy arguments are just as potent–for example, “traditional legitimacy” is a powerful one–but he doesn’t feel qualified to make it–and in fact I would argue that very few people can make it without appearing provincial, reactionary and anti-progress.

The problem that we have now—and will continue to have—is that tyrannical systems are very good at top-down assignments of tasks whereas independent organizations are chaotic and step all over one another’s toes. My hope is that if we all at least are conscious of how our efforts affect that of another, if we at least recognize that Isaias Afwerki is not in power by accident but that he and his team work very hard to retain it, we will take our political opponents very seriously and we will not be sabotaging one another and actually focus on arguments we feel qualified to make… then we can make incremental progress towards transformative change.

Next Nahda: How does the Isaias Afwerki regime’s 2014 predictions compare to what actually transpired in 2014?

PS: I would like now to abuse my posting privilege (sorry!) to pay tribute to a family friend.  Rest in Peace, Ato Tsegai Kahssay.  Here’s his obituary, per Eri-TV.


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