After years of silence and indifference, it looks that some Eritrean academics and professionals in the Diaspora have started to come up with personal views on the ways the Eritrean politics is being played out. I read an article dated June 16, 2015 on the Internet that primarily forwards ideas on why it is important that the two opposing political forces, i.e., pro-government and opposition need to engage in some kind of communication to build mutual understanding. The author warns, failing this, the political factions ‘need to be aware that the attitude of initiating and intensifying polarization in politics leads to developing narrow mindedness and insecurity followed by utter ignorance and savagery.’ The author, Dr Tesfay Ghebremedhin, an economist, goes on to say, because of the actions of these political factions Eritrean scholars and professionals have kept themselves isolated in their hiding places.
Building common understanding
The main message of the professor’s article seems to aim at building harmony and peaceful relations among political forces in Eritrea. He shares his wisdom calling on political actors to draw on cultural practices and resources of resolving disputes. Among the major points highlighted in his article is that we, Eritreans, lack capable politicians who can take up issues of political nature open-mindedly. He observes, ‘It doesn’t make us national political heroes merely by conducting endless and fruitless meetings and fruitless conferences in an enemy country’. He also says in the opposition camp politics has become a business and seems to tell the silent majority, ‘beware of these businesspeople’. In the same way, his advice to the pro-government is to be open to critiques and that they should not consider a government critique an enemy.
In what follows, I will, by way of comment, show how my understanding of Eritrean politics differs and explain how I understand Diaspora politics. I argue that despite his genuine intentions his criticism and portrayal of the opposition doesn’t only create fear and mistrust but also helps to encourage silence and indifference. I will also try to illustrate with an example, why the kind of mutual understanding his article purports to build among the opposing forces will remain a wish for some time to come. Finally, I will conclude by giving my personal observation on the role of ‘intellectuals’ in society.
Societies of each era make available the best of what they are capable of producing. The 1940s Eritrean politics produced the Woldeabs and Ibrahims vs the vocal Unionists. These political figures didn’t have to go to college to learn politics. And it is fascinating to find in 1952 members of Eritrean parliament debated issues such as the official languages and the logo of the Eritrean flag. It is in fact strikingly interesting to note the grounds on which they based their logic are similar sixty three years later₂. The 1960s created their own political elites. In the era of armed struggle the space allowed only nationalist revolutionaries, and critics with liberal political views were met with hostility. All efforts of Diaspora political activism were channelled towards helping the national liberation. Building on the legitimacy inherited from the era of the armed struggle, the regime used and abused the Diaspora structures for its own survival. The result is a unique government that remotely controls its immigrant communities wherever they reside. It is clear now a major support base of the government is in the Diaspora. Unlike the opposition forces who do politics with meagre resources and voluntarily, pro-government forces operate from their embassy bases, in which case the embassies and their active operatives have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Against this backdrop, it is very important to ask ourselves whether thinking in terms of polarities i.e. pro-government vs. opposition is realistic enough and if it is really helpful to our understanding of the Diaspora politics. And let us ask ourselves if we are doing justice to the justice seekers by placing these two categories of Eritreans on a pair of scales and subjecting them to criticism using the same yardstick. The first step, I would say, should be understanding the complexities within the political landscape, which is very much part of our history. If we dismiss the opposition as too fragmented to qualify as credible opposition or if we claim they are doing politics for a living, hence, they are not to be trusted, we would be doing more harm than help in bridging the differences that already exist. I think some of the veteran politicians are doing politics only because they have been pursuing politics for their whole life and they want to see it through to its conclusion. They are also doing it in on a voluntary basis, which is why they have not been competent enough. This is not, however, to say that there are no weaknesses within the opposition. Surely, it has become a disappointment to many and particularly to the population in the home land who look upon the Diaspora as a source of hope.
We cannot derive the kind of equation claiming these are two evil forces that confront the ‘silent majority’ or those who are ‘non-aligned’ or those distancing themselves from politics like the author himself. Let me explain why professor Tesfay’s proposal of building common understanding doesn’t seem to bring about the sought-after results because the objective situation and the PFDJ culture don’t lend themselves to a civilized discourse. Let me give one example: a fresh media item that brought together both of these opposing parties to debate a current issue. (June 16, 2015, Al Jazeera’s, The Stream). Baffled by the debating parties’ representation of ‘reality’, the journalist poses the question ‘does this make sense?’ Indeed as you might have watched, the young Eritrean American paints his own version of reality. He angrily interrupts the UN employee, ‘no!! there are no reprisals in Eritrea, you are talking about some another country, there are no reprisals in Eritrea!… ’
Clearly to the astonishment of an external observer there were ‘two realities’; and so not even the least common ground for discussion.
On the point of common ground for debate, Jürgen Habermas, one of the most influential thinkers of our time, identifies four criteria for effective communication₁. According to his Theory of Communicative Action, sincerity and rightness are two factors that allow validity claims in communication. What he means by sincerity is, one has to mean what s/he says and by rightness, he means what one says should be right. Rightness in turn raises ethical and moral considerations. If we use these criteria, our two young Eritrean Americans cannot in any way claim their arguments fulfilled these values of sincerity and rightness. Instead, they resorted to brazen dishonesty and cynic deception to justify the gross and systematic human right violations being committed in Eritrea. Such being the rift and lack of minimum common ground for debate; I would say Professor Tesfay’s proposal in search for appropriate politics for Eritrean Diaspora is possible in an ideal world or under a significantly altered political order. It should, however, be mentioned that I am not against moral guidance offered to the youth. My doubt is if the traditional moral values the author invokes are completely eroded or nonexistent.
Many of us do not seem to make an effort to understand the complex nature of the political diversity and how that affects us. The author is doubtful that leaders of the opposition would willingly come together and unite as one political group because they do not want to lose their subsistence funds they receive from their sponsors. I am neither aware of such funds nor sure how generous these funds to be of such influence. I assume the problem is more intricate. If we imagine the Eritrean political landscape as a spectrum between a hard-core PFDJ and a radical opposition we might make some sense of what is actually happening on the ground. Where I live is a highly politically intoxicated city. Many times in the camp of the moderate justice seekers there is the wish to engage with the ones in the margins of the ‘silent majority’. But these categories are not as confused and frustrated by the weaknesses of the opposition as we might believe the case to be. They are in fact more calculative. Like the pro-government, they weight the costs and opportunities of the moves they want to make, particularly with whom to associate during significant events. They are smart enough to manage the resonance within themselves. But the unintended consequences of their actions are detrimental to the justice seekers and in effect align themselves with the pro-government forces. This kind of position and mentality is clearly the commonest. Hence, it needs neither popularising nor ideologizing.
Eritrean economy and youth flight
The author also wants us to take consolation in the fact that the problem facing Eritrea is not worse than what other countries face. He writes, Eritrea is facing particularly ‘economic hardship and exodus of productive human capital should not surprise us as other countries are in the same situation.’ I wish to be educated by an academic of his stature and ask him how many countries prefer a contraband economy like Eritrea does. How many of them release neither their national budget, nor the revenue from their booming mining industry? And what is his view, as a learned Eritrean, on the recent phenomenon of an emerging oligarchy that owns both the slave labour and the natural resources? ₄ What about the profiting from cross-border and oversees trade including, alleged human trafficking? Can the good professor share his knowledge about the reason for the shortage of the supply of Nakfa in the market and why people hoard their cash at home? Nowhere does he, in his article, address the causes of why the youth are fleeing and why life in Eritrea is bleak.
And in his subtexts, i.e., what is not explicit but implied is that Ethiopia is an ‘enemy country’ and a source of the opposition funds. The issue of safeguarding our sovereignty is another major points raised. Frankly, I am inclined to say that such a talk is highly ideological and repeated ad nauseam by regime supporters for such a long time that it has now lost its appeal. It is the language of the masses that we all were deluded until the end of the year 2001. Worse even is that it masks real issues that need proper articulation. Let me now raise a very general but relevant subject. But I want to make it clear that this is not directed at Professor Tesfay Ghebremedhin’s person.
The role of intellectuals in society
Despite Isaias’ age-old hostility towards intellectuals, many Eritrean intellectuals had contributed to the efforts of national struggle. Through the EPLF’s transnational governance some of the critical ones were silenced; others tamed into the regime’s culture. When the new nation sought their support some Diaspora intellectuals who were already in the Mass Organizations happily availed themselves. Expert economists drew up macro-economic policy with export promotion strategy. But this did not sit well with the malevolent dictator’s own version of development that allows the tyrant to remain as an absolute head of state unaccountable to any government body. When war broke out, it dawned on these experts that the small Eritrean economy couldn’t absorb the shock. And in a hostile region the market shrank and Eritrea started its ‘march of folly’ into total economic collapse.
I am not blaming the Eritrean experts for not being prophetic. Absolutely not. But, I would expect economists to raise the alarm when they see things moving contrary to what the science of their disciple teaches them. Attending a public lecture by one of the advisors, what I noted was contrary to expectation. About a decade ego now, talking about the Eritrean economy, a distinguished professor spoke highly of the ‘Warsay-Yikalo’ project describing it as ‘Eritrean Marshal Plan’. We also witnessed such intellectuals, with one leg in the US and another in Eritrea, continue to advise the regime in its economic and public policies. It appears they enjoy both material and symbolic advantages. Their symbolic advantage derives from their perception that they are closer to the power base
Generally speaking, intellectuals tell their students that they should not be involved in politics because that will compromise their academic freedom and integrity. We are not sure if that can be an excuse for not speaking the truth on behalf of the voiceless. Apparently, we tend to believe that intellectuals always tell the truth. A recent position taken by a certain Eritrean intellectual is embarrassingly the opposite. As depressing as it is, it has been revealed that an anthropologist of long standing, who went to one of the best universities in the world discredits the UN Human Rights Inquiry on Eritrea⁵. This is a moment for us to seriously and critically look into ourselves.
Through proverbs and adages, the Tigrinya language and culture makes a distinction between Knowledge (mihro) intelligence (a’emiro), and wisdom (libona). It helps us understand how the society values each of them. Furthermore, these proverbs and sayings, point to the elements of the culture and help our understanding how the society thinks. Common sense has it, the older we grow the wiser we become. One may then ask why is ‘the truth’ which is universally a highly valued virtue suffering in some quarters. Ironically, this issue concerns anthropologists. Given the enviable academic capital this Eritrean had earned, I wish he had gracefully retired in his home country.
In conclusion, I have to reiterate that I am not trying to belittle the contributions of well-wishing intellectuals such as the author of the article in question. Their society needs its intellectuals in these most difficult times and their contribution is judged by the extent to which it helps better the lives of their fellow Eritreans citizens. The proper analysis of the actual and potential resources should shed light on what the future holds. Their contribution will be also measured in terms of their public duty to bring about peace, prosperity and justice to the voiceless and not by how they justify their purposeful and unforced support to tyranny at the most critical moment of the society.
1. Outhwaite, W. 1996. Habermas: A critical Introduction. Cambridge Polity Press.
2. Tesfay. Alemseged. 2005. Federation Eritrean with Ethiopia. From Matiezo to Tedla: 1951-1955. (ፈደረሽን አርትራ ምስ ኢትዮጲያ ፤ ካብ ማቲየንሶ ክሳብ ተድላ 1951-1955).Asmara. Hedri Publishers. pp 168-174.
3. Ghebremedhin, Tesfay. In Search of an appropriate Politics for Eritreans in Diaspora.
4. Woldemikael. M. Tecle. 2013. Introduction: Post-liberation Eritrea. Africa Today. Vol 60 no 2. Indiana University Press. Pp v-xix.
5. ትሕዝቶ ጸብጻብ ተወካሊት ሰብኣዊ መሰል፡ ብመሰረቱ ጌጋ፡ ንተኣማንነቱ ትኲር ዳህሳስ ዘይተኻየደሉን ንበሃሊቱን ወካሊኣን ዘሕፍር እዩ” ኤርትራዊ ምሁር፡ ፕሮፌሶር ኣስመሮም ለገሰ. Report.