Is There a Silver Lining for Eritrea?

After living 25 plus years under a dictatorship, hope is one thing many Eritreans will find difficult to hang on to. The question in the title is therefore something that is already in the minds of many Eritreans.  Some have given up a long time ago and will answer categorically no. Others continue to hope and will answer in the affirmative. And there are always those who do not know what to think or may not care one way or the other.  The question must be confronted however because conditions in Eritrea remain as bleak as ever and keep getting worse.

A philosopher once mused:  “Life is a seesaw; one day up, the next day down, and the next day up again”.  Eritrea has seen no “ups” for a long time.  We just seem to be going down, down, and down again with no letup. Every time we start thinking we have reached a rock bottom, the dictatorship manages to prove us wrong.  Human rights abuses keep piling up every day and our youth keep fleeing the country at an alarmingly unprecedented numbers -depriving our country of its most vital resource.  Meanwhile, the regime, despite its glaring internal weaknesses, rules undisturbed while the opposition remains as disorganized and as weak as it has been for years. Can things get any worse?

I had hoped Eritrea would be spared the vicious cycles of endless corruption and instability that has plagued many a developing country in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But if current trends hold, Eritrea is precariously leaning towards such a fate. If we don’t get our acts together expeditiously and if we remain as fragmented as we are today while we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again doggedly and egotistically clinging to old racial and religious prejudices, we will soon join those countries.

Never in my wildest nightmares did I ever imagine that we would be saddled with decades of domestic dictatorship right after independence. Nor did I ever think it possible that Eritreans would allow a dictatorship to rule them for so long!  A quarter of a century of domestic terror is – by any definition – quite a lengthy time.   A baby born at independence is a full adult today and may even be married with children. Time waits for no man…the clock ticks mercilessly and in less than five years – lo and behold – the years under dictatorship will have overtaken the years spent struggling for independence! What is even more worrisome is that the statuesque may continue long after the dictatorship has been dismantled which brings us to the topic.  Is there reason to hope things will improve in Eritrea?  Is there a silver lining for Eritrea?

How we answer the question will depend on our disposition because hope or the lack thereof is at its core a state of mind.  Optimists will always find something to hope for even in the gloomiest of circumstances while pessimists will remain despondent even in the best of circumstances.  In the case of Eritrea, pessimists will find plenty to justify their outlook including the ones I mentioned above and many more. They will therefore quickly conclude that there is no silver lining for Eritrea and will instead dream of bizarre solutions such as reuniting with Ethiopia or negotiating with the dictatorship on its terms.

On the other hand, optimists will note some positive developments such as the rapidly growing international awareness and condemnation of the dictatorship in Eritrea mainly due to the exodus of thousands of youth that are risking their lives to flee the country. Eritrea under Isaias’s regime has become a pariah country deservedly earning a nickname of “North Korea of Africa”. The optimist can also point to the explosive growth of dissenters inside and outside Eritrea.  It is clear now that the majority of Eritreans (both in Eritrea and in the Diaspora) abhor the regime.  The widespread corruption and brutality of the regime has produced disillusionment and disgust even in those who previously identified with it politically and culturally.  Only blind diehards whose interests are deeply intertwined with those of the regime continue to support it.

Another aspect that an optimist may see as an encouraging factor that can accelerate change is the dictator’s declining physical and mental condition.  Isaias who once seemed ageless is showing signs of age and disorientation. His wildly erratic and confused speeches and other behavioral anomalies may be signs of irreversible personality disorder.  His followers (and Eritreans in general) can see this for what it is which may eventually embolden them to revolt.  With him gone, democracy will not suddenly appear but the optimist can envision possibilities in such a situation.

Thus, optimists differ from pessimists in their range of vision.  While pessimists tend to see only the present or the recent past, optimists will include the future in their vision in addition to the present and the past. This difference of perception is not necessarily due to the optimist denying or discounting reality while his counterpart is not.  No.  In some instances, the optimist’s and the pessimist’s assessments of reality will be the same.  Note: for the purpose of this article, we are assuming that both are realists.  So they differ only in their interpretation of what they envision and in what they believe about the future.

Pessimists tend to look only at the present/past situation to predict the future.  They lack imagination and are unable to visualize a better future where such a situation can be reversed. This inevitably results in decline of morale and inaction and anything that leads to inaction regardless of how realistically based should be condemned.  The reason is simple.  Inaction turns a bad situation into a catastrophe and nothing sustains a dictator more than a people that is afraid or unwilling to act.

In contrast, the optimist learns from history and observation that perseverance and hope open doors (possibilities) where none seemed to exist.  As we alluded to earlier, the history of our armed struggle attests to this fact as does the history of the world in general.   But optimism is a powerful force only when it is based on facts or on correct assessment of reality and when it spurs us to action.  If our optimism is the result of ignoring or discounting real problems, it will cause more harm than good.  The wise optimist is one who is fully aware of all the obstacles he or she faces but nonetheless believes that there is always a way out, a way around, or a way over every difficulty.  Such an attitude in turn generates resourcefulness and ingenuity that in most cases overcomes difficulties that hitherto seemed insurmountable.  As Winston Churchill once put it:  a “pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Who is right, the optimist or the pessimist?  In a court of law, the pessimist will probably have a better chance of winning.  The judge could ask the Eritrean optimist: If the opposition hasn’t produced any tangible result in 25 plus years, what makes you think it will do so in the future?  The optimist will have no response that will convince the court.  This is not because the judge fails to realize things can change positively in the future but because he is required by law to use only current facts and recent past to render judgment.  If the same judge was to render verdict about the armed struggle for independence in its early years, he would likewise have ruled that Eritrea’s ragtag militia had no chance at all against the mammoth Ethiopian army.  But as we know from our experience, the feat was accomplished in 1991. Thus, present or past conditions are not always accurate predictors of the future.

The same holds true in our individual lives.  If we always look at our past or present weaknesses to judge our future potential, we will give up too quickly if things do not go our way at any particular stage in our life.  Take the case of a person who has been applying for jobs for a long time at many companies seeking employment and fails to procure a single positive result. If the job seeker only looks at what happened to him recently, he will conclude no company wants him and will lose all hope about the future and his attitude will be self-fulfilling.  But anyone who has gone through the ordeal of job hunting will tell you (and experts in the field concur) that such initial setbacks mean little and should not discourage us and that if we persevere, we will eventually land a job.

Just as the job seeker should continue to launch those resumes until he finds a job, so must nations struggle until they achieve freedom from tyranny.  Nations are nothing but a collection of individuals and are as strong or as weak as the individuals that comprise them.  

Alamin Abdelatif once sang:

Abay Abashaul lomi kderfela
Cherisa bkula keiferest kola

Today, it is not just Abashaul, all of Eritrea has been decimated – (ferisa bkula). But Eritrea is not dead – only badly damaged – and where there is life, there is always hope.  Sure, as itemized above, there are enough reasons to make us lose hope.   Our youth are fleeing the country in unprecedented numbers while our country disintegrates economically, socially, and politically, and in every other way.  The opposition has made no significant progress and our people are too fragmented to pay heed to the central struggle for freedom.   Furthermore, Eritreans continue to mistrust one another and to this day did not produce leaders that can inspire, motivate, and galvanize the masses.

All these are serious deficiencies no doubt. But to lose hope and to give in has always been easy.  Despair never achieves anything except to make a bad situation worse.  So let us “keep hope alive” while striving to make it happen. Let us revive our country by giving it what it desperately needs by uniting our forces against tyranny and against all forms of divisive and hate-filled propaganda.  Let us coalesce around good and decent leaders and InshAllah, Eritrea will rise again.


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