Isaias Afwerki And The Eritrean People (Part 3 of 3)

[This is part 3, and the last in the series “Isaias Afwerki & The Eritrean People” which attempts to synthesize all the factors that contributed to making Eritrea a nation ruled by a totalitarian system. Part 1 focused on the strengths of Isaias Afwerki; Part 2 focused on the contributing factors during the Revolutionary era (1961-1991); Part 3 focuses on Eritrea’s cultural values and external factors and how they are contributing to creating and sustaining an Eritrean dictatorship.  Finally, it assesses the challenges of waging an “armed struggle” and a “non-violent campaign” in modern Eritrea and suggests a modest–very modest– approach to ending our morass.]

6. Hero Worship

Every culture worships a hero, some more than others. The oldest literature in the English language, Beowulf, is about a hero who conquers evil. The even older Homeric poems are recitations of the achievements of heroes. This very website that you are reading is named after an Eritrean hero, Hamid Idris Awate, who, despite all attempts to chip away at his stature, remains larger than ever.  And every culture defines a hero in more or less the same way: the hero is brave and selfless, and the personification of all that is good. And, of course, the hero has to be victorious, a dragon-slayer—otherwise, he is a tragic hero. The bigger the adversary you conquer, the more mythical your hero status is. Eritrea has many songs of praise to people of dubious heroic distinction: one of my first krar lessons was singing praises to Neguse, a song which admonished his clueless mom who was having her hair braided while her son was being killed.

There are words we associate with heroic leaders that eventually get abused. In January 2001, I interviewed Ahmed Mohammed Nasser, the last Secretary General of the ELF before its disintegration, and he had this to say about how hero worship results in the creation of dictatorship:

“In conjunction with this I call upon all Eritreans to get rid, once and forever, of such adjectives as `Qorratz’, [resolute] ‘Fellat’ [wise], ‘Sheitan’ [satan], ‘Gigna’ [brave] etc`, since they have become devoid of their appropriate meanings and have ended up in the glorification and legitimization of despotism in our country.”

You can find more on Ahmed Nasser’s insights here.

Part of the rise and glide of Isaias Afwerki is attributable then to our natural affinity for a hero: a conqueror. Didn’t he prevail over the ELF? Didn’t he prevail over Mengistu? Didn’t he prevail over the entire Soviet-bloc supporters of Mengistu? Was he not able to make liars of all the experts who said that Eritrea would never be an independent country because it would not be viable and Ethiopia would never ever let go?  It didn’t hurt him that he was also ‘Halengai”: our culture, like most cultures in the world, practices what HR folks call “lookism”: tall, attractive people are considered natural leaders.  Here’s a primer.  And it didn’t hurt that he is named after a Prophet.

Of course, anybody who was paying any attention in the last 30 years knew the man had authoritarian tendencies and was ruthless in meting out cruel punishment not just to his enemies but his opponents. His qualifications for hero status were always in question: there is little evidence of selflessness—on the contrary, all his history is that of a selfish man.  But even as we knew the man was far from perfect; even, as we knew that he really was a brutal man, we had a perception of him as a superman (listen to Abrar’s “Tsebah.”) To paraphrase Roosevelt who said of South American dictator Samoza, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he is OUR son of a bitch”, many Eritreans had firmed up a similar deal with Isaias: “he is an irrational man, but he is OUR irrational man.”

Isaias knows the need to maintain this heroic PR image and during the Second Offensive in 1999, he donned his camouflage suit and dangling an AK-47 was making himself very visible in Keren. Hundreds of kilometers from action but still….

7. Guilt: “Where Were You?”

Faced with any threat, all animals have two choices: fight or flight.  Statistically speaking, most Eritreans chose flight– to leave the country or to show no visible interest in the national cause by keeping  their head down.  For a long time, it was a trade-off: the combatants said we will pretend that all forms of struggle are equally valid (“izi win mqlas iyu ab MaHberawi Nabra” sang Osman Abdulrehim extolling the virtues of farming and working) so long as you pretend that there is nothing to see here. Don’t complain about conscripted soldiers if you, while claiming to believe in our cause, did everything you could to avoid enlisting.  “Where were you when I was facing extinction? When I was wounded? When I was bleeding to near death? When I was starving? When I lost my hearing for days from the deafening mortar sounds? When I buried my comrades? And if you are not happy about your circumstances, go ahead and do what I did: commit to the cause for life. There are no short cuts here.” For most of us that is a conversation-ender.  So we kept our mouth shut out of a sense of guilt.

This “I did it, and I dare you to do it—but I know you won’t, so why don’t you just shut the hell up and take it” attitude is not just an EPLF thing; it is also a TPLF thing. Why aren’t you surprised? In 1993, when Ethiopians were complaining that Meles Zenawi was giving up Eritrea easily, without fighting for Ethiopia’s interest on the matter of Eritrean referendum, Meles essentially challenged the complainants to take up arms, like he did, and fight for their cause (his  famous “mengedu Cherq Yargelachu” comment.) And in 2009, when the Americans were pressing Meles to speed up the democratization process in his country, to provide more space to his opposition, Wikileaks tells us:

“Referencing his own struggle against the Derg regime, Meles said he and his compatriots received no foreign funding, but were willing to sacrifice and die for their cause, and Ethiopians today must take ownership of their democratic development, be willing to sacrifice for it, and defend their own rights.”

Guilt and silence feed the tree of dictatorship.   But just because the combatants forgave us for our Free-Rider attitude, it doesn’t mean they forgot.  And we did not have an adequate answer to the question of “where were you?”

Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes of all time, and it was uttered by Hebret Berhe, the former ambassador to Scandinavian nations, who was in the original leadership of the EPLF-DP. I didn’t interview her as she has pretty much dropped off politics: the quote is from 2002. She is in the San Francisco Bay Area giving a speech and she is getting the usual treatment that all former EPLF fighters who choose to side with the people get from some misguided members of our opposition—a plate of sanctimoniousness with a side order of accusation.  During the Q & A session, a person makes a long comment about how Isaias didn’t suddenly become a dictator, he was allowed to be one over a long course of time and he asks her: “where were you when Isaias committed all these crimes….” Now the political answer to give is a long-winded one justifying every phase—independence struggle, nation building, constitution drafting, war, and then end it with a dash of self-flagellation. I have heard that speech many times. But Hebret would have none of that. Her answer was a pithy, “And where were you?”

Ka-boom. It was love at first sight.

There is one group of Eritreans to whom the “where were you?” guilt trip doesn’t apply.  It is the young generation of Eritreans and those who were part of the Revolution and are now dissidents.  More on both below.

8. The “External Factor”: Westerners For A Communist State

The EPLF was, as Adhanom Ghebremariam explained, a devoutly Marxist organization. Not just was: its reincarnation, PFDJ, is communism light with the government crowding out every enterprise there is and failing at it.

The latest professionals whose licenses will be withdrawn are dentists—yes dentists—who have been told that they are practicing a profession that, by rights, belongs to the government. So, one consolation to the Eritrean opposition who are worried about the windfall that mining will provide the Eritrean regime is that, as an Awate Forum writer (Eriprodigy?) once explained: if there is one thing you can be sure is that the PFDJ will find a way to screw it up.   This doesn’t mean that we should just put all our chips on the inexhaustible capability of the PFDJ to screw up: Tewekel Ala Allah, but do tie that camel.

But even though the EPLF was always a communist organization, it always enjoyed the support of (or was tolerated by) Europeans and Americans.  “External actors gave the EPLF a green light and created a conducive environment for it to march to victory—something that was given to no other organization,” says Hassen Salman, the leader of the Eritrean Islamic Congress. Even during the height of the Cold War when the US was on red alert of the red menace, the EPLF—a communist organization—had representation in the United States. The EPLF’s Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) was very successful at raising huge funds from European NGOs and churches without seemingly asking for anything in return. Bitsifrina? Well, we did visit boutiques and got nail extensions. I once asked an ERA official the proportion of foreign to Eritrean funding of ERA: he hesitated, smiled and said 99:1.    Nearly all ERA funding was from the West!A similar Eritrean NGO that had no affiliation with the EPLF would immediately be accused of being a CIA spy and shut down.

But how is this possible?  Why were the external actors so enabling of the EPLF/PFDJ?

Again, Woldeyesus Ammar, from his 1992 book Eritrea: Root Cause of War And Refugees:

“During the second half of the 1980s, the EPLF enjoyed the generous backing of several non-governmental organizations which had been attracted by the effectiveness and impeccable efficiency of various institutions of the front, including its relief organ. However, it cannot be denied that to some other institutions and individuals in the West, the EPLF was introduced and accepted not as a ‘separatist Moslem movement’, but as another version of that nostalgic ‘Island of Christendom’ whose old fame and name had been blemished by a war-mongering pseudo-marxist dictator and the ugly face of mainly man-made famines.”

Adhanom Ghebremariam describes another attribute of the “external factor”—the regime’s ability to play the siege mentality. Every Eritrean knows the story of how Eritrea, an Italian colony, was treated differently from the other Italian colonies–Somalia and Libya—after Italian defeat in World War II. They were given independence and we weren’t. Every Eritrean knows the story of how the Federation, whose terms could only have been changed by the UN was changed by Haile Selasse—and the world was silent. Every Eritrean knows how the Eritreans waged a struggle against Ethiopia for 30 years and the OAU sided with Ethiopia and never condemned it even when it was using cluster bombs against civilians. These actions and inactions have now carried over to influence the views of Eritreans towards the world even in post independent Eritrea.  Here are some examples:

When the OAU Ambassadors tasked with resolving the origin of the conflict of the war determined that Eritrea was to blame and should withdraw from Badme, we said, “Well, what do you expect!”

When the UN blamed Eritrea for complicating an already complicated situation in Somalia?  “Well, what do you expect!”

The UN passed a resolution condemning Eritrea and demanding that it withdraw from disputed territories in Djibouti? “Well, what do you expect!”

The UN passed a resolution to impose an embargo on Eritrea? “Well what do you expect?”

The UN has refused to “compel” Ethiopia to withdraw from Eritrean territories? “Well, what do you expect?”

The world really hates Eritrea, we are told. World leaders all get together on the 3rd Thursday of every month and have Skype meetings to discuss Eritrea and what to do about this “threat of good example.” The Eritrean regime has perfected its own version of “jury nullification”—no matter how air-tight and enormous the evidence against it, it will always appeal to the emotions of Eritreans: “nothing new here: they did it before; they are doing it again.”   Sometimes, it even appeals successfully to the guilt of non-Eritreans.  As Eritrea’s former ambassador to the Scandinavian countries, Adhanom says that he observed first hand that the Norwegians had a strong sense of guilt about their role in federating Eritrea with Ethiopia and would overcompensate for their sin by extending huge aid to the Eritrean regime.   (Aid that the regime squandered and mismanaged of course.) So, it turns out, guilt is multi-lingual.

9. The Cultural Factor

“We are civilized. We are a cultured people,” Adhanom tells me, “We embraced Islam and Christianity long before others. We believe in the rule of law.” Adhanom gives further examples in his aforementioned The Hybrid Philosophy of the PFDJ:  “In our culture, there is no bigger insult than to call someone a liar, one who bears false witness. A liar is so ostracized he may never be given a bride.”

Ok, sounds good.   But, in the same series that I mentioned above Adhanom says that the prevailing culture of the ruling regime in Eritrea is one based on “Jahran, TimkiHtin, Hasotn”—bragging, superiority complex and lying.   How do we get from A to B?  How does a culture that despises lies and falsehoods tolerate and reward those who practice it for a living?

Because, it turns out, suffering silently is also a defining feature of the same culture.   We think to suffer quietly is a form of piety.  In Michela Wrong’s “I Didn’t Do It For You…”, Dawit Mesfin describes this stoicism as “quietude.”  More recently, the US Ambassador to Eritrea said “the capacity of most Eritreans to withstand suffering and deprivation with forbearance and toughness” is one reason that a regime which is, in his words, “one bullet away” from crumbling, stays in power.

But there has got to be more to it than that. We Eritreans are not an island—we have had long interaction with colonizers. We influence and we are influenced. Did they leave us nothing more than art deco buildings? While dictatorships can spring and mushroom anywhere, our kind of absolute tyranny—one without even the pretense of having an opposition—could not exist in, say, Somalia or Sudan. Why is that?

Mohammed Nur Ahmed, has a take on it. I approached Mohammed Nur because he had a unique vantage point: he was with the ELF, then the EPLF-PFDJ, and now with the Eritrean opposition.

“Our neighboring countries who were colonized by the Brits ended up absorbing some of the British political culture like free press, political parties, and elections,” explains Mohammed Nur. “Our case was different because the Brits really did not want to administer Eritrea and they were pressured by the United States to do so after the end of World War II.” They weren’t in Eritrea long enough for their political culture to take root. As for the Italian colonizers, their history is well known, he explained—they wanted Eritreans to have just enough social, political and economic development to serve the colonial plan.

“Whatever its strengths,” says Mohammed Nur of the Eritrean culture, “the fact is that Eritrea never had a culture of liberal democracy.”

There is some merit to this if you compare the experiences of British Somalia, French Somalia and Italian Somalia in terms of how they have been able to cope with the establishment of their nation state.

The real question is: how much of the PFDJ culture—Jahran, Timkihtin, Hasotn—has been absorbed and internalized by “we the people”?  And this, really, is the part that people are really afraid to grapple with. Politicians are politicians—and one immutable fact of politics is that you never blame the people for their shortcomings, unless you want to resign from politics. (See also: Hibret Berhe.) To do so is to commit political suicide.  The other approach is to slice the culture into its components and say, “what Eritrean culture? It may be your culture but it is not my culture!” which gets us into the quicksand of recrimination.  Analyzing this topic and addressing it dispassionately is really the job of social scientists—anthropologists, specially—but we don’t have them, and to the extent we have them, they are really steered clear of that.

What we do know generally is that wars have a tendency to alter the people’s code of ethics—their culture, their traditions, their fountain of right and wrong—because, as the adage claims “all is fair in love and war.” Here’s a simple example.   A bunch of wild-eyed Tor Serawit (Ethiopian soldiers) tear to an Eritrean village and ask the villagers if they had seen any wenbediye (bandits) around. Since the wenbediye happen to be their own sons and daughters, the villagers—the same villagers that Adhanom says are bound by tradition to never tell a lie—will lie. We have now, for generations, embraced a willingness to participate in something bad to avoid something evil. Adhanom teases me and says, “some writers describe that as TwgaHmo!”

But it is not without cost.  I think that war-torn societies embrace behavior that their culture would not allow them as part of their survival mechanism. Megan K. Stack has a book about the futility of the US war in Afghanistan—a country that is synonymous with war. The title of her book? “Every Man In This Village Is A Liar.”  She mentions a man who was a Jihadist with Bin Laden and later, the author, “found out he worked for the CIA. They gave him a satellite phone, and he was calling in coordinates for bombing targets.” It is this knowledge of what he has done to us that gets Isaias Afwerki to be as paranoid as he is: he and the Revolution he led taught us to lie for him and the Revolution, and now he can’t trust that we won’t lie against him and for the Counter revolution. Back in 2002, when he was chopping his wounds by clubbing all night with teenagers, he used to rail against the “treacherous” Eritrean people.

So, there was this Eritrean culture that we are all proud of and mythologized—except when it comes to women’s rights, and children’s rights, but hush already—which was challenged by the Revolution because it was a “feudal” system. The Eritrean revolutionaries said, “whatever our cultural differences, they are minor to what unifies us—our Eritrean identity—and we must not talk about them other than in the most controlled environments.” Like an expo or a concert where we can celebrate our diversity at the most superficial level–by changing our costumes. All revolution-era literature said that there were many Eritrean tribes and ethnic groups but we all looked at Eritrea exactly the same way.  The only time that there was a friction between the diverse people (who lived in perfect harmony and intermarried and intermingled and every tribe traces its ancestry to the other and wow look at this fine unicorn ranch we have) was when it was engineered by foreigners (Ethiopians, Italians, Brits) and so to talk about our differences in anything but that context was to act like a foreigner, an enemy in our midst.  To be divisive, counter-revolutionary.  The only differences that were worth highlighting were the classifications that came from the Marxist schools: Eritreans are divided into petit-bourgeois, workers, and farmers.  The petit-bourgeois (the student, the businessman, the scholar) is the enemy of the Revolution and to be admitted into the nationalist camp, he must deny his class (“Derbu k’Hakekh alewo.”)

But when the Big Lies about the revolution were exposed, when those who were requiring us to deny our class had created their own privileged class; when those who told us post-independent Eritrea will be a democracy and then made it anything but—people started asking, “what else has the Revolution lied to us about?” And are we, truly, one people? Are we two—lowland and highland, pastoral and agricultural, Muslim and Christian—with two distinctive cultures? Are we 9+: all the tribes and ethnic groups?  Some, who have found exile at the Republic of Asmarino, have changed this into an existential question: are we even a country? Should we be a country?  Was that really a revolution?  Did the people really support it?

Bashir Ishaq, who heads the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement (EFDM), says we have a dual identity and he ascribes part of our failure to wage an effective opposition and for Isaias Afwerki to thrive to that fact: “Eritreans and Eritrea are unfortunate for its location between two strong and well established civilizations or cultures, namely the Abyssinian and the Arabo-Islamic cultures. Eritreans are roughly divided between these two cultures, or at least are influenced by them. This reflects in our attitudes and subsequent behavior. It determines how we look at ourselves, at our nation and at the other. Do all Eritreans have had the same image of the Eritrea they wanted and want? The theory of domination – the fear of been dominated by others as a strong drive to dominate others is present.”

Does our different background translate to different “attitudes and subsequent behavior”?  Does our religious, regional, ethnic identity trump our generic national identity? What is the emotive hierarchy among religious, regional and ethnic identities?  Say anything negative about things you observe in your own ethnicity, region or religion and you are a self-hating  whatever-you-are; say anything negative about somebody else’s ethnicity, region and religion and you are dangerous and divisive.  And silence was the norm.  That stilted language of polite pretense, QelAlem, is our official language. Those in my generation whose viewpoints of life were shaped by the Revolution—who considered region, religion, ethnicity taboos to be spoken of in polite codes of “this segment”, “this half”, “the other half”, are ill-equipped to address this.   It is like asking grandma to sing gangsta hip hop lyrics: it’s a bridge too far. And it is this inability to have this honest dialogue that has fragmented and paralyzed the opposition groups.

But for the first time in my lifetime, people are beginning to have a conversation. Unfortunately, the conversation yields more heat than light—you are more likely to be burned than illuminated—but the conversation is beginning.

Some Eritreans say that we can use the same fountain of strength we used during our revolution—the power of nationalism/patriotism—to wage an effective campaign against dictatorship. Some Eritreans say that we must use our naturally existing organizational units—ethnicity, region, and religion—and then form coalitions to challenge the dictatorship. Even within the advocates of ethnic, regional and religious associations, there exist big differences in their perception as to which one has the largest pull. If you have built up the required resistance for the Internet crossfire, you can read the Semere Tesfai and Ali Salim debates, in these pages.

One group accuses the other of wanting to inherit the Isaias Afwerki structure so it can impose its own version of “kinder, gentler” dictatorship.  The other group counter-accuses the other of softening up the country so it can be another version of Ethiopia’s ethnic federation.   And there are no Wise Men left: the revolution destroyed the traditional authority centers—village and religious elders and there are no E.F. Huttons, no leaders with the moral authority to demand our ear much less our following.  Paralysis is the end result.

(11) Summary

Eritrea has become a one-man country because (1) The one man, Isaias Afwerki, is exceptionally focused politician who will do whatever it takes to get and retain power.  He has comprehensive knowledge of Eritrea’s culture—its fears and its hopes—and he readily uses the power of religion and ethnic-ism (or the fear of ethnic-ism) as mobilizing tool against his enemies. He is unrestrained by reins like ideology or any sense of morality: total power is and was his only goal; (2) those who were tasked with keeping the reins on him failed to restrain him. We the people couldn’t because we were immobilized by hero worship, by guilt—those who chose flight outnumber those who chose fight—and our culture encouraged quiet endurance; and the “two segments” of our society fear being dominated by the other and will put up with their own “strong man” as a shield against the other segment. This internal dynamics was mirrored externally with Europeans and Americans seeing him as a potential ally who will advance a secular, progressive system that will not be hostile Western interests. The ELF leadership couldn’t because it was marginalized (or marginalized itself) as incapable of handling Eritrea’s diversity. The EPLF leadership couldn’t because its very nature—a military institution espousing communist ideology—encouraged secrecy and severely punished inquiry. So the one man rule of PFDJ is a direct descendant of the one man rule of EPLF. What about the “central committee” and “executive committee” that was set up to keep Isaias Afwerki in check?  Here’s Adhanom again: in 1990, the Central Committee was meeting in Afabet.  One of its own members, Ahmed Alqeysi  had disappeared. Another central committee member, Mahmoud Jabra, asked the whereabouts of Ahmed Alqeysi.  Isaias Afwerki responded: “The Secretary General [meaning himself] ordered his arrest for security reasons.”   At the end of the meeting the members of the Central Committee were amazed that Mahmoud Jabra dared to ask the question but were not surprised at all that their colleague was arrested! (3) we are unable to wage an effective campaign to unseat him from power because we do not agree on which method is the best way to organize and articulate our grievances and we do not share the same vision as to what kind of Eritrea we want post-Isaias Afwerki.

12. What Is To Be Done?

In 1901, Vladimir Lenin wrote a pamphlet entitled “What Is To Be Done: Burning Questions Of Our Movement.”  In the pamphlet, Lenin criticizes some of the intellectuals of the socialist movement—obsessing over “right to criticize” and the politics of wage negotiation—and calls for empowering the proletariat. But since the proletariat were too busy worrying about their survival, it was up to people like him to do it for them and then turn power to them so they can create a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Of course, he and his successors never did, and communism has been responsible for more misery than any other ideology ever conceived of.

But while Lenin’s remedy was worse than the illness, the question is always valid because, at the end of the day, you just can’t study the subject forever–unless you are an academic. A solution, or a set of solutions must be proposed that takes into account an assessment of the political opponent that is free from, to borrow Herui’s words, the “mist of idealism.” To maximize the potential for success, it must have an unvarnished assessment of:  the means we use to bring about the change; and what precisely is the change we want. And it must be done within the context of our culture, and our history.

(a) The Means: Waging An Armed Struggle

One of the complaints that older generation Eritreans air about the new generation is this: when Haile Selasse lowered the Eritrean flag, it was enough of an affront for our generation to say no and to wage an armed struggle. Isaias Afwerki has done infinitely worse to your generation: why won’t you fight back?

Ismail O Ali has focused on the moral imperative of armed resistance.  And you are welcome to debate with him but be forewarned:  I have read Ismail, off-and-on, since 1996 and I have yet to witness him losing a debate. My focus here will be on the practicality or impracticality of armed struggle.

What we euphemistically call an “armed struggle” is what the world would call a civil war.  The World Bank commissioned a study in 1999 about what sustains civil wars.  The author, Paul Collier, who presented his paper entitled Doing Well Out Of War” makes many observations, some of which are entirely predictable (the direct co-relation between likelihood of war and the demography—average age and education level of the population specifically) and some that are entirely counter-intuitive.  These are the ones I will focus on:

“A society which is fully democratic is safer than one which is only partially democratic. However, severe political repression yields a lower risk of conflict than partial democracy.”

“…ethnic and religious fractionalization significantly reduces the risk of conflict. Fractionalized societies are safer than homogeneous societies. For example, a highly fractionalized society such as Uganda would be about 40% safer than a homogeneous society, controlling for other characteristics.”

But why is this so?  Because, explains the author, in highly fractionalized societies:

“it is much harder to mobilize large numbers of people than in homogeneous societies. It may only be possible to mobilize the people within a particular ethnic-cum-religious group, but if this is only a small part of the national population, the prospects of victory are poor and so the prospect of assuaging grievance are poor.”

The author says that grievance-based war doesn’t go far because of what the social scientists call the “free rider problem”,  “the coordination problem” and the “time-consistency problem.”  I am sure you have heard of the “free rider problem” which is taught in Econ 101 as a case of a citizen not paying his share or getting more than his share. The only ones who are not familiar with this well-established fact are some of our friends at Asmarino who have been shocked (shocked, I tell ya!) that the Fronts conscripted Eritreans during the Revolutionary War. But what is the “co-ordination problem” and the “time consistency problem”? I will quote the author at length because I can’t put it more succinctly or clearly:

“Justice, revenge, and relief from grievance are `public goods’ and so are subject to the problem of free-riding. If I am consumed with grievance against the government, I may well prefer to rebel than to continue to suffer its continuation. However, whether the government gets overthrown does not depend upon whether I personally join the rebellion. Individually, my preferred choice might be that others fight the rebellion, while I benefit from the justice which their rebellion achieves. This standard free-rider problem will often be enough to prevent the possibility of grievance motivated rebellions. However, it is compounded by two other problems. In order for a rebellion to achieve justice it probably needs to achieve military victory. For this it needs to be large. Small rebellions face all the costs and risks of punishment without much prospect of achieving justice. Hence, grievance-motivated potential rebels will be much more willing to join large rebellions than small ones. Obviously, however, rebellions have to start small before they can become large. It is quite possible that many people would be willing to join a large rebellion but that nevertheless it does not occur, because only few people are willing to join a small rebellion and so it does not scale up. Social scientists think of this as a coordination problem. The final problem is that rebels have to fight before they achieve justice. The rebel leader may promise to assuage grievances, but once he has won he may have an incentive to behave much like the current government. More generally, the rebel leader has a much stronger incentive to promise things than he has subsequently to deliver them. Because potential recruits can recognize this problem they may not be able to trust the rebel leader and so may decide not to join the rebellion even though it promises relief from grievances. Social scientists term such a phenomenon a time-consistency problem.”

Now, let’s see what we have.  Eritrea is a fractionalized society; it has, compared to the 1960s, a relatively more educated sector; it has an extremely repressive government. It has a population that knows first hand what the “free-rider” problem is—everybody feels they have paid their dues and it is somebody else’s turn to pay.  It has small, tiny, rebellion groups led by people that the average Eritrean suspects that they will behave no better than the current government.  In short, all the clues suggest that a grievance based, nationwide armed struggle is extremely unlikely to succeed.

Paradoxically, for precisely the same reasons that a “grievance based” armed struggle is hard to wage in a heterogeneous society ruled by a repressive government, an “economy-motivated” struggle is easier to conduct. By “economy-motivated” I mean, for example, one based on a narrower goal of controlling resources in a limited geographic area. Here, all the free-rider, co-ordination and time-consistency problems are gone. This is because those who wage the campaign are not being asked to defer the reward (there is no twgaHmo here):  the combatants get paid from the resources they control, which means there is no time-coordination problem, either: they prefer to have a small rebellion, to divide the resources among fewer people; and there is no time consistency problem: they have no expectation on whether the rebel leader will be democratic or not because the struggle and the reward is all about HERE AND NOW.  An extreme example of this would be the Somali pirates.

Now think: are there armed Eritrean groups whose focus is more concentrated on a specific ethnic group in a specific geographic area rather than the entirety of Eritrea?  Is the trend towards more or less?  Two perspectives I did not get are from the leadership of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK) and the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO)—but it is not for lack of trying. Will they, at some point define their goal as secession–not just self-determination up to secession–and focus only on controlling their land and resources? My speculation is that they will—particularly as the rest of Eritrea shows an amazing level of indifference to their suffering. Here is your first clue: a news piece from October 2010 from somebody claiming to represent RSADO.

To summarize, an armed struggle focused on nationalistic goals relying on nation-wide enlistment of recruits is very unlikely to succeed in Eritrea for all the reasons stated above.  Conversely, an armed struggle focused on narrower goals relying on a smaller base with far less ambitious goals has a relatively higher probably of success. And given that those who define their goals as nationalist are very dismissive of those who define their focus as ethnic or regional, the restraint of the latter to hold on to Eritrea is likely to snap and for their secessionist declarations to be bolder.

(b) The Means: Waging A Peaceful Struggle

First, definitions.  When people think of non-violence, they think of two individuals who popularized it: Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who were pacifists. But, while all pacifists advocate non-violence, not all non-violence advocates are pacifists. A person could advocate non-violence on completely pragmatic grounds, reserving the right to use violence if and when the situation warrants. Non-violent resistance is an organized set of activities that includes “strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, refusal to pay taxes, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization” (Steven Zunes, “Power Of Non Violent Action”, March 1 2009.)

“Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.”

The above quote is from “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”, a case study prepared by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, two scholars with titles too long to list here.

The authors “compared the outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006” before published their findings. Then they took three case studies of non-violent change: East Timor (1988-99); Philippines (1986); and Burma (1988-90) and analyzed why non-violence campaign worked in East Timor and Philippines but didn’t in Burma. They discount the effectiveness of the armed campaign in East Timor for the purposes of their study. Once again, most of their conclusions are intuitive: success depends on how responsive to pressure is the regime targeted, “there is no evidence that mass nonviolent mobilization can be successfully begun or sustained by external actors”, importance of independent media to publicize work of nonviolent campaigners and the repression they face, etc.  I will focus on those factors which are relevant to our case:

  • For the mobilization to succeed, it must be “widespread, cross-cutting, and decentralized.”
  • Campaigns that rely on the moral force of one person (as was the case in Burma) are unlikely to succeed.
  • “resistance campaigns that compel loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian bureaucrats are likely to succeed.”

Ok, before we move on to future actions, let’s re-examine the history of non-violent campaigns in post-independent Eritrea:

(1)   Shortly after independence, members of EPLF units (including “Bahli”, artillery, boot camp, cadres, logistics, healthcare) who had waged their version of non-violent protest (demanding rights) were targeted for arrest and demobilization;

(2)  In 1993, around the referendum, protesting EPLF fighters conducted demonstrations and held the Asmara International Airport briefly. They were arrested. The work of the demobilization committee (chaired by Petros Solomon and Haile Weldensaie, both made to disappear since 2001) was suspended and Isaias used the demonstrations as a pretext to demobilize all potential rabble-rousers (including 88% of the female fighters)

(3)   In 1994, disabled war veterans who were protesting their appalling conditions at Mai Habar were met with forceful repression.

(4)  In August 2001, 2000 University of Asmara students were forcefully bussed to WiA for refusing to attend school until the fate of their student union president, Semere Kesete, is known. The same month, Eritrean elders (old men) who violated the “law” against assembling without permit and advising the government to resolve disputes peacefully were arrested.

(5)   September 2001 began the crackdown on 15 government officials (G-15), as well as thousands of Eritreans who refused to condone the arbitrary arrest and detention of the government officials.

These are all “non-violent campaigns” in that those calling for change were doing it peacefully. And all of them were met with the full force of the State. Since it is now official government policy that more than 7 Eritreans cannot congregate for any reason without the expressed permission of the State, it is an easy assumption to make that an organic, home-grown “non-violent campaign” is highly unlikely.

This leaves the Diaspora-based organizations to organize the non-violent campaign.  And, here again, they face multiple challenges.

The first challenge is that for the campaign to be effective, it must be “wide spread and cross cutting”—which is to say that the validity of  non-violent campaign must receive acceptance throughout Eritrea’s social segments. I have not conducted a statistical analysis of this but my anecdotal research is that this not even close.  To make matters worse, the one organization which is closely associated with the campaign of non-violent campaign is itself a recent convert to the cause and it has been less than persuasive in winning over a “wide spread and cross cutting” constituency to its cause. Another reason for the challenge of winning over a cross-section of Eritreans to the cause is that the Eritrea envisioned by the advocates of non-violent campaign—a more or less unitary, mostly centralized, liberal democracy—is at odds with the New Eritrea envisioned by those who are not receptive to their entreaties.

The second challenge is that the cause of non-violent campaign is, in the words of Eminem, “hotter than a set of twin babies”: it is the cute panda of the NGO world: everybody wants to adopt it because it is the only way to get perpetual funding from deep-pocketed sources. Paradoxically, association with foreign NGOs is the quickest way for a non-violent campaign to be suspected of advancing foreign interest by the ruling regime and by other members of the opposition—which explains the hyper-reaction to the Brussels Conference of 2009.

The third challenge is that those who advocate “non-violent campaign” have yet to define much less organize the heavy lifting that is required to start and sustain all that is required to do the job. Eritrea’s non-violent campaign has only one asset right now—an independent Diaspora-based media that can disseminate and publicize the work of the opposition. Instead of consolidating the one strength it has and then moving on to organizing sit-ins, protests outside PFDJ functions, concerts, embassies, symbolic shredding of the dreaded menqesaqesi and the “creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization” like community centers, those organizations espousing non-violent campaign have been focused on tearing down their single asset, Eritrea’s independent media!

The fourth challenge is that the same Eritrean culture that celebrates Qorratz, [resolute] ‘Fellat’ [wise], ‘Sheitan’ [satan], ‘Gigna’ traits associates these heroic attributes to military prowess and not to non-violent campaigns.  “You and what army?” is the familiar refrain we all hear when we talk about bringing change to Eritrea.  There is a huge cultural hurdle that must be overcome to persuade people that change can come using non-violent campaigns.  That, in short, non-violence is “manly.”

The fifth and infinitely bigger challenge is the task of compelling “loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian bureaucrats” of the regime.  We can agree, given where the balance of power rests in Eritrea, winning over the civilian bureaucrats is irrelevant to the task of bringing change. The question is can a “non-violent campaign” win over the generals, colonels and the security apparatus of Eritrea.  In Infestation of Psycho Spiritual Malaise Aklilu Zere talks about how the security forces failed “time and again” to stand with the people when disabled war veterans were murdered; when their comrade-in-arms were tortured; when young boys and girls were forcefully conscripted; when civilians were bullied and beaten; and when young Eritrea are being brutalized by recruited mercenaries.  Aklilu says that “any person or organization that places its hope on these officers shall be considered a fool and an accomplice to negligence, and shall be held accountable.”

I tend to agree with Aklilu that one can’t win over the generals because we are dealing with a criminal cartel here. When the FBI goes after the mafia lieutenants, it does not win them with appeals to their conscience: it threatens them, with facts and figures, that co-operating with the FBI will be less painful to them than sticking with the boss. The mafia lieutenants then make a calculation: and most, it so happens, stick with the boss.  But you don’t win over individuals who have become millionaires using criminal enterprise with appeals to their conscience or a call to do the right thing.

(C) The Change We Want

If we are to speak candidly, we don’t agree on much—we don’t agree on our flag, on our symbols, our history, our heroes and our villains and on what kind of state we want after the mafia regime is gone. It is quite possible that two generations of Eritreans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and we have been suppressing it and we are, to one degree or another, a bit damaged.   We certainly display some of the symptoms of PTSD–reliving all our nightmares and snapping at each other at the slightest provocation.  But there is one thing—a huge thing—that Eritrea has going for it right now: most Eritreans still want an Eritrea.  Unbroken and in one piece. Even those who espouse “up to and including secession” still want to be part of Eritrea—for now at least, although we are doing everything we can to convince them otherwise.   As long as we have that common denominator, we can find a way out of our morass as long as we (a) have decent respect for the diversity of our opinions and (b) we fully embrace the possibility—very remote, I know—that we could be wrong. What we need is to create a village where everybody tells the truth, from the heart: his fears, his hopes, his grievances.

It is not that we don’t know what the change we want is: we don’t agree on the change.   Everybody has drawn different lessons from our 70 year effort to build a nation state (1941-2011.)   And we all have strong opinions that we hold on to very firmly and we are not going to dissuade one another from holding them under the duress of threats or blackmail.  There was a time, a long time ago, that being accused of harboring “sub-national” feeling was a huge insult.  Or to be accused of treason was an affront.  After decades of being bandied about recklessly, these words have lost all meaning and their ability to sting.   Threats and blackmail just won’t do.  The only way out for us is to talk to each other candidly.  And that, really, is the promise of a national conference. We had a good start last August, we need to have a perfect one next August. That is the only way out and we don’t have much time to make it work. Of course, I could be wrong, in which case, you just read a 14-page nonsense and God bless you.


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