Isaias Shrugged: And The Eritrean People Sighed

This is Al Nahda’s final installment on the various reactions to Isaias Afwerki shrugging.  The media in Eritrea, which is owned by the State (which is to say, Isaias) –nods its head in agreement to whatever sound passes his lips (And The State Media Nodded Its Head); the international community (let’s pretend there is one) just rolls its eyes the way we all do at the crazy uncle (And The World Rolled Its Eyes). This part will focus on the reaction of the Eritrean people. I was going to suggest Isaias Shrugged: And The Eritrean People Groaned but a troublemaker suggested “sighed” and I am making peace with her.  Besides, the Eritrean people are too exhausted to groan.

I am often struck by how dispassionate Isaias Afwerki is when talking about Eritreans.

He will sing hymns to the exceptionalism of Somalis (“Hayal hzbi iyu”);  his voice will crack in agony regarding the ethnic federation arrangement of  Mama Ethiopia (the way Gigi’s does over her Man’net Melekiya One Ethiopia ); he will shed tears for the fate of Native Americans (whom he cringingly calls Red Indians); and to all the marginalized and po’ folk who overcrowd the planet.  But he shows no admiration or respect for Eritreans.  Just pity.

In fact, in the entire 6-hour interview, you will never find these words escape his lips: “Eritrea”, “Eritreans,” “Eritrean people.”  It is always, “izi hager” (this country), “izi hzbi” (these people.) Go ahead, check it, if you got 6 hours to kill. And it is a habit with him:  when it comes to Eritrea, Isaias talks like a consultant, as this column observed years ago when Isaias expressed amazement about people who speak of the private sector.  abzi hager bHtawi kfal kblu ygermeni iyu (it is amazing to me when people talk about the private sector) and then mocked the meager capital of Eritrea’s capitalists.   So, like a traveling consultant who has an outsider-looking-in vocabulary (this company, these employees), Isaias has the same estrangement (this country, these people)….with the same hilarious “insight” that consultants have about the companies they visit   I am betting that his favorite software application is that old standby of every consultant: PowerPoint.

[Warning: all ye Obama fans may want to skip this paragraph.   See you a paragraph later.]

Isaias Afwerki has the same aloofness from his subjects that Obama has—the ordinariness of the circle of life is too tedious for them.  One is (or claims to be) post racial, post partisan and the other one is (or claims to be) post regional, post ideology.  Uh-huh.   Obama embraces hard-core leftist ideology but pretends he is post partisan; Isaias embraces a clearly definable Stalinist philosophy but then dismisses ideology as too rigid, too restrictive, the way a body rejects a foreign object. Obama thinks people stick to tradition and religion because they have been betrayed by their government (“people have been beaten down so long, they feel so betrayed by government, so its not surprising that they get bitter and cling to guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren’t like them”) and Isaias also feels that the reason there is religious revival is because people gave up on the secular world.

Oh, sure, Isaias Afwerki is a politician and he will flatter the subjects when necessary (see also: when he needs money.)  But for the most part, the subjects are, in his eyes, weaklings who have to be protected— protected from a dangerous world, from enemies outside and within who want to prey on them.  “ Izi hzbi”, he says in this interview, “nQdmit handef handef inabele zkeyd iyu.”   The closest translation I can find for “handef handef” is to ramble, to meander or to shuffle along. There is an absence of grace or purpose in “handef handef,” which is how one defines a movement of a people that are just stunned, in a shock, or grief, or naiveté.  Someone who has no self-awareness; somebody who is distracted by something else.   You know, a Derbush.

Isaias talking about Eritreans is a lot like Jim comforting the disappointed black sheriff in “Blazing Saddles” Jim doesn’t hate his people,  in fact, he risks his life for them, but it doesn’t change his view of them as common clay of the earth, whom he calls, “you know, morons.”

In this interview, a bored Isaias Afwerki puts on his consultant hat and assesses the country or, in the parlance of the PFDJ, gives the “objective situation in the homeland.” But, unlike the happy talk given by his emissaries in their various seminars,  its is all gloomy from the perspective of the Consultant-in-Chief.  Because, YOU DON’T HAVE THE POWER TO FIRE HIM:

  1. This is a war-torn country and the government will have a huge role in infrastructure building—clean water, electricity, transportation, social services.  According to Lenin, he says, only two parties can do this: the very rich, and the government.  (And we already know abzi hager…)
  2. He says that development in the West (Western Eritrea) is near zero.
  3. There will no be private sector in Eritrea until a huge middle class encompassing 85% to 90% of the population is created presumably with a government-managed economy.   He has a kind advice for you: if your idea of private sector is Samsonite briefcase-holding-tie-wearing individuals, well, “guguy, zinguE ateHasasba aleka”, bro.
  4. This government that is going to manage the economy must be “lean, clean and efficient.” Some countries with population of 5 million have 850,000 government employees, he says shaking his head.  [Unlike Eritrea which has 350,000 slave laborers and 100,000 minimum wage government officials.]  But, Mr. President, if you have slave laborers, they escape the country, and you have brain drain; and if you have woefully underpaid government employees,  they supplement their income with bribes, and there goes your “clean government” says the interviewer.  Nah, he didn’t say that because he, you know, wants to continue breathing.
  5. Should we provide more information about our national resources is something we debate internally, he says.  [But, usually, while we are debating, the foreign companies who have shareholders to whom they have to disclose information about how they hugely overestimated the reserves and their investment has to take a beating (see Nevsun stock) pretty much make our internal debates moot.]  The concern here is about managing expectations: once you tell people that their country is well-endowed, they started asking questions like: then why am I going hungry? And why can’t I afford a pair of shoes for my children.   Even “handef handef, dergef people” ask these questions.
  6. The 120 Megawatt power plant in Hirgigo is not adequate and we have to build more.  And diversify our energy sources (tseAt memenchewi).  [There was a mischievious Eritrean friend in Egypt whose idea of fun was to confuse Egyptians who live with the illusion that they are not Africans.  So, whenever he would get in a bus full of Egyptians, he would instruct all Eritreans in the bus to speak in an imaginary Eritrean language that was full of che tse che tse sound.   He would have loved  “tseAt memenchewi mnada ny tsaHai…ab nedadi tsegaEnet yeQl’leka” (energy sources, specially solar, minimize your dependence on fuel.)
  7. Housing.  There is a great demand for that.  But that requires developing a neighborhood, which has access to water.  And social services. And a cement factory.  And doors and windows manufacturing.  And power lines.  And capacity.  And laws.  And administration. And here it is from the Consultant: “in the last 20 years, we have done nothing.”  [So ye all suckers who were putting down payments, in hard currency, to build houses in your country, get acquainted to your new best friend: loss. Here’s the link to the H & C Bank of Eritrea which took your money:    Dead link? Oops.]
  8. Fisheries.  “How much do we export? Nothing.”  Why?  We haven’t built capacity.  We don’t have the capacity for industrial fishing.  This has potential, but has not been developed. [Meanwhile, the only time we will make news about fishing is when we arrest Yemeni fishermen.]
  9. Produce.  “Why is produce expensive?”  Answer: “because there is no competition.”  Also: it is the fault of the damn speculators.
  10. Education: There has been quantitative improvement but not qualitative, he says. Fundamentally, the problem is lack of teachers.   We don’t have enough—certainly not in the quality desired. They were not nurtured.  Inadequate curriculum, labs, computers. Particularly schools in remote areas: not exactly something to be appreciated.

And now for a reality check. The teachers were not nurtured. Now, let’s hop on our time machine and travel to South Africa where Isaias Afwerki is addressing Eritrean university students on July 8, 2002:

Student:  What measures will be taken to encourage the people here to participate in the Warsai Yeka’alo Initiative?  If it is, as it were, work for 150 Nakfa, isn’t it preferable to choose to stay here?

Isaias: I had anticipated this question. When I was leaving Asmara to come here, they told me, lest you vanish, to meet with you and advise you to come back home.  I told them, “let them try!” Globalization is Equalizer. If there is money, there is no problem. You can import people. In the past, we looked for and couldn’t find laborers and construction workers.  We imported them from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India.  Yesterday, we were looking for five architects and we brought them from the Philippines. If we cannot find a professor, we go to India and import him.  So, if one says “I want to go to America,” let him try it.


Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot of nurturing of potential teachers does it? So, when Isaias Afwerki, now 9 years of wasted opportunities later, talks about how “teachers were not nurtured”, there is this huge, huge, huge urge to yell “ and whose fault was that?”

Now, having said that, I am going to give you whiplash because I am about to say something nice about Isaias Afwerki. Or at least ideas espoused by Isaias—his execution (or lack thereof) is a completely different thing.  Because it is something I know a little something about:

In 2009, in the United States, 41% of 18-24 year olds were attending college.  I don’t have comparable statistics for Europe and Canada but it is probably comparable or less.  Yet, the entire k-12 educational structure of the United States is built on a pleasant lie: it assumes that 100% of students will attend college.    The United States can afford this little fib because it has thousands of universities and colleges, 2 year, 4 year, graduate, post graduate, online, brick-and-mortar, religious, secular, private and public. But why do poor countries mimic this approach?   Why can’t they create different streams for different aptitudes? Why should there be any stigma attached to welding schools, plumbing schools, hairdresser schools, truck-driving schools?  What is so great about a whole bunch of 20 year olds graduating with degrees in “political science” and “international business”?

Isaias Afwerki appears to get this—but knowing him, he probably approaches it from a different perspective as in “how do I minimize the risk that comes from a whole bunch of overeducated and underemployed youth?” But in any event, the idea is right. The execution, of course, is typically top-to-bottom.  Moreover, Isaias doesn’t just have an understanding about the desired outcome (people with tangible skills who get there with as little fluff as possible) he also seems to have a fair critique of the stuffy pedagogy—the art and science of teaching–that schools insist on, long after Rosetta Stone and Khan Academy turned that system upside down.

For example:  I took 3 semesters of French and all I know to say in French now is the equivalent of  “my red pencil is in the house.”  If I were in Paris, I wouldn’t know how to say practical things such as: “where is the bathroom? Where is the bus station? Wow, that raspberry beret looks good on you.” This is because the teachers spent so much time conjugating and refining the fine points of grammar.

Isaias takes this critique to the way Arabic is taught in Eritrean schools.  He says forget conjugation and grammar and focus on teaching kids how to say “can I have a cup of water?”  Make the Arabic class the equivalent of credit-no-credit subject which will have no impact on the kids grade point average.

Of course, one can’t celebrate this when one considers that it took Isaias 20 years to realize this; that things change in Eritrea only when Isaias changes his mind.  The state is the man.

11.  Subsidies. This, says Isaias, is a transitional phase: no money to compensate workers adequately, so the only thing to do for now is to pay them low wages and to subsidize essential needs (food, shelter.)  All socialist governments love subsidies, and all governments are trending towards socialism, so I guess that is a lost war.

12.  Restructuring/Reorganization: I suspect this is the part that all the PFDJ and government officials were listening to attentively. The last time Isaias had an idea about restructuring (“bringing in new blood”) was in 1994 which resulted, among other things, in the “mass organizations” dissolving and of Ramadan Mohammed Nur being a man without portfolio, a happy rent-seeker in Massawa.   So, now, the groundwork for what’s to come and here’s where the Consultant-in-chief employs all the consultant language: organizations must be dynamic; re-organization of institutions is a necessity: the goal is economic development, the organizations (government, party, mass organizations) are just the means to get there. We have to look at all this with nekefetawi Ayni (critical eye), don’t you know. If a lean, clean, efficient organization is going to be created, then restructuring is a must: and it will be done by the end of the 1st quarter of 2012.  Of course, this nekefetawi ayni cannot be directed towards Isaias: neither the PFDJ (which never has congresses), nor the government (which never has legislative sessions) nor the mass organizations (which have zero independence) can say: with our chairman, all we have seen for the last 20 years is war, isolation, and exhaustion, and we should demote/fire him. To say that would be to plot the overthrow of a president, which is punishable by death.

13.  Return of the prodigal sons: There are a lot of Eritreans who are in the Diaspora.  Can they come back?  What assurances can you give them that they will be safe when they return? (Of course, the “Diaspora” never includes the hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in Sudanese or Ethiopian refugee camps, as you can see from the answer which follows.)  They can come back, says Isaias, but it would be best if they return with a skill or with money.  If they can’t return now, just work hard, save all your money, that way you can return with 10, 20, 30,000.  (He doesn’t mean Nakfa by the way.)  Later on, he says the youth (who are surviving on minimum wage jobs if they are lucky) should save 10,000 to 15,000.  Per Year.  So, persists the interviewer (for a change): can the government issue a proclamation that no harm will come to them? Isaias suppresses a smile as in “do you really think a ‘proclamation’ is going to save their asses if I want them jailed?” but then he says, “nah, nah, we just don’t operate that way: ‘it is not in our culture.’”

13.  Handef Handef & Dignity: The interviewer closes the interview by quoting back words Isaias used in his speech on May 24, 2011 marking 20 years of Eritrean independence  (I don’t recall Isaias saying anything memorable, but maybe I wasn’t listening attentively or maybe, as I said in part 1 of this series, the safest interview for state-employed journalists is just to quote back words already used by the president) and Isaias is reflective. Like a man who looks back at the past 20 years and has reached one conclusion: I have been naieve, and the world is full of enemies bent on destroying us.   And because Eritreans “chinuk hzbi aykonen—tetegerihu nQdmit handef handef inabele zkeyd iyu” (a naïve and worry-free people shuffling forward), well, he has to do all the worrying for us.  The interviewer tells Isaias that “dignity” is a word he uses often and what does the word mean to him? The example Isaias uses to described a dignified people?  Somalians.  (kbretu zHlu hzbi iyu.) Unlike some Africans who have an inferiority complex, the Somalis are dignified. And, anticipating the criticism, he says, “Kbretn tEbitn nenbeynom”—there is a difference between dignity and superiority complex.

And so, Kbur hzbi Ertra, thus concludes Isaias’s marathon interview of New Year Day 2012. I hope you had a peek into Isaias Afwerki. A man who loves the word dignity so much, but doesn’t understand why we the people feel it is undignified to live in your own country without any rights. A man who has such low opinion of us—we are a nation of infants and traitors—that he can tell us that his government has failed at practically everything but we can’t do anything about it. A man who tells the youth who escaped his hell, with their parents paying the ransom money for their absence, that they can come back—no guarantees for their safety other than his word—but it would be awfully nice if they brought money.  A man who is draining the brain power of Eritrea but then says that the most precious resource is human resource.  A man who, by his own admission, says that there has been no development in Western Eritrea in the past 20 years. A man who says that the education system that his social engineers force-fed Eritreans—particularly Eritreans whose mother tongue is not Tigrigna—is mediocre. A man who tells his own “colleagues” that re-organization is coming and they, just like us, will just have to wait for what it is.

He says all this because he knows there is no effective opposition to him—not yet. In fact, he practically gives the opposition the manual on how to succeed. Not directly, of course. When he says that all the revolutions in North Africa are lacking a key ingredient—organization—when he says that he told the YPFDJ in Nakfa that his message is still nQah, tewedeb, Eteq: raise their awareness, organize, and be armed (not with weapons but, presumably, with knowledge), he is essentially telling the opposition: I really can’t take you seriously unless you organize. In fact, the whole reason I think the real opposition to me is the CIA and the State Department is because they are organized. When I think of “dignified people” I think of Somalis. “Dear God”, he says, “I have drawn you all the dots for you: can’t you at least connect them and make this a challenge? I am bored.”



Related Posts