Reviewing the Reviewers: In Defense of Bereket Habte-Selassie
For their Christmas present, Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie’s colleagues received a 48-page “book review” of his books. The reviewers, Asaminew Ewnetun and Aradom Fedai Haqi, took 48 pages to say: this colleague of yours whom you know as a scholar, a professor of African and Afro-American studies, a Pan African and with a resume as varied as attorney general for Emperor Haile Selassie, and the Chairman of Eritrea’s Constitution Drafting Commission, and a consultant for Africans who want help with drafting their constitution, is a fraud. He takes credit for other people’s work, he embezzles money, he embellishes his resume, his scholarship is sloppy and, overall, he is just a bad person. Unfortunately for the reviewers, in academia, the minimum requirement for reviewing documents is that you are a peer—one must know your identity and credentials. And it helps if you have an email address with a .edu handle because anybody can open multiple gmail accounts, as the reviewers did. In the academic world, which appreciates diction and economy of words, anybody who uses 48 pages using intemperate words to say nothing is also giving Unabomber vibes. Finally, unless you are attending a Sci-fi or a Medieval Convention, it is advisable not to select pen names that translate to “Fear Monger The Truth Avenger” and “The Truth Convincer.” How is that going to fit your name badge at the next mixer you attend? Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie’s colleagues, of course, dismissed the stink bomb as political advocacy, and an incoherent one at that. So, why are we taking the trouble to write about it? Because we expect the reviewers masterpiece to hit the Internet (they can’t help themselves) where the standards for truth-telling are a bit (actually, much) lower than those required by scholars at institutions of higher learning. Also, anytime we can show how the mind of the supporters of Isaias Afwerki works and to what extent his drones will go on their search-and-destroy mission, and use that as a “teaching moment”, we consider it a public service.
I. Reviewing the Reviewers
The document, which bills itself as a “review,” begs not to be taken seriously because of the authors, the content, and the tone. They do not reveal their real names, unusual for people who are reviewing books, particularly when the alleged objective of their review is to set the record straight. It is nearly impossible to take a document seriously when the authors choose comic-book names of “Asaminew Ewnetun” and “Aradom Fedai Haqi.” One must struggle hard to stop imagining two superheroes in capes and tight spandex banging away furiously at their Olivetti typewriters.
The books they are reviewing are Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie’s The Crown and the Pen: The Memoirs of a Lawyer Turned Rebel and Wounded Nation: How a Once Promising Eritrea was Betrayed and its Future Compromised
“The Crown And The Pen” (384 pages) is a memoir which narrates the conflict of a lawyer who is, by nature, progressive democrat, but is employed by a decrepit monarchy. It is an autobiography that deals with his experience from the age of 13, until the downfall of Emperor Haile Selasse in 1974. Most of the story narrated is about his life in Ethiopia. Thus, this half of the review required a reviewer who presumably is an Ethiopian (or an Ethiopianist), somebody marinated in the protocols of royalty. We imagine one half of the caped duo, “Asaminew Ewnetun,” to be an Ethiopian version of CNN’s Max Foster, somebody who gives breathless reports on what the appropriate number of meters is for a commoner to stand behind the queen and how the King should be addressed on the third Friday of every leap year. Since one of the many grand achievements of the Eritrean revolution was to make Eritreans forever immune to the frivolity of royalty and their bizarre protocols, we will spend very little time addressing “Asaminew Ewnetun”s part of the review, although it would have been delicious to occasionally ridicule his histrionics. Well, ok, we will allow ourselves one. In his writings, Dr. Bereket refers to how he faced Emperor Haile Selassie “eyeball to eyeball”, “man to man” etc, you know, common figures of speech to indicate “I was not intimidated by him.” It is such a common symbolism that when Saleh Gadi Johar wrote his “Of Kings And Bandits”, the cover of his book had a prototype of an Eritrean combatant, staring (eyeball to eyeball), the diminutive Haile Selasse. It was a double pleasure: a way to annoy the advocates of monarchy and those who, borrowing language of European NGO’s, accuse Eritrean liberation fighters of being child soldiers.
Asaminew takes the “eye ball to eye ball” expression literally and fulminates: “no person, let alone a civil servant, would be allowed to be that near to the Emperor, including even his own daughter and his cousin and his closest friend to the end, Ras Imru. They all stood by his side, facing the rest. Other selected dignitaries will stand about five to ten meters away to his left and right in accordance with their protocol precedence.” We are done with Assaminew.
The title and subtitle of “Wounded Nation” (326 pages) tells it all. This is the second half of Dr. Bereket’s memoirs (Volume 2 to The Crown And The Pen) and it focuses on how a country which, in 1991, was supposed to have learned from all the mistakes of Africa, is now a complete basket case. The book does not pull any punches in identifying who shares most of the responsibility: Isaias Afwerki. A more accurate pen name for the reviewer should have been “Aradom Fedai Isaias” (Fear Monger- Isaias Avenger) much like there was a “Fedai Negus” (King’s Avenger) and Tegadalay Negasi (“Combatant The Ruler”) who populated the pages of asmarino in 2001-02. (Isn’t it interesting how all the defenders of Isaias Afwerki choose pen names that indicate that they see him as a king?)
In any event, reviews—even if they are reviewing “War & Peace” or “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”—don’t run for 48-pages, as this one does. But that’s what you can expect from a “review by a committee”—which this one was, as is evident by the varying tones and voices it carries. (At one point, the review addresses Dr. Bereket in the second person.) We don’t want to go on for 48 pages criticizing a 48-page document—although we could, if we wanted to be as nit-picky as them and focus on trivial issues such as the fact that they dropped an article from the title of one of the books they are reviewing. So, let’s get to it with a focus on the Aradom Fedai Negus part (the one which deals with Eritrea and Isaias Afwerki) while stubbornly refusing to be engaged in Assaminew Ewnetun’s portfolio.
II. The Allegations Against Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie
The “review” of the book is actually a list of allegations and it should be listed as counts by the prosecutors masquerading as reviewers. Dr. Bereket, on count #1 how do you plead? Never mind, we will plead for you: guilty! The totality of the accusations ranges from the trivial: (“At the OAU, African leaders did not adopt a resolution but a decision!”) to the bizarre (“the constitution was first violated by him.”) To list all the accusations (and rebut them) would duplicate all that is mindlessly argumentative, pedantic and salacious about the work of the reviewers. The reviewers’ obsession with trivial issues (“The actual name of the iconic hotel in Asmara (Enda Menghetti), which is still emotionally remembered but had irreverently been referred to as Albergo Roma, is Albergo Italia although it had been baptized as Keren Hotel by the Derg. Its original name has been restored since liberation…”) is meant to inform us that Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie was shoddy in his scholarship but all it does, instead, is give us a psychological profile of the reviewers: they are a mishmash of Asmarinos, Addis boys, Addis girls, former colleagues, wanna-bes, Senbetus, and assorted hangers-on who have achieved far less with their lives than he has and feel some compulsion to show that they know more about a trivial subject than he does.
III. The Scope
Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie’s two books are memoirs. Beyond the autobiographical, the books are a self-portrait of a person who was in a position of authority in two Ethiopian governments (Haile Selassie and, briefly, Mengistu Hailemariam), a revolutionary movement (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) and a triumphant ruling party (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.) He was a close observer or participant in historical epochs of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and, given his presence at the launch of the OAU, Africa.
As self-portraits tend to be, it would not be surprising if there was a subconscious (or even conscious) effort to remove a blemish or two or to glamorize the self. Using truth as the sole objective, the unbiased reviewer will use a detached standard, and measured tones to point out errors and imperfections in any writing. This would be a great service to the reader. On the other hand, if a “reviewer” does not like the conclusions or the life lessons being imparted by the author, if the “reviewer” considers protecting the reputation of his object of affection (in this case, Isaias Afwerki) as his sole aim, he will make the personal destruction of the author (because, among other things, this will dissuade other writers from writing) as his mission. The reviewer will use the language of hyperbole, sarcasm, and ridicule; the reviewer will question motives: if crimes can be invented because there are no witnesses to deny them, crimes will be invented; if witnesses can’t be found, they will be hinted at. The object of affection (Isaias Afwerki) will be given every single benefit of doubt and the critic (Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie) will be denied every benefit of uprightness. A reviewer who chooses comic book names lives in a comic book world where the good (Isaias Afwerki) is superhuman and the mortals (like Dr. Bereket) are super villains. And because the reviewer’s worldview is that of a comic book, he expects that that is the worldview of everybody else and, anticipating a similar treatment by his critics, he will hide behind the anonymity of pen names and gmail accounts while accusing others of being cowardly.
[Sadly, this kind of behavior is not limited to Isaias Afwerki and his supporters. It exists in the opposition. Exiled Eritreans living in democracies use pen names to showcase their bravery in the ether. Often, they write bitterly about how three-dimensional, breathing Eritreans living under a brutal regime must have some kind of a character flaw because they are not going out to the streets to be beaten, imprisoned, disappeared and shot at. This is highly inconvenient to Pen Name Eritreans because it is denying them the right to write about it. From six thousand miles away. Using a pen name.]
In any event, from the 48-page review, we will focus on five big issues that are relevant to the average reader: (1) Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie and the Eritrean Revolution; (2) Dr. Bereket and the Constitution Drafting Process; (3) Dr. Bereket’s Role Since the Adoption of the Eritrean Constitution; (4) Dr. Bereket’s View of The Eritrea-Ethiopia Demarcation Process and (5) Dr. Bereket’s Evolving View of Isaias Afwerki.
1. Dr. Bereket and The Eritrean Revolution
If we consider the 1949 establishment of the Independence Bloc party as the beginning of the organized movement for Eritrea’s independence, then the Eritrean Revolution could be said to be a 42-year journey that consisted of 12 years of peaceful (1949-1961) and 30 years of armed (1961-1991) resistance to Ethiopian domination. The “peaceful” period included the terrorist shifta campaigns that were funded and armed by Ethiopia to intimidate and assassinate Eritrean leaders; the February 1950 sectarian strife that broke out in Asmara and the 1958 establishment of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka, or Mahber Showate) that was initiated by Eritrean refugees in Sudan to ensure that their revolution maintained its nationalist aspirations. The armed struggle included the establishment of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF); the creation of three splinter groups that consolidated into Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces (EPLF); the further splintering of the EPLF into two components (after the split with founder/financier Osman Saleh Sabbe) ; the squabbles and civil wars between ELF and EPLF; the eventual emergence of the EPLF as the sole armed group in the Eritrean field and the liberation of Eritrea in 1991. The above, of course, is by no means an exhaustive list: it is a mere distillation of the parts of the revolution that are relevant to the topic: the role of Dr. Bereket in the revolution.
Dr. Bereket left Eritrea at the age of 13 eventually settling in Ethiopia. When the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM/Haraka/Mahber Showate) was organizing Eritrean youth/students in Ethiopia, he was a young adult and fit the profile of its target population. The reviewers have two criticisms of Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie: (a) that he got the history of the ELM all wrong and that in any event (b) his claims that he was member of such organization is “a lie” because according to several “former ELM members” they considered him “an anti-Eritrean member of the government.”
Dr. Bereket did get the name of the initiator of the ELM wrong— but so do the reviewers. At least, to his credit, Dr Bereket had gotten the name right in his first book. But does this kind of mistake signify, as the reviewers claim, “atrociously careless scholarship”? Yes, argue, the reviewers because it “is almost universally known in Eritrean society (indeed it is part of its cherished folklores) that the ELM (“Mahber Shewate” in Tigrigna and “Haraka” in Arabic) was created by the late Mohammed Saleh Naud…” Well, by that lame standard, what do we call reviewers who confuse the name Mohammed Saleh with Mohammed Seid, particularly after they told us that is is part of Eritrea’s “cherished folklores”?
And how does one establish whether one was a member of an organization that was, by definition, secretive and had 7-member cells whose work was not known to the cell next door? And why are the “several former ELF members” who claim that Dr. Bereket’s claim of membership in the ELM was a lie still not revealing their names if they are going to accuse somebody of lying?
What exactly would Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie say on the subject if he were interviewed on the subject? Fortunately, this is not a hypothetical question: in 2001, he was interviewed about the subject by awate.com and this is what he had to say:
You briefly belonged to mahber Showate?
Yes. A disastrous organization! So ill-organized, people were boasting and recruiting openly and the police would follow us everywhere. That is how most people were caught. The movement in the lowland—the Haraka—was better organized. But we were in the belly of the beast. Fortunately, the Chairman of seven-member cell was able to contact the superior. Only if the chairman is caught is there real danger. Fortunately for me, the chair of my cell was not caught.
And who was that?
Yohannes, happens to be a cousin.
Did your name make it to Nawud’s book [a chronicle of the Haraka movement]?
I doubt it. Because the connection between the lowland and highland was rather loose. The Haraka movement continued separately. I doubt it….When we [Nawud and Bereket] met in Beirut in 1975, we discussed it and we had a laugh. There was no discipline…that is what led to the collapse of the underground.
After the fall of Haile Selasse, waves of Eritreans joined the Eritrean field, including from Ethiopia. Some (most, according to Herui Tedla Bairou) joined the Eritrean Liberation Front and some joined the organization that would eventually be named Eritrean People’s Liberation Forces/Front. There has not been a scholarly work done that dispassionately looks at the decision-making process: why ELF, why not EPLF? Why EPLF, why not ELF? What was the reputation of both organizations at the time? Were geography, religion, ideology, educational level, and overall cultural affinity, deciding factors? Would a young, educated Eritrean who was born and raised in Adi Nfas, Karneshim and who considers himself a social democrat find the ELF or the EPLF more appealing?
Although Dr. Bereket’s escape from Ethiopia to the Eritrean field was facilitated by the ELF, Dr. Bereket ultimately makes the decision to join the EPLF? Why? In his interview with awate.com, Dr. Bereket says that he found the EPLF to be more organized. To the reviewers, this can only be because Dr. Bereket was not in good terms with the then-leader of the ELF, Herui Tedla Bairou: “he was fleeing from an authority he wronged or enraged,” they claim. How did he wrong the ELF and what did the ELF do to enrage him? They don’t say. Herui Tedla Bairou and Isaias Afwerki are not talking so we are “forced to make inferences from mostly oral, secondary sources” who, of course, happen to be anonymous, they say.
Moving on to another defining moment in the Eritrean revolution: the first civil war. Or, more accurately, the series of civil-wars between 1972 and 1974 between, on the one hand, the Eritrean Liberation Front and, on the other hand, three splinter groups: PLF1 (formed in 1970 by Ramadan Mohammed Nur and colleagues and made up of Semhar and Denkalia group who splintered and regrouped), PLF2 (Selfi Natsnet or “Alla group” also formed in 1970 by Isaias Afwerki and colleagues) and PLF 3 (“Obel Group” also formed in 1970). PLF1 and PLF2 consolidated in 1973; when PLF3 joined them, they became the EPLF on June 13, 1974.
By then, Eritreans had enough of the skirmishes, specially considering the fact that (a) the Haile Selassie regime was on its last legs and (b) the formerly remote battle sites for the skirmishes had moved to the densely populated highlands. On October 1, 1974, thousands (the ELF estimated the number at 30,000) of Eritreans descended at Woki-Zager (outskirt of Asmara) to demand that the ELF and PLF put an end to their civil war. Given the all-powerful and totalitarian role the Eritrean “front” exercises over the Eritrean people now, it may be hard to conceive now a situation where the people would spontaneously and at a grassroots level attempt to pressure the Eritrean revolutionaries to mend their ways, but such was the case at Woki-Zager. One of the 30,000 Eritreans who showed up at Woki-Zager, just arriving to Eritrea as his friend, General Aman Andom was in a losing fight with Mengistu Hailemariam, was Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie. And given his stature then, would it be inconceivable that he would do his part to attempt to broker a peace agreement between the leaders (in theory, both were the number 2s) of the two movements (Herui Tedla Bairou, Isaias Afwerki) at Ametsi?
Now, this is how the reviewers sprinkle their skepticism:
Was he requested by one or the other Front? Or did he anoint himself? What were his terms of reference? What were his plan and strategy? And what were the reactions of the leadership of the two Fronts? What were his relationship with the two Fronts?
Sounds like the “comprehensive exam” questions Isaias Afwerki gives when he is stalling, doesn’t it? In his interview with awate.com, Dr. Bereket provides the answer to their cynical questions as to why he got involved: The civil war “was fresh in the memories of the people in the Karneshim area. Many of them knew the victims; women would weep. That was one of the saddest episodes in the history of the sad civil war.”
Having cast aspersions on Dr. Bereket’s motives for why he would attempt to mediate the ELF-EPLF civil war, they then go on to pick another wedge issue—the splinter within EPLF itself (into an Osman Saleh Sabbe-led and an Isaias Afwerki-Romodan Mohammed Nur led camps) to ask: whose side where you on and why?
A few steps back:
A year after the Woki-Zager incident, a unity agreement was finalized between the ELF and EPLF in Khartoum, Sudan (September 1, 1975.) But what was not known to the people who assembled at Woki-Zager (or, indeed, most Eritreans) calling for unity between the ELF and the EPLF was that the EPLF, which was a merger of PLF1, PLF2, PLF3 was about to unravel. Less than a year after the Khartoum Unity Agreement, EPLF had split into its component parts, now EPLF and ELF-PLF (led by Osman Saleh Sabbe) because, according to Isaias Afwerki, Osman Saleh Sabbe was only expressing his personal opinion at the unity conference. (In 1977, at another unity conference, this time in Hagaz, Isaias Afwerki also claimed that the pre-conference agreement reached between a representative of the ELF and a representative of EPLF was invalid because the representative of the EPLF (his former boss, Romodan Mohammed Nur) was just expressing his “personal opinions.”)
In any event, Dr. Bereket, like all EPLF members, had another choice to make and it is clear that he chose the organization that was not led by Osman Saleh Sabbe.
When the reviewers get tired making the mundane look menacing, then they just invent things of whole cloth as appears in the quote below:
“Furthermore, the author does not refer to his ten-months detention in the EPLF’s Halewa Sewra (Defense of the Revolution) center and, especially, the reason for his arrest and detention. The fact that he was arrested and detained is attested by none other than the prison guards, other prisoners and officials alike.”
It would be one thing for the reviewers to compare and contrast what Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie mentions in his book (Volume 1) and what “prison guards, other prisoners and officials alike” (all anonymous, of course) say about the case of the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) and try to poke holes in it. It is quite another to claim that “the author does not refer” to the case and then, by dropping scary words like “Halewa Sewra” “ten-months detention”, “Redazghi Genre-Medhin [sic] the actual prime mover of ERA” and “misappropriation of funds,” to try to draw an image of a man who takes credit for something he didn’t do; takes funds that is not his, and he gets arrested and punished for it, and then, ashamed, doesn’t mention it in a two-volume biography.
The Eritrean Relief Association was formed in Sudan as an independent NGO which, in the Sudan of the 1970s, couldn’t get licensed. In the 1970s, there was one Eritrean in the Arab world who could get practically anything done—Osman Saleh Sabbe—and he got the ERA the required license and legitimacy. The first chairman of the ERA was Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie, with the afore-mentioned Redazghi Gebre-medhin as Secretary and Ghidey Gandhi as Treasurer. There is tension between the three officers and they are called to the corporate headquarters of ERA—i.e. the Eritrean field—to resolve the issue. That was at Fah, Sahel. Dr. Bereket was staying at “enda agayish” (guests house) for 5 months (not a ‘ten month detention’ and not under ‘Halewa Sewra’) while the case was being investigated. In the end, the ERA was restructured: he left and went on to serve the organization in various capacities (including as the EPLF representative to the United Nations.) And, incidentally, Paulos “Be-Atay” Tesfagiorgis, who succeeded Dr. Bereket as the chairman of ERA, would, in 2000, be part of the G-13, the group who sent a letter (“Berlin Manifesto”) to Isaias Afwerki to mend his autocratic ways.
2. Dr. Bereket and The Constitution Drafting Process
In 1994, the Eritrean government issued proclamation no 55 establishing the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea (CCE.) Dr. Bereket drafted the proclamation; he chaired the 47-member CCE and its 10-member Executive Committee and oversaw a 3-year process that culminated in the ratification of the constitution by a constituent assembly in May 1997. There are critics to the entire constitution-drafting process—including awate.com—but if one needs to seek validation for whether the process that Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie oversaw meant anything to Eritreans all one has to do is to refer to January 21: when rebel soldiers took over the Ministry of Information, they announced two demands: the freeing of political prisoners and the implementation of the Eritrean constitution.
So, what exactly could the reviewers find fault with Dr. Bereket on this issue? Well, one has to do with his-post-constitution-drafting political activity, which we will address in a different section below. Their major issue appears to be that he demanded (shock!) and received (shock! shock!) compensation for his expertise. In the rest of the world, a person with such a specialized skill set (constitutional law) has every right to be compensated for his efforts; but in Eritrea, which has made slave labor into art form, for a working man with a family to receive compensation for his efforts is considered selfish.
The other criticism against Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie is that, according to “some members of the Executive Committee” (unnamed of course) he was not sufficiently supportive of Eritreans’ civil liberties. Specifically, he argued for the right of the government to hold a citizen in detention without charges for 30 days while they asked for 24 hours and they compromised on 48 hours; he did not want to explicitly say that Eritreans had the right to form political parties, his colleagues did and that is how the constitution settled on “political organizations” and, finally, he allowed frequent insertion of the codicil “pursuant to law” on matters, including citizenship, that should not be subject to amendment by law.
All of these—and many more, by the way, dealing with the balance of power between the citizen and the government—are genuine criticisms of the constitution (to be covered in the subsequent section.) What is objectionable here is that the “reviewers”—who are supposed to be writing their 48-page tome in search of truth—do not tell us who within the Executive Committee of the constitutional drafters is saying this? And, since their entire 48-page tome is really written in defense of Isaias Afwerki (more on that later), are they even conscious of the irony of them criticizing a constitutional lawyer for empowering a government to hold a prisoner without presenting him to a court of law for 30 days when the man they are defending, Isaias Afwerki, has now been holding people in prison without charges since 1994—over 6,570 days? They are going to criticize a constitutional lawyer for not explicitly acknowledging Eritreans right to form political parties while defending a head of state who has publicly said that the right to assembly may not exist in Eritrea for three or four or more decades? And, since we all know who the 10-member Executive Committee is, and since we know who is alive, who is dead, who is active, who is passive, do they really think we can’t know who is, in his typically passive-aggressive way, and in the defense of the dictator, lobbing these cowardly stink bombs from behind the curtain?
3. Dr. Bereket’s Role Since the Adoption of the Eritrean Constitution
As we mentioned, while the Eritrean constitution has a devoted public support and Dr. Bereket can rightfully take pride in the fact that he played a principal role in the creation of a document that will survive the downfall of the Isaias Afwerki regime, it always had its critics. The main argument against it from its critics is, curiously, its supposed strength: it was exclusive.
The critics (including awate.com) say that the proclamation was drafted by the EPLF (three years after it had made a conscious decision to deny political space to any organized political organization): the 47 members of the commission were named by the National Assembly (then the Central Committee of the EPLF); therefore, all the “participation” that is celebrated is hollow: in Eritrea, participation is mandatory; in Diaspora, participation was by Eritreans who were EPLF-supporters, EPLF-sympathizers, or apolitical Eritreans. The “National Assembly” that ratified it was the EPLF; the Constituent Assembly that ratified it—made up of the National Assembly, the Regional Assembly and the Diaspora Assembly—was also the EPLF/PFDJ. Consequently, on every issue of consequence—(a) the relationship between citizen and government; (b) the relationship between regional and national government; (c) the relationship between citizen and land; (d) the relation between a citizen and another citizen; (e) how citizens communicate with one another and how they communicate with their government—it reflects the values of the EPLF/PFDJ.
Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie has been firm in defense of the constitution: it is not unusual for triumphant revolutionary governments to have a disproportionately oversized role in the drafting of a constitution; there was deliberate effort made to ensure that the Constitutional Commission reflected Eritrea’s diversity: by gender, by ethnicity, by religion; that the Commission DID include (including at the Executive Committee level) individuals whose background was not with the EPLF (Azien Yassin, Idris Gelawdios, Taha Mohammed Nur); that the Commission, though it consulted with the government, was completely an autonomous body; and, in any event, the constitution has built-in mechanisms for amendment and anything that is not acceptable to the people can be changed by the people.
While he has been firm, he has also been quite willing to LISTEN to those who were not persuaded by his arguments. It is his willingness to LISTEN and to show empathy that has, apparently, infuriated the “reviewers” who, believe it or not, have accused him of “destroy[ing] its legitimacy.” This is because, according to the reviewers, “while other members of the Executive Committee maintained the highest level of moral and professional integrity that was expected of them, the Chairman had, unbeknownst to them, fatally compromised their autonomy and the legitimacy of the Commission and may have irreparably damaged the future of the constitution.”[Emphasis ours]
While hyperbole is the official language of the reviewers, this accusation is, even by their standards, unfathomable. The “other members of the Executive Committee” (excluding those who have passed away), are Mr Zemehret Yohannes, Dr. Amare Tekle, Ms. Amna Naib, Ms. Zahra Jaber, Mr. Paulos Tesfagiorgis and Mr. Musa Naib. They (Paulos excepted) are saying absolutely not one word while a ratified constitution they labored on and will forever carry their names has been shelved for 12 long years and has been dismissed as a “piece of paper” by the head of state whose power it is designed to rein in. The constitution they helped draft demanded on them to defend it vocally. If one is to accept authority, one must also accept responsibility. How are they displaying “the highest level of moral and professional integrity”? One would have to re-define “moral”, “professional” and “integrity” to give these people (Paulos “Ba’Atay” Tesfagiorsis excluded) such accolades. But, what is it that has gotten the reviewers to get even more unhinged than their usual state of hyper mania? Three examples are cited:
A. The Case of Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization
In October 2012, in Ottawa, Canada, Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie attended a conference organized by the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO), an Eritrean opposition organization that, along with the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK), has a political platform declaring that its right to political autonomy extends to, and includes, secession.
In a Kennedy-goes-to-Berlin moment, Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie said “Ich bin ein Afar” (I am an Afar)—which is the exact message one wants to send to embrace inclusion, particularly to a group which feels marginalized. He then went on to explain that the constitution he helped draft, which envisions a unitary state with a relatively strong central government and a relatively weak regional government, was the outcome of the Eritrean revolution experience which, above all things, valued national unity. University of Ottawa Law Professor Joseph Magnet, who has taken up the cause of Eritrean Afars, also attended the two-day conference. RSDADO created a headline from this: “Historic Meeting of International Foreign Affairs Experts Leads to Landmark Agreement to Re-Write Eritrean Constitution.” Via email, Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie informed RSADO that he did no such thing and demanded a retraction of their claim; that whatever changes have to be made to the constitution have to by the people and using the mechanism that is built-in the constitution: the amendment process.
B. The Case of Majlis Ibrahim Mukhtar
In February 2010, Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar, an association of Eritrean Muslim scholars and professionals, published a piece at awate.com entitled “The Eritrean Covenant: Towards Sustainable Justice and Peace.” The document articulates the grievances of Eritrean Muslims in the era of Isaias Afwerki and, first in its call for action to Eritreans was: “to reject the PFDJ constitution and call for drafting a new constitution once the Eritrean people are rid of the oppressive regime; a constitution that will take into consideration the will and aspirations of all Eritreans.”
To his credit, whereas most Eritreans—including scholars—refused to engage the Mejlis in debate, Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie did. He acknowledged the document as a serious paper but went on to defend the constitution he helped draft. For whatever reason, this has infuriated the reviewers who expect a constitutional scholar to sit in his ivory tower like a good kebertye and ignore the voice of his compatriots. His engagement is dismissed as over-eager effort to accommodate “the agenda of the new or presumably emerging elite.”
Similarly, Dr. Bereket’s polite engagement of the elderly Omar Jabir (on his awate.com article, “Dr. Bereket: From the Unknown to the Uncertain”) is dismissed as chameleon-like behavior to embrace viewpoints diametrically opposed from one’s own.
Presumably, in all these cases, if Dr. Bereket had told RSADO “tough: the constitution stands, if you don’t like it, raise your arms and we will squash you”; if he had ignored Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar and Omar Jabir, he would have joined the list of the morally and professionally upstanding Executive Committee members of the Constitutional Drafting Commission who have nothing to say about anything.
4. Dr. Bereket and the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Resolution
One of the tell-tale signs that the “reviewers” are not book reviewers but enforcers of dogma is their criticism of Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie’s position with respect to the demarcation of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border. It is a dogma that has arrested the development of Eritrea and frozen it in a time warp from which it has not been able to escape for over a decade. What the dogma is, why the dogma must be enforced and how the “reviewers” give away why it is all in the service of Isaias Afwerki’s ego is one of the most accidentally insightful pieces of the so-called book review.
Everyody knows the terms of the December 2000 peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two parties agreed to have an independent boundary and claims commissions and they agreed, in advance, that they would accept their ruling without equivocation. When the Boundary Commission issued its ruling, (which included awarding the village of Badme to Eritrea), the Ethiopian regime and, subsequently the United States, behaved badly by trying to invalidate the decision of the Boundary Commission. Ethiopia accepted, then rejected, then asked for “alternative mechanism” and dialogue to ensure that “human geography” (the separation of people from land) is considered—despite the fact that it had, in advance, agreed that it would not make such demands. The United States, too, attempted to undermine the terms of the agreement by trying to pressure the boundary commission and to, retroactively, introduce new terms that did not exist in the peace treaty. None of this is in dispute: all of it is public knowledge.
In light of all this, the position that the Isaias Afwerki regime has taken is that Ethiopia (and the US and the UN) must be pressured and shamed into doing the right thing. This has been its position since the ruling was issued in 2002.
Those who have arrived at the conclusion that Ethiopia will not be pressured into doing that, or that it is beyond pointless to try to “pressure” the United States or the United Nations to do that or, more importantly, that the no-war no- peace state Eritrea finds itself in is too heavy a burden for a young state emptying itself out of its most productive citizens, have proposed a solution that DOES NOT VIOLATE THE TERMS OF THE PEACE AGREEMENT OR THE BOUNDARY COMMISSION. It is simply this: while Ethiopia cannot make dialogue a condition of its acceptance and implementation of the boundary commission’s ruling, there is nothing that prevents Eritrea from voluntarily offering to open talks with Ethiopia on how to implement the decision or even how to make changes to the demarcation if it is to the mutual benefit of both countries. This was what the EEBC said over and over: Ethiopia cannot compel Eritrea to enter into dialogue as pre-condition for demarcating the border; but this does not preclude Eritrea from offering to do so. More pointedly, there should be nothing that prevents Eritrean citizens from demanding of their government to make whatever concessions are required to find lasting peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In other words, pressure should be applied not just over a government that is not accountable to Eritreans (Ethiopian government); it should also be applied over a government that is (theoretically at least) supposed to serve and be accountable to Eritreans (Eritrean government.)
This is exactly the position of Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie. As an Eritrean citizen, as an American citizen with more familiarity of American diplomacy than most Eritreans, and as a man who has more than a passing knowledge of International law and how the UN actually works, he is well within his right (and, actually, he has a duty to Eritrea) to make this recommendation without having his loyalty to Eritrea impugned.
Ten years have passed since the strategy proposed by the Isaias Afwerki regime—don’t bend, don’t show flexibility, stay the course—was proposed. Is Ethiopia any closer to feeling the pressure? Are the US and the UN any closer or further from advocating the position advanced by the Isaias Afwerki regime? How has this impacted Eritrea?
And why is Isaias Afwerki—who, in the past, has shown no hesitation in taking positions 180 degrees at variance with his former position (global war on terror, Iraq War, the Arab League, Omar Al Bashir, and, just recently, Eritreans in Sinai) taking such a rigid position on this? Dr. Bereket postulates that it is simply a matter of ego for Isaias Afwerki. And, inadvertently, the “reviewers” support his case when they say, “President Isaias and Eritreans will remain steadfast… because they wish to acquit themselves before the tribunals of justice, morality and history.”
Well, we can leave aside the poor Eritreans, who really have no voice on the matter (or any matter, for that matter) because the only time a referendum has been held on what they want was in 1993. All the tools used to actually determine what the people want–public polls, formation of political parties, independent civil society, elections, free press—are all banned in Eritrea. We can also, on the strength of evidence, strike out any association of Isaias Awerki with the words and concepts of “justice” and “morality” as a person who can hold people in prison without charges for decades has no sense of justice or morality. Then, all we are left with is this: “President Isaias will remain steadfast… because he wishes to acquit himself before history.” There, fixed that for you.
Now, how is that different from what Dr. Bereket said about the true motivation for Isaias Afwerki’s refusal to show any flexibility on the issue?
While we are on the subject of Ethiopia, the reviewers accuse Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie of dual loyalty to Eritrea and Ethiopia. One of their pieces of “evidence” for this allegation is that, at a ceremony in Paris to celebrate the publication of Volume 2 of his memoirs, he had told an audience (Ethiopians, according to the reviewers) that “(i) he had been an Ethiopian before he became an Eritrean, and (ii) he wished to celebrate the reunification of the two countries before his death.” Not exactly. What he said was: “I have been part of Ethiopia. There is a larger sense in which we are all Ethiopians, historically, culturally speaking, as I tried to explain today and my wish and my hope before I die is that we will come back together, in a larger unity, transcending all these divisions.” And he said this within the context of pushing for “regional unification, as a launching pad for a future African Union, I think that would be the way to go… realistically speaking, I don’t see any other way.” When you consider the fact that Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie is a self-declared Pan African, is there anything remotely controversial about this? And when the reviewers misrepresent something that is easily verifiable, can there be any doubt that they are misrepresenting things that are hard to verify because their sources are anonymous and distant?
The narration is in French, the interview is in English but you can judge for yourself, here:
5. Dr. Bereket’s Evolving View of Isaias Afwerki
The improbably-named reviewers, Asaminew Ewnetun (“Convince Him Of Truth”) and “Aradom Fedai Haqi” (“Fear Monger, The Truth Avenger”) were, like The Terminator, created for one purpose: to destroy their subject. In other words, all the flaws that they go to great lengths to identify and manufacture would never have seen the light of day had Professor Bereket Habte-Selassie not committed one unforgivable sin: to harshly criticize Isaias Afwerki as a despot and power usurper. If he had remained quiet, like the other members of the Executive Committee of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea (CCE) as a tyrant strangles a nation, then he would have been commended for displaying “the highest level of moral and professional integrity.” The question they ask Dr. Bereket is this: if Isaias Afwerki is such a terrible leader, why did you, in one way or another, serve in an organization he led from the mid-1970s to your break in 2000? Is it Isaias who has changed, or is it you, or both?
Now, if the reviewers were truly interested in finding the truth, they would have applied an objective standard. In much the same way that they spend time looking for character references for Dr. Bereket, they would be looking for character references for Isaias Afwerki from people who have known him the longest—well, at least the ones he hasn’t imprisoned, made to disappear or killed. Since they have made profiling their hobby, they would listen to testimonies of those who have known Isaias Afwerki the longest and try to see what common themes emerge. Perhaps they could read some of the Wikileaks of Isaias Afwerki and his behavior in unguarded moments.
Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie has described his long journey and his continued faith in the leadership of Isaias Afwerki as “immaculate deception.” A fan of literature and wordplay, Dr. Bereket here is referencing “immaculate conception” but there is nothing perfect or spotless about Isaias’s deception. Quite the opposite: it was a bloody deception. The point is that Dr. Bereket is being self-critical: I should have known, the hints were everywhere, but I allowed my faith in the possible to overpower my objective assessment.
This is not to say that Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie was blind to the facts of what the EPLF may become. The reviewers go to some length to ridicule the existence of Dr. Bereket’s 1990 booklet “Reflections on the Future Political System of Eritrea:
“Really? If this booklet had been published in 1990 when Eritreans (and Ethiopians) were reading anything and everything on developments in the war, Eritreans and Ethiopians alike would have been talking about it! Yet, nobody we contacted seems to have any recollection of what would have been a bestseller! Which company published? Which libraries have it? Do the ELF and EPLF have it? What was the ELF’s reactions to the recommendations? Was there a book-review? Will any publisher send us copies, if it exists!”
Like zealous prosecutors, they go all out to find anything incriminating about Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie, uttered by anybody, regardless of the person’s reputation (they had no qualms about quoting Mengistu Hailemariam’s book, Tiglachin, because the Black Stalin has damning things to say about Dr. Bereket), but they will bury any exculpatory evidence even if it is a google search away.
For people who give all sorts of hints that they are privy to insider information, the reviewers also betray a surprising level of ignorance when they get all shocked about the existence of the “booklet” because it was part of a series. The first was authored by the late Dr. Tekie Fessehazion, the second by Dr. Gebre Tesfagiorgis and the last by Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie. The series was strangled by the usual suspects (Isaias Afwerki and henchmen) because it (the booklet whose existence the reviewers are not aware of) said things like:
“Any nation of a historic party, such as the EPLF, which has done so much, competing against others for power may be galling to many rank and file members and may suggest admission of weakeness. However, the great goal implicit in pluralism and in competition would have to be taught as a matter of national imperative.
“The question of democratic rights–both in the individual and popular sense–is one of the paramount values of our epoch, which no one except those of a fascist persuasion would question.”
The length that the reviewers go to beautify Isaias Afwerki and to damn his enemies is surreal. To the reviewers, when Dr. Bereket (and others) evolve and change, it is not a sign of maturity but chameleon like behavior. But Isaias Afwerki changing? If you concentrate, you can hear the smacking sound of their fat kiss:
“It is inconceivable that the personality of a leader, especially a young revolutionary leader, will remain unchanged for decades in spite of inexorable changes, problems and ordeals that are integral components of any revolutionary struggle. His training in revolutionary theory must have molded practice, but experience too must have molded theory. To this are added the vagaries and vicissitudes of struggle as well as relations between, and within, parties and groups. This will have had impacts not only on the development of skills but also on his character.”
In short, you, Dr. Bereket, changed: and that is opportunism. Isaias Afwerki changed, and that is growth.
This generosity of spirit and giving someone the benefit of doubt is reserved only for Isaias Afwerki and whoever has chosen to remain silent as Isaias Afwerki kills a nation. Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie is condemned not just on the basis of what anonymous individuals (including Executive Constitution Commission members) allegedly said, but also on what an allegedly soon-to-be-published book by an anonymous Eritrean “savant” will say.
Tipping their hands as to who is pulling their strings, the reviewers have no generosity of spirit to the G-15, the senior government officials who have been in solitary confinement, without charges for 11 years.
For example, apropos nothing, they refer to Petros Solomon as “inordinately slick and slippery”—but, in their own slick move, they tell us that those are not their words; they were just rumors “circulating in Asmara and elsewhere.” What about the G-15 collectively? Listen to this: if Isaias Afwerki is the brute that Dr. Bereket Afwerki is painting, ask the reviewers, “How did he survive – indeed become popular with the people, including with some of the G15, to this day?” Yes, you heard right: according to the reviewers, Isaias Afwerki is “popular” with some members of the G-15 even now. Sure, he arrested them, threw away the keys, denied them family visitation rights, representation, right to self-defense, medical attention, and let them wither away, but they love him. The reviewers, sticklers for facts, and evidence, do not present any support for such a claim, nor for who the “some” are but a safe presumption is that it must be those who are not dead as of this day.
In the end, reading the reviewers, with their comic book names and the dead-end causes they advocate, one is filled with tragi-comic sadness. They remind us of the holdouts, the Japanese soldiers who were completely unaware (or refused to believe) that they had lost the war in World War II, and continued to volunteer in one dead-end cause after another, some until the 1970s. In the 21st century, in an information age where Eritreans are literally all over the world with ready access to every communication outlet, the old hagiography of Isaias Afwerki—carefully and lovingly curated by controlling every single media outlet Eritreans had access to (word-of-mouth, radio, newsletter, songs and other myth-manufacturing factories)—has crumbled. The only way it can be reconstructed is by casting doubt on every media outlet in the world as enemy tools, calling every dissident a traitor, and by focusing the people on nearly-impossible projects that will take decades to achieve. It matters not that these projects—infrastructure building, eradication of disease, peace on our terms, prosperity—can be realistically achieved; it only matters that they take a very long time and nobody asks for results and accountability now.
If you don’t know much about Eritrean politics during the reign of Isaias Afwerki, all you need to know is this: (1) there are two kinds of people: good patriotic Eritreans, and bad treasonous Eritreans. If you want to know how can you tell the difference, that is also a binary choice: (2) Eritreans who support Isaias Afwerki are good, patriotic Eritreans; and those who oppose him are bad, treasonous Eritreans. If you want to see how this view has application to the world, that, too, is a binary choice: (3) countries, governments, organizations who support Isaias Afweri are good friends of Eritrea; and those who oppose him are bad enemies of Eritrea. In short, the world according to the Isaiaists is simple: if you love Isaias, you are good; if you hate what Isaias does, you are bad. And, if you were once considered friendly to Isaias Afwerki but now devote your energies to exposing the selfish, sadistic, psychopathic nature of Isaias Afwerki, then all the big guns will be unloaded on you. The symmetry is maintained: the higher your esteem, the more your influence, and the louder your opposition, then, the bigger the guns, the more frequent the shots, and the lower the tactics employed against you.
But Eritreans are not co-operating. On dissident radio, on the Internet, on opposition websites, on social media platforms, on Facebook, on Paltalk, on yahoo and skype chatrooms, on the telephone, they are telling a different narrative. And the ones who are telling us not to be fooled again are those who have known him the longest. They have names like Tesfai Temenwo, and Bereket Habte-Selassie. And, unfortunately for Isaias Afwerki, to many in the new generation, the dissidents are now just as popular as he once was, when he had the microphone all to himself.
inform. inspire. embolden. reconcile.