Change We Can’t Believe In

Does the UN sanction (actually, santions) target the Eritrean regime or the State of Eritrea? To answer the question, let’s assume that the PFDJ is no longer the ruling party in Eritrea and that it has been replaced by a democratically elected government.   

Let’s now look at the sanctions: (1) the travel ban on named individuals, all members of the PFDJ?  Gone with the regime.  (2) the freezing of the financial assets of named individuals and named companies, all members of the PFDJ?   Gone with the regime.  (3) the arms embargo?   The new government inherits it, and it has to make its case to a skeptical world that it should be lifted.  As of 2009, seven years after Saddam and his odious Ba’ath regime are gone, the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990 are still in effect: the process of lifting the sanctions is “work which is now starting but don’t hold your breath, it may take a little while before it comes to fruition” explained the president of the UNSC as recently as August 2009.


Now, you can make a case that Eritrea can take a long break from arms and arms build up for a while after the PFDJ is gone, but your case must be made within the bounds of Eritrean sovereignty.  Which is to say this.  In a new democratic Eritrea, the people’s representatives, elected by the people, should debate what percentage of its budget should be allocated to weaponry. 0%, 5%, 20%, etc. If the Eritrean Peace & Rainbow Party makes its case to the people that when you live in a ghetto where everybody is armed to the teeth, the best way to protect yourself is to unilaterally disarm and devote all your money to nurturing your unicorn, and it convinces the people that this is good for Eritrea, and they prevail, well, democracy means accepting the sovereignty of the people, even when they are disastrously wrong.  But if the Peace & Rainbow Party says “well, in principle, we agree that we should be armed, but what can we do, the UN just won’t let us…” that is just weak: it is to subordinate the will of the people to that of some “international body.”  For Iraq to get out of sanctions now, it must negotiate with Kuwait, which has a long wish list. Who do you think will be on the other side of the table arguing that the arms embargo on Eritrea should remain indefinitely?


The same logic held for opposing the State Sponsor of Terror (SSoT) designation on Eritrea: in addition to inconveniencing the innocent, once it is imposed, it will be very hard to get it lifted, even when Eritrea is governed democratically. Some people use their obsessive pre-occupation and nightmare with what will happen to Eritrea after Isaias is gone as justification for doing nothing or, worse, supporting the regime.  They exaggerate the risks of change to justify their opposition to change. But there are also Eritreans who pooh pooh and ignore any and all risks so long as Isaias is removed “by any means necessary.”  Some Eritreans—who are on record of expressing their view that not only do they have no problem with Ethiopia invading Eritrea to bring about regime change, but that it is their preferred mechanism  for change—have no problem with completely emasculating Eritrea for generations to come so long as whatever they are approving now increases the likelihood of uprooting the Isaias Afwerki regime.


When running for president, Barack Obama offered change.  Not just any change, but “change you can believe in.”  Implicit in the slogan was: “that change can come about if you hire me as the Agent of Change.” Further down in the implicity road: “even if you can’t believe that change is coming, do you want to believe it?”  Millions answered yes and he became president.  He is the American “HE.”   Our version of “HE”, is called “ ’ti seb’ay” (The Man) or “Nsu” (He), as Aklilu Zere explains in his blockbuster article “The Black Hole That Devoured The Light.”


You should read it.  Actually, you should stop reading me now and go read it: it is tour de force of history, as told by those who lived it: go visit Aklilu now.  Really, what are you waiting for…. Come back after you read it.  Actually, when you are finished reading The Black Hole, go and read an eye-opening gem, also by Aklilu Zere: The Birth of Despotism. 


He. Nsu. It is 1973 and I am teasing a sister-in-law who is prohibited by tradition from uttering her own husband’s name. Who? Nsu. I don’t understand, who are you talking about? You know, Nsu. For her, to utter his name was to disrespect him, to lower him from the pedestal, on a par with her. So is mentioning Isaias’s name to his followers.  

Nsu also signifies a reference to somebody EVERYBODY knows. Or should know. The first Christian Rock song I heard in Asmara (also 1973, before the phrase Christian Rock was invented as a genre), was called “HE.”  He: can make the sun shine, can stop the rain, hey, hey, hey, He, He, can change the seasons, and ease your heart, when you are in pain. I think it probably would be banned in Eritrea now as a Pente song glorifying somebody who is in direct competition with our version of “HE.”  Nsu is a gunslinger facing HE: “This country is not big enough for the two of us; why don’t you go and help out some poor souls that don’t have a HE.  There is another HE here.  Now scram.” 

Ok, back from reading Aklilu Zere?  Now, does the person Aklilu is describing sound like anybody who will ever, ever change? Does he sound like anybody who is willing to share the stage with anyone? Does he sound like somebody who is riddled with self-doubt or bouts of a guilty conscience?

Isaias loves Eritreans in all their diversity and Eritrea in all its beauty. He loves Eritrean children and women in all their props: farmers tending their fields; the Asseb port buzzing. He loves Eritrea and the wonder it offers: sycamore tree in Segeneyti; the Obel River bridge in Massawa, and all the wildlife living off its abundance. I am talking about the Eritrea and the Eritreans you see in the Eritrean currency, Nakfa: beautiful but mute.

If these same beautiful people were to open their mouth, they would be mowed down mercilessly. One place Isaias does not like Eritreans in is in groups larger than 7. They will be spied on—every 7th citizen is a spy and if it is not, perception is reality. Even bars, where people who have imbibed are known to lose their inhibition, are no release valves. And a parliament where adults can sit down and debate issues? The last time that happened was in 2000, when the G-15 challenged his war management skills, among other things. The experience was such an affront to Nsu—not only did he make them disappear, he shut down the parliament, and it hasn’t opened since. 

Nsu used to hold public meetings on the “objective situation on the ground” where people actually stood up to ask questions and give their comments and then he realized, to his shock, that a full 1% of those asking questions had something critical to say. Well! That could not be tolerated. Before you know it that 1% could double and even quintuple to 5%. How can you rule over a nation where a full 5% disagree with you!  That was too much and he discontinued the public meetings, for 9 years now.

Yet, I hear a lot of poor souls who have invested all their belief and their treasure on him, hoping that he will bring about change. Every New Year’s Day, he is interviewed or gives an address; and every year, the true believers await for some hint that change is a-coming. What? Yes, I tried, I really tried to listen to his interview. Then, 10 minutes into it, I remembered I am a free man, and no judge sentenced me to listen to it, so I bailed out. We should know the formula now, and if we forgot, Aklilu Zere reminded us: when cornered, play the victim, then organize, then strike.

Well, you say, you are exaggerating. Didn’t Isaias have an exemplary relationship with Ethiopia until 1998, and does he not enjoy great relations with Sudan now? And what do those two exemplary relations have in common?  In each case, Isaias had all the leverage. Extend your hand for a handshake and he will reach elsewhere in your body, the part that can’t be shaken but squeezed. Once he’s got you, then you can have an exemplary relationship until the squeeze is so painful you wiggle your way out of it. 

But it is not just Eritreans who are Waiting for Godot.  Even foreigners—particularly those clueless lefties—are always off. Even poor Susan Rice, when announcing the sanctions, held a press conference saying that this was not “the door closing on Eritrea, but on the contrary, we view this as another opportunity for Eritrea to play a more responsible and constructive role in the region.” She is sadly misinformed about Nsu. She would have had gotten better results by saying that if Isaias does not comply, we and our allies (that’s you Canada) intend to intensify the pressure by making it illegal to trade with and invest in Eritrea as long as the regime is in place.  

Now, if Isaias was just a brutish thug who actually delivered results, then people could, maybe, strike a Faustian bargain and justify it for themselves in a self-denying “the ends justifying the means” way.  But if every year the people get more destitute, more mired in misery, with a collectivist economic system that has been tried and failed in every corner of the world—“African socialism” was a bust when it had a Tanzanian name (Arusha) or Eritrean (Wefri Warsay Yeke-alo)—what is it that people are pinning their hopes on, Eritrean exceptionalism?  

CHANGE WE CAN’T BELIEVE IN – From The Opposition

One of the great benefits of the consolidation of the Opposition is that it is easier to answer the question of “Who are they? how will they bring about change?  And what will the post-change Eritrea look like after that?”

There are now five individual political organizations and two coalitions presenting themselves as agents of change. The EPDP (a merger of three organizations: EDP, EPP, and EPM), the Tedamun (a coalition of four organizations: ELF, EFDM, Islah, Alkhalas), Democratic Front of Eritrean Nationalities (DFEN: a coalition of two organizations: RSADO and DMLEK) and four other unaffiliated opposition organizations (Salvation, Nahda, Saghem and Islamic Congress.)

Who is leading the movement to bring about change?  How will change come? What will the change look like?

The Who

I am in the camp that believes that the Who is more important than the how and what. I double dare anyone to tell me the difference in the programs that were offered by Barack Obama and, pick anyone, Chris Dodd.  One is president, and the other will be an ex-senator. The opposition needs a yin to the yang of Isaias—an equal and opposite force. You can’t have a follower without a leader. And those who say that the leader is not as important as the program or the party platform—and then insist on straitjacketing the leader, will continue to have a perfectly democratic and admirable party whose members can fit in three buses.

Eritreans did not invent opposition politics or exiled politics and we have to try to learn the lessons from those who have been at it for a while. To me, the most significant information about a political party is: who is the leader it has produced. An effective leader can bypass even the barrier of geography (Khomeini was in Paris when he was leading the Iranian revolution.) The Cuban exiles in Florida—only a few miles from Cuba—were unable to affect change, even with the full-throttle support of the US government. The Ethiopian opposition was at the height of its optimism when it had Hailu Shawel and Burtukan Mideska to cheer for.

If it is all about leadership, why was this column (and the website that hosts it) talking forever about the need of having groups with like programs to merge?  Many reasons.  First, from the standpoint of marketing. The collective “opposition” name—Teqawmo, Muaareda—doesn’t translate well in Eritrea—it is typical Diaspora language. I asked an old lady once how does the PFDJ refer to the opposition and she told me she only heard of two groups “Jihad” and “Hamushai Mesr’e” (Fifth Column.) [This reference to two groups was too much work for Isaias and after the 98-00 border war, he just lumped them into one—“itom nay weyane” (those who serve the Ethiopian government) and that was that.] Then I asked her how does she refer to them? She demurred and said she doesn’t know anything about politics. But she certainly doesn’t call them Deqqna – our children—the way she used to refer to those in the ELF and EPLF back in the day.

The first reason then is simplicity. I try to be informed but when the Opposition becomes a self-replicating factory, I can’t keep up. The second reason is to help avoid future conflicts: if you can show us you can subdue your ambitions for the sake of the greater good, then we will be assured you will, later on. The third reason is that a leader of a large group has more legitimacy and gravitas than that of a small group. 

The How

How will you bring about change?  What is the blueprint? During the Armed Struggle, the “how” was clear: we will keep on fighting to remove the Ethiopian occupation, whom we will refer to as the Enemy. We will initiate guerrilla warfare, we will capture weapons, and we will use the captured weapons against the enemy. We will organize cells, in the heart of the country. We will recruit enlistees and, when we are low, we will forcefully conscript them. We will hit select targets—enemy assets, enemy spies—to flex our muscle. We will have a base from which we will never leave, and we will liberate and hold towns, when we can, abandon them when we can’t. We will present our people a clear choice: you better be with us that with the Enemy. We will conduct massive diplomatic campaigns and try to isolate the support given to the Enemy. We will keep on fighting, for generations if necessary.

What is it now? 

Let’s look at the two major groups: the EPDP and the Tadamun.


Ali Salim had a lot of fun ridiculing the “mode of struggle” (oh, I hate that phrase: it combines the soulless language of technology, “mode” with the psychological state which describes barely alive, “struggle”.)  But let’s go to the source:


In principle, we believe in nonviolent and democratic means of struggle to remove the present dictatorial regime in Eritrea. However, given the belligerent and violent nature of the current regime in our country, we believe the success of our party strategy not only depends on the safety of our party and its members from being the victims of the PFDJ while conducting their political and organizational activities inside Eritrea, but also necessitates that as the struggle progresses through different phases, our party shall have the right to resort to flexible self-defense tactics, as necessary, to achieve its strategic objective through nonviolent and democratic struggle.

Let’s see. That is 19 words affirming your belief in a nonviolent “struggle” and 84 words of loophole. I once asked a friend, then with EDP, now with EPDP, who was explaining to me the party’s commitment to “nonviolent struggle”: so, if you had a commando unit ready and willing to blitz Eira Eiro and free the prisoners there you would be opposed to it as too violent? “Well,” went the loophole, “in that case….” My problem with the EPDP approach is that it carves out and relegates self-defense as a right exclusive to itself.

So, if an Eritrean citizen is being approached to abandon the PFDJ, to spy on the movement of the PFDJ, and to shield the Opposition, how does the EPDP answer his question: you and what army will protect me from the wrath of PFDJ? 

On the other hand, those organizations who have armed wings are all loopholes.  They have nothing to offer those who might be a bit squeamish or skittish about the very idea of an Eritrean gun pointed at another. They have not defined “the enemy” properly: is it any Eritrean carrying a gun, or is it the person herding him? What is the appropriate target? What is the mission of the campaigns? Is it to disrupt? To punish? To liberate a land and a people?

The What

Do we believe that the Eritrea they visualize following the removal of PFDJ is one that will be at peace with itself, with others, and one that is democratic and just? The EPDP is proposing a form of liberal democracy—representative government, independent judiciary, free press, the works. But what is the groundwork that will be done to make Eritrea one of the few African states where this will actually work? How will people switch their allegiance from atavistic (religious, ethnic, regional) to ideological (political programs, independent associations?) Hasn’t the post-ELF politics of Eritrea shown that the glue that holds a political party together is very weak and when its adhesive power is diluted people just fall to the gravitational pull of their atavistic allegiances? Is there an intent to address the concerns of those who are concerned about being dominated, or will they all be dismissed as fear-mongers?

The Tadamun is proposing a looser affiliation of semi-autonomous zones (by geography.) Does it have concerns that its full-throttle embrace of ethnic politics will institutionalize and politicize ethnic, regional and religious differences forever? Two friends go to a coffee shop and there they met a nice couple. This is how you would explain the above sentence if you are a Somali:

Mustapha Yassin (Darod/Awtable) invited his friend Ismael Mohammed (Dir/Issa) to have tea at a coffee shop owned by a mutual friend (Hawiye/Habar Gidiir) and there they met a former teacher (Isaaq/Habar Awal) who was there with his wife Aasha (Rahanweyen/Digil)….

What will the Tadamun and others like them do to alleviate the concerns of people that the Eritrea of its vision is not one where ethnicity is not a permanent anchor of an individual?


Neither the Eritrean regime, nor the Opposition have presented Eritreans a change they can believe in. The people, in my view, are caught between the scylla and charybdis. The Who, The How, and the What are not awe-inspiring. The regime has vested all its authority on one man, Isaias Afwerki, who is not only irrational and wishes he could remove the vocal cords of Eritreans, but has terrible ideas on how to develop a country and institute peace among the people and their folk in neighboring countries. The Opposition has no leadership that can inspire followers, nor a credible program for bringing about change and governing the nation after the change. But of the two—the regime and the Opposition—the latter is more likely to adapt and change and is worth investing our time and energy in because the third alternative—to do nothing—is actually the same as the first alternative: to support the odious regime. This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it


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