shaEbia ktHaqiq alewa (PFDJ Should Dissolve Itself)
Earlier this year, around Feburary 2001, the editors of Hwyet magazine, a quarterly Eritrean newspaper published by one of the para statal organizations, asked me and two other Eritreans, to write an article about the future of PFDJ. I did, as did the two other Eritreans. The editors decided against publishing the articles and, instead, interviewing President Iasias Afwerki about the future of PFDJ. The piece is reproduced here with some tiny changes (mostly using recent examples to support my arguments) and I am sharing them with the readers of Awate.com. The title of the piece is a take on “Amma ktHaqiq Iya” (“the ELF will be dissolved”, which was the prophecy of EPLF in the 1970s This was a typically communist prediction in the mode of The State Will Wither Away and when the prophecy materialized in 1981, President Isaias’ Prophet status was officially acknowledged.) Here, I am not making a prediction; I am stating what ought to be done for the good of the country: “PFDJ Should Dissolve Itself.”
Unlike others, I do not think that a Big Party is a pre-requisite for national stability and progress. Even if we think a strong central government is necessary, a “strong central government” should not be confused with a Big Party. I believe there is sufficient ideological maturity and delineation of vision to support having at least three political parties in Eritrea. Based on their behavior, the following generalizations can be surmised of the three parties:
- a party made up of PFDJ hardliners: neo-authoritarian (skeptical of free press, skeptical of capitalism, skeptical of “Western-style” liberal democracy, skeptical of elections), neo-isolationist (skeptical of all nations particularly Ethiopia, the Arabs and the US); exclusive (enemies everywhere), ultra-nationalist who define Eritrea’s history by the Armed Struggle Era only and particularly the post EPLF era; anti-federalists and supporters of strong central government whose idea of unity is uniformity (land policy, official language, etc) who see a dominant role for Isaias in PFDJ, for PFDJ in Eritrea and for Eritrea in the region, even if it has to be backed up by force;
- a party made up of traditional-opposition: Isaias-centered, mainly unreformed ELF, Alliance, and other groups with arrested political development. Federalist (support strong regional governments, autonomy of provinces), more comprehensive view of Eritrean history, support adoption of dual-official languages; support closer ties to Arab nations,
- a coalition party of moderates and reformers (PFDJ Reformers and the rest of us unaligned Eritreans) who support part of the PFDJ hardliners positions and part of the Opposition but don’t belong to the first two parties.)
With the exception of Party 1, the rest are dynamic and there could be dual-membership….
For these three parties to test out their ideology in the ideological market place of public opinion, the PFDJ-which is now seen as indivisible from Eritrea’s Defense Force, its police force, its intelligence unit-should dissolve itself in an orderly and civilized way, preferably at its next Congress. Or, it can continue to fool itself and think that the “600,000” members it claims are really committed members…
This assignment I was given by Hwyet reminds me of the children’s story Goldie Locks and The Three Bears. The modern application of the story is to right sizing and moderation: this bed is too big; this bed is too small, this bed is just about right. This drink is too hot, this is too cold, this is just about right. Etc. Here, we are presenting three proposals (of course); two are going to be judged as too extreme and one will be just about right. I have a fairly good idea as to which one will be judged “just about right”; no special talent required here: those of you with sufficient cynicism and seasoning in the politics of PFDJ can tell which proposal is likely to get the most serious consideration just by reading the bylines of the three articles. I can also tell you which one will measured the most extreme: mine. No wonder. I am calling for dismantling the PFDJ. At least the version of PFDJ we have come to know and not like.
I could make a serious argument for this but, seriously, what are the odds of this happening? Let’s put it this way: before that happens, you can expect Fidel Castro to renounce communism and snowflakes to fall on hell. As an old teacher of mine, Father Joseph, used to say, “zero, sfr, niente, abeden.” In politics, the name of the game is self-preservation and I cannot think of a single political party, I mean “front”, that has dissolved itself. Specially, one that claims to have 600,000 members. I cannot tell you what percentage of the adult, voting age, Eritrean population that is because we still don’t have a census report. (When I was in Eritrea over eight years ago, the census takers were knocking on every door and asking questions. But I am getting ahead of myself.) So, what is the point of this exercise? First, I have always been a dreamer and attracted to the ideal. Second, I want this piece to be seen as a critique of the PFDJ and its culture and an invitation to reform itself radically, to the point of extinction. I seriously believe this would be good for Eritrea.
In the American novel “Catch 22”, (don’t worry, this is the only “text-book” I will refer to in this article!) a soldier is attempting to get out of military service. But during World War II, where the story unfolds, an American soldier could get a discharge only if he has a mental illness. But the military rules also say that if a soldier claims that he is insane, the claim in itself is sufficient proof enough that he is not insane. And therefore he is not eligible for discharge. No way out. “That is some catch!” says the protagonist of the story, Yossarian. “The best there is,” says the doctor, “it is catch 22.”
The PFDJ has perfected the art of “Catch 22”. In fact, it has so perfected it, Yossarian would call its version “Catch 44.” Let me explain. In the PFDJ culture, here’s how discussion and debate is killed. Let’s say you want to discuss something based on information that has not been covered by DimtSi Hafash or Hadas Ertra or any other PFDJ-sanctioned medium. Someone will tell you, “Why, you are just engaged in spreading unsubstantiated rumors. ChibTitat yeblum. Hameta iyu. Polemikawi Inkilalo iyu.” If you are spreading information that has been covered by DimtSi Hafash or Hadas Ertra, “why, there is nothing new there so you are just being redundant. Izi ko meSnaEti ygeberelu zelo gudai iyu.” Case closed so shut up. If you use examples from a book, as I just did, you are too enamored with the West and hamburgers and being an armchair leader and a philosopher and a theoretician. You are just being, in the favorite all-purpose dismissive one-word, “fashionable.” (It is very fashionable for the PFDJ opinion makers to dismiss anything they don’t agree with by labeling it “fashionable.”) If, on the other hand, you try to give examples of real life facts, of things that have happened “bgibri”, you are accused of pretending to know more about “facts on the ground” thousands of miles away than those who live and breathe the stuff. “Iti kab kulu zgerm, ab American quenkas…”Case closed so shut up.
So, in this essay, I will play it safe: my only source will be PFDJ’s own National Charter adopted at its Third Congress in Nakfa (February 1994). I will argue that the front has failed by its own measure, and is likely to fail, on its plans. I am going to argue that this is either because its assumptions are wrong (Socialism with a New Face), that its lessons learnt are inapplicable (field culture transposed in civilian life) or when it gets it right, its execution is half-hearted and the PFDJ has shown no encouraging signs that it intends to implement its plans without sufficient moaning and whining by many of us (political pluralism)
If the political landscape in Eritrea were such that there were many mature and nationalist parties competing with PFDJ, the Front would have been so soundly beaten that it would have to go back to a retreat, to the drawing board to reinvent itself. As it is, the PFDJ has no real competition and, depending on how high it stacks the electoral and party formation laws to its favor, it will conceivably win by landslides for the next four to five elections. Seeking and not finding perfection, the opposition will probably boycott the election and the one party state will have the legitimacy of elections. Hence, it has absolutely no incentive to change particularly given its culture of “we know best.” But miracles do happen and this piece is a prayer.
The PFDJ Charter: General Observations
The Charter has an outline that lays out what I call “Arkan Al Shabia” (The Pillars of PFDJ) made up of two six-point Goals and Guiding Principles, a seven point Basis of Our Political Programs and a six-point Organizational Principles. It is clearly written by intelligent and well-read people (given the anti-intellect attitude of its followers, they must do their reading in secret.) The drafters of the Charter remind us that their work “does not borrow wholesale any analyses or formulas that are fashionable in today’s world.” Certainly the EPLF was, by guerilla-organization measures, a world-class movement and the PFDJ, the transformed EPLF, has earned many bragging rights and the Charter does not shy away from pointing them out. Unfortunately, in the context of Eritrean history, bragging rights are always accompanied with condemnation rights and right in the introduction, the ELF is accused of having “submerged itself in divisions in Eritrean society along ethnic, religious and regional lines” whereas the “EPLF became the melting pot for hundreds and thousands of Eritreans who came from rural and urban areas, from highland and lowland regions, and from the most marginalized localities.” As if the ELF members were all from one area or region. There are other inconsistencies and exaggerations. We are told that the victory of our struggle is “a testimony to, and a manifestation of the political maturity of the people of Eritrea and its leadership”, yet the goals and guiding principles assume that Eritreans have no political maturity. We are told the “population of Eritrea whose unity is rooted in a long tradition of peaceful and harmonious coexistence…is one of the most unified populations among societies with similar social structures”, yet the goals and guiding principles of the Charter assume that this unity that survived all sorts of tests is so fragile it could disintegrate by “divisive” folks and politics. We are told that the Eritrea of the British Military Administration (BMA) was the victim of “divide and rule” tactics but the same Eritrean society is described as having had a “budding political democracy.” The Charter also tells us that “the people of Eritrea were obliged to conduct their struggle single-handedly, against an internationally-supported enemy” completely negating the contribution of friendly nations and people.
This is not nitpicking. Each single example I am giving has significantly shaped-wrongly– the PFDJ’s approach towards harnessing Eritrean unity, democracy, culture, and foreign policy. Let’s now look closely at the Charter’s Goals and Guiding Principles to see how some of these assumptions were wrong and how those that were right were not implemented.
The Charter rightfully dwells on the importance of national unity. But the assumption the PFDJ makes is, although arguably well intentioned, very wrong. Notwithstanding Eritrea’s long history of long and harmonious relationship across regional and religious divides, the PFDJ continues to present Eritrea as it were a fragile little thing that, with the least “divisive” provocation, could entangle itself into a strife. This is in the mind of the PFDJ and small wonder: after all, the EPLF was created as a result of wanting to disassociate itself from the ELF which it accused of having promoted, or at least participated in, divisions along ethnic, religious and regional lines. First of all, this is subject to debate. The ELF, as a movement, was a reflection of the society on whose behalf it bled and struggled and it is unrealistic to expect it to be exempt from the social ills of the society anymore than you can expect the EPLF to be pristine pure. Second, even if the PFDJ’s claims are absolutely true, it doesn’t follow that the “sin” of the ELF is rampant in Eritrean society nor does it follow that bloodbath will ensue. The cause of the biggest bloodshed in Eritrea was not due to ethnic, religious and regional divide; it was due to ideological divides of “progressive”/”reactionary”, “centralized/”, “decentralized”, “one front”/”two fronts.” “smret/smur gnbar”. Does it then follow that we should discourage people from having different ideological beliefs or should our position be “believe what you want to believe; just don’t try to enforce your views by force”? You may ask, “So what is the harm in being too careful?” The harm is that if one has a view that Eritrean unity is so fragile, then one takes it as a responsibility to do whatever it takes to criminalize “divisive” activities thereby creating an artificial unity very much like Tito’s Yugoslavia. Having convinced itself that Eritrean unity could come unraveled easily, the State and its security apparatus can then be on a lookout for anything and everything that could trigger the egg from breaking and, in the process, ends up alienating a significant proportion of its population.
(b) Economic Justice
The Charter tells us that “A just political system cannot exist without a developed and just economic system. And political democracy cannot have a foundation in the absence of social and economic democracy.” This is a nice and neat formula. And based on a wrong assumption. The Charter describes a “just economic system” as one where the gap between the haves and have-nots isn’t that huge. Let’s accept this definition at face value. But a state can have a just political system with a just economic system (Sweden), or a just political system with an unjust economic system (US) or an unjust political system with a just economic system (China), or an unjust political system with an unjust economic system (Nigeria.) What direction a nation takes is dependent to the nation’s culture and how eager it is to try to reinvent the wheel. “Social justice” and “economic justice” and other methods of income redistribution have been shown by most credible economist to cost a bundle of money and chase away capital. The Charter asks, “But, does not social justice or economic democracy conflict with economic growth? Is it possible to achieve both social justice and economic growth?” and then answers its own question: “To view the two as incompatible is wrong.” They are not incompatible but “economic justice” does slow economic growth. I can demonstrate this by citing textbooks but I don’t want to be too “fashionable” here. Here, one can say, “Economic justice is what Eritreans want” and one would probably be right. But if we are going to go by what Eritreans want, my guess is that Eritreans, like all people with no means, would want even more “economic and social justice” and, if given a choice, they probably would choose socialism. But this is not a choice they are given because the Charter says, “Eritrea’s economy must be a market economy.” Why? Because command economies don’t work. The PFDJ knows that. It just doesn’t know that “social and economic justice” slow down economic growth and it is a lesson we are condemned to learn the try-and-fail method, notwithstanding the experience of other nations and the knowledge of textbooks.
On this subject, people can have honest differences and I am the first one to admit that my views are probably that of a minority. But what the Charter does is make my arguments sound heretical. Listen to this: according to the Charter “The goal of our revolution was not only to gain independence, but also to ensure economic development based on social justice. The people of Eritrea paid dearly for this.” This is the “Hdri” argument: a classic PFDJ intimidation. To argue for a different economic system is like arguing against Eritrean independence and to make a mockery of Eritreans’ sacrifice. Does this encourage open debate? I have always believed that what Eritreans paid dearly for was to bring about the right to self-determination and self-government and to be free of fear from the government of the day. It is true that the two fronts spent a great deal of time engaged in political orientation and “raising consciousness” but that says more about the fronts and the era of the armed struggle than what the Eritrean people wanted. If one uses “the people of Eritrea paid dearly for this” argument, didn’t a great many fighters die believing that they were contributing towards building a socialist/communist state? So, where does that leave us?
The Charter tells us that “From the rich cultural heritage of the people of Eritrea, we adopted and enhanced the positive and useful aspects, but rejected the bad and harmful aspects. By this process, we also included good elements from other cultures.” PFDJ does not consider one possibility: that the culture of ingenuity, hard work, inventiveness, equality that were adopted in the Eritrean field during the armed struggle were good and admirable but, above all, necessary to conduct an armed struggle in a disciplined army. The Eritrean people had no say in them. They had no say in whether their boys and girls should share the same bunker, on how they mark milestones such as celebrations, marriages or death, etc. This meda culture may or may not have relevance in the civilian world where culture belongs to the people and not a party or a government. The Front can attempt to persuade and prod people but, in the end, it has to accept that it is one voice, among many competing voices, which want to shape a culture. Genuine culture springs from the people; the government does not impose it. Just close your eyes and think of all the countries that imposed culture and tradition: North Korea, China, Cuba. All are totalitarian states. In a free society, culture is dynamic. Culture, in all societies, is a component of people’s identity. And people, as the Charter reminds us elsewhere, do not like their identity tinkered with, even by their government.
In addition to all the “good elements” of our cultures that the PFDJ preserved or borrowed from other cultures, the PFDJ has also introduced many bad ones. Some of them are far worse than the worst component of our bad culture because the only people allowed to use force enforce them: the government. It has overcompensated in combating feudalism and, in the process of leveling the playing field, it has exempted itself from respecting the elderly (PFDJ’s “ata seb’ai! Ati sebeyti! Is legendary). It has adopted a “more patriotic than thou” attitude towards all non-PFDJ members often displayed in patronizing and condescending culture. It has set itself up as THE definer and guardian of patriotism and it has equated any disagreement with it as unpatriotic. Not to personalize this but, it is not uncommon, for example, for PFDJ and its foot soldiers to say of me, “he used to be a patriot during the Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict; whatever happened to him?” It is inconceivable to them that someone could love his country passionately and disagree with PFDJ vehemently. The PFDJ practices a culture of intolerance towards dissenters and is quick to engage in undignified name-calling, and vulgar language even at the highest levels of its hierarchy. It is so inward looking it treats all foreign countries with suspicion and skepticism and is incapable of having “organic relationships” with any nation. It is quick to make enemies and slow to make friends. It is insensitive and gives a deaf ear to anything it disagrees with. It never admits to mistakes and never gives the impression that maybe it doesn’t have all the answers. These are not cultures that should in any way be preserved.
(d) Foreign Policy & National Interest
My criticism here deals with the Charter’s position: “….In order to preserve the peace and harmony we acquired after a long struggle, it is essential that we strive for peace and stability at both regional and global levels, notwithstanding our limited capabilities.[emphasis mine]” I believe our foreign policy should give strong recognition to our “limited capabilities.” This kind of recognition would have enabled us to have nothing to do with the Sudanese Opposition (no matter how noble their goals) little to do with Somalia (no matter how righteous their cause) and absolutely, positively NOTHING to do with Congo (no matter how rich the country.) Even countries with unlimited capabilities have a dismal record in picking winners and losers in foreign land and our venture into areas that are significantly beyond our shoe size is a holdover from our armed struggle days which extends the logic of “we performed miracles then; we can do it again.” We continue to say that “Eritrean people are our greatest wealth”, yet we are willing to use them-which is to say get them killed and wounded– to advance dubious goals of questionable practicality. Beyond bullying and ridiculing people for pretending to be “more Catholic than the Pope”, the PFDJ has yet to give a rational reason why it dragged young Eritreans to the civil war of Congo or Sudan or Somalia. This, to me, is incredible coming as it does from a Front that says, “our philosophy is the philosophy of pragmatism.” While I am on the subject, I would like someone to explain what the Charter means by the following: “Our doctrine on national security and defence must be people-oriented. Because the security we desire is not so much the security of the land but of the people, they should participate in the effort.”
The above points deal with policies based on wrong or outdated assumptions. The following are good assumptions and great values that, one senses, were placed in the charter for purely decorative purposes. I call them:
Great, Amen, Too Bad You Didn’t Mean It.
In this section, I am going to quote wonderful citations from the Charter. As you read it, think back of all the interviews PFDJ and government officials have given on the subjects in question. To remove the convenient answer of “woyane aggression”, limit your recall to the period between April 1993 to April 1998. Think back, for example, of the interview given by Hwyet in early 1998 to a senior PFDJ official (who, unfortunately, is getting ruder and more vulgar with advanced age) and what his response was when asked when can Eritrea expect to have a multi-party system. Or other officials at various forums like Hadas Ertra? Or at seminars convened by ministers and PFDJ officials. What I am asking you to assess is not whether the Charter has been implemented in its entirety. That would be unrealistic. Eritrea is a very young nation and it would be unfair to do a comparison of the Charter with the Deed of PFDJ. The Charter is, after all, a work in progress. What I am asking you to compare is whether the PFDJ officials acted or behaved in a manner to suggest that they regretted not being able to fulfill the call of the Charter or whether they seemed indifferent and contemptuous of what the Charter says. Compare their words and their acts with the following quotes from the Charter:
(1) “…the people should participate in all decisions that touch their lives and their country, from the inception to the implementation of ideas.” Do they? Did they? Are these participations mandatory or voluntary? Are they driven by independently appointed/elected Eritreans or are they, always, always, shepherded by PFDJ cadres? Are the people ever trusted to run their own affairs or does the PFDJ always see a role for itself to “guide” them? I will give you a perfect example. The San Jose community was invited to attend a discussion on the electoral/party-formation law that would commence at 4:30 PM. Due to unavoidable reasons, the PFDJ delegate, Mr. Badouri, could not attend until 8:00 PM. Since this is a “discussion session”, you would think someone would be elected moderator to get the session going. What happened between 4:30 PM and 8:00 PM? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because the group was conditioned to believe that a meeting cannot occur without the blessing of the PFDJ. For three and half hours, people went to a restaurant next door and discussed things they could have discussed without the presence of Mr. Badouri. Why? Is this not an example of the PFDJ creating a culture where meetings without its presence are considered suspect?
(2) “Eritrea’s greatest source of wealth is its people.” If that is the case, why do we allow arbitrary arrests? Why is the “wealth of Eritrea” treated so shabbily? Is that how wealth is treated? Why do we send them to fight in foreign wars? Why do we allow hundreds of thousands of them to languish in refugee camps in the Sudan? Why do we demand slave labor of its youth? Why do we demand that they work for no pay? For whose benefit?
(3) “Leaders must be free from corruption, refrain from misuse of power, be teachers and humble servants, become positive role models, continuously learn and update skills, and be accountable at all times.” Have our leaders been “humble servants”? Have they been accountable to us “at all times”? At any time? Have they refrained from “misuse of power” or have they acted as if Eritrea is a nation of “tegadelti” and “gebars”?
(4) “Independent, free and responsible mass media is yet another important set of factors for the development of democracy. In short, a democratic government, an active civil society and an independent and reliable mass media are the three pillars of democracy.” Do we have a “free” mass media? How has the government acted towards the free private press? What steps has it taken to encourage or discourage the private press? What steps did we take to encourage the creation of a “civil society” What is PFDJ’s attitude to any assembled group of people who are not under its direct control? Does it encourage, tolerate or discourage such assembly?
(5) “It [the government] must be a democratic constitutional system based on sovereignty of the people, on democratic principles and procedures, on accountability, transparency, pluralism and tolerance.” Transparency is one of the words PFDJ officials love to use. We are supposed to believe, by sheer repetition, that PFDJ is transparent. It is like listening to a sweet-voice muezzin calling people to prayer five times a day and going to the mosque to find, each and every time, that there was no one, not even the muezzin, there. Would the authoritative voice of the Muezin tell you that you are in a religious society or would it merely heighten awareness of the hypocricy? Isn’t the same PFDJ that speaks endlessly about the merits of transparency the same PFDJ that, within the last few weeks, was on a witch-hunt to find out who is disseminating information about issues discussed in the NATIONAL ASSEMBLY? A truly transparent front would be fighting hard to ensure that the assembly sessions are open to the public not try to punish assembly members who talk to the public after their meeting is over. Does the PFDJ welcome pluralism or is it accepting it grudgingly and kicking and screaming? Does the PFDJ show tolerance towards people it vehemently disagrees with or does it go to the extent of depriving them of their liberty and means of making a living? Does the PFDJ respect the meaning of institutions?
(6) “On the basis of a constitution, to strive to uphold basic human and political rights, which include freedom of faith and of the press, the right to political organization, peaceful demonstration, information, work and education, freedom from fear and suppression and equality under the law.” How many peaceful demonstrations-not the once organized by PFDJ or the GoE–have Eritreans had since 1993? How seriously does the Front treat the Eritrean right to information? In fact, how does the PFDJ treat information that comes from sources it doesn’t control? How eagerly did the PFDJ accept the Internet? Are Eritreans respectful or fearful of PFDJ?
(7) “To make the political system a multi-party system in which political parties legally participate, and compete among themselves in a peaceful and democratic way.” Was this, until very, very recently, expected or where we being prepared for decade long delay? Was the idea of multi-party system ridiculed and pooh-poohed or was it welcomed in the same spirit as independence was? Were we not told that there are 3 million political parties in Eritrea and thus, there was no need for political pluralism? Did the PFDJ not deny the ELF the opportunity to enter Eritrea as an organized group?
(8) “The relationship between the government and the private sector must be complementary, in a spirit of cooperation and not adversarial.” Do business people feel their relationship with the government is complementary or adversarial? Do business people feel that the PFDJ is an unfair competitor and monopoly or do they feel it is as helpful as a Chamber of Commerce? Is the role of the PFDJ business empire limited to “basic necessities” or does it attempt to get involved in every sector?
(9) “Our army and security establishments must serve the people and the national interest, protect society, operate in accordance with the law and be accountable and open.” Is our security establishment accountable and open? Does it tell family members of imprisoned loved ones? What their sentence is? What their crime is? Or does it, to add insult to injury, tell family members who inquire about their loved ones, “we don’t have him here.” If the security establishment doesn’t have the loved one in custody, it must mean the Eritrean being inquired about by family members is missing. Shouldn’t an establishment interested in the security of an Eritrean at least show concern for a missing Eritrean when his family reports he is missing? Are all the Eritreans who claim their cousin, their nephew, their uncle, their friend, their father, their brother is a political prisoner about whom they haven’t heard anything in years all liars? Does the PFDJ feel no sense of shame in telling Eritreans that it cannot provide due process because it doesn’t have lawyers and judges?
(10) “Even though it is the Front’s purpose to strive to determine and influence the government’s agenda and policies, it would be confusing and inappropriate to interfere in the power structure or day-to-day decisions of the government and its ministers.” Does the Front “interfere” in the work of the government and its ministers? Is there confusion on what property the GoE controls and what is owned by the PFDJ? And how do PFDJ officials even deal with questions that attempt to uncover this? Why isn’t the people’s budget made public?
(11) “It is important that it [leadership] conducts regular meetings at different levels that such meetings are taken seriously and become forums for deliberation and decision-making. If this is not done, leadership unity will weaken, enthusiasm will wane, individual rather than collective decisions can dominate….Parallel to collective responsibility, it is essential that the responsibilities and power limits of every individual leader are known…Accountability is critical for the existence, continuation and development of responsible leadership. A leader must shoulder the responsibility for the shortcomings observed in his/her own actions…For accountability to work properly, openness must prevail.” What openness? How many cabinet meetings did Eritrea have in 1998? 1997? In 1996? Are the meetings taken seriously? Are they formal: are minutes taken or are they impromptu, one-on-one, while-I-am-here, type of meetings? What are the limits of presidential power? Can the PFDJ mention one thing that the president wanted done but was denied because he didn’t have the power to do it? Does individual or collective decision dominate?
The PFDJ should dismantle itself and reinvent itself after it reevaluates its assumptions. First, the Front needs to remind itself Eritrea is not as fragile as it likes us to think it is. To believe that it is comes from the unique history of the EPLF and its relationship with the ELF. Since those who bring up the ELF are being constantly told to stop dwelling on yesterday, I would like to extend the same advice to the PFDJ: please stop dwelling on what happened to you 30 years ago. This permanent state of victimhood and holding grudges is a self-serving approach designed to justify the permanent and ever-increasing status of the PFDJ but it is not in the interest of Eritrea. Second, please don’t reinvent history to advance your cause: Eritreans did not join the armed struggle in droves to bring about social and economic justice or other sophisticated causes. They resorted to armed struggle and joined the armed struggle because their sovereignty was infringed upon, they were tired of living in fear of the colonial governments of Haile Selassie and the Derg, and they were denied the opportunity to bring this change about peacefully. People joined the armed struggle because their cousin was imprisoned, their brother disappeared and their friend killed. It was not about “social and economic justice”; it was about individual justice and human rights. “The social and economic justice” is stuff people learned once they went to the field and this only because it was “fashionable” to be a socialist for much of Eritrea’s armed struggle era. Third, Eritrean culture does not belong to the Front and whatever successes it can point to in the “laboratory” of the field are not necessarily applicable in a post-independence Eritrea. Neither the Front, nor the party has a right to redefine, change people’s identity, no matter how noble the intent. It is not up to the party to tell people which identities to be proud of and which to discard; that is an evolutionary process. While it is on the subject on culture, it should do a wholesale dumping of many of its demeaning, intolerant and exclusive culture. Fourth, Eritrea’s foreign policy is inconsistent with our size and capability. It is the outcome of an inward-looking movement, which overcame tremendous odds and thinks that this is a rule not the exception. The Eritrean defense force should not be engaged in distant and foreign land to advance dubious and ill-defined goals. No people, regardless of how much they despise their rulers, welcome intruders and “saviors” to their land.
The PFDJ should also assess the reasons as to why some of the portions of the Charter were never implemented. There was a deliberate effort to slow down the democratization process, including the right to information, peaceful demonstration, independent media. Individualism replaced collective decision- making, and the PFDJ’s actions were shrouded in secrecy. The Front and its assets were frequently confused with the State.
The PFDJ can measure progress in “tangible” results: how many hospitals were built, how many kilometers of roads were paved, how many schools were inaugurated and congratulate itself and make no changes. And, in fact, the reason PFDJ officials invite critics to Eritrea to see for themselves is so people can admire the clean streets, paved roads, hospitals, clinics and schools. These are all wonderful and the PFDJ should celebrate them and is entitled to brag about them. But it should remember that these tangible evidences of progress are also almost identical benchmarks misguided intellectuals and “progressives” used to cite when celebrating the achievements of post-revolutionary Cuba. Apparently, the authors of the Charter did a great deal of research and comparison and contrasts of the history of other states and nations and they state that, driven by dynamic pragmatism, they will import what has worked and reject what has failed. For that they should be commended. But at PFDJ’s next congress, they should report on one more research: they should tell us how many national liberation movements made a successful transition to a civilian, democratic government. I could tell you but that would be based on “textbooks.” And we can’t have that because that would be “fashionable.”