The Games Of Dictators

In this article, I want to elaborate on the theme I started with in my previous article, “Recognizing The Games Dictators Play“. My objective in bringing the issue is not to stir up old controversies or to wallow in the past but because I truly believe the past is intruding on our thoughts in a destructive way today.  Though history is undoubtedly a great teacher,it is not our primary concern here except in so far as it encroaches upon the present. Nor are we interested in apportioning blame for its own sake – again – so long as their repercussions are not haunting us today.  In other words, we are concerned with the past or history to understand the present and the present to plan for the future.

If you find yourself unable to fathom people who continue to fantasize about reform despite repeated letdowns about elections, constitutions, rule of law, and a host of other broken promises for 24 long years, the answer lies in the past. Similarly, if you sometimes wonder at what drives some Eritreans to cling to idealized but unwarranted notions of EPLF so obsessively, you have to search for answers in the distant past.  In other words, the past lives on in a real sense guiding our thoughts and attitudes in the present and preventing us from reaching a consensus on broad strategies in the struggle against the regime. To that extent or in that sense, the past is very much relevant.

That is why one of the techniques of dictators I highlighted in my previous article is the power of propaganda and how EPLF/PFDJ excelled in it. Of course, shaebia did not invent propaganda nor is it the only entity in the world to practice it.  On the contrary, propaganda has become, for good or ill, the most ubiquitous phenomenon in the modern world that all nations including countries with stable democracies practice.

So, why should Eritrea (GOE) be deprived of it? Well, it shouldn’t and no one is suggesting it should but as we all know propaganda can be used for good or evil purposes. Some examples of good propaganda are those that seek to inform, to educate, and to warn of dangers while bad propaganda brainwashes, misleads, and forces conformity.  PFDJ/GOE’s propaganda is of the latter form. Moreover, propaganda in dictatorships like ours is quite different from those in democracies because in the latter, people have access to a variety of opposing views without suffering dire consequences.  So, one gets a mix of the good and the bad.

The goal of dictators, on the other hand, is to straightjacket the thinking of their people within carefully defined boundaries.  To this end, they subject their people to the same identical message day in and day out, harping on the same issues systematically and incessantly.  The public is constantly kept  charged so to speak with uplifting and impassioned rhetoric of dignity, nation, blood, martyrs etc… on the one hand and the dictatorship’s half truths on the other.  As a result, the lofty feeling of dignity and sublimity one experiences when thinking about nationalism, honor, and dignity become firmly associated with the regime and the latter starts to be seen as the source of such wonderful feeling.

Over time, this bastardization of nationalism with dictatorship causes people to lose their faculty of discernment – their capacity to disentangle the dictatorship from a nation and its people.  One tell-tale sign one is suffering from such a disorder is the predictability of the reaction to certain stimuli long after the propaganda (or exposure to it) has formally ceased. The Pavlovian-like reaction of some to my article (which served as the stimuli) is an example that further buttresses the point I was making in my previous article.

The effects of shaebia propaganda as we can imagine are not confined to its staunch supporters.   In fact, in terms of measurable tangible effects, it may have been more devastating on non-shaebians than on Shaebians.  The former have been so maligned and so thoroughly demonized for years that it eventually caused them to lose confidence in themselves and in their ability to bring about change.  Shaebia’s propaganda thus led to psychological enfeeblement in both camps. This – ladies and gentlemen – is its ultimate achievement and its most egregious crime.

I want to discuss now the following statement I made in my previous article to avoid misunderstanding:

PFDJ/GOE – dear compatriots – is nothing but EPLF in Government attire and I sincerely believe that if our country is to have a prosperous and peaceful future, not only must Eritreans dismantle the GOE /PFDJ regime but must also bury with it all traces of EPLF’s rigid and militaristic culture.

Let me start with the 2nd part about dismantling GOE and burying EPLF’s rigid and militaristic culture.  There is really no mystery here unless one reads into it something that is not there.  Is there a single Eritrean of good sense who wants Eritrea to continue on the suicidal path of attempting to solve all problems by force or militarily as it has been doing for decades?  Can there be any doubt that rigidity is an undesirable trait in an individual as it is in a nation?

The word “bury” above has nothing to do with changing the date of independence or with diminishing its significance or with wiping out the heroic deeds and sacrifices of EPLF fighters. No. I was calling rather for burying a mind-set, specifically rigidity and hawkishness – traits which both EPLF and its alter ego PFDJ have a lot in common. Those two tendencies have been so damaging that they need to be buried deep and kept locked with no possibility for parole.  That is all I am saying in the 2nd part of the above paragraph.

As to my contention that EPLF is not different from PFDJ, I also thought this would be a no-brainer but for reasons we have been discussing, I knew some would find it difficult to accept the assertion.  So I will provide some examples to show how PFDJ is a continuation of EPLF.  When I said PFDJ is nothing but EPLF in Government attire, I of course didn’t mean in mundane tasks that of necessity will change with new roles (or shall we say robes?) but was referring rather to essential qualities.  So what are some of these essential qualities that make PFDJ so like EPLF?

  1. The leadership: Isayas was the prime mover and shaker of EPLF since its inception and he still is today as the head of PFDJ/GOE.  He was as dictatorial then as he is today.
  2. The Media: The primary and only source of information (media) under EPLF was EPLF itself. All others were banned explicitly or implicitly.  It is still the same today under PFDJ/GOE. It is totally and completely under the government.
  3. Paranoia: Rivals or enemies (real or perceived) were mercilessly eliminated under EPLF. I mentioned Menkae as an example but of course there were many others including civilian victims. The same is true today under PFDJ/GOE.
  4. Ruthlessness: Torture, fear, xenophobia were rampant under EPLF and remains so today under PFDJ.
  5. Youth indoctrination: Systematic indoctrination of youth. In EPLF, it was Red Flowers (Keyahti Embaba); in PFDJ, it is YPFDJ.  The same technique for similar goals.  EPLF estranged and alienated youth from their families monopolizing and demanding loyalty only to itself.  PFDJ is doing exactly the same today under the pretext of national service.
  6. Isayas Ikdem: The cult of a leader began with EPLF and still continues under PFDJ. Nsu is still the greatest.
  7. Cultural imposition: Total disregard for cultural practices was a hallmark of EPLF then and still is under PFDJ.
  8. Group think: Group think was practiced in EPLF and still is under PFDJ.Both EPLF and PFJD relied on numerous networks of informers to divide Eritreans into its supporters and enemies.    If you are not with Shaebai, you are considered an enemy.  SemereAndom made an excellent observation in one of his comments about Shaebia’s “knack for recruiting talent” and how they would rather employ “mediocre talent” and train them than go for qualified candidates with dubious loyalties.    This is another technique in Shaebia’s arsenal that was true in EPLF as it is under PFDJ.  In both, job security was a function of loyalty not talent. Civilian associations that ordinarily serve as watchdogs for the public against such government abuses were/are absent or serve as mouthpieces in both EPLF and PFDJ/GOE.
  9. Slander as political tactic: Both EPLF and PFDJ discredit all opponents using slander as a political tactic. Dissenters are not just political opponents of EPLF or the regime but enemies of the people (Tsere hzbi, Jihadi, Yemanawyan, adharharti etc…)
  10. Thought policing: Independent thinking and judgment were discouraged and suppressed under EPLF.  The practice continues under PFDJ.  Any individual who dares to think independently is immediately branded as a “traitor” and against national unity.
  11. Obsessive self-reliance: Self-reliance was a mantra passionately trumpeted by EPLF as it is today by PFDJ. Isayas would rather starve his people than abandon the veneer of self-sufficiency.
  12. Oppressive security: The same security apparatus that saw enemies everywhere in EPLF is much in evidence today under PFDJ/GOE. In the name of national security and development, our youth were subjected to grueling cruelty then (under EPLF) as they are today under PFDJ (GOE).

We really could go on and on endlessly but the above should be enough to make the point that there is  no clear demarcation between past and present and that Isayas of days gone by is Isayas of today and EPLF of yesteryear is PFDJ of today in all things that matter.  There are of course a few things that only a government can do such as travel restrictions, identity cards or passports.  EPLF practiced travel restrictions in Mieda in some fashion but when it became a state, it was more vigorously and officially implemented.    But all these are cosmetic touches like changing kakis for a suit — quantitative not qualitative changes.  And if we were to take away the exterior trappings of PFDJ/GOE, EPLF will be standing there naked (with deeper wrinkles perhaps but genetically indistinguishable from its former self) – the same self that first took concrete shape decades ago in Nhnan Elamanan.

The role of Nhnan Elamanan in shaping shaebia thinking…

If we are to gain a deeper understanding of why EPLF’s attitudes and outlook has remained intact throughout the years, it is indispensable that we start with Nhnan Elamanan. This document provides a window into the soul of shaebia and an insight into what makes it tick. Only if we begin with it will we understand its religio-psychological roots and the source of its xenophobia, megalomania, and paranoia.   Even in the first few pages, this singular document reveals the grandiose ambitions and chutzpah of its author who refers to his production as weighty, historical, and of interest not only to Eritreans but to all nations.

Was EPLF a Christian organization?  Initially, absolutely and the answer is to be found within the pages of this document where we are told in no uncertain terms that the clique consisted almost entirely of Christians[i].  Later, of course, many jointed its ranks but if we probe deeper, we find that they served more as useful appendages to give the organization a nationalistic semblance than forming its core. Isayas knew he couldn’t survive without Muslims so he had to include them at some point if only as tools for various purposes including  procuring the much needed weapons and supplies from neighboring countries but in the grand scheme of EPLF thinking, Muslims were nowhere in the equation and never would be.

I am perfectly aware I am treading on some sensitive areas here.  Few things are as depressing and nerve-wracking as the realization that an organization that one has devoted a greater part of one’s life was totally different from one’s conception of it.  Understandably, it is difficult for some EPLFers to accept the fact that EPLF as an organization did more harm to our people than good but if we objectively and dispassionately analyze its overall legacy, such a conclusion is inescapable[ii].  I know this is harsh and I wish I could say it differently but as we contemplate a post-Isayas Eritrea, it is important that we tackle all myths to avoid falling into the same errors again and again.

An intellectual once referred to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, a dictator through and through, as a leader who ‘stripped us throughout the years of every independent thought and every strong personality other than his own.’  I think that is what happened in Eritrea.  We have clearly come a long way from the days of yore when blurting out “my country right or wrong” was cool.  PFDJ/GOE has long lost its appeal among Eritreans and is universally condemned by all in the opposition but critiquing EPLF remains an undeclared taboo and many have yet to outgrow EPLF’s harmful legacy of rigidity in thought, elitism and ethnocentrism.  Healing will not begin and broad consensus will not form until we can let go of cultural/national elitism; let go of collective egotism; and let go of the notion that we can solve all problems by force.  Knowing how dictators tinkered with our minds in the past to shape our opinions for years to come is an essential first step towards overcoming them.  At least that is the opinion of this writer.

[i] Well, to be exact, the translation of “darga kulatna” is “almost all of us”. Since the document professes to be national in character, it was hard for Isayas to pen down the fact that they were all Christians.   Please correct me if I am wrong.

One of the greatest ironies of our technological age is the fact that on the one hand it has facilitated globalization and on the other made it easy for clan/tribal based groups to proliferate and mobilize.  This is also an aspect of democracy that we love and hate.  Nhnan Elamanan is history but its legacy of elitism and ethno-centrism is very much alive.  Decades later, another document would surface making similar claims to nationalism and with similar composition.  No.  I don’t want to get into details.

[ii] Note: It is vital to understanding my thoughts to keep a distinction between EPLF/PFDJ/GOE as an institution/organization and its followers and between EPLF and Eritrean people.  As I have noted earlier, the equation of EPLF with Eritrean people is a propaganda-induced malady that we should outgrow and discard. Nothing I have said in this article or before however takes away an iota from the honor due to all genuine patriots (living and dead) that gave their all for our nation under EPLF command.

Rather, my views are directed at the top echelons of EPLF/PFDJ/GOE power structure and at EPLF as an organizational entity that espouses a distinct political philosophy not at the thousands upon thousands of decent EPLF rank and file that were duped.   If you are one of the latter, you have much to be proud of but I hope you learned a lesson not to worship leaders and organizations and not to fall for propaganda ploys.  I also hope you will be on your guard in the future because there will be other demagogues.



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