The Mask Behind The Grab

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

‘Thank You’ to all the people who take their time to leave a few notes at the end of the articles, mine included. That impresses me most and deserves all the credit for getting us rolling. I couldn’t find it again for proper referencing and I don’t remember the exact words either but one particular comment depicted a simple yet profound image of the helpless situation of diaspora Eritreans. In a nutshell, I understood it as saying that if we would only stop behaving as if we were physically in Eritrea and start considering the fact that we are stuck in a transnational space of confused political identity, we would know our limits to the extent to which we could actually get things going on the ground inside Eritrea. What he meant I believe was that if you aren’t observant enough when reading Eritrean online politics, you may actually end up forgetting that what we are talking about when we refer to Eritrea isn’t the physical reality where you left your parents. It is actually the virtual nation, the ghost of the real one, where we are all trying to construct the utopia of the firmly united, solidly democratic and unbelievably prosperous nation of Cinderella defying gravity and uninhibited by any restrictions of reality. The real one (reflections below) is a little different and what may be realistically expected of it has some restrictions.

This article is intended as a sign of goodwill and to share a few comments on what was reported (May 18, 2012) about speeches (papers) presented at a symposium entitled “the Eritrean dilemma and the prospects for a way forward” organized by CDRiE (concluded on May 12, 2012 in London, UK). According to the report, four distinguished speakers presented papers: His Excellency Humed Kulu, Dan Connell, Professor Gaim Kibreab and Professor Kidane Mengsteab. The latter two are founding members of CDRiE and the first chairs an EPDP satellite organization (“the coordinator of national democratic forces in Eritrea”). Like all Eritreans, I have utmost respect and admiration for each of these fine Eritrean citizens who have so far left no stone unturned trying to find a way out for all of us. The brief comments that I make below are exclusively concerned with the specific content of the specific papers of the symposium (please separate writer from the writing). Here are my comments:

Following an excellent and pragmatic analysis, Dan Connell (I am not sure if it were the same “Notes” published on Harnet on May 24, 2012) presented three scenarios of the near future of Eritrea: (Scenario # 1) “Isaias or a junta … preside over ever-tightening security state”; (Scenario # 2) “intensified counterinsurgency against Muslims and ethnic minorities”; (Scenario # 3) “Isaias is incapacitated … power centers inside the regime band together … to manage the transition … crimes of this regime are not brought to light”. His recommendations might be summarized in terms of three dimensions of potentially effective action:

(1) Concentrate on targeting the mining sector for two reasons: (a) because mining cash will continue to represent the key source of strength for the PFDJ or any potential off-shoots; (b) because it is a well tried and easy mechanism where the international community might be able to help.


(2) Religion (specifically Muslim) and ethnicity as the basis for political mobilization is a bad thing for Eritrea, hence, unless something is done to manipulate these orientations by accommodating real concerns, the consequences can be crazy because “these minorities see the declarations of secular nationalism as a mask for Tigrinya Christian domination.”

(3) Strengthen the movement of the younger generation because they are “independent” from the political organizations that have proven to be ineffective.

The following are my interpretations of Dan Connell’s presentation (i.e. things that are explicit or implicit in the notes) – and please correct me if I have it wrong:

(1) Nobody seems to have told Dan Connell that there was actually a conference of something called the ENCDC (of which the EDA is only a fraction) in Hawassa, Ethiopia last year and that the guys who were hosting his speech in the “Eritrean Dilemma” conference had their own “Dilemma” in that they were the only ones who had failed to show up in Hawassa. I am of course not saying this to imply that the conference he was attending was essentially intended to undermine the materialization of the very recommendations that he was making. I am also not saying that he failed to notice he was lecturing the wrong people i.e. suspected “power centers inside the regime [who might] band together” (the stars of scenario #3) to hide crimes committed (against the stars in scenario #2) by the regime. I am just saying that having seen the trend of mentioning ENCDC wherever the EDA is mentioned, Dan might be unconsciously responding to “ded’Hri adgi zikhede….” syndrome. [“those who follow the donkey; if they don’t learn how to bray like one will learn how to fart like one.”]

(2) Let us relate two pieces (different ways of saying the same thing) in Dan’s notes and ask this great man simple questions: (a) the way “ethnic armies” are doing business in the gold mines, it may (scenario #2) lead to “intensified counterinsurgency against Muslims and ethnic minorities” (b) “these minorities see the declarations of secular nationalism as a mask for Tigrinya Christian domination.” Assume that Dan does not think that “secular nationalism” is actually an agenda for “masked Tigrigna Christian domination”. I don’t think he does or he would have been kicked out of the CDRiE symposium. We know from the notes that the presumed insurgency that would dominate ‘scenario #2’ would be that carried out by “Muslim and ethnic minorities”. Then who would be carrying out the “intensified counterinsurgency”? The PFDJ or derivatives of the regime would of course lead the show.

The Question: But where would the rest of the “secular nationalist” forces, of which Dan obviously takes CDRiE and the “younger generation” solidarities to be a part, vanish? In other words: if what “the ethnic armies” are saying about these guys being a prelude to “masked Tigrigna domination” is false, how credible can the probability of fragmented minorities (that according to Dan’s experience make up only a tiny fraction of Eritrean politics) occupying centre stage in scenario #2 be? If the presumption of “Tigrigna ethnic supremacy” masked by ‘secular nationalism’ were false, Dan’s scenario #2 would have three sets of actors: the PFDJ regime (at one extreme), a secular nationalist movement (at the centre) and the “Muslim and ethnic armies” (at the other extreme). What Dan is saying is this: ‘when push comes to shove, the centre will disappear and the showdown will take place between the two extremes.’ But where would this centre go? There are only two options: (a) the claim that Eritrea does not have a centre and that what we see as ‘secular nationalism’ is nothing but disguised Tigrigna ethnic supremacy turns out to be true, and it would eventually converge with the PFDJ (where it belongs); (b) the same claim turns out to be true and secular nationalism retreats to the silent majority in a quiet approval of the status quo.

The many observations that Dan makes about “what we see when we look at Eritrea?” include: a declining “spirit of volunteerism”, a loosening “social coherence”, “the rise of ethnic and religious identities as a basis for political and military action”, a potent “Eritrean nationalism” and a “weak and divided” opposition. He also adds that “the main [and I add ‘the only’] military threat to the regime, such as it is, comes from several small ethnic parties within EDA, drawn from the Afars, Kunama, and Saho.” I have omitted the last part of the sentence where he describes “fostering micro-nationalisms” as “playing with fire”, just so you don’t think of me as trying to embarrass this great man for advancing rotten and outdated arguments of a 19th century Bolshevik.

Dan shares his belief that scenario #3 (where “power centers inside the regime band together”) “is the scenario  … [that] is already underway.” Scenario #1 (about “Isaias or a junta”) essentially says the same thing with a little modification of predicted actors and events. With all due respect, both these (#1 & #3) tell only part of the story and do not qualify as “scenarios” and in both cases Dan had actors that went missing. In the case of the second scenario (above) for instance we had to dig around to discover the so called ‘secular nationalists’ either in the front lines with the PFDJ (or its by-products) or in civilian clothing among the silent majority when the real thing happens. The only scenario that ensures a head count of all the actors during the anticipated showdown and beyond is scenario #2. Try it as an exercise: expand any of those scenarios by defining the current sets of actors and extrapolating into the future with one restriction (i.e. Dan’s implicit restriction): the main fight takes place between the two extremes – PFDJ Vs “Muslim and ethnic armies” – and the centre of “secular nationalism” trying to steal the show from both extremes (of course with a possible hidden agenda of ethnic supremacy, i.e. a disguised PFDJ). You will find out that the only possible explanation of what is happening today and a guaranteed bet for what will happen tomorrow is Dan’s scenario #2 where the centre of “secular nationalists” are missing in action between the uniformed foot-soldiers of the YPFDJ and those in civilian camouflages at the EGS (plus versions of it) and CDRiE (plus clones of it).

I hope I am not offending anyone. If I am, please feel free to interrupt or stop me any time before you finish reading. I think we have to be fair here. We can’t just accuse the “secular nationalists” of being potential or disguised collaborators of the PFDJ’s agenda of “masked ethnic supremacy” just like that and without clues. We don’t really have sufficient proof – just speculations. So please forget what you have just read above as you proceed below.

Get a cup of coffee, some Tchat and a couple of pillows for this one. According to the CDRiE report, the first speaker (after the Chairman’s opening) was actually not Dan Connell. It was “Fighter Humed Kulu, the well known Eritrean ambassador and writer [of this low for a change from this high, who] presented a speech entitled “the Eritrean dilemma and the prospects for a way forward” at a conference entitled ‘the Eritrean dilemma and the prospects for a way forward’ (Pappagallo?). According to my translation of the Arabic version of the report, His Ambassadorship “reflected a picture of the struggles of the Eritrean people, which tinted the Eritrean personality with the attribute of a fighter who never breaks and never rests until the achievement of freedom and independence. He shed light on the negative consequences of the one-man rule … and said that the unlimited national service program and other environmental factors have led into a terrible situation that has increased the suffering of our people every day. He further spoke about the Eritrean opposition in Addis Ababa and said that the repackaging of alliances into multiple forms based on mistaken ethnic and racist conceptions cannot help in bypassing its problems and in arriving at a clear solution for the Eritrean opposition.” Anything that you didn’t know before attending the symposium!? I know I could just have said “Humed Kulu said blah … blah … blah”, which would have been a more perfect interpretation of what I believe he meant to say, but I wasted half an hour reading that thing for you and you are not getting away that easy.


You may think I am being unfair with Brother Humed Kulu. You are right, I am. But nothing personal! I am disgusted by all the EPDP, CDRiE and affiliated ambassadors and dignitaries of shame especially when they speak in my name as a Muslim and lowlander. I know what everybody knows about them and I think they grossly misrepresent the truth. Wouldn’t you request basic “decency” (to borrow Brother Ismail’s term in the comments to my previous article) of someone who by his own admission was kicked out of the PFDJ for “mistaken ethnic and racist” stuff, making a stink out of his own kin trying to make sure that the same “mistaken ethnic and racist” magic does not repeat again? You know how these guys picked the “ambassador” title!? It was a charity given to them by the PFDJ and the decency of President Isaias Afwerki through a backdoor agreement of affirmative action with a garbage-can of opposition organizations immediately after independence. It was this agreement that enabled the PFDJ to say “look – we have invited the ELF-based opposition organizations and here they are responding positively!” Does any of these flip-flopping sellouts and kissers have any moral authority to come today, as did Humed Kulu at the CDRiE symposium, and tell us that “the biggest mistake that the PFDJ did after independence was its failure to invite the diaspora-based opposition”? No, Mr. Ambassador! You–and please invite the other colleagues–tell us: how is it that all “these guys”, none of whom can write a proper sentence – not even in their mother tongue – end up representing such a great nation of giants abroad? Feel free to add what any of you guys did to make sure that the PFDJ invites your other colleagues (the ones that you guys sold out after the agreements and deals) to share the cake?

The third speaker was Professor Gaim Kibreab, an absolute authority on anything that combines “Eritrea” and “intellectual”. As we all know and are proud of, his research contributions concentrating on the key aspects of the very wrong things in Eritrea have enriched the Eritrean academic literature covering land ownership, refugees and human rights. Gaim’s paper at the CDRiE symposium focused of the crisis of “national service” in Eritrea, where he “discussed its philosophical and sociological roots from the [ancient] Greeks to the present day.” He explained “how national service works [or has the potential] to strengthen the national personality and help in integrating the various segments of one society and contribute to the deepening of shared conceptions of national values.” He further clarified that “the philosophy of national serves works to transfer national beliefs (conceptions) from previous generations to the current one.” He confirmed that “there are philosophers who criticize national service but relatively they constitute a minority.”

The professor of course criticized the national service program very harshly especially for the PFDJ regime’s mismanagement resulting into unlimited service-time, its misuse as a labor camp as well as its devastating consequences of the socioeconomic infrastructure of society. He really stood up on this and he definitely deserves a lot of credit. However, the bottom line is that his “philosophical and sociological” justifications of the national service program are the same and identical justifications presented by every MeraHi Ganta in Sawa and of course by the PFDJ’s own “Philosophical and Sociological” psychopaths at the headquarters in Asmara. I haven’t seen the overwhelming research confirming the benefits of national service programs (on comparable implementation environments) that the good professor was referring to but I think he might have fallen into an error of omission.

There is one rule of thumb (that I follow) for accepting reported social sciences research as true (especially in the context of people using academic research to push arguments in politically motivated debates): if it doesn’t make an informed sense on purely logical grounds, it is most probably either junk science or manipulated for convenience. The questions the professor might have skipped are these: (a) what exactly is the purpose of a national service program? Is it what the nation gains from enforcing volunteering to provide cheap or free labor? Or is it what the trainees are expected to take home in terms of cultural cohesion and national unity as a result of mixed people hanging-out together? (b) If the primary purpose is to guarantee cheap labor for a poor nation, the only criterion we should use in judging the national service program is on whether the conscripts were made to provide cheap labor (do you need proof of that?). If as Professor Gaim seems to believe, the primary purpose, and hence his supporting literature, is its contribution to national unity and cohesion, I think no sensible research would ever recommend its implementation without pre-requisite minimum levels of institutional infrastructure to guarantee a controlled environment for predictable results. That is true not only when you plan to forge angels out of the conscripts, but even when you decide to transform them into monsters. Remember: we are talking about a “program” here because without that restriction, a multi-cultural crowd in Idaga Lakha also provides the same cohesion and national unity that Professor Gaim discovered in his research. I don’t know about you but I thought that implying the existence of overwhelming academic consensus on the benefits of a disastrous program that has consumed the nation to be unfitting of such a great icon in our struggle for change. I insist, please do not link to ‘scenario #2’ above, where the “secular nationalists” are at least subconsciously mobilizing “the power-base”.

The report (my translation) adds that, Professor Kidane Mengsteab, another founding member of CDRiE, presented a paper that was “distinguished by its focus on a comparative analysis of the concepts and foundations of achieving democracy in Eritrea.” He emphasized that “achieving democratic rule in Eritrea requires first the building of an effective institutional and independent state during the transition period after the fall of the regime” and reminded that “our demand to achieve democracy in Eritrea must be based on a deep understanding of the need to build a democracy that reflects our Eritrean reality and takes into consideration the cultural, political, religious and professional diversity of all the segments of the Eritrean society.” He pointed out that “the reliance on own [Eritrean] resources in achieving regime change is the most effective means to come up with a truly Eritrean democracy.”

Here again, Professor Kidane’s argument as you can see is flawed from the get go on a similar error of omission. The fault in the argument is this: why would we need “democracy” if, without it, we are already able to build “an effective institutional and independent state during the transition period”?  Why would we need a “democracy if, without it, we can agree on what “reflects our Eritrean reality and takes into consideration the cultural, political, religious and professional diversity of all the segments of the Eritrean society”? Isn’t that exactly what every PFDJ knucklehead and president Isaias have been repeating for two decades? We already have a president who has explained in countless interviews that he has tried to build the “effective institutional and independent state” and that he has decided on what reflects our needs and the management of our diversity. The problem is: he could do neither simply because you can’t put the cart before the horse. What Professor Kidane was suggesting at the CDRiE symposium, however, is that we should agree on the outcomes of the democracy that we are struggling to implement well in advance. The part that is omitted is that democracy by its very nature is a gamble and where outcomes are predetermined outside the ballot box is anything but democratic.      

I am not missing the point that the professor might be referring to an agreement on some kind of constitution in order to guarantee the protection of vulnerable groups and key national interests that should not be left for the gamble of the democratic game. It is a decent proposition, I admit. However, if that were indeed the case, why present such an argument to and be associated with the very wrong people at CDRiE. The primary purpose, that CDRiE was established for and the only explanation of its dubious links to the regime’s tentacles abroad, was the objection of its founders to the struggles and initiatives promoted by the very disadvantaged groups that Professor Kidane is seeking to represent in the upcoming democracy. Not a single CDRiE statement, seminar, symposium or simple private sittings of its key members has ever skipped either explicit or implicit degrading references to our ethno-regional movements and initiatives. Not a single opportunity has ever been missed without CDRiE, its founders or associates jumping up to prove more Catholic than the Pope against any action where even the slightest hint of missing the PFDJ regime from a distance is detected. The organization and its associates have proven over and over again to be effective hounds against all sorts of opposition conferences, opposition military operations, UN and international sanctions as well as simple PalTalk show comments by nobodies. My dear Professor Kidane: why not start by telling CDRiE to understand, accommodate and welcome the concerns of those disadvantaged groups that you are no doubt doing your best to protect and lobby the CDRiE guys to accept the entitlement of “all segments of our population” to the right to self-defence and determination.  

I think we have an agreement here with Professor Kidane that democracy should precede everything and that no institutional or constitutional preconditions should ever be attached to our struggle for change. Let us extend the agreement to Professor Gaim on his propositions on national service. The agreement says that democracy should precede every choice that we make because it is the mechanism of determining the choice itself. We also have agreed that national service is to teach the kids the choice of their fathers. Then by definition two preconditions should be realized before even thinking of national service: (a) that we have a functioning democracy to determine the choice (set of values that we will pass to generations); (b) that we have already employed democracy and determined the choice. Any national service program implemented by what Dan referred to as “secular nationalist” outside the democratic process of the whole nation essentially falls within the scope of “the masked stuff”.

I sincerely hope that the next symposium that these fine Eritreans organize on behalf of CDRiE would be on finding a radical solution to the problem so that we would never be concerned about national unity ever again.  I am just saying “the problem” because you know that very time you mention, use or think of “national unity” you are essentially referring (in your subconscious) to the rights of the land grabbers. Whenever you try to find “ways of strengthening national unity” you have essentially concluded that these thieves are entitled to rob others of their land, language and identity and are trying to convince the victims to shut-up and get along. Where there are not land grabbers in Eritrea, there would be no problem at all and that has always been the case because we had men – real men – who stood at symposiums to call a spade a spade.  Why would we have a “national unity problem”!? As for me: I consider you more than a brother and a sister. I never stole your land. I never asked you to speak my language. I never asked you to act weird like I do. Lekum dinekum w’liya dini!


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