The Power Of Infantilism In Eritrea

If you are asking, “why is the Eritrean government having only its second investment conference in 2012, twenty one years after Eritrean independence?” the bad news is that the first conference was also in 2012.   And if you are asking “why is it having two conferences in one year but didn’t have any for the previous twenty years?” the worse news is that it did—it just doesn’t remember.  Moreover, it knows you don’t remember.  Well, actually, it doesn’t care if you remember or not.  This is because having solved all the challenges of the world, our Great and Fierce Brother Leader has invented a new macroeconomic discipline called Amnesianomics.

Way back in December 1994, before the “National Service” became a life-long indenture (before First Round, Qedamai Zur*, what are we now on, Zur number 27?), way back when our disputes were against Sudan and all the non-Eritrean Eritreans if you know what I mean (endi’ee! “hamushay mesre’e” yblwom!) and all our wars were for vague reasons; way back when those whose organs are being harvested in the Sinai were not even born, there was another Investment Conference.   That was, literally, before Google was invented so you can’t search for it easily.  You have to Lexis-Nexis it and Lexis-Nexis charges by word search.   If only we had journals with names like Eritrean Studies Review, they would have documented such a thing.  Wait, we do.  And they did.

* Have you ever had a discussion with Eritrean youth?  Their milestones are the Zuria.  Which Zuria are you? Oh, I was with the 16h?  You? I was with the 7th.   Then, whatever they do, they will discuss any subject, any at all, except the damn zuria.

In Eritrea, names change, names of places change, but policies don’t change.  So what is happening at Hotel Asmara Palace in December 2012 had happened in “Municipio” (you derg era kids might call it “Mazagach Bet.”  What is it called now, by the way?) in December 1994.  The talk was the same as it is now: the role of the private sector in the development of a nation.  And its subsets: right to private property, legality of contracts, letters of credit, currency exchange.  But it is  unlikely that the scholars and entrepreneurs who attended the 1994 conference attended the 2012 conference.  Or if the Red Sea Trading Corporation was assaulted as directly as it was in 1994.

Who is the Red Sea Trading Corporation?  It is a “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”   Oh, how I wish I had written those words!! Yea, that’s writer’s envy.  That was actually American journalist Matt Talibi (writing for The Rolling Stone) describing Goldman Sacchs, an investment bank, after the collapse of the great American bubble.    The Red Sea Trading Corporation (“09”) is Eritrea’s answer to Goldman Sacchs: it is a party-owned (answering to President Isaias Afwerki, of course) monopoly whose mission in life is to jam “its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”   If the Red Sea Trading Corporation had a mission statement it would read “to provide basic necessities to Eritreans at affordable prices.”  Very noble sounding.  But if it had a real board of directors, and regular meetings, and candidate reports, and minutes of meetings, it would have to say the way it does this is by getting Eritrean businessmen and women to take all the risks associated with launching a business, and for Red Sea to find a way—monopolistic ways—to reap all the rewards.  If Red Sea had a motto, it would be: “Sey Kotta: None of the risks, all of the rewards!”

So back to 1994.   From the scholars, my friend Dr. Araya Debessay, part of the G-13 was there.  My friend the late Dr. Tekie Fessehazion, God bless his gentle soul, was also there.  And a certain Dr. Kebire Abdu Ahmed, with whom I can no longer have conversations about Eritrea because he dropped out, was there.   There was the usual talk of the pros and cons of the free enterprise system: laissez faire, mixed economy, central planning.  Mixed economy (neo liberalism) was all the rage then.  Dr. Kebire’s contribution to the conference was to tell them that as long as the Red Sea Trading Corporation and its monopolistic tendencies was in existence, there would be no economic development in Eritrea.  The Red Sea Trading Corporation representative was there and, no, it wasn’t Hagos Kisha (Hagos was in Washington, DC, then learning the dark arts of the underground economy.)

Now, this was before the Eritrean government started arresting people for sneezing in the wrong direction so there was, relatively speaking, a quasi freedom of speech.  When the representative of the Red Sea Trading was there telling the great myths of the Red Sea Trading Corp—that it pays taxes just like any other company; that it competes fairly; that it has no monopolizing influence on the labor factor—why, all the entrepreneurs and businessmen/women there expressed their dissatisfaction.  How? I asked Dr. Kebire in 1995.  He said, “ it was kinda-like the British Parliament when the PM is speaking and the opposition makes a loud disapproving sound.”  I told you: back then, people weren’t being arrested for sneezing.

President Isaias Afwerki took the recommendations of the scholars with his characteristic humility (I can’t find the video, but here is a perfect example of his humility )   Later on, Dr. Kebire was at his entrepreneur dad’s office in Asmara and every entrepreneur who was at the conference dropped in to say, “ahaguiskana!”   I called his dad who had brought in his life savings to open an import/export business.  He said, “msmaE si asmiEwom alo, ente semiOmo.” If they will listen, he has told them things to listen to.  Kebire was interviewed by Eri-TV (this was before the dark ages so EriTV was not a purely propaganda media then) and asked when the next conference would be and he said, well, we have given the papers (which, incidentally, are called wereqet in Tigrinya: wereqet hibom, please don’t ask me why) and whether we have a follow-up conference is going to depend on whether the government actually acts on our recommendation.

That was in December 1994.  Apparently, that waela, that conference never happened. That childhood of Eritrea is now erased.  So we can continuously be infants railing about how we are a “new country” and having first conferences.

What the scholars and businessmen, entrepreneurs and investor had to say was all nice and practical but President Isaias Afwerki knew what the scholars and entrepreneurs did not know: the prejudice of the Eritrean people.  They hate businessmen and traders.  And scholars.  Businessmen! It is not like they are farmers or warriors or people engaged in meaningful work.  They are just traders, negado, sheqato, for God’s sake. So he bypassed them.  And he said: leave it all to me: I will protect you from the greedy, selfish, exploiting entrepreneurs.  And he went on to create (actually, to recreate) all the failed policies of the communists: a centralized economy where the government would create “fair” shops,  built dams, nationalize factories, refuse to privatize them, etc.  And the failed policies of all the failed communist regimes were disastrous—but they made all the businessmen-hating Eritreans happy, even while they were getting more impoverished.  Inflation soared, basic necessities became even less affordable, Eritrea including its capital city has now frequent power blackouts, women are now using the old grinding stone to grind grain… but this had nothing to do with the smart and well-intentioned government policies, but with all the enemies who are threatened by Eritrea “good example of self reliance.”  Apparently, it is a good example to grind grain using technology used before Christ.

The 1990s gave way to the 2000s.  And the 2000s to the 2010s.  And life became more and more and more miserable for Eritreans.  Still, it was not the economic policies of the government. It had nothing to do with the “vampire squid” of the Red Sea.  Oh, no.   It was everybody else.  Plus, it is not like there are people with capital in Eritrea.

Well, don’t you remember?  In one of his New Year addresses, Isaias Afwerki was interviewed about the role of the government and the role of the private sector. Al Nahda wrote about this in Isaias Shrugged

… you will never find these words escape his lips: “Eritrea”, “Eritreans,” “Eritrean people.”  It is always, “izi hager” (this country), “izi hzbi” (these people.) Go ahead, check it, if you got 6 hours to kill. And it is a habit with him:  when it comes to Eritrea, Isaias talks like a consultant, as this column observed years ago when Isaias expressed amazement about people who speak of the private sector.  abzi hager bHtawi kfal kblu ygermeni iyu (it is amazing to me when people talk about the private sector) and then mocked the meager capital of Eritrea’s capitalists.   So, like a traveling consultant who has an outsider-looking-in vocabulary (this company, these employees), Isaias has the same estrangement (this country, these people)….with the same hilarious “insight” that consultants have about the companies they visit   I am betting that his favorite software application is that old standby of every consultant: PowerPoint.

abzi hager bHtawi kfal kblu ygermeni iyu (it is amazing to me when people talk about the private sector)” can only come from a guy who owns the largest company in the country (Red Sea), has access to every piece of data in the country (he knows the balance of every businessman’s bank account).   He looks at the capacity of a small businessman, he listens to the complaints of the small businessman and says, “what?? What do you mean when you say the government is not realizing your potential?”   It is like all leftists politicians who have never run a single business, never took a single business risk, never once had to lose sleep if they are going to meet payroll.   Remember when Hillary Clinton (a woman who has spent most of her life getting a check from the government) said in the 1990s (when she was proposing Hillarycare) in response to accusations that she will put the small business out of business?  She said:, ‘I can’t be responsible for every under-capitalized small business in America’!” abzi hager bHtwai kfal kblu ygermeni iyu::

Gerald Ford observed once that a “A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”   As the Eritrean government aspired, it took.  It looked at all the businessmen—with their laughably impractical import/export business proposals, with their feasibility studies for more and more “useless” retail businesses, and their illiterate and unsophisticated ways, with their plans to maximize profit regardless of its impact on the country and it said, “we can do better.”

But it didn’t.  It tried, for 21 plus long years and it failed.

So now it is begging them to come back.  Now, I know something about entrepreneurs.  I know something about illiterate—literally, they can’t read and write—entrepreneurs.  I know about sophisticated entrepreneurs.   They have one thing in common: they are excellent in math.  They are excellent in assessing risks, rewards.  They are excellent in seeing opportunities when most can’t, and they are excellent in seeing the downfalls, when most can’t.

So, this Investment Conference.  The government can hope to get maximum investment from the gullible “awet nHafash” type.  It can get some investment from the sophisticated entrepreneur—because s/he will see this investment as just another expense to stay in the good graces of the government.   (The business sector I belong to gives money to Democrats and Republicans despite the fact that one of them is actively, aggressively committed to putting it out of business.  It is hush money.  Succumbing to blackmail, as long as the blackmail demand is reasonable, is part of doing business.)  But it is not going to get the optimum investor—the kind of people, the idealistic investors, the patriotic Eritrean investors that flocked to Asmara in the early 1990s, meeting at bars, coffe shops, hotels and excitedly drawing their business plans on the back of napkins—not because it was a great business opportunity but it was a way to give back.  Once bitten, twice shy.  It won’t do this until the Eritrean government:

  1. Dissolves the Red Sea Trading Corporation and all its parastatals ( it won’t)
  2. Respects Eritreans right to private property (it doesn’t and never will)
  3. Introduces a constitutional government where every government official is accountable, and every government policy is subject to peer-review and change ( it never will)
  4. Stops lying to the Eritrean people. (it can’t.)

So, it is amnesianomics.   We all get old, and all the things that happened are forgotten and when they are recycled, they are brand new.  New!  My friend Saleh Gadi Johar likes to quote Cicero, the Roman rhetorician, who once said: “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.”  The appeal of infantilism. Judging by the words of all the fans of Isaias Afwerki who repeat the failed promises of his words uttered before they were born because he knows they won’t remember them (amnesianomics);  by the words of the fans of Yosief Ghebrehiwot who repeat Haile Selasse’s failed pledges and pretend they are new; the words of (which is prominently displaying the “investor’s conference”), the Nehnan Elamanan Repackaged words of all who are unhappy by the decisions of the ENCDC (where they were roundly, and democratically, defeated)……it appears that infantilism is alive and well in Eritrea.

The Eritrean president gave his annual address—I am sorry, I didn’t listen for more than 20 minutes.  Because it is same o, same o.   If you ask me whether I am healthy and I tell you that what the doctors use as measurements for health—all the vital signs—are not reliable ways to assess my health, then I am probably not healthy.  It is like the guy who chain- smokes and is hacking and wheezing but tells you he rarely smokes. (Then, when quits smoking, he admits that he was a chain smoker.)   If you tell me that you are 600 pounds but, hey, I used to be 900 pounds, you are in denial.  If you tell me that in 1991 Eritrea’s economy was  “less than zero”, then, no, I am sorry to say, Eritrea was not less than zero.  Less than zero would have been if we had no infrastructure to speak of (that we inherited from Italy), or if the Derg, while leaving, had leveled Asmara or if there weren’t millions of Eritreans with goodwill.  You know, like Congo.    You are still lying to the people because you have nothing to show for 21+ years of ruling the country and, based on the parameters you are insisting on putting in place, you have no recovery plans for the next 21+ years either.



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