The Spirit Of May: From Celebrating Freedom To Tightening Serfdom

As an Eritrean citizen who lived and closely observed the PFDJ regime’s tyrannical rule for a couple of years, one hardly resists the temptation to write acrimoniously against it. More than any other moment, the independence day of Eritrea even spurs enormous outrage and indignation that drives one to furiously lambast the regime. However, for the sake of an insightful and constructive criticism, I will try to overcome, though not successfully, this sense of overwhelming outrage. Only some level of self-containment can help to look critically at a rogue regime that lacks taste for any logical political analysis.

My emphasis, as the title of the article hints, is mainly on Eritrea’s Independence Day: what does  independence day (its promises and intrinsic values) mean and what is independence day for the people of Eritrea today.

This year’s 20th independence anniversary is a remarkable political landmark for appraisal and reflection. Furthermore, it marks a second decade of oppression and impoverishment of the people of Eritrea under a tyrannical regime. The epic struggle sparked by the Eritrean people’s aspiration for freedom from alien rule was finally caped with success in 24 May 1991. As much as the people suffered under Ethiopian colonial rule, it honored May for it promised eternal freedom and prosperity. The sheer euphoria of every Eritrean surrounding this day of delivery was immeasurable and awesome to any observer. May was a moment all Eritreans, old and young, men and women alike, that they jubilantly celebrated.

Over the years, however, the moment of freedom (i.e. May) was virtually turned to a moment of tightening serfdom. The government’s highly orchestrated annual celebrations are at best nostalgic memories of the country’s emancipation from colonial rule and, at worst, times for curtailing few remaining freedoms. In fact, it came to mark the government’s renewed repression every year and, in effect, reinforces the chains of tyranny. For any observer, today May evokes painful emotions of the fact that the dreams of generations for freedom are eviscerated; the heavy sacrifices of the Eritrean people forfeited, and the promise of a prosperous future compromised. Gradually over the years, the Eritrean people are indignantly denied of their hard-won freedoms and are increasingly subjected to a Stalinist-style totalitarian rule. Ironically, the regime turns May into a time of maximum totalitarian oppression and control. Today, as opposed to the spirit of jubilation and heady expectations May initially engendered, people react to the ‘month of freedom’ with much ambivalence and uneasiness. They see May as a reminder of Isaias’ betrayal to the fallen heroes. Needless to say, it is a month marking the regime’s totalitarian grip on the nation.

No less Totalitarian than Stalinism

Today, the totalitarian grip of the PFDJ regime is no less total and brutal than Soviet Stalinism or German Nazism. On some accounts, it even far surpasses these dreadful totalitarian regimes that history has ever witnessed.

One may get shocked at my usage of the term ‘totalitarian’ to describe the regime as such. The term is heavily charged conjuring horrific images of Stalin’s secret police, torture, gulags, concentration camps, disappearances, arbitrary killings and mass murder. But I must also ask ,don’t we have Isaias’s secret police spying citizens and neighbours? Don’t we see our own citizens disappear to the unknown world, executed arbitrarily or murdered en masse? Don’t we have torture chambers in Era-Ero and Karshelli? Don’t we have an archipelago of concentration camps and Stalinist gulags in Sawa, in Wia, in Me’etir, in Dahlak Kebir, in Gel’alo, to name quite few that are known publicly, all located in some of the earth’s deadliest places? Don’t we know thousands of Eritreans die there every year due to horrific torture and subhuman prison conditions? Yes we have it all, it’s commonplace at all, have even more unknown and will know even more. And indeed, like it or not, we have a totalitarian regime by implication. Every regime with such level of brutality, of course, doesn’t qualify for the term. By any political measurement, however, the degree of total control and coercion in Eritrea is totalitarian. Related political terms like dictatorship, military tyranny or the like don’t suffice to capture the regime’s sheer tyrannical rule.

The term has to be demystified and simplified to its conceivable reality to be applied in describing the regime in Eritrea. No political expression less than ‘totalitarian’ fully captures its inherently dominant and oppressive political culture and behaviour. As in the political tradition of totalitarianism, the state, under the power of a single person (Isaias), eliminated any limits to its authority and (strives to) regulate every aspect of public and private life. Some of the main attributes of all such systems are ‘absolute and centralized control over all aspects of life’, subordination of the individual to the state, and brutal repression of alternative voices. Don’t we find these attributes in the Eritrean regime? The state is everywhere at every time. It seeks to control all ‘facets of society’, including the daily lives of its citizens. It seeks to control not only all economic and political affairs but even ‘the attitudes, values, and beliefs’ of the individual. The citizen’s ‘service for life’ to the state is made a sacred duty and the primary concern of society.

Totalitarianism in this dreadful incarnation made its first intimidating debut in the late 1930s in Stalin’s Soviet and Nazi Germany. Over the course of the 20th century, numerous mainly left-wing tyrannical regimes emerged bearing some features of totalitarianism. However, all these regimes ranging from Maoist China to Apartheid South Africa to some Latin American juntas lacked the systematic, total social control and coercion of Stalinism or Nazism. The systematic repression and total control of the PFDJ far surpasses those of pseudo-totalitarian regimes. Rather its totality and brutality, dwarfing all, nearly resembles, and even dares to match, Stalinism.  A pervasive security apparatus and secret police force, massive purges, arbitrary arrests, harsh gulags and concentration camps, unceasing round-ups, mass killings, disappearances, and fatally paranoid regime are all but reminiscent of Soviet Stalinism in the late1930s. Stalin’s purges of political rivals and critics were mainly overt and swift, but Isaias’s are covert and stealthy. Stalin eliminated his opponents in public show trails and instant executions to intimidate entire society, but Isaias’s opponents disappear in cold-blooded assassinations or demise in extremely inhumane secret prisons. Just as Stalin, Isaias rules by pervasive terror, paranoia, and an iron fist.

In his Article ‘The Tale of Two Colonies’ (April 2003), the Atlantic Monthly’s foreign correspondent, Robert Kaplan, likened the totality of Isaias’s regime as “an almost Maoist degree of mobilization and an almost Albanian degree of xenophobia”. But to any keen observer, the degree of forcible mass mobilization and xenophobia of the regime is neither less Maoist nor less Albanian. Only systematic control and coercion of the regime hides its extreme brutality and eludes any strange commentator like Kaplan. Kaplan’s shortsightedness becomes clear when he argued that ‘the country has achieved a degree of non-coercive social discipline and efficiency enviable in the developing world and particularly in Africa.’ Of course, Eritrean society is arguably the most disciplined and patriotic compared to other Third World societies. But the apparently gripping social discipline at present is a result of fear and mistrust engendered by sheer totalitarian control. It is terror-induced compliance to escape arbitrary arrest and killing at the hands of an atrocious system that Kaplan had eerily likened to organic social discipline. It is a result of total social disengagement from the state. In fact, social disengagement in the form of passive acquiescence, defiance or exit is the effective strategy of political opposition to such oppressive regimes.

As in any totalitarian political system, security apparatus and secret agents are the main instruments of total control. The regime’s security apparatus is the most feared invisible monster in the country. No one, including army and police commanders or party and government officials, is immune from its arbitrary arrests and torture. It operates an elaborate intelligence network made up of thousands of secret agents, prisons, torture chambers, and forced-labour camps. It unleashes pervasive terror among citizens through its merciless secret agents preying on any innocent suspect with impunity. Agents include taxi drivers, college students spying instructors, private secretaries spying their bosses, businessmen, waitresses, clerics etc.  Any innocent suspect must plead guilty at the hands of the secret police that tortures and extracts false confessions of guilty.

Media is another means of control. Eritrea is one of the world’s most hostile places to freedom of information. Reporters Without Borders described it as “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, ranking it last in its 2009 World Press Freedom Index. Even North Korea, the world’s acclaimed totalitarian state, boasts of press freedom compared to Eritrea. After the forceful crackdown on a limited press freedom in September 2001, there is no free press in Eritrea apart from the state-run media. The government’s ministry of information is a private fiefdom of one of the president’s lieutenants, Ali Abdu. He exercises absolute power over dissemination of information, propaganda and cultural affairs; jailing journalists at his own whim. The degree of control forces journalists and every citizen to practice self-censorship. The degree of censorship is beyond imagination. Films, books, and other scholarly and artistic works that pass the state’s ‘truth-producing’ machine are mere apologies and eulogies to the front and government. Any less-than-extolling work to the regime is not only denied the right of publication but is also punishable for alleged treason.

Every piece of media is carefully scrutinized to serve the regime’s goals. Any employee in the ministry is carefully assessed for his background and continuously monitored. The overwhelming majority of its workers are untrained loyalists and practitioners without a degree in mass communication.  The moribund media is nothing more than the regime’s instrument of control of minds through endless propagation of its ostensible achievements. Nothing is less instructive of the regime’s censorship of media other than its decision to ban publicizing the democratic demonstrations shaking the Middle East and North Africa. No hint of these democratic voices was made even at the level of news let alone as a special coverage. Internet is closely monitored, too slow for downloading any substantive political material. The government’s recent decision to proliferate commercial Internet cafes was a deceptive act to pretend toleration of opinion and freedom of information. In reality, to the government’s delight, these cafes serve teens for chatting on yahoo messenger and for playing video games.

An hour of total control

The Independence Day is celebrated in an even heightened atmosphere of siege and pervasive terror. Ironically, May marks the culmination of the state’s terror. The state of emergency gripping the country everyday takes even great proportions in May of every year. In the guise of security, it provides the regime with an opportunity for subjection to more repression rather than upholding the virtues of freedom. Starting from early April, security measures are tightened; the army invades cities and towns to carry round-ups and patrol from corner to corner; villages, towns and cities are purged of youths; curfews and road checkpoints multiply to make movement abhorring for those who can move at all. I remember the anecdote that it’s better to hang your menqesaqesi (pass-permit) in May, if you have it at all, in your chest than to keep it in the pocket. Every street and corner of the city is patrolled by fully armed defense units under orders of shoot-to-kill. Streets are frequently harassed by machine-gun mounted Toyotas manned by (para) commando units ready to shoot. All these create an atmosphere of excessive fear and siege, leaving citizens to pray for their safety than allowing them to enjoy freedom in its hour.

Round-ups are the most prominent feature of the repression. Parallel to the security tightening-up, the army begins carrying out house-to-house round-ups of young people repeatedly every morning that undergo for several weeks. Many, including women, accused of evading national service are beaten and put into concentration camps before being taken in crammed military trucks to ‘rehabilitation’ prisons or to military training centers. Pass-permit checks take place from corner-to-corner for 24 hours.

The regime unleashes all of its instruments of control-security, military and media-that turns life into bondage. The regime’s show of power and terrorization of the people into submission is displayed at the fullest. Every citizen anxiously waits while the elderly pray for the end of May to breathe an air of relative safety. Ironically, one wonders what the regime is trying to achieve: creating an aura of fear on a moment of freedom. The media, the regime’s ideological machine and window-dress, is busy noisily marketing ‘historic achievements’ of the front. It’s a regime prisoner to its own past without a currency to govern at present. State television and radio propagate Shaebia’s ‘achievements’ through revolutionary-era music, documentaries and dramas aired to a suffocating degree. People in cities entirely switch to satellite channels to avoid the ensuing nausea, cacophony and empty bravado. Today, despite the economic hardships, every average urban family owns a satellite dish to obtain some respite from the state’s overbearingly presumptuous television.

Streets are decorated by slogans glorifying the front and cherishing its hardly-served false freedoms. Administrators, front functionaries and artists are mobilized to organize street concerts, exhibitions and entertainment including in rural areas. The overwhelming majority of the people, especially the youth, are not party to this grandiose pretention. As opposed to the early years of independence, today people are indifferent and rather remain marooned in their homes. I remember a friend telling me that he doesn’t enjoy freedom in the streets of Asmara but meets friends to ease tension and drink some beer which is sufficiently available only during these days. Women and children too stay out only to enjoy the festive mood and get some beverage obtainable only during these days. In recent years, organizations and firms, whether public or private, are forced to organize in residential groups and go for carnivals every day. They display their works and products in a way that seems much of pre-information age advertising than celebrating. Everyone knows what ensues in case of a failure to do so.

The street carnivals, militant and far removed from reality, are nothing more than the regime’s extravagant pomp and pageantry. As opposed to the regime’s intention of boasting false achievements, they rather illustrate its totalitarian control and oppression of society. The entire state and its resources are mobilized for promoting the regime’s image. Millions are wasted in a soap opera orchestrated to boast its below-zero legitimacy. Mass celebrations are not confined to independence anniversary but every public holiday is a grandiose investment. These are typical symptoms of a regime short of every credit to govern and in terminal domestic and foreign policy crisis. It is shame to a country struggling for development to squander meager resources that otherwise would have assisted development projects.

Today, Eritrea best epitomize an extremely militarised state and political culture that profoundly shapes both private and public life. Its domestic politics and foreign policy is militant and aggressive. Forced mobilization and militarization of society are maintained at the cost of devastating economic consequences. Indefinite entangle of more than a third of the population, and particularly the productive young citizens, in the military crippled economic productivity in both rural and urban areas. Sustaining an ever-expanding military budget (estimated at over 20%) and a permanent war-footing add another strain to the economy. The overall result of this policy blunder subjected Eritrea to an unprecedented economic catastrophe: business and investment sector is stifled, agricultural productivity cripple, and national GDP continues plunging. Poverty has been on the rise steadily manifested by beggars swarming streets.

The government remains hostile to any political debate and dissent. Nowadays Isaias unabashedly tells international media about the absence of remotest chances for democratic transition and governance in Eritrea. He mocks liberal democracy as an alien institution and makes its own distorted definition of democracy. Isaias’s obscure understanding of the term democracy is predicated on some sort of Marxist-Leninist notions of ‘democratic centralism’ that practically connotes a rigid top-down system of authoritarian decision making with no room for democratic participation, accountability and freedom of dissent. His cynical vision of democracy is reflected in the current political situation of the country.

An Orwellian Animal Farm

As Eritrea became free at last in 1991, albeit ruined by 30 years of war, Eritreans have every reason to strongly believe in a peaceful and prosperous future. The epic struggle, ‘endured hardships and great sacrifices’ were now expected to be replaced by peace, freedom and democracy. However, those popular aspirations “are today only bleak memories, as Eritrea has developed into one of the world’s most totalitarian and human rights-abusing regimes.” (Kjetil Tronvoll, 2009). Isaias’s rule ruined the country by establishing one of the world’s most brutal regimes curtailing even the most basic freedoms of citizens.

George Orwell’s metaphorical novel, ‘Animal Farm’, best describes the massive state of political oppression and economic hardships in Eritrea. In his famous allegory, Orwell sought to satirize the Bolshevik party’s betrayal of communist principles and its failure to deliver its revolutionary promises of a peaceful and prosperous Soviet society. The eventual material aggrandizement of its leaders, the establishment of a distinctly advantaged ruling class, curtailment of freedom, massive poverty, etc. all stood against Bolshevik party principles. Nonetheless, the Bolshevik party is even a lesser evil compared to the EPLF/PFDJ. Despite its dismal political record, it transformed the Soviet Union from a poorly feudal and agrarian society to a modern heavy-industrial state. The speed with which the Soviet Union was swiftly transformed to an industrial state may have soothed Stalin’s repression and denial of freedom to its citizens. By contrast, the cumulative failure of the EPLF politically and economically is tragic. During its 20 years of rule, it guaranteed neither economic growth nor political freedom. The people’s lot has been dramatically worsening in all spheres of life. The leadership and its followers betrayed its liberation principles and turned to a profit-extracting, monopolistic ruling class. In effect, it’s the best embodiment of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

In line with Orwell’s satire of the Russian Revolution, the ‘seven commandments’ (the EPLF’s National Democratic program or the National Charter of 1994) were secretly redefined to serve the interests of the material-greedy and power-hungry pigs (PFDJ leaders). In the move towards totalitarian state, Napoleon (Stalin/Isaias) unleashed his dogs against Snowball (Trotsky/Romodan M. Nur) to surrender and relinquish any future role after the revolution. Napoleon’s drive for monopoly of power was finally accomplished ten years later when he jailed all his opponents, in fact his own former comrades, and critics. Ever since, Napoleon continues to rule with ever increasing tyranny and an iron grip on power. Benjamin and Boxer (the masses and the working class), who were promised to be rewarded with freedom and wealth for their hard work and perseverance during the revolution, are betrayed. They are denied both and began to yearn for the old days of Mr. Jones’s (Czar Nicolas II) rule. Everyone is poor and getting even poorer, but somehow ‘the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer except, of course, the pigs and the dogs’(pigs: communist party/PFDJ loyalists, dogs: KGB/security and military officers). It’s, indeed, Orwell’s flawless Animal Farm story played by new advanced ‘pig’ actors. Orwell would have gladly rewritten his novel had he lived it to see another Animal Farm in Africa.


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