In this article we will try to understand and justify what might have happened to Eastern Bejastan but from a distance and in a way that I hope is more engaging. It is a bit weird to try to talk about something without talking about it. You shouldn’t take these things seriously anyway. What should excite you (scares me) is the fact that Eritrea is still open for business. Half a century after the explosion of the armed struggle for independence and a quarter of a century after its achievement, we are in the middle of debating the viability of the State of Eritrea. Let me guess! You have no idea that in almost every independent country on the planet, this is actually illegal. If you are caught doing it, every President has full constitutional rights to cook you for lunch, crush you with “sheHan fuul”, marinate you on barbeque or mix you for juice. You should be glad you are an Eritrean.
I admit this is one of the most boring articles. I don’t even know how I finished it. I know I have patched it with pieces from previous writings. If you have some time to waste, please read it for me or tell me what it says. Bate: you need some conceptual models for your armed struggle in the coffee shop and this is one of them and it is the last I will ever write. I promise!
Our whole argument for change is built around the claim that the armed struggle which under ideal conditions would (allegedly) have ended up with democratic rule, ended up the way it is because the PFDJ (you may also use President, Tigrigna, “tebeletsti”, “adHarHarti” etc. – no difference) stole the fruit of the revolution. Correct me if I am wrong, but if the “gedli” people had it their way, under ideal conditions, you would have ended up with a communist state, chairman for life, no constitution and Red Terror everywhere. Literally speaking, that’s what people died for if you want me to be blunt. But we take the false claim so seriously that “the illegitimate President” is a living-breathing reality. We believe these delusions, create our own demons and worship them.
It is not just us but even the UN and other international organizations, well known professors, and Wedi Tikabo’s “Sheikh-Qeshi” (forgive me O’ Lord!) actually take it for granted that the PFDJ came to power through some kind of coup d’état over democratic rule. Don’t laugh – but this imaginary state was so democratic that it actually had a constitution that the President refused to implement and it had scheduled elections, free press, and Lollipops that he swallowed for lunch. Of course you know that President Isaias overlaps the day before and the day after May 24th, 1991. He thought about doing a constitution and hired people to write it for him but then changed his mind. What is the big deal! He did not overthrow another President and he was always a dictator. Where is this idea, that the PFDJ stole democracy, coming from since the idea is also held by those who argue that the EPLF was a dictatorship from its inception? Is that a blunder? Of course it is!
I am not trying to ridicule the opposition here. I am trying to draw your attention to the power of the social construction of reality. The only actual reality, in case you didn’t know, is this moment of your life (by the way, if you are mad with someone, this is the moment to get him) because it is the only moment when you can touch things. Anything before is memory (even if you have video tapes of what happened) and anything afterwards is imagination (even with the best predictive technology), both of which are controversial virtual realities that you actively construct to make sense of this moment.
The only time that we can all agree on someone’s constructed reality is when we lose our minds. It is constructed (imagined by someone) but, when you go Koko, it becomes reality nevertheless. In Eritrea alone, 65,000 people died because the imagination was as real as this moment is to you. There is no way you can convince today’s lunatics that it is not actually how it happened. And if you do, you will have aborted that primary premise of the quest for a better tomorrow. For the sake of making sense of what follows, close your eyes and accept that the first day, Eritrea was a democracy with a constitution and the next day President Isaias, who was initially elected by the people decided to overstay his visa. Add spices such as celebrations when the “constitution was ratified” and demonstrations when the President cancelled the “scheduled elections”. And please do not forget Brother Negash’s stone age history of when it was all “Hade Libi – Hade Qelbi” as this will neutralize the scene from contaminants for the assumption of ‘other things being equal’ to hold. Imagine the actors as rational, well-meaning and decent agents exclusively motivated by self-interest not archeological grudges as our intellectuals tend to presume when they hear about highland-lowland politics.
Let us be better than those for whom the story our stolen democracy ends with the President’s “betrayal” and are out to get him. Give it a spin by moving away from the lazy answers of personalizing the process of transformation from the virtual democracy to dictatorship. Let us assume that social systems have a mind of their own and respond to dynamics more powerful than the individual whims of dictators. The following is pure speculation on the framework within which such a transformation might occur. Now don’t come with your “this is not in the book” stuff. This is my book, so take it or leave.
We still need to agree on a few terms. ‘Opinions’ are products of one’s imagination based on subjective interpretation of some data. They are results-oriented and no matter what analytical tools you use, you will love the conclusions. Ideological positions are conclusions derived through the application of the theory of change on an objective interpretation of the data. They are process-oriented and may produce positions that you do not necessarily agree with but still accept as valid truth. Under best conditions, they express a philosophically qualified stand relevant for public policy. ‘Philosophical’ is any sustainable, consistent and morally justifiable point of view that makes sense. Ideologies construct collective reality – opinions retail the creature.
Here the individual is the smallest unit of political decision making. A bunch of individuals constitute the local community and a bunch of communities constitute the nation (or whatever). The community is the political space where individuals negotiate their interests without the need for power brokers. Anything above the community is brokered. All actors are rational.
Community politics communicates two processes. On the one hand, individual citizens engage in endless transactions exchanging goods for rewards. Reward, for our purpose, is currency that power brokers can use to influence people to vote this way or that. These trade transactions take place between equal citizens and the outcomes determine the individual winners and losers of political purchasing power. On the other hand, the community representing the collective will is automated to allocate political power to individuals based on their ability to pay. Imagine the community structure as a scaffolding of blank space-holders to be filled up by this moment’s winners in a dynamic process. As a rational entity, the community only accepts best achievers to mediate its affairs.
Although the community structure is automated, however, its effectiveness depends on two factors: (a) the data entry clerks must feed the machine with the list of winners and losers of all transactions in real time; (b) once an eviction notice is served, the losers must willingly relinquish their positions for the new winners to take over. If humans were robots who would be programmed to accept their destiny, we would have a stock market that produces a new mayor, new dignitaries and fat cats every morning without the need for ‘politics’ (the introduction of human mischief into automated systems).
In spite of the crazy fluctuations that you would expect, the stability of the community structure comes from the ability of an elite group of continuous achievers keeping the privileges for as long as they win. That is how the system works in real life except for the consequences of our sticky memory caused by lag time between when a dignitary loses his purchasing power and the time when we finally find out that we are dealing with “TrHu gerewigna”. To understand the function of “gerewigna” assume that, initially (being everyday winners) they manage to sustain a continuous domination of the community structure and earn a license to operate a brokerage for political power in the national stage. Being detached from support of the natural constituency from the bottom, they plug into the artificial constituency at the top. They declare themselves nationalist and peddle to the approval of the dominant coalition at the national level. They become retailers of mischief.
We have agreed that the elite (brokers) draw their legitimacy from their ability to impress through personal achievement a sufficient mass of rational individuals in their constituency such that the latter delegate upon them the power to negotiate their interests at the national stage on their behalf. The national stage is the arena where communities compete on splitting the cake. Communities form alliances and conspire against other communities engaging in all kinds of mischief for a bigger share of the cake. The will of the dominant coalition shapes the law of the land and its elites administer the system. Their actions perfectly legal as long as they are carried out in the spirit of free competition. Let us consider two scenarios in order to picture the elite in action.
Communities that are part of the dominant coalition support elites that are fully integrated into mainstream politics and empowered to perform their mandate in channeling benefits from the center to the local periphery. To be specific, the mandate covers: (a) imposing the citizen’s duty to serve; (b) ensuring the duty of the collective to serve; (c) blocking free-riders; and (d) maintaining access to backdoor channels to absorb deviations.
The convergence of the aspirations of the local community with mainstream goals of pushing for excellence provides the perfect environment for promoting the local elite as the “rational good citizen” for a role model. This is the prototype of the self-interested citizen whose contribution to collective wellbeing is maximized when the number of selfish citizens who rank their own community’s priorities at the top is maximized.
Communities that that fall victim to predatory coalitions would have divergent priorities. In extreme cases the local community raises questions that threaten the stability of the larger (nation) system. The issues at stake would ideally fall within the national security priorities of the nation. Assuming a smoothly functioning democratic system (similar to our virtual democracy), those who rise to prominence in the local community are otherwise fringe elites who draw their political support from rebels against mainstream elites of the dominant coalition in national politics. Support for mainstream of national politics is stigmatized.
Resources allocated to boost political support for the national agenda (of the dominant coalition) in the local community attract entrepreneurs who offer to play the salesman role (remember “aboy gerewigna”?). The deal for such opportunists is to have access to backdoor politics and corrupt practices in exchange for marketing the stigmatized national agenda to create the minimum required legitimacy for the national coalition of predatory communities.
The issues under contention boil down to dramatic divergence between each party’s definitions of the “good citizen”. While local elites adhere to the rational good citizen as someone who ranks his own self-interest at the top, national elites promote the irrational good citizen who would sacrifice his own interests for the “common good” of the nation. Violating the key assumption of rationality of actors, makes the conceptual model we have developed here ungovernable.
The Takfiri State
Takfir in Islamic culture is the act of declaring an entity inherently corrupt and in-salvageable. Takfirism is the ideology behind extreme versions of Islamic fundamentalism whereby after exhausting all sensible avenues, the activists declare the whole community as nonredeemable and wage war to destroy it. Here Takfirism is narrowly defined to mean the act of declaring a sub-national component nonredeemable eventually leading the national government to resort to options that are not very different from those of the Takfiri lunatics.
As we have seen and in a manner that is not different from what happened to our virtual democratic state of Eritrea, a coalition of predatory communities (of land grabbers in our case) occupy government at the national level and break a critical feedback loop where politically empowered local decision makers process the needs of the community and maintain the rationality of the system. Deprived of the capacity to process information, local government adjusts by plugging into tyrannical political authority at the national level. At the climax of the tension, the national government treats the local community as failed state and therefore ungovernable through legitimate institutional processes. This realization gives the national government the moral authority to confiscate local decision-making.
Good morning! You may now wake up – we are done. I thought to leave the details of how President Isaias became the head of this Takfiri state of Eritrea acting on behalf of predatory communities for your kind consideration. My argument is that although the pain upon which our efforts are premised is real (our shared interpretation of data) there is nothing real about the claims of the struggle for change (i.e. what the interpretation entails). It was all imagined by someone and can be re-imagined by us to keep up with rational calculations on the ground. The link with the Bejastan series is the idea that it is the destiny of communities that fall prey to predatory coalitions that stubbornly dominate national politics must eventually resort to revere-Takfirism as a strategy.
My call to what we call “the elite” and to all those self-appointed power brokers (activists with a cause) is to act as rational agents because the irrational good citizen that you are imitating is an undercover spy for the PFDJ and has a zero approval rate. Politically relevant elites exclusively pimp for local communities. Except in a scam project, you cannot have elite individual or group that does not have a local constituency (or cause) or one that claims the whole nation as a single constituency. Do not try to outsmart the system. It has its own mind.