Time For Unconventional Ideas

“Why do some ideas thrive while others die?” asks a great book by two geeky brothers (Chip and Dan Heath). The authors then explore the “stickiness” factor of ideas that have flourished or floundered over time.  Why do we tune out important information that may have significant impact over our lives but easily let in useless facts and figures?  For example, I can name the runner-up of last season’s Shingrwa contest (Eritrea’s American Idol), but for the life of me, I can’t tell you who the current leader of the EDA is. Even if you torture me and showed me a photo line up. I don’t know! May be Google knows? Hey, at least I know there is something called ‘EDA’ and it is supposed to be some kind of umbrella, tenda, das or a slow moving old man on a walker… but, whatever it is, it’s not a household name. And that is a problem.  Now, if the average person in the audience does not know your name or the name of your organization, how can you expect them to buy your ideas and messages? 


Except we wish it was as easy as that; but it isn’t. The notion of how ideas and behaviors catch on in society has mesmerized great thinkers, psychoanalysts, marketers, politicians, economists and inventors. If there is a magic formula out there, no one seems to have perfected it yet, but those who are researching it well are telling us that ideas that thrive (not necessarily on merit alone), have something in common and those of us who claim to posses worthy messages worth of conveying to the public, better listen up – unless of course our fresh ideas are scheduled to appear on next season’s Shingrwa 


If this psychobabble interests you, I suggest you pour yourself a glass of wine, or a Diet Coke (but not a Diet Pepsi –yuk!), and curl up with one of these books: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell; Sway, by Ori and Rom Brafman and of course, Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. 


So, why is our Second Revolution not catching fire?  Why haven’t Eritreans flocked together and risen up against their oppressors? How could tegadelti who have given their youth and limb for independence, peace and justice stand still as everything they fought for flows down the drain?  Better yet, why is selling the idea of constitutional governance and democracy to people who are dying for the lack of it so difficult?  They said some sales people are so good they can sell ice to an Eskimo. In our case, we can’t even seem to be able to hand out a free bottle of water to a thirsty Eritrean youth in the middle of the Sahara desert.  What did you put in the water, dude?  No thanks; I will take my chances with this… sand juice.  O Trust, Wherefore Art Thou? –especially when we need you evermore! 


For an idea to flourish, say the experts, it generally has to be Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and be able to elicit Emotional response.  The more components of these principles a message has, the better its chances of igniting a public response and becoming successful.  Of course, this is not an exact science and the authors have not spent decades “struggling” in the Eritrean political arena, but they are highly regarded in their field, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and measure the status of our Opposition Camp using these very principles. 




This is where we loose our audience from the get go. What are we fighting for? To bring ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘stability’, ‘progress’ and ‘Qsanet’ to Eritrea?  All noble objectives but also very vague; hence, not simple to grasp and very open to interpretations.  Yeah, somewhere in there included is the ‘toppling of the current regime and replacing it with a just system’, but even that gets the message diluted further more.  And then there are other issues competing for priority and attention:  national language, federalism, minority rights, reconciliation, land issues, refugee issues, and religious freedom. 


Compare that to the movement for the independence of Eritrea.  The fight against Haile Selassie and Mengistu was to get rid of the Ethiopian army and let the Eritrean people choose their own destiny.  Simple and clear.  There were other grievances but they were far below the main objective. 


So, unless the message is as simple as: “We are fighting for the implementation of the ratified Constitution, PERIOD.” nothing will change. 




Meeting expectations can be good, and yet predictable.  Worse yet, what if people expect the worst and the Opposition keep delivering on that “promise” as well?  Most Eritreans, in spite of their desire for change, expect Opposition leaders to squabble, drag their feet, be stuck in the past, act trivial and generally be impotent.  And except for a few instances of Unexpectedness, the Opposition Camp (using this term rather loosely) haven’t failed to disappoint.  However, this can be an advantage of some sort.  When people expect you to fail, even a small progress will be viewed as a giant stride.  The field is quite open.  Isaias has made it incredibility easy for alternative choices to flourish.  Attention decision makers and political strategists:  the time to show us your Unexpected and incredible moves is NOW. 




This is related to keeping it Simple but it also stresses clarity of message and concrete details. For instance, if any group or organization is making progress or growing in membership, they need to communicate just that.  “Our membership has reached X thousand.” is concrete, understandable and memorable.  On the other hand, “We now have momentum about the possibility of a future meeting.” is just a bunch of bull.  




They hear our message, but do they believe us? They learn about our plans but do they think we can deliver?  Ideas and messages have to have their own credentials and delivered by those whom the public perceives as fresh and credible messengers.  The onus is still on the Opposition Camp to clearly show that they have the competence, independence and wherewithal to replace the regime.  “But PFDJ is evil and I am not.” ain’t going to cut it. It was never that easy and it won’t be in the future.  Just like respect, Credibility also has to be earned. 




To expect everyone to equally care about the status and future of the country would not be wrong; but it would be naïve. Even though the nation equally belongs to every citizen and everyone should act like a stake holder, in reality it is the 80/20 rule at best.  20% have to motivate, lead, cajole, inspire and motivate and the other 80% will oppose, be indifferent or follow. That’s what leadership is about – to always strive to be among the 20%.  This is where credit should be given graciously to our incredibly dedicated cyber warriors and truth seekers, who managed to keep a lot of us engaged and informed. The words, the sounds, the images and the stories.  All food for the soul that should make a decent citizen’s blood boil.  What is hard to predict is whether emotions are now fizzling and people are getting desensitized or that they will soon engulf and push them into action. Have you noticed that people are now not as shocked of news of their fellow Eritreans perishing in the Mediterranean or the Sahara? 


Bad news of doom and gloom resulting from the regime’s sins are abound, but where is the hope, the vision and inspiration?  More messages should be directed to the heart as they are to the mind. There is still room for improvement in our Emotional appeal.    


Wrong Diagnosis


It’s obvious that Eritrea’s democratization movement has not yet matured to one that has a Simple and clear objective, with Concrete details about its mode of operation. People still have lingering doubts about the actor’s Credibility and short of individual mourning and suffering it has yet to elicit Emotional public outrage.  


The good news is that, all these shortcomings can be addressed.  They are within the sphere of influence of the Opposition Camp.  A number of the organized groups are conducting themselves better than others and there is hope for all of us.  The truth is the results depend on what we choose to put into the fight.  Therefore, no one should be surprised about the status of our current Revolution to end dictatorship. 


But those who seek easy explanations have already diagnosed the problem and made their conclusions. 


Frustrated with the less than desirable response from the Eritrean public (both internally and in the Diaspora), a number of writers have speculated on why – a few with grains of truth and logic, others with simple and hyperbolic blather. Some of the latest additions to these nonsensical analyses seem to paint broadly and blame an entire region of Eritrea, other ethnic groups, drinking, dancing and other alleged selfish motives.   


Even though it is abundantly clear that the fissure in Eritrea is along ideological lines and far less so along religious, ethnic and geographic ones, it does not stop some compatriots from viewing this reality with slanted and self-righteous lenses.  


It’s the Kebessa regions of Eritrea’s insatiable desire to drink and dance that is feeding the PFDJ monstrous machine, some argued.  Dance, dance and dance, is all they know, they lamented.  Another one is on a mission to out all the Tigrigna Christians for being part of the PFDJ land-grabbing, human-rights-abusing machine – enough hyperbole to make you want to take the next bus to the Lowlands of Eritrea…You are now entering Keren, gateway to enlightenment, truth and justice for all!  Yes, geographical generalizations are always ludicrous. 


Well let’s all speculate if we must, but accepting our own hindsight analysis as a convenient yard stick of truth is a bit egotistical. After all, that is all hindsight.  What we need is a bit of insight with a dose of foresight. What is maintaining Isaias’ grip on power is not ethnic kinship (how insulting to many); it is rather the public’s fear of the unknown. 


I hear you though. We’re all frustrated and sometimes, easy answers are the low hanging fruit. But life is usually multifaceted with even more complex explanations of why things turnout the way they do. Those who are able to identify the common trends and shape our future will be successful in taking us from here to where they think we need to be.


The bottom line is, in the age of blitzing technology and information-overload, making our issues stand-out by convincing a very skeptical and demoralized public is ever more challenging. Figuratively, we have to Sway people to The Tipping Point and make our ideas Stick. The idea is to shift the movement from stagnant mediocrity to a more vibrant and visible level. 


But how?  


Here are a few unconventional ideas the Opposition Camp should seriously consider.  Al least half of them are pretty darn good ideas (if I may say so myself), the other half can use some salt and berbere. You decide which half.  


1)    Adopt A Color


The Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the Iranian Green Revolution have something in common.  By effectively using colors to communicate and bind together they made their movement literally colorful and visible. This is something we can easily adopt.  Before you start getting migraine headaches from imagining the meetings, the committees, and the “Hey, I was not invited…” arguments, hold that Aspirin.  The color can be quickly adopted by conducting a simple on-line vote – consider it democracy a la Facebook. Nope, this is not a flag; nor would it have other images or wizardry.  Just a simple color that says, “I support constitutional governance in Eritrea.”  Red, yellow, blue, purple… so long as it is easily identifiable. Just imagine how useful it will be to overtly or covertly wear something that bears that color in public.  Today’s generation is about self expression and something like this will provide them with an easy tool to make a statement. Bracelets, T-shirts, socks, headscarfs, and neck-ties would be used to silently taunt PFDJ followers, not to mention to motivate those who are engaged in the fight against dictatorship.  Can you see it? 


2)    Young Leaders


Especially in a culture such as ours, age and wisdom are (at least they use to be) synonymous. There is still a degree of reverence toward the more senior members of our community.  But when it comes to leadership, fairly or unfairly, and especially among those who are younger than 40 years of age (i.e. 80% of Eritrea), it is widely believed that older folks don’t have what it takes.  It takes wisdom, knowledge, consensus building and experience; but it also takes vision, flexibility, energy and speed.  Whether we like it or not, it is the latter traits that are more respected by today’s younger generation. 


So which organization will take advantage of this fact and promote/elect/advance their young and charismatic members to more visible positions?  You want to make Unexpected move? Here is a great way of accomplishing that. Just think about how young the members of Eritrea’s movement for independence were when they led that Revolution?  


3)    Coup Manifesto


Many of us have been imagining the dawning of the day of reckoning where those Hgdefites who brought so much misery on their own people will scramble and run for their lives. But is it possible that we may be overly influenced by the turn of events of May, 1991 and the Derg’s collapse both in Asmara and Addis Ababa?  Currently, there is nothing like that building up; but an internal strife within the ranks and file of the PFDJ or the army is a more likely scenario.  If it is directed toward democracy and inclusive constitutional governance, it can be a shortcut to a bloodless and swift change. 


Apprehensive messages and signals are being sent but what if Concrete and public communication is clearly established to encourage higher ranking members of the party and the military to take charge? Let’s say that tomorrow there is indeed a coup d’etat of some sort and a certain faction ascends to power.  What would be the Opposition Camps role and reaction?  I am sure it would include scrambling to post declarations and press releases.  But why can’t that be done proactively, before such an event even occurs?  I am suggesting here for every organization to make public what Concrete steps they will be taking in the event of such a scenario.  This will have a dual purpose of being open and transparent while at the same time encouraging those who may be considering such a move.  Let’s make it Simple for them to act. 


4)    Eritrea’s Most Wanted


We all keep referring to the dictatorial system as an entity made of organs and power centers.  There is no regime to speak of. It’s just a system Isaias meticulously created to fit his personality and world view.  Boss and yes men. 


Here is what the prolific Saleh Younis wrote recently: 


“… when it comes to power in Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki is…the PFDJ, which is the State.  The fiction of divided government (a weird one, advanced by his supporters–that power is diffused among his subordinates) is always contradicted by Isaias’ need, nay urge, to let everybody know that he is the smartest kid in class. 


People, there is no PFDJ, that thing is as hollow as a fallen log.  There is Isaias, and then there is the vehicle that he drives: was EPLF, now has a label called PFDJ.” 


Indeed, there is no regime, government or PFDJ without Isaias.  Therefore, this very fact should be the laser-beam focus of our message.  Furthermore, an arrest warrant can be issued and signed by all political and civic groups with a call for anyone to act within their power to detain him based on justifiable reasoning that he is not only an illegitimate president, but also an illegitimate chairman of the PFDJ, who usurped power by cheating.  Unrealistic you say?  Well, that is the nature of unconventional ideas – they always sound unrealistic… 


For excellent analysis of this point, read Mogos Tekeste’s excellent piece, “The Coup D’etat in Eritrea”.   


5)    Appeal to PFDJ enablers


By now we know what kinds of people gravitate toward the PFDJ –especially in the Diaspora. There are the gullible and ignorant, but there are also those who love to marvel in a limelight (however bloody it is).  The latter ones are those that drive the PFDJ festivals and other money grabbing apparatus.  They enjoy life in Western democracies and raise their children in the comfort and civility of life away from Eritrea, work diligently for torturers and murderers but somehow manage to enjoy the status of being decent members of their communities.  Their relatives and friends generally don’t approve the role they have taken but also sadly view them as nationalists. 


It’s time for this bubble to be shaken in to a burst.  We may not be able to reason with them but we sure can haunt their fantasyland by challenging them in public. All told in each major metropolitan area there are only a handful of these enablers.  What if we start a letter writing campaign addressed to every one of them and their family?  Dear Honorable Patriot,… my sister is languishing in jail, may be you can help…. My cousin was shot in the back, may be your father knows who did it… Let their mail box fill with images and their phone ring off the hook. 


Lack of conviction and weakness of character is their identifying trait and I am sure many of them would choose to go into hiding than defend what they are doing. 


6)    Read the Constitution


When was the last time you read the 1997 Constitution?  For me it had been over 10 years.  Even if you don’t believe in its “legitimacy”, do yourself a favor and just read it one more time.  One weakness of our society (no smugness intended here as I am equally guilty) is that we don’t read. Before we know it, we tend to speak more from political grandstanding and less so based on facts and figures.  The vast majority of our Christians and Moslems for example have never read their respective holy books, which are supposed to be the basis of their religious identity. Worse yet, those who tend to open the books are viewed as outcasts and dangerous – Debtera, Pente or Jihadists. No room for logic and reason. What a twilight zone!  


Now, am I comparing the Constitution to a holy book?  Heck no, and you know it. 


So, here is the unconventional idea:  Since the ratified Constitution is the closest document we came to democracy in post-independence Eritrea, why not hold public reading sessions and open discussions now? Seminars, panel discussions, web forums, paltalk, radio –the works. I for one wouldn’t mind being labeled the Constitutional Fundamentalist. It will serve as a stark comparison of what we have now versus what it means to have laws and rights. Who possibly can be against reading, debating and knowing?  Isaias Afeworki has a good reason to fear this (by the way, have you noticed that the link to the Constitution has finally disappeared with the latest redesign of Ahhh…, our benevolent dictator you’re so sneaky! But seriously, good riddance! It actually had made him look ridiculous.  It was like a Crucifix atop of the devil’s altar. He is now a self-reliant despot and he does not even have to pretend any more. 


But one fails to see the reason behind the Opposition Camp’s apprehension and outright phobia toward the document. After all, it is an amendable document with enough self-cleaning mechanisms. 


Need one more reason?  The Constitution is only slightly longer than this article but twice as sexy. 

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