Unusual: Imagining Asseb Through Djibouti

As much as I try to stay focused on Eritrean issues, the spirit of the Horn Of Africa pulls me towards it; and the last two months have been phenomenally busy for me. Whenever I sit down to write about something, another thing comes up, and then another, and another. I have a lot of catching up to do on my topics, and this edition of Negarit will contain a cocktail of issues; and I will start with an people I met at an event that I attended in San Jose, California, on March 28, 2001, where I gave a speech: “What Ethiopian Eritrean Friendship?

The Usual Ethiopian Eritrean Friendship

I would like to offer an acknowledgement, albeit delayed, for the generous words that His Holiness Abba Athanasius, who was known as Dr. Habtu Gebreab in his previous worldly life, showered me with. We never met in person before, but I always felt he was a genuine man of God and a brave spiritual leader. He reminds me of the late Abba Francoise of Keren’s Saint Michael Catholic Church whose sermons attracted the young of Keren, Muslims and Christians alike. Abba Francoise stood for justice, and I remember a quote from his sermons: a priest who doesn’t speak for truth is not worth the robe he wears. I have humbly tried to immortalize him in my novel, given his influence over me.

With Abba Athenasius

In the eighties, I watched a videotape of a certain Orthodox priest who confronted Mengistu Hailemariam, the Ethiopian Stalin, in one of the Shengo meetings and shocked all those present. That challenge became so popular—I remember watching it almost in every Eritrean and Ethiopian house I visited. Sadly, I heard that later Mengistu had him disappear, or killed, no difference.

Abba Athanasius is humble, brave, articulate, well educated and intelligent—and he is more than fit for the robe he is in. He doesn’t meekly tow the ropes of authority; he has submitted to a higher authority, that of the Almighty. He is loyal to his faith and church tradition and is at the forefront standing against any interference by any authority to the affairs of the Orthodox church, including that of the “secular” Eritrean regime. Importantly, he is at the forefront with others prying and publicizing the case of Abune Antonios, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church who is in detention by the Eritrean regime since 2007. My utmost appreciation for Abba Athanasius for being a glimmer of hope for the believers when our appointed Mufti and Patriarch chose to serve the PFDJ shrine—and for rightly owing a spot for himself with those great spiritual leaders that I mentioned earlier.

I also met my Internet nemesis, Shaleqa Dawit Weldegiorgis, in that meeting. It is obvious that I dislike his politics, but I was curious to meet him, and I was not disappointed. He is such a person with whom you could vehemently disagree and, yet, enjoy sharing a table with. I found him to be extremely intelligent and his knowledge about Eritrean history is—well, seen from behind dark glasses I presume—let me say…, it is from a different perspective than mine. Dawit is a civilized person and knows how to handle differences of opinion. He jokingly called me ‘werebella’, a bandit, and I reminded him: “You made me one.” We laughed—although our laughter camouflaged decades-long mutual recrimination and for a repentance that never comes. You first, no, no, you go first. What do you forgive, and what do you forget? 
with Shaleqa Dawit

But I will never forgive him for advocating an Ethiopian (I read it as Habesha) alliance with Isaias Afwerki for some superficial (if not cartoonish) reasons. I even had to listen with a fake smile on my face when he told me that after the independence of Eritrea he advocated for Isaias to be the leader of the old Ethiopia (including Eritrea, to maintain the pre-1991 borders)—I am not sure if he said he even mentioned that to Isaias! I am also not sure who is rejoicing now that his advocacy didn’t bear any fruit. But I did enjoy meeting Dawit, a likable person, minus his Isaias formula.

Other attendants were equally civil—but I must admit there are a few annoying individuals who were not in the event and who are stuck in the rhetoric of the sixties and the old “Solomonic” mythology. Fortunately for Eritrea and Ethiopia, the problem of those who are obsessed with Eritrea (a minority of the minority of Ethiopians) is a generational one and the obsession is dying out faster than we can gauge it. Good. Let’s move on. Now Ethiopians have a meaningful and achievable challenge to be occuppied with, and I will come to that after I tell you a short story.

The Usual Majnoon Leila

Gaith loved Leila and he was obsessed with her—he composed immortal poems expressing his intense love for Leila. Gaith asked Leila’s hands but her father rejected him. Gaith lost his mind leaving the Arabic folklore (and literature) a marvelous love story and a legendary example of an obsession with something—I see it as a cautionary tale. I know someone who calls himself Wedi Asseb whom I consider  the modern day Gaith, only his love is not Leila but Eritrea, and particularly Asseb. Here I am reminding all my Eritrean readers to be grateful for Wedi Asseb who says he managed all the projects in Asseb, the port facilities, the housing, the streets, the refinery—I am not sure if he was not the one who dredged the port and gave Asseb the air it breathes. Among other things, Wedi Asseb (he once told me he is Gonderine lad) is apprehensive of Eritrean Orthodox women whom he saw (before the independence of Eritrea) pray for the success of the separatists to dismember Eritrea from Ethiopia, the land of Tsion. He is sad because he believes Eritreans has sold out the Tsion of Ethiopia for the Arabs—according to him, Eritrea is now an Arab Muslim country. He seemed to say that his latest articulation of the separation of Eritrea from Mother Ethiopia was provoked by my speech at the event I mentioned above. That is what reminded me of Majnoon Leila and the following part of a poem that Gaith composed for his love Leila:

“…It’s not Love of the houses that has taken my heart
But of the One who dwells in those houses…”

That has inspired me to rephrase the two lines by maintaining their spirit as follows:

it is not the Blue Sea that has taken my heart,
But the role of a master that I miss the most.

Such are the modern day Don Quixotes who create phantom issues to busy themselves chasing windmills! But I cannot write any more because I have to keep “the six-month promise.” I am still fasting, keyts’Eruni!

But Ethiopia has found a perfect cure for those obsessed with the Red Sea—they should join their Ethiopian brethren and be obsessed with (as they should rightly be) in making the Nile Dam which is known as the millennium dam, a success. It is one of those worthy projects that people should be obsessed with and feel proud. My advice will be for them to forget the  Red Sea thingy and tone down for the betterment of the two countries.

The Usual Transition

Did I tell you that I visited Djibouti and Ethiopia, and met many people in the two countries? Yes, I guess somehow I did and that made some Eritrean pseudo opposition elements go bonkers. Too bad, but I felt like declaring ‘I have a candy and you have none, haroooor… na nana na—now go to your mother and complain like any good child would do!

I went to Djibouti immediately after attending the Ethiopian Eritrean friendship event in San Jose. My main trip was to observe and cover the presidential elections in Djibouti and to  meet with people in both countries…and a few other things. I stayed in Djibouti for a little over a week; and a little over two weeks in Ethiopia. I thank my Djiboutian hosts for their simplicity, humility and respect.

Sadly, I have never been to Asseb, in fact it is the only major town in Eritrea that I haven’t been to; but they tell me Djibouti is just like Asseb, minus Isaias and his regime. For one thing, the sun belongs to both Asseb and Djibouti—the rest of the world borrows it from them. Djiboutians also claimed it was springtime; all right it was March, but they might not have an idea what spring means. It was hell, though the nicety of the people made you forget the weather even when you felt sweat crawling down your back like a snake. Luckily enough, a glimpse at the convex horizon of the blue sea made you feel you are swimming in it. But still, the heat is there to remind and shake you out of your illusion.

The Unusual Damage To Asseb

Over ten years ago when Meles Zenawi said, ‘Asseb will be a watering hole for camels’,  or something close to that, I was so mad at the remark, but I never imagined it will be so true. Now, even the camels cannot water in Asseb. Yemane Baria’s immortal song wedebat Adey once reminded us that the most important possession we have is our ports. Asseb and Massawa are the two ports that made us feel so proud, wealthy and so important; we dreamed of optimizing them to generate more income for the prosperity of the country.

It has been thirteen years now since the income from Asseb became zero dollars yearly. Worse, Eritreans are not even enraged enough. And any Eritrean worth his salt, specially the PFDJ lot, repeat the mantra that “Ethiopians want to retake Asseb.” I admit, there are a few Wedi Assebs who would like to retake it, they are nostalgic of the bars and masterly life they had there, but their numbers are dwindling fast. But let’s think like Eritreans, sovereign Eritreans, intelligent sovereigns not the ignorant type.

We all knew a corner shop where we got our small groceries—sugar, tea, coffee, sweets, oil, etc. I am sure we all remember how the shopkeepers treat their neighborhood clients with respect because they know they are their customers from whom they collect cents to make a living, sometimes they accumulate wealth from the cents. What would you call a shopkeeper who irritates the neighborhood women, annoys the men and scares the children? He is simply a person who doesn’t know how to conduct business and will soon go bankrupt or leave the neighborhood. It is insane to be on a perpetual enmity with your main customer.

Ethiopia has eighty million customers who need that service, and they are not using it. For thirteen years we have watched the port become insignificant by the day, and we are not even stopping to ask a simple question: who is to blame for all that ruin to the Eritrean economy? Ethiopia? All right, they seem to have declared that they will strangulate Eritrea economically until the state of war between the two countries is resolved. But what are we doing to reuse Asseb? Is that even in the priority list of the good-for-nothing pseudo opposition who are never tired of issuing political programs and economic visions copied from dusty templates of the sixties and seventies of the last century?

The PFDJ lots are worse—they never see the economic war that Eritrea is losing, because it doesn’t effect Isaias and his clique, it just ruins the livelihood of the common citizen. When there is a movement of troops on the Ethiopian side, they scream from the bottom of their lungs because that kind of threat will touch them personally. See! They only prepare themselves for bloody wars because they have a stake there; economic war and strangulation doesn’t hurt them personally and they are fine with it—they can manage to survive on the resources of the state which Isaias and his minions control and share.

I was in Djibouti, and I made it my task to know what is happening to Asseb by checking what is happening to Djibouti. I went to the container yard, the bulk cargo facilities: storage, packing and shipping. I wanted to estimate the number of containers in the yard: I counted four containers high, a hundred or so containers in width, then I wanted to multiply it by the length in container units, to arrive at a correct estimation. I gave up; you don’t want to walk a kilometer in a place where the Sun lives. Let’s just say there were thousands of containers. The vehicle receiving yard was equally depressing for me; not that I am not happy for Djibouti, God giveth and He taketh, but I was depressed at how the Eritrean dictator is lost in knowing the damage he has inflicted on Eritrea by marginalizing Asseb from playing its role in the economies of the region.

For Asseb to make any significance as a source of revenue for Eritrea, it has to sell its services to its neighborhood customers. Djibouti doesn’t need that service, Sudan doesn’t. Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and anyone and his stepfather doesn’t need that service. Ethiopia does and it is not buying that service. Now think what that does to the employment opportunities of the residents of that area and figure it out! Or better, check Google Earth by following these coordinates: 13 degrees 00’12.80” N and 44 degrees 42’44.52.13”E. Check Asseb port. You only see deserted, sad empty berths; Isaias lords over a port without ships—isn’t that outrageous!

The Unusual Shanty Town

From the port of Djibouti I went to a town called Bilbila, a suburb of Djibouti. It is a truck stop: a place where Ethiopian truckers stop to eat, entertain, sleep and repair their trucks, check tires and everything in between. Across the main road, there is a field so big it doesn’t have a horizon(1). And it was full of hundreds of Ethiopian trucks parked there either on their way to load from the port, or already loaded and heading for Ethiopia. Biblila has grown so much that the Djiboutian government has embarked on a huge development drive including public and service projects—a far cry from the shanty-town-look it presently has.

With Mohammed Wersama

That is when I really felt the betrayal of the Eritrean ruling regime so much. Indeed, the regime has not only betrayed Eritreans, it is not aware of the damage and considers its management of the country exemplary. Isaias and his inner circle can survive; in fact, even flourish on the 2% and other embezzlements on which they live. Thanks to the Dergue, the entire villas of Eritrea now belong to Isaias and his narrow clique, and their defense of the regime is to defend the perks and benefits they gained from its existence. At least ten thousand jobs lost in Asseb, for thirteen years, and not so many Eritreans are enraged! Billions of dollars worth of revenue is lost forever from Eritrea and not many seem to care! Didn’t Asseb control a big chunk of the Ethiopian business before that bussiness was taken over by Djibouti? But being the stingy, Hasad, institution that the PFDJ is, it had no qualms in losing tens of thousands of lives to the war; losing tens of thousands of its youth who become refugees; tens of thousands of its people wasting their time in forced labor; and disintegrating the Eritrean family unit; and ruining the economy of Eritrea—and no qualms!

What I noticed in Djibouti is quite telling: the authorities there are so cautious to the extent that one would wrongly take them for cowards. Everyone knows, even if Djibouti would not be able to defend itself, it has enough presence of French and American power that would protect it. Yet, every time I tried to initiate a serious discussion with the Djiboutians, they would change the subject and avoid talking about the Eritrean government. They would repeat one explanation: we are a small country, and we do not want to disrupt our development projects, we do not want confrontations or excuses for one. Of course I could read between the lines: they are very carful not to provoke the trigger happy Isaias and his regime. They consider him a crazy person that you would avoid his path lest he gets into fits and start a fight in the middle of his breakfast, or whatever he is doing at the time . The Djiboutians are doing it with excellence and smart statesmanship. That little place called Djibouti is booming and it seems there is no stopping to it.

The Unusual Politicians

I talked to Mohammed Wersama Raggi, the candidate who ran against the incumbent president Ismail Guelleh. ‘Kemey Aleka?’ Wersama said in Tigrgna to flatter me. I asked him a few questions to gauge his tone and spirit; I didn’t see any blabber but a mature and established politician. And he reaped 21% of the votes, a phenomenal percentage by international standards let alone African ones. And he immediately conceded when he lost. That was another thing that made me jealous of Djibouti.

With PM Deleita Mohamed

A chat with the always smiling PM of Djibouti, Deleita Mohammed, also gave me that same impression, these are people straddling borders: the brotherly Somalis to the South and East, Ethiopians to the South, Eritreans to the West and Yemenis to the North—and by God they have people from all those countries represented in the social, business, and culture of Djibouti. Why not, even the French have a strong cultural presence, French is the de-facto language—and they are very confident of themselves and what they are doing to their country, without arrogance of pomposity.

All the politicians talk about citizens as a member of a family talks about his parents, his children, or his home. No serious complaint from the people, no fear and so confident and humble—I didn’t see any sign of arrogance or snob, all the way to the top leadership. What I saw was a Bedouin simplicity and perseverance, and of course, port city ambitions. I loved them, and now I can say Djiboutians are simply beautiful and lovable people; and they are great hosts.

The Usual Blemishes

Of course all is not without a blemish, neither in Djibouti nor in Ethiopia; I saw a few things that irritated me and I will write about it in my next edition, together with highlights about my visit to Ethiopia—who would believe Addis Ababa displays more clothes on mannequins than it does on store shelves!

Until the next edition of Negarit….

(1) (check two samples of the truck  stops on google Earth: 11 degrees 33’04.47” N  by  43 degrees  43’04.46.95”E  and another one at: 11 degrees 33’25.47” N and 43 degrees  43’03.36.62”E

(2) the empty berths of Asseb: 13 degrees 00’12.80” N and 44 degrees 42’44.52.13”E

The deserted port of Asseb





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