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Eritrea’s Tragicomedy: the Tyrant and His Monologs

Eritrea's Tragicomedy: the Tyrant and his Monologs

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

When a man dies in the attempt of retrieving an old pair of shoes from treacherous waters what makes it tragic is not simply his death but that, given the triviality of the cause he has died for, his death could have easily been avoided. This is more so if the man refuses to grab a lifeline thrown at him repeatedly because he wants his hands to remain free to grab the shoes at first chance. Similarly, every tragedy visited upon Eritrea, given the disproportionately small causes for which the huge sacrifices have been made, could have easily been avoided. Only a quixotic nation would sacrifice tens of thousands of its young and put its very existence into question in a foolish attempt to retrieve an old pair of shoes called Badme.

What makes the man’s death tragic is the comic aspect of it. Even though it is no laughing matter to his family, it would be of no surprise if this tragic event ends up being told and retold by the villagers as a village fool’s story. The tragicomedy of Eritrea too lies in this fact: that whatever causes its tragedy is equally stuff for comedy. Given that the tragic and the comic in Eritrea are two faces of the same coin, what glues them together is the sheer absurdity of the task they are involved in. It is this absurd task that is the cause for all the horrors inside the country; yet, looked at from a safe distance, one cannot help but see the comical aspect of it.

When the nation’s leader conducts an interview with all the gravity that he could command to tell off the world, with dire consequences to follow, a whole nation cringes, while the same interview of a delusional leader relishing his fights against the mighty and powerful of the world provides rich material for comedy. When a tiny nation goes to war against a nation twenty times its population, it translates into horror for its people, while leaving an image of a quixotic nation fit only for cartoon story. When a government decides to keep much of its adult population in the trenches for years on end, the consequences for the nation are dire, from mass exodus to economic meltdown. But looked at from outside, the futility of such an impossible feat cannot but make one laugh. When a dirt-poor nation refuses to accept food aid for its starving people in the name of “self reliance”, its people suffer tremendously, while the foolish pride of its leader can easily be turned into laughter material by someone observing it all from a safe distance. Even Eritrea’s much vaunted revolution has that disproportionate element that comedians love to exploit: rivers of blood have been spilt for a cause that no one can clearly identify.

Isaias Afwerki’s interviews are the epitome of this absurdity, be it when conducted by foreign or government media. When conducted by the former, the absurdity is instantly detectable. In order to escape from the challenges posed by an independent interviewer, the tyrant has to go through all kinds of contortions that would make us laugh – from too frequent moments of anger to outrageous lies, conspiracy theories and unfounded accusations that may even include the interviewer (as it happened in Al Jezeera, when Isaias accused the interviewer as sent by CIA). When conducted by a government interviewer, as in the most recent case, the tyrant’s display of incoherence takes a different route. At first glance, we see a leader deliberating on many subjects calmly and in detail. But the moment we realize that this is an incoherent rumbling monolog of a delusional character, we cannot help but laugh at the “sincerity” with which he talks to himself. What binds these two kinds of interview together is the total inability to conduct a dialog under any normal circumstances – a truly debilitating mental condition.

Eritreans of the opposition type would love to confine this habit of monolog to the leader of the nation only, but neither the behavior of the regime’s supporters nor the history of ghedli (the revolution) attests to such a claim. The regime supporters’ inability to conduct dialog is legendary. InThe Exclusionary List: Hizbawi Me’kete and the Abuse of Language , I was looking at how language was used for non-linguistic purposes, as exhibited among the regime’s supporters in Diaspora; and, for that, in their hizbawi me’kete (people’s challenge). In this posting, I will confine myself at looking at the same phenomenon in the president of Eritrea and the teghadelti (the guerrilla fighters) population, as exhibited in the culture of monolog they have created in mieda (the field) and carefully sustained after independence.

Talking to oneself

It is not for nothing that talking to oneself is taken as a true marker of insanity. Once the mechanism of dialog breaks down, this happens to be, like a broken piece of pot – no more functionally a pot, but still easily identifiable as once being part of a pot – its discarded remain. That a madman uses many parts of a language without the functionality language carries is no surprise. What is surprising is to see this same characteristic in various totalitarian leaders, as has been clearly exhibited by the leader of Eritrea in various interviews. When one takes monolog for dialog, language stops its interactive function of communicating with, learning from, informing and correcting one another. And when language refuses to cooperate, the only way a leader can communicate with his subjects is through violence – another true marker of insanity. But it is when this aliment afflicts society in general that it gets even more troubling. Eritrea is a nation that has been deeply engrossed in monolog for the last 50 years, oblivious of the global forces that would one day work against it. Having come out of 50 years long of “talking to itself”, it is now rendered incapable of communicating with the rest of the world. And the result is that even with the outside world, it can only communicate through confrontational means which, at times, gets outright violent.

In an excellent report by Daniel Rezene on a public hearing at the European Parliament on Dec 9, 2009, An Afternoon with Louis Michel in the European Parliament , here is how Isaias’ long-winded conversation style is described:

“Mr. Michel added this kind of tendency deprives a person from a rational approach to dialog. In fact, he was so frank in stating that most of his engagement with the Eritrean president was a monolog rather than a dialog. The man talks a lot and once he starts talking he doesn’t want to stop. Like Fidel Castro, the Eritrean president also speaks on some issues with a great deal of obsession and unnecessary technical detail, denying completely what is happening on the ground. He seems to be always occupying himself with everything. He can, for example, explain all the technical issues of security or transportation. On this particular issue, Mr. Michel tried to explain the scenario by giving an example of how Mr. Castro once tried to convince him on the content of carbohydrate in a certain food item (which according to the issues at that time was completely irrelevant or replete with excessive obsession to detail) ...”

This abnormality is not confined to Isaias and Castro. In recent memory, we have seen Kaddafi’s equally hilarious performance at the UN. Therefore, that this abnormality of rumbling monolog happens to inflict the totalitarian type of leaders cannot be an accident. It couldn’t be simply that three abnormal characters made it by chance to the top; whatever these characters were at the start, the way they have turned out to be has a lot to do with what they have gone through in the seat of power. If so, there are two things that Castro, Kaddafi and Isaias have in common that would explain their abnormality: they have had absolute power and have been in that seat of power for very long.

If the above claim makes sense, the two critical questions that we have to ask are: How did these leaders turn out to be “victims” of the very totalitarian system that they have helped create? And if the leaders cannot escape this “victimization”, what are the chances that the rest will escape it?

Acquired stupidity

The key to understanding the breakdown of language in the totalitarian system is that the stupidity that results thereof is an acquired or learned one – that is, it is the result of the totalitarian system itself. As pointed above, Eritreans of the opposition type would rather confine this anti-dialog habit to the leader of the nation only, but the whole history of Eritrea in the last 50 years tells us otherwise. Therefore, what we need to know is how this generational stupidity came to be.

In the article,The Abnormal Nature of the Eritrean Regime (The Democracy Project) I quoted the following to point out the parallels between the Cambodian and the Eritrean revolutions:

“What made the Cambodian revolution unique was not merely that the Khmer Rouge were brutal. The Cambodian revolution stands apart from other upheavals because the Khmer Rouge combined astonishing brutality with astonishing stupidity. For the most part, dictatorial regimes in other nations have moderated their policies for the simple reason that most understand that there are limits to human endurance. When conditions reach a certain level of severity, societies cease to function. There is a limit to how many ‘enemies’ one can kill before the entire population begins to understand that everyone is at risk. Fear becomes palpable, and paralyzing. Moreover, the human infrastructure needed to enact change is decimated twice: first by the loss of life, then by the destruction of the spirit.” (emphasis mine) [I cannot find the name of the writer in the article, but here is the link www.mekong.net/cambodia/uniq_rev.htm]

After having argued that this bill also fits the Isaias regime perfectly, I said that the term “stupidity” needs further explication if it is to throw light on the totalitarian nature of these organizations. Only if it is shown to be an acquired characteristic that comes as a result of a total breakdown of language would it be able to throw light on the true nature of totalitarianism.

Man is not only a dialogic creature but also a creature of dialog. Man cannot be conceived without dialog, for in dialog lies all the makings of the individual, the most important of which is the learning process without which he cannot function. And this learning process cannot be entertained without an inbuilt correction mechanism that is embedded in dialog itself. People are not born with self-correcting mechanism. That is to say, no single individual has the ability to correct himself; corrections always come from the other end of dialog than oneself – only others are able to correct us. We can then say dialog is to the normal world as monolog is to the abnormal world of totalitarianism. Democracy simply exploits this inbuilt correction mechanism in dialog that it finds in the normal world to make itself the only viable alternative to tyranny; that is, it consciously systematizes dialog into a governance form.

If the above is true, wisdom is nothing but the ability to listen to others that one gains through life-time experience, embedded as it is in any form of dialog that enriches that experience at every turn. Conversely, stupidity is nothing but the inability to listen, a trait that comes with the breakdown of dialog. And when one confuses monolog for dialog, one has already lost the capability to listen. Shaebia is a good example of an organization that lost its ability to listen in the process of liberating the nation, and ever since has confused the monolog it conducts with itself as dialog with the rest of the population.

How did the totalitarian leader Isaias Afwerki and Shaebia lose the capacity to listen to others?

The isolated leader

Let me address the issue of Isaias and the “deafness” he perfected during his ghedli years by going back to Luis Michel’s comment:  Isaias’ “obsession to unnecessary technical detail” as exhibited in many of his interviews. For instance, in the multiple interviews that he gave to a national media on the New Year of 2010, one notices this phenomenon in every question answered. When talking about housing construction, he goes on rumbling in great detail about tap water, electricity, bathroom, roads, even the number of residents per house. And when it comes to the building material itself, he mentions cement, sand, bricks, steel, roof, etc; oblivious of the fact that it has been years since all kinds of housing construction had come to a screeching halt by then. We also notice the same rumbling phenomenon in his recent interview. When talking about the “world order”, he would endlessly go on talking about a subject matter that has already been beaten to death, as if he is the first one to come across it, and with no relevance at all to his (and the nation’s) current predicament.

This drive to talk on any subject matter in detail comes out of conviction that one is an expert on everything. Once the despot attains the position of the all-knowing totalitarian leader, nobody dares contradict what he says; surrounded by sycophants that echo whatever he says, he slowly comes to notice that whatever he says is rendered right. It works like a magic wand: all he needs is open his mouth, and whatever comes out of that mouth instantly translates into Truth or Wisdom. This is a man who, despite his long speeches and interviews spanning decades, has yet to come up with a single memorable line that can be quoted; he is that gifted. But that doesn’t matter so far as his followers read wisdom into whatever he utters. Here is a stanza I wrote to describe this phenomenon ((I) Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism ):

Covering a fool’s ass

Every time the Grand Fool opens his mouth
black bile gushes out of it.
His followers rush with a white sheet wide spread
to make a Rorschach ink out of it,
and read into it all kinds of wisdom.

When the idolization of a leader gets this far the result is both sad and hilarious, showing both side of the tragicomedy. All we need is follow Isaias in one of his frequent tours in Eritrean countryside, advising farmers on this and that aspect of farming their land, to observe this hilarious scene; repeated again and again in every other field. The sycophants are, of course, out there to reinforce this habit, lavishing praise on whatever the tyrant says. And when he gets the idea that he is an all-knowing leader, the next step is to enforce that “wisdom” on the ground, with all its tragic consequences. The failure to secure food for the people for many years, with lingering famine as its legacy, is the direct result of the leader’s “self-reliance” wisdom implemented on the ground.

The only voice that dictators want to hear from below is that of praise – again, when language is used vertically for non-dialogic purpose.  This creates a conducive environment for the culture of sycophancy to flourish; so much so, that after a while, the despot at the top begins to believe whatever he hears from the bottom. So it is not only him that makes zombies out of his followers, but the followers too get back at him by making a zombie out of him. When, in his latest interview, the interviewer unabashedly makes a prophet out of him, telling him that he actually prophesized the uprisings in North Africa, the despot unflinchingly and unashamedly accepts this amazing talent. Now, who is fooled by whom?

Indeed, Isaias is a tragicomic figure. He is a tragic figure because he is a “victim” of the totalitarian world he has helped create. He is more isolated than anyone of his subjects. The Eritrean masses, even though they are victims of the regime that uses language only in its violent form (either as monolog or “top-down” form), most have their sanity intact because of the normal world they create with their peers. Isaias, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to relate himself to others in the normal dialogic world. He lives entirely in the vertical world he has helped create, devoid of lateral interaction that endows us with humanity. He knows of no other world than this vertical one, where language is confined to order, insult, instruct, talk to oneself, etc.

Other markers of isolation

Entirely cut off from the dialogic world of interaction, we see other markers of mental instability besides those mentioned above displayed by the despot in his latest interview. Let me mention just two: total obliviousness of the irony of his position and the grandiosity he accords to his words as directed to an imagined audience of “equal stature”.

In his recent interview, the despot talks extensively about the virtue of real-time production (as in agricultural and industrial production) as opposed to the speculative financial world with all its “bubbles”, oblivious that Eritrea is a nation that literally produces nothing. He talks about the virtue of “living together” as a community of nations, oblivious of the disruptive role his government has been playing throughout the neighborhood. He talks about the virtue of information revolution in denuding the powers to be, oblivious that Eritrea is a nation least connected to the information age – and that is by design. But what is important to note is that this total detachment from reality doesn’t come as a form of lie, for a liar lies for a reason and is not “insane”. The Psycho of Asmara though actually believes what he says, totally oblivious of the irony of his position in every contradictory word he utters.

As in all kinds of delusional characters, the despot reverts to monologs because he could easily make up the audience he wants to address. In his interviews, rarely does he have the Eritrean people in mind, not even his supporters. They are too insignificant to fit the fantasy world of his own making. He only speaks to his “equals”, even if he has to invent them. That is why he always addresses the US, UN, AU, NGOs, etc. Think of a dirt-poor nation like Eritrea demanding deep structural changes in the way the US, EU, UN, AU and NGOs work – something that no other nation has ever dared to do. For this delusional character to feed his sense of grandiosity, the enemies that he has to address must be real big, “of equal stature as him”. That is why even as he is fighting Ethiopia, he wants to drag bigger forces into the alliance of his enemies. The Don Quixote of Asmara wants nothing less than formidable windmills as his enemies to charge on.

This total inability to locate one’s acts within the greater context comes from the insulated world he has been living for decades. Without any standard for what is considered normal in the world of politics, governance and diplomacy to guide him, the delusional leader of Eritrea forges ahead recklessly until stopped now and then only through sheer force – be it through defeat, as in the Ethiopian case or sanctions, as in the UN case. This is tantamount to putting a straightjacket on an insane person.

Comedy and dictatorship

The absurd side, and hence the comical, that we see in every dictator is the other side of the same coin where we find the tyrannical. The buffoonery of Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein is a case in point. But the classical cases are those of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Mussolini, with his lips protruded and his chin up, trotting around with his arms waving in overdramatic gestures is a prime example of absurdity carried to its limit. Even a child cannot help but laugh at seeing such a cartoon-like posturing. So is it with the image of Hitler haranguing the public, with his arms pounding his chest, his body gyrating and his mustache popping up and down. Or think about Stalin ordering his ministers to dance for him. And this is no regular dance; the Russian dance is a strenuous one that requires much of jumping and squatting. Khrushchev, who, with his protruding belly, has been subjected to such a humiliating experience, writes that Stalin, “found the humiliation of others very amusing. Once Stalin made me dance the gopak [Ukrainian folk dance] before some top party officials. I had to squat down on my haunches and kick out my heels, which frankly wasn't very easy for me. But as I later told Mikoyan, ‘When Stalin says dance, a wise man dances’ (World: Khrushchev: Notes from a Forbidden Land - TIME).The comically absurd side of tyrants like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin has been made the stuff of Western comedy, especially in movies, for deacades.

The question that we have to answer now is: why is this comically absurd streak prevalent in almost all of tyrants? A hint: the more absolute a tyrant’s power is, the more comical his actions look. That is why the totalitarian types are of a special category on their own.

A total breakdown of feedback mechanism is to be primarily blamed for the “insanity” that we detect in every totalitarian leader. When these tyrants began living in an insulated world devoid of any feedback, they lose track of what is normal. The “normal” is not the property of an individual. One attains normalcy when society keeps correcting, amending, inhibiting and enriching one’s experience. In absence of others’ feedback, a sole person has no way of recognizing what is normal and what is abnormal.

Let me provide a visual example of what “normal” is. Think of all the blind persons that you know. Let me mention two known public figures – Ray Charles and Steve Wonder. Try to visualize how they smile. There is something “abnormal” about the way they do it, in the sense that people with sight do not smile that way. The reason is simple: they lack the visual feedback to bring their smiles in line with the normally accepted one.

The same holds true in terms of the right thing to do. Nobody would dare correct cruel tyrants like Isaias, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Nobody has dared correct Isaias during his forty years of reign without ending up in the hands of h’alewa sewra. With all the sycophants feeding him whatever he wants to listen only, he has been living in a totally insulated world. And for someone who lives in an insulated world, even when he “talks to others,” it is only to listen to the echo of his voice coming out from others’ mouths.

Had it not been for the huge tragedies they cause, it would have been easy to see the pathetic two-dimensional, almost cartoonish character of these totalitarian leaders. The absence of dialog has denied them the three dimensional depth they need in their lives to be fully human. And it is precisely their cartoonish character that lends itself easily as a material for comedy.

The isolated teghadalay

In a beautiful, almost poetic article, Aklilu Zere relates an Orwellian scenario in Shaebia where literally talking was disallowed for three months to new trainees in the field (Nsu). By taking away the most essential component of what makes us human beings, nothing short of dehumanizing the newcomers was aimed at. What Aklilu failed to understand is that the leader is as much a victim/product of the environment as he is its creator. By isolating the individual into an atomic entity, devoid of all lateral (or dialogic) relations, the system creates an environment for top-down, vertical relations only. It just happens that someone has to end up at the top of this vertical edifice. This is how I explained this unnatural world devoid of dialog in The Collective Insanity that is Killing a Nation:

“The defining mark of this paranoia was the isolation of the individual teghadaly. Any permanent bonding that might evolve between the fighters was looked at with utmost suspicion; and wherever suspected to hold, everything possible was done to disrupt it. Contact between groups of fighters, be it in the form of individuals, ganta, haili, bottoloni or any other group was kept at the bare minimum, and always supervised with vigilant eye. Reshuffling was by far too common a phenomenon, thus denying any long lasting relationships to take hold. And more importantly, the congregation of any like-minded was vigilantly discouraged. If students gravitated towards one another, the action was condemned as elitist. If people of the same region, city or neighborhood sought out each other in the most innocuous ways, they were labeled as regionalists. If people with similar political outlook found each other, they were violently disbanded. The only ‘communal’ emotional outlet allowed was that of guaila; so much so it became Shaebia’s version of ‘the opium of the masses.’ The sum total of all these deprivations is the emergence of the isolated individual as the only unit acceptable by the organization; a unit that would be made to fit in the totalitarian machine of Shaebia. The purpose was clear: any lasting lateral relation between the fighters was to be discouraged so that the individual would be made to develop only an enduring vertical relation with Shaebia. This was, indeed, equality by subtraction at its best: the love that one lavished on Shaebia could only be had by denying the love to one another.”

So here we have it: the isolation of the leader is replicated in the isolation of each and every fighter; and, as in the case of the leader, the longer and more intense one is exposed to this world devoid of dialog, the more detrimental will be its effects. The fact that now the former ghedli victims can relate neither to each other nor to anyone outside, be it ghebar or foreigner, is evidence to the success of Shaebia’s Orwellian experiment.

With the success of the isolation of the individual come all the other traits of the isolated leader. Thus, ghedli’s monolog, with the Eritrean masses as its “audience”, started long before the liberators found their way back to Asmara.

Ghedli’s monolog

A dialog requires two equals at the two ends of a conversation. But this cannot be conceived without the one acknowledging the other as his equal in the first place. If one feels that he has nothing to gain from knowing the other, he uses language for non-dialogic purposes only. The problem with a generation of urbanites that lead the revolution is that they felt they have nothing to learn from ghebar – a description at first confined to the rural population only (the peasants and pastoralists) but now extended to include the whole of Eritrea else than the teghadelti themselves. That is to say, that the whole tragedy of Eritrea can be explained as a result of communication breakdown between teghadelti and the rest of Eritrea. Put in terms of the monolog-dialog dichotomy, from its very inception ghedli has been talking to itself in monolog. What makes it tragic is that the rest of Eritrea, enamored as it was with its revolutionaries, attributed all kinds of wisdom to the incoherent words of ghedli. How did this happen?

The breakdown of language as we know it took place in ghedli; it is only that the garrulousness they acquired in mieda has been confused for articulation; and the fact that they have added to the language a ton of vocabulary makes it even more confusing. Here is how I put it in Romanticizing Ghedli:

“I remember an event where a Jebha cadre was giving a speech to hundreds of villagers in bayto using a language that was totally alien to the people, one that was replete with exotic components [and that was the norm, and not the exception]:  historical ‘facts’ that the peasants couldn’t make heads or tails of, liberation movement experiences of exotic foreign lands and equally exotic foreign heroes (imagine what the ‘Algerian experience’ could possibly mean to an illiterate peasant), Marxist hyperbole that even the cadre himself seem to have little understanding of, newly-coined terms that are as foreign as Greek to the illiterate peasants – all mixed with the street-smart Asmarino's lingo. In the end, of course, not even a single peasant understood what was being said. Yet, the villagers, masters at survival that they had become, kept nodding their heads in faked awe and admiration, and even gave effusive comments that they had always ready for such ‘emergency cases.’ It was only at a safe distance that they would make their true opinion heard, ‘wey halewlew!’ The end result was a total communication breakdown between the two cultures, whose dire ramifications we are now witnessing.

“The bottom line is that only someone who failed to know them (or worse, only someone who believed there was nothing to be gained by knowing them) would go on giving such speeches year in year out without ever questioning the wisdom of such acts. When giving a monolog is taken as dialog, it is easy to see how this one-directional ‘communication’ would eventually morph into the kind of coercive language that it has developed now. That the contempt for ‘ghebar’ started with denying him a language is only understandable, for that is the ultimate attribute that identifies man as a creature of dialog – that is, as a human being; you take away his language, you take away his humanity. Once you dehumanize him, contempt in all its forms necessarily follows. ”

How is it possible for an educated cadre to go on talking in front of hundreds of peasants for hours in an entirely alien language without ever crossing his mind that the peasants might not be getting even a fraction of what he was saying?  Only if he is involved in monolog, or rather, only if he has erased the presence of the peasants from the other end of the dialogic plane. Indeed, if it had not been for its tragic consequences, the image that we get of the Jebha cadre is a comic one, one that is so detached from reality that it ought to belong only in comic books. But the tragic aspect of it is that, as in the case of the totalitarian leader, it has given the teghadelti a disproportionately high confidence in the little they happen to know.

As I have pointed out many times before, the problem with ghedli experience (temekro mieda) is that many of those who have gone through it came to believe that all the knowledge they needed to govern Eritrea had to come from that experience, and that there is little that they could learn from the age-old culture of the masses or anywhere else. The sad part of temekro mieda is that, even as it has nothing to offer, it is considered as one-fits-all-experience that could be applied in any field. You can easily see the similarity with Isaias’ all-knowing expertise; only this time, it is meant to apply to all teghadelti. The legendary incompetence of Shaebia can be traced to temekro mieda.

Again, the idea of applying temekro mieda to all the tasks in modern-day Eritrea is a comical one. But when applied on the ground, the tragic consequences are no laughing matter for those who are living its consequences.

The silly and the tragic

Think of a silly idea that each one of us has entertained at one time or another. All it requires is for the idea to circulate among friends, family members or coworkers (depending on the subject matter) to find out that it is not worth attending to anymore and that it has to be dropped. But in a world devoid of dialog, hatched in a totalitarian leader’s head, a silly idea will refuse to die simply because it will never be tested outside of his head before it is directly implemented on the ground. The horrors such silly ideas have caused in history are too many to count. Here, let me confine myself to relating such one silly idea that caused millions of death: Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Let me focus on one aspect of that: steel production.

One day, Mao suddenly came up with this fantastic idea to make China an industrial power. For some odd reason only known to him, he believed that the key to the industrialization was steel production in massive proportions. But the utter silliness of this proposal is in the way this came to be implemented:

“With no personal knowledge of metallurgy, Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. … Huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the ‘scrap’ for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals. Although the output consisted of low quality lumps of ‘pig iron’ which was of negligible economic worth, Mao had a deep distrust of intellectuals and faith in the power of the mass mobilization of the peasants. Moreover, the experience of the intellectual classes following the Hundred Flowers Campaign silenced those aware of the folly of such a plan. According to his private doctor, Li Zhisui, Mao and his entourage visited traditional steel works in Manchuria, in January 1959 where he found out that high quality steel could only be produced in large scale factories using reliable fuel such as coal. However, he decided not to order a halt to the backyard steel furnaces so as not to dampen the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. The program was only quietly abandoned much later in that year" (Great Leap Forward - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

First, even though he had absolutely no knowledge in the subject matter that was to bring tragedy to millions of peasants, Mao went ahead with it simply because it was hatched in his head. Of course, the picture of millions of peasants smelting pots and pans in their backyard in the production of useless steel to outdo industrial giants is a hilarious one. Yet, it is that very comic picture that had brought mass starvation throughout China, killing millions of peasants. Second, notice that no one would dare correct Mao, even as the disaster that he has brought upon the nation was of elementary knowledge to any metallurgy worker. And third, even after he found out his mistake, the program has to be quietly abandoned leaving the leader’s all knowing “wisdom” unquestioned.

Had an entrepreneur had this idea of making industrial steel by smelting pots and pans in wood furnaces in peasants’ backyards, it wouldn’t have taken him a single day to find out the silliness of it. An honest inquiry would have killed the idea before it makes it to drawing room, let alone to the production line. But hatched in the incompetent head of an absolute tyrant, such a silly idea couldn’t be abandoned before it killed millions of peasants.

The same is true in the case of Eritrea. Every idea that came from the incompetent head of Isaias Afwerki and temekro mieda had ushered one disaster after another. To mention just one: the national service.

I started this essay by giving an example of a man who dies in an attempt of retrieving an old pair of shoes from treacherous waters. The national service has that kind of silliness written all over it. Hundreds of thousands have been consigned to the trenches for more than a decade to retrieve an old pair of shoes called Badme, even as that quixotic attempt has been slowly but surely drowning the nation into oblivion. Like that village fool who wouldn’t grab a lifeline thrown at him, the whole nation is going down the drain because of a single destructive idea hatched in the incompetent head of its leader that nobody in his vicinity would dare point as dead wrong.

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

04/06/2011

 
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