Let the Eritrean Masses Eat Pride and Dignity!
By Yosief Ghebrehiwet
These days there is a lot of chatter at Awate.com on pride and dignity – authentically Eritrean, that is. What is striking is that similar pride-and-dignity chest pounding took place at the same website five years ago, when the US wanted to designate Eritrea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. If so, what we need to ask is this: what is it that really holds in between these two disparate events – one at Bisheftu in 2012, the other at Washington in 2007 – that the team feels the necessity to wield the same pride-and-dignity weapon in both instances?
Indeed, it seems that whenever the team feels there is a major crisis to be averted, the pride and dignity of Eritreans has to be invoked no matter what; no doubt, appeal to the nationalism of the readers being the driving motive behind this strategy. The team can always count on some of the reluctant nationalists to line up behind it if the tricolored or blue patriotic card is waved high enough for everyone to notice. And, what is more, such a wielding never fails to rile up the rabid nationalists if the underlying, not-so-subtle message that goes with it is the call-to-arms, “The Ethiopians are coming!”
If so, the pride-and-dignity strategy is meant work at two different levels: at the nationalists level and at the invokers level. In the latter case, what they say on “pride and dignity” should not be looked at its face value only, even as the manipulators themselves sometimes subscribe to such a mantra; for there is invariably an ulterior motive behind such invocation. In Part II, we will see how the pride-and-dignity card works at the surface level – that is, when their argument is taken at its face value. In Part III, we will see the underlying reason that motivates the card users to whip it out every time they face a crisis. Let me now start with some background information for the two levels in Part I.
I: Introduction: the manipulated and the manipulators (written on August, 2012)
In 2007, when the US was seriously entertaining designating Eritrea as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”, what surprised many of us in the opposition camp was that the most vociferous opponent of such designation turned out to be the Awate Team. In its editorial, Eritrea Doesn’t Sponsor Terrorism…, it wrote, “If this occurs [if Eritrea is put in “State Sponsors of Terror” list], it will be a catastrophic event to the average Eritrean. Once again, the cost of Isaias’ crazed recklessness and hyper-adventurism will be borne by the people of Eritrea.” Then the team went on to protest, “We strongly object to the effort to equate Eritrea with Isaias Afewerki ... Eritrea does not sponsor terrorism; its unelected president-for-life and his clique do.” (emphasis mine) Saleh Younis supplemented this argument by a further warning: “a label like ‘state sponsor of terror’ will stay with all Eritreans.” (The Reckoning: Another Eritrean Crossroad)
As you can see from the above, the team’s main argument was done by invoking a distinction between nation and regime that the context doesn’t call for: that it is the regime that is terrorist, and not the nation; and, therefore, that the designation of Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism should be strongly opposed. There is no doubt that this semantic splitting was deliberately concocted to appeal to the pride and dignity of Eritrean nationalists, who have always been obsessed with the image of Eritrea. But sheared off its patronizing niceties, all that the argument amounts to was: since economic sanctions don’t make a distinction between the people and the government, to spare the people, please spare the government. And this was all at the surface level, since the welfare of the people was the last thing in their minds.
Further, for the appeal to nationalists to do its assigned job, that pristine image of Eritrea that they wanted to maintain had to be connected with their pride and dignity. Such a connection was attempted by Saleh Ghadi (Bomb when a Bullet Can Do!) – in response to my article Eritrea and Terrorism: the Muddled Opposition [both articles written in 2007]
What I found strange about this 2007 article of Ghadi was that it was peppered with “pride” and its variants from start to finish – and all of this to spare the PFDJ from the wrath of the USA who was ready to slap it with sanctions! Throughout the article, the main theme was on how we should NOT let the USA do the job for us Eritreans; and that if we let this happen, it will be no less than our pride that will be at stake! It was Eritrean self-reliance at its nationalistic best. In one of his most outrageous moments, Ghadi said it would be shameful for all Eritreans if the US would apprehend Isaias like Noriega and imprison him in US soil! And at his most “patriotic” moment, he came out openly to say that if Eritrea is designated as State Sponsor of Terrorism, “the biggest risk is the damage it will do to Eritrean pride.” (emphasis mine)
If the current debate in Awate.com on the Youth Conference in Bisheftu sounds like a déjà vu moment, it is because all that you have to do is insert “Ethiopia” where the “USA” had been in 2007 to end up with the same script. It is as if the Awate team has this pride-and-dignity script ready for emergency cases. Even though the current subject matter outwardly looks different, the underlying motive remains the same: deep suspicion over Ethiopia’s design on Eritrea; so much so that, when cornered, they have always chosen the certainties of the default position – the PFDJ’s – over the uncertainties of Ethiopian involvement.
Salih Ghadi’s article triggered a response from me: Response to Saleh Ghadi: Archaic Pride and Exceptionalism. I have this article reposted in its entirety down below as Part II. This article was a response to the pride-and-dignity mantra, as argued back to its surface level interpretation. This would show to the readers that this multipurpose weapon is an old one, perfected to meet disparate challenges that are only joined by the writers’ underlying motive. In Part III, I will talk about that underlying theme as applied to the sanctions case: I will argue that the Awate Team has been consistent in their stand against sanctions, even as they claimed “support” to the 2009 sanctions. What really lay behind this consistency is the deep suspicion with which they have been eying the Habesha world, in general, and Ethiopia, in particular; so much so that they preferred to side with PFDJ at the most critical moments. The anti-Ethiopian sentiments that drove them to the embrace of PFDJ are the same sentiments that are now forcing them to invoke pride and dignity ad nausea.
II: Response to Saleh Ghadi: Archaic Pride and Exceptionalism (written in 2007)
In his latest article (Bomb when a Bullet Can Do!) Saleh Ghadi tells us why the Awate team’s stand, objecting the designation of Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism, makes sense; albeit in an angry mood. He calls the likes of me, who support the designation, as “Erratic elements”. In his poetic mood, he calls the Highdefites’ stand on the same issue (as if he has a different one) “Errand boys”. Having located these two “extreme” coordinates to his satisfaction, in his “moderate” mood, he strikes a “sensible middle”. Having discovered the strategic middle from which to shoot his magic bullet, he refuses to budge. Perhaps he is taking his clue from Buridan’s ass.
In the philosophy of action, there is this story about “Buridan’s ass” that is often told to depict the chronic man of indecision: On the left side of the ass, there is this pile of hay that the ass desires to eat; and on its right side, there is this bucket of water that it equally wants to drink. The problem is that, on the scale of desire, the ass’ desire to move to the left so as to eat the hay and its desire to move to the right so as to drink the water measure exactly the same to the umpteenth decimal. As a result, the ass could move neither to the left nor to the right: the two desires equally pulling it to diametrically opposite directions have cancelled each other to render it totally immobile. As a result, it remains catatonically fixed exactly in the middle spot. In the end, unable to decide to the last moment of its breath, it starves itself to death.
Ghadi and his team’s “sensible middle” is similar to the middle spot occupied by Buridan’s ass, in that its end game is nothingism. It guarantees the Isaias regime nothing substantive will ever be taken against it as a punitive measure in the near future. The idea of a sudden collapse of the regime is a bite more than they can chew; nothing in their arsenal of “weapons of resistance” has ever prepared them for such an eventuality. Caught off surprise, they could only hope for such an eventuality to be postponed until further notice, in the hope that a political environment more to their liking will evolve in good time. And in the process, if it leaves the Eritrean masses to fend off for themselves, condemning them to years of brutal rule under the totalitarian regime, so be it. And if any change is to take place, it would be left up to regional and world powers to decide the outcome, without any Eritrean input. That too, oddly enough, doesn’t seem to bother them.
But unlike the ass’ middle position, where everyone can easily see the suicidal end result, Ghadi’s middle comes with so many interfering variables that could easily fool the gullible: archaic sense of pride and shame, an obsession with the nation’s image, a quest for exceptionalism and vacuous proposals that lead to nowhere; all declared in patriotic bravado. So one has to sift through this bubbling pile of patriotic fervor to find out that, deep down, this middle stand doesn’t differ even an iota from that of Buridan’s ass.
An archaic sense of pride and shame
When I criticized the Awate team for invoking the untenable distinction between the state and the regime, I attributed it to an “exceptionalist” frame of mind that also holds true across the isle with the Highdefites. That is what has triggered Ghadi’s angry response. He doesn’t realize though that his response is a further confirmation to what I said then. The archaic sense of pride and shame that informs his and the Highdefites’ world view can be seen throughout his writing.
Think of the concept of “vendetta” in the old Mediterranean world, the remnants of which still exists. Or better, think of the “honor killing” that still haunts many societies in the Middle East. Or better yet, think of the concept of “h’ine mifday” in the feudal Habesha world. If someone is killed from your extended family, your pride of honor demands that you kill someone from the other side. In many instances, it doesn’t matter who is condemned to die on the other side; it doesn’t even have to be the killer himself. All that matters is that blood is spilled on the other side. Similarly nobody is also concerned on how the feud has started; all that matters is that this tit for tat has to go on. For instance, nobody asks whether the first guy to be killed has been as a result of his own wrongdoing. All of this point to one thing: in this archaic world, the concept of an individual’s right – one that holds an individual responsible for his own acts – has yet to evolve. Individual deeds are not looked at on their own merit. Instead, they are looked at on how they affect the pride or shame of the family or the clan. Ghadi’s concept of pride and shame neatly falls within the norms of this archaic, feudal world. Let me start with the most trivial one, but nevertheless revealing:
“Incidentally, the ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was supposed to be released last Sunday, September 9, 2007. Do we reserve his cell for someone of his caliber we want there? Who thought the machete wielding angry Noriega will face that fate? And a similar fate is awaiting our version of Noriega. But we don’t want him in Miami; Eritreans would be content with hosting him in a presidential cell. Imagine how humiliating it would be for Eritrea if is he is jailed by others!” (emphasis mine)
This probably should be considered the joke of the month, beating all the chickens in asena.com. Ghadi has the audacity to tell us that the tens of thousands prisoners languishing in PFDJ dungeons in Eritrea do really care where Isaias ends up. Well, let me ruffle his patriotic feathers: let alone on a neutral land such as Miami, I don’t think they would give a damn if he ends up, with hands and legs shackled, in a prison in Mekelle.
The funny thing about this patriotic outburst is that it is not Isaias’ right as an individual that he is concerned about; it is the “unbearable shame” that this event – the King of Eritrea languishing in foreign land – that brings on him and other Eritreans that bothers him. So far as his archaic concept of pride remains limited to such comical events, we might shrug it off. But it doesn’t stop there. It gets worse when he is willing to let the individual Eritreans back home suffer to feed this misguided pride.
The neighbors are listening
The archaic concept of pride and shame that Ghadi shares with the Highdefites can be explained through a phenomenon that I call “the neighbors are listening”. Here is an example that elaborates on it. A woman has been living under constant terror because of her husband’s physical abuse. She couldn’t get any help because nobody outside the family knows about it. As for her sons, all grown up, they are more worried about what the neighbors would say about the family than the wellbeing of their mother. They would go to extreme lengths to hide this crime: they would provide outrageous excuses to neutralize the suspicions of neighbors; they would implore their mother to present herself as a cheerful wife to outsiders; they would do anything to present their father as the most dutiful husband; they would even attend to her physical bruises themselves, lest the doctors give away their secret … According to them, the family pride and honor comes first. If the mother has to be sacrificed to achieve that, so be it. What is ironic though is that, whenever their mother is slighted by the neighbors, even if it is a minor verbal one, the sons are out in full force to “defend their mother”. Actually, the discordant nature of this “defense” shows that it is their honor they are defending all the time.
Let me mention a classical case where the Highdefites reacted the same way the sons do in the example in a similar phenomenon: the case of Eritrean women raped by Ethiopian soldiers in the last round of war, when Ethiopia made deep incursion into Eritrean territory. Crocodile tears were shed by the PFDJ. It documented every incident meticulously, to be presented to the outside world; among them, to the UN. Many Eritreans were outraged by what the Ethiopian soldiers did, as it should be. And the Highdefites were the most vocal of all. For a long time, their favorite adjective to describe the Woyanies was “rapists.” But the ironic thing is that these rape cases pale in comparison to the rapes committed by Eritrean military authorities against the Eritrean women fighters; the former makes only a small fraction of the latter. It is easy to see the parallels with the example above. The Eritreans protect their honor (the honor of that elusive “Eritrea”) by doing two things: when it comes to being slighted by a neighbor, they are up in arms; and whenever there is internal abuse, they would do anything to cover it up. To them, the women are not individual beings whose human rights have to be protected no matter what – whether abused by an outsider or an insider. Rather, they are the means – whether in protection or neglect – through which their “Eritrea” averts shame and regains its pride and honor.
A similar phenomenon, but with far greater consequence, is what we see in another one of Ghadi’s patriotic outbursts:
“Isaias and his few lieutenants are Eritrea’s (and the region’s) problem. I would love to say, ‘take him out, by all means, and we will be very, very, very grateful’ but I wouldn’t. This is an Eritrean affair and it should be accomplished by Eritreans not third parties. I don’t believe the Eritrean pride has dropped that low. ... Asking others to do a job on our behalf? To do our dirty work for us? Imagine how shameful that is! The feisty, brave, fiery, fire-eating Eritreans are not a bunch of jellies yet. I still have confidence on my people. Why would I call shame on my country? Why would I want to carry shame on the back of Eritreans forever? ...” (emphasis mine)
First, let me draw attention to the hypocrisy of it all. It is to be remembered that the Awate team were the most vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq. They hailed it as something that would herald democracy not only in Iraq , but in the whole Middle East . Even when it failed in that mission, they never questioned their premise, only how the war was executed. Now, if Ghadi and his team believe that the Iraqi people, more than twenty million strong, with all their rich resources and with some sympathetic Arab countries as neighbors, needed all the help they could get from the US – and we are not talking about sanctions here, but a full-blown WAR – how on earth do they justify their dovish stand when it comes to Eritrea? And now, Ghadi even has the audacity to point to the failure of Iraqi case to buttress his fear mongering. Leaving hypocrisy aside, let me now go to the point.
We have seen in the above quotation how, in his fiery, oratory mood, Ghadi reminds us that, “the feisty, brave, fiery, fire-eating Eritreans are not a bunch of jellies yet”. What is odd is that his fire-eating Eritreans haven’t even lifted a finger in all the ten years of brutal rule under the totalitarian leadership of the Isaias regime. If left to fend off for themselves, I don’t think they will lift a finger for ten more years to come. But nobody should hold that against them; this passivity is not unique to themselves. It is the mark that every people under totalitarian leadership is identified with; the totalitarian grip exerted over the masses leaves no elbow room to breathe, let alone to protest. The masses only rise up when they see serious cracks in the system, usually brought about from outside forces – be it economic or military. They have first to sense the regime losing control of events for them to rise up. It is only then that they find enough maneuvering room for any kind of their uprising to make sense. Else than that, any kind of uprising would end up in massacre. Hence the need of outside help – and the bigger and the sooner, the better.
For the likes of Ghadi though it is a matter of pride that Eritrean problem should be solved by Eritreans. If it requires ten more years to come up with Eritrean forces that he is hallucinating about, then his pride dictates that we wait that long. In the meantime, the Khmer Rouge of Africa will by that time have conducted all its social experimentations in the Killing Fields of Eritrea. To this starry-eyed idealist though, all that happens to an individual doesn’t matter so far as we keep our honor and pride intact. As in the case of the example given above, like those sons who are willing to sacrifice their mother for the sake of the family’ honor, he is willing to let the Eritrean masses suffer for years to come for the sake of “Eritrea’s honor”. Marie Antoinette made history when she cluelessly asked about the starving masses who were asked for bread, “Why don’t they eat cake?” Ghadi’s response has the same clueless detachment written all over it: “Let the Eritrean masses eat fire!”
A phantom image
At last, Ghadi spills it all out, “Those who are demanding that Eritrea be placed on SSoT [State Sponsor of Terrorism] list are so captivated by the potential benefits, they are understating the risks. The biggest risk is the damage it will do to Eritrean pride. …” (emphasis mine)
Pride here; pride there; pride everywhere … But this one beats them all. Notice that the biggest risk of the designation, as Ghadi sees it, is not that the masses will suffer economic and other hardships or the ever tightening totalitarian grip that they will live under, but that they cannot bear the humiliation of being freed by a third party or having their nation called a state sponsor of terrorism. Anyone who compares the former with the latter has lost all sense of proportion, if he has ever had it. One has to live in a feathery, bubbling, frivolous world to ever entertain putting the two together, however much uttered in grave voice. Sometimes when frivolous ideas are stated with much seriousness, people pay more attention to how it is stated than to the substance of the statement. But we shouldn’t be fooled; for, again, the end game to this warped thinking is: “Let them eat pride!”
What is sad about this image-obsessed opposition is that where there is no distinction to be found, they keep creating one; and where there is distinction, they keep ignoring it. The Eritrean masses will always have their pride when they look at themselves as a people and as a nation, even as they don’t have any pride in their government. And when it comes to the designation, they know that it is not aimed at them, even as it won’t spare them in its economic punishment. And furthermore, they realize that once this evil government is gone, there would be nothing left on which that label would stick. This assertion that the Eritrean people will be humiliated when their nation is designated comes from a poor understanding of the kind of terrorism that Eritrea is involved with.
The nature of terrorism that Eritrea is involved with is different from the one that is found in the Arab world. There is no ideological motive that drives this terrorism; it is purely “pragmatic” in its nature (what I called “vulgar pragmatism” in my previous articles). We don’t see the fundamentalist fervor that drives many young men to bomb-strap themselves and do the unthinkable. There are no Eritreans lining up to blow themselves in the West. So, it is the fanaticism of others, and not that of Eritreans, that the Isaias regime is exploiting for its sinister purposes. And as such, there is no doubt that Eritreans are ashamed of their government, but not of their people. Had there been ordinary Eritreans blowing up themselves in every corner of the world, then there would have been a lot of soul searching; people would then have rightly asked what has gone wrong in their society. But there are none, and hence no necessity for shame in themselves. Notice though how the likes of Ghadi, when it serves their purpose, refuse to see the distinction between the acts of the government and the acts of the people; even as they invoke for such a distinction to hold to oppose the designation.
The most disingenuous excuse they bring to oppose the designation is when they look mighty concerned about the image of Eritrea, as if there is any image left to keep. Does the nation have any pride left in whatever the government does? It is like a relative of a prostitute taking offense when he is being told that she “dresses like a slut”. But “dressing like a slut” is what normal people are accused of. Eritrea is a nation that is rapidly approaching the apocalyptic status of Khmer Rouge, with the Killing Fields already in the making. With such a disaster of epic proportion looming over its head, keeping its image is the least of its people’s preoccupation. But don’t tell that to those who have unwittingly come into the defense of the Isaias regime: “we have our image to keep!”
What is sad about this loony pride is that it makes them loose their sense of proportion. They never ask, “At what price?” By giving the trivial equal weight to the most serious, they fail to see the whole point of the designation. They forget that all of this ought to be done with one end result in mind: regime change. For the likes of Ghadi though, the answer is clear, “We want regime change with our pride intact, even if that takes another ten years of Isaias rule.” Now, thanks to the likes of Ghadi, the fire-eating Eritreans will have one more exotic food – “pride” – to sustain them in their years of hardships yet to come.
In quest of exceptionalism
After taking us through an emotional roller coaster of how Eritrea is special to him, Ghadi describes “exceptionalism” as follows, “Exceptionalism, on the other hand, is a belief that the rules do not apply to whatever it is you hold dear—your country, your organization, your tribe”. And I totally agree. At least, he has got this part right. The problem is he doesn’t follow his own advice. He fails to understand that by demanding an untenable distinction to be hold in the Eritrean case, he is asking nothing less than the rule of law legislated by an international body to be bent to accommodate Eritrea.
Think of someone found charged of rape in the court of law. The family cannot bear the shame of it. They are afraid that if convicted, the stigma will stay with them, as a family, for a long time to come. So they plead with the judge, “Your Honor, you can give him all the punishment he deserves as a rapist. But please don’t charge him of rape. Please spare our family’s good name.” However much he may sympathize with the family, the judge can never do that. The words “charged of rape” or “guilty of rape” are not simply expendable words that could be either glued onto or unglued from something else more substantive, namely the deed or the consequence. Those utterances carry all the weight of the punishment to be followed. Take off these words, you have taken off all the punishment that goes with them. That is, only someone who has absolutely no understanding of the rule of law would ever ask to separate the words (the designation) from the deed itself.
The same holds true with the unfortunate distinction that the Awate team has come up with. Mogos Tekeste has repeatedly shown how the labeling of “state sponsor of terrorism” is not a futile exercise in semantics, but a legal definition legislated by none other than the UN, among others. The Highdefites are at least logically consistent in their argument. They are flat out denying that Eritrea is a terrorist state. They are not challenging the legal definition of what a terrorist state looks like. What they are saying is that the Eritrean case doesn’t fit that definition. In contrast, in Ghadi’s case, it is totally incoherent. He believes that the Eritrean regime is a terrorist one, and that it fits the description set by the international standard. And if he believes it is a terrorist one, then it consequently follows that the rule of law should equally apply to it. That is, there is no way, if “found guilty as charged”, for the label to be separated from the deed; for all the consequences that follow would be a result of that charge. But if Ghadi objects to that, it would be only because he doesn’t want the rule of the law that is invariably applied to similar cases to be applied to Eritrea. And that is exactly what exceptionalism is all about.
The sweeping way that the distinction that is invoked to spare Eritrea from being black listed is formulated, no nation on this earth should be designated as “state sponsor of terror” because the same distinction could be invoked in each case. An Iranian would argue for the same distinction to hold in his country; he would plead that America distinguish between the Iranian people and the Ayatollahs’ government. So would a North Korean. So would a Cuban. But if the US hasn’t done this in the case of North Korea, Iran, Libya, Syria and Cuba, how on earth do they expect it to be done in the case of Eritrea? But, according to Ghadi, this is holding Eritrea special and not exceptional. When he has nothing substantive to say, he seeks refuge behind semantics. If there is nothing unique in the Eritrean case that justifies for such a distinction, isn’t this what exceptionalism is all about?
Ghadi’s magic bullet
Among many in the opposition who are against the designation, the first thing that we notice is how they package their alternative proposal as a moderate one. In striking the middle, the proponents profess to have eschewed the “radical” view of the supporters of the designation (the “Errant elements”) and the reactionary view of the Highdefites (the “Errand boys”). In reality though, this middle road is taken because it is undoable, and leaves things as they have been; the fear of the unknown is what motivates this inaction – hence the similarity with the position of Buridan’s ass.
But, of course, the way they put it as if their middle way is feasible; hence their exaggerated commotion to “make it happen”. Based on this untenable distinction, they want the US to conduct “punitive actions” that harm the government but spare the people.
Ghadi’s magic bullet (as opposed to a bomb) is designed to undertake such a precision surgery. This magic bullet, even though fired from the sensible middle, is meant to demolish the Isaias regime. It comes in the form of eight “sensible” proposals. But given a close scrutiny, these proposals happen to be either absurd, trivial or highly improbable. And throughout these proposals, what transpires most is a poor understanding of the rule of law.
The fear of the unknown
What is it that motivates the likes of Ghadi to take this Buridanist stand? That it has nothing to do with humanitarian concern for the masses in Eritrea, it is clear from the above. But it has everything to do with political concern. The fear of the unknown is what motivates it: not knowing how the political scenario will play out once the change comes through American pressure only. And this fear is not totally unwarranted. It is only that it would have required just the opposite reaction of what they are doing now for it to make sense. Besides, if this designation doesn’t materialize, the options left are grim: many more years under the Isaias regime or war. Even if Isaias manages to escape the US wrath this time around, surely enough he won’t be able to duck the Woyanie’s bullet. Ghadi’s magic bullet though won’t even ruffle his hair. So here is my advice to him: political uncertainty should never trump concern for the masses.
III: Habesha-phobia as the underlying motive (written on August, 2012)
Even though in my 2007 article I was responding to Saleh Ghadi as if he actually believed in what he said (at the surface level), it was not lost on me that he was using the pride-and-dignity card more to garner support from the nationalist fools than from fully believing his own words. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t subscribe to the pride and dignity mambo jumbo, but that he is not beholden to it to the extent that the “useful idiots” (as a certain commentator used to say in my blog) – mostly of the Tigrigna elite type – do. That means that the “dignity and pride” card is used in two different ways – as alluded at the beginning of this article.
First, there are those who actually believe in it, be it as writers or readers. The most interesting from this group are the “useful idiot” types that can be easily maneuvered whenever nationalist rhetoric is invoked. Those with dubious agendas, of course, even though they never fully subscribe to this belief, use it effectively to get what they want. If so, what is interesting to know is what actually motivated the Awate Team to oppose the sanctions the first time it was proposed by the USA – that is, if it was not primarily the pride and dignity of Eritreans. The answer is, in short Habesha-phobia – the very reason that is motivating it to invoke pride and dignity now. As a result, the team wants to quixotically factor out Ethiopia’s influence, but only if it seems to them that it is not going its way. If so, nothing seems to have changed. One need only look at the team’s writings on both the sanctions (the US proposed of 2007 that the team hysterically rejected and the UN imposed of 2009 that it professed to support) to see the consistency with which they have tenaciously held on to their mission.
Supporting the sanctions?
Something odd happened when the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009: many of the opposition that adamantly opposed it in 2007 were claiming that they were all for it; that is, after they surmised that it was a done deal. If that was a real change of mind, it would have been OK. But what the Awate Team was claiming, in their “support” of the 2009 sanctions, was that it was exactly what they had been bargaining for all along. But the reality was totally different. You would think that if that is what they had been bargaining for, that they would fully embrace it. The devil is in the details; and you have to look at the details of their “articles of support” to see that they are equally unhappy with the 2009 sanctions as they were with the proposed 2007 sanctions that they openly rejected – both, of course, motivated by their suspicions on “Ethiopia’s designs on Eritrea”.
The Awate group’s ambivalent stand on the 2009 sanction that they were claiming to have embraced is to be seen from the following (UNSC Sanctions: Targeted and Well Deserved, Dec 26, 2009):
“An arms embargo, including one on spare parts, may embolden Ethiopia to take advantage of the imbalance and, fearing this, Eritrea may actually be encouraged to accelerate an illicit arms race in the region, thereby endangering the ‘peace and security’ in the region even further.” (emphasis mine)
Look at how the statement is deceptively couched. First of all, nobody is sanctioning Ethiopia; if an illicit arms buying is going to take place, it will be entirely on Eritrea’s side, and there would be nothing “regional” about it. And second, they are not telling us how that endangers “peace and security” more than the case where Eritrea would be able to buy all the arms it wants. In fact, what the embargo does is, even if Eritrea manages to get some arms illicitly, it will be impossible for it to arm itself the way it has been doing before. Behind this deceptive concern for regional “peace and security”, what the Awate team is actually concerned is stated in the first part of the sentence: the fear that Eritrea will be weakened militarily; a fear shared with Highdefites – strange bedfellows indeed.
No wonder then that Saleh Younis, who is part of the Awate team, comes up with a similar rationale (“Wey Gud” Is not a Good Strategy, Dec 31, 2009):
“The Resolution imposes a travel ban on, and asset freeze of, Eritrean individuals and institutions to be named later as well as an arms embargo on the State of Eritrea. The questions of whether the penalties are proportionate to the transgression; if the rules of evidence establishing the transgression comply with the prevailing standards of the UN are fair ones. I think the travel ban and the asset freeze will be laser-focused on the regime, but the arms embargo—including on “spare parts”—is an overreach, and a dangerous one, given the neighborhood, a danger that will be lessened by the surety that it will be wildly violated by everyone …” (emphasis mine)
Notice how very similar is the way the wording is couched, especially the misleading assertion that “it will be wildly violated by everyone”. Again, who is “everyone”? As far as I know, it is only Eritrea that is under sanctions, and if anyone is to violate the arms embargo, it will be only Eritrea. The impression that Saleh wants to give is of a neighborhood that will be endangered in a wild arms race as a result of this sanctioning – that is to say, that the sanctions will do exactly the opposite of what it is intended to do. Again, behind this “concern” is the fear that the imbalance of fire-power would favor Ethiopia.
It is clear from these two quotations that the Awate group dreads arms embargo, even as they claim they are all for sanctions. But the targeted sanction that the UN has imposed on Eritrea has a bite so far as it enforces arms embargo against the Isaias regime. Aside from that, targeting individuals for travel ban and asset freeze, on their own, would have little impact on the regime – as we have clearly witnessed so far. If so, it is clear that anyone who opposes the arms embargo opposes the sanction; period. There is no way you can embrace some parts of the sanctions and reject the rest, especially if the “rest” makes the bulk of it.
In fact, the latest UN report on the sanctions clearly shows that if the sanctions have had any impact on Eritrea it has been on the military, especially on the air force. Out of the total 29 aircrafts, only 7 remain operational because of lack of technical assistance and spare parts. (The Monitoring Group Report on Somalia and Eritrea, 11 July, 2012) With further UN monitoring on the illicit “spare parts” trade, it seems that the Eritrean Air Force is on its way to being obsolete. And I suspect that this degradation also affects the ground forces. If we add to that the hollowing out of the army of its most potent force, the Warsai generation that has been deserting in their tens of thousands, and the low moral that goes with it, we could easily see the deplorable shape of Eritrean army. The easy with which the Ethiopian army is conducting punitive measures inside Eritrea attests to that fact.
If the above makes sense, it is clear that in its rejection of both sanctions, the main fear of the Awate Team has always been the weakening of the PFDJ’s army. Despite its “opposition” to the PFDJ, the team wanted the army to remain strong enough to ward off any attack from Ethiopia – figure that out, if you can!
The Woyanie boogeyman
The Woyanie boogey man has served Isaias well in both the Highdef camp and opposition groups like the Awate team. The latter’s futile search for ways of bringing change in Eritrea while factoring out Ethiopia’s influence has lead it to make procedural solidarity with the former; and that is all that Isaias needs to stretch his years of reign. The same holds true in the 2009 sanctions case, as is now in the Bisheftu case. It is only that, in the latter case, instead of the fear factor, it is the pride factor that is exploited. Notice that these are the two proven emotions that whip up nationalist fools anywhere to a patriotic frenzy. So don’t be fooled by the Awate team’s division of labor.
As Ghadi has been an expert of the team on the pride-and-dignity card, Younis has been an expert on using the Woyanie boogeyman to maximum effect. It is not by accident that one of the main arguments of Saleh Younis marshaled in a forceful defense of the Awate team’s stand on the 2007 designation controversy carried this chronic suspicion of what Ethiopia was up to on its sleeves (Playing the Tom Toms while the House Is Burning):
“The US is too big to be bothered by a ‘postage stamp sized’ state like Eritrea and it will designate an emissary state in the Horn to take care of the nuisance. And the emissary will not be Switzerland or Kenya or Djibouti. It will be a nation from across our southern border: a nation whose ruling class has a bottom list of demands, a nation that loves to extract concessions every chance it gets.”
Indeed, the Woyanie boogeyman at its best, scaring the hell out of the Eritrean nationalists!
Now we understand why the “punishment” to the Eritrean regime the team has in mind will always remain symbolic. It gets even worse. Even if there is a way of opposing the arms embargo without opposing the sanctions, the logic of its writers’ argument tells us that it will never support meaningful economic punishment against the regime. Given the high expense that an army of the magnitude that Eritrea has deployed to remain potent against Ethiopia requires, it would be self-defeating to support such an army while denying it the money that it needs to arm itself. Following this logic, the team’s members would be the last people to support any measure that would drastically cut off the regime’s revenue. If so, it would also follow that they wouldn’t support any measure that would make the mining projects that are set to give a lifeline to a dying regime, even as they would find a away, as usual, of “supporting” that measure too.
To fully grasp the underlying motive for such an ambivalent stand, one needs to look at the paradox within which the Awate group is working: On the one hand, the group has been at the forefront in defending those that are conducting, or profess to be conducting, armed struggle against the regime. And such a stand cannot be made plausible if they don’t believe that an arms resistance would weaken the Eritrean army. On the other hand, they don’t want to see an Eritrean army weakened by the arms embargo, so much so that it would “embolden Ethiopia to take advantage of the imbalance”.
If so, the paradox that is haunting them is clear: there is no way on earth that the Eritrean army could be made weak enough for the armed resistance to have its desired effect without simultaneously weakening it for the Ethiopian army. To the contrary, one could easily imagine the other way round: the Eritrean army being weak enough for Ethiopia to strike (as is currently the case) without it being weak enough for the opposition to strike on its own. Of course, there is no magic formula that accommodates the impossible dream that the team harbors: a formula that could eliminate the Ethiopian factor can never be had. Hence, the debilitating “middle” position that the Awate Team has ever occupied and will ever occupy: that of Buridan’s ass – that is, that of nothingism!