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(I) Discontent at the Top: Mismatching Disjointed Eritrea

(I) Discontent at the Top: Mismatching Disjointed Eritrea

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet


On 21st January, 2013, something momentous that the opposition was hoping for took place in Asmara: about one hundred soldiers, supported with two tanks, took over the Ministry of Information and were able to broadcast two demands: the implementation of the constitution and the release of political prisoners. After that, EriTv went non-operational for hours. We also know that soon after the occupation of the Ministry, the mutinous soldiers were surrounded by loyal troops, a standoff that allegedly set the context for “negotiation”. There was also additional news that, in the end, the leaders of the insurgency attempted an escape, which was reported both in opposition and regime sources, with some variations on the details of the fate the escapees. The rest of the information still remains scant and obscure.

Based on this skeletal information, various scenarios have been constructed, from a blotched coup d’état to a setup by the regime. But whatever I will say below will not depend on any one version; it will be based either on the skeletal information that all seem to agree or on any one version in its hypothetical form. In doing this, I will adopt an unconventional way of approaching “the structure of uprising” in Eritrea: by asking to whom were the mutineers’ messages meant to be addressed and by making the hypothetical addressees respond to those demands. There are three critical audiences that we need to look at as potential targets to these messages: the military leaders at the top (the colonels and generals), the rank and file soldiers and the civilian masses. At a secondary level would be diaspora Eritreans and the outside world. Thus, the nature of this insurgency forces us to ask one critical question: how broad and deep is the discontent among these three population groups within Eritrea? All this will be done with the aim of teasing out the perennial dilemma of Eritrean dissenters to the surface; and, in the process, hopefully draw critical lessons from it.

Even though he believes that the Forto operation was poorly executed, Saleh Younis spares no words in admiring the clarity and economy of its message.1 I beg to differ. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause does not necessarily reflect the clarity of that cause – as has always been the case with Eritrean dissenters. And what has always compounded the problem is that heroism and martyrdom have invariably trumped content. If the mutineers had come up with “Step down!” as their only demand (as Isamil Omar-Ali would have liked it be), I have no doubt in my mind that the diaspora would have rallied around that cause, and the likes of Saleh Younis would have marveled even more at the economy and clarity of the message. But if we are to avoid this retrospective analysis, the only question that matters is: what demands would have a great impact on the forces of change? Instead, the mutineers’ demands reflect the ambivalent mind of Eritreans in opposition that has stretched the regime’s life unnecessarily.

Ismail Omar-Ali is stuck with the grammar of the demand. Since the demands are grammatically addressed to Isaias, he is at loss how the mutineers expected to survive it, as if under his preference (“Step down!”) they would have fared better.2 So the issue is whether the demands have the power to bypass the grammatical addressee, Isaias himself, and find receptive ears among the agents of change (immaterial of what the mutineers were thinking). Even though the demands sound legitimate, the concrete totalitarian reality on which they happen to stand makes a mockery out of them. So the question that we have to ask is: what demands would undermine the underlying structure upon which this totalitarian system stands? I will say little on the nature of these demands in this part, with more to come in Part III.

In this part (Part I), as a background to the two main parts that will follow, I will be confined to the response of the opposition in Eritrean diaspora; and, for that, only one aspect of it: the ambivalent mind of the opposition that has helped the regime to regain its balance at times of its crisis. Time and again, the regime has been finding itself walking on political, economic and military tightropes; all of its own making. Whenever it seems to lose its balance, and fall off the tightrope, the opposition has rushed to its rescue. Whenever sanctions, arms embargo, economic boycott and outside military pressures are mentioned, many in the opposition (especially the “self reliant” ones) have rushed to the scene with the purpose of saving “Eritrea” from these punitive measures. In this part, I am interested in one phenomenon among the opposition used for the same purpose in the current regime’s crisis: their tendency to chronically mismatch agents of change and their respective roles in ushering regime change. We can mention various relevant agents of change in regard to regime change in Eritrea: the colonels and generals, the rank and file soldiers, the civilian masses in Eritrea, the opposition in diaspora and outside forces (Ethiopia, UN, etc). The question is: how do we get the proper role assigned to the right agent? In this part then, the question that I want us to look at is:  what is the frame of mind of the opposition that urges them to mismatch whenever they see Shaebia losing its balance?

With the background covered in the first part, Part II and Part III will entirely deal with the discontent at the top. If we are to assume that discontent at the top is critical for an uprising in totalitarian Eritrea to succeed (for reasons that will be made clear in those parts), then we ought to look at (a) how it is manifested, (b) how deep and broad it is; (c) what caused it (d) what triggered it; (e) what has so far prevented it from morphing into active dissent; (e) and what ought to be done to turn it into active dissent.

Mismatched Eritrea

If a band made up of a mute and a cripple advertizes a show that involves singing and dancing, it would be easy for a prospective audience to picture how that division of labor would go. Even though it would be easy to imagine either of the duo or both playing musical instruments, the only way to imagine them in the act of singing and dancing would be for the cripple to sing (for he has no legs to dance with) and for the mute to dance (for he has no voice to sing with). But if, on the real stage, it is actually the mute who tries to sing and the cripple who tries to dance, one can claim that the audience has been a victim of its “normalized” imagination. It got it wrong simply because it took for granted that it was dealing with rationally normal, even though physically handicapped, people and came up with the only plausible scenario under the circumstances. How else would it think that a mute and a cripple would attempt to pull off such an undoable act? So is it with the Eritrean opposition in diaspora: only by normalizing the abnormal state of Eritrea would they keep on mismatching agents of change and the roles they are supposed to play in the division of labor they imagine that turns every contemplated action to usher regime change into a not-doable one. And given the numerous possible agents of change in regard to Eritrea, the mismatch could turn out to be quite dizzying and intangibly bizarre. The various fantasy scenarios that the opposition has been circulating since the Jan 21st Forto event are often a result of this “normalized” mismatching.

One of the fantastic things that the Forto event did was that it inspired the diaspora opposition into a flurry of activities: demonstrations in the streets of many capitals, occupation of embassies across the globe, full-house Paltalks in euphoric mood, increased Arbi Harnet calls to Eritrea, websites gone wild with “breaking news” and possible scenarios, endless chattering at Facebook, etc. Given these flurry of events reminiscent of Arab Spring, one is tempted to say of the inspired that these are indeed the real agents of change. Given that they are overwhelmingly male, young and educated – similar to the demographic scenes in Arab Spring – one would assert that these could really “sing and dance”. But, sadly, we wouldn’t dare say that of them simply because they happen to be on the wrong stage. On the right stage – in mainland Eritrea – the young men that we see agitating in diaspora are eerily absent. Even though oblivious of it, the Warsai in diaspora happen to have outsourced the dirty job of ushering regime change to their fathers and mothers back at home. One cannot imagine children, women and the old (the demographics of urban Eritrea) marching with their clenched fists through streets of Asmara; at least, not until they see the regime literally crumbling around them. Nor can one assign that job to the gun-carrying rank and file soldiers, as they happen to be overwhelmingly illiterate and middle-aged peasants and pastoralists, abandoned as they are by their younger and educated counterparts in a thoroughly hollowed out army. If so, one has to reluctantly assign that job to the Shaebia family – as has been clearly the case in Sirihit Forto – thereby making the most important correction in the mismatching puzzle. Not only were the mutineers from the army, they were also led by colonels; and, for that, from the old guards of Shaebia – a point that those with “grass-roots revolution” in their minds seem to miss.

Crippling Eritrea

Please carefully note how each population group that matters in the dynamics of regime change has been crippled in one major way in its potential role as an agent of change, primarily brought by major dislocation – spatial and cultural – that was meant to render it manageable to the totalitarian system. This dislocation is done with one strategic goal in mind: to put the relevant distance in between these population groups, so as to prevent any convergence in between their worlds. Here is how it goes in regard to the three main ones mentioned above:

(a) The Warsai generation:  This generation was spatially dislocated twice to render it crippled as an agent of change in the most serious way. First, it was massively dislodged from its natural habitat in villages, towns and cities across Eritrea and exiled in the reinvented ghedli environment of the national service. Cordoned off in a safe environment (that is, safe for the regime), a massive cultural assault was conducted to make out of it a paradigmatic army of slave warriors/laborers. But in the process, this was found to be not distant enough for Shaebia to feel secure in its hegemony; for had the Warsai (per impossible) opted to stay put within the confines of Eritrea, by now the army would have imploded. As a result, Shaebia had to find a way of putting more distance in between the Warsai and the rest of Eritrea; that is, it had to find a way of entirely purging this generation out of its system to feel safe – and this needn’t be a conscious effort, for the reaction was almost biological in its survival instinct. It had to purge this human excess from its system or die as a result of it (as human waste is to the body). Therefore, the Warsai had to be massively dislodged for the second time; and this time the expulsion was from the entire country, to be permanently exiled in diaspora – the farthest distance possible. Since then, the continuous stream of the mass exodus has been serving as the main safety valve for Shaebia, stretching its life for years; that is, even as it has simultaneously been hollowing out the army. Now, denied the right stage on which it would have remained potent as an agent of change, be it the urban centers or the army, the Warsai generation in diaspora can only shout helplessly from a distance – that is how crippled it has been rendered by the double dislocation.

And once exiled in diaspora, the cultural dislocation that the Warsai have undergone back at home has been figuring out big in whatever they do, in that it has incapacitated them in ways that further serves Shaebia. The idea of fighting back (as in arms struggle) remains as remote as ever, because they happen to lack a clear picture of what that “enemy” is at which they have to point their gun; the indoctrination they have gone through in the national service has taken care of that. Even in the peaceful struggle to which they have consigned themselves, the various attempts to create a united front has come to naught; the social atomization they have been subjected to in national service has made sure of that. And, worse, revolutionarily instructed to look only inward for solutions to national problems, the idea of looking outside themselves for help in ushering regime change in Eritrea remains unappealing to many of them. That is to say, the ambivalent mind they have inherited from the past as a result of the mental dislocation they have undergone has a tendency to show itself in the major decisions they make in regard to Eritrea.

(b) The urban population: Shaebia undertakes mass dislocations for one and one purpose only: how to render the dislocated or left behind population group, or both, helpless. In the first mass dislocation of Warsai, it was not only the dislocated Warsai population group but also those left behind in urban areas that were immobilized. Once purged of its threatening elements, Asmara was rendered safe for the regime. For this purge to be thorough, sequestering this generation in the national service and driving them out of the country was not enough. So that not the slightest bit of threat to the center comes from this generation, the only university in the nation had to be closed down and almost all the “colleges” had to be built outside the capital. After this thorough “cleansing process”, we have a city that has striking similar demographics with the capital of the only totalitarian state left in the world: North Korea. Its capital Pyongyang is inhabited by a disproportionate number of party members and women. [2] So is it with Asmara, especially in regard to the latter demographic group: given that the overwhelming majority of the young men that originate from this city are found either in the National Service serving in the army or outside the country in refugee camps and beyond or in the dislocated “learning centers” outside of the center, there is no doubt that the Asmara population is even more skewed in its male to female ratio than that of Pyongyang; thus, the most skewed of its kind from all cities in the world. The driving motive for this unnatural demographic restructuring remains the same: how to keep the center safe for the regime. Now, the urban population group, mainly composed of helpless demographic groups (children, women and the old), is playing the role of a passive audience looking from the sides in its role as agent of change even as it is placed at the center stage.

The reason why the Forto mutiny made international headlines is because it breached the security of the center (and, for that, its nerve), and not because no mutiny has ever taken place before elsewhere in Eritrea. Take for instance, the prison break at We’a, involving more than 400 prisoners, and executed with such courage and persistence.3 But so far as these kinds of events take place at the periphery, the regime is unfazed. That is why, for the regime, securing the center is of paramount importance. And the thorough purging that it has been conducting in regard to the center is done with that in mind.

(c) The peasant army: The script that has rendered the peasants helpless comes directly from mieda. In the ghedli era, when the urban types have had enough, the burden of the revolution was carried on the back of peasants for more than a decade after the retreat of the ‘78. Forced out of their villages through relentless giffa (roundups) and cordoned off in Sahel for the rest of their mieda life, they had nowhere to go but to die in the trenches. So is it now. As usual, those who are making it to the outside world are the urban types and the students. Left behind to fend off for themselves are the peasants, for whom it is hard to imagine a new life in diaspora. For the second time then, the Eritrean peasants find themselves stranded in the ugly world of the urban elite’s making. Thus, the dislocation conducted on the peasants has been lethal in that, unlike their educated counterpart, they have nowhere to go. Now, the army, overwhelmingly composed of graying and demoralized peasants, lacks the energy, zeal and intellectual input to go fully revolutionary. Shaebia, for the second time, has fully succeeded in crippling the peasant population; that is, if cordoning off a population group in national service is ever to be said to have worked, it would be on the peasant population.

It is clear from the above that what has rendered these three population groups crippled is one common factor: the mass exodus of the Warsai generation. When fathers and mothers are asked to go revolutionary with their clenched fists in the streets of Asmara, when peasants are asked to go revolutionary with their guns in mieda Eritrea, and when the only potent force that could have clenched those fists and made use of those firearms and led the rest to an uprising has taken the role of cheerleading from across the ocean, there can be no better mismatch of tasks and agents than this.

As in the mismatch example of the mute and the cripple given above, those who have tendency to mismatch do so by normalizing Shaebia’s disjointed world: they design their strategy by assigning tasks to helpless agents, as if those agents are positioned in the right place to bring the necessary change. If the scene of change is either the capital or the army, they never ask who is left there to usher regime change. They mindlessly go on with their mismatching tasks as if the pre-dislocated Eritrea still exists. To make this absurd scenario vivid, imagine a sports arena with tens of thousands of spectators watching a boxing match on the stage at the center. You have only to reverse the roles of the onlookers and the looked at to get the right picture of the Eritrean predicament: at the boxing stage are the mothers and fathers looking helpless at the audience for help, as they get mercilessly beaten up by Shaebia. The Warsai, in their hundreds of thousands, all with their fists in boxing gloves clenched to show their solidarity, keep cheering their parents. Now if you add the ocean of a moat that Sheabia has dug in between the audience and the center stage for its own protection, you will get the full picture of what the Eritrean tragicomedy looks like.

It is ironic that the only group that has remained potent in Eritrea, and hence positioned to bring regime change, is the one that has crippled the three population groups mentioned above: the Shaebia family. Thus, the current bizarre condition in Eritrea demands a qualification befitting to its crippled state: for a group to remain as a possible agent of change, it has to necessarily stay close to the seat of power. Take, for instance, the case of G-15: it is only because they managed to stay at the top, in the process accommodating Isaias for years in his various purges, that they became a force to reckon with when their time arrived to rise up in dissent. They necessarily had to be instrumental in eliminating dissenters like themselves in their past to remain in a position where the former dissenters had been (Menqae, Yemin, etc.). That seems to be the only way change would come in totalitarian systems, where everybody else gets emasculated except for those who manage to scale up to the top, forcing many to fall aside as they keep climbing upwards. As in the case of Russia, we could only hope for the leadership in Eritrea to rise up against itself – at best, a top-down revolution; that is, if the masses are made to follow soon thereafter. There is no other way.

That is why Isaias’ eyes are always focused on those at the top. He knows absent discontent at the top, no threat will come from the emasculated, disjointed bottom (be it the rank and file, the masses or the diaspora). If you carefully listen to the news and rumors that come out of Eritrea, it is all between the colonels and generals; at no point does the bottom figure out big in this crisis.

One only hopes that, in between the old guards of Shaebia, they would eventually get their division of labor right. And this worry is not unwarranted, for the mismatching malady seems to infect even the radical agents of change on the other side of the ocean – the mutineers themselves. The only two demands that they aired seem to be tailor-made to appeal to the ears of the diaspora Eritreans and the West, while finding little resonance inside Eritrea. And when they are divested of their intrinsic values, these demands are meant to appeal to the disgruntled colonels and generals – only as means of cornering Isaias, carefully crafted as they are so as not to infringe on their turfs. The colonels and generals too, who are positioned to bring change more than any other agents, have been debilitated by the nature of their dilemma: to demobilize the army or not. Even though one would not expect them to save the nation in the name of democracy, the only way they could save it is in the process of saving themselves – yet, it is in that very process, they are trying to do the undoable.

For a nation born out of mismatched priorities by a ghedli generation that had no inkling of what it really wanted, that this mismatch malady has infected so many Eritreans and that it has stayed with them this long shouldn’t be surprising at all. That doesn’t mean that the agents mentioned above, however crippled they are in at least one major way, have no role to play in ushering regime change in Eritrea; but that the scenarios that we have to come up have to be done with these and other shortcomings in mind, such that no mismatch between agents and their roles takes place. And whenever there is an essential role left out because none of these internal players seem to fit into it, that agent of change should be sought outside.

One of the greatest obstacles in getting the matching puzzle right is the frame of mind of many in the opposition, including the Warsai, whose ambivalent mind has been unwittingly complementing Shaebia’s task in keeping the major population groups mentioned above disjointed. How so?

Complementing Shaebia’s work

At one time, I wrote the following stanza with the crippled state of Eritrea in mind, a nation whose viability is kept at the cost of an arm and a leg (Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism):

An arm and a leg

Walking on a tightrope
of history,
this nation keeps its balance
by shedding off
parts of itself.

With the “shed off parts”, I had the hundreds of thousands of the Warsai generation that have fled the country in mind, as the nation felt it cannot afford to terminate its indefinite national service because of the tightrope it forced itself to walk in its current history. That is, for Shaebia to feel safe, the autumn season of shedding was made never to leave the scene. Given the history of this organization in its utter disregard for human life, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. What should surprise us is how the discarded body parts respond in ways that complement Shaebia’s task. When Eritrea keeps shedding its children like autumn leaves to remain viable as a nation, leaving every population group crippled in the process, even the discarded parts conspire against themselves and help the nation in its tightrope walking. Let me start with a simple example to highlight this lethal “cooperation”: the Warsai and their firearms in their ambivalent relation to “Eritrea”, as this happens to take place in the most critical phase of their dislocation – as they cross the border.

As an Ethiopian official related it, out of the tens of thousands of army deserters that crossed the Eritrean border, almost no one arrived with his firearms on Ethiopian soil. Each and every one of them made sure that they left their firearms on the other side of the border. The official was complaining that this sometimes endangered the Ethiopian guards at the border, who had to fire at the soldiers in hot pursuit to cover the fleeing deserters as they make their final crossing – something that the deserters could have done themselves had they remained armed. And what makes it more puzzling is that, given the shoot-at-sight policy, it would even make more sense for the deserters to remain armed until they successfully crossed the border. The ambivalence that is to follow the Warsai throughout their political life in diaspora is encapsulated in this simple act: even as they are willing to cross the geographic borderline, they couldn’t bring themselves to trespass the other line – that of ghedli concocted “Eritrea” – to which they firmly believe the firearms belong. Strangely enough, to their dislocated mind, even as they are abandoning the army, it is taking away the arms with them that is considered treasonous. Buried deep in their psyche is that ugly wish that someone else pick up the gun they leave behind to carry the duty of “defending Eritrea” – true to the spirit of the ghedli song, teqebeleni biretey. Given that the lyrics of this song are to be taken as the last words of a martyred teghadalay’s hidri, the Warsai’s act of leaving their firearms behind signifies their death to “Eritrea”; and, as such, taking away that biret with them across the border is tantamount to betrayal of hidri suwuatna. When one realizes that this is the same thing that deserting teghadelti crossing to Sudan used to do during the era of ghedli, one understands the ghedli spirit that has held them captive, even as it is that very spirit engulfing the nation that is to be blamed for all the horrors they have gone through.

The behavior of the deserting Warsai who couldn’t bring themselves to cross the border with their firearms is a good example of how they desperately want the nation to succeed in its tightrope walking without losing its balance. To make it vivid, imagine this scenario: Shaebia is walking on a tightrope up there. At a certain point, as it kept staggering, it seems to be losing its balance and decides to throw a Warsai off to avoid falling. With that weight lifted off it, Shaebia almost regains its balance, except now it is a bit too light to get it exactly right. Realizing this, the thrown off Warsai thinks that if he leaves his firearm behind, as he is being thrown off, Shaebia could gain the necessary weight to retain the exact equilibrium. Put in larger context, that is why we don’t hear the Warsai making “demobilization” their number one slogan or their battle cry. They feel that such a call would disrupt the nation’s balance in its tightrope walking; that is, even as it is in the effort to stay fully mobilized that the nation has been discarding them in their tens of thousands. Instead, they have mindlessly settled for the senseless and impractical slogans like the release of political prisoners and the implementation of the quam.

Think, for a moment, what the demand for the release of political prisoners would mean to the discarded Warsai generation. They can only prioritize that demand by forgetting the hell they have gone through: wasted years in indefinite national service, years of slave labor, unnecessary war, torture, imprisonment, execution, mass exodus, etc; all followed up with more wasted years in refugee camps and the horrors of the Arab Passage, topped by the Sinai nightmare of kidnapping, torture, rape, organ-harvesting and murder.  If it is by prioritizing the fate of political prisoners in Eritrea that they can correctly depict the tragic state of Eritrea, then they can do so only by minimizing their (and the masses’) condition to a diminishing point and, in the process, by normalizing the regime into a run-of-the-mill dictatorship. A discarded limb would do that only if thinks that it is still part of the body; it couldn’t bring itself to believe that the body is cruel enough to have sliced it off so ruthlessly – hence, normalizing the body. Even as Shaebia has shown no qualms in writing off the Warsai generation, the latter could hardly bring itself in writing off the body from which it has been discarded, as its ghedli-infused rhetoric clearly shows.

So is it with the other demand: the implementation of the constitution. Take a look at the rights that the Warsai have been denied, none of them coming from the non-implementation of the constitution: the right to assemble in more than seven persons; the right to move around in the country; the right to go to school of their choice; the right to live with their parents; the right to live wherever they want; the right to work whatever job they want; the right to worship whatever religion they want; the right to associate with anybody they want; the right to marry and have a family; the right for the rule of law, etc. These are all rights without which society simply ceases to function. To confuse these with democracy rights is to miss the Eritrean existential predicament. A regime that denies the masses these basic rights is like denying them the very air they breathe. Having put a chokehold on them, all they ought to think is how to get those murderous hands off their neck. Thus, to tell these people that the quam will solve these problems is to miss the urgency of their deathbed struggle with the regime.

Here is an example I used before4 for those who prescribe democracy as the only solution for Eritrea’s predicament, and would settle for nothing less, because they think it is the absence of democracy (or the failure of the implementation of quam) that has brought Eritrea’s current predicament. This would be like arguing that if someone died of starvation, he died of lack of gourmet food. Even though it is true that had he been able to get gourmet food he wouldn’t have died, it is wrong to conclude that he died of lack thereof. He died because he didn’t have anything to eat; and by “anything”, we mean the barest minimum that could have kept him hanging onto his life. We can imagine him surviving in a world devoid of gourmet food, but we cannot imagine him surviving in a world devoid of any kind of food. Similarly, even if we assume that the presence of democracy would have avoided the horrors under which the Eritrean masses are currently living, it doesn’t mean that its absence is the cause for these horrors. We need to look at the “barest minimum” denied to our people to see the cause for all the horrors we witness in Eritrea. If so, what is more pertinent to our subject matter is what someone who subscribes to the above fallacy would do if he had met the person who was dying of starvation. Consistent to the logic he subscribes, he would have gone in search of gourmet food to save him; nothing less would do for this idealist. So is it with our idealists, if anything less than democracy would offer itself as a solution to the masses’ existential predicament, they would have none of it. They don’t realize that the luxury of time they have given themselves to search for their “gourmet food” lacks the sense of urgency it needs to save the masses. Gourmet food touted as the only salvation for a man dying of starvation – here then is a mismatch of the most lethal type!

And this mismatching gets even more deviant when we realize that so many in the opposition have used the demand for the implementation of the constitution in the past not for what they could do with it in their struggle for regime change but for what it does in preventing others from doing that. Many of the self reliant ones have adopted the “peaceful way” of struggle not because of ideological conviction, but to prevent the violent way – all said and done with saving Shaebia or their versions “Eritrea” in mind.

If we are to take the misplacement of biret as a reflection of a disoriented mind, we can see how that mind would keep mismatching in similar but larger contexts. For instance, those in the opposition who have been vociferously opposing arms embargo imposed on Eritrea by the UN, even as some of them noticeably didn’t eschew violence to bring regime change (figure that out, if you can!), exhibit the same mismatching malady. Reminiscent of the infamous atsnihaly phenomenon cruelly used by colonels, where they entrust their victims to a prison outside their turf and often forget them for years, these opponents are afraid that unless allowed all the arms he can buy Isaias won’t be able to keep their “Eritrea” safe for them – talk about ambivalence! Literally, they are entrusting Isaias with safeguarding Eritrea (atsnihalna), forgetting that that Eritrea is inhabited with real flesh-and-blood people; for if we are to include the masses (with the land) in this atsnihalna hidri, isn’t that what the callous colonels have been exactly doing? If so, notice how many in the opposition, unwittingly or not, have been helping the regime in its tightrope walking; and thus ending up becoming instrumental in stretching the autumn season in Eritrea.

Juxtaposing horror and heroism within one and same body

One needs to understand the “body economy” in ghedli concocted Eritrea to grasp the reaction of the regime and the opposition in regard to the balance of the tightrope walking that the nation has been involved with since its days of mieda. The regime’s strategy has been body-uneconomical in the sense that it would spare nothing to keep its balance; that is, even if the whole nation is sacrificed in the process, it would keep shedding “nation parts” until the final demise. And complementing this task, the discarded parts do just the opposite by going body-economical. This is to be seen in how they react in regard to their victimizers left behind. All it needs in today’s Eritrea is for the victimizer Shaebia to be threatened by Ethiopia (or the UN) to make a victim out of it, and sympathize with it. That is how Eritreans have been going economical on the revolution: by making the villain and the hero cohabit in the same body. Thus, while the regime is characterized by its excesses in dealing with dispensable bodies, the discarded parts go economical to save the regime from its own excesses. And their frugal approach further encourages its excesses – more of them get discarded.

The idea of juxtaposing the villain and the hero in the Shaebia body that the Warsai are prone to make is inherited from the culture of ghedli, where totalitarian horror and individual heroism have been made to coexist next to one another without creating any contradiction in their compartmentalized minds. A good example of this ambivalence would be Tesfay Temnewo’s extensive narration on Shaebia (at Sallina). Here is a brilliant and courageous former teghadalay who makes no qualms of telling it all and yet cannot refrain from juxtaposing horror and heroism throughout his narrative. But horror and heroism cannot be made to cohabit on the same Shaebia body unless the heroism is directed against the horror, which hardly is the case; invariably, that feat of heroism is conducted by a victim of that horror but against enemy troops – please notice the mismatching!

Tesfay starts his narrative from the early days of Selfi Netsanet, when it was no more than a couple of a hundred teghadelti. It was here that the horror starts, when about 50 newcomers were executed for being suspected as jasus, with no evidence at all to back up the allegations. The disappeared were such a huge chunk of the budding movement that no one among the spared would be able to miss the loss. This was soon followed by the Menqae witch hunt, which in one form or another continued for years to come. One major purge followed another until the day of independence, with thousands as disappeared victims. If so, how is it possible amidst this totalitarian horror – of fear and suspicion that never left the scene; of comrades in arms pitted against one another; of imprisonment, torture and execution; of mental anguish, insanity and suicide; of giffa and coercion, etc – for someone to be heroic when facing enemy troops? How can someone emotionally afford to be heroic against enemy troops when many friends, comrades and idols are regularly pulled out from one’s unit, never to appear again? Where in his/her mental economy would one find the luxury of being courageous against the enemy troops amidst this sea of horror that he lived day in day out? The only way one could do that is by explaining away the horror: either by minimizing it or by making the cause greater than the horror. Only when one keeps justifying the horror in the name of the cause (as in “the revolution devours its children”), would one try to be heroic amidst this senseless totalitarian terror. If so, the only hero that would make sense within this absurdist revolution without a cause is the antihero.

The antihero would be someone who soon after he joins Shaebia sees through the farce of the ghedli enterprise and is no more beholden to the cause, and henceforth uses his entire faculty to outwit the system so as to survive it until he finds an escape route. This is someone who, as soon as he realizes the absurdity of it all, mentally puts a distance between himself and the cause; and thereafter attempts to save his skin without his conscience troubling him. If he does that, even as he couldn’t physically remove himself from the totalitarian horror he is forced to live in, mentally he would be the real liberated person among a multitude of heroic slaves. I have heard of an outspoken university student who, as soon as he grasped the nature of the revolution, played dumb for the rest of his mieda life and immediately left the country after independence. But the kind of antihero I have in mind, like the character in The Good Soldier Svejk that Jaroslav Hasek created to portray the futility absurdist World War I,5 goes further than that. He would be someone who uses every trick he could imagine to stay away from it all: doing whatever he can to stay behind the lines, even feign cowardice if that would help him to get assigned to kifli sinqi; and if forced to remain in the trenches, duck as much as possible from enemy fire, even if it requires shooting wildly off target; etc. And when this antihero finally escapes and makes it to the Sudan, he would have no ambivalence towards his AK-47, the way escaping teghadeli and Warsai have had. He would have no qualms at all selling it as soon as he touches Sudanese soil; and, with that money, goes for a binge of drinking that lasts all day and all night and ends up in a brothel – thereby celebrating his freedom in the most unpatriotic way imaginable. That is to say, Eritrea perished not because of lack of heroes (there were too many of those), but of lack of antiheroes who would see through the farce of the revolution and dare act accordingly. So, with all the admiration I have for Tesfay, I am reprimanding him for having failed to take that extra step to set himself free.

With his long narration, what Tesfay has done is dissect Shaebia to its smallest elements. After he is done and over with this narration, I am sure that nothing salvageable will remain from this movement, unless he wants to identify it through the attempted failures to reform it – Menqae, Yemin and the rest (even as we don’t know how they would have turned out to be had they succeeded). But that would be absurd for no organization is identified by what it could have been, but by what it was and what it turned out to be. If Shaebia is what it was in the past and what it is now, then there is nothing salvageable about it. Isolating individual acts for heroism amidst the sea of horror in order to give purpose to the cause cannot be done without belittling all those who perished in that horror; that is, one cannot attribute heroism to Shaebia without normalizing it in the process. And one would do that only if he has not written Shaebia off – as I suspect, Tesfay still is. I am focusing on Tesfay Temnewo to highlight the Eritreans’ predicament because if he, with all his brilliance, courage and hindsight, cannot exorcise the ghedli demons out of his system, how are we to expect the Warsai to do the same thing with all their ambivalence and lack of hindsight? Lacking this exorcism, the horror will continue – as it is actually happening now.

The above assessment doesn’t imply no salvation would ever come from the Shaebia family; but if it ever does, it will be in the process of saving itself. And if we admit that the only agent capable of bringing regime change in Eritrea right now is Shaebia or the EDF, to expect that this will be done in the name of democracy is naive. That is, if one has to go body-economical, it has to be done with hard headed realism. Under such a condition, a “revolution” would be the last thing that would be in our mind, but regime change under whatever name would be welcome. And getting the right ascription would save us from the mismatching malady that keeps delaying regime change in Eritrea.

How Eritreans lost their survival instinct to fight back

It was because Eritreans lacked and still lack the kind of courage that our antihero exhibited, the only type of courage that mattered within the revolutionary environment – the courage to betray the revolution – that they find themselves trapped in the abnormal world of ghedli’s making. The greatest wrong that ghedli has done to Eritreans is that it has made them lose their survival instinct. By normalizing the horror they have been facing for 50 years in a justification of their revolution, they have now become easy preys for all kinds of predators – from the Shaebia predators at home to all kinds of Arab predators during the Arab Passage. They have lost that natural instinct to fight back when cornered because the image of the villain that doubles as a hero and that of the horror that doubles as revolution etched by the demons of ghedli in their minds have denied them a clear target to hate. And if one cannot hate, one cannot fight back – it is as simple as that. Unless the demons of love that deny us a clear target of the threat we face are not exorcised, and replaced with angels of hate that arm us with the all the instinct we need to fight back, it  is a foregone conclusion how this tragic saga would end.

To fight back, one needs to know the nature of the threat. If it is cold weather, one bundles up; if it is theft, one guards his possession; if it is the flu, one gets inoculated; if it is murder, one gets armed; etc. The problem with the young generation is that they have no clue what is it about them that are being threatened: their culture, language, religion, identity, education, safety, life, etc? It is all this and more; yet, given that all these threats are coming from the villain that doubles as a hero, they fail to identify them as primary threats. Instead, they take that primary threat to be anything that would deprive them that hero. And since that heroism comes not from what it does for them, they have to seek that threat outside themselves: the threat to “Eritrea”. So, when the hero does all the horrors to them in defense of “Eritrea”, the victims get disarmed; in that, they cannot target the hero as enemy without simultaneously targeting “Eritrea” in the process. That the threat to “Eritrea” can only be averted by increasing the threat to themselves in everything that matters has yet to register in their minds – a mismatching of the most lethal type! It is this very idea of “Eritrea” that has been drilled in their minds through years of indoctrination that has left them totally disarmed.

The great mismatching phenomenon that is to haunt Eritrea for decades to come (the true symptom of a people who has lost their survival instinct) starts with ghedli. The ghedli romantics who have been calling the ghedli generation the “great generation” often brag that had it been them, unlike the Warsai generation, they would have fought back now; all said and done without explaining the current tragic state of Eritrea as administrated by none other than by that “great generation”. It is under the hands of the Yikealo that the Warsai has been living in totalitarian horror. Even if the ghedli romantics are to attribute all the horror to one man, as they often tend to do, they will have to further explain why those tens of thousands of Yikealo (“the great generation”) are not fighting back now. But all these can be explained, as we partly agree with them in regard to the fighting spirit of that generation as it occurred then, if we resort to the logic of the body-economy mentioned above. The qualifier, “as it occurred then” is important because the ghedli generation left the society as free men to join mieda and returned as accomplished slaves. Correspondingly, what they were capable of doing as free men then and what they are capable of doing as slaves now have to be held apart of one another, even as the body remains the same and one. That is, if the distinction remains within the same body, we can explain their survival instinct then and the death of that instinct later.

We can see now how this mismatching problem ominously started with the ghedli generation. A generation armed with all the survival instinct that a normal society had equipped them wasted it all on a revolution without a cause. That is, they expended all the social capital that their fathers handed them over in fighting a threat that was never there (a great mismatch!); and when they made it back to create independent Eritrea, there was none of that social capital left to transmit to the next generation: the barren ghedli environment had nothing to give, but everything to take. They had nothing to offer the society but slavery (another mismatch!). So where did Eritrea lose its social capital? We have to go body-economical to answer it: in the same body, that of the ghedli generation. Once this mismatch between a social capital and a senseless revolution was set in motion, there was no stopping it. Now, the Warsai generation that has inherited the abnormal world of ghedli’s making with all its mismatched reality, with no coordination points to guide them in their historical, cultural, social, ethical and political quests (so many mismatches!), have become incapable of recognizing an existential threat when it comes their way – even as it is as big as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic!

Here is a simple example that elucidates on this mismatching problem that was triggered by the ghedli generation when they embarked on their sewra that still remains with us: if you make a first mistake in buttoning up your shirt by putting the first button in the wrong hole, then that mistake carries over all the way to the bottom; ending up with, button-wise, a mismatched shirt. The moral of the story is that you can make your correction only by first unbuttoning all the way up to the top – a lesson to those who always fail to see the past in the mismatched present, and keep advising us not to look at the rear mirror. If they are telling us not to unbutton all the way back to the ghedli past, how are we supposed to solve this mismatching puzzle? By cutting the mismatched shirt at the bottom, so that it would look even? Isn’t that what “Eritrea” has been doing, by discarding its parts so that it would retain its even balance as it keeps walking the tightrope of history? If so, what the ghedli romantics want us to do is keep the disfigured present so as to retain the romanticized past.

Helping Shaebia in its tightrope walking by the elite has been confined neither to military and economic ones nor to events after the border war. A good example of rescuing Shaebia from its political tightrope was done with the drafting of the constitution way back in 1997. And since now the quam has become the talk of the town, such an enquiry would make sense.

Sahebia walking the political tightrope with quam in its hands

What we have seen above, with the firearms and arms embargo examples, is how the opposition kept rushing to Shaebia’s rescue in its military tightrope walking – in defending itself (or, more correctly, in defending their versions of “Eritrea”). But this is not the only tightrope it has been walking. Long before the border war, it has been walking the political tightrope for almost six years after independence – years without constitution. Soon after independence, with all the talk of “African Renaissance men” coming from the West, as Shaebia was being gently but constantly reminded to take the democratic road, it badly needed something that would help it in keeping its balance in the political tightrope it was forced to walk. The drafting of the constitution was meant to accomplish such a task: to enable Shaebia to appear democratic without being so. How so?

One of the greatest fallacies that those who have made the “constitution” their rallying cry hold is this assumption: if a constitution is drafted, then it is meant to be implemented. But that doesn’t necessarily hold true. Almost every non-democratic African nation has had a liberal constitution, simply because it could not afford not to appear as not having one. Tunisia and Egypt had liberal constitutions before Arab Spring, which none of them applied on the ground. That means that a constitution can be drafted with how not to implement it primarily in the mind of the drafters: the Eritrean case is a paradigmatic example of such a farce.

Let me use an example I used in my Paltak presentation to elucidate on this phenomenon: An old illiterate woman buys a Bible; and, for that, one written in Geez. Her grandchildren reprimand her for buying a book she cannot read, or even having it read to her by them (neither she nor her grandchildren understand Geez). But her grandchildren happen to commit the same fallacy the lovers of quam do: they believe that if a book is bought, it is meant to be read. But grandma begs to differ. She has bought the Bible for two reasons: one, to put it besides her bed as fewsi hateftf for her nightmares; and, two, to stop her grandchildren stealing from her, hoping that if she puts her money in the Holy Book they wouldn’t dare touch it. That is, she bought the Bible to drive away demons and thieves from her bedside – and this happens to be as legitimate reason as any. So has it been with the drafting of the Eritrean constitution, which was drafted with one and only one thing in mind: would it make Shaebia look good (yemhirela’do)? Call it, if you will, the lipstick on the Shaebia pig. There is good evidence that supports such a claim: the constitution was drafted without the slightest bit of effort on ways of its enforcement. That is, it was drafted with the full knowledge that it was not doable. To see how, we need to ask who the enforcers were supposed to be. The masses? The parties? The media? We have it from the mouth of the horse, none other than Dr Bereket Habteselassie, as to who they had in mind: Isaias Afwerki! (“We believed him.”)

There are two reasons that make this claim dishonest: first, enforcers are needed not only in implementing the constitution, but also in drafting it; and, second, even the most skeletal mechanisms that could enforce its implementation were lacking. When it comes to the masses, it starts from the false belief that the constitution was ratified with their full participation. But this would be true only if the commotion that surrounded the ratification of the constitution is confused for participation; the overwhelming majority of those who “participated” had no idea what they were doing. If an entirely different constitution had been presented to them [and I could think of a hundred different variations], they would have accepted it with the same “popular enthusiasm”. So what the masses did was simply defer to the “wisdom” of the handful that wrote the constitution and, by extension, to the wisdom of Shaebia, given that the writers were doing – protestations aside – Shaebia’s bidding. All that the masses did was give the same blank check that they had been giving to ghedli to the regime (dekina yifeltu). That is why when it was denied to them, they never felt its absence: to them, whoever gives, takes away. A good evidence that the masses didn’t clamor for democracy is that when a rare chance presented itself in the form of critical dissent at the top (the G-15 dissent), they failed to rally around the quam that the dissenters touted.6

The only way a population could be made to “participate” in the making of a constitution is for that participation to take a normal route that all democracies go through. The minimal preconditions for drafting a constitution are allowing parties and media to operate in the land. Any kind of dialog that the masses undertake has to be done through their representatives in the form of parties, and through the free media that provide such a dialog the necessary transparency for the public to see and involve. It is only then it can be claimed that the masses are empowered through dialog; they would have a stake in the constitution they come to “own”, and hence be potential enforcers. If this is the right procedure, how is it possible to trust a regime that didn’t allow the most minimal requirement – that of the free press, even in its rudimentary form – in the years before and during the drafting to implement a constitution that supposedly allows free press, among others? Wouldn’t that be a classical case of putting the cart before the horse?  Thus, any drafting of constitution attempted without these two minimal requirements in place is a farce of the highest type. And the drafters were fully aware of what they were doing: they knew that there is no such thing as dialog that directly holds between the people and the government, yet they orchestrated that farce by giving the illusion that the public was participating by conducting “direct” seminars with the people. What makes this whole constitution making a farce is this simple fact: an “agreement” becomes an agreement only if there are enforces to enforce those “terms of agreements”; or else it would be a vacuous one, entirely divested of its meaning. Absent enforces, whatever content the quam holds between its covers would have no meaning at all. Trying to find the intention of the drafters by opening it and looking at its content only is like figuring out grandma’s intention by deciphering the contents of the Bible. Like grandma, the drafters had other use of the quam in mind: how to help Shaebia in retaining its balance in its political tightrope walking. Dr Bereket loves to talk about the immaculate deception of Isaias in matters of quam; but the reality is the drafters themselves were the ones who provided the necessary cover for that deception.

To make it vivid again, let’s get back to the picture of Shaebia walking that tightrope gingerly up there. As strong democratic forces from the West kept pressuring it, Shaebia begun to stagger in its balance as it was running out of excuses. The drafters came to its rescue by handing it the quam that immediately stabilized its tightrope walking – something that bought it enough time before it decided to go fully totalitarian. In light of these, to defend the drafters by looking at the contents of the quam only is as farcical as the drafting of the quam itself.

A good example of this kind of farce is when a constitution that was drafted to prop up Shaebia is being invoked as one of the only two things on the regime’s way: “Put another way, the only thing that is preventing the transformation of the extreme authoritarianism of the self-declared President into an outright totalitarianism are the military and the still flickering constitution.”7 How is the epiphenomenal quam thrown in a dustbin supposed to prevent the regime from going totalitarian? According to this incoherent logic, had there not been a drafted constitution, the only one that would be on Isaias’ way would be the EDF. Notice how the drafted constitution is being endowed a power it never had. If there was no drafted constitution, people would have definitely rallied around the need for one or for “democracy” in general (without losing anything significant in such an alternate quest), given that the latter entails the former – that is, if that happens to be the masses’ priority. But I don’t think it has ever been; the people’s concern is more existential than political, for they know the totalitarian nature of regime first hand – they are living it day in day out. The idea that the drafted quam has been protecting the masses by preventing the regime from fully going totalitarian can only be stated by an ambivalent mind of the sort described above. This is a typical example of why it is impossible to invoke the quam amidst this totalitarian horror without trivializing what the masses are undergoing. If so, what Isaias is scared of is not the call for the implementation of the constitution, but the call for demobilization. It is not reinventing of the EDF in the image the EPLA that is needed, that being already the case, but its dismantling. That is to say, what is propping up the regime is none other than full mobilization.

Similarly, the idea of EDF preventing Eritrea from becoming totalitarian is absurd, for EDF in its present bloated form was created to keep Eritrea disjointed – a task that only a totalitarian regime can undertake. So far as it exists in its disjointed form, it becomes instrumental in sustaining, and not obstructing, totalitarianism. What kills totalitarianism is demobilization, and Isaias perfectly understands that. That is why he is happy when the Eritrean oppositions mindlessly keeps chattering about quam; if it keeps their eyes off from the issue of demobilization, he would do anything to contribute to that chattering.

Of course, the job of dismantling EDF cannot be done by anyone else but the EDF itself; after all, the call to demobilization is most appealing to the rank and file trapped in indefinite national service. That is why the most important tool that we have in our hands is not the superfluous constitution, but demobilization. None of the rank and file peasants that are trapped in EDF give a damn about a quam they never owned in the first place, but would do anything to go back to their families and farms – if only those opposing the regime, be it inside or outside the country, would make it their battle cry. The hard headed realism that we should be aware of is this: if those in the EDF are going to save Eritrea, it is in the process of saving themselves; and not in the name of some grandiose idea that the clueless elite in diaspora keep invoking.

This sober realism further points at another reality check: when we settle for EDF, especially as led by the colonels, as the main agent of change, it is because we have no alternative to that; and not because it is our best choice. A few days ago, I saw this picture of a middle aged woman plowing with two oxen. She is a hard headed realist: she is taking this role because she sees no alternative to it: all the men of the house are either in the national service or in refugee camps. The same holds true in the bigger picture: we settle for EDF because there is no one around to do the job. Once we realize that, the next question to ask is: what would make them do it? Anyone who thinks it is quam ought to have his head examined.

Notice how the quam has always been used for other purposes than its implementation. At the time of its drafting, it was meant to provide Shaebia with a façade of democracy without actually being so. When the G-15 used it, it was used as the last weapon of resort to unseat Isaias, with little chance of success. Its appeal came from the fact that it was short of violent means rather than from the belief that it can do the job. And now, the same impotent weapon is being wielded to unseat Isaias. Could it be that this too gains its appeal because it falls short of its doable alternative, demobilization, given that the colonels and generals happen to draw their military, political and economic powers from full mobilization? If so, what we are looking is how the quam is being used three times for what it doesn’t do. And when it does what it does, in all instances, it helps Shaebia find its equilibrium.

Lessons to be drawn

Whatever the impacts of the Forto event turn out to be, the minimum we should expect is for us to draw the right lessons from it. Already, many in the opposition are drawing wrong and unwarranted lessons from it. First, the Forto event is being taken as grass roots movement – a mismatching of the most serious type. That doesn’t hold true among the rank and file, let alone the masses. And second, based on that assessment, an inference that the “self-reliant” way is the only way to go is being made. To the contrary, what it shows is the indispensability of the top and outside forces in ushering regime change in Eritrea.

The underlying structure of recent activities in Eritrea, as exhibited in the discontent at top and the mutiny itself, has striking similarities with the G-15 dissent. The following are five lessons that I drew from the G-15 dissent in my 2007 article, Lessons from G-15 Dissent8:

  1. Given the totalitarian grip under which the masses are living, that the prospect of mass uprising in Eritrea is dim;
  2. that a call for such an uprising should never be framed in terms of appeal to democracy only, if ever;
  3. that the issue of “survival” (instead that of “democracy”) should take center in facilitating any uprising or regime change;
  4. that if any meaningful dissent is going to take place in Eritrea, it would have to be spearheaded by the members of the leadership itself – at minimum, by those at the mid-level position;
  5. and that the leadership would rise up only if their survival is threatened (and not because of any love for democracy) and if they feel that Isaias is at its most vulnerable point.

Although these similarities will be discussed more extensively in Part II and Part III, there are two major lessons that we can draw based on them:

(a) The indispensability of the discontent at the top

The above assessment on the ambivalent mind of the opposition is made not to belittle the reactions triggered by the Forto event, but to draw the parameters wherein such a rebellion could take place in totalitarian Eritrea; or rather, to acknowledge the indispensability of the military leaders’ input (be it directly or indirectly) in such kind of uprising. That is why it is necessary to widen our enquiry to include background information on the buildup of the discontent of the army, in general, and the colonels and generals, in particular. It has been a while since the discontent of the rank and file has reached a critical level; after all, there is no better way to show one’s discontent than fleeing the country en mass, of which the rank and file conscripts have been doing in their tens of thousands. So has it been with the masses, for reasons that have to do both with their dire living conditions and with the lot of their children in the national service and beyond. But, obviously, that hasn’t been enough for an uprising to materialize. What has been missing so far is discontent at the top. In logical terms, it would go as follows: even though the discontent of rank and file and the masses is necessary for any successful uprising to materialize, what would make it sufficient is the discontent at the top.

If so, even if it turns out that the military leaders were not behind the January 21st daring act in numbers or groups that would make them directly relevant, their wide spread discontent could have created the necessary vacuum wherein such an insurgency could take place, but without necessarily guaranteeing its success. Immaterial of whether the military leaders’ discontent has morphed into active dissent or not, we need to look at the indispensable link between the Forto event and the military leaders’ discontent; for without the military leaders’ input, nothing would happen in totalitarian Eritrea. Thus, contrary to what Eritreans in diaspora opposition believe, what is critical to ushering regime change in Eritrea is the rising up of military leaders. That doesn’t mean the rank and file soldiers and the masses have no role to play; they will rise up only if they see an uprising at the top – a condition that would open enough public space for them to rise up. Given this, the most important question in regard to the recent dissent would be: what do the colonels and generals want? And corollary to such a question is another important question: what do the rank and file soldiers and the masses want? This is so because it is only when there is a convergence in between the interests of the former and latter that any meaningful change will take place. (We will look at these questions in Part II and Part III)

If the military leaders’ discontent is indispensable to the success of an insurgency, its failure should also be attributed to the shortcomings of that discontent. The fact that the discontent might not have been broad enough or deep enough, or that it has so far failed to morph into active dissent, might be sighted as a reason for such failure. We will have to look at the military leaders’ dilemma (in Part III) to see what has so far prevented this discontent from reaching a critical mass.

(b) The indispensability of pressure from outside

Another wrong lesson drawn from the Forto incident is that, despite its brief outburst, its narrow base and its minimalist agenda, it emboldened many from the opposition to proclaim, “we can do it all on our own; we do not need help from outside.”

For long, those who have been propagating a “self-reliant” revolution have been arguing that, for various dubious reasons, Eritreans do not need outsiders’ help to unseat Isaias Afwerki and that it is only a matter of time before the Eritrean masses would rise up against the regime. With one eye warily kept on the “enemy,” that “matter of time” has been recklessly left open-ended; so much so, that the Eritrean experience would probably require for revolutions to come with expiration dates stamped on them –  that is, if they are to retain any significance in what they want to attain. The luxury of time the self-reliant ones have given themselves can be traced in their delaying tactics. They have been consistently objecting outside pressure of any form: UN imposed sanctions, arms embargo, economic pressure (except for symbolic ones), Ethiopian military pressure, etc. Now, they have taken this crack in an otherwise opaque and sealed totalitarian system as conclusive evidence that the self-reliant revolution they adhere to is working; and, in the process, have been bending facts to fit their unwarranted conclusion. They do not comprehend that it is in search of this revolution without expiration date that a whole population group has been shifted en mass from mainland Eritrea to diaspora Eritrea, the very making of a disjointed nation at its seams. The logic of such mismatch at a conceptual level is that, if need be, even the nation has to give way for the “proper” revolution to arrive.

If this insurgency proves anything, it would be just the opposite of what the self-reliant opposition is claiming. First, like its predecessors in mieda and independent Eritrea – Falul, Menqae, Yemin, ’93 Idema Teghadelti, G-15, etc – its brief outburst and its minimalist agenda happen to be more signs of failure than success. Second, the buildup of the discontent that serves as a background for this insurgency is more of a result of outside pressure than anything the opposition (be it from inside or outside) has done on its own. And, third, the weak points of the Forto insurgency shows that more, and not less, of that outside pressure is needed to make this kind of uprising succeed.

Conclusion: reassembling disjointed Eritrea

If we are to put the regime’s overarching strategy of control mechanism in one phrase, it would be: social atomization. At micro level, this would go as far down as the individual. The attempt to isolate the Warsai socially has born fruit for the regime in that whenever he/she attempts to find solution to his/her situation, he/she never thinks in collective terms, and opts for the individual way. And to some extent, the regime has also done that to those at the top, by pitting the colonels and generals against their subordinates and one another. But what has served the regime the most is what it does to socially atomize at macro level by keeping the three Eritreas mentioned above – that of expelled Warsai in diaspora, that of urban Eritrea populated with helpless demographic groups and that of the army mainly composed of peasants – disjointed. Once I wrote the following stanza with the “strategic alliance” of various population groups, on which Eritrea has been built, in mind (Eritrea, Eritreans and Eritreanism):

Assembling disjointed Eritrea

Frankensteins are not assembled
out of alien, monster components,
but out of normal creatures’ body parts.
It is only that they don’t fit with one another
or are joined at their weakest links.

It seems to me that this stanza is even more relevant when applied to the kind of disjointed Eritrea that Shaebia has created after the border war when it went fully totalitarian. If this nation can keep its current balance on its historical tightrope walking only by holding the three main population groups disjointed from one another, then we have all the makings of a Frankenstein nation. Notice how unnatural this Frankenstein making is; the disjointed parts are artificially kept separate of one another: fathers from their children, sons and daughters from their families, students from their school, workers from their jobs, farmers from their farms, peasants from their villages, urbanites from their cities, citizens from their country, etc.

If all the effort of the regime is to keep these three Eritreas disjointed, then the opposition’s task has been cut out for them: they ought to try to do just the opposite; every attempt should be made to deny the regime doing so. The first step in such a strategy is to identify that the ultimate weapon that would deny Shaebia the disjointed world in which it thrives is demobilization, and make a battle cry of it. Literally, demobilization is the single mechanism that will close all the distances that Shaebia has created to feel secure in its hegemony. Demobilization is what sends children back to their parents, adults back to their work, peasants back to their farms, fathers back to their children, husbands back to their wives, kahnat back to their churches, urbanites back to the cities, farmers back to their villages, the refugees back to their country, etc. With that single move, all that has been disjointed comes together to bring normalcy back into the people’s daily lives.

So far, the mindless diaspora opposition has been rallying around senseless causes, which have been made more prominent by the mutineers: the release of political prisoners and the implementation of the constitution. Neither the peasants in the army nor the masses could identify with these causes, both because they belittle their existential predicament and happen to be not doable without demobilization. [I will extensively argue on this point in Part III.] Thus, demobilization comes first in the order of doable steps: demobilization leads to normalization, which in turn leads to democratization. Of course, this demand cannot be entertained without making peace with Ethiopia – and therein lies the opposition’s predicament. They cannot extricate themselves from the paranoid world that Sheabia has created for them. Instead of eschewing that world in its entirety, they look at ways of salvaging Eritrea within the confines of that Frankenstein world. How is it possible to address the plight of prisoners without bringing together disjointed Eritrea, given that the prison system is indispensable in keeping the nation disjointed? How is it possible to talk about democracy on the disjointed parts of Eritrea? Any other people with their survival instinct still intact in their place would have known exactly what their battle cry should be: “Demobilize the army!” and “Make peace with Ethiopia!That is why those who are trapped in Isaias’ world of “security-first”, always keeping an eye on the “enemy” keep asking the most frivolous question: how do we improve the EDF? That this question has come from those who have been vociferously opposing sanctions and arms embargo says it all: unwittingly or not, they are at it again helping Shaebia to regain its balance.

Let me in the end put this reminder: demobilization as a demand that bypasses the tyrant and reaches the ears of the relevant forces of change is preferred to others because it is the only one that gets the matching puzzle right. I will go to details on this in Part III.

[So far, I have yet to say anything on the discontent at the top, namely its presence, its nature and the dilemma it brings along, and the litmus test that is supposed to lay bare the mismatches at their joints – that is, in the response to the demand for release of prisoners. In Part II, the discontent’s presence and nature; In part III, the response to the demand and the dilemma, will be covered.]


[1] [6] Younis, Saleh; Isaias Afwerki Deals with His Regime’s Suicide Note; March 10, 2013,

[2] Ismail Omar-Ali; Operation Forto: A Prelude to a Final Showdown;, March 13, 2013.

[3] Interview with Samuel Berhane;; Feb 25, 2013.

[4] There are a series of articles that I wrote under the title Democrcy Project in

[5] Jaroslav Hasek; The Good Soldier Svejk: and His Fortunes in the World War; translated by Cecil Parrott; Penguin Classics; Dec 27, 2005.

[6] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Democracy Project.

[7] Younis, Saleh; Isaias Afwerki Deals with His Regime’s Suicide Note

[8] Ghebrehiwet, Yosief; Lessons from the G-15 Dissent; April 21, 2007. Its latest version as reposted recently: Sanctions Watch: Lessons From G-15

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