Pessimism has been the prevailing state of mind in Eritrea for some time. And why not? There sure is plenty to be pessimistic about. Ruled by unenlightened group that has consistently adhered to a medieval code of conduct that exerts maximum pain on its subjects, Eritrea has been inhospitable to its own citizens.
Not surprisingly, some asmarino.com writers have even gone to the extent of declaring Eritrea’s independence a mistake and something that should be reversed. Although their frustration is understandable, I don’t believe anything good can come out of such desperation. It is better to salvage what we have (not an easy task) to recoup some of the dignity we have squandered so willfully before contemplating alternatives from a position of extreme weakness.
As bad as we have let things get, however, it is not hard to see Eritrea’s malaise is reversible. Even taking recent African examples, Rwanda is doing much better compared to its bloody past. Admittedly, given the history of one-man shows that stay too long leaving messy exits behind, it may not be out of the woods just yet but it sure is on a hopeful trend. Ethiopia is another good example. In spite of its complex problems, it is truly moving on making more good decisions than bad ones. It even went through its first institutional peaceful transfer of power in history. So, the current dark clouds over Eritrea’s skies can be cleared if (and this is a BIG if) we start behaving differently.
But first let me pile on the bad news to acknowledge how seriously broken things are.
From all indications, Eritrea appears to be a country without people. Sure, it has about 5 million inhabitants. But disempowered and dispirited, the inhabitants have so far refused to behave as people. We have resorted to small but ineffective regional or religious factions allowing ourselves to become easy prey for all sorts of vultures. Save very few brave souls, we have the tendency to obey any orders from the tyrant of the day, no matter how ridiculous (‘give me 50,000 nakfa or I will jail your elderly father’). In addition to modern-day slavery at home, this culture of extreme obedience and self cacooning has manifested itself in other undesirable ways too – one of which is the astronomical prices human traffickers demand from Eritreans only.
Normally, the sort of indiscriminate oppression the regime levels against its own people should have resulted in a united opposition to uproot it. But we are more divided than ever. Even the “youth” movements are infected with the divisive virus of the older generation dimming the light at the end of tunnel a bit more. The hope was that as the old folks die off, their divisive legacy would die with them. As it seems, the regime is more likely to fall under its own dead weight than through active demand for freedom. One seriously hopes not, but with severely weakened sense of a unifying national umbrella, Somalia’s recent history is not a far-fetched scenario for Eritrea’s near future.
Our dialog, if it can even be called that, lacks civil discourse mimicking the regime’s arrogant culture. Anytime someone or some group starts to make sense, the regime launches vicious attacks to discredit them using well-crafted misinformation it has perfected for over 40 years. To make matters worse, people either keep silent or repeat the regime’s falsehoods without a second thought. Having trashed the character of fellow citizens, Eritrea now appears to be devoid of decent folks to look up to as examples of good citizenship – where the tyrant is referred to as “the man”. Even our language has deteriorated to glorifying the despicable as manhood has nothing to do with killings, deceit and thievery.
And then we wonder “who” can replace the despot. But “who” is not even the right question. A more appropriate question to ask is “what” because what we have is a systemic failure. The focus ought to be on how to build self-correcting institutions that can cleanse themselves of tyrants through legal means.
The regime’s repeated servile visits to Egypt to sabotage efforts of multiple African countries to renegotiate outdated Nile water rights continues to isolate us from our neighbors. This ought to be a source of shame for all Eritreans because, at the end of the day, it is being done in our name.
But the regime’s obsession to sabotage Ethiopia at all costs has only managed to impoverish Eritrea. Either way – be it from the regime’s shameful submissiveness to Egypt or our silence - Eritrea is the loser. Although not expressed publicly, such creepy (loQmaS) behavior can only generate mocking laughter from Egypt -- proof of which is Egypt doing absolutely nothing to end the horrific crimes Eritreans are subjected to in Sinai.
Similarly, the regime financing regional armed groups who don’t even believe in Eritrea’s sovereignty can only be detrimental to Eritrea’s long term health. Taking Tigray’s “opposition” as an example, there is sufficient platform for them to resolve their issues within Ethiopia’s political space. As the regime continues to eliminate and disempower Eritreans, it is possible this Tigray group could end up being the primary security force to guard the rotting regime – creating complexities that will be difficult to untangle for future generations on both sides of the border.
But enough about the bad news. What now?
One core value that is missing from our interactions is trust. It is ironic that blind trust on the regime’s current actors is what got us where we are today. Instead of leveraging that trust to build a better future, however, the regime chose to install multi-layered spy networks to destroy trust itself. As a result, lifelong friends, neighbors and even family members don’t trust each other anymore.
Could those in the opposition and civic groups, especially the “youth” groups, gather the courage to reach out to their peers to reconcile differences and re-direct the fight against the regime instead of against each other? Could each of us make our own individual pledges to withdraw our membership from the club of ‘silent majority’ and support those we believe are making a positive difference? Mine goes to Arbi Harnet for their innovative approach to reach their peers in Eritrea because sustainable change can only come from inside Eritrea – with support from outside accelerating that change.
Communication with the right tone
There are well-intentioned individuals or groups (the G13, G15, civic groups, Internet groups etc) with strong desire to do something transformative. Unfortunately, they either exit the scene too soon or squabble among each other posing no threat to the regime. For a tiny country of 5 million (if that), we have too many splinter groups with no discernible collaborative spirit or, worse, with deep but unfounded antagonism towards each other. In a way, we have become the best allies the corrupt regime could hope for – perpetuating the agony in the process.
Those leading the way need to start communicating with a respectful tone to gain followers. Often, the message that comes across loud and clear has a tone of dictators in waiting who want to rule rather than leaders who are ready to serve.
Our dialog needs to be elevated to more dignified levels – respectful, coherent and persistent than what we have had so far. We need to have the right tone in our conversations everywhere (in formal meetings, in forums, in places of worship, in coffee shops etc) to replace the regime’s dismissive tone and feudal culture. The Orthodox church’s split into pro and anti-regime cliques is sad to say the least.
Culture of inter-dependence
Our recent history, architected by few insiders of the regime, has been one of extreme arrogance. This has alienated us from each other and from the rest of the world. The arrogance of yesteryears where we derisively saw Ethiopia as nothing more than a market for Eritrea’s finished goods is a fading memory now. We have made a total mess of things and destroyed whatever potential there was to produce goods for export. Ethiopia is advancing ahead of Eritrea now and we are more likely to become consumers of Ethiopia’s goods. Eritrea doesn't produce much that improves the lives of its people or that is of interest to others. If there is (gold you might say?), the feudal lord and his minions have made sure nothing trickles down to improve the economy. Forget meeting energy needs for industrialization purposes. Eritrea can’t even handle demand for basic household lighting.
Unless cheaper sources of energy are miraculously discovered, for example, energy self-sufficiency will remain an elusive goal and with it Eritrea’s elevation to the civilized world. A better formula could be mixing Ethiopia’s much cheaper hydro power and Eritrea’s port services as good counter weights in building an inter-dependent future with desirable side-benefits of reduced chances of conflicts. But the poisoned atmosphere needs to be detoxified for that and other formulas to be contemplated.
Although Assab and Massawa could still be viable for the long term, they are less competitive to Djibouti’s improving port services and other options Ethiopia is exploring. Meles’ words describing Assab as watering hole for camels still holds true today. Even if the regime gets a much deserved demise tomorrow, Eritrea’s ills will continue unless we start thinking and acting more constructively. We need to switch to an inter-dependent mind set to end the isolation. Unfortunately, we will have to face this from a position of weakness for some time.
Education is one of the very few high probability equalizers for personal and national growth. Nations with enlightened leaderships facilitate citizenship applications for highly educated foreigners. Our citizenship in western societies, gives us the opportunity to see this blessing first hand in our daily lives. Even Ethiopia is trying its hand by allowing Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia to attend its universities. What are the chances of those graduating from these universities returning to Eritrea’s life of slavery?
Unfortunately, the regime has marginalized education robbing the nation of two decades worth of quality education. Mentioning the closure of the only accredited university, the so-called chancellor never attending a university graduation ceremony, a semi-literate military man appointed to run the so called “colleges” (military boot camps in reality) is probably sufficient to show how deep we have sunk in this critical space.
Maybe we wouldn’t have made the ranks of other small countries like Finland and Singapore who come at the top of education achievement ratings year over year. But we could have made some progress towards that worthy goal if it weren’t for the wasted decades under a regime that despises education and the educated so much.
There is no denying things are bad. But it is possible to turn things around for the better by refocusing energies to re-build the frayed trust; through renewed commitment to respectful dialog that gets the tone right making everyone feel included; by moving away from the regime’s bombastic and isolationist culture towards an inter-dependent future within Eritrea and outside; and by re-starting the journey towards quality education. Rwanda and Ethiopia are improving the trajectory of their future. We can too. But for that to happen, we must first reject the regime’s toxic culture of exclusion and extreme arrogance wholesale.