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Eritrea: Fathers and Sons and the Grammar of Independence

Eritrea: Fathers and Sons and the Grammar of Independence

Yosief Ghebrehiwet

The concept of “independence” as having evolved in the Eritrean revolution looks as if it is a result of grammar confusion, especially of the prepositions “from” and “of” as used in “independence from Ethiopia” and “independence of Eritrea” respectively. Lost among this confusion is what it actually means to be “independent” without any preposition appended to it, in the former case, and how to identify that elusive identity “Eritrea” referred to by the preposition “of”, in the latter case. This grammatical confusion though is not as trivial as it seems, for mirroring it at a deeper level is a story of a generation that went to extraordinary length to achieve a goal they never had an inkling of what it was all about and what it would eventually lead into. While the “independence” they had in mind could only be defined in negative terms as opposed to an enemy rendered ever-present, the construct “Eritrea” that was supposedly the beneficiary of this independence was to find no fit, however loose that might be, with the realty on the ground. How did this come about?

The concept of independence, as conceived by ghedli (the revolution) and as practiced now by the regime, is one that is negatively defined, devoid of any intrinsic attributes that could stand on their own. During the entire revolutionary era, independence was defined as “independence from Ethiopia” without ever attempting to understand what it would mean to be “independent” – without the preposition “from” attached to it – once Ethiopia leaves the scene; that is, when the strings of dependence were “cut off” once and for all. Those who joined the revolution never asked what it would mean to people’s lives in terms of individual liberty, governance, rule of law, identity, destiny, legacy, prosperity, security, spirituality, creativity, fulfillment and happiness. But the problem is not simply that the ghedli generation didn’t know what to do with independence once they achieved it, but that they never knew what to ask prior to launching or joining the revolution. The scary part of this is not that they failed to deliver after independence, bad as that may be, but that given the false premise upon which the whole revolution was based there might have been nothing to deliver after all. If so, the revolution shouldn’t be questioned for its violent past only, but also for having spilled so much blood for a cause it never clearly articulated.

Below, I will deal with the concept of “independence” negatively understood as “independence from” only. I will try to trace its origin all the way back to the Italian era. We will see how the crisis in modernity that the first urban generation (the Isaias generation) faced translated into and an identity crisis that determined the nature of ghedli (the revolution), and the concept of independence that goes with it, for decades to come. In another article, I will deal with the elusive identities “Eritrean” and “Eritrea” referred to by the preposition “of”.

Cutting off ties of dependence

What is it that is preventing Eritrea from finding its rightful place in an interdependent world? To answer this question, first we need to look at what it means to be independent in an interdependent world, as opposed to the negative independence that evolved during ghedli era.

The very idea of checks and balances tells us that not all independence is good, for unfettered independence always comes at the expense of someone else. There is no space in the world, none at all, where one can live without impacting and being impacted by others; nor is it desirable. Within such an interdependent world, independence does not mean cutting oneself off from all societal constraints and obligations, but having the ability to freely negotiate with all the links that connect one with others; even though that negotiation is inbuilt into the form of life itself and hence remains mostly implicit. But when it comes to a nation finding its place in an interdependent world, the rules of the game are more explicit. Within such a world, independence is more of a conscious balancing act than simply cutting off links of dependence with the rest of the world. In a strange reversal of this order though, Shaebia (the dominating front during the revolution, now turned into the sole ruling party) believes that the more it cuts itself off from the rest of the world, the more independent it becomes.

Since it is impossible to live outside the world of interdependence, the one who nevertheless tries it can only do so but by tipping the balance to his favor; that is, by shifting the balance of the burden on unfortunate others. In the end, such a deformed understanding of independence as “independence from” is meant to be the independence to do whatever one wants to do, devoid of norms, rules or any other constraining standards. With such independence, one gains all the space he needs to be “free” by invading the space of freedom of others. It is this deranged kind of independence that we are witnessing now being practiced by Shaebia/Isaias and that informs the worldview of the foot soldiers.

Shaebia abhors any constraints that prevent it from doing whatever it wants to do. When it deals with powerful entities it has no control of, all it does is cut off the links it has had with them so as to be fully “independent”, without having any clue with what to do with its newly found independence once the entities are made to leave the scene (as it was the case with Ethiopia); that is, without sorting out the consequences of such an act. We have seen that happen many times with the US, UNMEE, UN, AU, IGAD, Red Cross, US Aid, NGOs, Ambassador Bandini, etc. And when it feels it can afford to go violent to cut off a relation, it doesn’t hesitate at all. We have seen that exercised with Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. This is too consistent a pattern to be just coincidence. It simply is impossible for Shaebia to negotiate its place in an interdependent world; there is nothing in its past history that has prepared it for such eventuality.

Any conditions imposed on Shaebia, even when done solely for its own benefit (like getting food aid), is taken as a gross infringement on its independence. When it expelled NGOs from the country, it was with the with the intention of taking full control of food distribution and the totalitarian control that comes with it. Notice that the “independence from” NGOs came at a huge expense of the masses. There is no way this negative independence can be sustained without compensating itself for its loss by shifting the burden to the masses. Once independence is intrinsically defined as “cutting off one’s dependence on others”, this negative process doesn’t know where to stop. It has this slippery slope effect that finds no resting place in an interdependent world. It aims at nothing less than draining the subjects’ world of interdependence.

Given its slippery slope nature, if we push the concept of “independence from” within a closed world to its logical end, we end up with a sole individual trying to make all others within that world dependent on him. The very idea of making everyone else dependent on oneself is nothing short of godly aspiration, one that can only be attempted by a totalitarian leader. And when such a leader cuts himself off from all societal, national, regional and international constraints so as to do whatever he wants to do, he cannot attain such a goal without completely destroying the interdependent world of his subjects. Most of the essential links that make up the interdependent world of his would-be-dependents have to be brutally severed off from one another. The slave is a classical example of someone who is forcibly and totally removed from his world of interdependence so that he could be made to totally depend on his master; in his case then, the cutting off process from his “natural habitat” is almost total. It is easy to see how the aspirations of a totalitarian leader is not unlike that of a slave master, the only difference being that in the former case it is a whole population that are to be turned into his slaves.

No wonder Shaebia wants to cut itself off from all societal constraints – legal, moral, cultural, historical, precedential, religious, societal, political, diplomatic, economic, regional, global, etc – to be fully “independent” so as to conduct one social experiment after another on the Eritrean masses. It is no coincidence that all its experiments are directly aimed at draining all the social capital that the interdependent world of its subjects offers. By cutting off all the lateral links that tie the masses with one another, it is hoped that only vertical strings that tie them directly with Shaebia will remain to hold.

The most brazen “cutting off” experiment is currently being conducted on the Warsai generation (the young generation that makes up the bulk of the national service), with the family identified as the number one enemy blocking Shaebia from molding this generation in its own image. The whole educational system setup, Sawa and the national service are meant to be the means through which this generation gets immersed into the nihilist culture of ghedli. All that Shaebia has to do is cut this young generation off from their families, in particular, and the greater society, in general, and isolate them for as long as possible to attain its goal of creating a conforming, obedient society easily amenable to its totalitarian designs. You can see that the process of forcibly taking the Warsai away from the interdependent world they have been thriving in is not unlike that of the slave. It has been necessary for Shaebia to cut the Warsai off from all those rich sources that used to feed their identity – family, village, city, religion, education, culture, history, society, etc. – to turn them into robotic dependents answerable to it only. Once they are plucked away from their natural habitat, they would be made easily amenable to Shaebia’s Orwellian experiment, or so it is hoped.

Given the slippery-slope nature of the negative independence conceived by ghedli, it is no wonder that, in the end, it whittled down into the independence of the One. Here is what I said in Sealing Off Eritrea:

“When revolutions taken in the name of the masses degenerate, first, the independence of the people gets devalued into that of the party’s/front’s; and, last, when the totalitarian system is fully entrenched, it atrophies into that of the leader’s. Such has been the fate of the Eritrean revolution, where the concept of ‘independence’ has taken this downward spiral to eventually mean the unfettered independence of the Dear and Beloved Leader to do whatever experimentations he wants to undertake in order to arrive at the exact formula that would finally work miracles for Eritrea.”

How could the concept of independence have degenerated to such extent as to mean exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to mean? One has to look at its devolvement through three stages: (a) at it genesis during the pre-revolutionary era, where that cutting off process took place between fathers and sons; (b) at its consolidation through the revolutionary era, where the cutting off process took place between ghedli and the rest of Eritrea, both in its geographic and social sense (the insulation of Sahel); (c) and at its practice in post-independence Eritrea, where the cutting off process is taking place at every level of the society, the most notable of which is the national service (with Warsai as guinea pigs). In the rest of this article, it will be the first one that will be mainly discussed, although we will touch the other two.

It is probably understandable that the revolution couldn’t offer anything that couldn’t be found within itself. But what is striking is that half a century back that is exactly how the revolution started: when the sons rebelled against their fathers and whatever they stood for (history, culture, religion, the village, fathers, etc) and decided to cut off the essential link to their heritage in order to start from a clean slate called “Eritrea”.

It is easier to conduct the destruction of the interdependent world of a given society if the rich web of links that tie the people to one another has already been frayed. Totalitarianism has had by far a better chance of taking hold in such societies. Shaebia met with stunning success in implementing its totalitarian designs on the Eritrean society mainly because of the already frayed identity of a generation upon which it came to prey so easily. If so, the critical question that we need to ask is: how did this frayed identity that became an easy target of ghedli and its totalitarian designs came to be? For that, we have to go all the way back to the 40s to look at the role fathers and sons played during this critical transition era.

Fathers and sons

In the usual relay race of life, fathers hand over the legacy baton to their sons, and those sons carry it over with all the care it demands with the intention of passing it over to their sons, and so on down to the next generation. In that “baton” are to be found all the heritage that the sons need to know to continue the life journey of their people: history, culture, customs, rule of law, language, religion, myths, stories, collective wisdom and other multi-layered legacies that would sustain their people for generations to come. Any abrupt and total break in passing it over would usher a disaster of epic proportion, for one loses the whole survival kit in the process. Cultures require an evolutionary sedimentation to incrementally build up but an abrupt violence to demolish, for all it requires for everything to vanish is the shattering drop of that external drive that stores all the information of the tribe.

Now, if you will, reverse the above mentioned process and imagine the sons contemptuously handing back the baton to their fathers, believing that there is nothing they could learn from it, but nevertheless arriving at the finishing line at a stunning speed, only to find out they have not won. This is so simply because they don’t happen to have the baton in their hands at the finishing line, an essential requirement of this relay race of life. If you can imagine that, then you are looking at the role of the Eritrean fathers and sons in the making of the Eritrean revolution, where the sons, in contempt of their fathers, finished the race to independence on their own, only to find out they have lost all that was worth preserving along the way. No wonder ghedli has been desperately trying to make a virtue out of the running only, oblivious as it has been of the nature of the end goal itself. The fact that Eritrea has now been turned into Sahel (back into the era of ghedli) is because the ghedli generation knows nothing else beyond the running itself; it can only offer the masses what of what it knows: more of ghedli.

But this cardinal sin didn’t belong to the sons only. The fathers too committed the greatest crime any father could possibly commit when they confused their sons’ confidence in the little they knew from their rudimentary schooling for wisdom, thereby abdicating their responsibility as fathers, and deferred to their sons who refused to carry their legacy and decided to strike on their own.

Socrates gives us the best definition of what knowledge is. When asked why the Athenian Oracle has chosen him as the wisest man, he replies, “Because I know that I don’t know”. Some may point to this definition to make a virtue out of humbleness, but that would totally miss the point if by “humbleness” they mean that Socrates is saying that there are wiser men than him. Socrates’ point has rather a sweeping generalization in it: one learns from anyone or anywhere. By saying that, one admits severe limits to an individual’s capacity to know all that he needs to know. Thus, a wise man is one who admits that he will readily avail himself of the collective wisdom stored outside of his limited self. The metaphor of external drive (in the form of a “baton”) is apt here. Anyone who believes that all he needs to know in life is stored in his internal drive will be woefully inadequate in preparing for this life. The point that I am driving at is this: an individual is not the place where we seek knowledge from. Knowledge is to be found dispersed in society at large, and a wise man is the one who realizes his limitations and defers to that stored knowledge that comes in the form of history, culture, religion, myths, fables, stories, language, etc. Fathers are simply a point of contact with that external knowledge and hence an indispensable part for its transmission. Or to put it differently: fathers are the only link we have to all that ever was.

This essential link began to fray during the colonial era, when the effects of coming face to face with modernity began to take its toll.

A culture of uncertainty

The estrangement from one’s own heritage, which was finally to acquire alien characteristics and define ghedli essentially, had its roots in the urban culture of Eritrea. As I said many times before, the Eritrean revolution – especially in its heyday – has been entirely looked at through urban eyes, in general, and the student body, in particular. The peasants had never been consulted, and consequently their opinion was never sought, even though they were about to pay the greatest price out of all the population groups. So it is important to look at how this urban-oriented revolution that was to be imposed on the rest of Eritrea came to acquire alien characteristics.

Even as the Italians ruled Eritrea for decades, urbanization was very slow coming to it. Through most of the Italian occupation, Asmara remained a sleepy small town. It was only when Mussolini decided to invade Ethiopia and made a central hub out of Asmara as a springboard that it abruptly, almost overnight, sprouted into a city of tens of thousands. That is why, in the late sixties and early seventies, there were only few adults who could claim a grandfather born in Asmara. Immediately after Second World War, most of the city population consisted of village migrants. The first “educated” generation to come out of the city consisted of the ones born in the forties (the Isaias and Duru generation, now in their sixties). This was the first urban generation that was born in a cultural void; a void that was to haunt Eritrea for decades to come. [Look at Gabriel Guangul’s series, Analyze Asmara, for an extensive analysis on the Asmara phenomenon]

The peasants that settled in large numbers in Asmara, the first urban fathers, even though awed by the occupiers’ civilization and felt somewhat inferior to it, were solid as people of character would go because they were already “finished” as products of the traditional culture when they showed up in the city. By then, the sudden contact with modernity couldn’t do too much damage to their psyche and their integrity remained intact throughout the “civilizing process”. That is to say, there was certainty in what they were doing, in that they knew exactly what they wanted out of their lives, be it as a farmer, priest or even askari. There is no room for doubt in a peasant’s world; coming face to face with modernity could only have a limited impact on their identity and, consequently, on the major choices they made in their lives. A peasant is at peace with modernity; he picks and chooses whatever amenities it offers while discarding whatever seems to demand too much alteration of his worldview.

What the fathers were uncertain of was whether the traditional culture that made them what they were was worth transmitting to their children; that is, they didn’t feel secure enough to transmit their solidity to their sons. The tragedy of this was this procedural uncertainty of the fathers was to show up as a character flaw in their sons; the new generation inherited a culture of uncertainty. The sons couldn’t avoid the identity crisis that their fathers successfully escaped.

Their sons, who sensed the insecurity of their fathers, felt there was nothing they could learn from them. Besides, they felt that the city offered them all that they needed. The Isaias generation (and other urban generations to follow) totally put their back on the traditional culture, having felt that there was nothing they could learn from it. But at the same time, they could only imitate the Western culture. Think, if you will, of the typical “Asmarino” of the fifties and sixties, a city-sleeker who could imitate the Italians to perfection in the way he walks, dresses, eats pasta, uses slangs and moves around the city with all the assuredness of what he is doing without having any clue as to the depth and richness of the Italian culture. This is what I wrote in the comment section of “Romanticizing Ghedli”:

“The first urban-born generation showed no solidity of character that either their fathers or the Italians had, for both the Habesha and the Italian cultures are rich in their own ways. But this generation inherited neither. They had contemptuously put their back on the traditional culture, but at the same time all that they could do was imitate the Western culture. Thus, they found themselves in a cultural void that lacked any certainty. The uncertainty that crept into the major choices they made in their lives created a lethal, nihilist context where everything was allowed ...”

The ghedli generation was left suspended at limbo: the problem was not simply that they were running away from the traditional culture, but that they had nothing to replace it with. This void was a precursor to the nihilist culture to emerge in mieda, for it was this generation that came to impose its “culture” on the rest of Eritrea.

Many critics say that the authoritarian nature of Shaebia can be traced back to its Marxist past. I disagree, as I have done many times before. The Marxism of Shaebia was only surface deep, one that was easily dusted off its political body once it officially discarded communism. The surface acquisition of Marxism mirrors the surface acquisition of the Italian culture. Both were straws that the generation of uncertainty desperately held on to give meaning to the void within. The students’ input to ghedli derived from this uncertainty, where the margin of error allowed for it to work was as wide as can possibly be. This uncertainty shouldn’t be confused for tolerance; it was simply a reflection of a generation that didn’t know the necessary coordinates on which to place its fears, dreams, desires and actions. And that is what we are witnessing now in regard to many Eritreans’ attitude towards Shaebia, where everything and anything is allowed because they lack recognizable coordinates between which they could locate any of its acts.

An incurious generation

As pointed above, the ghedli generation did not only cut itself off from Habesha culture but it had also no means of connecting itself to Western (Italian) culture. The lesson from this is that one has to hold on to his/her own culture if one is to incorporate aspects of other cultures, or even if one is to eventually discard most of his old self. After all, we own one body at a time; there cannot be a total break in between the discarded old and the acquired new. There is no Archimedean point from which to construct the self ex nihilo. The point is this: starting from void, one lacks the necessary “psychic body” to acquire anything.

If the above is true, then the curiosity essential to learn and absorb one’s own culture is the very curiosity needed to know other cultures. And at a more expanded level, it is the very curiosity needed to know the Others within the confines of a nation – ethnic groups, different gender, religious groups, different generations, etc – that is also needed to know the Others of the rest of the world. The other way round also holds true: if you do not show curiosity when you meet the outside world, it is precisely because you have never shown curiosity when you met other cultures in your country. By the same token, you couldn’t also have shown curiosity to your own culture. If charity is supposed to start at home, so does curiosity. There can be no cosmopolitanism without a healthy dosage of curiosity to go around.

One of the dire consequences that resulted from the ghedli generation’s cultural self-seclusion, soon to be followed by cultural insulation in Sahel, was that an incredibly incurious people were created. The healthy dosage of curiosity needed to listen and learn from others (the Socratic wisdom) was totally missing. If you believe all that you need comes from your experience in the field, you have no incentive at all to learn outside temokro mieda, be it from the age-old culture of the people or specialized professions or anything else that the wider world offers. The ghedli generation thought they had nothing to learn from their fathers (from haghereseb) when they were in Asmara; they thought they had nothing to learn from ghebar (peasant) when they were in mieda; they now believe they have nothing to learn from the rest of Eritrea. But that attitude equally stands against foreigners. Their disdain for what the Western world has to offer is similar to the disdain they have for all that modern-day ghebar (civilian) stands for. They felt that there is nothing that they could learn from the West; their disdain for all kinds of Western democracy comes from this debilitating incuriosity. There is no surprise then in the fact that the incuriosity they have developed towards their own kind has finally developed into a virulent anti-cosmopolitanism.

Socrates embodies that quintessential philosopher with child-like curiosity towards everything around him. This kind of wisdom comes not only from listening to others but also from listening to Nature that surrounds us – an interdependent world, indeed. One can then reduce the whole act of wisdom to listening. If so, listening is nothing but the activating and reactivating of the links in one’s interdependent world. In opposition to this, we have the ghedli generation that refused to listen to their fathers and all that they stood for. And when ensconced in Sahel, they perfected the art of not listening to such an extent that the “ear” became an endangered species. Once they did that, lacking any moral, cultural or political standard to guide their acts, anything and everything became permissible. To such a mind that ignores centuries of precedence, it comes easy to do the unthinkable, such as conducting giffa in monasteries, forcing priests to carry arms or imprisoning a Patriarch.

Totalitarianism preys on frayed identities for it to take hold in a society. Having cut off all the links they had to the interdependent world of Habesha, the ghedli generation rendered themselves perfect guinea pigs for ghedli’s experimentation. Their debilitating incuriosity created a fertile soil for totalitarianism to take deep roots. If they didn’t know what to ask regarding the essential choices in their lives that were to determine the nature of their identity, how is it possible for them to know what is essential for the nation? After all, the frayed identity that they have come to acquire through the years is the very identity on whose image the nation’s identity has been being constructed. And the national crisis that we have ended up with is nothing else but the mirror image of this generation’s identity crisis. [How the identities of “Eritrean” and “Eritrea” kept reinforcing each other in their makings will be the subject matter of the next posting.]

Conclusion: deferring to ghedli

How, indeed, did the concept of independence meant to save a whole nation end up to mean one man’s independence – the tyrant Isaias Afwerki’s?

There is much frivolous analysis in the Internet that tries to confine all the ills of Eritrea to one man, thereby exculpating the rest of Eritrea, at most, and ghedli, at least, in the process. The realty though is much more complex, with various strands of the society contributing to the making of the totalitarian system in Eritrea. First, we have seen how, at a critical transition era, fathers abdicated their responsibility to their sons. The sons, the first generation to face a crisis in modernity, responded to their identity crisis by ferociously embracing ghedli identity. But since this was a projection of their own traumatized identity, all the problems that they were trying to run away from were carried over to their new identity. The debilitating uncertainty that marked their identity in the urban setting was to follow them all the way to mieda and back to Asmara.

Second, the fathers’ abdication of their responsibility to their sons was also to haunt the nation at a more general level. Throughout the ghedli era, the whole nation refused to question anything that was done in the name of ghedli. When it comes to the nature of ghedli, to the means employed to achieve its goal and to the nature of the end goal itself, the whole nation deferred to the wisdom of ghedli itself. The population held no opinion of their own on all these matters of extreme importance; they always said, “deki’na yifeltu’”. The sad part is neither did the sons in mieda who, in turn, deferred either to the abstractly referred “ghedli” or to the party/front (Jebha or Shaebia) or to the leadership.

And when teghadelti showed up in Asmara, the people again deferred to their wisdom, to temokro mieda, to build independent Eritrea. None of us dared enquire what took place in the three decades they were in mieda. Instead, we further gave them a blank check to do whatever they wanted to do. But the teghadelti themselves, having absolutely no idea what to do with it, they handed it over to the Supreme Leader – as they had always done in the past. Even when it came to the much vaunted constitution, the whole nation deferred to them. With all the strings put in Isaias’ hands, learned marionettes were made to scribe whatever he wanted them to say. Fake public dialogs were conducted where everything that the drafters wrote passed with flying colors. In the end, it is no more “deki’na yifeltu’”, but “Isaias yifelit’”.

Should we now wonder when the Supreme Leader in Asmara has taken all the responsibility that we willingly abdicated to him and has been trying his hardest to mold independent Eritrea in his own image; or rather in the image of ghedli generation?


Yosief Ghebrehiwet