In Search of the Eritrean Bouazizi

Berqi from Asmera

Born 29 March 1984 in a rural Tunisian town called Sidi Bouzid and one among seven siblings whose father died of a heart attack, he grew up working since he was ten years old to support not only his mother and siblings but also his sick uncle who was married to his mother when the father died of a heart attack. He grew up with the nickname ‘Basboussa’. Several media outlets said that he was a university graduate, but his sister said that he never graduated from high school. Up until he died, he sold produces, mainly fruits and vegetables, earning not more than US $140 a month. With this even paid for the university education of one of his sisters.

The essence is in the narration not in the accuracy of the details and the following closely describes what happened during and after the decisive day of 17 December 2010 which brought our man to global reputation. He contracted a debt of US $140 on 16 December 2010 and came early on the 17th with his fruit and vegetable cart and his electronic weighing scale. Just around 10:30 AM, Faida Hamdi, a 45-year-old female police officer, came with a few policemen and started to harass him. Some said he did not have the permit to sell fruits from a wheelbarrow, others said he did not need one; nevertheless, Faida is said to have slapped him, spat at him, confiscated his weighing scale, threw away his cart and made a slur against his deceased father. Her accompanying police officers also laid a hand in kicking and beating him. He then ran to the governor’s office to complain about his scales, but was denied access. As he was being expelled from the office, he shouted ‘I’ll burn myself if you don’t see me’ at the governor. Very much humiliated, he bought a can of gasoline, came back to the governor’s office, shouted ‘how do you expect me to make a living?’, and exactly at 11:30 AM he immolated himself in the middle of a busy traffic. What followed next, we all know. Despite transfers to a number of hospitals, a visit by the president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his empty promise to send the young man to France for treatment, the young man succumbed to his wounds and died at 5:30 PM on 4 January 2011.

This instinctive act of the 27-year old sparked a conflagration and public fury on 18 December 2011 in Tunisia that not only swiftly removed the despotic Ben Ali (14 January 2011) but also swept the entire North African mass and crossed the Red Sea and Mediterranean in a few months. Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Syria and others tasted from the cup of pure mass revolution. In short, the self-immolation of a young man in Sidi Bouzid gave birth to the Arab Spring. This vegetable seller sparked a movement that will forever be recorded as one of the swiftest intercontinental mass movements in recent world history.

Accolades and honors followed his death: in 2011, he was posthumously awarded the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought jointly with four others for their ‘contributions to historic changes in the Arab world’; the post Ben Ali government of Tunisia honored him by putting his picture on postage stamp; and The Times in London named him its Person of the Year for 2011; Paris’ mayor Bertrand Delanoë announced that a square in Paris will be named after him; the square where he died was named after his name; and a cart statue was unveiled in his honor in Sidi Bouzid.
He is none other than Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi.

One thing is to be remembered of the Bouazizi story: he did not intend to be a martyr. He did not consider his self-immolation to be a sacrifice so the Arab population could rise against the dynastic and semi-dynastic oligarchs in their respective countries. His was a spontaneous act purely motivated by economic reasons and personal humiliation by a boorish police officer. Bouazizi was simply the needle that burst open the frustration that had been swelling in that part of the world for more than half a century. By this article, I will argue that only individual, Bouazizian instinctive acts and not the recurrently told Eritrean story of ‘self-sacrifice for the people’ is likely rescue the nation simply because people are fatigued by the notion of sacrifice for the good.

The time, it looks, has passed for the conscious self-sacrifice for one’s country and people. There was a time when, immediately after the end of the Second World War, people in former colonies, especially those in Africa, were awakened by an unbelievable hunger for independence and paid all forms of sacrifice to be free from the White Man from Europe. Fiery nationalist leaders led guerrilla fights and mass mobilizations that rang the inevitable in European capitals. Thus were born the new independent members of the United Nations. Tremendous human prices in all forms were paid for national independence. Were we to focus on our continent, historians tell us that the second phase of this African story was that former liberation movement (military or otherwise) leaders were initially venerated near to sainthood, then were slowly detached from the mass, declared themselves emperors or presidents for life and ended their lives as detested demagogues. Kamuzu Banda (Malawi), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Sékou Touré (Guinea), François Tombalbaye (Chad), Francisco Macías Nguema (Equatorial Guinea) and Habib Bourgiba (Tunisia) are a few such African strongmen who did not end as they started.  A wave of ‘internal-liberation’ movements also followed and equal sacrifices paid again to remove the liberation heroes-turned-tyrants. The problem comes if the second generation liberators turn themselves into tyrants. The people, weary of the two-generation sacrifices which have borne no fruit, ‘get it’ and begin to question the wisdom of a call for a third-generation similar sacrifice. ‘What do we have in it?’ they rightly ask.

People going under a third-generation call for sacrifice have four choices to make ranging from the unlikely to the likely: again prepare themselves for a third round of sacrifices for liberty (unlikely); adapt to the new tyrant in town (close to unlikely); wait for nature to take its course or for Providence to intervene (looks likely); or wait for a Bouazizi like incident to spark a chain of events that can lead to relative freedom and peace (likely).

I see us in this chain of history. Surely, the Italians were colonialists. Although it was sporadic, historians tell us that some of our grandfathers had tried to say ‘No’ to the Italians. When the Italians and the British were gone, the emperor Haile-Selassie who claimed he valiantly fought the Italians came as liberator and continued to sit over us until he was dislodged by force. Then came the Derg, Jebha, and then Shaebia, born out of the Eritrean people, began a national liberation movement which, according to the count we have been told, was valued at 65,000 deaths in the field and scores of thousands of other forms of human sacrifice. During the 1998-2000 border war, we the Eritreans were paid close to 20,000 human souls and thousands of disabled countrymen and women. May be we have gotten used to these numbers, but this is an unbelievably huge sacrifice by all measures. Alas, Eritrea’s second generation liberators, Isaias Afwerki & Co who led liberation movement that was mobilized in our name, now frequent the yearly list of the most autocratic leaders in the world.

With the last 10-11 years proving to be a calamity for the Eritrean people, we the mass are once again being summoned for a new round of sacrifices. This time the call is coming from two sides which claim to know the best for us: the PFDJ, through its latest hzbi ynqah, ywedeb, yte‘ateq mass rally, is calling us to make all sorts of sacrifice against an enemy that we have not yet been introduced to and through this ‘secure our freedom’; and everyone else who is opposing the PFDJ is simultaneously calling us for sacrifice in the fight against the PFDJ. We are yet to see if another group will call us to continue sacrificing as usual. Whose are we? What are we?

Let us now drop PFDJ’s call for continued sacrifice (it is a forced sacrifice) and focus on the other call for a voluntary sacrifice. Every time I come across an article against PFDJ, there is a call to fight against PFDJ in the time-proven Eritrean culture of self-sacrifice. Those of us who are who are now living after those who departed from us in the Eritrean battles between 1961 and 2000 are now accustomed to telling a story that runs as ‘I am alive and walking because thousands died for me’. With that narration having now become a character in us, we are now in search of a new generation of martyrs or others who make a lesser sacrifice. Yet no one has responded to the call for sacrifice or the response is lukewarm. Everyone who says he yearns to see the day when Eritreans are finally free ends his statement with the now habitual ‘something must be done’. A disheartening scenario in the Asmera (for I live in Asmera) and Eritrea of 2012 is that the gebar criticizes the mass of tegadalay for not being a true tegadalay for Eritrea, at times questioning the valor against oppression that tegadalay tells he had shown in the méda against the enemies of Eritreans. The mass of tegadalay who has been sidelined to nihility similarly criticizes the hadsh weledo (the new generation, the Warsay that is) for not being a true successor of the yke’alo generation and not acting against the new oppressors in town. Gebar and the mass of tegadalay backbite the ‘better’ of halefti (especially some senior military generals) for not taking action against the cabal. These hoped-for halefti in turn gawk at the slavishness and inaction of gebar and the mass of tegadalay; they probably justify their inaction by a mental reference to the ‘foolishness’ of the G-15. All these groups inside Eritrea, under the excuse that they are ‘in prison’, often inquire if the opposition abroad have some rosy plans for change, but lately they seem to have given up on the latter. The opposition abroad and most of the ‘silent watchers’ who cheat themselves by saying they are not interested in Eritrean affairs – most of these are on a ‘wait and see’ mode – look to those of us inside Eritrea, under the justification that change in Eritrea can be best brought from inside, to ‘do something’. All that each of these different groups are demanding from the others is simply a sacrifice, no matter how big, so they could tell the story of ‘those who passed before us so we can live freely without the fear of PFDJ’. Except for the forced sacrifice that the PFDJ is being able to install in every village and town in Eritrea under the new hzbi ynqah, ywedeb, yte‘ateq motto, however, none of the other calls for sacrifice have yet borne any positive fruit.

I visualize all of us – the mass, almost all tegadalay, most halefti, the opposition and the silent watchers – sitting in a circle and somewhere in the circle a call to do something was made and each one of us in the circle looks to the one next to us to show the sacrificial valiance. The circulation has taken too long and has now become almost boring; in fact, some of us have started quarreling and blaming each other for the Eritrean mess. Has our historical gallantry betrayed us? No, tegorarihna dea ’ember. Why all this retreat from that history of sacrifices that we are all proud of?

In what I wish could be points for discussion and critiquing, I would like to want to list some reasons for the inaction amongst us.

First point, I start with what may sound a bizarre question. Was the heroism that I grew up being told about truly an inherent nature of Eritreans or it was a pure act of self-defense against Ethiopian oppression? I mean, did we simply become a cat in the corner temporarily changing ourselves into tigers, and when we left the corner we reverted to our original ‘catness’? Was it hatred of Ethiopians or love of Eritreans that took tegadalay to the méda and all gebar to stand by the side of tegadalay? Did Jebha’s and Shaebia’s tegadelti, in their heart of hearts, fight for the liberty and freedom of the hafash or the supremacy of their organization (wdb)? All our actions now show that our gallantry has betrayed us. Honestly, as it is so with most of the new generation of Eritreans, I am confused about the character of us Eritreans on why we show selective bravery. I would appreciate it if my elder countrymen could explain this to my generation. In fact, I would love to hear genuine story of every tegadalay as to why and how (s)he went to the méda and whether the enemies of Eritrea are always his (her) enemies. Is it oppression or some select oppressors that (s)he wanted to disappear from Eritrea? Why continue calling oneself a tegadalay if the land and people of Eritrea are daily going under a pressure that calls for ghedli? Through this point I am simply asking whether we are a courageous people. I grew up being told this is true, but it ain’t so in 2012.

Second point. Eritrean revolution and the immense sacrifice attached with it was part of the global (at least African) revolutionary heat of the 1950s and 60s fueled by Marxist fervency and may not be repeated in the new era of globalization. Gone are the days of a near-to-hysterical courage to face death for ultimate ideals such as sovereignty and national integrity. Globalism, it seems, has diluted such notions as the uniqueness of national identity. Thinking along this line, I often ask myself if Eritrea’s belated independence which came at the same time as the end of the Cold War, or the End of History as Fukuyama called it, has made the issue of sacrifice for liberty, self-determination and creation of new countries an old-fashioned endeavor. As we continue clamoring for Eritrea’s uniqueness, the African continent is bracing itself for oneness. One is, knowingly or not, part of this new fashion called globalization and will find it hard to respond to a call for tremendous sacrifice to uplift a geographically marked territory called ‘my country’ while its borders have long been made useless by the invisible invader called globalization. Let’s ask ourselves if we are really sure that this is the 2010s. Those of you in Europe understand this better.

Third, still a strange question. Are we all sure that the larger mass is fully convinced that it is going through a despotic rule by a bunch of self-loving clique? At least most of the elders that I know have this tendency – in fact it could be a smart defense mechanism – to give explanation (sometimes religious or even superstitious) why things are the way they are. Why would such a mass respond to a call for sacrifice for liberty and freedom? Let us not take everybody’s understanding and appreciation of current events in Eritrea for granted. I guess most of us Eritreans who have never left this country have long been under dictatorships and distanced from the world that we do not fully grasp what liberty is. In fact at the rate of PFDJ’s incessant preaching, people here (I am referring even to educated youngsters) may have now begun to understand democracy and election as tools for foreign interference and surrender of national integrity. And may be the elder generation understood liberty to mean the forceful dispatch of Derg and now understand it to mean the forceful repulsion of a foreign power which comes to conquer Eritrea. May be.

Fourth point, and related to the third point above, is about the fact that the substantial majority, if not all, of the articles and discussions about the demoralizing situation that Eritreans are going through squarely point at one source: Isaias Afwerki and PDFJ. Is that one hundred percent accurate, however? How about, even for the purpose of discussion, asking if the people share part of the blame for ‘not really needing change or acting as if they don’t need change’? Let me give a very recent example. On Thursday October 09 and Saturday October 13, 2012, there was a pitiless gffa in Asmera such as its residents have not seen for quite some time. The sheer callousness that the gefefti showed – either so ordered or on their own is not the issue here – was shocking even by the standard of gffa that Asmera is now used to. Cars and public buses were stopped almost at gun point and scores upon scores were herded to detention centers in half a day. The most shocking part was not the way the gffa was executed but by whom it was executed. The gefefti were the very people who have recently been forcefully armed by the government. Bear with me here. Believe it or not, the vigor that the gefefti – aged civilians and youngsters who have been freed from the national service and who have been exposed to the cold September mornings as are being humiliatingly lined to military training – showed and the near-to-sadist attitude that they showed to everybody they met on the street pokes one to ask whether they deserve the outpouring of all the anger in cyberspace and elsewhere against their arming by the Wedi Memhr and Tekle Manjus. This was no ordinary gffa; this was a gffa that puts a big question mark on whether these persons – victims in cyberspace but rough gefefti in real space – are willing to recognize and appreciate the sacrifice necessary for their ‘liberation’. Add to this the countless reporting (tQoma) by many a neighbor that has sent hundreds of youngsters to Sawa and the many detention centers there to be abused and worse. Add to these, the cold-hearted Eritreans at home and abroad who are part of the human smuggling and ransom market that has brought anguish in this land. For someone who is living in the midst of all this betrayal and questionable character among Eritreans, it becomes obvious not to even think of sacrificing one’s time, energy and more for a nation that also has hundreds – yes hundreds – of such people who are of course Eritreans. I am honestly unable to see how people like these can be called victims of the PFDJ. Inhuman as such Eritreans have become, they nevertheless have to live in liberty for they are human beings. And there are lots of them. Would I sound ridiculous, then, if I say that sometimes liberty and the exercise of freedom has to be force-fed to people like these Eritreans who, by their actions, are showing that they do not embrace the fight for liberty and freedom as the contemporary man understands it? I am willing to be corrected here if I took the analysis to an extreme and sounded unbalanced in the conclusion.

Fifth point, how about asking if the famous Eritrean proverb kebdka hamli ml’ayo zbanka wede’bo ayrayo is in play once more at a national level? The record shows that we showed courage and sacrifice only against ‘outsiders’. When you ask the youth of the 1960s and 70s why the same sacrifice is not meeting the PFDJ’s level of oppression which has equaled that of the Derg, the usual answer is that ‘these are ours, we can’t give them up to an outsider’. So, why prepare oneself for sacrifice?

Sixth point, the expectation that came with May 1991 could be holding us from continuing that ‘culture of sacrifice’ we all talk about. Whether with full understanding or not, immense sacrifices were made. May be we have had enough of sacrifices for this concept called Eritrea and no one now wants a call from Eritrea for more sacrifices, especially after the horror of the 1998-2000 border war and what followed internally. Who knows if at the back of all of our minds there is this quotation: ‘Now it is time for Eritrea to give me back. I am not giving it anymore. This land only takes. It does not give back’. We have all been expecting to reap what we had sown. We are rightly comfortable with expecting. No more sowing. Unless coerced – as with the ongoing arming of the hafash by Wedi Memhr and Tekle Manjus – no one is ready to respond to the recent call for more sowing. In fact, that is what exactly Wedi Memhr is preaching. ‘He who passes this final call for Eritrean resilience will reap the benefits of the gold rush’, he is telling the mass who he thinks is a crowd of ignoramuses. Honestly, every young adult and old man who is being forcefully armed is resigning to believing that we Eritreans are destined to eternal conscription. In fact, in some utterances of the opposition in Diaspora, there is this assumption that the hagerawi agelglot will continue to do soldiering for their government until calm is restored in the Eritrea that they want to govern. A post-PFDJ sacrifice call, that is.

Seventh point, and related to the sixth point. It is possible that most of us have not been able to see a viable organization and program to support in a fight against the ongoing dictatorship. Because of the experience of betrayal by the current regime, people could have become hopeless about, or rather distrustful of, any grouping or organization that is working for the ‘liberty of the Eritrean people’, and hence the unwillingness to heed to any call for any sacrifice. Do not forget that the terms and even the words used by those who are opposing the PFDJ are similar to those which the EPLF (and the PFDJ during the first years of its inception) used preach the Eritrean people with.

Finally, although I disagree with this, there are some of us who say that the Eritrean people are such a very patient people and they have for so long been waiting patiently for the PFDJ to mend its despotism. Hzbi lbi a‘ebyu iyu ’ember… goes the explanation. An extreme, yet a deliberately blinded, version of this explanation says that the Eritrean people can withstand thirst, hunger, displacement and any other trouble except lack of justice and barbaric rule. The explanation defeats itself, I am sure the reader has so concluded.

Whether or not the above eight points explain the lethargy for sacrifice for the sake of Eritrea and its people, the truth that stands is that not much of us, unless compelled à la PFDJ, are willing to voluntarily pay any sacrifice. However, sacrifices of all sorts will have to be made to mend the damage that has befallen Eritrea and Eritreans.

It was as I contemplated this quandary that the story of Mohammed Bouazizi came into my mind and that is why I am arguing in this article that only Bouazizi-like spontaneities will rescue us. I am suggesting that we all are or can be Mohamed Bouazizi and change can come only if the Bouazizis inside us wake up by spontaneity. In short, I am predicting that spontaneity and not conscious sacrifice will bring about good breeze in Eritrea…

We could now be left with our instinctive actions only. Consciously organizing and preparing ourselves for sacrifice to see change may not be on our personal menus; trust amongst us seems to be in short supply; generation upon generation of barbarism has crowned hopelessness on our heads and hearts, especially those of us who have never seen a free country except on the news media; subconsciously most of us are on the receiving end of the Eritrea project not on the giving end… Change will come, however, not by martyr-style devotion, but by Bouazizi-style spontaneity. It may seem obvious that we – at least those of us who are here at home – should be going to the streets of Eritrean cities at any time like the heroes of the Arab Spring. We hear that call every day. It also looks very obvious that we should be hitting back at the PFDJ brutes who are hitting us very hard for sins that we do not remember committing against them or anybody else. Yet a sum of unknown reasons, some of which I tried to list above, are holding us against such actions no matter whether the inaction seems illogical or even unnatural. Yes, our minds are itching us for not consciously and willingly paying little sacrifices to get out of this madness that seems to be dragging us into the unknown. We have called ourselves cowards, self-lovers, leeches, conformists even to brutality, mice that are unable to tie the bell on the cat’s neck etc. because at the back of our minds there is this guilty feeling that if ‘someone’ moves against brutality, change is just around the corner and we know that that ‘someone’ is somewhere around us. At the rate we have gone thus far, it looks that we have not been able to face the enemy with the sheer determination and action that we know is enough to do away with it.

Despite our conscious inaction, however, the pressure is mounting to an unbearable level for our Bouazizis to take action. Bouazizi had nearly a quarter of a century long trouble that had been heaping against him, but when the appointed time came he did the inevitable: listen to his instinct. Although Ben Ali’s systematic dictatorship had made any action against it impossible, the Arab Spring nevertheless started in Tunisia, a country that had never been on the world media until the fateful day of 17 December 2010? That’s what happens when instinct rules.

I would like to predict that positive change will come in Eritrea not by the type of organization and sacrifice that we are all used to, but after a fellow or fellows who cross the Bouazizian red line – I feel the time to cross that line is nigh – take any spontaneous action which leads to similar spontaneous action again leading to other spontaneous actions. I am sure the reader of course understands that by referring to Bouazizi I am not calling for self-immolation or a similar suicidal action.  Nevertheless, let’s all react to what the Bouazizis inside each one of us tell us to do. We can meet to discuss and make use of the change long after our Bouazizis are gone. For now I believe that the Eritrean Bouazizi, not the historical Eritrean nhagerey behali, may be our hope and I am in search of the Eritrean Bouazizi...

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