The Somalization of Eritrea: Stuck at Its Fluid Stage of Totalitarianism

The melting down of the nation state Eritrea, as displayed in its institutional, economic, infrastructural, military, political and demographic meltdowns, has now reached its highest level. Even though these meltdowns keep feeding on one another to reach the critical stages they are at, it is the demographic one that is driving the nation to the brink of collapse, in the process hollowing out the army, the labor force, the family, the villages, towns and cities, and eventually the nation itself. Thus, the nation is literally collapsing under its own sheer weight, so much so that it has functionally come to a virtual standstill. For all practical purposes then, Eritrea has become a failed state like Somalia; it is only that, in its case, we have to seek the “Somalization” at the individual level – that is, the meltdowns as reflcted in the daily living conditions of the masses – that being a precondition for the “Somalization” (or fragmentation) of the nation in its geographic sense.

How has the “Somalized” individual emerged in the Eritrean scene? A generation’s misconstrued conception of modernity (and the lethal metamorphosis that it underwent in mieda), one that factors out its human component to the barest minimum, has been the main reason for the nation’s tragedy. This human disaster is to be seen at the two ends of all the regime’s modernity tasks:

(a)    at the input end: the huge human toll it has taken in the process of implementing Shaebia’s modernity projects on the ground: the radical restructuring of the society necessitated to meet the demands of “securing” and “developing” the nation state;

(b)   at the output end: the wastefulness of its modernity projects, given that they have never been tied to human need: institutional, infrastructural and developmental failures across the board that are to account for all kinds of deprivations throughout the land.

One has to look at the type of totalitarianism that a small and porous nation like Eritrea cannot afford (one that I am calling “fluid totalitarianism”, as  opposed to the stabilized form of large nation states) to see how these modernity tasks have led to the rapid unravelling of the nation state in all its aspects and at all levels. In this part of the article (Part I), it is only the “Somalization” phenomenon at individual level, and its enabling conditions at a more systematic level, that will be discussed. The modernity aspect of the article will be discussed in Part II. But before we delve into the analysis, we need to have a working definition of  what “Somalization” is all about when it comes to the individual citizen.

What do we mean by “Somalization”?

Most Eritreans don’t believe that Eritrea has become a failed state like Somalia given that the Isaias regime, whatever its faults, has at least managed to keep the nation geographically intact. The tendency of many Eritreans to equate Eritrea only with the land underpins this assumption. Whenever they talk about Somalization of Eritrea, they mean the fragmentation of the land; period. They don’t see the possibility of a nation being Somalized without being fragmented, not only in the sense that the conditions for geographic fragmentation are already there in place, but also in the sense that all those factors that make fragmentation dreadful to the individual are already present. And it is not as if these two negative outcomes are independent of one another, since the demise of one keeps buttressing and accelerating the demise of the other. If so, let’s put the nature of “Somalization” under scrutiny by focusing on its impact on the modernity factored out individual.

The first image that comes to our mind when the word “Somalization” is mentioned is the fragmentation of a nation. But fragmentation, by itself, is not inherently good or bad to the individual. In the case of the Soviet Union, it might have been good to the people of separated nations like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In the case of Czechoslovakia, it might have been good to both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Somalia, it might have been bad to all involved. If so, what we need to ask is this: what is it about fragmentation purely assessed through its human factor only that we are worried about?

Another image that “Somalization” fosters is that of institutional failure across the board, where governmental services are rendered minimal or entirely absent: no military to protect the population from external predators; no police to protect the population from internal predators; inadequate or nonexistent health facilities to serve the sick; poor or no schools to educate the children of the nation; no courts to settle disputes or deal with crimes; no rules to regulate markets, businesses and other financial matters; no mechanisms to build or maintain infrastructure; etc. That is why, whenever “Somalization” is mentioned, the image of an ever-prevalent anarchy, one that never leaves the scene, immediately pops up in our heads. Perhaps the phrase “no rule of law” sums it up because it entails all that would be absent without which civil society ceases to function. If so, fragmentation is dreaded only when it leads to anarchy.

But, still, why do we dread anarchy to such an extent? After all, to the anarchists, anarchy has always been associated with freedom – freedom that comes in absence of governmental obligations and other constraints. There is a simple reason why this is a bad idea when it comes to a nation: the arbitrariness that comes with the state of anarchy makes it impossible for people to lead normal lives. Within such an environment, it matters little what one does to improve his/her life, susceptible as he/she is to too many arbitrary and unpredictable outside forces. Somalization is then to be dreaded so far as the prevailing conditions at the national level – whatever those happen to be – lead to anarchy at the individual level, in that the individual feels he/she has no control over the direction of one’s own life. When predictability is thrown out of the window this categorical way, no one can organize his/her life and plan ahead with any certainty. This, of course, inevitably leads to the deterioration of quality of life to the lowest level imaginable. The bottom line then is this: the Somalization of a nation is to be feared so far as it leads to the Somalization of the individual.

If the above definition looks plausible, it is easy to see where it would go wrong when applied to the Eritrean case, as many Eritreans tend to do. They look at the state of Eritrea, with its various ministries (defense, education, health, agriculture, tourism, etc.), its developmental projects, its embassies throughout the world, its rules and regulations and, above all, the intact map of Eritrea, and decide that, whatever misgivings we have of the Isaias regime’s rule, it cannot be of fostering anarchy. According to them, as in other repressive regimes, within the nation order is the rule of the day. They don’t realize that small totalitarian states like Eritrea that lack the capacity to insulate themselves from the outside world inhabit the worst of two worlds – that of totalitarianism and that of anarchism – without the benefits that each system carries.

There have been some dictatorial regimes that were able to effectively fend off foreign invaders; provided order from within; kept their people reasonably fed; provided good educational system, medical services, infrastructure; etc, although all invariably kept their subjects under suffocating grip. As a result, there was some kind of stability in the lives of the subjects. But in the case of the Isaias regime, all this is missing: the nation lives in a permanent state of war; safety from within is unthinkable; the population is kept at malnutrition level; the education is dismal at all levels; the health system is in shambles; the infrastructure is falling apart; etc. And if we look at the world of anarchy, although there is neither guaranteed safety nor other governmental services, there are also no governmental obligations and no suffocating apparatus of the state; as a result, however checkered it may be, there is always a certain sense of personal freedom that comes with anarchy. But in Shaebia’s Eritrea, although the government provides only minimal services to its people, it demands draconian returns, starting from free slave labor and endless years in military service to total submission to the state in every other aspect – religious, social, economic, educational, etc. Correspondingly, the individual under such a system feels the loss of control at both ends of the totalitarian spectrum: at its repressive and anarchic ends. It is the sum total of these two deprivations that has brought total loss of control in the individual’s life in Eritrea.

How did this come about? Let’s first see how this totalitarian anarchy takes place at a systematic level by looking at the unstable stage of totalitarianism that Eritrea keeps lingering to its demise.

Fluid totalitarianism

Often it is stated that small nations cannot be totalitarian states, simply because they cannot afford the massive mobilization it requires to stay potent under such a system; that is, the human toll that takes to sustain a totalitarian system can only be had by big nations like Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union or Communist China. [1] But that doesn’t mean that small nations don’t try, even if they are to perish in the attempt. In fact, in our case, what is interesting is what happens when small nations like Cambodia and Eritrea try hard to install a totalitarian system within the confines of their borders. The answer is: the human toll would be so prohibitive that they would not last long. Communist Cambodia, after the loss of almost a third of its population in a social experiment to turn the nation into a socialist agrarian paradise, crumbled within four years of the Khmer Rouge rule. Communist China, in contrast, after having lost tens of millions of peasants during the Great Leap Forward social experiment, managed to survive. So was Communist Soviet Union, after the Stalinist purges that killed millions of peasants in forced collectivization and millions others in various pogroms. The case of the Eritrean state resembles the former: after having lost hundreds of thousands of its young in a mass exodus of epic proportions, it finds itself at the brink of collapse just after a dozen or so years under totalitarian rule. But unlike Cambodia, which has a long history of nationhood with a more or less homogeneous population (with more than 90 percent of Khmer origin, speaking Khmer language and following Buddhism), Eritrea, with its disparate groups, happens to be ill prepared for such eventuality; thus, in the latter case, the very survival of the nation itself is at stake. How did this come about?

In smaller nations, totalitarianism never reaches its congealed, stabilized form. Rather, it is in the very process of establishing the system that they unravel – call it, if you will, fluid totalitarianism. The fact that the totalitarian system never reaches a point of solidity that the larger nations attain doesn’t mean the smaller ones are better off as a result of that. To the contrary, they tend to linger at the worst part of the totalitarian spectrum, since it is at that fluid stage that the totalitarian terror is at its worst. And it is precisely because they cannot afford the human toll exacted during that fluid stage that these nations come to a hastened collapse.

In search of a sealed laboratory [2]

The factors that make the totalitarian project impossible to hold for long in Eritrea are many: its small population, especially as compared with neighboring giants; its poor resources that denies it self-sufficiency; its dependence on the outside world for everything it needs; its indispensable link with the diaspora population (both for economic and political reasons); its long, inhospitable and porous borders; its easy vulnerability, with no potent force to ward off  giant “enemies”, its low tech surveillance method that require crude but more brutal ways; etc. For a totalitarian state to go on conducting a social experimentation that requires massive mobilization for the life of its duration, the one thing it cannot do without is a totally insulated country; and what the above mentioned factors do is deny it such an insulation.

If the totalitarian laboratory is to ever work, it has to be sealed off from the rest of the world so that no variables from inside essential for the experiment to succeed would escape and no interfering variables from the outside that would potentially compromise the experiment would ever enter. It is only if it is kept sealed off this way that the social experiment would have any chance of success. And to this effect, two things are needed: a self sufficient economy that meets most of its needs so that it would be able to stand on its own feet without outside help and a powerful army capable of sealing the borders from internal and external intruders – not so incidentally, the twin projects of agelglot. That the grand Eritrean experiment is crumbling in the very process of meeting these two demands says it all. That is to say, it is in the very process of sealing off the nation from the outside world that the nation is disintegrating. This tells us that the nation never succeeded in coming out from the fluid stage of totalitarianism. How so?

In Eritrea, every adult has to go through the much dreaded national service, and at any given time, hundreds of thousands are being made to serve in the army. Officially, this is required both for defending and developing the nation. In reality, these twin goals, correspondingly, amount to “sealing off the nation” and “making it self-sufficient” – the two primary goals that every totalitarian state aspires to fulfill. The much-vaunted “self reliance” mantra is meant to be achieved through the slave labor of the conscripts; all the infrastructural development accomplished so far has been through this free labor. And with the grand experiment of molding the Warsai generation in the image of teghadalay, with hundreds of thousands indefinitely confined to the trenches, the goal is to create a Spartan population able to square off with the giants of the neighborhood.

To understand fully the harshness of the national service social experiment, all one needs is to realize its indefinite nature, designed to meet the demands of fluid totalitarianism. Many have toiled under its draconian brutality of war, indoctrination, regimentation, slave labor, imprisonment, torture, execution and various other hardships for more than a decade. Nevertheless, the problem for the regime has been that the human toll that such a draconian social experiment demands can only be met in a completely sealed laboratory. But given the severity of the extended service that has made many take unbelievable risks to escape it all and the very porous nature of the border that thousands are able to cross every month, this social experiment meant to provide all what the totalitarian state needs to sustain itself is fast crumbling. Already, hundreds of thousands have escaped, and the rest of the youth are following in their footsteps at a rapid rate. Those who happen to stay put in the national service, for most, are the overage, underage, women and peasants. With such a helpless demography dominating the Eritrean landscape everywhere, including the army, neither “self-sufficiency” nor “sealing off” can be attained. The ease with which the Ethiopian army has been conducting punitive measures deep inside Eritrean territory and, equally, the ease with which tens of thousands of youth have been stampeding out of the country every year makes a mockery of the very idea of Fortress Eritrea. So is it with its economic aspect: the fact that this nation has been living off the free slave labor of Warsai from the inside and remittance, housing schemes, 2 percent tax and other “donations” from the diaspora population outside also makes a mockery of its self-reliance philosophy.

To say that the totalitarian hold on Eritrea has never made it beyond the fluid stage is to say that it is collapsing in the very process of setting up the laboratory itself. Unlike the laboratory in the scientific world we are familiar with, in this case you cannot hold the laboratory and the testing independent of one another. That is, you can never reach a stage where you can say, now that I have set up the conditions for the testing, let me start with the actual testing, since in the Eritrean case it is very guinea pigs that are the subjects of the experiment that are supposed to collaborate in the creation of the sealed laboratory that would make the experiment a success. Inherent in this circularity is the human factor that the regime keeps missing: it is the very Warsai generation that are supposed to erect a wall around the laboratory called “Eritrea” both militarily (as in indefinite military service) and economically (as in the slave labor), so that they would turn out to be ideal guinea pigs for Yikealo’s social experimentation, that are escaping the laboratory in their hundreds of thousands, thereby making a mockery of that “wall”. It is the self-referential aspect of this experiment, and hence the human factor, that makes it difficult to succeed. Thus, it is in the very process of making its massive mobilization a fixture in the Eritrean landscape so as to stay potent as a totalitarian state that the nation is unraveling.

To sum it up: Since the border war the regime has refused to terminate, or even to curtail, its massive mobilization; it realizes that, without it, it would lose its totalitarian grip over the population. But at the same time the continuous mass exodus of the youth has denied it the stability it needs for its mobilization to succeed. If so, it is in this ever-fluid mobilization that we see the built-in anarchy at systematic level.

Now that we have seen the kind of totalitarianism accountable for the anarchy in the lives of the subjects in Eritrea at a systematic level, let me go over only one aspect in the youth’s life – the educational aspect – to show how that totalitarian anarchy goes at individual level.

The Somalized life

The anarchy built into the totalitarian system of Eritrea is to be witnessed among all population groups and at all levels: prisoners that don’t pass through the court system and don’t know why they have ended up in prison or when they will be released, if ever (this anarchy can probably be better reflected by the atsnihaley phenomenon, where a colonel or other higher officer entrusts a prisoner, usually for personal reasons, to a prison outside his turf and forgets him/her for years.); parents who have lost control of their children, first when Shaebia takes over their upbringing from their teenage years to adulthood and, next, when many of them end up stranded in refugee camps or other worse killing fields (The Mediterranean, the Sinai, etc.); fathers in the indefinite national service having no control over the welfare of their families, with their children growing up in women-headed households in their ever-extended absence; women folk facing a grim future, many raising kids on their own and many others with very slim prospect of marriage (given the mass exodus of the male youth); students with no prospects to pursue their education, no jobs to look forward to and no married life to envision; religious people who lost control over their spiritual life, denied as they are to freely practice their religion; religious leaders of outlawed churches that have lost control over the guidance of their parishes; teachers who have lost control over the classroom, with the regime taking over the “teaching” of the students in militarized institutions; businessmen that could not plan ahead with certainty given the unpredictable nature of the regime in monopolizing or bankrupting or even outlawing their trade; peasants that have no control over their land, its products, and their labor given the predatory nature of the regime and the fact that they are most likely to serve the longest in the national service; and, above all, a whole generation of youth indefinitely stranded in the middle of nowhere.

If there is any population group that has totally lost control over their lives it would be the youth. We can follow the youth from early on when attending their schools, while still living under the roofs of their parents’ houses, all the way to Sawa, national service and beyond the confines of Eritrea to the refugee camps and their harrowing journey to their soon-to-be-adopted countries. The militarization of the educational system, the harsh controlled environment of Sawa and other training camps and the national service black-hole leave no elbow room for students to plan ahead with their lives. The national service and its subsidiaries have become the straightjacket put on the youth’s lives. And when they attempt to flee the nation, they are met with years of prison life or outright execution if they fail, and years of helplessness and destitution in refugee camps and all kinds of horrors as they venture farther (Sinai, Mediterranean Sea, etc) if they succeed. And when they reach their destinations, they happen to be among the most ill equipped refugees to lead their lives in the free world. In each and every stop of the itinerary of their life journey, we can vividly see the pervasive loss of control over their lives. I have described this anarchy that follows the Warsai generation starting from their parents’ homes all the way to alien lands in detail in my article, (II) Discontent at the Top: How Indispensable Is the Prison System to the Eritrean Defense Forces? [3] Below, I will only focus on the educational lives of the youth to show how that anarchy goes.

As in any educational system, the role that parents and teachers play in the education of the young is critical. But parents in Eritrea have totally lost control over the upbringing of their children, let alone over their education. The national service has become a double edged sword wielded over the family. If the father happens to be in national service, his children grow up without his presence, depriving them not only of guidance but also of provision. And as for those parents lucky enough to stay at home, they lose parenthood the day Shaebia knocks at their home to take their teenager son or daughter to Sawa, followed up by indefinite national service. Many of those end up in the medieval prison system of Shaebia. Many others opt to flee the nation altogether. With the mass exodus, parents lose hope of ever seeing their children again. They feel their helplessness most when their children spent years in refugee camps in despair and destitution, and are met with unparalleled horrors when they venture farther: kidnapping, torture, extortion, rape, murder, drowning, etc. Never in the history of Eritrea have parents felt as helpless over the fate of their children as they are now under the “liberators”.

Among the parents, the case of the peasants is the direst. No peasant in Eritrea could look forward to what generations of peasants have been doing: tending to his fields and flocks. This is the most abused population group, since there are no educational or work-related excuses that could exempt them from years of military service. Besides, the peasants invariably end up marrying at an early age, and hence end up having large families. This means that hundreds of thousands of children are growing up without the guidance of their fathers.

But given the intimacy that the classroom fosters in educating the children, let me now focus on teachers to depict a clearer picture of the state of anarchy that pervades the educational system in Eritrea. In the era of Haile Selassie, teaching used to be a noble profession. Now, the teachers in independent Eritrea are rendered so destitute by Shaebia that they have to supplement their meager income by doing all kinds of odd jobs to barely survive. And for those who are paid only 500 Nakfa (10 US dollar per month) under the pretext that they are in indefinite national service, the destitution has no limit. As a result, half-starved teachers with worn out clothes and shoes are not uncommon sight in the schools of today’s Eritrea.

There are three means that teachers have been using just to stay above water and that have had tremendous negative impact on the quality of teaching in Eritrea. First, many of the teachers (as many other Eritreans) often trek to Tessenei to do some black market trading to supplement their meager income. The irony of ironies is that, under the Yikealo hegemony, it has turned out that Eritrea’s greatest port is not the overhyped wedebatna along the Red Sea that the ghedli generation died  for in their tens of thousands but the inland port of Tessenei, with Rashaida as it middlemen merchants for both human and goods cargo! And here is what is surprising in regard to the teachers-turned-merchants: they do their trading even during the school year that it has become normal for students not to see their teachers for days at a time.

Second, many teachers in Asmara work as tutors in rich households; so much so that most of their energy is spent on tutorials rather than the school yard teaching, giving kids from rich families a tremendous advantage that was never there before. If you add to this the fact that the kids of well to do families and teghadelti are the only ones that attend the few coveted “good schools”, you can see how poor families are disadvantaged in independent Eritrea. If you meet any student from Eritrea of recent arrival that is good in English, most often than not he/she happens to hail from a well to do family. The days that poor kids would have a fair chance of competing with well to do kids (as it was in the era of Haile Selassie) are over. You can see this disadvantage widening in geometric progression when you realize that all those poor kids will end up in indefinite national service, while the rich kids will manage to skirt it after Sawa by attending the colleges. This puts the whole ghedli narrative, with its leftist rhetoric, on its head: the lie that it has been about equality.

And third, an ingenious means has been created by the more daring (or more desperate) teachers to accommodate those families that are not rich enough to pay for one-on-one tutorials, but can afford to pay if a number of kids are to be collectively attended within a room: call it, if you will, segreto classroom. Given the paranoia the regime has in regard to all kind of gatherings, this is in no way tolerated by the regime. Even though most of these gatherings are conducted in private homes and go undetected, whenever the authorities are on rare occasions alerted of such services they rush to disband it. This is reminiscent of the old times when women used to open unlicensed drinking houses known as segreto, the only difference being that in modern day Eritrea it is learning that has gone hiding underground from authorities – an apt description of the anti-intellectual culture of ghedli.

Given the above and more, no student in Eritrea could plan ahead with his/her educational life. There are three ways the students in Eritrea lose control over their educational lives starting early in their schooling system. First, the awareness that their schooling is eventually going to be met with all sorts of dead ends – Sawa, national service, refugee camps, etc – has been the greatest disincentive to studying. And given that the entire middle class has been driven to destitution, the idea of studying to pursue a career as a drive is almost nonexistent. To the contrary, that many are motivated to fail their grades so as to postpone Sawa a year or two (or, for girls, to marry early to evade the national service altogether) shows how pathetic the entire educational system has turned out to be.

Second, it is the sad state of teachers that is taking a huge toll to the educational system in Eritrea. To begin with, given the dismal state of the so called colleges, most of those graduating from them are not qualified teachers. Further, given the high rate of defection to neighboring countries, the attempt to replace them quickly could only be done by taking a toll to an already poor qualification. Add to this the fact they are unmotivated and most of the times don’t even show up in the campus as frequently as they should. As we have noted above, the lack of motivation of the students is well matched by their destitute and mostly absentee teachers, who spent most of their work time doing all kinds of supplemental jobs to make ends meet than attending to their schoolyard teaching. As a result, students all over Eritrea are provided with the most useless kind of education through their primary and secondary school years. Most of the Warsai that have gone through this bankrupt learning system are now functionally illiterate, as we could easily surmise from looking at those that have left the nation.

And third, the national service anti-intellectual climate cups their unlearning process rather conclusively. Many of the students who have been in the national service, some of whom for more than a decade, have not only unlearned whatever meager education they have had before but there is no hope for them to start where they have left. In addition, besides the manual labor that they have been toiling under, they have gained nothing of value that would make them constructively employable in any decent sector. Add to all of this deprivation the loss of work ethic that comes with acquiring temekro mieda, and you can see the disaster of a future (both for themselves and their nation) they are heading to.

How about those few fortunate enough to be selected to pursue “higher learning”? Although better off than the rest, their lot is not that enviable; after all, the dismantling of the educational system started with the regime closing down the one and only internationally accredited university in the nation, all done with control of the students that attend higher learning in mind. With its usual overkill method, first, the regime was aiming to make the city safe from future student unrest. Second, the “colleges” outside the city, with which the university was replaced, were primarily meant to serve as boot camps for the militarization of the students. I have met some of the youth who have studied for some years in these “colleges” that couldn’t construct two grammatical English sentences in a row. And, third, the regime intentionally made these “colleges” without international credentials so as to deny the students incentive to pursue their education outside the country. You can see that, with the third move, the loss of control of the students over their future education is meant to haunt them even beyond the confines of Eritrea. And last, there are no jobs whatsoever that offer decent living salaries to almost all of the graduates.

Above, we have seen how anarchy dominates the life of the youth only in its educational aspect. If we add the anarchy in its occupational, economic, political, religious, social, familial and other aspects, we can easily see how the loss of control has become the rule of the day in the youth’s life to deserve him/her an apt description: the Somalized individual. If we are to state the reason for the mass exodus as the individual’s effort to take control over his/her life that he/she has lost in Shaebia’ Eritrea, then that reason could also be equally stated as the individual’s refusal to lead a Somalized life in that unfortunate land.

Holding Eritrea together

How could the ongoing Somalization of Eritrea be halted before it ends up fragmenting the nation itself? The paradox is that it is not the wherewithal from within but from without that has kept Eritreans together from the day it was created by the Italians. The same holds true now: if this nation is to be kept together it will primarily depend on the self-interest and goodwill of powerful forces from outside, in general, and Ethiopia, in particular.

Hadnetna” (our unity) is one of those terms that are often invoked by both the regime supporters and opposition groups to emphasize the rare virtues of the Eritrean people, despite the evidence to the contrary – past and present. Corollary to this belief is the assertion that Eritreans have always lived in peace and harmony with one another, and that it is only foreigners that sow discord among them – another fable with no evidence to back it up. In fact, the only “unity” Eritreans have ever achieved was brought about by the Italians, cobbled by the UN, “united” under Ethiopia or held together by the sheer brutality of the EPLF. Since the Italians left, in the seven decades in between, there has never been a single case where Eritreans of different stripes – religious, ethnic, linguistic, regional, etc – have ever sat together on their own free will, without any external pressure, and resolved their problems.

Historically, the only coming together worth talking about has been that of ghedli, simply because it was for the first done without any outsiders’ supervision. But the record doesn’t auger well for the hadnetna invokers. Jebha is a good example of a failed experiment in “living together”. Its identity crisis became chronic precisely because it never found a formula of coexistence among its disparate groups. Not only had all its major crises to do with that problem, it also died as a result of it. What EPLF and TPLF did was give a push to an already hollowed out entity that could no more be held together. The fact that as soon as it touched the Sudanese soil, it disintegrated into its tribal and religious elements shows it had never attained “unity” throughout its existence. And when it comes to Shaebia, “unity” had always been brought through sheer brutality. The “hade libi, hade hizbi” mantra that we see today is the direct descendant of the “hadnetna” in mieda.

How about the “hadnetna” of the opposition in diaspora? The diaspora case is unique in the sense that it would be the only environment that we would consider as being totally free for Eritreans to choose to work together – neither the Italian and Ethiopian occupation nor the oppressive ghedli environment is present to obstruct that free will. They are free to associate with each other in whatever way they want. And the results are unequivocal: let alone to work together, they cannot stand each other. With dozens of parties formed and still counting – based on every -ism conceivable (religious, ethnic, linguistic, regional, wudib, etc) – one can hardly find any common ground that could hold these disparate groups together.

Paradoxically, the only kind of successful “unity” gatherings, where Eritreans of different stripes (religious, ethnic, regional, wudib, etc) have sat together under one roof are the result of pressure from Ethiopia – indeed, the symbolism of this fact is huge. Take that pressure off the EDA, Bayto, etc, they wouldn’t want to be near each other, let alone to conduct such gatherings. The fact that no such gatherings could be conducted in diaspora says it all; that is why all types of meetings in diaspora are those of look-alikes. That ugly legacy is also to be now witnessed among the youth, who are aligning themselves along regional, ethnic, linguistic or religious lines. While the Muslims and Christians live in their parallel worlds devoid of intersection points, the Kebessa ones couldn’t come out from their regressive regional enclaves. The funny part is all these population groups who couldn’t overcome prioritizing their subnational identities in their “coming together” are as loud as anybody in claiming allegiance to the nation state. But the reality points to the opposite direction: when the most salient identifier of an opposition organization is not its “ideology” but the DNA or the Holy Book of its followers, then the nation state is the last thing in their minds.

The larger space to live

If it is outsiders that have to be given credit for holding Eritrea together, the common factor happens to be the larger space (that is, larger than what Eritrea could afford to provide) they managed to create for its inhabitants by their mere presence in the land.

Eritrea, when confined to itself, had never been a good provider to its inhabitants. During the Italian era, the entire population lived off iskirina: the “diaspora remittance” that sustained the population throughout the colonial times came from the askaris in distant and nearby lands (Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia). That is, in fact, what made “living together” within Eritrea bearable. The testimony to this is that the nation fell into anarchy during the British occupation as the askari remittance economy came to an abrupt end, with many of the unemployed askaris occupied in shiftnet. Thus, driven by their colonial ambitions, it is the Italians that were able to create a larger space than the Eritrean economy could ever provide.

The next larger space that saved Ertirea from shrinking into anarchy from within was when it united with Ethiopia. From the early 50s to the early 70s, Eritreans thrived because they found a larger space to live: not only did Eritrean factories found markets in this larger space (Ethiopia itself) and its cities (Asmara, Assab, Massawa, etc) thrived due to that lifeline, Eritreans also moved into interior Ethiopia as merchants, businessmen, bureaucrats, students, etc in their hundreds of thousands. Again, it is this “dispersion” outside of Eritrea that made “living together” within Eritrea bearable.

From the day of independence, when Eritreans found themselves confined to Eritrea proper, they never stopped searching for a larger space despite their rhetoric of “self-reliance”. Shaebia got itself into a quagmire precisely because Ethiopia was unwilling to provide that larger space. Denied of this vital lifeline, Shaebia tried to make up the difference by tapping on two other “Eritrean resources” to the maximum: diaspora remittance and national service. Even though the family resemblance with the colonial era remains rather striking, this has so far failed to provide the necessary larger space to make living within Eritrea bearable. It is true that the maximal mobilization of the youth of the nation for “securing” and “developing” the nation has an uncanny resemblance with the Italian mobilization of Eritrean labor force for this dual purpose. But the critical factor is to be found in the difference: while the Italians were able to pay the askaris and workers from money generated outside of Eritrea (in Italy), the Isaias regime has had no internal resources to do that – hence the slavery of an entire generation. Moreover, without remittance from diaspora, Eritrea would have become completely an uninhabitable place by now. What is ironic is that it is not only the people that are looking for diaspora for sustenance but also the regime, giving further credence to the claim that this nation could only be propped up from the outside. And this is not only in its economic sense, but also in its security and political senses. If so, it seems that both the regime’s and the people’s behavior is consistent with the belief that life in confined Eritrea, denied of larger space, is not worth living. This is especially so when it comes to the behavior of the youth, who are fleeing the land in their hundreds of thousands.

Stakeholders: destabilized people and region

Tyranny, on its own, is no proof that the nation state is not sustainable. It is only when that tyranny ends up fragmenting the individual that the nation state itself gets threatened; so much so that the individual feels he/she has no stake to hold the nation together. And if it is in the process of holding the nation together that the fragmentation of the individual takes place, then there would be no way out of the problem from within. It is in this sense then that the Somalization of the nation and of the individual keep feeding on one another to bring the demise of both. If so, what doesn’t bode well for the Eritrean nation state is the frame of mind of the escaping youth: despite their nationalistic rhetoric, the youth happen to be the least believers in the Eritrean nation state itself. My advice is: do not believe what they say with their mouth, but with their feet.

When the youth are stampeding out of the nation in their hundreds of thousands, they are not simply reflecting the failed state of the nation state, but they are also affirming with their feet that this is a nation not worth fighting for. We can also see this further reflected in the behavior of the escaped youth in diaspora: while their opposition to the regime remains sporadic and less urgent, their search for a new nation to belong to remains urgent and desperate. While they have been unwilling to lift a finger against the regime inside Eritrea, they have been willing to die in their thousands (as displayed in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea or reach Israel through the dreaded Sinai) and protest in their tens of thousands (as recently displayed in Israel) to find a Western nation that would adopt them. Thus, it is the thoroughly Somalized individual who feels he/she has no stake in being part of this brand new nation that is causing its hollowing out. It is in this sense then that the fragmentation of the individual (“each for his/her own”) becomes a precondition for a fragmentation of the nation.

If the above makes sense, odd as it seems, if Eritrea is to be held together it is not because its internal but its external logic demands it. If hundreds of thousands of the youth are abandoning the Eritrean nation, and the rest of them inside the nation are poised to follow their example, then the “Somalization” of this nation becomes a problem not to those who have escaped it or are planning to escape it, but to those who will remain stuck with it: the helpless population groups that have remained trapped inside Eritrea and the nearby nations that will remain neighbors by virtue of their geographic location. These two happen to be the only stakeholders – a lesson lost on the Ethiopian government, which has been trying to make an alliance with those who are not stakeholders (Eritreans in diaspora). This external logic is also lost on Ethiopia because it seems to miss that fact that it is the only entity uniquely positioned to provide that larger space on equitable ground. If it had realized these two points, removing the Isaias regime would have been on the top of its to-do list; this is especially true given the helplessness of the other stakeholder.

It is not only the Ethiopian government that has gotten things wrong; so has many Western analysts. Lately, there have been a number of articles written by Western analysts on how “to bring Eritrea in from the cold”. [4] They have been right in factoring out the roles of the Eritrean opposition in diaspora and the Eritrean masses inside in bringing the change they visualize, simply because the former has little stake in the outcome and the latter remains totally prostate. They are also right in emphasizing Ethiopia’s role in propping up the new nation state. But they are dead wrong on two counts: that there is a role for the Isaias regime to play in the stabilization of the nation (and by extension, the region) and in misidentifying the kind of role that Ethiopia has to play in bringing about this stability.

Thus, there are two indispensable factors without which no analysis for peace in the region should ever be attempted: first, the removal of Isaias Afwerki from the seat of power by any means necessary; and, second, the role of Ethiopia in bringing about or accelerating that event. If Ethiopia is unwilling to do that, it doesn’t mean change will not come. Given the rapid hollowing out of the nation, sooner or later the collapse of the nation state is imminent. If the latter is allowed to take its natural course, the destabilization that would surely follow would come at the huge expense of the two stakeholders.


If one of those self-proclaimed nations in Somalia – Somaliland, Puntland, etc – were to find itself in fear of further fragmentation, it would have been natural to ask whether that has to do with itself being the result of fragmentation from the bigger Somalia. If so, it would also be natural to raise a similar question in regard to Eritrea.

At the start of this essay, I said that whenever Eritreans worry about Somalization of Eritrea, they mean the fragmentation of the land only. They would have been right if they had taken into account the fact that Eritrea had been recently fragmented from Ethiopia. If so, it is not a coincidence that Eritrea’s Somalization started with the independence of Eritrea – that is, with the denial of the larger living space. The realization of this would mean that the Eritrean problem could be tackled only if addressed at its two ends of fragmentation, by asking: How do we stop the further fragmentation of the nation? And how do we create the larger space vital for its existence? The gravity of the problem lies in the fact that one cannot address the former without addressing the latter, but it only by putting it in this larger context that the human aspect of the problem could be factored in (instead of focusing on the land only).

In this part of the article – for space reasons – I have left the modernity factor that is accountable for the Somalization phenomenon unexplored. I will do that in Part II.


[1] Ardent, Hannah; The Origins of Totalitarianism;

[2] Ghebrehiwet Yosief, Sealing Off Eritrea: Domestic Terrorism; Nov 03, 2009;

[3]Ghebrehiwet Yosief, I Discontent at the Top how Indispensable Is the Prison System …;

[4] Cohen, Herman; Time to bring Eritrea in from the Cold; Dec 16, 2013; African Arguments.