A patriarch of a peasant family and the rest of his family were quietly chatting in the dembe. Their lazy afternoon was however soon interrupted when a small boy in the family who was playing on the top of the hidmo made a threat. He said, “Abo, I am jumping”, and the old man gently told him to stop the foolish act. The naughty boy refused to listen and continued the menace despite the horrified look of the crowd below. The old man then sternly shouted, “heras’ka do, negad’ka beli’e? Haf bel gedi!.” Fortunately, the miscreant boy did not carry out the act.

Temporarily interrupted, the slow and tranquil conversation continued. It was the epoch when baito power was still in the hands of the villages, and the family institution was well respected. In a not dissimilar circumstance, the reaction and behavior of another reprobate, that is the Isaias regime, was a grand folly. This time, however, the punishment that the regime asked may be beneficent, and inadvertently shorten the life of the terror regime. Most will certainly not mourn its reign.

The UN Security Council, the powerful arm of a multi-lateral institution, was for several few years entangled with the misanthrope regime in Eritrea. The gentle plea, and concern of this entity addressed many times to the state of Eritrea got not only a deaf ear, but utter contempt and ridicule. Caught red handed many times, the regime nonetheless kept the UN body in an endless enkilil and taunting game. Tired of the nuisance, the UN then slapped Isaias with a sanction. How should the public react under such circumstances? I say, it should repeat what the old patriarch said in the above story, “haf bel gedi.” It should ululate! And bless the decision without any second thoughts. And particularly those in the Diaspora. The attitude of some of our compatriots does not augur well. There are those for example, who at one time allegedly gave both the EPLF, and the state that followed it, an “unquestioned mandate.” This essay intends to briefly look some of the opinions advanced lately.

Withdraw the mandate

For thousands of years the mega-state of China kept the monopoly of state power in its hands, state many historians. No rival centers of power such as the Church or the nobility as in Europe evolved to balance the absolutist state of China. The ruling dynasty reigned with what is called the “mandate of heaven”, a Confucian ethos that preaches benevolence from the state and total obedience from the public. When strife, discord and famines threaten the public realm, the highly respected but ordinarily impotent Chinese scholars resort to a powerful weapon. The absolutist dynasties were checked when the mandarins resort to “the mandate of heaven is withdrawn.” In some instances, it was very effective . When invoked, it served as a sign for open rebellion, and the removal of regimes that hugely breached the revered Confusion precepts of good governance. What lesson do we get from this, if any?

The concept of a “mandate” is undoubtedly foreign to our region. The public in the highland sections of Eritrea, who until the recent past remained part of Abyssinia, was the subject of kings who justified their rule as “elect of God” and expected from their subjects a complete obedience. Fear of God (feriha Egziabeher) from the kings is probably the only restraint to a complete tyrannical rule. Granted, the villages had some sort of rudimentary mechanisms for both appointing and withdrawing their officers. The kings and rases were however not accountable.

On hindsight, is it plausible and credible to say then that the insurgency that toppled the successive Ethiopian regimes was governed by any mandate? Under such a political and cultural context, the claim that a mandate was given to the guerrilla war was unfounded, and only a fiction. Despite the assertion, the foco type of armed struggles that appeared in many parts of the world, including ours, were not accorded any type of mandate from their “beloved” masses. Their initial little wars, and finally victory, were governed by other multi-furious factors not remotely associated with the public’s approval.

It is simply a ruse of their revisionist historians. What they adored, and pushed for was for the “spark”, or in other words for the first gun shot. For the guerrilla architects, the gradual submission of the populace during the rigors of the war has been construed as a mandate. In practice, these modern chieftains were not altogether different from the traditional kings and rases. They were in fact worse. They neither had “feriha Egziabeher” like the old kings of Abyssinia or Europe for they were Godless communists, nor did they bound themselves to any moral precepts like the Chinese emperors. We should not be puzzled then, when the current regime “governs” the small state with the prerogatives of emperors of a civilization-state like China.

Here is the important proof, totalitarian movements, once in power refuse to surrender the helms of the state even at the risk of the survival of their nations. The political and economic debacle in Zimbabwe and Cuba neatly fit this description. Unaccustomed to any semblance of dialogue and mandate except blind obedience and the tools of terror, their political system has nonetheless endured so far. What is the import of this to the suffering in Eritrea and the pronouncement of some Eritrean elite in the Diaspora, one might ask.

I urge the respected intellectuals to forget the call for a dialogue with the regime that harassed and ignored priests with their tabots, the same tabots revered in their faith once, while attempting to stop the civil war between the rival armed groups. What does it take to touch your heart? A performance from the chorus in Odipeius Tyrranus. Dialogue with a regime, whose loud monologue drivel is the only voice to be heard is an anomaly.This is a regime that since the ghedli era has been contemptuous, threatening and imprisoning people from all walks of life. More poignantly, the regime has also been murderous to the minuscule learned community since the insurgency epoch. They should also not forget the reception given to some of their fellows, the G-13, about a decade ago. The G-13 were stonewalled and hazed by the dictator. They were lucky they did not meet the fate of their acquaintances in the Sahel. I, therefore, insist on them to simply “withdraw their mandate”, notwithstanding the mythical nature of their claim. There are also the opinion makers, who dread to see a “feisty”, and “exceptional” Eritrea bullied and its military degraded in the aftermath of Isaias. Hubris and face-saving seem to have afflicted these folks, who otherwise are rational thinkers.

Good to be normal

The OAU Cairo meeting soon attended after independence by Eritrea was the watershed. Isaias harangued and ridiculed the important African dignitaries. His country, he arrogantly said, is joining the organization solely for the mundane reason that it belongs to the continent. Despite his egregious behavior, some of the delegates were nonetheless willing to own to the poor performance of their organization, and were conciliatory. Not the dictator. All through the mid 90s, his regime was spoiling for a fight.

At one time the then Defense Minister, Sebhat Ephrem, boasted that the Eritrea can overthrow Turabi’s Sudan in a couple of weeks. The irony is that it was made to Asser, a Tigrigna magazine popular among the Weyane constituents in Ethiopia. Fortunately, it remained largely a threat. The military clash with Yemen ensued not long after, and it may be attributed to the jingoistic character of the state of Eritrea. The Yemen-Eritrea clash was not resolved amicably as Drue once proudly claimed. Grudgingly accepting the decision of the International Court at the Hague after choosing war is not diplomatic finesse and an exemplary case example of conflict resolution, as Drue claimed.

It was simply a foolish act. Isaias’ itch for a fight was unstoppable, and when Ethiopia’s turn arrived, his one time comrades were quickly dismissed as zaqunot and of no consequence. The hidden contempt on the Tigrean nationalists from the offspring of the proletariat in Eritrea must not be omitted. It led to the military fiasco and the first major challenge to Isaias’ absolutist rule. In short, the country was transformed into a barb. The experience seemed to have sobered and mellowed some circles within the regime. One of them, who talked to Michela Wrong famously said, “It is good to be normal.” It is a wisdom we need to embrace with passion. All failed states are a disgrace, and a blemish to their communities. But not all are made in the same way.

The big man type

Our contemporary world is replete with all sorts of failed states. Nearly all those who push for good governance abhor the appearance of a failed state for the political, economic and social impact is in most cases profound. This may not be universally shared by everybody, however. Many villages, and communities fortunately located a little further from the reach of the predatory and refractory state may not lament its absence. Imagine a village somewhere in the bend of the river Congo during Mobutu Se Seko or an oasis settlement in the immense desert of the Sudan during the Numeiry regime. Chances are these communities were mostly neglected, but less intruded and abused by the authorities whose presence is largely felt only in the capitals, a few towns, and their satellite settlements.

Thus, not all failed states are alike.

Notwithstanding its strong presence in the public realm, a regime may equally qualify for a failed state category, once argued Saleh Younis, when describing the regime in Asmera. Thanks to its massive army, spying networks, its complete economic monopoly and its stifling presence in all urban and rural areas, no village or community is left to mind its business in Eritrea. Not in the distance past, the regime has earned the envy of some sisterly African nations. The late Joseph Kabila, who toured Sawa in Eritrea, reportedly admired the “easy” commingling of his host, Isaias, with the crowd in Asmera. Strangely, the one time contrabandist did not even ask if private residents in Asmera were either permitted to possess arms or to open gun shops for business. Kabila’s quest for a totalitarian state was short lived for he was soon gunned down by somebody in his palace in Kinshasa. The fight against the varieties of failed states requires the need to identify the tyranny in Eritrea as exceptional and unique.

The big brother type

Many of us have surely seen, and may have shed a few tears while watching the great movie Searching for Private Ryan. Based on a true story, the film is about the Second World War. The War Department of the U.S government had passed the Sole-survivor-son policy, designed to spare families from a possible loss of all their children drafted to the war. A platoon, or was it a regiment, launches a desperate mission to save the life a fellow soldier. At the risk of annihilation, the soldiers had to undergo formidable battles and forced marches to insure that a mother somewhere in the immense farms of America would not mourn the loss of her third child. A caution: the actual drama played in the movie has small resemblance to the true story. Yet, what truly happened was not an ordinary thing.

An army chaplain, having been informed about the death of the other brothers (in a short space of time) of a fellow soldier and dreading the sorrow that would strike the mother, organizes a search. The sibling was found, and shipped back to America to finally die in old age from a natural cause. True, for the most part of America’s wars, the share of the wounded and killed was disproportionately carried by kids from low income families, but this government’s decision was not a small token. It offered some solace for many distressed mothers.

By contrast adetat in Eritrea were dismissed and treated cruelly in Eritrea. After the 1998 war with Ethiopia, a few families respectfully and politely asked the dictator to exempt some of their children, whose siblings have either fallen in the ghedli times or were drafted in the contemporary war. They petitioned the strongman dreading the possibility of some of their older mothers, who were left without a mekli or a sole surviving son.

Leery and arrogant, Isaias, who has since nationalized their children, refused and left them in despair. Most households opted the quiet and resigned way of mourning their beloved ones. The case of the mother from a small town who was ailing and has since passed away needs to be told. This lady was hastily brought to her wounded son during the summer of 2000. She had not only lost three of her boys for the ghedli but also knew the death of a fourth in the military debacle of 2000 through rumors. Shattered, and grief stricken the mother uttered “eza mahzeley gedi, nebeyna eya!.” Traditionally, mothers curse their mahzel when death often snatches their children as a result of high infant mortality rates. This time, it was Isaias’ self-admitted “stupid war” which required its quota of “sacrifice.” His accursed temple simply expects them to “ululate”, and stoically wait for the piece of the cheap paper; the sened misikir mesua’ti. As the mahzel is unique to the mother, the tyranny of Eritrea is also matchless. In order to comprehend, the horror in extremis in Eritrea, a brief look into the architecture of its entity is obligatory.

The anti-fortress

Foot soldiers of the regime imagine Isaias’ Eritrea as a steadfast nation or a citadel that is proudly challenging all sorts of jealous neighbors, Islamists and imperial powers. The metaphor they love to use for their young nation, “the fortress”, was also the same potent weapon Italy employed to conquer the region that is known since as Eritrea. Italy’s venture has left in the landscape plenty of these walled bastions. From the Plains of Semhar (you would encounter one, as soon as you leave the Massawa premises) to the western lowlands, and particularly the Kebessa fortresses, are everywhere.

From the gradual encroachment to the last consolidation phase of colonial Italy, these strategic locations were indispensable to the army of conquest. The gullible lone tourist must visit these sites before he/she gets smitten by the Art Deco buildings. They are as important a legacy as the slave holding fortresses found in Ghana and Senegal. These fortresses are not museums or vacant places however, for the militarized state has become their tenant. And not surprisingly it has also acquired the same habit of stealing scarce fertile meadows from the poor villagers. The military preoccupation of the present regime and colonial Italy’s fortresses resemble one another. They point towards the threat from Ethiopia. The perception is illusory however. It only resides in the eyes of the fanatic supporters of the Yikealo regime. Blinded by fanaticism, and cult like, they seem to be unaware of the drastic architectural change in their beloved fortress.

All is quiet on the old Temporary Security Zone. It does not appear like a no-mans-land, where two large armies are murderously staring at each other. Aside from the occasional and small skirmishes, and the recent incident which was inflated to a war with Ethiopia, the regime has nothing to worry. It does not emerge as vulnerable. To the contrary, it has felt so emboldened that is has been hosting armed groups of all nature opposed to Ethiopia, and taunting it.

The real victims are largely civilians in the vicinity and others who under the cover of night or in less patrolled grounds attempt to flee to Ethiopia. The thousands who safely made it to the refugee camps were the fortunate ones. Over the years many were shot dead in the attempt, killed after capture and imprisoned to be later drafted to the army. Invariably, a herd of livestock or goats occasionally lose their way or are rustled and cause misery to the farming communities in the area. The border with the Sudan is likewise tranquil except for all sorts of smuggling activities.

The “self sufficient” nation has since many years refined the contraband business with the extremely nominal border with the Sudan. Its “stalwart” officers were not left excluded from the project either. They have likewise been making good money and have since established a market share in the organized smuggling of people in hot pursuit from the state. The scenario in the Djibouti area seems not to bother the regime too. To the contrary, Isaias is kicking-ass, as the Americans say, and has since occupied a small Island and another slice of land from poor Djibouti. The regime felt so secure despite the looming “threat” from the south that it launched another stupid war. How about the calm Red Sea frontier?

It is even calmer. The long coast line that was the harbor of hundreds of dhows/sanbuks during the 19th century has been empty now. For a brief time, draft dodgers from Asmera dashed from the dragnet in Asmera to Massawa camouflaged as tourists. Not anymore, the area is mostly off limits except for the dictator, his clandestine projects and the countless hapless convicts doing forced labor for the regime. When not busy, the patrol boats have mostly been chasing either Yemeni or Egyptian fishermen. And not infrequently, a whole crew would themselves dart towards Yemen to escape the horror. The only thing that remained constant in the Red Sea coastline is probably the dolphin, or Abu Selama. The poor creature’s name has since been appropriated for the condom, ostensibly to help educate AIDS awareness in the late 90s.

In the City of Thieves, a novel about the siege of the Leningrad, a poor teen-ager fell into the hands of Stalin’s goons for a very harmless offense. Terrified and alone in the infamous jail of Piter, the precocious kid discovered that the walls of the prison are so thick and impregnable that they look like an anti-fortress. For him, its sole purpose was to keep people or “enemies” from within. What an apt metaphor for Stalin’s Soviet Union, and for contemporary Eritrea. The “open air prison” that the whole country has since turned into is after all right in the womb of its look alike: the anti-fortress Eritrea. Sounds very logical!! A fortress has begotten an anti-fortress with a megalomaniac as a keeper.

The keeper

After the military debacle in Badme in 1999, the regime unleashed a massive propaganda to soften its impact on the distraught public. Desperate for any temporary respite, it even allowed the sale of news sheets with the Tigrigna words for Ministry of Defense clearly printed on it. Fictitious battles with scores of tanks burned or captured and the capture or death of some foreign generals were splashed on it. Not surprisingly, some of the beleaguered Asmera residents were observed buying these papers for one Nacfa from the street vendors in the downtown district. According to some source, Beraki, the then Minister of Information felt so disgusted that he advised the public to only follow the news releases from the state media. It is very implausible to think that the Isaias regime was innocent of this act. After all nothing happens in Eritrea without the blessing of Isaias’ control freaks.

During the hubbub, an insightful article appeared in one of the private newspapers, under the title “Wey gobo kun, wey mesgobo tesega.’” The author was obviously unnerved by the calamitous turn of the military theater and was not persuaded by the relentless state propaganda. His message was a plea to save his nation. Though politely written, the article seems on hindsight an open attack on the official “self-sufficiency” dogma. By contrast, millions of money was raised for the coffers of the state by people in the Diaspora who were openly lapping the empty military boasts of the regime.

This famous saying was not easily buried forever. It was however resuscitated from an expected corner. During one of his monologues, Isaias complained about some people who repeat the same saying with “hesuk, heshuk.” They allegedly lament the isolation of the country from sympathetic powers. The garb that Isaias dons as a Dawit against the mighty powers has still endured, notwithstanding the opposition’s pooh-pooh. Yet, the dictator has never shied, and in fact was slavishly soliciting the support of a foreign power, as pointed in a few opposition websites.

During the first Gulf War, an American warship whose type or name I have since forgotten was launching missiles from the Red Sea to chosen targets in Iraq. This same ship was cruising the same Sea again during the mid 1990s, and would not have deserved the writer’s notice had he not observed the incredulous thing in Hadas Eritrea and Dimitsi Hafash. The Lion of Nacfa, stated the government media, accompanied by the U.S ambassador to Eritrea flew in a helicopter for a friendly visit to the warship. Haddas Eritrea did not forget to mention that he also reviewed the sailors and received a salute of arms. Diplomatic niceties and simple neighborhood solidarity would surely have stopped another ordinary Big Man from the region from accepting this invitation. Not the Lion of Nacfa whose behavior was even worse than any port pimp. The irony is to see the country succumb to the ironclad rule of this same super pimp.

Forget the mighty “hafash.“ It is not a gobo anymore; it has been reduced to a molehill, largely by the dictator himself. It has been enfeebled and trampled so much one could not recognize it anymore. Is it any wonder if the legendary adetat do not proudly call the opposition as “deqena” any more. What if the famous adetat have after all disowned the old “deqena” and chose to remain childless. What if it is instead passively waiting for some other deliverance. What if the communities have long passed the prerogatives of free agency entirely to the Deity.

Which evokes to me St. George, the Dragon Slayer whose pictures adorned the houses of many Christian households in the old Asmera. St. George may not be the patron saint of many of the Christian youth, who are increasingly joining the evangelical movement. St. George and his other popular rival Abune Teklay may not anymore adorn the walls of many Christian homes. They are disappearing from the scene like their old worshippers. But then things are still the same.

The Christian youth in Eritrea, while more literate in the Biblical literature, do not most likely read the party platforms of the opposition parties/fronts in Eritrea. To a great extent, they appear to have laid their trust on the deity even more than their parents. The masses in Eritrea are living not unlike to the circumstance of the inhabitants of the poor community described in one particular religious tradition. The community lived in terror from a fearsome Dragon. Unable to dislodge the monster from their only stream for drinking water, they had first to offer it a goat as a sacrifice. It got ominous, when the offer was substituted for a live being. The community’s existence was put in danger, when mercifully the knight and the saint, St. George arrived and slew the fearsome Dragon.

As for the writer, the UN sanction may equally serve as the knight savior. I bet on it, even if it proves disappointing. During my childhood, I was terrified by Blue Beard, the ogre character in the Green Primer book, who used to slay defenseless women in his castle. I remember praying for the saviors on horsemen to gallop faster. But for the real the terror that has enveloped Eritrea, I unabashedly want to sing the refrain from little children’s song in Asmera often made to a bridegroom: Mesikaley’do kitsbeyeka.

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