Why the Tunisian Revolution Cannot Be Replicated in Eritrea

By Yosief Ghebrehiwet

[The main part of this article – that is, except for the first part (“Introduction”) and the third part (“Why the Tunisian uprising cannot be replicated in Eritrea”) – was written on Feb 28, 2007. In light of the Tunisian uprising and the reactions it has been generating among Eritreans, I have decided to repost it; for I believe much of what I have said then still remains relevant today. I want the readers to keep in mind that when they see names of writers like Dawit Maekele, Paulos Nathanael and Seyoum Tesfaye, I was referring to their writings before the date mentioned above; so please keep the time frame in mind.]

(I) Introduction: self-reliance in resistance

(Written on Jan 25, 2011)

The article, “Nonviolent and Violent Resistance in Eritrea – Part I”, was written with nonviolent resistance in mind. My theme in that article was: that it was impossible to conduct nonviolent resistance from within Eritrea. A nonviolent resistance may or may not include an uprising, for the latter one could easily turn violent. Although the overlap of the factors that allow nonviolent resistance and mass uprising may not turn out to be in exact fit, there are too many similarities among the two kinds of resistance to demand certain common characteristics to hold among the population. The theme of this article is that none of those are to be found in present day Eritrea.

The main reason that motivated me to pull out this old article was the nature of the reactions of Eritreans in the opposition camp to the Tunisian uprising. The overwhelming reaction was that of a call for Eritreans to follow the example of Tunisians. Some were saying it with all the optimism that if Tunisians can do it, we can also do it – however naïve that may be. But I am more interested in those who said it with almost a sigh of relief that we can easily detect from their “too happy” responses. This was exactly the kind of excuse they needed to hold on to their impotent “nonviolent resistance”, not so much motivated by what it could do but what it disallows to do: economic sanctions or armed confrontation, or both.

The opposition, be it of the peaceful or non-peaceful types, do not realize how much they have internalized Shaebia’s lingo of “self-reliance”. Oddly enough, they want to be self reliant in resistance, even as there is no evidence that this strategy will take them anywhere – the very same way Shaebia’s self reliance policy has turned the nation’s economy into a basket case. The opposition is emulating Shaebia not only in adopting its policy of self reliance, albeit in a different category than the economic one, but also in its motive for hanging on to that policy despite its spectacular failure. The regime’s only reason for holding on to its self-reliance policy is not because it is delivering anything, but because it eliminates foreign involvement. The same holds true with many in the opposition; that is why to them what is mostly appealing about the Tunisian uprising is that it is “home-made”: “There were no US, UN, AU, regional, continental or international involvement like for example what is going on in Ivory Coast, or association with some religious movements or extremists others!” [“Tunisians Tweet a Tyrant Out of the Country! Eritrean Tyrant Next”, Berhane M. Tekeste, eritreadaily.net] Again, we get the drift: it is not so much that they have confidence in the Eritrean people that they are propagating this self reliance mantra, but that it has become an indispensable tool in keeping “outside interference” at bay. The Isaias regime couldn’t find any better allies!

If they have been honest to themselves, all these adherents of “self reliance in resistance” would have reached the following conclusion just by taking the surface evidence into consideration: that the Tunisian experience cannot be replicated in Eritrea precisely because all the factors that made it happen in Tunisia are totally absent in Eritrea. In the following, first, the old article without any alteration is reposted; then, in the third part, the differences that hold between the Tunisian and Eritrean conditions are explored.

(II) On Nonviolent and Violent Resistance in Eritrea – Part I

(Written on Feb 28, 2007)

Lately, Dawit Maekele has written an excellent article against any kind of violent resistance in Eritrea , at the same time outlining how the alternative – non-violent resistance – should go. Many responded negatively, opting for violent resistance instead. Soon followed an article by Paulos Nathanael, again stressing the virtues of peaceful resistance. But neither of these opposing camps said anything on how to apply their respective proposals on the ground inside Eritrea. There is a simple reason for that: neither of them is doable. Let me address this problem by looking at the writings of another articulate proponent of non-violent struggle, Seyoum Tesfaye.

The image that one gets out of reading Seyoum Tesfaye’s excellent articles goes as follows: that the Eritrean masses are fed up with the GoE; that they would no longer put up with the Isaias regime’s heavy-handedness; that they are rising up against their oppressors; and, consequently, that the days of Isaias regime are numbered, etc. But the facts belie this optimism [as a commentator by the name of Adonai aptly noted] since there are no discernible signs that the Eritrean masses are indeed in the “fighting mood” (or “rebelling mood”) that Seyoum repeatedly describes; to the contrary, apathy, passivity, resignation and flight seem to better reflect the pervasive mood of the nation.  It is important to focus on this issue because the opposition seems to mold its movement based on such a premise. For instance, those who militate for armed struggle do so based on the belief that the masses will join them on such an endeavor. And those who preach nonviolent resistance do so based on the belief that such a resistance is feasible within proper Eritrea. But if this “fundamental” premise is flawed, not only would the opposition be on the wrong track, but it also wouldn’t be looking for workable alternatives. More specifically, this flawed premise detracts us from asking the most important question regarding the resistance: if both violent resistance (armed struggle) and nonviolent resistance (peaceful civil disobedience) are not possible within proper Eritrea, can they be located without? In the former case, should we in the opposition start actively seeking alliance with Ethiopia to bring down the Isaias regime? And, in the latter case, what is it that we can do to relocate the center of nonviolent resistance from proper Eritrea to Diaspora Eritrea? And can the one mission be complemented to the other without any contradiction?

Empirical approach

How do we go about in our search for a viable result-oriented action to the Eritrean problem? This seems to me to be the central question that we should focus on. But this search should be based on empirical observation, and not on some naïve absolutist ideology that necessarily attributes some inevitability to history. The main problem with the latter approach is that it primarily depends on the population within proper Eritrea that is experiencing the Isaias regime’s heavy handedness first hand for a radical solution. This focus – one that rests on an absolutist view of history – sees an inherent truth in such statements: “Since it is the masses that are oppressed, it will be the masses that will finally rise up against their oppressors; and it will be the masses that will triumph in the end.” The Hegelian and Marxist underpinnings of such an understanding are obvious. But history simply lacks such inevitability.

In the spirit of the empirical approach recommended above – which is just the opposite of an absolutist outlook – lets now retrace ourselves and look at the problem with our eyes focused on facts, and facts only. There are four vital questions that would help us in such an empirical endeavor: (1) What does the history of nonviolent resistance tell us about the conditions for its feasibility? (2) What does the current reality in Eritrea tell us about the possibility of such an uprising? (3) What guidance does the history of the various ends of totalitarian regimes provide us on this subject matter? (4) What does the nature of totalitarian leaders tell us on the inevitability of their eventual demise? Below, I will say a few words on each, before I return to the main question raised above.

(1) Is peaceful resistance within Eritrea DOABLE?

At the outset, let me dogmatically start with this simple fact: that there is almost no room for any peaceful resistance within a viable totalitarian regime. Hence, if one is forced to choose between violent and nonviolent resistance within a totalitarian regime, it is only logical that one should choose the former; for, structurally, a violent resistance is at least prepared (that is, psychologically) for all kinds of eventualities: it doesn’t expect mercy, moderation, inhibition or understanding from the enemy. It is out there to destroy or be destroyed. This is not so in the case of peaceful resistance where just the opposite is expected; for such a resistance cannot even get off the ground – paradoxical as it may seem - without  appealing to the heart or mind (or both) of the enemy.

Peaceful resistance cannot even be contemplated, let alone acted upon, without attributing some “good qualities” to the enemy: a reasonable mind that is at least well aware of its interest and image, at the minimum, and a conscientious mind that has some kind of civility, at the maximum. That is why a peaceful disobedience as a tool of resistance would be unthinkable in totalitarian regimes such as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Kim El Sung’s North Korea , Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Saddam’s Iraq . The same holds true in Isaias’ Eritrea. For instance, a peaceful demonstration in Asmara would be unthinkable simply because it would end up in another Adi-Abeyto like massacre.

Let alone in totalitarian regimes, the civil rights movement in America prior to World War II would be unthinkable. Why? Because there was neither a sizable segment of the larger society (white America) to whose conscience blacks could appeal to, nor a nation whose interest (and image) could be made to feel threatened by such a resistance. After World War II though, there were changes in these two factors that contributed to a drastic change in the mentality of the nation that made it possible for peaceful disobedience to be used as an effective tool of resistance. First, after America’s triumphant victory in World War II, as the nation began positioning itself to play the role of a leader of the democratic world – especially in its newly found mission against communism – the image that the world would have of it became something that it could only ignore to its peril. That is, there was no way for America to have it both ways for long: taking the role of a leader of the free, democratic world while imposing apartheid (Jim Crow) on the southern half of the country. Second, the age of television has arrived; as television entered every household, the brutality of the South could no more be hidden from the North (and from the eyes of the world). That is, there could be no more excuses by many liberal whites who had so far feigned that the condition of the blacks in the South was not that bad after all; that is, realty could no more be kept at a safe distance. Within this new context then, not only were blacks able to appeal to the conscience of white America, they were also able to threaten its image (and hence, its self-interest) in the eyes of the world. We can then safely assume that a Martin Luther King would be unthinkable prior to World War II.

The lesson that we get from the above is that a peaceful resistance depends much on the “goodwill” of the enemy for its feasibility. But no such “goodwill” is to be found in Shaebia (as in any other totalitarian regime). It has neither the conscience to which Eritreans could appeal to (remember, this is an organization that throws elders and parents in prison for no fault of theirs), nor awareness of its self-interest and self-image that one could threaten (remember that, to the contrary, this is an organization that would go out of its way to destroy its self-interest and self-image in the world) that would make such a resistance possible. So one can appeal neither to its heart nor to its head, for it has neither. Its inhumanity and its sheer stupidity have made it immune from such kind of resistance.

(2) Passive vs active resistance

One of the reasons that might have convinced Seyoum of the imminent downfall of Isaias as a result of the masses rising up is the PASSIVE resistance that is pervasive in today’s Eritrea. It has been a while now since the population has been “actively” sabotaging the Isaias regime: the youth have been fleeing the national service in their tens of thousands, thereby undermining the very viability of the army; corruption has become endemic, canceling out the “unique” virtue (that is, unique in Africa) that the regime was supposed to have; defections of higher officials have become very common, fueling the paranoia of an already paranoid regime; hard currency from Diaspora has slowed down to a trickle, driving the regime to frantic means to prop up its ever-dwindling reserve; productivity in every field has hit nadir, exacerbating the economic meltdown; information leakage has become common, again wiping out another “advantage” the secretive government used to have; etc. But despite the fact that all this passive resistance is gradually weakening the regime, it shouldn’t be confused for an ACTIVE one.

To see that active resistance (be it violent or nonviolent) is qualitatively different from passive resistance, one need only imagine a scenario whereby the latter keeps actively undermining the former. The mass exodus of Warsai is a good example. There are four main reasons as to how this exodus is working against active resistance: First, the sheer number of those who are stampeding out of Eritrea is alarming: so far, in tens of thousands. Second, the overwhelming majority of those who are escaping the country are not only the educated ones, but also tend to be the most critical of the regime. Third, the dream of most of those who are left behind in mainland Eritrea – if they find any opportunity – is to follow the escapees in Diaspora; that is, they see exodus, and not confrontation, as solution to their problem. And last, as a result of this exodus, the army is now disproportionately made up of peasants and nomads, a population group least likely to rise up against the regime.

One would expect if there is any population group that would not only rise up against the regime but also would lead such an uprising it would be the educated part of the Warsai generation. But if this population group sees a way out of its predicament in mass exodus rather than in mass rebellion, a mass uprising in Eritrea remains a pipe dream. No doubt that Isaias has found a silver lining in all of this. So far, this has been working as a safety valve for his regime, where much of the rage of the people is finding a nonpolitical outlet. So Seyoum has got it wrong when he sees imminent downfall as a result of all the passive resistance in Eritrea. To the contrary, this very passive resistance is actually undermining any active resistance – be it violent or nonviolent – and hence, temporarily (although inadvertently) propping up the regime. There is no doubt that all this would eventually lead to the dictator’s downfall (think of how the mass exodus is draining the military) but it lacks both the urgency and the rationale that Seyoum puts on it.

In general, there are three main reasons as to why the Eritrean population has opted for passive resistance: sheer exhaustion, iron-fisted totalitarian grip and the availability of nonpolitical alternative. First, the population has been massively brutalized under three consecutive regimes, with tens of thousands incarcerations, more than one hundred thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands refugees in between them. This relentless assault that has lasted for more than four decades has totally sapped the energy of the people, and left it destitute, dispirited, cynical and resigned. After all these sacrifices, it is now especially wary of any solution that promises them further bloodshed. Second, it has to be noted that the Shaebia regime has no parallel in the history of the nation in its extent of the totalitarian grip that it exercises over the people [more on this in #4]. It has left hardly an elbow room for people to breathe, let alone to protest. And third, as noted above, the fact that the population has found nonpolitical outlets (such as the mass exodus) for its grievances is working against active resistance.

(3) History as our guidance

If we look at the history of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, almost none has come to an end as a result of the oppressed masses rising up. In those rare cases where they seem to rise up – the case of Romania, for instance (one mentioned by Seyoum) – invariably, bigger outside forces were closing in; the Romanian “rebellion” happened to be just a side-show of this greater inevitability that was sweeping the whole of Eastern Europe as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, one finds more cogency in the opposite argument: in those instances where the masses successfully rose up against their oppressors, the regimes tended to be weak or semi-liberal ones (ex: the Russian revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the Ethiopian Revolution, etc.)

So what does history tell us of the fall of totalitarian regimes? That almost all of them come to an end as a result of: (a) a sustained, incremental internal decay that ultimately causes them to internally collapse, (b) outside forces that close in to finally defeat them decisively [or a combination of both]. The case of the Soviet Union is a good example of the first one. Throughout the seven decades of brutal communist rule, the oppressed masses never successfully rose up against their oppressors. The totalitarian grip was so complete that any appearance of dissent was always met with instant, brutal reprisal that left nothing to chance. The gulags in Siberia are a testimony to such an exhaustive approach, where millions perished in endless purges. In the end, it is the internal decay incrementally accumulated through these self-destructive decades that finally caused the Soviet empire to collapse. The fact that it was the leaders who finally rose up against themselves tells us a lot about the masses - that they had been emasculated to a point of impotence. [It is to be noted that the crisis following the war in Eritrea was NOT a popular uprising, but rather a case of the leadership rising up against itself. And if there will be any uprising in Eritrea in the future, it will most probably be of a similar type.]

The cases of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Khmer Rouge of Cambodia – all primary, classical cases of totalitarianism – fit the second case, where outside forces decisively brought them to an end. Take, for instance, the case of Cambodia [which, in fact, fits both cases]. Pol Pot was in for a surprise of his life when he wrongly surmised that the Cambodian people would conduct a protracted war against a foreign army (Vietnam’s); he was especially counting on their nationalism, given the traditional apprehension that the population had over Vietnam [similar to what Eritreans have over Ethiopia]. But the Cambodian people, after having been massively brutalized under the hands of Pol Pot, were in NO MOOD TO REBEL – either against inside or outside forces. That is why, when we say that the Eritrean people are “in no rebelling mood,” I see virtue in the ambiguity of the phrase. Totalitarian leaders see capital in the weakness (that is, in the submissiveness) of their subjects. But they forget that outside forces too see capital in that very weakness; in that they expect little resistance from the masses if and when they decide to strike. This is especially true in those cases where the masses don’t see any ill will from the invaders [here, there is a lesson for Ethiopia].

Most probably, the end of the Isaias regime will come through a combination of the two cases mentioned above: (a) an internal decay, which has already reached a critical mass, and (b) an intervention from Ethiopia . If Melles turns his guns against Eritrea, (as in the case of Cambodia), Isaias will find out too late that the Eritrean people are “in no mood to fight.” After having been massively brutalized by the Isaias regime, the Eritrean masses might be willing to gamble with their traditional enemy rather than die a slow death under the hands of Shaebia. This will largely depend on how Ethiopia plays its cards.

[The second part of the article, “On Nonviolent and Violent Resistance in Eritrea: Lessons from G-15 Dissent” was first posted on April 27, 2007, and then reposted (with addendum) on March 03, 2010 under a different title, Sanctions Watch: Lessons from the G-15 Dissent ]

(III) Why the Tunisian uprising cannot be replicated in Eritrea

(Written on Jan 25, 2011)

The dilemma of the Arab world in the age of modernity has been: how to embrace the material aspects of modernity while rejecting its spiritual aspects. What I mean by the former is mainly what the technological aspects of modernity could deliver – urbanization, technology, highways, skyscrapers, hospitals, schools, factories, airplanes, cars, etc – and other irresistible knick knacks that modernity churns out in mass. And by the latter, I mean the cultural and political aspects of modernity – that is, the self-liberating aspects of modernity that transforms the individual and the society in ways that threatens the old but certain ways of living. Saudi Arabia is a good example that has, so far, neatly kept these two aspects apart from each other – no doubt, a great feat, but in the end not sustainable because the two aspects of modernity tend to feed on each other in ways that are unpredictable. The problem with Tunisia is that it has reached a stage where the two aspects of modernity, after have been feeding on each other for quite a while, can no more be held apart from each other. If so, one odd way of postponing that critical convergence would be by backtracking on the technical aspects of modernity – the Eritrean way. But to do so would require an astounding level of stupidity.

The problem with the Eritrean government is not simply that it is brutally repressive but also extremely dumb. When it comes to perceived or real threats to its security, it never asks itself how far it should go, even if in the end that means obliterating the very habitat upon which its very existence depends. It is willing to actively work against the development of the nation to avert any threat to its political survival, even if that would take it all the way back to the Stone Age. To ward off any perceived threat, it allows itself the largest possible margin of error; all its overkill measures are meant to prevent the slightest bit of failure imaginable on its side. And that excessively generous margin of error cannot be had for long without invading, and eventually without wiping out, the space freedom of others. There is no better place to witness this mindless destruction than in the education sector, where the higher learning system has been systematically dismantled, the entire educational system completely militarized and almost the entire student population put in internal and external exile.

On the other hand, the political space that the Tunisians found to revolt can be explained by the fact that the Tunisian government of Ben Ali was neither as repressive nor as dumb as the Eritrean government. However authoritarian the Tunisian government was, its people never experienced the totalitarian grip under which the Eritrean people have been living under the Isaias regime. Unlike Eritrea, a semblance of democracy, complete with multiparty elections, parliamentary procedures and private media existed – however farcical most of these were. No such pretense exists in Eritrea – Eritrea is proudly totalitarian, and doesn’t want to go through the discomfort of going through such democratic contortions.

Although much restricted, labor unions, civic groups and NGOs were not outlawed in Tunisia, as the case with Eritrea happens to be. Had it not been for the half a million strong labor union [Tunisian General Labour Union - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia] that had out-survived the dictator, we wouldn’t have witnessed the active role the unions are now playing in guiding the revolution.

But more importantly, the Ben Ali government, although repressive and corrupt, wasn’t so dumb as to gamble away the whole futurity of the nation for the sake of its security. It never stopped developing the nation; in fact, it was entering modernity at a break neck pace. And therein lay its Achilles Heel: those very aspects of modernity that it needed to enter the modern world eventually militated against it. If it were not for the large highly educated population group it had produced, and the expectations it had consequently raised, and the modern amenities it had introduced in mass quantities – such as internet connections, cell phones, etc – this amalgam of street and cyber space revolution wouldn’t have been possible.

The critical difference lies in this: while the Eritrean regime’s astounding level of brutality means that it wouldn’t hesitate to use any means necessary to squash any uprising, as it has done in lesser cases before, its equally astounding level of stupidity means that no cost-benefit analyses are ever taken in the extent of the measures it takes in such instances; both ending in an environment where there is not even an elbow room to maneuver a minor protest, let alone to conduct a mass uprising.

Now let’s look at the governments of Tunisia and Eritrea in regard to their youth, education and development to get a full picture of that critical difference that allowed dissent in the former, while totally disallowing it in the latter. Especially, we need to look at the two main factors that made the Tunisian revolution possible: a large population group that is highly educated and an extensive use of the cyber space.

Tunisia: the youth, education and development

In all the comparisons below, let’s keep in mind that Tunisia’s population is twice as large as Eritrea’s.

Now, let’s start by looking at the difference in their GDP per capita: $9,500 for a Tunisian as opposed to $700 for an Eritrean. That is, a Tunisian makes an income more than 13 times than that of an Eritrean. (CIA - The World Factbook)

And when it comes to education and development, there is no comparison at all. Under Ben Ali’s watch, Tunisia’s progress on both was extensive: “Earlier this year, Tunisia was ranked the most improved in technology-readiness of any country in Africa, especially in higher education sector, according to The Global Information Technology Report 2009-2010, titled ICT for sustainability, published by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum and the French management school INSEAD.” (University World News - TUNISIA: Higher education key to new ...)

The achievement level in higher educational system can be described as nothing less than spectacular: “In Tunisia in 2005–2006, there were 178 public institutions of higher education among which there were 13 universities, 24 higher institutes of technological studies and six higher institutes of teachers' training. The Higher Education Ministry (HEM) supervises 155 institutions and 23 are under the co-suervision of the HEM and other ministries. In addition HEM recognizes 20 university-level private institutions.” [Wikipedia]

The Eritrean government often brags about its record on equality of women. Not only is Tunisia the only nation in Middle East to outlaw polygamy, its record on women education parallels that of the developed world: “The government required parents to send girls to school, and today more than 50% of university students are women and 66% of judges and lawyers are women.” [Tunisia]

In one sense then, one can say that President Ali was a victim of his own success. By the end of 2006, the number of enrolled students in public universities only had reached 365,000, and it was projected to reach more than half a million by 2011 [Tunisia - Google Books Result]. The increase in the student population in higher learning was so fast that employment was unable to catch up with the rate the universities were churning out graduates every year. As a result, the unemployment figure for university students was much higher than the official 14 percent for the nation as a whole. It is then understandable why many of the unemployed would readily identify themselves with, and instantly react to, the unemployed university graduate who set himself ablaze in protest.

The Tunisians and the information age

The Tunisian revolution has an indispensable cyber space side to it; so much so, that at times it has also been called the “Twitter Revolution” (besides “Jasmine Revolution”), with the internet, and possibly the cell phone too, playing a determining role. Many have observed that the event that triggered massive response – the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi – wouldn’t have had the overwhelming reaction it had generated instantly in Tunisia and abroad had it not been for the internet where the picture of him on fire and the event that provoked it were circulated and played countless times for maximum effect. With the internet, the Tunisians have been able to circumvent the national media that invariably went blackout on events like this.

With the internet, the Tunisians also found a safe way of registering their protest. They not only galvanized the rest of the population from a safe distance, but also the outside world, in general, and the Arab world, in particular. The Arab media, like Al Jezeera, and the internet were keeping their synergetic relation for such a sustained period of time that the problem can no more be ignored. The response from both inside and outside was so massive that it scared the hell out of the authoritarian ruler, forcing him to flee, seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Let’s again crunch some numbers to see the gaping difference between Tunisia and Eritrea in the technological aspect that made the Jasmine revolution possible. All we need is to look at internet and cell phone usages of the two countries to get the full picture, again with one fact in mind: that Tunisia’s population is twice as large as Eritrea’s.

“The number of Internet users [in Tunisia] grew from 3.5 million in 2009 to 3,600,000 in March 2010 and the rate of families with at least one computer reached 15.7% in 2009.

“Subscribers to the network of broadband Internet rose to 408,000 subscribers at the end of March 2010 against 368,000 subscribers in late 2009.” [allAfrica.com: Tunisia: Number of GSM Users Reaches 9,9 Million] And when it comes to cell phone usage, the numbers for 2009 were 141,000 for Eritrea and 9,754,000 for Tunisia. [CIA - The World Factbook]

It is clear from the above that the Tunisian government has neither slowed down in its drive to educate its youth nor has it curbed the nation’s march towards the information age in order to make any kind of dissent impossible to materialize. The Eritrean case happens to be just the opposite.

Emptying the city of its youth

As pointed above, the Isaias regime is a great liability to the Eritrean people not only because it is brutally repressive, but also unbelievably dumb. Its cost-benefit analysis in whatever it does to secure its safety is rather alarming: it prefers to gamble away the whole futurity of the nation just to avoid any potential dissent. There is no better example of this than the way it has been treating its youth, the very future of the nation, to see the extent to which it would go to secure its safety in the capital.

As in any country of the third world kind found in Africa, there is this pragmatic guidance that every dictator follows: whoever controls the capital controls the nation. In the Eritrean case, what is astounding is the draconian measure that the regime took to make sure that no kind of uprising would be spearheaded from Asmara: it evicted almost the whole young generation out of the city! If there are any cities in Africa whose young generation has been systematically evicted out to render the ruling elite safe, all of them would be found in Eritrea. This phenomenon alone in itself would show how unbelievably brutal and immensely stupid the Isaias regime is.

Closing down the only university

This wholesale eviction of the youth started with the dismantling of Asmara University. Eritrea is probably the only nation in the world to close down its only university in order to eliminate any potential dissent from university students.

It all started with a mild dissent that Asmara university students conducted in 2001 regarding summer job program. The response was quick and draconian: the entire university student population was sent to a concentration camp called Wi’a, a very inhospitable area in the desert, where two students immediately died of dehydration. Probably the idea of moving out the whole adult student population from the urban areas occurred to the tyrant at this time. The expulsion of the university students, the most likely ones to dissent if there were any, was the first among many to follow in years to come in methodologically emptying the city out of its most productive population.

The next step was, of course, to close down the university for good, which took place five years later in 2006; although, in between, it was being phased out slowly with that end in mind. This was done for two reasons. First, the tyrant understood that if he had to eliminate any threat to the capital coming from the university students once and for all, he would have to move it out of the city. Second, by replacing the internationally accredited university with make shift colleges with no credentials whatsoever, and administrated by illiterate colonels, the “liberators” saw this as a rare opportunity to mold these students in their own image – with the eventual militarization of the youth in their mind.

At this point, let’s remind ourselves that no other leader in Africa has ever entertained to systematically dismantle his nation’s higher learning system to fully grasp the gravity of this unprecedented move. Even though the students at Haile Selassie University were a headache to the monarchy, the emperor never entertained of closing it down for good. There was a simple reason for that: closing it down would be tantamount to killing the nation’s future, for no nation would have made it in the 20th century (let alone the 21st century!) without any higher learning institution. And that is the crux of the matter: there is no length to which the Yikealo “liberators” would go to secure their hegemony.

After deciding to evict the young generation from the urban areas, the logistical problem the Yikealo faced was: where to keep the Warsai generation. This was by no means a mean feat for, over the years, it had to involve “housing” hundreds of thousands of “exiles”.

Internal and external exile

If there is one word that would define the unfortunate young generation suffering under the hands of its “liberators”, it would be: exile. Be it in prisons, concentration camps, boot camps, training camps, Sawa, makeshift colleges, military camps, Warsai-Yikealo development projects, national service or refugee camps, the intention remains invariably the same: how to contain these restive youth population in insulated areas away from the urban centers where they may cause trouble. To understand the abnormality of the internal exile, one need only focus on Sawa and National Service.

Sawa is the place – as far away from Asmara as one could imagine – where every student in the nation has to take his last year of high school. Imagine a nation of five million creating a single school for the entire 12th grade students! Only Orwellian minds would entertain such an idea! The idea that motivates this draconian measure, though immensely foolish, is rather simple: the sequestering of the youth away from the urban areas has to start as early age as possible – at 16 and 17 years old. This also happens to be the place where the indoctrination and militarization starts in earnest, in the hope that in the end they will come out molded in the image of teghadalay. After Sawa, a permanent place of exile has to be found for these high school graduates – the National Service.

Cordoned off in the wilderness, hundreds of thousands of adults have been wasting their most productive years in futile Sisyphean tasks under that misleading name of national service; for many of them, it has been more than a decade of slave labor. Again, the goal remains the same: keep them busy, and as long as it takes, away from urban centers.

The immediate effect of this indefinite internal exile has been external exile: mass exodus. Fed up of the way the Yikealo Big Brothers have been treating them, the Warsai have been fleeing the country in their tens of thousands every year, to seek refuge in neighboring countries and beyond. The reaction of the retarded regime in Asmara has been predictable: if given the choice between exile and Asmara for the student population to be, it would choose the former – immaterial of whether it comes in its internal or external form. The stupidity of the regime is clear: even as the mass exodus of army deserters and conscription evaders is threatening the very viability of its army, it is impossible for it to change gears at the midst of the self-destructive road it has taken, for that would require for it to work at narrower margin of error that it has been comfortably used to.


Now, even the poorly educated high school or college graduate has become a rarity in urban Eritrea. You find the “educated ones” either in refugee camps in the neighboring countries, on their way out to the West, or in the national service, cordoned off in the wilderness. By doing this, although the Isaias regime has bought itself the necessary buffer zone to stretch its life span, it has all come at the expense of the youth – that is, at the expense of the futurity of the nation.

As a result of Sawa, national service and mass exodus, Asmara has turned out to be a ghost city inhabited by the old, women and children. The vibrancy that one associates with the ever visibility of the young in African cities is totally absent in this capital city. Isaias knows that the only urban area that matters to his regime’s safety is Asmara, and he has made sure that the restless youth are kept away from it.

If the above is true, then we need to ask those Eritreans who want the youth in Asmara (!) to rise up against the regime in similar ways the Tunisians have been doing: If the youth are not even to be found in significant numbers in Asmara, how are they supposed to rise up against the regime? And as for tweeting the tyrant out of Eritrea – to borrow Berhane M Tekeste’s phrasing, but not his conviction – does one really expect that the few people who frequent the Internet cafes in Asmara under the watchful eyes of the security would dare use it to protest; and if they do, that it would make any difference before they were caught and carted away to concentration camps?

In short, the draconian repressive measures taken by the totalitarian regime, the wholesale eviction of the adult student population from the cities and the overall low development level of the nation make it impossible for the kind of uprising that we are witnessing in Tunisia to be emulated in Eritrea. Hence, it would do us Eritreans good if we simply focus on what is doable, however unappealing or unnerving that option may seem to be. The only option that is left for us is the Ethiopian card, and we might as well use it before it is too late.

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