The news blackout on the drought/famine situation reportedly afflicting millions of Eritreans has frustrated both emergency aid agencies and press and human rights advocates. This comes as no surprise especially to members of the media since independent reporting is outlawed in Eritrea. The government is known to be the world’s worst violator of press freedom. US based, Seyoum Tesfaye, is Chairman of the Eritrean Global Solidarity and has been following recent Eritrean developments. Here, he discusses the underlying issues behind Eritrea’s troubles.
On government ‘sanctioned’ starvation
Present day Eritrea is starving for all sorts of things. Shortage of justice and rule of law is the obvious one. Food shortage followed by malnutrition is an aspect of a much broader challenge. The Eritrean economy is on a death watch. If it were not for the Diaspora the economic elevator will have now reached the basement. It is now at the lobby level. The misguided macro and micro economic policy in conjunction with a belligerent foreign policy has made it difficult to get food aid for our people. The national need might not correspond with the inflated ego of one man but in the absence of a responsible and sensible government in Asmara we have a national obligation to call for the international organizations focused on famine and food help to speak up and support our demand for some kind of unified action to help the people of Eritrea. If the regime continues in its obstructionist behavior we should call for the expansion of the genocide definition to include the “intentional starving of one’s people”. We have to work hard to bring massive pressure on the regime to open Eritrea for food help. The distorted self-serving rhetoric of “self –reliance” cannot be accepted as an excuse to starve millions: This simply is the equivalent of state sanctioned genocide. Starving your own people is genocide. There is no middle ground on this kind of national betrayal. We have to elevate the conversation and stop the dwelling on tangential issues when our people are exposed to a lethal combination of a merciless regime and devastating famine.
On President Isayas’s ironic view that fleeing Eritrean refugees “are on a picnic”
This kind of articulation can only be generated by a power junkie sociopathic mind. Only someone infected with Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s ideological DNA can equate the massive dislocation of a new nation’s youth as a picnic. The statement is a window into the tormented soul of a mono-dimensional political caricature without any sense of spiritual value. I cannot imagine the leader of any other nation equating the drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or being swallowed by Sahara’s sand of its fleeing citizens of “his” nation is a picnic. This is such a cynical and a vulgar statement it should offend rational Eritreans and force them to repudiate the statement and the author of the statement.
Once this nightmare is over I am sure lots of Eritreans will go back to help rehabilitative the true dream of the selfless thousands who gave up their lives for independence and freedom. Diaspora is not an easily reversible trend as history of other nations has shown. As far as Isaias is concerned the Diaspora has only one value to him and his regime: it is an ever giving ATM machine. As long as he collects his 2% and he pays $50.00 per day for the government controlled top musician travelling to USA and Europe to raise hundreds of thousands of dollar for his regime’s coffer, he does not give a damn whether the refugees return or not. That is vintage Isaias: power and money - why should he give a damn about massive dislocation of Eritrea’s youth? Why should he show compassion or any genuine human concern for the generation that is abandoning the hell he has created for them? The consummate utilitarian will dispose thousands of the nation’s youth and still be so unfeeling and so heartless should not surprise us. I am sure Eritrean families whose children have become refugees do not share his nonsensical sarcastic remarks. Exile and refugee after independence was not their hope and dream. We have to deal with the hand we have been dealt with. It will take some work but the people of Eritrea will eventually bring an end to this by taking their destiny in their hands.
On the Badme war with Ethiopia as the perceived turning point in Eritrean politics
The so-called Badme War, from the very beginning, was an excuse and still is being used as a rational for extending the one man authoritarian control of Eritrea. Of courses it has lost currency and potency as a ready-made excuse and now does not weigh that much in the minds of rationally thinking Eritreans. There should be no doubt that the regime in power has no intention of democratizing Eritrea even if the Badme issue is resolved to its liking. It might experiment with a scaled down liberalization that is possible theoretically and when seen from its own interest to ease the massive pressure being put on it. The effort to manipulate the Eritrean mind will continue. The public propaganda model being followed and practiced by the ruling party is a combination of Nazi and Stalinist methodology: a lethal combination. Even if the Badme excuse was taken off from the excuse ledger, Isaias will create another crisis to keep his hold on power. Mr. Deflection will always have another move that will temporarily manipulate the Eritrean mind. To think otherwise will be pure naiveté. I do not entertain that kind of illusion.
On the government’s irrational fear of media freedom
The irony is that Isaias is using various media outlets to deny the existence of freedom of expression. The master of deflection is quick to repeat the well rehearsed mantra: “there is no free press in the world” or something to that effect to derail the thought process of the journalist and put him on the defensive posture. It might have worked earlier but the international media is now well aware of this kind of feeble attempt. If you have been living on a Stalinist diet of power by any means necessary for over two-third of your life it is very difficult to have appreciation for the freedom of expression in all its forms. The tragedy is that it is not only Isaias’s irrational fear of free press that we have to deal with; for genuine free press to be a reality, there is also need to upgrade the level of understanding and appreciation among the political actors that are working hard, to the best of their ability, to democratize Eritrea. There is a long way to go before it becomes an institutionalized behavior to let others have their own opinion no matter whether we like it or not. We have a protracted house cleaning to do to increase the level of understanding. I am not so much worried about what the top Political Commissar of the ruling regime says about free press. I do not expect him to understand the value of freedom but I am worried about the residual home work he is going to leave for the future democratically elected governments. He is on the defensive and I expect him to hoot and holler to drown truth – nothing original or unusual about that. A regime afraid of the people can only behave in the most ridiculous way, as we are witnessing periodically, by losing all commonsense and crying out loud for attention in the most bizarre way. We should expect more drama and empty pontification as the national crisis reaches critical mass. The drama is just getting more intersecting. We have a front seat opportunity to witness hysteria and strident rhetoric with empty pocket acted out. The more the estimeed leader gets closer to the microphone the more the world will understand Eritrean’s true burden.
On Britain’s insistence on imposing sanctions on Eritrea
The issue is way beyond the question of whether sanction should be imposed or not. The question now is what kind of sanction the world is going to impose on the regime. This time the process has matured and it is not in the hand of one government - it is a UN agenda. The coming sanction will most likely be what is generically known as Smart or Calibrated sanction. I think the discussion within the Eritrean Diaspora should focus on making sure the UN, AU and EU etc should take into account the massive suffering of the Eritrean people in their deliberation of how to impose “a focused sanction” that will also help create a better environment for the eventual democratization of Eritrea. In other words, the ongoing effort to engage the Eritrean regime cannot be narrowly focused on the regime’s role in destabilizing Somalia. The regime is destabilizing the whole Horn Region and doing this on the back of the Eritrean people. Partial solution will be a myopic approach. As a part of the overall effort to bring peace to the region the suffering of the Eritrean people has to be an integral part of the diplomatic calculation. Falling to do so will have dire consequences. If the West is to engage the regime in Asmara, it should do it with a unified strategy, a set of agreed upon demands and a bottom line on critical issues. The behavior modification needed by the regime cannot be tailored to satisfy the limited need of Europe’s and USA at the cost of the Eritrean people. A true sanction plan will have external and internal base lines.
Talking for the sake of talking and engaging a tyrant to merely extend the conversation because the alternative decision does not look good is not wise diplomacy - actually at a certain level it is appeasement. We have a duty to make sure engaging Isaias does not become a slide to appeasement as EU seems to be doing. We cannot be asked to put our people’s interest at the altar of protecting Europe and American interest. The regime’s behavior is against the interest of people of Eritrea, Horn and the international powers - in that order. We cannot be asked to live with a heinous tyranny just because after a massive diplomatic pressure, Isaias might choose to give Europe and USA a delaying concession to maintain his power. We cannot even tacitly accept for America or EU to threaten our people’s suffering as a footnote for their national and diplomatic interest. Our strategic need and their strategic interest can be mutually addressed by the emergence of a democratic governance in Eritrea.
The West should contain its periodic desire to take the easy way out and settle for diluted solution than looking deep into the underlining reason for why the Eritrean regime is creating havoc in the region. Unless and until there is a legally elected, accountable government in Eritrea, expecting lasting peace in the region with Isaias in power is advancing a well orchestrated illusion. Diplomacy should not end up being a glossy cover for wishful thinking. The leopard will not change its color only the victims it will go after. Let us start from this departure point of view and proceed to crafting a lasting comprehensive solution that will address all the concerns of the players in the region. Short of that it will be like using a masticated chewing gum as glue for a slowly leaking dam. The dam will not hold back the slowly accumulating pressure.
On chances for orderly transition to democratic rule
Everything worth struggling for takes time and sometimes it even seems hopeless. But as long as there are voices that refuse to be silenced the truth will slowly emerge like the image in the old Polaroid picture. The Eritrean reality is now a well known fact in almost all four corners of the world not just in Europe. The regime is working hard to isolate Eritrea and the people of Eritrea from the world-reminiscent of Albania. The level of paranoia in Asmara is so wide and deep one should not be surprised when Isaias makes more accusation than the combined outcry by Iran and North Korea against USA –CIA . All of it is of course for domestic and Diaspora consumption. The underlining need for attention is obvious. The need to be taken as a regional power broker is obvious. But this is strictly about the persona Isaias not the nation of Eritrea. In jail, in SAWA and suffering from famine and without nuclear ambition why will Eritrea be at the top of the America and EU negative agenda? The mercenary regime has decided to be a warehouse for all sorts of unhealthy elements from the Horn of Africa. It cannot feed its people but is willing to fund all disgruntled elements on the back of its people and destabilize an entire region. Craving for attention and pretending to be repulsed when the attention comes is a well developed personality disorder. In a day to day life it will only be a challenge for the individual and the immediate family but when this kind of disorder is elevated to a national leadership level it is extremely dangerous and can affect the destiny of a nation very negatively with grave consequences.
The chance of orderly transformation will depend on all sorts of factors. The primary and the overriding factor will always be the level of preparedness by Eritreans who are working tirelessly to help midwife democratic Eritrea. The level of discontent and opposition within Eritrea will always be the decisive factor affecting the speed and depth (quality) of transformation. Until there is an outline of an emerging organized resistance from within and a very cohesive civic and opposition external struggle coupled by international pressure the possibility of an orderly transformation is almost zero. Our cardinal task, as people, now is to help transition the leadership of the democratic struggle into the hands of internal elements (facilitate the creation of an underground opposition within Eritrea is the paramount imperative national task we have) and genuinely solidify the external leadership and build a solid international support for the people of Eritrea. Then we might have a chance. Short of this we will have ample discontent and even a semblance of organized struggle but the result will be anemic and we will be crawling at a snail’s pace. Activity without measurable result or output is not progress. To transform Eritrea we need to think and act differently.
On the regime’s controversial drive to build directionless roads and infrastructure
First of all even the most fascistic regime can build excellent roads and infrastructure. If that was the only criteria then Hitler, Mussolini and even the crude Stalin did force their people to build good roads, strong jails and made the train arrive on time. Should we create a new category of Noble Prize for tyrants who build excellent highways and retroactively award these megalomaniac tyrants? There are few countries with clean streets like North Korea. But who does not know that North Korea is hell on Earth. The quality of life under these regimes cannot be measured by the edifices they built on the back of the people. Eritrean roads are built by slave labor. The schools have no adequate teachers and material. The clinics have no medical supply. There is no fuel supply for entrepreneurs to purchase and use to advance their business. The state under the ruling party owns the land, water and food, fuel supply of the nation. The tendency to decouple the quality of life from the material - building, highway, dam etc is another manipulative technique meant to avert any genuine question about rule of law and democratic governance. At the center of the equation and manipulation is the ever-present theme: the desire of PFDJ to maintain total control Eritrea under its thump without any challenge from any corner and to elevate the crumbling image of the great leader back to the early days of independence. The people of Eritrea have gotten wiser since 1991. The government has become more rude and crude reviling its true nature. Live and learn.
Roads without free commerce will be a mere tourist attraction and a conversation piece for those Diaspora visitors on a two months hiatus with few dollars in the pocket. The crumbling economy can be seen everywhere for those who have a keen sense of observation beyond the bars in Asmara and make a modest effort to correctly read the emerging schizophrenic conversation within the population. There is more than one conversation going on inside Eritrea. Under tyranny this is common. The real personality and conversation within the population is under the radar. You cannot avert the quest for justice and freedom by building dams and roads by enslaving the Eritrean youth indefinitely. Looking into the substance and essence of what is truly happening in Eritrea demands at the minimum an appreciation for free thinking and willingness to not be cowed by the fear- mongering regime and his robotic cadres irrespective of their appointed position- minister, ambassador or grocery shoppers for the ruling party.
Free Eritrea will only be the result of free thinking citizens taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions. Our personal responsibility is to be the sole owners of our mind and heart. To defeat tyranny you need a lot of independent thinkers without any ideological straightjacket. Nothing frightens tyrants or aspiring tyrants than free thinking citizens. Wherever there is a free thinking Eritrean there is Eritrea in a manner of speaking. It is an idea - an aspiration - that cannot be confined by the jails and containers of the brutal regime.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective. I am well aware of the fact this is just one way of looking at what is going on in Eritrea and Eritrean politics. I recognize other’s full right to repudiate, ignore or demolish my view. What I will not accept is the abridgment of my right to express my own opinion. Whether my idea or opinion has a market or not is secondary to my right and effort to articulate my perspective. I cannot imagine how Eritrean journalists in Eritrea can survive the daily censorship, harassment and intrusion by the State and still try to live a normal life. You and I can have this kind of unfettered question and answer session because we live in a nation that has the most expansive First Amendment protection. I do not take that for granted. Never!
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Seyoum is an advocate for justice, free press and civic society. He is an avid believer in the Bill of Rights as guarantor of the protection of the individual from the tyranny of the minority or the majority. If anything Eritreans were proud of, underscores Seyoum, it was their love and respect for justice. “I have no shame in making every effort to uphold and continue their proud culture even form 10,000 miles away,” he says.