Part V of Yosief Ghebrehiwet’s analysis regarding the chronic problems Eritrea is facing can be described as ground-breaking.
The analysis is a serious critique of the Eritrean Opposition Groups - their basic approach in resisting the Isaias Afwerki regime. Yosief believes the tools and arguments the Opposition Groups are using are off-centred.
Peace Deal: the Eritrean Opposition’s Reaction
This installment, “Peace Deal: the Eritrean Opposition’s Reaction”, is part of an ongoing response to a theme raised by the interviewer (AI) on how various entities of local and foreign types tend to respond to the Asmara regime’s reaction to the peace deal offered by Ethiopia. My assertion has been that none of them truly understands what motivates the regime in whatever it does; namely, its quest for self-preservation at any cost and the destabilization policies it uses to attain that goal. As a result, their responses end up normalizing the regime and, hence, always miss their intended target; and, invariably, at the expense of the Eritrean masses. We have seen how that goes in regard to PM Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia (Part III) and the EU and UN (Part IV). In this part, we will look at the Eritrean Opposition’s similar roles in minimizing the regime’s crimes.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the Opposition has been consistently normalizing the Isaias regime’s criminal actions for the last two decades, mostly driven by nationalistic motives rarely made explicit. So has it been in its reaction to the peace agreement lately reached between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Four issues have obsessively preoccupied it: (a) the “democracy project”, with the absence of democracy in Eritrea as its main theme, as a tool of resistance; (b) the “sovereignty” factor, and the Ethiopian or Tigrian connection it invariably invokes; (c) the urgency of the border demarcation or, rather, the “land return” issue; and (d) the “unity” factor, with uniting the opposition in diaspora as its main theme. What is common to these four issues prioritized by the Opposition is that they all fail to deal with the people’s daily concerns on the ground. We can, in fact, put them as follows in their respective prioritizations: (a) “democracy” over people; (b) “sovereignty” over people; (c) “land” over people; and (d) “unity” over people. And all of them result, partially or wholly, from the fact that the Opposition has little understanding of the nature of the regime it has been fighting for so long. In this response, I will deal with (a) and (b) extensively; and towards the end I will add a few words in regards to (c) and (d). Let me now start with the “democracy project”, since it also happens to aptly describe what I mean by “abnormality”, a term that I have been using frequently in my interview so far without explicitly unpacking it.
Democracy over people
The Opposition’s greatest strategy deployed against the Isaias regime has been what at one time I labeled as “the democracy project”. When one attributes the cause of all or most of what has been going on in Eritrea in the last two decades to the absence of democracy in the land, then it is easy to point at all the rights democracy offers to remedy those ills generated by Shaebia’s rule. That happens why, for most of the last two decades, at the top of the list of the Opposition’s rallying cries have been: “Implement the constitution!” and “Release political prisoners!” With emphasis on these and other democratic deficiencies in Eritrea, the Opposition meant to do two things: first, to expose what is truly wrong with the Asmara regime to the outside world; and, second, to come up with its democratic antidote as a form of resistance. Among former gatherings, various Opposition conferences in cities like Awasa and Addis-Ababa in Ethiopia and in cities like Washington DC and Atlanta in the US and the Brussels Conference of 2009 in Europe are good examples of such democracy-oriented platforms of resistance. And now, this strategy has reemerged with force and urgency after the Peace Accord, the conference for “Building Democracy in Eritrea” in London on April 24-25, 2019 being a prime example. What is categorically wrong with this approach is that the absence of democracy in Eritrea happens to be the least of Shaebia’s sins and focusing primarily on that could only be done by trivializing Shaebia’s totalizing crimes; and, consequently, end up normalizing the regime they are fighting against. How so?
The greatest fallacy that many in the opposition deploy to justify their democracy project goes as follows: “It is the absence of democracy (or the non-implementation of the constitution) that is behind the current crisis in Eritrea.” Here is what I wrote in regard to this fallacy (The Abnormal Nature of the Eritrean Regime; asmarino.com; Feb 02, 2010):
“This is like arguing that if someone died of starvation, he died because of lack of gourmet food. Even though it is true that had he been able to get gourmet food he wouldn’t have died, it is wrong to conclude that he died of lack thereof. He died because he didn’t have anything to eat; and by ‘anything’, we mean the barest minimum that could have kept him hanging onto his life. We can imagine him surviving in a world devoid of gourmet food, but we cannot imagine him surviving in a world devoid of any kind of food. Similarly, even if we assume that the presence of democracy would have avoided the horrors under which the Eritrean masses are currently living, it doesn’t mean that its absence is the cause for these horrors. We need to look at the ‘barest minimum’ denied to our people to see the cause for all the horrors we witness in Eritrea. As in the example, we can imagine these horrors disappearing in a world without democracy. All that we have to do is look at many nondemocratic nations – even dictatorships – that have successfully avoided the existential predicament that Eritrea finds itself in today. …
“It is very important to realize that the essential subtraction we do to find out the real culprit for all the existential crisis in Eritrea is not to be found in the difference between the current tragic state of the nation under the Isaias regime and what a democratic system would have ushered instead, but at the difference between what the present regime does and what other typical dictatorships or nondemocratic states would do under similar circumstances. So what we ought to ask is: what is it that Shaebia does above and over what other typical dictatorships or non-democratic states do to bring a myriad of draconian disasters upon its people and itself? Or, to put it in the language of ‘normalization versus democratization’ ..., what is it abnormal about the nature of the Isaias regime … that prevents the Eritrean people from leading a normal life?”
A realistic dictator or nondemocratic leader could have easily avoided all the existential trappings that Shaebia has easily fallen into. All he has to do is abolish indefinite National Service and abandon the policy of insulating Eritrea, both physically and economically; that is: open the borders, demobilize the army, drop the self-reliance policy, stop the monopolization of the economy, end the militarization of education, reinstitute higher education, let the people practice whatever religion they want, let farmers and pastoralists own their land, stop interfering in peasants’ lives, let kids grow up with their families, etc. In fact, during the Haile Selassie era (before ghedli showed up), all these abnormalities were nonexistent and people were leading normal lives, even though the Emperor was not known for his democratic credentials. This is not to say that democracy is not good for Eritrea, but that without the return of normalcy, no democracy could be built; and disproportionately focusing on the latter could only be done at a huge expense of the former – as the Opposition has been doing.
Thus, when the Opposition adherents put undue focus on democracy and democratization, they are misdiagnosing Eritrea’s humanitarian crisis by tracing it to lack of democracy rather than to lack of normalcy. The democracy project as promoted by most in the Opposition says nothing about the abnormal nature of the Isaias regime that puts it in the same exclusive club with the likes of the North Korean regime and the Khmer Rouge. Unlike the typical dictatorships that for most part focus on their “enemies” – be it real or perceived – totalitarian systems always take preemptive strikes to destabilize their entire populations. With massive destabilization, the goal is to attain total control, that being inversely related to the total loss of control of their subjects. Thus, the key to understanding the Opposition adherent’s modus operandi for the last two decades, both in trying to expose the inner workings of the regime and in their strategy of resistance, is that they have confused Eritrea’s existential crisis for political one; and, in the process, have kept normalizing an abnormal regime. Let’s now look at the two most invoked rallying points of the democracy project used in the last 20 years and now deployed against the regime with new vigor – the demands for implementation of the constitution (quam) and the release of political prisoners – to see up close how this normalization goes.
The “constitution” farce
Among the Opposition’s democracy projects, the most important one has been the focus on the constitution (quam), both to emphasize what has been going wrong in Eritrea in its absence and how to remedy that by demanding its implementation. What makes this preoccupation farcical is that that the constitution has absolutely nothing to do with these two tasks; it succeeds neither in exposing the regime’s crimes nor in empowering the prescribed remedies. In fact, not only has it turned out to be superfluous, but also obstructive to these tasks; for it prevents the proponents from searching alternative ways and means for ushering regime change. Anyone who depends on the content the constitution offers as guidance to both tasks is looking at the wrong book; for, from the start, it was not meant to be meaningfully read, be it by the drafters or the powers behind the drafting
Think, if you will, of a grandmother who for the first time decided to buy a Bible. Her grandchildren thought that it didn’t make sense at all, knowing that she couldn’t read. And even if she were to ask them to read it for her, it still wouldn’t make sense since the Bible she bought was of Geez version (her demand). Nevertheless, by making the assumption that if a Bible was bought it was meant only to be read, it was the grandchildren who were dead wrong; for the grandmother had other legitimate and practical uses in mind. She thought that by putting the Bible on her bedside, she would be able to ward off two evils: the devil that kept appearing in her recurrent dreams and the sticky fingers of her grandchildren. Reassured by the Bible on her bedside as fewsi hatetef, she promptly managed to drive the devil out of her dreams. So was it in the fight with her grandchildren. You see, wherever she hid the money, the grandchildren always managed to find the hiding place. It was then that she thought if she would put the money inside the Bible, they wouldn’t dare touch it. And she was right, the sticky fingers of her grandchildren too never came back to haunt her again. Eventually, Granny’s use of the Bible went beyond these “defense” strategies, as she began to occasionally use it to “look good” in front of the clergy. Whenever her Abat Nebsi or other priests visited her, she made sure that the Geez Bible was in plain sight on the table among the knick knacks she served them. Now, who among us would dare say that Granny has failed to utilize the Bible appropriately given the multiple tasks she had put it to service?
So has it been with Shaebia; when it ratified the constitution it was with the explicit intent to use it – in the parlance of the metaphors above – as “fewsi hateftef” and to “look good”. Not only has it successfully warded off liberal devils from outside and constitution lovers from inside, it was also able to decorate itself (kitquahalelu) with it whenever the occasion arose – that is, until the after-war environment made it increasingly impossible to go on with its constitutional pretensions.
Since the day it entered Asmara, Shaebia knew that it cannot survive as a ruling body without a semblance of constitutionality; that, without it, it would lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Even those nations that wanted to look the other way would have found it hard to do so because they would be denied the excuse they needed for supporting it. That is why the regime, in the initial years, was in a diligent search for a constitution that it can easily get away with. And, as guidance, there were many African nations in the past that had liberal constitutions that were never meant to be implemented on the ground. The same can be said of the 1997 Eritrean constitution; as usual, Shaebia was using its vulgar pragmatism to practical use. What is foolish is for the Opposition finding it hard to believe that one can draft a constitution not for its content (as the grandchildren did in the above example), but for “defense” and “decorative” purposes only. With this disbelief, they end up normalizing Shaebia’s act by giving credence to a genuine effort that was never there in the first place.
If it had been technically possible Shaebia would have had a constitution with nothing written on it; for the purpose of the constitution was to be found not inside in its content, but outside on its cover. Technicality aside though, that is in fact what has happened; whatever has been scripted in the quam was meant to have no meaning outside of the intent of the powers-to-be. One need only look at the non-participatory nature of its ratification to realize the great swindle the drafters pulled off.
Meaning is dialogic by nature; you cannot have it outside of the interactive context it exists. The farce of Eritrean constitution starts when the population was made fraudulently “participant” in its drafting. Participation becomes real when opposing ideas are proposed with the ability to enforce the agreement reached; that is, the opposing sides have to be invested with the needed power first for the agreement to have teeth. This is especially important in our era when one can have a “progressive” constitution on the cheap, say, by downloading it from a seedy website; one that requires no negotiation whatsoever. Thus, the fact that there were no opposing parties representing the people to negotiate and enforce such an agreement is what makes the entire process in the ratification of the Eritrean constitution a farce. But the regime had to go through this “participatory” motion devoid of dialog to give it an appearance of a democratic process in the making. Once the Opposition buys into this farce that the Eritrean public indeed participated in the making of the constitution, it follows it up with equally farcical claims depending on that premise.
One such preposterous claim that was gaining currency among the Opposition at one time was that Isaias had ignited the border war to avoid the implementation of the constitution. By doing that, the Opposition was giving the constitution the muscle it never possessed, as if there was a great public force invested in it; so much so, that it would require nothing less than a war to avoid it. To the contrary, there were many ways that Isaias could have used, short of war, to skirt the constitution. But once the war took place, Shaebia found a perfect excuse to unapologetically return back to its totalitarian past, making the further use of the constitution to “look good” from outside an impossible task. Incidentally, this tells us that the Eritrean constitution was drafted mainly for outside consumption. If so, the unceremonious dropping of its constitutional pretentions has also to do with the contempt Shaebia holds its totally emasculated population than to any fear of what a vacuous constitution might do to its rule.
If the above makes sense, then the entire strategy of using the “constitution” or “democracy” as a prime weapon of resistance falls apart. One need only look at the cottage industry the Opposition has built around this project to understand the time and effort wasted on this futile exercise: the proliferation of “political parties”; the search for that elusive “unity” among these parties; the flirting with government-in-exile; the never-ending discussions on what type of democratic government is suitable to Eritrea; the rallying around the constitution, or amending it or replacing it; the “strengthening” of democratic institutions in Diaspora; the instilling of democratic culture among youth organizations; the advocacy for free media and other democratic rights, the promotion of democracy through work-shops, conferences and other gatherings; the presentation of various papers on the virtue of democracy for Eritrea; etc.
In light of the total impotency of the democracy project, what is puzzling is why the Opposition has been so dogmatically insistent on having it as its main weapon of resistance. Many believe that “democracy” was what the Eritrean martyrs died for and feel obligated to fulfill their dream. Of course, this is totally made up, given that there was not even a trace of democracy throughout the Eritrean revolution. Some others want to give agency to the Eritrean masses; that they are being denied the very constitution they have crafted. Again, this is far from being true; the Eritrean masses have neither asked for a constitution, nor participated in its ratification, nor missed it when it was suspended. But the most important reason has to do with the fact that the Opposition has used it to ward off a devil that appears in their recurrent dreams: Ethiopia. In this regard, the democracy project is meant to protect the nation from the threat to its sovereignty from outside. In the past 20 years, the quam proponents have used it to this specific purpose whenever the alternative of armed resistance was raised; the rationale being any opposition armed by Ethiopia could only come at the expense of Eritrea’s sovereignty. And those still enamored with the Shaebia of the past have had an additional reason to fear: that an armed resistance would eventually come at the expense of Shaebia. The hope with this latter group is that, with end of the Isaias regime, Shaebia as an organization would still survive to take over. That is to say, the constitution’s practical use has been not in strategizing for regime change in Eritrea but in protecting the nation’s “sovereignty” from outside.
The Opposition has become adept at invoking a neat division of labor that serves this particular purpose of deflection. The trick is familiar: that if the task of ushering regime change is assigned to the population inside the nation, then the threat to Eritrea’s sovereignty and to Shaebia’s dominance from outside would be prevented. This way, the diaspora elites have limited themselves to preparation for the aftermath. So their democracy project, self-admittedly, has nothing to do with regime change, but with getting ready for the takeover once the regime falls. It is no coincidence then that the loudest proponents of the democracy project happen to be the loudest proponents of peaceful change. Their preferred phrase, “soft landing” (another terrible phrase used frequently in their effort to save Shaebia from itself) says it all: that they have chosen, in the meantime, for the default position (Shaebia’s rule) to any other alternative. In this way, they have been instrumental in delaying regime change in Eritrea.
The ironic part is that as these “democratic” voices from diaspora get louder and more insistent in their call for democracy, all the factors that would make Eritrea democratic in the future have been disappearing fast from the internal scene: First, it is the young adult population that would have made the backbone of democracy that has been rapidly disappearing from Eritrea in mass exodus. Second, this group also happens to be the most educated part of the population, another essential attribute needed in forming and maintaining democracy. Third, the nation’s social fabric has been so tattered by the totalitarian system that those who remain in Eritrea are ill prepared to a culture of democracy in the future. Fourth, the radicalization of various sectors of the population under Shaebia’s divide-and-rule system doesn’t bode well to a united future, let alone a democratic one. And, last, the division of labor invoked by the Opposition simply doesn’t work, given the mismatched role attributions: while the toughest task of ushering regime change is assigned to an emasculated population inside Eritrea, the preparatory task is given to diaspora elites in total absence of its applicability.
Often, those who invoke this division of labor mention the Arab Spring as a warning example to justify that those in diaspora need to prepare for the aftermath. But this happens to be a wrong analogy. In the case of the Arab Spring, be it when it failed (in most instances) or when it succeeded (in the case of Tunisia), it did succeed in the first necessary step: in creating mass uprisings that resulted in deposing despots. In Eritrea, it is this initial step that has become impossible simply because the young adult population that has been at the center of Arab Spring uprisings doesn’t have presence in the land in critical numbers. The farce of the democracy project is that it is this young adult population currently residing in diaspora in critical numbers that is now assigning the most critical part of the division of labor to their parents. To expect aging mothers and fathers and their underage kids (who will leave the nation as soon as they grow up) to rise up against the regime is pure insanity. If this is true, the democracy project from outside is, in fact, inversely related to the democracy project from inside: as the democratization process intensifies in Diaspora, the prospects of a democratic Eritrea in the future are getting dimmer by the day. And for this, we have an incontrovertible physical evidence: as hundreds of thousands of young adults leave the nation in mass exodus, their voices of resistance get louder and louder from afar proportional to their increasing numbers; but at the same time the potential voices of protest in Eritrea get weaker and weaker to a point of total silence as they keep disappearing from the Eritrean scene. Thus, the preparation for the aftermath becomes almost comical, given that nobody is taking the role of bringing regime change seriously.
The other major reason that makes “the building of democracy” from outside a bogus enterprise is that it is not doable; nobody can prepare for it from a distance. No one can tell how democracy works absent its application on the ground. Like any other virtue, democratic credentials don’t exist outside their applicability. They are not skills or talents that one can finesse prior to their application. Thus, what is fundamentally wrong of this project of preparation for “building democracy in Eritrea” from outside is that, in absence of democracy in practice itself, there is neither a way of teaching it and preparing for it nor a way of measuring its success. Absent such an applicatory context, everyone will pretend to be a democrat. That is why among the dozens of Opposition organizations created from afar, none of them claims to be nondemocratic; absent its application, there are no means of proving them right or wrong. Similarly, a professor with a PhD in political science and 20 books on constitution and constitutionality under his belt could turn out to be the worst autocrat imaginable. That tells us that you cannot hold democracy and its application separate of one another.
We have seen above how the invocation of the constitution is not only epiphenomenal to the task of regime change, it also prevents its users from looking at alternative means for that task. So is it with all the other “democracy” tools deployed by the Opposition, the demand for the release of political prisoners being one such robust tool.
The “political prisoners” farce
Whenever the issue of prisoners in Eritrea is raised, the tendency among the opposition is to focus on political prisoners. That is why the faces of dignitaries like the G-11 and journalists and those closely associated with them have become the face of the prisoners-problem in the nation. But this, again, cannot be done without trivializing the cruelty of an institution (the modern-day Halewa Sewra) through which tens of thousands of nonpolitical prisoners have passed through. In fact, political prisoners make up a very tiny portion of the prison population, the vast majority of which are apprehended simply because they wanted to lead normal lives. These are people from all walks of life who have become a threat to the system by simply doing the normal things in life in their desire to work (trade, farm, build, educate, heal, adjudicate, etc); to follow whatever faith they want; to attend school and graduate; to marry and raise a family; to build a house; to socialize with whomever they want to; that is, to simply exist the way they deem it right – call them, if you will, crimes of existence.
Putting political opponents and dissenters behind bars is what normal authoritarian regimes do. In contrast, the preemptive measures of totalitarian systems tend to be arbitrary and all-encompassing. We have already seen that the greatest weapon the regime has in destabilizing its population has been the National Service (NS). It is no wonder then that the overwhelming number of prisoners in the nation is directly related to it, the bulk of which is made up of army deserters and draft dodgers. Many of them are caught while attempting to cross the border. Their desire to escape the army has little to do with politics, but a lot to do with the desire to lead normal lives: finish school, find work, raise a family, help their parents, etc. There are also others that are apprehended while serving the army that have, again, little to do with politics: insubordination, having misspoken, overstayed one’s leave, refused an officer’s sexual overtures, caught with a Bible in hand, shown no ideological zeal, failed in his/her regimentation, failed to serve appropriately in a slave labor camp, suspected of anything serious or trivial, etc. We can add to this list victims from the civilian population: parents of draft dodgers or deserters; civilians attempting to escape to neighboring countries; peasants suspected to be unhappy about the land, crops and market policies that directly impact them; various religious adherents simply practicing their faith, victims of appropriation (land, house, business, etc), etc. It is important to reiterate that almost all of these nonpolitical “crimes” that deserved penal punishment in the eyes of the regime are nevertheless directly or indirectly related to the NS.
The tragedy of the Eritrean prison system is probably best reflected in the atsnihaley (“keep him/her for me”) phenomenon, where a colonel or other higher army officer entrusts a prisoner, usually for personal reasons, to a prison outside his turf and forgets him/her for years. The cruelty, arbitrariness, anarchy, incompetence and total disregard shown in the atsnihaley phenomenon describes the totalitarian nature of the regime more than any imprisonment of political prisoners. A nation can tolerate a prison system that selectively aims at higher officials, but not one that aims randomly at lower level. In the latter case, everybody becomes a potential victim and normalcy disappears from the national scene.
Currently, only a tiny fraction of all the prisoners in Eritrea would count as genuinely political; so tiny that it is almost nonexistent. First, the totalitarian grip in the country is so total that it leaves no public space wherein such resistance could take place. And, second, the young adult population has taken another route than political dissent to its existential predicament: mass exodus. That the little political resistance in Eritrea – that of the G-15 – took place just after the war when there was still public space (though small) to maneuver says it all. That is why when the Opposition seeks faces for its rally on political prisoners, it always goes back to that brief time after the war: those of the G-11, a few sympathizers and journalists. But, as pointed before, this undue focus on this very tiny fraction of the prisoner population in Eritrea cannot be done without trivializing the larger problem: that the nation Eritrea is a sprawling prison system with about 360 prisons at its core, almost all detained for crimes of existence. The Opposition doesn’t realize that it has been giving the regime a helping hand in hiding its totalitarian nature from the eyes of the world: that it takes by far less than a political dissent to end up in Eritrea’s prisons. And that is exactly what distinguishes a totalitarian system from the normal type of dictatorship – it attempts to kill the normalcy in people’s lives. And that information is exactly what the opposition ought to have conveyed to the world. Yet, by its undue focus on political prisoners, it has been sending the opposite message: that the crisis in Eritrea is of the normal dictatorship type that primarily focuses on its political opponents. And this, in turn, sends another wrong message: that a tempered measure is all that is needed to resolve Eritrea’s problems.
Again, the puzzle remains why the Opposition puts undue focus on political prisoners, even as that has turned out to be counterproductive as a strategy of resistance. Part of it has to do with the division of labor mentioned above. If there has been little to nothing political resistance inside Eritrea in the years after the G-15 dissent, then assigning the great task of political uprising to inside actors would be shown to be the wrong strategy that it has always been. That is why the Opposition wants to desperately believe that there has been ongoing political resistance inside Eritrea, evidence be damned.
Sovereignty over people
One of the loudest reactions of the Opposition (and some regime supporters; at least, initially) to the Isaias regime’s response in regard to the new Peace Deal has been the incessant cry, “Eritrea’s sovereignty is being compromised!” Three things seem to have triggered this existential angst: the Abiy-Isaias dynamics in regard to medemer (unity or closeness), the Tigrean-Eritrean relationship in the making among the young population and the influx of Ethiopians (as visitors, traders, businessmen, etc) to Eritrea when the border was briefly opened up. The nationalists have been looking at Isaias’ closeness to Abiy, or vice versa, with suspicion and apprehension. Abiy’s medemer philosophy and Isaias’ positive (or rather, restrained) reaction to it has triggered the nationalists’ backlash. Some even claimed that there is the specter of union (federation, confederation, etc) with Ethiopia in the offing. The absurdity of this claim could only come from a people so blinded with the “sovereignty” mantra that they couldn’t see the sheer impossibility of it.
The Opposition adherents need only have asked this simple question to avoid their self-imposed predicament: “What does Isaias/Shaebia has to gain, in its drive for self-preservation at any cost, by uniting Eritrea with Ethiopia?” Nothing at all; in fact, it would be the quickest end to Shaebia’s survival. That is why Shaebia believes that the only way it could survive is by keeping Eritrea separate from the rest of world, let alone from Ethiopia. To think that Isaias had all along the union with Ethiopia in mind is not to demonize him, as the Opposition is trying to do, but to humanize him. They are saying that he is capable of holding a grandiose goal that goes above and over his survival game. If so, it means that the Opposition still remains in the dark when it comes to what drives Isaias in whatever he does.
So has it been with their reaction to any closeness exhibited by Tigreans towards Eritreans or vice versa; the closer the overture, the more paranoid the Opposition gets. When the border opened briefly for few months, one can notice the huge relief displayed by the peoples on both sides of the border. What is ironic is that the Opposition joined the regime in doing just the opposite: while Shaebia feared what this might eventually do to its survival, the Opposition feared what this might eventually do to the “sovereignty” of the nation. Thus, with the peace agreement, as the people of both nations are eager to associate with one another socially, economically and even, to some extent, politically, the reaction from the diaspora Opposition is to distance itself from both Ethiopia and Tigray.
The Opposition’s paranoid reaction to Ethiopians (and Tigrians) visiting Eritrea gives us a rare view into the nature of the nationalism that drove that paranoia: the fear that eventually the Ethiopian influx will be so huge as to alter the very identity of the nation. To understand the convoluted nature of this fear, we will have first to look at the continuous emptying of the land that took place since 1974, the year Haile Selassie’s reign came to an end – all to the doings of the nationalists themselves.
In 1960 the population of Eritrea was 1.4 million, and that of the rest of Ethiopia 20.6 million. The ratio was about 1 to 14.7; that is, for every Eritrean, there were about 15 Ethiopians. In 1974, at the end of Haile Selassie era, just before the revolutionary war went full blown, the population of Eritrea was about 2 million, and that of the rest Ethiopia about 29 million. The ratio was 1 to 14.5. What is remarkable about these numbers is that in the 14 years in between 1960 and 1974, the population growth rate of Eritrea and the rest of Ethiopia remained about the same, given that they had more or less similar fertility rates. For 14 years, year after year, Eritrea was able to match the pace of Ethiopia’s population growth. This was to change drastically for the worse with the armed confrontation spreading all over the Eritrean landscape.
In 1991, when Shaebia entered Asmara, the population of Eritrea was around 2 million (in 1993, at the time of the referendum, it was 2.2 million). What is alarming about these numbers is the realization that in the 17 years of armed conflict between 1974 and 1991, the population registered zero growth in Eritrea. To assess the extent to which the revolution had stunted the population growth of the nation, we need only compare it with that of Ethiopia. By 1991, Ethiopia’s population was about 50 million. In 17 years, the ratio had widened into 1 to 25; for every Eritrean there were 25 Ethiopians. Had Eritrea sustained similar growth as the rest of Ethiopia, using the previous ratio of 1 to 14.5, by 1991 its population would have been around 3.5 million. That is to say, in those 17 years of armed struggle, the revolution managed to shave off 1.5 million people from Eritrea’s population growth!
After independence, Eritrea was about to embark in relative recovery, with the population reaching to a little less than 3 million by the end of the border war in 2000. That same year Ethiopia’s population reached 65.6 million; which means that Eritrea was growing at a little bit faster rate than Ethiopia, thereby narrowing the ratio to 1 to 23. But this regained growth was to be interrupted again by Shaebia’s totalitarian rule for the next 19 years, typified by its mass exodus. Today, the population is believed to be hovering around the same number it was in 2000: a little bit more than 3 million. By 2019, Ethiopia’s population reached around 110 million. The ratio further widened to 1 to 34; for every Eritrean there are now 34 Ethiopians.
Please notice the striking similarity in the trajectories of the 17 years of armed struggle (1974-1991) and in the 19 years of Shaebia’ state of emergency years (2000-2019): both happened to have registered zero growth! In both cases, mass exodus, demographic imbalance in gender and age, large scale of spinsterhood (for lack of partners), the lowering of fertility rates due to hardships, etc. have contributed to this huge loss. Over all, if we are to look at the total loss of population growth in Eritrea due to the revolution and Shaebia’s rule, we have a good reference point in the past. The hypothetical question we need to ask goes as follows: what would have been the population of Eritrea now had it kept the remarkable pace of population growth it was registering during Haile Selassie era in between 1960 and 1974? If it had maintained the ratio of 1 to 14.5 – given the current population of Ethiopia at about 110 million – by now its population would have been around 7.5 million. That is to say, the mindless Eritrean revolution and the subsequent rule of Shaebia it ushered have managed to shave off more than 4 million people from the nation’s population growth. And, still, the future doesn’t bode well. First, the totalitarian rule in Eritrea that has been the cause for the mass exodus is still intact; the rush of tens of thousands to get out of the country that we recently witnessed when the border was briefly opened is a case in point. And, second, the demographic make-up that is left behind in the country, with its most potent population group – potent both in productivity and fertility – gutted out, is not conducive to healthy population growth.
And yet, the Eritrean nationalists (of both regime supporters and opponents type) fantastically believe that the revolution was all worth it – which brings us back to the existential angst they displayed with the influx of Ethiopians into Eritrea, however brief that was. The ironic part is that these nationalists never felt existentially threatened by what the revolution did and is still doing in emptying the land. For their existential angst to flare up, the borders had to be opened first. And, again, it was not due to the tens of thousands of Eritreans that were leaving the country, but due to Ethiopians going in the opposite direction. Thus, their existential angst has nothing to do with the plight of Eritrean masses, but with the “Eritrean identity” they want to keep “pure”. To them, the loss of millions would have been acceptable so far as the identity of the remaining population remains pure. It seems as if they were relieved the moment Isaias closed the borders. What makes this doubly ironic is that it is the population group that is residing in diaspora that is exhibiting this anxiety of being “replaced” in the homeland, totally missing the parallelism this paranoia has with the right wing’s fear of being replaced by the likes of them in the West.
Here then is a dilemma the nationalists will have to face: If they want to retain the “pure” identity of Eritreans, it can only be done by closing the borders at a huge cost to the masses. That, in turn, would end up accelerating the mass exodus. If so, the “replacement” of “pure Eritreans” by outsiders that the nationalists dread could only be postponed, but not averted. In fact, when the opening of the borders takes place again, the longer the interval in between the worse will be the crisis. It is this inevitability that is lost upon the nationalists, for the damage has already been done.
What is, then, the inevitable? With the current demography in Eritrea, neither development nor stability could be achieved. With its most potent population group – in age, gender, education, productivity, fertility, etc – gutted out, the only way the nation could grow, both in population and development, is by allowing a huge influx of Ethiopians. The Ethiopians tend to have all that is lacking in Eritrea to make this happen: labor force, talent and money. If Eritrea is to develop fast enough to catch up with the neighborhood, it needs a huge labor force that would work in its mines (especially in the rich deposits of potash in the Danakil area), farms, cities and towns (in construction, factories, services, etc), in its ports (especially Assab), etc. And this huge labor force could only come from Ethiopia. So is it with the talent deficiency in Eritrea; with the mass exodus, Eritrea had lost its most educated and skilled part of the population. So even at the higher end of the work force – engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, technicians, professors, etc – it is only Ethiopians that could fill the gap. So is it with investment; Shaebia has been relentlessly impoverishing and bankrupting businessmen and traders that very few of them are left in the land. This gap too can only be filled by Ethiopians. I wouldn’t even be surprised if many of the hundreds of thousands of single women left stranded in Eritrea find partners among these Ethiopians.
So what is to be done? Personally, I don’t have any problem with it; I believe it is the only way to go. Besides, it is inevitable. As they say, Nature doesn’t like a vacuum. The mindless Eritrean revolution has created a huge vacuum in Eritrea, and it will have to be filled up from outside whether we like it or not. What we cannot help noticing though is that the irony the nationalists face is rather sobering: In their relentless search for Eritrean identity, with the exclusion of Ethiopians primarily in their mind, they emptied the land. Now, that thoroughly emptied land, if it is to survive the 21st century, can do that only through a huge human influx from Ethiopia. In this 50-years circular journey, the nationalists did everything to escape Big Ethiopia (Abbay Ethiopia), only to eventually end up in Little Ethiopia of their own making!
So be it! The only misgiving that I have is that if and when Shaebia opens up – and that is a big IF – it might find this arrangement agreeable to its perennial quest for self-preservation at any cost. Isaias might find two advantages in this arrangement: First, the mass exodus would no longer be a problem for him, so far as he finds their replacement to fill the shortages generated in the work force. And, second, this Ethiopian labor force with no political mandate in the land would never be a threat to Shaebia.
Let me say a few words on the “land” and “unity” factors (for lack of space) before I conclude this interview.
It is to be recalled that when the peace agreement was announced, Isaias said that it was Ethiopia’s stability that he prioritized, and that the demarcation could wait. The nationalists’ (many in the Opposition and a few from the regime supporters) reaction was predictable: the delay on demarcation (and out of all reasons, “to stabilize Ethiopia”) was seen nothing short of treason. This was because they believed – consciously or unconsciously – that when it comes to land the premise that there should be no compromise is shared even by Shaebia, the land fetish being the one thing that joins nationalists across the supporters-opposition divide. The Opposition still fails to see that even when it comes to land, Shaebia prioritizes its survival. If the delay of demarcation serves this purpose, it will seek that delay; and if quick demarcation serves this purpose better, it will push for that. In fact, even as Shaebia pretends otherwise, the delay of demarcation has been essential to Shaebia’s survival in the last two decades. Without this delay, it would have been hard for it to rationalize the indefinite NS, which has been its main tool of totalitarian control over its population. We can even say that the delay of demarcation by Ethiopia was the biggest gift that was given to Shaebia; without it, it would have never succeeded in stretching its life this long. Thus, at this point in time, the outcry of “demarcation now” has no value at all as a tool of regime change.
So has it been with the call of “unity” that the Opposition has fallen back into after the new peace agreement. Unity among the Opposition is fine so far as one knows how to utilize it against the regime; unity for unity’s sake ends up being a confounding variable only. One does not plug in to a socket simply because it looks like a socket. A socket becomes a socket not simply by virtue of design, but because it is connected to a power source. There is a reason why unity cobbled by Eritrean opposition groups in diaspora across oceans (in London, Washington, etc) never works: because these are the wrong sockets to plug in. One wouldn’t even extract the dimmest kind of light out of such meetings. However large and vociferous their gatherings are, they lack the causal impact needed to usher regime change simply because of the distance factor. The only sockets that work are to be found in the neighboring countries; and the unwillingness of many in the Opposition to work with these countries (and vice versa) has been the main impediment.
Above, we have seen how the Opposition has reacted to the peace agreement by deploying the usual nationalistic tools: the demand for democracy (the rallying around quam), the prioritization of Eritrea’s “sovereignty” (against outsiders), the demand for demarcation (land return) and the emphasis on unity for unity’s sake. All of these tools have little to do, if anything, with regime change in Eritrea: they are meant to help either in preparing the Opposition for the aftermath or in protecting the nation from outsiders. The fact that they are prioritizing these impotent tools tells us that they lack the sense of urgency needed to fight a regime dead set to empty the land as its survival strategy.