In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 21 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in July 2002)
Banking On Its Own Name and Its Flag:
Ever since Issayas formed his own group, he vigorously worked on conditioning recruits to be loyal to his persona and to the name of his Front, Hisbawi Ginbar or Shaebia, and to his Front’s flag. To that end, he repeated the name of his Front in his speeches or through his commissars and publications over and over more than he repeated the name of the nation; therefore, his hard work has paid off; he has produced followers who have a better allegiance to the name of his Front than to Eritrea itself.
Right after Eritrea became independent, it was hinted that he might abolish the mass organizations of the EPLF because it was believed that they had already served their purposes in helping liberate Eritrea, but that rumor soon vanished. That rumor was maybe released by some well-meaning followers of the mass organizations, and not by Issayas himself, since as far as Issayas was concerned, he expected the struggle against his real or imagined enemies to continue as ever even after the country became independent, and until all of them put under his heel.
For example, right after Independence, though he had truly earned to become a true statesman and to appear to Eritreans as an uniter and a healer, he chose to play partisan politics. In May of 1993, he arrogantly declared his party’s flag to be the flag of the nation. Also, he decided to keep the old name of his front as the name of his refurbished party in independent Eritrea. For instance, his “political” party’s short name, which is Hisbawi Ginbar in Tigrigna and Shaebia in Arabic, which are the preferred short names by him and his followers when referring to the PFDJ, is a testimony to the affirmation of his rekindling of the old and ugly rivalry of the Armed Struggle. And the term “front” in the name of his party suggests violence and belligerence, which is hardly an appropriate name for a political party.
Moreover, from the outset, he chose to exclusively appease his loyal followers due to his conviction that his “loyal” friends would be with him, ready to be used for his whim, fixated on the name of his front and his persona, as opposed to those who are genuine nationals, merely fixated on the nation as a whole, and the well-being of its people.
Having said that, in all fairness to Issayas, he was not, by any means, the only Eritrean leader guilty of such a brand-name-promotion campaign.
What’s in a Name:
One of the ugliest legacies of the Eritrean revolution is that the liberation fronts played an ugly role in segregating Eritreans into groups to the point that members of these organizations have developed a culture that identifies them more with their respective fronts than with the nation itself. Many members of the fronts swear by their respective organizations, and in some ways, these organizations have become their religion, their shrine, and in the PFDJ’s case, its leader has become their god.
If this is not enough, some families are passing on their partisan politics and hatred for anyone outside of their organization to their children. Therefore, this type of culture has become more dangerous to the survival of Eritrea than the religious problems people feared, for so long, would destroy Eritrea.
These organization and their names had and will continue to have their places in history. Still, in post-Issayas Eritrea, Eritreans need to bury the names of these organizations and the bitter taste they have left in the mouths of their citizens if the nation is to get off to a clean and fresh start. If the fronts keep their old names, the ugly legacy, which has become synonymous with their names, will continue to haunt the nation; the old feuds will shackle it from discovering a new beginning and opening a new chapter. In short, the country will continue to live in the past.
Even though I am for the freedom of association and expression and against all kinds of random laws, in this case, I need to make an exception simply because legislation may be required, as I will explain below.
Therefore, I would like to propose to the leaders of post-Issayas Eritrea to legislate against keeping the old names, and against new party names with the connotation of violence, militarism, bloodshed, militancy, etc., as names for political parties. Moreover, the nation may have to pass some laws so that the parties’ names and their leaders will not repeat the ugly legacy of the past.
Here are a few examples:
- Prohibit all officially recognized national parties from including terms in the parties’ names such as front, movement, alliance, force, revolutionary, salvation, resistance, jihad, liberation, crusader, or any other word that implies violence, all forms of intolerance, or any term that smacks of past bickering. (Even though I do not see any problem with the word “liberation,” I do not believe it is an appropriate name for a political party because liberation from what?)
- Prohibit all officially recognized national parties from issuing membership cards or from making citizens carry membership cards that identify them as members of their respective parties.
- Prohibit all officially recognized national parties from coercing, or tricking citizens, by implying or otherwise, into taking an oath of allegiance to their respective partisan causes or the leader of a specific party, using the Bible, Koran, or any other forms of swearing a solemn oath.
- However, nonofficial organizations, organizations that are not recognized as official national parties, or parties with no intention of becoming official political parties of the nation, will be free to use whatever name they deem necessary for their motives. But as the nature of the unofficial parties becomes firmly understood, the country will require other laws to deal with them.
I believe laws, such as the laws mentioned above, will help in the following:
- Giving the citizens the freedom to swing-vote occasionally for a party they believe is suitable for the nation or their own needs at a particular time.
- Emancipating Eritreans from political predators and demagogues.
- Giving citizens the freedom to examine issues objectively and study all parties’ platforms without prejudice.
- Conditioning the citizens to put their first loyalty to the nation instead of to a particular party or its leader thus saves them from blindly following a leader or overlooking, condoning, or categorically defending the shortcoming of a government and their “own” party.
- Building and installing a culture of democracy, tolerance, flexibility, and accountability.
Ultimately, these kinds of laws could produce a well-informed, independent, and well-mannered civil society that a dictatorship or demagogues cannot easily fool. It will help the parties and their leaders to become transparent to the public they claim to represent, and at the same time, it will continually remind the leaders of the parties not to take their constituencies or their jobs for granted. (Voters are free to swing-vote) It will keep the parties and their leaders on their toes.
A multi-party system is the only path to usher Eritrea into political and economic stability and social progress. But what kind of a multi-party system?
When you discuss with some Christians about the need for a multi-party system, even with the well-meaning Christians, the first thing that pops into their minds is, in a multi-party system, Eritrean Muslims are going to set up a Moslems-only party, as they did in the 1940s with the Rabita al Islamia.
(Regardless of all the good the founders of al Rabita al Islamia stood for, their conviction to organize their members in the name of Islam has left negative memories upon the Christians. Therefore Eritrean Christians continue to suffer from the Rabita al Islamia syndrome in much the same way Moslem Eritreans suffer from the Mahber Andenet syndrome. To that effect, one could only wish that the founders of al Rabita al Islamia had not, at the very least, named their party in such a way. Since the founders of Rabita al Islamia were overwhelmed by their immediate and bigger challenge from Haile Selassie, they probably never imagined their method of struggle would have a negative impact on future Eritrean politics.)
Though Eritrean Moslems justify the name and the exclusive membership of the al Rabita with the noble causes that it stood for, vis-a-vis the Mahber Andnet, a party to which the majority of the Christians belonged, any mention of a multi-party system continues to remind many Eritreans the legacy of the 1940s as such a multi-party system has become a hard sell in Eritrea.)
(But it seemed the founders of the Eritrean Liberation Front learned from the blunder of Al Rabita al Islamia because although most of them were Moslems, they gave their organization a nationalist name and left membership open to all Eritreans. Furthermore, after making Mr. Herui Tedla Bairu vice chairman of their first National Congress, and after over a decade, Christians felt comfortable joining it. Still, their active promotion of the Arabic language made many Christian members of the ELF feel queasy, and some even regarded it as a code word for Al Rabita al Islamia.)
But this is a wrong perception of some Eritrean Christians about Eritrean Muslims and of al Rabita al Islamia because: firstly, though the founders of al Rabita al Islamia used religion as a means to strengthen their force against Ethiopia, many of the leaders were secular, and the party itself was never a religious party. Secondly, there are as many Moslem Eritreans who believe in the separation of church/masque and state as Christian Eritreans who believe in such a system. Therefore, if Eritrea were to allow religious parties, even if you have faith in Eritreans that is as big as a mustard seed, you would know that religious parties will not attract more than 2% of the population. In the worst-case scenario, they could attract up to 10% of the people, which hardly threatens the country’s harmony.
The strongest, loudest, and most skillful parties will remain secular. They will control the political platforms all the time because, in all likelihood, the secular parties are compatible or can learn to become compatible with the 21st century’s system of the global economy, which could make them capable of resolving the immediate needs of the society.
On the other hand, religious parties though claim to have been favored by God, they have proven that they are incapable of governing a modern nation; they have no clue as to how to answer the daily needs of society and how to create jobs. They don’t know what economic, monetary, and trade policies to adhere to. Of the nations that recently experimented with a system based on religion, Sudan and Afghanistan failed miserably, and Iran is in a death spiral. Iran could have died many years ago, but for its petro-money and harsh security apparatus, which is not any different from the failed communist dictators. They all proved to be police states and denied liberty to their people; they have proved to be intolerant of differing views.
Nevertheless, as many Eritreans do, I oppose religious parties for other reasons. It might be OK for Iran to experiment with a system based on religious politics or for European Democracies and Israel to allow religious parties. Still, in Eritrea’s case, I believe Eritrea, a nation of half Moslems and half Christians, cannot afford to become the experimentation laboratory of religious parties without plunging itself into religious turmoil. Moreover, even with well-intentioned religious parties, you have no guarantee that in the future, they will not be highjacked by religious extremists hence by dictators. The nation should not accept religious dictatorship any more than communist, capitalist, or atheist dictatorship.
The pragmatic solution for Eritrea is, I believe in, having a multi-party system based on the separation of church/masque and state but also based on morality. One must understand that the separation of church/masque from the state does not mean the separation of God from the state. Nations will always need their God, and God should be present in all of their decisions if the countries are to succeed in all of their endeavors.
Every sensible person will agree that religious extremism is dangerous, unfair, intolerant, and imposing. That said, those who strongly believe in forming parities with religious ties should have the right to freely and peacefully advance their agendas. The safest way to deal with religious extremism is not by banning their members from advancing their causes but by letting them promote their agendas freely, by exposing them to the public gaze, where the general public can know, interrogate and scrutinize them. Because if a nation opts to ban them, then the extremists will appear mysterious and godly to the public, and the more they appear that way, the more the curious minds of society will want to discover and follow them.
The religious parties and their leaders should earn their right to position themselves as official national parties through a peaceful struggle; they need to convince the public that their choice of the system could benefit the nation more than, or as much as the secular system of government could; they need to convince the public through their peaceful struggle that the religious parties could peacefully coexist with the secular parties.
Again, as long as foreign forces do not finance them and so long as they do not espouse and promote violence, the leaders of religious parties should not be deprived of their rights to live freely in their country. They should not be subjected to exile. And if they involve themselves in violence, they need to receive equal protection and due process of the law.
Be that as it may, the leaders of parties with religious affiliations openly admit that they favor the people of their faith more than they do favor people of other religions. Therefore, it is safe to assume they cannot treat all citizens without discrimination or prejudice. It is also safe to assume that they cannot be fair public servants when employed as public servants. Therefore, until they renounce their adherence to exclusionist politics publicly, or until they can prove to the nation that they can be as fair as everyone else is supposed to be, the leaders of such parties should not run for and should not hold public offices, and should not be employed by the state or its local governments.
Regardless of its origin, the UN-offered flag was loved by all Eritreans from all walks of life, from Sudan to the border of Djibouti. All Eritreans loved it; little girls and sheepherders sang for it by saying Semayawit, Hamelmil, Abu-kedra, etc. If there ever was a single choice that united all Eritreans, it was the blue flag.
But Issayas always disliked the UN-offered Eritrean flag. In fact, in his early as the leader of Selfi Natsnet, he used to call that flag the flag of bandits. Be that as it may, later on, even Issayas understood the value of the UN-offered flag and the broad spectrum of Eritrean society that it touches. He realized that a sizeable Eritrean segment would remain fully committed to the noble cause of freedom and to the UN-offered flag itself. Still, they could never be committed fully to his partisan politics. Therefore, starting in the late 1980s and until right after the Referendum, he flew the blue flag alongside his flag and appeared to all Eritreans as an uniter and not a divider; with that, he attracted a large number of followers. But once Issayas ordained himself a President, he assumed that the UN-offered flag and the genuine Eritreans had served their purpose in helping liberate the country and ascend to power. Therefore, right after the Referendum, and just days before May 24, 1993, the inauguration of Eritreas’ independence, he ditched the flag. This was again another testimony to Issyas’s use and discard habit.
I think post-Issayas Eritrea needs to start by restoring the blue flag because, unlike the flag of Issayas, it symbolizes unity for all Eritreans from all walks of life.
National Emblem, and the National Anthem
Of all the creatures God created, God created human beings in his image. Of all his creatures, only humans can create, develop, or invent with all the materials that God put or hid, around them, in the air, and on or beneath the ground. Thus, God is the creator, and humans are the co-creators by God’s grace.
Why do nations need emblems and anthems? Could the symbol they use for an emblem and the anthem they sing affect their people’s behavior to some degree? No one can tell us, in no uncertain terms, what the effect of emblems or national anthems on the citizen’s psyche is. But what’s certain is that nations have been using them for thousands of years and that many successful empires were selective when choosing their emblems and national anthems.
So, how can one describe the emblem of Eritrea?
Like all animals, the Eritrean emblem, the camel, was not created in God’s image. Still, as a domesticated animal, and unlike some intelligent and independent or wild animals, it is under the mercy of human beings. Therefore, it is more of a symbol of hardship and slavery than of independence.
A camel in a caravan or train puts complete trust in the camel before her. The one before her puts absolute faith in the one before her, and so forth, all working their way to the first camel in line, then to the creature created in God’s image, the cameleer or leader of the camel, the human being. A camel in a caravan is not free to think; it does not have the luxury to glance and see what is surrounding her, behind her, and in front of her. It is not allowed to think about the distance of the journey and whether or not there is a better way of getting there. It does not pay attention to a dog’s barking or the bird’s singing along its journey. It follows its leader for weeks on an empty stomach and with a heavy load on her back. Camel is the most overworked and the least compensated animal.
For the past four years, I have embarked on a quest for an answer and asked myself why Eritreans followed Issayas so blindly, but as yet, I am still looking for an answer, and I am still determining if I ever will. Having said that, my observation was that it seemed everyone was putting complete trust in the person before them, whether a PFDJ’s commissar or an ambassador, and the one before or above them was putting complete trust in the one before or above them, and so forth working their way to the leader of the nation, Issayas. In reality, the past decades’ journey of Eritreans resembles that of a camel caravan, with Issayas, the imbecile, as their cameleer or leader of the camel train.
According to PFDJ’s cadres, the camel was chosen as a good gesture to Eritrean Lowlander Moslems to make them feel represented in Eritrean politics. It was ironic, though, when a couple of years ago, I posted my view regarding the need to change the emblem on Dehai.org, a member of the Clique, a declared bigot but who used to call himself Warsai Eritrawi, all lashed out at me for wanting to abolish the symbol supposed to “represent the Lowlanders.”
I do not know if there was any Lowlander who bought that gimmick. Eritrean Lowlanders are well and alive, they can represent themselves in person and not through a camel as their proxy representative.
I don’t claim to know about emblems, but I know there are many things we humans cannot understand or prove or disprove. But also, we know that throughout human history, when great nations and empires chose their emblems, they considered many things.
It is not about whether or not the camel is a beautiful animal to look at or whether the camel contributed more than its shares during the Armed Struggle. Still, as a symbol, the point is that it symbolizes slavery and not freedom. It symbolizes submissiveness. That is why then, in post-Issayas Eritrea, I wish Eritreans had selected an emblem symbolizing liberty.
In post-Issayas Eritrea, I wish Eritreans had the liberty to think for themselves, to glance right and left, back and forth. To choose their directions and gauge their journeys, to pay attention and read into the barking of the dog, the singing of the bird, to pay attention to what the little bird or the dog is trying to warn them about. To question the authority, the person before or above them, to act as human beings.
God gave humans more freedom than he gave to his angels, for he permitted his angels to choose only good. Human beings, on the other hand, are allowed to choose good or bad; peace or war; to lead or to follow; poverty or riches; health or sickness; intelligence or ignorance; to build or to destroy; to think for themselves or to let someone else think for them – the choices are all up to them. With all the options available, they make their Creator sad if they accept whatever is thrown upon them.
I am aware that our problems are larger than the choice of an emblem, and I do not think that replacing the camel in our emblem with another symbol will wash out all our problems. Yet, it does not hurt to have a symbol that symbolizes liberty. True economic prosperity and political stability can be achieved only when the rule of law is respected and when competing parties are given the stage to apply their platforms freely.
Because for all practical purposes, national anthems are not different from the saying of prayers, for God’s sake, let God be mentioned in the national anthem. In Tigrigna, for example, “Nemegin Nfefari” or something to that effect could suffice for both the Christians and Moslems.
>>> Part 22 of 24
In part 22, I will comment on Eritrea’s foreign policy and on whether or not Eritrea should become a member of the Arab League and under what circumstances.