Why are the peasants mass starving in Eritrea? The simple yet revealing answer would be: either because the peasants are not allowed to go where the food is or the food is not allowed to come in where the peasants are. And who is on the way between the people and the food supply? There is also a simple answer to that: the Eritrean government. The fact that these two questions have simple answers doesn’t mean that the causes that brought about this tragic state of affairs, be they long entrenched or immediate, are as simple. To the contrary, both kinds are intricately interwoven into the regime’s political survival strategy. This posting is an attempt to elaborate on how the Isaias regime self-engineered this famine through its “self-reliance” policy and exacerbated it through draconian measures after its onset, both undertaken with the primary goal of strengthening its totalitarian grip over the nation. Throughout this analysis we will see how the regime’s unquenchable quest for totalitarian control consistently trumpffs the nation’s effort to achieve food security.
When we say there is famine in Eritrea either because the people are not allowed to go where the food is or because the food is not allowed to come in where the people are, we are presupposing two facts: (a) there is no lack of food that could be made to go where the starving people are; (b) and there is no lack of will on the side of the starving masses to go where the food is. If so, correspondingly, we have to look at (a) how the government is blocking food from reaching the starving masses and (b) how it is preventing the masses to go where the food is. On the first part, not only is the government blocking food from outside – be it in the form of import or food aid – from getting into the country, but it is also restricting the free flow of food supply within the country. And on the second part, the regime is literally blocking the people, in layers of blockades and “legal” obstructions (prisons, concentration camps, national service, movement curtailments, checkpoints, shoot-at-sight policy at border crossings, denial of access to market areas, criminalization of begging, etc), from going to where they can find food, either in the form of access to markets and migration to urban areas within the confines of the country or in the form of migration to richer areas in neighboring countries.
Stranded in the middle of nowhere, as no other population group tends to be, are the helpless peasants. In this context of deprivation entirely of the regime’s making, they can neither help themselves nor be helped by others. The peasants have always been, be it in the revolutionary (ghedli) or post-independence era, the most dispensable population group. In the ghedli era; they were the ones who paid the heaviest price in terms of abuse, forced conscription, destruction of their areas, dislodgements and martyrdom even though the revolution was entirely an urban creation. And now, they are paying the heaviest price for the misguided self-reliance policy, again an alien phenomenon – an archaic relic from the revolutionary past (bitsifrna) – imposed upon them by none other but the very people who created that revolution and shoved it down their throats.
Forced mass conscription and random round-ups in villages, towns and cities across Eritrea has now become the most pervasive and significant indicator of the horrors of life under PFDJ. But giffa (random round ups of massive scale) is not a recent phenomenon; it has been around, in its present form, from mid 70’s until independence (1991) without ever causing the uproar it is causing now. Why? Because the earlier giffa conducted by both Jebha and Shaebia was entirely confined to the peasant population. For 15 years, as the peasants lived under unimaginable horror, no one among urban Eritreans dared say anything against this barbaric policy that left villages ravaged and depopulated all across Eritrea, some almost to a point of extinction. Shaebia’s giffa was especially noted for its indiscriminate brutality; even the underage, women and old were not spared in its relentless raids after raids. Wherever husbands managed to escape a surprise round-up, Shaebia used to kidnap their brides as replacement. The rounded up all ended up in the trenches of Sahel, to be a fodder for the endless rounds of battles it was conducting against the Derghi. [All of which puts the very idea of participation in ghedli as mainly voluntary into serious question.] That is why the casualties were much higher for the rural than urban areas. But so far as the pain was largely confined to rural areas, the nation was willing to tolerate anything in the name of “Eritrea”.
And now, the same phenomenon is repeating itself: the self-reliance policy is adversely affecting the peasants in disproportionate ways. Every step that the government has taken to be “self reliant” has been done at the expense of the peasants: by expropriating their fertile farmlands, by depriving them most of their productive labor force, by forcing them to hand over their “surplus”, by denying them access to food markets, by denying them food aid, etc – the result of which has been mass starvation. And, again, so far as this famine remains largely confined to rural areas, the nation is willing to ignore it – as one more sacrifice needed to keep its “territorial integrity” and its leader’s honor and pride intact through these trying times. Below, we will see how the self-reliance policy and whatever measures taken to buttress it after the onset of the famine is disproportionately affecting the peasants.
It has been decades since the nation has ever been self-sufficient in food supply. It has always supplemented its food output with the food supply available in markets of neighboring countries and food aid donated by international donors to meet its domestic needs. Under the prevailing condition (this year, the nation has produced only 20 percent of what is needed to feed the population), the rational thing to do would have been to use whatever hard currency the nation has, or to even take out loans, to buy food from neighboring countries (such as Sudan) and to openly plead for food aid from the international donor community. In Part I, I have already explained how the Isaias regime is literally blocking food aid from making its way into the country. The tyrant’s obsession with totalitarian control, with the unfounded fear that he would lose control over his people as “the NGOs take over”, and his prohibitively priced imperial pride, poised to outlast the crisis without conceding failure of his self-reliance policy, are behind his refusal to ask for food aid and allow NGOs back into the country. Now, let me say a few words on the other part of the solution that would have brought immediate relief: the importing of food supply.
The PFDJ foot soldiers might say that the government is poor and hence cannot afford to buy all the food needed in international markets, especially under the soaring cost of food products in this global financial crisis. Although there is a trace of truth to this claim, it misses the whole point. When we reproach a poor man for drinking expensive whisky, it is how he spends his meager income on wasteful habit rather than on his family that becomes an issue. That doesn’t mean that he won’t need additional help after he does his part to address his family’s need. So is it with the government of Eritrea which has been using most of its meager resources in wasteful priorities. So, leaving aside the fe’tera (made-up stories) of billions stashed away in foreign banks, let’s take a look at how it wastefully spends its meager resources: shopping for all kinds of fancy military gadgets, financiering all kinds of militant groups in the region and experimenting with all kinds of wasteful white elephant projects.
(a) Prohibitively expensive military gadgets
In the past dozen years, the regime has been on a shopping spree for all kinds of expensive armaments. The money lost on these fancy military gadgets could have adequately fed the starving masses. There is no doubt that the no war no peace condition that the nation has been living under since the border crisis is the main cause for the impoverishment of the nation. Since this is a vast subject matter, here I want to point to one aspect of it only to remind readers of the sheer madness of the whole “national security” mission that the nation has mindlessly embarked onto: the air force. I urge the readers to check the aircraft inventory of the Eritrean Air Force in Wikipedia. Out of the 47 aircraft owned by the Eritrean Air Force, 10 happen to be Mig-29, 4 SU-5 and 8 SU-27 – all extremely expensive aircraft. To make my point, let me draw attention to the SU-27. Aside from Eritrea, outside the old Soviet Union sphere, only Vietnam, India and Ethiopia have them. The main reason as to why so few nations have them is their prohibitive price and high maintenance. Each SU-27 costs 25 to 30 million dollars. (The Mig-29 too costs anywhere between 20 and 27 million) Even if it is the case that Eritrea got them at a cheaper price, it doesn’t change the overall picture. A fraction of the cost spent on the Air Force alone could have fed all the starving people. It is easy to see what this arms race with Ethiopia has done to the nation. And what is sad is that even with this unbridled shopping spree for military gadgets there is no way on earth that the Eritrean Air Force could ever be made to match the much superior Ethiopian Air Force. So we get neither protection nor food security out of this madness instigated by one madman. The refusal to solve the border crisis peacefully has not only cost us 20,000 lives, but it is set to cost us many more – only this time indirectly through a self-induced famine.
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion and protest on EU’s slated aid of about 160 million dollars for Eritrea spread for five years. That means, all the tyrant has to do is buy one SU-27 per year to swallow all that money. Another way the absurdity of this shopping spree for fancy military gadgets can be made poignant is if one takes a glance at the nation’s net export: for 2008, a measly 14 million dollars! (CIA – The World Factbook) This is a nation that literally produces nothing that would earn it hard currency. Almost all its income originates outside itself: remittances and other forms of aid from Diaspora Eritreans and monetary aid and soft loans from world institutions (EU, UN, IMF, World Bank, etc). It is like having a welfare dependent mom diligently making her monthly payment on a prohibitively expensive Mercedes as her children are starving to death.
(b) Financiering insurgents in the region
It is no secret that the Isaias regime has been financiering all kinds of insurgents in the region. At one time, the home addresses of all the insurgent groups in the region – from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and even remote Chad – were to be found in Asmara. All these insurgent groups had to be housed, clothed, trained, fed, equipped, transported and financiered for all their operations by a dirty poor Eritrea. At one time, with all its main hotels occupied by all kinds of militant groups, Asmara looked like a city hosting a grand symposium for all disgruntled elements in the region – from cessationist groups in Sudan to hard-core Islamists in Somalia. In fact, in its latest report, the UN mentions Eritrea as the main firearms financier of Somali Islamists. And, lately, the president of Somalia has lodged a complaint against the government of Eritrea, accusing it of continuing to arm Al Shebab through cargo planes full of firearms landing on southern Somalia. The irony is that all of this is taking place at a time the nation is experiencing a severe famine. And the irony of ironies is that these insurgents groups in Asmara, given their sizable number, remain to be some of the most well fed population groups in Eritrea – a stark contrast to the medieval scene of multitudes of beggars swarming the churches in Asmara in utter destitution a few blocks away from the insurgents’ well-stocked hotel residences.
(c) White elephants of projects
Then there are the white elephants of projects that are the brainchildren of an incompetent head that have swallowed hundreds of millions of dollars. A good example of that would be the Massawa-Assab road, a 500 kms asphalted road that that has yet to be finished after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of slave laborers for many years. The odd thing about this project is that it is a road to nowhere, built in one of the most desolate and inhospitable areas in the world with few inhabitants scattered over huge expanses of bone-dry, scorching hot desert. Since there was already a dirt road and boats connecting the handful of lonely fishing outposts through which the road passes, it remains a mystery why anyone would give a priority to such a project at this time while the resources are direly needed elsewhere in Eritrea.
The main motive behind the Warsai-Yikealo campaign is to preoccupy the huge army in Sisyphean projects so that the disgruntled conscripts won’t have any spare time for mischief; isolation and containment remain its main objective. But the Massawa-Assab project remains unique in this blatant objective, for throughout the 500 kms stretch, what is striking is the total absence of traffic: no private cars, no buses, no trucks, etc; neither passengers nor any kinds of products are ever transported. Even fish don’t make it even though the road straddles the Red Sea coast all along its 500 kms stretch. The few vehicles one meets along the way happen to be from the military.
And the case of the Massawa-Assab road is not an exception, but the rule. A few notable ones can easily be mentioned: the Massawa international airport, where literally no commercial plane has ever landed; the Massawa-Asmara railway, an archaic, museum piece, where nothing of any worth gets transported; the Eritrean Airlines, a huge waste of money and resources, now on its way to oblivion; the expensive expansion of the Massawa port, with additional berths built with tens of millions dollars, where hardly any ship shows up for weeks on end; etc. In all of them, what is notable is the redundancy of the services they are meant to provide; these “services” could have easily been met by the pre-existing infrastructure.
Here is a nation that spends 25 percent of its budget on military (the highest proportion in the world) and uses most of its income on fancy military gadgets only rich nations can afford, on all kinds of militant groups dead set to destabilize the region and on wasteful projects that have no practical utility, and yet refuses to spend a fraction of this money to feed its starving masses. But this is not its only sin. Its criminal nature goes way beyond that for it has practically midwived this famine to its present full-blown state through years of relentless and sweeping experimentations conducted under that misleading mission of “self reliance”. Let’s us now see how it has done that.
The structural part of the engineering: the self reliance policy
There is a simple structure to the regime’s self-reliance policy as applied to its food policy: it is designed to take control at the two ends of the food supply chain – at its production and distribution ends – with the end objective of taking total control over the population. To achieve this, the government had to take control over (a) the means of production (land expropriation), (b) the labor force (primarily those who serve in the national service), (c) the market forces (elimination of all the middlemen) (d) and the food aid supply from outside (elimination of all NGOs). There is a simple logic to this: if all the food supply is made to pass through its hands, then in redistributing it, the government would be able to exert complete control over the population. In all this, the government is also trying to maximize its profit, that too being done with totalitarian control in its mind.
There are two aspects to this engineering process: structural and “damage control”. One has to first look at the very implementation of the structural components that make up self-reliance project to see how each and one of them have ushered this famine with a foreboding certainity. In the second part, we will look at how, once the famine has arrived, the government is doing all it can to obstruct any preventive measures that might undermine its self-reliance policy, and hence its totalitarian grip, from taking a firm hold.
(1) The land policy: control over the means of production
With the declaration of misguided land policy of the nation, where all the land was made to be owned by the government, a stage was set for the rampant day-light robbery of prime farmlands from pastoralists and peasants. Even in heavily populated areas, if the government covets a prime land, it simply grabs it without considering the devastating effects it will have on the villagers. Lately, in a desperate attempt to feed its half-starved army and to buttress its ever-dwindling hard currency reserve, government-owned farms have been cropping up everywhere at an alarming rate. And what is worse is that, given the government’s poor understanding of the peasants’ age-old know-how to tend the farmland of a particular area, many of its farms have had meager results, as it ignores both crop-rotation and soil-suitability and tries to force the land to produce what it wants – mainly wheat. The apathy and disincentive of the slave laborers is an additional factor for these state farms’ poor performance. If at all then, the inefficiency that comes with government ownership has exacerbated the problem in food security.
The regime’s insatiable appetite for hard currency means that it has been grabbing any hard-currency generating enterprise – airlines, tourism, construction, import/export, banking, fishing, etc. So has it been with those sectors of farming that are export oriented. The government has been expropriating huge tracts of land in Gash-Barka for its banana and tomato plantations, all destined for foreign markets. And now, with the prices of some grain products – such as wheat – fetching high prices in the world market, the government is grabbing all the fertile land conducive for wheat production. Recently, such an expropriation has been going on in densely populated areas in Maekel and Debub (“Update on the Famine Crisis In Eritrea”, Mussie Hadgu). One such blatant expropriation is a 15 kms stretch of fertile area between Mendefera and Adi-Quala (EPP, April 18, 2009). This is not unlike what has been going on in Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, where the Pol Pot regime was forcing people to produce rice for export, as hundreds of thousands of those very producers were dying of starvation.
The quest for total control becomes more apparent and devious if one looks at the land resettlement programs underway. When the Italians came to occupy Eritrea, the first thing they did was to look for fertile lands on which to settle their peasants. Except for a few farms here and there, this never came to materialize. But it would be instructive to look at their plan, for Shaebia seems to be following that blue print. The Italians knew that there was a huge, scarcely populated land in Gash area, but it was too tropical and too malaria infested for them to settle. So they thought that if they could move the Kebessa population to the lowlands, they will have the temperate, highland part of the nation for themselves. But this plan was given up as soon as it was conceived for its destabilizing potentiality. Not so in the case of Shaebia. In the past two to three years, it has been grabbing prime land left and right of the road that stretches from Debaroba all the way to Adi-Quala. This being the most densely populated in Eritrea, one can imagine the kind of havoc it is causing among the peasants. In exchange, the government is coercing many among this population to resettle in Gash area, which, in turn, will come at the expense of the indigenous population over there. What the old colonizers failed to do is now carried out with meticulous ruthlessness by the new colonizers from Sahel.
And last, it is important to note that the Isaias regime’s land policy is even worse than collectivization, for in the latter case the land still remains within the hands of the peasants, albeit at a communal level. The new masters do not want to simply rearrange the mode of ownership but to have it for themselves. It is a form of apartheid where the natives are increasingly relegated to smaller and less fertile plots of farmlands and inhospitable areas.
(2) The national service policy
The national service, with hundreds of thousands engaged in the Warsai-Yikealo projects, represents the self-reliance policy at its most extensive and ideal sense. Yet, its effect both in humanitarian and economic terms has been the most devastating to the nation, in general, and to the farming community, in particular.
If one carefully looks at the military service and at what it has been set out to accomplish, there is no doubt that its indefinite extension was conceived neither with the defense nor with the rebuilding of the nation but with totalitarian control over the most restive adult population in mind. With the crisis after the border war in full swing, Isaias felt that unless he cordons off this most active population in the wilderness, away from the urban centers, the political survival of his regime can never be guaranteed. The “Warsai- Yikealo campaign” was created only to supplement that goal. That is why the regime doesn’t give a damn whether the projects are wasteful or not; these Sisyphean tasks are primarily designed to preoccupy potentially dangerous hands and minds. Besides, this is one of the two main reasons given (the other being “the defense of the nation”) to the public to justify the endless service, that to some has lasted more than a decade.
Since the day it entered Asmara, Shaebia has always been looking for an excuse to mold the youth of the nation in its own image. This experimentation started with the creation of Sawa, where young men and women were made to undergo six moths of military training, followed by a year of national service – all in their formative years. When the border war with Ethiopia started, this organization of former guerrillas took this rare opportunity to expand its experimentation in its scope and duration the whole adult population between 17 and 50 years. While the rest of the nation was traumatized by the war, Shaebia used this occasion to recreate the mieda experience. The indefinite military service was the exact replica of the revolutionary years, where a whole generation are growing up into manhood – some into old age – isolated from the rest of the civil society.
The pervasive indoctrination, the Spartan regimentation, the slave labor, the severe punishments (torture, imprisonment and killings) and indefinite service are all meant to create a subservient population amenable to the regime’s totalitarian control.
Harsh as the national service has been to the whole, it is even harsher on the peasants.There are three ways in which the national service has adversely affected the peasants, hence food security, in Eritrea:
(a) Manpower drain
One of the main reasons for the crop failure all over Eritrea is that all villages have been deprived of their most productive population that used to tend the land, most of which is currently tied up in an endless national service. Hundreds of thousands more have left the country for good, a mass exodus that is the direct result of indefinite and oppresive nature of the national service. Currently, it is mostly the old, women and children that are left behind in villages fending off for themselves. As a result, neither the land nor the livestock are receiving the traditional care they used to receive.
There are various reasons as to how the national service has adversely affected the peasants more than any other population group in Eritrea: (a) They have nowhere to hide; the fact that everyone knows everybody else in the village makes it extremely difficult for a draft dodger or army deserter to hide among the community for long. Whereas in places like Asmara, may of the evaders and deserters have been successfully evading capture for long before they finally trek out to the neighboring countries. (b) They have nowhere to go; they are also less likely to flee to neighboring countries. The idea of life in the West doesn’t come easily to the mind of a peasant. Besides, the fact that the peasants tend to have fewer connections in Diaspora remains to be an additional disincentive to emigrate. That is why the overwhelming majority of those who eventually make it to the West are from urban centers. (c) Many of the peasants and pastoralists are more likely to be drafted at earlier age. The excuse that the government uses for forcibly drafting underage is that they are not attending school, a fact that is more prevalent in rural than urban areas. (d) They are more likely to serve longer. Unlike many urbanites who provide various reasons acceptable by the government that shortens their military service, such as having indispensable job skills needed in various work places (some industries, certain businesses, governmental institutions, etc.), the villagers’ profession of farming is taken as the most dispensable. In general, the more educated you are, the more likely you will be spared indefinite national service.
The effects of national service on the peasants have been nothing less than devastating: (a) Their farmlands and livestock are poorly attended to and, as a result, their families are economically suffering as no other population group does. (b) Because of their tendency not to emigrate, the peasants’ families are less likely to supplement their income with remittances as many in the urban areas do. (c) A whole generation of children has been growing up without the attendance of their fathers, with adverse societal ramifications. (d) The psychological impact of the national service, with its slave labor and other forms of abuse, is to be witnessed more on those condemned to serve the longest. As a result, many of the demobilized peasants entirely give up on farming, and are now part of a huge emerging underclass in the urban areas; the ever-burgeoning number of beggars is almost entirely made up of peasants.
(b) Vicious circularity
One of the most adverse effects of the national service has been the free hand it gave the regime to undertake various experimentations that would have been impossible otherwise. Take, for instance, the vicious relationship that land expropriation and national service had on one another. The government would have never attempted to grab fertile lands from peasants and pastoralists at the extent and rate it had been doing the last few years had it not been for the national service. There are three reasons for this: (a) Inexhaustible slave labor at the government’s disposal means that if it grabs land it will have no problem in finding laborers to work on it. (b) Feeding this huge army (300,000 strong in a population of four million, and this doesn’t include the reserves!) was also another incentive for the regime to expropriate more and more fertile farmlands. (c) Given the high discontent among those who serve in the army, the regime is always devising ways and means of perpetually preoccupying them in one project after another, and farming happens to be a task that the peasants could easily be relegated into.
The regime too doesn’t see a clear exit from this vicious circle of its own making: if it demobilizes the army now, almost all of its farming projects that cover a huge swath of land of rural Eritrea will collapse in one day. The possibility of that eventuality, in its turn, has become one of the main reasons for the reluctance of the government not to demobilize. Only a dumb government would fall into such a self-created trap, but such is the nature of the Isaias regime.
This self destructive process is seen even in the building of micro-dams, something that intuitively seems to be an uncontroversial project when seen as a direly needed water resource for the peasants in a land with undependable, erratic weather. That is exactly what the villagers thought at the beginning, long before their prime land began to be taken away from them at the government’s whim. If one carefully takes a look at the prime lands the government has been taking away from the peasants, most of them happen to be near the micro-dams that have been built these past few years. The peasants, who initially welcomed the micro-dams, have now come to dread them. That is why the peasants have shown the least interest in maintaining them, that being one of the reasons why many of the micro-dams get demolished within one rainy season.
So has it been with the construction of new roads. So far, the government has restrained itself from expropriating lands in inaccessible areas for obvious reasons: it won’t fit in its distribution system easily. As a result, even new roads are now being received by the peasants with fear and trepidation, for soon after their completion they are invariably followed with the tractors and slave laborers that would be made to work on their expropriated farmlands. No wonder the sight of tractors and slave laborers have become more dreadful than the sight of an invading army, for the former are here to stay.
(3) The market policy: control over the means of distribution
All we have to do is look at the race to the bottom that the regime has been mindlessly conducting with its own subjects to understand the dire consequences its market policy have had on the food security of the nation.
First, in its quest for total control over the market, the government slowly and meticulously killed the merchant and business class. It took three lethal steps to achieve that. First, it set up unfair competitions where government-owned corporations were given free access to hard currency, goods and market, all free of any taxation. Second, by monopolizing the hard currency market and the import-export business, it denied private corporations any means for replenishing raw materials or buying finished products from abroad. And third – and this is the most blatant of all – it set a draconian mechanism throughout the land to deny merchants even products produced within the country.
After killing the businesses of all those that needed either hard currency or access to foreign market to survive, the Isaias regime set its eyes on those businesses that need only national currency (Nakfa) and internal market to survive. A good example of this would be the vibrant cereal market that used to be found in every city and town across the land. How does the government set out to monopolize such a market, where there is no neat and exhaustive way of killing it? Shaebia does what it does best through pure coercion. It prohibited merchants from buying and selling most staple grains. But there was a problem with that: most of the food transactions done in most cereal markets across Eritrea were directly conducted between farmers and individual consumers. If so, simply eliminating the middlemen – the merchants – by itself won’t do the trick; the farmers would gladly fill in the vacuum. So what was to be done? Well, Shaebia had to ratchet up its coercive methods: it denied the peasants and pastoralists any direct market access for their food products. Instead, it has taken the role of the middleman and the seller, where the farmers are required to “sell” their excess products to it, and it will, in turn, sell it to the masses in its diquan riti’ (government owned food stores). Since the peasants know that this means day-light robbery, where the government will buy their products for almost nothing, the end result has been the near empting of all markets.
Now the government has reached the end-game it started long ago. If cutting off the farmers’ market hasn’t done the trick, what can it possibly do to get its hands on the food supply? The only thing left for it is to again ratchet up its coercive method to a level never seen before: outright looting of the stored food of the peasants (k’offo). Except for few kilograms for each person, one that could only last them for few months at best, the rest is to be handed over to the government. No such brazen robbery has ever been witnessed in the history of the land. Even during zemene mesafant (the Era of Princes), those years of war and anarchy, when powerful warlords used to occasionally plunder the land, they used to take only so much to feed their marauding armies while they camped in the area – at most, a few weeks, after which they would disappear for years.
Again, the monopolization of the food supply of the nation – this time, in distribution – is done with total control over the population in Isaias’ mind. If he can control all the distribution system, he will have all the power whom to reward and whom to punish. I wouldn’t be surprised that as soon as he controls all the supply lines, if he would start punishing families with one or more escapees by denying them food supply. Already the redistribution of land in Gash Barka is being implemented with that in mind: those families that have one or more deserter or draft dodger are being denied land (look at Mussie Hadgu’s latest posting, “Update of the Famine Crisis in Eritrea”). And more relevantly, control over the food supply would give him power to implement his triage policy, where population groups are being prioritized according to their relevance to his regime’s political survival, with ruling party members, the army and Asmara occupying the top of the list in that order.
Engineering famine: the dearth of survival strategies
The problem with the self-reliance policy is that it has not only ushered the current famine, but it is also preventing immediate measures that could soften the impact of the famine, for fear of subverting the very purpose for which it had been conceived in the first place: totalitarian control. Whenever a measure seems to threaten the totalitarian mechanism set by the government, even in the slightest way possible, it is always the obsession for control that trumps any other humanitarian concern, including food security. As a result, the self-reliance policy has drained all the coping mechanisms available in traditional Eritrea. Below, we will see how Shaebia has made it impossible for the traditional coping mechanisms to materialize because it sees a threat to its totalitarian grip in each and every one of them.
(1) Sidet (migration)
Traditionally, the most frequently used coping mechanism at times of famine was sidet. It is true that a huge migration of peasants within Eritrea is taking place right now, but the problem is that there are no regions inside Eritrea that could accommodate such a huge influx of internal refugees caused by the current famine.
Given the magnitude of the problem, under normal conditions, people would have temporarily migrated to neighboring countries, most probably as seasonal laborers. In old times, the rich plantations in Humera and Kessela used to provide that kind of relief. But now, for Eritrean refugees to cross the border to Ethiopia in search of food would be considered the ultimate form of security threat; according to Shaebia, those who attempt to cross the border in search of food are committing treason, and hence subject to be shot at the spot. Moreover, besides giving Ethiopians something to gloat about (as only the sick minds of the Highdefites are capable of worrying of), this would be considered the ultimate form of humiliation to Isaias. Again, priority has to be given to the Supreme Leader’s pride and honor. As a result, the PFDJ will do anything in its power to prevent the starving masses from crossing to Ethiopia. That is why its shoot-at-sight policy at border crossings is most vigilantly enforced at Mereb, where Eritrean pride suddenly takes exponential leap. PFDJ’s perverse logic, though very cruel, is simple to understand: the starving people have to die within the confines of Eritrea in order to save their leader’s pride! Besides, there is the fear that those who once cross Mereb will never come back – as if a dead body on the Eritrean side of Mereb is better for the nation’s security than a live one on the other side of Mereb!
So when it comes to the kind of sidet that matters most in these hard times – that is, migration to neighboring countries – both the concern for “national security and territorial integrity” and the sanctity of the Dear and Beloved Leader’s honor and pride override the concern for welfare of the starving masses.
(2) Seasonal work:
Seasonal work has been one of the most frequently used survival strategies used by peasants near urban areas. Most of these peasant families used to send their able-bodied members to work in jobs that require manual labor, such as construction to supplement the families agricultural income. Nowadays, no such opportunity is available. As it is, the government owns most of these able bodied members, indefinitely exploited as slave laborers in the national service. So while their sons and fathers work for free for the government, the rest of the family members are left to fend off for themselves, with little or no chance to make it on their own. That is one of the main reasons why almost all the families involved in begging are headed by women (look at Mussie Hadgu’s latest report on that).
A good example of work denied to peasants as a result of the misguided self-reliance policy is the complete suspension of construction work in and around Asmara. In its quest for total monopolization (the economic version of control) of the construction companies and the hard currency that they used to generate from the hapless Diaspora community, it suspended almost all the licenses of private contractors and engineers – a harbinger for the total collapse of the construction industry. The construction work was the kind of work that used to sustain tens of thousands of laborers from Kebabi, whose small plots of farmlands have been grabbed by the government, parceled and sold off to distant tenants in Diaspora and swallowed by the ever-expanding city. And whatever has been left has been rendered infertile by drought and other causes. Now, we can only imagine what kind of lives these peasants are leading.
(3) Market access:
The government has monopolized the food market, and predictably it is doing a lousy job of it: the flow of food products as commodity to be freely sold and bought has almost vanished from the market scene. Under normal conditions, with access to hard currency, merchants would have flooded the markets across Eritrea with food bought from Sudan. But that means competing with Shaebia, and hence unthinkable. Let alone for merchants, the regime is not allowing for individuals to venture towards areas near the border, such as Tesseney, where food prices are relatively cheap. Any adult who ventures towards the border is an immediate suspect and subject to imprisonment or even death sentence. All food imports are now conducted by government owned entities only. In addition, it has illegalized the possession of hard currency by individuals, thereby categorically depriving merchants from accessing the food supply from neighboring countries.
But even within the “safe” parts of Eritrea, the government has done everything in its power to prevent food movement from one area to another: (a) The Asmara market has been rendered off limits to peasants (b) Food products movement from one village to another is scrutinized and in many cases confiscated. (c) In better off areas, the government has set up an elaborate mechanism to periodically gauge the food level of the peasants’ ‘koffos (food stores). (d) It has also been forcing peasants to sell their “surplus” at outrageously low prices. (e) Its diquan rit’is (government-owned stores) have been emptied of essentials. (f) It has rendered the selling of most staple food products illegal (a declaration aimed at both peasants and merchants). (g) The dearth of food supply in the market and the amount of hard currency in the black market are two of the main reasons for the hyperinflation in the country, thus making it even more difficult for the poor to buy food for reasonable price.
In every step that the government has taken in its market policy, it has been singularly driven by its obsession for control. In its economic aspect, this obsession is to be seen in the regime’s effort to get its hands on all the profit in the land, even as it keeps devastating one population group after another in the process: (a) In its quest for hard currency, not only did it replace food aid with “cash for work”, it also eliminated NGOS in the hope that it would get all the aid money slated by the donors. (b) It bankrupted most businesses and took total control of all the market forces in the country, thus channeling all the merchants’ profit to its coffers. (c) The most blatant of all is when it tried to get all the profit that the peasants eke out of their tiny plots of lands.
The overall effect of this exhaustive approach to channel all the profit into the regime’s coffers is the set of mind it has created in the regime: it will do nothing that would threaten the flow of this profit, even if that means mass starvation. In particular, it won’t allow the nation to be flooded by food imports and food aid because the price of food products will drop precipitously, deeply cutting into the profit the government makes as result of monopolizing the food market. Since almost all the remittances the population gets from Diaspora ends up in buying food, the government has every incentive to keep the food supply limited and its price inflated if it is to finally get all the hard currency circulating in the hands of individuals. That is to say, it sees no profit in feeding the hungry.
[Since the part that deals with food aid and NGOs is the subject matter for Part III, I will refrain from exploring it further here.]
Conclusion: invoking the past
Above, we have seen how the “self-reliance” policy and the immediate measures taken after the onset of the famine, both entirely motivated by the regime’s unquenchable quest for totalitarian control, are causing havoc among the peasants in Eritrea. We have also seen how the government has been putting itself between the people and the food in various ways: (a) It is unwilling to import enough food using its own money. (b) Neither does it allow private merchants to import food. (c) Nor are individual consumers allowed to venture towards the Sudanese border to buy food at cheaper prices. (d) It doesn’t allow food aid from foreign donors to enter the country. (e) It doesn’t allow for people to migrate (sidet) to neighboring countries in search of food. And when it comes to the peasants, there are further measures taken within the confines of the nation that exacerbate their plight: (f) No food aid from government owned stores or the coupon system is accessible to them. (g) To the contrary, food is being taken away from them either by forcing them to sell it to the government at a very low price or by outright confiscating it.
The end result of the government’s food policy has been mass destitution. Many of the peasants whose lives have been turned to living hell under Shaebia’s rule have entirely given up on their farming and turned to begging for survival. This is especially true of women headed families who have camped in church compounds in Asmara and other cities, most of whom have migrated from drought stricken areas in Debub (as Mussie Hadgu keeps reminding us). Under the new Shaebia colonizers, these once resilient and proud farmers have been turned into destitute beggars; they have to give up their self-sufficiency in order to make room for the “self-sufficiency” of a parasitic entity called Shaebia that is devouring the whole nation piece by piece. It is just that the poor peasants happen to be the first in line to be devoured by this Frankenstein monster of our making.
There are those who say that, either out of denial or naivety, we should refrain from invoking the past for the sake of unity. They don’t seem to grasp the implications of their protest: that it is only through lies that we would be able to preserve our unity. To avoid this obvious conclusion, there are those who deceptively add a qualifier: it is only that they believe now is not the right time to invoke the past – after forty years of deafening conspiratorial silence! If anything, the tragic treatment of the peasants tells us that we cannot fully understand the plight they are facing now under the brutal rule of Shaebia without going back to the ghedli era, where similar brutalization was going on for years on end, as the horror history of giffa clearly indicates. For those peasants that were living in the “liberated areas”, what they are facing now is simply a continuation of the past; they were dispensable then, they are dispensable now. The novelty of Shaebia’s brutalization applies only to the urban areas that have now come to fall under the newly “liberated areas”. Welcome to liberated Eritrea!