In my previous posting I argued that Eritrean national identity which was work in progress in the 50's is still so and that the path taken by the EPLF in fostering
such an identity had led to a cul de sac, of a rootless Eritreanism that was effectively a cover for highland chauvinism and was infected with a large dose of
the ideology of the chosen people. In this posting, I want to elaborate on how thisideology has affected the regime's domestic and foreign policy.
- The Consolidation of EPLF's Eritreanism
As I indicated in my last posting the EPLF emerged as a rejection of the ELF on the basis of its alleged mistreatment of Christian highlanders and its allegedfecklessness in its management and leadership of the armed struggle. It alsoemerged as a denial of the truth of the role of Christian highlanders prior andduring the federation in support of unionism.
As a rejection of what the ELF allegedly stood for, it revived and reformulated the biases inherent in the Christian highland elite. The lowland Muslims were
projected as spineless cowards in the face of serious military challenge. The Issayas group was in this regard reviving and reformulating the myth of military ineptitude that circulated among the police commandos (Hademti Deqi Halima). The lowland Muslims were also portrayed as hapless illiterate cattle keepers who could not be trusted with managing a complex thing as a nation or its struggle for independence. Finally they were portrayed as people whose Eritreanism is less than skin-deep as they are liable to change it to Arabism at the earliest opportunity. The EPLF's ideology of Eritreanism was thus based on the rejectionof the alleged vices of the lowland Muslims, lack of military valor, cultural backwardness and Arabism.
As a superficial rejection of the history of the highlands, the EPLF's Eritreanism concocted a history of Eritrea that rejected historical links with Ethiopia except in the distant past of the Axumite Empire and that only with the Northern part of Ethiopia. Overtime, this lack of comfort with one's background came to project a convoluted Christian highland chauvinism. Officially secular it nevertheless projected the Orthodox Church as having started in Eritrea (Bizen) before it conquered Abyssinia, and thus as an indigenous religious and cultural icon, as the source of knowledge and resistance to external influence and assimilation. Even the history of military recruitment by foreigners was seen as the recognitionof all and sundry of the highland people's military valor and their proclivity to cultural progress and enlightenment. Whatever the lowlanders were not, the highlanders were.
The rigors of the armed struggle reinforced and partly modified the key tenets of this ideology. Military valor and militarism as defining characteristics were reinforced. Anyone from the highlands who lacked those was seen as unworthy of his people. Anyone from the lowlands who had those was seen as the exception worthy of joining Eritreanism along the lines that the French accepted the "educated" Africans who passed the test as French, all be it French of a second class category.
Blind obedience to the leader and the ideology of the organization was also reinforced by the armed struggle. Nobody was supposed to have any rights, justobligations. It was inculcated in the minds of everyone through repeated propaganda and practice that everybody has to fulfill their obligations even before they could ask for respect of their rights. Their rights were not inherent in them as human beings and individuals; they were rewards that could be bestowed upon them if they "behaved properly". This culture of total obedience to the cause and to nothing else was seen as crucial to the survival and success of the movement and no one not even the peasants were spared from it. Thus if forcibly recruited peasant youth were to complain about their rights being violated they would be told that they have to fulfill their military obligations for them to be worth of any rights. Such ideology of total undivided loyalty to the "cause" also had the advantage of obliterating diversity in Eritrean society. Loyalty for one's individual rights would
be thrown out of the window because that would be conditional on fulfilling one's obligation to the cause. Ethnic, religious, and regional loyalties as competing loyalties would be similarly thrown out of the window. Only loyalty to Eritreanism, which was a convoluted form of highland chauvinism, would be tolerated. The armed struggle also contributed to the definition of Eritreanism as superhuman capacity to take pain and overcome hardships. The idol worship of "martyrs" played a crucial role in the inculcation of such definition of Eritreanism as the dead were seen as the final embodiment of the spirit of sacrifice and stoicism.
Finally Eritreanism added the ideology of the chosen people to its toxic concoctions. The Eritrean people were the chosen people because of their extraordinary military valor, their stoicism, their proclivity to advanced culture (if not the reality of it) and their readiness to defy the world and live to tell the story. As can be seen from the characters that allegedly made the Eritrean people a chosen people, the defining characteristics were not distributed equality among the Eritrean people. They were found in abundance among the Christian highlanders (with some regional variation) and only as rare exceptions among the lowlander Muslims. Those lowland Muslims who internalized the characteristics of the chosen people and who manifested it publicly by completely shading any loyalty other than that ideology (including by consuming inordinate amounts of alcohol) would be Eritreanized along the lines that some Africans became French. This ideology of chosen people was directed against all foreigners with special focus on Arabs and Black Africans. The EPLF's ideology of Eritreanism built on the traditional attitude of looking down on the Arabs and darker people in general. The Arabs were the Jebeli and darker people were the Baryas. What was more complex to achieve using traditional highland attitudes was looking down on Abyssinians. Here the EPLF ideology of Eritreanism had to build on what the Italians had started in the urban areas and portray Tigreans as devious and dirty paupers and the Amharas as mere donkeys (Adgi).
"Eritreanism" in Domestic Policy
After the independence of Eritrea, the EPLF went about systematically implementing its ideology in domestic and foreign policy.
I will point out a few examples of how this was implemented in domestic policy by looking at management of religious differences, administrative centralization and national service.
The first thing the EPLF did with regards to religion was to criminalize the denominations that could threaten the Orthodox Church. A few religious institutions were characterized as indigenous (with the Orthodox Church as truly indigenous among them) and the rest were criminalized. The regime knew that it was the "new" mostly Evangelical Churches who could win over the Orthodox Christian youth and that had to be stopped to protect the symbol of Eritreanism cum highland Christian chauvinism. The other "indigenous" Christian denominations would be dealt with later on.
Simultaneously Muslims who took their religion and religious identity too seriously had to be eliminated to as it were castrate the mosque as a potential competitor and “domesticate” it. Many respected teachers and leaders of the
mosque in Eritrea were thus quickly "disappeared" and notice was served to everyone else that only Islam that accepts its role as a second class religion and is accordingly domesticated would be tolerated.
The Orthodox Church was then given prime land in Asmara, a building worthy of its key symbolic ideological role was built for it by the government, and its independence from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was speeded up and engineered by the regime. The vulgar secularism of the regime was seen for what it is a convoluted expression of highland Christian chauvinism and a cover for it. It is only recently, as the regime began to devour what it considers as its core constituency, that serious cracks has begun to appear between itself and the Orthodox Church.
Administrative centralization is vital to sustain the EPLF ideology of Eritreanism. Regional and ethnic diversity has to be subsumed into the convoluted concept of Christian highland chauvinism as Eritreanism. Hence: the zonal administration boundaries that obliterate previous regional boundaries. The most interesting aspect of the new zonal boundaries is that as many of the new zones as possible have at least a tiny part of the highlands in them. This was clearly intended to make sure that each zone had a cell that could be used to perpetuate the ideology. More directly there has been a very significant movement of people from the highlands to low lands even before the recent spate of resettlement.
While many of those who have moved to the lowlands are desperate people eking out a living, some are beneficiaries and loyalists of the regime. They are agents of assimilation and domination. The ideology of a chosen people in Eritrea manifests itself in the attempt by first class citizens to domesticate and control the second class ones. That at least was the case until the regime begun to devour what it considers as its core constituency.
It is now clear that the national service was designed with both domestic and foreign policy in mind. Domestically the intention was to recreate the atmosphere of the armed struggle with the view to inculcating the same ideology of Eritreanism and the chosen people. Military valor and militarism, the value of rights as possible rewards for fulfilling obligations, and the capacity to take pain and hardship stoically were to be inculcated by pushing the youth into the Army and using veterans to pass on the message of the chosen people and the values on which it stands. Externally such a huge army was to be used to intimidate others into accepting the dominance of the government of the chosen people. What the regime may not have bargained for is that it would find itself in a state of permanent war and that the youth would reject their fate as Spartan Helots.
The Eritrean youth has finally said enough is enough and is abandoning the country in their thousands. They, have in the eyes of the regime, proved to be unworthy heirs of the EPLF concept of Eritreanism and the chosen people. They have in the eyes of the regime proved that they don’t have the stamina for it and have become traitors to the cause. Their families too have joined them in that act of betrayal of the cause of the martyrs. All sectors of the population including the high land Christians have joined in that act of “betrayal”. The regime has thus become an equal opportunity oppressor. Indeed the chosen people who have failed to live up to the designation, particularly the Christian highland youth have been selected for particularly brutal treatment. Just as Hitler finally concluded that the German Are “unworthy of being the chosen people” and finally turned on them without abandoning his ideology, Issayas and his clique have discovered that the Christian highland youth are “unworthy heirs” to the concept of the chosen people and has turned on them without ever abandoning their ideology.
"Eritreanism" in foreign Policy
The ideology of Eritreanism as the ideology of the chosen people has guided Eritrea’s foreign policy since independence. This is reflected in the public insults unleashed against the Arab League and the OAU, in the public and repeated ridiculing of respected African leaders and parties particularly that of South Africa. This started from day one and has continued to this day. The message to everyone who cared to listen was that the new kid in block was an altogether different category ready and able to chart a new course radically different from that which had bedeviled Africa. Everyone else in the continent was just not up to the mark of the new kid in the block. The Arab League and Arab regimes were even worse.
While one can easily innumerate the manifestations of this ideology on Eritrea’s foreign policy with regards to every country it is more instructive to focus on the two countries that Issayas now sees as his primary enemies – the Woyanes and the CIA or Ethiopia and the US.
It appears that the EPLF’s vision of a new dispensation in the horn of Africa was based on the Woyanes playing the junior partner to the leaders of the chosen people and by so doing lead the horn of Africa in general. As the leader of the horn of Africa, the leader of the chosen people was to deal with major powers on behalf of everyone in the horn and even the continent. Eritrea was to become the Singapore of the horn with Ethiopia and the Sudan as its main hinterlands. The Eritrean army was to be the enforcer of last resort and the intimidator. All in the horn rejected this new dispensation and Ethiopia was the last to confront it head on.
The crime of the Woyanes was however more heinous than the rest in the eyes of the Issayas clique for two reasons. First, the Woyanes were given the honor of being junior partners and yet they not only rejected the honor but they were found to have systematically undermined it in a particularly perfidious fashion consistent with their Agame culture. Second, they advocated and in their own half-hearted fashion implemented a vision of unity in diversity based on democracy and embracing religious, regional and ethnic diversity. This again was a typically Agame perfidy designed to undermine the vision of the leader of the chosen people for Eritrea and the horn. Late in the day the Issayas clique discovered that the Woyanes need to be intimidated and forced to tow the line.
The invasion of Badme (the claims commission has declared that this was indeed an invasion and an illegal one) was in my review intended to intimidate the Woyane rather than to occupy some territory. The hope appears to have been that the Woyanes would see the writing on the wall, mend their perfidious ways and accept the honor bestowed on them by the Issayas regime.
Unfortunately they called his bluff and the rest as they say is history. Just as the invasion of Russia proved to be the last rail on the coffin of Hitler, that invasion has proved to be the undoing of the Issayas regime.
It is clear that Issayas approached the Americans not just as the leader of Eritrea but as the ultimate boss of the horn if not the continent. Some Americans may have believed that, and most may have humored him on that for some time. It was at the end of the Clinton era that holes begun to appear in this relationship with the final Algiers agreement. Issayas chose to demonize key officials of the
Clinton administration in its dying days in the hope that this would be seen positively by the incoming Bush administration. As the Bush administration embarked on its war on terror, the Issayas regime lobbied actively to be the key partner in that venture going all the way to lobbying the American to establish a base in Eritrea and joining the club of the willing in the invasion of Iraq. It was hoped that Issayas would be recognized as the rightful boss of the horn and the Woyanes would be told to accept that fact whether they liked it or not.
Unfortunately for the Issayas regime the Americans proved to be just as perfidious. Not only did they reject Issayas's lobbying but they appointed the Woyanes as the anchor state in the horn. They unfortunately failed to recognize the leader of the chosen people and the boss of the horn for what he is and gave too much credence to geography and demography and appointed the Woyanes instead. By so doing they became the sworn enemy. The Woyanes and the CIA became devils incarnate.
The EPLF's ideology of Eritreanism and the chosen people has come full circle. The chosen people themselves have rejected or more accurately from the clique's point of view have proved to be unworthy of it. They are thus being devoured by that ideology. Eritrea has become a permanently angry and totally isolated pariah state.
May there be a landing in Eritrea soon!
(I hope to post a third and final part dealing with the Existential threat to Eritrea soon).