Taking the Bull by the Horn

I have in my previous postings tried to show how a particularly virulent form of Christian Highland chauvinism emerged, and since taking power has become the primary source of our problems and the existential threat to the nation. My postings have been informed by the ongoing internet debate in general and the exceptional contributions of Yosief in particular. It would take too much space for me to identify where I agree with other writers. I will therefore limit myself to points where I see some nuanced difference with Yosief and others.

Romanticizing Ghedli and All the rest

While the criticisms of Yosief and others of the Ghedli experience are very valued, I feel not enough has been said in identifying the ideological and political roots of all the malpractices of the Ghedli era. Some have associated it rightly with the emergence of Eritrean nationalism and national identity. What I have tried to do is build on it, and show how the Ghedli period tried to create a united national identity and ended up exacerbating the already existing problem. The Ghedli period's challenges were thus a result of the gaps in Eritrean national identity that it inherited and an outcome of how it tried to address those gaps. I also try to go beyond that and show how this ideology explains the current challenges of the nation. I think that we should go beyond the debate of Romanticizing or De-Romanticizing Ghedli and focus on the political and ideological basis of our dilemma.


Totalitarianism as the Problem

It is quite obvious that the Eritrean people are not responding with adequate resistance to the extra-ordinary oppression they face. This sad phenomenon is being explained by the fact that they all are under the grip of totalitarianism. There is no question that there is a totalitarian system in Eritrea. There is also no question that such a system can stifle the resistance of the population. But this does not explain why Eritreans in the Diaspora are either supporting the system or have been neutralized by it. It does not explain why young people are organizing well and taking extra-ordinary risks to leave the country while no such attempt is made to stay on and fight the system. This does not explain why there is massive and courageous resistance among the Kunama but not the highlands. While totalitarianism might provide part of the explanation, it leaves much of the lack of resistance unexplained. As I will try to show the ideology of the system can explain much of the paralysis in the resistance.

Chauvinism in the Highlands vs. the Lowlands

The ruling ideology is of course the EPLF's particularly pernicious form of highland chauvinism. As such it is and should be the focus of our criticism and struggle. That does not, however, mean that the ELF was free from sectarianism and chauvinism and some of its remnants still are plagued by the disease. The ELF narration of Eritrean history which continues to characterize unionists (virtually all of the highlanders) as sell outs and all of those supporting independence (including the pro-Italian groups financed by fascist agents) as heroes is clearly a manifestation of the ELF"s sectarianism and chauvinism. The ELF's war against Christian highland communities in Quahain and other parts of Seraye and else where in the highlands is a case in point. The genocidal attitude towards the Kunama has its origins not in the EPLF but in the ELF. There can and should not therefore be any doubt that both the ELF and the EPLF tried to complete the process of national identity building in a sectarian and chauvinist direction, the first of the lowland Muslim variety, the second of the highland Christian variety. The only difference between the two is that the EPLF variety won out in the bitter struggle between the two and is therefore by right the focus of our criticism and struggle.

While the main divide in the national identity formation process was and is between the highland Christian and lowland Muslim groups that is not the only divide that is afflicting Eritrea. There are ethnic divisions within the broad lowlands which cut across the religious and regional divisions. The endless massacres of the Kunama by the ELF are a case in point but that is not the only case. There is also the case of the Jiberti, Muslims and Tigrigna speaking highlanders and their loyalties thus cut both ways. There are also regional divisions within the highlands which of late have been exacerbated but have always been there. Within the Christian community too there are divisions based on denominations. This is the terrain on which the ruling Christian highland chauvinism operates and the circle of the ins and outs can be as narrow as a single village and as broad as the highlands. This is also the terrain on which the "dominated" forms of chauvinism and sectarianism operate in.

The Ideology and Paralysis of the resistance

There is no doubt that the Eritrean people have been cowed down by the totalitarian system and that this fact explains much of the paralysis of the resistance of the Eritrean people to the regime. But that is not the only or main reason for the paralysis. The fact that much of the Eritrean public supported the regime until quite recently and even those that have changed their mind have not turned around and effectively opposed the regime can be explained by the influence of the ideology of the highland Christian chauvinism and equally sectarian and chauvinist responses to it.

The fact that much of the regime's constituency did not object to the regime's suppression of Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses and Pentecostals can only be explained by that ideology. When the regime massacred the disabled war veterans there were no demonstrations against it but there was widespread revulsion and the regime knew it. It never repeated it. The repression of the non-Orthodox groups however did not raise similar revulsion and has continued without let up. The massive mobilization against Ethiopia cannot have been because Ethiopia invaded Eritrea. We know it is the other way round. It would be dishonest to claim that people were unaware of the fact until the claims commission came up with its finding. We knew but it did not matter because people bought into the ideology and considered the Ethiopians in general and the Tigreans in particular as a perfidious and despicable enemy. The highland Christian chauvinist ideology has penetrated to varying degrees a large section of that community and this has been the key base of the ideological bond between the regime and its passive or active sympathizers.

Of late, much of its core constituency has peeled off from the regime politically but not ideologically. And this continues to cause paralysis in the resistance. I think this manifests itself in two key forms: those who are deeply unhappy about the regime but will not lift a finger to remove it when they can easily do so, and those who oppose the regime but do so in a manner that objectively paralyzes the resistance.

The best examples of the first group are the youth who are disgusted with the regime, who feel their fate under the regime is so intolerable that they are prepared to take extra-ordinary risks including death to escape from the country and once they have reached safer shores would not take any risk to oppose the regime and may even join the cheer leaders of the regime in the Diaspora. The main reason for such apparently unexplainable behavior is that they do not see a viable and radically different alternative form of governance. They fear that if there were to be a change in Eritrea the nation would be turned into a failed state by domestic Islamists and foreign enemies particularly the Woyane. Ideologically they are enslaved and paralyzed by the bogymen of the EPLF variant of highland Christian chauvinism.

We can observe the same paralysis among some of the opposition groups who while politically opposed to the regime are nevertheless ideologically enslaved by the highland Christian chauvinism. They too are scared of the bogymen created by EPLF ideology. They therefore would like Issayas to go but everything else including his constitution to remain intact. Any means of removing the regime which could rock the boat too much is firmly rejected. As there are few if any effective means of removing the regime that do not rock the boat too much, these opposition figures are not only paralyzing themselves but try their very best to de-legitimize and paralyze anyone who is bolder in his/her approach to removing the regime. According to them, the enemy is not the system but Issayas who has mismanaged the system. Those who are on the receiving side of the discrimination of the system naturally see no benefit in joining resistance that will not radically transform the system. Hence much of the lowland Diaspora has simply distanced itself from all political activity. Those who are active are sometimes pushed to the other extreme that of lowland chauvinism and sectarianism.

As I have indicated in my previous posting it is the EPLF variant of the Christian highland chauvinism which has precipitated the social, economic, military and political melt-down in Eritrea and poses an existential threat to the nation. It is the influence of this ideology which has paralyzed the resistance particularly among the Christians highlanders. It is the indirect impact of this ideology – and variants of lowland sectarianism which paralyzed the resistance in the lowlands. Unless we defeat it and come up with a new national narrative, one that successfully completes the process of national identify creation which was incomplete at the beginning of our revolution, we will never succeed in removing the regime, and even if the regime were to collapse somehow we will never be able to build a stable and viable nation.

That is why I think the current debate is very helpful. It has opened the issue of Eritrean national identity and could in time lead to its definition as unity in diversity based on democratic governance. But a few articles in some web sites are not going to be enough. We need to reinforce such discourse with the creation of a movement for national revival. In order to do that all of us must agree that the regime has to be removed by any means necessary. We should agree that the future constitution of Eritrea should not only be consistently democratic but one that has adequate institutional mechanisms to embrace and accommodate our diversity. We should have trust in the wisdom of all sectors of Eritrean society and their ability to chart a new course when given the freedom and the chance to do so. We should rock the boat, indeed, we should turn it upside down and bring about a new political order in Eritrea without fear of the bogymen that the regime has created for us. We should take the process of nation building in Eritrea to a new and higher level by defeating the EPLF ideology of Christian highland chauvinism and replacing it not with the less virulent but equally wrong sectarianism of the ELF but with a democratic and accommodative one.

May there be a landing in Eritrea soon!