As the leader of an authoritarian government, president Isaias Afewerki is responsible for everything his government does. This is one of those very few facts that everyone agrees on — his supporters and opponents.
In spite of this fact, it is not normal for Eritreans to refer to the political system or the ‘era’ of its rule by the supreme leader (like you would for similar dictators like Mengistu or Idi Amin) or at least by its party name (like you would for the Ethiopian Derg or the ‘communists’). Eritreans refer to their system by an abstract name that attributes to the government’s political ideology–which itself is very abstract. The term ‘Shaebia‘ is the natural way of referring to their government. The word has its roots in the older name of the Eritrean government, the EPLF, but Shaebia is much more. For example, you would caution a friend saying “Shaebia don’t like that.”; you would speak of a government supporter as “She is Shaebia.”; who killed him? “Shaebia killed him.”
Some people try to equate Shaebia with PFDJ, the ruling party, hoping to avoid controversies associated with the pre-independence elements of the current government (which is a hot potato issue and should be avoided whenever possible). But PFDJ does not feel right, and it does not cover the many ways the term ‘Shaebia’ is used. For instance, in the example above it would not be appropriate to say someone is PFDJ. PFDJ is the bureaucracy, it does not represent the ‘spirit’ of the government.
Let me elaborate this point with a true story from 2003 (or was it 2004). A sympathetic military police (MP) was escorting my friend to jail somewhere in Assab city. My friend had publicly confronted a person in a cafe who reported on his brother’s whereabouts to the government that led to his brother’s arrest. A military officer heard of the confrontation and ordered the MP to take my friend to jail (a very normal Eritrean story so far). With a compassionate tone, the MP that was escorting my friend said, “You shouldn’t have done that friend, you don’t do that with Shaebia, they don’t tolerate such things.” My friend angrily replied, “who is Shaebia? is that you? you’re the one taking me to jail. Is it your commanding officer? his boss? who?”. The poor MP muttered with a deep thought for a while and struggling to find the right words he replied, “I don’t think it’s my boss or anything like that, Shaebia is…Shaebia is the spirit.”
When discussing Eritrean politics and oppression, people who have not lived in Eritrea may think ‘Isaias Afewerki’, ‘the dictator’. People in Eritrea simply think ‘Shaebia’.
This line of thinking is significant because it hides Isaias Afewerki, the dictator, and obscures the personality cult that is pretty much there. Isaias Afewerki has successfully managed to make himself invisible behind the Shaebia ‘concept’. In fact, Isaias Afewerki is simply a humble servant of the Shaebia. The appeal supporters and sympathizers see in Isaias Afewerki are that he is, apparently, a selfless servant of ‘the system’. He is a true Shaebia.
To the everyday Eritrean, using the phrases ‘PFDJ’, ‘Higidef’ or ‘DIA’ are as strange as referring to super PACs as ‘independent-expenditure only committees’. More accurate but it is as confusing and non-intuitive as the wordings in Facebook’s Terms and Conditions.
Shaebia is an amorphous collage of things.