Our Independence Day Silver Jubilee: ‘Jingoism with an Empty Stomach’
Tesfalem H. Yemane
On January 15 of this year, celebrations for marking Eritrea’s Independence Day Silver Jubilee were officially commenced with the Independence Torch expected to cover more than three thousand kilometres, touring the country before it returns to Asmara on the 24th of May. This year’s independence anniversary, memorialized under the theme; ‘Quarter of Century of Resilience and Development’ is celebrated with massive media hype and fanfare about the development achievements of the past twenty-five years of the country’s independence.
Given the colonial turbulence frequented on the Eritrean people, hopes were high at independence that there would be peace, security and prosperity dividends for the huge sacrifices made during the war for independence. Twenty-five years on, however, Eritrea, once hailed as ‘The Future of Africa that Works’ and ‘a symbol of African renaissance’, has poignantly become to be described as ‘one of the world’s worst dictatorships’ ‘the Struggling State’ and ‘the North Korea of Africa’, where promises of social justice, democracy and freedom are dashed while independence euphoria and popular support to the regime are eroding by the day.
Following Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, Eritrea today is the fourth largest per capita refugee originating country in the world, with 5000 of its productive youth leaving the country each month. Sadly, therefore, the country is now dubbed as one of the world’s fastest-emptying nations. That is a complete reversal of the euphoria of independence and its concomitant optimism that political independence would translate into social and economic advancement.
We didn’t fight for a Juridical Statehood Only
The Eritrean people yearned, fought and bled not only for a juridical statehood that has unfortunately endorsed the right of the PFDJ to rule with sovereign impunity but also for what Professor Christopher Clapham described as an empirical state that ‘rests on national integration and a set of viable political and economic institutions.’ Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, Eritrea’s ex-Ambassador to the European Union has also enthused;
‘Liberation would be the path to independence, ushering in a sovereign state; and sovereign independence would provide the basis for the establishment of an inclusive, democratic, and prosperous state.’
We longed for a juridical state that also delivers public goods, not a regime that instrumentalizes its sovereign status among the international society of states to maintain regime survival at the expense of establishing viable political and economic institutions.
Contrary to the relentless regime propaganda to polish a rosy image of the state of the economy, Eritrea remains to be one of the least developed countries in the world. Such sorry state of the economy is the making of the regime’s imprudent economic policies, pursued in utter disregard for national, regional and international realities. Credit is where due, Eritrea has, over the last twenty-five years, fared admirably in infrastructure development, health and education sectors.
As important as this may sound, however, such progress cannot be measured in isolation from the primary beneficiaries-the people. What use is it to build a school in Ti’o when there are no students to attend and teachers to teach? What use is it to build a clinic in Ksad Eka when there are no nurses to work and families across the Mereb River in large numbers? What use is it to build a dam in Gerset when the millennials of Gash Barka flee the country in droves? Or can we take building basic infrastructure for development?
Ecstatic at the prospect of the Bisha Mining becoming operational in 2011, many compatriots were also quick to sing `ሳላ ቢሻ ልበይ ተሓጒሻ.’ Knowing the opaque fiscal and financial modus operandi of the regime and its cronies, however, one can only hope there will be economic dividends from the booming mining sector. In regards the regime’s budgetary transparency, Alex de Waal has aptly observed:
‘Not once since its creation has the Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) published a budget: in its first few years this may have been understandable in light of the need to build all institutions from scratch, but its opacity thickened rather than lightened over the following years.’
Understandably, with the type of regime we have, there are no institutional mechanisms in place to ensure that the revenue from the mining sector is reinvested in other sectors that can diversify the Eritrean economy and create more jobs and not stashed in secret overseas accounts. The African Development Bank might have estimated that Eritrea’s economy grew by 2.1 percent in 2015, thanks to the mining sector but people’s standard of living is at its lowest with no improvement in sight. The country still suffers from epileptic power outages, nonexistent utilities and social services. The endless queues of people at the notorious Rational Shops (ርትዓዊ ድኳናት) are also clear manifestations of the dismal state of socio-economic affairs in Eritrea today.
In Asmara today, it is not unusual to see disheartening scenes of street vendors jostling their way to escape the club brandishing municipal inspectors. Indeed, one wonders about the relevance of the word ‘resilience’ in the independence slogan if those mothers whose husbands are forcefully and indefinitely conscripted are not allowed to eke out a living. Against a backdrop of such a crippled economic situation, the regime’s trumpeting of development is, therefore, devoid of any meaning. For the hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers living in protracted refugee camps, such a rhetoric is no more than a propaganda exercise, aimed at deflecting domestic and international scrutiny of the regime’s unwillingness to introduce politico-economic reforms in Eritrea and its abhorrent human rights records.
Politically, Eritrea has become no more than a one-man show under the leadership of a megalomaniac dictator, hell-bent on maintaining power at the expense of the country’s future. Eritrea today is the only country in the world without a constitution. Its National Assembly had not convened since 2002 while the workings of the judicial system are paralyzed by the President’s continuous interference.
By employing the ‘external conspiracy’ narrative, the regime has also created silhouettes of monsters planning to attack the Eritrean people at every turn. Such a cynical plot has indeed glossed over the regime’s failed promises in implementing the Eritrean Constitution. This strategy has also worked partially in soliciting popular acquiescence as the Eritrean people are constantly reminded of magnified external and internal enemies. Also, the fact that most Eritreans are imbued with religio-cultural and social values that hold power with high regard means the regime can project its excessive power as sacrosanct authority, that to challenge it, is tantamount to challenging Eritrea’s sovereign independence.
The arrest in September 2001 of former government officials and journalists and denying them a fair court of hearing is a testament to the flagrant human rights violation in Eritrea. This also goes without mentioning the findings of a UN Report Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Human Rights in Eritrea that reported forced disappearance, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, forced labour and other systemic violations of human rights as common in the country and concluded that; ‘Eritrea is ruled by fear not by law.’
Serenading the Past
Our independence events have been reduced to mere rallying performances-all the speeches, slogans, songs, dances, costumes and parades each of which renditions the President. The current crop of leadership in the Eritrean regime is comprised of the ‘struggle-generation’ who spent more than two decades in the field during the armed struggle. Capitalizing on the revolutionary kudos of having successfully led the struggle, the regime now invests hugely on romanticizing the decisive events of the armed struggle with a numbing and intoxicating vigour.
In a calendar year, Eritrea now celebrates, as national holidays, September First, Liberation of Nakfa, Operation Nadew Command, Operation Fenkl, Martyrs’ Day and the Independence Anniversary. Each commemoration day is accompanied by massive media coverage of the atrocities of the Ethiopian forces and how the gallant Eritrean freedom fighters defeated the strongest army in Sub-Saharan Africa.
These events also include cultural shows, symposiums, military parades, sports competitions, carnivals and children’s shows-all signing a hymn of praise to the regime in general and to the president in particular. For instance, ‘Adha’ (Jovial), ‘Segum’ (Advance) and ‘Se’Are’ (victor) are just a few of the many songs by noted Eritrean singers, flattering the President and his frantic policies.
Let this be not misconstrued: I am not in any way against celebrating our independence day. I am here to argue the value of the high cost paid for our independence lies not in numbing editorials, militarist ethos and prodigal spending on national holidays but on what we attain with that cost. And as things stand currently, I tend to believe the nation is sliding toward the edge of terminal politico-economic and socio-cultural decay in a worryingly manner. At this critical juncture of our history, therefore, a sober reflection rather than celebration is what is badly needed.
As per the commemorative events organized by the regime, they are designed in way that the society would be fed with bubble of promises in a cynical hope that people would believe in such pomposity and go into national frenzy. It is not surprising then, to see military ethos still percolate in the Eritrean psyche, akin to what the late Meles Zenawi decried as ‘Jingoism in an empty stomach.’
Waal, A. D. (2015) The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Welde Giorgis, A. (2014) Eritrea At A Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope, Houston: Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co.
Clapham, C. (1996) Africa and the International System: The Politics of State Survival, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.