Infallible Nation?

I was riding a bike on a busy avenue in the Eritrean capital of Asmara when, one after another, several citizens of the newly independent nation began ordering me to stop. Why? I thought, as I was safely following the flow of traffic. But different men shouted and waved their arms, as if I were unwittingly driving a car the wrong way down a one-way street. Finally, after a uniformed policeman did the same thing, I dismounted and walked around a large traffic circle to ask him what I was doing wrong. He explained in broken English that bikes were prohibited anywhere on the boulevard, although no road signs saying so had yet been posted. I learned later that several cyclists who had tried to dodge through dense traffic at the boulevard’s wide intersections had been hit by cars to be either injured or killed.

From [Eritrea’s] long rocky coast on the Red Sea to the sandy edge of the Great Saharan desert, I have often rented bikes in [the nation] in order to unwind after a day of either talking with Eritreans or writing about their situation. I had noticed a shortage of road signs along with an apparent lack of understanding of road rules by many motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. But by then Eritrea’s revolutionary government had only three years in power and the formerly Marxist guerrillas leading the country in the 1990s had far more to do than direct traffic, even though their decree banning bikes from the boulevard seemed silly to me.

Today things across the tiny African Horn nation are much worse. Eritrea only became an independent state in 1993, just two years after Eritrean guerrillas finally prevailed against a foreign army. Although Eritrea is no bigger than the American state of Massachusetts and it has less people, every foreigner who visited tiny state in the 1990s was impressed by Africa’s newest nation. Eritrea reminded me of Switzerland as well as Austria as all three relatively small nations have an exceptionally developed sense of civil society. While the two above nations stand out in Europe, Eritrea stood out across Africa.

Eritrea’s streets everywhere for one thing were immaculate. Not only would almost no Eritrea even think to liter, many citizens would cross the street to pick up things as small as a bubble gum wrapper. Eritreans across the globe prided themselves on the daily sacrifices they made for their nation. While Eritreans in the country were always ready to be drafted into military service, Eritreans everywhere living outside it from millionaires to grocery store clerks voluntarily paid steep taxes to their native nation. “There is nothing I would not do for Eritrea, ” one young man told me in front of his fiancé, a stunningly beautiful woman whose patriotic parents had named her Eritrea.

But much like the contorted look of a pained face, Eritrea today faces painful trouble within. Eritreans are reluctant to talk about their problems like family members who do not want outsiders to see their dirty laundry. But in bars as well as in the privacy of a community online chat room Eritreans have lately been raging at each other about whom is to blame for their current tragedy. Nothing less than the future of their young 10-year-old nation is at stake.

The fight is already personal and [most but all] the main players are men who formerly led men and women Eritrean guerrilla fighters to power. But last week, only days after Middle Eastern terrorists attacked New York and Washington, the revolutionary government of Eritrea closed all of the country’s independent newspapers and imprisoned all of its top officials because they had dared to criticize the Eritrean president.

He was long the lead guerrilla fighter and today President Isaias Afwerki is a tall handsome man who has been greeted like a rock star by Eritreans in the diaspora. Inside his country he and other former guerrilla fighters led a one-party state throughout the 1990s that despite its monopoly of power seemed to enjoy a near consensus of popularity. In today’s world only the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan world wielded so much power and yet enjoyed so much popular support. Although Eritreans generally disagreed over many issues, they seemed to universally back Isaias and his allies who like most Eritreans are best known by their first name.

Even the Eritrean way of greeting remains unique. Many Eritreans press their alternate shoulders against each other and hold them together when they meet. The practice was common among guerrilla fighters meeting each other in the field when they were laden with too many arms to hug. Indeed, what gave the small nation its uncanny sense of cohesion was Eritreans’ thirty year guerrilla fight against first a feudal and then a communist government based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abeba. Nearly every Eritrean family lost a member to their long independence war and many families suffered greater loses. Like George Washington, President Isaias was elected to lead the nation after he led an even longer rebel struggle for independence.

Imagine now that if instead of establishing independent branches of government, President Washington had jailed former revolutionary leaders including legendary veterans like Thomas Paine for criticizing the President, along with closing down every newly independent newspaper. President Isaias and the remaining loyal officials of his government did just that when the world was barely watching the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. The ruling Eritrean regime imprisoned the [former] Interior Minister, the [former] Defense Minister and three generals even though like President Isaias and his remaining followers they were all guerrilla veterans. But fifteen senior officials [many of whom are now] in prison had written an open letter that was critical of President Isaias.

He refused to convene even scheduled meetings of his own ruling party for a full year since September 2000 out of fear that dissidents might indeed win the sympathies of ruling party loyalists along with their votes against him. While the Eritreans who remain loyal to Isaias say that Eritrea has too many problems now to allow for any disunity, the Eritreans who have only recently begun to oppose him say that Eritrea has too many problems now not to openly debate how to handle them.

“We did not fight to have another dictatorship, ” is what one online critic said reflecting the views of many. Others retort that even to use the word dictatorship about Eritrea is an insult to their commonly beloved nation.

The controversy over the future is rooted of course in the past including the recent past. Eritrea won praise from foreign aid agencies in the 1990s as far ranging as the anti-poverty group known as Oxfam to the World Bank, as its former guerrilla fighters had comprised a new government that was on average incredibly honest. Most Eritreans would not steal from their government the same way that most people would not steal from their own family, and the government was blending free market and state-led efforts to develop and grow.

But the economy turned sour in May 1998 after Eritrea went to war with its former long-time enemy, Ethiopia. This time, the war astounded everyone as by then the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia were truly old friends and the border did not seem worth fighting about. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister was Meles Zenawi and he led a regional guerrilla movement that was long allied with another regional guerrilla movement led by Isaias. But tension among peasants and others along the border area had been neglected for years, so much so that when clashes finally turned violent in 1998 they took both leaders by surprise.

Whether the war was necessary is unfortunately one question that only a few Eritreans have ever dared to ask. But the question that many Eritreans continue to ask is why the war turned against Eritrea. Before the major battles began I nearly got into a fistfight at a Eritrean bar when I pointed out that even though Eritrean guerrillas were already proven to be truly extraordinary fighters, Eritrean government soldiers fighting over fixed ground against an enemy with an economy eight times richer could perhaps conceivably lose.

But the guerrilla veteran in the bar like most Eritreans everywhere seemed to universally perceive any such questions as being nothing less than a betrayal of their nation. Major political and military issues were not only not discussed in public in the early months of the fighting, but the government also intentionally kept some of the most important events leading up to the conflict in the dark. In hindsight, Eritrean government officials agree that they kept too much information secret including the all importantissue of how the recent border war began.

On May 6, 1998, Ethiopia militia forces who had been growing increasingly militant against local Eritrean farmers opened fire on an Eritrean army border patrol that was responding to recent displacements of Eritrean peasants. The Ethiopian militia killed three Eritrean army soldiers and four officers. (I originally reported less casualties.) Six days later Eritrea invaded the border area, thereby beginning a conventional war by its army without any real air force against a much stronger army backed up jet fighters and helicopter gunships. What was apparent then to nearly every foreign observer was not apparent to nearly any Eritrean: no matter how brave its citizens indeed were, Eritrea was bound to lose, as a guerrilla war and a conventional war are very different kinds of contests.

But Eritrea has yet to learn even the first lesson of the border war. A free press independently reporting facts along with a free exchange of ideas might have helped the nation avoid such a tragic loss so early in its development. Take the basic question, “Who started the war? ” Blood was first drawn by Ethiopia, in fact, but neither Eritrean officials nor citizens ever pointed out that fact to anyone expect in whispers to themselves. I later reported in The New Republic the May 6 clashes and the fact that it was Ethiopia that drew first blood. Not long afterward The Economist reported the same incident as well.

Why would Eritrea keep secret something that seemed to be so obviously in their national interest to publicize? One reason is that their leaders were too proud to admit that some of their own men including officers had already been killed. Rather than debate or even talk about the issue of going to war or what to do in response, they ordered the state press and other Eritreans to be silent as they mobilized the Eritrean army to advance into the disputed border area. Since the world’s press did not know about the killing of nearly an entire Eritrean army border unit six days before, the media everywhere reported that tiny Eritrea had started a major border war on May 12 with larger Ethiopia for seemingly inexplicable reasons.

Partly to make sure that Eritrea would not hide vital facts again, some Eritreans recently established many independent newspapers that the government has just now shut down.

Who is responsible for Eritrea’s current troubles? Every Eritrean who supported the border war and that includes nearly every Eritrean. The paranoia that Eritreans rightfully shared over three decades against occupying Ethiopian governments led them to collectively believe that the latest war was not in fact a border dispute provoked by local militant forces, but that it was instead part of a wider conspiracy to topple their entire state. No evidence of any alleged conspiracy has ever materialized, yet the Eritrean state press reported the allegation without challenging it. Many if not most Eritreans still cling to the frail notion that the border war was not really over the border and that it was necessary to their very nation’s survival.

Emotions often defy logic. In the end Ethiopia suffered more casualties than Eritrea, as many Eritreans are prone to claim, but Ethiopia has 17 times more people than Eritrea so it could better afford the losses. What continues to irk Eritreans is not that each nation lost tens of thousands of combatants in a bloody trench war, but that it left Ethiopia in control of far more Eritrean land than before. Eritreans still make faces and cross their arms or scratch their ears or heads as they try to explain mainly to themselves how, despite their loss of territory, they still did not lose the war. The irony is that their former allies in Ethiopia who still run its large nation are also facing unprecedented political unrest and any succeeding government in Ethiopia is likely to be even more hostile to Eritrea than before. Ethiopia lost its only port after Eritrea’s 1993 succession and many Ethiopians promise that one day they will take it back.

Eritreans, meanwhile, are turning on each other today like never before over who is to blame for their setbacks in the border war which they can barely admit even to themselves. Indeed, for the first time in Eritrea’s short history the eventual possibility of a civil conflict has become chillingly real. President Isaias and his remaining allies have imprisoned their former allies after they dared criticize his leadership. Most Eritreans whom I have met are exceedingly polite people who seem like they would take personal criticism well, but the same Eritreans cannot keep their respective faces from wincing as soon as they hear the slightest criticism of any kind about their nation whose history in steeped in so much of all their own families’ blood.

I was at first surprised years ago when some Eritreans got defensive when I suggested that banning bikes from a busy boulevard was no alternative to establishing common road rules including both more traffic lights and stop signs. After all, most Eritreans are the kind of people who would never think to run either, and they are indeed the kind of loyal, industrious people that would make any nation great. But my experience biking on the boulevard was only a window on the tension to come.

Even though Eritrea was once among the most promising nations in Africa, today its implodes like a dimming star over a tragically silly notion: whether the nation’s leadership like the nation itself is infallible. Thomas Paine was an American revolutionary fighter and a contemporary of George Washington and Paine is perhaps the American rebel who most challenged the authority of the early United States government and, in doing so, help keep it accountable and on a democratic track. But if Paine were an Eritrean today he would be in jail along with many other revolutionary veterans.

How long will it take Eritreans to learn something about their young nation that most people from older nations already know? Even the best of leaders make mistakes, but only the most deserving ones learn from them.