Reverse-Engineering Regionalism/Identity Politics in Eritrea: Is the Medicine Worse than the Disease?

2015-01-05 18:39:45 Written by  EPDP Editorial Board Published in English Articles Read 4212 times

EPDP Editorial

Eritrea is a plural society characterized by diverse social cleavages that go along linguistic, religious, cultural and regional/geographic divisions. During the long political evolution of Eritrea as a nation-state, these diverse social groups coalesced into one entity in search of freedom, liberty and national sovereignty. Eritreans fought successive colonizers, finally ousted the last vestiges of colonialism, and secured national sovereignty in 1991 after 30 years of bloody war. Not only the prices Eritreans paid during the 30 years active armed struggle was high, but also the loss and suffering that successive Eritrean generations endured before the liberation era and after our independence in search of their nationhood was unparalleled by any account. Sovereign Eritrean is not just a country to an Eritrean, but rather it is the result of the sacrifices of each and every Eritrean family - more than 80,000 martyrs, as well as the complete destruction of villages/properties, infrastructure, and livelihood of every Eritrean. Without distinction of linguistic, cultural, religious, or regional identities, Eritrean lives were sacrificed in search of their sovereign and independent country.

Hence, the most challenging issues that post-independent Eritrea faces concerns the proper management of Eritrea’s diversity, which is a critical determinant factor for the continued existence and sustainability of Eritrea as a nation-state. These include: One, the establishment of effective and good governance that allows access to fair and equitable socio-economic development as a necessary condition for ensuring a peaceful coexistence among Eritrea’s diverse groups. Two, organization of government institutions and structures that can effectively manage and accommodate the diversity of Eritrea’s social groups in a manner, for example, that defines the relationship between the national government and its local government bodies is another crucial element. Instead, what we see in Eritrea today under the PFDJ regime is a “failed/failing state phenomenon” with dire consequences to the survival of Eritrea as a nation state and as a society. The post-independent Eritrean state turned from an intrusive state into an absentee state. Using repressive ideology, policies, and laws, the despotic regime maintains its dominance and controls all aspects of life (political, social, economic, cultural, etc.) in Eritrea, which overtime evolved to become an absolutist and extractive entity. Such a dictatorial power structure continues suffocating the political space in Eritrea and eliminating many political figures, including internal dissents such as G15 who called for political pluralism and constitutional governance in Eritrea. After shelving the 1997 Constitution for the last 15 years, Issaias in his 2015 New Year interview has finally declared that the constitution is dead before even being promulgated( ---እቲሰነድከይተኣወጀሞይቱእዩ።). By killing the constitution before its arrival, Issaias and his regime have been continuing to effectively deny the Eritrean people their rights to have a constitutional government, rule of law, and social and economic prosperity.

The basic economic resources, such as land, labor, capital and natural resources, are mainly under the control of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. The vast PFDJ’s parastatals, such as construction companies, financial enterprises (insurance, banks, foreign exchange bureaus, smuggling networks, etc.), and trading firms, such as Red Sea Trading Company, are mainly dependent on “forced labor”. Issaias determines who has power in Eritrea and to what ends that power can be used. Hence, for the last two decades, Issaias presided over an extreme set of extractive institutions and runs Eritrea as his own private property; hands over favors and seeks patronage and ruthlessly punishes for any lack of loyalty. There are no formal institutions that place restrictions on politicians’ actions and make them accountable to citizens.

Extractive economic institutions thus naturally accompany extractive political institutions and there is a strong synergy between the two. Furthermore, this synergetic relationship introduces a strong feedback loop: political institutions enable the PFDJ elites controlling political power to choose economic institutions with few constraints or opposing forces. They also enable PFDJ elites to structure future political institutions and their evolution. What Issaias has announced in his recent interview about the secret committee that is mandated with the preparation of “his new constitution” is in line with these kinds of efforts (---- በዚ መሰረት ድማ ንዕኡ [ቅዋም] ክዓምም ዝቖመ ሓደ ኣካል ኣሎ). Extractive economic institutions, in turn, enrich PFDJ elites, and their economic power and wealth that helps consolidate their political power and dominance. Eritrea has suffered heavily under this kind of vicious cycle for the last 24 years.

Today, the Eritrean state has failed and is absent from the lives of the Eritrean people in the sense of providing public goods (protection/security, education, health, justice, welfare, and national identity). When the state fails to provide basic public goods and continues to pursue reckless policies that transfer a large fraction of resources from the population to the ruling cronies (becomes a kleptocratic state), people look for support from neighbors, friends, families, local groups (communities). It is also widely known that the Eritrean Diaspora population is the main provider of livelihood in Eritrea (remittances cover a large part of household budgets for the majority of Eritrean families back home). Even with such generous help from its Diaspora population, the average household per capita consumption expenditure in Eritrea has been deteriorating for the last two decades (see the table below). And such a failed state phenomenon breeds a monolithic narrative that believes that the crisis created by PFDJ regime is part of some wicked scheme directed against certain region (s), which we know is not true. Yet, in this kind of space, regionalists are hoping to nurture, deepen, take a more rigid form, accelerate their regional politics, and strengthening parochial consciousness at the expense of national consciousness.

Macroeconomic indication

The major culprit for generating regionalism and identity politics in the Eritrean political landscape is primarily the undemocratic nature of the Eritrean regime, which suffocates the political space. The irony is just as the PFDJ regime continues to mete out injustices to the Eritrean people, few people are jumping on their high horses, promoting regionalism instead of being involved in a constructive partnership with the forces of change and advocate for democracy and rule of law in their country. Indisputably, the solution for Eritrea’s ills squarely lies in dismantling the kleptocratic regime and replacing it with a democratic system of governance in which real power lies in the hands of the people of Eritrean and in which justice and rule of law with all its features become the solid foundation of Eritrean life. One can argue about how best this noble aim can be achieved. A good starting point in the search for solutions to this problem is to initiate a discussion among Eritreans about the dynamics and viability of “regional mobilization” as an answer to the quest for democracy and justice in Eritrea.

Let’s start with asking the right question: What would have to be true for regionalism or regional mobilization to be the right and viable answer to the quest for democracy and justice in Eritrea? What would have to be true for regional or identity politics to be the right “medicine for the disease”? The different assumptions that are made by “regional entrepreneurs” in promoting regional mobilizations and the respective validities of the assumptions have been presented in the 25 December 2014 Editorial of EPDP titled: State Failure and Identity Politics in Eritrea: Is Regional Mobilization the Answer? Here, let’s reverse-engineer “Regionalism” and see if it is the right medicine for the disease (decay and disintegration of the Eritrean State). For regionalism or regional mobilization to be the right medicine, it would have to be true that regional or identity politics should promote nationalism, national unity, rule of law, democracy and social cohesion in Eritrea.

History is awash with evidence (Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Mali, Lebanon, Iraq, etc.) that strong regional identification often results in the exclusion and marginalization of some other groups from the mainstream of national politics and the economy. Different groups compete for the control of key political and economic machineries, and once in power they adopt policies and provisions that empower and favor some groups at the expense of others. In the absence of well functioning democratic institutions, the groups that are excluded may engage in violence in an attempt to enter into both political and economic market. The first group may feel threatened with the loss of the previously acquired privilege, may engage in counter violent behavior – the cycle of violence and counter violence continues. Consequently, regional hatred, regional cleansing, and genocide may ensue. In this context, regionalism embraces particular identity and becomes a deeply emotional basis of mobilization that not only distinguishes one group from another, but also demonizes other groups.

Regionalism also promotes regional outbidding and threatens the unity of the nation-state. Since regional identities tend to be invested with a great deal of emotional and symbolic meanings, regional entrepreneurs have strong incentive to harness such identities as a political force, and to use regional demands as the base instigator of constituency mobilization. This often results in the failure of democratic politics because regional outbidding creates centrifugal forces that overwhelm the moderate political center. Moreover, regionalism could act as an instrument of group consciousness (primordial or instrumental) that promotes one’s sense of being and pride over others, which in turn may lead to regional tensions and conflicts. This may increase the regional sensitivities that in turn threaten the harmonious inter-regional relations, the national unity and harmony, progress and the integrity of Eritrean nationhood.

The bases for regionalism or regional groupings in Eritrea are the Italian colonial legal administrative regions that had been developed solely to serve Italian interests. Thus, the basis for the creation of communality is a set of beliefs instead of a biological trait or differences in ancestry, religion or language. There is also a significant crosscutting among the different segmental cleavages (linguistic, religious, and cultural) of Eritrea due to the assimilative power of complex population movements, displacements, and intermingling effects of modernity. What we have in Eritrea today is a mosaic and mixed plural society. Only very few people can claim that they are 100%, say, Serewetay, Akeleguzetay, Hamasienetay, Barketay, Senhitetay, etc. It is difficult to specify boundaries that demarcate regional territories on the basis of these ascriptions. The extent and intensity of regional self-awareness and the level of external ascription also vary a great deal across the different administrative regions (Awrajatat) of the country. Hence, regional mobilization could not be an effective tool to bring justice, rule of law and democracy in Eritrea. Instead, it may endanger peaceful coexistence and proper management of diversity. On a similar note, many of the ethno-linguistic cleavages of Eritrea are too small polities to serve as optimal unity of collective choice. According to the CIA Factbook Demographic Statistics (2010 estimate), the ethno-linguistic composition of Eritrea is as follows: Tigrinya 55%, Tigre 30%, Saho 4%, Kunama 2%, Rashaida 2%, Bilen 2%, others (Afar, Beni Amir, Nara) 5%.

The exercise of reverse-engineering regionalism leads to the conclusion that regional mobilization is a wrong medicine to the disease that is crippling Eritrea and its future. Eritrea is bleeding to death by the day at the hands of a ruthless dictatorial regime. In order to design an appropriate and winning strategy to avert this danger and to reverse the process of societal decay, it is imperative for Eritreans to fully understand the nature and characteristics of the PFDJ regime. The synergies between extractive political and economic institutions of PFDJ have created a vicious cycle, which seems to persist. Breaking this vicious cycle and replacing it with a “virtuous cycle” – synergies between inclusive political and economic institutions – is the solution. EPDP strongly believes that the fundamental contradiction that should take precedence in our struggle for justice, rule of law and democracy in Eritrea is the one between those who want to continue to promote the “vicious cycle” and those who want to break the “vicious cycle” and replace it with a “virtuous cycle” – between the dictatorship and injustice, and pluralism and justice, respectively. Differences that emanate from other societal cleavages, such as religion, culture, language, region, historical background and memories, etc, do not and should not constitute as basic contradictions in the Eritrean society. Since inclusive and plural political and economic institutions allow and encourage the participation of the great majority of the people, and also distribute power broadly in society, such issues (differences) are addressed by the normal process of the democratic transition under the “virtuous cycle”. EPDP wants to underline that the solution to the Eritrean quagmire is to dismantle the dictatorial regime and to replace its absolutist and extractive political and economic institutions by a pluralistic and inclusive political and economic institutions by establishing a united front of the democratic forces of Eritrea, both inside the country and in the Diaspora. No democracy is possible in Eritrea if people associate themselves only with the same region or identity; democracy is possible when we establish a struggle that cut across all forms of regional or tribal or religious identities. Let’s “play to win” instead of “playing to play”.

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