Friday, April 12, 2013

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

(This article was originally posted on January 20, 2013 under my column at  Unfortunately, servers crashed the next day. I am posting here for until the good folks at Awate catch up with rebuilding the archived posts.  Enjoy!)

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By: Daniel G. Mikael

In the 1980s, a group of village elders in Eritrea were faced with a dilemma. They were told by the then Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority (EELPA to my generation, SEDAO to you oldies) that if they could raise the money, the power company would supply the village with electricity. The dilemma however was not about where to get the money. They had the funds – an offer from a well to do merchant from the same village – but, as much as they want the residents of the village to enjoy the wonderful possibilities of having access to electricity, they could not in their good conscience to let one person take credit for their good fortune. So, they declined the offer and remained in the dark for years to come.
To seek a solution to a problem is one thing; to choose a solution from a wide array of possible solutions without getting embroiled in biases, fears, prejudices and assumptions is quite tricky. We can get ourselves in a pickle, and left with damn-if-I-do and damn-if-I-don’t paralysis, if we don’t have the wisdom to tell the difference between the things we can and the things we can not change. 

To be stuck between two unpleasant outcomes is to be stuck between a rock and hard place.  In this example, rational minds might surmise that to compare having electricity with giving credit to someone is asinine, simply idiotic.  But apparently, for the decision makers of the village the choice was not that simple. Sure, students could study at night; families watch television and milking the cows in evenings would not be as difficult. But, you see, they had to weigh that against the possibility of making a hero out of someone. “What if people started naming their children after him?” they probably wondered.   He was one of their own, but definitely not from the right corner of the village. They could have swallowed their pride and agree to do what benefits the majority of the residents, or even come up with a scheme that would satisfy their wounded pride and the need for public good. In the end, they opted for equality by subtraction instead. No heroes, no electricity. Disaster was averted. As gatekeepers and leaders of the village, they proudly declared that someone wanted to rename their village after himself and they vehemently said no!  Leadership, according to them, was not simply about solving a problem; it was also about preventing the rise of certain quarters. Sometimes, concluded the village idiots (I mean elders), darkness is better than light.

That seems to define the reason behind the gloomy stage the Eritrean opposition find itself in nowadays. What always starts as a determined goodwill to bring salvation to a dire situation devolves to a convoluted exercises of pathetic politicking that guarantees one thing: dark nights –only to be followed by a spark here, a flicker there and a false start somewhere in between.

To be stuck between a rock and hard place is part of the conundrums of life. But what do you call it when the rock and the hard place are of ones own making? What if at least one of them is not real, just a figment of an imagination in the minds of those entrusted to solve problems? Now, the problem gets bigger. The merchant who offered to help and his friends, relatives are deeply offended; most of the village residents are disappointed; and the issue has taken a tribal twist and mistrust ensues. What started as a venture of hope and light (literally in this case) becomes years of pointless infighting, accusations and counter-accusations that only guarantees one thing: dark nights. Before you know it, everyone seems to forget the poor villagers in whose name and whose future the entire squabble was supposed to be about.

Now, here is a real ‘rock-and-hard-place’ situation for you – on one side we have short sighted elders who are stuck in the past; high-strung groupies who are ready to be offended at a drop of a hat; “problem solvers” whose jumbo sized egos don’t match their accomplishments; gate keepers who try to filter voices by amplifying some and muffling others; a disillusioned young generation who seems confused about which direction to head and whom to listen to; and of course, on the other side, we have Eritrea’s tyrant, who marvel at turning everything he touches into a national tragedy.

Yes, we are stuck between wanting to digest the secret and not so secret history of our Ghedli and the urge to simply move to the present and the future. We are stuck between taking actions that bring relief to those who need it and advancing parochial agendas that have little place in the 21st century. We are stuck between wanting to believe in the sacred covenants that made Eritrea in the first place and believing the cynical, doom-and-gloom stories about its future prospects. We are stuck between wanting to believe in the fighting spirit of the Eritrean people who triumphed against all odds not that long ago, and the temptations to worship the mighty power of others.

A Clean Break from the Past
To get out of this impasse, Eritrea’s younger generation (ok, I am now convinced it should not be simply referred to as “youth” any longer), must make up its mind about exactly what it wants to achieve for the country in general and for its generation in particular and avoid conflicting objectives that end up cancelling each other. As in the metaphor, one can not expect to make progress by placing “one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake".

In the Eritrea of 1960s and 1970s, for those who were wrapping up their adolescent years and entering early adulthood, the main national agenda was to place Eritrea on the map as an independent country. Everything else was a distant second. No matter what our hindsight assessment says, and in spite of all the abuses, trials and tribulations, that generation firmly held on to the vision of independence until it became a reality. For better or for worse, they succeeded.  How the Eritrean Revolution persevered, despite itself, is debatable but one thing is for sure; it was not by constantly looking back at 1940s and 1950s; it was by looking forward to the 1980s and 1990s.

Now, we have a generation of Eritreans who were born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s who make up the huge slice – approximately 40% – of the population.  They are now in their 20s, 30s and 40s (another 50% are under 18). A large swatch of them were born after independence and grew up under a paternalistic system (some quite literally the children of Tegadelti) that treated them the opposite of how a loving parent would. This generation values individuality and abhors collectivism. That is why it rejected PFDJ’s prescription which is just a transplant of failed policies of the old communist bloc of the 1980s. This is the disillusioned generation who is now caught between a rock and hard place. One side offers nothing but oppression, vulgarity, torture, corruption and slavery; while the other side embodies decaying politics, empty rhetoric, incompetence and division. The only viable option seemed to be found in just focusing on one’s individual and family affairs and escaping the country in droves.

Then came the Arab Spring which awakened dreams of change, better future, freedom and democracy – at least in the Diaspora, where those dreams can be shouted out aloud. But, unprepared and untrained as this generation was in matters of national concern, the ins and outs of Eritrean Ghedli-centric politics, the ugly side of subnational agendas, and the intractability of a dictatorial system that has clawed its fangs in every aspect of Eritrean society, it quickly got stuck in the familiar rut. At first, the youth was met enthusiastically by opposition groups of various stripes who were genuinely happy to welcome this generation. Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before the rise of this dynamic generation was going to be seen as a mere tool or a possible threat. No wonder, same old fissures, same old groupings, same old mistrusts, same old games are starting to surface, albeit with younger faces. It is like getting hit by a rude splash of cold water to the face; but there is hope, tremendous hope, if we don’t want to get permanently stuck in this rut.

Forward Looking Movement
Today’s generation must make a clean break with the past, formulate its own agenda and envision the Eritrea of tomorrow where its members can for once dream of normalcy. Just normalcy would do for now – a place to get education, an honest job, to start a family, raise children and be close to aging parents. Sometimes, the message gets lost in what democracy, constitutional governance and a free market economy are supposed to deliver. Normalcy would be a good start.

That means, thinking about the year 2015, 2020, and even 2030. Thanks to the advancement of communication technology at a head-spinning speed, the world is changing. So is Africa; so is Eritrea. Healing a country requires thinking beyond the plucking out of its dictator. Nation-States won’t function as they did in the past. A free, independent and viable Eritrea will need a generation of Eritreans who truly value freedom, respect the right of others, a generation who is willing to keep the country fiercely independent and who will work hard to invest its hopes and dreams to keep it competitive and thriving. 

Assumptions that were true fifteen, ten and even five years ago, don’t apply any longer. By hook, crook or the natural course, Isaias Afeworki will be gone sooner or later. He already belongs to the relics of the past, for his agenda has failed, rejected by the next generation.  Now, the weight and responsibility of both Eritrea’s problems and opportunities must rest on the shoulders of those who will naturally inherit them.  The generation that fought the enemy (and each other) for independence is already in the retirement zone – many of them in their golden years, way past the life expectancy of the country. No matter on which side of the political spectrum they are currently on, their role and responsibility is diminishing each day.

That means the young must not fool itself into thinking that time is on its side.  In Eritrea’s case, at least two decades have been wasted, years that were supposed to prepare the younger generation have been intentionally squandered. Therefore, young Eritreans must step up to the plate, adapt to the current demands of the nation and learn fast and grow up even faster.

According to the wonderful Ghanaian economist George Ayittey, there are two generations in Africa: the Hippo Generation and the Cheetah Generation. “Cheetahs seek knowledge, innovation and look for solutions to their problems” he observed, while “Hippos blame others, seek handouts and generally drive our continent to the ground.” Eritrea’s Cheetah generation should be no different. Instead of queuing up to be told what to do and what to think, it must make up its own mind, grab the pressing issues by the horn and chart its own road.

Granted, there are a lot of great people with great experience and they should be heard from and listened to.  With all due respect to our older generation however, by definition, experience is about the past – and the world ain’t what it used to be. What we desperately need is CHANGE. Change in attitude, change of stale strategies, and change of values.

Nothing Like the Present
Conversely, by definition, change is about the future.  However, it does not mean the younger generation will be automatically entitled to the good fortunes the future will usher. We can only reap what we sow today. The young should not feel any sense of entitlement at all; it must fight for and earn its fare share. Nothing in life is inevitable. They say death and taxes are inevitable… taxes? You mean 2% is inevitable? Don’t think so. Ok, may be death. But assuming someone finds a cure for death sometime in the future, we can never say it is inevitable…. but, I digress, back to the point.

As one can not safely drive a car by mostly concentrating on the rear view mirror, we can not shape Eritrea’s future by just spending so much time on its past history and try to extrapolate its trajectory into the future by dwelling on some selective assumptions. There are many factors that will influence the future, including factors that are beyond our ability to predict even though they are happening in plain site. The domino effects of geo-politics are even more so. Isaias Afeworki is Eritrea’s problem but he is not Eritrea.

A good driver knows that is all about getting a firm grip on the steering wheel and constantly adjusting to the stubborn demands of the road ahead.  Us humans have a very limited ability to see around the bend and correctly predict what lay ahead. Sure, the GPS gadget says you will arrive at your destination 30 minutes from now. But that is assuming the car in front of you won’t suddenly burst into a flame, which will have you end up in the waiting room of a crowded emergency room 30 minutes from now, instead of waiting for a warm dinner at home. Life has its own trajectory and nothing remains unchanged and no outcome is guaranteed. Trying to shape things to exactly how we want the outcome to be leaves no room for error, improvement and compromise. Especially when fear reigns and hope is not given a chance, the result will simply be a whole lot of missed opportunities and paralysis.

That’s what those decision makers in that village faced, and missed seizing the opportunity before them. But I bet you the outcome would have been different if the youngsters in the village were consulted and dare we say, made the decisions. Perhaps because of the less ingrained prejudices and youthful optimism, the younger members of the village would not have as much difficulty to see that what matters is the common good and how their village lines up in the community of other surrounding villages.  Eritrea is a tiny village surrounded by bigger villages; an even smaller village in the world full of villages. It will be up to its forward looking, proud, and independent thinking generation to get it out of endlessly swinging between and a rock and hard place.

Daniel G. Mikael

Disclaimer: The above post is my personal opinion and does not represent the official position of any organization or entity I am associated with.


Saturday, January 22, 2011