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Unfiltered Notes: Can Eritrea Be Eritrea Again?

By Tewelde Stephanos (Email: Reflecting on the systemic exclusion of blacks from the equality America promises its citizens, Langston Hughes, in 1938, wrote:                  America never was America to me….                  There’s never been equality for me,                  Nor freedom in this

By Tewelde Stephanos (Email:

Reflecting on the systemic exclusion of blacks from the equality America promises its citizens, Langston Hughes, in 1938, wrote:

                 America never was America to me….

                 There’s never been equality for me,

                 Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free”

As Eritrea celebrates its 27th year of independence as a totalitarian state, similar thoughts come to mind. The bright future we all imagined in 1991 is nothing but fading memory today. The heavy sacrifices made in blood and limb were supposed to give birth to a free, inclusive and vibrant nation for all its citizens to realize their dreams within. Instead, 474,296 fled the country by 2015 (UNHR). Eritrea was never Eritrea, at least to these half million, who believed escape was their only relief from servitude.

Way back in 1988, when I was a believer, I wrote a letter to Ato Hagos Gebrehiwot through the EPLF office in California (with cc to RICE and others). I had just returned from Singapore and Hong Kong, with the hopeful thought the vibrancy I saw there can be mirrored in an independent Eritrea. At the time, the old Soviet system was also getting unglued under Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika (openness and reconstruction) with dire implications to Menghistu’s EthiopiaThe dawn of Eritrea’s independence seemed imminent.

With that in mind and a bit of naiveté on my part (reflecting on it now), the letter pleaded the EPLF to be more inclusive than it had been. It also urged for free Eritrea to take Singapore and Hong Kong as models of its economic progress.


The regime crushed the idea of inclusiveness immediately, banning citizens from engaging in the affairs of their own country (no ‘Hashewye’). But it continued to dangle the carrot of another Singapore in the Horn of Africa a bit longer. Soon, regime owned entities started to dominate the business sector. With that, the Singapore tease came to a crashing end. The abuses got progressively worse, eventually gutting out the nation’s insides (Fig 2).

Roughly speaking, Fig 1 shows robust renewal cycles of healthy nations. Typically, below age 20, free-spirited kids enjoy the privileges of youth; building core identities and learning societal norms from their families and institutions — years of formal and informal education.


The broad 20-60 cycle includes acquisition of higher education, fine-tuning careers and building families. Critical experiences and wealth are accumulated and re-invested to solidify existing foundations. In the spirit of “society grows great when elders plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit”, those over 60 continue to re-enforce these foundations further by sharing their collective wisdom and experiences.

Unfortunately, Eritrea has been hemorrhaging this critical 20-60 link in the middle, starving the population pools on both sides. By contrast, with its pipelines relatively intact, it is encouraging to see what appears to be a dynamic young leader emerging from next-door Ethiopia. Given the feudal mindset of Eritrea’s ossified leadership and the massive exodus it has caused, however, someone like PM Abiy Ahmed emerging in Eritrea any time soon seems fairly remote. Why? Sustainable change can only come from inside Eritrea but the resource pool most likely to demand and bring about the desired change is drying up. Pockets of courage do pop up every now and then– like the Catholic bishops, wed Ali, Haji Musa; and though belatedly, the G-15, finance minister Berhane Abrehe and others. Yet, we consistently fail to pick up their batons, leaving them exposed and vulnerable — letting the momentum of the day die quickly. It is a worrisome culture where courage is not valued as a virtue worthy of our protection, leaving the villain as the only victor.


After 20 plus years, the opposition remains too fragmented to be of any threat to the regime. The regime is more likely to die suffocated under its own dead weight than through our efforts. The regime won. Not because it is better but because we are worse. At least this much must be admitted.

Over the years, I supported some groups and joined others as a member. All failed to execute their stated missions. One of the civic groups I joined affiliated itself with a political group violating its own mission statement. The second started out to develop an action plan with sufficient common ground for the various civic and political groups to rally around. Four years in, there was nothing to write home about. I am not a member of any group now but there is no escaping the fact that, I too, failed. Quite simply, I did not bring enough to the table to make a difference either.

If the opposition camp is to matter, these bad practices must be addressed honestly and directly: regular self-assessment how well we are executing against our stated missions – how close are we to the end goal, what is working, what is not and why; start and end meetings on time; show some humility; stop attacking each other (to see even non-political groups engaging in this is sad); collaborate to multiply individual efforts; deep and honest self-examination to see if the self (me, you, at the individual level) is truly liberated from biases against the “other”. A truly self-liberated Eritrean – one who has shed his/her  gender, ethnic, religious and regional biases; and one who fully accepts and supports a woman, an Afar, a Kunama, a Moslem, a Christian, a lowlander, a highlander to lead Eritrea at any level is a rarity. As obvious as this is, it is scary that we fall short repeatedly.


We all say we are for democracy and justice with no commitment to either. Even the feudal regime propagates this lie through its PFDJ acronym.

We have been “solving” the wrong “problems” for too long. To make matters worse, the only “solutions” in our tool box – exclusion and brute force – remain the same. I can’t even recall a single dispute for which our politics found a fair and lasting peaceful resolution since 1961. The enemy of the day may change — ELF, EPLF, menakaE, business people, criminal amiches, the educated, religious ‘extremists’, G-15, buildings to demolish, currency to be confiscated, elderly ‘criminals’ whose adult children fled the country, neighboring countries etc., etc. And each wrong “solution” breeds more false problems. Seventy odd years later, the national despair and poverty is deeper than ever.

If poverty did not exist in the world, it probably would have been invented in Eritrea. Human life — the only thing that should matter the most — is the cheapest commodity in Eritrea today. This devaluation of human life is the real problem we should have been solving all along. It is also the one we have been ignoring consistently.  We are in love with a geography that can’t love us back. In fact, geography is like a prostitute. It doesn’t even care whose flag is planted on it.

Our priorities are upside down. Eritreans drown in the Mediterranean and other nations show compassion and hang their flags half-mast. Not Eritrea. Awet nHafash has never (as in never) matched words with deeds (awaj of the day: people escaping slave labor camps will be shot — AwetnHafash). The regime never comes to the defense of its people (Libya, Sinai etc) but has no problem sacrificing them in mass for its reckless adventures. We build a monument for Pushkin, whose dubious ancestor left way before Eritrea was even Eritrea; but not for those who died for it. The colonial nostalgia lingers on, devaluing that which is ours.


Surprisingly, Ambassador Andebrhan’s book shows the culture of exclusion spares no one. He quotes a wounded Isaias saying “I know you call me Agame behind my back. I will show you! I will take this country down as I put it up”. But this is more about Andebrhan than about Isaias. It is bad enough Isaias tells them this to their faces. The real question is: what did Andebrhan and his senior peers do to re-assert their own life-long contributions and to honor those they left behind? That they don’t push back to cage his arrogance and meekly taking their place as if they were wall paper is puzzling.

But Isaias could also have said: “but remember the Agame is your boss now. What do you say to that, you Agame- serving Eritrawi?” as a humorous way to diffuse the slight. No adults in the room?

It was also dis-orienting to see Andebrhan write as a mere observer without a hint of self-examination.  In spite of his decade’s long elite status as a senior member of the regime (before and after 1991), he reports from a convenient distance to say the “regime has abused… Eritrean society”, that Isaias is “selfish to the core”, and “vindictive to the extreme”. Thathe is “ruthless in his punishment of ‘disloyalty’” where “no one is spared or forgiven; not even his most loyal henchmen or his closest comrades-in-arms”.

Good heavens!! First, Andebrhan and his peers ARE the regime. And knowing all these, they willfully condemned the unsuspecting population (and themselves) to the terrors of this thug? Those who we believed (at least I did) to be less than no one, were enablers all along is hard to take in.

Eritreans are strange creatures. In his trademark vulgar style, Isaias says diaspora Eritreans will only come home in caskets and will not live in the houses they are building. Yet, these very people support him, hoping to “protect” the houses he tells them they won’t enjoy. The caskets may not be welcome either.  Some villages are asking relatives not to send bodies home because there is shortage of young people in the villages to dig burial grounds (Fig 2). Maybe Isaias is right to say he can destroy the country after all. Those he despises so openly – senior tegadelti, diaspora fools whose money he is after and even some refugees in Israel who justify their asylum applications on his brutality – turn out to be his key enablers and die-hard supporters. How is that for irony?


Eritrea is a lawless nation. Random “laws” can pop up over-night to demolish homes families have been living in for years; or to limit the amount you can withdraw from your own savings. Easy answer: if you can’t withdraw your own money from the bank, then keep it at home, right? But then an aggressive confiscation campaign kicks in to punish the very behavior the law encouraged in the first place. You just can’t win. Eritreans now go to Sudan for their simple health care needs as the regime closes functioning “Catholic” clinics; there are no safety nets against poverty – even highly educated professionals cannot survive without remittances. The list is too long.

Our culture of exclusion is killing us. The regime doesn’t talk to anyone. The numerous opposition groups don’t even talk within each other. It is time for a new approach. A “positive jealousy” for what Ethiopia is doing would be a good start. i.e. forgive and start direct dialog with ALL actors. Create a bigger tent. IF we can do that, then, yes, Eritrea can become the Eritrea we imagined in 1991 again – free, inclusive and economically viable.  It is a big IF but as bad as things were in 1938, Langston Hughes also finished with a loud optimism to say:

                    O, let America be America again—

                    The land that never has been yet—

                    And yet must be—the land where every man is free.


                    America never was America to me,                    And yet I swear this oath—                    America will be!

And he was right. The damage is deep and the journey to recovery long, but amen to that for Eritrea too.

Review overview
  • rezen June 18, 2018

    Subject: “Unfiltered Notes: Can Eritrea Be Eritrea Again?” By Tewelde Stephanos, June 17, 2018

    Commentary, 17 June 2018 Here is my short reaction. The Author poured his heart out and said it ALL. Yet, the END is good wish thinking on the basis of America’s glaring success story, with good will conclusion >>>: “amen to that for Eritrea”. In my opinion, it is a painful stretch of the mind to envisage such a success story for Eritrea – in our Life Time. But then, who, on this good Earth, would challenge the wonder of the All Mighty Creator of Heaven and Earth. Amen! Inshalah! እግዚሄር ይፈልጥ ።

    What the above hopelessness means – if I may dare saying so – we Eritreans have come to the end of the road to save Eritrea by ourselves, for ourselves, within our capabilities. Our sociological differences are so deeply entrenched in our psyche, for so long, that we are totally incapable of creating ‘united states’ of Eritrea. PERIOD.

    In that sordid scenario, Issayas Afewerki Abraha is the ONLY successfull cruel dictator politician in the anal of Eritrean history — true to his two-word revenge: “ ከርእየክን እዬ“ ። Let those who are capable of saving Eritrea come forward with their medicinal agenda – not just sitting by the side waiting for opportunity to occupy profitable posts. THE END

    • k.tewolde June 18, 2018

      ” not just sitting by the side waiting for opportunity to occupy profitable posts. THE END..” rezen, let me accentuate that statement….if there is going to be any at all.It is a well composed article by Mr.Tewelde which culminates with an optimistic wish,however the American social narrative is far more different than the Eritrean,the former is dynamic,exfoliating and self rejuvenating while the latter is static,mundane and self defeating.There is no comparison there, and let’s not mention Singapore please,that model only serves Singapore,lets work on something unique to Eritrea,because nobody knows us better than us.Let us carve our own model which fits us.Lets bring out the best in us and wow the world how uniquely God put us together.We can do it if can work together to get rid of the crippling hgdefite political culture that dominated our society for over half a century.It simply is asphyxiating the life of our entity as a family.

  • Mohamed June 18, 2018

    The article is expressed honest feelings of the author.
    The situation is very bad but, there is always hope (“La speranza e’ l’ulitima a morire’ an Italian adage) that an Eritrea we all dreamed about, one day will see the light of the day.
    The author touched on some, if not all, most of the issues we Eritreans failed to handle properly. Is it really all about one ruthless dictator or something else is there ?, a wider context we seem to ignore.
    Imagine there are a number of people standing in a queue. While they all seem to be there of one reason or another, Iseyas kills one of them, then the next, but the rest of the people in the queue show no sign of being in danger. They are indifferent to the terrible events that happen around them. They seem to be dead sure nothing will happen to them. “They came for Jews … and I said I was not a Jew”, so why bother.
    This sort of indifference show a deep seated hatred of the “other”.
    So it’s not all about Iseyas, it’s rather about us. How to come out of this despicable situation is what we need to discusses openly and with sufficient sincerity that can restore trust in each other. Then the healing can surely lead to hope.

  • Tes June 18, 2018

    Mr Tewelde

    You said it all and present it beautifully. What an excellent article! thanks brother. Back to your article ” can Eritrea be Eritrea again?”. Personally I doubt it for simple reason. Those who left the country won’t go back to rebuild the country and their life. The other reason is that the pride and dignity of Eritrea and Eritreans have be decimated for more that 27 years with little chance of reinvigorate or regain back. The very guarantors of freedom became bandit after independence and committed unbearable suffering to the young generation who were supposedly the future leaders or owners of the country. The gedly generation fail the people again and again than take responsibility and correct their approach. Take Andebrehan for example he has no shame to say Eseyas said to me .“I know you call me Agame behind my back. I will show you! I will take this country down as I put it up”. This is the so called high ranked official, educated who was/is willing to serve to a guy he said in his face I’ll destroy your country and people. It sad to see people like him in the opposition camp and continue to make maxim damage .

    Another point caught my attention of this writer is that ” Human life — the only thing that should matter the most — is the cheapest commodity in Eritrea today. This devaluation of human life is the real problem we should have been solving all along. It is also the one we have been ignoring consistently. We are in love with a geography that can’t love us back. In fact, geography is like a prostitute. It doesn’t even care whose flag is planted on it”. Lets look what it has followed when the Dr Abey Ahmed and his government declare they accept the EEBC decision with any precondition. In a normal country the opposition wait or pressure the governing body what to responded. No Eritrea is not normal country before the ruling part said nothing the so called opposition issued their press release because they don’t care about the people but land, rock and mountains. Their favourite subject land, People for them are commodity they can sell them to the biggest bidder. What make it funny is that they don’t even have anything they say mine in the so called Eritrea.
    God give mercy !

  • meretse June 18, 2018

    Hi all,
    Let me join the great author and commentators by adding couple senctences. Since the essence of the article is quoted and further discussed by you (all of the above commentators) all I can say is I am just impressed and thank you. In fact, whether we admit it or not, the nations’s life has come to stand still. It had been a while since the nation, felt empty and lost. Those of us who were crying as early as day one were marginalised and called names for years. But despite all this problems we did not lost HOPE. The problems of the country had been told retold more than enough, except people gave them deaf ears. Trying to save their ghedli legend (especially EPLF remnants) day in, day out their changing thier coats while leaving their old hearts intact. If Eritrea could not be for all who faught her (a nation for all its nationals) then it would be a a gift for all who are interested of her. We all need to remove our old reality-glasses and start using new ones which could help us looking at the nation anew.
    Mr Tewolde thank you again for writing such a great article.

    • rezen June 18, 2018

      Dear Meretse,
      Reading your commentary about “reality-glasses, I cannot resist saying this fact >>> When I possessed my NEW EYE GLASSES I was simply shocked, amazed,and mesmerized!!! In the Tigrigna saying it is ሰማይን ምድርን። WE have all the philosophical expressions in Life but never utilized.them. What a TRAGEDY!

  • Gezae June 18, 2018

    It is a stereotype arthicle. I presume most of the time stereotype assumtion has negative connotations, primarily because of the possibility of initialing incorrectly. However, stereotyping isn’t always a bad thing. It depends on the honest assessment, based on personal observations and knowledge. So my point is not to condemn it but to show the negative impression that don’t give a chance when get locked. Any how the truth politicians are very much stereotyped to gain momentum by bringing motive or pattern.

    Of course, no dubt these kinds of stereotypes can lead to perceptual errors especially when attach certain thoughts that are not based on facts or evidence rely on the same approaches rather different. .The reasons is because we might all benefit from looking in different ways if we are interested in communicating better with each other. By better understanding differing opinions that might give us a better chance possibly working through our differences to discovering some common ground

    • Wedi Hagher June 19, 2018


      You spoke about “patterns” and “perceptions” to make an empty argument. You have not been able to say exactly what makes this article based on “assumptions”.
      You are trying to defend a fascist system that brutalizes its own people. Iseyas and his regime are completely dead in the minds and hearts of Eritrean people. They are still on the stage because of military power they have not because they have any legitimacy or people think they are a government.
      It’s just a matter of time before one day, the dark chapter of Eritrean history they have written is closed forever.
      Eritreans like Cambodians will have collect the remains of tens of thousands who perished in the gulags they have been running for decades, and bring to justice all those who committed crimes against humanity.

      • k.tewolde June 19, 2018

        Wedi Hager, you can’t say it any better,some of the prominent combatants of EPLF are my close family members and relatives who I intimately know and shared their hopes and ideals for our nation and currently resting in Asmara war veterans cemetery.Can you imagine if they resurrected and got a chance to examine the current spectacle of our homeland?.This nation is not closer to one Eritrean than the other and those who have fallen gave it all to all of us indiscriminately.We have to learn to distinguish between the current gun totting junta in Asmara who happen to speak our dialect and the brave freedom fighters who we left in shallow graves. Gezae seems to be grappling with this distinction or he is simply a recipient of meager perks thrown towards him from the regime which the tyrant refers as (LAHASTI SHAHANI)……..I like to mention a few of our heroes/heroins because it their day Mengsteab,Ahmedine,Freweini,Alem,Girmai….forever young… Eternal Glory to the fallen.

      • Gezae June 20, 2018

        I would like to point out here that I understand some people are happy when other people are miserable. So responding with kindness to negative persons might be taking away their own happiness. Some people like being the way that they are. If you respond in kindness it may or may not give you peace, but they may take it as some sort of insult.

        The problem is how to accept people who fail to understand you :- because Negativity and Positivity are all subjective terms. I react with compassion to people because I am struggling to understand them and their needs, that’s all. Understand your own needs and you will understand other people’s needs as well! Otherwise, it’s better to decrease contact or have no contact with negative people,