Eritrean Youth: The Lost Generation
By Dawit Mesfin
London, 22 October, 2016
Many of us living overseas have conducted ourselves in such a way that we remained true to our Eritrean heritage. We rallied behind the preservation of the very spirit that sustained the independence struggle. Overwhelmed by the spirit of the ‘gedli’ era, we cherished liberty as a heritage of all Eritreans everywhere as we stood in awe of our martyrs. Above all, our involvement in this major historical event shaped our lives by giving a context to everything we would experience afterwards.
After the long independence struggle came to an end, we unquestioningly supported the new government as it tottered like a new-born foal while taking its first steps. We immersed ourselves in the surge of optimistic idealism, a promise of a new kind of future for Eritreans. Unfortunately, it did not take long for our optimism to evaporate due to sluggish pace of change. Gradually the government began to show its true colours. Even then, sometimes I wonder why that era made us such stern and uncompromising individuals or impractical dreamers.
As we detected the rise of despotism, we embarked on a new journey to instigate a renewed struggle for justice. As outsiders, belonging to the peripheral community, we did not expect smooth-sailing. To undertake that selfless journey was commendable; and it has indeed born some fruit; but only some.
There comes a time in our lives when we realise that we need to appraise the recent past in order to bring our ways up to date. Looking back, it has become apparent that we got carried away, perhaps by the digital revolution, as we grew more self-assured as individuals instead of nurturing our interdependence skills. I believe campaigns such as ours make little sense without interdependence.
We sought comfort in activism; we made friends amongst ourselves, created networks of relationships, lectured one another as we continually broke up and made up. At times we went as far as building barricades between us. There were even occasions when, disregarding the overall aims of the struggle, we ended up attacking one another from behind those barricades.
Our vulnerabilities became apparent as badly co-ordinated campaigns went awry. This unsystematic approach became the Achilles’ heel of the movement, ushering in a set of clumsy moves with blurred vision. The networks that we created became both dense and interlocked. Those lapses have created confusion, killed creativity, curtailed initiatives and impeded progress. Consequently, we were unable to get on with developing a winning strategy, an inadequacy that emboldened government apologists. To put it bluntly, we are likely to become irrelevant unless we finally decide to end our internal wrangling.
I would like to avoid spouting banalities and inject a little specificity. Let’s start with the admission that as our movement became broader and new groups joined the campaign overall discipline went downhill, and our reckless activities led to crises and stalemates in which we ended up paralysing ourselves. I wish we were progressive enough in our attitudes, aspirations and practices drills to escape from, or at least to contain, the counter arguments ranged against us??. What I am trying to say is that when the regime and its apologists 'went low, we should have gone higher'. The question we should ask ourselves now is how to avoid additional self-inflicted injuries.
As We Race against Old Age …
The most unexpected thing for many of us is the fact that age has caught up with us. We are not young and energetic anymore. However, as the years get shorter and the days longer, so to speak, ‘we continue to hold to the hope, the belief and conviction that there will be a better life for Eritreans beyond the horizon’.
Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), the renowned Colombian novelist, once said:
“They were people whose lives were slow, who did not see themselves growing old, or falling sick, or dying, but who disappeared little by little in their own time, turning into memories, mists from other days, until they were absorbed into oblivion.”
The above axiom does apply to many of us. I believe that, as much as we would like to remain active as we age, it is time we took our frailties into consideration and changed our tactics. Let us unblock the obstacles to engaging with our young people, the tragic post-independence generation.
The Youth Approach
The case of the so called Young Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ), children of party members and government supporters, is a good example of the link-up technique. Theirs is, of course, of the negative kind due to their relationship to the oppressors. The group, with its own logic, has developed a subculture of sorts which, ironically, defies logic. It can be described by the Russian-Nesting-Dolls theory – created in the image and soul of the larger doll. Its followers are systematically plugged into the womblike cavity of the party.
Those behind YPFDJ’s campaigns silence critical thinking amongst its young followers. The organisation uses the tenets of ‘deafness, muteness, blindness’ as its modus operandi in the face of abuse of power. It is one of the tentacles of the government’s propaganda system. In essence, the young members have learned to turn a blind eye or ignore evil that they come in contact with, as a means of dealing with impropriety. The approach has infected the judgement of its young followers and allows injustice to flourish unchallenged in Eritrea and communities abroad. Sadly, as long as the tribal mentality within the YPFDJ remains unexamined, its members unwittingly subject themselves to the regime’s dictates. Their campaigns do not espouse strategies of liberation. The regime has successfully deployed its surrogates to do its underhanded deeds for it. That is not the kind of tactics we want to employ with our young in our campaigns; but a dynamic, genuine and nurturing link-up based on the universal basic rights of people. Effective strategic action comes when the youth are actively involved in campaigns for change.
We know that the expansion of higher education has been thwarted by the government in Eritrea. And that is due to the fact that educated youngsters develop the appetite to challenge regimes that suppress them. That is why the youth in Eritrea are made to remain in perpetual national service and are made to engage in endless, intoxicating festivities and escapades. The youth cannot aim higher because they are denied opportunities for upward mobility. According to Prof Jack Goldstone, renowned sociologist and political scientist, ‘youth bulge’ is one of the causes of a revolution – it occurs when the expansion of educated youth far exceeds opportunities for personal development. That is why the government is defusing potential youth uprisings by regulating these youth bulges. The result is increased exodus. Thus Eritrea has become a top refugee-producing country in the world … after it gained its independence!
Our Measured Response
In our campaigns we assumed that if we denounced and protested against the authoritarian nature of the regime strongly enough, political and social changes would somehow follow. Time has proven that we overestimated our efforts – we know now that more is needed to effect change. One of the glaring oversights is that we failed to link up with the tens of thousands of young Eritreans who have fled the country.
I realise the weakness of this argument is that it does not offer a practical solution to a complex problem. Perhaps I am keeping myself aloof from the real issues. However, the aim of this article is to exercise introspection. Self-reflection alone is not a solution, but it does raise questions we should ask ourselves regarding our roles in this campaign. How can we help the lost generation, the generation that came of age during post-independence Eritrea, overcome the meaninglessness of their lives? How can we help them rebuild their lives? How can we help them forge new pathways into the future?
In this struggle of ours ageing actors dominate the scene. However, there is one wonderful thing the older generation, can do now and that is to put ourselves at the service of the young.