Why has May 24 become controversial?
I have read and listened to various narrations and characterizations concerning May 24, Eritrea’s independence day. Although I was to submit the second part of the topic I had started in Tigrigna, concerning why the opposition has stagnated, I thought to scribble an opinion on the current topic was more pressing, considering its urgent nature (time sensitive subject).
I know the majority of Eritreans gave May 24 its due attention and participation. But there has also been a “yes…but” sort of approach by some Eritreans. To all patriot Eritreans, regardless of your affinity to the government, this is not to condemn some and absolve others. The only people I could comfortably oppose are those who try to undermine Eritrea’s independence. But I believe it is fitting to ask why so much controversy, anyway? My objective is to initiate discussion so that next Independence day could be observed in a better shape.
May 24 signifies a watershed in Eritrean history
To begin with, May 24, 1991, was not a destiny but a happenstance. It could have been any date, any year. And there was no contract attached to it. It signifies the end of the liberation of the war and the start of the process of nation-building. Are you OK with that?
Good then, dates are as important as the intensity of emotions people attach to them. People make historic dates important, they contribute to making them consequential or neglect them to drop off the radar. There are many dates events that initially seemed to occupy an eternal place in history but people did not keep them alive or later became controversial thus ceased to be prominent in the annals of history.
May 24, or Eritrea’s independence day, signifies an important benchmark in our history, and for that we celebrate it. If you believe it has not kept its promise, or if you want to make it even more colorful, you and I need to work towards that end. If you complain, and there are plenty of things to complain about, the burden is on you and me, not on May 24. We created May 24, it did not create us.
The myth entertained by some quarters is that people who celebrate May 24 colorfully are less cognizant of what ought to be done. That is a myth created by folks who have promoted the notion that Eritreans’ love for and their close connection to their country and the readiness they show to defend it in any way possible, crossing political barriers, have become hurdles to the so-called CHANGE, a slogan that has no specific definition. The curse, the bitterness should rest squarely on each of us, not on May 24. May 24 could only be as great as the purposeful efforts we do to perfect it. If it feels to you as akale-godelo (handicapped), it could be because of your handicapped or misguided efforts. Don’t blame May 24, but yourself and me.
For the folks who recognize its significance but weaponize it for political ends, please play it safely. On the other hand, it is quite understandable that we will differ on who should control the venues of the festivities and the messages that are delivered on that day. But, ultimately, it is on the activists to get their acts together and present programs that attract people. Of note, most Eritreans don’t care about the entity running the venues; they go there to celebrate the day on their own terms. They are not sponges that would readily suck up any messages.
Indeed, I observe Eritreans flock to the venues prepared for this date to celebrate the date, bring their children close to the history of their country, and meet with friends. The majority don’t go there to for indoctrinations. And certainly, they don’t go to support any party. If they want to support the government, there are more ways to express that. The offices of the representatives of the government are open 24/7, 365 days, minus public holidays. The same amount of time is available for the opposition if it wants to expand its bases.
On such occasions, it is expected that the government will highlight its achievements; the opposition will highlight its grievances, and there will be folks like me who may tell activists of both sides to buzz off. I want to have peace on that day. I want to have quiet moments and somber discussions with people who often disagree with me.
For God sake, I wonder why the protests should wait for that date. I protest every day. I’m protesting as I write this piece from my hotel somewhere in the world. If it is to protest that the government is hijacking the message, then stage your own venue, let those citizens who want to go to the festivals coordinated by the government have peace. The right to express own views is not reserved only for you. The people who go to PFDJ-led venues also have the right not to be disturbed. You would appreciate this point since you are fighting for the right of self-expression.
The other point is this: opposition activists forget that people are as intelligent and rational. Eritreans are not as docile as often are portrayed. If they are sticking with venues that the PFDJ runs, then that should be a lesson and should encourage the opposition activists to evaluate their messages and positions on all matters Eritreans consider vital to their country. It is misguided to think that people who sacrificed everything to be free will be beguiled by the lures of a holiday in Eritrea or by the prospect of getting special treatment from the government to build a Villa, as some activists would want us to believe.
The problem with the opposition is that it doesn’t have a streamlined and clear message. The thoughts of its activists are infiltrated by folks who would not want to celebrate Eritrea’s Independence Day. So, a humble suggestion: sensationalizing and moralizing alone does not cut it. Unless you turn the moral outrage to an actionable substance (winning people) and chart out practical strategies to achieve those goals, your moral rage will be no different than a mere whining.
Additionally, you have to be able to distinguish yourself from those who are sapping your energy for a different purpose. They actually think if the government intensifies the complaints you raise, it will eventually help them break Eritreans’ will. If your efforts are for the abetment of the misgivings you complain about, the efforts of the anti-Eritrea elements are to see the situation in Eritrea does not improve. But they are living comfortably among you, hijacking your messages. their latest victory is making you appear as if you protest May 24. The true patriots don’t belong there.
The Two May 24s
Consider May 24, 1991, and May 24, 1993, the dates Eritrea gained its de facto and de jure independence, respectively. For the people who toiled and sacrificed to liberate Eritrea, May 24, 1991, carries more weight because it signaled the end of the liberation war. For the Unionists, May 24, 1993, the date Eritrea declared its official independence, after carrying out a referendum, should carry more weight because it officially separated Eritrea from what they consider mother Ethiopia.
The latter’s creative tactics that often pass as legitimate grievances- made against the government- percolate the discourse of the diaspora opposition. They are fierce and determined, and in many ways, they get the lion’s share of public attention. They acclimatized the opposition voices to accept the bashing of Eritrea and its revolution as a sign of sophistication and tolerance.
They try to blur Eritrea’s independence and its sovereign borders in their gimmick of “people first”. They target voices that hold the notion that one can stand for the territorial sovereignty of his country and at the same time criticize the government. They pummel those who refuse to align with the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian regime, which continues to refuse to leave Eritrean-ruled territories and abide by the final and binding nature of the EEBC ruling. One’s love for TPLF has become a litmus test for categorizing people as “justice seekers.” And TPLF is the source of most of those who have been whacking Eritrean nationalism, hence, the de-emphasizing of May 24. Again, this does not apply to those patriots who stand firm on issues of national interest but want to protest against the government.
Legacies of the Two Organizations: Veterans’ Talk
The above-mentioned anti-May 24 groups and individuals have found an impregnable refuge in the psyche of the diaspora opposition. For all practical considerations, organizations that live in TPLF land and get directives and sustenance from it would not be expected to differ from what the TPLF holds about May 24.
But it is even more judicious to note that there exists an unholy alliance between the anti-Eritrean elements who are trained and guided to wage a campaign of unprecedented coordination and intensity to break the will of Eritreans and between some ELF veterans for different reasons. In this sense, the anti-Eritrea voices have worked hard to widen the gap between Eritrean veterans who hail from the once rival organizations, EPLF and ELF. For some time now, some veteran cadres of the ELF have had a comfortable and seemingly mutually symbiotic relationship with voices that had attacked the EPLF viciously. ELF veterans who acquiesce to the unwarranted attacks directed towards EPLF veterans are making a mistake because the anti-Eritrea groups consider discarding the EPLF would mean discarding the ELF, and discarding the ELF would amount to discarding Eritrea’s reason to wage a war of liberation, thus discarding May 24. You are related more closely to EPLF veterans than to the riffraff of the bloody past.
Unfortunately, few ELF veterans are living in the grudges of the past. They argued May 24 signifies only the victory of the EPLF; they even celebrated the official announcement of the scrapping of the 1997 Eritrean Constitution because they had all along thought the document belonged to the EPLF. These old sentiments play well with the agenda of the anti-Eritrea groups. Many a time, they are seen alienating ex-EPLF veterans, accusing them of spying for the PFDJ, and blaming them for the opposition’s pathetic state of affairs. They accuse the EPLF unjustly and distort its history.
As a veteran of the EPLF, I know and will never be re-schooled about the role of the organization in which I spent a considerable portion of my time. I know EPLF shouldered the rallying of Eritreans for the liberation of Eritrea, after ELF’s exit from the field as a result of an armed conflict with the EPLF. I also recognize the ELF as the pioneer of our armed struggle and as a national and patriotic organization. You and I can’t settle what happened almost 40 years ago but we can agree on leaving a legacy of reconciliation. I would be the first to defend the legacy of the ELF, you be the first to defend the legacy of the EPLF. Both organizations had their shares of positive and negative legacies and when I talk about defending, I mean the positive contributions. Of course, the negative aspects should also be discussed but for the benefit of educating our young generation, not for the purpose of reinventing the wheel. Let’s not politicize history.
Concluding, May 24 belongs to all Eritreans. Every individual and community should celebrate it in their own way. But we should cease from making it more controversial than it is. If it is about organizing and messaging, Eritreans are in your city, all year round. And there isn’t much one can do on that day that he did not do on the rest of the 365 days of the year. That day should be slotted for families and friends to reflect on the essence their loved ones had fallen for. No need for agitation. All the opponents need to come with is a unified message and a winning strategy. The majority of our people are not passive recipients of propaganda. They go to the festivities out of their volition. They take what they want out of the festivals, enjoy what they want to enjoy, and meet with whomever they want to meet.
Lastly, the resilience Eritreans have shown in the face of concerted onslaughts aimed at their morale and identity is something worth celebrating. The mere fact that Eritrea has weathered savage destructive storms directed at it from all sides to break and disintegrate its will must be celebrated.
So, to the brave men and women who had given their lives to liberate Eritrea, and to the brave men and women who are sustaining life in Eritrea, may you have an even more colorful May 24 next year. Who am I to talk about you condescendingly?
Life is still going on in Eritrea. We need to thank our defense forces, the teachers, doctors, nurse, engineers, farmers, and traders who have gone through thick and thin, never to give up on Eritrea. Eritrea primarily belongs to you and to the young people you produce.
Happy Independence Day, bzey-QAl-Alem!!
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Additionally, it was posted on meskerem.net