Bite the Bait: Eritrean Regime’s Fishing Expedition

Fessahaye Mebrahtu
The Voice of American (VOA) report on the Eritrean regime inviting the Diaspora community to invest their resources is very interesting. The timing of the policy shift needs some illustrations, analyzing the ensuing circumstances. The policy shift taken at its face value could be encouraging sign that the GoE is softening its hardline approach of investing in the country with the Diaspora community. In reality, this is an old trick aimed at sucking the life-blood and dignity of Eritreans abroad and at home. Similar policies and promises have come and gone with empty outcomes. Do people remember investing in “Naqfa Corporation” at the eve of independence, followed by “Red Sea Corporation” after independence and finally by Defense Bond in 1998-2000 border war? Let those who invested in them recount their about their success stories or not. The first generation was duped and the second generation is being lured to the same trap.

“ኤርትራ ኣብ ቀረባ ግዜ ኣብ ከተማ አስመራ ጉባኤ ኢንቨስትመንት ኣካይዳ ኔራ። ዕላማ ጉባኤ ኤርትራውያን በብዓቅሞም ኣብ ዝኽእልዎ ዝተፈላለየ ፀፍሒ ኢኮኖሚ ሃገር ገንዘቦም አዋፊሮም ኣብ ልምዓትን ዕብየትን ሃገሮም ብምክፋል ንሳቶምውን ተጠቀምቲ ንክኾኑ ክብሉ / ወልዳይ ፍጡር ገሊፆም። ኣብ ቤት-ፅሕፈት ፕረዚደንት ኤርትራ ሚኒስተር ማእኸል ወፍርን ልምዓትን ዝኾኑ / ወልዳይ ፍጡር ምስ ሬድዮ ድምፂ ኣሜሪካ ኣብ ዘካየድዎ ቃለ-መሕትት ነዚ ገሊፆም (Voice of America)

In the last two years, Diaspora Eritreans living in Europe and North America have begun challenging the Eritrean regime to stop collecting 2% income taxes from them. Other intimidating and coercing tactics have been forcing families to pay 50,000 Nakfa on behalf of their adult children or spouses for fleeing the country. Looking into Eritrea’s human right records, Western countries are paying attention; questioning the purpose of the 2% tax from its naturalized citizens. In light of UN sanction of Eritrea, the collected money could be interpreted in whatever ways the enforcers wanted to continue pressuring the regime. The reality for a tiny and poorest nation with a population of less than 5 million to amass nearly 500,000 standing military is atrocious; a recipe for an economic meltdown at one point.  For years, the call for justice on the Eritrean people has been falling on deaf ears. Finally it is getting some attention in the adopted countries of Eritrean Diasporas. Slowly but surely the ground is shifting under the Eritrean regime; one of the measurable shifts is the drying up of hard currency. No doubt this is creating fault lines that one day will become gullies swallowing the PFDJ system.

The continued ability of collecting funds from the “Cash-Cow Diaspora” communities is now under the limelight by countries that can have influential factor in the outcome.  Therefore, the regime is employing a new tactic to support its addiction for hard currency by luring the Diaspora community.  The various tricks of the regime can fool some but not all as in the past. Even the ardent supporters of DIA will have to think more than twice. In a business friendly environment with constitutional guarantee the idea would have been laudable.  However, one proclamation will fool Eritreans no more recounting the number of broken promises and retracted policies by the Eritrean regime.

Let us compare the GoE invitation to the current policy of US government, encouraging immigrants to invest in their country of origin. The American initiative would have complemented the Eritrean invitation in ideal environment. The current Eritrean political climate is toxic no matter how much sugar coating is placed on it. Countries operate from a national interest vantage view; in normal circumstances Eritrea has the right to look at own self-interest. US encouragement of the Diaspora communities to invest in their countries of origin is not totally altruistic either. Of course it is based on US national interest for political influence or market expansion in global market. Where does Eritrea’s new policy fit in? Did the GoE wake up one morning with a new enlightenment to soften its investment policies? This is very doubtful; rather it is a smart reaction to the growing isolation of the regime by the world body. The Eritrean regime is seeking alternative venue of replenishing the dwindling 2% tax revenue.

Free market economy has been an aspiration of Eritreans from time immemorial expressed in the proverb, “ሕረስ ሓረስታይ – ንገድ ነጋዳይ ዚብል ንጉሥ ይፍጠረልና – May God give us a king, who encourages the farmer to farm to farm and the merchant to trade.”  The PFDJ regime was abhorrent to this approach unless it benefitted from it or it can have full control over it. I remember a couple years after the independence a friend complaining that the Eritrean regime competing with widows who sell potatoes and tomatoes from street corner. Did things change since then? In many cases it has become worse. The regime has been unabashedly have been fighting this aspiration of our people to earn their daily bread. Worse of all it has been taking all able bodies into Khmer Rouge style slave labor camps not for development but control the mind and body of our people.  Therefore, this seemingly invitation to invest in the country is simply a new fishing expedition by the PFDJ regime to garner some foreign currency. Will Eritreans be gullible enough to bite the barbed bait again? In the past many did not hesitate to do so to only regret it after the fact. Is the Eritrean regime also learning from the Ethiopian policy of allowing its Diaspora community to invest as they want or can? We will never know.

Investing with the PFDJ regime is like a gamble (ጠላዕ) and the regime will always call it “ቍማር – qumar.”  What are the guarantees this time for the Eritrean Diaspora investors, who bought bonds in 1998-2000; the lucky ones were compensated by a parcel of land to build a house at more costly price than in the Western countries. They were hooked to buy the contract and materials from the government owned businesses only.  Once the houses are built, God knows how property taxes are assessed. The Eritrean regime designs a system with a pretext of dispossessing the owners’ business or house.

The new attempt of the Eritrean government to attract foreign currency in cover of investment has to be understood in context and patters GoE employed in the past. First of all, the government is notorious for drafting and proclaiming policies that are put together hastily. Second, why then is the invitation to invest in the country all of sadden followed by “መሬት ናይ መንግስቲ’ዩ – the land belongs to the government” editorial in “ሓዳስ ኤርትራ – Hadas Eritra?”  It is the same Ministry of Information that publishes government policies and proclamations. Is the editorial reminding us that the land belongs to the government or trying to prepare the ground work for more surprises about land ownership.

In Eritrea, mostly in ከበሳ (Plateaus) the land belonged to the people (መሬት ሕዝቢ). In the መታሕት (Plains) the concept of land ownership was not any different except it was not organized in the same was as in the Plateau due the different lifestyle. When the Eritrean government insists the land belongs to the government, this was counter our cultural grain. In Eritrea the tradition land ownership by the people was sacrosanct; not even consecutive colonial powers violated it. The Italians’ and two successive Ethiopian regimes did not alter the tradition, except on the periphery.

Village communities in Asmara suburbs used to benefit by dividing their ancestral land among themselves and selling it to developers or individuals to build homes. In the inevitability of urbanization, the local people benefited from the appreciation of land values. There was fairness and traditional land governance that provided protection from abuses and unscrupulous developers or even the government. The GoE contemptuous of our traditional value system that operated for centuries declared the land as a monopoly of the government, dispossessing “the communal ownership of the land by the local people.”  The GoE on one hand tries to attract investment in the country on the other hand reasserts its grip of the land ownership continuing to create an absurd political climate that does not foster “; especially in the absurd political climate the regime fosters against “ሕረስ ሓረስታይ – ንገድ ነጋዳይ ዚብል ንጉሥ ይፍጠረልና – May God give us a king, who encourages the farmer to farm to farm and the merchant to trade.”  Communities are pushed out of their ancestral land and traditional habitat by proclaiming the land belongs to the government. This is mostly true in around urban areas and lands that are appropriated for cash crop purposes.

In the absence of an implemented constitution, the dozens of proclamations made by the Eritrean government are like houses built without the foundation. Citizens do not have any recourse to register their grievances when these policies became impediments to run their daily lives or earn a living honorably. The lack of constitution, civil or human rights laws to protect Eritrean citizens from the abuses and excesses of power PFDJ makes this new policy very “fishy” smelling from afar. The policies are selectively implemented at the whim of the regime as political tools to punish or reward individuals.

In conclusion, it is very clear that the PFDJ’s call for investment and entrepreneurship in Eritrea lacks basic sincerity, constitutional and legal guarantees. Therefore, until Eritrea implements its constitution, Eritrea is not open for business; until Eritreans dispossessed of their ancestral land under the pretext that land belongs to the government are compensated, Eritrea is not open for business; until the half-million military or more of the Eritreans are demobilized and allowed to lead their lives with dignity, Eritrea is not open for business; until a policy is drawn to pay a fair wage for slave labor, Eritrea is not open for business; until Eritreans serving in the military subjected to slave labor are compensated for lost time opportunities, Eritrean is not open for business; until political prisoners and conscientious objectors are freed, Eritrea is not open for business; until freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion and organize is fully restored and exercised, Eritrea is not open for business; until the perpetrators of injustice are accountable for their crimes on the masses, Eritrea is not open for business.

In a final note I would like every Eritrean to be cognizant that the slave labor experienced by tens of thousands of Eritreans will remain as a national debt for generations to come. It should be the first order of business of any government to draw compensatory policy for such gross violation of human and civil rights. An Eritrean who does not envision such sense of justice cannot count on viable and prosperous Eritrea. The current regime might be accountable for crimes against humanity but the rest of us will be accountable to pick up the pieces in the aftermath; compensating for the slave labor should be a priority. I would even go further, that every means of revenue in the hand of the Eritrean regime should be under UN receivership until every slave labor is fully satisfied; including compensation for the damages of lost opportunities, human rights violations, including rapes, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, etc.  All these preconditions should be addressed before Eritrea is open for business under any succeeding regime.

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