An Interview with Sem Habtemariam


To learn more about our guest interviewee, visit this article:

NOTE: As per the interviewers request, the individual’s identity will remain anonymous. The views of the interviewee does not reflect the views of the interviewer.

1.) What made you get into contemporary Eritrean politics?

It was a slow, gradual, and agonizing process. In the early post-independence years, I was like most Eritreans in euphoria and more than willing to give the so-called Provisional Government of Eritrea an enormous good-will that, I still believe, was richly deserved. After-all, the EPLF was the organization that made our long-awaited independence a reality. Remember, we waited for five decades for Eritrea to be independent, the three of which were committed to the liberation struggle that started in 1961 under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate.

It was natural for all of us, Eritreans, to feel a sense of gratitude, joy, and good-will to the new, inexperienced, and young government. All the government officials were in their late thirties and early forties, who had zero experience in running governments and ruling over civilians.

Against all these factors, most Eritreans, including myself, hoped that the culture of self-sacrifice, camaraderie, and Spartan discipline which had characterized the EPLF as a military organization would translate into good governance, reconstruction, and nation-building.

In retrospect, it was very Panglossian of us to think that way because it is exceedingly rare in history that organizations like the EPLF could morph into governments which bring in peace, justice, democracy, and prosperity.

I was incredibly happy and yet skeptical of how quickly the EPLF shed off its long-standing ideology: communism. The EPLF’s conversion, however, did not seem to be out of conviction but expediency. With the demise of the former Soviet Union, it tried to ride the wave of democratization and liberalization that was sweeping the developing countries in the late eighties and early nineties.

The EPLF looked like a duck, swam like a duck, and quacked like a duck and we thought it was a duck. The leadership hoodwinked and bamboozled all of us. I mean the entire leadership because there was no dissenting opinion worth mentioning. A notable exception might have been Beteweded Abraha, but they succeeded in vilifying and characterizing him as mentally unstable. But the picture that has emerged based on his own words is different. He is a unique, thoughtful, morally conscious, and deep thinker who has the best interest of his people at heart.

The referendum, the constitution-making, and the national charter gave the impression that they (EPLF) were sincere about the rule of law, free-market, and democracy. They were bidding their time. There was always a part of me that never believed them, although I desperately wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. But it was not hard to tell that these were gimmicks to get the favor of the West.

Anyone who knows me would tell you that I was known for saying that “The bottom-up constitution would end up being used to wipe the bottoms of Isaias and company!”

This is one “I told you so!” I wish it did not come true.

The first time I openly criticized the government was after July 6, 1994, a date that would live in infamy in Eritrean history. This was a prelude of what was to come. The disabled veterans, stationed in MaiHabar, were marching towards Asmera to demand improvements on their living conditions. Instead of rolling red carpet, the government opened fire on them. This should have shocked and enraged every Eritrean; and people should have taken the streets in protest. But that is not what happened. The deafening silence against evil that has become the norm in Eritrea could be traced to this infamous date.

My logic was simple: I could not trust this government with the wellbeing of the country and its future if this is how it treated its bona fide heroes. The proof is in the pudding. It did not take me that much to know how bad and cruel they are; I just did not expect them to be this mediocre. I used to get mad by what they did. Now, I am just simply embarrassed!

The second time was when it bid its time to implement the constitution ratified on May 23, 1997. The non-implementation of the constitution had nothing to do with the 1998-2000 war. This gives more credence the argument that the EPLF under Isaias was never committed to the rule of law. Neither the Constitutional Commission nor the Constituent Assembly had the foresight to see Isaias’ non-compliance and there was nothing that says to the effect, “If the president fails to implement the constitution with a certain time, then, and the Constituent Assembly or the National Assembly in session could implement it.”

The third time was when it intentionally escalated the border conflict with Ethiopia into an outright war in 1998. I am not saying the Eritrean government started the conflict but, it certainly escalated it into a full-blown war. Anyhow, however you cut it and slice it, the 1998-2000 war was a war of choice.

The final straw for me was the arrest of the group of high-level government officials and journalists on September 18, 2001. I was finally able to see the emperor without clothes. Isaias Afwerki finally succeeded to have what he had always seemed to want: unfettered power to do whatever he wanted and use Eritrea as a launching pad for his regional megalomania.

Later, I found out information that shocked me to my bones: the Transitional government of Eritrea was fighting wars in the Congo, the Sudan, and South Sudan without the knowledge of the Eritrean people. Even the so-called reformers who are now either in jail, dead or in exile were part of this reckless military adventure. It is fair to say that there was something fundamentally wrong with the new government of Eritrea from the get-go.

As for me, I had the good fortune to experience the blessings of liberty first-hand in America since the age of nineteen. America was love at first sight. I love liberty and democracy because the latter is the best way to institutionalize the former. I was in college when Eritrea became independent. It was natural and logical to wish the same thing for the people and country I hail from. I was driven to stand up against tyranny more by morality than politics. I believe in doing the right thing and in the face of evil, silence was not an option, so I raised my voice and spoke up against tyranny.

I have neither regretted my words nor actions against tyranny in Eritrea. In fact, it is a mark of pride for me. I have never compromised my core values and principles. There is a reason America is the land of the “free and the brave.” In the words of Winston Churchill, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Now that I am politically active in my city, here in America, I have asked myself if my campaign would be any different if I were running in Eritrea. I can categorically tell you that my core values and principles would be the same, but my issues and priorities would reflect the needs of the respective places.

I never understood how some people could enjoy freedom in America and support tyranny in Eritrea. If, according to the Bible, “a house divided unto itself, cannot stand,” how could that be possible for a human being.

Of course, this presupposes knowledge and awareness which some of them clearly lacked and I hope I am not appearing as too judgmental. It is understanding that I am interested in.

2.) How has getting involved in Eritrean politics has affected your lifestyle? Is it hard to go to HDGEF-dominated areas such as the community, church, etc?

In the early years when I first made it clear that I oppose the regime in Eritrea, a lot of people, including people who were close to me treated me differently. Their disapproval was evident in their faces and mannerism, and a few of them would even come out and insult you outright and threaten you with bodily harm.

In the early 2000s, it was not popular to be in the opposition; the regime in Eritrea had the majority of the Eritrean Diaspora on its side. I remember the days when we invited guest speakers from the opposition, we would have to hire at least two or three off-duty officers because we were concerned that the pro-regime members of our community could come and disrupt our meetings and cause harm. This was not unfounded concern. Some of the regime’s members have made threats in public meetings and called for the ostracization of the members of the opposition. This is exactly what the “maHber Andnet” did to those Eritreans who were on the Impendence Block during the 1940s and 50s. In many ways, the PDJ/EPLF has become a modern-day incarnation of the old “Andnet.”

I vividly recall a conversation I had with the late Ambassador Girma Asmerom who threatened to “unleash his dogs on me,” if I did not stop inviting the late Ambassador Adhanom Ghebremariam for a meeting in Dallas. To my chagrin, I have come to discover that the pro-regime Eritreans’ preferred mode of communication were insults, threats, and put-downs.

I used to be very engaged with the Eritrean community of DFW. Once I made my decision to speak up, I have found out that it was much wiser to avoid than to engage them. Unless there is death in the community, or a wedding, I did not particularly care associating myself with people who chose to be blind to the misery of their people and deaf to their mourning and weeping.

We are the company we keep, and I chose not to keep their company; they are toxic and corrosive to the soul.

Overtime, the number of people who started to speak increased exponentially and now, to the best of my estimate, I would say most of the Diaspora are against the regime. Several of the people who had visited Eritrea have started to speak up after seeing the damage the regime is causing first-hand. There is a strong consensus among Eritreans that the regime must go but they are concerned about the inevitable vacuum that could be created with the fall of the regime.

There is a joke in America which says that your average Joe is a paycheck away from being homeless. Well, I tell you that the countries in the Horn of Africa were/are just a bullet/protest away from being failed states. Look at Somalia, Ethiopia, and the Sudan. Do they strike you as functioning states? The fear of a power vacuum, anarchy, civil unrest, and even civil war is real, and every precaution must be taken to minimize the potential danger.

3.) Through your time in being involved in the Eritrean political scene, have you established a network with high-profile individuals that are/were in the opposition (ie: Ambassadors, former government ministers, etc.) and if so, how was it like working with them, and what have you learned from their cooperation?

Yes, I have met most of them and have come to know some of them as friends. Most of them were technocrats and bureaucrats and not really the leaders who called the shots within the EPLF. The more I learn about the EPLF, the more I discover that Isaias was the heart and soul of the organization. There was only one sun in the EPLF, and that sun was Isaias and anyone who tried to come close to it got burned.

As individuals, most of them are impressive and talented people who have given the Eritrean cause all they had, but they were victims of the organization they had helped establish and build. The EPLF’s culture was built upon unquestionable loyalty to the organization first and to the Eritrean cause second. This is the cultish aspect of the EPLF. Under the guise of organizational discipline and loyalty, no one was allowed to question anything outside of his/her narrow and limited assignments and departments.

Today, it is mindboggling to many of us why, for example, someone who was a member of the politburo or Central Committee would not know why, when, and how, for example, the Yemin were liquidated.

The culture of individual responsibility was an alien concept to the EPLF. When I first met the late Ambassador Adhanom, whom I came to like and respect a lot, he told me that Adhanom, as an individual, had died in 1972 when he joined the EPLF. I am afraid that this rings true for all of them.

In the absence of individuality, there is no morality and without morality there is no responsibility. No wonder none of them have taken personal responsibility for the harm they have caused the Eritrean people.

A single rain droplet could not be responsible for the flood a river causes, so goes their argument.

4.) People have called the Eritrean political opposition “immature” and unable to bring conducive change to Eritrea. As a political analyst and outspoken Eritrean activist, what do you have to say?

I think the only group of Eritreans who fit that description are Isaias and his cronies. They have been in power for three decades and they have nothing to show for it. If a tree is known by the fruit it bears as the Bible tells us, then, the case of Eritrea is beyond sad.

Eritrea today is known for being one of the most indebted countries in the world, which has produced the highest number of refugees per capita. Eritrea is way behind in terms of technology, science, and education even by African standards. If there was any “maturity” in Isaias, he should have stepped down after the humiliating defeat of the 1998-2000 so-called border war. But this man knows no shame and honor. After the humiliating defeat at the Six-Day War of 1967 with Israel, the late Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt resigned from his presidency because he was a man of honor.

The Eritrean opposition’s ineffectiveness is related to the ineffectiveness of the people back home, particularly the former fighters of the EPLF. If the Eritrean opposition is in the Diaspora, it would remain irrelevant and therefore ineffective. One of the reasons the EPLF won during the liberation struggle is because it was inside Eritrea and had a territory it controlled.

Add to this the foreign policies of the two biggest neighboring countries with ideologies that was inimical to Eritrean nationalism: Political Islam in the Sudan and Ethnicism in Ethiopia. The Eritrean opposition was in a trap.

But I can say one thing with great probability: when the Eritrean people revolt against the regime or the army revolts against Isaias, the Eritrean opposition would set aside all its differences and rally behind the national cause. Because they would then be relevant and with relevance comes effectiveness.

The bridge that connects the opposition in exile with those inside Eritrea must be built if Eritrea is to effectively manage its transition from tyranny to democracy. “A soft landing” is what is need as brother Abdurrahman Sayed (aka Bohashim) would say.

5.) There are Eritreans who fear that a government that is not the likes of Isaias’s one-party authoritarianism will dismantle the cultural unity that currently prevails in the country (ie: no tribalism, Christians-Muslims not fighting, etc.) What are some measures that can be put in place to make sure that does not happen in a post-Isaias’ Eritrea.

The notion that the unity of the Eritrean people is maintained by the one-party system of Isaias is patently wrong and shameful. There is a long history of harmonious co-existence among the different ethnic and religious groups in Eritrea. If anything, the regime is undermining this historical cultural unity.

In Galatians, Paul exhorts Christians that “There is neither Jew nor Greek…in Christ.” Prophet Muhammad equally exhorted Muslims that “There is no Arab and non-Arab, white and black…they all constitute one brotherhood,” in his farewell sermon. Two millenniums later, there are Jews as well as Greeks and a millennium and half later there are Arabs and non-Arabs as there are Whites and Blacks.

Eritrean unity like Christian and Muslim unity is the highest ideal and inspiration, and we should never stop its pursuit, but we should have the humility to recognize that we will always come short. There would always be some sort of demographic differences in Eritrea: tribal, ethnic, linguistic, religious…etc. The key is to manage and not eradicate them.

At the end of the day, nationalism is just tribalism writ large.

In fact, when the EPLF’s nemesis, the TPLF, madly institutionalized differences in Ethiopia, the EPLF totally denied them. Both are bad and wrong choices.

One of the biggest factors that has contributed to the problems of the Horn of Africa is the inability of the respective regimes to manage differences. The management of differences and diversity presupposes their acknowledgement and acceptance. I acknowledge that the regime does pay lip service to diversity on holidays by showing-casing ethnic dancing and music, but for the rest of the year, it is all about control and homogenizing in the name of national unity.

In the world of the Eritrean regime, unity is inseparable from homogeneity.

The Eritrean regime has weakened the national unity that was forged by Eritrea’s Founding Fathers who made some serious compromises to reflect the religious and linguistic diversity of the nation. With the demise of the regime, my hope is that Eritreans would go back to the 1940s and 1950s and reclaim that short-lived tradition of political compromise and the management of diversity.

The EPLF and ELF experience is one of domination and control and there is not a whole lot we could take from it to lay the foundation of a future democratic Eritrea.

6.) People say that the Isaias Afwerki dictatorship’s fall is imminent and democracy to prevail in Eritrea is impending. What would be the timelapse of that/what do you think will be a push-factor for the illegitimate government to collapse? 

I do not know. We have been talking about the imminent collapse of the regime for over two decades, I do not think there is one sane person who would engage in this fruitless discussion. I once made a prediction of the downfall of the regimes in the Sudan and Eritrea. I was right on the Sudan and wrong on Eritrea. I have learned my lesson: no one can predict the future. I can discuss the different scenarios that could happen but predicting the timeline of the regime’s collapse would be an exercise in futility.

The best scenario as I alluded in my previous response is to connect the internal and external opposition and expedite the downfall of the regime. Although Isaias had intentionally avoided the institutionalization of government entities, it is crucially important to reach out and ensure the support of the key agencies, such as the military, the air force, navy, security, intelligence, and the police.

The late Donald Rumsfeld used to say, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish you have at a later time.”

Regime change is a risky business, and the wisdom is to embark on the less costly and lesser evil choices.

7.) Is there any reconciliation that needs to be done in Eritrea in a post-Isaias Eritrea, and if so, how should it be carried out?

In the last three decades, the Eritrean people have gone through endless tragedies and traumas, and they need healing at an individual, societal and national level. National dialogues, truth and reconciliation should be part of the transitional management. It is the only way to put the past to rest and forge a better future of true citizenship based on equality, liberty, and justice. The key ingredient to this national task is inclusivity and empowerment. All groups should be represented at the table.

If the people truly own the process, then, they will own the outcome