OBSERVATION: The death of another African dream

By Kadaria Ahmed

March 15, 2010

Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir is shouting almost as loud as the bereaved. Last week when United Nations sanctions were announced against Eritrea for supporting Somali insurgents, Mr. Al-Bashir was almost as vociferous and vocal as the Eritrean government, in denouncing the action.

During a one day working trip to the country ten days ago, he personally delivered his message of support to President Isaias Afwerki.

This is not surprising; the two men have a lot in common. Both are running quasi dictatorships that do not tolerate dissent. Both men continue to be accused of gross human rights violations. Yet, this friendship is not one that could have been predicted ten years ago.

The antecedents of the two men differ. Mr. Bashir came to power through a coup. A subsequent devious alliance with then Islamist leader, Hassan Al-Turabi, (who has since lost out in the power play) saw him remove his military uniform and transform himself into president. Mr. Afwerki on his part was the young, dashing freedom fighter who led the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and his country to independence. He was adored by almost all Eritreans, at least in those early days.

It is a bit ironic really that the first and only time I laid my eyes on the two men, they were together. The year was 2000 and I was a rookie journalist on a reporting assignment in Eritrea. The country was also at war with Ethiopia at the time.

I remember standing on Independence Avenue, the beautiful tree lined street that runs through Asmara, the state capital, starring at Mr. Afwerki in awe. The occasion was a surprise visit by Mr. Bashir (there was no love lost between the two countries at the time as Eritrea was host to Sudanese opposition group, National Democratic Alliance.) As the convoy carrying the two men leisurely made its way down Independence Avenue, to chants and thunderous applause of Eritreans, the car ferrying the two heads of government slowed down and then stopped.

Out strode Mr. Afwerki, with a big smile on his face. He gently turned and urged the Sudanese President to join him on the street. The latter somewhat gingerly complied. But you could tell this was not a man used to being in close proximity to a multitude of people. Mr. Afwerki’s body language on the other hand was very relaxed. He shook hands with many people and he smiled, a lot. This was a man who was completely comfortable with those he led. He knew he was loved and adored and clearly relished the attention of his people.

The walkabout didn’t last long, just a few minutes; it was easy to see why. The guest, Mr. Bashir, was clearly not comfortable and wanted to get back into the safety of the presidential vehicle. I remember people being amused that I was surprised at Mr. Afwerki’s ease among his people. ‘‘He regularly walks amongst us’’ I was told. An Eritrean journalist was also quick to tell me how he had danced next to the president at a nightclub just a few weeks before I landed in the country.

In all, the picture was of man who loved his country and his people and was working very hard for both and was secure in the knowledge that he was loved and therefore safe.

I remember that trip to Eritrea with a lot of nostalgia, not least because at that time it seemed likely that Eritrea would break the African jinx and actually become a flourishing, vibrant democracy. Everywhere I went,

Eritreans proudly told me how they were going to build their country. Their optimism was surprising because the country was fighting a brutal war with Ethiopia in which thousands were dying. This didn’t seem to dent the certainty with which every Eritrean told me, ‘‘our country will be great’’ The optimism was gushing even in the most unlikely places. At a camp for internally displaced people, I came across a woman who had just given birth in a tent, under the most difficult of circumstances, but she too was hopeful.

Yes, she told me it was tragic that there was a war and many were dying, but she was certain that Eritrea would reach the Promised Land.

Ten years on, hiding under the guise of the conflict with Ethiopia, Mr. Afwerki has ensured that Eritrea is a one-party state under his dictatorship.

Dissenting voices that include former allies have either been jailed or forced into exile. The economy is in shambles and Eritreans continue to flee into neighbouring countries in search of a better living. It is little wonder that his best friends today are other despotic leaders elsewhere.

I sit here and I remember the enthusiasm, the willingness to sacrifice and the sanguinity I found in Eritrea all those years ago and cannot help but wonder what I would see in the eyes of all those people I spoke to if I met them today. What stories would they now share with me? Would their gaze be similar to that which I see here every day in Nigeria? Looks that speak of betrayal, little hope and dashed dreams; cynical eyes that have become wary of waiting for the fulfillment of one African dream.

source : http://234next.com

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