How possible one might ask, to give life back to a life-less fetus past the trimester stage? Is it possible at all to bring back to life a creature in the throes of expiration or completely expired while hibernating in the most secure and comfortable niche, the womb? In today’s world it is almost possible for skilled medics to put life back on persons gravely injured including those with their internal organs exposed or their skulls busted by Improvised Explosive Device (IED). We are long aware that death caused by minor bullet wound has been reduced considerably from its horrendous level to inhumanly acceptable one, thanks to the invention of anti-biotic, which came into wider use during the Second World War. Incidentally, this seemingly impossible medical feat is widely and expeditiously applied only in theatre of wars where the developed nations of the North are physically involved. Provided the trickle effect theory works one can not but contemplate that could the number of victims in the Eritrea-Ethiopian civil war reduced to half of the estimated six hundred thousands had the combatants on both side were able to easily access the miracle drugs and medical practices adopted, monopolized and regrettably rationed by the developed nations. The question remains can this phenomenal advances in science extend to other domains for example, stillborn. If it doesn’t then, it becomes tragic no less than the past half century that Eritreans were forced to pass through. In that case an alarmist such as myself is less to blame should the predication come to pass. In plain words, Eritrea’s woe will not end with the demise of the corrupt and sectarian group and their replacement by demagogues who will use anything and everything available in their arsenal; religion, region, clan, tribe etc. to achieve their narrow objective.
Let me proceed and pose the question once again, is it within the realm of human capability to skillfully handle and save stillborn fetus? If the answer is in the affirmative then one hopes that an Eritrean State on its own right can emerge ready to do battle against poverty, ignorance, and insecurity. But if the answer is to the contrary, it certainly is bad omen especially for the tireless and determined people working selflessly to bring change in Eritrea. In that case it is worth testing the hypothesis that Eritrea cannot exist as a socially cohesive and economically viable nation vs. it may with certain difficulties. However, many variable needs to be examined to arrive at this speculative conclusion. Definitely, historical markers, politics of the past and the present, diplomatic finesse, economic status of the territory are but few of the factors that will need to be looked at in order to assist one shape his/her opinion.
Forgive my audacity for liken Eritrea to still born fetus. Yes, the analogy may be too extreme to give comfort to many but as student of Eritrean politics it is the only one I can come up with. Despite the provocative nature of the theme, I am hopeful it will provide forum for discussion on the nature of Eritrean politics. Moreover, it could help us frame national dialogue toward the formation of a nation that so far elude many of the most ardent supporters of Eritreanism.
The reason that prompt me write the article is the news dispatch I read at Asmarino, a reproduced version of Radio Erena broadcast. It is a story of young Eritreans escaping the dredge at home but meeting their ultimate fate in the Mediterranean Sea, drowned to the delight of sea creatures or blackmailed by Arab Bedouin (1). Weeks earlier Assena informed its readers, albeit, inconclusively that another bunch of migrants from non other than Eritrea are feared drowned. So goes the story where young men and women leave their homeland to the unknown. This is a repeat story year in year out. The sad part is that neither the government of the day nor the opposition in Diaspora is able to stem the flow, hence for my decision to go beyond the sad headline. After all, the continuous exodus is more than a phenomenon when one traces the history of conflicts in the whole region. It is story of a young and not so young embarking upon a perilous journey with unknown destination for indefinite time. In this regard if not surpass, Eritrea equals all countries in the region. It is, therefore, illuminating to have a cursory look at the human tragedy in the region before delving into the Eritrean case.
The Horn of Africa is breeding ground for human displacement in more or less permanent fashion. The Nuer and the Dinka among many other ethnic groups in what is now Republic of South Sudan begun leaving their homes abandoning their modest livelihood since 1956. In the case of Sudan the gestation period for conflagration to start is so short that refugee stay put wherever they are taking any peace negotiation or treaty with grain of salt. When the expected peace is not achieved it is simply treated as false alarm. This is what you call smartness on the part of the Sudanese refugees. According to UNHCR estimate a little after South Sudan joined the few failed states in Africa, the number of refugees and displaced Sudanese not excluding, Darfurians and people of the Nubian mountains was about 2 million.
The republic or republics of Somalia are the perfect harvest of colonial intrusion into nations that century ago resembled potatoes contained in a sack each living independently and yet hold together by a net thrown by European imperialists. Unfortunately, most of the African continent with some exceptions in the Northern tip is creations of European imperialism without the slightest regard to their historical evolvement, geographical considerations, ethnic compositions, and economical interaction throughout time. As a result, the people of Somalia became victims of blood thirsty tribal war lords (who misappropriated ports and wharfs to trade with Arabia and Europe), fanatic Muslim clerics, all sort of demagogues in urban garb and gun runners virtually turning the country into ungovernable. The status of Somali for the past quarter of century by international diplomatic affair lingo is failed state. Despite the disorder in the land, however, Somalis tried to be functional by allowing market forces to play as they may. In money management and telecommunication field the tormented land become envy of those relatively stable states in Africa while giving some level of comfort to few states on the verge of collapsing to exclaim aha!, after all there is life after death. But the harsh reality is that over two million and half of Somali are refugees within and outside the African continent.
Eritrea, a nation vowed to stay on war footing for eternity have also produced about 250,000 refugees without taking into account the internally displaced persons. An equal number are also found scattered throughout the Sudan who left their home in late 1960 on the onset of the civil war. This tiny nation of five million has more than its share when it comes to producing refugees. It is also a nation that promotes terror in order to justify the perpetual biting of war drum so as to make it as raison d’être for its existence. Ironically, such posture by the ruling clique provides perfect camouflage for the most corrupt and nepotic scoundrels to amass wealth at the expense of the most impoverished people in the continent.
In the process the entire Eritrean youth has become a victim of this criminal behavior committed by an insane leadership. During a visit to a refugee camp in Ethiopia in mid-2011, an assistant high commissioner of UNHCR, was unable to hide her shock when she observed a “sea of young faces”(2). The post-independence refugees included a significant number of unaccompanied children, some as young as six-years-old. During the first six months of this year, 61,591?? migrants from Eritrea landed in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean (3). Hard to believe for a state just emerged from internal and external wars where the youth was the primary victim.
As pointed out earlier, the trouble with those ‘countries’ begin with the way their societies was internally constituted or composed right before the advent of the imperialist intervention in the region. Although I can not speak with authority regarding the various societies in the Sudan and its southern portion or Somalia with only a religion and language to hold the society together, I can certainly speak of Eritrea from its inception to its current predicament, a state in limbo; incapable of forging a constitutional government, unable to define and act on existing dichotomies and a clueless on how to stem human exodus numbering between 4,000 to 5,000 monthly.
Two things are at stake here. One is to indicate that in Eritrea all is hopeless and any effort exerted is an exercise in futility. The second and perhaps a bit ingenious is that all is not doom and gloom. Thus, even stillborn fetus can be revived to life, incubated and developed into manhood. If so, we need to examine with humility and bit of scholarship the statement made by Yosief Ghebrehiwet in his last blog on Dejen, that is, ‘the irreconcilable contradictions that coexist in the same mind that has debilitated Eritreans to a point of catatonic inaction in the face of existential calamity.’
Historically speaking societies in present day Eritrea grew separately with minimum interaction among and between each other to produce through time common mode of production, culture, and even psyche. This is true for both peoples occupying the high country and the lowland. On the other hand it would be quiet indefensible to argue that there was no interaction of any sort between peoples because historical records indicate otherwise. In other words people met in their worst state to pillage and revenge or for the purpose of land and resource aggrandizement. Typical example is the campaign to subdue some portions of highland Eritrea in particular the satellite villages around Tzeazega/Hazega in mid 18th century by the commercially powerful albeit puppet coastal state of Hirgigo is a testimony of such interactions (4). Although, it is still unknown the circumstance by which squatters from the Highland settled in the Sahel region of Eritrea to become an integral part of the western lowland’s societies, nevertheless, it is evident that sparse movement of people did occur (5). Contrary to these episodes, which seemed to have left no legacy, the 19th century by far was a period where relatively more interaction took place again mostly in antagonistic form. This period also coincides with the European colonial adventure to capture African resources. In the process one surmise, the presence of foreign powers in the Red Sea rim must have initiated frequent albeit, indirect contacts between the peoples in the region.
Here, we observe the highland part gravitating toward Tigray and beyond while the western plain with its majestic mountains, the Sahel (fell under?) or interacted no matter how sporadic with the Turko/Egyptian and the powerful houses of worship in the Sudan. Later in the century as colonial adventure become brazen for its own good each member played politics separately but driven by parochial interest. The occasional invasion of the lowlands by Dej Wibe force and later Ras Alula with all their minions can be cited as example. Moreover, the signing of protectorate treaty by the Deglal and Kentebai Hamid of Habab with the Italians is but an additional evidence of foreign intervention (6). Obviously, the intensity of the interaction gather moment when England, France, Italy and the subservient Egypt under Mohamed Ali the Great and his off springs raised the stake higher by eyeing on the source of water and in particular the Nile basin.
The African map in general and the Horn of Africa in particular is testimony to how the colonial powers parceled the region without the slightest regard to its ethnic constitution, economic ties, cultural affinity, customs and conventions. Insanely driven by self-interest the imperial powers fought among each other for geometric boundaries disregarding the cultural and linguistic links already established by the ‘natives’. However this may be, interaction among and between peoples defied the arbitrary borderline placed by the colonial powers to cause some administrative problems at later date.
In this regard, I need not mention the closeness of Tigrigna speaking in both sides of the Mereb River throughout the colonial experience. This is also true with the Afar speaking people in present day Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The arbitrary drawn line to separate the Kunamas under Italian Administration with those in independent Ethiopia was as blurred as an old man trying to gaze over the horizon for rainbow colors. The Hadendawa on both sides remained closer than ever despite British attempt to confine them in each other’s territory. The Somali people were subject to four administrative powers to complicate their clan-based society further. But the scenario mentioned above is not peculiar to the Horn of Africa and more specifically Eritrea but universal across the African continent under the grip of colonial domination. To pre-empt with answers to some pertinent questions that may arise and at the same time explore the hypothesis posed earlier we shall briefly touch on the internal elements that cause wars between the countries in the Horn, and the movement for secession that it sparked with all the lingering effect of mistrust, wars, maladministration, economic hardship and finally influx of refugees.
Encouraged by the outcome of the Berlin conference of 1884/1885, Italy rose to the occasion by consolidating its hold on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Obviously, the ultimate objective was to have unlimited access to resources in abundance in South and West of Ethiopia. Finally, Italy met its ultimate fate at Adwa on March 3, 1896, to remain contented with its colonies, Somalia/Mogadish and Eritrea. Once established in Massawa, Italy did not waste time to widen its orbit. Using the brief presence of Egypt in Keren and outlaying districts, as pretext Italy did not hide its pretension as powerful nation with much more influence in the area than those preceding it, example Great Britain. Ironically, the submission of Kantiba Hamid to the authorities in Massawa appears to support the Italian audacious claim. Nevertheless, between the period Italy occupied Massawa in 1885 and its inglorious defeat at Adwa in 1996 an assorted bandits, chiefs, noblemen played double game in the scramble mostly as a painful sore thumb to the Ethiopian authorities. Tekeste Negashi’s paper on Resistance and collaboration leaves an impression that Italy occupied what is Eritrea today unopposed. Actually the alien forces have helping hand from the locals to ascend the plateau and threatened Ethiopia proper (7).
Technically speaking, Eritrea is a product of involuntarily assembled people chipped from various historically and linguistically constituted peoples of the region to yield the mosaic we see today. Each speaks differently with some cultures interlacing at most. The most visible dichotomy is in the mode of production where one practices agrarian while the other agro-pastoral. Surprisingly, the feudal tenet common in the high plateau are also evident in the lowlands but as variant of its own. Intermarriage between the mostly Muslim lowland with the majority Christian population in the highland was non existent or rare. It is common for people of different religious affiliations to feast separately. During its more than half century stay in Eritrea Italy inadvertently reinforced this deviations further by centering its presence in the highlands.
Unlike in the lowlands, it developed few sleepy villages in the highland into towns where commerce and trade modestly grew. Later when the Fascist party assumed the mantle of power in 1922, it began to build light industries of minor significance; all located in the highland specifically Asmara and Dekemhare. Relatively speaking few roads was built to traverse portions of the highland landmass while the low country was served by single road leading to the Sudan. When Italy embarked upon its grandiose plan of joining the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, it employed the highland population as cannon fodders in a war that pitted poor and impoverished people against each other. This is not to say that there were no other ethnic groups in the Italian adventure of conquest but to underline the unequal ’development’ that it engendered (8). Living under an alien rules surely exposed many to different values, consumptions habits and enable some observe the etho of governance/administration. Thus, by virtue of the location of the economic activities, few from the highland population came measurably closer and had the opportunity to peek at these novelties, novelties that benefited Ethiopia before and after the war of 1935. In absolute term, Italian presence in Eritrea was less influential to be able shatter the feudo-agrarian and pastoral way of life to synthesis a new colonial subject with the capacity and interest to look beyond the sub-national, clan, provincial and sectarian concern anchored in religious beliefs.
When Italy vanquished in the Great War, all the territories under its possession were left for outside powers to decide on their disposition. It was not long after the British assumed temporary administrative duties of the ex-Italian colony, the dichotomies within the Eritrean society begun to show in earnest. Mind you the Italian legacy in Eritrea did not go beyond building skeleton of roadways, few Italian owned economic establishments and an emerald city Asmara, built in the Italian image. The point is, the thrust of Italian development efforts has been externally oriented to organically incorporate ‘natives’ in order to forge a common identity with national interest at the top of the agenda. This appears to be the main cause for many political factions to emerge in the 1940s with the Muslim and Christian led parties pursuing different objectives.
However, few would like to dismiss the political wrangling pervasive in the 1940s as primitive and yes parochial. But it was also the only period in their history that peasants, pastoralists, wannabe politicians and the youth of non-voting age introduced to discourses of political nature. In late 1940s, the period where the United Nations directly dealt with the territory, constituent meetings and demonstrations full of waving placards were common sight. However, the people brought by fate barely understood their very existence depended on reaching a solution palatable to all. In this case to remove themselves as far away as possible from extreme positions in order to arrive at an acceptable solution. It is known that the Independent Block made up of majority Moslems opted for forming an Eritrean nation while the Unionist mostly of Christian persuasion advocated for union with Ethiopia. In a sense the low laying lands fell under the influence of the Moslem League while the highland become the stronghold of the Unionist party. I have repeatedly stated that the federal arrangements that the opposing force coopted to accept satisfied neither. Soon enough the local government (Federal) was debilitated by internal tendencies to do anything meaningful. In fact it created more fissure within it to enable the feudal government to interfere at will to the extent of rewriting the dos and don’t enshrined in the Federal Act.
The Federal arrangement agreed by all the parties including Ethiopia as former claimant to the territory become untenable by the day and led to its demise where Eritrea was relegated to the status of an imperial province. Unable to hold the government forged out of compromise, many members of the quasi-independent state joined the feudal bureaucracy to reap age old feudal perks and few slipped out of the country to morph into formidable foe threatening the Empire. The birth of the armed struggle is therefore another attempt to reconcile ‘the irreconcilable contradictions that coexist in the same mind’ to borrow YGs phrase. The pioneers of the armed struggle, the lowland people were adamant to do battle with Ethiopia in as long as the occupation existed. Certainly within a decade they pose serious threat to Ethiopia, all with the Support of the Arab world. Sadly, from its inception the Eritrean Liberation Front was parochial in its outlook and somewhat reluctant to welcome highlanders in the fold. When it did the consequence was dire (9). However, an off-shot of ELF engineered by the elite from the highland soon emerged to dominate the rugged mountains and opened the door for bitter civil war that resulted in few thousands death. It was the beginning of an end for the ELF and the start of a more rigid, secretive and to large extent sectarian Front, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation.
The story of the EPLF cannot be told in isolation to the political theatrics of the 1940s. When it branched itself from the ELF without doubt it had the interest of the highland population or the Christians at heart. Although veiled in Tigrigna semantics, the early manifesto of the renegade front, clearly describes the rational behind its split from the mother front that have strong clout in the Arab world as a natural progression of the Eritrean struggle (10). Following the outbreak of the February Revolution in 1974, both fronts begun to swell ranks mostly coming from the highland population. However, it is the combination of many factors more than ardent nationalist feelings of the youth to join the fronts that helped build the strength of ELF and EPLF. The reckless handling of the sensitive Eritrean issue by the Dergh, the terror of the time, the economic depression that griped the country, and the role of pull factors such as peer pressure, ghedli romanticism and a way out of the socio-economic stagnation prevalent in the rural areas of the highland are to mention few.
After the forceful ejection of the ELF, the Christian dominated new front acquired a cart blanch to do what is necessary to rid the Ethiopian forces from Eritrea. It is here that new cabal lead by the current president begun to match strategy for future Eritrea, Eritrea ruled not by consensus but through arbitrary decisions with the highlanders as primary decision makers. It was also at this period that thousands of ordinary Eritreans and ghedli members in particular the Christians fell victims to innuendos, and frame up charges that soon came to light. Tragically, wholesale victimization continued all throughout the EPLF rule of Eritrea. Thousands from all ethnic groups fell victim to vicious act of the dead squads and prison wardens. To cap it all, the EPLF government took the new nation to war with Ethiopia causing an estimated 100,000 dead from both sides.
The seemingly resolved contradictions that so much preoccupied post colonial Eritreans came back to reassert themselves 40 years later this time with more vengeance. It was evident that in post independence Eritrea people were less united but divided along ethnic, religious and regional lines to overlook the primary task of building a nation based on justice and fairness, hence for the ‘hade libi hade hzbi ‘ mantra touted by the ruling circle. Understandably, the cabal within the ruling front has little interest in harmonizing the society but aggravating the contradictions to suit its design. What a better way to dominate and exploit the resources both human and material of this impoverished nation than to play the primordial and backward game of religious sentiment, regional division, tribal and clan affinity. By the nature of their membership composition and undeclared but parochial objectives, the political parties and civic organizations in Diaspora seem to play the same tune set by the ruling front. Frankly, many of the opposition groups are in one-way or the other were once associated with the defunct ELF or the ruling EPLF. Today over 30 political grouping some with membership of finger count and many in tenth and few in hundreds exist as bonfide fighters against the tyrannical regime.
Part 2 will follow
1. Sometime in the 1920s (forgive me for being unsure of the exact date) Decimo a battalion of Eritrean colonial army on their way to Italy had a ship wreck in the red sea and tenth of them died (እዞም ደሺሞ እዞም ቆልዑ፡ አብ ቀላይ ኮይኖም ዝጻውዑ)
2. ERICA FELLER. Visit to the refugee camps in Ethiopia UNHCR.org 2011
3. Tim Finan and Peter Allen Report: Wed, August 6, 2014
4. Yohaness Kolmodin. 1911.Tradizione de Hazega and Tzeazeg)
5. (Oral tradition states that Biet Asghede and the rest Ad teclias, Ad temariam etc are believed to have migrated from the highlands possibly Adi Nifas or Segheneiti in the past three centuries)
6. Trattato con Degllal and Habab of Eritrea ca. 1885/1886
7. Belambaras Kafl practically handed over the ex-Egyptian garrison Keren ca. 1888 to the Italians in silver platter. It is fact that Dej Beyene Beraki lead the Italian expeditionary forces through the escarpment to reach the tableland. Even the dramatic dual of Dej Aberra of Tzazega with Captain Bettini in 1889 did not make a dent on the Italian design of conquest. Honestly, all the chieftains big and small were rounded up like a sheep off to slaughterhouse and spend the rest of their life in colonial prison. With the Exception of the anti-colonial and by all measures the agent provactor for the historic battle of Adwa to take place, Dej. Bahta Hagos.
8. There were quiet many from the Eritrean lowlands and Assorta of the high plateau who took arms on behalf of Italy. Ali Muntaz and Idris Awate are few of those coming to mind. Moreover, no one would be recruited to the Italian colonial army without the approval or consent of Hamid Aqa( ዓቓ) together with Abraham Hailu, the grandfather of Isayas Afwerki Abraham. My father died very grateful of “aya Abraham Hailu” who despite his young age interfered on his behalf to enlist in the Army.
9. Leaders such as Mahmud Hishel systematically liquidated many highlanders who joined the struggle and hundreds gave up the fight and returned home. As a result of this sad episode a force exclusively made up of rural highlanders were recruited as counter insurgency force to fight Jebha, perceived as Moslem organization.
10. ‘Nihnan ilamanan’ document released in the early days of the EPLF existence to justify the split of the cabal from the ELF.