Eitrea: Identifying Major Bones of Contention and Division: the Eritrean State

Yebio Woldemariam

This brief paper was prepared for an informal meeting held in Washington DC by concerned scholars to discuss Eritrea’s current predicament and to suggest means on how to extricate the country from its present quagmire. The two day scholarly meeting attempted to describe the causes and effects of the frightful scenario that our people find themselves. It was the most frank and educating meeting that I have so far attended
The aim of this meeting, I gather, is to throw ideas that could be helpful in bringing the rule of law in Eritrea. Here it is assumed that the regime in place is undemocratic, sectarian, belligerent and bankrupt in every sense of the word to warrant such an extraordinary meeting by concerned Eritreans. This initiative which we all pledge to support is mainly focused on finding ways to empower the forces opposing the regime. By extension our brainstorming sessions is expected to weaken the grip of the EPLF led regime on our people and shorten their agony by formulating or rather encouraging many of the capable people inside and outside of the country to come up with workable plan of action to deal with our predicament. In other words it is an exercise to entice Eritreans of all walks of life for dialogue to match a strategy to end the horrors gripping Eritrea.

Although one might expect that my talk should reflect and dwell on the urgent problem facing Eritrea, that is, describing the nature of the brutal regime and how to deal with it, I choose not to do so for various reasons. Instead the theme of my talk will focus on the post-Isaias period as I would predict them to emerge. To my mind the weakness of the opposition forces including the civic societies and their inability to deal effectively with the regime in Asmara are the same ones that will play havoc in future Eritrea that is, if by divine intervention the present rulers leave the scene. I am hopeful that some of the papers will directly deal with the anatomy of the dictatorial regime and the way of removing as well as on diagnosing the atrophy of the opposing forces and how to strengthen them.

There are different scenarios by which the EPLF could give way to a new order/or disorder.

Based on extrapolation of historical data and the objective reality of Eritrea let me hypothesis what the situation may develop into in post-Isaias Eritrea. The null hypothesis listed below could be irrelevant or false if there is drastic political change happening inside and outside Eritrea between now and the time the decisive blow is administered to oust the cabal. But as things stand now ONE of the possible scenarios is that disgruntled but disorganized men in arms could take the helm by neutralizing the main forces backing Isaias. However, unable to put lid on the Pandora box that they inadvertently opened a state of paralysis may take hold to require regional force to influence events. The SECOND possibility that we can’t count out as farfetched is the role that the assorted but sectarian armed groups operating out of Ethiopia may play in throwing the regime off balance to force it resort to a) its habitual divisive mode ( Muslim Christian, Akel Guzai/Hamasien) b) act savagely against innocent people implicated in the attempt to overthrow it c) blaming Ethiopia to justify its irreconcilable difference with it hence for its ‘resolute stand’. The THIRD scenario one envisages is that Ethiopia may decide to overthrow the regime knowing full well that there is no force on earth to halt its march to Asmara. Needless to say the consequence of Ethiopian action on disjointed people with little or no minimum program to hold them together and lacking common purpose or goal is disaster to say the least. . Finally, there is period in history where the ruling class despite its pompous posture wrapped in sense of false security finally give up and loss appetite to rule. Conversely, the ruled already in sub-conscious state of rebellion refused to be ruled. In such circumstance many hitherto unforeseen elements come to reassert themselves creating chaos for ordinary people to yearn for peaceful existentialism.

All being equal, what then are the elements that I predict will come to haunt Eritreans as a people and their state in post-Isaias Eritrea. Among the salient ones are religion, regionalism and the culture of violence that help create the Eritrean state.

Let me confess my appreciation, adoration and respect for Yosief Ghebrehiwot of Asmarino and Ali Salim (if it is pen name I will be disappointed) of Awate among few who refused to be cowed for their forthright views in dealing with controversial issues ranging from ghedli’s false start, to land grab, to religious dichotomy, dual identities etc. Sadly while few are audacious to raise issue regarded as taboo in Eritrean politics many of us are shy to deal or even talk about such burning issues that if left unattended can be the undoing of the Eritrean state as we know it. In this regard I detest those who harp on the commonality of the Eritrean people without giving any consideration to their difference. As if difference among people is liability rather than asset it has become necessary and I might add politically correct to emphasis on ‘hade libi hade hizbi’ mantra or the nihilistic notion of ‘our forefather lived harmoniously’. Who is to deny that the lowland pastoral who professes Islam has at onetime interacted and exchanged commodities with the Christian highlander? The fact remains many of the adis if not all in the lowland Eritrea claim their origin from the plateau, the core of Abyssinia. The same can be said of the Tigrigna speaking Jebertis who lived amongst Christians in the plateau. But the fact remains that the Muslim-Christian relationship in Eritrea is marred with suspension, mistrust and occasional violence.

One need not be an astute political observer to notice the invisible gap that exists between the two communities. The division is clearly manifested in membership constitution, participation in public demonstrations, in meetings and symposiums. Let’s be frank here out of the invited Muslim scholars none showed up for the meeting in Washington DC and only one send a brief note outlaying many of the problems which most of us disregard to include in our papers. This holds true if we care to revisit the ENCDC conference held in Addis Abeba where the majority of the participants were of Muslim persuasion. Thus, the ENCDC initiative was regarded as Muslim and a tool to realize the deferred dream of Old Jebha. It would be educational for unassuming Eritreans to serf paltalk rooms to realize how divided Eritrea is. Even the façade put by Isaias Afwerki to convince the world that Eritrea is egalitarian by placing Muslims on top of government post does little to mask the truth that the army and government departments are dominated by Christian highlanders.

As the politics of the 1940s testify Eritrea has always been in the verge of splitting into two, thanks to Bevin-Sforza plan which advocated for its division based on religious and ethnic reality of the colony. In a sense it will take the goldmine fields at Bisha and a well polished demagogue to hatch a movement for the secession of the western province from Eritrea. Similarly, the urge of revising the Independence Project (secession) started in the 1960s may come from the highland Christian elements. What appears to be the voice in wilderness today may find a fertile ground in the future to put the country in turmoil? The sooner one realizes this fact the easier to solve the problem. Religion can be a ticking bomb next to other complicated social issues with the potential of drawing the attention of peripheral states eager to exploit for their good end. Stop pretending that all is well.

Eritreans like many agrarian societies are clannish and tribal with regional sentiment prevailing above individual initiative, rights or free will. Although this phenomenon is common among Eritreans of different ethnic groups its manifestation among the highland Abyssinians whose allegiance to one of the three zones is more pronounced. Ironically there is also combined clannish attitude toward the very same people across the Mereb. I will leave this topic to groups dedicated to bringing peace and friendship not only with the people immediately across the Mereb but also with the peoples of Ethiopia.

Regionalism is new phenomenon among the highland people of Eritrea. It is mostly embraced by the ghedli generation but also afflicting the generation born after independence. This primitive sentiment is widely spread among the Diaspora opposing the government and pro government alike. (As sad as it may sound and look the split among the youth in Diaspora and the young-in-arms attempting to oust Isayas and his group, is rumored to be centered around region and regionalism) Thus, if unchecked regionalism could prove to be regressive in the future to further complicate the already complex situation. In relative term, however, it may hold secondary role as a stumbling block. The fear is that regionalism can be used to promote the hidden agenda of the elite to further exacerbate the situation. With the exception of Eritrean Muslims who treat regionalism as secondary many people of highland extraction regard the regime as Hamasien dominated with the ensemble being conducted by no other than Maestro Isaias Afwerki, himself hailing from a village in Hamasien. Historically speaking the student lead Eritrean armed struggle has used regionalism as a tool to neutralize or compensate individuals.

Given Eritrea’s size, its population and resources at hand, the war machine currently under deployment is unnecessary and costly. It is also dangerous for a nation lacking cohesiveness within itself. Today over half a million people (educated guess), Warsai, old people, women, professionals, barman-woman, included knows how to handle a gun. This is ominous for a nation besieged by many political yet unresolved issues. It is recipe for internal strife much bigger than the one experienced in the 1970s. It is indeed distressing to contemplate the damage that this huge military hardware and people with ample knowledge to use them could do to each other. Thus, demilitarization becomes a prerequisite to peaceful co-existence, social harmony and regional peace. Be that as it may, the culture of violence long introduced in Eritrea can be more problematic because of its proliferated state.

That is why some of us insist that Eritrea enter into self disarmament gear pronto and starts living within its means. The country is small with limited resource and no match to the countries surrounding it in particular Ethiopia. As people in Eritrea suffered hugely during the past 50 years as cannon fodders in the war of liberation and targeted by the government forces, many thousands also perished in a decade of the internal strife and through the extra judicial actions of the ELF and EPLF. They deserve to live peacefully without harassment and interference in their lives.

Since the time allotted to me is sufficient to make an outline of my points it certainly is not enough to discuss them in detail. I hope to explain in much more clarity as we go along. In conclusion I identified three major bones of contention that could derail the smooth transition in post-Isaias Eritrea. Religion is one of them. As I have tried to explain briefly, it is factor that demands delicate approach. It is also a flexible tool to use in nation building, promote peaceful cooperation and harmony among peoples. Unlike many of the elites, the people in general are concerned with justice, peace and bread not to heed the voice of reason or the advice of foresighted leadership.

The militarization of Eritrea should be a concern to its citizens. The militarization of the people in post-Isaias Eritrea could prove to be the most destabilizing factor. The agonizing near three quarter century of armed conflict was a bitter experience for Eritreans to fall back into the trap of cyclic armed clashes and mayhem. In a land where bullets surpass the amount of bread and where culture of violence is justified as a means of achieving an objective it is hard not to worry about post-Isaias Eritrea. To my understanding, identities based on region, tribal sentiment and clan affinity is easily manageable provided a sense of equity to address the problem is in place.