Eritrean Discourse: History or Politicizing History
By Fessahaye Mebrahtu
In the heated debate on Eritrea’s political situation, there is also deafening silences of Eritrean intellectuals, save a few. The sad thing is that some Eritreans with impressive credentials have compromised their intellectual integrity by blindly backing a rogue system of the PFDJ regime. Eritrean intellectuals who challenge the PFDJ brutality and call for justice also should refrain from being the cadres of the opposition groups. Yet, they still can be activist scholars without compromising their intellectual integrity. The purpose of this article is far elitist discourse; rather focusing on objective and contextual analysis. My main attempt is to bring an historical perspective to the endless and futile debates on Eritrea’s past and present predicaments. In the process, I hope that Eritrean experts in various disciplines will help clear the fogginess on Eritrean website monitors. Rehashing urban legends, myths and political propaganda without an historical merit will not move us forward.
Allow me to revisit my earlier posting on Hamid Idris Awate’s legacy. It is to be remembered the various editorials, comments and counter comments that poured like a torrential rain; some saying “We are all Awate.” As a matter of fact I found this to be very catchy slogan that can be applied in other situations. The vilification of Mr. Qornelios Esman went unabated while his reaction to the reactions did not help the matter to calm down. I am sure his political persona and other underlying political issues must be in play. However, we did not acknowledge the suffering of the Kunama ethnic group and we failed to be in his shoes. Yes, we all failed to say, “We are all Kunama.” Thanks to Assenna the “We are all Awate” slogan can be used as a mantra for each of our ethnic groups, “We are all Saho, Bilin, Tigre, etc.” A mantra is a way of interiorizing a virtue by continuously repeating it; by using it as a mantra hopefully the one day we might understand our diversity as a value not a weakness.
Looking at more closely at the “Hamid Idris Awate” argument, we were repeating the Ethiopian counter argument against Eritrea’s self-determination. Ethiopians use to say, “All Ethiopians were oppressed under the feudal or Dergue system.” Though this argument could have to solidarity, in reality it was minimizing the suffering of Eritreans under Ethiopian successive regimes. Such rationalizations are normally is used by a majority group or those who have political hegemony directly or by proxy. Therefore, our emotive reactions to Qernelios blurred our vision to see what he saw in the suffering of his people. We hope this gave us a lesson not to minimize the grievances of any Eritrean ethnic group or individuals when they expressed their frustrations in a manner of not to our likings or sensibilities.
As we shift to the main thrust of this article, I will go with the inventory list myths and urban legends circulated in websites. The inventory lists by and large are used as emotive reactions, insults, stereotypes, etc. The political arguments spin if these inventory lists were at the roots of current Eritrean predicaments. The following are the lists that I was able to come with that often appear in Eritrean websites: “Mahber Andnet, Mahber Fiqri-Hager, Mahber-Rabita Islamia, Kebessa vs. Metahit, Tigray-Tigrinyi agenda, Muslim vs. Christian, ethnicentrism, regionalism, etc. These have become the linchpins of Eritrea’s vicious cycle political discourse. Though these might seem casually thrown words and phrases; they are the classic “boogeyman” of scare tactics. The purpose is to appeal our demons not to our better angels.
These names and phrases need to be understood in their historical context. Above all, we have enough Eritrean intellectuals and historians who can shed light on them for us to have the better perspective. I do not see myself as an expert on this matter but I will attempt to share my insights from what I know. My ultimate goal, however, is to provoke Eritrean intellectuals break their silence without compromising their credentials as cadres of one or another group. My hope adding an intellectual discourse might bring some objectivity instead of tossing our people back and forth in political winds or politicized history.
Let us address Mahber-Andnet in its historical context. First, its goals and objectives were clear to unite Eritrea to Ethiopia. Was this initiated by Eritreans or orchestrated by Ethiopia, I hope some of our scholars with chronological timeline at their disposal will help us understand it better. However, we cannot understand Mahber-Andnet without linking it to Mahber-Fiqri Hager (Ye’Hager Fiqir Mahber) which was founded in Ethiopia at the eve of Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Among the founders of Ye’Hager Fiqir Mahber were prominent Eritreans, who left Italian occupied Eritrea for refuge or opportunity. These prominent Eritreans became part and parcel of the Ethiopian resistance and later part of the post war reconstruction in early 1940s. The Italians who were kicked out of Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1941, it was easy for the Ye’Hager Fiqir Mahber to spill over to Eritrea translated into Tigrinya “Mahber Fiqri Hager” becoming the seedling to the Maheber Andnet unity movement.
In proper historical context, neither Mahber Fiqri Hager nor Mahber Andnet should be demonized; instead they should be seen as African resistance movements and aspiration for self-determination. Though some might argue, “How can one see as self-determination uniting back with Ethiopia?” Again we need to look at the historical context. Eritrea under the British Protectorate and Ethiopia the only country free of European occupation, it was no brainer for Eritreans who fought on the side of Ethiopia to see this as self-determination. Second, tens and thousands of Eritreans who fought as Italian soldiers invading Ethiopia were integrated into the Ethiopian society offering skilled labor in the post-war construction in the pre-Federation arrangement of Eritrea with Ethiopia. Taking the historical and cultural connection into account, Eritreans who made Ethiopia their new home cannot be blamed for seeing union with Ethiopia as a viable option. They realized that there was individual economic and political benefit to gain.
In 1940s, where the Eritreans aspiring for independence as a nation state? I need credible evidence that speaks to this fact if any. How many other African countries had liberation movements for independence from colonial occupation? There were very few but not to the point they could inspire Eritreans; especially considering the challenges of media information circulation at the time. Therefore, looking at Ethiopia as a symbol of independence and sovereignty was not out of the ordinary, taking the cultural and historical affinity into account. I do not want to minimize the growing consciousness that culminated in the development of “federation constitution” probably one of the most progressive constitutions of its time because it came out of the UN idealistic vision. In1951, the federating Eritrea with Ethiopia might have seemed doing a favor to Ethiopia, in reality it was also damage control so that other Africans under colonial rule won’t aspire for self-determination.
The political consciousness of Eritreans began to evolve for self-determination as an alternative option to federating with Ethiopia. The quest for independence in the late 1950s was not unique to Eritrea; Africans, especially under the British and French rule were revolting demanding self-determination. Were Eritreans satisfied with federation arrangement? It seemed so until Emperor Haile-Selassie nullified the federation arrangement and annexed Eritrea. The shock of losing their new founded identity as semi-independent state with own constitution, elected assembly and flag might have not been uniform but it sow the seed of Eritrean Liberation movements. The odds were stack against us from Western Bloc’s geopolitical interest; Ethiopia needed to have access to sea, above all the Emperor did not want a semi-independent province challenging his ‘divine authority’ while the rest of his 13 provinces were simply the “real estates” of his feudal lords and families. Therefore, the continuous blame of certain entities, regions, and religious groups in their role of union with Ethiopia has to be taken in proper historical perspective. These entities cannot be blamed in perpetuity for the problems of Eritrea, most of which are of our own makings.
The “Tigray-Tigrinyi” conspiracy theory also needs its own historical perspective. Though it was politicized and exploited so much as the nexus for full union with Ethiopia, there is another aspect that has been overlooked. Primarily, Tigray-Tigrinyi was not about Kebessa vs. Metahit; rather it was about bringing the Tigrinya speaking group challenging the power hegemony of Amhara. The first Weyane rebellion of 1940s and 1950s squelched in southern Tigray by Emperor Haile-Selassie with the help of the British has to be understood in this light. For example, after the Weyane defeat, some family members of Emperor Yohannes had to take refuge in Eritrea under British protection. This is not revisionist history but an underlying issues overlooked by many of us because we were obsessed with “Tigray-Tigrnyi” as a plot to dominate the other ethnic groups in Eritrea. The Kebessa vs. Metahit issue was rather secondary, mostly heightened by the Mahber Andnet vs. Al Rabita Party rivalism. Therefore, rehashing the Tigray-Tigrinyi as the central plot of Eritrean malady does not do justice to the political history; it has politicization of history.
In reality, the Eritrean Kebessa and Metahit, with the exception of a couple distinct ethnic groups, they have more in common with each other than with Tigray. For example, there are several clans of Metahit that point their origin to Kebessa and there are also equal numbers of them to claim their origin to the lowlands. Religion traditions might have put these geographic groups from each other but religion was did not have divisive factor since Christianity and Islam coexisted side by side since the beginning. I would like to quote a Ge’ez expression, “በስመ ማሕደር ይጸዋዕ ሓዳሪ፣ በስመ ሓዳሪ ይጸዋዕ ማሕደር – a dweller is named by his dwelling; a dwelling is named by its dweller.” Geographic/climatic conditions might have affected our life-styles but we are not as separate and different as we have been made to believe. The hair splitting of Kebessa vs. Metahit narrative after all is of recent of political construct. For example, our grandparents were multilingual than we are. I remember my grandfathers and granduncles speaking Tigre and Saho like their mother tongue with fluency. For them “Kebessa Metahit” were geographic locations not political or cultural divisions. Their perception of each other was simply the next door neighbor or the next of keen and treated each other as such. The occasional conflicts cannot be elevated more than family feuds. We cannot also ascribe the “Metahit-Kebessa” solely to religious divide because by and large Saho ethnic groups and Jeberti, who are Moslems dwell in Kebessa.
Religious diversity in Eritrea has been there long before the creation of our boundaries and given a new name by our colonizers. Long before Christianity, Judaism was practiced alongside traditional African religions. Christianity was introduced since its beginning and so was Islam. Each religious tradition was integrated into their indigenous cultures resisting foreign influence shrouded as religious values. The current movements of religious extremists who force their values on our people are cultural colonialists at the expense of our indigenous values. The quest for reformation is present in every religious tradition but it has to take us to higher enlightenment not back to a tunnel of darkness. Eritreans of all religious persuasions should be vigilant of such extremism that belies our historical coexistence and tolerance.
Relating to communities across borderlines in our neighboring countries is no brainer. The borders are artificially placed by outsiders irrespective of who lives on which side of the imaginary line; keeping it as “sacra sanctum” to point of going to wars over them with devastating consequences. No need more preaching about it. However, the internal and external divide that we have been harping on for the last fifty years is more a “boogeyman” syndrome than a reality. Yet, if we keep pocking this artificial construct one day we might make it bleed; exposing it to external pathogens for infection.
In recent years, I have no doubt instigated by the PFDJ we have been witnessing hypersensitivity of such artificial divides. If not Kebessa vs. Metahit it is regionalism within Kebessa; sometimes going all the way to the lowest denominator, such as village vs. village. If we cannot recognize such “divide and conquer” skims of PFdJ or other entities vying for political power, we have not learned our lesson yet. The recent drive of PFDJ to arm men and women up to age seventy is not for national defense, rather to exploit any internal fissures and ditch us into intractable civil war and dismantle Eritrea. I am not discounting the commendable articles that provoke dialogue and enlighten us. It is also disheartening to see hatred and ignorance spewed like hot lava in Eritrean social media and our websites. When outlandish lies and personal smears are tolerated without challenges, we lose teachable moments and opportunities for sensible dialogue. If unchallenged, it is easy “making a mountain out of an ant mole.”
Eritreans need focus on our communalities those unities us historically, culturally, linguistically, genealogically, etc. Even some of us scorn my analysis, we have been bounded by the boundaries, which I characterized as artificial and bonded by the common struggle we paid dearly. We need to regain our vision and focus on the broad horizon, charting our common destiny. I would like to conclude with a quote from the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia addressing the youth, “We have no more enemies except ignorance and poverty.” It is harder to overcome ignorance than poverty. Ignorance as a state of mind is hard to tackle because it starts with me. I have open myself up and be vulnerable to change my long held beliefs and world view most likely based on ignorance layered with decades of misinformation and politicization of history.