Haddis Alemayehu’s ‘Fiqir iske meqabir (love to the grave) is a literary masterpiece of Amharic literature about feudal Ethiopia that I enjoyed reading during my school days. Addis 2010 revived my memory about the novel and in a number of ways I somehow tried to relate it to the current tragic state of Eritrea. So far, the country’s history looks like the tragic fate of ‘Imet wudunesh’ and ‘Bogale’, the parents of the main character of the book, ‘Bezabeh’ (you bear too much). They died isolated, perceived by their neighbours to have contracted a highly infectious disease that spreads fast and abandoned by their son who left them to pursue his studies. Bezabeh was given that name because he had been sick so many times when he was a kid that his parents were afraid that he will die any time and so his mother dedicated him to the service of the church for the rest of his life – a life of celibacy that his mother chose for him and had no say on it; by doing so, his mother hoped he would survive.
Eritrea ‘bezabat’ (it had too much to bear). The country has so far been condemned to be led by a notorious dictator without its choice. Not only did it become like Bezabeh ‘yemitay inji ye mayibela ferra’ (a fruit to be seen, not to be eaten) as the girls who fell in love with Besabeh described him, but it has become a poisonous fruit that kills those around it. President Isaias Afwerki resembles the feudal lord character ‘Fitewrari Meshesha’ who lives in his military grandeur of the past, focussed on his own interests, unwilling to listen to the advice of those around him and who puts at great risk his own and his family’s property and interests in jeopardy just to pursue his vanity. He is ready to go to a fight at the slightest perceived provocation forgetting that he has become too old for that and that the reality around him had changed so much. The National Conference for Democratic Change (NCDC) held in Addis Ababa in August 2010 was an attempt to salvage the country from the tragic path of ‘Fiqir iske meqabir’.
My journey to the NCDC in Addis began with false perceptions that we were supposed to tackle. At the airport where we departed, I met one of the colleagues who was travelling to the same destination. After introducing ourselves and reflecting on our past activities, my colleague insisted to know what I did before I came to Norway. I told him I taught at the University of Asmara. He quickly remarked, “so you were teaching Arabic.” I was not surprised. I have heard that remark at least twice before from Tigrinya speakers that I met. I decided to ignore the remark for two reasons. First of all it shows ignorance about the Arabic language, which is a very rich one in terms of prose and poetry and is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with more than175 million speakers. This is leaving aside its importance and relevance in our country. I wish I had the command of that and other languages, let alone to have the honour to teach it at a university. Secondly my colleague was a veteran ‘tegadalay,’ first in the ELF and later in the EPLF where he joined with the so called ‘Falul’ only to discover that the organisation he had sought refuge at was much less democratic than the ELF and so he had to leave it too. I had respect for his services to his country.
Earlier there were other perplexing issues, the news coming out from the preparatory committee was scanty, and the agenda seemed too broad. Moreover, an Eritrean nationalities conference was held in Mekele prior to the convening of the national conference. All these made me hesitate to attend during the final days leading up to the conference to which I had earlier committed myself to attend due to its importance; it was supported by almost all the members of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA). I had encouraged my colleagues to attend and I had invited guests and tere was no way to back off at the last minute.
The venue of the conference was not new to me. My first trip there was about 40 years ago when I went there to join the Bede Mariam Laboratory School at Addis Ababa University. It was a 4 day trip from my home town, Agordat. My mother wept most of the time when she knew I would be leaving. She had lost one of her two surviving sons to the Eritrean revolution and so she did not want to lose me in an enemy territory more than 1000 kms away from home. As youngsters, we considered it an adventure to travel so far and it also provided us with full freedom to do whatever we wanted without the watchful eyes of relatives though that freedom that came with responsibilities.
The natural scenery along the Asmara–Addis road was breathtaking, particularly through Gojam. At that time, Addis was the centre of a ruling class that portrayed Ethiopia as an Amhara Christian state eventhough many Amharas remained oppressed. It was like our present Eritrea ‘hade hizbi hade libi’—one people one heart. Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam who taught Geography 101 at the University used to tell us that the Muslims in Eritrea make up about 14 % and that those who stir trouble there are Arabs. We were very much surprised and disappointed that a professor in Geography would make such claims. Asmara was also the centre of the Tigrinya elite. Thus the song ‘Tezeweri makina tezeweriye, Showan Asmaran kuinu mezaweriye’ meaning, ‘-h vehicles! the road between Showa and Asmara has become an entertainment,’ was an indication of the bond between the two elites. Addis 2010, the capital of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is now the centre of a multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural country and by hosting the NCDC it was embracing a multiethnic, multicultural, multi-religious Eritrea. You can still question and say how much democratic and how much multi-cultural has Ethiopia become, but no doubt it is in the process. True, it has hosted the Eritrean Democratic Alliance for years, but this was the first time it has hosted such a large and diversified gathering of Eritreans from all over the world, welcoming them irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Many of the participants have not been to Ethiopia before. Still, many of them fought the Ethiopian army during the occupation when some of us went to study or work ther; and most of them had vivid memories of the brutality of the ‘Tor serawit’ – Ethiopian occupation army. Some of the youth fought in the last Eritrean-Ethiopian border war—for many, it was breaking a psychological barrier. Many were struck by the humility and respectfulness of the Ethiopians they met. A humorous colleague of mine who visited Ethiopia for the first time two years ago, jokingly said, ‘Why did we separate from Ethiopia, ‘You see, if you ask for anything,… they say yichalal – it is possible. We used to call him yichalal.
The presence of a large delegation of Eritreans from the Sudan was even a surprise to few PFDJ political trainees who did not know that there are Muslims in Eritrea to the extent that one of the participants from London had to leave the conference in haste as the Meskerem-fuelled fears came to the surface.
We also came to realise during our stay in Addis how much Ethiopia has progressed in the last 10 years and how much our country is isolated and left behind, in comparison. In the seventies there was one university, today there are about 32 , three of those in Tigray and some in places which were neglected and considered very remote regions. This is irrespective of the quality of education they offer compared to the old Addis Ababa University. Our ports are rotten and may take many years to revive and to compete with ports like Djibouti where billions of dollars were invested. We had one university and it is dismantled. We have a large number of students who could not pursue their studies for years. Our government spends much money on propaganda than it spends on education. This is a much gloomier picture than the one fed daily from the Eritrean TV.
There is a genuine question to ask as what is the interest of Ethiopia in hosting the conference? Does Ethiopia have an interest in Eritrea?
It would be naive not to believe so; any country has interests and has the right to pursue its interests. Ethiopia is harmed by the current Eritrean regime and would like to see the regime overthrown. Genuinely speaking, Ethiopia has a stake in having a stable and a friendly neighbour in the north. It also has a stake in revitalising the Eritrean-Ethiopian relationship based on mutual trust and benefit. We have a stake too in a healthy relationship. There may be doubts about Ethiopia’s intentions and that it may favour a weak Eritrea which it could manipulate. I cannot speak on behalf of Ethiopia and only time will tell about Ethiopia’s real agenda. But as far as the NCDC is concerned, there were no indications that the Ethiopians interfered in the outcome of the resolutions of the NCDC. We need to recognise that Ethiopia is a regional power and we are a small country. The current ruling party in Ethiopia, the EPRDF has supported and stood for Eritrea’s independence at difficult times while many other forces in Ethiopia, at present, do not even recognise Eritrea as an independent country. We also need to open dialogue with all political parties in the country.
Ethiopia is presently the only neighbouring country where we have room for manoeuvring to work against the regime. Even that giant country, Sudan, is so scared of our paper tiger that it has chosen to side with the regime. The Eritrean regime’s death squads operate almost freely in refugee camps in Sudan. One such victim who attended the conference was Adem Mohammed Khair Al Hussein whose 8-member family was attacked with machine guns and grenades while sleeping at their tukul in Shagrab refugee camp in 2001. His wife, 6 month old daughter and 12 year son were killed instantly while he and the rest of his children were injured. One of his children has become invalid. The traumatised family didn’t get a chance for repatriation as was the case with other families. Ethiopia has accepted 1500 Eritrean asylum seekers who were to be deported from the Sudan, imagine the Sudan, to Eritrea. In addition to this they accepted 1450 people with similar cases from Egypt. Don’t they deserve an applause, a credit for saving 3000 lives? A friend in need is a friend indeed. The best gift that Ethiopia provided during the conference, in order to mend relations between the two countries, was its declaration to ease restrictions in the refugee camps by allowing the refugees to live outside the camps in Ethiopia if they can support themselves, where Ethiopia will help them pursue their studies.
Having stayed a number of years in Scandinavia, I have come to realise how important the sun is in our lives. You find it in everything, in literature, in songs, in advertisements for selling flats – part and parcel of hope. When it shines, people are out, smiling, in good mood and making the best use of it, just like it is the last sunny day. You never know when it will be shining again. Similarly, we need to exploit the current relationship with Ethiopia to the best of our benefit, without compromising our sovereignty, and by comparing it to the rare Scandinavian sun, as if there will be no sun tomorrow. We have also to exploit the conferences we hold like there was no other conference tomorrow. Changing the regime in Eritrea is the sole responsibility of Eritreans, but even when the regime falls we need to have friendly relations with all of our neighbours, particularly Ethiopia. We need to start building bridges.
There was another issue that cast doubt on the Conference was the meeting of the Eritrean nationalities conference in Mekele prior to the NCDC. Who organised it and for what purpose? Why was it held just prior to NCDC?
To the best of my knowledge, that conference at Mekele was organised by the border security officials in retaliation to the Eritrean regime’s provocations. It did not have the support of the political establishment in Addis. Perhaps it was held without their knowledge. Many times, it was stated that Ethiopia does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of the Eritrean opposition. You can still raise the issue that prior to the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, there were provocations at the border that were dismissed as trivial by both political leaderships. Except for the Afar, Kunama and Saho, the other organisations were more or less a one or two-man organisations (I fully support the right of nationalities to struggle for their rights.)
On my final day in Addis, I had an opportunity to meet with Ambassador Mohamoud Dirir (MP), the Minister of Culture and Tourism, an intellectual Somali who speaks several local languages including Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Harari and Tigrinya besides his mother tongue. He is also fluent in Arabic, English and French and I found him very knowledgeable about the dynamics in the whole region. We also met Mr. Sebhat Negga (MP), a founding member of the TPLF and the Executive Director of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development. Mr. Sebhat had an in-depth knowledge about the relations between the TPLF and Eritrean liberation fronts during and after the war for independence. Both were humble, they seemed to have genuine interest in reviving Eritrean-Ethiopian relations to the benefit of both countries and emphasised the importance of having dialogues among Eritreans and Ethiopians at all levels.
To be continued…