It has been a long time since my last post and many things have happened ever since: some personal and some public but mostly sad or worrying. I will skip the exclusively personal and will take your sympathy as implicit in the time you will spend reading. Thank You! I am happy to see SJG back in action after the scary moments at the hospital. In spite of the ‘smoking’ root-cause, I am sure it gets every contributor of an article or a comment worried to think of how the drama that is created around the posts might have had a share on the stress. I get heart attacks reading the comments section once every blue moon for fun. I can’t even think what would happen to me if it was my job to administer the bunch. It is my sincere hope that whatever drama is created around our articles is always a storm in a teacup and I urge his majesty to take it for what it is. I am not good with “yimHarena – yimHarekum” stuff and please, SJG included, find me an excuse for not being among the first responders during emergencies.
By way of finding an excuse for myself, I would like to believe that I wasn’t as absent as in “indiElu”. At least, I did some attempts to understand how things are going on the ground and here are some.
Towards the end of last year, I traveled a little bit and met some amazing people who knew a lot more than I did. Top on the list was the magician of lowland politics my good friend Mahmoud Lobinet. I was humbled, to say the least, after meeting this walking encyclopedia of “the tricks”. I then succeeded in getting hold of a few members of the ELL, some in their leadership. I am grateful for the wealth of information they shared with me. They were very blunt in letting me know where they differed with my point of view. Of course, I also met a lot of “ayebzi-ayebti” lowlanders stranded in limbo. This year, I visited another place and met a considerable number of people that had a better grasp and more direct touch with things in Eastern Sudan, which is the subject of this basic introduction. These. by the way, are things I did “n’egri mengedikha” while I was on family-related personal business so that readers do not get the impression that I am actually traveling to do politics. I am too busy making a living.
Disclaimer: The above was only mentioned to say ‘thank you’ to the people who gave me some of their valuable time. Nothing that I say in this article or any that will follow should be misconstrued as official ELL positions or opinions. I do not speak for the organization, any of its leaders or its members. I am not even an officially registered member. For the sake of disclosure, all leadership members of the ELL that I met were actually strongly opposed to what I think should become the core project of the movement of lowlanders (on both sides of the border). For fear of putting words into people’s mouths, I will not mention those who contributed to my understanding by name but it should be understood that what I am sharing with you here is the substance of the discussions and opinions of knowledgeable people without citation (plagiarized you may say).
I don’t think any right-minded reader will contend that there is something wrong with the opposition. It might be “Qo’llie” or “wedi-g’ni” but they are not speaking our language and they are not here and now. If you can read a republished news from 2001 and think it happened yesterday, either you or the correspondent is a ghost from antiquity. In either case, you scare me. This article tries to argue that the opposition arena is haunted by zombies and they are figments of your imagination. The first part is to convince you that things have changed. The second part is a call for the structure of our thinking and approach to change. The last part is a hypnosis for you to forget that there was anything called Eritrea. It never existed, does not exist and “ooof! Nab libikha temeles”.
One thing that all lowlander activist groups have in common is the word “Eritrean” in their name, as in Eritrean Lowlanders League, the Eritrean Tadamun Thing (whatever their original name was), the Eritrean Kunama, Blin, Nara etc Organizations. To be fair, at least one lowlander group, the RSADO of Afar, played smart and found “Red Sea” for a change while still puddling in the mud as their definition refers to the same “Eritrean” in other names.
All these organizations of course understand and accept that each of them is a small player in the promised land where all Eritrean ‘components’ shall come together and negotiate the deal (according to ‘the prophecy’ of the armed struggle). The only thing that makes them ‘lowlander’ as a collective is that they all believe that it is possible to somehow hook or crook the Tigrigna into the negotiating table. What is keeping them from doing it today? The PFDJ! In other words, they believe that ‘the project’ of kicking lowlanders into landless “Bidoon” in their own home is the idea of an isolated (or isolatable) Neo-Nazi supremacists represented by the PFDJ.
In fact all the descriptive terminology, such as Neo-Nazi, Sectarian, Christian, Dictatorial etc…, that have been the center of endless debates and the cause of broken conferences, that have been used through the years refer to the same group (multiple names for one thing). These terms describe perceptions of behaviours of the same actor and do not presume the existence of different actors within the Tigrigna. None of these terms has ever referred to different subsets of the PFDJ or Tigrigna activism in general. It is taboo to even entertain the idea that functionally defined, all Tigrignas own the project whether they like it or not.
There is one very logical point that Tigrigna activists in particular and the pro-democracy movement in general, have consistently made. Of course don’t get me wrong, I actually believe that ‘pro-democracy activism’ is nothing but ‘Tigrigna activism’ in “megolbeb”, but I have to respect those who would counter argue that “I’m pro-democracy and I’m not Tigrigna”. So leave it aside for now.
The point they make is this: “If you actually believe that the project belongs to the PFDJ, even worse an isolated gang of supremacists within the PFDJ (a fraction of the whole), and that there is a chance that we can defeat it by defeating the PFDJ, why would you choose to become a distraction to the ‘struggle for democracy’.” It is only natural that once the PFDJ has been defeated, we can all come together and negotiate as equals as per the prophecy. All the lowlander groups that we know of so far are in a trap and cannot pass or play smart on answering the question without looking stupid or hypocritical. No serious politician or activist may skip this critical question and expect the respect of his constituents for integrity. Try this discussion with the smartest of lowlander politicians and you will feel like you are talking to a three-year-old about black holes in outer space.
What they do not understand is that any opposition organization or group that includes the word ‘Eritrean’ in its name is by definition a subset of an implicit united front against a shared primary enemy, in this case, the PFDJ regime. All the flashy speeches, lofty promises, the poetry and the music, in their political programs and conferences and the warrior faces they make is rubbish intended the camouflage the blunder. At the end of the day. the immediate goal of any implicit or explicit united front is to defeat the primary enemy. Once that is achieved and assuming one of the major players does not gobble the whole cake, the future (described in the political programs based on circumstances before the change) shall be renegotiated.
Luckily as you know, the probability that a united front can hold is negatively proportional to the length of time it takes to beat the primary enemy. Of course, one simple reason is that given more time the enemy may wipe or beak the coalition. This does not need to happen as even a united front that has been defeated on the ground (true in our case) can continue to hold on by hibernating until the rainy season. The inevitability of the defeat of a prolonged united front comes from the fact that the relationship is actually a race between two forces. On the one hand, there are the organized groups (parties in the coalition) who race to the finish line where the common enemy is defeated and negotiations on real issues start. On the other hand, there are the real issues themselves that threaten to take a life of their own by forming their own united front and picking their own primary enemy which may be different from the one we had in mind.
The function of all parties to the united front is to choke the real issues from exploding before such a convenient time when they can be negotiated to produce controlled change. It is the energy created by exogenous developments in the real issues that create the pressure and dynamism of the united front. Where this energy builds beyond capacity, the united front becomes a coalition of structural misfits. Structural misfits, in this case are defined as organized groups without causes. They first organize and then fumble for causes that they can champion. The center of gravity for individual members is the organization, not the cause.
In what follows, let us consider some observations and I will leave it for you to judge if you share my perception that the Eritrean opposition is a united front of structural misfits.
The following are facts that I assume you already take for granted. You are smart and I should not waste your time trying to convince you of what you already accept to be true:
The opposition does not know that the Eritrean people have had an abortion and Eritrea, as the fetus of the armed struggle, “teqoliAa” (my condolence). The good news is that the Eritrean people is pregnant again, except this time with bastards “wlad-Haram” of regional dynamics.
There is nothing real about nationhood as you know. If nationhood were real, all alternative avenues would produce the one and only reality. In the 1940s, for instance, there were several other options on the table that could have produced radically different nationhoods, one of which was Eritrea. As recently as 1993, there were two options that would have produced different nationhoods, one of which was Eritrea. Today there are a million options on the table that may produce radically different and equally legitimate nationhoods, none of which is Eritrea. The Eritrean opposition takes nationhood a little too seriously and promotes it as replicable reality (a blunder).
There are new players in the game and the Eritrean opposition is not one of them. Remember the “Neo-Nazi Tigrigna supremacists”? The new ones are as ugly and as stinky but with one more horn and a tail. The PFDJ’s Neo-Nazis knew their limits. Their dream was for us to look the other way and to let ‘Starvin Marvin’ make a living in the lowlands away from the curse in Adi-Gebray. Their kids, “raza nay abu’u Haza”, do not even know we exist. They are Ag’azian as “Riesi Medeed” likes to call them. In case you didn’t know, Ag’azian is the Shifta Nation that the Mahdiya used to identify as Habesha.
Here is a little story so that you understand the Mahdiya’s conception of the people of Habesha (also mentioned in previous articles). The Khelifa once received a complaint that a Mahdiya general who ruled the east had 300 Habesh tradesmen in detention. The Khelifa requested an explanation from the general and the latter wrote a letter to the former justifying his action. He wrote that they (the detainees) were “menajees – menakeed – la yuqimoon al salat”. In Tigrigna, the translation is close to “rikhusat – rugumat – zeysegdu”.
Of course I condemn the general’s accusations in the strongest words possible as outright racism but seeing today’s Ag’azian, I think you agree that the general might have had reason for discipline on the caravan. We have had our fair share of “menakeed” ourselves during raids of the Shifta nation by Alula et al.
We do not need to panic from the stinky Ag’azian for the foreseeable future. Let us worry about the Anti-Christ that has just been born on the other side of the border. It will take two centuries for the two sides of Ag’azian “nedHidom kerakhisu” for Mahdiya’s Habesha to emerge as a real threat. In what follows, I want you to consider a potential repeat of the notorious transboundary Caliphate at your doorsteps.
Very interesting phenomena are cooking the pot in what I will, for convenience call Bejastan, for the consolidating nation in the territory extending from the Zula peninsula in Eritrea to Sinar in Sudan. Historically as you know, both the Tigrigna government in Asmara and the Northern Sudanese ethnocracy in Khartoum have dealt with this theoretical possibility as an inevitable monster that shall sooner or later visit the region. In a typical mode of the self-fulfilling prophecy, I am inviting you to meet the guest.
So far, Sudan’s fate has not been any better than that of Eritrea. The Sudan, as we have known it, is gone for good. It is not even a probability for Sudanese policymakers that it is only a matter of time before Darfur and Eastern Sudan follow the example of the South, leaving the tribal coalition of Northern Sudanese drowning in its own mess. That may be a subject for another day. For now let us concentrate on the catalysts of change in the holy land of Bejastan. I have eliminated any colorations from the section below so that you may take the facts for the seriousness they deserve. Taken together, it is my hope that you see how the two parts of Bejastan have actually converged into one polity. We have reached a stage where the political question of the western Eritrean lowlands cannot be analyzed and hence resolved independently from the political question of Eastern Sudan. The argument is that when Eritreans speak to or of a lowlander, and Northern Sudanese speak to and of an Eastern Sudanese, both sides are actually talking to and of the same individual that you can identify by name.
FACTORS OF CONVERGENCE
Trade & Transportation
Those who have passed through the Sudan can visualize how interprovincial commerce in the country follows the highway as the only physical connection between the provinces. In the age of cyber commerce, this cannot be said any more about other countries but it is still true in Sudan. Port Sudan being the only port in Sudan, the highway linking the city with the rest of the country used to transverse Eastern Sudan connecting cities such as Kassala and Gedarif to the power center in Khartoum. The sense of being central to Sudanese economics used to bring a sense of belonging to Eastern Sudanese and helped maintain their distinctiveness from their cross-border cousins in the Eritrean lowlands.
In recent years, a new much shorter, and more efficient highway was constructed connecting Khartoum through Atbara in Northern Sudan to Port Sudan. Overnight, 100% of trade relations between Port Sudan and Khartoum was switched away from the good old highway to the new one, eliminating the significance of much of Eastern Sudan to the Sudanese economy. With it, of course, the people to people connection that trade between Eastern Sudanese and Northerners was almost eliminated.
Qatar came with a rescue mission and saved Eastern Sudan from collapsing by constructing a highway that links Kassalla to Ali Gidir and the rest of Eritrea. A second rescue mission came from the Lord himself when Eritrean ports turned into Ghost houses, cement and other merchandise flooded from Port Sudan and cotton and grain through Gedarif passed through Kassala making its way to Ali Gidir and beyond. With it, of course, came a new found excitement of people to people relations. Today, a Northern Sudanese has no business coming to Kassala unless traveling to Eritrea for a honeymoon and a Tigrigna has no business in heading to Kassala except for transit to Libya.
As you know, it has been a few years now since the Sudanese government has established an “Umda” (tribal chief) under the “Naziriya” (chief of a tribal coalition) of one of the major tribal coalitions of Eastern Sudan for each tribe (ethnic group) in the Eritrean lowlands (and highlander Muslims to be exact). The function of these Umdas is to guarantee limited citizenship rights for their constituents. I say “limited” because, unlike a regular Eastern Sudanese Umda whose constituents are entitled to tribal land ownership, the constituents of Eritrean lowlander Umdas are landless citizens. The significance of this seemingly irrelevant metaphor is the presumption that there exist Eastern Sudanese citizens whose land has yet to be claimed. This is not an isolated policy by the way. The metaphor used as a policy instrument has in many instances of prolonged occupation served the purpose, the most notable being the case of Palestinian refugees who were accepted as citizens in Lebanon and Jordan.
Contrary to the Sudanese government’s promotion of the initiative as an expression of goodwill to welcome Eritrean lowlanders, there are real developments on the ground that have compelled this policy. The following are some:
- There have been numerous deals between the Sudan and the PFDJ to enable the latter to use Eastern Sudan as dumping grounds for unwanted communities of the lowlands in exchange for pimping border-guards of the PFDJ.
- Eritrea’s protracted refusal of the repatriation of lowlander refugees from Eastern Sudan has greatly reduced the sense of Eritrean citizenship among Eritrean lowlanders in Eastern Sudan leaving them no option but to innovate on ways of mingling beyond recognition. This in turn, has transformed the simple procedure of granting citizenship in Eastern Sudan into a legal nightmare that cannot be resolved without raising serious political issues in the region.
- The disproportionate spread of political Islam in Eastern Sudan primarily championed by activists eager to assimilate by declaring their communities more catholic than the pope has attracted the appetite of political entrepreneurs of the ruling party. The emergence of Eastern Sudan (practically Bejastan) as a major voting block for the ruling Islamists has repeatedly proven its worth in winning Sudan’s national elections. Ironically, it is the progressive movement (communists on top) who promote the traditionally right-wing agenda of racism and xenophobia calling to seal borders and build walls in Sudan today.
Eastern Sudanese Activism
As you know, the so-called ‘Eastern Sudanese armed opposition’ of Rashaida bandits and Eastern Sudanese opportunists hosted by Eritrea in the 1990s ended with the peace agreement. Once in power however the widely publicized peace agreement gave an emerging class of Eastern Sudanese activists the incentive to boost their constituency for a bigger share of the cake. A whole industry of activist advocacy reflecting the oneness of Bejastan took a life of its own in political games limiting the reach of the Northern Sudanese ethnocracy in Eastern Sudan and the distinctiveness or western lowlanders in Eritrea. You may not believe this but today, for instance, two types of Eritreans cross the border: Eritrean citizens hailing from the highlands (specifically Tigrigna) are required to present Eritrean passports and proper entry visas by the PFDJ and Sudanese authorities at border crossing points on both sides of the boundary. Eritrean citizens hailing from the lowlands are only requested (by the same authorities) to present paper permits (“tesreeH”) issued by the nearest immigration offices.
Sudan’s chronic civil wars have through the years required a constant flow of youngsters to enlist in the army. In the rage of these wars, a massive number of Bejastan youngsters (without distinction) were forcefully conscripted and a large number paid the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution of today’s Eritrean lowlanders in Sudanese civil wars was by far greater than the contribution of the Eritrean lowlander of the 1950s some of whom came back to carry Awate’s torch in the early 1960s. This phenomenon, on the one hand, gave citizenship with distinction to those who returned and the thousands of “Gold Star Families”, and on the other hand enhanced the legitimacy and voice of the political entrepreneurs of Eritrean origin. Unmistakably Eritrean citizens openly acquired high-level political portfolios traditionally exclusively reserved for Northern Sudanese supremacists.
It might sound a bit confusing but from the point of view of national security strategy, where Eritrean lowlander are not the rulers in Eritrea, the Sudan has a vested interest in maintaining an active and uninterrupted presence of distinctively Eritrean opposition activity in Eastern Sudan. The primary purpose that such a presence serves is to give life and meaning to the international boundary between the two countries. Unfortunately, the catastrophic security situation in Sudan over the years and the urgency of pimping the PFDJ away from adding fuel to the fire, have compelled a major shift in Sudan’s policy towards Eritrea. The Eritrean opposition in Eastern Sudan was eliminated and any of the traces that they left were wiped out. This fatal miscalculation led to the elimination of the word Eritrea from cultural heritage and political memory of new generations of Eritrean lowlanders in Eastern Sudan. The international boundary lost its significance as a distinguishing barrier for two separate entities and regressed into a checkpoint for the movement of people not very different from the checkpoints on the highway to Khartoum.
Here I have only stated basic developments on the ground. Whether Bejastan (or whatever name you suggest) is as mature as I have tried to make it look may depend more on what you would like to see in your subconscious bias rather than on what is on the ground. This may be true for you as it is for me. Where I think you agree with me is that the Eritrean opposition needs to undergo major structural shifts to fit the emerging reality.