In this article, I intend to do four things:
(a) Defend the position of the Tigrigna elite in our struggle by arguing that their missteps be excused for reasons of the “Ethio-Fixation Disorder” (EFD).
(b) Touch on the argument that the Eritrean struggle is a package of good and bad and that no Eritrean (lowlander or highlander) can claim the former and walk away cleared of the latter.
(c) Test the waters for approaching the concern of the “prototype lowlander” embedded in the ELL’s Wathiqa that I touched on in the previous article. How the ELL perceives and accommodates the profile of this “prototype lowlander” is what will make or break its ability to recreate the success stories mentioned in the document.
(d) Try to convince you that Eritrea has only on ethnic group that fits the linguistic definition.
I have added a few spices so that the text would not be boring. Hence, no need to be mad if some of the spices sting, wash up and take the underlying argument. The idea is for the reader to be fired up and passionate – not to insult.
This is not a conversation about Tigrigna people and no generalization is implied, so unless you are one of the specific individuals I have chosen to call “Tigrigna elite” please stay out of it. I do not know if I am repeating myself here but challenge me on this if you will: Tigrigna is one of the few languages whose dictionary does not have a word for “imagination”. The closest that a Tigrigna (or non-Tigrigna) ever came to introducing a word for ‘imagination’ was President Isaias Afwerki in one of his speeches in the 1990s where he borrowed the word “re’ay” from Arabic (not to be confused with “opinion” in Arabic). If you were in Asmara at the time as I was, you must have seen how the new discovery and the ability to see beyond your nose and beyond what is obvious and tangible was like “Baby – Learning – Talking”. People used the word on every occasion. Shopkeepers woke up speaking about new things, bartenders switched to Heineken, wives chopped Mulukhia for SalaTa, children started to dream, civil servants met to plan, and newspapers used it more often than the articles in the language. Helen Meles made a beautiful song out of it with “Ayney firfir ila … re’ay tera’eyuni” and we danced. I think the President’s genius was in that he was able to introduce a word that defines “imagining” in terms of “seeing”, which helped spread the word in a culturally consumable form.
This did not last long however. Through time, as everything was bleached out of influences from non-Tigrigna enablers of the contagion, Eritrea became what people could see and touch. Poets went back to describing rocks and mountains, the media saturated with pictures of “tcheguar danga” killing “tcheguar danga”, planners stuck on the idea of digging the same hole a little deeper, farting jokes came back to life, and the President a weekly guest at the Martyrs cemetery laying flowers on veterans dying of heart attack. In the 1940s and 50s, imagining independence was more complicated than nuclear physics for even the highly educated among the Tigrigna elite. They went with what they could touch and they touched all of us in the process. When they decided to make revolution against the Italians, the British and later others, they emulated the Shifta in the neighborhood and that was as far as their eye could see. Today, when all Eritreans are squeezing their brains to find a way out of the hole, “tsemam Hanti derfu” has two fixations “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopia”. Do you still blame them?
It was only since the ELF fighters became a reality that, the eye could see in the neighborhood, that fairness should hold Tigrigna elites responsible for choosing otherwise. Not surprisingly, when that did happen, they actually chose the ELF and fought tooth and nail to the end. When the ELF was locked in endless proposals to adopt samples from every revolutionary corner on the planet, for even the most enlightened Tigrigna elite it was Chinese in Alebu. The dumbest of lowlanders came up with Algeria for a change. The most genius among the Tigrigna elite came up with Ethiopian Tewahdo church politics. That was as far as they could “imagine” (in their own way). I bet you, if it were not for thousands of great lowlanders from top to bottom in the ranks of the EPLA, the EPLF would have ended in the early 1980s for lack of imagination or regressed into a Shifta nation as it finally did.
Lowlanders produced (or were key players in) every great idea in the EPLF (and every dumb one – apologies!), cooked every crooked trick and wrote every little booklet that enlightened Eritreans during the armed struggle. Lowlanders were never invited guests and strangers in “the EPLF since its inception”. They were the engineers who designed and ran every aspect of the experience for good and bad. They died in thousands to make the Eritrean dream come true and they (along with highlanders) are the story of the Eritrean armed struggle from A to Z. If as the ELL’s Wathiqa claims, the EPLF had crazy ideas “since its inception”, not the obsessively compulsive fixations who would copy the one-trick-pony across the border on every occasion but some imaginatively lunatic lowlander was responsible. I am not saying this in order to diminish the role that the Tigrigna elite have played in our history. They have throughout history burned as fuel for the adventures of others and I have no doubt they will continue to do so (we appreciate!). We have seen what happened to post-independence Eritrea once they tried an original idea, so pray to the Lord to continue to bless them with the wisdom to listen to others. Ameen!
My primary concern in this article is actually not with Tigrigna stuff but with the attempt of overwhelming orientations (as reflected in the ELL’s Wathiqa), to excuse lowlanders from responsibility towards what presumably went wrong in the Eritrean story and to wash their hands clean. It is possible that many (if not all) the authors of the Wathiqa and current followers of the ELL, probably had nothing to do with the EPLF as most might be remnants of old Jebha and many might never have caught up to the idea that the Eritrean armed struggle did not end in 1982. It is understandable that the Tigrigna elite had the mechanical majority of followers to do what they do best and dwarf the rest with trademark deformity, hence the presumption that they were to blame. It is also plausible that the whole thing was wrong, overwhelmed, stolen and taken over. It is, however, not understandable why any lowlander would reward the pseudo-fascists rewriting our history by conspiring to erase so many heroic faces from the narrative.
Do not get me wrong with the “remnants of old Jebha”. The ELF will always remain high as the record of exceptional Eritrean heroes who imagined the alternative, manufactured the dream when there was no room for one and rocked the foundations of occupation by retarded southern neighbors. Those who fought in the ranks of the ELA do tell the stories of so many great men and women who paid dearly to make the dream come true. We all sincerely appreciate the sacrifices that those heroes and those around them had to pay to make a different day for all of us. I am not trying to judge or downplay the role of the ELF as the pioneer of our armed struggle. However, I think we need to stand up to those who tend to evaluate the Eritrean armed struggle in pieces and force ourselves to approach the Eritrean experience as an integrated whole whose parts cannot be imagined in isolation of one another.
Truth be said, however, I think there is need for the Jebha experience to be approached with lots of reservation and wisdom for lowlanders to be cautious in claiming the baggage of stink. The ELF did not end in 1971 as you may know and there was a little more than a whole decade that followed during which its administration correlated rather than contrasted with that of post-independence Eritrea. It is a grave misrepresentation to claim at least the second decade of the ELF as an exclusive lowlander experience. The Tigrigna of the ELF were guilty for its failure the same way that lowlanders of the EPLF were for its success. They were both two faces of a coin. It is also a dumb strategy (from a tactical point of view) to exclusively own the Jebha experience as if it were all honey and butter. In spite of all the great things that we tend to say about Jebha Abay, it was a corrupt organization serving narrow interests of corrupt oligarchies of connected family networks from tiny villages in the western lowlands. It was an organization where formal assignments, scholarships, and everything you can imagine in terms of comfort and advancement were owned and administered by tribal dignitaries and antique lordships. It was an organization where (if you were connected to the right family) they would pull your son or daughter right from inside the military training camps, give him/her a shower and a haircut, hand him/her to you in Kassala dipped in “khumra” before you kiss him/her good bye to Syria.
The masses who followed and fought for Jebha Abay with so much passion did so not because they were dumb and could not see the retarded tribal dealings in the background, but because they insisted on being counted where it counted most. Unlike the EPLF where corrupt practices and sub-national dealings were taboo formalized in under-table dealings and in the dark of the night, there was nothing to be ashamed of in Jebha Abay. Practices not different from those that the Middle East experienced in Saddam Hussein’s sons, the Gaddafi kids and Mubarak’s Jamal, were things that the follower masses of insignificant ethnicities (including the Tigrigna, Kunama and others) were supposed to admire and be proud of. Ask people who participated in the two congresses of “democratic Jebha Abay” and you will think they are talking about an archaic cult from the dark ages. Appreciating this shameful aspect of ELF’s experience is fundamental in understanding not only the structural failure of the organization in the 1980s but also in admiring and appreciating the masses who decided to walk away in despair and lay a heavy rock on the tombstone on its grave so that it never wakes up again.
This may be an unreasonable muddling of unrelated concerns or I might be over-reading, as some have already suggested. However, I think the tendency to blindly adopt and reintroduce the social stratification of Jebha Abay (along the lines of “Al-Salaf Al-SaliH” – the Pious Pioneers) is embedded in several parts of the Wathiqa. The most absurd and outrageous manifestation of this attitude is the claim that the Kunama represent a ‘special case’ within the lowlanders. The Kunama (as you may know) were in the lowlands long before the sun started rising in the east and “special cases” could locate the Gash. They walk on their feet and talk in tongues like all other lowlanders. They own their gods and test-drive their husbands before being stuck in unnecessary dysfunctions in marriage. Isn’t this typical of the genius lowlander? What exactly is the “special” that makes it difficult to fit the Kunama seamlessly into the rest for the limited purpose of political mobilization? May be – just may be – the distinctive Kunama could have a different idea. Qernelyos, as you know, was excommunicated from the opposition camp for blasphemy against “Al-Salaf Al-SaliH”. What happens if Qernelyos’ idea (crazy as it was) is actually shared by a few more Kunama or non-Kunama lowlanders for that matter? Do we have a second Lowlander League for the disbelievers?
The single most important (the only that matters you may say) threshold that the movement aims to achieve (from following the debate – no insider info here) is to construct a lowlander nationality (mega ethnic group) to defend the heritage and shared rights of lowlanders. Whether this can actually be done (i.e. whether humans can create ethnic groups) should be beyond question for Eritreans. The ELL’s proposal is only one of numerous attempts at doing exactly that. The ELF and later EPLF succeeded impressively in reducing ethnic groups into language groups (“kifli bahli”) formalizing only a single characteristic to explain the diversity. They managed to convince people that ‘we are all the same except we speak different languages’ and that carried us until Independence Day. Shortly afterwards we discovered “language” is actually the least of our differences. Long before the armed struggle, the Ethiopian Unionists (the Andnet) picked the “religion” dimension of ethnicity and successfully recreated the Tigray-Tigrigni nation (a unilingual mega ethnic group), which carried us until Libi-Tigray. Throughout the post-independence opposition activism, Islamists have recreated the “Muslim nation” (with limited success) and we will see where that will carry us.
How this “lowlands nation” administers itself politically, and whether it will end up clashing with others (as the Andnet did) or cooperating with the “Tigrigna nation” towards a new configuration for peaceful coexistence (as the RabiTa did) is anyone’s guess. The worry that many Eritrean have is understandable as none of the previous ‘success stories’ of similar adventures including the Andnet, the Islamists and the ELF-EPLF transitioned without leaving permanent marks of bloodshed and destruction. Here we are discussing ‘what is’ not ‘what ought to be’, so let us continue.
For starters, it should be very easy to confirm a few facts with near absolute certainty. The ELL is not starting the creation of the lowlands nationality from scratch. Many objective factors have already conspired to establish this multi-lingual mega ethnic group as a given constant in Eritrean politics. Whether the ELL is the cause or the consequence of the dynamics of this constant should not be controversial. Today, any immigrant lowlander parents would be thrilled to hear their children speak a few Tigrigna words instead of the English, Swedish, German, Norwegian, Italian or even Arabic if you are in the Gulf States. Ethnic languages, namely Afar, Blin, Hidareb, Kunama, Nara, Saho, and Tigre are things of the past that, we have come to struggle to keep alive even in our own families where we have total control under the most democratic conditions imaginable let alone to promote as politically dividing cleavages among people who speak none of the above.
You are a rare witness to history if know any 20-year old Eritrean who speaks any of these language with comprehensive fluency in or outside Eritrea. My advice to you is to first take a few pictures before it is too late and then kidnaps this rare relic of the past and put him/her up for auction in the antique show. In today’s Eritrea, the only ethnic group that can be fully specified on ‘the language parameter’ without sounding archaic is the Tigrigna. Attempts by ethnic organizations to recreate ethnicity along linguistic cleavages in the diaspora have all come to a standstill and at best attracted a handful in membership and a few smart people fumbling for anything to keep the languages alive (forget about formulating ethnic political programs worth dying for with appeal to anyone other than the confused leader).
For the rest, the perception of a common threat, the fight against a shared enemy, the exposure to assimilating pressures inside Eritrea and the diaspora, as well as the constant work of opposition activists and organizations are only a few of the consolidating factors that have made linguistic difference an irrelevant parameter in determining the political posturing of individual members. Anything that all of us write, every comment that you make, all the rubbish that we read (on any website including Shabait), and every time we mention the word “Tigrigna” even in a nightmare, we are all solidifying this reality of bipolar Eritrea brick by brick and it is irreversible. Trust me you are not the only helpless one in this automated conspiracy.
Here is the driving force: where the need to learn a language is not motivated by the need to communicate with others, it may look like language but it is not “language” any more. One example: why would I spend two hours to read a Blin or Nara statement written in Tigrigna script when I can read the Tigrigna translation in ten minutes unless I am a nutcase trying to make a point (which is not “language”)? Consider another example where the PFDJ’s “education policy” might have actually been counterproductive. The government opens nine schools each in a different ethnic language, for people whose need to communicate has already been resolved by their mastery of one of the nine (say Tigrigna). By introducing this wasteful redundancy to make a political statement, it would essentially be consolidating the population into two groups. The first is a linguistically identifiable group that fits the traditional definition of “ethnic group”, where language is maintained for its communicative value. The second is a group that is more identifiable by “not belonging” to the “ethnic group”, where language is maintained for its value in making a political statement. This bipolar order is where the agenda of secular Islamists in the previous article cannot be easily ignored and will continue to present a formidable challenge to the ELL’s narrower delineation of “the other”.
Under normal conditions in historic Eritrea of nine ethnicities, it would require any ethnic movement a lot of political hate mongering to bring the conflict to the level of distinctiveness that we have just described. The ELL’s Wathiqa is actually premised on that outdated version of multi-ethnic Eritrea (as is the PFDJ’s) and presents the “building of the lowlands” polity as its single most important mission. The attitude of the Wathiqa sets the stage for a political (or “civil society” as the ELL describes itself) movement bracing for hostile reaction while engaging in what might be misunderstood as ‘hate mongering’ and implicitly promises to carry it out only in as far as it is necessary to defining the contours of this newly constructed nationality. The critical argument here is that unless the ELL is able to redefine itself on objective reading of the reality and extent of “diversity” on the ground and transition to a more advanced operational zone, it risks being stuck in the boring and mean of ethnic politics reinventing the wheel and fighting bygone battles that had long been settled.
This “advanced operational zone” is a state where the ELL should take the current Wathiqa as “mission accomplished” from the get go and skip the “civil society” (license to do nothing) stage premised on the determination to evade conflict in an attempt to attract all stakeholders irrespective of political orientations. In all the impressive activities, that the leadership of the ELL conducted in Australia (beautiful airport flowers by the way) it would be interesting to hear if they had the feeling that they were dealing with “ethnic diversity”. If not, was it worth the visit to “build the lowland society”? In this new zone, the distinguished delegation (that I am very proud of) would simply assume that they are dealing with one multi-lingual ethnic group, and save themselves all the justifying and explaining and run for the cake. The “multi-lingual” in the Eritrean lowlands (especially as geographically specified by the Wathiqa) does not refer to many groups each speaking a different language at the sub-group level (and hence collectively ‘multi-lingual’), but to one large group whose members (at the individual level) speak multiple languages, that are all indigenous to Eritrea. Good night for now!