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Ethno-Tribal Politics, Religion, And Democracy

When discussing issues that touch upon region, religion, or tribe I think it is always a good idea to begin the discourse with a self-disclosure. This helps readers to put things in context and understand us better. So let me briefly state who I am and how I generally see the issue:

I am a Muslim by birth and persuasion and a Saho highlander by birth, dialect, and lineage. I believe our country needs two crucial components to survive and thrive: democracy to accommodate our diversity and religion to pump it with a healthy dose of morality. Democracy is needed to secure our freedom to speak, to write, to form associations, and to decide our fate among other things. It is also only under a democratic Government that politicians can be held accountable for their deeds/misdeeds.

But for democracy to flourish and prosper, it must be complemented by upright and morally sound citizens. Religion (both Christianity and Islam) provides us with an ultimate basis for ethics and values – a feature noticeably absent in other world views including tribally based ones. All major religions teach selflessness, sacrifice and philanthropy. Needless to say, bigotry and fanaticism should be condemned in the strongest way possible taking care not to equate devotion to fanaticism. The former leads to acts of charity and goodwill while the latter leads to hatred and destructive wars. I firmly believe that religion, devoid of these evils can be a positive force in our society.

Tribe and region, I perceive them quite differently. Tribe and region to me are identity emblems that we carry around so we may recognize one another and our boundaries – nothing more; nothing less. Unlike religion, tribal folklores do not provide us with a coherent set of moral systems or principles that we can use as a reference point from which to begin a dialog. To the ethno-tribal mind, the clans you belong to, the particular dialect you speak, even the number of markings etched on your face assume far more importance and will earn you more favors or trust than say, your views on what type of Government you envision for the country or what system of economy you espouse.

That is why I consider ethno-centricity and tribalized politics one of the most alarming trends to sprout forth out of the resistance movement and I strongly believe that if we insist on riding this ethno-tribal wolf at full gallop, we may one day wake up to find ourselves unable to get away without being devoured by it so to speak. Once out of the bottle and fully aroused, the ethno-tribal genie can easily spin out of control to plunge our nation and our people into horrors not unlike those of Somalia.

That is why I wish Ali hadn’t gone as far as he did extolling tribalism or regionalism though I am grateful to him for educating us about the problem. But the issue of land and other equal rights concerns are undoubtedly enduring themes and legitimate topics for discussion. It requires no argument I hope to demonstrate that Land is one of the most prized commodities a people possess. Barren or fertile, hot or cold, high or low, land’s emotive powers are enormous as a place where one’s parents, grand parents and distant ancestors roamed far into the distant past. Take it away and you rob people of their identity, their roots, and their livelihood. Land is also the source of economic and political power among other things.

Ali Salim’s spirited campaign on this issue is thus quite understandable and quite natural. He is within his rights to raise the issue of “land grabbers”; within his rights to severely criticize certain highlanders for their silence or indifference; and within his rights to condemn PFDJ and its illegal activities in the lowlands. I also agree with him that the mere chanting of “NETSAN DIMOKRASYAWITN ERTRA” will get us nowhere unless the chant is followed by concrete plans and actionable programs.

All this is true and Ali is to be commended not only for doing such a splendid job at presenting and raising the issues for consideration but also for doing it so clearly, rationally, and forcefully. In article after an article Ali minced no words but kept pounding and pounding at the issue so loudly and so persistently that he shook me out of deep and peaceful hibernation (for which I will never forgive him!).

Ali Salim was reluctant to frame the issue as a Muslim/Christian concern preferring instead to tackle what he considered to be more “negotiable” items of highland/lowland differences. But eventually (I don’t know if he was aware of it), he ended up doing exactly that by exonerating the Sahos and the Jebertis from “highlanders” or “ethnic Tigrignas” (as Selam alluded).

This is hardly unexpected. Circle around it all you will, the issue at its core is hardly reducible to lowland/highland issue alone because the persecution is not limited to lowlanders. Yes, this particular problem is happening in the lowlands but one must dig deeper or ponder and ask: why are the lowlanders being targeted? And who is taking their land? The pattern clearly indicates, in view of what is happening elsewhere to Muslims in Eritrea, that this is an all-out effort to subdue Muslims everywhere.

The form and scale may differ but Muslims are being persecuted everywhere. The “land grabbing” phenomenon is merely the latest in a long series of targeted injustices toward Muslims that span three regimes and beyond. As recently as last month, we read that “about 30 religious Eritrean Muslims” were arrested and earlier, it was dozens of Muslims in the Akeleguzay region. Many are languishing in various prisons throughout Eritrea. These are not isolated incidents but part of a systematic persecution of Muslims that still draws inspiration from the apocalyptic visions of Nhnan Elamanan.

This being the case, why frame the issue as a lowland/highland issue? Why shouldn’t Muslims speak with one voice against all forms of religious persecution that are specifically directed at them? Notwithstanding Huntington’s Doomsday predictions, Christian/Muslim issues do not have to boil over into “irreconcilable differences” between Civilizations. That may be true if we were to discuss theological doctrines, for example, but where is the irreconcilability in asking or demanding equal treatment, equal access to resources, freedom, and justice?

That is why I think it is more fruitful and healthier to frame the issue into a larger block of Christian/Muslim disparity taking into account the historical context and the persistent nature of these inequalities through regime changes. Framed that way, what do we find? We find that Muslims and Christians have shared common struggles, dreams, and aspirations; that they lived side by side for centuries in peace and mutual respect (for the most part); that they fought side by side to rid themselves of occupation; and that even today, they are struggling together to bring about freedom and democracy to Eritrea.

As laudable as this legacy of peaceful coexistence had been, however, it was marred by lopsidedness and inequality in which Eritrean Muslims often found themselves disproportionately carrying the largest share of sacrifice, blood, and toil receiving little in return except for more toil and blood.

It will be no exaggeration to state that if any group of people has whole heartedly lived by Patrick Henry’s credo of “give me liberty or give me death”, it is certainly Eritrean Muslims. Eritrean Muslims have abandoned everything including their livelihood, their social status, their villages, their wealth, and their very dear lives in the pursuit of freedom and independence. They received little of the former (liberty) and too much of the latter (death). They have died in masses (and continue to die) and those that have survived find themselves excessively disadvantaged in their own country and in the Diaspora compared to their Christian compatriots.

Muslims never enjoyed – for as long as they could remember – equal participatory power in the affairs of the nation. In terms of opportunity, access to resources, and political power, Muslims had been (and continue to be) an underprivileged group. Some of these faults, we must own, are not “in our stars’ but “in ourselves”; in our tendency to tribalize and regionalize but for the most part, it was externally imposed.

I am speaking here of course from the Muslims’ point of view but all this should not be construed, dear respected compatriots, to imply that the regime’s suppression is limited to Muslims. Nothing could be further from the truth! No doubt, our society as a whole is suffering from dictatorial repression of the devastating kind and Muslims should work (and are working) closely with all peace loving groups inside and outside Eritrea in that general struggle. But Muslims have their own special concerns and needs that must be addressed separately. Why?

First, they have been singled out more and suffered more (comparatively speaking) both under Ethiopian occupation and under Isayas’s dictatorship that left them weak, poor, and disadvantaged in many ways. They naturally don’t want this state of affairs to continue or spill over into a post-Isayas Eritrea. Second, they have been the primary victims of anti-Muslim bias and prejudice and its resultant material and spiritual agony. The Christian is unlikely to be harassed, arrested, or even killed for wearing a cross for example but a Muslim with a beard or a woman in Hijab* automatically becomes a target. Prejudices die hard and this phenomenon will not automatically dissipate with PFDJ’s downfall. Third (and most importantly), they still remain disproportionately at a disadvantage economically, politically, educationally, socially, psychologically, and in many other ways.

Eritrean Muslims have waited too long, sacrificed too much to be treated like second class citizens in their own country. Eritrean Muslims as a whole were the first to call for total independence from Ethiopia and they were also among the first to identify and oppose the tyrannical regime of Isayas. It is high time therefore that Eritrean Muslims be accorded full recognition for the pioneering and crucial role they played (and continue to play) in pre and post liberated Eritrea and for their long sacrifices. Historical disparity and inequality must end and they must be given equal opportunity to advance themselves as a group.

The how’s and methods we will leave for another day but the asymmetrical position of Eritrean Muslims versus Eritrean Christians is a social quandary that requires careful analysis by all Eritreans and viable solutions sought well before we entangle ourselves into the midst of the complexities we shall inherit when we take over the reigns of political power in a post-Isayas Eritrea.

The disparity is inexcusable and inexplicable in view of the large population size of Eritrean Muslims and their ubiquitous presence in every tribal and linguistic group in Eritrea. Eritrean Muslims are significant not only in terms of population size but also in terms of the regional, linguistic, and tribal kaleidoscope of cultures they represent. They form an integral part of the cultural tapestry that adorns Eritrean Society in all its diversity.

Some regions have a large Muslim majority; others smaller but Muslims are to be found in all regions, among every tribe in Eritrea, and among speakers of every language in Eritrea. Furthermore, the majority of Tigre, Saho, Nara, Afar, Rashaida, Beja, and Blen are Muslims. The Kunamas have a large Muslim minority and among Tigrigna speakers, Muslim Jebertis are to be found in significant numbers.

Yet despite these quintessentially genuine Eritrean characteristics they possess, Eritrean Muslims have suffered (and continue to suffer) a great deal of injustice ever since Eritrea’s current borders were carved by Italian colonizers. This, dear beloved compatriots, is the collective lament to be heard by Muslims of every hue throughout the length and breadth of Eritrea – lowlands, highlands, and anything in between. If all these don’t make sense to you, it could simply be because, as the saying goes, the plight of the unfortunate is invisible to the privileged.

Two things bothered me, though, after I read Ali Salim’s last article and some of his earlier articles. First is his seemingly nonchalant eagerness to embrace regionalism and tribalism without any qualification whatsoever and second; his pessimism or skepticism towards democracy.

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Stripped of its melodramatic exterior and strident tone (which Ali may have deliberately resorted to), what is Ali Salim’s prescription for Eritrea and how can it be summed? The two major points that stand out are the ones I just mentioned (ethno-tribal advocacy and pessimism towards democracy):

He wants us to forget about establishing “Democratic utopia” in Eritrea and urges us instead to strengthen Ethno-Regional groups unconditionally. He thinks it laughable that a “bunch of naïve Professors, helpless ex-peasants and taxi drivers” could succeed in bringing about a ‘democratic utopia’ in Eritrea where the mighty US failed?”

First of all, I tend to regard our “naïve Professors, helpless ex-peasants and taxi drivers” more favorably than those big time land grabbers with big guns and deep pockets who travers the Atlantic thinking they could manufacture a democracy by force or buy it for another nation. They want democracy in other countries but only if it serves their own national interests – this is readily admitted.

Force can destroy, remove a dictator, and install a fake democracy. But democracy cannot be forced nor can it be imposed from above. It has to come from the will of the people to serve the needs of the people. United States failed in implementing democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan not for lack of resources or knowledge but because it lacked a crucial ingredient: legitimacy. It also failed to earn the trust of the local people who could easily see through its ulterior motives.

Second, I ask Ali what form of Government other than a democracy he wants to have that can withstand the simultaneous and noisy clamor of competing ethno-tribal groups that he wants to encourage and foster? Consider also that we are now living under a dictatorship – a non-democratic regime. What are the chances of solving the grievances we have both enumerated when we can’t even voice them without risking dire consequences? Freedom of expression can only be sustained in a democracy.

Third, Ali had said: “it is imperative that we sign contracts and agreements and build barriers so that no one will violate other people’s God given rights and get away with it. “ If that will work, isn’t enshrining them in a constitution in a more permanent fashion even better? Not Bereket’s version necessarily but a more representative and fresh version. If Sudan failed in implementing its constitution, does it automatically follow that we will fail also?

Laws, constitutions, rules, and regulations are powerless by themselves. It is the collective will of the people to follow them that quickens them to life. The fragile nature of democracy and the freedom and opportunity it accords to everyone in its domain renders it vulnerable to abuse. But what system is proof against abuse? If constitutions, laws, and democracy cannot bind us, nothing will (including Ali’s idea of contract signing). If we give up on democracy, we give up on ourselves; in our ability to liberate ourselves and our people.

Fourth, Ali Salim said democracy is “a protracted process that took centuries”. This is true but it is truer for the pioneers who didn’t have democratic models to follow and had to resort entirely to trial and error. Fortunately for us, there are now many fully functional democracies we can study and learn from. Moreover, in contrast to old democracies, emerging democracies have the added advantage of operating under a new paradigm where democracy has become increasingly popular around the world. This gives new democracies an added boost and increases their chances of success.

But even if we assume implementation of democracy will take a very long time, what do we have to lose for trying? Considering that we are starting at the bottom, each small step towards democracy will in itself be a learning and rewarding experience. In other words, the journey itself will bear fruit along the way. Just think how relieved we will all be even with such a tiny democratic baby step like freedom of movement or freedom of expression not to speak of the intense reprieve and happiness families will feel when they finally reclaim their sons and daughters from forced labor. We are not dreaming about a “democratic utopia (as Ali put it). Democracy is not a panacea but until we come up with a better system, it will have to do. If you can think of a better alternative, please let me know and I will listen.

Fifth, Ali’s call for encouraging tribal and ethnic formations stems from his belief that tribes so empowered will have more faith in the system and will cooperate with the general welfare of the nation. But how convincing is his postulation when viewed against inter/intra-tribal and ethnic wars and other horrors we have witnessed in the last century alone? From Africa to Asia to Europe, ethnically based conflicts account for the loss of millions of lives. How are we to believe that the highly charged atmosphere of several interest based groups simultaneously vying or demanding attention will bring about a more prosperous and stable nation?

The great historian, Arnold Toynbee once observed that the entire history of mankind can be summed up in a simple formula: challenge and response. The opposition (Ok, Saleh resistance) faces a challenge and the response it gives will largely shape the future of Eritrea. But focus on region, tribe, and ethnicity cannot be good for us particularly in the current stage of the struggle. Please do not take us there.

Eid Mubarak to all! …back to hibernation…please do not disturb…

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About Ismail Omer-Ali

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