From Mutual Coexistence to Mutual Suspicion: Perceptions, Realities and Confusions of the Eritrean Societies under EPLF/PFDJ Governance
There is no question that the Eritrean independence was the result of the disproportionately heavy price and ultimate sacrifices paid by its citizens. So much blood and tears had been shed and so many lives had been sacrificed in the quest for freedom, liberty, justice and democracy. On May 24, 2016, Eritrea will celebrate its Silver Jubilee of independence from Ethiopia. It has been 25 years since Eritrea has achieved its de facto independence under an EPLF leadership. The year 1991 was the end of the 30 years of war against foreign oppression but sadly the beginning of a long and excruciating domestic one. Thus, in power since independence, Isaias Afwerk, the self-declared President of Eritrea will also celebrate his own Silver Jubilee to mark twenty-five years on the throne (be it as the Secretary-General of the Provisional Government of Eritrea or as Eritrea’s President, he is the only leader Eritreans have known since independence). This piece however focuses on the socio-political and cultural transformation ensued in Eritrean societies under EPLF/PFDJ governance. In an effort to create an obedient society, the ruling party has reinforced transformation attempts with absolute determination to subordinate every aspect of human life to the upper echelon of the regime. A transformation aimed at a complete alteration of social life characterized by prohibition of all fundamental rights filled with political climate of fear, mutual distrust, strain and confusion among the population. The regime has practically tarnished the historical and political identity of the country, while making its subjects economically poorer, socially disintegrated, culturally disoriented and politically subdued.
How has EPLF/PFDJ Military Culture Impacted Eritrean Socio-cultural Life?
As much as it has been a history of sacrifice, determination, triumph and rise of nationalism, the history of EPLF has mostly been about glorification of their military strength and values and their fanatical commitment to their uncompromising political culture infested with excessive level of intolerance, cruelty and rigid attitudes. Under the command and control militaristic mentality, the notion of negotiations, politeness and respect have begun to be viewed as signs of weakness and replaced with arrogance, militaristic patriotism and muscular diplomacy. Although Eritreans were blinded by the joy of independence and captivated by EPLF’s military disciplines, they probably had sensed that the freedom fighters had their own rebellious subcultures alien to the Eritrean society. A sub-culture that Anthony Giddens describes as deviant subculture where the behavior, belief, norms and actions of a group within a society departs from traditional view of the majority people in a society. Nevertheless, the fighters had entered the cohesive and harmonious society, bringing with them many toxic political and military cultures. The public however had great respect, trust and admiration for the EPLF fighters that they begun to imitate their behaviors. In short, EPLF had created a zone of anomie into the society where “normal social structures collapse and social functions and roles break down to the point where culturally-conditioned behaviors and customs are completely overturned.”
In the name of cultural and social change, the forced imposition and extension of EPLF’s military values into the civilian sphere have undermined the practical foundation of the existing culture and way of thinking. Subsequently, it didn’t take the civilian population long to change the way they talked (ንዓበይቲ ካብ አንቱም ናብ አንታ emergence of disrespectful attitudes towards elders), the way they dressed, the way they treated others (ካብ ማሓሮ ናብ አጸጋዓዯ from merciful conflict resolution approaches to merciless killing) how they viewed and valued life and morality (ሬሳ አቐሚጥካ ምስዕሳዕ devaluation of abstention from festivities during mourning), how they valued education (ዘይተማህረ ኣየድሕን ዘይተወቅረ ኣየጥሕን ዝብል ልዙብ ኤርትራዊ ኣዘራርባ ብ ካብ ባዓል ባጀላ ባዓል ባዴላ ይሓይሽ ተተኪኡ the rise of anti-intellectual sentiments), how they viewed law (ካብ እቲ ልዙብን ርጡብን ናይ ዓደቦ ሕጊ፣ ናብ ግበር አይትግበር ወታሃደራዊ ሕጊ the traditional customary laws that determined the rights, roles and responsibilities of the members of societies were replaced with uncompromising military rules), how they viewed justice and fairness (ዘረባ ክልተ ከይሰማዕካ አይትፋረድ ዝነበረ ባህሊ ናብ ዘረባ ሐደ ሰሚዕካ ምኩምሳዕ፣ምውንጃልን፣ምፍራድ፣ምጽላምን ተቐይሩ criminalizing and passing judgments without hearing both sides of a story has become a common practice)etc.
The Lampedusa tragedy where a great portion of the Eritrean population were mourning the death of the 360 of their citizens in the Mediterranean Sea, while PFDJ supporters were dancing at concerts organized by the ruling regime is a typical example of how the ethical and moral standard of the society and value for life has been degraded under EPLF/PFDJ governance. Of course, the government’s failure to establish a comprehensive demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration programs for the EPLF fighters had laid a fertile ground for the Ghedli’s culture to flourish. Had the freedom fighters [ተጋደልቲ](Teghadelti) been placed in encampment facilities or in a “socially quarantined” locations where they could have been provided with counseling, orientation and re-socialization programs, it would have allowed them succeed in their transition from military to civilian life. It would probably have allowed them to successfully reintegrate into the society and practice socio-culturally and morally acceptable basic social rules. But a pre-discharge and post-discharge cultural orientation, psychosocial support and moral re-socialization hadn’t happened. Eritrea’s failure to do so has resulted in literal sociocide.
Most military demobilization and reintegration research indicates ”soldiers leaving the military to return to civilian life are relatively easily absorbed.” It still puzzles my mind as to why and how 110,000 EPLF soldiers can infect and poison a great portion of the country. As opposed to them [Teghadelti] re-learning the mainstream’s cultures and values, the mainstream had converted into EPLF cult. Of course, people may have some untested theories, but the truth of the matter is that no research has been done as to which ethnic group or region has disproportionately been impacted or entirely lost its respected cultures to EPLF. It is, however, unfortunate to see that some people are now treating the EPLF culture as Eritrean culture; while others knowingly or unknowingly are promoting the very irresponsible and unaccountable political culture that the justice-seekers are fighting against. It took more than 40 years and intensive campaigns of these primitive Eritrean cultures must be dismantled (እዚ ዱሑር ባህሊ ክጠፍእ ኣለዎ) for EPLF/PFDJ elites to bring the Eritrean society down to its knees. Now, individuals who are products of EPLF are making blatant claims that the Eritrean cultures are homogeneously bad enough to warrant its deconstruction in order to reconstruct it afresh. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of another deviant subgroup that rejects the purpose of Ghedli, Tegadelti and the Eritrean cultures collectively. There has been a growing public discussions where a group of people have thoughtlessly been acting as better-equipped and knowledgeable than the Eritrean society to a point of proposing the deconstruction of the society “እዚ ህዝቢ እዚ ፈንጢሕካ ክዕረ ኣለዎ.” It is EPLF’s old wine in a new bottle. Apparently, the EPLF’s disdainful political culture led these group of people believe that they have the know-how to deconstruct and reconstruct a society.
It is worth noting that the Eritrean population is not a monolithic. The country has nine conventional ethnic groups each with different culture, language, level of hospitality and political freedom; and one unconventional “ethnic group” relatively new to Eritrean society. Figuratively speaking, the tenth ethnic group being the “EPLF ethnic group” that has recently been portrayed as a representative of the Eritrean society. With that being said, regardless of their cultural and linguistic differences, the nine ethnic groups have coexisted in harmony, respect and understanding for generations. Be that as it may, with the creation of Ghedli and arrival of Teghadelti in 1991, there is no question that the Eritrean cultures and way of thinking have been influenced tremendously. The EPLF elites had looked down upon Eritrean traditions and treated it as backward cultures that needed to be changed. Of course, Awet NiHafash()(ዓወት ንሓፋሽ)(victory to the masses) was EPLF’s slogan largely used for public mobilization, but Gebar Dembar(ገባር ደምባር)(the confused/blind civilian(s)) was equally descriptive phrase commonly used by EPLF fighters to denote their contempt for the civilian population and their way of life. It goes without saying that Eritrean cultures are not perfect but they are open for organic and compatible changes as no culture is permanent. The question is which part of the cultures did EPLF want to change? Why? What did EPLF want to change the cultures toward? What were the alternatives? Where is the origin of the “better” cultures? How were they better? Better by whose measurement? How did EPLF go about changing the “bad cultures?”
The bottom-line is that the changes were not arisen from public participations or dialogues. The Eritrean public never had a chance to participate, discuss or choose how they want to live their lives. EPLF had imposed the supposedly “better” culture on the Eritrean public. Hence, they have attempted to replace the “backward” cultures with militaristic, aggressive, rootless and superficial cultures that are largely alien to the mainstream societies. To some extent, they have achieved it. At least they have created a tremendous confusions, social disorder and chaos. For instance, in the name of socio-economic, political and gender equality, EPLF has introduced a superficial emancipation of women where external appearances and militaristic behaviors (ሓጺር ስረ፣ሓጺር ጮግሪ፣ሓጺር ስጉምቲ ምውሳድ ከም ማዓርነት ተቆጺሩ) were viewed as signs of gender equality. The replacement of feminine identity with artificially constructed roles and images of women had led to tragic societal crisis that made reintegration of the ex-combatant women into civilian life an extraordinarily difficult process. The perception of gender equality was nothing more than physical and behavioral resemblance of women to aggressive military men, which had generated tremendous role-confusions.
It is true that the struggle for independence had given women warriors a relative liberty, equality, sexual freedom and the opportunity to break free from traditional barriers but only to put them into “militarized island” isolated from the very population they were trying to enlighten, emancipate and liberate. Therefore, the physical, social, cultural and spatial isolation of the EPLF members from the mainstream societies had created obstinate relationships between the radically transformed female warriors and traditionally conservative societies. The incompatibility of EPLF’s superficial values with the mainstream had eventually led to divorces, family breakups, frustrations and confusions.
Furthermore, the Eritrean societies and regions rich with traditional customary laws, Bayo Adis and traditional conflict resolution techniques to resolve minor and major individual and community problems were transformed into a rather collectively obedient society who can accept the unacceptable and abnormal EPLF’s practices. Transformed from the notion of individual responsibility and accountability to collective punishment (ካብ ውልቀ ሰባት ኣላሊኻ ብወንጀል ምሕታት ብጥሙር ጉጅለ ናብ ወንጀል ምኽታት). Consequently, in their effort to promote and implement their collective punishment strategy, EPLF/PFDJ had introduced collective labels where one person’s mistake can easily paint an entire group of categories leading to collective insecurity (እዚኦም መታሕት፣እዚኦም ኣከለጉዛይ፣እንዳ ዓብደላ፣ ሓሚሻይ መስርዕ፣መንካዕ፣ የሚን) etc.
Sadly, the new generation has also inherited this poisonous political culture and begun repeating the same dysfunctional and destructive cycle (ተጋደልቲ ሕዝባዊ ግንባር ሸፋቱ እዮም፣ እንዳ መስፊን ሓጎስ ተደናገጽቲ ህግደፍ እዮም፣ ደቂ ሓማሴን ደገፍቲ ህግደፍ እዮም EPLF fighters were outlaws; Mesfin Hagos’s group (EPDP) are PFDJ sympathizers; the people of Hamassien are PFDJ supporters, etc). Subsequently, for alleged crimes committed by Mesfin Hagos, the entire EPDP members are implicated; never mind the fundamental legal premise of innocent until proven guilty, because in EPLF’s/PFDJ’s political culture, the targets are often treated as guilty until proven innocent. Then they will be either killed or ostracized from communities before they can even get a chance to prove their innocence). In the same manner, the people of Hamasien have been incriminated for crimes committed by Isaias and/or Wuchu; the 110,000 EPLF soldiers have been put under the category of Shefatu for the crimes the EPLF leaders have potentially committed etc. With regards to Mesfin Hagos, former PFDJ Defense Minister who had defected the regime more than a decade ago has been receiving tremendous hostility and personal attacks from the opposition camps for his previous affiliation with Isaias Afwerki. Like that of PFDJ’s practice, many of the opposition camps have also proven him “guilty” before he had a chance to the court of law. The growing mode of intolerance, character assassination, arbitrary judgment and antagonistic attitudes are EPLF/PFDJ political trademarks, which have been adopted by many of the opposition camps. This however says a lot about the status of the opposition camps than his alleged criminal involvement in the pre and post-independence era. If the anti-PFDJ camps are not able to accommodate and protect a former senior official who sought asylum in the opposition camp, may be they are not prepared to handle the complex, delicate and volatile situation that will be awaiting in post-PFDJ transitional period.
On the other hand, the collective branding of Teghadelti as bandits (ሸፋቱ) and effort to delegitimize the cause of the struggle for independence as worthless cause (ቃልሲ ሸፋቱ) is not new. It actually came straight from Derg’s playbook-bandits “ዎንበዴዎች” with ultimate goal to sell Eritrea to Arabs “ኤርትራን ለ ኣረብ ኣገር ለመሸጥ.” If the Ghedli bashing tactic is driven by the desire to revisit the Unionist Movement mantra of “ኢትዮጵያ ወይ ሞት”(Ethiopia or death) or reiteration of the Derg version of it “አብዮታዊት እናት ኣገራችን ወይ ሞት” (Revolutionary Motherland or Death), no need to camouflage. Otherwise, no political solution can ever be achieved out of vilification of those who died or the veterans who suffered for Eritrea’s cause in all wars.
It’s understandable that the 25 years of oppression and cruelty under former EPLF leaders (now PFDJ leaders) have produced seeds of discontent and resentment against Teghadelti that led people doubt the purposes of Ghedli and the motives of the EPLF leaders in question. This is largely because the former revolutionary leaders lack of compassion for humanity and absolute disregards for constitutional and legal jurisprudence has tainted the legacy of Ghedli and Teghadelti. Moreover, the leaders of the revolution have also created social stratification system that provided disproportionate political and economic privileges to the fighters, which subsequently led to us vs them group categorization. While many of the fighters were able to amass socio-economic and political powers, the civilian population (including the national service personnel aka Warsay) have remained at the bottom of the strata. Therefore, the unequal distribution of economic and occupational opportunities, exclusion of the civilian populations from political and legal powers coupled with the betrayal of trust and decades of public grievances has led to a resultant emergence of vilification, disdain and hatred towards Teghadelti. Although the aforementioned illegitimate and unacceptable practices have undermined PFDJ’s political and moral legitimacy to govern, hate speeches against all Teghadelti and labelling the entire struggle as Shiftinet (banditry) and the sacrifice of the 65,000 as Shefatu’s death is nothing more than injudicious. Regardless whether one believes in the cause of their death or not, giving yourself up for your national aspirations in and of itself is very respectful. That said, care must be taken that respect should not be misconstrued as glorifying the fallen soldiers.
Be that as it may, this is not to imply that Eritrean martyrs have been respected under PFDJ rule. It doesn’t take a tax-free car (ነጻ ቐረጽ መኪና) or ownership of a house built with free labour (ብነጻ ጉልበት ኣገልግሎት ዚተሰርሔ ህንጻ) to respect the martyrs. All it takes is to show some compassion and material support to their orphaned children, parents and spouses. Hitherto, they have received neither compassion nor material support from PFDJ. In response to a question from the public that martyrs’ families have been neglected, Isaias once said, “ሰንበት ሰንበት ዲና በጊዕ ክንሓርደሎም” (we cannot slaughter a sheep for them every Sunday). As if a sheep is too much for the families whose children had given their lives in the struggle for liberation and national defence. Therefore, PFDJ had proven itself to care neither about the living nor the dead. Thus, PFDJ’s ultimate disregards for the wellbeing of martyrs’ families and the cause they have fallen for has significantly degraded Eritrea’s patriotism and identity, which was largely based on sacrifices.
Deconstructing Eritrea: the Erosion of National Patriotism, Historical and Political Identity?
While those who died for independence have been forgotten, the population has been deprived of all the fundamental rights their children have fallen for, and many of those who had sacrificed 30 years of their lives are rotting in prison without due process of law. Thus, in the eye of the new generation, the notion of “ሓርበኛ ኣይነብርን እዩ ታሪኹ እዩ ዝውረስ” (a hero doesn’t live forever but his name lives in history) has become an empty slogan and the genuine willingness to die for Eritrea “ኩለንትናይ ንሃገረይ” (I shall dedicate my life and possessions to my country) has been replaced with a two-percenter patriotism (a diaspora community who pay a two-per cent income tax to the Eritrean government and receive all the fundamental rights and privileges that are not available to the local population). To that end, migration has become a new Eritrean national symbol and identity that everyone wants to be part of. An identity built between a strong desire to flee Eritrea and a dream of return to Eritrea as free and respected citizens. This is mainly because the two-percenters are highly celebrated right-bearers, while the national service personnel and civilian population at home are subject citizens who live at the mercy of the state. The two-percenters can freely travel within and without the country and “enjoy themselves in ways that most Eritreans [within Eritrea] could not.” Unlike Eritreans in Eritrea, they can acquire land, buy houses and “they [are] not required to complete national service and [are] free of many of the restrictive policies that applied to Eritreans in Eritrea.” Hence, everyone wanted to own this respected new identity. Consequently, many of the young Eritrean refugees join either the YPFDJ and/or PFDJ communities, largely not because they support the regime but because they wanted to own this respected, celebrated and “patriotic” new Eritrean identity. Therefore, the legacy of sacrifice and populist national identity that was born out of the struggle for independence didn’t even make it to the second generation.
PFDJ is known for its vengeful, unethical and morally bankrupt practices. For instance, in 2003, when Aster Yohannes (the wife of imprisoned veteran fighter and former Minister of Defence, Petros Solomon) returned from America to join her children, if Eritrea were then led by Nuguse, the legendary Eritrean outlaw, she would probably have had a better chance of seeing her children. However, her children were deprived of their God-given right to hug their mother or have access to her luggage for that matter. The children have been orphaned and the mother has been in prison ever since. This was/is part of PFDJ’s non-judicial and collective punishment practices where wives get imprisoned for their husbands’ political dissidence; children get imprisoned for their fathers’/mothers’ politically-oriented exile and parents get imprisoned and/or fined for their children’s military desertion. A valid argument can be made that PFDJ is different from EPLF but the collective punishment is the continuation of EPLF’s pre-independence deviant practices where peasants’ livestock among many others things were confiscated for failing to surrender their children to EPLF. Although most of the founding leaders of EPLF are in prison or died in prison, there is no evidence to suggest that PFDJ has departed from EPLF’s core values and modus operandi. No sensible, lawful, ethical and responsible government does this to its citizens. The Naizghi Kiflu saga where the body was refused a dignified burial in Eritrea just because he didn’t impress Isaias before his death is also a case in point. Hence, Shefatu would be quite a compliment to PFDJ leaders. However, we know for a fact that the Eritrean martyrs have paid their lives for Eritrea’s independence and in defence of Eritrea. Unfortunately, the population has been overpowered and disintegrated by a small group of former EPLF elites who want nothing more than power. Consequently, the powerlessness of the living citizens has costed the entire population their dignity, freedom and liberty. So, from a justice-seeker perspective, demonizing the dead makes the pro-democracy groups look far weaker and hopeless. But it is also an insult to injury to those who had lost their loved ones. This is not only about honouring the dead but also respecting the living family members who have lost their loved ones and nevertheless have been neglected by the ruling regime.
In Eritrea, the last two decades have been the years of oppression, poverty, humiliation, torture, mass displacement, abuse and gross human rights violations with impunity. Decades of hopelessness and confusions have indeed bruised Eritrean identity, pride, and vision. As they say ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.’ Eritreanism has been transformed from an era of I am proud to be Eritrean (እንቓዕ ኤርትራዊ ኮንኩ) to I am ashamed to be Eritrean (ብ ኤርትራዊነተይ ሓፊረ). Now, as we say in Tigirgna, “ዝወደቐት ገረብ ምሳር ይበዝሓ”(a fallen tree will be hit by many axes) in times of Eritrea’s vulnerabilities, some people are knowingly/unknowingly trying to induce an element of guilt and self-doubt into the Eritrean psyche by spreading confusions around. In this section, I will focus on the following common phrases that have been recycled in the social media: Eritrean struggle for independence was a banditry; the freedom fighters were bandits; Eritrean people are arrogant; Eritrean people claim to be unique and superior ገድሊ ኤርትራ ሺፍትነት እዩ ነይሩ፣ተጋደልቲ ሸፋቱ እዮም ነይሮም ፣ ኤርትራውያን ትምክሕተኞታት እዮም፣ ኤርትራውያን ትዕቢተኛታት እዮም፣ኤርትራውያን ፍሉያት ሕዝቢ ኢና ባሃልቲ እዮም፣ኤርትራውያን መን ከማና ባሃልቲ እዮም. Those phrases have been repeated so much that some Eritreans begun to question their historical, political and cultural identity as people.
There is no question that every revolution has its strengths and weaknesses. Although the causes, the processes and actors of every revolution are different, they all have one thing in common: no revolution has ever started out of the desire to die or kill. The same applies to the cause of the Eritrean struggle (which was mainly because of Ethiopia’s oppression and injustice), the process (Ghedli), the actors (Tegadelti and the public), which are interlinked historical phenomenon each with their own successes and failures. Throughout the process of Ghedli, the leaders of Ghedli had made tremendous political blunders and alleged crimes (from the senseless civil war between ELF and EPLF to the slaying of Menkae, Yemin and what have you. It is an exhaustive job left for historians to document). But we don’t get to cherry-pick as to which part of Eritrea’s history to keep or dump. The good, the bad and the ugly are all part of its history.
To make a long story short, the pre-independence political blunder, carelessness, greed for power, murder and narrow-mindedness of the ELF/EPLF elites had resulted in displacements, loss of lives, resentment, loss of trust and ultimately derailed the struggle for independence. But in no way does or should the crimes and/or mistakes of ELF/EPLF leaders put the legitimacy of the struggle into question. People can debate the process of Ghedli and the alleged crimes of the actors but discounting the cause and the price the people paid for it is simply calling for hostility and violence. This is because the struggle has directly or indirectly affected every family in Eritrea. In a virtual world, it may seem easy to get way with dehumanization and defamation of the sacrifice of their family members but in real world, it is gravely serious matter that creates political polarization, civil strife and incites tension and violence. Hate speeches, incitement to tension, mortification and violence is the last thing Eritreans need. The people are eager to enjoy peace, normalcy, security, reconciliation, harmony, justice and democracy. The people’s hearts have been wounded by the continuous presence of injustice and cruelty that they might not celebrate the Silver Jubilee of independence as colourful as they should have but it still remains to be one of the most important days of Eritrean history. The historical significance of the day will always remain as such regardless of the nature of the regimes/governments that come to power.
This takes me to the second section: Eritrean people are arrogant and they claim to be unique and superior ኤርትራውያን ትምክሕተኞታት እዮም፣ ኤርትራውያን ፍሉያት ሕዝቢ ኢና ባሃልቲ እዮም. Where does this perception come from? Does this have anything to do with EPLF culture? The question is, are Eritreans arrogant people? Do Eritreans believe so? Is it an outside perception or internal reality of the Eritrean societies? If there is any Eritrean region or ethnicity that believes in the legitimacy of this label, it begs the question, which part of Eritrea?
Although EPLF has greatly impacted the Eritrean society, there is no evidence to suggest that the nine ethnic groups have equally been influenced by the Ghedeli’s culture. Hence any holistic perception about the entire society is more likely to be generalistic and unrepresentative. For instance, contrary to highlanders exclusion of children from political and social discussions with adults (ምስ ዓበይቲ ኣይቲዛረብ) and prohibition of children from sharing meals with adults (ምስ ዓበይቲ ኣይቲቀረብ), in Eastern and Western lowlands, mainly in the Afar and Tigre ethnic groups, children are encouraged to share meals with adults and often are allowed to participate in a grown-up political discussions. It is a valuable cultural practice worth keeping and sharing. Equally important, communal cooperation and hospitality are one of the traditional coping mechanisms centered upon passionate human interest and values, which are vital physical and material guarantee of survival to overcome manmade and natural challenges. As one reporter recently put it, “[d]espite their colonial past & the [oppressive] political climate, Eritreans remain a most hospitable and resilient people.” Traditional Eritrean societies are known for their peaceful reception and accommodation of incoming guests, and respectful towards their neighbors and interethnic/intra-ethnic kins. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have lived in South Eastern and Western Eritrea have seen how the Afar of Eritrea respect and love their kin Afar in Djibouti. It is very uncommon to see an Eritrean Afar to look down on Djiboutian Afar and vice versa (ኤርትራውያን ዓፍር ትዕቢተኛታት እዮም ዝብል ጂቡታዊ ስሚዔ ኣይፈሊጥን). The respect is mutual. Intermarriage and cross border business is very common with no stigma attached. The same situation applies to the Badawi/Beja (Beni Amir and Hidareb) ethnic groups in Western Eritrea and Eastern Sudan.
So, the lingering question is: where is the origin of these negative perceptions? If a group of people/ethnicity from other country is labeling Eritreans with such blanket assumptions, it is worth asking which country? Regardless of the origin of the assumption, putting an entire society under one category is an absolute absurdity. This goes two ways. I, for one, tend to believe that the labeling and negative perceptions are not self-imposed nor did they come from Sudan or Djibouti. It is highly likely that they are originated from Ethiopia, mainly the Tigrai(Ethiopian Tigrigna) and Amhara ethnic group each for different reasons. Let’s start with the perception that Eritreans claim to be unique and superior to other peoples (ኤርትራውያን ትምክሕተኞታትን ፍሉያት ሕዝቢ ኢና ባሃልቲን እዮም). As much as I would like to believe it is a wrong perception originated from Ethiopia, the perception of superiority comes neither from Amhara or Oromo (or any other Ethiopian ethnic group for that matter) but from Ethiopia’s Tigray region. This is because, unlike the other transnational ethnic groups in the sub region, the Tigrigna ethnic groups were highly influenced by the colonial practices. The cultural, ethnic and linguistic similarities among transnational Tigrigna ethnic groups still exist where the colonial artificial boundaries had divided communities and homogeneous ethnic groups across the borders. However, the colonial legacy of division, exploitation, manipulation, ethnic favoritism, construction and deconstruction of ethnic identities may have created a sense of arrogance and superiority in one side and grievances and resentment in the other. The elements of superiority/inferiority complex are there. The 1998-2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflicts that claimed 100,000 lives is a reminder of the turbulent historical relationship between the Tigrigna ethnic groups in both sides of the border. I believe that the border conflict had more to do with the two leaders than it did with the border itself. Both Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia belong to the same ethnic group-Tigrigna.
That being said, ethnic groups have grown apart. They have constructed their own history and identity. The existence of transnational ethnic similarities can certainly be used for peacemaking, cooperation and hospitality among populations but the preconceived judgments in both sides could make the possibility of reconciliation, normalization and coexistence extremely difficult. That takes me to the second category of Eritreans alleged claim of uniqueness (ኤርትራውያን ፍሉያት ሕዝቢ ኢና ባሃልቲ እዮም). Here, it should be noted that it is the history, political and socio-cultural livelihoods that makes one people different from others. However, many peoples in the world have a self-constructed political and historical identity to either boost the pride of their people, attempt to achieve unrealistic dreams of going back to the pre-colonial era or cover-up their obnoxious history etc. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) of India (nationalist movement equivalent to the Qinijit of Ethiopia) is a case in point. In their political map, Bangladesh and Pakistan don’t exist. They still believe that they belong to India and they will reunite to form ‘Akhand Bharat (undivided India). Pakistan’s and Bangladesh’s claims of separate national and political identity are often met with dismissive and reductive attitude.
Eritrea’s neighbor to the South (Ethiopia)(mainly Amhara ethnic group) is another typical example infested with we are one and the same syndrome (ኣንድ ህዝብ ነን). Before we get into the reductionist attitude, let’s briefly touch on Ethiopian history. All history books written by Ethiopian scholars/politicians claim that Ethiopia was never colonized. The idea of our country Ethiopia was never colonized by foreign colonizers (ኢትዮጵያ ሃገራችን በባዕድ ገዢዎች ያልተገዛች ኣገር ናት) is a common song every Ethiopian likes to sing. It is an Ethiopian version of ‘we are unique people’ [Fluyat Hzbi Ena] (ፍሉያት ህዝቢ ኢና). But the fact of the matter is that Ethiopia was colonized from 1935-1941 where Emperor Hailesilassie was exiled in the UK for five years. And with the help of British, they were able to oust the Italian colonization from Ethiopia. Call it occupation or colonization, the purpose of colonial invasion and the effect on the subjects were the same-exploitation of resource, taking away control from indigenous population and depriving people of their freedom. The fascist didn’t get enough time to exploit resources, settle in their own population, construct architectural and cultural imprint but had inflicted tremendous abuse, aggravated killings on a great scale and took away control from Nuguse Negest of Ethiopia (Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, King of Kings of Ethiopia). Secondly, how many times have we heard the myth of 300 years (ኢትዮጵያ የ ሶስት ሺ ኣመት ታሪክ ያላት ኣገር ናት). This is another version of Fluyat Hzbi Ena. How old is Ethiopia by the way? If we take the Oromo Kingdom of Jimma which was conquered by Abyssinia (Gonder, Tigray and Gojam) and incorporated in 1933 into Abyssinian, ‘as a state within its present geographical boundaries’ Ethiopia is not older than 83. Last but not least, how often do you hear the notion that Eritrea is/was part of Ethiopia and should not have or should not be seceded ambiguity? (ኤርትራ የ ኢትዮጵያ ኣካል ናት ኣትገነጠልም). Not to mention the historical and political contradiction between the claim to have never been colonized vs the claim of Eritrea to have been part of Ethiopia (በባዕድ አልተገዛንም and ኤርትራ የ ኢትዮጵያ ኣካል ናት), when was Eritrea part of Ethiopia? From the 15th to 18th century, Eritrea was ruled and colonized by the Ottoman Turks; from the 18th to the 19th century it was colonized by the Egyptians; from the 19th to the 20th century it was colonized by the Italians; then British and Ethiopia had both colonized it for nearly 40 years between them. After 30 years of armed struggle and bloodshed, Eritreans managed to decolonize their country from Ethiopia (the last colonizer of the 20th century).
Thus, Eritrea was never part of Ethiopia. However, the Ethiopian consecutive leaders have led the Ethiopian public to believe that the forced marriage was indeed a legitimate one. Grieved by the bitter divorce, any claim of Eritrean separate political and historical identity has often been met with unpleasant reactions. So, how can a political history of a nation be based on such contradictory history? It may not be uncommon for countries to inflate their history to heighten their national patriotism and state pride; however, it is fairly unfair when the negative labeling and dismissive attitudes come from a country that uses a fabricated myth “as an instrument of exploitation and as justification for the actions and domination of the ruling class over the conquered nations and nationalities.”
That being said, if Eritreans begin to express a sense of Eritrean exceptionalism, it should not be viewed as arrogance. The notion of we are unique people (ንሕና ፍሉያት ህዝቢ ኢና) is a logical reaction to Ethiopians common phrase we are one and the same people (ኣንድ ህዝብ ነን). The peoples might have some common cultural, linguistic and historical values (like with any other neighbors such as Sudan and Djibouti) that they should cherish, but Eritreans have never been one and the same (ኣንድ ህዝብ) with Ethiopia. However, dismissive attitudes and denial of the existence of separate socio-political and historical identities can burn the bridge leading to mutual suspicions, tensions, violence and insecurity. Both peoples have to celebrate their similarities and respect their differences for the sake of a neighborly co-existence. Here, it should be noted that Eritrean people love and respect their Ethiopian neighbors. The 30 years war was not against the Ethiopian people. It was against the political leaders. The Eritrean people have defeated the Mengistu Hailemariam leadership but not the Ethiopian people. It was just a divorce of unholy reunion that took blood and sweat to keep the serial killers and oppressors away.
Anyhow, the fact that Eritrea was colonized for more than 500 years and, the fact that Eritreans fought for 30 years alone makes the people historically unique (ፉሉይ ህዝቢ). It should also be noted that the idea of we are unique people (ንሕና ፍሉያት ህዝቢ ኢና) slogan doesn’t necessary reflect a positive attributions. The current Eritrean crisis will be part of Eritrean tomorrow’s history, which is uniquely Eritrean tragedy. How Eritreans have replaced the cold-blooded foreign killers with home grown ones will also be part of Eritrea’s political and historical identity. How Eritreans come out of this tragedy however will determine how unique they are going to be. Therefore, in their effort to boost the deteriorating morale, mobilize the public, regain their pride, identity and integrity, Eritreans might need to use the slogan today more than ever. It should not be taken personally; no one should take offence for it and it shouldn’t be misinterpreted it as arrogance. After all, no country in the planet has ever claimed to be the same with its neighbors nor has any country ever campaigned on our people is weak and rundown mantra (እዚ ሩሙስ ህዝቢ ኢሉ ዚጭርሕ ህዝብን ሃገርን የለን).
The struggle for freedom, liberty, justice and democracy lives on. However, unlike the struggle against foreign colonizers where their defeat marked their exit out of the country, PFDJ supporters will remain to be Eritreans whether they live in Eritrea or not. Thus, they should be treated as citizens who have been in a wrong side of history, but not as enemies or criminals. Be it through punitive or restorative justice, those who committed crime(s) will face a compatible justice, but collective branding of all supporters of PFDJ as criminals and collective punishment of individuals for their previous affiliations with Isaias’s regime is PFDJ’s political culture that should be left behind as part of our history. This is because indiscriminate criminalization, ochlocratic practices and collective labeling strategy have been PFDJ’s ultimate tool to silence as well as to create division, chaos, mistrust and suspicion among the population. Therefore, the political route to reconciliation, restoration, depolarization, reconstruction and reparation of the psycho-socially traumatized, socio-economically broken, politically and morally wounded society requires an ultimate breakaway from the political cultures that have created these problems in the first place.
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