A Memorable Conversation with Omar Jabir In Melbourne
By Woldeyesus Ammar (August 4, 2005)
To my viewpoint, Omar Jabir Omar, a veteran ELF freedom fighter now in Australia, represents, in one go, a combination of many things in a contemporary Eritrean in exile – contemporary here mainly meaning the generations that bore the brunt of national awakening and struggle for Eritrea’s national independence.
First: Omar Jabir is a good representative of the passionately nationalist Eritrean youth of the 1960s and the 1970s who studied in the Middle East and played a vital role in building the Eritrean national liberation struggle – but, alas, only to be betrayed wholesale in liberated Eritrea.
Second: He suitably symbolizes Eritrea’s leftist revolutionary generation that worked under nascent (now defunct) Eritrean parties of the left: LP or the Labour Party within the ELF, and EPRP or the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party within the EPLF.
Third: Omar Jabir is a good example of independent Eritrea’s self-inflicted brain drain that unfolded as a result of a well designed social engineering of Isayas Afeworki’s exclusionist and evil policies commencing with his “Hashewiye Wudibat” of 20 June 1991 that eventually succeeded to keep at bay literally all of Eritrea’s intellectuals, especially those with advanced knowledge of and qualifications in the Arabic language.
Fourth: He symbolizes the failure of PFDJ’s Eritrea to reconcile even with those who were willing to go an extra mile to make reconciliation happen after 1991. (The listing of such symbolisms of Omar and his generation with the situation of contemporary Eritrea would prove endless.)
During June 2005, I had the opportunity of meeting several times with Omar Jabir in Melbourne where he took residence with his family since 1995. He works for an employment agency while providing voluntary services as president of the 30,000-strong Horn of Africa Community in Australia (refer to a previous article in Nharnet, Awna, Alnahda and Farajat about ‘Eritreans in Faraway Australia’.)
In our chitchats, Omar and I talked on a variety of topics and events of the past, the present and the future. In particular, we enjoyed our exchange of ‘ancient’ notes about Eritrean student militancy inside and outside the homeland. I noted to Omar that I may write down for the benefit of other readers some specified parts of our talk. And he, a trained journalist himself, had no objection to whatever I wished to select for writing and posting in Eritrean websites from the conversation that went on and on – well spiced by his command of linguistic nuances in Arabic, English, Tigre and Tigrinia.
As many readers may recall, Omar Jabir has been a constant contributor of articles in Arabic and English to the Eritrean websites. His present-day stance regarding the regime in Asmara, his ideas on democratisation, national unity, reconciliation, and the basic requirements for coexistence and stable future in Eritrea are well known to many people. Therefore, I will not bore readers by trying to repeat them here. Instead, I will concentrate on a few historical events and experiences, some of them told in the form of anecdotes. But, first a few notes about the man.
Omar Jabir: A short profile
Born in 1945 in Ali Ghidir near Tessenei where he completed his elementary and middle school grades, Omar Jabir pursued his secondary school classes in a boarding school in Port Sudan, and one year in Khartoum. He completed grade 12 by 1962. During the later part of 1960s and early 1970s, he was a university student in Baghdad but could not obtain all of his medical credentials mainly because of his decision not to become a member of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq. As indicated below, he was one of the key players in the student movement in the Middle East. In later years, he served as a senior cadre of the ELF during the entire 1970s in the fields of student and youth affairs, information and diplomacy. In 1982, he supported the ELF faction that staged a coup d’etat (for others known as “an uprising”) within the organization. After liberation in 1991, he took another controversial decision by going back to Eritrea while it was under an exclusionist regime that banned all patriotic forces that took part in the liberation struggle.
Interview with Omar Jabir
Question: Omar, I assume you started politics early in your life. When was that and what particular events do you still remember?
Answer: I started involvement in politics from my early teenage years. In fact I was born in politics. My family and the small Ali Ghidir community in general were among the strong cells of the Independence Bloc and later on of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka/ELM) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). I was with the Haraka cells by 1959-60 in Port Sudan where the movement was founded. I then switched to the ELF when it became operational. At the age of 20, I already was a member of the Revolutionary Command in Kassala when it was formed and took charge of security matters. In fact I was one of the ELF people in Kassala who arranged the fateful trip to Asmara for your classmates Seyoum Ogbamichael and Woldedawit Temesghen in August 1965. They were assigned to re-organize ELF cells in the Eritrean capital but, unfortunately, they were betrayed by Mulugeta Gherghis, one of us in Kassala who deserted soon after their departure and had them apprehended by the Ethiopian authorities. By the end of that year , I went to Baghdad for higher studies. I was there throughout the latter part of the 1960s and early 1970s as a student leader.
Question: We know that the student union in Baghdad that you chaired was instrumental in the formation in December 1968 of the General Union of Eritrean Students (GUES). Who else was with you in the leadership of GUES in the Middle East?
Answer: The student union in Baghdad was among the most dynamic groups in the Middle East. Among my colleagues in the leadership of the student movement from Baghdad Osman Humed, Mohammed Ali Idris, Mohammed Sheikh Abdu Jelil and Hassan Debesai. Union leaders from Cairo were Abdalla Omar Nasser, Siraj Mussa Abdu, Omar M. Suleiman and others. From Europe were Beshir Saeed, Woldu Kahsai, Idris Nur Hussein and others. It was with the student unions in Damascus, Cairo and in Europe that we formed the GUES.
Question: What roles did GUES play in the nationalist struggle?
Answer: GUES became a full-fledged member of the International Union of Students (IUS) in Prague and helped introduce the Eritrean cause to international organizations of the day. That was a very important achievement. The other role effectively played by us in GUES was the national service. We all were committed to spend one year serving in the field with the ELF before completing our studies. Besides learning more for themselves, the young service students carried with them knowledge, enlightenment and many modern ideas to the fighters and to the rural people inside Eritrea. It was through that well thought national service that more and more new blood was injected in the liberation struggle. GUES’s national service programme was continued till 1977.
Question: And naturally GUES had its share of student martyrs.
Answer: Yes, the first GUES martyr was my elder brother Yahya Jabir, a medical student from Europe who was martyred on 31 August 1973. That date was being annually marked as the Eritrean Student Martyrs’ Day by GUES. Other students from Europe who were martyred while on service included Fitsum Ghebreselassie, Aregai Habtu, and Abdulgader Idris from Khartoum University.
Question: Did the Arab regimes of the day create interferences in Eritrean student affairs during those years?
Answer: There were many interferences. For example, I was barred for two years from entering Cairo by the authorities who listened to framed up ELF-PLF allegations against the mainstream GUES of the ELF (Revolutionary Council). The ELF-PLF headed by Osman Saleh Sabbe created their own GUES and gave us hard time although their union did not have any international dimension or weight. In later years, the Baathists also formed their own Eritrean student union in Baghdad and planted many hurdles against our organization.
Question: Can you recall any memorable event(s) that you experienced during those student days?
Answer: Oh! yes, many interesting happenings, some of them shocking. One experience was an extremely embarrassing and shameful Munich meeting of Eritrean students and workers in Europe in the summer of 1970. I was on a visit to Germany that time and attended the meeting as observer. I vividly remember the poisoned atmosphere at the meeting in which a recorded speech of Woldeab Woldemariam was played. In it, Woldeab spoke against the General Command of the ELF (Kiyada Ama). I was forced to present my speech in English because Arabic as language was banned at the meeting. Idris Badume [presently residing in Sweden] begged to speak in Arabic because his mother tongue, Kunama, had no single listener at the meeting and that he did not have strong command of any other language except Arabic. The majority of the meeting participants said no Arabic should be allowed at the meeting. He thus chose to walkout of the meeting.
Another more embarrassing and quite incredible incident at the same Munich meeting was the threat to kill. Some meeting participants looked decided to kill Petros Kidane of Halhal!! The blunt language used was, “You are from Halhal who are with Kiyada Ama. Your people killed Kidane Kiflu and Woldai Ghidey in Kassala. We will kill you today, and there will not be any mercy!” We were afraid that he was in danger; his friends helped him escape back to Berlin within hours of the threat. I believed that they meant to kill him. It was shameful. GUES members like Fitsum Ghebreselassie, who was chairing the meeting, Aregai Habtu, Habte Tesfamariam, Embaye ….. and a few others were insulted and attacked for being “stooges of Kiyada Ama”. Herui Tedla Bairu also attended the Munich meeting that can still be a measure of show how low national awareness was among many Eritreans 30+ years ago. But frankly speaking some of the participants could have done better than what they actually did at that meeting of shame in Munich .The anti-ELF elements held their second meeting in Nuremberg in August 1971 and supported the split of PLF from the ELF.
Question: And what about left politics of students of that age? Weren’t you part of the leftist movement?
Answer: Of course we were espousing leftist slogans of the day. Many of us were co-opted into the Labour Party of the ELF. The LP gradually took upper hand in Kiyada Ama and it was the party that organized the First ELF Congress in 1971 and formulated a national democratic programme. It is my conviction that everything good that had been done in the ELF was done by the LP. In its initial stage, the LP recruited and trained the best cadres for the liberation struggle. However, problems were created later on when the ELF leadership took power both in the front and in the party; power struggle between two ambitious politicians, Ibrahim Toteel and Abdalla Idris, flared up. This was disastrous. Azien Yassin, who was the LP Secretary General in 1976 was replaced because of the power struggle in the front and this power struggle finally weakened the ELF and contributed to its demise as a military force.
Question: Many thanks, Omar, for your comments about the roles of GUES and LP in the growth of the ELF. Let me now ask you about two issues that pop up in discussions among old ELF comrades. These concern what we call the coup d’etat within the ELF in 1982 that you supported and then your return to Eritrea after liberation. What are your comments?
Answer: First about the event at Rasai. Was that event in 1982 a coup d’etat? I say ‘YES’, it was a coup d’etat. In fact, I wrote this opinion in the ELF’ magazine, ‘The Revolution’,immediately after that event took place. But was that coup d’etat anti-democratic and was it conducted against a democratically elected leadership? My response was and is ‘NO’ for the following contextual reasons that connect it with the facts on the ground at that period. In fact the coup d’etat was the last resort taken to curb a series of wrongdoings and accumulation of leadership errors that gradually suffocated the organization to its deathbed. The Executive Committee (EC) that was elected after the 1975 Second Congress of the ELF became an absolutely autocratic power that froze the roles of other institutions and bodies in the organization. This particular EC refused [for three years] the holding of regular meetings of the Revolutionary Council. The EC controlled the mass organizations; created its own GUES and ignored the joint historic memorandum of mass organizations that told everything. Then came the collapse [in the hands of the EPLF/TPLF armies] and we crossed the border to the Sudan – leadership divided and cadres pushing for change in the EC. But how? Leading cadres were advocating the holding of an emergency military conference that would exclude civilians and ELF branches in the Middle East. The final blow was the Sudanese action of confiscation of arms and then the threat of taking everybody from Tahdai and Korokon to refugee camps. The bottle was already broken – pieces left were just remainders of a legendary ELF that was targeted not only by EPLF and the Sudan but also betrayed by its leadership. I am not saying that the 25 March [1982 event] was a saving step for the whole organization but it was an initiative by one of those scattered pieces.
Question: And the second issue – do you regret having returned to Eritrea after 1991?
Answer: I never regret having gone to Asmara [after liberation]. To start with, I am an Eritrean citizen and going back home is a natural step. Secondly, I went with a vision, principles and values and came back with them all without any change! Thirdly, I learned new experience, new facts and tangible evidences about the theoretical concept I used to have about EPLF. The fourth reason that I do not regret having gone to Asmara is that I did not go to serve the regime but I went with the idea of living as an ordinary Eritrean. My real dream was to settle in my village of origin and work in the family farm or to have a library for the new generation.
Question: Now, let us envision about a future viable governing party in Eritrea in the post-PFDJ period that can give Eritrea last peace and stability. What forces can realize this hope?
Answer: I can say that the present opposition groups can play a role in shaping such a party. In addition, the outcome of the governing party (PFDJ) after the expected change will tell what sort of a political formula we might have for Eritrea. To sum, future developments and interaction between different forces will decide the shape and content of such a party.
Thanks a lot.
(PS: At the last meeting with Omar, we encouraged each other to put in record the activities of the Eritrean student movement: he for what took place in the Middle East and I for what was done inside Eritrea. Each one of us said he would try.)