The question of national unity is of a paramount importance and to a great extent, the way it is resolved would determine the preservation and continuation of Eritrea as an integral united nation.
Eritrean history clearly demonstrates that we have thoroughly and fundamentally failed in resolving that and other important issues. This could mainly be attributed to the lack of a culture and methodology of objective assessment and analysis of the reality, based on serious investigations and fact-finding processes, that would assist in identifying and dealing with the underpinning root causes in a proper way. Apparently almost all other attempts made were based on superficial, subjective, shortsighted and whimsical manner, usually falling short of finding a durable solutions for many crucial national issues—including that of national unity. It is timely that new approach and mechanisms are sought and adopted. This can be done by learning from our recent failures, and by capitalizing on the accumulated positive tradition that had sustained the peaceful coexistence of the nation across generations. That has always been the cornerstone in establishing and enhancing our national unity. It is also essential to underscore the importance of departing from the right premise; one that states justly and properly, and addresses the management of the question of diversity. That would be the right approach for attaining a lasting solution to the question of national unity.
For the most part, long before the advent of colonialism, the people who inhabited today’s Eritrea, had coexisted in a relatively peaceful way. Despite the differences in their mode of living, religions, cultures and ethnicity, they managed to coexist side by side. This coexistence was dictated by objective circumstances and the will of maintaining a peaceful and sustainable life. That was mainly based on the mutual recognition of each others’ rights and the acceptance of all forms of diversities; particularly the mutual recognition of one’s right of ownership of ancestral land—a strict observance of these rights was fundamental.
Despite the lack of sustained stability and peace due to sporadic local skirmishes or raids from outside that were carried by the Ethiopian feudal warlords, the people had finally managed to retain a state of peaceful coexistence.. This was achieved by utilizing traditional conflict-resolving methods that helped in redressing the wrongs—and that led to normalization. The peaceful coexistence that reigned for ages could have laid a solid foundation for building a durable national unity which was noticeably lacking during the nation forming periods.
The Egyptian-Ottoman occupations were limited t to have a noticeable impact on the social order, because it was represented by a few garrisons that served as sentry fortresses to safeguard the symbolic presence to secure vital trade routes—mainly along the coastal and lowland regions.
The European Colonial powers and their scramble to expand to new territories (colonies) driven by the demand of the economy of the colonial powers, and their thirst for raw materials and new markets, unleashed a race of territorial expansion. Not concerned whether the delineated borders in the new occupied territories corresponded with the natural habitat of the native people, the new boundaries were arbitrary drawn dividing ethnic groups into different countries. Such demarcation of borders motivated by colonial interests had disrupted the natural nation state building and developments processes. And this inherited colonial legacy has been a major source of border problems between countries and within nations of most of the Third World.
Like many other African countries, Eritrea is a consequence of such unnatural process of nation formation. Thus, the geographic boundaries and the composition of people within it does not correspond to the natural and original habitat of the ethnic groups. It is important to see the issues of national unity and the problems it encounters, in light of this historical fact and from that perspective
The Italian colonial period was mainly characterised by the establishment of a strong central government established relative stability, enforcement of law and order, the building of infrastructure, noticeable economic developments which was mainly concentrated in urban centres where the Italian settlers lived surrounded by slams inhabited by the native population, a reservoir of work forces. The fertile rural agriculture areas were confiscated and what was left was underdeveloped and undisturbed to the full control of the traditional leader ship and administrative system. Despite the presence of a centralised government, there was some degree of self-rule enjoyed by the different components of the society. The Italians maintained this system by empowering the customary tribal leaders and exploited it for tax collection and also as mechanism of stabilisation and preserving the prevailing social peace and order in remote areas. These developments created a pool of farm and industrial workers, a nucleus of an educated class, and a huge supply to recruit soldiers. It was during this period that massive recruitments to the army was started and which continued unabated—the recruits serving as canon fodder in the wars that the colonial expansionists waged.
All these factors, particularly living together as subjects of the same colonial power that resulted in relatively long period of stability and peace. Where the chance of interaction and mobility of the people for work existed, frequent movement within the boundaries of the country, for job or other reasons helped to create communal consciousness, of attachments and belonging to one country and one destiny. That constituted the birth of Eritrean nationalism.
The British mandatory occupation succeeded after the defeat of the Italian colonial power and ushered a period characterised by dramatic changes. The most noticeable positive achievement of this era was the relative expansion in education and civil liberties while its negative aspect was the application of the notorious ‘divide and rule’ policy that disrupted the social relations; it had detrimental effects on the peaceful coexistence that had prevailed.
During that period, competing political parties with conflicting interests grew rampantly and they were riddled by foreign influence. The parties contributed to the polarisation and splitting of the society along religious fault lines. The Ethiopians spared no effort and time in driving the wedge even deeper to widen the rift. They unleashed the notorious Shifta gangs that spread terror among the proponents of independence. This left a long lasting dent on the fragile nascent national unity project.
The federal arrangement was a comprise solution to reconcile between diagnostically opposite aspirations and choices: full independence vis-à-vis union with Ethiopia. Theuntimely and conspiratorial abolishment of the federal system delivered a stunting blow to the hopes and endeavours of rebuilding the trust necessary to patch the damages that had already inflicted on the people during the period of self-determination; and that has overshadowed our national struggles ever since.
The formation of the underground urban political resistance movement (Haraka or Mahber 7) shortly after had been succeeded by the armed struggle led by the ELF that was launched at the backdrop of a divided society. Thus it could not be at all surprising for combatants from the Kebassa fto be eyed suspiciously and feel unwelcome at the early stages of the struggle. Albeit the clear stand and early realisation of the ELF of the necessity of winning back the Kebassa hearts and minds to the side of the revolution, where they naturally belong, as a prerequisite for securing an ultimate victory over Ethiopia, the mutual mistrust has remained.
The revolution was the optimum opportunity for forging strong and ever lasting national unity. The struggle for independence that all sectors ultimately joined had constituted a unity in purpose that should have, if properly exploited, furnished the solid ground for the establishing of stronger national unity. That chance was squandered by the leading political elites who were deeply involved in internal rivalry and power struggle, and that has negatively reflected on the goal of the strategic national unity. The different warring factions bitterly engaged in rounds of bloody dog fights that every time had to terminate with the expulsion of the weaker side (Haraka, PLF, and ELF respectively). A law of the jungle where the strongest survived, applied. And all possible means were justified, including the soliciting of external forces to realise the end goal.
A political culture of intolerance and exclusion had been cultivated and become deeply enrooted. The erroneous concept that national unity could be imposed by the stronger side that totally monopolises power or that unity of the combatants in the field excludes multiplicity and demands that one organisation should exist and dominate. This was the logic that was used to justify the internecine wars that inflicted unnecessary deaths and sufferings on the combatants in different periods. The failure of all endeavours to achieve a sound national unity, and the later emergence and development towards full-fledged dictatorship, could be attributed to such mindset. No doubt that unity, both in purpose and means, of all fighting units, and the rallying of popular support behind the combatants, are prerequisite to victory, but the means used to attain that end should be equally important. The opportunistic motto of, the end justifies the means should not be accepted as the norm in resolving secondary contradictions.
Never has unity been considered a strategic issue, but it was dealt with tactically to win time to improve ones position on the ongoing power struggle between the fronts. The national unity talks and conferences that had been staged were not serious and were not meant to achieve unity but only as smokescreen to hide the ill intentions and an excuse to prepare for another round of fighting. Thus the conferences were but deluding manoeuvres where agreements were signed merely for local consumption to be finally shelved—sometimes before the ink on the agreements dried, fresh round of fighting would break out to continue the vicious circle.
During the last decade of the struggle, the EPLF had finally succeeded in realising Isaias’ prophecy, a life long dream of monopolising power and becoming the sole decision maker, which he realised after forcefully evicting the ELF out of the field by conspiring with the TPLF.
Despite the scepticism and deep fear inspired by that action in considerable sector of the population, many have played down their fears, suspicions and continued to support the struggle for independence hoping that the anticipated independence would end the painful chapter of bitter internal attritions that tainted the struggle era for good and usher a new era of peace, freedom, justice, democracy and prosperity, where all stakeholders would enjoy equal citizenship rights. The honest dreamed of compensating the years of sacrifices and toils by ripened fruits of independence in the form of basic rights, freedoms, equal opportunities, fair share of power and resources.
The euphorbia that was created by the independence had exalted the feelings to unprecedented readiness to forgive and forget the past and create a favourable environment for social rapprochement. And if the opportunity was properly utilised, it would have removed the barriers that were built over the years and replaced them with that of a harmonious and strongly united society and nation. That environment was the most optimum for forging an everlasting national unity. The opportunity was again squandered when against all logic and to the surprise of the entire population, the regime arrogantly persisted in its old detrimental policy of exclusionism, a policy that the EPLF has pursued ever since its inception. Thus it slammed the door shut in face of any reconciliatory and inclusive participatory nation building processes.
After independence, all Eritrean political organisations expressed their good will and unreserved readiness to join and contribute their share in the process of nation building. The head of the regime, Isaias, not only adamantly rejected their offer but also denied their existence and restricted their return to their country to be on individual basis.
So far, the fallacious “hade libi hade hizbi” unity policy has been intransigently followed despite the grave consequences it has entailed and which has exposed the country to greater risks of disintegration. The regime has displayed its true nature expressing antagonistic attitude and committing atrocities against certain sectors of the population that gradually and ultimately extended to include all. The basic socio-political determinant factors for maintaining unity and the cohesiveness of the social fabrics were flagrantly abused. All forms of transgressions, injustices, oppressions and malpractices were carried on the ethnic groups, religions, cultures, languages, land and geography. The effect was alarmingly detrimental on the unity and integrity of the nation. The saving of the nation from breaking up and turning into another Somalia demands the immediate changing of the incumbent regime and replacing it with a democratic system.
The ever fractured, rampantly growing and continuously bickering opposition groups are but a true reflection and a measure of the miserable state that our national unity has suffered from. Despite the realisation of the fact that no single opposition organisation by itself could bring about any change, was the reason d’être for the EDA that has now been upgraded to ENCDC, but still a collective institutionalised work culture under the umbrella of a national alliance is absent. Practically, each organisation works separately for its own narrow organisational interests, continuously squabbling about petty differences and bitterly engaged in an untimely power struggle. That is elongating the life of the unpopular regime and in the eyes of the people, discrediting the opposition as a viable alternative to the regime.
The cry and demand of the day, that is made from all corners, is the immediate change of the regime. But first we need to make a basic change in our perception, attitude and practices concerning the issue of national unity. Change could only be possible if we stop thinking in the old ways that had in the first place created the problem that we are trying to solve.
An objective appraisal of our recent past clearly demonstrates that our failure to achieve a durable national unity is mainly attributed to the erroneous perception and practice, stemming from the culture of hegemony and exclusion, that that has been adopted by the ruling elites. The inter-parties struggles during the period of self-determination, the civil wars during the armed struggle, and post-independence failure of forming a national state, all have been clear attestation to the fallacy of the premise that national unity could be forcefully imposed by the power of the day against the will and interests of the other national components.
The basis of any sustainable and durable national unity project should be based on:
- A voluntary unity in diversity that accommodates the interests of all the national components.
- Establishing a durable unity on the basis of creating strong material bonds of common interest that binds all stakeholders. This is far from the traditional approach based on empty demagogic national rhetoric that evokes temporary emotions that are manipulative and short-lived.
- Guaranteeing and granting equal citizenship rights and entitlements in theory and practice to all citizens that are considered equal in rights and duties before the law, irrespective of ethnic, region, gender or religion, or backgrounds.
- The acknowledgement of the Eritrean diversity in all its forms, observing the rights associated with it, and facilitating its implementation in functional equality.
- The creation of favorable conditions for establishing a durable national unity that requires not only the acknowledgment of injustices perpetuated, but also taking resolute actions to deal with and redress them properly to the effect of mending the damaged social fabric and enhancing the underlying basis for building trust, confidence and social peace necessary through the process of a national reconciliation, a precondition for a sound and lasting unity.
- Application of positive discrimination in development projects favoring the marginalized and underdeveloped regions to maintain fair and even developments, and also guarantee that all have equal and open access to employment and other occupational and public service opportunities.
- The recognition of the right to self-determination which is a basic human and universal right. It facilitates and guarantees the application of justice and the preservation of strong, voluntary and enduring national unity. Self-determination, in essence, is nothing but the realization of the “free and voluntary unity” , a consensual agreement reached by all parts in the ENCDC conference held in 2011. But there should be constitutional mechanisms and restraints that guarantee it is properly exercised to reflect the genuine interests and concerns of the people and ultimately enhance the consolidation of durable unity of the country and people.
- Unity has to embrace the common interests and address the concerns of all Eritreans in parity.
A new national unity project that should be based on critical and objective appraisal of our past history and our current reality is needed. This unity must be free from the bias and negative hegemonic cultural legacy that is practiced and that was behind our repeated failures so far. We need to establish a totally different version on the basis of mutual trust, acceptance and recognition of the rights and interest of all and each other. Practically, to achieve such viable and durable unity, all stakeholders should be part of the process and be motivated by the fact that they have a share in the common interest which they should preserve and voluntarily uphold. A national unity project that should be based on establishing material bonds that would constitute a net of common interests and rights that connect the fate of all concerned national components to each other far from the traditional approach. The first step in the right direction to attain that goal should be to unequivocally define and reach consensus on the underlying principles and basis of the process in light of the spirit of the Political Charter (adopted in the National Congress). This should be followed by the full endorsement of these principles in future constitution and their adoption in transitional government’s policy guidelines as reassurance and as a token of goodwill showing that the aspired change when realised would also establish a durable national unity.