OFF TOPIC: This year 2015 – my new year and that of family and friends, was clouded by the sudden deaths of at least two great landmarks in the way many of us have come to know and approach Eritrean politics.
The first in my case, was the loss of Yassin Mender, who, as far as I know, had distanced himself from the mess of Eritrean politics – opposition & PFDJ alike – right around the time that “mess” was first introduced into Eritrean politics in the 1980s. Apart from contributing to purely humanitarian aspects of the Eritrean tragedy, throughout these years, he managed to keep his mouth shut, his hands clean and his name off the list of conspiracies for good and conspiracies for bad. Yassin had touched my life and reasoning so much that I cannot construct a single statement of politics or a word of personal motivation, where his shadow is not present – approving or objecting. It is not my intention to re-inject his name into the politics that he had chosen to stay clear of, and I will not say much more than to pray that – Yassin and his beautiful wife, Alem, rest in peace. My condolence to all their children, family and friends. If you have ever read anything intelligent, moderate or sensible in what I ever wrote, credit belongs to this ever-present friend that I will always miss.
I have never met or spoke to the Great Omer Jabir but his flood of writings and tireless presence in Eritrean opposition politics will continue to be the reference and inspiration that will guide generations ahead. Some of us might not have agreed with what this great icon of our politics wrote or said, here and there. I wish we knew better in due time. Yassin, Omer and many others who passed before them belonged to a different generation of Eritreans, and a different brand of Eritrean lowlanders, who followed their hearts to the grave. They belonged to a generation of good men and women who believed in visions, trusted promises and marched in good faith with total strangers in the dark. Here too, I will not say much more than to pray that – the Great Omer rest in peace. My condolence to his family and friends.
This section presents general orientations among lowlanders as they debate ideas and proposals hoping to solve the chronic equation of ethno-regional politics in Eritrea. The observations derive from reading the ELL’s Wathiqa and trying to situate the initiative within the broader debate. Nothing in the document, however, should be taken as final & binding as far as the ELL is concerned as the document is expected “to be extensively discussed … [before being] adopted and abided by as a covenant and a joint plan of action.” This contribution, as stated in the previous article, is made in good faith by a committed supporter (that’s me) and aims at infusing a useful (heated) debate to define the ELL into the giant that its constituents expect it to be. This process of definition should, I believe, take off from identifying the organization based on the starting definition of the ELL in the initiating Wathiqa.
I tried to make the picture below self-explanatory but it would not hurt to supplement it with a few words to draw your attention to the following ideas:
Almost all existing orientations on the debate around where lowlanders should go from here implicitly answer the following three core questions.
Question 1: Did lowlanders in the 1940s and 1950s really have multiple options from among which they chose to stay as part of a united Eritrea?
Most lowlanders (in fact most Eritreans) seem to believe that to be not only true of the 1940s & 50s but to be true today too. In other words, the overwhelming assumption is that if lowlanders decide to split from Eritrea in favor of other options, the alternatives are just as feasible as that of a unified Eritrea.
Question 2: Do you consider the decision of lowlanders of the 1940s & 50s (especially the RabiTa) to dump the proposal to split Eritrea and to go for “National Unity”, to be a heroic decision?
Most Eritreans including lowlanders believe the RabiTa’s decision to be heroic (hence worthy of maintaining) in the same manner that the ELL document presents Sheikh Ibrahim SulTan as an iconic hero. We would probably see a little difference in the “heroic” judgment for a reframed question. Example: Would the RabiTa and Sheikh Ibrahim SulTan have similar support among lowlanders if they were characters in today’s opposition politics (assuming identical choices being true)?
Question 3: How uniquely desperate is the situation of lowlanders in post-independence Eritrea under the PFDJ and how optimistic are you that systematic discrimination (against lowlanders) would end with the end of the PFDJ? In other words, does the degree to which discrimination against lowlander is systematic and structural in post-independence Eritrea warrant the search for solutions outside a united Eritrea?
My personal assessment is that most lowlanders do agree that the situation of lowlanders is that bad and hopeless but they also agree that there are no other feasible solutions, i.e. we are stuck. There has so far never been any Eritrean initiative with a serious proposal to split Eritrea (including the initiatives of ethnic organizations that pay lip service to “self-determination up to secession”). Hence, I am not very sure that the answer to Question 3 actually defines an orientation with serious political implications for Eritrea’s future.
This is intended to give an idea as to where the following broadly defined political orientations stand in relation to the three core questions:
- The Unionists
These are the ELF-EPLF styled lowlanders, who believe that the history of colonization and armed struggle has blended all Eritreans in a melting pot and they are now indistinguishable from one another in Eritrean politics. Unionist lowlanders do take the specific grievances of the lowlands very seriously. They recognize ethnic, religious and other discrimination by the “dictatorial regime” but do not see the magnitude as justifying the undoing of the Eritrean union. They consider the RabiTa’s decision to be heroic. However, they consider it as a one-time opportunity where the overwhelming response of lowlanders has been sealed for good. Hence, they consider assuming the relevance of “other options” in today’s politics to be irresponsible politics and ‘question 1’ above to be irrelevant.
- The Separatists
These are Eritreans, who believe that lowlanders will always have multiple options and the RabiTa’s decision to favor the Union was only one of them. Separatist lowlanders do not care about whether the decision to stay as part of a united Eritrea was heroic or not. Some may say the RabiTa was duped into the wrong allies and decisions. Others may say, the RabiTa’s original decision was made in good faith and hence heroic at the time. What matters for all separatists is that having seen the attitude and behavior of the Tigrigna in Eritrea (past and present), lowlanders should base their decision on current possibilities of mutual coexistence. The primary preoccupation of lowland separatists is with the feasibility of splitting from Eritrea. Although relatively dormant in today’s Eritrean politics, this is an orientation that has a huge potential to determine Eritrea’s future pending the emergence of alternative regional attractions in the unpredictable dynamics of the Horn of Africa.
- The Federalists
The term “federalist” here is broadly defined to include all those who call for some degree of decentralization as a solution to ethno-regional grievances against Tigrigna domination. The term does not refer to the “federalist” opposition organization specifically and to “decentralization” in its limited administrative qualification.
Federalist lowlanders care about two of the three questions above. They stress that lowlanders had a choice to stay or go in the 1940s and 50s but view that to be a one-time opportunity concluded for good in favor of a united nation. They stress the belief that the RabiTa and Sheikh Ibrahim SulTan made a very heroic decision by rejecting the split. At the rhetorical level, federalists are the loudest whiners of ethnic grievances. In practice, they are not very different from the unionists in that they do not see the difficulties that lowlanders face in Eritrea as serious enough to warrant undoing the union. They are a little more advanced than the unionists are in that they see administrative restructuring from a unitary to a federal arrangement necessary to control Tigrigna expansionism.
- The Islamists
The term “Islamist” here refers to all lowland groups who approach Eritrean politics from religious demographics and call for an arrangement that reflects the combination. Included in this definition are two brands of “Islamists”. Theological Islamists are those who promote political Islam in mobilizing Eritrean Muslims to rally in the fight against Tigrigna domination. Secular Islamists are those who promote secular politics to rally Eritrean Muslims to fight against Tigrigna domination.
Both versions of the Islamist movement (the theological and the secular) believe that the answers to all the three questions are critical to deciding on the future of the Eritrean union. They believe lowlanders had an option to stay or leave in the 1940s and 50s. They believe the option to be open and feasible in today’s politics. They believe the RabiTa’s decision to be heroic and insist that lowlanders should respect that heroic decision as final and binding. They believe that the degree of Tigrigna (Christian) domination is serious enough to warrant the breakdown of the union. The critical difference with the federalists lies in the degree of self-confidence to affect change. Federalists recognize the capacity of the Tigrigna to crush all options and hence opt for defensive mechanisms to limit the potential damage on lowlanders. Islamists are over-confident in the capacity of a united body of Muslims to turn the table around on Tigrigna Christians and hence are not particularly keen on changing the administrative arrangements of politics as they are on switching the demographic basis of the politics.
SITUATING THE ELL
In blunt language, the idea you might have had from reading the Wathiqa was that the ELL aims to mobilize a formidable force of victimized lowlands to do one of two things: if possible get the Tigrigna to sit down to negotiate the terms of a united nation, failing that get lowlanders to fight for solutions without highlands. There is, however, still a long way to go for the document to be as blunt. The actual language that defines the ELL in the Wathiqa is muddled with a lot of hesitation, indecisiveness, confusion and apparent conflicts of opinion among the authors. Essentially, the document specifies the crime and files the accusations against an elusive and anonymous criminal.
Although the PFDJ is described as a “dictatorial chauvinistic regime”, it does not say what the “chauvinistic” stands for and does not attach any ethnic, regional or religious label to the regime. The document actually assumes that there is an “ongoing democratic struggle for realising justice, equality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law” and assigns the role of contributing to this struggle to the ELL initiative. The call “requires closely and continuously working, coordinating and cooperating with … national components” with the aim of “setting a realistic, integrated plan” that would avoid any “form of adventure of unpredictable outcome … [with] dire and disastrous consequences.” Since there are only two extremes of the possibility, i.e. establishing a united democratic Eritrea on one extreme and the breakdown of the Eritrean union on the other extreme, it is obvious which of the extremes the ELL considers a “form of adventure … [with] dire and disastrous consequences.” The Wathiqa’s rhetoric implying that lowlanders might head the other way because ‘national unity is the responsibility of all and as lowlanders we will not continue to pay for others’ might safely be taken as bluff defining itself away from the class of separatist lowlanders with a serious threat of overturning the RabiTa’s choice with alternatives.
Starting from the “fundamental rights and principles” and everything that follows includes the basics and limits that operationalize the anticipated ELL project. On the surface, the “fundamental rights and principles” have nothing that is specific to lowlanders as identical rights and principles are listed in the political programs of almost every Eritrean grouping including the PFDJ’s. The difference is of course in how we interpret these rights and principles and who the presumed victims and villains in the background are and that is where the ELL defines itself out of the camp of unionists.
In the case of progressive rights where more is better, lowlanders (who are scared for their lives – from the villains) would have the “right to life”. They would have basic freedoms with some “protection against illegal, extra judicial arrests, incarcerations and disappearances” by highlander villains. They would own their ancestral land without the fear of being chased away by “organized settlements” of the villains. In the case of conservative (regressive) rights where less is more desirable, the state would protect the Islamic religion against secularization of legal and relational public spaces in the lowlands, i.e. by limiting freedom of belief. Although all languages are to be equal before the law, the state would protect the Arabic language as the language of instruction and communication in public spheres, i.e. by limiting the possibility of Tigrigna taking over. Viewing history as the inspiration of political entitlement, the state would protect the recording of history against distortions, i.e. by cooking and spicing historical facts in ways that serve peaceful mutual coexistence.
A simple comparison of the Vision & Mission of the ELL with that of the EPDP (chosen as the standard of a unionist group) makes it very clear that the ELL has a long way to go to distance itself from the unionist camp. The ELL’s Vision, which is the dream that members believe will be realized partly by what the organization will be able to do in its Mission, states the following:
- The lowlands will rise as “a conscious and flourishing society that is aware of its rights and responsibilities”.
- This new lowland society will exist “as part of a democratic system [in Eritrea as a whole] where justice, equality and the rule of law” will prevail.
- Then everyone would live happily ever after in “a prosperous and stable country with bright future”.
Operationalizing the ELL’s Vision, the Mission states the following:
- Build “a strong, cohesive, united and interest-conscious society” in the lowlands.
- The building specification is such that the lowlands will be “able to realize its objectives and future vision, meet the challenges encountered, [and] properly defend its interests” and come back to playing its “due role” in national politics.
- This “due role” is to be defined as “actively and positively contributing to the common struggle waged for democratic change”.
- This “struggle for democratic change” is to be defined as the struggle “to replace the current dictatorial regime with democratic one”.
The following is from EPDP’s Vision:
- EPDP also dreams of building “a united, prosperous, constitutional, democratic state”.
- The resulting state would then “guarantee all liberties to its people and defend its sovereign existence”.
The Mission of the EPDP, what they will do to achieve that, includes the following:
- They will establish “an elected government accountable to the people under a multi-party system”.
- This system will allow for “free competition and peaceful transfer of power”.
- Towards that end, they will respect diversity; establish decentralization; eradicate ignorance, disease, poverty etc; priority to education; promote peace and stability; peaceful relations with neighbors and the world.
The key difference based exclusively on the Vision & Mission of the two organizations is probably on the arenas where each group wants the respective mobilized masses to fight for the stated agendas. The EPDP’s struggle obviously starts after the fall of the PFDJ and until then the organization will do whatever it takes to overthrow the PFDJ regime. The ELL has a slightly different idea that comes in three overlapping phases. In the first phase, mobilized lowlanders would fight political battles in the opposition to dictate at least part of the agenda for the kind of democratic change that favors lowlanders. In the second phase, the opposition including the ELL as an influential component would fight to overthrow the PFDJ. In the third phase, after the fall of the PFDJ, the ELL would fight the real battle to make the progressive and conservative rights mentioned above.
Many readers may be mad at this categorization but here are the questions that need answers: (a) if there is any hope that the “democratic struggle” of the opposition would conclude with a system of ‘democracy, justice, equality and happiness’ why would anyone think about weakening the spirit of brotherhood by digging into sub-national grievances? (b) if there is no hope that such will be the fruit of opposition, why mobilize to join the opposition? The Wathiqa does actually answer these questions implicitly in an underlying assumption in the backgrounds of the three phases of its struggle. It makes it very clear that a properly structured and equipped Eritrean opposition can potentially replace the current PFDJ regime with a democratic constitutional system with justice, equality and the rule of law. It states that the current opposition is not structured to produce that kind of result but can be restructured to become such an opposition. The critical phase of the ELL’s struggle is, therefore, to help restructure the opposition, i.e. to play opposition politics. Where it does not succeed in achieving the effective democratic opposition, there is no way to the core responsibilities of delivering the promise.
In a stubborn pursuit of success in phase one, the document assesses that “the political opposition of the lowland society utterly failed to deliver results on the objectives of safeguarding and promoting the interests” of lowlanders mainly due to “lack of adopting strategic planning methods” and the inability “to reap the fruits of its struggle.” It concludes that this “necessitates serious reconsideration and careful investigation of the root causes of these repeated failures” and invites “deep soul-searching to find … ways out of these chronic failures.” In spite of the assessment of “utterly failed to deliver results”, which in plain English means failure to a point beyond which there is no hope, the document “commends the resolute stand and struggle of the political opposition” and calls lowlanders to join the party.
Uniquely distinguishing the ELL from the camps of secular Islamists and federalists is hard to do based on the Wathiqa alone, although it was relatively easy to rule away the unionists and separatists. A necessary criterion that defines the ELL away from the camp of Islamists is front and center in the Wathiqa, i.e. the exclusion of highland Muslims from the definition of constituents. The excessive rhetoric of praise around the RabiTa and the apparent guilt consciousness for excluding highland Muslims, however, cast doubt as to the ability of its membership to define themselves away from the camp of secular Islamists. The similarity with the Islamists is also clear where the Islamists stress the need for national unity emphasizing power-sharing arrangements along religious lines while the ELL holds the same with switching to ethno-regional lines instead.
A critical parameter that defines the federalists in Eritrean politics is the tendency to downplay the grievances of lowlanders, the standing to fight for national unity at all costs, and in spite of big talk of horrors against lowlanders, the presumption that things are still within limits that can be handled through administrative rearrangements of the provinces. We may therefore, define the ELL as the right wing of the mainstream federalist orientation promoted by the federalist opposition organization (EFDM). While the solution that both right & left wings of the Eritrean federalist movement hope to bring, as the ultimate solution is identical in form (i.e. a structurally decentralized provincial administration – distinct from the unionists’ limited administrative “decentralization”), the right wing defines itself around xenophobic politics in both ethnic and religious forms.
It should be very clear however, that ethnic and Islamist movements promoting the political rights of specific groups within the nation do not automatically qualify as xenophobic. For xenophobia defined as “fear or hatred of foreigners” to apply as a label for a political movement at least two conditions need to be satisfied. (a) The country must be such that the rule of law guarantees ethnic and religious equality. Otherwise, ethnic and religious groups would have the right to organize along the flaw-lines to fight in order to bring their respective constituents to a point of equality with the dominant group without qualifying as xenophobic. (b) The “fear and hatred” must be exercised by the dominant group with the aim of preserving an unfair advantage over new arrivals, as xenophobia cannot be exercised to promote equality in a fight among established national components. As a means of political maneuvering however, it is possible to first establish a certain group as an outsider or invader and then use fear mongering for mobilization.