I was reading the excellent article by Mr. Mesfin Araya on the trajectory of the Eritrean nationalism when of all the points he raised, a point that had always struck me as odd, the one about the referendum, was the one the least talked about and least analyzed by any of the Eritrean intellectuals or the opposition politicians.
The referendum was of course the coup de grace of the whole Eritrean revolution and yet no body ever questions its validity as an expression of the will of the Eritrean people.
It is normally understood (especially in the highland areas) that regardless of how many choices the Eritrean people were given or how it was phrased or rephrased, they would definitely have voted for independence. And there is no question in my mind that after having gone through so many atrocities under the Military Junta of Ethiopia the Eritrean people would have voted otherwise.
But the issue is not about how the Eritrean people would have voted or not voted. The issue is, that was the most decisive, the most important issue and the only defining moment in the history of the whole Eritrean struggle and it was the first and biggest trampling on the rights of the people to freely and openly express what they wanted. A choice that doesn’t give them this right condemns them to eternal slavery.
Life is about choices. You choose even if you don’t choose. And the struggle of the Eritrean people was not and never could have been about real estate, about geography or about territory. The struggle was always about being free and independent, about democracy and about inclusiveness. The struggle was about the denial of choices—to choose or not to choose.
When those of our countrymen who objected not only to the wording of the referendum but also to the undemocratic system of balloting made their voices heard, they were labeled unpatriotic, sellouts. How can one question the wisdom of Isaias? How can one even attempt to raise such a moot issue? The war has been won and the referendum was just an exercise to legitimize the status qua.
But legitimization of the status qua was what gave us twenty years of slavery. With that legitimization came the legitimization of tyranny and with tyranny came arbitrary rule. When a people who have sacrificed so much are denied the choice to freely, openly and independently voice their wishes, it becomes the point in time when we all loose the identity that had defined us as a people. We do not only diminish ourselves, but at the same time we diminish the essence of the very country that we all publicly profess to love.
Concurrent with this was the totally absent sentiment of our fellow countrymen who were languishing in the internment camps of the Sudan, and about those who had sacrificed so much and were denied the simple gesture of recognition, of reconciliation at that very hour where many of us who have lived lives of ease were allowed to partake in the historic celebrations. Our so-called intellectuals flocked to Asmara to write us a constitution, to be anointed to lucrative government posts, to be partners in the building of the modern nation state. Refugees! What refugees!
When Isaias gave us a flag, no one raised his voice on how it came to be. What do the different colors symbolize? What hidden meaning does it possess? Why should it be the sole purview of one individual and not the people? Why can’t we choose from an array of different flags with different colors and different stripes that different Eritreans could design? Because, we never questioned it. No, as Khrushchev wrote in his biography “Khrushchev Remembers”, when Stalin says dance, you dance.
We have not only failed our country, but we have failed our selves. That is why the old adage, People get the government they deserve, fits us so snugly.
The great Elie Wiesel teaches us that we must always take sides. “Neutrality helps the oppressor never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor not the tormented.”
In our twenty first year of slavery, this is the choice we have. Will we be able to change the leadership? Yes if we can ferment our own Arab Spring. But Isaias knows that. That spring is far as long as we are a divided people, and as long as we rely on the old now disenchanted ‘tegadelti’ for leadership, for our emancipation. We are a people no less or no more brave than our Arab neighbors. We are people who are facing a tyrant no more brave or crooked than those our Arab neighbors faced and are facing. If they can do it, we can do it. We only need the will.