Bologna Speech: Do Your Principles Benefit Eritrean Victims?

(Note: The following speech was delivered in Tigrinya)

Last wednesday I was in the middle of writing this speech when an excited  friend called and urged me to listen to a discussion in a Paltalk room. “They are discussing Bologna and someone is talking about you!” I told him I was busy and he reluctantly gave me a hint  about the topic. Surely,  I was not interested. Besides, I was excited about the event and the trip to Italy; I haven’t been there since we spent part of our honeymoon in Parma, one-hundred kilometers north of Bologna. But that Paltalk hint was helpful in shaping my speech…

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am elated to be here with you today…meeting so many of you, most for the first time, though some I know but never met in person …I cannot help but reflect and realize we have come a long way. It’s a long way from the days when the opposition camp to the PFDJ regime was so lonely except for a few hardened activists who were mocked, belittled and defamed by the regime and its supporters. I want you to remember this: what irritates some of you today was our daily stable for a long time. I am pleased we came this far.

Ten years ago, I was invited to New York to deliver a speech; my topic was Peaceful Struggle and it was written in Tigrinya. I will try to locate it—it might help us remember that we always allow ourselves to be preoccupied with trivial issues. Back then, the conflicting views of Peaceful Struggle versus Armed Struggle (whose opponents misnamed Violent Struggle) inflicted untold damages on the opposition camp—the debate over that is alive to this day.

In New York, I told my audience that I do not need to declare that I support a specific mode of struggle simply because it is obvious: I don’t carry a Klashnikov in this struggle! My tool of struggle was, and still is, the same; it has nothing to do with an armed outfit. It is based on challenging the regime and its supporters intellectually and at the same time inform, inspire and embolden my fellow Eritreans. Residing in a country 25 hours flight away from Eritrea, there is no type of struggle one can wage except a peaceful struggle…I still believe discussing the topic among activists is an over indulgence, and it has remained a cause of countless squabbles and splits. The so many fissures created among the opposition camp because of that are still crippling our collective ability to be effective.

When EYSC started as a facebook movement, I had reservations, which I explained to some regarding the way many of you tried to distance yourselves from others based on age. I was worried that a horizontal fragmentation would be added to the vertical fragmentation that we were already suffering from. I believe compartmentalization weakens  the struggle and damages our unity. Some phases of the struggle that started over sixty-years ago have yet to be completed. Our struggle has always been one long chain, all segments, all regions, and all age groups who, over time, naturally, cross generational stages. If that chain is divided into its constituent parts, then we no more have a chain, but disconnected, unlinked rings, that cannot achieve anything on their own.

For years, we have been struggling to get everybody on board; unfortunately, once new activists joined in, most of them preferred to create islands of their own. And some sleek politicians saw this as an opportunity and campaigned to disconnect the young more so that they can use them as a constituency, as foot-soldiers. That is why all those who worked behind the scene are anything but young—unless being 50 and 60 is considered young. And you might have seen the reaction when I wrote against the interference in Awassa and the convening of Debre Zeit meetings.

I can confidently say that those mistakes led to the widening of the political and generational gap and negatively contributed to more fragmentation of the new movements. The Debrezeit problem is a result of three factors: lack of experience of many participants; political ambitions of a few; and the zeal of some Ethiopian officials for creating more blocks. And we are still suffering from it for the last two years.

A few months ago, when the issue of maintaining the Eritrean pride was raised at, it was in recognition of the risks facing our national identity and how we can reverse the trend of what we have begun to lose as a nation. We recognized that we have become lenient in dealing with Eritrean history, our legacy, what makes us what we are, our foundation as a nation, our resistance to all sorts of un-Eritrean designs—partition, occupation, surrender, etc. We are proud that we stood tall as a people and and accomplished our first goal AGAINST ALL ODDS. Yes, we liberated our country; the fact that our independence was thwarted by a tyrant doesn’t change that. It doesn’t change the reason for which we spilled blood, our independence. It doesn’t negate the sacrifice of the thousands of maimed and killed, orphaned and widowed. It doesn’t change the pain of parents for the loss of their loved ones. Yes, we achieved our independence and, as a nation, we are determined to keep it at any cost.

Lately, we have been noticing an orchestrated attack on our independence, on our nation, and an assault on our legacy and pride. It began with what we consider our cornerstone, we were pressured to disown our glorious Ghedli legacy, the same Ghedli we invested heavily on. No. We will not disassociate ourselves from our love for our freedom simply because Isaias and his clique thwarted it! We would not be coerced into giving up the task of taking care of the affairs of our country on our own. That is really what made many of us feel the Eritrean pride was under attack when our resolve as activists was perceived as weak.  But what brought us to that?

saleh_bologna1I believe we lack diplomatic skills. We lack skilled leaders who could forge clearly defined alliances. Leaders who would inspire and embolden us… visionary leaders who could articulate what we want, and lay out unambiguous Eritreans terms when dealing with anyone, anyone at all. However, it is prudent to recognize that it is our collective failure; it shouldn’t be thrown at some helpless veterans who never swayed from their principles and love for their country. Resource wise, they might be weak, but that weakness was caused by all of us. No mother would send her child to buy something empty handed! We never provided resources and assistance to the leaders we sent to achieve our goals. That collective weakness is now manifesting itself in what we observe around us.

The Ghedli-era veterans are very patriotic; they have more experiences than what many are willing to recognize. Ghedli-era veterans cannot be defined by Isaias and his minions… who are an anomaly, an exception, not the rule.

So, what is wrong with campaigning for a goal of “Eritrean Solution For Eritrean Problems”?

If that is a principle, then no one should have a problem with it. However, we have to remember that political statements are not taken at face value. In politics, not only words, but attitudes and the way the words are uttered also carry a lot of meaning. They create different perceptions in the minds of different people. And we should learn from past mistakes. When delivered to the public (as opposed to specific individual spoilers) it should not be delivered in a veiled insult. The mistakes we committed when dealing with the meaningless Peaceful Vs. Armed Struggle debate should not be repeated. And here are my views on how you should deal with it.

  1.  Eritrean solution remains an empty statement unless it is explained and described. We need to explain and describe the problems. I urge you to think what those problems that we want to solve are.
  2. All activists in the opposition camp declare their commitment to uphold Eritrean diversity, yet, our political groupings are anything but diverse… do not feel bad, it is not a new phenomenon, it’s been with us for a long time—let’s find an Eritrean solution for it, diligently.
  3. No single segment of our population can bring comprehensive Eritrean solutions unless we identify all the problems and then look for solutions in tandem: aim for  a lasting solution.
  4. We can only contribute to a solution if we are able to create an effective global movement, clusters cannot achieve much…it has been tried for decades and failed…. but to do that, first we need to…

Recognize the following:

  • During the Ghedli era, so-many atrocities were committed against Eritreans, so many sad incidents, but the struggle media never missed its focus on defeating the enemy. All Ghedli literature was focused on an optimistic image of Eritrea. For example, everyone knew how many kilometers long our Red Sea shores are; the minerals that we have; how rich our country was, how resolute and brave our people were; how just our cause was—an optimist image that the Gehdli drew for an inspiration.The Ghedli image of Eritrea was not built on fear and revenge, but determination and hope of what Eritrea could be with a minimal administration, by tapping into the work ethic, ingenuity and learning-will of our people, our huge potential. Every Ghedli literature advertised Eritrea. It didn’t advertise a nation in crisis, it never highlighted crisis at the expense of the main goal; crisis do not inspire people… and we can learn from that when we are tempted to act like firefighters, overwhelmed by single issues that don’t bring comprehensive solution. Take the refugees issue as an example—it has been seven years (for now, leave the forty-year refugees in Sudan alone) and most were, and still are, preoccupied and focusing on the Mediterranean Sea refugees, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sinai, etc. As important as those issues are, solving them will not solve the Eritrean root question because these are manifestations of what ails our country, not the main problem. Our activism should not be focused on those issues at the expense of the main fight. There are many ways we can address those issues instead of stopping everything and focusing on the manifestations. By the way, that is what I tried to do by writing Miriam Was Here, I tried to address the main reason for the suffering of our people. The presence of tens of thousands of refugees in Sudan didn’t hinder us from focusing on the Ethiopian occupiers, the refugees of today should not hinder us from focusing on the PFDJ—a few efficient, specialized human rights activists among us can manage the incidents.
  • The PFDJ campaign is based on Zura nHagerka…. It encourages people to know the mountains, the valleys and of course the Sahel trenches. That is good, but our message should be better, something the PFDJ failed to pay attention to: know your people, “Fleto nHazbkha.” In a speech entitled “Eritrea: The Challenges Of Today And The Prospects Of Tomorrow,” that I delivered in Australia last December, I suggested eight points to improve our situation. Here I will mention suggestion number 1 only:
    “…Our 2013 resolution should include:  Get to know 4 Eritreans this year who are not from your tribe, ethnicity, region, or religion but are in the Eritrean resistance movement.  Preferably in person, and if you can’t, have conversations with them through social media, by phone, by skype, Paltalk, by whatever. I am talking about one-on-one personal conversations where you LEARN what their grievances are. Call It Campaign 4.  Then ask each one you talked to, to reach out to 4 more and so on and so on.”
    If you know your people, all fears and suspicions can be eliminated. Not knowing your people makes one prone to all sorts of damaging influences. If one doesn’t know Eritreans outside his region or religion, one would be receptive to any negative connotations or messages concerning those one doesn’t  know. If you don’t know your people, any message: Ezom kebessa..or Ezom Aslam…ezom Akelguzai, Ezom Hammsen, etc. would influence you. But knowing a few casual names is not enough. You have to know their culture, value system, their fears and their aspiration…maybe even their language…that makes one a good Eritrean, fully equipped Eritrean and not compartmentalized citizen.
  • Compartmentalization is the enemy of unity. Our major problem (something that needs an Eritrean Solution) has been our tendency to split instead of merging. We love creating small kiosks and then contently declare: “I am struggling!” Unless we build a formidable movement, unless we bring our resources together, we cannot succeed —we do not have the numbers of China, India…or even Ethiopia or Sudan…we have no choice but to stay together. Once we do that, we have to pledge allegiance to the whole of Eritrea, not to one of its constituent parts only. We should remain true to the goals that benefit the Eritrean people—peace, freedom and stability—by keeping and respecting our diversity.
  • The Ghedli era had promoted all of that and more; what it didn’t promote and exercise was diversity of political views. Having nominal representation of people in political positions, or cultural troupes, limited to songs and dances, is not a solution; it is a veil that hides hegemonic aspirations and exclusionary tendencies. Struggling for political pluralism was our experience, and today it is considered treason by the PFDJ which foolishly practices destructive policies, coupled with vilification of dissenting voices. If we display any of the manners that we blame the PFDJ for, we will scare the people who are already scared of our scattered nature. Many express their fear of the opposition and say, “Unless they work together, they will not inspire us; how can they be an alternative?” Sadly, the only time our opposition makes the news is when it fights. Though some of the fights are natural, and at times necessary, they give the impression that if the rivals carried arms, the fighting would have deteriorated to extreme violent and wouldn’t stop unless the adversary is exterminated. And that is not an exaggerated fear.
  • The gist of the slogan, Eritrean Solutions for Eritrean Problems, is a confirmation that the Eritrean movement is not beholden to anyone: it is not about money and personal gain or ego, it is not about funding—the usual real corruption, only exaggerated by the usual Third World paranoia! The slogan should mean a confirmation that we do not have bosses other than our people. It simply addresses those fears. In short, it means, Negus nebsey Eye.” But there is a problem in not saying it in the right tone and attitude because unknowingly, we could be echoing Isaias’ empty slogan of self-reliance. We have to be careful not to be perceived as isolationists. Our message to the people should be “Only you are our bosses; our struggle is not a puppet show.” But if we are confrontational, we might sound like Isaias…particularly if we keep accusing others of treason, selling out, and of being unpatriotic—that produces instant enemies. Branding people that way is not wise. No one wants his patriotism to be questioned. I encourage all of you to study the tone of two articles that were lately written on by both Daniel and Miriam. No one should imply that those with different views are unpatriotic, they just have different views.
  • If a segment of our population imposes a solution, alone, the excluded segments will not own that solution. Instead, they will consider it as one imposed on them. In that case, they will not see the difference between a solution imposed by an internal force and one imposed by any external power.

I repeat, we should be careful not to echo the tone of Isaias when he mentions his exclusionary and isolationist self-reliance mantra. We have seen how that policy has damaged our country, our economy, and how it has hindered our development. That cruel, confrontational, arrogant, dismissive tone of Isaias and his regime has stripped us of our dignity that we preserved throughout the struggle era.

Twenty years ago, one inflated his chest and proudly said I am from Eritrea. We were proud people, self-confident when many Eritreans rushed back home to start a new life; those who remained there hoped for a bright future of no wars, no exiles and no squabbles—just a normal country and motivated people. We believed we could launch a new era and lift our country up to the sky, and develop it in no time. Eritreans carried their skills, their accumulated savings and flew home. In a short time, all hope evaporated and Isaias embarked on making Eritrea another basket case, another banana republic… not even a republic, but a banana state with little bananas.

On the same context, the Eritrean Solution for Eritrean Problems slogan might sound as if we want to be isolated from Ethiopia or the world. Let me remind you that the alliance between the EPRDF and the PFDJ in the nineties didn’t go well with many people who thought they were excluded: power and wealth sharing, commercial opportunities and the right to return to their home. But when the border war broke between the previous allies, the people who supported that alliance at the expenses of the other Eritreans became more bitter militants against Ethiopia; those who didn’t bless that exclusive two-party alliance were victimized again—this time they were called Weyane lackeys… but  we have come this far, a long way….

I think we need to sober up and evaluate our performance during the last sixty years or so…I know some of you think history is a boring topic; I assure you it is not.

Three years ago when the youth movements started to pop up, most perceptions and attitudes  were as if divisions and disharmony was the making of the older generation. It didn’t take us long to confirm it is a social problem. In a Paltalk session, when I said that our divisions are social and not generational in nature, that they are a result of unresolved issues and not newly manufactured, a few listeners seemed to chuckle, “We young people know nothing but Eritrea, all the divisions are not ours, it belongs to the Ghedli generation!” Well, since then, I am sure many have discovered the bitter truth: one cannot run away from unresolved Eritrean social problems. Never.

And that is when the issue of Eritrea’s relations with Ethiopia becomes interesting. How about relations with Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, EU, and other Scandinavian countries? How about the political NGO’s? Are they dictating their solutions for Eritrean problems or not?

We need a sober diplomacy.

To be at war with your neighbors for trivial issues is a foolish policy. To be against NGOs like Amnesty and HRW, and a few rare others, is insanity—the rest of the political NGO’s are a disaster and I do not apologize for despising them. In principle, giving away the driver’s seat of the Eritrean opposition’s vehicle to others is beyond insanity. And since some have erroneously equated the slogan of Eritrean Solution for Eritrean Problems with anti-Ethiopia vitriol (maybe some people state and others understand it that way, which shouldn’t be the case) I would like to say a few words about it.

No one can deny that we need normal and stable relations with Ethiopia, Sudan and other neighbors. But since the Sudanese regime has chosen to ally itself with Isaias against the Eritrean people, I consider it an enemy regime, though I would not force that view on anyone even if I had the power to do so. Present Ethiopia is not an enemy; it is a friendly country, though some activists would be tempted to see it as an aggressive friend.

Firstly, as an activist, the main problem I see is that Ethiopia deals with the Eritrean opposition through its intelligence apparatus… and we all know that intelligence people see everyone as a potential spy and treat them like one. I have aired my suggestions repeatedly for Ethiopia to transfer the Eritrean opposition portfolio to a political office, such as the ministry of Foreign affairs. Unfortunately I do not have any clout to affect that transfer; I can only advocate for it hoping someday someone listens to my advice.

Secondly, I wish the opposition closes (and Ethiopia cooperates) all the offices of the Eritrean opposition in Addis Ababa allowing a small representative office to remain behind—a single united delegation, not every kiosk that calls itself an organization leaving a diplomatic delegation, though I fear the Ethiopian officials would be tempted to leave behind forty-something diplomatic delegations representing the opposition camp in line with their formula that involves a quota system—one for every ethnic, linguistic (and accent!), and age group—something they are fond of doing.

Third, all opposition groups should relocate in North Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border. But once they do, they should be given full access to the refugees and defectors (understandably this is Ethiopian territory but I hope they would give enough leeway. At present, the opposition has no access to intelligence—and they are not satisfied with the goodwill tips and second-hand information, like the type of information a hair-braider in a refugee camp has.

Fourth, though the Eritrean opposition has been in Addis Ababa for almost two-decades, the Ethiopians have not provided it with any diplomatic assistance worth mentioning. This is despite the fact that Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa boasting dozens of embassies, international and regional organizations, etc.

Fifth, Ethiopia has enough resources, though not a wealthy country—something Ethiopian officials are fond of reminding the opposition on every opportunity. But however big and resourceful a country, I don’t believe Eritreans lack the necessary media skills for the Ethiopians to take full control of opposition broadcasting targeted to our country by masquerading as Eritreans.

Sixth, a message to the Eritrean opposition: unite your activities or perish! Ethiopia should stop dealing with dozens of three-person organizations (credibility issue), some of them the Ethiopian intelligence hastily formed, others with members not exceeding the fingers of two hands. Instead, they should leave the task to Eritreans and limit their role to pressuring them to improve performance and produce, not encourage fragmentation—which unfortunately is a well-documented practice. To date, no one knows what is the criteria for an organization—and this has nothing to do with freedom of association but efficiency and effective struggle—not chaos and confusion. (for today I will stop here.)

What if they cannot do the above? The worst that can happen is the EPRDF follows the Sudanese regime’s example and expels every opposition element out from Ethiopia. What would that change on the status of the opposition? What would we lose? Fine, we might risk losing what we achieved over the last two-decades. But what did we achieve over that period by being in Ethiopia? NOTHING. There, we would lose nothing.

Unfortunately, I am sure this speech will irk some of my friends. They will mention the scholarships, the hosting of refugees, etc. My speech is focusing on the political aspect of the relations; humanitarian and charitable deeds are an obligation of a neighbor and a measure of a country’s humanity—that should not be a stumbling block that prevents us from airing our views. If that is the case, blackmailing those who criticize Ethiopia by bringing the issue of refugees and scholarships doesn’t help in creating a robust opposition to the tyranny in Eritrea. It will be empty appeasement, dishonesty that produces nothing for Ethiopia or for Eritrea. And that also applies to Sudan, and I am calling the Sudanese regime, with its fugitive president, an enemy.

My irked friends might remind me for the umpteenth time that Ethiopia pursues its national interest. My answer would be: let the Ethiopians worry about their interest, you worry about Eritrean interest. Ethiopia doesn’t need amateur Eritrean diplomats to advance its cause, it is able to do so on its own; it is upon the eighty-something million Ethiopians to advance its interests. I love Ethiopia and Ethiopians (less the chauvinists among them) and I recognize we are stuck being neighbors. Many of us wish for a relation that works… one based on respect and mutual benefits. Since I feel our alliance with the Ethiopians advances our interests, I like to deal with it in total honesty. Apart from that, we shouldn’t tolerate indignity from the Eritrean tyrant, and naturally, we shouldn’t take it from anyone else.

The last time I met the late PM Meles Zenawi, he told me the following:

“…For example we are beginning to develop the potassium resources in the Afar region of Ethiopia—that is millions of tons per year that needs to be transported. Technically, the closest port to this is not even Asseb, it is Tio. You could develop it into a big port. So under normal situation, Eritrea could regain most of these businesses and develop new businesses as well…”

Indeed, Ethiopia needs a causeway that would run approximately 40Kms to access the red Sea through Tio. We have to realize that the no-war-no-peace situation is hurting Eritrea as much as it’s hurting Ethiopia; normalcy would benefit both countries. There are many benefits that both can reap from a normal relation serving their mutual interest. We have a lot to give in our relations with Ethiopia, we shouldn’t see our hand as the lower one.

I wish to see beneficial arrangement with Ethiopia—beginning with Tio port access, where our Afferi compatriots would run the project and economically benefit from it before the rest of Eritrea. I hope that someday, Assab would be alive again feeding the Ethiopian highway arteries. I wish someday Massawa would be busy, feeding Tigrai and Western Ethiopian highway arteries. I wish someday, the Assab refinery would be rehabilitated for the benefit of the region. I wish to see a vibrant, thriving cultural and commercial relation between the two countries. I wish a large university would be established in badimme to graduate young people from the region. I wish prosperity for Ethiopia and the rest of the region so that we can all benefit from it. See! I am saying all of that from an Eritrean perspective, with no malice towards Ethiopia, driven by Eritrean interest, within the context of Eritreans living in Eritrea. To me the stakeholders are not in Bologna or Sweden, Canada or USA; they are inside Eritrea and across its immediate borders. Any egocentric bickering among Diaspora Eritreans is just laughable.

Finally, I hope that our principles would be formulated with the idea of salvaging our people and our country. If whatever we do doesn’t affect our people, we need to revise it—we have to stop spinning our wheels for nothing. The places where we reside are not Eritrean zobas—they are foreign places; whether London wins over Stockholm, or the other way around, in some purposeless rivalry, is insignificant. It doesn’t have any effect on our people; it is just a waste of time. Let’s firmly cement our views on the interest of our people and country. To reinforce that, let’s reclaim our pride and self-confidence. And let’s maintain the Eritrean resolve, that thing we call Habo, Mrwet. Importantly, if we keep forgetting who our real enemy is, I suggest we stick the picture of the tyrant to our breast pockets lest we forget. Let’s stop bickering and extinguish the fires of our petty squabbles. I am Eritrean; and I say it with pride. The way it should be said!

Thank you

 Miriam Was Here
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