Bridge Over Mereb and Other Rivers

[This article is being republished on with the consent of the Editorial Team of Discourse Magazine to which it was contributed. The maiden edition of the magazine which is published by The Ethiopian Foreign Relations Strategic Studies Institute appeared on Thursday, 19 January 2017. 

In a 2010 interview, I asked the late PM Meles Zenawi if Eritrean ports have lost Ethiopian business forever or they would regain the lost opportunities in the future. He answered, “the demand of the Ethiopian economy is going to go beyond the capacity of Tajura and Djibouti ports.” He also said, “Ethiopia was beginning to develop the potassium resources in the Afar region… millions of tons per year that need to be transported” and that the closest port was not even Assab but Ti’o. And that, “under normal situation, Eritrea could regain most of these businesses and develop new businesses as well.”

It sounds presumptuous to harp only on the access to the sea when addressing Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. The two countries have deeper cultural and familial ties; it’s important to consider Assab as an opportunity for cooperation and not as a destabilizing factor. The scope of relations between the two countries should not be limited to access to ports. It is worth noting that so far, both countries have become victims of their closeness to one another.

Eritrean ports are indispensable for Ethiopia, though Ethiopia has a choice of other ports such as Port Sudan, Mombasa, Berbera, and Djibouti. If the current growth rate continues to hold, and with a population nearing 100 million, Ethiopia will need additional ports to satisfy its foreign trade requirements-more than what Eritrea could have provided. But it’s not all about seaports.

Peace and stability is vital for the Ethiopian-Eritrean border areas whose residents, ironically, never saw their relations disrupted even during the turbulent years of the armed struggle. The two countries share over 900 Kilometers long border and its security is of para-mount importance. Sparsely populated areas cannot be left open to infiltration; densely populated regions cannot be strangulated by red tapes. The two countries can ill afford a psychological wall to stand between them let alone a physical one that extremists from both sides aspire to build. Even China, which is known for its Great Wall, had to demolish it psychologically and convert the physical wall into a major tourist attraction.

The Commonality

In ancient times, the Aksumite Kingdom, which belonged to both sides, was the epicenter of an old political, commercial and cultural region whose radius reportedly extended to Mecca, Medina, Sana’a, Hadramout, and Zeila. It was an era where religions and cultures morphed, and languages enriched each other. Saint Yared, the legendary 6th century CE Ethiopian composer, who believed to have invented the Ethiopian Orthodox church chants and music notation, is a product of that Christian era when the radius of Aksum’s interaction extended further to Alexandria. It was a time when scholars contributed to a rich knowledge base, including religious studies. People moved freely from one corner to the other. Trade routes crisscrossed the sea and the land. Yet,  authority didn’t shift far from the Aksumite epicenter.

That was soon followed by the Muslim period and the region, one can argue, entered its second golden era. Arts, architecture and scholarship developed, and collaboration between Christian and Muslim scholars resulted in significant works, such as the Kibre Negest, codes, documents, epic and narratives that are much revered by Ethiopian Christians to this day. That period of religious tolerance was negatively affected by the incursions of fanatic Jesuits into Ethiopia.

Towards the end of the 15th century CE, the Moors were totally expelled from the Iberian Peninsula leaving behind Portuguese zealous with vengeful grudges against Muslims who occupied Iberia for almost 800 years. By then, the Portuguese had developed an interest in “Christian Abyssinia” and the Roman Catholic Church appointed a Portuguese national as its patriarch. In their zealotry, the Jesuits required Orthodox Ethiopians to convert to the Roman Catholic faith. They didn’t like “the [Abyssinian] Church’s tradition of dependence on the Egyptian Coptic Church.” Considering the religious relations between Alexandria and Aksum an aberration, they looked down on the Orthodox Christianity that coexisted with Islam peacefully before their involvement, and they planted the seed of confrontational posture between Islam and Christianity in Ethiopia. Finally, the fanatic Jesuits brought about their downfall when they demanded that Ethiopian Orthodox Christians be baptized anew!

The Jesuit involvement had in turn invited the involvement of the equally zealot Turks in the region, and it led to a religious civil war (1529-1543) between Hatse Lebne Dengel, followed by Hatse Gelawdeos, who led Christian forces, and Ibn Imam Ahmed, who led the Muslim forces. As coexistence between Christians and Muslims was disrupted, the region entered into an era replete with bloody confrontations that forced Muslims to cling to the wider regional affiliation of the past, while the Christians maintained weak links with Alexandria.

Most of the causes of the current predicament of both Eritrea and Ethiopia can be traced to a history of feudalism that continued until the 20th century. It is a history that made some Eritreans to accept Italian colonization, which they considered better than the Ethiopian oppression. It is also what led to the creation of the liberation movements. It is part of the history of the region that was never allowed serious closure and, therefore, the wounds continue to fester.

Blame it all on Past Ethiopian Rulers

Unlike the nation-states of the West whose social groups have mostly morphed into manageable sections, the region in question is still home to diverse societies. They were dismembered and put in arbitrary fences dividing indigenous people based on the wild and mendacious creativity of foreign cartographers. The foreigners are still active in the neighborhood. They are surveying Darfur, Sudan to build a new fence, knowing well that such undertaking ushers more mayhem and destruction.

In 1952, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia crossed a bridge over the Mereb River to Eritrea amid fanfare and jubilation. He had presented himself as a savior, though he was pursuing goals for an imperial expansion. Soon, that jubilation waned when the appeasement and cunning politics jumped out laced with the historical feudal bitterness, particularly for the Eritrean elites, who had tasted a short-lived freedom under the British administration. By arbitrarily demolishing the Mereb fence, the Emperor cast a spell upon Eritrea and Ethiopia; that gamble was the cause of the bloody era of destruction that lasted for decades until the “independence” of Eritrea that heralded the birth of a totalitarian regime.

Though the average Ethiopian or Eritrean doesn’t wish for instability, when the elites embark on a war, many people reach for their rusted guns, if not their spears and swords. For the most part, the elites have been working from an outdated manual when dealing with social and political problems; the enmity of the border war of 1998-2000 was further fueled by parochial rivalries that are based on exploits of warlords who knew little apart from pushing bloody campaigns.

Mythology is an important component in nation-building regardless of whether the countries came into being as a result of conquests or as a creation of foreign powers. Eritrea is a victim of both. A serious researcher on the social and political aspects of the two countries needs to go deep into history and mythology, though parts of that history are too recent to be considered a myth. Unfortunately, at any given chance, those issues that are buried in a shallow layer of the collective memories of both people are invoked to serve the narratives of the present. And they are so user-friendly for the gullible. They can be shaped and molded to serve any purpose.

Mythology is an important component in nation-building regardless of whether the countries came into being as a result of conquests or as a creation of foreign powers. Eritrea is a victim of both exercises. It has gone through the course of nation-building by paying heavy sacrifices: the pain of colonial rule and the armed struggle. Unfortunately, having accomplished the glorious goal of independence, Eritreans failed in state-building. The current totalitarian Eritrean regime sits over a deformed state that doesn’t reflect the aspiration of the people. Mythology and colonization have both played a destructive role in the current predicament of Eritrea. Today it is engulfed in devastating crisis, mainly as a result of its rulers’ exaggerated self-perception, aspiring to become the alpha males of the region. And the destructive rivalry with the leaders of the Ethiopian government led to a destructive border war, which is informed by mythology and emotional grievances. It became lethal simply because enough of the elites from both countries subscribe to it and fan its flames.

Thinking of a Sunrise

Policymakers in the region cannot help the situation without understanding the social and geographical complexities – including the region’s history and mythology. Post 1991 Ethiopia chose the path of a federal system among nations and nationalities, which seems to be working fine. But some elements in the Ethiopian political landscape seem to be lost on understanding the actual complexities in Eritrea; many Eritreans suspect that is why they keep promoting the idea of establishing an Ethiopian replica in Eritrea. Many Eritreans do not condone that, and not because it does not serve the hegemonic aspiration of a certain segment of Eritreans as is widely insinuated. At the same time, many Eritreans do not want to be denied the right to decide for their own regions. Self-rule within a unitary state is the most viable option for Eritrea. Also, reinstating the traditional and historical regional division of Eritrea would be acceptable by many political parties. Power must devolve from the center so that the regions can administer themselves without a central tyrant imposing his will on them.

Throughout our remembered history, Eritrean regions, sects, ethnic groups have lived in relative harmony, and there is no recorded serious division as in recent years. The mistrust and disharmony among Eritreans are mainly the making of the totalitarian Eritrean regime, which provided a fertile ground for primordial sentiments to be revived. In other words, the situation in Eritrea is exasperated by the repressive rule of the regime. However, Ethiopia’s role in helping prevent that has not been satisfactory – not because it is duty bound to do so but remembering that none of Eritrea’s neighbors have played a decisive role in the fate of Eritreans as Ethiopia did. Thus, its active role is not only a strategic necessity but a duty. Unfortunately, the other important Eritrean neighbor, represented by the current Government of Sudan, has disqualified itself from any role by choosing to be an ally and an enabler of the Eritrean regime. Ethiopian policymakers cannot afford to ignore the gap that is widening across the Eritrean social, regional, and religious divide. These divergences are too risky to watch silently; they are cracks through which bigger determinant problems could seep-in to make it unmanageable.

Moderate Eritreans believe they have enough leverage and goodwill among their people to defeat Isaias and his regime; Eritrea’s neighbors should focus on encouraging and supporting this strain within the Eritrean political camp.

Ethiopian authorities and the Eritrean resistance forces need to reach an understanding on the strategic relations between the two countries and people; once the intents of both are declared in a sort of genuine memorandum of understanding, the Eritrean forces should be left to their own devices, with less interference to reach strategic and tactical decisions. To this date, no such meaningful debate has taken place between Eritreans and Ethiopians apart from a few meetings and seminars with unclear agendas and conclusions.

Looking ahead, the often-repeated fact regarding the close relations between the two peoples should not be taken for granted; intellectuals and politicians of the two countries need to define and redefine these relations in strategic terms. The relations should provide tangible benefits for the two countries and not be considered ceremonial speech-feelers or words uttered for mere social nicety.

Today, the bridge that Emperor Haile Selassie I crossed in 1952 is politically and emotionally demolished; physically it has remained insignificant since 1998. Instead, it is essential to building a wider, modern, durable bridge that all should be able to cross freely, without dividing Eritreans and Ethiopians into toll-collectors and toll-payers.

Between 1991 and 1997, the two new governments signed many agreements: security, financial, economic, and political. As far as Eritreans are concerned, those agreements were designed and implemented with the PFDJ, the Eritrean ruling party, as a monopolizing power in mind. Still, though many Eritreans were denied the benefits from such agreements, they accepted it thinking the situation will improve with time. They found themselves splashed with cold water when the two countries went to war, and even the uninitiated ended up paying for the consequences.

The envisioned bridge should be erected with the intention of serving all stakeholders in the two countries with impartiality, unlike the bridge that Haile Selassie crossed in 1952, and it should also not be an unfair bridge similar to the one that connected the two governments between 1991 and 1997.

Though Ethiopia has made a remarkable stride in many fields and is pursuing the right path, both countries are on the lower rungs of the development ladder and are far behind in every human development indices. Both countries need a sense of urgency to build such a bridge since in this age neither Eritrea nor Ethiopia can afford to keep on falling behind. It is a fast-moving age and the power of mythology is diminishing and losing its efficacy. As more and more countries in Africa are going through – and succeeding – in the democratization process, current and future despotic regimes will find it difficult to rule with an iron fist. Building a durable bridge is a historical inevitability.

Eritrea is very much damaged after more than two decades of brigandage and repression; the band holding Eritreans together has been stretched so much that there is a risk it might snap. If the repressive Eritrean regime is removed without dealing with the subdued political wills of the society – and tens of thousands of firearms scattered everywhere – there is a genuine fear of serious polarization that only benefits warlords and gangs. Instead of a national army, Eritrea has a large armed force that is being managed as a private militia of a totalitarian regime. That poses a serious risk to the security of Eritrea and the entire region. Unfortunately, the Eritrean opposition doesn’t fare any better; it also holds the seeds for such disaster unless it forms an umbrella group that commands political authority.

Welcoming a Sunrise

Eritrea would benefit from a developed Ethiopia. A failed Ethiopia doesn’t translate into a victory for Eritrea as perceived by the ego-driven militarist bravado of the Eritrean regime. Ethiopia’s failure doesn’t translate into tangible benefits for Eritreans. In fact, the Eritrean regime, for instance, doesn’t think of the market that the Asseb port is supposed to serve; it is content with putting a division dedicated to guarding an idle port—rumored foreign use of the port notwithstanding.

From the outset, the Eritrean case was all about freedom and justice, never for anything else. Ideologies and partisan politics were not at the core of what the average Eritrean expected after the epic struggle. Of course, ideologies are important in a struggle, for they shape the future governance of a state. But ideologies are not an end in themselves. Unfortunately, since the Eritrean struggle delivered neither the freedom nor the justice it set out to achieve, some demoralized individuals have questioned the validity of the entire journey. However, resilient Eritrean patriots simply recognize that the lofty goals they pursued are not yet achieved in full. That is a confirmation that there remains an additional journey to tread. And, hopefully, this time when the destination is reached, it will not be based on goodwill or naiveté. Real justice and freedom must be achieved. And that is why the Eritrean resistance is ravaged by mistrust and rivalry – everyone needs to hear a declaration of intents as a preliminary guarantee for the protection of the lofty goals. They should strive to disallow anyone from eroding the ideals of the struggle.

Eritreans ought to envision peaceful relations with all their neighbors, particularly with Ethiopia. Eritreans should assure Ethiopia of their genuine intents: good neighborliness, security, equitable deal in accessing the sea, trade, and commerce. Ethiopia should also assure Eritreans of genuine intents: good neighborliness, security, territorial integrity and abstention from the operational heavy-handedness. That kind of conviction in itself would guarantee a prosperous, fruitful, peaceful and stable relationship between the two countries. And in such an environment, politics will be governed by the interest of the people, not by the narrow interest of the elites.

However, before reaching there, a serious discussion should take place between Eritrean and Ethiopian stakeholders, beginning with scholars who have proven track records, not those who would like opportunistically to climb the ladder of power without proving themselves, or investing in the struggle.


Related Posts