Dr Bereket Habteselassie: From The Unknown To The Uncertain
It is now more than 35 years since I first met Dr. Bereket in Baghdad/Iraq. He was very energetic, articulate, physically and mentally active (still he is fortunately – touch wood). Since then I had been following his contributions, lectures, participations in regional and international forums and seminars.
That makes me—I believe—eligible to talk about the man, at least about the major milestones of his life. I have to state though that whether you agree with him or not, you have to respect him for his efforts to explore and dissect the socio-cultural fabric of the Eritrean society. His recent contribution was a genuine navigation through the contemporary Eritrean politics (State, Religion and Ethno-Regional Politics, Awate.com, March 1, 2010). That is the reason why I decided to send him this message in recognition of what he is doing.
In spite of the high levels of education that he has already achieved, Dr. Bereket is still trying to learn about issues and topics not directly related to his field of specialization.
The first phase started in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia in 1974, when the country was passing through a social and political transformation: the empire collapsed and a new state with a new group of leaders was about to emerge. At that stage, Dr. Bereket failed to recognize the real factors and elements of change. He believed that “Eritreans” could lead the entire Ethiopian empire because they were more qualified, more experienced and they represented a buffer zone between the competing Ethiopian ethnic groups. When General Aman Andom became the head of the military junta, he thought that his reading of the map was correct and he was heading towards the right direction, but the deadly mistake in that analysis was:
· The state of Ethiopia was still in the making—monarchy or republic—and the successor(s) were unknown. Nasser of Egypt was the real leader of the Arab nations (1952-1970); when he died, Ghadafi of Libya introduced himself as his successor and used his petro-dollars to promote himself to that position. It didn’t work simply because of the fact that Nasser did not become the sole leader of the Arabs due to his charisma and personal qualifications, but mainly because of the country he belonged to, Egypt—its history, culture, large population and its geopolitical importance.
· The shoes that Dr. Bereket and General Aman tried to put on were too big for them and even when the General tried to play his normal role as an equivalent, the junta killed him. That was the first shock for Dr. Bereket. He discovered that he was in the wrong place and with the wrong people—the unknown!
In the second Phase, Dr. Bereket immediately joined the Eritrean revolution, the uncertain!
There is a saying that, “first impressions last,” and Dr. Bereket came face to face with the leaders of the two competing organizations: Herui Bairu (ELF) and Isaias Afwerki (EPLF).
What encouraged him was the fact that both were from the same ethnic background, same religion and same culture as Dr. Bereket. He tried to play the role of a mediator to bring them together and achieve unity—that was beyond his capacity and the divisions were more complicated and deeply rooted than what Dr. Bereket saw on the surface. At the end, he had to choose: he joined EPLF, a choice that we understand and respect.
Dr. Bereket played his role until the independence of Eritrea and alongside millions of Eritreans, he celebrated the victory of liberation. When he was appointed to chair constitution-drafting commission, many people said that he was a good choice and that he was qualified and eligible for the task. He did his best: meetings, interviews, gathering proposals, listening to recommendations. At the end, he put the summary of his findings on the president’s table. However, the president said, ‘No official language,’ meaning no Arabic language and the constitution was frozen. The president threw away his mask and revealed the true face of a dictator.
The dictator used the commission during the process as a cover up to gain more time until he becomes ready to declare his state: a state totally dominated by one ethnic group (Christian Highlanders). The list published by Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar, (The Eritrean Covenant), proved that what we have in Eritrea is not a national state but an unjust ethnocentric dictatorship that has made even a large sector of the “lucky” ethnic group feel ashamed of what had been done in its name!
Dr. Bereket had joined the opposition as an independent trying to discover a way out and new channels to approach the other partners (Muslims) in particular and the wider community in general. For the second time he realized that he was queuing with the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.
This time he is confident that the road to victory can be shorter and easier and the results would be more fruitful and promising if we hold an inclusive vision that brings us together, all the constituents and components of the Eritrean society.
The Eritrean Covenant is a call of a hunted and suffocating community though that society is not dying and will never die. History tells us that when human beings exhaust all options and resources and reach a deadlock, they recall their spiritual heritage—a power that proved to be not only a life-saving, but a decisive weapon of change. When extremists and desperate groups use spiritual heritage it becomes destructive (e.g. AlQaida and AlShabab of Somalia.) On the other hand, the wise and the farsighted social and political leaders can properly use it. That is because, and in essence, religion promotes coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect—and that was the message of “The Eritrean Covenant.” Will the partners respond before it is too late?
In 1969, at a meeting with the leadership of the ELF in Damascus, Syria, Isaias Afwerki said, ‘Eritrean Muslims started the revolution not because they were more “nationalistic”, but simply because they lost everything and have nothing to lose! While Eritrean Christians used to have everything—jobs, bank loans, houses, clinics and schools in their areas and scholarships outside the country!’
That apologetic analysis is equally true at present, the only difference is that, in 1961, the enemy was a foreigner, while at present the target is part of the socio-cultural fabric of the Eritrean society—a fact that makes the damage more devastating with long lasting consequences.
Here, I would like to pass to Dr. Bereket some remarks that I heard from some observers who follow contributions (mainly Muslims); I hope he will consider the following in the struggle for a new Eritrea (Haddas Ertra):
1) Some say that you are concerned about the post Independence influx of Eritrean Refugees, that is natural and appreciated, but you should equally be concerned about the “original” refugees –more than quarter of a million—who should have returned home by now and settled in their liberated land.
2) Some believe that you are a strong advocate for democracy and against dictatorship—something that is highly appreciated; but you do not go far enough to call for the dismantlement of the structure and composition of the present state that is dominated by one ethnic group. And those observers ask:
· If the composition of the state—its departments, channels and personnel are all from one ethnic group—how can we have justice and equality?
· How can we guarantee justice and equality if one ethnic group owns the wealth, resources, assets and everything else in Eritrea?
My last words to Dr. Bereket: may God give you the strength and health to spread the word of truth among the new generation and pass the message of coexistence, tolerance and genuine partnership between Eritrean.
May God bless the Eritrean People.