Eritrea’s Bermuda Triangle: Land, Settlements & Refugees

Nearly all those who have been following our debate on Awate (the ones who genuinely recognized the problems of Land Grabbers and the Exclusionists of the PFDJ as real and serious) are wondering what possible solutions would come out of the debate that has lasted for months and at least on the surface seems to be getting nowhere. To those who are confused and have no clue as to what is happening or how this debate might contribute to feasible solutions to our national problems and are uneasy with what they see as strong exchange of irreconcilable positions, I say “inhale – exhale and chill down”. This is just a different kind of debate (words mixed with action) as it is not a contest on oratory and writing skills; it is not about promoting some organizations and demeaning others; and it is definitely not one carried out by mysterious demons from outer space with hidden agendas. It is just our New Born Eritreans (NBEs) in action.  


The best way to look at it is to imagine two parties in court (“Tigrignas” Vs “non-Tigrignas – hereafter referred to as Lowlanders”) conducting an open forum negotiation on how to share the nation. “We” on the Lowlanders side [to some extent Semere Habtemariam, Selam Kidane (slowly but surely), and a new genius on Asmarino – Mogos Tekeste – (who almost got it right) by proposing a solution as simple as modifying Dr. Berekhet’s Constitution – included] are making our case and laying our conditions for sharing or splitting the nation on the negotiating table. The issues at stake are: LAND, SETTLEMENTS and REFUGEES – identical issues to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table. The accused (PFDJ) has not appeared in court yet and its representative (EDP-EPP) is pleading “NOT GUILTY” on its behalf. 




Plan “A” of the outcome (of the debate) that I and many others were hoping for– ironically, it had its roots in the same baseless assumptions and naïve beliefs of “Hade hizbi – Hade libi” crap that we tried to warn people not to trust–a hopeless wish to create and see a far different picture of the nation than the one hanging right before our eyes. It was a shock for me as it was for most Lowlanders (those with a little bit of self-respect) who followed the debate to find out that the PFDJ’s ethnic supremacist policies starting with the Project of Demographic Re-Engineering and ending with every twisted argument and trick of exclusion that serves the Project are matters of almost absolute consensus among the Tigrigna elite: the most influential component of ethnic public opinion. Kissing up to them are a few of our own Lowlanders who I hope the Lord will reach into their hearts and call them into salvation and open their eyes into the fact that their personal tragedies are nothing more than the embodiment of what the ethnic supremacists and Neo-Nazis (that we have been talking about) are capable of. We, however, have no more time to waste waiting for “tsemam Hade derfu” to change and we have to MOVE ON (to the real stage), simply because we cannot afford to be held hostage to a bunch of worthless thugs and narrow minded fanatics.


Plan “B” of the solution that I am trying to propose (starting with my last article) is motivated by the desperate realization that  whether we like it or not we (Lowlanders – see my last article for definition)are alone in the fight against the PFDJ’s ethnic supremacists in what matters most: to own our ancestral land (free from thieving Land Grabbers) in the same manner that Tigrignas own their ancestral land, and the derivative claims of the right of all Muslim Eritreans to equal citizenship. The need to redefine our struggle as that of “Muslims Vs Christians” instead of resorting to broader and more complicated definitions of “Lowlanders Vs Highlanders” was brilliantly justified by Ismail Omer (Ethno-Tribal Politics, Religion, and Democracy – Awate, September 19, 2009) in one of the best articles (with some reservations) that I read during this debate (Thank You). Ismail’s flawless analysis, I believe misses the following critical considerations which essentially block the prospects for any negotiated solution to the problems of mutual co-existence and fails to take the necessary precautions in case these negotiations turn out to be irreconcilable (just to make sure my brother does not hibernate again):


(1) In the same way that the “Highlands” is not entirely Christian (hence my qualifications to include the Saho and Jeberti in the definition of the Lowlands), neither is the “Lowlands” entirely Muslim and, in what I consider to be the core of the conflict (Land Grabbers), a large part of the primary victims (Ethnic Kunamas for instance) are actually non-Muslim;


(2) Ismail fails to see that at the core of the demeaning attitude of the PFDJ’s ethnic supremacists towards the Saho and Jeberti is “the Land” and the historical perception that “Islamay midri yeblu, semai Andi yeblu” (which I picked from a post on Awate Forum and forgot the original writer – apologies) which originally referred not to the Hidareb in Barka or the Afar in Denkalia but exclusively to the Saho and Jeberti in the Highlands.  


(3) The Model that myself (and hopefully many others) are calling for (given the history of ethno-centric ganging of irresponsible bullies around the PFDJ) requires that we re-construct the nation in such a way that if we do not seriously take care of one another, breaking to pieces is more than a feasible alternative. “Keeping the nation together”, the primary motivation behind Ismail’s analysis, is not an overriding priority (above all other priorities) for me as is “guaranteeing a nation where citizens live in dignity and respect to one another”;


(4) Where Tigrignas fail to step up to deal with the PFDJ’s ethnic supremacists and the prospects of living together eventually narrow down to zero, it is the insistence to enforce “National Unity” along the unbreakable Muslim-Christian lines that will settle Eritrea into another Somalia, not the spontaneously erected semi-autonomous ethno-regional entities that might easily be accommodated by cousins across the borders (in Sudan and Ethiopia).  


Hold On and save your judgments! We will get into the details of the Model (which I hope we won’t need to apply in real life) in subsequent articles as the debate progresses depending on how the Tigrigna elite are prepared to interact. I do understand the sensitivity of the issues that we are debating and deeply appreciate and share the concerns of those good hearted New Born Eritreans who worry about the extremely dangerous consequences that might follow our rightful struggle to free ourselves and our land from the grip of a blindly vicious regime of the Tigrigna supremacists in Eritrea. Those who still see a glimmer of hope in convincing enough Tigrignas to stand up against their own fanatics and supremacists; those who believe that they would be able to deal with them by magically establishing a democratic Utopia in Eritrea (if wishes were horses); as well as those who prefer to continue bending their heads and serving as shoe shiners of disgrace by polishing the arguments of the Neo-Nazi Project (that has burned Tigrignas and non-Tigrignas alike), are welcome to do so and all I have for them is the best wishes for good luck and “May You Rest in Peace” (in the dust bin).


Special thanks to Brother Saleh Ghadi (Confusion: Opposition or Resistance, Awate September 09, 2009) for (as far as I know) his unique contribution to the debate by drawing our attention to such a crucial distinction that should characterize the Eritrean struggle for change. Truth of the matter is that this distinction has never been more obvious than it is today with the “Opposition” demanding superficial changes within the established ethnic hegemony and hence “soft landing” spearheaded by the essentially Tigrigna political parties (EDP-EPP group and civic organizations) on one side; and the “Resistance” demanding fundamental change of the established rules of the political game spearheaded by Lowland & Muslim liberation movements on the other. The Opposition’s preparations are understandably restricted to grooming the elite that is expected to take over (in their dreams) once the PFDJ collapses by introducing “(hopefully) free press and some kind of elections” (I wouldn’t trust them if I were you); or to supply the bureaucrats, translators, and cheerleaders for whoever takes over once the regime collapses.  


The latter is true simply because under the assumption of a “neutral” one-man-dictatorship (a matter of consensus among the “Opposition”) there is no reason to expect that General Tekhlai Habteselassie, for instance, would follow Isaias’ example into another one-man-show unless a constant of substantial ethnic support base pressing towards a replica “dictatorship” is also assumed (which the “Opposition” blindly denies). The life expectancy of the “Opposition” is therefore tied to the incidence of some kind of coup d’état that might predictably be prepared to engage the public through promises of a rosy democratic future and another “constitutional Hashewye”; or a change of heart (or rhetoric) by the President playing the game of “our national unity is at risk” (which is true) extending a “welcoming” hand. Failure to recognize the existence of the regime’s solid ethnic support base (supremacists if you will) is the most important factor explaining the failure of the “Opposition” to appreciate the most the critical (real) challenges facing the PFDJ and its genuinely tireless efforts to guarantee the “unity” of the nation under its vision (which the “Opposition” seems to share with limited technical difference).


This is where the confusion is: even if we assume that “the PFDJ has no religion or region” the “neutral” President would still have to solve the following demographic equations (where the existence of a solid ethnic support base is inevitable) to keep “everybody” happy.


1. The Tigrignas are squashed in an extremely restrictive topographical zone (and comparatively most disadvantaged with respect to their primary mode of livelihood: agriculture), while Lowlanders (mainly pastoralists) live in sparsely populated spacious plains. It is, therefore, only natural that this “neutral” government would come under enormous popular pressure (due to the weight and history of ethnic Tigrignas in the PFDJ) to adopt measures that would give Tigrignas equal access to agricultural land (as Lowlanders).


2. Where this “neutral” government sees no future in Pastoralists (who might take ages to change their ways of living) and values the potential role of agriculture to the nation’s food security (as any sensible policy maker would do), the probability of the “neutral” government’s alliance with Tigrigna interest groups (desperate to pave the way for abundance in the Lowlands and willing to materialize the government’s vision of “food security”) becomes inevitable.


3. In the unfortunate situation that the rightful owners of those spacious plains of the Lowlands are not only “useless” Pastoralists (as far as their relative contribution to food security is concerned) but are also historically alienated (irrespective of the reasons) and remain stranded in refugee camps outside the country (no need to assume the government had anything to do with it) with no prospects of coming back, even the most neutral politician would have no excuse to put its “development programs” on hold and to evade popular pressure to fill the gap of the absentees in guaranteeing food security.  


These facts taken together bring us to what any “neutral” government would need to take care of before undertaking the actual handling of such a thorny issue (of stealing Land from the haves and handing it over to the have-nots – where the haves and have-nots are delineated along clear ethno-religious lines) without risking a major fallout. Hence, guaranteeing “national unity” in a way that all Eritreans seamlessly melt into the Tigrigna economic identity (by aggressively eradicating Pastoralism) and cultural identity (by aggressively resisting a parallel “Arabic” entity from creating a barrier) is a necessary prerequisite political imperative to rule out any possible impediments to sneaking Tigrignas into the Lowlands with the least possible resistance.


The insistence of Lowlanders on sticking to Arabic as their national language and fortifying it with the Islamic identity has its roots (apart from their historical backgrounds) in the consciousness that the development of a unified national identity that lumps the Tigrignas with helpless minorities is a recipe for disaster as it paves the way for the disguised flow of more Land Grabbers and Exclusionists. If we wake up tomorrow morning and find out that all Tigrignas have adopted Arabic as their only national language, trust me I won’t be the only one who will start calling upon Lowlanders to adopt Chinese as their national language. Primarily, other than the need to create an impenetrable defensive barrier (against Land Grabbers), an absolute political necessity, Eritrean Lowlanders (and Muslims) have no other credible motivation to resist Tigrigna, the de facto language of the marketplace, from also serving as the natural medium of communication for the nation. That is why, in the event that we settle for a solution within a united Eritrea with strong federal institutions with substantial guarantees against Land Grabbers and Exclusionists, it is more likely than not that much of the controversy surrounding Arabic as the national language of Lowlanders and Muslims will fade away, as banning Arabic will lose its significance as a crucial tool of Tigrigna lobbyists in land politics.


The point is: even under the assumption of an angel ruling the nation there is no way any politician can avoid dealing with a very powerful lobby of Tigrignas who genuinely believe that since independent Eritrea belongs to every Eritrean on equal footing and every Eritrean belongs to the nation as an individual citizen there is no reason why Tigrignas should be restricted into sharing scarce land by the inch, while graceful plains in other parts of the country are left for “unproductive” roaming nomads for grazing. These same lobbyists of angel-hearted citizens may even take it a little further by going the extra mile of goodwill to convince this “highly spiritual” government that it would be a good idea to aim for two birds with a single shot. Gather the nomads to settle down in urban centers where it would be easy for the government to provide them with essential services and to initiate them into the more prosperous mode of agricultural living (which requires much less land per capita) on the one hand, and to effectively free much needed land from claims by roaming nomads as a side effect on the other hand.


The bottom line is that however good the intentions of these lobbyists are (and however heavenly the government is), they represent the exclusive interest of ethnic Tigrignas (in this particular case) and where the tricks and arguments they use are promoted and implemented without the consent of the rightful owners of the land they are ganging to steal and in their absence for understandable reasons, it makes them nothing but thieving Land Grabbers. It is not the existence of these Land Grabbers and the lobbyists per se that underlines the dangerous role they play in our politics, but the concerted effort (by the Tigrigna elite) to deny their existence and their political significance (coupled with what Lowlanders see happening on the ground) that highlights the more credible probability that the real intentions of the Land Grabbers (and their cheerleaders) go far beyond sharing the land with its rightful owners.   


Given these facts, therefore, any right minded Eritrean has only two choices:


(1) To accept the possibility that the PFDJ is actually the Tigrigna lobby (of Land Grabbers) that we have described and throw the blame on the Baboon and his monkeys as the main culprits of conspiring to steal the Lowlands and absolve the rest of the Tigrignas as nothing but innocent spectators to a criminal regime of ethnic supremacists representing their interests without their mandate (the argument that we are trying to make so far).


(2) To accept the more logical (far more dangerous) probability that the existence of the Tigrigna lobby is independently related to the real problem of limited access to the land, and that it exists outside the freewill of whoever rules the nation implying that the “neutral PFDJ with no religion or region” is just a puppet in the hands of a far more powerful conspiracy of the real lobbyists.   


It is the fear of “what if the second probability turns out to be the truth?” that leads the “Resistance” (described above) to prepare itself for a long fight that will span far beyond the fall of the PFDJ given the core identities between the PFDJ and its most probable heirs. Even if we do accept the very reasonable claim that the predominantly Tigrigna “Opposition” organizations (or their potential allies within the PFDJ) are in fact genuinely fighting to destroy the PFDJ (an assumption with a big question mark), it is only prudent that the “Resistance” movements (of Lowlanders and Muslims) understand that all future governments in Eritrea (including – for argument’s sake – purely Muslim governments) will eventually be faced with the same tough demographic equations that the PFDJ might have been trying to resolve. Given the obvious conflict of interest in Tigrigna politicians being asked to effectively rule against the interests of their own ethnic constituents and their powerful lobbyists by outlawing Land Grabbing, it becomes absolutely critical that the “Resistance” movements tie their life expectancy to the establishment of clearly defined and sufficiently mandated federal institutions (within or without the nation – whichever materializes first). A decisive step taken by the new trends of the Resistance towards this end has been the dropping of the traditional naïve target of the “downfall of the dictatorial regime” as the destination target.   


This article was intended to serve as a general introduction to the Plan “B” that I briefly described above exclusively venturing into what the “Resistance” should do to guarantee reasonable resolutions (as far as the primary stakeholders are concerned) to the problems of LAND, SETTLEMENTS & REFUGEES (the Bermuda Triangle of Eritrean politics), issues that I hope to dig further during the progress of this debate. The introduction as you might have guessed was directed to those individuals who were enraged at our characterization of the PFDJ as an organization of Tigrigna interest groups (supremacists) by attempting to persuade them that we are actually doing them a favor by restricting the definition of the government’s ethno-centric vision to (exclusively) the President and his men.  


My intention was to warn those writers who are jumping at every opportunity to condemn anybody who might buy into the idea that the PFDJ is a gang of Neo-Nazis and ethnic supremacists and that they alone are to blame for the land grabbing and the targeted exclusion, to watch their step. I tried to draw their attention to the fact that if they do succeed (and I am ready to chip in) in convincing Lowlanders and Muslims into accepting that President Isaias is in fact an innocent lamb “with no religion or region”, they could be digging themselves and the nation a nasty hole because in the eyes of the victims someone has to be held accountable and the outrage that is being directed against the PFDJ (and its finite collaborators) will have to be directed somewhere else (take your guess).  


I don’t think it is a good idea to count on the hope that Lowlanders might be tutored into believing that the robbery of their land and identity that are going on in broad daylight and the nightmares that keep haunting them are imaginary hallucinations detached from reality.  


Let us make sure (for a change) that this September 18th marks a new beginning for a different journey!  



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