Ethiopia: the Elephant in the Room
Suppose a patient walks into an emergency room with a big axe sticking out of his head. The medical staff is bewilderingly looking at this guy, perplexed at how on earth he is even alive. They prepare to do something about this deadly axe and ask the victim how he is feeling. He simply states that he feels just fine except for some minor stomach ache.
“You give me some anti-acid and I am all set,” he replies.
“But what about this … thing! … sticking out of your head?”
“What thing? … Oh, you mean the axe? Never mind that, it’s not a big deal”
When there is a glaringly obvious truth that no one wants to discuss or address, in English, the idiomatic expression “Elephant in the Room” is aptly used. It is supposed to help us imagine having a living, breathing elephant in the family room, in the kitchen, in the meeting room, doing whatever elephants do. It’s not an invisible elephant; it’s just that no one wants to acknowledge that it is there. Instead, everyone prefers to deal with other issues as if this huge thing is not even in the same space.
While I like the “axe in the head” metaphor better, it might be too gory for your taste, and perhaps it sounds something straight out of a Monty Python episode. Ok, let’s stick with “Elephant in the room” then, after all, an elephant is good national symbol for Ethiopia. I am thinking of the “zhon” mega lottery whose advertisement use to include an elephant carrying a jackpot prize of cash (do they still have that?). Anyway, in this analogy, the elephant is Ethiopia’s policy toward regime change in Eritrea and its direct and indirect intervention in Eritrea’s opposition politics.
This discussion is aimed at Ethiopia’s policy toward Eritrea and Eritreans. However, I know that issues of national interest vis- à -vis relations with neighboring countries can quickly devolve into issues of prejudices and ethnic identity politics, pseudo history and even hatred. When we are talking about Ethiopia and Eritrea, we are talking about two poor African countries still at the bottom of the list of countries by per capita income. Two countries whose people have a lot to gain from peaceful co-existence and collaboration instead of purposeless posturing that is often pushed downward to the people by those in position of power.
I think it is safe to say that being from either side of the Ethio-Eritrean border does not come as a result of divine intervention; it is pure accident of fate and history. There is nothing inherently better about being or having roots from a certain dot on the map. National pride should not cloud reasoning, nor should it justify injustice and unfairness.
The nation-state is indeed not something that was conceived by a super-natural being. It is a man-made phenomenon that, and for better or worse, we are destined to use it as a source of identity and to create relations based on mutual respect and fairness. However, it can also easily be used for adversarial purposes to garner unfair advantage, create instability, use it as a bargaining chip and weaken your perceived enemy. Needless to say, the Ethio-Eritrean relationship has yet to enter the “relations based on mutual respect and fairness” period. It is till in the “adversarial” period and if we will ever move toward good neighborliness and far-sighted relationship, the architects of Ethiopia’s foreign policy toward Eritrea must keep the Eritrean people in mind. They must not mistake political emissaries and viceroys for true representation of the heartbeat of Eritreans in Eritrea and Eritreans throughout the world.
Wherever they are, be it inside Ethiopia or elsewhere, Eritreans must be allowed to decide how they will remove the regime of tyrant Isaias Afeworki, and the Eritrean people will eventually decide what kind of government to erect in its place. It would be foolish to expect Eritreans to start trusting Ethiopia’s “support” when it is actually thinly veiled interference. It is time for Ethiopia to clearly state its policy, mandate, role and scope pertaining to the democratization and/or regime change in Eritrea. Only a genuine homegrown revolt morally supported by the world community will guarantee Ethiopia a good neighbor to the north. Yes, Ethiopian authorities have the right to deal with whomever they choose to achieve whatever their ultimate goal is. The people of Eritrea also have the same right to look at the processes and maneuvers and speak-up when something awry is afoot. Hey, it’s our country, dammit!
I am confident we can stay above the fray and discuss issues of balancing state interest and creating a win-win environment. The long term good neighborly relations between the two countries rests on garnering genuine goodwill toward each other and not on hoodwinking and the political mechanizations of moving chess pieces across the board as we have witnessed for the last decade. It has been almost a taboo to criticize Ethiopia’s handling of Eritrean pro-justice movement, especially its systematic rendering of the opposition to a toothless and ineffective entity that is neither capable of bringing about regime change nor tolerant enough to alternative strategies. Yes, the Ethiopians are not entirely to blame for that, but let’s start with the axe sticking out of the head, the Elephant in the room, first and ensure Eritrea’s interest is duly considered. Naturally, when it comes to discussing the role of Ethiopia in the democratization of Eritrea, as Eritreans, our opinion may be biased toward the interest of Eritrea. No need to apologize for that. Hey, it’s our country, dammit!
In 2010, when Eritreans were gathering in Ethiopia for the first “National Conference”, many Eritreans, including myself, were hoping against hope that it could turn into a bona-fide popular movement. The vast majority (if not all) of Eritreans who went to Ethiopia then and afterwards are of course patriots; justice seeking citizens who are simply looking for a solution that will shorten the life of the dictatorship in Eritrea. This is not about questioning their motive but about the ultimate result, which can only be described as utter failure; or we can even dare say that it was designed to fail. Yes, so much passion, emotion and credibility have been invested in the “regime change with the help of Ethiopia” basket and there is nothing to stop some from wanting to continue to have faith in it. Yet, the consequence of granting Ethiopia’s policy makers a blank check in the affairs of Eritrea and shielding them left and right from the wrath of Eritrean public opinion affects us all. A change in strategy is not failure but flexibility. But of course some proud egos will be wounded at the mere suggestion that they may be failing, and may want to keep going with the musical chair game, whose rules seem to change based on whom the Ethiopians decide should win or lose.
So, where did the opposition movement go wrong when it comes to Ethiopia? Volumes can probably be said about this topic but I believe the following 4 points have been ignored by all of us though it was pretty obvious at some point they were going to grow to be, well, as big as an elephant in a room.
1) Forgetting the Masses
At the core of any movement for social change there is the notion of convincing the public. In order to stay relevant an idea must be able to move the masses; to unite them under an idea they want to rally behind. The keyword is: convincing. So, can we say that the Eritrean people are convinced that the way to replace the despicable regime of Isaias Afeworki is by using Ethiopia’s strong arm or simply by using Ethiopia to launch a military campaign? Of course not. No matter how much it is sugarcoated, it was a difficult idea to sell and very few have actually bought it. More importantly, what we have seen in the last few years can not be considered as convincing or selling an idea. It was simply the systematic and sometimes brute intimidation of Eritrean activist, as the plethora of organizations based in Ethiopia compete to impress – not the Eritrean masses – but Ethiopian officials. The result speaks for itself.
2) Looking for Exclusivity
Any organization, be it political or civic, can not appeal to the masses if its aim is “purity” or “the exclusion of others”. Instead of trying to achieve its declared mission, if all an organization does is to purge and exclude people based on sub-national or parochial sentiments, it’s bound to fail. Just like the elephant in the room, this fact has been well-known among Eritreans, and it seems to have been encouraged by the Ethiopians who use some unconvincing justifications. This is probably one of the most dangerous side-effects that should not be ignored any longer, even though these types of organizations do not have a mass appeal. By definition, exclusivity leads to narrowness and limited scope but a close study of how Somalia became Somalia should give us Eritreans a dire warning.
3) Assuming Ethiopia Wants Isaias Out
This one is a perplexing phenomenon that has confused many. Judging from the stand point of justice and fairness, and from the several signals the Ethiopians were sending, we could have been hoodwinked into thinking that the removal of Isaias Afeworki benefits Ethiopia. Unfortunately, international relations does not have the sense and sensibility of our mother’s uqub, where what you paid forward pays you back eventually. We all know it is a little more complex than that. From the standpoint of national interest – or at least the interest of those in power in Ethiopia – Isaias Afworki is actually serving his purpose. At best, he is a very weak neighbor who can only bargain from a point of weakness and at worst (God forbid), he is co-conspirator of whatever hidden agendas are brewing beneath the surface; hidden agendas that seem to require the waning of Eritrean nationalism and its viability as a state.
4) Underestimating Change from Inside
Until that fateful morning of January 21, 2013 when we saw a glimmer of hope on a hilltop in the heart of Asmara, those who believed change from inside is quite possible were ridiculed, and hope was mainly placed on some surgical military operation that is likely to have the Ethiopian army in front or behind it. Then came the coup attempt that came to be known as “Forto” or “nay Wedi Ali”. Surprisingly, the attempt was widely celebrated while the argument “change can not come from within” continues to rage on, not surprisingly, from those who have placed their hopes in the Ethiopia basket. The fact of the matter is, the few times that the Isaias’ dictatorial power was challenged, was from within the system; the G-15 and Forto incidents being prominent examples. More importantly, Eritreans are quite capable of rallying behind a genuine homegrown movement aimed at removing the dictator and swiftly transitioning to constitutional governance.
In these sensitive times, Ethiopia can still play a positive role without meddling in the internal issues of Eritreans. The first of which is to continue to treat Eritrean refugees with care, respect and dignity; something that will go a long way in building goodwill and trust for generations to come. Ethiopia can also, without a drama, settle the border ruling instead of stalling its implementation and giving our dictator the ultimate ticket for justifying his rule. However, backroom dealings that shortchange the future relations of the two downtrodden people of Eritrea and Ethiopia in general and Eritrea and Tigray in particular would be a big mistake.
If the “Elephant in the Room” is actually why the silent majority of Eritreans remain silent, then as Eritreans we owe it to ourselves to seek for an alternative idea of waking up the fighting spirit of our compatriots. Eritreans have a very respectable recent history of stepping up to the challenge even when the chance of winning seemed glim. Even if the strategy to seek Ethiopia’s support was paved with good intentions, it has not worked and in fact, it is one those major reasons why we have a silent majority. The quest for liberty, freedom, justice, lawful administration, equality and peace is honorable and decent; something that should appeal to the vast majority of Eritreans everywhere. There is a good reason why our Second Revolution hasn’t sparked yet. It’s time to deal with that axe sticking out of our opposition movement’s head. It’s time to deal with the Elephant in the Room and usher the era of Eritrean Solutions for Eritrean Problems!