The Eritrean Lowland League: An Introduction
Background : I am not someone who is ruled by some “dictatorial chauvinistic regime” running my mind. I am of the belief, however, that women have ways of getting things into your head if you are a man simply because only the survivalist concerns that they raise (when they are serious and acting feminist) are true and cannot be ignored because there can only be one truth. It could also be in the way women tend to frame their arguments and not necessarily in the truth contained in the arguments. I will give an example: a few months ago, a good friend of mine and me had a little discussion with a female family member around a simple question that she framed. Why is it that, when almost every Tigrigna may go to visit his/her family in Eritrea at will (unless they choose to make a political statement by not doing so), nearly all lowlanders (including PFDJ supporters) get into a phobia every time they think of doing what most Tigrigna take for granted? The truth that my friend and I could not skip was that there was something wrong in what lowlanders are doing.
A few days later, another good friend introduced me to the Eritrean Lowland League (ELL) and some very encouraging lowland activism. I became convinced that this time, the ELL is the way to go and hopefully for good. I did make a few first-impression comments about the ELL’s Wathiqa in a previous article, which were not very favorable. Later, upon recommendation from the influential friend, I tried to read as much as possible on whatever has been written on the ELL and discussed the subject with some enthusiasts. I have still not formally joined the ELL but have come to view myself as an unregistered member. I love the grouping (my kind of people) and I am impressed by their ability to expand the organization so fact. I do not speak for the organization in any formal or informal way and nothing that I write or say should be taken as representing the organization or its membership in any way. This article (and others) is intended to contribute towards the call by the ELL’s leadership for discussions and competitive process of redefining the text and context of its future. This is not a Born-Again kind of U-Turn so hold your horses for now.
This introduction is a summary of what I managed to understand about how the drafters of the initiating declaration – commonly referred to as “the Wathiqa” (the document) – viewed the rationale for the initiative to establish the Lowlanders League as a separate civil society organization within the organized political opposition in the diaspora. The summary as I have presented is by no means neutral as I might have cherry-picked the ones relevant for useful discussion.
The declaration starts by establishing Eritrea as a nation of diversity hence the license for each demographic component to express “its future ambitions within the frame of the existing reality of the Eritrean diversity”. This “existing reality” of course includes lowlanders as an integrated unit “characterized by close blood ties and social kinship relations, and that shares deep inherent economic modes of production”. This integrated unit is presented as having faced similar “challenges and upholding similar aspirations” of relations within the (internal) unique geopolitical space as well as with cross-border extensions in Sudan and Eritrean components in the highlands.
In a clear warning not to stretch the claim of ethno-religious homogeneity more than it is needed for establishing the minimum denominator for political alliance, it is noted that this unique region is itself a diversity of other unique components. One extreme example of this diversity is “Kunama”, which is described as “an original part and clear manifestation of the colorful diversity” of the lowlands. As this was just an example, the reader (of the Wathiqa) is encouraged to pick other examples, such as the Afar with fishing nets, the Blin and Mensa’e with big Crosses, the Tigrigna speaking Jeberti, the Saho on hilltops, the Hidareb with sharp blades, the smuggler Rashaida, or the Hawsa with ties to Boko-Haram. The bottom line here is that if you are able to give an example of anything then by definition you must have a prototype – in this case the prototype of the standard lowlander – in mind.
The introduction does make a very strong argument that the rationale for establishing the ELL is not on the claim of internal homogeneity of the region as the lowlands is presented just as diverse and the whole of Eritrea, but on the ability of its component parts to abide by the rules of peaceful mutual respect and coexistence for generations. It essentially defines the concept of unity in diversity as difference of characteristics and unity of character of component parts of society. The Wathiqa defines diversity as “a model of peaceful coexistence across time” maintained through the conscious effort of the components to remain true to the character of “mutual respect and recognition, [and] shared interests devoid of the usurpation of the rights of others”. The problematic of the underlying prototype lowlander dictating the structure of the politics of power and wealth in the initiative is to some extent controlled by the condition that the model of unity in diversity be defined as “the complete absence of any [relations of] domination or exclusion” attributable to pre-determined sociopolitical structures.
Two examples of the claim of cultural decency and political pragmatism in the initiative are worth mentioning. The first is the case of the Afar in Dankalia, who are defined as an integral part of the lowlands as defined in the document, but excluded from the call to join the ELL as an organization. The document does not present what I thought was a convincing argument as to why they should be excluded. However, friends more familiar with the ELL argue that the Afar already have a well developed and widely respected political organization with uniquely defined political vision and would be disrespectful to intervene with disruptive processes that would fall on deaf ears anyway. The second example is the exclusion of highland Muslims (the Jeberti and Saho) from the call to join the ELL. Regrettable as this might sound, I believe (from following the debate) it is well justified by the pragmatism of the need to define territorial limits for any demographically structured political claims.
STRENGTH & WEAKNESS
The Wathiqa presents two examples of success stories to establish the feasibility of the capacity of the lowlands (thus defined) to reproduce yet another success story. The first example was that of “the Rabita … [as] testimony to the fact that this society not only fights injustice in all forms but can ultimately win despite all odds.” The second example was that of “the ELF … [which] not only paved the way for Eritrea’s independence, but … [led] to the downfall of both Haile Selassie and Mengistu regimes.” In both examples, of course, the weakness in the claim is obvious as neither the Rabita nor the ELF can really be defined as local lowland movements: not in the scope of their visions and definitely not in the composition of their ranks. What would the RabiTa look like without giants such as Kebire? This flaw leaks further into the document leading its authors into dividing the Eritrean armed struggle into two phases. In the first phase, lowlanders are the only characters in the show until the end of the 1960s. In the second phase, lowlanders hand over everything to Tigrigna highlanders and disappear from the scene camping in refugee settlements in Sudan.
The document mentions two sources of potential drawbacks that might act against the success of the proposed project. The first source is behavioral, “attributed to the prevailing pastoral mode of living”, which amplifies the impact of the natural tendency of individuals “towards individual freedom and independence rather than to conform to strict centralized and collective mode of relationships and control.” According to the document, consequences of this structural flaw have proven disastrous to the RabiTa and other liberation era organizations by fueling fragmentation. The proposed solution: “society needs to look into these weaknesses and address them effectively instead of trying to avoid them.” A few blessings in disguise (in the document) justify the optimism of the ELL to be able to build something out of the mess. The “armed struggle … helped the people to conform”; “stability created in countries of refuge, [and] access to education”; and little things here and there to induce “adaptation to the necessity of hierarchal organization.” The elitist premise of the argument of behavioral drawbacks in the document essentially frames the problem as that of nomads who would not rally around their leader and not as that of a bankrupt leader who is unable to come up with appealing ideas worth following. Were the RabiTa and ELF success stories because they attracted a special set of conformist nomads or because they, in addition to a well framed cause, had charismatic leaders to begin with?
The second source of weaknesses is operational, primarily caused by “the lack of cohesion and unity of its political and civic forces”, which “exposed its land … to great perils and its history to … distortion”. The proposed solution: lowlanders are “called upon to rescue it from its current state of dormancy … to reclaim its usurped rights.” The document recognizes the magnitude of the challenge especially with the “chauvinistic regime … [and] opposition elements … aiming to demote and belittle” the lowlands. It urges that the destructive capacity of these actors not be underestimated. Supporting observations include: Eritrea “lost the opportunity to be an independent country in the 1950s”; “lost too many lives in the long war”; allowed the “EPLF … [to pursue] its exclusionary policies since inception”; “the country risks being dismantled”; and “opposition … [is aiming] at making cosmetic reforms … [to] the status quo.”
The trick (out of operational drawbacks) in the document is a three-step process: put your “own house in proper order”; “realize democracy, justice, and social equality”; and go for “restoration of denied rights”. Although the document is clear about the first thing that should be done, i.e. putting own house in order, it is not clear whether lowlanders should first join the rest in “realizing democracy, justice, and social equality”, or they should first restore the denied rights and then join the rest. There are a few clues to help us guess that the preferred route for the authors of the Wathiqa follows the three steps in the stated order. First there is the excessively pompous language around how lowlanders dumped all other options and headed “for full independence”, which of course ended into annexation and untold horrors. Second is the boasting about “standing up fighting tooth and nail … [for] the cause of national independence”, which was eventually handed over to the demons. Third is the pride and exhilaration towards lowlanders for “preserving the unity of Eritrean land and people” leading to the heart-breaking frustrated declaration that lowlands “cannot afford to pay the bill to preserve the unity of the nation on its own”.
The document questions the wisdom of blindly working for unity with a party that it primarily holds responsible for “Shifta gang attacks and later the commandos”; “Unity Party and their associates”; “compelling the people to abandon … independence”; “the scorched land policy”; “wide spread lootings, genocides and exile”; and “forty years later … [victims neglected] in refugee camps”. According to the document, in the face of these horrors, lowlanders had no option but to take arms in opposition. Here in the opposition where you least expect, the document says, similar elements took it upon themselves to “side-line [the lowlands] and belittle its role, history and chances of equal and fair involvement.” Their goal: “hampering it from playing a leading and competitive political role” in replicating history by “spearheading of the opposition movement against the current dictatorial regime.” The document argues that, in spite of these malicious actions on both the government and opposition sides, it is virtually impossible to even think about “absenting or marginalizing … vast geographical as well as population” proportions from the struggle for a better Eritrea without also destroying Eritrea in the process.
The document states the government part of the conspiracy adequately around at least four tangible grievances: Shifta-inspired land-grabbing policies and operations, conspiracies to block long-time refugees from returning, harassment to chase out lowlanders from the country, and human rights violations targeting lowlands activism around those grievances. The opposition side of the conspiracy was not clear (for lack of familiarity with opposition politics). Questions for someone like me would include: Which lowland group was hampered from leading? How was it possible that when lowlanders make up the majority of the organized opposition, someone is still able to “absent and marginalize”? Which lowlanders are “lowlanders” in the opposition according to the ELL and who is doing the marginalizing?
Asking more of these questions and leaving them unanswered, however, is what furnishes the context of ambiguities upon which the ELL expects to define a distinctive political space shaped through the call for debates and competitive proposals through a democratic process. On we go to the next article thanks to ambiguities!