In the first Part of this series, I paid a tribute to Adei Semainesh and hoped that her spirit would guide us to understand and cherish each other across ethnic, cultural and religious divide. I commented on Ali Salem’s tone and suggested the need for a code of conduct in the Eritrean cyber space. But I wouldn’t be fair if I comment on Ali Salem’s writings and those who support him without touching on the inflaming tone of his adversaries, those on the other side of the divide.
Why Target Saleh Gadi?
To the best of my knowledge, Saleh Gadi could not be Ali Salem because I have been following his articles from the time he used to write on Dehai. He has openly stood up for his beliefs despite all forms of defamation and character assassination from the EPLF/PFDJ circles. He risked his life, his job, his future and the future of his children when he was living in Kuwait where he was made stateless for simply criticizing the Eritrean government using his real name. He could have easily written his criticism using pen names. Now that he is in a democratic country that gave him protection when he most needed it, why would he hide behind a pen name! His direct expression of his opinions has won him, and continues to win him, a lot of enemies. He has been attacked from the left and right. Eritrean Islamists have accused him of betraying Moslems while Eritrean Christian fundamentalists have accused him of being an advocate of Moslems, a threat to the Tigrinya hegemony in Eritrea. Perhaps, the style that Ali Salem uses is similar to Saleh’s style. Perhaps Ali Salem is influenced by his writings. But I think that is where it ends.
Awate has become a source of credible news. Through the years, awate.com has accumulated a wealth of documents on Eritrea through investigative journalism, interviews, research and has become a reference for researchers. It has facilitated dialogue through discussion forms, timely surveys and analysis. It hosts a very diverse group of writers and it has generally reflected a broad and national character and has financed itself. I agree with the opinions regarding awate.com that appeared on Milkias’ article of Dec. 23.
Abuse of freedom of expression
Opinionated writers need to come out in the open and stand for their opinions; otherwise, if these opinions are not worth standing for openly, they need to keep quiet. The webmasters have an obligation to keep the confidentiality of their writers, but when the opinions are controversial, when there are accusations, defamations against individuals, I think they need to demand transparency and refrain from publishing such articles. For example, no responsible website should have published the recent accusations of Michael Abraha against Saleh Gadi or other similar accusations. If we go on publishing such materials, we will poison our discourse. There are those who are either wicked or naïve and accuse others without any proof.
When I read Michel Abraha’s article, ‘Eritrea: unraveling of Awate Foundation’s extremist schemes,’ published on December 22nd in the American Chronicle, I quickly turned to Eritrean websites to see which ones could have published it. I guessed it would appear on Meskerem, and it was there. Meskerem, the first Eritrean opposition website, as it claims, has shifted gears long ago; by the time the momentum of the opposition, the website has become a realization of the Tigrinya saying, Zeihalfela Chru Meskerem t’ew,wr (an unfortunate bird becomes blind during the harvest season). But I was surprised to find the article at Nharnet.com, a political organization’s website—I think it is unwise for a political organization to be targeting specific individuals persistently by hosting such articles.
G. Ande and the Shifta
What is the difference between what Ali Salim wrote and the other inflammatory article by Semere Tesfai in which he responded to Ali Salim? Personally, I have no problem with Semere Tesfay views though I do not agree with his conclusions—but one can benefit from his arguments; it is good to see different perspectives. But I have a problem with writers like G. Ande and Michael Abraha who are intent on branding Eritrean Muslim writers, with whose opinions they disagree, as extremists—quick to utter the catchphrases, ‘Al Qaieda’ and ‘Tora Bora’, in an attempt to vilify others and yet expect to get credit for that. They forget that we live in democratic countries where the accused is innocent until proven guilty. G. Ande falls short of calling Ali Salem wedi Halima, sahab gemel. He doesn’t know that the camel is an animal that is positively mentioned in the Koran, that Prophet Mohamed himself was sahab gemel, that Halima was one of the daughters of the prophet, hence a favorite name among Muslims. He is fond of Shifta (outlaw/bandit) Gebre—by the way, the folksongs about the defeat of Shifta Gebre are part of the heritage of Eritrea’s western region. One of those to whom some of the songs were sang is an old man named Mohamed Humed Hinsholai who now lives in Kassala.
There were conflicts in the Gash and Barka area among the Beni Amer, the Kunama and Hadendewa. There were conflicts with the shifta and at a later stage with a militia of highlanders supported by the Ethiopian Government. There were also raiders like shifta Gebre. A shifta is a shifta whether he is called Gebre or Ahmed. Gebre cannot represent the highlanders and they cannot be responsible for his deeds. They do not need to defend him nor his deeds. Ande finishes his article by claiming that it is a satire: Zakhlen tihinen baalemariam yebla (finishing work and declaring a Sabbath at the end of the day), is all I can say.
For a long time, even Hamid Idris Awate was regarded as a shifta in the Hafeshawi poletikawi temherti, the EPLF’s Eritrean politics 101. The shifta was a phenomena in the highlands; from time to time, there were famous shiftas who robbed every one. Their services were extensively used by the Ethiopian Government under Haile Sellasie to terrorize those who demanded independence.
The story of the shifta reminds me of a shocking story I heard during a work visit to the Shilalo-Sheshebit’ area in late 1997 when the ELF and the Jihad where militarily very active in the area, one needed to consult with the officials in the area before traveling. A local administrator voluntarily informed us that the government was cooperating with a known Shifta who operated in the Sheshebit area, close to the Tigrean border, in exchange for information about the opposition’s operation in the area.
Language, land and religion
To those who might have an identity crisis, I say I am an Eritrean, and my mother tongue is Tigre. I am a Muslem. I am neither an Arab nor an Israeli. I am proud of my identity. I am proud of my Geez script. This script does not belong to the Tigrinya alone. This is something all of us need to be proud of. As a language, Tigre is a very rich language. Because the missionaries who operated particularly at the Mensaa area translated the Bible in Tigre, these scripts have been associated with Christianity. One can read the collection of Tigre poetry by Enno Littman in 1913 that were collected with the help of Naffa Wed Etman or listen to the songs of Wed Amir to see how rich the language is. I would not trade my language for any other. Yet, I cannot deny the important role of Arabic in Eritrea, particularly for Eritrean Muslims. I have no doubt that every ethnic group is proud of its language and culture. I have no problem if any language in Eritrea dominates through a natural process. This process takes a long time and with it comes acceptance. I am opposed to the systematic domination of a particular language in Eritrea through mechanizations of the state apparatus.
Every Eritrean has the right to live anywhere in Eritrea and this has been going on for a long time, particularly in the lowlands where individuals migrate to different places without any problem. There are issues of land and issues of national and local resources that we need to address. The highlands are densely populated and the fertility of the land has been degraded due to very long period of cultivation coupled with environmental changes. The highlanders are farmers; most of the lowlanders are pastoralists and their region is sparsely populated. One difference between farmers and pastoralists is the fact that farmers who come to a place, clear the vegetation, build a fence and claim it as their own and would be reluctant to give it back. Any land that is not fenced is regarded as no-man’s land. ‘Adi’ is one part of the concept. In the Shilalo area there are many migrants from Hamassen. It is interesting to note that they named their new settlement after their original places, yet, when someone dies there they will carry the body back to the original village for burial, back home. A pastoralist does not clear the place. He does not overgraze. He knows he will come back to the place once the grass has recovered. Pastoralism is a sophisticated mode of production that is suited to arid lands and pastoralists use a seasonal mobile strategy and cover vast areas which they need to sustain their animals.
The Gash region has become a test lab for the erroneous agricultural policies of the PFDJ. Vast areas are exposed to erosion through deep plowing and the area is becoming densely populated. The banks of the rivers has been cut and turned into horticultural schemes and crops that demand too much water are over using underground water thus depleting the water table. Livelihoods of pastoralists are under threat. The region is at the verge of an environmental catastrophe.
The issue of land distribution has to be addressed by a popularly elected government that takes into account the needs of the specific communities and the needs of the country as a whole, in full consultation with all stakeholders. All other natural resources, including mining for minerals should be treated in a similar manner. It is up to a democratically elected parliament to decide on what type of government Eritrea should have, whether a federal or a unitary system.
Eritrean Muslims like Ali Salem need also to look into their own shortcomings and address these before putting the whole blame on the Christians. For example, even the Islamic organizations are unable unite though it is commendable that they have agreed to adhere to democratic principles. Muslims cannot be expected to get their rights in a silver plate, they have to earn it. They need to stand against the oppression of the Jehovah Witnesses, the oppression of the Kunama and all forms of injustice as much as they will stand for their own rights. Muslims need to document and articulate their grievances and put them in a historical context with the aim of learning from the past and with the purpose of moving forward. They need to cherish and recognize the contributions of all genuine Eritreans, irrespective of their religion, who persistently continue to stand up against all forms of oppression. All of us, Muslims and Christians, need to stand together against injustice.
The Lectures of Fanatics
I do not want the Tigrinya Christian fanatics to lecture us on why we should not use Arabic in Eritrea—these lectures have been going on since Waala Bet Ghiorghis. Muslims, like others know what is best for them. Those who associate Arabic with Islam are missing the point that there are Arab Christians. For instance, the Egyptian Coptic Church, to which our own Orthodox Church belonged, uses Arabic. They overlook the fact that all Eritreans have historical and cultural ties to Arabia across the Red Sea as much they have links to all their other neighbors. We are not Iran or Turkey; Arabic is closer to us than English. Yet speaking Arabic does not make us Muslims, but the more languages we know the richer we become.
We have embraced both Christianity and Islam long before they spread to the rest of the world. Most of us are either Christians or Moslems just because our parents happen to be so—only very few can claim conscious conversion. If you are a Moslem or a Christian who feels very strongly about your faith, just imagine a moment how you would have felt if your parents were otherwise. I guess it has become more of a culture that you inherit from your parents and community. Yet, religion was always the Achilles heal in our politics.
The issues raised by Ahmed Raji and Ali Salem are real and need to be discussed and addressed in an objective way like all other issues of injustice. If many Muslims in Eritrea, or for that matter the non-Tigrinya who according to Government statistics comprise about 50 % of the population, have grievances against the policies of the PFDJ, then it is a matter that has to be taken seriously. The Tigrinya elite cannot turn a blind eye on these issues. Even our own Rafto Prize winner for his advocacy of human rights in Eritrea, Paulos Tesfaghiorghis, did not raise a voice on the imprisonment and later disappearance of Eritrean Muslim teachers of the Islamic schools who were rounded up in 1994.
We need a forum for a dialogue before extremists take the law in their hands. The mass massacres that took place in Rwanda and the recent unrest in Kenya, a country that was regarded as a the only stable country in East Africa, shows that dominance of one group over another does not last long and that it breeds hate and results in bloodshed. We are not very special people as the PFDJ claims. We are not immune to crisis like the one which is going on in Somalia. It is for that that I hope for the spirit of Adei Semainesh to guide us to find our right way.
The political landscape
Since the failure of Waala Bet Ghiorghis and the establishment of the Andenet (Unity) Party and later the Rabita Al Islamia (Moslem League), the political landscape has not moved much. Armed struggle started in the lowlands because, there, the Ethiopian oppression was at its highest. Sympathy among the majority in the highlands was with ‘Mother Ethiopia’ which was wrongly perceived as a Christian country since the ruling Amhara elite portrayed it that way while at the same time Ethiopia oppressed its Muslim population. But to say all highlanders supported unity with Ethiopia without qualifiers, is not correct; there were highland based parties that advocated independence.
Though the ELF was dominated by Moslems and lowlanders in the beginning, by the mid 1970s it has became a heterogeneous organization encompassing all Eritreans and it remained so despite the split of the PLF. The ELF strategy was a good attempt at forging national unity, it was diverse, much more democratic than the EPLF, thus more difficult to manage. Militarily it was a catastrophe; it was defeated not solely because of the joint TPLF-EPLF attack, but also due to intrinsic factors. On the other hand, the EPLF was a homogenous organization mainly based on the support of Tigrinya highlanders, and though it was militarily a disciplined and efficient organization it failed in terms of forging a true national unity. One can now see how it ended up as a monster organization eating up its own founders. We cannot blame Isaias for all the EPLF’s ills; the ELF was not ‘Walie Ib Rekbetu,’ a saint either. Though both organizations had their excesses, we cannot undermine the sacrifices of tens of thousands of Eritreans in both.
Eritrean history did not start with the establishment of the EPLF, neither did it stop with the military defeat of the ELF in 1981. The struggle of the opposition did not start in 2001 neither did the atrocities of the Eritrean Government begin then. True, the emergence of the G15 gave a fresh momentum to the Eritrean opposition. But forging an alliance of the opposition was difficult; there were many ‘Haram’ taboos. Some refused to work with the others, ‘we will not work with the 5th columnists who cooperated with the enemy’; and refused to go to Addis. But the slogans died once the realities in the ground dictated otherwise.
The dictatorship is bound to die due to natural or man made causes. The members of the EDA are the organizations that are destined to work together in running Eritrea in the future. If they cannot work together today, how are they expected to work together in independent Eritrea. Now we have two blocks: EPP, EDP, EPM who would formalize their union by the coming New Year, and ‘Tadamun,’ a solidarity of secular and Islamic organizations. Whether they like it or not, the basic power base of the first coalition are Tigrinya/highlanders. It does not mean they do not have Muslems/lowlanders with them. They will in fact be well represented in the leadership as is the case in the PFDJ. The leaders of the EDP and EPM were in one organization to begin with, so there is nothing new—they are just coming together again. As to the EPP, joining the coalition, it is nothing new either. Part of the then Sagem section of the ELF has merged with the EPLF in the so called ‘Unity Congress’ in 1987. Yet, I wish them every success in their endeavors and hope that the union would have a positive impact on the Eritrean opposition arena.
The solidarity coalition basic power bases are lowlanders/Moslems; the secular organizations have highlanders/Christians with them too. Unfortunately, there is no transparency in all organizations and we do not know how many registered members each political organization has. It is of course easier to work and unite with others who are more like you, but the challenge and the real challenge is to be able create a platform were you can work with those you disagree with on common goals. That is also what the Eritrean civic organizations need to work on—it does not make sense to spend time and other resources telling each other what you would like to hear.
Despite all the difficulties, it seems the EDA is the best forum available so far for the various Eritrean political organizations to understand each other and to be able to work across the ethnic, regional and religious divide. But for it to function, it has to be democratic and all leaders have to shoulder the responsibility and be honestly and genuinely dedicated to the umbrella organization. Any attempt by any block to try to be a replacement for the EDA could have grave consequences.
Dr. Mohamed Kheir Omer was an active member in the General Union Of Eritrean Students (GUES) affiliated to the ELF where he served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Union 1977-78. He joined the University of Asmara as a faculty member after independence where he served as the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Aquatic Sciences 92 – 96. He has authored or co-authored several scientific articles locally and internationally. He was a member of the G-13.
Back in 1990, The New York Times had an opinion piece titled, “The Politics of …