The Trouble With Eritrea

Some countries are very unlucky to find themselves on the wrong side of the globe. Poland had been one of these in the past with Austria and Russia mauling it from time to time. The nightmare happened one day and this country, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the map without a trace.

And then there was this friend of mine from Armenia who always liked to say that the problem with his country was that it happened to be there where it shouldn’t have been in the first place. Neighboring bullies enjoyed pounding it from time to time, and when this didn’t satisfy them, they annexed it ‘for its own safety’.

With every geopolitical shift in this world, and with every madness that afflict world leaders, there are certain nations that suffer so much from their cunning and power-hungry neighbors that they lose confidence in themselves and end up by being treated as ‘special cases’ by political scholars and analysts.

Eritrea is a case in point. A limited edition of sorts. Of all the countries, it was picked out to become the first colony of a newly created Italy and then of fascist Italian hordes who never thought it improper to change alliances when they saw it fit. They treated Eritreans as cannon fodder and took them by train and warships to fight against other downtrodden Africans like them. And when they left, they said arrivederci! And never cared to see how the country fared after them.

One day I asked an Italian officer in the Embassy why the Italians in general never seemed to bother at all about Eritrean independence all throughout the armed struggle for liberation. His answer was that post-Fascist Italy was not responsible for anything that took place during the Fascist regime that meddled with Eritrea. The meaning is that if Eritrea needed any help, it had to ask Mussolini and his followers by raising them from the grave. In brief, what the officer wanted to say was: for heaven’s sake, can’t you see we are busy with the rich and more populous Ethiopia. Mannagia!

While Somalia and Libya (both Italian colonies) got their independence right after WWII, Eritrea was made to wait. While France and Britain maintained close relationships with their former colonies, Italy sided with Ethiopia to the end. Signor Storelli, the Italian Consul in Asmara, was the first to get arrested for his close cooperation with the Derg when the EPLF entered Asmara.

Then came along the Brits who fought not to liberate Eritreans from Italy but to end the embarrassing War once and for all time. They didn’t fight for us, as they unashamedly admitted. English as they were through and through, they found it only proper to leave a country divided and at war with itself. We are now witnessing the effects of their evil colonial policies in the form of skirmishes, border disputes and pitched battles all over the world. Eritrea is not an exception.

While Sudan had  its Mahdi, Somalia its Mad Mullah and Egypt its Nasser, Eritrea failed to produce charismatic figures that could make colonialists or neocolonialists to think twice. Isaias was not Che Guevera nor was he Ho Chi Minh. Could it be that we had never been a nation? Could it be that the political centrifugal forces in Eritrea were stronger than the centripetal forces. Or could it be that we had (specially the Christian highlanders) chose the wrong man for our charismatic figure…Haile Sellassie!

Eritrea was again unlucky to share borders with a country that had 3000 years of history behind it! With a king anointed by God and a policy of aggrandizement that puzzled even the colonialists themselves, Eritrea was simply a sitting duck for the grabs. Biblical parallels were drawn to lure, entice and cheat. Eritrea was the lost daughter. The Mereb River was the River Jordan par excellence. The monarch was the mystic Father. Who knows, maybe we were, after all, the lost tribe of Israel. Wasn’t the king the Conquering Lion from the tribe of Judah?

Now let us have a quick glance at Eritreans. According to PFDJ, we are composed of nine ethnic groups. Wait a minute! Why not ten? Isn’t the PFDJ itself an ethnic group with its own party dialect and common political heritage. But let’s for the moment keep it at nine. That’s a lucky number, you know!

Most of our ethnic groups have their roots across the border. Do you know that some of us are minorities? The Affars, the Tigrinyas, the Bilin, the Rashaida, are minorities in Eritrea with the majority living across the border. Even religiously, we are minorities, with the majority (Orthodox Christians and Sunni Moslems) living across the border, in Ethiopia and Sudan respectively. Don’t get nervous yet!

With such geographical and social formation, it is only too natural for a centrifugal force to be created pulling the Highland Christians and Lowland Moslems towards their coreligionists in Ethiopia and the Sudan respectively.

Then came the Derg who chose Marxism over nationalism in order to look more progressive and to appear as part of the global class struggle. If Eritrea, the lost daughter, had been reluctant to join her father, the monarch, in the past, then maybe it was now ready to join the world’s proletariat movement led by Colonel Mengistu. No way!

We had to cope with successive colonial masters who, until the advent of the Italians, ruled only small parts of the country and left the rest to live in total confusion, and in perpetual doubt, with its various warlords creating and breaking allegiances as they saw fit. These pre-Italian masters never succeeded to build a unified Eritrea and instead sow the seeds of mistrust in the various regional powers in the country. The mistrust continues.

What kind of people has such a country produced in the end? Some say that we are docile, even too docile at times and too slow to ask for our rights. Not only that, we don’t even know our rights. I am sure that all the bizarre geopolitical and social developments mentioned above must have shaped our character and mental disposition.

We are born fighters, but we do it mostly within ourselves than against a common enemy. We are freedom lovers but seem to find it difficult to distinguish between personal freedom and political freedom. We have a culture of organization and have our own written customary laws and ordinances, yet we always looked for someone to dictate us to do things that we wouldn’t do if we had been left alone.

And finally we had to listen to a dictator instead of to common sense to get our independence. A well organized but ruthless group, the forerunners of PFDJ, succeeded to rout the enemy and bring the promised independence where other, less despotic, groups failed. Only those who acted like invaders could succeed. Strange, isn’t it?

I always say to myself whether successive colonial encounters had not emasculated the Eritrean people and made them what they are at the moment: immune to dictatorship or injustices as practiced only by colonial overlords in the past. And when you see Eritreans in the Diaspora milling about with placards carrying the words: ISSAIAS IS OUR HERO, (I saw this in Sweden in a demonstration held by PFDJ sympathizers), you wonder if deep inside we are not outright masochists.

There is a proverb in our country which goes almost like this: kabti kufu zghebruka, kufu zmhruka (evil people do not only mistreat you, but teach you to do that to others as well). Now let’s look again at the successive colonizers who arrived in Eritrea. They one and all showed us how to feel superior to others who are weaker than us. They taught us timkhti (arrogance, pride, conceit, superciliousness). They left behind a pattern of timkhti for the next ‘invader’ to emulate. They left a mould or a template to be used by the next ruler in line. The last in line was the EPLF-cum-PFDJ.

When the EPLF arrived, they copied the ‘invaders’ mentality and went about oppressing and terrorizing their own people. They have even surpassed the colonialists in many aspects. That’s why some Eritreans openly say that it was better in the days of the Derg!

We cannot of course call the EPLF invaders. But even if they did not invade the land literally or physically, they have invaded our privacy, our personal freedom, our rights, and our self-esteem!

The EPLF didn’t come from across the sea or across the border, okay. But their dictatorial institutions are alien to us. Hence, if they themselves didn’t come from another land, their evil thoughts and their mentality did!

Now a bit about timkhti. When the Ethiopians (Amharas) were in Eritrea, they wanted everybody to speak in Amharic. Anyone who spoke the king’s language haltingly was not pure Ethiopian. Anyone who couldn’t speak it at all was a suspect. And anyone who preferred his own language to it was downright traitor!

We haven’t reached that stage yet, but from the looks of it one is persuaded to see similar patterns in today’s Eritrea. I hope things will get remedied soon. Watch out for patterns!

With all the odds against it, Eritrea could at least produce sons and daughters who are ready to fight for it, to give it its rightful place in the community of nations. We are now holding Waalas and are getting organized to face the ‘virus’ that is killing our country.

But we should remember one thing. New ailments require new healing methods. We should try to make a thorough diagnosis of the country and subscribe the most effective medicine. We should bring out all the dirty laundry and the skeletons from the closet. Some of it may prove to be shocking or embarrassing, but we had to look the problem in the eye just the same.

Eritrea has become a case due to its geographical position and its long encounter with atypical political and social situations and developments.

The legacy of successive colonialism and chain of injustices coupled with the ever-changing chances and fortunes of this world which alas was a bit unfair to our country, had succeeded to produce a people called Eritreans seemingly undecided and a bit confused about the future of their own country.

Whether we like it or not, the cruel drama has been played out and I hope that we have learned a lot from it. The outcome is laid bare for us to see at present. A bit of determination and an open mind can open the tortuous path that can lead to that freedom that we have never had the chance to enjoy fully.


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