Eritrea‘s current geographical borders, and the people within that Domain, had not emerged through a natural process of development to form a nation state. Like most African states, Eritrea is an outcome of a colonial scramble in search of raw materials and new markets which the then developing economies of the West required; the colonialists unleashed their power to control as much territories as possible. In the process they aborted the natural process of development. If not so, a national state, with defined borders encompassing culturally and ethnically homogeneous people, could have probably evolved. But as we see today, countries are a mosaic of national groups that are dispersed across border lines in different neighbouring countries. Destiny has juxtaposed us into this position and we had no better choice but to accept and live with our fate-imposed partners in the same country. We should realise that our peaceful coexistence is not an option but a destiny that must be safeguarded; and if need be, fought for even if it was against the will of a national partner who may be tempted to change the realities.
There is a general consensus regarding the preservation of the unity of the country and its people; but a question remains: how and what type of unity, and at what cost? No doubt the unity policy perpetuated by the current regime, under the notorious slogan of ‘hade lebi hadi hizbi’, a policy of sheer dominance of a particular ethnic group, is a product of a disastrous social engineering project that the regime has hatched—and its consequences proved to be too grave.
Unity must acknowledge the diversity of the people in the widest sense of the word. It must encompasses and reflect the diverse cultures, religions, languages, hopes, anguishes and aspirations—a unity that is built on the grounds of mutual recognition, respect and acceptance; a unity that guarantees political, social, economic and respect for civil rights. Importantly, it must guarantee equality among the citizens of the country. Those values must be embodied in a willingly agreed upon contract of coexistence by all concerned national entities. It is that kind of unity that ensures equal opportunities for everyone and ushers stability and prosperity.
Not many would accept the notion of unity as conceived and depicted by some political entities. Most Eritreans reject the kind of unity expressed by some writers who try to justify the status-quo, a domination by a certain group, under different pretexts that consider the current injustices as a legacy of the colonial era which no one is accountable for. Still, others envision a ‘tyranny of the majority’ in the future democratic Eritrea as if they are entitled by a God, a right that no one should question. Such arrogance behaviour is robbing us of the hope and the dream that one day we will all live under a just system. As long as such thoughts are promoted, and as long as attitudes of intolerance and scepticism towards any call for equality is the answer, as long as the ability of concerned citizens to redress injustices committed against the population is curtailed and the same arrogant behaviour is allowed to prevail, the hope of closing this grim chapter in our history, and ushering a brighter future, remains unattainable.
My pessimism stems from the many disappointing experiences and missed opportunities in our recent history. Those experiences would have been avoided if we stood together on national issues and realised that injustice committed (even by the closest kin) is just injustice and would never be a winning opportunity for any party. But if that doesn’t happen, we will all regret it when one day, the injustice will be undone and scores will be settled, perhaps in a more brutal and vengeful way.
The issue of Arabic language in Eritrea is a case in point. In the fifties of the last century, the members of the Eritrean parliament reached a deal and voted to adopt two official languages for the country: Arabic and Tigrinya. Tigrigna was adopted unanimously while to the surprise and disappointment of the Muslim members, the Christian Kebesa parliamentarians reneged on the deal and attempted to block Arabic from being adopted. That resulted in a stalemate of the constitutional debates to the extent that it jeopardising the entire federal arrangement (the Muslims threatened to withdraw from the discussions). This stalemate was broken by Emperor Haile Selassie’s intervention when he was advised by the UN envoy to do so. Thus, Arabic was finally adopted. But strangely enough, it was because of the intervention of the Emperor against the will of the representatives of our national partners.
Less than two decades later, Isaias and Shabia pursued the same negative stand under different pretexts. Still, the majority of Kebasa Christians, including the intellectuals class, do not accept the fact that it is a rightful choice of Eritrean Muslims to have Arabic as an official language—but Muslims do not need to explain it over and over again. It has been their cultural and educational language since time immemorial. Arabic is deep rooted in Eritrea and Muslims have cultural and spiritual bonds to it, but that does not seem to concern our compatriots. It is not an exaggeration to assert that the abolishing of Arabic language as a medium of instruction and replacing it with Amharic was one of the basic reasons that soared up the nationalistic feelings of Muslims to the extent that they ignited an armed struggle in the lowlands of Eritrean.
Many Christian highlanders erroneously equate Arabic with Islam. This apprehension rests deep in the psyche of Christians in the region as the Abyssinian rulers perceived themselves as an isolated island engulfed by a sea of expanding Islamic states. This could probably explain the stand of the Christian highlanders on the issue of Arabic.
It is very disheartening that the ‘Eritrean Covenant’ received a passive response from our compatriots except for a few courageous voices. The majority of Kebesa intellectuals, opposition organisations and civil societies, remain unconcerned and generally indifferent. This stand confirms an attitude: ‘what is not from my side is against me,’ a group instinct logic that reflects the deeply instilled scepticism as opposed to openness and positive attitude towards the important national issues raised by the document. Certainly, such an attitude hinders the process of reaching the level of trust needed to engage in deep dialogues of national magnitude.
The ‘Covenant’ is an extensively researched, carefully compiled and edited document. A few Muslim intellectuals prepared it in a very balanced and clearly articulated manner; but the fact remains that it expresses all the opinion and concerns of Eritrean Muslims who find their voice in its expressions—that is why they have widely embraced and endorsed it. The Covenant has incorporated views that has been privately and publicly discussed by groups and individuals who have expressed them in different ways and forums. It did not come out of the blue. The new thing is that it was properly formulated in a very concise and precise manner and supported by facts drawn from life experiences that Muslims went through for a long period. I extend my deep gratitude and appreciation for the authors of this masterpiece and historic document.
The purpose of the document was to blow the whistle and warn of the imminent dangers facing our home country and the deteriorating situation that our people face. It is also a call for opening a genuine venue for a fruitful dialogue based on acknowledgment and recognition of the historic sacrifices, the injustice suffered and ambitions and aspirations of the lowlanders. It stretches its hands across to work together with all in order to rebuild trust and healthy relations that are necessary for a bright future based on common understanding. What is so mysterious about the document that denies it the warm reception that it deserves?
Similarly, there is another perplexing and astonishing issue (at least to me): the positions concerning the anticipated National Conference for Democratic Changes (NCDC). Most Eritrean Opposition forces have been calling for the conveining of such a conference since a decade or more, but when the long awaited opportunity is within reach, we hear boycotting declarations from some quarters of the opposition. The reasons do not hold water; and if there are any differences, these could easily be ironed out provided the intentions were genuine. The real reason for not attending the NCDC was clearly explained by a courageous lady when the Preparatory Committee held a meeting in the UK. The lady spilled out the secret, bluntly: the boycotting groups would not say it in public but they whisper the reasons to their members in closed circles—they fear that the conference would be dominated by Muslims. They fear that the Muslims would steer it in a direction that promotes their issues and goals. What do you make out of that?
It is necessary that any serious conference discusses critical and controversial issues that stand in the way of creating strong and effective opposition. A serious conference puts forward a roadmap for the struggle to defeat the regime and replace it by a democratic system. In short, it is vital for the country, for our unity and for our shared future that all should attend and make their contributions and argue their positions there.
Let us break this vicious cycle of scepticism and rest assured that no single group would be able to highjack and sail the boat on which we are all destined on its own. We are all onboard that boat hoping to reach safe shores together. It is no use being absent and creating obstacles in the road that takes us towards a common goal to bring and end to the suffering of our people.