Which way Eritrea?

(Alex Birhanu) In the last couple of days, I happen to read an article contributed by Abraham Berhe titled: Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi’s Political Play-Down and Its Legacy. This article provoked flaring and flexing discussions among both Ethiopians and Eritreans on Assab Ports’s inalienable ownership and use rights. In connection to that I found out that the crux of the whole matter lies in the article presented by Tekeste Negash, a prominent historian and scholar, herein below.

Just few days before the breakout of the 1998 Eritrean invasion of Ethiopia Tekeste noted major critical issues, which I found so candid, thought provoking, and a must read work that deserves urging concern. Yet this national matter remains unabated and hanging on the air. Better Late than Never I was humbled, touched and got the urge in me to bring Tekeste’s work in its entirety to readers’ attention so that more and more readers are able to revisit this national matter carefully and alert themselves for the better or for the worse yet to come.

From the outset, the center-piece of Tekste’s work requests his readers to critically revise the Eritrean colonial myth being propagated both by EPLF and TPLF leadership alike. Sincerely I hope that both Ethiopian and Eritrean readers would find Tekeste’s work as relevant and worth noting; and learn objectively the root causes for the outstanding Ethio-Eritrean geo-political frictions and factions of the day. Then and only then can we arrive at working solutions that can bring amicable co-habitation between the two kin peoples of Ethio-Eritrea.

An Eritrean Speaks – By Tekeste Negash Uppsala, May 2, 1998

(Tekeste Negash is an Eritrean historian who has written several books on Eritrea including “Italian Colonialism in Eritrea” and Eritrea- and Ethiopia- The Federal Experience”) Africa’s longest war (fought since 1961 between Eritrean insurgents and Ethiopian governments) came to an end in May 1991.

The claim often made by Eritrean leaders that they won their freedom through military victory, though largely true, is one-sided. The Eritrean story of the struggle for liberation does not take into account the role of Tigrean Peoples Liberation Forces (TPLF). After all, it was TPLF’s military and organizational ingenuity which brought down the regime led by Menghistu Hailemariam. It is futile to speculate as to what had happened if the TPLF, once installed in power, had opposed the secession of Eritrea. What, however, appears certain is that already by the mid-1980’s TPLF was a much stronger fighting force than the EPLF. The scathing criticism on EPLF’s military strategy, which the TPLF-published (in Tigranya) in 1986, was indeed an important source. Though we have to wait for a series of comparative studies on the two fronts before we can fully answer the nature of the roles played by each of them we have sufficient evidence to assess the role of the TPLF/EPRDF in the downfall of the Ethiopian army. 

It has to be recalled that the Ethiopian army in Eritrea was not militarily defeated. The entire army raised its white flag only after the fall of Addis Ababa; and the seizure of power by the pro-EPLF forces. One can argue that the TPLF/EPRDF successful assault on the Ethiopian army made the victory of EPLF possible. The role of the TPLF/EPRDF in facilitating the victory of the EPLF in Eritrea can, therefore, be hardly over-estimated. At this juncture, a reader may quite rightly ask why this issue is important. I believe that it is very important to raise this issue in order to demolish the myth that is built around the victorious EPLF-army. I am not in any way trying to underestimate the tenacity of EPLF’s army. As a historian my objective is to contribute to an understanding of the past without any myths about it. Myths in whatever form they appear do more harm than good

Unfortunately Eritrean nationalist thought and practice is replete with myths and in this paper in addition to the one already mentioned I shall deal with two others, i.e., on Eritrean economy and on Eritreans vis a vis other Ethiopians. I shall try to argue that these three myths continue to create obstacles to critical, rational and strategic thinking. In the process of myth-building, Eritrean myth-builders were actively assisted by the present government in Ethiopia. I shall argue that in spite of the rhetoric of regional cooperation, Eritrea rather than coming closer to Ethiopia is drifting away. Ethiopian opposition movement is indeed an active player in this game of creating barriers. But the most decisive role is that played by Eritreans themselves working upon the myths, which they have created in the last fifty years. I shall argue that it is to the best interests of Eritrea and its inhabitants that these myths are demolished.  

The referendum that never was

There is very little to add on the subject to what has already been comprehensively discussed by the special issue of Ethiopian Review of April 1993. The Eritrean people were intimidated by the EPLF forces and according to some foreign observers, the referendum exercise was highly threatening to those who might waver in casting their vote. The referendum slogan, “if you vote red you will be dead” was known to every Eritrean. But well hidden from foreign, mostly European, observers. Compared to what took place in terms of assessing the wishes of the Eritrean people during the two commissions of enquiry (1947 and 1950), the 1993 referendum was serious set back. In fairness, the absence of an open and democratizing referendum did not entirely rest on the shoulders of the EPLF. The fate of Eritrea was a concern of Ethiopia as well. It was well known that ever since the issue of referendum was first raised in 1981, the EPLF and its organizations would campaign for independence. It was possible that the EPLF believed in the solution of the armed conflict by means of open referendum. At that time (early 1980’s) at any rate the EPLF had very little to lose and more so since very few people believed that the Eritrean insurgents could defeat the Ethiopian army. The Ethiopian government of the day rejected the EPLF proposal as a sign of weakness and as public relations ploy. Ten years later, the EPRDF government gave the EPLF a free hand to resolve the question in the manner it saw fit. There was no Ethiopian position on the question of Eritrea. Whether Eritrea remained with Ethiopia or in what form were questions which the EPRDF government as the representative of Ethiopia and its interests did not feel obliged to defend. On the contrary, the EPRDF led Ethiopian government could have taken a clear stand to the long term interests of Eritrea and Ethiopia to find solutions short of independence. The Ethiopian government could have argued that the Eritrean people, like the Tigreans, could build on the cultural, historical and economical factors which unite them within the Ethiopian framework. Such a stand might not have affected the outcome of the referendum. But it would have sent the right signals to Ethiopians of all walks of life that the Ethiopian government and people had a different opinion on the matter. To my opinion, the implications of such failure were disastrous. A gap was created between the Ethiopian government and those who opted for a unilateral secession. Unfortunately, this gap has continued to grow. One is tempted to ask as to whether there might be a hidden (EPLF/EPRDF) agenda designed to regulate the relations between the now two sovereign states. Given that the EPLF had a secret political Party, the existence of hidden agenda can altogether be discounted.  

1993-97: The years when Eritrea could have laid down a firm basis of cooperation

One of the most remarkable aspects of Africa’s longest war was that it was not a war between two people (glibly identified as the Eritreans and the Ethiopians) but between an insurgent army (a liberation army if you like) and a state army. There were several factors which limited the dimension of the war. The humane political culture which prevails in Ethiopia was one of the most important factors. Mention can also be made of two other factors. First, there was a general belief that Eritreans were as good as other Ethiopians. Second, there was a widespread realization that the war was essentially over the enjoyment of the spoils of war. The Eritrean people have yet to express their gratitude to the Ethiopian people for their refusal to get involved in the war carried out by the forcibly recruited soldiers of the Ethiopian military government. In spite of its long duration, the war in Eritrea did not go to the extent experienced in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Liberia. Soon after the establishment of the new regimes of both countries, Eritrean political leaders were talking in terms of confederation, while the majority of the Eritrean people continued to travel in and out of Ethiopia as if the only thing that happened was the removal of the militarist regime of Menghistu Hailemariam. I am inclined to interpret the relation between Eritrea and Ethiopia during the 1991-1997 periods as that of a de facto federation. There was a common currency and Ertireans were allowed free access to Ethiopian resources on the same footing as other Ethiopians. Although the Eritreans now and then continued to harass Ethiopian (mainly from Tigray) residents, these were viewed by the Addis Ababa government as minor and temporary issues. Eritrean intellectuals and political leaders were keener in exploring and pleading for a closer integration than Ethiopian government. The anthology: Eritrea and Ethiopia: From conflict to cooperation, 1994, is an eloquent testimony of such exploration
The recurrent theme of the book is a plea for economic integration as a prelude to political integration. The president of Eritrea and his political associates took actions along the same lines. In September 1993, the leaders of both countries signed a treaty known as the Asmara pact, where both countries reached an agreement to cooperate in a wide range of activities. Although the rhetorical framework for closer Ethio-Eritrean relations was made within the context of the Horn of Africa, the principal states (or the core regions) were Eritrea and Ethiopia. The series of declarations made by Eritrean political leaders in 1996 were encouraging indeed to those people (like me) who had argued for a federal or con federal solution to the war in Eritrea. In July 1996, the president of Eritrea stated that both governments (Eritrea and Ethiopia) were developing their relations where boundaries would be meaningless. Known to be outspoken and candid, the president further stated that he did not care whether the progressive dismantling of boundaries was called federation, confederation or union. What mattered to him was praxis and not so much forms. Few weeks later, the Eritrean Ambassador in Ethiopia went even further and stated clearly that political integration was the goal and that in will be easier with Ethiopia as? We share common history and culture and have also lived together under a common political system? (The Reporter, Addis Ababa, vol.1no.2, September 18, 1996). In the same interview the Eritrean Ambassador also revealed an aspect of the thirty years of war which surprised the great majority of the inhabitants of both countries. He stated that “forming an independent state was never the ultimate goal of our long struggle”. Ethiopian reactions to such clear and encouraging proposals from Eritrean leaders were lukewarm. Although there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the president of Eritrea and his Ambassador, the Eritrean initiatives were bound to fail for at least three reasons. 

The first and most important reason was (and still is) the failure of Eritrean leaders to work for a reconciliation process which involved the entire Ethiopian population. Eritreans are very good in remembering their circa 65,000 martyrs (Those who died during the war). The EPRDF also commemorate their martyrs. Yet every Ethiopian knows that more than 300,000 Ethiopians lost their lives to keep Eritrea within the Ethiopian political framework. [This number could be much higher. This modest figure is calculated on the ratio of 1:7, a common assumption held by experts of insurgent movements.] There are hardly any Ethiopian families which have not lost a beloved member in the protracted war in the northern part of the country. Why were all these people killed and their families made to suffer their losses? How could the Eritrean leaders talk of political and economic integration without attempting to explain why they had in the first place waged a war of independence which brought so much suffering to millions of Ethiopians? Wasn’t the idea of keeping Eritrea within Ethiopia, after all, correct when the Eritreans themselves were pleading for economic and eventually political integration? On the whole, the Ethiopian people have accommodated both Eritrea and Ertreans. However, to my opinion Eritrean leaders misjudged gravely, as they often do, the limit beyond which they could not push their will on their neighbors. The ultimate objective of economic and political integration is commendable and I am personally optimistic about the outcome. The economy and history of the two countries is closely intertwined though Eritrea is more dependent on Ethiopia than otherwise. Yet this objective can be thwarted if leaders could (and ought to) take the initiative and commemorate all the innocent soldiers who were killed in the war. The EPLF is equally to blame for the death of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian solders as much as the regime of Menghistu Hailemariam. The religious institutions and the political organizations could well provide the forum for reconciliation
The Ethiopian people who have been brutally positioned to be instrumental and manipulated by regimes and liberation fronts deserve respect and consultation. It is still possible to talk on behalf of the people, but it should become clear that the views and world outlook of the great majority of the Eritrean and Ethiopian people could only be ignored at a great political risk. It is hard to predict how long this process of reconciliation may take, although one can be certain that the best time to launch the process would be in the beginning of a new year. Here again and in fairness to Eritrea and its leaders, the EPRDF government has done very little to bring Eritrea closer to Ethiopia. Relations between the two countries were by and large limited to the two leaders and were permeated by ethnic and personal friendship. There is no firm basis for the continued good relations between the two countries. A change of government in Ethiopia could bring with it a change of policy which could directly affect the security of Ertreans in Ethiopia and Eritrea’s access to Ethiopia. The second reason for the failure of Eritrean attempts for economic and political integration is the myth that Eritreans are more urbane and more developed than the rest of the Ethiopian population. Much of the political writings of the EPLF and its intellectuals during the years of the war were replete of this myth. The intense colonial exploitation and advantages which Eritreans were given as a reward for an assisting Italy in pacifying Ethiopia during the 1935-41, and the racial policy of Fascism were the stuff out of which the myth was created. The people who were on the receiving edge of this subverted Eritrean racism were those from Tigrai, many of whom worked for Ertreans in the villages as tenant tillers and in the small towns doing all sort of low status jobs. Since independence, the Ertreans government anxious to keep the former Italian quarter clean and tidy has been harassing the people from Tigrai and in several instances expelling them out of the country. 
The practice is similar to what the Italians were doing with undesirable Eritreans. Tigrai has since 1991 greatly changed, perhaps not so much economically but certainly politically. Tigrai is no longer the transit region between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Determined to develop the economy the government of Tigrai cannot be expected to play the Eritrean game. Old and new memories of Eritrean harassment of the people of Tigrai and doing the job of constructing barriers between the two areas. In the short run, Tigrai has something to gain and nothing to lose from the negative effects on trade caused by the introduction of an Eritrean currency. As things now stand, it appears that the government of Tigrai is quite keen to enforce the new system of trade between Eritrea and Ethiopia where the US Dollar is the currency of transaction. One may also add that the government of Tigrai can hardly be blamed for looking to the best interests of their region.  
The warm and friendly relations between the president of Eritrea and the prime minister of Ethiopia notwithstanding, relations between the people of Tigrai and that of Eritrea are ruptured. As it is the Ertireans themselves who are the main authors of this sad state of affairs, it rests on them to build the relations on respect and cooperation. It is, however, easy to pull down trust than to build it up. The third reason for the failed attempts towards economic and political integration is the myth of Eritrea as the “Taiwan or Singapore” of the Horn of Africa. To be fair, the leaders of Eritrea were quick enough to see that Eritrea was none of the sort. Moreover, this myth was the creation of idle Eritrean minds in Diaspora. To the extent that there was an Eritrean economy, it was in the hands of an Italian community. Moreover, this colonial economy owed its survival to unhindered access to the larger Ethiopian economy. Without access to the Ethiopian market, the Italian factories in Eritrea would have either closed down or moved to other parts Ethiopia. While Eritreans were doing their share in dismantling the economy, other entrepreneurs were establishing factories in other parts of Ethiopia. By 1991, Eritrea lost virtually the competitive edge which it had up to 1975. The realization of the weaknesses of Eritrean economy was certainly the background for strenuous attempts of Eritrean leaders for economic and eventual political integration with Ethiopia farsighted as this policy might at first sight appear, it was bound to fail because the policy was neither preceded by a process of reconciliation nor by a recognition of the role of Ethiopia in Eritrean economy. The Eritreans were seen as eating their cake and at the same time keeping it too.  

The Eritrean national currency and the drifting of ways

The dismantling of boundaries, the desire for political integration and the issuing of an Eritrean national currency do not go together. I had earlier in this paper said that there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the president of Eritrea. How does one then explain the decision of the Eritrean government to issue a new currency when all economic logic argued against it? While only those who are close to the corridors of power may know for certain, we who rotate on the far fringes of the Eritrean and Ethiopian political scene can only surmise. To my opinion, the decision to issue a currency was won by the hard liners who are imbued in the myths that I outlined above. It is possible that those who won the day are not aware at all of the implications; it is also possible that they thought they might even gain vis-a-vis Ethiopia by having their own currency and using it in Ethiopia. It is also rumored that neither the president of Eritrea nor the prime minister of Ethiopia were enthusiastic about the idea of a new currency. Admittedly, the opposition in Ethiopia had consistently argued for the regulation of trade with Eritrea; but it does not appear that this opposition had an effect on the Ethiopian government. The decision of the government of Ethiopia to opt for letter of credit system came as a shock to Eritrea and its inhabitants. Ethiopian food exports to Eritrea became very expensive while Eritrean exports to Ethiopia failed to compete with comparable goods produced in Ethiopia. An effective trade barrier was established. Economic integration, which in fact existed up to 1997, became a new issue that has to be negotiated from the scratch. From what ever angle one sees it, the implications of the new currency are far serious that any of the parties are willing to admit. Quite unfairly, Eritrean leaders blame Ethiopian opposition for the apparently intransigent Ethiopian policy. It is sad to not that Eritrea lacks intellectuals (with the exception of the political writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s) who think in terms of the long term interests of the country and its inhabitants. I am inclined to believe that Eritreans (political leaders and intellectuals alike) have not yet liberated their minds from the colonial image of Eritrea which the Italians created for themselves. During the thirty years war another image was added, namely the image of Eritrea as the victim of the sorts of conspiracies.  

Ethiopia is important for Eritrea

Since independence the most important myths about Eritrea have proved to be nothing more but myths. Gone are the days when Eritrean partisans believed about the strategic and economic importance of Eritrea to Ethiopia. Also the myths of Eritrean economy and Eritrean entrepreneurship have been greatly weakened. The Italians who were in Eritrea from 1890-1941 used Eritrea first as a staging post for the colonization of Ethiopia, and secondly, as a base of their economic operations in their newly established empire. But unlike their Eritrean successors, the Italians had no illusion that Eritrean economy was insignificant. Eritrea was not worth having if either it was not part of Ethiopia or failing that it did not have access to the larger Ethiopian market. For Italy Eritrea was important as a supplier of cheap and efficient soldiers who were sent to Somalia, Libya and later to Ethiopia. Thanks to Eritrean soldiers, Italy acquired colonies with little money and insignificant losses of Italian lives. “Eritrea is a resource poor country, and as long its resources remain what they are, Ethiopia will remain as the most important partner. This economic argument does not take into account the common history and culture” as the Eritrean ambassador to Ethiopia expressed them. Eritrean exports for 1996 ere estimated to be in the range of 15 million US Dollars. It is interesting to note that remittances from Eritreans in the Diaspora were four times more that total export earnings. The commercial exploitation of oil and thermal energy may, of course change the pattern of relations. While the existence of thermal energy is established that of the availability of commercial oil reserves appears so far unlikely. In the foreseeable future, however, Eritrea stands to lose greatly with the trade barriers which it has initiated. The political and economic realities of an independent Eritrea are quickly leading to a revision of earlier perceptions. During the war of independence it was commonly believed that Eritrea was more important to Ethiopia. As the negative impact of Eritrean secession on Ethiopia does not seem to be so noticeable, one can argue that Ethiopia is far more important to Eritrea.  

Which way Eritrea

No state in Africa has within such a short time of its history as an independent state succeeded to enter into a series of conflicts with its neighbors as much as Eritrea has done. The warm relation which Eritrea maintained with Ethiopia (up to the introduction of the infamous new currency) was the bright spot. The conflict with the Sudan is by far serious. As a neighboring country the Sudan has always Provided asylum to hundreds of thousands Eritreans (mostly Moslem). It was widely known that during most of the thirty years war Sudan supported morally and in other ways the Eritrean liberation forces. Yet Ethiopia did not go to war with Sudan. Even if we were to assume that the Sudan might have shown some sympathy to the Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement is not a creation of the Sudan but an expression of the thousands of Eritrean Moslems who still languish in the refugee camps in the Sudan. If there are problems in the north and western borders of Eritrea, the issues giving rise to them have to be looked not outside but inside Eritrea meanwhile it had to see that Eritrea appears to fulfill perfectly the function assigned to it by the USA and Israel. Though Eritrea has only recently been independent, its record so far allows us to draw some conclusions. The first and important conclusion is that the issue of integration of Eritrean economy with that of Ethiopia is not matter of expediency but of survival. However, the initiative of dismantling the barriers rests with the Eritreans as they were the ones who obstructed the process. It is to the best interest of Eritrea and its inhabitants that its leaders and intellectuals begin to revise the colonial myths- myths which gave rise to unlimited suffering. Many people have spoken and written about the inseparable destiny of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and I subscribe to that view. I also subscribe to the view that is spreading in many parts of Ethiopia that the Eritreans cannot have it both ways.

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Posted by on February 7, 2009. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.