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Ethiopia and Eritrea: The Imperative to be Clearheaded in order to find our Way Forward Print E-mail
Written by Hassan Umer Abdalla (   
Wednesday, 08 July 2009

Acrimonious accusations and counter accusations, threats and counter threats, confrontational polemics and rebuttals that used to distinguish Ethio-Eritrean interaction seems to be in the process of  giving way,  slowly, to  a serious and encompassing  intellectual discourse and grass roots interaction. Or is it me who is reading too much in the recent Ethiopian and Eritrean friendship seminar in San José with Professors Tesfasion Medhane and Daniel Kindie, subsequent articles by Neamin Zeleke and Dawit Wolde Giorgis and the debates in various Ethiopian pal talk rooms on the future Ethiopian-Eritrean relation?

One can easily discern at one glance, at least one outstanding new feature of the new discourse. It seems that the emphasis nowadays is on the future relations rather on the much discussed and disputable recent past. The new rallying cry seems to be “the way forward”. I hope it reflects a new development in our guiding patterns of thought. I do not plan either to initiate or indulge in discussion whether it is ushering a new “paradigm shift” as our brilliant young militant Neamin Zeleke portrays the exercise. It remains to be seen. But, the real debate has to start in earnest. It has to also be realistic. Although the focus of the discussion is the way forward we must be forced to frequent the recent past again and again. It not only geography that we must deal with but we must come to terms with our recent past history as well. 

The talk is about the way forward of course. But, we cannot afford not to look back at shoulders in order to move forward. Any driver on the highway practises it when he looks back in his rear view mirror in order to dash forward. LOOKING BACK WORD TO MOVE FORWARD might sound more like another preposterous Derg slogan. The recent history of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations is full of absurd realities. Apropos, characteristic idiosyncrasies,   Tesfaye Gebreab the writer who irked and irritated Woyane in his recent Ye gazteTegna Mastawesha tells a short but a telling softheaded anecdote about an ordinary Eritrean women making sense of her independence and their relations to Ethiopia.

He tells stupefying anecdote of an Asmara lady with a koboroo dancing dazzlingly the traditional Guaylaa on occasion of Eritrea’s Independence Day in the streets of Asmara is approached.  The story goes by a journalist who asks her  “Adiye; why are you dancing so passionately?”Oh, my son, we are celebrating the glorious day of our freedom from the Ethiopian occupation” She replies. The reporter asks her further, “by the way, can I have your name” and the good old lady retorts back with apparent and unfeigned innocence “my name is Ityobiya”. As I used to point out repeatedly in my Tobiyya articles it is a reflection of the anomalous eccentricity of yal teTenTaqeqe Fichi Yal Tesaka Gurbtinna l“a sort of “unconsumed divorce and impossible neighbourliness” between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

There is no doubt that the Ethiopians have to deal with and engage Eritrea as state and the Eritrean people both as individuals as well as organized entities whenever the opportunity offers itself. It is inevitable that the Eritreans and Ethiopians, by simple logic of geography, if not history will live, side by side as neighbours of two states or as citizens of one state as they used to do just less than two decades ago. One need not be a futurologist to understand that. In politics both geography and history are constant variables. But the most constant and permanent seems to be geography. The renowned Egyptian geo-strategist  Jamal Hamdan wrote his famous book on his country’s geo-strategic importance through out centuries and called  it “ The Egyptian Personality- the Genius of Place”. For obvious reasons, he did not call it “the genius of time or history”. 
Again, if my memory comes to my aid, the United Nations General Assembly in its 1950 deliberation on the disposal of Eritrea enumerated the following three main justifications for the resolution it adopted on the establishment of the federation between Eritrea with Ethiopia:

1. The historical ties between the two peoples

2. Ethiopia’s need for a sea outlet

3. The peace and stability in the region

I am not so sure the whether non viability of Eritrea as an entity was also taken into consideration as a factor for affiliating Eritrea with Ethiopia in an unequal federal arrangement that ever body today, concedes was doomed to fail from the beginning. We can perceive little or no traces of the American conspiracy of which the Eritrean nationalists repeatedly spoke during their independence struggle. Unquestionably, the international situation was favourably disposed to Ethiopia’s attempt to reunite its former territories. 

The same three factors are equally omnipresent and of paramount importance in our today’s discussion. The historical relations, the sea outlet, and issue of stability in our region are all issues that can effect our future relations for good or worse. When we say Eritrea is Ethiopia we are of course, speaking, foremost and above all, about the oneness of the Tigrigna-speakers or Tigres as they are popularly called in Mahel-ager on banks of River Mareb. Neither the Afars nor the Kunamas or Sahos who also straddle the borders claim that the 60 years of Italian colonization has transformed their identity to the extent that they have nothing to share with their kin and kith on the other side of the Ethiopian border. But this is exactly what the ruling party elites in Eritrea tell us squarely. That is why one of them is called Tigraway and the other Tigrigna. They claim that they were so transmuted that they have no common identification as one people living in two neighbourly countries. This is an intricate and obsessive notion. It is more than abject denial of history and geography but denial of their authentic ethnic identity. It is “the mother of all complexes”. If the people in highland Eritrea have nothing common with their cousins they will have little justification to claim ties to the Surmas in Maji Awraja in South Western Ethiopia. For sake of a diversion, I will tell another anecdote form recent history.

The story took place in London I am told. On the eve of EPRDF’s advance to Addis Ababa and EPLF’s march to Asmara a certain cadre with name of Assafa Mamo was lecturing Ethiopians in Britain about his front’s impending victory and the imperative of Ethiopia’s unity, but he was adamant that the Eritreans must go their way to claim their independence. It was in that juncture that young man from Dorze in the South of Ethiopia asks”how can I believe you when you tell me you have nothing to do with your brothers across Mareb, but would die to establish unity and fraternity with me in faraway South Omo?”

But what do exactly the Ethiopian opposition parties want from the Eritrean ruling party and from its supreme leader Esayas Afworki to help them with?  Is it as simple as allowing them a crossing passage in their transit to Gonder, Tigrai or Afarland in Ethiopia? What do Esayas expect from them in return? Where do the purposes of the two parties meet? And where do they diverge? Which side needs the help of the other side pressingly in this particular moment of history? But, what do the Ethiopian oppositional forces expect to bring back from their trip to Asmara?

I have no interest, what so ever, to tease our opposition groups with conjuring the notorious conspiracy theories of 100 years home work that Esayas has to given Ethiopia and Ethiopians. . Nor annoy them with repeatedly disappointed and dashed expectations of those who went to Asmara to accelerate the struggle against Woyane, but came back empty-handed.

All the agreements so far between the different Eritrean liberation organizations and Ethiopian opposition groups in past were conducted between groups in power or ones that were aspiring to seize power soon. The EPRP in 1975 wanted only a transit passage to Assimba for its Syria-trained first combatants. They were kept there, not only until Woyane came of age but they made sure that it had a muscle to annihilate its opponents. The EPRP refused to accept the “colonial nature” of the Eritrean question while TPLF capitulated without protest. The Tesnei Agreement between TPLF, EPLF and OLF was designed to get OLF on board in time before July Conference. The various agreements written or agreed upon EPPF, Ogadeni Liberation Front, Sidamas and, Benishangul Liberation fronts with EPLF were meant to gain a concrete timely objective. By the way, the ruling party in Asmara has an ample experience in such deals as we witnessed it in their dealings with South Sudan, Eastern Sudan and of course, with the Somali opposition groups. I will not hesitate to mention the unpleasant facts for fear of being suspected of prolonging Woyane’s stay in power and hence lengthening the agony of our people by logical extension. We might have taken note that recently some overzealous administrators in opposition friendly pal talk rooms red or even bounce any one who dares to question the wisdom of going to Asmara. Over night, Easyas has become their hero. Others in cyber pal talks will bounce any one speaking against President Esayas in order not to endanger the coming cooperation and hence prolong the suffering of our people. Flip flopping between two extremes of absolute rejection or abject idolization will help little to alleviate our problems. Simply, it serves no purpose. 

Esayas Afworki insists that Eritrea’s territorial integrity and respect for her hard-won independence should not be contested by Ethiopian opposition groups just as it is not called to question by the ruling EPRDF. That is the long term goal. It is clear that his short term aim to destabilize or even topple Woyane with assistance of the oppositional forces. Of course, he does not feel comfortable to be seen dining and wining with former “Dar Dinberachiin Qey Bahir naw” revanchists, as they call them in Asmara in ruling party’s jargon. 

If my memory serves me right, Abraham Yayeh together with W/ro Yeharar Worq from Texas were the first Ethiopians to pay a visit to Eritrea immediately after the war in 1998. We were told that they were there to visit the Ethiopian prisoners of war. But Abraham was not the only person that left for Asmara in order to get rid of Woyane. Of course, as we all might remember there were those who went there to apologize in the name of Amharas and ask forgiveness from the new government. But, later there were a host of groups and personalities who pioneered the political pilgrimage to independent Eritrea. Leaving behind the democratic Tegrai organization that he hastily organized to topple the regime in Addis, Abraham came back empty-handed. At one point, he was telling the Ethiopian people that Esayas offered a sort of federation to TPLF-led Ethiopia, but it was rejected out of hand by the new rulers in Addis.

Today Abraham is the most vocal exponent of the gospel of fraternity and solidarity of the Tigrigna brethren on the two banks of River Mareb. He warns of the danger to Tigrais and necessity for their solidarity to avert any threat to them as people. Abraham has written in Tigrigna a disquisition that traces the entangled network of his own familial relationships with various groups in the three highland Awrajjas of Hamsien, Seraiye and Akele Guzai. Through this map of genealogy he tries to prove and establish oneness of the Tigringa people in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

I am not sure whether we can consider the interaction between Tigrigyna speakers on both sides of Mareb in Eritrea-Ethiopia Eneyew style paltalk room as part of the on going discussion. Most of the time the attendees hurl horrendous insults at each other in Tigrigna, but from time to time, and at intervals, they also communicate in Amharic, as the national language. They are far from being civilized to each other, to say least. The Eritrean side make no secret of their disdain to their kin and kith on the other side of bank of Mereb to whom they refer as Agames. The foremost often discussed topic is which of the two fronts, TPLF or EPLF, rendered a better service to the other front during their struggle and their march to power in Asmara and Addis Ababa respectively. But, when the dust settles and the cyber tsetsas and wurjibign comes to an end, the wiser, thoughtful and prudent ones among them, from both sides, persist in their calling for common front and closing ranks among the Tigrigna speakers for the sake of their common threatened destiny. 

After Abraham Yayeh a host of Ethiopian personalities left for Asmara. Of course, I don’t have in mind the likes of singer Solomon Tekalign. General Kamal Gilchu left for Asmara with several high ranking officers and 150 Oromo soldiers, we were told. So did Col.Taddese Muluneh of the Ethiopian Air Force. So, did Dr. Mussie Tegegne also. The list of names can be long. Ogadinis, Sidamas, Afars and Nuers opposed to the ruling party in Ethiopia found their abode in Asmara. But we fail repeatedly to find any concrete achievement on the ground either in terms of toppling of TPLF or lay a solid foundation for the strategic cooperation of the peoples of the two countries.  

I am told, the Tigrigns have a saying that goes “Gonder Kedkaa; Entaiy immo Amtsakaa? Freely translated it means; “what did you brought back home from Gonder”. I am sure that the point at issue is not the Gonder of our day , but rather the imperial Gonder of Negus Fasil  and time was most probably when people from Mekele had to stand in “Tigere Mechohiyaa ” square to bring their discontent to the ears of the emperor in Gonder. 

I am dwelling at length on this chapter of the recent history, because the Ethiopian people who paid dear but knew very little about what was going in Eritrea. That is why Major Dawit Wolde Giorgis’s recent article dwells at length on the recent past. Zewdie Retta “ye Eritrea Guday” written in Amharic, was undoubtedly an important contribution to understanding the complexity of the Eritrean issue in spite of its posthumous nature. I mean to say it was written after Eritrea became independent. “Badi kharaab Basra” as the Arabs would say. It means after Basra was laying in ruins. Mamo Wudineh writings deal with period and  mission of Ras Asrate Kassa in Eritrea. Dr.Shumet Shishgne’s books and articles on Eritrean question are not only reliable sources of information but, also provide the reader with superb analysis. It is regrettable that General Negga Haile Sellasse as Ethiopian Government Liaison Officer in Asmara from 1946 during the British mandates left us little about that turbulent times in Asmara. That somebody is taking care of his papers and preparing them for public is a hope I share with many who are interested in that chapter of our history.

Major Dawit Wolde Giorgis’   “kihidet be dem Meryet (Treason in the Terrain of blood?)  illustrates at length the enormity of the sacrifice paid, the feat of our soldiers and the important part played by Eritreans themselves in struggle for the unity of Ethiopia. But, tells us little why the end results were in an apparent disproportion to magnitude of the sacrifices. The story of what went wrong in Eritrea must be told sincerely, if we are to re-establish from scratch durable relations on solid basis of reciprocal trust. The political as well as the military blunders must be not only told, but be identified and analysed. Every body is eager to know why once brought back into fold (Heim ins Reich as Germans would say) by Emperor Haile Sellasie’s and Aklilu Habte Wold’s indefatigable diplomatic efforts, Eritrea was lost again. 

By the way, in spite of his referring again and gain to his book that exactly what I missed in Dawit’s first book, but which he tried to address in his recent article. As an Ethiopian army’s young officer who served in Eritrea at the early stage of the ELF insurgency and later as the highest ranking political cadre of the ruling ESAPAKO he must be in a position to tell us the truth. His tireless attempts to pacify and save what could be saved during Key kokob zemetcha have been appreciated by ordinary Eritreans. If my memory serves me right, in his Red Tears book he mentions the final battles to disentangle the EPLF from it’s Nakfa entrenchments and fortifications was doomed because of the effort that was meant to withhold and reserve the honour of final victory to a specific division of the army, the 3rd division where the chairman of the Derg, later the President came from before the revolution. We hope former President Mengistu Haile Mariam gathers enough fortitude and valour to address the issue in his forthcoming memories.   

Just as Prof. Tesfasion in his San Jose seminar, Dawit also concedes that past Ethiopian regimes were responsible for the blunder in Eritrea, an assertion that no body dared to utter so far. In good old days, it was more fashionable to dump the wrong doings on the shoulders of our historical enemies and Ennat TuT Nekasooch among us. We lacked the culture of appraising and evaluating past mistakes. It is very encouraging and recommendable that Dawit takes upon himself this unrewarding task. Few will be content with the usual “few disgruntled elements “started the insurgency while the bulk of Eritrean stood their ground in their fight for the unity of the motherland narrative.

To put the blame squarely on the shoulders “few disgruntled elements” that fomented with the help of our country’s historical enemies in the region will do little service to our cause. It was not only Major Dawit that fell out of favour with defunct establishments. Long before him Leul Ras Asrate Kassa had the same experience in 1960s we are told by Mamo Wudeneh when he tried to do more political work and less of highhandedness through dulla. The mostly Shewan nobility and particularly the conservatives ones amongst them went to the extent of accusing him of organizing his own militia in Eritrea to prepare a takeover and bid for the Imperial crown in Addis. Some went as far as accusing the Ras being part of the assassination of Gen. Teshome Ergetu in 1970 by the insurgents. By the way , this event together with the battle of Afabet, Shire Enda Sellasie, the killing of Gen Tariku Laayne and failed coup detat of 1990 were final blows to Ethiopia’s war against the insurgents. Once Ras Assrate was called to Addis and the infamous emergency law that gave free hand for the excesses was proclaimed he flatly refused to go back to his position. He must have thought now that the military has taken over there was no political job left for him to perform as representative of the Emperor.

After 1970, the military excesses got out of control, we are told by many witnesses. It us that speak of the excesses,  but for victims it was an unspeakable atrocity that severed any hope for peaceful solution .But it was Ras Asrate’s father Leul Ras Kassa Hailu the arch conservative and  Prime prince of the Empire ( as his grandson Dr. Assfa Wossen calls him)   who is depicted as architect of the dismantling of the federation. Of course, he never lived to see the Eritrean assembly proclaiming its dissolution in 1962.He insisted that there can be no two governments in Ethiopia. For him and his likes there could be no area of jurisdiction where his Majesty’s Representative cannot interfere with tells the history books. It seems the conservatives had the upper hand and their wishes were realized. Aklilu Habte Wold who knew better as an architect of the diplomacy in bringing Eritrea back to “her mother’s fold” resisted both hawkish unionists in Asmara and Addis Ababa.

The history of all failed and unsuccessful attempts in federal arrangements such Sengal –Gambia, Egypt and Syria 1958-1961, the Western Pakistan (Bangladash) ceased to function properly because of almost similar intervention by such elements triggering insurgencies and rebellions. The 19 year old Yemeni unity on the other side of the Red Sea is lately teetering on the brink of collapse for the same reasons. The populace and the leaders in South (former Democratic Republic of Yemen) are so much so disappointed and frustrated with the unity arrangement that they are asking for nullification of the unity and return back to the two state system.

As law school fresh men in the constitutional development of Ethiopia law course in H.S. University, we were taught that the backward constitution of 1923 had to be amended and the 1955 constitution issued the UN tailored progressive Constitution of Eritrea so as to meet the requirements of advanced institutions in Eritrea. But at times the more advanced institutions in Eritrea were down graded or even dismantled to meet Ethiopian standards, the Eritreans complained. This deconstruction of their democratic rights could not be compensated with scholarships in Addis and employment opportunities in Mahel ager .

Added to this, what we also forget or oversee is that those privileges were reserved for the Christians of kebessa highland while the “disgruntled” Muslims who were very sceptical from the beginning to any affiliation with Ethiopia started  to vote with their feet long before the dissolution of the Federation in 1962 to which major Dawit was an eye witness.

Just 4 years after the federation in 1956 Mohammed Umer Kadi a political activist and earlier supporter of federal arrangement was heading to New York to bring the concern of Eritreans about Ethiopia’s abrogation and constant denegation on of the federal arrangements on the part of Ethiopia to the United Nations attention. Quite a number of concerned Eritreans even firmly believed that the United Nations has an obligation to oversee and even intervene in case the federal arrangements were violated.  The heading of “disgruntled few” going to Sudan will not tell the whole story of why Eritrea was lost once it was brought back to imperial fold with consent of majority of its citizens, the diplomatic skill of Aklilu and his crew and the favourable conditions in the international arena. To find why Eritrea was lost will help us ways to avoid more Eritreas.

Year 1956 was very remarkable year in terms conspicuous events that took place both regionally and internationally. His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellasie concluded his marathon state visits that included several European countries and America. It was the year of the Suez crisis which erupted when Gamal Abdulnasser first nationalized the passage and later aroused the masses in the entire Arab and Moslem “world reaction and imperialism”. Ethiopia a close ally of both Israel and USA was considered as part of this camp. It was the year Algerians started their war of liberation against the French, the soviet intervened in Hungary. Above all, it was the year in which the neighbouring Sudan gained its independence. The Eritreans thought they deserve a state of their own particularly when “even” the Sudanese can have one of theirs. Long before the Eritrean insurgency started in 1962 the year federation was officially abolished the “ disgruntled few elements” mostly from the Western Lowland of Eritrea were never enthusiastic about the federation from the outset, to put it mildly started to look for other alternatives to regain their rights. It was the same people we are told both in Zewde Retta’s Ye Eritrea Gudaiy and Prof. Shumet Sishagne’ various books on Eritrea that gave the insurgency its content and shape. The more the encroachments on the federal arrangement, the more people joined first the camp of rejection and later armed rebellion to simplify it. This “disgruntled few “grew to encompass 98.8 % (??) of Eritrea’s population that voted for freedom in 1993 referendum.

By the way, even President Esayas in one of his recent interviews endorsed the deliberations Ethio-Eritrean meeting in San Jose. I must add, in spite of his well-known and unhidden disregard, if not disdain, for Prof. Tesfasion’s thoughts on the Ethiopian Eritrean relations. There is no love lost between those two Hamasintes, to say the least. I must add, here I am not using Hamasenaiy as the people in Mahle-Ager use the term. But, rather to designate only the Eritrean Awraja surrounding Asmara and hence the centre of the centre of the Eritrean plateau and hence the pivot of its politics. Dr. Tesfaasion hails from the Hazegga-Tseazegga the land of traditional shums of Hamaasen before the coming of the Italians while Esayas hails from another Asmara’s outskirt village called Chilot, we are told. By the way, the whole Hamesien Awraja area could not be bigger than enlarged Metropolitan Addis Ababa that could comprise Akaki and the surrounding areas. The Hamaseins as a group are accused by many as becoming the werq people of independent Eritrea. The animosity between the two is more than the usual Esayas’s aversion to the intellectuals and academics. Many consider Tesfasion as a bridge builder and reconciler with his wide outreach to all constituents of Eritrea society. He also commands respect and approval of the Muslim constituencies. The Ethiopian Diaspora considers him not only as outreach, but a partner one can relay upon, as well as a relentless advocate for decades for the good neighbourly relations of the two peoples. 

I did not forget the issue of the other intricate and knotty equation of Eritrean political landscape. Namely; the highland-lowland, Muslim-Christian dichotomy and fissure. The recent realignment of the Eritrean opposition forces into three main blocks depict surly that the new fault lines are not only the same old ones, but they are also equally wide and deep as they used to be years back. Sensitization of religious feelings and Islamic identity of Eritrean Muslims is on the rise, all the observers of the region agree.

No body in his right mind will dispute neither the necessity of a dialogue or its timeliness. Ethiopian-Eritrean discussion and interaction on all levels and with both short term and long term objectives are important. Should I call it to sound, a bit intellectual, tactical and strategic objectives. The other is the long standing relations between the two peoples be it now or the beyond both regime in Addis Ababa and Asmara. For any durable future relations the wrongs of the past have to be objectively identified, defined, evaluated, and explained. That could be the new basis for the future relationship. Ethiopians need to make a strategic alliance with the State of Eritrea. Eritreans need to make a strategic alliance with Ethiopia equally.

Hoping to be a positive and stimulating contributor to this ongoing discourse by helping it to gather momentum and width I conclude by stating that real litmus test is not shunning going to Asmara in order not to be branded as traitors by Woyane and their supporters, but rather daring to go to Asmara to show our independent decision. What counts is not that you make a trip to Gonder, but what you bring back home from Gonder, The real question is Gonder hedih min yezeh temelsek? If you brought back nothing then we can only congratulate ourselves that you only succeeded in irritating Woyane but never delivered what our people expects from you at this crucial chapter in history.

Hassan Umer Abdalla could be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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