By Petros Tesfagiorgis 07/10/09
At this moment in time the idea of partnership between Ethiopians and Eritreans is being debated in the open. It shows that the age of reason is dawn and emotions are being overcome. Recently there was an Ethiopian and Eritrean friendship seminar in San Jose with Professor Tesfazion Medhanie an independent minded scholar and an author of many books and Professor Daniel Kinde. Such debates will have a positive impact on politicians and policy makers of both countries as well as an influence on the peoples of the Horn of Africa.
The choice of some Ethiopians in search of Eritrean partners is amazing and beyond belief.
I was damp founded when I read Dawit Woldegiorgis article titled “The Way forward for Ethiopia and Eritrea”. I quote,” Today the issue is Woyane and not Eritrea. For Ethiopians as well as for Eritreas, Weyane is a threat. Remove Weyane and Ethiopians and Eritreans can breathe a sigh of relief and begin a new relationship based on mutual respect and working towards unifying the people”. This has nothing to do with building friendship between the two people. Its main objective is to unseat the present Ethiopian government with President Isaias as a partner. It is a call for war that would bring chaos to Ethiopia and would make the hostility between the two people worse not better.
It is a form of exploiting the desire for peace of ordinary people to serve the vested interest of politicians for power. Partnership is different. Let me briefly tell a story of Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE) of which I was the chairman and a founding member. CPE was a voluntary association of concerned Eritrean citizens who have come together as a committee for the purpose of studying and disseminating information about the Ethio-Eritrean conflict and its human consequences. Among its objective was to play an active role in fostering peace between the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
To this end CPE launched a conference in Keren and Asmara on 15, 16 and 17 February 2001 titled “Peace Building Conference: Towards sustainable peace”. The conference in Keren was with representatives of IDPS (Internally displaced People) who came from various camps, people who lost their homes and property as a result of Ethiopian army’s capture of uncontested territories of Eritrea. At that time over 1 million Eritreans from the border areas were IDPS.
CPE believed that a sustainable and just peace cannot be achieved by efforts of governments alone. Many other actors and stakeholders-civil society organisations, national and international humanitarians and human rights groups and individuals- need to play an active role in the promotion of peace and reconciliation. This requires Eritreans and Ethiopians undertake internal peace-fostering activities as well as dialogue with each other. The conference was envisioned as a first step in such a process. Among others, we also invited speakers from South African Peace and Reconciliation in order to learn from their experiences.
The conference with Ethiopian Civil Societies has never taken place although preliminary contacts were established during CPE campaign trails and discussed extensively on peace. We meet with a member of ERSHO- Ethiopian Human rights Organisation led by professor Mesfun Woldemariam in Norway and we discussed the need for cooperation. We concluded that it was not the right time to coordinate our work for peace building. We could both be misunderstood by our own governments and get ourselves in trouble. However we agreed to help civilian Eritreans in Ethiopia and vice versa. CPE took the issue of deporting Ethiopians with the National Security in Asmara and demanded that when Ethiopians are deported it must be in the presence of the Red Cross and their property must be registered, receipts given and they must be treated humanely and with dignity and we publicized our stand in one of the private papers. At that time CPE had a very good working relationship with the office of the Red Cross in Asmara. We demanded the Red Cross to liaise with the Red Cross of Ethiopia to register and bring abandoned youth who were destitute when their parents were deported to Eritrea. Many have been flown by the Red Cross to Eritrea via Yemen but most have chosen the road to Kenya.
Dawit has chosen a good moment to call for partnership. Even President Isaias Afewerki- in his recent interview, has jumped into the band wagon and recommended more meetings between Eritreans and Ethiopians. The great misjudgement of Dawit Woldegiorgis is that he chooses the perpetrator of oppression as a partner. Today the repression meted out to the people of Eritrea is beyond the imagination of any one. In many ways it is similar if not worse of the dark days of the Mengistu Military regime of Ethiopia. Today we are witnessing PFDJ uprooting entire villages from their own natural habitat in the highland to the lowlands. It is sad to learn from Aena.com web that out of the 1300 families who have been uprooted 146 people have died and 97 are missing. This is a crime against humanity that can be brought to the international court of justice one day. Those who went into exile to seek asylum tell of frightening experience of living in Eritrea. People are bringing out the darker side of all the painful revelations of PFDJ. The forced labour, social engineering and all failed policies that brought Eritrea on the brink of economic collapse.
However Dawit like other Ethiopian political elites allied to PFDJ, is not concerned about the welfare of the people of Eritrea but to use Eritrea as an instrument to unseat the present Ethiopian Government. A Government that is bringing fundamental change in Ethiopia is witnessed by independent observers. Of course the Ethiopian society is very complex and old habits die hard. Ethnicity is engrained in the fabric of the Ethiopian society. There is an ethnic bias against the Tigreans by the Amhara elite and Dawit is one of them and as such is change and progress blind.
So how do we Ertreans identify genuine partners within the Ethiopian political and societal landscape? And what are the bases of partnership?
Not everyone in Ethiopia and in Eritrean wants genuine friendship between the two people. The partnership must not be for the sake of partnership per se. It must be based on shared values of justice, peace and good neighbourliness and win-win scenario. We have to seek partners with civil societies, governments or individuals that advance such principles and examine their credentials.
We Eritreans have been the victims of many years of wars and destruction perpetrated by successive Ethiopian regimes. For us our sovereignty is not a luxury it is survival. A full unequivocal recognition of the sovereignty of Eritrea must be a pre-requisite for close partnership with Ethiopians. The credential of Dawit Woldegiorgis has been brilliantly exposed by Saleh Johar of Awate.com dated July 2, 2009 under the title of “More of Red Terror”. That he was part and parcel of the Mengistu regime that had brought untold suffering and pain to the people of Eritrea.
In contrast PM Meles’s greatest achievement is the empowerment of the marginalized nationalities with diverse religions, languages and culture to run their affairs and participate in decision that affect their own life. These rights are the embodiment of the federal system enshrined in article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution. The unequivocal recognition of Eritrean sovereignty by EPRDF is in line with this principles and political convictions.
I do recognize the sameness of principles with the Ethiopian progressive university students’ objective of empowering the Ethiopian people because I have lived through the actions of the student movement. I have breathed in it, I was put in Kolfe prison of because of my participation in the various demonstrations such as “land to the tiller” and against the famine in Wollo, Lasta and Tigray.
These events have had a profound effect on me to think in terms of the welfare of the people and not the whims of rulers. At least, I found consolation in present day Ethiopian leaders who are translating into action the vision of all the Martyrs of those days such as Walelegn Mekonen and The president of the University student union, Tilahun Gizaw. Together with Eritrean progressive students such as the Marxist Guru Yohaness Sebhatu and Musie Tesfamicael (martyrs of movement for change who have been executed by the EPLF) they advocated justice for all people of diverse ethnicity in Ethiopia and Eritrea and did it with camaraderie and passion. Those are the moral heroes and left us a legacy for Ethiopian and Eritreans to follow, to revisit and emulate.
In reality the federal system is the most progressive system for a country like Ethiopia that has more than 80 nationalities and had a long history of one Ethnic group, the Amhara Elite, dominating the rest of the nationalities and gave rise to armed conflicts, wars, underdevelopment and ignorance in Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea and has become the victim of proxy wars between USA and the Soviet Union who trained and modernized the army of both Ethiopia and Somalia while the population remained in abject poverty living on subsistence level. And yet Dawit and many Ethiofile writers are quite nostalgic about the old centralized system which hampered the development of Ethiopia for generations.
EPRDF may not achieve the goals of democratising Ethiopia to maturity as we know it in the West. But it is making difference by building institutions of democracy and good governance that is becoming a learning process for the population.
The interview of PM Meles Zenawi with William Wallis in the financial times under the title of “Ethiopian PM pledges to stand aside” which subsequently followed by interviews in local media” is just a summation of his credentials. It is a culmination of the 18 years work to transform Ethiopia into a modern state and has a deep historical significance. Today, whether Meles Zenawi stays in power or stands aside makes no difference at all. He will be remembered in history as the one who transformed Ethiopia into a modern state with vibrant economy.
Today Meles is an African statesman whose political skill has won friends with both political divide Capitalist West and Communist China and with all the technical and financial aid that goes with it. He made contract with China to build highway with six lanes from Addis Ababa to Adama (Nazareth). Not to mention the fact that he won a diplomatic niche by being a partner with USA in the fight against global terrorism. Ethiopia is being built on a solid ground more than ever before. His influence in Africa is formidable. Even the Authorities of South Sudan abandoned their old friend PFDJ in favour of Addis Ababa. Africa is being connected by Ethiopian Airlines and the presence of Ethiopia is felt internationally and in many African countries in particular.
Therefore as stake-holders in peace, social and economic advancements from what perspective do Eritreans choose partners? From the people’s welfare perspective or from elites for power perspective? Or from the point of view of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? All this presents a huge challenge for Eritreans.