Eritrea at a Crossroads
A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope
Andebrhan Welde Giorgis
In Memory of the Martyrs
Who Fell so that
Eritrea Would Rise and Thrive
The Eritrean People Would Be Free
Eritrea, a small country with a strategic location in the volatile Horn of Africa, won liberation in 1991 through an armed struggle that had lasted 30 years, and declared independence in 1993 following a referendum. Having waged an epic struggle however, Eritrea today is littered with the shards of broken expectations, broken promises and broken hopes of freedom, justice, and progress. Twenty-two years past de facto independence, the Eritrean people continue to endure and Eritrea’s youth strive to escape the caprices of despotic rule, harsh oppression and perennial insecurity. Wrong policy choices and wasted opportunities have forfeited Eritrea’s potential to grow into a prosperous regional entrepôt and hub of industry, commerce and services and, instead, immersed it in a state of abject poverty and comprehensive insolation.
The land of modern Eritrea has a long history as a cradle and hub of the old Axumite civilisation. Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal, and Hope presents a brief outline of the evolution of Eritrea as an upshot of the colonial implant of the Westphalian order on African soil. It sketches Eritrea’s long journey to self-determination, impeded by constant acts of external intervention. It narrates a story of heroic triumph in struggle and of dismal failure in victory. It assesses the record of the post-independence government and makes the case for renewal and the reconstruction of a functional democratic state to meet the age-old yearnings of the Eritrean people for peace, freedom, justice and prosperity via real empowerment. As the alpha of eighteen chapters, Chapter 1: Introduction provides as a concise summary of each succeeding chapter.
The Making of Eritrea
Until the lion has his own historian, the tale of the hunt will always belong to the hunter.
–An African Proverb
This chapter presents a brief profile of the land and the people of Eritrea, taking a glimpse at the ancient history of the region, and asserts that the Eritreans, like other African peoples, existed in history before the moment of their contact with Europe and the Europeans. It provides a bird’s eye view of the evolution of the region’s pre-colonial and traces the matrix of constant invasions, pollution movements, migrations and intermingling that forged the mosaic of peoples, cultures and languages that make up Eritrea. It describes the reality of a fragmented territory from the decline of the Kingdom of Axum, through the centuries, to the advent of the European scramble for Africa and the colonial era.
The Making of Eritrea describes the Italian conquest and subjugation and unification of the territory into a single entity under colonial rule. It recounts the forging of the Eritrean State and the rise of an overarching distinctive Eritrean national identity as a product of the dialectics of colonialism and the resistance of the colonised. It highlights the crucial regional and global ramifications of Italy’s defeat in Eritrea, signifying the dismantling of Mussolini’s Africa Orientale Italiana and the paving of the way to the reversal of fortunes of Rommel’s Deutsch Afrika Korps, the German surrender in North Africa and the ultimate Allied victory in World War II. Further, it underscores that Eritrea, having served as the crucial battleground in the ‘great fight’ between the forces of global ‘fascism and liberal democracy’ on African soil as a significant cornerstone in the construction of the Allied victory, was abandoned and
betrayed by the Allied Powers.
A Plan to Dismember Eritrea
Ethnically disunited and economically non-viable, there is no good reason for preserving it (Eritrea) as an administrative unit…
The right solution would seem to be to dismember it along its natural lines of cleavage.
– British draft resolution, UN General Assembly, May 1949
The plan to partition Eritrea, divide its people and destroy its identity, and the plunder of its productive assets that retarded its development, under the British Military Administration are covered in Chapter 3: A Plan to Dismember Eritrea. The chapter describes the awakening of the Eritrean people’s aspirations for self-determination, the chain of events that unfolded, and the resultant turbulence whose severe ‘stresses and strains’ brought Eritrea to the brink of chaos and extinction, leaving lasting scars on the Eritrean psyche and body politic. It also portrays the rise of organised national political activity and the blend of British intrigues, Ethiopian interference, and Big Power caprices. This dynamic thwarted Eritrea’s legitimate claim to decolonisation and sowed the seeds of long-term conflict that beset Eritrea and Ethiopia and disturbed the security and stability of the Horn of Africa as a whole.
Transition From European to African Colonialism.
[T]he Strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and world peace
make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] by linked with our ally Ethiopia.
–John F. Dulles
The interplay of geopolitical factors and the ambitions and rivalry of the Big Powers that blocked Eritrea’s quest for decolonisation while appeasing Ethiopia’s claims by using the UN to impose a federal union with Ethiopia against the wishes of the Eritrean people, are considered in Chapter 4: Transition From European to African Colonialism. The chapter describes how the UN violated the principle of self-determination, facilitated Eritrea’s continued domination by an oppressive power with an African face that damaged long-term Ethio-Eritrean relations. Further, it underscores Ethiopia’s systematic and reckless subversion of the Federal Act and the tacit complicity of the UN in the incorporation of Eritrea into the Ethiopian Empire, fuelling popular indignation and fomenting the Eritrean armed struggle for self-determination.
The Struggle for Self-Determination
All peoples have the right of self-determination.
–International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The legitimacy in international law of the right of self-determination, in the dual sense of the right of a nation and the right of a people, and the applicability of the principle to the case of Eritrea as such, are outlined in Chapter 5: The Arduous Struggle for Self-Determination. This chapter bares the UN failure to uphold its own Charter and declarations with respect to Eritrea’s legitimate claim to, and active struggle for, the right of self-determination. In addition, it stresses the role of external intervention, in the context of a complex web of geopolitical interests and shifting alliances, as a complicating factor in the evolution of modern Eritrean history.
The chapter sketches the rise of a distinctive shared identity as the driving force of Eritrean nationalism, the resurgence of the Eritrean national movement, the dynamics of the ensuing political and military struggles, the tortuous internal developments and the unfolding of the difficult drive to dislodge foreign domination. Further, it highlights the resistance, sacrifices, and triumph of the Eritrean people that challenged successive superpower intervention and defeated Ethiopian occupation. Finally, it hails the historic exercise of the right to self-determination of Eritrea as a nation availed by military victory while underscoring the inability of independence to allow for the exercise of the right of self-determination of Eritrea as a people.
State Construction and Development
Our object in the construction of the state is the greatest happiness of the whole,
and not that of any one class.
This chapter depicts the initial commitment of the nascent state to construct a democratic government based on the rule of law as the ‘foundation of economic growth, social harmony and progress’. It hails the pledge to establish a constitutional political system that respects democratic principles, human rights and civil liberties.
Further, the chapter features the promise to rehabilitate and develop a ‘modern, technologically advanced, and internationally competitive economy within the next two decades’ to enhance the “standard and quality of life of the Eritrean people’. More specifically, it assesses the project to establish a unitary, secular, united, democratic and developmental state, and contrasts the declared policies and actual practices of the Eritrean government since independence.
Self-Reliance and the Coupon Economy
Your government, which we considered our own and expected to serve us as well, is the worst one that has ruled Eritrea during my long life.
– Negash Tesfagaber, an Eritrean Elder
The indelible link between Eritrea’s domestic and foreign policy and its impact on the evolution of the state are featured in Chapter 7: Self-Reliance and the Coupon Economy. The chapter notes the positive external environment and the outpouring of international goodwill and support that greeted the advent of independent Eritrea, appreciates the great opportunity that this offered for constructive engagement, and appraises the regime’s imprudent and counterproductive policy responses to the devastating domestic repercussions of the border war with Ethiopia. It unveils the deliberate pursuit of regime stability at the expense of the paramount national interest and bares the use of self-reliance as a euphemism for the external isolation of the country.
Further, the chapter describes the institution and operations of the political economy of rationing in the context of a contracting economy in crisis that has delivered a declining standard of living for the people. It probes the abysmal failure to manage a national economy, or to mobilise domestic and external resources, to cater to the most basic subsistence needs of a small national population. Finally, it appraises the essential fragility of the Eritrean economy primarily as the outcome of the government’s wrong policies, gross incompetence, and wasteful management of the country’s human and material resources.
The Scourge of Indefinite National Service
When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.
The Scourge of Indefinite National Service affirms the importance of rules-based, duration-specific and well-applied programme of national service to build a reliable reserve force as an element of national defence strategy. It lauds the role of a reserve force, as an alternative to a large standing army, to supplement a small professional army in the event of need and to participate at times in meaningful development projects implemented in accordance with planned national priorities. It notes the practice of voluntary service that evolved as a tradition among Eritrean youth during the war of national liberation and the complementary role played by forced recruitment as an instrument of wartime mobilisation.
Further, the chapter reviews the Proclamation of National Service in terms of the waste, the opportunity cost, the loss of legitimacy, the crisis of mass exodus and the devastation caused by abuses in implementing the programme. It exposes the illegal practice of endless active national service, carried out without due remuneration, as a scourge afflicting Eritrean youth, destroying the nuclear family and draining Eritrean society. In particular, it deplores the colossal misuse of the nation’s most productive manpower resources that cast a pall over its future.
Resort to Force as a Default Mode
[L]et not your rage or malice destroy a life – for indeed, he who does not value it,
does not himself deserve it.
– Leonardo da Vinci
Disagreements and disputes in the internal relations of an organisation are normal and should be treated as such through dialogue. That is the focus of Chapter 9: Resort to Force as a Default Mode. The chapter analyses the historical and structural causes of the resort to force as a default mode and the recurrent use of coercion, in the form of suspension, demotion, transfer, detention, torture or elimination, as an arbiter of internal discord during the armed struggle. It dissects the extension of the use of coercion in the form of arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, systematic torture and extrajudicial killings after independence as a persistent government practice. Against this backdrop, it describes the rise of dissent within the historical leadership of the EPLF, the ensuing confrontations, the arbitrary detention of senior government officials and journalists, and the banning of the private press to suppress dissent and independent opinion.
Further, the chapter deplores the regime’s suppression of internal criticism and elimination of political dissent, burying the victims alive in the desolate Irairo prison, to forestall resistance and intimidate the protagonists of Eritrea’s historic struggle for freedom into reluctant submission to dictatorship through the demonstrative effects of arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and solitary confinement, with tragic consequences for the country. It sketches the accumulation of power in the Presidency, the marginalisation of key institutions and the consequent rise of ‘one man rule’, with its sequel of rampant political corruption and abuse. The chapter highlights the unrestrained use of coercion as an instrument of political repression afflicting Eritrea today.
Disconnect between Policy and Practice
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Disconnect between Policy and Practice contrasts the policies and practices of the government in terms of the establishment of a constitutional, democratic and developmental state capable of promoting political participation, gender equality, and religious freedom. Using the policy instruments provided by the National Charter, the Macro-Policy paper and the ratified Constitution as benchmarks, the chapter exposes the existence of an enormous disparity between the stated policies and actual practices of the government. Linking the unfortunate political, economic and social reality prevailing in Eritrea today to this disparity, it concludes that its root cause is structural and its remedy lies in national renewal.
The African State in Crisis
[T]he modern African state remains largely irrelevant to the needs, interests, and aspirations of the people.
–Agbese and Kieh
Some of the recent literature on the nature of the postcolonial state in Africa is reviewed in Chapter 11: The African State in Crisis in order to ground the Eritrean experience in state construction and development in the African setting. The chapter highlights the European heritage of the state system in Africa and interrogates its suitability to the socio-economic conditions of African society. It notes the impacts of slavery, colonialism and the Cold War on Africa’s development. Slavery robbed Africa of millions of its most productive work force, drained its creative energy, and sapped its potential to develop. Colonialism plundered Africa’s natural and human resources and disrupted its indigenous progression. The Cold War turned Africa into an ideological battleground, disoriented its priorities, and destabilised its polities.
Further, the chapter notes how the African state, as a graft of the European state system rooted in the industrial and political revolutions in Europe, gave rise to anti-colonial nationalism and Pan-Africanism that fuelled the drive to independence, and ended up inheriting the authoritarian features of the colonial state. It explores how these features led to the failure of the postcolonial state to build functional governance, establish stability, achieve sustainable development, and deliver public wellbeing for most of its citizens. The chapter notes that the prototype African state faces a deep crisis of legitimacy, delivery and relevance and, as recent events in North and West Africa have shown, remains dysfunctional, repressive and fragile.
Eritrea: The Future of Africa that Works
I have seen the future – of Africa [in Eritrea]- and it works.
Chapter 12: Eritrea: The Future of Africa that Works contrasts the historical colonialist and nationalist narratives, on the one hand, and the official and dissenting perspectives within the nationalist narrative, on the other. It contends that Eritrea’s record has not borne out the optimism of sympathetic observers, like Abdulrahman Babu, that independent Eritrea would deliver democratic development and prosperity where other African states had failed. The chapter asserts that the regime has not lived up to the progressive goals of the struggle and the ideals of the freedom fighters that animated Babu’s enthusiasm. It admits that, far from representing the future of Africa that works, Eritrea manifests the authoritarian features of the prototype African state, with its attendant crises of legitimacy, delivery and relevance.
Engaging the Eritrean Diaspora
In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.
– Booker T. Washington
The origins, formation national role of the Eritrean diaspora are described in Chapter 13: Engaging the Diaspora. It explains how interstate conflicts and domestic repression have driven more and more people out of the country to join the diaspora since the start of the border war with Ethiopia in 1998 and the government’s crackdown in September 2001. It also describes how the relative size, wealth, educational attainment and close attachment to the home country have made the Eritrean diaspora a source of sizeable remittances and a significant player in the political, economic and social life of the country.
The chapter notes that a more conducive political and economic space would enable the Eritrean diaspora to use its multiple linkages and resources to promote investment and make a more effective contribution to national development. It also signals the need for the diaspora to transcend the old political and social divides, unify its politics, and reposition its focus on the drive for change. The chapter emphasises the patriotic duty of political activists, movements, and media outlets to distinguish between the interests of the State and the regime, and the potential of the diaspora to play a catalytic role in the effort to bring about change, reconstruct a democratic state, and transform society through constructive engagement and collaborative action.
In the Service of Eritrea
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
– George B. Shaw
The writer speaks of the formative influences on his political perspective and dedication to the cause of the liberation, reconstruction and development of Eritrea and the progress, prosperity and wellbeing of the people in Chapter 14: In the Service of Eritrea. The chapter highlights his efforts to revitalise the University of Asmera as a centre of higher learning and applied research and institute the Bank of Eritrea as a functional central bank. It also touches on his work in Eritrea’s diplomatic service. Further, it recounts the role of constant presidential interference in disrupting the effort to build institutions and undermining mission delivery.
An Avoidable War
There is no such thing as an inevitable war. If war comes it will be from failure of human wisdom.
–Andrew B. Law
Post-independence issues of war and peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia are covered in Chapter 15: An Avoidable War. The chapter notes the various missed opportunities, during and after the war, to agree on the colonial treaty border and secure durable peace. It traces the slide towards an unnecessary war between former allies, the human tragedy of the deportations, the evolution and devastation of the war, and the international effort to end hostilities.
The chapter tells the story of the unravelling of an old, pervasive and problematic relationship burdened by a difficult narrative of conquest, war and conflict, often impacted by the intricacies of shared ethnic and cultural affinity straddling a common border, and closely bound by mutual economic and strategic interests. Further, it affirms the potential of the multiple pillars of the Ethio-Eritrean relationship to serve as levers of durable political cooperation, drivers of economic integration, and anchors of regional peace and security.
An Uneasy Truce
An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.
– Mahatma Gandhi
The role of the writer as Commissioner and the UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) in the effort to implement the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities is described in Chapter 16: An Uneasy Truce. The chapter notes the failure of the parties to resolve key operational issues, of the UN Security Council to address them, and of the UN and the AU to honour their commitment to enforce the agreement, precipitating the inauspicious termination of UNMEE’s mission and turning a potentially successful peace building operation into a fiasco.
Securing the Peace Between Eritrea and Ethiopia
War is the decision to go for victory [rather] than resolution.
Peacemaking is an attempt to resolve the sources of the conflict and restore a situation of balance, thereby eliminating the need for victory and defeat.
– Jim Wallis
Chapter 17: Securing the Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia crystallises the key provisions of, and the effort to implement, the Algiers Agreement. It notes the omission of the Inquiry Commission and the creation of the Claims and Boundary commissions. It summarises the final damage awards of the Claims Commission, the territorial significance of the delimitation decision of the Boundary Commission, and its virtual demarcation of the boundary. In addition, it assesses the role of the parties in terms of the respect of their treaty obligations under the agreement and in the failure to achieve durable peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Further, the chapter notes the lack of convergence of interest, unity of purpose, and coherence of policy that has hampered the effort of the UN Security Council to help Eritrea and Ethiopia achieve peace. It stresses the need for the full implementation of the Algiers Agreements; and for Ethiopia’s unconditional recognition of the border, as demarcated by the EEBC and respect of Eritrea’s territorial integrity to ease a troubled historical memory, and secure a stable peace and normal relations in the interests of the fraternal peoples.
We Didn’t Do It For This
You were good fighters in the field. We were very proud of you and full of hope. You won the war and brought us independence. We were elated.
However, a dozen years on you have made our life more miserable!
Having lived under Italian, British, federal and Ethiopian administrations, let me tell you son,
that your administration is incompetent, you manners uncouth and your currency worthless.
It is a cruel irony that we are worse off today under the rule of our own children.
– Sheka Yohannes Weldeabzgi
The concluding chapter, Chapter 18: We Didn’t Do It for This expresses the author’s sense of profound deception and disappointment, shared by many veterans of the independence war, at the present predicament of Eritrea and the Eritrean people. It decries the betrayal of the Eritrean people by their own government, the desertion of the promises of freedom, democracy, justice, and prosperity, for which the armed struggle was fought and great sacrifices made. The chapter signals the need for a fundamental rethinking of Eritrean politics and for reform to reconstruct a functional state, in line with the ethos and transformational goals of the armed struggle.