The space of peace and freedom: Eritrea at 10

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Comment by Matt Meyer

Brighter than New Year's Eve, the fireworks of midnight 23 May, that lit up the southern shores of the Red Sea, signified freedom from colonial subjugation and from war. In Africa's newest country of Eritrea – celebrating ten years of liberation from Ethiopian control, eight years of full independence since the referendum that affirmed the widespread desire for nationhood, and less than six months since the ceasefire in a bloody three-year border conflict – the mood is one of cautious optimism.

More than the fireworks, or the President's speech, or even the ninety-minute long student and youth multi- lingual cultural and musical presentation televised throughout the country affirming the unity in diversity that is modern Eritrea, the real celebration is symbolised by a simple act: walking along the main avenue. For all the decades of outside control, this road was off limits to the country's own people. Now, strolling down the street is an act of pride and affirmation and joy, with spontaneous outbursts of dancing, much greeting of friends and comrades along the way, reflecting on the past and pondering the future. As midnight approaches, the numbers grow to the tens of thousands, with people packed together so closely that this New York-based observer felt right at home, like taking a ride on the rush hour subway! There was no thought here, however, of theft or violence. This was safe space, full of smiles: the space of freedom.

A history of colonial onslaughts

Observers of the horn of Africa these past years will be aware of Eritrea's unique, complex, and tortured history. Originally the centre of the ancient Axumite civilisation, Eritrea faced the colonial onslaughts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries as a distinct entity, most notably providing access to the southern portion of the Red Sea through the major ports of Massawa and Assab. The Mediterranean-like climate of the Eritrean highlands made it a prize spot for “outsiders”, and control shifted between invading Ethiopian and Somali kingdoms, Portuguese military operations, and the Ottoman Empire. As the scramble for Africa of the late nineteenth century progressed, the Italian grabs for land included a take-over of Eritrea – but Italy was prevented from moving south to neighbouring Ethiopia by some cunning political and military manoeuvres by the Ethiopians. Thus, Ethiopia became one of the only African countries protected from modern European colonialism, while Eritrea faced Italian “development” and influence. Italy's control ended abruptly during the early stages of World War Two, as British Military Administration took control of the country as part of their campaigns against fascist Mussolini. Several years after the end of the War, Italy's former African colonies of Libya and Somalia were granted independence by the Allied Forces, but the fate of Eritrea was left to a slow-moving United Nations Commission. Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, an instrumental national and regional figure who was consolidating alliances with the US against the “threat of communism”, convinced the international agency that Eritrea be federated as part of the Ethiopian kingdom; by the mid-1950s, Eritrean languages were banned, newspapers were shut down, protesters killed. The borderlines of Eritrea were erased from the map of Africa, and the newly-formed Organisation of African Unity (noting that – though artificial – the boundaries of contemporary Africa would be too complicated to re-draw), served only to reinforce the “disappearance” of the centuries-old state.

Developing political resistance

The early 1960s saw the beginnings of co-ordinated armed and political resistance, ultimately from the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). EPLF's secular policies sought to bring together the nine linguistic and cultural groups which make up the country, and to begin grassroots education, health care, and development campaigns in liberated areas or contested zones – while fighting against the Haile Selassie regime. By the mid-1970s, the Marxist-influenced EPLF had control of substantial parts of the country, and corruption within Ethiopia saw to an overthrow of Selassie. The military government which took his place, the self-proclaimed Marxist Dergue, decided that Eritrea was too important an asset, and repression against the EPLF and Eritrean civilians intensified. As global geopolitics once again put the Eritrean people between an impossible “rock and a hard place,” an uncompromising spirit of non-alignment and self-reliance began to develop. By May of 1991, with continued EPLF military and political prowess and significant shifts in the Ethiopian government, the country was effectively taken over by the Liberation Front. People strolled those main streets for over a week of excitement; the EPLF had to urge folks to go back to work! In a desire to formalise the new state of affairs, a UN-supervised vote was set up in 1993, where over ninety-eight percent of the population cast a ballot for full independence. This series of events only made the actions of the past three years more confusing for international observers and peace-makers. Small Ethiopian incursions into Eritrean territory turned into large-scale war, with apparent desires on the part of some within the Ethiopian government to re-take the whole of the lost “confederated” northern Red Sea access route.

Maintaining the peace

Eritrea's own sometimes hesitant, sometimes intensive, sometimes secretive border battles against the Ethiopian attacks did not help to de-escalate or resolve the conflict. UN and international observers have tended to place equal blame on both countries, though the peace treaty signed in December 2000, with the UN-supervised “Temporary Security Zone (TSZ)” closely monitored, has clearly been repeatedly violated by Ethiopian forces, who continue to hold Eritrean towns and territories within the TSZ. UN Special Envoy Joseph Legwaila has admitted to various “mistakes” in the UN readings of the maps, but ultimate border agreements have yet to be worked out. Eritrea has no disagreements with the borders set up in 1991 – only a desire to have them respected. The last three years of war have surely brought about a difficult maturation of the Eritrean people, movement, and nation. The mystique of the liberation fighter – those who led the thirty-year war – has been greatly diminished, with massive numbers of young people from throughout Eritrea having now experienced at least some time at the front. While the entire country has a sense of “ownership” – of having defended their homeland – there is also a widespread exhaustion at the very concept of war, along with mass and mainstream concerns about how leaders on both sides will maintain the peace, and trepidations amongst most young people about continuing (though reduced) involuntary military service. While patriotism is high, there is no nationalistic fervour here; most blame the war not on the Ethiopian people, but on a small clique in the Ethiopian government. Keeping the peace appears to be on everyone's priority list.

Demobilisation and reintegration

On the governmental level, there is certainly much rhetoric, along with some moves towards reconciliation. In his speech on the tenth anniversary, President Isaias Afwerki admitted that while the war's mobilisation had “bolstered a proud tradition of heroism and commitment”, it more significantly “has meant the stagnation and regression of our economic growth and national development”. The war, in his words, “interrupted the political, cultural and social processes that were in motion”. Though “irreversible peace with ironclad guarantees” is not yet on the horizon, the President pledged to make military demobilisation the government's highest priority. A proclamation calling for a national Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme, made in mid-April, remains one of the most hopeful initiatives – lauded by intellectuals and activists alike who have been gently critical of the government over the past year. Yemane Ghebremeskel, director of the office of the President, reiterated that “Eritrea's policy remains maintaining a very small standing army. More than two- thirds of the army were demobilised in three phases after liberation in 1991... In normal times, a big army would neither be necessary nor affordable. It can only drain the country's resources.”

Pushing for reform

On the non-governmental level, an emerging civil society of NGOs and independent bodies is beginning to make their voices heard. Though most often loyal to the still new and respected officials, they have served to push the government towards reform. One leading consultant to various governmental and NGO projects stated, “So long as there is only one party, I will not join it. When others emerge, I will join the one aligned with the current government – but not until I have a choice.” This sentiment echoed the feelings of many regarding democratisation, as the country heads towards its first elections since liberation. An October 2000 letter signed by thirteen prominent Eritrean intellectuals, mostly living abroad, caused much controversy – as it raised concerns about the management of the war as well as about the concentration of power in the President's office. In June, an open letter to the major political party, signed by 15 members of the country's National Council and Central Council (including several government Ministers), suggested that these issues constituted a “a crisis”, and that immediate action need be taken “to pave the road for a peaceful, legal and democratic transition to a truly constitutional government, and to establish the guarantees for Eritrea to become a peaceful and stable nation where democracy, justice and prosperity shall prevail.” In the heat of this intense moment, the 135,000-strong National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS), officially an NGO but with close ties to the government, is moving ahead with holding massive educational forums about participatory democracy and the process of voting. Shengeb, national chairperson of NUEYS, shared with Peace News that, despite the fact that it's meant a bit of pushing, “the government tells us it's good that we're holding these participation campaigns”.

Peace is built on rights

“Peace is Built on Rights” is the slogan of one of the most dynamic and independent NGOs, Citizen's for Peace in Eritrea (CPE). CPE's major early work (taking place beginning in 1998) concerned documenting “the uprooted” – refugees deported from Ethiopia during the three-year war. Last February, however, they held an international peace-building conference, “Towards Sustainable Peace”, which sought to look at long-term ways in which the entire horn of Africa may be transformed. Professor Asmarom Legesse, a Harvard-trained scholar and grassroots leader, has emphasised that the frontier populations on both sides of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border must be consulted in any lasting, justice- seeking arrangement. His extensive research on the indigenous socio-political systems of the Oromo peoples, the largest ethnic group within Ethiopia, suggest peace-oriented systems which have been disrupted and disrespected by the machinations of the modern nation-states. In dialogue with Ethiopian NGO counterparts – especially women's groups from the south of Ethiopia – CPE has tried to cut across ethnic and national lines and force the governments to respect the rights of average, sometimes apolitical citizens. In one such meeting, Professor Legesse reported that Oromo elders noted, “This is not the place for cleverness” – we must not try to use manipulative words to get around the simple principles of mutually beneficial peace. In a private conversation with Peace News, Legesse implored, “We have to be able to reach out across years of war and division – to find out what we can learn that is rich and good about each other's cultures and traditions.”

One heart, one people

The fireworks of Eritrea's tenth anniversary celebrations at times sounded too much like rocket launchers or gun-fire. The current peace in the horn of Africa is, indeed, a fragile one. But international solidarity activists must be aware of our counterparts in the South, aware that the African tradition of peace-building is a rich one that continues to this day. The Tigrinya phrase heard on the streets of the capital of Asmara was “Hade Lebi” – one heart, one people. The Eritrean government may not be a model for all people or all humankind, but there is still much to be learned from their emphasis on self-reliance, self-respect and multicultural unity amidst diversity. Eritrean NGOs, close to our own politics and objectives, deserve greater attention and more direct material and political support. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to keep the peace. And peace built upon human rights, a justice that knows no boundaries, must be the priority of all war resisters and conflict resolvers.

Topics: Global south