A Truly Tragic and Fratricidal War!

by Alemseged Abbay, June 20, 2000

Tens of thousands of youthful people have lost their precious lives and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been displaced and deprived of their normal lives in the so-called 'border conflict' between Ethiopia and its former northern most province of Eritrea. Hopefully, the war will force the Eritrean leaders to face realities:

Reality # 1: Africa's stupidest war was fought among siblings.

The Afars, Agaws, Kunamas and Tigrayans straddle the boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea. To them the boundary has always been inconsequential. Thus, the millennia-old population intermingling will continue once the dust settles. Although the push factors that took some Ethiopians, such as the parents of Walde-Ab Walde-Mariam, to Eritrea are no longer strong, the pull factors that brought Eritreans, such as Lorezo Taezaz, to Ethiopia are all the more attractive. Nothing will halt their reactivation.

The intermarriages that produced the Meles Zenawis, Isaias Afeworkis, Yemane Gabre-Abs, etc. will also persist unabated. There will be nothing unusual about them. The anomaly, however, is the attempt the Eritrean leaders made to dig a deep gulf between Eritrea and Ethiopia and to bifurcate, what Walde-Ab believed, inseparable peoples. Therefore, what makes this conflict, in the most literal sense, a fratricidal war is the fact that the very arsonists in Asmara have immediate and collateral Ethiopian relatives. One wonders how Yemane Gabre-Ab would feel if his uncles, aunts and cousins were to be victims of the cluster bombing in Makelle and Adigrat. How would he feel if the in laws of his own sister, who is married to Abebe Gabre-Iyesus from Axum, were the victims of his war of aggression? What would the Eritrean ambassador to Australia say if his wife's relatives were the victims of the uncalled for war? 'Insanity' was how the Ethiopian leaders described the Eritrean behavior. And that was an apt characterization!

Reality # 2: 'Eritrea's unity with Ethiopia is necessary... Eritrea can not achieve economic growth with out unity [with Ethiopia]'. Walde-Ab Walde-Mariam, 'Ertra ne'man?' ['Eritrea for whom?'] Nay Ertrea Semunawi Gazetta, May 22, 1947, part IV, p. 4.

Unfortunately, Eritrea has never been economically self-sufficient. The Italian colonialists, in order to keep their subjects quiescent and acquiescent, followed a policy of 'belly full and head empty' (Trevaskis, Eritrea, A Colony in Transition, 1960, p. 47) and generously subsidized the Eritrean economy. Even then, Italian Eritrea had to import food from northern Ethiopia. At times, this caused trade tensions between the north Ethiopian rulers and their Italian counterparts. For instance, during the early part of the 20th century, the Ethiopian chiefs Ras Sebhat Aregawi and Dejazmatch Seyoum Mengesha used to refuse sending food across the Mareb because they needed it for their soldiers. However, the Italians were managing to get what they needed by threatening to deny Ethiopia access to the sea (Gabre-Hiwet Baykadagn, Mangistena ya hezb astadadar p. 81).

During the 1940s British era, too, the anthropologist S. F.Nadel (Races and Tribes of Eritrea, 1944, p.7) observed that not even the richest region of Eritrea, Seraye, could produce enough food for itself. Like the rest of Eritrea, Seraye had to procure food from 'the rich granary of the Tigrai in Ethiopia'. Today, Eritrea can only produce 20% of its food needs ('Eritrea's economy: challenging structural problems,' U.S. Embassy, Eritrea, March 1998).

Nor has Eritrea been endowed with mineral resources. The Italian colonialists and the British Mandatory rulers exhaustively searched for natural wealth in the ground and could not find any as the British Chief Administrator of the region, 1942-44, Stephen Longrigg (A Short History of Eritrea 1945:166-67) stated:

    Mineral possibilities of the territory were very thoroughly investigated under the Italian administration. Traces of low grade or inaccessible deposits of iron, lead, manganese, and copper have been examined; none of these are workable... First prospecting and then test drilling for mineral oil was carried out prior to 1941 on Dahlak Islands, but no oil was revealed, and little promise... The potash of Dallol... belongs to Ethiopia.

Reality # 3: Italy did not give education or significant technological skills to the Eritreans.

According to the British Governor of Eritrea, Sir Duncan Cumming ('The U.N. Disposal of Eritrea,' African Affairs, 1953, Vol. 52, # 207,p.133): 'Even finding literate people who could be employed was not quite easy'.

Two factors characterized colonialism in Eritrea: Italy's immense investment of capital and technology, unparalleled by colonial standards; and the subjection of natives to intellectual darkness, much worse than in the British and French colonial systems. Segregation kept the natives in the countryside and in the urban ghettoes. The European way of life was arcane to them. Italy did keep the small village of Asmara, that Ras Alula picked as his administrative center, as the capital of its 'first born colony'. Receiving immense capital and technology, it was quickly Europeanized, attracting thousands of Italian settlers. But European Asmara had no room for the natives who were congregated in the ghetto of Enda Abba Shawel, Alula's munition quarter that used to be headed by his functionary Dejazmatch Engda 'Abba Shawel'. The latter left his nickname to Eritrea's most celebrated native quarter. Enda Abba Shawel ['Abode of Abba Shawel'] was a smaller version of Soweto, in apartheid South Africa.

The settlers and the natives in Italian Eritrea, therefore, lived under the same political rule with out knowing each other. They had divergent laws: civil laws for the urban Italians and customary laws for the rural natives. The inhabitants of the ghettoes of Enda Abba Shawel, however, were trapped in a legal limbo as they were abided neither by the customary laws of rural Eritrea nor by the Italian civil laws of urban Eritrea.

Thus, native Eritreans remained beyond the reach of the forces of modernity that accompanied Italian settlement. Whereas the industrial capital was the monopoly of the colonialists, the commercial capital belonged to the Arabs, particularly the Lebanese and the Yemenis, as well as the Indians. Even after the end of Italian colonialism, the economic infrastructure was solidly in the hands of foreigners until the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution.

By the time of independence in 1991, modernity had long left Eritrea along with the flight of the industrial and commercial capital. Thus, there were no skilled Eritreans to be in charge of the infrastructural projects in the post-1991 Eritrea. For instance, it was Gurage engineers from central Ethiopia who have been directing major construction works in Asmara. Today, even good Italian dishes such as lazagna and pasta al forno, which could have served as reminiscent of Italian cultural influence, do not exist in Eritrean restaurants. The Italian vocabularies that Eritreans proudly used, albeit incorrectly, in Tigrinya as a sign of sophistication do not exist any more. They have replaced them with either Tigrinya or Amarinya words. The music that one hears in the cafes and bars of Eritrea is mostly Amarinya, not Italian.

Reality # 4:'If we do wish the best for our children and the future generations, then let us not hate unity [with Ethiopia]. Unity is strength, unity is dignity, unity is prosperity, unity is victory.' Walde-Ab Walde-Mariam, 'Ertra ne'man?' ['Eritrea for whom?'] Nay Ertra Semunawi Gazetta, May 22, 1947, part IV, p. 4.

In the 1940s, using historical, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and above all economic justifications, Eritrea's most famous political activist, Walde-Ab, enjoined Eritreans to merge with Ethiopia. If Walde-Ab could see Eritrea's economic realities with absolute clarity, then the EPLF should have known better half a century later when the Italian, Arab and Indian capital had long left the country. Instead, they obstinately clung to their independence-or-nothing agenda.

However, political independence in 1991 did not necessarily result in Eritrean economic self-sufficiency. Fortunately for Eritrea, Ethiopia came to its rescue by generously subsidizing its independent life (1991-1997). Ironically, way before they secured economic viability, Eritrean leaders and their nationalistic scholars and academics began entertaining the quixotic ambition of making their resource-poor young state a commercial and manufacturing hub of the Horn of Africa (the 'Singapore model'). This wild dream entailed keeping Ethiopia as their economic backwater.

Inevitably, this wistful dream faced a head-on-collision with Ethiopia's economic interests. Without seriously anticipating the consequences, the EPLF decided to use their 'invincible' army and 'impregnable' trenches to force Ethiopia to accept their economic blueprints-a clear illustration of their own folly. Immediately after invasion, they demanded 'direct talks' with the Ethiopian leaders. But they were rebuffed. On the contrary, the Ethiopians decided to teach them a lasting lesson.

Two years later, Ethiopia has taught Eritrea a lasting military lesson so much so that the belligerent Eritreans have accepted a cease fire that establishes a 25-km buffer zone entirely on the Eritrean side. Clearly, the bellicosity of the Eritrean leaders, the war-drum beating scholars and the cyber space warriors as well as the generous diaspora community has run its course. And it was a tragic waste of precious time, hard-earned and badly needed dollars and above all young human lives!

Undoubtedly, the EPLF have learned an important military lesson. Eritrean parents will also start to have a clearer military and political picture when they find out their children have actually been consumed by Africa's stupidest war. But have they learned any political and economic lessons? The Singapore model has proven to be what Meles Zenawi called 'wild ambitions' and what Marina Ottaway, in her modest scholarly tone, dubbed a 'distant dream'.

What thrust Eritrea into a political and economic quagmire is the all-or-nothing agenda of the armed struggle. Undoubtedly, Eritreans had legitimate grievances when they took the gun in 1961. However, did the war have to be a zero-sum game? Did the EPLF have to fight for independence-or-nothing? Did the feudal regime and the Dergue have to say unity or death? These visionless and rigid positions had extremely detrimental consequences not only on the civilian populations, but on the political actors as well. The Ethiopian regimes collapsed. The harder and the longer the EPLF fought for independence, the more meaning they saw in the rigidity of their political goals. Once independence came in 1991, though, they encountered more monumental and insurmountable economic problems.

What the three political actors - the Haile Selassie regime, the Dergue and the EPLF - should have done was what the EPRDF did: not to see the Eritrean question in zero-sum terms. The EPRDF saw the Eritrean case through the cost-benefit lens: the benefits of granting independence far outweighed the costs of retaining Eritrea by an internecine war whose end was not in sight. The EPLF should have meticulously evaluated the meaning of independence. Was independence an end, in and of itself? Or was it a means to peace, prosperity and welfare? If independence does not give Eritreans happiness, prosperity and serenity, then as in the case of South Yemen, East Germany and, now, North Korea, Eritrea may lose its raison d'etat. I do not cherish belittling Eritrea.

I do not relish the misery and pauperization of its peoples. I have merely highlighted and reiterated what the 'Father of Eritrea', Walde-Ab Walde-Mariam, all along said that Eritrea is Ethiopia and it needs Ethiopia. It has no economic resources (what oil was for Biafra or diamond was for Katanga) warranting its detachment from Ethiopia.

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