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Dialogue Between Eritreans and Ethiopians – by Yacob Haile-Mariam (PhD)

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An Idea Whose Time Has Come
by Yacob Haile-Mariam (PhD)
Congratulations are in order to the leaders of Vision Ethiopia who had the courage to broach the subject of reconciliation heretofore regarded as taboo for both the Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals, and yet is vital for peace and development not only for these two countries but also for the whole region.
Similar effort was undertaken some time ago by courageous individuals like Prof. Fesseha Tsion Medhane and others who had launched the Ethio-Eritrean Solidarity Group on which we had pinned much hope for some kind of dialogue and interactions between these two fraternal people. It is indeed a sensitive subject over which thousands have perished on both sides and therefore understandably, one has to tread on very carefully.
Ethiopian and Eritrea
More than twenty years have passed since a fratricide took place the likes of which has rarely been seen anywhere in recent memory. In the opinion of this writer, who once lived in Eritrea for a brief period and enjoyed his stay tremendously, there are no other two people who are so irretrievably intertwined as Ethiopians and Eritreans are.
Their destinies are directly intertwined not to mention about their economic welfare. If there are any two people who should have not separated, Eritreans and Ethiopians perhaps provide the best example. The superfluous relations that Eritrea has forged recently with some neighboring countries cannot stand the test when the chips are down. Eritrea is just as in danger as Ethiopia is, because the geopolitics of the region is equally hostile to Eritrea as it is to Ethiopia. We are after all “Habesh” historically speaking.
Eritrea and Ethiopia broke up not by the genuine and informed decision of the people, but because of the short shortsighted and politically myopic leaders who could not see beyond the tip of their noses.
The Algiers Agreement and the decisions of the Border Commission, who other than their own geopolitical interests, had the least consideration for our welfare in fact exacerbated the already tenuous situation by putting our two countries in perpetual war footing.
The relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot be reconciled by judicial process because it is not a matter of right, rather it is a matter of self identity and therefore the Algiers Agreement was a flop from the very beginning, not to talk of the manner it was handled which was amateurish and short-sighted especially on the Ethiopian side.
Some Ethiopians abroad took issue with those of us who advocated for an outlet to Sea for our country which has the unenviable distinction of being the most populated country in the world to be land-locked at the shortest distance from the sea anywhere – believe it or not a mere 60 kilometers. If the charge is that we were trying to save our country from asphyxiation, and the advocacy was to secure her rights in accordance with international law, then we plead guilty as charged. Our effort was firstly to restore the unity or the federation or still come up with some sort of a mutually agreed device which will tie the brotherly and sisterly people of Ethiopia and Eritrea together. Failing in that we forwarded argument based on international law that our country with close to a hundred million people should not be land-locked while it is located within a walking distance to the sea.
Knowing the economic and security implications of being land-locked, we could not dismiss the issue as a commodity which we could purchase from somewhere, as once Meles Zenawi argued. Such a stand would be tantamount to abdicating our responsibility to our people who have given us so much when they have so little. To the dismay of the naysayers we will continue to peacefully advocate for access to the sea through our own Port Assab to the extent allowed by international law. In the least we will seek some sort of modus operandi with our Eritrean brothers and sisters which will take into account the vital interests of our country inter alia access to the sea.
Our eagerness for an outlet to the sea is matched by our eagerness to avoid any kind of war in the future. Failing in this effort there is a very good chance of Assab being casus belli and that should be avoided at any cost whatsoever. There has already been far too much bloodletting among these brotherly and sisterly people.
If these two countries were unified or created some other arrangements such as unity or federation, with Ethiopia’s vast resources and population and Eritrea’s strategic location controlling a vital water way with two ports, not only would they provide adequately for their people, they would in fact be a power to reckon with. The combined economic, diplomatic and political power these two people would muster, could in fact change the geo-politics of the Red Sea and beyond.
The Red Sea area is reformatting itself with uncertainty of the future for the countries around. We may not be immune from the fallout and therefore as Eritreans and Ethiopians we should close our ranks and help each other to preserve our identity as brothers and sisters through unity.
The former generations of Ethiopians and Eritreans jointly crushed colonialists and created a unified state against many odds, which unfortunately later went awry largely due to the fault of leaders in their eagerness to forge unity with their kith and kin. If it would help at all, Ethiopians should be willing to beat their chest with mea culpa. The present leaders of both Eritrea and Ethiopia, consumed by hatred towards each other, cannot be counted upon to rise up to the challenge and overcome their petty ethnic loyalty and forge an Ethiopian-Eritrean nation conceived in liberty and democracy, aspiring for its full potential of being a great nation. Such broad vision and foresight cannot be expected from leaders whose political anchor cannot transcend ethnicity, tribalism, power mongering and corruption.
Our hope hangs in the hands of young people who are in sync with twenty fist century values where blind ethnic loyalty is regarded as ignorance, backwardness and primitive. It is gratifying to see around the US and European colleges and universities that young Eritreans and Ethiopians look and interact with special sense of affinity towards each other. It is also encouraging to see increasing number of Eritreans in Ethiopia as students in universities and as refugees – a term that should not have applied to Eritreans because this is their home and one cannot be a refugee in his or her own country. One cannot erase this sentiment of common bondage as it was evident when EPRDF forced out Eritreans some years ago and their Ethiopian neighbors tried to hide them when they could or sent them with gifts and tears in their eyes when they could not. When EPLF kicked out thousands of Ethiopians from Eritrea it was not in consultation or upon the demand of the people. EPLF did this while the war was raging and the people could not be expected to do anything about it.
It is now incumbent upon us, the older generation, to encourage and support this interaction of young people and undertake projects and discussions of the like organized by Vision Ethiopia. The least we can do is to refrain from infecting these young people with hatred towards each other. Instead let us tell them of the good times we had in Eritrea and the Eritreans had in Ethiopia. There is no reason why this scenario cannot be repeated by us, the people, leaving aside those short- sighted and myopic leaders on both sides of the border.