The euphoric jubilation in the streets of Asmara and Addis Ababa that we have witnessed in the last few weeks is the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples’ affirmation and celebration of the peace overtures made by Dr Abiy. The stoic Ethiopian and Eritrean people, young and old, men and women, dancing and singing unabashedly in the streets and public spaces are expressing their strong longing for peaceful and fraternal relations—a longing which they have not been able to express in public for the last 20 years. It is a genuine endorsement of the commitment of the two leaders—Abiy, an articulate, visionary vanguard of the new generation, and Isaias, a defiant old revolutionary—to lead them out of the quagmire. Abiy rose up from the mass upheaval of the Ethiopian youth struggle against TPLF/EPRDF dominated corruption, political machinations, disintegration and hopelessness to lead a peaceful yet fundamental revolution. Isaias represents the indomitable spirit of the Eritrean struggle for liberation, still standing against all odds.
Within a few weeks, in a miraculous shift, despair and pessimism have given way to hope. This hope found articulation in a rising young political maverick, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. His message of peace and unity, medemer, has swept Ethiopian and Eritrean communities at home and in diaspora. The swift actions taken by both sides to normalize relations after two decades of the no war no peace regime has created an emotional human drama: the celebrations welcoming Abiy to Asmara and Isaias to Addis, long separated family members dancing in tears on the tarmacs of airports, and even people calling random numbers across the border to express love and good will. The scene has mesmerized even the international media and international public at large which is used to seeing frequent atrocities in this region. What just a few weeks ago seemed like an insurmountable wall of hate and acrimony between Eritrea and Ethiopia has dissipated as if it had been a mirage.
Yet despite the overflow of joy we should not forget the bitter cost paid during the twenty long years it took us to get here. Nor should we forget that this is only the beginning of a long hard journey. To see through the fog into brighter future we must reexamine our path through our dark history with contrition. As Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
The Horn of Africa is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world. The Ethio-Eritrea conflict that has continued unabated for three quarter of a century, bleeds directly or indirectly into all the violent intrastate and interstate conflicts raging across the Horn of Africa. The thirty-year devastating war for independence [1960 – 1991], the 1998 -2000 border war and the eighteen years of “no war no peace” that has succeeded it have been the inexhaustible fuel that has been feeding the inferno consuming this region. The cost of this conflict is mind numbing. Hundreds of thousands have died. Millions have been forced into abject refugee life. Villages have been razed to the ground, fragile ecosystem scorched, farm lands strewn by land mines rendered uncultivable, infrastructures deliberately destroyed. Billions of dollars have been spent in military endeavors while the people die en masse from famine and suffer from lack of basic human necessities. Pulled by this conflict into an abyss, both states are at the bottom of the ladder in social, political and economic development scales.
TPLF is the main architect of the sinister “no war no peace” regime.
Meles and his compadres were skillful tacticians but unfortunately poor strategists. This is not due to lack of intelligence but rather to their tenuous hold on state power in Ethiopia. A political faction which hailed from a marginalized ethnic minority, which had been playing second fiddle to EPLF for most part of its existence, was suddenly catapulted to a dominant position in the Ethiopian state. They consolidated their chokehold on the Ethiopian state with the departure of Eritrea and the EPLF. TPLF inherited the bounty of the Ethiopian empire, while EPLF had to deal with a war-torn weary state. The former comrades in arms turned into deadly rivals. The US cast the deciding vote when it picked TPLF as its strategic ally in the Horn of Africa.
Once EPLF departed, the interparty rivalry turned into an intraparty duel between the Meles Zenawi faction and the Seye Abraha and Gebru Assrat faction. Seye and Gebru’s faction hoped to catapult themselves into dominance by waving the banner of defending Ethiopia’s sovereignty against alleged Eritrean domination and rallying the “Greater Ethiopia nationalists” who were deeply saddened by Eritrea’s succession and the loss of Massawa and Assab ports. Gebru in his book dubiously titled “Sovereignty and Democracy” (Signature Book Printing Press 2014) self-flagellated for supposedly being misled and indoctrinated into denying the “true history of Ethiopia and Eritrea.” This is not withstanding that he had been one of the founders of TPLF and a senior member of the central committee and had fought side by side with the ELF in support of Eritrea’s independence. Gebru’s numerous speeches and writings epitomize the deep-rooted legacy of political deception of TPLF and the essence of its divide and rule policy in both provoking the war and playing the victim.
EPLF arrogantly took the bait when it responded by sending its armed forces to the conflict zone to confront the TPLF militias. The wounded Ethiopian national pride roared to life. Gebru and Seye reached the apex of political power while the lives of a million poor Ethiopians and Eritreans was turned upside down. A journalist characterized the war as “two bold men fighting over a comb.” The Amharic saying “kit gelbo ras tkenanbo’” (“Bearing your ass to cover your head”) expresses even better the idiocy of two states who could not feed their people recklessly expend so much on a war to defend national pride.
When dreams of easy military victory dissipated and the realization of unsustainable losses on both sides set in, the war crept into a stalemate. The two states were cajoled by the international community into resolving their violent conflict through binding arbitration. On December 12, 2000, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Algiers Peace Agreement. The Agreement mandated an Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) to delimit and demarcate the border “based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902, and 1908) and applicable international law.” On April 13, 2002, The Eritrea – Ethiopia Boundary Commission in a 135-page unanimous ruling, rendered its final and binding delimitation decision. Within hours, Ethiopia accepted the ruling, declaring it “fair and appropriate,” hoping Eritrea would not accept and hence stand out as intransigent. But Eritrea fully accepted the Ruling and demanded its implementation. A month later the TPLF regime reversed its position and reneged on its obligation. If Ethiopia had accepted and implemented this ruling at that time, today instead of talking about boundary demarcation, we would have been talking about more fundamental political and economic integrations between the two states.
If military victory had been attainable, Gebru and Seye, the main drivers of the war, would have remained at the helm and Meles would have been in exile or worse eliminated. The Stalemate in the savagely fought war enabled Melese zenawe to bounce back into power while Tseye and Gebru faction was purged from TPLF. Melese Instead of taking the Algiers’s accord to peacefully resolve this abominable war chose to continue it under the “no war no peace” regime. The underpinning of Meles’ “no war no peace” regime was based on the calculation that, since military victory is unattainable, he would ignore the agreement and continue with a tense military standoff without direct engagement. Ethiopia, with a hundred million population and larger resources, would be able to withstand the cost of indefinite military mobilization, while Eritrea, with a five million population and war-torn economy, would crumble. To that end he reneged on the ruling by setting conditions which would practically annul the Algiers Agreement, hence, the “no peace no war” regime came into de-facto existence. Meles’s calculations failed to take into consideration the two most important factors: the determination of the Eritrean people to persevere hardship to preserve their hard-fought independence and the burden of underdevelopment, poverty and political vulnerabilities protracted military mobilization would create on Ethiopia.
Though the UN, AU and the US were guarantors to the Algiers Agreement, they were either unwilling or unable to put pressure on Ethiopia to honor the legal and binding ruling. To make matters worse, the US and Eritrea become at a loggerhead because Eritrea would not bend to US policy in the region. Meles scored a tactical victory over Isaias. Ethiopia gained military and economic advantages as the US’s strategical ally, while Eritrea suffered isolation, sanctions and economic hardships. However, both sides lost because the “no war no peace” policy made the rift between these fraternal peoples much wider and deeper and it arrested social economic and political development the people on both sides direly needed.
Rise of amazing consensus in support of the peace overture.
TPLF’s choke hold on the Ethiopian state’s apparatus has been shattered by the popular mass uprising that has swept the country in the last three years. TEAM Abiy/Lema of OPDO became the dominant group in the EPRDF coalition. As a result, one of the main pillars of the TPLF’s policies–“no war no peace”–is being replaced by a new initiative for peace. On June 13, 2018, EPRDF Executive Committee under Dr Abiy voted 27 to 0 to accept the Algiers Peace Accord and implement the EEBC ruling without preconditions–16 years after the adjudication. Dr Abiy’s passionate speeches extolling peace, love and reconciliation has fired the long-subdued spirit of the people on both sides of the border.
Two weeks later, President Isaias came out in strong support of Dr. Abiy’s initiative. Amazingly he declared that he would send a peace delegation to Addis Ababa. For the two regimes, world renowned for their stubbornness and belligerence, to be willing to deal directly with each other without intermediary is a sea change. Both regimes have come to realize that their future existence as states depends on resolving their intractable conflicts peacefully and legally. Abiy’s initiative and Isaias’s unprecedented response resonates with the will and aspiration of both Eritrean and Ethiopian people to live side by side peacefully and fraternally.
Meanwhile, TPLF is hopelessly replaying its old tired game of political deception and divide to rule. Instead of endorsing this peace initiative and being part of the reconciliation, it is trying to derail it. In its hastily assembled central committee meeting of the TPLF held in Mekele a few days after the EPRDF EC declaration, it came out with a dubious statement[i]. On the one hand, it declared supports for the EPRDF EC decision, while on the other hand it condemned it for being hasty and lacking consultation. This despite the fact that TPLF is fully represented in the EPRDF EC and its representatives voted for the resolution. This is the usual two-faced political maneuver that TPLF pulls whenever it is in crisis.
The Ethiopian oppositions groups have wholeheartedly endorsed Abiy’s call. The only exception are some diehard nationalists who are pushing to reclaim Assab by force or/and political pressure. They reject the peace overture because they fear accepting the Algiers Agreement legitimizes the existing boundary[ii]. For many of these individuals, even after twenty-seven years, accepting Eritrea as an independent state is hard to swallow. Proponents of this line used to be a dominant faction of the opposition, particularly in diaspora, however, its ranks have withered away. Most people realize that it is not lack of ports, rather it is the lack of peace and good governance which is the existential treat to Ethiopia. The Ethiopia and Eritrea border has been resolved according to international law. Assab and Massawa should no longer be a cause for endless devastating conflict. Instead they should be economic focal points that bring together the two countries in a prosperous and enduring economic alliance.
On the Eritrean side, supporters and opponents of the regime alike, the support for the peace overture is unanimous. However, ambiguity prevails on the side of highly fractured opposition because some fear that peace would strengthen Isais’s dictatorship[iii]. This is a rather circular argument because it was the state of war which have been used as grounds to curtail civil liberty in Eritrea. The Eritrean people have persevered through economic hardship and tolerated deferment of their emancipation to preserve their hard-won independence. It is one of the main reasons why the opposition organizations failed to gain a meaningful following in the country. The Eritrean opposition, which is obsessed about splitting into factions on major and minor issues, should humble itself and learn the lesson that striving for unity, medemer, peace and reconciliation is a potent force for change. Peace is not going to solve all the mindboggling problems that beset Eritrean and Ethiopian societies but it is a fundamental requisite.
Missed opportunities to peacefully and holistically resolve the Ethio-Eritrea conflict
- 1952-1962 Federation presented Ethiopia with great opportunity: outlets to the sea, Eritrea’s modern infrastructure and Eritrean skilled labor. For the fractured and contentious Eritrean elites, between dismemberment or outright annexation, the Federation was a palatable choice. Instead of transforming Ethiopia into a constitutional monarchy by using the Eritrean liberal democratic constitution as inspiration, Haile Selassie made the arrogant and short-sighted decision to revoke the federation and reduce Eritrea into a province in his feudal empire. This unleashed a strong Eritrean nationalist rebellion and consequently an armed struggle. His response, backed with US military largesse, was mass incarceration of Eritrean youth, torture, exile and elimination of the nascent Eritrean intelligentsia. When the rebellion progressed to full-fledged armed struggle, he responded with a scorched earth policy. The cost for Ethiopia and Eritrea in term of lost opportunities in economic, political and social development is staggering. The cost Emperor Haile Selassie had to pay for his hubris was an ignominious death in the uprising of which the Eritrean struggle was a very important factor.
- 1974 Ethiopian uprising for economic democratic revolution was subverted by the derge’s coup. The response of the fascistic derge to the Eritrean struggle was dumb, arrogant, inhumane and utterly devastating. Backed with an unprecedent degree of military aid and direct involvement of the defunct Soviet Union, it aspired to annihilate the Eritrean resistance once and for all. However, the end result was its own demise at the hands of EPLF and TPLF. Again, the economic devastation, political degeneration and institutional disintegration of a protracted war led to famine, human misery and suffering of biblical magnitude.
- 1993 Eritreans in a United Nation sponsored referendum voted for their independence and Ethiopia magnanimously accepted. Eritrea became a full-fledged member state of AU and UN. It was a glorious moment. The wounds of Africa’s longest armed conflict were healing fast. Peace dividends flourished. The prestige of the two counties and their leaders sky rocketed. The economic advantages of the people’s mobility between the two states reached a high mark. But the fast pace of change and economic growth engendered a petty rivalry between the ascending power elites. The bright hope and promise of the reconstructing economies was sadly dashed when rivalry between the groups escalated to a savage senseless interstate war.
- 1998 – 2000 border war. Although it lasted only two years, the psychological and economic devastation was greater than what had proceeded it. 100,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian youths were sacrificed, over two million people on both sides were dislocated, and infrastructure and farms and industries were deliberately destroyed.
- 2000 – 2018 No peace no war regime. The last 18 years could be characterized as a period of paralysis, stagnation and disintegration of both states albeit to a different degree and consequence. The political and economic isolation of Eritrea spearheaded by the TPLF, with the aid of the US, was aimed at bringing down the EPLF regime. Until a few months ago, blog sites were filled with self-fulfilling prophesies about the eminent collapse of Eritrea and the triumph of Ethiopia. The reality proved to the contrary. It is the PFDJ which is standing while TPLF’s power base has collapsed dramatically.
- 2018 Will Abye’s peace overtures be another missed opportunity? Neither the two countries nor the region can afford another failure. Failure would be devastating. We count on the genuine mass support expressed unequivocally by the Ethiopians and Eritreans people in the last few weeks to be the guarantor for its success. In my long period of political involvement in this region, I have witnessed only a few periods of popular euphoria and unanimity of such magnitude.
Tigray is a bridge not a wedge between Ethiopia and Eritrea
The People of Tigray are the major victims of TPLF’s divide and rule policy. It has put them at loggerheads with Eritreans to the north, the Amhara to the west and south and the Afar to the east. It is a deliberate policy, sometimes dubbed as “plan B,” to make Tigray a perpetual bastion of TPLF. The objective goal of this tactic is to make the Tigray people feel vulnerable, hence, the servile support base for TPLF. The Tigrayan intelligentsia should have been able to see through these shenanigans and exposed them long time ago. Yet sadly, particularly many in the diaspora, they are being manipulated to kowtow to this abominable policy in the name of Tigray nationalism and pride.
Who has suffered more from this long drawn out conflict than the poor Tigrayans and Eritreans? Which ethnicity or region has paid more in human sacrifice, suffered more dislocation than these hapless cousins? Whose fragile farmland has been ruined by tanks and infested with mines like theirs? Whose economic potential has been more arrested? Who lived for decades under the threat of calamitous war as they have? Shouldn’t the border towns of Tigray and Eritrea be centers of thriving trade rather than sad military outposts? Who is to blame? What is to be gained? Why weren’t the people of Tigray in the forefront petitioning their leaders to end the “no war no peace” regime? Even now TPLF is trying to mischaracterize this malaise as defending Tigrayan interests.
The current love fest between Ethiopia and Eritrea is the death knell to TPLF hegemony. It is a total rejection and repudiation of their divide and rule legacy. Their posturing as defenders of Ethiopia’s sovereignty against hapless Eritrea and peacekeeper between the feuding ethnic groups of Ethiopia has been swept away by the popular tsunami that that has engulfed Ethiopia. The Ethio-Eritrea love train is the shining beacon of hope. TPLF leadershi,p instead of hopping on this love train of reconciliation and peace, are plotting to derail it. Their plans and tactics are a replay of the maneuvers that led to the 1998 border war–pretend to accept the peace process while throwing a monkey wrench into it. This time very few are duped.
The chameleon role being played by Dr. Debretsion, TPLF’s party chairman, epitomizes this stance. In his June 22nd interview, he outlined the game plan which can be summarized as: 1. We accept the EPRDF executive committee stand to unconditionally accept and implement the Algiers resolution, yet we condemn it because it is done without consultation, 2. We call for an “extended” EPRDF meeting to discuss the matter with hope of torpedoing the resolution by bringing more allies, 3. Bademe is Tigray’s issue not a national issue, TPLF, as representative of the people of Tigray, should be the leading negotiator. 4. It is a border issue; no it is sovereignty issue, 5. TPLF accepts unconditionally the Algiers’s Agreement, no we stand by the repudiated ‘five points for renegotiation’. Dr. Debretsion even went so far as saying that the Algiers Agreement is null and void. As for the party, TPLF started organizing demonstrations against the peace overtures and then made a 180-degree turn by organizing a big rally at Mekele Stadium allegedly, inter alia, to express support for peace with Eritrea. This flipflopping simply reflects the pathetic situation the one-time master of deception TPLF finds itself in today.
For TPLF peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is not about border issue or defending the interest of the people of Tigray, rather, it is about desperately hanging to power and convincing its shocked supporters that it is still relevant. Yet it is doing it the negative way. Instead of absolving itself from its predatory role in a true substantive way, it has chosen to replay its failed tricks which doesn’t even impress its ardent supporters. TPLF leadership is down but not out. They cannot ever dominate Ethiopia’s politics the way they did before, but they can surely play a disruptive role. Anyone who underestimates TPLF leadership does so at his own peril.
The main force that could effectively deal with TPLF is the people of Tigray. People of Tigray, the TPLF’s leadership policy of divide and rule is your liability. They have gained like bandits, which they are, but you are left with the liability. Their gain has come at a great lose to you today and your offspring tomorrow. It is time to see the reality with wide open eyes and take your place on the side of those who stand for lasting peace, justice and fraternity and work for common good. Choose among your bright and honorable youth to represent you in this crucial juncture of history.
Likewise, the wholesale castigation by some Eritrean and Ethiopian elites of the Tigray population for the evils perpetrated by TPLF leadership policies and actions is wrong headed as it creates an obstacle to unite all the stakeholders for peace.
Conclusion: The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea are the sole guarantors of lasting peace
I am seventy years old. I was born into Eritrean nationalism and matured in the Ethiopian struggle for social justice. I was born, grew, struggled and exiled in this tangled web of conflict. It has affected the whole of my life and most importantly my psyche. I am not an exception. My generation on both sides of the border is similarly affected. In a paper I presented to 5th Annual Ethiopian & Eritrean Friendship Forum Conference Presented by UCLA’s Habesha Student Association April 17th, 2013, I wrote. “The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is mainly rooted in the common psyche of the power elites rather than the existence of objective irreconcilable differences. The elites of Ethiopia and Eritrea share a common psyche because they share a common culture and tradition. The common psychic traits of the two power elite groups are hurt pride, beleaguered nationalism and zero-sum mentality. Eritreans and Ethiopians are one people. Sadly, and paradoxically, their common history, culture and psyche, instead of being the foundation of their unity, have become an artificial barrier between them. Particularly Eritreans and Ethiopians in their late 50s and 60s, who are the main actors in this sad drama, are deeply scarred and traumatized by the development of this conflict. Like two chess players who follow the same strategy, they have cornered themselves into a stalemate.”
We are hypnotized by the allure of intrigue, brinkmanship and elusive victory. It is hard to find many examples in human history of people who have fought so ferociously and paid so dearly in life and social development for so little like Ethiopians and Eritreans. We have lost so much in war when we could have gained abundantly in peace.
I was resigned to dying without seeing the bright days of peace and harmony between these fraternal people. That is why I feel elated when I hear a call for peace from a much younger generation reverberate in these hapless conflict-ridden communities. It is humbling to witness such unanimity in our communities on such fundamental issues. The people have spoken loudly, clearly and unequivocally that they want to coexist in peace and fraternity, to strive and surmount all difficulties and obstacles together. They have rejected the divide and rule message of TPLF.
The first stage of demolition is finished. The second stage of constructive engagement are the big challenges ahead: demarcating the border, setting policies and laws to facilitate cooperation and sharing of resources. These matters have always been the domain of the intelligentsia and power elites, played out in boardrooms out of public sight. Would the power elites proscribe their parochial interest over the interests of the people? Would they obsess over their hidden agendas and dubious ideologies or follow the will and spirit of the people? There is a strong alignment of interests and aspirations between the people and their leaders at this moment as manifested in the streets and public meetings. It should be consolidated by widening the democratic platform, by cultivating transparency, by empowering people and making their interests and well-being paramount.
It is a rare historical opportunity when rival social and political forces align to foster peace and harmony, particularly in our region. The US has also shifted its wrong-headed policy, regional forces like Saudi Arabia and UEA are amazingly helping build bridges, leaders of both countries share kinetic energy to overhaul the reign of debilitating conflict and the people are impatient for the dawn of a new era. We should all unite, “endemere,” to augment this rare historical opportunity.
It is a universal fact that though political leaders initiate change, it takes a social force to make it real. We all must engage to make this spirit of love, peace and good will endure and flourish. We should stand to those forces who try to pull us back into the quagmire of the past. Particularly my message to my generation–the conflict generation—is this: we need to introspect and to meditate to bury the legacy of schizophrenia and xenophobia and support the new generation as it embarks on a brighter future. I hope the last years of my life will be spent writing about the flourishing of peace, the unfolding of fraternity, the strong embrace of harmony and above all, writing about the triumph over poverty and human misery.
Peace and Fraternity to Ethiopian and Eritrean people!
Tariku Debretsion— Activist independent researcher and writer on matters of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea in particular