By Aklilu Wendaferew
March 3, 2014
Over the last two months, a number of prominent US former officials have put forward ideas and recommendations to solve the not-yet-resolved “Ethio-Eritrea conflict”.
Foremost among them are Ambassador Herman Cohan who was quoted writing “ Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold”, Ambassador David Shinn who wrote: “ Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold; but It’s Harder than it Sounds) and Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who observed with a hope: “Previous attempts to ‘bring Eritrea in from the cold’ have proved difficult, but we should still try” as noted in (African Arguments ) journal.
It is not clear whether the open engagement of the three diplomats suggests a renewed interest by the US government or whether the interest is initiated by Asmara, European capitals or any other source.
Regardless of its origin, however, this issue has now attracted the interest of many stakeholders ranging from the rulers in Addis Ababa and Asmara to Ethiopian scholars, the opposition and concerned citizens at home and in the Diaspora.
In this article, leaving the legal, economic and political arguments to the experts in their respective fields, I will raise few issues related to the psychological and social dimension of the conflict which, I believe, requires serious attention in order to minimize (or bring to an end) current or future conflict in the region.
Political alienation, elite appeasement and conflict
A quick look at the situation surrounding the Ethio- Eritrean war in 1998 may suggests a conflict that arose as a result of economic issues and a sudden incursion of the EPLF’s army into Tigray. However, a closer examination reveals another deep rooted dimension.
One of those factors in this regard is the alienation of the Ethiopian public as well as many of the then key stake holders from participating meaningfully in the very process that gave today’s Eritrea to Issayas Afewerki and his party EPLF. Alienations in this regard is defined as the exclusion from the rightful exercise of decision making process and political power.
This alienation was at the basis of anger and resentment which was expressed in different forms. The anger of the public was expressed through protest rally both within Ethiopia and in Diaspora. The repressed sense of anger in particulate within the TPLF leadership which manifested in many different forms reached its climax when the EPLF army occupied Badme and asked for concession.
For the Meles Zenawi led TPLF/EPRDF and EPLF, Eritrea was an Ethiopian colony. Because of this erroneous belief imposed as constitution, the Ethiopian public was completely excluded from the process of determining the fate of an Ethiopian province – Eritrea! The voices of citizens outside of Eritrea were not heard – period! An, overwhelming number of the opposition had clearly contested the legitimacy of the referendum process. At the time, opinion makers including religious leaders, community elders and many others had spoken against the process as well as the result of the said referendum. Regardless of the public protest and public outcry, all the secret dealings and decision making process was confined to a selected few within the TPLF/EPRDF and the EPLF.
Under a true democratic system, such an issue of major consequence as creating a separate country would have been an issue for voters to decide. This would also have been an issue to invoke a vote of confidence on the ruling TPLF/EPRDF regime. However, given the absence of democracy in the country, no such opportunity was available then nor it is available today for the Ethiopian public to exercise.
At the time, the western powers that came with a huge influence on the rebel forces chose to follow a policy of appeasement literally going along with the desire of Meles and Issayas with very little consideration for the consequence of their earth shattering change of policy. They also failed to consider alternative policy proposals put forward by members of the then major opposition coalition COEDF on peaceful resolution of the conflict in Eritrea.
In the last few years, a number of former high ranking officials including the former PM Tamrat Layne have publicly stated that they too were not part of the decision making process when it came to the secession of Eritrea. According to PM Tamrat, the late PM Meles Zenawi, without any mandate, prior consultation of or assent to by others within his party (TPLF) and members of the coalition (EPRDF), was the sole decision maker on-behalf of Ethiopia.
The above confirms the fact that the decision process alienated not only the public and the opposition, but also many within the ranks of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF.
The former defense Minister Seye Abraha and the former president Dr Negaso Gidada have expressed their regret for being part of a process that endorsed the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia. The above suggests a sense of guilt and resentment brewing in the minds of these former officials.
In his book “Liberty and the dispensation of justice in Ethiopia” ነጻነት እና ዳኝነት በኢትዮጵያ“ Seye Abraha a defense minister at the time of the Ethio- Eritrean war expressed this deeply held anger and the desire to redress the guilt of abandoning responsibility in relation to Eritrea as follows “The Eritreans were clearly the dominant military power in the Horn. “They were vying for political, economic and diplomatic concessions from their neighbors,” observes Seye. The imperative to regain Ethiopia’s military preeminence, a dominant heritage of the region, was quickly agreed upon by all the leaders of the TPLF — save one. “Only Meles took exception” ( “Liberty and the dispensation of justice in Ethiopia” ነጻነት እና ዳኝነት በኢትዮጵያ“ Seye Abraha as quoted by Eskinder Nega | August 27, 2010 http://www.ethiomedia.com/absolute/3682.html )
What happened in 1993 was not conducted through the participation of the Ethiopian public. It was not done through competition of ideas or compromise as would be the case in similar situations elsewhere. Decision in this case was made by a non-representative tiny elite within TPLF and EPLF supported and/or facilitated by foreign powers. This is very similar to the decision-making process of the colonial era which was concerned with the appeasement of few on the top of the political hierarchy.
As a result, in my opinion, this process is seen as illegitimate by vast majority of the Ethiopian people including, an increasing number within the ruling TPLF/EPRDF. Hence, both the process and the end result of the “Eritrean independence” are rejected by a very significant number of Ethiopians as well as Ethiopian political parties.
From the perspective of the Ethiopian public therefore, the basis of the Ethio-Eritrean conflict originates in the illegitimate process that gave today’s Eritrea to Issayas Afewerki and the EPLF.
Therefore, any conflict resolution effort that does not take such facts into account or that shies away from confronting this reality will fail to address one of the root causes of the conflict. A negotiation process that pushes Ethiopia to accept an already constructed “solution”, as variously suggested by Mr. Cohen, will also continue to suffer lack of acceptability by the Ethiopian public.
A meaningful conflict resolution must adopt a people centered approach focusing on engaging the public, the opposition political parties, civic society groups, religious groups and the elders in a meaningful way. Any “negotiation or agreement” that continues to alienate stake holders will undoubtedly fail to gain meaningful respect therefore creating a fertile ground for a protracted conflict.
Respect for identity and the choice of the inhabitants of the land
In a conflict such as the Ethio-Eritrean war, the issue of identity is a major collective psychological need that cannot be just wished and pushed away; or just put aside. As variously argued by many social psychologists, doing so, will almost always result in a strong and often violent social reaction (Kelman 2008, Psychology & Society 20111, Vol. 4, P76).
In this regard, key among the many issues within the context of the Ethio- Eritrean conflict are the history, identity as well as the desire of the inhabitants such as the Afar, the people of Irob and possibly others who see themselves as Ethiopians, not Eritreans.
As the highly distinguished Ethiopian elder and leader Bitwoded AliMirah Hanfare once said, “Even our camels know how to follow the Green, Yellow and Red flag … Even our camels salute the Ethiopian flag”.
The same can be said about and is true for the inhabitants of the territories and settlements around Zalanbessa and Badme. As reported by the Amharic weekly – Ethiopian Reporter, the People of Irob have and continue to say: “We will not accept the decision of the Border Commission. We will die in our land, unless we all perish, our land will not be given away” (The Irob people, The Ethiopian Reporter (Amharic) June 23, 2003, as quoted by and excerpted from one of Dr Gelawdios Araya’s article”.
The uniqueness surrounding this specific issue is the fact that, while the residents of the contested regions feel that they are Ethiopians, the rest of Ethiopia also believes that they are indeed fully Ethiopians deserving and calling for an Ethiopian sovereign protection.
Such an alignment of solidarity, common identity, common destiny and the sense of oneness and belongingness to the land will continue to be the source fire and resilient resistance against the breakup from Ethiopia and the imposition of new identity.
Historically, the relationship between EPLF and the Afar, Kunama, Irob, and other ethnic groups is characterized by enmity, fear, distrust and persistent tension. This reality has continued after EPLF took full control of Eritrea. This has increased the sense of insecurity among the population. Today there is organized armed resistance against the government in Asmara. This absence of fundamental harmony is a major contributing factor for an ongoing conflict.
In this context, meaningful conflict resolution looks at how unjust and oppressive leadership (of Meles and Issaya ) caused the inception and escalation of conflict and what could be done to address this source of the conflict from perpetrating Trans-Generational conflict.
Given this fact, one cannot move forward into a durable peace without addressing and resolving such legitimate claims and aspirations mentioned above. Any “normalization” that starts by re affirming what Meles and Issayas agreed upon disregarding the desire and identity of residents of the contested regions will add to the feeling of injustice and continue to risk extending the conflict.
Conflict resolution that truly seeks durable solution would underline the need to consider the historical, cultural, political, economic, socio and psychological factors and respect the identity and the wish of the inhabitants of the contested territories.
National humiliation leads to the desire for revenge
A number of psychological and social studies show that Emotions are among the central dynamics contributing to intractable conflict at an individual, communal, national and international level.
A psychologist Evelyn Lindnre defines humility as follows: “Humility is an enforced lowering of a person or a group, a process of subjugation that damage or strips away their pride, honor or dignity. To be humiliated is to be placed against your will often in a deeply hurtful way. In a situation that is greatly inferior to what you feel you should expect. Humiliation entails demeaning treatment that transgresses established expectation. The victim is forced in to passive, acted upon and/or made helpless”. (Lindnre 2002).
Ethiopians are very proud people. Our victorious history in the battles of Adwa, Dogale, Maychew, Walwal etc, show how Ethiopians feel about their national identity and sovereignty. A much similar pride and strong national feeling was also demonstrated during the Somali invasion in the 1960’s and in the mid- 1970’s.
Emperor Tewdros was said to have asked his foreign visitors, and this should remain one of the sources of pride in our past patriotic rulers, to wash their shoes at the border ostensibly before they left Ethiopia. This meant he did not want them to leave the country not even with a miniscule amount of Ethiopian soil.
When it comes to the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, despite what the dominant group within the ruling elite want us to believe, Ethiopians feel humiliated and their dignity and national pride robbed and thrashed.
This sense of collective degradation felt by Ethiopians in relation to the issue of Ethio-Eritrea is not just a function of perception but a result of tangible events. Let’s visit some of these objective facts or tangible events.
- The present generation of Ethiopians feel humiliated because this is the first generation in our history to “voluntarily“ give up territory for which their ancestors fought so hard. Ethiopians feel even confused and angry that it was an “Ethiopian” government which facilitated the separation by asking the world body (the UN) to legitimatize this historical betrayal and injustice against Ethiopia.
- Ethiopians feel that the 1993 referendum and that saw an independent Eritrea lop-sided for it miserably failed to reflect the interests of Ethiopia. Ethiopians feel this way rightly so as their interest was not fairly represented by any one at the “negotiation table. Meles Zenawi who exclusively engineered, managed and facilitated the separation process, was seen as advocate of Eritrea than a protector of Ethiopians interest. From the very beginning, Ethiopians were silenced from expressing their thoughts and feelings about the issue of Eritrea’s separation. Those who attempted to express their thoughts (example: students of Addis Abebe University) were gunned down and silenced.
- Hence, whenever the issue of Eritrea is raised, Ethiopians feel that they have been robbed of their national pride. This has left a serious sense of hurt, betrayal and anguish in the mind of an overwhelming majority of Ethiopians.
- To add insult to injury shortly after EPLF established its political power in Asmara, Ethiopians were forced to send delegates to Asmara to “apologize” for all the “wrongs” Ethiopia had done against Eritrea. This was a highly offensive and humiliating experience for Ethiopians collectively. I have no doubt that even those who support the ruling EPRDF/TPLF feel humiliated when they remember that their country was subjected to such a depth of humiliation. This feeling of humiliation is now commonly shared by a large number of Ethiopians.
- Over all, there was no reciprocal recognition of Ethiopians as humans with emotion who deserve to be treated with dignity. In the eyes of the EPLF and its champion Meles, the rest of Ethiopians were seen as “unreasonable oppressors” and subjected to a barrage of action full of contempt and relentless ridicule.
There is ample evidence that can be cited in history which shows the deep connection between shame and humiliation, on one side, and the continuation of conflict, on the other. A number of studies on Somalia, Rwanda, Serbia, Palestine and Israel show the connection between humiliation, desire to revenge and the ongoing violence. The examples of Palestine, Ireland etc show that where humiliation and sense of unfairness has taken place, future generations become more aggressive and violent to restore their real and/or perceived national pride.
In the case of Ethiopia too, the psychological trauma, shame and humiliation the Ethiopian people are subjected to, sows the seed for the Trans Generational conflict to continue.
In my opinion, any lasting peace in the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict requires addressing this psychological wound inflicted on Ethiopians. No matter who is in power, a settlement that does not address these all- encompassing humiliation and deep sense of betrayal cannot secure a lasting peace.
This involves accepting the fact that there a number of issues that were imposed disregarding the wishes and aspirations of the Ethiopian people, validating and acknowledging the basic legal and historical claims of Ethiopians and showing the willingness to address these issues in a mutually amicable way. Until such time that meaningful practical actions are taken to restore issues related to the dignity of Ethiopians, the deep rooted collective shame and desire for revenge will continue and manifest itself in many ways.
To summarize, an agreement between the rulers on both sides of the Mereb River, which does not take into account the historical, legal rights, social and psychological aspects may bring a very short relief but the fundamentals for an ongoing conflict will prevail. This will perpetuate the sense of injustice, anger and desire for revenge both by the current and future generations.
Breaking the cycles of violence requires a framework and vision for a more meaningful and comprehensive resolution by raising many of the difficult questions and addressing them with the full engagement of key stakeholders. Doing so requires acknowledgement that the focus of conflict resolution should move from imposition of illegitimate, unjust decisions to fairness, inclusiveness and the desire to listen to the wish of the people.
Understanding the social and psychological dimensions of conflict provides a window in to the complex condition that gives birth to and sustains conflicts. Such insight will also provide an opportunity for decision makers to develop strategy in order to decrease the likelihood of violent Trans-Generational conflict.
In my opinion, history is once again providing opportunity to right the wrong and to save the people and the region from a costly continued conflict. Whether the powers to be use this moment to engender collective greatness and lasting peace or squander it once again remains to be seen.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com