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The Moment of Truth for Eritrea and Ethiopia

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By  Dawit W Giorgis

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Dawit woldegirorgis

Celebrating the destruction of apartheid and the beginning of reconciliation Nelson  Mandela said during his inaugural speech in 1994”
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
These days we have hardly time to catch up with developments of events in Ethiopia. It is truly a historic moment and I am deeply grateful to the almighty that HE  gave me  a few more years to witness the resurgence of a united  Ethiopia. Since Weyane came to power my interest has been the survival of the nation. That is what I fought for as a soldier. That is what all my friends died for. That is what over a million troops perished during the era of Mengistu and Meles.  More died in Adowa, Maichew, Ogaden, Magdala, in Eritrea and so many other places. Our oath of allegiance has been the sanctity of the nation.   Our heroes did not perish in vain. What we do to this country is the responsibility of the young politicians who have taken the mantle of leadership. We have faith in them. It is a unanimous agreement by all Ethiopians to day that the country is saved. The sanctity the integrity of Ethiopia has been enshrined in all the speeches of or PM Abiy Ahmed. He is indeed a great leader who is taking out Ethiopia from the brinks. He listens, he is articulate, he gives credit, he is not pretentious, he is deeply religious, he communicates certainly, he is bold, he uses empathy, he is calm and he has the  big picture in mind, in other words he is visionary.
Yesterday he surprised all Ethiopians again by addressing what has seemed a complicated relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In his simplicity and sincerity he achieved what has eluded Meles and the Weyane for whatever reason. He showed us that reconciliation is possible and can happen. What Ethiopians and Eritreans were waiting for was the right leadership.
In South Africa it was reconciliation between four distinct different people of color culture and language that made it possible for SA to exist as a country of many shades of color and ethnicity. Through leaders like Mandela it was made possible. The genocide in Rwanda was an end point of an evolution with a past history of hostility between Hutus and Tutsis. The impact of the violence was enormous and profoundly affected every person in Rwanda. Today these people have become once again    through a reconciliation process, which is working because of the right leadership. The conflicts, which ravaged the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995 where over 140000 people, were killed has ended in a bitter divorce.  Heinous war crimes ethnic cleansing and other kinds of crimes characterized the war. The conflicts left deep scars.  The former Yugoslavia split into Bosnia and Herzegovinian, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo. They have been through a process of reconciliation with he help of NATO, EU and the USA.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have each other only and no other. Their strength is in their history and the ties that have bound them for centuries. Every other country that intervenes in the relationship of the two countries comes with an agenda of its own which most of the times are not to the best interest of the two peoples. These are people who have a common destiny in the real sense. Whatever happens in any of the two countries directly affects the other. Insecurity in Ethiopia is insecurity in Eritrea and vice versa. Each realizes that with peaceful coexistence they can prosper more economically. And above all there are no people on earth who have a common culture, language religion and history as Ethiopians and Eritreans. Politicians often try to ignore this fact because it does not serve their political agenda in a given time.
I have been in the Sudan where there are hundreds of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian refuges. They are one and they call themselves ‘habeshas’. I established the Eritrean and Ethiopian Association of Refugees so that it should make it easier for them to get funds and also enable them to protect their rights as refugees. They live together they eat together, they consult and live like families. They dare the Sahara and the Mediterranean together and they succeed or perish together.  I believe that this association is no more there. Eritreans and Ethiopians were one and are one. It is only the politics of the times that separated them and eventually ended up in the separation of Eritrea.
I am not an Eritrean but many people think that I am. This is because of my passion for Eritrea and Eritreans. When I graduated from a three year military training at the HS 1st military academy I was sent to airborne and special force training and immediately after I was assigned to Eritrea, Mayhaber, as a second lieutenant, 34 kms outside Asmara, the head quarter of the 34th infantry battalion.  It seems centuries ago but I was there a year before the federation was dissolved.  I got my first salary in Eritrea. I began living on my own in Eritrea. I started socializing drinking smoking in Eritrea. My first responsibility as a career training and operation officer started in Eritrea.  I had my first combat experience in Eritrea. My first friends as an adult are all Eritreans. My first girl friend was an Eritrean, My career and my personal life started in Eritrea.
There were not lots of conflicts then.  I worked with Eritreans closely. There were no Them and We. We were all one. Eritreans are hard working people and people who talk straight. In political awareness they were a little ahead of the rest of Ethiopians because they were exposed to Italian and British occupation, the UN referendum and a federal arrangement that was alien to the rest of Ethiopia then.
After seven years in Eritrea I left Eritrea with a heavy heart. Mayhaber, Dequmehari, Agordat, Keren and Asmara where I have lived left inedible marks in my memories. Those are the memories that cannot be erased. In my book ‘Kihdet Be Dem Meret’ I have one chapter that deals with Eritreans who have taught us Ethiopiawinet.  I wrote about the several patriots who fought with Ras Imiru and others in the 5-year war of resistance against Italian occupation. Strange as it may seem Eritrea was the center of everything that was Ethiopia. How this center shifted to the margins and ended in bitter divorce has been sufficiently recorded. The times when I served as an officer was impossible to imagine that Eritrea would eventually separate from Ethiopia. I was only a junior officer then but if our leaders then have been a little far sighted and understood that the accumulating anger would eventually explode and lead to a 30-year war and finally independence of Eritrea, they might have used a different approach both politically and militarily.
When I came back again as Governor after 10 years, the situation had changed dramatically because of the militaristic approach of Mengsistu.  The war was intense and widespread. It was heart breaking to see those proud dignified people forced to flee their homes in search of security. The cities were gripped with fear and insecurity.  (Read Red Tears for details) This was the most challenging and testing times of my life. I had the full authority to do whatever I wanted except interference in the military operations. That was not within my mandate though I was consulted. I am proud that I was guided more by my conscience and rule of law not politics or vindictiveness.  I saw myself as another   human being trying to do my beset to alleviate suffering under difficult circumstances.  Eritreans of all ages remember that period as a moment of respite.  What happened after I left are all recorded though some are distorted depending upon the sources? But what cannot be denied was that there was too much blood and too much suffering on both sides. The coming of Weyane and the declaration of indepdence did not solve it either.  The Badme war was named as the silliest war in contemporary history of Africa. It was a very unnecessary war that cost too many lives and put the two countries on a permanent state of war for over 20 years.
Weyane wanted that. The calculation was simple and brutal. Divide Ethiopia with ‘Kilils’, make Badme a national issue, and make sure that Eritrea feels that war can break out any time in a way that it will drain its economy. Along with this Meles had a strategy to prolong instability in Somalia and create a crisis the region  in a way that will make Ethiopia look like it is the most stable country in the region. Indeed that worked for a while.
In 2009 I wrote an article titled The Way Forward for Eritrea and Ethiopia:
“The history of Ethiopia has been about winners and leaders. It was so during the times of the monarchies, was so during the time of the Dergue, and has been so now. Our genuine historians had to dig a lot to bring the truth out and popularize it. It has not been an easy task. Once again, Woyanne is rewriting history. Great weight must be given to the damage that will be caused on the younger generation if we allow this distortion to continue unabated. At some point, it might have served a purpose, but now that we are talking about the two people living and working together, we have to design a relationship between the people that will facilitate the truth to be told. The two people have been one and need to be one for more than one reason. With truth there will be no losers but winners. Our destinies are inextricably tied to each other. Those of us who have lived long enough know and understand the truth but the new generation is exposed to the history of denial.  The truth will only make us stronger in pursuing our common interest. Emotions must subside and give way to pragmatism. We have to work very closely with our Eritrean brothers and sisters to get rid of Woyane and establish a new era of peaceful co existence, common prosperity that will lead to a reunion of our people. Reunion not necessarily of governments but a reunion that will  enable the two people to live in peace and work for common prosperity. Such kind of lofty objectives must start at grass roots level, at community levels  by educating and informing people. “

I have met President Isaias  times before the independence of Eritrea. We had also our casual moments when both the TPLF and EPLF were pushing towards the capital in 1991. I asked him what he thinks of Melees. He told me that he would not be the right leader for Ethiopia. He cannot govern such big country. ‘Not even Makele’ he said. I was surprised and I followed up with another question. ‘Then why do you allow such a man to move to Addis Ababa? Why don’t you take over the whole of Ethiopia with Eritrea? Ethiopians will accept you as their leader of a united country and my colleagues and myself will immediately change our organization in support of this.”  It was my belief then  that this would be one way of saving the unity of Ethiopia. There were other Eritrean officials then and I was accompanied by my good friend Sileshi Feseha.  He took a few seconds because he answered. I guess he was surprised by the question, He told me firmly that the EPLF was not established for this agenda. The struggle was for the liberation of Eritrea and it would be impossible to change this agenda at this late hour but he said:
“You can be certain Mr. Dawit, that if and when we get our independence, our priority will be to unite the people under some sort of federal arrangement.”
After the independence of Eritrea and after the relationship between Meles and Isyaias went sour I have met his deputies and officials on several occasions to discuss how we can bring peace in the region. I take this opportunity to state that as far as I am concerned the Eritrean government has been very honest, straightforward and did cooperate with me since the 1989-aborted coup. I had gone to Naqfa with my colleagues to coordinate the operation, when the war between the government and EPLF was waging despite the advise of my friends not to do so. I have been a proponent of unity all my life up to the point Eritrea became independent. To date we worked with mutual respect and sincere cooperation. Though I was not representing any political organization I had found it very important to have a continuous dialogue with them to catch up and exchange ideas.  In this they have been extremely cooperative even when I sometimes write articles that are harsh on their policies.
To be behind the frontline and enter into an agreement, that does not include scission, was not an easy task. Up to that point we were openly discussing unity under some sort of federal arrangement. I never accepted independence until it happened, President Isaias  and his leadership accepted my position and despite that hosted me in Nagfa. I am grateful for that and the numerous encounters I had with them to advance the struggle for freedom justice equity in Ethiopia. At every point they have been extremely cooperative.  I am quiet sure I will go to Asmara to extend this gratitude personally to the government of Eritrea and President Isayiyas personally.
PM Abiy has surprised all of us. No political pundit could have predicted what we see today. The two leaders can change the dynamics between the two countries and the entire geo politics of the region. We hope that they get all the wisdom.
In my article on The Way Forward for Eritrea and Ethiopia I have detailed my opinion. Some issues might be outdated but the fundamental principles for peaceful coexistence have been outlined. The usual adversaries did not like it then but they dissented with respect. One was my Mr. Saleh Gadih Johar who is opposed to Isayiyas and has been close to Meles for sometime. He is a prolific write and commentator. He had this to say on me:
“I would like to note that I have heard good things about Shaleqa Dawit Wolde Giorgis1; many people characterize him as intelligent and human. I read Dawit’s two books, ‘Red Tears’ and ‘Kihidet Bedem Meret.’  I spoke to him on the phone twice, briefly, and I can confirm that I sensed humility and intelligence in his tone. Of Dawit’s tenure in Eritrea in the eighties, it is said that he saved many lives, that he installed a few pressure valves to control his regime’s brutality. I am sure all those whose lives he saved are grateful to him, and he deserves credit for being a rare embodiment of compassion within the ranks of the otherwise monstrous Dergue regime.”   Saleh Gadih Johar of (Negarit) Ten he had scatting remarks for what I have said and I have not. It was not fair because he wanted to take thus opportunity to write about some perceptions that dwell in the minds of p elites he blames for the state Eritrea is in.
I hope Saleh and his colleagues and other oppositions to the Eritrean government will see this as an opportunity for change within as it did in Ethiopia and will come out in the open and endorse this new beginning of peaceful co existence that would lead to economic cultural religious integration, that would allow both people to travel freely across boundaries and allow each other’s facilities for mutual benefits. As is well known the major problem in perpetuating some harsh policies in Eritrean domestic politics was the state of war between the two countries, which was not officially abandoned. Now that it is being abandoned and the issue that led to the war and to the hostility will no more be there, it is hoped that a new era will begin in Eritrea as well. When both countries rise up to the challenges of democracy and freedom of expression then they can both grow in peace and in harmony in an otherwise complicated region.
A week ago I published an article on the website of the Africa Institute for Strategic and Security Studies nettled “ The Iran Saudi Rivalry and the Scramble for the Horn: (www.africaisss.or)  (AISSS) As I collected information to prepare this rather long paper I was shocked as to what extent the region, the Greater Horn. Has become of   interest to others particularly the powers in the Middle East, Europe, China and America. Certainly the Greater Horn has become the most militarized region in the world; it needs farsighted leaders who operate with wisdom and a great sense of responsibility to their respective countries to the region and to the continent.  From what I saw yesterday in the warm exchanges between PM  Abiy and the delegation of Eritrea, I believe the time has come. For PM Abiy to breach protocol and go to the airport to greet the minster Osman Saleh and Presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab, there must be a serious commitment to the cause and a message he wants to send  to bring the two countries to the greatest height of hope.
It is the moment of truth