Ethiopian and Eritrean scholars took turns to lay the blame for the separation of the Ethiopian and Eritrean people on dictatorial rulers and extremist “liberation fronts” that took secession as the only viable solution to a complex problem. Speaking at the Ethiopian and Eritrean Friendship Conference in San Jose, California, which was held from March 12-14, panelists and members of the public emphasized the need to start a process of healing, renewal and normalization of people to people relations as the feeling of enmity were created and fuelled by succeeding rulers and elites that never represent the interests and desires of their people.
Opening the conference, Dr Worku Negash, who moderated the dialogue without taking sides on behalf of the Stanford Ethiopian Forum, noted that the unique gathering was a beginning in the right direction to normalize the toxic relations between Ethiopians and Eritreans, who have been through so much conflicts and pains due to their tragic past.
Eritrean Professor Mesfin Araya of City University of New York said that the Eritrean middle class that blindly rallied around Isaias Afeworki and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front committed a “collective suicide in post-independence Eritrea.”
He noted that even during the Eritrean referendum, there had never been a public debate on the available options to resolve the Eritrean question. “It was merely the EPLF’s agenda that was carried out with TPLF. The intellectual class never demanded a public debate over the cost and benefits of independence,” he said.
According to Professor Mesfin, the Eritrean intelligentsia should particularly take the responsibility for sheepishly allowing the political class led by the EPLF to impose its narrow will and opt for the territorial independence of Eritrea without involving and consulting the people. “Spinelessly, the intellectual class backed EPLF actions to support the referendum in the total absence of democratic debates.” The Professor, who was bluntly honest, pointed out that it would be logical to argue that the Eritrean referendum was not really authentic.
Professor Mesfin also questioned the motive and wisdom of the Eritrean business class to opt for separation in spite of the fact that a significant number of its members had comfortable lives and thriving businesses within Ethiopia since the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. “Normally, one would expect that the Eritrean business class, driven by self-interest, would seek a bigger and expanding market. Why they have chosen to confine themselves to a much narrower market is incomprehensible.” The professor went on to say that the business and intellectual classes in post-independence Eritrea ended up paying a heavy price because of their myopic miscalculations.
“Monopolizing business activities, EPLF has almost wiped out the Eritrean business class. The wealthy Eritrean business people of the good old days are no more there,” he said. Professor Mesfin underscored the fact that those Eritrean intellectuals and business people, who had given unwarranted support to independence, have now been losers confronting a crisis of hegemony as well as political, economic and social problems in liberated Eritrea under Isaias Afeworki, who has turned the nation into a pariah state.
The professor pointed out that the Horn of Africa, which has been facing cyclic tyranny and poverty, has a potential to unify gradually on condition that the sub-region is free from destructive and divisive tyrannies. For that to happen, according to Professor Mesfin, the intellectual class need to reflect on its past mistakes and develop the capacity to “dream big and beautiful” to reconcile with its tragic past and envision a better future for generations to come.
Another Eritrean scholar, Professor Tesfatsion Medhanie, who teaches politics and law at Bremen University, Germany, on his part tried to analyse why Ethiopia and Eritrea were separated and how they can start a process of reunification that can lead up to federation. According to him, the main cause of the conflict between the Ethiopian state and Eritrean nationalists was mainly a result of the decision taken by Emperor Haile Selassie to dissolve Eritrea’s federal status in 1962.
The professor went on to claim that the ruling elites, both in Ethiopia and Eritrea, were not ready for rational solutions as they held extremist views akin to Manichaeism, which sees the world as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Professor Tesfatsion identified the current rulers of both nations as tyrannical that did not even allow popular debates and dialogues on the question of Eritrea. He also admitted the fact that the separation of Eritrea was not done in a legitimate and just manner but emphasized that people have to accept the current reality.
While TPLF sees itself as the champion of Eritrean independence but with a sinister motive, the EPLF, backed by the TPLF, has taken an unscientific view that claimed that the Ethio-Eritrean problem was a colonial issue. Professor Tesfatsion said that both Eritreans and Ethiopians, who have suffered a great deal as a result of their terrible history of conflict and hostility, need to make efforts to treat and understand one another with “deep sense of sympathy.” He also lambasted Ethiopian opposition groups who naively believe that Eritrean dictator Isaias Afeworki would genuinely help liberate Ethiopia. He said it was insensitive on the part of some Ethiopian groups and individuals who have gone to the extent of naming the Eritrean tyrant Isaias Afeworki person of the year.
The professor said that Ethiopians and Eritreans, should the pre-conditions be fulfilled, need to consider an “open confederation” that can lead to reunion based on a fair federal arrangement.
Historian Dr Daniel Kindie, argued that federation, in stead of confederation, was much more plausible than confederation given the history of the two nations. Dr Daniel laced his argument with a historical context by emphasizing on the root causes of tensions and conflicts that were deliberately created and sustained by colonial powers especially the British Empire that has deliberately sowed deadly divisions and conflicts among the people of Africa.
One of the founders of the Tigray People Liberation Front, Dr. Aregawi Berhe, who resides in The Hague and is currently a researcher at Leiden University, spoke about the “horrendous looting and plundering” being committed by Meles Zenawi and his cronies. According to Dr. Aregawi, the main obstacles for peace, reconciliation and unity in the Horn of Africa are the ruthless rulers robbing and messing up the poor people.
He said that the most important precondition for co-operation and reconciliation between the oppressed people of Ethiopia and Eritrea is freedom. “Under these dictatorial regimes, neither confederation nor federation can be viable alternatives,” he noted.
Executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, Obang Metho took the podium and delivered a rousing speech that touched the hearts of so many people. After talking about his own experience of being treated differently by fellow Ethiopians because of the colour of his skin, Obang highlighted the need to focus more on our humanity than ethnic origins, commonness rather than differences as people of one nation.
Obang pointed out that there was an urgent need for healing among Ethiopians and Eritreans who have been subjected to extremely traumatic suffering and bloodshed. He said that people should go through four phases of transitions: awareness of the truth, transformation, healing and embracing one another with wholehearted compassion and forgiveness.
Jawar Mohammed talked about the need to challenge tyranny through nonviolence, which has proven to be a potent force of change across the world. In a well-articulated presentation, he forcefully advocated that opposition groups need to adapt nonviolent struggle as a means to bring about change in Ethiopia. According to Jawar, nonviolent strategies and tactics have yet to be employed to mobilize people to confront and disobey those who are abusing them in a well-coordinated and systematic manner.
On my part, I emphasized on the need to confront the truth to start a process of healing and reconciliation as well as taking Ethio-Eritrean initiatives at grassroots levels that can deepen trust and eventually help rebuild the broken bridges and bonds between the two nations.
Other panelists and members of the public lined up to speak out their divergent views on issues related to Ethio-Eritrean relations and the prevailing realities in the two nations. While the majority of participants have expressed their delight with the start of such a unique dialogue which can eventually lead to repair the damage done on Ethio-Eritrean relations, there were also few suspected supporters of the TPLF who exhibited their lack of civility and intolerance to freedom of expression. A couple of them were seen hurling tantrums, shaking their fists and pulling out their hairs in a futile bid to intimidate participants, including myself, from expressing honest views. Despite all that, the conference was concluded without any serious incident and renewed hope for a better future.
At the conclusion of the three-day conference, special plaques were presented to Professor Tesfatsion Medhanie and Dr. Daniel Kindie for their extraordinary effort to promote peace and reconciliation between Eritreans and Ethiopians. Other members of the panel were also awarded certificates of commendations.