There are two major issues that have come to the surface that are consuming Eritrean writers in the Internet. These are the land tenure and holding system and the working language issues in current Eritrea. These issues sometimes take the cover of religious overtones overlaid with highland (Tigrinya) versus lowland (the rest) dichotomy. This short paper is a modest proposal that may enhance the debate and may refocus the issue to the concepts of the rule of law.
Many believe that the ratified constitution mishandled these two issues -- land and language. Right now, whether the ratified constitution did a disservice or not is a moot point since the constitution never saw the daylight.
I believe that land should not be monopolized by the state, otherwise it is tantamount to condemning the people to slavery. The ratified constitution failed Eritreans big time on this cardinal issue. In essence, the very constitution that is supposed to defend the respect of the rule of law violated the respect of property rights. As they say, property is the foundation of liberty.
As to the working language of Eritrea we have to get rid of all backward inhibitions and adopt English as the working language. There is much writing and rightly so about the Tigrnyazation of Eritrea. It reminds me of the dark days of the attempt of Amharanization of Eritrea during the last years of the Federation era. We hated it and we did all kinds of disobedience to show our displeasure. This is akin to those who are displeased right now with the wide use of Tigrinya to the exclusion of other Eritrean languages. It is downright oppression. There are no two ways about it.
It becomes paramount to the Tigrinya native speakers to be sensitive of this issue and be in the forefront to come up with a proposal of a working language of Eritrea that is amicable and equitable to all Eritreans. It is for that and other reasons, I am proposing for a serious study of the use of the English language as the working language of Eritrea.
The religion issue though a very significant one is a periphery to the two other major topics -- land and language. Still, sometimes the debate on the language and land issues appear to be a camouflage for the matter of religious tolerance or intolerance in Eritrea. I believe like all other secular Eritreans we should strictly follow the separation of religion and state. Respect of freedom of religion should be guaranteed unconditionally for all religions. This include what the PFDJ refers too as traditional religions in Eritrea and also all Christian religions that are in competition with the Tewahdo church. This is despite the fact that by upbringing and culture, I belong to and love the Tewahdo church. I also believe that the Tewahdo church is an Eritrean institution that survived and sustained traditions, cultures, learning, compassion and tolerance for centuries. It is foolhardy to assume that this Eritrean icon now suddenly needs the support and the protection of the atheist PFDJ. This is just a hogwash and its intent is nothing but to create division and confusion among the people. As to politicization of religion, I believe that we summarily should disallow any people that try to organize themselves as a political party around religion for the sole aim to seize political power be it through the ballot or otherwise.
As to the land issue, the PFDJ resorted back to its ideological roots and is doing what all socialists have done in history -- nationalize all land. When it comes to apportionment of the land, there is one major difference in its handling from the way regular vanilla style socialists handle apportionment. The PFDJ does not leave the land to be solely in the hand of the state, rather depending on the situation sometimes it apportions the land to the highest bidder. That is to people with dollars or other hard currencies. It is a mafia style - in essence we have a Mafia-Socialism system. This is the theoretical underpinning of the issue. That is also one of the main reasons that at times I get a lot of terror and nightmare when I smell socialism in the writings and practices of some in the opposition.
Back to the land grabbing practical issue: This is happening now in a very pronounced way in the lowlands. I condemn it unconditionally and categorically. It should be rejected outright. What is missing in the writings is though that this land grabbing has been going on from the get go, from the time the EPLF set foot in Asmara, in all the villages of the outskirts of Asmara -- in the surrounding areas of Asmara broadly defined as Kebabi. These are areas settled by the currently much maligned followers of the Tewahdo church and speakers of the Tigrinya language. Talk about the might of the dollar and other hard currencies, it is in these areas where the concept of market price compensation for properties nationalized by the state is due to the owners of the properties went down the drain. This is a violation of the respect of property rights. I also wonder who the buyers of these properties are -- or may I say who the accomplices and enablers of the thieves are? To my knowledge, not a single article was written defending the rights of the Kebabi villagers. I do not hail from these villages, nor am I from Hamasien, lest I be accused of favoritism. I am only highlighting the double standards and the hypocrisy on the part of some quarters. In fact, sometimes the plight of the Kebabi villagers is dismissed by insinuating that they are supporters of the regime, blanket accusation and categorization without doing any serious study. A sin in a system that respects the rule of law.
As to the working language issue, we know that Tigrinya is not a language that has tremendous literature in studies of science, mathematics, politics, sociology, anthropology, law, history, economics, medicine, engineering, novels and whatnot. In this respect, the other native languages of Eritrea are even worse than Tigrinya. When it comes to Arabic, yes it has a highly developed and much advanced literature in all fields of study. It would be very foolish on my part if I attempt to compare Tigrinya to Arabic; I am not and by any measure in varied fields of studies Tigrinya would not even hold a candle to Arabic. To make sure that there is no misunderstanding, this paper is an advocate for English, nothing more and nothing less. In that context, right now I believe that Arabic is not relatively as advanced as English for example, despite the fact it was very prominent and single handedly preserved and advanced civilization in the middle ages. Still, according to the Economist magazine, one measure of the dissemination of knowledge and learning is the number of books that get translated into a language from other foreign languages. This is one of the critical measures of the advancement of culture and prosperity of a people. Based on that criterion, the same magazine states that in a year less books get translated into Arabic than those that are translated into Greek, despite the fact that Arabic is spoken by more people. The Economist magazine states among other things:
“If you trawl through comparative global economic and social statistics, it is not difficult to paint a bleak picture of Arab failure, based on a broad pattern of underperformance in investment, productivity, trade, education, social development and even culture. The total manufacturing exports of the entire Arab world have recently been below those of the Philippines (with less than one-third the population) or Israel (with a population not much bigger than Riyadh’s). From 1980 to 2000 Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Jordan between them registered 367 patents in the United States. Over the same period South Korea alone registered 16,328 and Israel 7,652. The number of books translated into Arabic every year in the entire Arab world is one-fifth the number translated by Greece into Greek.” The Economist, June 23, 2009.
This does not shed a good light and I do not believe Eritrea should chose Arabic as a working language for Eritrea. The proposal of some in the opposition of resorting back to the use of Tigrinya and Arabic as the working languages of Eritrea just like the Federation era appears to be very simplistic. It does not address major global economic and political challenges that Eritrea faces.
Needles to state, English is the language of the Internet and the business world. It is the language of learning. Its prominence is even going to be more pronounced in the future with the rapid advancement of the Internet. All the libraries of the great universities of the world will be (or are) available in the Internet. Making English the working language of Eritrea will equalize all Eritrean nationalities on the language question. This should not be taken as a national pride issue. Nor should one be accused of possessing a colonized mind for suggesting a foreign language to be the working language of Eritrea. We need to weigh all its costs and benefits before we close our mind. Many proud nations such as Scotland (home of the birth of the Scottish enlightenment that was the foundation for the ideas of the American revolution and American constitution and thinkers like: Adam Smith, David Hume, James Maxwell, and etc.), Ireland, Singapore and I hope I am not mistaken India, use English as their working language. English has given these nations a tremendous advantage in the world economy over others who do not use English.
This does not mean Eritreans do not have to use their native languages. They do in their day to day interactions, local markets, their religious institutions, private organizations and private schools if they so desire. The government should have no interference in that part. Also the Eritrean languages can be taught as regular language classes in schools and universities. And the religious institution should be free to conduct their affairs in what they believe are appropriate vehicles of communication for their beliefs. But when it comes to working language stick to English. I do not believe the accessibility of the English language will be an insurmountable problem among the Eritrean masses. Once you have a universal education at least up to eighth grade then it is manageable if not a cake walk. It requires thinking in terms of the kind of Eritrea we wish to have in about fifty years from now.
The opposition is inept. At this late stage it pains me to see that some in the opposition are no different than the Taliban in their outlook for Eritrea. This is a telling sign of the weakness that the opposition is displaying of the way it is trying to organize itself. It appears that it does not have solid principles. The unifying factors by their very nature considering the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Eritrea should only be secular and only SECULAR. This is plain common sense. One does not need a course in elementary politics to appreciate this. The principles are very basic and simple: The rule of law and democracy. But the rule of law and democracy have to be solidified concretely with valid mechanisms of institutions on how to go about them.
So far, the way out I see from this vicious and dilapidating circle is that we organize around and salvage the ratified constitution. I arrived at this default position some time ago since I have not seen a better alternative. Some of the major changes that have to be decided beforehand are the land ownership and the working language issues as mentioned above. One should ignore the PFDJ and amend for now the ratified constitution in such a way that: land is not monopolized by the state and have an understanding of the working language of Eritrea. There may also be a need to add other points that enhance the respect of the property rights and the respect of minority rights. Then this modified document can be used as a unifying and minimum common factor that the opposition can use in its fight for the establishment of a liberal democratic Eritrea. Those who do not buy such an idea should be left alone to pursue their own particular agenda and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Otherwise it is pure lunacy to have a united opposition that include organizations who have similar worldview like the Taliban and secular organizations together. It appears that the secular organizations have not yet internalized within themselves the concepts of the rule of law. It is not necessary that one should get unanimous approval of all those who have come together and baptize themselves as opposition groups. Unity that is not based on principles is not unity at all; in fact it is a deadly seed for future bickering.
Once the dictatorial system in Eritrea is abolished the future Eritrean parliament can officially amend the constitution taking into account the experience of the opposition and that of the Eritrean people. Peace.