Is Eritrea’s highland/lowland rift myth or reality?

As our conversations continue… this week we started off asking how real is Eritrea’s highland/lowland divide? Please feel free to join us ….

SELAM: You are from the lowlands Bohashem, do you feel discriminated against or looked down on by people like me from the highlands? Do others feel that too?

BOHASHEM: Not by you Selamina, nor by the many highlander relatives, friends and comrades that I have or by any ordinary citizen from our beloved highland provinces of Akele-Guzay, Seraye and Hamassien. No! I am not talking politics here for PR purposes. I genuinely believe highlanders and lowlanders are one in diversity and diverse in one! Highlanders are lowlanders and vice versa.

If you drive out 2km from Asmara you will find the inhabitants there are of Tigre, Saho and Blin tribal origins. Highland tribes and villages are tied by strong kinships with those in the lowlands to this day. Many proudly display this during important social events, dispute/conflict resolutions etc. My mother is from Beit-Asghede tribe in Sahel (Naqfa). Their tribal relatives are still found in Hamassien, Akele-Guzay and beyond in Adi-Grat and other locations in Tigray to the south of the Ethio-Eritrean border. You can check out this with our common friends Professors Gaim KibreAb, BHS, and Elias Habte-Sellassie.

Let me share with you where the discrimination comes from and why I do feel discriminated against is when:

  1. All public announcements at Asmara airport are made in Tigrigna, English and perhaps Italian, but not in any of my languages, when those who do not speak Tigrigna have to wait for hours for someone to assist them with translation because none of the immigration officers speak their language.
  2. The undeclared, but widely practiced, condition for employment in my “government” is that I speak Tigrigna, and or when I find out that the only job available to me is that of a translator or a language teacher.
  3. I find in a country where I am told I constitute 50% but in jobs and everything else my presence is reduced to less than 5%.
  4. I find the resting day in Eritrea in general and in my lowland area in particular is still Sunday. By the way, when the EPLF was in control of my lowland province of Sahel, the imposed resting day was “Wednesday”. When we asked why, we were told that the day was chosen for its “neutrality” as the EPLF did not want to be seen to be favouring one faith community at the expense of the other. However, when the same group triumphantly entered Asmara and controlled the entire country; the first victim was this very claim of “neutrality”. Muslims are still forced to rest on Sunday instead of Friday.
  5. Lowland languages are given 10% time space in all government owned media, which the regime use to only present a translated version of their propaganda.
  6. My fellow lowlanders have to travel from the lowland to the highland to obtain passports and seek exit visa to perform pilgrimage. There they are made to wait for days until a translator is found to process their papers. For this reason, many of them choose to cross the border to the Sudan and make their way to their destinations.
  7. Many of lowland teachers and ordinary tradesmen are put in dungeons for no convincing political threat except that they are lowlanders and Muslims.
  8. Lowlanders are deprived of their land rights. Those who live on pastoral activities are denied access to their grazing lands. They are either displaced and left to leave their ancestral lands or forced to live in inhabitable locations the government decides for them.
  9. Although the lowlands had to bear the huge burden of the armed struggle for liberation for 30 years (1961-1991), 25 years after liberation their suffering continues, and, their refugees have not been allowed to return since their first mass exodus in 1967. Where they live, in malaria infested refugee camps, are not left alone. They are often subjected to intimidation, kidnappings and killings by the pfdj regime and their allies in Sudan. You may also remember the pfdj literally refused to cooperate with the UNHCR to facilitate their return in early 1990s. Instead, their lands have been sold to commercial farmers to earn the new rulers and their supporters profits at the expense of lowlanders. Many tend to forget that the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies were mainly stationed in the lowlands during the 30 years war using the scarce waters and green pastures that the local people lived on. You can imagine, when huge armies use your water wells and the best of your land for military purposes including for planting landmines and battle grounds the effect of that on the livelihoods of ordinary people is so deep, which should have warranted a marshal plan to re-habilitate the victims and enable them to reclaim their lands and livelihoods.
  10. I am sure you heard about “Bisha”. This is a place in the lowland where gold is currently being mined from. The place used to be inhabited by lowlanders who have been displaced from there and made to leave the area except for those who chose to stay within their traditional habitat but as sellers of tea and coffee drinks to mine workers there. Whatever the regime and their business partners say, the reality is that the land and the gold are being taking away from the rightful owners to fill the pockets of “others”.
  11. The entire Red Sea cost, which is an integral part of the lowland, has been made inaccessible to lowlanders who lived there fishing and trading for centuries. Ports, towns and the entire region are administered by people who speak Tigrigna i.e not Afar, Saho, Tigre or Arabic. In fact the administration language in Eritrea today is Tigrigna, which means non-Tigrigna speakers are alienated in their own independent and sovereign country.
  12. Gash province is considered the breadbasket of Eritrea. However, the poorest among the poor are lowlanders from this province. The administrators and profiteers in this part of the lowland are pfdj strangers. The list would go on, but it suffices to mention the above to just highlight what makes lowlanders resent the suffering they continue to go through. The issue of land-grabbing and deprivation based on regional, cultural and ethnic identities in Eritrea are real and ought to be addressed as part of any and all plans to rescue the country out of the misery and decadence it is in.

Back to you now; since we are talking as individuals who belong to a composite national identity tell me how much discriminated you feel as someone who belongs to one of our Christian denominations. I think it would be useful to share your experience to raise Eri. Public awareness that the suffering is not exclusive to only one segment of our society.

SELAM: Thank you for the comprehensive response Bohashem, yes I do feel discriminated against too… and I feel discriminated against both by the regime in Eritrea in not dissimilar terms to the ones discussed above… as well as socially by fellow Eritreans.

As you know I come from a minority group within the Christian denomination and so like many minority groups we face both social ostracization as well as institutionalised persecution.

Many Eritrean Christians consider our Denomination (the Pentecostals) as a ‘new sect’ and are very sceptical of its teaching and practices and feel very threatened by its presence and spread . Indeed it hasn’t been that long since the denomination started to take a foothold in Eritrea but I myself and now my children were born into this faith and this makes it atleast three generations  if not  four generations old… however the discrimination continues, young people who decide to make this their personal faith are often cut off from their families and employers and landlords also discriminate. People are socially isolated and many become unacceptable across their respective communities.  

The ‘government’ that was also feeling threatened by the popularity of the denomination and particularly by its popularity amongst the ‘educated’ urbanites used the social acceptability of discriminating against this Groups to institutionalise the discrimination and shut all churches and ‘outlawed’ all activities including weddings and funerals. If I was living in Eritrea today my wedding would have been blessed in secrecy, I would have been forced to ‘baptise’ my children to get the birth certificate for them and I would have been taken to prison if I were found practicing my faith in public or even in my own house in fellowship with non family members. My neighbours would have been coerced into spying on my activities and when arrested all prison officers would have a right to torture me and get a ‘confession’ out of me recanting my faith (promising that I would never participate in activities of my church). Official forms (e.g. exit visa forms) would force me to lie about my faith and claim to be either a Lutheran or any other Christian denomination as there is no box with my denomination on it and I would be declaring belonging to a ‘banned group’ if I were to protest the situation. Prisons in Eritrea are full of people (in their thousands) who either refused to recant their faith or were accused of belonging to the said banned groups.  

As you stated, discrimination in the case of lowlanders is institutionalised rather than socially condoned… my experience however is that the kind of discrimination I would face in Eritrea is both institutionalised and socially condoned and the two actually feed off each other. The situation is the same and maybe even worse to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I guess the question therefore should be: is the discrimination against Moslems and particularly Moslems in the lowland a politically driven agenda from a regime that subjugates Eritreans to enable its grip on power or does it emanate from a bigger agenda of social engineering to create a ‘type of Eritrea’ to suit a wider agenda for the region (perhaps geopolitical or religious agenda)?      

BOHASHEM: That is very touching and sad indeed. It is totally wrong to victimize citizens for belonging to a faith-group of their choice. It goes against the very principles of freedom of thought and belief that almost all political groups and regimes claim to respect. However, I would always exercise caution when it comes to referring to the wider society as “condoning” what tyrant regimes do against those they consider or perceive as “threats”. You and I know how many ordinary citizens were misled to believe what was said to them about the Muslim victims, Christians and even pfdj leaders and members who questioned the regime’s policies or called for reforms etc. I remember in 2013 you were among the first to come out to reject the regime’s attempt to claim that the “21 January/Forto” movement was an “Islamic” one.

Totalitarian and despotic regimes are skilful in enlisting selfish religious leaders to their cause as well as in fear mongering. After all, the followers of “old” and “new” denominations are all Eritreans belonging, in many cases, to the same family. Back to your question. In terms of geo-politics, I do believe that one of the reasons that the existence of Eritrea causes discomfort to regional and international powers is its location on the Southern Red Sea where there is the strategic “Bab-Elmandeb”, which is the southern entrance door to the Red Sea that links the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, the northern door is the Sues Canal. The Red Sea is one of the busiest and most important shipping lanes through which oil and trade commodities are transported.

For many policy makers, the existence of mainly Muslim and Arab countries on both sides of the Red Sea is considered as a “strategic threat”, which is why “Christian” Ethiopian regimes were encouraged and actively supported to annex Eritrea in 1962. When it was clear Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea was un-sustainable, there was encouragement and support for the pfdj/eplf clique to exclusively control Eritrea by liquidating patriotic nationalist leaders and movements in general and Muslim leaders in particular. Both the Ethiopian occupation regimes and EPLF/PFDJ shared similar propaganda and policy that were focused on creating mistrust among Muslims and Chirstians, Highlanders and Lowlanders. For the Ethiopia regimes the mistrust was used to “divide and rule” as well as to question the viability of Eritrea as a sovereign independent nation-state, while the EPLF/PFDJ clique used it as a perfect tool to prolong their grip on power for this long. The geo-political agenda did seem to compliment and fit well with the “social and cultural engineering” actively pursued by both Ethiopia and EPLF/PFDJ.

What many may not acknowledge is that Ethiopian regimes did contribute to the “Tigrignisation” of Eritrea both in terms of demography, economy and culture. If you may remember, almost all public institutions in Eritrea under Ethiopian colonization (1962-1991) were exclusively occupied by Tigrigna. During and before the 1980s famine Tigrayans from northern Ethiopia were actively encouraged to migrate and settle in Eritrea, particularly in the lowlands. This was happening while they were refused resettlement in Addis Ababa. I was in Addis at the time. I remember how they were transferred to remote areas in South West Ethiopia against their wish. During the Dergue’s campaign against illiteracy, Eritreans were forced to learn reading and writing in Tigrigna. This included Eritreans educated in Arabic. Almost every Eritrean household had the Tigrigna story book titled: አቦይ ተዓረ. Ethiopian regimes had always claimed that Eritrea was an integral social, cultural and historical part of Ethiopia. The Tigrignanisation of Eritrea was therefore pursued in parallel with their “scorched earth” policy that resulted in genocides against mainly Muslims and lowlanders. Once Eritrea won independence the EPLF/PFDJ regime deliberately shied away from asking Ethiopia for an apology and possible reparations.

As you are aware, the Catholic, Orthodox and other religious leaders did stand up to the pfdj regime. The last such challenge was the open letter written by four Catholic priests about a year or so ago. The Head of the Orthodox Church has also been put under house arrest for about ten years. Do you foresee ways in which our religious institutions and leaders can stand together in solidarity and unison against evil doers?

SELAM: Bohashem I sure am going to use much of this to help me put together some of my jigsaw pieces…. That, Eritrea doesn’t exactly fit into a neat political pigeonhole in a regional or global scheme is what has define our history (our predicament too) actually… the world is always looking for a neat solution and always ignoring the quest of the Eritrean public…. But the really crafty thing that both successive Ethiopian administrations and now pfdj are doing is to gear their politics and grip on power so it forms a perfect fit with the geopolitical agenda… so for derg and Hailesillasie it was prevention of the disintegration of Ethiopia and now for DIA it is the prevention of Islamisation of Eritrea…

As for the role our religious leaders should/could play… it is without a doubt standing in solidarity to reject the evil system that has made it possible for Eritrea to sink lower than it has ever sank… pfdj knows this full well that is why the strategy has always been to diminish the effectiveness of ALL religious institutions by making them loose their spiritual authority and independence (institutionalised evil can’t work in the context of a society with intact conscience), where pfdj failed to coerce and entice spiritual leaders they have forcefully silenced them… the religious leaders from Islamic schools, the pastors of the Pentecostal and evangelical churches as well as Abune Antonios the Patriarch of the orthodox church were all victims of this policy.

This is no doubt a long discussion that would indeed make a very interesting ongoing dialogue… but shall we stop it here for now so we can mull-over the issues raised and expand on them in subsequent conversations?  

BOHASHEM: Sure...we may do that for now. I too have a short trip early morning. As usual, I found our discussion today very useful. It confirmed to me that all Eritreans are suffering in one way or another.

This calls for more understanding and unity to overcome existing hurdles and achieve a nation state where all citizens live together in peace. Religious diversity has always existed. It would not necessarily be a source of mistrust or conflict, if and when managed away from manipulations for narrow ends.

Thank you, Selamina, for yet another opportunity to publicly discuss and share views on issues of common concerns. I look forward to our next encounter. Until then, have a pleasant time.

SELAM: Yes this does indeed give me a lot of food for thought… our problems are complex and intertwined through history and across current affairs. Local, regional and global politics have all left their scars on our collective psyche as a nation and so our proposed solution/s need to also always be multi systemic… we need to propose solutions that impact on every level or atleast on several levels at once… thank you for a very interesting discussion and for your honest input.

BOHASHEM: My pleasure. I hope we'll touch on some possible solutions as we go along.