For more than sixty years, Eritreans and Ethiopians have been at war against each other, internally among themselves, or a combination of the two. Eritrean rebels fought against Ethiopian forces from 1961 to 1991. The two countries engaged in a deadly border war in 1998-2000, followed by 20 years of frozen stalemate. We are currently living through a new cycle, featuring new and old actors in different alignments. One of the reasons we have proven unable to break the vicious cycle of violence is our lack of adequate knowledge about and understanding of one another.
In this piece, I will address this specific challenge, debunk some myths, and shed light on in-group and out of group thinking and interactions.
Isaias Afwerki is not anybody’s ally, including his own family
Ethiopians gave Isaias a royal reception during his first visit to Ethiopia in July 2018, shortly after the mending of relations. Watching the unprecedented enthusiasm that many Ethiopians showed—as can be inferred from the live-broadcast on Ethiopia’s state TV—irked many Eritreans. Some Ethiopian elites believed that Isaias would help Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in getting rid of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The latter dominated Ethiopia for nearly three decades and has lost legitimacy among many Ethiopians.
The subsequent Abiy-Isaias bromance did not take too long to show its true colors as an unholy alliance solely preoccupied with exacting vengeance on the TPLF.
Isaias is a sailed tyrant who strives to micromanage his country, including the day-to-day business of building dams. His shortsighted policies have forced about half a million Eritreans to flee the country or attempt at any cost, including his own son. His mercurial temperaments, vindictive behavior, and cold character make him an unreliable ally; he did not even hesitate to put his long time comrades in the harshest prison for close to two decades.
The man who never fails to externalize internal problems has now abandoned the Eritrean affairs and shifted his attention to Ethiopia. Since the peace deal with Abiy, he met only once with his cabinet of ministers (September 2018) and at least 16 times officially with Abiy Ahmed.
Many Eritreans have been waiting to see how long it might take for the “savior” to show his beastly character, using his playbook to sow divisions and create unrest in Ethiopia.
Not that long.
Eritrea is not Isaias
Many Ethiopian elites surmise the fate of Eritrea is solely in Isaias’ hands. By extension, this implies, the nation of Eritrea is his creation, and he can “return it to the motherland” on a whim. The idea that a single person can decide the fate of a country should be a warning to anyone. The past two and a half years alone have shown that Isaias and his party could not be relied upon.
Unquestionably, Isaias played a vital role in the Eritrean struggle for independence. But this does not make him the sole owner of the country. He is just one citizen among millions, and he can’t revert the fate of the nation whose population voted 99.8 percent for independence during the 1993 referendum.
During the euphoric weeks of the Abiy-Isaias peace deal, I remember having off the record conversation with a BBC journalist. If the referendum were to be held now, the journalists asked me if I thought the majority of Eritreans would vote for independence. I advised the journalist not to confuse Eritrean people’s desire for peace with their longing to be reunited with Ethiopia; the former is genuine, the latter fanciful.
The 20 years long repression has made many Eritreans reassess their initial impression of the one-time charismatic leader, but it is highly questionable that their view of the man will affect their overall perception of their country.
What many Ethiopians seem to miss is how Isaias is extremely unpopular among Eritreans these days. For many Eritreans, Ethiopians’ appeasing of Isaias translates as siding against the Eritreans and aiding and abetting their tormentor.
Spoiler alert: at least half of Eritreans are Muslims
Either by design or obliviousness, there is a widespread assumption among the elite Ethiopian highlanders that Eritrea is a Christian country.
It is an extension of this grave misreading that TPLF leaders and influencers have been courting misguided individuals who advocate for a pan-Tigrinya nation known as Agazian.
At least half of the Eritrean population is Muslim, or more broadly, they are not Orthodox Christians.
The Muslim factor aside, it is myopic to form a state solely based on ethnicity and religion.
When many Ethiopians (mainly the old-guards led by the likes of Dawit Wolde Giorgis) preach “we are one people,” they do not acknowledge the very existence of other Eritrean ethnic-groups.
A segment of Ethiopians currently feel that Isaias is weak, and Abiy knows that. Once TPLF is out of the way, Abiy and the Amhara elites will co-opt Eritrean generals who are fed up with Isaias and get rid of him. They believe this will pave the way for “integration” of the two countries, giving Ethiopia access to a seaport. A post-Isaias Eritrean regime will then be much more pliable to Addis Ababa’s wishes and whims.
During their honeymoon period, Isaias and Abiy have floated such ideas in seemingly casual remarks. Eritreans who have been wary of their leader and his grand ambitions of becoming a regional kingmaker fiercely countered this at the time.
Many Ethiopians interpret the Eritrean position using their parameters. TPLF leaders have been incubating Eritrean opposition groups based on ethnicity. All Eritrean nationals have suffered under the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) regime. It is also a fatal mistake to view the demands of all Eritreans, with their diversity, as singular. While all Eritreans have a common cause for the rule of law, accountability, and democratic governance, it is also important to remember that some Eritreans, individually or in groups, have causes and demands that are unique to them.
But, as these ethnic-based opposition parties stipulate, thinking of seceding as a country eventually is way beyond the reality on the ground. Some of the Eritrean ethnic-groups only comprise about hundreds of thousands.
PFDJ repugnance ≠ missing colonial occupation
I had a brief exchange with an Ethiopian taxi driver in Washington, D.C., several years ago. My driver had been deployed as a soldier in the Eritrean port city of Massawa during the Derg era and generously shared his fond memories. He was confident that a time would come when the two peoples would be “reunited” after the repressive leaders are gone because, in his words, the Eritrean “people used to love us then.”
I gently countered that people did not quite love the Ethiopian army, but they were afraid to voice their resentment toward them.
Similarly, nowadays, many Ethiopians misconstrue the Eritrean people’s antipathy toward the repressive regime in Asmara as longing for the days of Ethiopian rule or as waiting for their former occupiers to act as saviors now. Such views have been mainstreamed in the Ethiopian media over the last 20 years by selectively and aggressively publicizing outliers as if all Eritreans have been missing the old regime. Hatred for one system does not equate to longing for the past brutal times.
The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia are both facing repressive systems. But the unsavory history of the two nations and the lack of independent platforms and media that can bridge the gap have created the reality we are witnessing today. As opposed to the top-down instructions or rhetoric of those in power, horizontal conversations are needed to understand each other better.