By Petros Tesfagiorgis
The call by the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, for peace with the Government of Eritrea is an opportunity not to be missed. Eritreans must support the move, while campaigning for a peace that puts the welfare of the people centre stage. An Eritrean woman, on returning from a visit to Eritrea, said: “In Asmara after the Ethiopian PM’s call, peace has become the daily topic of conversation. People have become extremely hopeful.”
The problem is, will the regime in Asmara listen? If the people were allowed to, they would have come onto the streets in their thousands in support of the peace proposal.
In Eritrea, where there is no freedom of expression and assembly, it is impossible to take to the streets to put pressure on the government to reciprocate the Ethiopian PM’s initiative.
But Eritreans in Diaspora, living in democratic countries, can do it. The problem is people in Diaspora think that peace can only be achieved by the two governments. They think they have no role.
I have written articles before supporting peace initiatives with Ethiopia. Some of the comments I received were: “you are wasting your time, the two government are not willing to go for peace. They have underlying motives.” Some say: “Former PM Meles Zenawi said he accepted ‘in principle’ the decision of the boundary commission that gave Badme to Eritrea, but he wanted to hold talk before he vacates Badme and all the occupied areas. He was concerned that it might play into the hands of his opponents in Ethiopia as a weakness for giving up Badme. Isaias refused to talk, he found a perfect excuse (a scapegoat) to keep the youth hostage under the programme of indefinite national service/forced labour. Thus Badme has become greater than the life of the Eritrean people.
Instead of lobbying the international community to persuade Ethiopia to vacate Badme, the Eritrean regime had chosen to arm and train the Ethiopian opposing groups, perpetuating tension and hostility. On the part of the Eritrean Government, Isn’t it better to agree to talk and put its case clearly that the Ethiopian regime must vacate Badme – and listen to other issues the Ethiopians want to talk – to be accepted or rejected? Do Eritreans and the International community realize that Badme has become more than the life of Eritreans and Ethiopians living in the border areas. The consequence is that 16 years of no-war/no peace is driving 5000 Eritreans a month to exile and destroying the fabric the Eritrean Society. Most of refugee are young people, the most productive members of the society.
It is a frightening situation for Eritreans, while Ethiopia economic growth is the fastest in Africa.
It is beyond doubt that Isaias Afeworki is comfortable with the status quo of No-war/No-peace. It has helped him to consolidate his power. But the unfortunate side effect has condemned the people of Eritrea to a slow death. For the regime the people of Eritrea are disposable. Their life does not matter. There is also complicity of EU governments – who are giving aid to the regime to stop the flow of refugees to Europe as they keep a blind eye to the repression in Eritrea.
In this situation a strong and persistent movement for peace by the Diaspora is the only way forward.
The need of advocacy for peace by stake-holders (other than governments) was highlighted by Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE) during its “Peace Building Conference”. This took place in Keren on 15thand 16thof February 2001 and in Asmara on 17thFebruary of that year. Below is the “clarification of the objectives”. I Quote from its Summary of Proceedings.
“CPE believes that a sustainable and just peace cannot be achieved by efforts of governments alone. Many other actors and stakeholders-civil society organisations, national and international humanitarians and human rights groups, and individuals – need to play an active role in the promotion of peace and reconciliation. This requires that Eritreans and Ethiopians undertake internal peace-fostering activities as well as dialogue with each other. The conference was envisioned as a first step in such a process.”
To this end, representatives from various Internally Displaced Persons camps, international guests from abroad, such as a speaker from South Africa’s “Peace and Reconciliation Committee”, members of the diplomatic community and international organisations represented in Eritrea, and a wide range of individuals attended the conference.
The next move was to meet with Ethiopian civil societies in a third country to assess the possibility of launching a joint conference.
Kjetil Tronvoll arranged a meeting in Oslo-Norway between Citizens for Peace in Eritrea and an Ethiopian NGO based in Addis Ababa (ERSHO). Prof Asmarom Legesse and I represented Citizens for Peace and Dr Getachew Kibret represented ERSHO. We had a constructive discussion, but came to the conclusion that neither governments would allow a serious peace process to develop between the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. So we agreed to put aside the plan for the time being, and instead concentrate on helping displaced people in both countries.
Tragically, the situation inside Eritrea during 2001 deteriorated rapidly. Following a demand to release Kessette, the imprisoned chairman of Asmara University Students Union- the students were rounded up and were taken to WIA, a place on the Red Sea coast. It had a temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius. Two students died of sunstroke. Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE) condemned the Eritrean Government for violating the human right of the Asmara University students- issued in the private daily paper in Tigrinya language. PFDJ authorities were shocked. CPE had ‘committed suicide. Eventually the regime closed the University, the only university in Eritrea.
The situation in Eritrea deteriorated still further with the arrest of the members of the Government (known as G-15) and the editors of the private newspapers on 18 September 2001. Thus freedom of expression was brought to an abrupt end and the rule of law was trampled. These events have gone down in the annals of history as Eritrea’s Black September.
Not only the people of Eritrea, even Ethiopians in the border area of Tigray are crying for a solution, their life was affected as well.
Now, at last, there is a moment of hope: Ethiopia’s new PM, Dr Abiy Ahmed, appears to be a phenomenal leader. He opened a door of opportunity to end hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Prime Minister is sorting out internal political problems of Ethiopia. He is known to be humble in his engagement with different section of the population in Ethiopia. Most importantly, he has become a crusader for peace and reconciliation in the Horn and beyond. In Ethiopia he released political prisoners. His engagement with Sudan and Djibouti is significant. On his visit to Saudi Arabia, the suspicion that Saudi would help Eritrea against Ethiopia is untenable. He signed a number of agreements which will facilitate Saudi investments in Ethiopia, thus cementing their friendship. His engagement with Egypt has been positive; the two countries’ wrangling about the millennium dam has been settled. And he made clear to the Saudi Prince that he had accepted the ruling of the boundary commission that gave the town of Badme to Eritrea.
As I was finishing writing this article, I read the news that: “The Saudi crown prince tried to call Isaias Afeworki to persuade him to talk to PM Abiy Ahmed. The call was not returned.”
This is disturbing. The No-war/No-peace scenario has helped Isaias to consolidate his one man rule. He is comfortable with that. But this time, would he disappoint his mentor, Saudi Crown Prince, in order to maintain the status quo? Or show diplomacy to agree to talks and to make peace with Ethiopia? He is becoming undiplomatic. Diplomacy is the key to conflict resolution. It is a tool in the hands of leaders to make the best use of it.
On the other hand, Isaias’s refusal to talk represents the most formidable challenge to the people of Eritrea, it is a mistake of historic proportion.
Now the Diaspora has the opportunity to initiate a powerful peace movement. They can tell the international community – through demonstrations, marches and other forms of political activities – that the people want peace with Ethiopia. And, for that matter, peace with Sudan and Djibouti as well.
This is a rare opportunity: The justice seekers in the Diaspora cannot allow to slip this moment in time. But how do the Diaspora do it, given the reality of their fragmentation?
To continue on Part 2.
- Kjetil Tronvoll is a researcher at Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, University of Oslo. He specialises in the Horn of Africa. He has written books on Eritrea. One is “May Weini: A Highland village in Eritrea. He co-authored a book titled “The African Garrison State: Human Rights and political development in Eritrea” with Daniel R Meconnen.