E N D P I E C E
Horn of tragedy
Richard Swift is saddened, but not surprised,
by the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
RHODRI JONES /
The liberation struggle in the South that I have been closest to, and identified with most, is the Eritrean struggle for nationhood against the militaristic Dergue that held all of Ethiopia in the grip of terror. I visited the war zone when final victory was anything but certain and then returned to see the beautiful tree-lined boulevards of Asmara after victory had been achieved. I came to a have a deep admiration for the tenacity and courage of the Eritreans, their unboastful determination to have a country of their own. They kept me safe from the MiGs and showed me camaraderie and a courtesy that is rare indeed.
So it was with dismay, but not entirely with surprise, that I heard of renewed hostility – including aerial bombardments by both sides – between Eritrea and its one-time ally, the Tigrayan-led Government of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. I remember crossing the border between Eritrea and Tigray near Adigrat, just six years ago now, with the border guards barely bothering to check papers. Now travel is unthinkable and bombs have fallen on the civilians of what must be one of the poorest places on the face of the earth.
My lack of surprise was rooted in a growing unease about the difficulties that both these societies are having in making the transition from the military command structures of an armed liberation struggle to an open and democratic civil society. Don’t get me wrong. There has been much to admire on both sides of the border: the lack of the corruption that plagues sub-Saharan Africa for one thing; the determination to be self-reliant for another; the commitment to basic-needs development for the most easily marginalized of rural peoples for a third. But, increasingly, I have had a sense of unease about the continuing and almost obsessive secretiveness of both governments, the tendency to see any dissent as treasonous, the determination to control or at least keep under close surveillance any impulse towards self-rule in civil society.
I sat for a longish time on the program committee for the Horn of Africa of Oxfam-Canada. Painstakingly we tried to shift our priorities in the post-liberation era from just supporting nuts-and-bolts rural-development projects carried out by large quasi-government organizations – like the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) or Relief Society of Tigray (REST) – to include the fledgling shoots of an emerging civil society: the village-based self-help organizations, the autonomous women’s organizations, the human-rights centres, the independent voices on development issues in magazines or newsletters, the advocates of workers’ rights. By and large they just weren’t there.
If Ethiopia did slightly better than Eritrea in this regard one sensed that it wasn’t out of conviction but rather because, to keep the lid on the cauldron of nationalities that is modern Ethiopia, one simply must provide more political space. On the other side of the coin, the internal methods of repression in Addis were much more severe than the Eritreans ever had to use. In Asmara, efforts to set up an independent human-rights centre or an independent press were nonetheless frustrated at every turn. Democracy in both places is a hemmed-in affair, in which only officially approved and ineffectual oppositions are tolerated. It became more and more difficult for international NGOs to operate, particularly in Eritrea, because officially they were regarded as sapping the country’s self-reliance. But there are pitfalls here. The manipulation of debt by the International Monetary Fund is one thing: support for grassroots development initiatives, or criticism of human-rights abuses, is quite another.
So, with minimal development of open civil society or real democracy, nationalism remains the only value, the only glue to hold things together. Add to this a military ethos and command culture inherited from the wars of liberation and you can see where we are going. A military viewpoint has its raison d’être in ‘enemies’ – and the Horn of Africa has always had plenty of those. It is a region where one must walk on eggshells to avoid conflict, so making a few square kilometres of rocky desert the pretext for full-scale mobilization and a lot more death is pretty easy. It probably isn’t even consciously cynical – that this is good for domestic consumption – it’s just always been that way.
But if there is to be any hope of lasting peace and the co-operation that is so necessary to shield people and allow survival in the arid fragility of one of the most precarious environments on earth – both Tigray and Eritrea qualify here – and give them some sense of security, it must come from the co-operation and democratization of both societies. As long as the leadership sees social and political development as simply carrying on the war by other means, this can never occur. The old leaderships of the liberation struggle must loosen their grip on power and let their societies breathe the freedom they fought so hard to attain. Only then will nation-building be more than a matter of keeping the enemy at bay.
Richard Swift is a Co-Editor of the New Internationalist, based in Toronto.
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