By Haile-Ab Luul Tesfai,
THE recent interview by ESAT to President Isaias Afwerki should be commended as a bold journalistic work. It is one of the rare initiatives by Ethiopian media outlets or individuals in their bid to find the truth about Eritrea, its leadership and its stand on key challenges of viability the Ethiopian state has been facing for decades. Such initiatives have to continue in one form or the other since there are many issues that not only ordinary Ethiopians but also the majority of the Ethiopian political elite have an alarmingly wrong information and long held misperceptions on Eritrea; and perceptions cannot be easily erased.
Incidentally, the interview with President Isaias was held at a time when Eritrea was celebrating the silver anniversary of Fenkil Operation, a very significant moment in the history of the Eritrean liberation struggle when Massawa came under the control of the EPLA. As a culmination of a series of military gains by the EPLF, Operation Fenkil irreversibly paved the way to the total liberation of Eritrea in 1991.
The objective of this piece is not to give an account of the operation itself or that of the colorful celebrations that have been underway in Eritrea and the diaspora, nor as a display of braggadocio, which is un-Eritrean. It only tries to shed light to the victory of Operation Fenkil from a broader perspective and on its significance to those who are still struggling for justice and peace in our region: justice and peace that has meaning in the lives of the broad masses of our region and beyond. Obviously, most diverse among these groups is the Ethiopian resistance.
A significant number of the Ethiopian resistance, armed or otherwise, now hail Eritrea as their safe haven. One may wonder how they have been feeling as the Eritrean people were celebrating the 25-th anniversary of the Fenkil. Fact is that many of them now at a leadership position have served at various levels with the Derg and the Haile Selassie administrations. Some may have even participated in the battle of Massawa proper. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is on the loss they feel of their comrades in arms who did not make it and the drastic changes that ensued on the Ethiopian state. However, in the grand scheme of things, almost thirty years of war before the fateful Fenkil Operation and 25 years after, it may provide them with an opportunity to contemplate and start to think out of the box on the meaning of the Operation and its long term implications it had laid on the relationships between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Before proceeding, I would like to remind the reader that the points raised focus on the Ethiopian state machinery and those who have been running it either as direct or indirect beneficiaries, mostly in reference to the three successive Ethiopian administrations after the Second World War. Besides, it primarily points into one key hurdles for a progressive evolution of the Ethiopian political culture.
Over the last 125 years or so, successive Ethiopian leaders have been driven by a common aspiration of incorporating Eritrea or parts of its coastal regions. With the surreptitious support of the West, Emperor Haile Selassie managed to get the full control of Eritrea; the Derg, with huge support of the Soviet Union and indirect financial aid from the West (through Israel) fatally fought to keep it, while the Woyanes with the support of certain Western interests instigated a bloody war; consequently, Ethiopia found itself into yet a deeper abyss.
Now two questions ought to be raised.
1. What were the assumptions and/or perceptions that led successive Ethiopian leaders to follow such fateful ventures?
2. Who benefited from this enterprise of trying to control Eritrea at any cost?
Without going into the histories of such aspirations—to control Eritrea or its coastal lines—more than from the standpoint that the benefits a port of one sort or the other brings to any nation, Ethiopian leaders have been driven more by a quasi-delusional sense of grandeur that they have never managed to realize in all sense of the word. Of course, the half-hearted accolades and praises from foreign interests that helped to probe them up have also contributed in their delusion of grandeur as we can easily see with the Woyanes to whom their masters have been trying frustratingly to make lions out of them. Unlike the Woyanes, their predecessors had subtlety and finesse though, at the end of the day, they did not avoid the fateful judgment of the masses.
They have been adept to creating a myriad myths of grandeur and misconstrued any narrative that potentially or actually debunks the myths. In the process, they mislead the vast majority of the Ethiopian people that their rule is an island of sorts and what not; they extrapolated history to the extent of disregarding historical processes and speak selectively of past glories as if they are true in the present. All that deceptive disposition has been creating a debilitating delusion not only among the elites but also confusion among the masses.
Before discussing the two questions posed above, let me briefly point out what Eritrea, specifically the EPLF—Shaebia—core objectives have been. This may help the reader to compare and see how the pronouncements and policy undertakings of Ethiopian leaders contrast to that of the Eritrean policy stance and practices, now and then.
The EPLF led the Eritrean independence struggle under two pronged objectives. a) The establishment of a sovereign Eritrean state. b) The building of the Eritrean nation along the principle of self-reliance which also includes partnership with any government or non-governmental agency that is willing to work for mutual benefit. These two objectives underline a meaningful independence whereby Eritrea owns its policies from conception to implementation, all centered on the interest of the Eritrean masses.
One of the myths that still abounds among the Ethiopian elite about Eritrea which the TPLF clique and its masters worked hard to sustain is about the role the EPLF played during the formation of the transitional government following the fall of the Derg regime. As the EPLF realized its first objective of forming an independent Eritrean state, it had been working to dissuade the reluctant and duplicitous TPLF clique to play a unifying role by forming an inclusive transitional government that would lead to the next crucial stage of setting progressive processes to building a new Ethiopian state.
Unfortunately, the TPLF clique chose to take a different path of its own (and of its masters) — a route that has nothing to do with the EPLF. This point has to be stressed for an umpteen times. The TPLF clique driven by its own(and its masters) agenda had to sell itself to the highest bidder and consequently availed itself in yet another adventure that deceptively rallied Ethiopian resources to follow in its disastrous venture to subdue Eritrea for the benefit of its exclusive agenda and that of the post-Cold War neocolonialist interest groups.
In the eyes of these special interest groups, Eritrea was found to be a spoiler of their new schemes in the Horn of Africa. Well, the rest is history as it is also being made when the forces of domination and exploitation are challenged by those who stand firmly for their legitimate rights. From this standpoint how do successive Ethiopian administrations fare? How do they compare to that of the Eritrean state?
There may have been variations in tone and emphasis among the successive Ethiopian administrations, but in that respect, they are essentially the same. This is the most important factor that distinguishes the EPLF. Its stance has always been diametrically opposite to what the Ethiopian political leaders and their elite essentially practice, despite all their rhetoric and mythical assertions on the independence of the Ethiopian state. Regardless of the various perspectives one may come up with, the fact that a European colonizing power was defeated by an African army does inspire any liberation struggle; but as much as Ethiopian leaders and their elites love to rant on the victory of Adwa, do they really live by its spirit?
Among many instances in the modern times, at least starting from the Emperor’s era, two examples can be mentioned. It is a well-documented fact why the ilk of Belay Zeleke, the anti-fascist Ethiopian patriot rebelled to protest the reinstatement of the exiled Emperor by the British who had made a myriad of deals that ultimately found to be fatal to his rule and ultimately to the Ethiopian state. He contrived to assemble an untenable federal arrangement with Eritrea in such a way that he can simply abrogate it once he thinks to have the control of the budding Eritrean state institutions of that time; he did, and the rest is history, sad as it has been.
The Derg used to display a lot of bravado about its victory in the Somalia front in 1977; however, If it were not for the massive Soviet support manned by Yemeni and Cuban heavy artillery battalions could it have survived the offensive? Over the last ten years or so, I have been following various interviews and comments by ex-generals and ex-colonels from the Derg era; but never found anyone mentioning the determinant role of the Cubans and Yemenis. Why? Obviously it will spoil their narrative of grandeur, false or shallow as it has been. Regardless, it has to be understood that no one can take away the sacrifice paid by the thousands of ordinary Ethiopian soldiers who fought under the persuasion that they were serving a patriotic duty.
The point raised is not about making alliances with that or with the other power; but, to what end? As history demonstrates it only served, if it really did? the foreign powers on which Ethiopia totally depended; and what did the Ethiopian people got in return?—wars, famine, displacements and humiliating poverty masked by a massive delusional propaganda of grandeur that gets exposed as the next regime falls.
After becoming independent, Eritrea opened its doors and welcomed many including its former enemies and detractors as long as they engage on the basis of partnership and mutual benefit to all. As such, in the first years after officially declaring independence, it demonstrated without fanfare what it can do if engaged with dignity and partnership. Without making much ado about it, Eritrea has contributed in the stabilization of the region, a fact acknowledged by certain power centers who now find themselves handling the TPLF clique, supposedly an asset turned a huge liability!!
Eritrea has kept its Red Sea shores free from drug trafficking and continue to play its role, limited as it may be, in keeping an eye on environmental predators. It can be recalled during the Derg era when the EPLF, then merely a liberation movement, exposed an Italian firm to the international community before it damped nuclear waste into the Red Sea. Simply put, Eritrea strives to keep its land, sea and skies under its sovereign control with the rigor and capabilities that it has clearly demonstrated early on how it can effectively deter any subversive and creepy elements from its territory and neighborhood. Such policy includes cooperation with regional and international bodies set to keep the Red Sea route safe for all legitimate uses, but firmly rejects to accept any measure that leads to Dependency.
Now, given the Eritrean stand and practice as briefly described above, what does one expect from Ethiopian elite who love to recite stories and slogans on independence especially those who claim to adhere to progressive ideals? No less than giving support to the route Eritrea has taken, obviously challenging, but a clear path to the realization of a meaningful INDEPENDENCE.
It can be recalled about two years back when Ato Andargachew Tseggie, then Secretary of G7, gave a passing positive comment in ESAT about his observations on Eritrean government practices and challenges. It caused a commotion among the Ethiopian political elites since it contradicted the myths upon which most of them have been basing to analyze Eritrean politics and its relationships with Ethiopia and foreign entities.
One can come-up with various reasons for such denunciations and confusion on Ato Andargachew’s comments. One way or the other, it showed how deep the misinformation and misperceptions run among the Ethiopian political elite. Moreover, as one peels the Ethiopian onion further, among a large segment of these elites there is a deeply rooted culture of dependency on foreign entities or foreign powers. Their forte is mere rhetoric and are eager to get the support of any external force as long as they get to power without any regard to the long-term interest and welfare of the Ethiopian masses.
The Ethiopian resistance is as diverse as it can be. At this point, the common goal is to replace the TPLF mercenary regime by one which is representative and inclusive or to use the common parlance a democratic state. As has been discussed above, is it enough to just replace the TPLF regime? It is incumbent upon the progressive forces among the Ethiopian resistance to lead in the thorough examination of the past and present relationships of the previous Ethiopian administrations with that of the neighboring states and that of the foreign powers. To start with, the myths and misconceptions about Eritrea that abounds among the Ethiopian elites has to be sorted out to help in charting out a civilized and above all an Independent approach in establishing solid grounds for future relationships of Ethiopia with its neighbors and the powers of the day, with the primary goal of serving the interest of the broad masses.
The literal meaning of the word “Fenkil” is to uproot. Indeed the “Fenkil Operation” uprooted the Derg regime, essentially a ruthless manager of a dependent state; and paved the way to the realization of the independence of Eritrea that strives to build a nation with a meaningful independence.
If that historic moment and its implications resonates with the present Ethiopian resistance, hopefully it may seize the moment and aspire not only to replace the mercenary TPLF regime but also strive to cultivate a truly independent political culture by uprooting systematically the culture of dependency rampant among a large segment of the Ethiopian elite.
Victory to the Masses!!