The New Relation between Eritreans, Ethiopians in the Diaspora

By Amanuel Biedemariam

For a long time, relations between Eritreans and Ethiopians were antagonistic, combative, competitive and aggressive. Our relation is unique in the fact that we love each other, enjoy each other’s company and, there is a genuine affection for each other. There has always been a respect and love for one another. We have always managed to work and coexist even when situations were at the height of intense conflicts during war times.

However, there is also a love-hate relationship; there is a scar and a history of bloodshed that span for decades. We have paid dearly with countless lives, millions displaced with untold loss, damage and destruction of property. We have squandered opportunities to raise the level and the standard of living for our peoples. We have lost tremendous amount of time without fruitful exchange of ideas that can better the way we live. We have simply wasted valuable time, resources and energy by channeling our energies into unproductive and negative ways.

After the war broke out in 1998, many lost the friendships that lasted for decades before. People argued at work, in their neighborhood and with their friends with hostility. That went-on until the election of 2005. In my view, that is when Ethiopian views started to shift. Because, all of a sudden, Eritrea became less important on their discussions for the future of Ethiopia were suddenly on the table. Soon after the election, the situation in Ethiopia started to tighten. After seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, many Ethiopians were shocked to find the light destroyed and the tunnel filled with smoke to the point that they can no longer see any light.

Right then, the world witnessed the history of Ethiopia unfolding. TPLF dangled some meat for all-to-think that they can have a piece of it, and when the crowed became hungry took-away the meat and, sent the crowd home disappointed and hopeless. That is what happened to the millions, which took to the streets with the hopes of bringing a lasting change for Ethiopia. From there, the situation worsened. Meles started killing people on the streets and placed those who can threaten his power in jail, indiscriminately.

Since then, Ethiopian attitude started to gradually-shift on how they viewed Eritrea as a nation, the people and the government of Eritrea. Many Ethiopians started to look at Eritrea as a viable option to help them on their struggle against the tyrannical regime in Ethiopia. However, the Diaspora-Ethiopian-community believed that they could get help from their US and European friends to pressure Meles and the TPLF. However, after countless hearings, extensive lobbying, demonstrations and other campaigns, the best it yielded was a congressional resolution that failed on the Senate. Ethiopians grew extremely frustrated as a result. They lost the ability to decent in Ethiopia and, when they fled to countries such as Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti they were handed back to Ethiopia by force.

As a result, the idea of working with Eritrea started to grow and became the new reality that Ethiopians needed to come to terms with. Some went to Eritrea from the US and other places to explore and came away feeling good about their trips. These individuals took a risk and paid a price. They were, ridiculed as agents of Shaebia, traitors and so on but they kept on going back for more. One of those trailblazers is Ato Demise Belete, who deserves praise for taking chances and for daring to take the step.

From 2006 until 2008, Ethiopians mulled the idea, flirted with the idea and started experimenting with the idea of working with Eritrea. Suddenly working with Eritrea started to enter into the conversation of mainstream Ethiopia as a major topic of discussion. This signaled a shift on attitude that Ethiopians no longer see Eritrea as threat.

At that moment, two bright individuals decided to conduct an interview with President Isaias by traveling to Eritrea. In preparation to that interview, they decided to engage Ethiopians and asked the question: “If you were to ask any question to President Isaias Afwerki, what would you ask”? The people gave (ER) the answers in the form of questions to President Isaias. ER made the answers public for all to see. By opening dialogue, these two individuals put hard issues on the table and gave people a chance to discuss it. Suddenly, nothing was a taboo regarding Eritrean and Ethiopian issues.

These two individuals are Ato Sileshi Tilahun and Ato Elias Kifle. They deserve tremendous praise for their vision, guts and for daring to ask all the questions on their mind and in the minds of millions of Ethiopians around the world. They asked President Isaias candidly. There were no limits on what they can ask. It was frank and the most candid exchange between journalists and a president I have ever witnessed. President Isaias gave honest answers, and in the process, he changed the minds of many and, they started to see Eritrea differently.

What that interview did, is crack a mountain. It opened a new path. It opened a channel of communication and gave assurance at the highest level; clarified Eritrean positions; empowered Ethiopians by giving them a new channel on their effort to challenge the TPLF gang. It also gave Ethiopians freedom to engage with Eritreans and to find ways that we can work together for mutual interest and benefit. It is from that interview onwards that Eritreans and Ethiopians started to seek partnerships with each other in meaningful ways.

Many may fail to see the importance of the interview. However, the interview created a shift on attitude and is changing the way we see each other. It has given all an option to work towards a common goal. It took the hostility away thus freeing people from anger and resentments they harbored for years. It lifted some of the burden so we can resume a life free from aggression and anger. That is true leadership at work.

From that point on, like-minded-people, from both sides decided to seek each other in an effort to work together. We have worked diligently to establish a working relationship in an effort to galvanize and bring Eritreans and Ethiopians together towards common goals and objectives. When the UNjust sanction 1907 came, many Ethiopians took a principled stand and decided to support Eritreans on their march. The TPLF wanted to sell that solidarity position as if Eritrea is seeking support from Ethiopians because Eritrea is desperate. The reality is, however, the channel of communication and the working-relationship started way before the sanction was on the picture.

The March and what it Meant

After the UNjust sanction measure passed, Eritreans went on full gear to stand against it. There was a limited time from the time Eritreans decided to march until of Feb 22. The decision to invite our Ethiopian sisters and brothers was unanimous. We invited them to give a voice of solidarity and they accepted. We did not seek numbers. All we asked was for representatives from various Horn of African communities to come and give their voice of solidarity.

They came and marched with us blanketed by a colorful Ethiopian flag. It looked and felt natural. Those who were there had the conviction and determination to stand with Eritreans confidently. After the march, they stood on the podium in front of the State Department and gave their voices of solidarity.

All those individuals that stood on the podium took a major step that will have a lasting impact on future relations. They deserve a big kudos for their efforts and sacrifices. The event turned out to be a historic moment in the new era of Eritrean Ethiopian understanding. There is no doubt that whatever relation grows from now on will come from that moment. There are many people worth mentioning however, for the sake of time, I will mention a true dynamo. Ethiopia is lucky to have him; a Community Organizer Extraordinaire Ato. Neamin Zeleke. He deserves tremendous praise and admiration for his determination, vision, bravery, brilliance and doggedness.

This is what the march achieved:

* Eritreans felt good to see Ethiopians in their midst. This is the first time in my life that I witnessed Eritreans and Ethiopians in an important event walking together in support of each other. It was historic and surreal.

* It was joyful to see the reaction of Eritreans as they welcomed their Ethiopian brothers and sisters because it was sincere.

* It showed that we do not have to fight and that we can work together.

* It introduced Ethiopians to Eritrean communities first-hand and, enabled them to see how Eritrean communities operate, in person.

* For the first time, Eritreans and Ethiopians have a legitimate way to reach out for one another using channels they can work with. In other words, a Weyane agent cannot claim to be Eritrean and fool any one because we have a legitimate link. For example, when the decision was-made to set this conference, Ethiopians knew whom to contact. That is important, because it streamlines the process. From now on, all we have to do is build on it.

* It gave the cancer of the Horn of Africa, Meles Zenawi and the TPLF gangs, many sleepless nights because Ethiopians are controlling their agenda and working with Eritreans openly.

The march was symbolic. It was a groundbreaking ceremony. It was a sign of a new day for Eritreans and Ethiopians. It was a moment that Ethiopians shed the past in an effort to move forward. It was also significant because it sent a message to all Ethiopians around the world that, they are welcome by Eritreans everywhere. It was simply magnificent and surreal to witness how Eritreans cheered all those who stood on the podium regardless of what language they used to address them.

The key, President Isaias said Eritreans and Ethiopians needed to talk to each other and work-together. Well, it must be clear to all Ethiopians by now; it is not just President Isaias who welcomed Ethiopians, but thousands of Eritreans welcomed Ethiopians indeed; and those that marched are a reflection of the entire Eritrean nation.

What next?

If the march was a groundbreaking ceremony, it means that we need to build a foundation. We need to build a foundation from concrete, steel and all the sturdy materials that make a foundation solid to the point that nothing can shake it loose.

That foundation needs to be principled and simple. It needs to embrace PEACE as a core- value. We need to embrace the idea of my-brothers-keeper. That means we need to stand for one another, not against each other. We need to refocus on what matters the most to us. That means kids and mothers that suffered for decades, helplessly. We need to make a commitment to support each other. We need to work to rebuild our social and physical infrastructures. We need to build our schools, hospitals and reservoirs. In, simple terms, we need to focus on the bread and butter issues and nothing else. Therefore, we must learn to cooperate in every arena: as sovereign nations, as people, as friends and as neighbors. Now that we have established a link based on people-to-people, we can expand into other areas; but first, let us get rid of the mercenary thug in Menelik Palace.

However, while the possibilities to work for the greater good are there, we cannot underestimate the threats. We need to be aware, know what the threats are, identify them, and be ready to challenge them. The threats are:

* There are many actors with varied interests keen on keeping the status-quo. They are not interested about the people as long as they can benefit by gaining power, influence and money ala Meles Zenawi and his cronies

* There are nations, including the major powers that have a much bigger ambitious agendas. Unfortunately, their interest never-aligns with the interest of the people in the region.

* Some of the threats are-based on our weaknesses, lack of understanding, ethnic and religious tendencies and egos.

* The combinations of these forces can work together all at the same time.

Unfortunately, the people in the Horn of Africa are facing all 4 threats all the time. A combination of greedy individuals, such as Meles, led and financed by superpowers with their own agendas; and the people from the Horn of Africa that are susceptible to division based on race, religion, ethnicity, stubbornness and egos.

In addition, one of the biggest problems we have, as people, is that we fail to communicate with each other genuinely. We lack understanding on how the PR works and how they use it on us. That is the number one weapon for information, disinformation and PR propaganda manipulations.

They have organized mechanisms, think tanks and various institutes to get as to talk about their agendas constantly. They use radio programs they fund through individuals. You can call him Niguse or Rezene, whoever. These people are easy to manipulate cheap. The TPLF gang uses the same tactics to attack the new relation between Eritreans and Ethiopians. However, people have tuned out the TPLF gang because everything they claim is exaggeration, misleading, fabrication, deceitful, condescending and outright lies. And they have learned, effective and aggressive ways to lobby their message- through.

Leading up to the march, TPLF did all that it can to discredit the Ethiopian marchers and the event but failed. After seeing the traction of the new Eritrean-Ethiopian relation, it has gone full force to try to own the issue and stop the momentum. They organized a conference and Meles said that he is willing to talk to President Isaias fully knowing well that it won’t happen.

Here is the kicker. In order to take attention away from this conference, TPLF sent a group, ostensibly in the name of “Opposition” from Ethiopia and they are holding a conference in Seattle as we speak. Here is what is funny. There is an election scheduled to take place in Ethiopia next month and these people are in Seattle campaigning to what end? And not to be outdone; they are featuring Ms. Birtukan Medeksa in their website as if she is there in person. The irony is, these people cannot and do not mention her name while in Ethiopia but they are trying to use her name in Seattle? That shows their total lack of integrity! While that is an attempt to create division and water-down the impact of this conference, it is also a sign of their desperation.

Ethiopians have taken control of their issues and messages. They are doing it on their own time and their way. Weizero Birtukan is here in spirit, and if she were here today, she will not be in Seattle; she will be here to address this group and expose the Weyane duplicity.

Concluding remarks

Our work just begun and we are on the right track. Over the last year, we have accomplished a lot. From the accomplishments, the most satisfying achievement is the fact that we have partners. We know when we want to deal with Ethiopians where to go and vice versa. That will help to streamline our collective messages and propel the relationship to a new height.

For decades, we grew apart and developed unneeded animosity. We all have take responsibility and take part of the blame. But what is sad is we have a lot that unites us. I have used this quote from Dr. Haile Mezghebe in the past and I will use it again because it is very relevant. We need to hear this repeatedly so it can sink in because it will make a difference.

He said, paraphrasing, {when I went to school, I learned how my teachers worked on issues. If there are 10 issues on the table and they disagreed on all nine but agreed on one issue; they set aside the nine and worked on- the-one issue they agreed on and worked up-words from there. To the contrary, while agreeing on all nine issues if we disagree on one issue, that one issue will tear-us-apart and become a major source of conflict.}That is powerful statement.

We have more reasons for unity that any issue that could create a wedge. There should be no hurdle to strengthen our relationship. I personally do not see any issues that could stop us from achieving the highest-form of friendship, partnership and neighborly relation.

The only issue that some Ethiopians dangle is the issue of access to the sea. However, Eritreans want Ethiopians to the have access to the sea as well. Eritreans want Ethiopia to be a successful nation. As President Isaias stated, Eritrea wants a united Ethiopia that is successful. The only impediment to improving the lives of millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans is not lack of access to the sea; it is the emotional barriers, lack of imagination and unwillingness to accept the reality; otherwise, there is no limit to what we could achieve as long as there is respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty.

Therefore, our focus needs be to work together for the sake of peace and to bring a lasting change for the people of the Horn of Africa. Otherwise, we will continue on the same path, and exacerbate the current problems.

This is a question that we must ask; does any one think that, what is taking place in Somalia would continue if Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans and others from the region stood united and stood against it consistently? The answer is, No!

US policy in Africa will not change. That is something we need to accept as reality. For evidence, review the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9, 2010 hearing on Africom. Listen to all the recent comments by various US officials, and most importantly, look-back at the events that unfolded during the climate conference in Copenhagen between President Obama, President Sarkozy and Meles.

The only way US policy will change is if we are united. We have to be able to stand for each other. We have to be a unit to have a voice. That is how we can bring change we can believe in. That is how we can bring respect and sanity back to our people. That is how we can earn respect and demand accountability from politicians.

If we see unjustified incrimination on our Somali brothers today and you failed to stand up today, it will happen to you tomorrow. To do that, we have to overlook the baggage we carried for decades and look forward. We are all in the same boat regardless of where we come from. Therefore, we need to make a personal commitment to make sure that we are committed to the wellbeing of each other, for the safety, growth and wellbeing of our people.

There is a saying in Eritrea and it goes like this. “Firdi Guana Keinan Yu Metakosi.” What that means is when a stranger judges, it is always bent or twisted and creates fights amongst brothers. That means we have to look for indigenous solutions. To achieve that, we need to learn to trust each other by working through legitimate channels, by making a commitment for peace and each other.

As an Eritrean, I am glad and proud to know that my people and government are committed to the ideals I expressed.

I would like to make it clear that all the comments are my comments.

I sincerely thank the organizers of the event for doing a great job and for overcoming challenges. I would like to thank and congratulate Ato Neamin for doing a great job.

(The above was delivered at the recent Horn of Africa Conference on Good Governance that was held in the Washington Metro Area. Ato Amanuel Biedemariam can be reached at [email protected])