Original ‘Spencerite’ Path to Ethio-Eritrea Relations



With the Executive Committee of the EPRDF’s decision to implement the Algiers Agreement without preconditions, the debate over the fate of the two nations relationship has intensified. While many opinions have been forwarded, the original idea by John H. Spencer still applies, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(assegued@anfilo.com)


It is the early 1990s in Addis Abeba and a collection of rebels, newly installed in power as a transitional government, are busily drawing up a constitution that will federalise the country along lingo-cultural boundaries as well as a preparing for a referendum that may allow Eritreans to secede from Ethiopia.

In Oakland, California a dinner crowd is gathered at a small restaurant to honour John H. Spencer, the longtime legal assistant to Emperor Haile Selassie, author of the celebrated book “Ethiopia at Bay” and architect of Eritrea’s federated union with Ethiopia in 1952.

It is a period of a juxtaposition of rhetoric and events and one of those recurring moments of opportunities squandered by the country.

The private dinner has followed a public meeting in the afternoon to raise money for an opposition group that claims to launch an armed struggle to oust the rebel government.

Spencer, the keynote speaker at the public gathering, has urged the crowd to “leave behind your homes, wives, children and jobs and to return to the homeland and fight against those who intent on dismembering Ethiopia.”

In the evening, where Spencer presides at the head table of the secluded dinner, the talk is boisterous, defiant and full of bravado against the transitional government in Addis Abeba.

The discussions have reached a crescendo of celebrations, affirmations and noisy expressions of battle cries when an attendee, sitting opposite Spencer, suddenly poses a crucial question to the historian, “are you not, sir, the man who crafted the unification of Eritrea by the Emperor?”

The voices around the table immediately fall silent as Spencer struggles to compose an answer.

The man persists with the questions, “why did you not advise the Emperor against dissolving the Eritrean parliament and abolishing the federation? Is it not this action by your client that has led to all the troubles we have had with Eritrea ever since?”

The table erupts into confusions, accusations and recriminations and another attendee jumps up leading the attack on the speaker. He demands to know how a “weyane,” a pejorative term used for one of the rebels, has managed to penetrate an invitation-only dinner.

As is the case too often, Ethiopian political discussions descend into emotions, blames and personal decisions that run afoul of facts and deliberations. The fact is that Eritrea’s relationship with Ethiopia is fraught with series of missteps by a parade of governments and administrations who have failed to keep the two nations united, or to keep the peace between them.

On the face of it, the union of the two countries makes all the sense in the world. Just from the economic standpoint alone – leaving aside proximities in geography, history, culture, and religion – unification is a well-matched proposal.

Unfortunately, high passions and grandiose visions on both sides have controlled the issues, plunging the idea of a union into generations of wars and disputes. From the Ethiopian side, there is the megalomaniac obsession with “owning” Eritrea rather than creating equal partnerships of nations.

On the Eritrean side, the same megalomania operates, only with a slight variation of “doing it alone” attitude controlled by an obsessive leader with a misguided view of what nation-building is.

The policy of carrots and sticks carried out by the imperial government has not worked in keeping Ethiopia, and Eritrea united, nor has the civil war the Dergueengaged in.

Early on with the transitional government, a rational policy on the question of Eritrea could have been accomplished by dusting-up and studying unification document of December 1950, “Report of the UN Commission for Eritrea,” that J.H. Spencer helped prepare while representing Ethiopia. This document, adopted by the General Assembly, is a legal basis under international law that could have paved the way for a much closer Ethio-Eritrea relationship.

The transitional government at the time should have opted for national debates and policy discussions to take place on the issues.  Its leaders could have presented the UN document to the nation to serve as the basis for keeping Eritrea in the fold while at the same time using it as a model to federalise the rest of Ethiopia’s provinces.

It would have made sense then to debate, negotiate and keep the federation, grant Eritrea near total autonomy and apply the same system to federalise the rest of the country into autonomous provinces.

In the end, it is the economy and the unrestricted movements of people across free borders that matter most to a people of a nation. This is what allowed countries of the European Union to flourish and to remain beacons of freedom and prosperity.

The dinner gathering in Oakland missed an opportunity to ask and learn substantive accounts from Spencer, a man who has contributed significantly to the modern issues of legality, nationhood and governance in Ethiopia.

Spencer procures all the documents and articulates the legal arguments that delivered Eritrea from British hold into the arms of Ethiopia. It is under his watch, too, that the Emperor abridges that same union and annexes Eritrea as one of the provinces of the empire in 1962.

Spencer fails to prevent or persuade Haile Selassie from a fateful decision. The same Eritrean problem leads to the collapse of the Dergueand leaves a festering wound on the nation’s body politic.

It is, therefore, appropriate and proper to question Spencer about his actions, or lack of them – why he kept silent as his client goes astray of a legal framework that he helped prepare.

If Spencer preaches Ethiopians to raise arms against a regime intent on dismembering his handiwork, the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation, he opens himself up to questions as to why he kept his distance and allowed the annexation to proceed.

The opportunity to ask Spenser elapsed with his death in 2005, but we should ask now how Ethiopia can emerge out of the “ethnic divisions that have frozen ethnicity in a political identity,” to quote Yonatan Fessha, in his article The Original Sin of Ethiopian Federalism.

We should also ask if reunification with Eritrea is still a viable prospect in this age of possibilities.



By AMBESSAW ASSEGUED (assegued@anfilo.com)


Published on Jun 23,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 947]


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