The Land of Confusion

Ethiopia has a rich culture of welcoming guests. But it seems that it is not as welcoming to its own citizens as it looks. A look back in history could show that the nation fails to recognise even those citizens who died for it. Connecting the political, historical and current affairs threads in the nation would show that Ethiopia has much to confuse analysts and commentators.

A country once synonymous with famine and civil strife, no less long distance runners, has hosted one of the largest international conferences in recent history. Several Heads of States, the United Nations Secretary-General, heads of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, other international financial institutions, and journalists comprised the over 7,000 guests who landed at the Bole International Airport to attend the Third International Financing for Development (FFD) Conference.

Pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) underscored what is already known, and that is, if the world focuses on pressing global problems, tremendous achievements can be made. This, of course, is notwithstanding the various problems that hinder development from occurring, here and there.

Assessments of the previous achievements in general, seem to be encouraging and at this rate of development, achievement of the sustainable development goals is hoped to be even more encouraging.

But everything has to be viewed within context. At a time when arch-rivals like US and Cuba are ending their 50 years of rivalry, some African leaders are digging graves to bury hopes of democracy in their country and trying to add salt to old wounds. Ethiopia seems no exception to this, despite her cosmetics.

Scars of war never heal so soon. Fifteen years have just gone by since the Algiers Treaty was signed to end the bloody Ethio-Eritrean war which had taken the lives of over 70,000 men and women in uniform.

It was one of the “senseless” wars in the recent history of the world. The battle was seized abruptly at a time when Eritrea was on the brink of losing key battle grounds which could have brought it to peace talks and agree to proposals according to our terms of bargain. But that was not to be.

Former Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin had come back from Algiers, breathing an air of victory, announcing that according to the provisions in the treaty, Badime was to remain part and parcel of sovereign Ethiopia. He had played a stark political game and it was later discovered that the opposite was true.

The Claims Commission had put the blame for igniting the destructive battle on Eritrea, and hundreds of tons of imported goods and chemicals at the port were to be quantified, and accounted for indemnity. Rich businessfolk hoping to be paid in money or in kind were just forgotten. Some of them had appealed that they be freed of their bank loans.

The then Minister of Trade & Industry rejected their requests explaining that banks are not part of his ministry. Most of them now wander around towns. As for those youngsters coming from all parts of the country who lost their lives in battle, no kind of memorial service, not even one minute of silence, was held, not to speak of their being awarded or marked as national heroes who would have deserved monuments and statues.

That is only the tip of the iceberg. The 1998 battle was waged only after seven year of the sweet taste of freedom. I had been to Eritrea on duty before and after independence.

That was the time when the former president was still an agile lieutenant in the person of a sturdy Girma Woldegiorgis, the standing official representing the special committee of the Transport & Communication Campaign. I had visited both ports – Massawa and Assab. I was also there after the war representing the Ministry of Information as member of the High Ministerial Commission led by the then Prime Minister Tamirat Layne.

The mission had signed bilateral agreements which were taken as game changers of the road map towards formulating a strong tie in the political, social and economic cooperation between the two countries. Every evening, during our stay in Asmara, as we socialised in different corners of the city, we were surprised to encounter the unexpected hospitality of the residents of Asmara.

We were enjoying Amharic music everywhere we roamed. At every tavern or bordello, we were invited by people who never disclosed their identities. The long year’s history of having lived together was showing its lasting impacts.

The only trace of the scar I had observed during my second mission was at the Port of Massawa, where a fierce battle had taken place. The historical mosque had a massive hole in its dome and the railway line at the port was devastated. The Dergue’s forces never took any bombing or blasting in the city of Asmara while they could have made a Gaza Strip out of it. That was because the army was not capable of destroying Asmara even at the eleventh hour of desperate retreat. It simply was because the objective of the war was not of remorse or revenge but of saving the sovereignty and integrity of that historic land.

That carries us back to the causes of the civil war that dragged for over 30 years in Africa. As the saying goes “the devil is in the details”, I will leave that to the likes of Zewde Retta (Amb.) and Gabru Asrat for the iceberg of the whole conflict.

When the 1998 war raged between the two countries, the pretext was the belligerence involving the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. It did not take much coaxing to bring Ethiopians from the four corners of the world to the war front.

By then, the narratives were quite different and crucial. Badime, which we knew as an integral part of Ethiopia, had to be saved from aggression. That we did at a very high cost of blood and bones.

The battle had to be suspended by the high echelons at a crucial moment when the Eritrean forces had fallen in the hands of the Ethiopian forces and were fleeing leaving the key sites including the proximity of Assab Port and even Asmara. As a follow up of the battle, the Algiers Peace Treaty had to be signed in 2000.

The UN mission had resolved that Badime was lost to the Eritrean government. But critics say that we were made to believe the reverse was true when the Former Foreign Minister upon his return from Algiers congratulated Ethiopians heralding that the Commission has decided that Badime was part of Ethiopia. But the truth on the ground was revealed the other way.

The Claims Commission had resolved that Eritrea was to be blamed for having triggered the war and indemnity for the impacts and consequences, was therefore its responsibility. But that was never implemented. Importers who had borrowed money from banks were languishing on the streets of cities and towns. Ethiopia seems to have fallen back from the Algiers treaty judging by the statements still being made today.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn cannot forget the men and women in uniform who fell in the battlefield 15 years ago. It is not too long a time to forget the scars of war.

Yet, he recently said the Eritrean government’s threat as a detrimental step to the peace and security of the country and with the consent of the people the country will be forced “to retaliate by force”. He said that at a time when he requested the House to approve over 200 billion Br to be covered from loans, grants and inland revenues.

Was the landslide vote-winning a calculated forgone measure to ensure that no opposition was heard?

Another intriguing event was the sudden and unexpected release from prison of some bloggers and journalists by decision to withdraw the case without declaring whether or not it was a provisional clemency or “fait accompli”. While the individual freedom is to be appreciated, the decision begs for more questions than it gives answers.

Published on Jul 20,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 794]



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