Happy Eid, Happy Independence Day with all its Mixed Feelings

2020-05-24 09:23:30 Written by  Woldeyesus Ammar Published in English Articles Read 356 times

It is a great coincidence to celebrate in one day both Eritrea’s Independence Day and Eid al-Fitr of 2020. Therefore, every one of us is sharing with other compatriots the best wishes on these two great days, which are, unfortunately, celebrated under abnormal situations. This year, the usual happiness and togetherness of  Eid  Day is adversely affected by the unusual Covid-19. On the other hand, the low mood Eritreans are again celebrating their 29th Independence Day this year is not because of the coronavirus. In fact, it is over a quarter of a century since the vast majority of the Eritrean people started celebrating this great day with mixed feeling: on the one hand, very happy because 24 May 1991 was an important step in their costly struggle for peace and democracy; and on the other hand, very sad because the years that followed that great day have not proven to be great.

By the way, I am afraid those to whom the message would be educative may not read any line further in this piece for they unfortunately do not care to know what others knew, thought and wrote about Isaias Afeworki  20, 30, 40 etc years ago. This writer is one of those who knew some aspects of the in-born intolerance, intransigence, never-ending grudge and hatefulness in Isaias Afeworki.

Twenty-one years ago this week in 1999, I happened to be a subscriber to an online/email discussion group called Dehai. It was heavily dominated by PFDJ supporters although it, ironically, allowed subscription to some critics of the regime like Saleh Gadi and me.  A few days before the 8th anniversary of Eritrean Independence, one of the Dehai discussants (I believe it was Dr Tesfa Mehari of UK) asked what the Eritrean people expected to hear from their president on that occasion. No doubt I was of the conviction that the man was as hard-headed as ever before, but as part of my input to the discussion – call it a realist sarcasm - I posted in the Dehai group on 23 May 1999 an article entitled: “A Draft 8th Anniversary Speech” for the Eritrean President.” The draft speech “hoped” Isaias will  confess his past mistakes and beg the people’s forgiveness.

Today (23 May 2020), I don’t have the drive to write or lament about the chain of tragic occurrences that continued to affect our ‘independent’ state ever since May 1999. But allow me to again say Eid Mubarak and Happy Independence Day while inviting interested readers (especially the young generation) to go over this 21-year old draft speech reprinted below as a piece in our sad recent history. Good reading or re-reading – and I tell you it is a must read “draft speech”!

***

A 1999 Draft Speech for Isaias on 8th

Anniversary of Eritrean Independence 

My Beloved Compatriots!!

Allow me to extend to everyone of you my sincere congratulations and greetings at this august occasion marking the 8th  anniversary of our independence - that brilliant feat of valour, which took us 50 long years of political and armed struggle, and in the realization of which all of us, in one  way or another, contributed immensely.

You know me as someone who usually speaks out his heart, sometimes to your detriment. You used to accept all what I said, and I thank you for that trust and loyalty. Well, that is what you thought of my straight-forwardness and me. But to be frank with you, I have my other side, a weaker side. I have not been admitting or telling you the serious mistakes I committed, and I thank you for not raising them by yourselves. Today, you will hear from me not the success stories, which are there speaking for themselves, but the shortcomings, the mistakes. But please do not equate mistakes to crimes.

You may already have come across some people who started associating me -of course wrongly - with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the super ethnicist Serb dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. I don't want history to have me queued with those evil men. I must, with your help, start making corrections, now deemed to be absolutely necessary. Therefore, it is the down-to-earth frank part of me addressing you today. I will be brief and concentrate on the most important mistakes I committed, and made my government commit, in the past few years.

You all know that the most important national issue is that of unity of our people and I will focus on it; I admit it was a mistake on my part to have relegated it for so long. As you may recall, I have been telling you that there was no other nation as solidly unified as ours. Frankly speaking, that was not true. After half a century of war and suffering, you deserved peace with erstwhile enemies, all neighbours and harmony amongst yourselves. I promise to deliver both in the future. My address will, thus, concentrate on our national unity and good neighbourliness.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION

After years of sweat and blood, your common struggle cleared all hurdles on the way to the desired goal. It was eight  years to the day today that Eritrean liberation fighters once again reached the immediate approaches to Asmara - proudly with guns on shoulder, and no one to challenge their brave march forward.

I confess that my first mistake of the past eight years was committed that day - Day One of Your National Independence. I know you do not expect me to say it, but I will say it for our common good and common future. Only the brave can say this, you know, and I have never been a coward.

On that day [of May 19991], my dear compatriots, I should not have entered Asmara alone.  I now realize that I should have stopped in the outskirts of liberated Asmara and call on all forces other than those in my ranks by addressing them in these words:

 «Here we are old comrades, finally a Free Nation! I will not enter Asmara leaving you behind. We had different ways. You did your part, I did mine. Let us not now talk as to who did better and when. It is for historians to allocate credit for roles our people played under their different organizations in the past. It is now a new era for our country and people and we are destined, rather condemned, to build it together with all the difficulties that we may encounter. Come all for a National Reconciliation Conference in the outskirts of your capital. By the way, I am inviting to this Conference even Abdalla Idris, who reportedly received support from our enemy, the Dergue, not very long ago. I know he made a mistake. But, so did I - one in 1970 inside Asmara at the Kagnew Base, and again in 1980, when I solicited the support of the Woyanes to help me liquidate an Eritrean front. So, let bye-gone be bye-gone. I will be magnanimous. We will start anew. »

I tell you that with such an invitation [in 1991], I could have brought all those weakened factions under a national fold, without any challenge to my authority. This may be true also for a long time to come and that is why I find it practicale to accommodate all others.

In the past, failure to reconcile with our compatriots/fellow strugglers caused us unnecessary problems. I do candidly admit today that the so-called “extremists” organized in the form of “jihad” were created because of an apparently exclusivist policy, which I now see was wrong.

I know I did not do my utmost to create conducive atmosphere in order to encourage the return of tens of thousands of Eritreans in the Diaspora. It was untenable political calculations and avoidable administrative red tape that inhibited the return of many of our people, some of them with lots of money by our standards. A friend was reminding me the other day that [ten] years ago I mentioned to you in a speech the figure of USD 2 billion to have been the estimated amount required for the rehabilitation of the country. The same friend also confided to me that Eritrea could have benefited from the inflow of well over USD 1 billion of investment capital from its own nationals abroad had my government succeeded to encourage its own people to come back and rebuild their future without constraints. This was true, my countrymen and women, because at least 100,000 of those Eritreans abroad coming in with an average of USD 10-15,000 each, could have easily brought in well over USD 1 billion in the initial period.  This amount could have worked wonders in this country. But, unfortunately, many of our compatriots had to remain where they were or go to Ethiopia; and we all know what has happened in Ethiopia to our people and their hard-won wealth during 1998-99.

Of course I regret for being partly a cause for the displacement of [70,000] or more Eritreans from Ethiopia. That was not all, though. The failure to assist the return of well over 500,000 long-time refugees from the Sudan was not the mistake of the UNHCH, the former UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs or of the international NGOs. Those international bodies were, we must admit, willing to help. They even came up with a repatriation plan costing some USD 263 million intended to be collected from voluntary donors. It was a mistake on my part to insist that the UN agencies/donors give us the money to do the job by ourselves or they go home. Those agencies went home, but our refugees stayed outside home. I am sorry for that. Our refugees deserved sympathy and assistance to return home.

It is an open secret that my government and I wrongly decided, from the start, to exclude other Eritreans outside our immediate circle from having any say in state affairs. This included not only opposition fronts but also individuals of independent stand. I decided on the issue of national flag, and also issued a decree defining who is Eritrean and who is not. On that basis, those who wanted to vote for the referendum carrying their own organizational identities were refused a say. I now appreciate their position and would no more dare call their stand an act of national betrayal. Believe me it was not. I misled you. In effect, what they were asking was participation in political decision making. Allowing them just that could have proven a good start in our long journey for democratic exercise in New Eritrea. Among other regrets I have is my decision to dismiss the participation of other political organizations and viewpoints in drafting of the constitution. I now see, and I beg you to concur, that our document has many flaws - including on the issue of official languages, for instance. I insisted on the fake equality of nine languages for official use. We will have to reconsider that too, in the near future.

You may remember that at one point during the past [ten] years, I stressed that those «Eritreans » who went to school in the Arab world have no place in the new Eritrea whose laws we determine, and that they better start looking for new homes where they will be able to use the language of their education and choice. It was a mistake; I should not have said it, at least not so bluntly. Such things take time to straighten out.

Before the start of Year 2000, Eritrea must put on the image that it deserves. We will not limit ourselves to revising laws; we will start implementing them correctly. This country will not again have political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. I will let in even the Jehovah's witnesses to come back home and live in peace alongside everybody. You will be reading and writing anything of your liking. I am changing our ways. The great organization that played historic role in the final stages of the liberation of this country is not to be blamed for all what I erred in recent years. The organization was tolerating my excesses in good faith. Immediately after this ceremony, I will submit my apologies and self-criticism to that great organization and its devoted members whose name I blemished recklessly since independence.

It is an occasion to renew our pride in the gallantry of the Eritrean Defense Forces, pride which is shared, I should not lie to you, by all Eritreans of all political colours. Let me also reassure everyone in this country that, in the future, we will not mobilize our youth for irrational wars.

My Countrymen and Women,

Allow me to take this opportune moment to table another important self-criticism regarding the unfortunate proclamation on the question of land. Many of you could have been affected by it. I will not dwell on details of the subject except mentioning the grave negative effect this decision had on large segments of our people, especially those in the former « demeniale » or colonial era state lands in the eastern and western lowland stretches of our country. By failing to make careful decision in consultation and the participation of everybody, we uprooted thousands of herdsmen and semi-peasants by expropriating their grazing lands. The law did not consider any state compensation for such action.

The beneficiaries of the expropriated lands were many among our close supporters and people with big money. We all know that what the herdsmen and semi-peasants had in their possession was mainly their land and the ever-diminishing number of livestock. Now they do not own land because they do not have the means to develop it; many of those whose land has been taken by the state still live in the squalor-ridden refugee camps across Eritrea's borders.

And bear with me to add the following example in order to underline the importance I personally attach to this subject: I do clearly remember what had happened in 1967 at the village of Sember in the Gash area. Fifty armed peasant settlers from other parts of the country were given land by the Ethiopian authorities who were interested in « pacifying » the region by killing or evicting its inhabitants and resettling others in their place. Those 50 innocent but armed peasants were killed, probably by angry young orphans from Sember, wearing fighters' uniforms. Anyway, at that time I was able to exploit that incident to create a unified political organization that I thought was needed. But similar killing incidents today by people evicted by our laws in the same Gash-Barka region will not serve any good purpose. After all, delivering social justice was one of our commitments. It is therefore high time that we straighten this anomaly before someone comes up to equate this situation to that of re-settlers in Palestinian farmlands. I already read somewhere this situation being described as remotely similar to the hated Ethiopian "nefTegna" type of settlements in the 19th century. That is why I request your support in rewriting our laws regarding ownership of land in New Eritrea. I will raise other burning issues in my forthcoming 20 June speech.

GOOD NEIGHBOURLINESS

Let me swear today by the Almighty God, for the first time, that I will never again commit mistakes that can turn our beloved Eritrea to a rogue state. You all know what I mean.

I cannot explain to you why, as of Day One of our Independence, I decided to brand all the Arabs not only as enemies but also as useless [beings] with whom little serious business could be done. Israel came first, although its right place should have been last in the list of our good friends and neighbours. I am sorry for that miscalculation. I have been correcting it fast.

I also realize now that there was no major reason to sever our economic, political and social relations with the Sudan, which in many ways was the strategic depth of our struggle and source of livelihood for many of our displaced people. It was only a crazy regime in Iran, which handed over a legally established embassy of a sovereign state to a liberation organization. I have done a similar mistake, but I will not repeat such unnecessary act in the future.

My language against others, including the United Nations, the Arab League, and the OAU has not been helpful, and I have taken a note on that.

Today, I will not talk about the martyrs at Hannish and the substantial amount of money spent for that small adventure. I will talk about it on 20 June. Also on the latter date, I will inform you all what you deserve to know about that irrational war with our southern neighbour, Ethiopia. I was aware of the fact that using force to reclaim a disputed territory –in our case mainly Badme - constitutes a serious mistake in international dealings. I have now decided to listen to your wishes, which you did not utter forcefully, as well as the demands of the international community and resort to peaceful means to regain our land, which has been left to Ethiopian occupation since 1981. I can no more deny the fact that I am partly the cause for the avoidable death and disability of many of your sons and daughters. Do not consider it a crime; I swear I will not repeat such a grave mistake.

I will continue to lead you to a brighter future. Just forget all shortcomings of the past. Keep supporting me, and especially those of you in the Diaspora.

Awet nhzbi Eritra !!

President Isaias Afworki

24 May, 1999

A Draft Speech for Isaias Afeworki 1999 2

Last modified on Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:38