‘Harmonized Constitution’: Too Good To Be True

Saturday, 21 August 2010 15:58 Berekhetab Habtemariam
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 ‘Harmonized Constitution’: Too Good To Be True

Islamism is a political ideology derived from the conservative religious views of Muslim fundamentalism. It holds Islam is not only a religion, but a political system that also governs the legal, economic and social imperatives of the state.  The goal of Islamism is to re-shape the state by implementing its conservative formulation of Islamic law. (World iQ)

No matter what the influences of Islamic schools of thought, Eritreans have always stood together irrespective of their religious differences. Beyond cultural ties and lineal links, the main reason is probably that they both face a common enemy. This association is expected to become stronger and enable the realization of a prosperous, unified and peaceful nation. But alas, false messiahs are spreading malice and panic among the people. A divided Eritrea suits their comprador mentality and compliments their brand of religion. Out of the blues, there is name calling and finger pointing that tend to bewilder the innocent. First the abusive articles, then the uncompromising Covenant, and now the so called ‘Harmonized Constitution’ all but to corner ‘us’ offhanded. In light of these developments, digging down a little history could be helpful not only to understand the recent gush of hatred and scorn but also for self defense.

Referring to works of known researchers such as David Pool, Redie Bereketab and Okbazghi Yohannes, to mention a few, might be considered as biased by Islamists. I know how allergic they are to people who do not sympathize with their cause. Instead, let us quote some one by the name of Joseph L. Venosa, who is very sympathetic to them and who wrote a thesis called “Faith in the Nation: Examining the Contributions of Eritrean Muslims in the Nationalist Movement, 1946-1961.” In this study, Venosa comments as follows:

     “The unique character of Islam practiced by these different people (in Eritrea) was strongly influenced by the intercultural travel of Muslim scholars and mystics from Egypt, Arabia, Yemen, and other reaches of (the) Islamic world.” (pp.28, ‘Faith in the Nation’, Joseph L. Venosa, 2007)

In the same study, Venosa states that Sufi Brotherhoods in Eritrea were instrumental in the establishment of “contacts with centers of study across the Islamic world, including Al-Azhar University in Cairo” (p.27, Venosa). The above two comments establish, beyond any doubt, that Islam in Eritrea has been receptive of foreign influences whose goals may go contrary to realities in Eritrea. But, let us not make jumpy conclusions. Let us see if there are any traits in our recent history that verify these allegations.  

In the 1940’s Muslim leaders broke away from the Mahber Feqer Hager (an association for a united political expression of the Eritrean people) and established the Moslem League. This, promoted sectarianism in Eritrea. At that time, the leaders of that organization did not publicly declare, as a final goal, the establishment of an Islamic state for such a statement would have meant the loss of solidarity from Eritrean Christians. The other factor deferring such a declaration was the fact that the different ethnic groups professing Islam had very little in common aside to religion. Hence, more time and work was necessary to create the semblance of a common character and history before embarking to the next stage. A writer in Awate.com by the name of Omar Jabir puts it very frankly. Defending the establishment of an Islamic body, he writes: “…there are social and cultural components in the Islamic body that cannot be ignored and left behind. Their participation and contribution in the building of the national unity—the unification of the Islamic body on proper foundation--would shorten the journey.”(‘Eritrean Islamists: Focus On The Root Not The Branches’, Omar Jabir – Awate.com, Aug 30, 2009).  

Contrary to this, the Moslem League’s objection to the British proposal of partition is seen as a credible, pro-independence stand. Definitely, it did contribute in holding Eritrea together, but the underlying causes may have been something else. First of all, partition was understood to mean a dividing line delivering the western lowlands to Sudan and uniting the rest of the country with Ethiopia (Bevin-Sforza Plan). This would automatically deliver to Ethiopia the eastern lowlands and pockets of Islamic communities in highland areas. This would have simply been a suicide for the Moslem League. In particular the Jeberti, who recently migrated from Ethiopia claiming religious discrimination there, would not have liked to go back to a similar situation. Besides, abandoning a major part of Eritrea to Ethiopia would have been contrary to the designs of Egypt (and Sudan) who, since the Khedive, had this vicious dream of controlling Eritrea; and, depending on the influences of external forces, this motive may have created the necessary psychological setting. The other reason is that at that time the leaders of the Moslem League were confident that their final aim of establishing an Islamic state would be realized once Eritrea becomes a free nation. This was assumable not only because of the massive religious and political support from places extending from Sudan to the Middle East and beyond, but also because the same leaders felt that Moslems composed the majority in Eritrea. Again, Venosa quotes Dr. Bereket Habte-Selassie (‘Conflict and Intervention in the Horn of Africa’ ) who confirms a statement delivered by Ibrahim Sultan at the United Nations:

     “Ibrahim Sultan, the Moslem League’s representative to the UN, was the first of the envoys to appear...Sultan’s argument attempted to place the emphasis of the fact that there was already a decidedly ‘Islamic character’ within Eritrea itself. Sultan contended that approximately 75 percent of all Eritreans were Muslims and that the remaining non-Muslim population, being a heterogeneous mix of predominantly Christian and animist sect with an equally diverse linguistic mixture, ‘shared no affinities to the Ethiopian people.’ In his defense of Eritrean autonomy, Sultan placed special focus on how any incorporation of Eritrea with Ethiopia would prove detrimental to Muslim inhabitants: having thus no ethnic, religious, historical, or economic bonds with Ethiopia, the Eritrean Muslims were strongly opposed to the annexation of Eritrea to Ethiopia.”

In view of the above testimony, let us hear what Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar has to say regarding the composition and origin of the Eritrean people. In the ‘Eritrean Covenant’, an article he wrote on Feb 12, 2010 at Awate.com, he says:

     “Eritrean Muslims recognize that Eritrea’s cultural communities have cross-border extensions as well: while the Christians of the Highlands find their religious and cultural kin inside Ethiopia similar to the Jeberti and the Saho speaking tribes; Muslims of the Western regions find it across the border in Sudan; and some Eritrean Muslims who inhabit the coastal regions of the Red Sea find their extensions across the Red Sea, while Afar Eritreans have their kin inside Ethiopia and Djibouti; and the Kunama have their kin in Ethiopia." 

In the same article he continues to flatter us as follows:

    “No reliable official census has been taken but estimates (including those of the Government of Eritrea) put the proportion of Muslims and Christians in Eritrea as  more or less equal.”

Now, Mejlis Ibrahim confirms that parts of Eritrea are tied in blood relationship with Ethiopia and that the population of Eritrea is half and half, while his master and predecessor declared, in all certainty, that Eritreans had no relationship with Ethiopia and that 75% of the population of Eritrea were Moslems while the remaining Christian communities were insignificant. Well, with all due respect, who is saying what and who is telling the truth? I am not worried about the 75% claim for that number had never determined Eritrea’s history. If you were to take an account of the martyrs and war disabled you will find out that the 75% doesn’t even hold half the truth. But, Mejlis Ibrahim angers me by trying to fool us with numbers. He wants to dupe us with the feeling of ‘we are safe as long as we are 50-50’. That is cheap; an insult to our intelligence. Fact is that numbers do not determine democracy and the rule of law in a country, nor do they say anything about the unity or the disunity of a nation. It is rather concepts like the rights of the individual - especially that of women (and I highlight this for reasons of the male chauvinism inherent to the Sharia law), the separation of the state and religion, the protection of minorities, the rights of peaceful association and the rights of expression and movement, among others, that are central to a democratic, egalitarian, peaceful and law abiding governance in a country. Any thought based on numbers is simply crude and grossly limited to its own interests.

The same offensive but hidden agenda was continued by the ELF, an organization formed in Cairo by Idris Mohammed Adem, Idris Osman Gelawdewos and Osman Salih Sabbe. A prominent Christian leader in the fight for independence, namely the late Wolde-ab Wolde-Mariam, was in Cairo at the time the above three formed the ELF, but never invited to take part. This was simply because, as Osman Saleh Sabbe admitted latter, “…the leadership of the ELF, during this period, tended to favour Moslem participation. Therefore the participation on the part of Christians was given either secondary priority or viewed as dispensable.” (Bereketeab, ‘Eritrea: The Making of a Nation, 1890-1991’, 2000; p185).

One can also see the implication of this policy in the ELF’s decision and act of aggression against the Haraka (Mahber Shew-atte) because the latter asserted that Christians and Moslems were equal. Another evidence of this prejudiced policy was the division of Eritrea into 5 operational zones whose leaders were all Moslems: Mohammed Dinai (Beni Amir) chief of Zone 1 (Barka), Omar Azaz (Bilen) Chief of Zone 2 (Keren), Abd al-Karim Ahmed Chief of Zone 3 (Akele-Guzay and Seraie), and Mohammed Ali Omaro (Saho) chief of Zone 4 (Samhar and Dankalia), (David Pool, ‘From Guerrillas to Government’, 2001; p.51). This policy remained strong even though the number of Christian highlanders in the ELF continued to increase. A clear testimony is the composition of the leadership elected at the First Congress of the ELF held at Arr in November 1971 (http//:www.ehrea.org/Arr.htm):

1.    Idris Mohammed Adem, President
2.    Herui Tedla, First Vice President
3.    Abdella Idris Mohammed, Second Vice President
4.    Saleh Ahmed Eyay, Head of Foreign Office
5.    Mohammed Ismail Abdu, Head of Coordination
6.    Ibrahim Mohammed Ali
7.    Mohammed Osman Izaz
8.    Ahmed Ibrahim Nafi’e
9.    Mohammed Berhan Abdurahman
10.    Ahmed Mohammed Nasser
11.    Tesfai Tekle
12.    Mohammed Saleh Humed
13.    Shihem Ibrahim Shihem
14.    Amna Mohammed Ali Melekin
15.    Ali Osman Hinti
The congress also elected another 19 individuals to head a separate Executive Committee, whose names are as follows:

1.    Ibrahim Idris Toteel, Secretary
2.    Abdulkadir Ramadan
3.    Mahmoud Ibrahim Chekini
4.    Mahmoud Hassab
5.    Ibrahim Abdalla
6.    Saed Saleh
7.    Idris Ali
8.    Adem Mohammed Hamid
9.    Omar Haj Idris
10.    Suleiman Mussa Haj
11.    Humed Mohammed Saed Kulu
12.    Fitsum Gebreselassie
13.    Mohammed Idris Humedai
14.    Azien Yassin
15.    Mohammed Nur Ahmed
16.    Ibrahim Mahmoud Mohammed
17.    Afa Mohammed Hamid
18.    Ibrahim Ali Nur
19.    Omar Mohammed Ahmed

The above details shows only 8% of the appointees represented the assumedly 50% (Christian) of the population. This figure alone reaffirms Sabbe’s reservation on Christian participation, a fact that remained true throughout the remaining life of the ELF. The other important fact is that this Congress was held as a follow up to the 1969 Adobha Conference and at a time when progressive fighters had already broken their bondage and established the EPLF factions. The Adobha conference was a mass initiative against the segregationist leadership of the ELF, the sectarian and anti-Christian zonal administration and the indiscriminate killing and torturing of Christian combatants. “At that time, no Christian had any guarantee of safety. We were not even taking any malaria pills for fear we would be poisoned. In battles, we were mainly guarding ourselves against bullets that came from behind”, remembers Hale Woldensae (Dan Connel, ‘Inside the EPLF’, 2001, p.348).

Such atrocities were hoped to be redressed during the Adobha Conference, but instead the Islamists under Idris Gelawdeos furthered their attack. Haile remembers again: 

“They (the Islamists) dominated the Conference and immediately begun to imprison and kill the democratic forces. Before we could organize ourselves to resist, we had to escape.” (Connell, 2001, p.351).

These were the conditions that preceded the separatist movements of PLF-1 , PLF-2 and Obel and latter the formation of the EPLF by the first two factions. Among the founding members of the EPLF were Isaias Aforki, Mesfin Hagos, Mohammed Ali Umaro, Romedana Mohammed Nur, Mahmoud Sherifo, Abu bakar Mohammed Hassan, Ibrahim Afa, Ali Sayed Abdalla, Hassan Mohammed Amir, Ahmed Taha Baduri, Ahmed al-Qeysi, Al-Amin Mohammed Said and many others (Connell, p. 351). So, the EPLF was not and is not a solely Christian movement as many Islamists falsely assert. It was a communist influenced organization set out to fight not only Ethiopian colonialism but also the sectarian and feudal leadership of the ELF. Hence, Nehnan Elamanan was a manifesto declared by this group explaining why they rejected the doomed, sectarian and anti-unity stand of the ELF leadership, what their objectives were and how they intended to liberate the country from Ethiopian rule. It was compulsory for them to publicize this manifesto not only because theirs was a deviation from the old approach but also because the ELF was engaged in a policy of defamation and extermination (sad enough, the Islamists today are corrupting history and repeating the same ethnocentric and sectarian tune). Regarding the launching of the inner party, of which Nehnan Elamanan was the manifesto, Mahmoud Sherifo states as follows:

    “We met there and discussed the need to form a core among us before uniting the new forces, to campaign on the basis of nationalism and progressive ideas, and to rid the others of the prejudices and grudges of the past…We decided to work in a very secretive manner. Marxism would be our leading ideology, and we would call ourselves the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party.” (Connell, p. 351)

Thus, Nehnan Elamanan was a revolutionary document which was initiated by the communist influenced core of the EPLF leadership, whose members were both Christians and Moslems. This is not to defend Nehnan Elamanan or to release the PFDJ from guilt, but to argue that Nehnan Elamanan was an instrument for Christian hegemony is false and defamatory.  Let alone the EPLF and Nehnan Elamanan not even the PFDJ is a Christian movement. To this, Ahmed Raji has the following testimony:

    “…there is no explicit gain accruing to the Tigrigna population from the current government in terms of exclusive economic development”, and he continues to rightly conclude that “…the PFDJ regime does not represent the interests of the Tigrigna population, Christians or highlanders.” (‘Lost Rainbow’, October 27, 2009, Awate.com).

To make matters worse, ELF’s anti-Christian and anti-progress policy became even stronger. The signing of the Khartoum Accord in September 1975, which contravened resolutions of the Second National Congress (SNC) and was intended to further marginalize and attack the EPLF, caused a series of opposition within the rank and file of the ELF known as the Rejectionist Movement or derogatively as Falul. Contrary to the Second National Congress’s decision of negotiating unity with the field leadership of the EPLF, the ELF leadership signed the Khartoum Accord only with Osman Saleh Sabbe – a self-appointed leader of the foreign delegation of the EPLF – thus completely disregarding EPLF’s field leadership. This was the cause for the Rejectionist Movement and its members felt that peace and unity could not be attained without direct talks with the EPLF field leadership. This was the recommendation of the SNC. Nevertheless, this movement was seen as a Christian-highlanders motivated plot and the ELF leadership resorted to take drastic measures to quell it. According to Dr. Gaim Kibreab most members of the Rejectionist Movement were in Battalions 262 and 149, and in July 8-9, 1977 they were encircled and cruelly massacred. In his ‘Critical Reflections’, Dr. Kibreab records the following testimony from those who escaped this cold-blooded murder of innocent combatants:

    “All the people I have interviewed argued that the aim of the ELF leaders was not only to defeat the internal opposition, but also to use the opportunity to eliminate groups and individuals whom they regarded as a threat to their power. If the aim was to quell the rebellion, the Front could have captured them easily without the use of force. The fighters in B149 were caught unaware while they stood motionless to observe a minute’s silence. They posed no danger to the leadership or to those who attacked them.” (Kibreab, ‘Critical Reflections’, 2008; p. 303).

In the same page, Dr. Kibreab continues to assert the following: “Most of the interviewees say that the overwhelming majority of those who actively advocated for change and rejected the mistaken line of the leadership…and its corrupt practices and nepotism were Christian highlanders. There were some in the leadership, especially in the military office, they argued, who loathed and were suspicious of Christian highlanders. The military office was dominated by Abdalla Idris (and) his tribe, the Beni Amir.” (Kibreab, p.303). Other known members of the military group were Mahmoud Dinai, Mahmoud Amharay and Hussein Kelifa (Kibreab, p. 303).

After the demise of the ELF, Abdalla attempted to plunge the ELF into a civil war between Moslems and Christians, a plan that miserably failed thorough a combined effort of progressive Moslem and Christian elements. This sectarian disease which had been broiling the ELF since its inception and prevented it from becoming a true bearer of the people’s mandate came to the open infecting many more converts and endangering the Eritrean cause more than any time in our distressing history. Nonetheless, this landmark set two trends in motion: a secular and unitary movement and a sectarian, Islamist one. What we now have in the opposition camp, aside to the ethnic based movements of the Afar and Kunama people, is basically the above two trends in friction with each other and competing to dominate the umbrella organization or EDA. Yet there are three distinct features that characterize this whole struggle of progressive versus reactionary forces:

1.    At no time in the history of Eritrea has there been a political movement exclusively catering for only the needs of Christian highlanders. Even the Unionist Party was inclusive in the sense that it did not campaign solely on religious grounds and that it had many Moslem members. Yes, Abuna Markos, who was an important figure of the party, duplicated the closeness of the Church to the Ethiopian throne; but that does not at all characterize the attitude of the other members, especially the executive, nor did it underline the party’s programmes. On the other hand, the Moslem League was established as a venue to unite only Moslems and worked solely and particularly in the interests of Moslems at a time when the future of the country was being decided at the UN and the life of every Eritrean was in a limbo. Membership of the party was not open to non-Moslems and the party never considered the emancipation of all Eritreans without distinction. With the exception of Sudan and Egypt, this trend of forming a religion based political party, especially at a time when countries were fighting against colonial rule, did not exist in the neighboring countries and former British colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where Christians and Moslems live together. Instead, the Eritrean Moslem League chose to follow the foot-steps of the Democratic Unionist Party of Sudan, a party based on the Khatmiya religious order (Wikipedia). One also finds that, like the DUP in Sudan, the spiritual leader of the Eritrean Moslem League was a Mirghani, hence the connection and much of the inspiration thereof. The follow-up of this trait is seen in the proliferation of Eritrean Islamic parties, especially after Rasai, of which the most recent generation are the ELF, Islah, EIJD, EFDM, Eritrean Islamic Congress and Nahda Party, all current members of the Eritrean National Alliance. On the international level, we find the Eritrean Muslim Council which, as specified in its programme, works for the “empowerment and betterment of Eritrean Muslims.” (http://www.erimc.org/viewpage.php?page_id=9).

2.    Another recognizable trait is that many educated Moslems have come to adopt the Islamist position. Considering their earlier roles, this is a very surprising position. However, Moslem intellectuals did not simply flock towards the Islamist trend that followed the Rasai coup. The progressive role they played during the struggle for independence was so strong and alive that their aspiration for democracy for all Eritreans did not die easily. Despite the grudges that most felt in the aftermath of the eviction of the ELF, Muslim intellectuals still hoped to play an active role in the country once a constitutional government and the rule of law were established. But, things went wrong and we know what followed. As a result of this frustration, and combined with the pressure and incentive that may have been coming from organizations like the Eritrean Muslim Council and other external bodies, more and more Muslim intellectuals adopted the position of Islamist groups thus further polarizing and endangering the national question. Today, we have former communists gone Islamist and ‘moderates’ attacking Christian intellectuals just because they are Christians. We have seen a barrage of articles re-writing the records of history and accusing Christian highlanders for practices for which only the PFDJ government is responsible. An extreme example may be the ‘Ali Salim’ brand, but actually the common aim, conscious or not, of all this was two forked: One is to make Christian highlanders feel guilty of ethnocentrisms and the abuse that Moslems have been subject to, thus effectively diminishing the role of Christian highlanders and their problems. The second is to get, if possible, the support of Christian intellectuals and, in the event that this was not achievable, to render them completely disturbed, disintegrated and ineffective. The result is a scenario of Islamist groups successfully controlling the EDA and imposing their choices. Moreover, the timing was incredible. A torrent of Islamic issues did fully engage the web for a scope of a year or so in order to subdue other national issues and render them of little consequence at the just concluded EDA National Conference. The uncompromising nature of the ‘Eritrean Covenant’ (which should rather be renamed Eritrean Islamic Covenant), the different calls intending to sell it to Christian intellectuals, and the hurried nature of the proposal for a ‘Harmonized Constitution’ were all intended to fit together. The call for reconciliation was therefore a window-dressing. First because the Islamists avoided all reconciliatory tones and accepted no negotiation; secondly because whatever there is to reconcile comes only after the required change of government is put in place (as the wise Tigrigna say: ‘MerAwi keyHazas Arki Haza’). Needless to say, this strategy is doomed to failure because it throws the stone at the wrong person. Yet, it has bred tension and sown distrust among Eritrean Christians and Moslems in the Diaspora. This, I am afraid, will not benefit either side.

3.    There is a diversion in the Eritrean question. A symptom that for years has been confined to a perverted few has now become a national epidemic and is capable of distracting the Eritrean public from attaining the national goal: The goal where all, the governor and the governed, would abide by the law; where all can freely access available opportunities and share the benefits, and where the poor and disadvantaged would be guaranteed social protection and equal advancement - at least in the realm of the law. These goals are now being endangered. Today, sub-national goals with religion as the main dividing line are solidly installed into the Eritrean psyche. What used to be a taboo, the wisdom of the ‘Aynefalale’ slogan, has now become a standard mark of activism, albeit evil, and an instrument for agitating people. The sad turn, however, and most disturbing one, is that Moslem intellectuals, the once ardent nationalist vanguards, are now joining this mishmash politics. Today, for Moslem and Christian intellectuals to work together and guide the public in attaining higher concepts of national values requires not only strong individual determination and commitment but also a unity of purpose. They need to indulge in mind-storming discussions with one and only one objective in mind: finding the most feasible formula for Eritrea. They have to be strong enough not to be a part of the problem, but a means of finding the solution to the problem.

In all frankness, the question of nationalities, religion, language, land and gender have to be dealt with. But, they are all of the same magnitude and none merits an upper hand. All can be and should be treated under same roof – that of unity. Anything else is fake, an effort to deceive the people. As we cannot clap with one hand we cannot either solve these problems divided. The only simple and human way of solving these problems is to involve the people and guide them to consider the issues in a mutual and friendly manner, for they are the ones who will have to live with the day-to-day effects of the solutions. It requires compatibility and synergy, yet there must be diversity and the right to decide what is best for one. In any case, people should not be confined and whatever solution is reached must ensure their common strength and cooperation and not their differences and conflicts.

Conclusion: A note to the Islamists

The ‘Harmonized Constitution’ deviates from the ‘Eritrean Covenant’ similar to the way ideas may evolve in generations producing a completely newer version, but the puzzling question is how the authors of the ‘Eritrean Covenant’ turned to be the authors of the ‘Harmonized Constitution’ in such a short time? The ‘Harmonized Constitution’ is contrary to the tenets of the ‘Eritrean Covenant’, and a process of transition from the ‘Covenant’ to the ‘Harmonized’ would be inconceivable to the believer unless the same believer converts to the principles incorporated in the latter. The question is, do the Islamists believe in the ‘Hamonized Constitution’ or is it a trap?

The answer is evident. I like to think that the ‘Harmonized Constitution’ was drafted in the spirit of the ‘Treaty of Hudaybia’, as narrated by Omar Jabir (‘Eritrean Islamists..’). Yet, I am open to arguments on the opposite.

There is no need for further deliberations. It is all clear. But, it must be underlined that this policy of Islamizing Eritrea has failed before and will fail now. It has been there since the formation of political parties, but as people wise up and forgo emotions they accept the inevitable truth that Eritrea belongs to both religious communities. So has been the verdict of the wise, Christians and Moslems, who legislated the various customary laws. If we take the ‘Sir-At Adkeme Melgaa’ or ‘Highi Logo-Chiwa’, for instance, we find that ‘SheriA’ is confined to family issues (Moslem) while for civil and criminal cases both communities abided by the customary laws, which were secular in nature.

You see my friends, treaties and constitutions are paper works that can easily be trampled upon. It is trust that matters. Trust that whoever makes a proposal is genuine, sincere and does not have a hidden agenda. Why should a person use a pen name and refuse to disclose his/her identity when asked for? We want to know who is/are behind the ‘Covenant’ and the ‘Harmonized Constitution’. We cannot be kidded anymore by canning answers like “your reason for wanting to know names of the authors is precisely why the authors of the Eritrean Covenant chose to withhold their names”. We cannot take any Muslim for granted either. One has to prove oneself. Too bad we have seen the ugly face of Islam.  

My advice is, instead of grilling yourselves in self-consuming anger allow yourselves to be an addition and not a subtraction. Merge with the others with a true determination of making the whole and negotiate with the belief of submitting to the will of the majority.

Ramadan kareem!

Wish you a thoughtful and peaceful Ramadan.