Religion and Ethnicity in Eritrean Politics (Part III)
By Woldeyesus Ammar
Aug 25, 2003, 22:44 PST

Dangers of Polarization


In part two of this writing, I raised red flag about an ominously looming danger of division into two poles,  an always existing possibility in the society that worried Eritrean patriots throughout our contemporary history.  It was also noted that an ongoing marginalization of a segment of our people was among the factors that threatened a further deepening of another creeping danger called polarization. I added that “probably out of impatience with the regime and the society in general”, many leading elements in the affected segment (i.e. many of our Moslem elite) are not doing their best to avert this catastrophe. I even dared make a pointed call for their concerted effort to help Eritrea avoid the danger. 


Today, I will try to rewrite about what it means to “polarize” a society or cause it  to concentrate on opposite and contradicting positions (see my article of 12 April 2001 on the same subject;  parts of it are excerpted below for the benefit of those who did not read it). A venture on such a topic will for sure have to mention names – and mentioning names of contemporaries cannot pass without raising eyebrows. Whatever, I will briefly mention:

  • how individuals (Isayas, Herui and Abdalla among them) contributed their considerable share to the state of polarization in the ranks of our fighters and the general population during the past 30 years, and
  • why fears of deepening  polarization in the ranks of the opposition today could be considered the worst we can have, and that we must stop the danger before it consumes us all.


There is no need of going back in depth to the roots of the problem. The first two decades of our modern history in struggle (1941-1961) were put aside as a different chapter of the ‘past’ when the armed struggle was launched.  As the first Mission Statement of underlined it, the armed struggle launched in 1961 aspired to open a  totally new  period of political life in which the past wounds would be healed through a gradual process of reconciliation. We cannot deny the progress made in the field of struggle to close the gap of differences on religious and ethnic lines. But the struggle for reconciliation and working together faced many difficulties and setbacks as told below.


Isayas Afeworki, the Top Polarizer (1970-2003)


The incumbent president of Eritrea, Isayas Afeworki, will be known in our history for a number of his ‘successes’: his success to entrench dictatorship in small and innocent Eritrea and his other major success to deepen division in our bipolar society starting from early years. Again I will not tell you much about how his infamous work of Nehnan Elamanan damaged relations between liberation fighters and the people in general – relations which could have otherwise developed in a healthier way. But it must be stressed that it was mainly Isayas who fixed in many minds that ‘shabia’ is for Kebessa and ‘jebha’ for the rest of Eritrea plus a few ‘traitors’.  The bad legacies of those teachings are still affecting many minds. Add to this his unshakable refusal to consider unity of the fighting forces through the years until his unholy alliance with the Ethiopian TPLF to liquidate the ELF in 1980-81, another polarizing act with long-lasting consequences on  national unity and the trust between the two major segments in the society. Come liberation, Isayas declared his plan for the opposition in his speech about “Hashewiye wudbat” on 20 June 1991, and  swore that unyielding members of Jebha and the rest of its extended family will never see Eritrea in his lifetime. That is where we still stand.


The tragic thing was that the elite supporting Isayas the ‘victor’  did not care to listen to ‘the other voices’ until it had gotten very late. The general population inside the country and those in the diaspora had no choice but to be swayed by the mistaken policies of the new regime due to lack of guidance and leadership from within the camp of the ‘victor’.  The past history of Isayas compounded by his daily acts and condescending/ humiliating utterances after liberation left no choice for ‘the others’ but to lose hope in new Eritrea, and then continue the struggle for meaningful liberation.


In other words, the painful acts of marginalization of other Eritreans planted new  danger in the society. Proclamation after proclamation came with wrong solutions to Eritrea’s problems and needs. For instance, the proclamation on the dispossession of land to the people had more severe consequences on the Moslem population; this very proclamation was described by outside observers in the mid-1990’s as a “recipe for civil war” in Eritrea although very few, if any, of our presently vocal elite commented about it. Land was grabbed from peasants and pastoralists and given to close supporters of the regime. This act, which left no ground for breeding livestock,  pauperized an already wretched segment of the people. The regime’s policy on languages of instruction led to the closure of schools in many parts of the western lowlands; some families who wanted to educate their kids properly in a language other than the local vernaculars had to look for ‘another home’ outside home. Cultural practices and long revered traditions of the people, mainly of the Moslems, were openly violated and respect of the family degraded. All these acts alienating a particular segment of the population were fertilizers for the polarization that I feel is now dangerously hanging over our heads. The top sinner, or the first degree criminal, is of course Isayas Afeworki although his cohorts and supporters cannot be absolved of  this crime of deepening mistrust among Christian and Moslem Eritreans.


The dangerous trend of polarization in the Eritrean society by “Christian” Isayas had been blunted through the years thanks to the commitment and perseverance of fighters who stuck to the all-embracing Jebha culture of defending the unity in diversity of the people above everything else. In particular, Eritreans from the highlands continually played their share to avert polarization.  These were the fighters I called ‘Tessema Asberoms’ (see of March and April 2001) for having remained “on the vanguard of the struggle against [Isayas Afeworki’s gospel of] chauvinism and ethno-sectarian polarization in Eritrean politics, past and present.” I added: “They are the thousands of Tessema Asberoms who continued to defy the politics of hate, contempt, division and exclusion and helped to save Eritrea from the worst that could have befallen it because of those evil teachings.  It was those tens of thousands of our Tessemas in all the Eritrean political organizations that staved off, or at least softened, social polarization in our days. These living Tessema Asberoms are Eritrea's unrecognized, unsung heroes, my heroes.” (I was impersonating the ELF fighters to Tessema Asberom of Maareba who, according to a story told to me by the late Aboy Gherezghiher Tessema of the ELF,  that Ras Tessema Asberom used to respond to his Andnet detractors as follows when he was charged of betraying ‘Christianity’:  ‘No one will stop me from allying with brother compatriots on national matters; I can even put the Turban on my head if I am told that will be the only way Eritrea could become independent’”).


However, the culprit was not only Isayas. There also were others.


The Other Sinners


Herui Tedla: In the 1970’s, and in spite of the effects of Nehnan Elamanan on Christian/Moslem relations, the Eritrean Liberation Front was receiving in its ranks a large number of new fighters from the Eritrean highlands. By the time the ELF was holding its second National Congress in May 1975, the number of newcomers, most of them Christians, was much larger than the old fighters already in the field. By using for political ends the issue of their representation in the congress, Herui Tedla Bairu let himself to be perceived as the ‘leader’ of the new force which automatically turned out to be divisive on religious and ethnic (pan-Kebessan)  lines. To my judgement then and now, the unwise act of depriving Herui a seat at the 41-member Revolutionary Council of the day added fuel to the fire. The end result was the so-called ‘Falul’ phenomenon that depleted the ELF of a large number of fighters. This incident further  deepened religious mistrust among many fighters and the general society.  It was an additional negative input to what was going on in the society by the cells of hatred and enmity in the field - the Wahyos of Isayas. 


Sometime in late 2002, Herui Tedla was quoted to have stated that the regime in Asmara  was receiving a massive support of “Eritrean Christians” and gave to his listeners the impression that the “Eritrean Moslems” are almost alone to confront it. That statement could be an interesting issue for valid academic argument. But stated in a wide-open public fora or, to be exact, football stadiums in the Sudan packed with huge audiences of innocent listeners who would interpret things as per prevailing perceptions, Herui’s grossly inadvertent assertion was at least as damaging and as polarising as the Falul phenomenon that he unleashed on Eritrea quarter of a century earlier.  Regardless of the degree of his sin, Herui is another unrepentant polarizer.


Abadalla Idris: A few days after the incidence of a coup d’etat within the ELF in March 1982,  I wrote a few pages under the title of “A Letter from Rasai”. It was translated into our official languages for distribution (and do not ask me a copy as a proof because I lost in March 2003 in Baghdad the only copy of the document that survived our disorderly  evacuation with Palestinians from Beirut in September 1982). In that ‘letter’, I dared accuse Abdalla Idris (and Saleh Eyas, his close aide of the day) of betrayal. The betrayal I had in mind then was of two categories. One was the betrayal of a established democratic practice of changing leadership in the ELF. The second but the most serious betrayal of which I thought Abdalla should stand accused was the damage that his action would inflict on the hard won unity of Moslems and Christians, highlanders and lowlanders in the ELF. For sure I did not use those ‘religious’ words to define identities because it was a total taboo to mention them. The big body of fighters (that eventually broke up into ‘Teyar-al-Am/ELF-RC and Betin/Sagim) had the perception that they were being told by the coup leader Abdalla  and his followers that ‘his’ ELF was starting a ‘necessary cleansing of its own house’ and those who did not want to come under his leadership can go to a ready-made choice: going to ‘their kin and kith at the EPLF’. That general feeling  poisoned the ground. It indeed was another faulty surgical operation on our body politic. Few of us doubted that that action by Abdalla Idris would negatively affect Eritrean politics for a long time.


Fortunately, the struggle of those who resisted polarization has been bearing fruit – at least until now. They consisted mainly of those ELF-RC  fighters and leaders who are now being derided as  “laughing stock” by many good people, including Saleh Gadi.


ENA: a Potential Polarizer?


All of us could claim that we are for unity, and for sure we are all against polarization which horrifies us terribly. However, the methods we choose may go astray and cause us commit the sin that we do not intend to commit. That is why many writers are hinting that it is high time to look into the structure we today know as the Eritrean National Alliance and see if it is polarizing those of us in the opposition or not. Like many compatriots, I wished to see its development, its restructuring, its transformation into a better tool for our struggle for unity, change and democratisation. One cannot conceal the concern one has about its current shape, its failure to represent the genuine wishes and aspirations of the innocent nation waiting for something to come from us. Of course it is not  representative. It is not even capable to accomplish what the nation is waiting for. 


To restate the fact, there was nothing wrong with its establishment. It was given birth at a time when all those in the opposition agreed to settle on a minimum programme acceptable to all to start with. Under prevailing circumstances of  March 1999, helping hands were welcome to help to a certain degree. It was not the fault of the opposition if there was imbalance in social/geographical composition of the organizations that made up the then Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF). Yet, one can reasonably ask questions today as to why there was no improvement in the structure and the composition of  the alliance at least since the emergence of dissidents from within the PFDJ regime as of the summer of 2000. Three years had passed and only reverses were registered in the alliance. In fact, Dr. Beyene Kidane, the former head of  the Information Office of the ELF-RC, correctly described the new situation in a public commentary/message he personally wrote and had it read over the ELF-RC international radio broadcast, Voice of Democratic Eritrea, in December 2002. He aptly stated:


 “Comparing the so-called revised Charter of the Eritrean National Alliance with the previous document, we can dare say that it is a step backward (kem shinti gemel ndaHar temelisu knibil zedfrenayu).  If it is not taken care of as of now, the new Charter is carrying in its belly explosives dangerous for our future. One of the dangers is the controversial  provision that states: ‘Followers of the Islamic faith in our country can be guided by Sharia law in all matters of life’. We can say that our forefathers were more enlightened than what we are [introducing] today because they wisely limited the practice of Sharia laws only to specific matters like matrimony, divorce and inheritance...Won’t this revised [ENA Charter] encourage the  creation of hostile religious blocks which did not exist in our past? In our [ELF-RC] opinion, it is only the establishment of a secular democratic State and by separating religion from the State that we can guarantee as before a peaceful and harmonious co-existence of our multiple cultural and religious reality. And above all, what we will have to respect is the will of the people and not the desires and wishes of those Moslem elite who claim to be knowledgeable [of what should be done]...”.


The good doctor (a veterinarian) also strongly expressed his antipathy to the new provision in the ENA Charter about “the right of nationalities for self-determination” and condemned what he called “ethnic elites” and “ethnic mobilizers” for promoting this divisive and highly disruptive ideas at the level of a ‘national’ Charter. Dr. Beyene concluded his article by the following words:


“ As we [ELF-RC] see it, the ENA has moved many steps backwards instead of going forward. The main reason is that it did not yet develop the [required] national consciousness that can inspire it to work for the loftier action of national salvation. Instead, it is mired in narrow group and individual self-interests and calculations. If the Alliance is ever to remove the question marks handing over it, and   evolve into a capable and credible body in the eyes of the entire nation, it will have to correct its past mistakes, make full review of its past actions and inactions,  and make a new start. It will have to be mindful of the past failed alliances in the [Eritrean] arena. Otherwise, Eritrea belongs to all of its people and it is possible that the [ENA] can be superseded by other emerging developments.” [Added emphases are mine].


That was Dr Beyene Kidane at his best eight monthly. I have quoted him quite extensively because I could not express the ideas we jointly shared then more eloquently. What Dr. Beyene missed to add here was the fact that the ELF-RC delegation at the 5th ENA meeting of October 2002 in Addis Ababa took six days of the sessions to argue against the two provisions Dr. Beyene commented above. In addition, the ELF-RC delegation pressed to introduce the principle of proportional representation at the leadership of the Alliance but had no success in all counts.  In addition to all these, the ENA unwisely suspended membership of an organization  as important as the ELF-RC and then exacerbated differences within it. Equally disturbing was to watch the ENA condoning the violation of the rule of law and democratic procedures of an Eritrean organization like the ELF-RC by a breakaway minority group that took hostage an entire organization. (Unfortunately, Ahmed Nasser’s side believed it held the magic name of a ‘known leader’ and the trump card of keeping intact the socio-religious diversity in the ELF-RC, and wanted more than two-thirds of the RC to bend to its will  unconditionally. As usual, the Eritrean elite remained docile at a crucial time for the opposition. The only input so far was the regrettable ridicule and mockery from an unexpected angle to a section of the affected organization. Apparently, the derisive and biased language from was far from being reconciliatory, to say the least.)


In short, the ENA has not proven itself that it will grow into a viable, all inclusive national coalition. It has been reluctant in the past three years to reform itself. As the 18 August 2003 press release of the International Relations Bureau of the ELF (led by Abdalla Idris) belatedly but correctly stated, the creation of the existing alliance has remained an inadequate response’ to the demands of the period.  The statement further noted that we cannot let “single member organizations [to] continue to have the last say in the Alliance’s policy making” and that this existing Alliance “can no more postpone its own restructuring.” The said statement concluded : “If we do not learn form our history, that same failure will replicate the tragic predicament that followed the dissolution of the ‘Independence Bloc’, and [that failure] is still haunting us as a people and a nation”.


But so far, Abdalla Idris and the rest of the top leadership of the ENA had done practically nothing other than plunging the alliance into a serious crisis that affected the entire opposition for a whole year. The ENA leadership repeatedly made it clear that it is  not yet ready to restructure the alliance and improve its image. Instead, the leadership assisted in worsening the situation by its suspension of the ELF-RC, and worse still by ENA’s disastrous position on the ELF-RC crisis.  


The current situation is frightening indeed. Everyone of us may by now have the feeling that the much dreaded polarization is at our door-steps. For this reason, I feel everyone of us for sure has his/her ideas of how best we should stop it and handle our problems in the opposition in order to come out with an effective tool for change, peace and democratization.


I do not see that the existing alliance, as it now stands, can go far in consolidating the entire opposition. I believe that those Eritreans who fervently think it can make it are utterly wrong.  Since we all say that the structure is in dire need of urgent overhauling, let us start doing just that. At this point in time, some Eritreans have better vantage-point than others to address the malaise.  If not, the steadily growing polarization can reach a stage that will not be salvaged by any redoubling of collective efforts in the future.


Best regards.



(The text below is an addendum to the above article on polarization. It was posted in in April 2001 under the sub-title of ‘Are We Polarized?’under my series on ‘Reconciliation and National Unity: Vital Terms in Eritrean Politics’. The article was partly a criticism to Dr. Tekie Fessehazion’s allegation that the was promoting hidden or  ‘subliminal sectarianism’ for its then timid support to the old opposition. Dr. Tekie was sounding like the PFDJ dictator when he talked of ‘we’ and ‘they’ of  Eritreans  and asked his ‘we’ camp to forget the old opposition when he wrote: “It is time to go without them”. The following excerpts from that article are hoped to add some elucidation on the meaning  of polarization.

1.    Ethnicity and Social Polarization


What is ethnicity? How does it work and when do we see ethnicity polarizing a given society?  


According to social scientists, the definition of ethnicity does not stop at being narrow kinship sentiment for smaller groups or clans. It can include a wider cultural affinity or solidarity of bigger communities sharing same religion, language, culture and/or social practices.  Ethnicity is a group identity that binds the individual to a larger collectivity that differentiates members of the group from non-members. Ethnicity ensures that the individual is not “alone”.  We are told by researchers on the subject that “people seem to trust and prefer those of their own cultural group while feeling more distant from, and distrustful of those of other cultural groups”. Ethnicity can contribute positively to one’s self-esteem by highly valuing the ‘we’, but this can at the same time have destructive role by emphasizing the ‘they’. 


The opposing side, the ‘they’, are seen as “ignorant, violent, untrustworthy, greedy, cruel, evil, vicious…” and 'rotten’, in the words of Isayas Afeworki, or 'lazy, liars, thieves, cheats' in the words of dehai's Tesfai Bahta.  On the other hand, one’s side is seen as possessor of all good virtues that can be imagined. Through the negative contribution of ambitious ethnic mobilizers, ethnicity – whether its origin is language, culture, religion or region – can easily polarize a society, thus, making it difficult for peaceful settlement of differences because “polarization denies the possibility of compromise”.


Social writers further teach us that “polarization results in persecution of in-group members. Those who advocate compromise are labeled ‘traitors’ because the polarized attitude permits absolutely no deviation from the extremist position”. The most successful ethnic mobilizers concentrate on the youth of the society, and make sure that “children’s minds are filled with hostile images long before a member of the out-group is encountered”.


During the first part of the last century, ethnicity was under the threat of modernism and Marxism but it survived that threat almost unscathed. Liberalism as well as revolutionary socialism assumed that as human beings moved from a primitive, tribal stage of social organization to complex industrial and post-industrial structures, “the primordial dimensions of ethnicity could simply become obsolete”. However, Western scholarship has been, in the words of a prominent social scientist, “shocked and dismayed” with the apparent increase of utterly intransigent resurgence of modern-time ethnicity backed by the resources of States and political parties.


Material motive is central objective of elites in pursuit of power, privilege and wealth. Language itself is a material motive. Access to the State, which is the major employer and depository of all wealth in the Third World, gives open access to power, material benefits and privileges to those ‘strategically positioned groups’ working through nepotistic networks. One of those big writers on ethnicity sums the situation in these words: "those who control States make the laws in their own image (usually in their own language and in accordance to their culture) as well as in their own interests". The experiences in Africa appear to be replete with glaring examples of such sad saga of the post-liberation era.


2.    Eritrea: What Degree of Polarization?


In the old days, the Amharas of Ethiopia thought that they were the trustees of Ethiopian nationhood and patriotism and that the rest of the 'riff-raff' were there just to follow their (the Amharas) good example in caring for the “Nation” as a whole. The Amharas were “The Ethiopians”. The rest of the people were "ethnic" entities under the grip of tribal, confessional and other primordial afflictions, which had to be managed and guided by the guardians of the Nation.


In regard to Eritrea, and in spite of the presence of manipulative and powerful bad leaders and teachers amidst us, we still wish to believe that our people have not descended to that low level. However, the authors of statements like “rotten ethnic and confessional factions” and the like are widely understood, or perceived by their followers, to be sending these descriptive messages clearly directed to certain segments of our people so that the ‘we’ and ‘they’ compartmentalization could have its own life.


For sure we are not a “unique nation”, as some chauvinists would have us described. We share all the weaknesses and problems of other related peoples. This was so in the past, as it is in the present. We, for instance, know that the Eritrean society was highly polarized into ‘we’ and ‘they’ camps during the later part of the 1940s and the 1950s. In particular, the period after Waala Bet-Giorghis of November 1946 was bad. Even Ibrahim Sultan could not attend that meeting because he had already sensed that many of his former comrades were falling victim to the sectarian wedge of the enemy. And in trying to confront a looming danger to the fate of the territory and the identity of its people, Ibrahim Sultan helped organize a party called the Moslem League of Eritrea.


That imposed social polarization witnessed in the 1950s did not remain intact for all the time. Thanks to the armed struggle, ethno-sectarian affinities were weakened to a large extent. Even at times - and not unlike all modernists and Marxists - we thought it was going to be all over in our society. But not quite; it re-emerged.


Culture- and language-based ethnic cleavage re-emerged in a modern and organized form. It was armed with limitless chauvinist arrogance. Yet, it was concealed under the lofty national goal. That is why it took too long for many among us to call that chauvinist danger by its proper name. The leader of this chauvinist growth in our society is, by irony of history, the very man who led the final stages of our independence struggle. No wonder that many of us still find it difficult to characterize this key element in the liberation war with the evils of man-made disasters, hate, discord and ethnic polarization, which are slowly, but surely, bedeviling the Eritrean social and political landscape.


The seeds for this malaise (social polarization) were sown when Isayas Afeworki was first suspected to have received Ethiopian weapons and funds to fight against an Eritrean front, playing tool to American and Israeli interests in the region. Remember the Kagnew station saga of the 1970s… ..When independence was attained, Isayas Afeworki declared himself 'god'. The end justified the means, and he was seen as the best organizer for our good. No one dared to call him an ethnic mobilizer that he was.  He soon started  churning out decree after decree to say who was  Eritrean, who was not. Who was to return home, and who not. Who is to form a party, who not. Who is to vote, who not. The list is endless.


The point is not to ask why an individual, with a small circle, had gone wrong all along. The point is to pose the question as to why the wide support-base continually failed to stop this man and his small team from wronging us all? That is why one is tempted to ask oneself another question: are we already polarized?


We have been driven a long distance on this dangerous path, but my viewpoint is that we are not yet fully polarized (I hear you calling it ‘a sheer wish’!). True, a good chunk of our body politic is immersed in the dirty sewers of PFDJ politics of hate and exclusion, and a tip of it in that of Jihadist extremism - both apostles of exclusion and non-compromise. And both no more enjoying an enthusiastic support of the people. That is why I still see light at the end of the tunnel.


3.   We Must Stop Aiding and Abetting Polarization


I have no doubt that the now cornered PFDJ is more and more inclined to deepen social and political polarization in our fragile society. Therefore, it is time for every patriot worth his salt to start frowning upon those opposed to our reconciliation and unity as a people  treated with dignity and full national and human rights. No need of easygoingness  with anyone who encroaches upon our sacred unity as one nation with different viewpoints and interests.

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