The New Relation between Eritreans, Ethiopians in the Diaspora

April 16, 2010

By Amanuel Biedemariam

For a long time, relations between Eritreans and Ethiopians were antagonistic, combative, competitive, and aggressive. Our connection is unique because we enjoy each other’s company and have genuine affection for each other. We had always worked and coexisted even when situations were at the height of intense conflicts during war times.

However, there is also a love-hate relationship; there is a scar and a history of bloodshed spanning decades. We have paid dearly with countless lives, millions displaced with untold loss, damage, and destruction of property. We have squandered opportunities to raise the level and the standard of living for our people. We have lost a tremendous amount of time without fruitful exchange of ideas to better the way we live. We have wasted valuable time, resources, and energy by channeling our energies into unproductive and harmful ways.

After the war broke out in 1998, many lost long-time friendships. People argued at work, in their neighborhood, and with friends with hostility.

That went on until the election of 2005. In my view, that is when Ethiopian ideas started to shift. Because, suddenly, Eritrea became less critical on their discussions for the future of Ethiopia were suddenly on the table.

During the election, there was hope because Ethiopians saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Soon after the election, the situation tightened, and Ethiopians were shocked to find no light with the TPLF.

Right then, the world witnessed the history of Ethiopia unfolding. By making the election central to TPLF democracy propaganda, it was like the TPLF dangled some meat for all to think that they could have a piece of it. When the crowd became hungry, it took away the flesh and sent the crowd home hungry, disappointed, and hopeless. That is what happened to the millions who took to the streets hoping to bring a lasting change for Ethiopia. From there, the situation worsened. Meles started killing people on the streets and indiscriminately placed those who could threaten his power in jail.

Since then, the Ethiopian attitude gradually shifted on how they viewed Eritrea as a nation, the people, and Eritrea’s government. Many Ethiopians began to look at Eritrea as a viable option to help them struggle against the oppressive TPLF regime in Ethiopia. However, the Diaspora-Ethiopian community believed that they could get help from their US and European friends to pressure Meles and the TPLF. However, after countless hearings, extensive lobbying, demonstrations, and other campaigns, the best it yielded was a congressional resolution that failed the Senate. Ethiopians grew extremely frustrated as a result. They lost the ability to voice their opposition in Ethiopia. They were handed back to Ethiopia by force when they fled to Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti.

As a result, the idea of working with Eritrea started to grow and became the new reality that Ethiopians needed to come to terms with.

Some went to Eritrea from the US and other places to explore and felt good about their trips. These individuals took a risk and paid the price. They were, ridiculed as agents of Shaebia, traitors and so on but they kept on going back for more. One of those trailblazers is Ato Demise Belete, who deserves praise for taking chances and daring to take the step.

From 2006 until 2008, Ethiopians mulled the idea, flirted with the idea, and started experimenting with the idea of working with Eritrea. Suddenly working with Eritrea began to enter into the conversation of mainstream Ethiopia as a major topic of discussion, signaling a shift in the attitude that Ethiopians no longer see Eritrea as a threat.

At that moment, two bright individuals decided to interview President Isaias by traveling to Eritrea. In preparation for that interview, they chose to engage Ethiopians and asked the question:

“If you were to ask any question to President Isaias Afwerki, what would you ask?”

The people gave (ER) the answers in the form of questions to President Isaias, and ER made the questions public for all to see. These two individuals put complex issues on the table and allowed people to discuss them by opening dialogue. Suddenly, nothing was taboo regarding Eritrean and Ethiopian relations in the Ethiopian diaspora community.

These two individuals are Ato Sileshi Tilahun and Ato Elias Kifle. They deserve tremendous praise for their vision, guts and for daring to ask all the questions on their mind and in the minds of millions of Ethiopians around the world.

They asked President Isaias candidly. There were no limits on what they can ask. It was frank and the most candid exchange between journalists and a president I have ever witnessed. President Isaias gave honest answers, and in the process, he changed the minds of many and started to see Eritrea differently.

What that interview did, is crack a mountain. It opened a new path. It opened a channel of communication and assured the highest level; clarified Eritrean positions; empowered Ethiopians by giving them a new track in their effort to challenge the TPLF gang. It also gave Ethiopians freedom to engage with Eritreans and find ways to work together for mutual interest and benefit. From that interview onwards, Eritreans and Ethiopians started to seek partnerships in meaningful ways.

Many may fail to see the importance of the interview. However, the interview created a shift in attitude and is changing the way we see each other. It has given all an option to work towards a common goal. It took the hostility away, thus freeing people from their anger and resentments for years. It lifted some of the burdens to resume a life free from aggression and anger. That is true leadership at work. From that point on, like-minded people from both sides decided to seek each other to work together.

We have worked diligently to establish a working relationship to galvanize and bring Eritreans and Ethiopians together towards common goals and objectives. When the UNjust sanction 1907 came, many Ethiopians took a principled stand and decided to support Eritreans on their march.

The TPLF saw these developments as a threat and downplayed their importance tried to sell as if Eritrea is seeking support from Ethiopians because it is desperate.

The reality is, however, the channel of communication and the working relationship started way before the sanction was in the picture.

The March and What it Meant
After the UNjust sanction measure passed on Christmas Eve of 2009, Eritreans went on full gear to stand against it. There was a limited time when Eritreans decided to march until February 22, the date of the march.

The decision to invite our Ethiopian sisters and brothers was unanimous. We invited them to give a voice of solidarity, and they accepted. We did not seek numbers. We asked for representatives from various Horn of African communities to come and share their voices of solidarity.

The Ethiopians came and marched with us, blanketed by a colorful Ethiopian flag. It looked and felt natural. Those there had the conviction and determination to stand with Eritreans confidently. Ato Neamin Zeleke stood on the podium in front of the State Department and gave an impassioned solidarity speech.

All those individuals that stood on the podium took a significant step that will have a lasting impact on future relations. They deserve big kudos for their efforts and sacrifices. The event turned out to be a historic moment in the new era of Eritrean Ethiopian understanding.

There is no doubt that whatever relation grows from now on will come from that moment. There are many people worth mentioning; however, I will mention a true dynamo for the sake of time. Ethiopia is lucky to have him; a Community Organizer Extraordinaire Ato. Neamin Zeleke. He deserves tremendous praise and admiration for his determination, vision, bravery, brilliance, and doggedness.

What did the Ethiopians Marching with Eritrean achieve?
Eritreans felt good to see Ethiopians in their midst. It was the first time in my life that I witnessed Eritreans and Ethiopians in a critical event walking together in support of each other. It was historical and surreal.

  • It was joyful to see the reaction of Eritreans as they welcomed their Ethiopian brothers and sisters because it was sincere.
  • It showed that we do not have to fight and work together.
  • It introduced Ethiopians to Eritrean communities first-hand and enabled them to see how they operate in person. For the first time, Eritreans and Ethiopians have a legitimate way to reach out to one another using channels they can work with. In other words, a Weyane agent cannot claim to be Eritrean and fool anyone because we have a legitimate link. For example, Ethiopians knew whom to contact when deciding to set this conference. That is important because it streamlines the process. From now on, all we have to do is build on it.
  • It gave the cancer of the Horn of Africa, Meles Zenawi, and the TPLF gangs many sleepless nights because Ethiopians controlled the narratives and worked with Eritreans openly.

The march was a symbolic, groundbreaking historical moment and a sign of a new day for Eritreans and Ethiopians. It was a moment that Ethiopians shed the past to move forward. It was also significant because it sent a message to all Ethiopians worldwide that Eritreans welcome them everywhere. It was simply magnificent and surreal to witness how Eritreans cheered all those who stood on the podium regardless of what language they used to address them.

The key, President Isaias, said Eritreans and Ethiopians needed to talk to each other and work together. Well, it must be clear to all Ethiopians by now; it is not just President Isaias who welcomed Ethiopians, but all Eritreans. .

What next?
If the march was a groundbreaking ceremony, we need to build a foundation. We need to lay a foundation from concrete, steel, and all the sturdy materials that make a foundation solid to the point that nothing can shake it loose.

The foundation needs to be principled, straightforward and it needs to embrace PEACE, the idea of my-brothers-keeper as a core- value. That means we need to stand for one another, not against each other. We need to refocus on what matters the most to us. That means kids and mothers that suffered for decades helplessly. We need to commit to supporting each other. We need to work to rebuild our social and physical infrastructures. We need to build our schools, hospitals, and reservoirs. In simple terms, we need to focus on the bread and butter issues and nothing else. Therefore, we must learn to cooperate in every arena: as sovereign nations, people, friends, and neighbors. Now that we have established a link based on people-to-people, we can expand into other areas; but first, let us eliminate the mercenary thug in Menelik Palace.

However, while the possibilities to work for the greater good are there, we cannot underestimate the threats. We need to be aware, know the threats, identify them, and be ready to challenge them. The threats are:

  • There are many actors with varied interests keen on keeping the status quo. They are not interested in the people as long as they can benefit by gaining power, influence, and money ala Meles Zenawi and his cronies.
  • Nations, including the major powers, have much bigger ambitious agendas—unfortunately, their interest never aligns with the people’s interest in the region.
  • Some threats emanate from our weaknesses, lack of understanding, ethnic and religious differences, and egos.
  • The combinations of these forces can work together all at the same time.

Unfortunately, the people in the Horn of Africa face all four threats all the time. A combination of greedy individuals, such as Meles, led and financed by superpowers with their agendas. The people from the Horn of Africa are susceptible to a division based on race, religion, ethnicity, stubbornness, and egos.

In addition, one of the biggest problems we have, as people, is that we fail to communicate with each other genuinely. We lack an understanding of how PR works and how they use it. That is the number one weapon for information, disinformation, and PR propaganda manipulations. However, that will not ascertain their victory because we are on the right side of history.

They organized think tanks in various institutions to discuss Ethiopian agendas, steal the narratives, and take away the attention. They do radio programs they fund through individuals and groups to confuse the issues. You can call him Niguse or Rezene, whoever. These people are easy to manipulate cheap.

The TPLF gang uses these tactics to attack the new relation between Eritreans and Ethiopians. However, people have tuned out the TPLF gang because it exaggerated. It is misleading, fabrication, deceitful, condescending, and outright lies. And they have learned effective and aggressive ways to lobby their message- through.

Leading up to the March, TPLF did all it could to discredit the Ethiopian marchers and the event but failed. After seeing the traction of the new Eritrean-Ethiopian relation, it has gone full force to stop the momentum.

Here is the kicker and a perfect example of how they try to do that.

To take attention away from this conference, TPLF sent a group, ostensibly in the name of “Opposition” from Ethiopia, and they are holding a meeting in Seattle as we speak. Here is what is funny. There is an election scheduled in Ethiopia next month, and these people are in Seattle campaigning to what end? And not to be outdone; they feature Ms. Birtukan Medeksa on their website as if she is there in person. The irony is, the TPLF cannot and do not mention her name in Ethiopia, but they are trying to use her name in Seattle? It is an attempt to divide the Ethiopian diaspora water down the effectiveness of the conference, and it is also a sign of their desperation. The TPLF organized a forum in Ethiopia, and Meles said he was willing to talk to President Isaias, knowing well that it wouldn’t happen.

All these developments occur because Ethiopians have taken control of their issues and messages; they do it in their own time and way. Weizero Birtukan is here in spirit, and if she were here today, she would not be in Seattle; she would be here to address this group and expose the Weyane duplicity.

Concluding remarks

Our work has just begun, and we are on the right track. Over the last year, we have accomplished a lot. From the accomplishments, the most satisfying achievement is that we are becoming partners. We know when we want to deal with Ethiopians and vice versa. That will help to streamline our collective messages and propel the relationship to a new height.

For decades, we grew apart and developed unneeded animosity.

We all have to take responsibility and take part of the blame. But what is sad is we have a lot that unites us. I have used this quote from Dr. Haile Mezghebe in the past, and I will use it again because it is very relevant. We need to hear this repeatedly to sink in because it will make a difference. He said, paraphrasing,

{when I went to school, I learned how my teachers worked on issues. If there are ten issues on the table and they disagree on all nine but agree on one problem, they set aside the nine, work on the one case they agreed on, and work up from there.}

On the contrary, most of the time, in the case of Eritreans and Ethiopians, while deciding on all ten issues, if we agree on nine but disagree on one point, that one issue tears us apart. It becomes a significant hurdle and source of conflict. That is a powerful statement.

We have more reasons to agree and should not be divided because of one. We could not afford to give it weight to become a hurdle while strengthening our relationship. I do not see any problems stopping us from achieving the highest form of friendship, partnership, and neighborly relation.

The only issue that some Ethiopians dangle is the issue of access to the sea. However, Eritreans want Ethiopians to have access to the sea as well. Eritreans want Ethiopia to be a prosperous nation. As President Isaias stated, Eritrea wants a united Ethiopia that is successful.

The impediment to improving the lives of millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans is not a lack of access to the sea. It is because of barriers we created, lack of imagination, unwillingness to accept that Eritrea is an independent Country.

Otherwise, there is no limit to what we could achieve as long as there is respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty.

Therefore, our focus needs to be to work together for peace and to bring a lasting change for the people of the Horn of Africa. Otherwise, we will continue on the same path and exacerbate the current problems.

We must ask this question: does anyone think that what is taking place in Somalia would continue if Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others from the region stood united and stood against it consistently? The answer is, No!

US policy in Africa will not change. That is something we need to accept as reality. For evidence, review the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9, 2010 hearing on Africom. Listen to all the recent comments by various US officials. Most importantly, a look-back at the events that unfolded during the climate conference in Copenhagen between President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Meles.

The only way US policy will change is if we are united. We have to be able to stand for each other. We have to be a unit to have a voice. That is how we can bring the change we can believe in. That is how we can get respect and sanity back to our people. That is how we can earn respect and demand accountability from politicians.

If we see unjustified incrimination of our Somali brothers today and fail to stand up today, when it happens to you tomorrow, don’t expect them to stand up for you. To do that, we have to overlook the baggage we carried for decades and look forward. We are all in the same boat regardless of where we come from. Therefore, we need to make a personal commitment to make sure that we are committed to the wellbeing of each other, for the safety, growth, and wellbeing of our people.

There is a saying in Eritrea, and it goes like this. “Firdi Guana Keinan Yu Metakosi.” What that means is when a stranger judges, it is constantly bent or twisted and creates fights amongst brothers. That means we have to look for indigenous solutions. To achieve that, we need to learn to trust each other by working through legitimate channels by committing for peace and each other.

As an Eritrean, I am glad and proud to know that my people and government are committed to the ideals I expressed.

I want to make it clear that all the comments are my comments.

I sincerely thank the event organizers for doing a great job and overcoming challenges. I want to thank and congratulate Ato Neamin for doing a great job.

(The above was delivered at the recent Horn of Africa Conference on Good Governance that was held in the Washington Metro Area. Ato Amanuel Biedemariam can be reached at [email protected])

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