Ethiopian Myth, The West and Eritrea
Alemseged Tesfai
May 29, 2000

As the world watches with stunning indifference, Ethiopia is invading Eritrea. Not for the first time in the latter's history, wild-eyed journalists accompanying the invading force are busy making careers out of, what they see as, "Ethiopia's crushing advance" and Eritrea's humiliating defeat." Some pundits and "Horn experts" are already writing epitaphs on Eritrea as we have known it for the last nine years.

I am an Eritrean writer who loves his country enough to have fought for its independence for quite a sizable portion of my life. The Ethiopian "advance", not the first one I have seen over the past forty years, does not intimidate me, although the humanitarian catastrophe it has caused is painful to be living through. The gleeful reporting of Ethiopia's "triumph" and our "demise" in the international media, I find premature, hasty and dramatic. As to those Ethiopians who are already celebrating and gloating over their "victory", I will say, as I have on the aftermath of their Badme gloat last year, "Just wait. The last laugh may yet be ours."

My purpose here is neither to comment on nor to predict the exact outcome of this latest fighting. That is best left to what happens on the ground. All I am inclined to say, at this point, is that wars, especially the wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea, have always defied logic and studied predictions. Every Ethiopian advance has always carried with it elements of reversal that have invariably come back with a ferocious vengeance. This may be the case this time around too. So, let us just wait.

I write, however, with anger and anguish in my heart. I write to puzzle over the inexplicably cruel silence of the international community in the face of this open and announced aggression. Why? We must go beyond the "they don't care about Africans" syndrome to find an answer. If the West can rush to save Ethiopia's starving millions, then it could surely move to end the war that is one of the key causes of the famine. It is not. Why?

What is it that the US-led international community has against Eritrea as a nation and Eritreans as a people? In the 1940's, Britain and the US maneuvered the UN that they dominated, to deny Eritrea its rightful demands for independence. They concocted, instead, the cession of Eritrea to Ethiopia, under the guise of a "federal formula" that was never meant to work. When in 1962 Ethiopia put pretensions aside to annex Eritrea by force, they turned the other way.

During Eritrea's lone and arduous struggle for independence, the US financed armed and trained the Haileselassie regime's attempts to crush it militarily. During Mengistu's brutal rule of Eritrea, the Soviet Union did the financing, arming and training. The US and the rest of the West fed his starving millions and footed his "development", including forced re-settlement, projects. Even in 1991, when Eritrea had won its independence through the blood of its daughters and sons, the US made a last attempt to thwart it inside a new charter for Ethiopia.

That's history now and Eritreans had forgiven and forgotten the unfairness and injustices of the past. But, the behaviour of the US-led international community in the current Ethiopian invasion is bringing back to Eritreans the phantoms of the past. Practically every nation in the West, with the US and the EU leading the way, is feeding Ethiopia's hungry. That is, of course, tantamount to guarding its backyard, while the latter pushes deeper into Eritrea. Only Pakistan and Libya have spoken against this blatant aggression. The UNSC is pathetically neutral, the OAU is ambiguous even in the face of the Eritrean withdrawal from all contested territories. We don't know what the EU is thinking or doing as regards this matter. Russia has sent its generals to conduct Ethiopia's invasion for it. The US is stalling and indulging in bits of non-statement that amount to the loudest silence on the most major crisis in the world at present.

Why? Is little, "plucky" Eritrea once again being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency and the regional policies of our only superpower and its followers, which appears to be almost everybody? If so, what expediency, policy or stake could possibly justify this latest travesty of everything that is just and legal?

Could it be that, particularly the US, Britain and their Western allies of the 1940's, bear a grudge against Eritrea for having opted out of the framework and future they had designed for it, to trace its own path? Simplistic as it may seem, it seems to me that this factor serves as the background to all the prejudice that Eritrea has constantly been subjected to from that end and to big-power irritation with its "ways and attitudes."

Our main problem with Ethiopia, which Thomas Kineally has rightfully called, "the sick man of Africa," is rooted in the interpretation of a myth. Alternating rulers of that country have found it vital to invoke the myth of "three thousand years of freedom and glory" in order to stay in power.

At the cultural level, some of the people of Eritrea, not all of them include that myth in their traditions. But, they do not attach more to it than the folkloric and legendary value it deserves. It forms part of a cultural heritage that some people in Eritrea share with some in Ethiopia. Period. Eritreans just never felt that some myth that supposedly took place three thousand years ago should come back in the form of brutal and corrupt Ethiopian regimes to subjugate them. They fought for thirty years to dispel this imposition, this ingeniously usurped political fiction. They won.

Apart from strategic interests in the Horn, which obviously gives priority to huge Ethiopia over its smaller neighbours, our problem with the West has also been their blind and total acceptance and fascination with the Ethiopian myth. An array of their own scholars - the Pankhursts, Clapham, Gilkes, Ehrlich, Marcus, Rubenson and a former American spy named Paul Henze, to name a few - have seen to it that the Ethiopian ruling class version of history is firmly implanted in the minds of Western thinking. These are career Ethiopianists whose every prediction about Eritrea has been disproved by its present existence and status. They can't wait to see it go, even re-conquered by Ethiopia, if it were possible.

Eritrea came to be in defiance and upon the defeat of this Western-supported myth. It joined the international community from the outside, literally, "from the bushes," not in conformity with the framework and design of great powers.

Why is that resented? Didn't "thirteen, tiny, scrawny states," as Malcolm X once referred to them, revolt against the might of the British Empire to become the mighty USA? Why does the US resent the fact that a little country of not much consequence has gone through the same process to create its own little state?

Some will probably say that, more than the way we came to be, it is the way we behaved after independence that has put us at odds with the US-led international community. I don't know how much weight this argument should be given. Our detractors argue that we stalled on putting our already ratified constitution into effect and on holding national elections. They accuse us of having "dismissed" NGO's and on having put too much emphasis on "doing things our own way"...... etc.

I will concede to only one of these allegations. We should have hastened to put the constitution into effect, even with the war running. Not just for the sake of appearances, but because it was a most participatory, democratic and beautiful process that should have been consummated by now.

On other points, I will disagree. During our years in the bushes, we were dismayed observers of the corruption of African administration by the very donor countries that advocate "good governance." We were a lone liberation movement that learned to stand on our own feet and to weather through adversity on to independence. We vowed to fight corruption and to stick to an ascetic life of self-reliance. We believe in owning, prioritising and managing our own affairs. Except in times of natural or man-made disasters, we prefer to resist foreign aid and work to protect ourselves from aid dependency. Why is all this considered a sin?

Maybe we have done some things crudely. Granted that our institutions and organizational set-up sometimes leave much to be desired. So what? Are these enough reasons for the West's apparent abandonment of Eritrea's rights? Should we be resented for working hard so that we may not be economically dependent? Is it a sin to insist on owning and managing one's own affairs? Are we being blamed for not knocking at Western doors to beg for alms? Are we being punished for not showing human skeletons on TV screens? Are we being chastised for attempting to structure our own institutions? Aren't some of what we are doing supposed to be some of the lofty tenets of "good governance"?

No matter which way one sees it, nothing can ever justify the conspiratorial silence over this invasion of a sovereign state by a neighbour bent on destroying its unity and stability. What this madness of the Meles regime is seen as accomplishing beats all sensible reasoning and rationality. If the expectation is that Eritrea will submit to another era of Ethiopian rule, it is naivete and narrow-mindedness at its most extreme. The Ethiopians may dream of dissecting Eritrean society into its ethno-linguistic components, thus pitting its people against each other. This is an old agenda that did not work even for the astute and wily Haileselassie. Neither did it work for those masters of the principle of divide and rule - the British colonialists of the 1940's. How in the world our greedy upstarts in Addis Ababa even thought they would succeed in this venture will remain a riddle.

In the meantime, a terrible war is being fought in Eritrea. Thousands of Ethiopian conscripts are being driven and shot at from the back to overran Eritrean positions in droves of human wave that is, invariably, resulting in massive massacres. Eritrean troops are describing this, and with a lot of regret, as "sickening". Hundreds of thousands of proud and self-reliant Eritreans are being forced to leave their environs into displacement camps. Here is a humanitarian crisis that is purely man-made, purely the result of Ethiopia's invasion.

As ever, Eritrea stands alone to face another, and much worse, brute of destruction. The most likely possibility is that its defense forces will reverse Ethiopia's initial advantage and advance to deal it a telling blow. I hope that the US-led international community's silence does not mean that it is supporting the Meles regime's absurd wish to subjugate Eritreans. The repercussions of such an attitude, God forbid, must be carefully weighed. This is a nation that has paid dearly for freedom. It is a new nation that has not yet fully quenched its long craving and thirst for that simple human right. Any attempts to deny it this hard-earned enjoyment will only provoke the wrath of its people and experience has shown the extent to which Eritreans can go to protect or retake what is rightfully theirs. That will not be the most desirable thing for our troubled region.

The international community, especially the US, UN, EU and the OAU should stop the Meles government's insanity and lay blame where it belongs. Serious steps must be taken to stop this invasion. Silence in such situations can only mean complicity.