Like any other country in Africa, Eritrea started to evolve as a modern nation state with the advent of European colonialism in Africa. The Italians ruled Eritrea as a unified political and economic entity for about 60 years. During this period, the growth of urban areas, trade, infrastructural development, and the recruitment of “Eritrean soldiers” in the Italian colonial wars in Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia had facilitated Eritrea’s inter-ethnic and inter-religious interactions and communications. In addition, as a result of the “apartheid laws” that Italy employed on all its colonial subjects, Eritreans were summarily subjected to Italian discrimination and segregation. This encouraged the formation and the development of Eritrean Identity, paving the way for revolting collectively against their common enemy (Italian colonial masters) in unison.
After Italian colony was defeated by the Allied forces in 1941, Eritrea was placed under the British Military Administration (BMA), which soon employed its imperial policy of divide and rule tactics to undermine the Eritrean nationality. But by that time, Eritrean national consciousness had already been well established and embedded in the psyche of the Eritrean people. And yet the British continued to employ its divide and rule policy along ethno-religious lines in the years to follow to the extent of partitioning Eritrea, but again that too failed mainly because of the national consciousness. As history shows, in the subsequent years, an organized Eritrean national resistance against colonial rules got momentum (during the 1940’s and the 1950’s), which overtime get transformed into an armed national liberation movement in the 1960’s. Thus, after struggling against successive colonial powers for almost 100 years, Eritrean people won their independence in 1991. Thus, the history of modern Eritrea is the history of this long and arduous struggle in search of statehood and national identity.
In a point, Eritrea (nism) is a shared identity that has been shaped by a common and long history of social, economic, and political struggle by the people who inhabited and constituted the present day Eritrea, a nation-state called Eritrea. This shared identity was further enhanced and solidified during the 30-year war of liberation for which Eritrean people from all walks of life: all ethnic and nationalities/social groups, young and old, men and women came together and died in search of their freedom, liberty, and national sovereignty. So, our national liberation movement was never about a small group or one region, but about all the people who collectively rebelled for 30 years to defend their common identity and shape their own destiny.
However, as we know, independence was not an aim in itself but a means to an end- to have a liberated Eritrean society. That is, independence was a necessary condition not a sufficient condition for liberated Eritrea, meaning establishing a political system that represents the will of the Eritrean people, which upholds justice and equal status of all Eritreans under the rule of law. Unfortunately, the process of liberating Eritrea was hijacked by a group of ruthless homegrown dictators. Because of this, almost 24 years after independence, Eritrea does not have a constitution, has had no elections and no contract between the ruled and the ruler. The regime has failed Eritrea in all its political, educational, cultural and socio-economic policies. Eritrea has become a kleptocratic state. There are no formal institutions that place restrictions on politicians’ actions that can make them accountable to citizens. Instead, the regime has pursued dictatorial policies that transfer resources from the population to the ruling groups. These policies are put in place to maximize the power of the dictatorial regime in which any person or group that opposes the regime is punished while those who remain loyal are rewarded.
Instead of establishing governance structures and resources allocation system that allows all population groups full participation, the regime from the outset adopted extractive and exclusionary laws that allow it to capture absolutely all the benefits of our independence. As a consequence, many population groups in our country were and are marginalized politically, socially and economically. Ever since its inception, the regime has centralized the production and distribution of resources, established patronage and privileges at the expense of all other elements of the nation’s economy. We know, using their political power, the few in PFDJ have accumulated enormous wealth and resources of the state for themselves.
The state power arrangement does not constrain the powers of the government: it does not guarantee economic freedom; it does not provide mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflicting interests of various groups within Eritrea; it does not advocate for peaceful coexistence in Eritrea. What we have in Eritrea is a “failed state phenomenon” where the regime neither cares for the majority of the people or public good, nor for the people’s right. Again, there are no institutions to fulfill the people’s basic needs in Eritrea–what we have in Eritrea is a bone-deep deficiency of the statehood and representative political system. It is against this background that certain groups, notably regional entrepreneurs are reveling into anarchy and retreating into sectarian enclaves in order to consolidate their political power and enhance their ability to monopolize political space in the Eritrean political spectrum. The relevant question should be this: Is regional mobilization the answer to the quest for peace, justice, democracy, societal stability and national unity in Eritrea?
Critics say we fear talking about regionalism and tribalism because we feel it is sensitive; we rather brush it off as if it is not happening. Even though we know regionalism represents an existential threat to the unity, territorial integrity of our country, and to the diversity of our cultural and political identities as a nation, we tend to believe it will go away at some point. It may not.
We know we have an-all entrenched tyranny that we know cut across all regions, religions, nationalities, and social groups of our country, meaning that we have an equal opportunity dictatorship in our country. And one must ask then why the regional politics is trying to make its presence in the Eritrean political landscape. Is it because the tyrannical regime of PFDJ targets certain regions or nationalities in Eritrea? Or is it because there is a regional ideal that no matter what wants to go against the political reality of Eritrea and aspires to assert some sort of separatism or domination in the future of Eritrean political system? Or are the regionalists simply addicted to embracing destructive hyper regionalism politics? Although there may be many reasons for the recent flurry of regional politics in the opposition, there are few key factors that may help explain why:
One is an erroneous interpretation and misunderstanding of the PFDJ regime in our country. The regionalists believe or would like their supporters to believe that the PFDJ is instituted or constituted to serve one region. Not only that but also the region that they claim PFDJ belongs benefits more than any other regions. Politically, if the regionalists believe that the PFDJ hails from one region, which they do, that region must benefit from the existence of PFDJ, meaning economically, socially, and politically. In a point, that region must cooperate with the PFDJ regime in suppressing and marginalizing other regions. As such, there is no evidence of this sort. Hence, the regionalists are simply grounded on regional politics for their own benefit. But the danger that the regionalists do not seem to capture is that by painting accusatory politics against other regions/nationalities as being collaborators of the Issais regime, they are digging a hole that they cannot dig out of easily. In a point, they are creating a dividing line between the victims of the regime, meaning that they are becoming a major obstacle in the fight against the regime; they are poisoning the true relationship and reconciliation that should exist among Eritrean people in their fight against tyranny in their country.
Two, the regionalists tend to blame the victim (the region that they claim has an upper hand in the current system) for their own political weaknesses. In fact, they go to the extent of associating their claim of regional marginalization and victimization back to the history of our liberation movement. As such they claim that the suppression of their region is not limited to the current regime, but something that dates back to the liberation era, and hence they argue that they have been marginalized and segregated by one region or another for a long time.
Three, the regionalists claim that they were far too many killed and martyred during the liberation era in proportion to their numbers vs. to the rest of other regions in Eritrea. The implication is that they deserve more power in Eritrea. This is quite striking; but leaving aside the martyrdom statistics to history, no doubt Eritrean people, unlike the regionalists, take great pride to the contributions and sacrifices made by every region/nationality to the national independence struggle. Yet, this is one card among many others that they think they can play even though the argument does not hold water. But they know they can easily deceive the few naïve and gullible ones from their own region. The question we have to the supporters of these nefarious and malevolent regionalists/personalities who are trying to destroy the unity, tradition, and patriotic values of Eritrea is this: why are you being bought into this false narrative of the regionalists? Ask yourself this question: are your beliefs and values grounded on your country or on the few who are deceiving you for their own benefit? Why are you allowing the regionalists to control you; influence you; or otherwise affect you to think freely for your country?
Four, the regionalists are taking advantage of the free political field in the Eritrean opposition. By all measures, the opposition has so far failed in creating a functional and organized body that can influence and impact the political field of Eritrea. Simply stated, the regionalists are using the failure and weakness of the opposition as a free ground to promote their regionalist aspiration.
Fifth, the regionalists contend that the zonal divisions (six zones) constituted by the dictatorial regime creates territorial and/or economic imbalance, meaning the new zonal division favors one region over another. Hence, this has been another cause for their advocacy for regionalism. But there is no evidence that the new zonal divisions create unbalanced services and resources to the regions. The dictatorial regime might have come up with these new six-zonal divisions, perhaps to centralize the nation within the framework of its dictatorial ambitions. However, it is also public that the new zonal divisions instituted by the PFDJ may require revision once we get rid of Issais regime. We know there are political differences on this issue. But it is up to the Eritrean people to decide whether to revive the colonial era administrative units or to constitute new administrative units. While this should be the way to go, the disillusioned regionalists are trying to revive such an issue as a strategy to justify their political regionalism. Wittingly or not, the regionalists cannot grasp that to a greater degree Eritrean zones have been extremely diversified over the last century where the zones reflect a mixed multitude of languages and ethnic groups to the extent of becoming transregional and cohesive in terms of culture, boundary, and geography.
In all, we have seen what regionalism does to countries. We have seen it recently in Ukraine; we have seen it in Lebanon, and we have seen it many African countries such as Mali and others. Regionalism is against national integration and territorial integrity. It is against every effort to bridge the gaps between communities that lived and coexisted side by side for centuries like ours. It is obstructive to the creation of a representative political system in Eritrea. The regionalists are exploiting the practices of the dictatorial regime to their own benefit, including accusing other regions of being PFDJ’s collective supporters and shields. In doing so, they are undermining the nationalist ideals and the Eritrean nationalism, and provoking and opening a conflict on a regional level. While these few regionalist elites are espousing regionalism politics and sentiment in Eritrea, we know there is no mass support that would give their struggle a regional dimension. This is good and positive. In short, since Eritrea’s independence, the specter of regionalism has been floating, particularly by PFDJ and the regionalists. We must confront this. We must struggle to defeat the throne of PFDJ regime and address every grievances and political issues/controversies relating to regions/nationalities through legal and constitutional instruments under a representative political system in post PFDJ Eritrea. The bells and whistles of regionalism must stop.