Magazine article New Internationalist

Horn of Tragedy [Conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Horn of Tragedy [Conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea]

Article excerpt

THE liberation struggle in the South that I have been closest to, and identified with most, is the Eritrean struggle for nationhood against the militaristic Dergue that held all of Ethiopia in the grip of terror. I visited the war zone when final victory was anything but certain and then returned to see the beautiful tree-lined boulevards of Asmara after victory had been achieved. I came to a have a deep admiration for the tenacity and courage of the Eritreans, their unboastful determination to have a country of their own. They kept me safe from the MiGs and showed me camaraderie and a courtesy that is rare indeed.

So it was with dismay, but not entirely with surprise, that I heard of renewed hostility--including aerial bombardments by both sides--between Eritrea and its one-time ally, the Tigrayan-led Government of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. I remember crossing the border between Eritrea and Tigray near Adigrat, just six years ago now, with the border guards barely bothering to check papers. Now travel is unthinkable and bombs have fallen on the civilians of what must be one of the poorest places on the face of the earth.

My lack of surprise was rooted in a growing unease about the difficulties that both these societies are having in making the transition from the military command structures of an armed liberation struggle to an open and democratic civil society. Don't get me wrong. There has been much to admire on both sides of the border: the lack of the corruption that plagues sub-Saharan Africa for one thing; the determination to be self-reliant for another; the commitment to basic-needs development for the most easily marginalized of rural peoples for a third. But, increasingly, I have had a sense of unease about the continuing and almost obsessive secretiveness of both governments, the tendency to see any dissent as treasonous, the determination to control or at least keep under close surveillance any impulse towards self-rule in civil society.

I sat for a longish time on the program committee for the Horn of Africa of Oxfam-Canada. Painstakingly we tried to shift our priorities in the post-liberation era from just supporting nuts-and-bolts rural-development projects carried out by large quasi-government organizations--like the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) or Relief Society of Tigray (REST)--to include the fledgling shoots of an emerging civil society: the village-based self-help organizations, the autonomous women's organizations, the human-rights centres, the independent voices on development issues in magazines or newsletters, the advocates of workers' rights. …

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