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The Role of Arts in Peace and Stability

In Eritrea’s history, art has played a great role in times of both war and peace. During the long and bitter struggle for independence, all forms of art contributed their invaluable share in winning the struggle. One foreign observer stated that Eritrean revolutionary music “served more than bullets.” They echoed and disseminated the voice of the oppressed people of Eritrea and the justness of their question to the wider audience. Eritrean revolutionary music inculcated volunteerism and patriotism among Eritreans. It played a crucial role in mobilizing Eritreans to participate in the revolution. After independence, too, our artists have continued the revolutionary tradition and produced many works of arts that helped in the reconstruction efforts and defense of the country. So, in Eritrea art is an indulgence, but an essential element in the social and political life of the country. The Eritrean society recognizes the importance of artistic activities in shaping and reshaping the direction of history.

Recently, two sisterly countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, have amicably made rapid and positive reconciliation that ended 20-year of military standoff. This positive development happened after Dr. Abiy’s government showed readiness to abide by the Algiers agreement and 2002 decision of the boundary commission. On the 26th of June, a High-level Eritrean delegation moved to Addis Ababa to break the wall of hostility that separated the two countries for twenty years. After some time, on 8th July, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, visited Eritrea and on 9th July the two countries signed a joint peace declaration in Asmara. President of Eritrea, H.E. Isaias Afwerki, went to Ethiopia on 14th July for a three-day visit. On 18th July, Ethiopian airlines resumed flights to Asmara. All these fast moving developments were accompanied by many official statements and songs on both sides that advocated peace. Upon arrival in Asmara, Dr. Abiy was accorded warm welcome by the government and people of Eritrea. Eritreans of all ages who gathered on the streets to welcome the Ethiopian delegation loudly and eagerly chanted various new songs of peace. Peace songs are recited by young kids on the play grounds, farmers in their farm, shepherds in their grazing land, and women. More importantly, Eritrea’s greatest artists, including but not limited to Teckle Kiflemariam (Wedi Tikul), Tesfay Mehari (Fhira), Estifanos Abrham (Zemach), Dehab Faitinga, Wedi Druf, Elsa Kidane, Mohammed, Semhar Yohannes, Feven Tsegay, and others composed and played new songs related to the peace between the two countries.

On the historic day of the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s visit to Eritrea thousands of people flocked to the streets of Asmara and different cities around the countries. That day I was in Adi-Keih and along with the people of Adi-Keih and students of College of Arts and Social Sciences I participated in the peace demonstration. The poetic quality and melody of the songs chanted by the crowd were amazing. The singers mostly women contributed their finest intellectual products for free. The songs praise President Isaias, Warsay- Yikealo, Dr. Abiy, and explain the essence of peace. Some of the songs are prophetic. For example, one song that was sung by the crowd goes on to say “kab Senafe nab Zalanbesa, naqfan brn tehawawisa” which roughly means from Senafe to Zalanbesa (Border towns of Eritrea and Ethiopia) Nakfa and Birr (Eritrean and Ethiopian currency respectively) are working together. This song forecast the economic integration of the two countries.

When President Isaias Afwerki visited Ethiopia he said that “I feel boundless joy as I convey to you the message of peace, love and good wishes of the people of Eritrea.” He continued to say at a concert celebrating the peace process at the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa, “We have triumphed over the toxic schemes of the past years aimed at sowing the seeds of hate, resentment and destruction.” Therefore, our artists have to enhance their works to clear the path of peace and to overcome a conspiracy of hatred, revenge and destruction. Our old and new artists have already demonstrated our values and aspirations creatively.

As it was evident in the past, Eritrean artists have the responsibility to bear their duty of portraying the right image and reputation of Eritrea. The patriotic act of Eritrean artists is to act with awareness and purpose to visualize, produce and introduce the true soul of Eritrea. They continually demonstrate the peace loving nature of the Eritrean society. Artists have comparative advantage over official diplomats in creating a positive image of a country. They can create positive perception of their country among foreign citizens. Therefore, artists in both countries must reinforce the new peace initiative, and they must be aware of their professional duty and responsibility of laying the foundation of trust and confidence among the countries. Artists become effective instruments of peace only after they have mastered the art of listening and understanding the inner voice of the people. They must find common ground with foreign cultures and engage in exploring universal values. The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia are peace loving people and they want to live in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. Since art is the outward expression of an inner feeling, artists must popularize the inner feeling, the untold mood and the day and night dream of the two people. The public wants artistic works that promote peace and love and put an end to skepticism and hatred.

Art has the potential to strengthen established relations. It also allows for the sharing of ideas and beliefs in a way that is not threatening. Peace and confidence building require diverse tools and could be a reliable tool. Therefore, governments must find ways of incorporating arts into the work of peace building. They need to create space where the two people can express themselves, heal, and reconcile through the arts. Art is a tool that can help transform the way people think and act. Art can change the dynamics of inter-communal and international affairs.

Before, during and after the Ethio- Eritrea conflict, Eritrean artists worked to prevent and reduce direct violence through visual, literary and performance art. And now for peace to replace violence, and for confidence to replace distrust, they must spare no efforts. Our artists should accompany our leaders in transforming relations through the artistic medium to heal personal and collective trauma. In many ways artists are the real architects of change.

Thus, art is a valuable tool for processing social modes of feeling on a large scale. Artists have a comparative advantage over others in influencing public opinions. They are also transcendent to their time, they are free to explore within humanity instead of within its institutions. Just as soldiers derive much of their information from their immediate commanders, artists get much of their creative material from the people and situations around them. Therefore, artists in both countries must work accordingly by ignoring near-sightedness and commercialism. The people of the two countries need arts that offer peace builders unique tools that were not prevalent in the past.

Artists from the two countries are expected to use their bravery and creativity to challenge malignant acts. President Isaias Afwerki stated clearly to the crowd in Addis Ababa that “We shall not tolerate any act that is aimed at disrupting and disturbing our love and harmony; assailing and terrorizing our peace and stability.” Therefore artists should contribute their professional aid to advance and help materialize the joint declaration of peace and friendship. Let our arts support the endeavors of the visionary and courageous leadership of the two countries and be on the side of the peace loving people of the two countries. Let us replace violence with peace and mistrust with confidence to recover the losses and heal the wounds sustained in the past.

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