Old habits die hard
“Perennial turmoil!… intractable conflicts!” These were some of the pejorative, stereotyped, labels that seemed to define the political landscape of the Horn of Africa for the last three decades or more.
This bleak narrative is changing in substantive ways.
The discourse today is indeed of nurturing robust bridges for meaningful bilateral and regional cooperation; of revamping existing institutions for more effective and impacting arrangements of incremental but solid regional integration.
The Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace and Friendship Agreement signed on 9 July last year is a critical component of this wider regional dynamics of enhanced intra-State ties, greater communality of purpose and renewed hope and optimism. And, the rapprochement is not confined to, but transcends, the two countries to encompass several countries in the region.
The new concordat is still “work in progress”. It will require persistent and vigorous efforts for steady and irreversible progress; for the full consummation of the process until the envisioned goalposts are attained.
Naturally, there will be countercurrents; last-ditch efforts by assorted forces whose nefarious agendas have been vanquished and who feel that their perceived interests will never be served by a vibrant & cohesive region.
This is particularly true in regard to Eritrea. The purveyors of “doom and gloom”; those who had invested so much in the past two decades to “ostracize” the country; to degrade and reverse its hard-won achievements, cannot be expected to raise a while flag or close shop.
The flurry of negative articles on Eritrea, visibly ramped up in the past four months, is a clear manifestation of this delusional mindset. The intensive smear campaign continues to be disseminated through selective media outlets: Al-Jazeera, BBC, the Economist, The Guardian, Haartez, the Indian Ocean etc..
And what are the fabricated lies and distorted news analysis these media outlets routinely peddle?
1. National Service, in all its mutated variants, remains the favorable punching bag for Eritrea’s arch-enemies. “Indefinite conscription…forced labour… and even slave labour” are some of the derogatory and insulting terms routinely used in lieu of sober analysis of the underlying rationale, genesis and/or statutory and practical features of National Service in different circumstances. A ludicrous, 84-page “research paper”, issued by Human Rights Watch is now the “flagship” or mandatory “reference manual” for those bent on gratuitously maligning the National Service to advance other sinister objectives. Let us put aside Human Rights Watch’s ulterior agenda of “regime change” and its murky links to various intel agencies. The fallacious HRW report is based on “interviews of 73 asylum seekers in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Italy and Switzerland” and “18 other experts (sic)”. How can one infer sweeping conclusions of a national programme that has been running for 25 years and that has involved around 200,000 youth from this small and skewed sample? And how about the credibility and validation of “testimonies” of asylum-seekers? Can they say otherwise? RIP academic research!
Willful and malicious distortions aside, National Service was enacted in 1992 to ensure maintenance of a small defensive professional army that would be buttressed by the National Service in case of foreign aggression. The National Service is limited to 18 months by law but would be extended in the event of continued war and belligerency. It consists of a comprehensive, nation-wide, architecture of collective burden-sharing that applies equally to all citizens without discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of income, economic and educational status, gender or any other social variable. National Service has been prolonged due to illicit war by Ethiopia and its supporters for the last 20 years in flagrant violation of international law. Let us remember that a host of powerful countries and international institutions extended a whopping 40 billion US dollars to the Melles regime thereby bankrolling its policies of aggression and destabilization against Eritrea while invoking sanctions and other tools of harassment to weaken the latter. Sanctimonious and duplicitous diatribes to denigrate the National Service these days really emanate from frustration of failed policies and objectives.
2. Eritrea’s defense alliances and the suitable security arrangements it wishes to cultivate with its neighbours in the wider Horn of Africa/Middle East region to ward off and combat terrorism is another favourite subject for its detractors. In this vein, the UAE’s temporary facilities in Assab have remained themes of endless wild speculation and misrepresentation. A non-existent “30-year lease agreement for a military base” has been asserted ad nauseam with the apparent aim of rendering this false assertion credible through sheer repetition and regurgitation. And last week, the Indian Ocean Newsletter chipped in to spice up the speculative stories with another piece on the arrival in Asmara of “600 members of the Somali National Army… most of whom .. from the Darod clans and the majority were formerly members of Al-Shabaab” for a putative military training in the country. The ION has also been peddling manufactured stories on ‘increased tension with Djibouti”, ongoing negotiations with Ethiopia “to house the Navy in the Red Sea” etc, with the apparent aim of stoking friction among the Horn countries.
There is nothing novel in the notion or practice of appropriate frameworks of security cooperation among regional countries. This is normative practice everywhere. And, Eritrea’s position on this matter has always been crystal-clear with no room for ambiguity or ambivalence. As a littoral Red Sea State, Eritrea has vital interests in cultivating appropriate forms of cooperation with other littoral States on the basis of mutual volition and in full respect of each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The same applies to security cooperation with Horn of Africa countries on matters of paramount security importance to the countries concerned. So what is the fuss all about? Why question security arrangements among neighbors when other countries cross oceans to cultivate security cooperation with African countries.
3. “Religious persecution” remains the third pillar of the insidious vilification campaign against Eritrea. The anecdotes are too many and trite to list them here. Recently, Government judicious action to remove prevalent loopholes in the implementation of a consensual guideline issued in 1995 and that restricted all religious institutions to funding and monitoring in charitable/developmental projects was misconstrued as a “repressive act against the Catholic Church”.
Here again, the facts are crystal clear. Eritrea is a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Introduced in 329 A.D., Christianity has flourished for centuries with its rich rituals and pious followers that comprise almost half of the population. Islam was similarly introduced to the country in early 7th century while Prophet Mohammed was still alive. A small number of the population have also remained animists since ancient times. In the event, the country is a strictly secular state with no official religion or preference accorded to any particular faith. The laws of the country rightly contain explicit provisions that preserve a healthy and centuries-old social fabric of mutual tolerance and co-existence between the various faiths.
So much then for the shrill, frenzied, campaigns which seem to get more ludicrous in reverse proportion to more positive and tangible prospects for durable peace and meaningful cooperation in the region. This is obviously prompted by subtler interests and stakes. But inertia may also be a factor as old habits indeed die hard.