Currently the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments are taking some practical measures that set pattern to their treatment or mistreatment of aliens from their hostile neighbour across the Mereb. According to unconfirmed reports the Eritrean government has been issuing special identity card to Ethiopian residents, a card that must be renewed monthly for a prohibitive fee. The Ethiopian government has also started registering Eritrean nationals residing in the country. The professed intention of this measure is to issue them with temporary permit to live lawfully by terms and conditions set to alien residents. It is to be hoped the measures taken by both governments would be fair (though what the Eritrean government is doing, if it is true, can hardly be called that), consistent and transparent to clarify all ambiguities regarding the treatment of civilians who found themselves on the wrong side of the border since the beginning of the so called ‘border conflict’.
Evidently the practical measures of the EPRDF government will have to disentangle a great deal of confused matters regarding the status and treatment of Eritrean residents in Ethiopia, much more than the alleged new measures of the PFDJ government. Eritrea has adopted clear constitutional and legal position on nationality and citizenship prior to referendum for independence. Ethiopian residents in Eritrea may not have been treated in exactly the same way as other aliens (being treated more leniently at times of good will and rather harshly at times of hostility than citizens of other countries). Nonetheless their alien status has always been clear. They may not be issued with Eritrean identity cards; they may not take posts that are meant to be held by nationals; they may not get involved in Eritrean domestic affairs; they may not travel with Eritrean passport. Ethiopia on the other hand have opted to make legal instead of constitutional provisions on the subject of nationality and citizenship. Her government finding this a thorny issue, tried not to handle it promptly. It had hoped that some of its prickly spikes will fall in time so that it can grapple with the issue properly. In the absence of such legal provision, the said government had preferred to practice vague and ill defined pragmatic policies that treat Eritrean residents as though they were Ethiopians or Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, at least until the outbreak of war in May 1998.
Thus the immediate impact of the current policy of registering Eritrean residents in Ethiopia is to make a clear distinction between Eritrean nationals and Ethiopians (including those natives of Ethiopia’s former province of Eritrea who still retained Ethiopian citizenship). The policy obliges Eritrean residents to acknowledge their alien status and to live lawfully enjoying all the rights and observing all the duties of foreign citizens. By virtue of removing grounds that allow such people to pose as Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, it protects the country’s immigration and nationality laws from widespread abuse and misrepresentation.
Some other benefits of the policy include its positive contribution to a better understanding of the legal and other issues regarding deportation and deportees. This emotive subject is bedevilled by a multitude of allegations, distortions and misconceptions based on rumours, hearsay and one sided presentation of case studies. Unsubstantiated commentary abound on aspects of deportation ranging from the motives of the act to the manner of its execution. The deportation measure was seen as ethnic cleansing, expulsion of citizens from their own country, daylight robbery, act of jealousy, and so on. Registration of Eritrean citizens therefore helps to clear the grounds on which such allegations mushroomed. If there were transgressions on national and international law, instances of violation of the rights of these alien residents, inconsistencies in the implementation of the policy deportation on the part of the deporting government, the latter can also be called to account for them case by case. As much as the EPRDF government’s willingness to involve ICRC helped to remove the sting out of the allegations of harassment and mistreatment of deportees, a transparent and fair policy of treating Eritrean citizens as foreign nationals will neutralise the venomous charges of ethnic cleansing and the like.
Be that as it may, it is important to make reflections on deportations both from Ethiopia and Eritrea, scrutinising the objectives of the measures, and the circumstances and manners of their execution. This article attempts to do just that, albeit tangentially from a non-partisan position of examining the perception and presentation of the case in the western media. In so doing it adopts interrogatory and argumentative methods to shade light on their biased viewpoints and on the shaky foundations of their prejudicial statements.
The most common and superficially damaging points seems to me those that revolve around issues of citizenship, national security, manner of deportation, as well as points related to inconsistency in EPRDF practices, the impact of deportation on the on-going war, and whether there was double standards on deportation.
1. Lack of clarity on the ethnic origin and nationality status of deportees
In the commentaries of western media there is a naïve or deliberate acceptance of the deportees as Ethiopian nationals of Eritrean extraction. Concomitant with it is the view that the deportees were victims of ethnic cleansing. These prevalent views as presented by Citizens for Peace in Eritrea (CPE), and totally accepted at face value by the majority of the western media broadcasters and commentators have been properly addressed elsewhere (especially by Samuel Assefa: On Deportation, Addis Tribune, 07, 14 & 21 May 1999). Without reiterating here those sound arguments that invalidate the reasons to assume the deportees as Ethiopian nationals, I would like to raise a few related points.
The PFDJ provisional administration, in its obsession to guarantee 100% vote in favour of independence, created a legal and procedural system that institutionalised Eritrean citizenship prior to establishing Eritrean statehood as a realisation of the expressed wish of its would-be subjects. A system that was meant to eliminate possible Ethiopian infiltration in referendum voting (I might also add, a system that was also designed to minimise the number of ‘Amharanized’ native Eritreans who may vote against independence) had produced the intended target for the purpose of referendum. The system was so rigorous that even genuine Eritreans with no working knowledge of Tigrigna and/or ancestral history were disenfranchised from voting. Yet the anomalies of formal citizenship prior to de jure statehood now seems to work against the interests of Eritrean citizens living in Ethiopia. There may also be possible negative repercussion in the future for the rest of the exiled Eritrean communities all over the world. It is well remembered, since it happened not long ago, that the Swedish government had protested to the Eritrean government concerning their practice of levying tax from Swedish citizens of Eritrean origin.
Similarly, in it eagerness to have absolute control over its citizens in Ethiopia, the Asmara government had also signed bilateral agreements that leaves no room for doubt about the citizenship status of the majority, if not all, of the deportees. Therefore how can one square the fact of deportee referendum voters with their claims to be Ethiopian citizens? Did they not take great pains to establish their Eritreanness for the satisfaction of referendum authorities? Is there at least a legitimate ground to doubt the sincerity of their claim? If some deportees were genuinely under the illusion of possessing dual nationality, would their government share the blame with the EPRDF government for not informing them about their national status?
In predominant analyses of deportation by western media and human rights organisations, there is a tendency to overlook the consequences of the short-sighted stratagem of the PFDJ government before and after referendum.
The fact that EPRDF officials allowed some referendum voters to use Ethiopian passport cannot indicate to a recognition of ‘dual nationality’, it only shows the authorities illegal or arbitrary practices, their unprincipled stance, their ineptitude. It can also be an indication of those officials genuine pragmatism to ease problems of a transition period in building up the structures of an independent Eritrean state.
Some deportees may have been innocent victims of the policy. But blanket categorisation of all or the majority of deportees as Ethiopians or Ethiopians of Eritrean origin is either a deliberate misrepresentation of the issue, or signs of being duped by masters of Eritrean propaganda.
2. Reasons of national security
In discussions of deportation in western media, there is also a general lack of proper assessment of potential danger to the TPLF-led regime in Ethiopia from members of the Eritrean community. Those who rushed to condemn the EPRDF government for deportation had no time to assess how many former EPLF fighters reside in Ethiopia, and how many of them could be regrouped or reactivated to function as subversive military units. They had no clues about the organisational structure of PFDJ in the country: how resourceful and strong it was to mobilise the Eritrean community. They were not interested to find out whether Eritrean businessmen supporting PFDJ would be so indifferent to the dispute between the two governments so as not cause any economic harm to Ethiopia.
Given the unpopularity of TPLF in Ethiopia outside of Tigray, the considerable financial and institutional resources of the Eritrean elite in the country, the intimate knowledge of TPLF and EPLF about each others disregard for law and order when they are in fighting mood, etc. is it possible to conceive the idea that the TPLF could feel safe not to deport Eritreans of all background and political affiliations? More importantly, is the Asmara government so conscientious not to drag its own citizens in Ethiopia to fight for its cause and against those of the host government?
Any judgmental statement that do not consider these and other similar factors is bound to be biased. Knowing what sort of preventative and precautionary measure the western media demand from their own respective governments at a time of possible terrorist action, to underplay or completely ignore EPRDF’s concern for national security smacks of sanctimony or self-righteousness.
3. Manner of deportation
The western media quite rightly observed the appearance of indiscriminate and unsystematic deportation, and legitimately questioned whether the undertaking was authorised and supervised by top level officials of the government. Yet in these criticisms they were unable to consider any mitigating circumstances for its appearance of being ill-organised. The TPLF-led government had suffered humiliation and defeat in the first few months of the border conflict at the hands of their former Eritrean allies. The PFDJ government and its leaders were also taunting the TPLF, by reminding them what they can do using the solid Eritrean presence in their midst. Under such circumstances was there enough time and bureaucratic capacity to screen Eritreans, so that only ‘potentially dangerous elements’ could be put under control? Innocence until proven guilty is a luxury we never had. It is also a concept all other Western countries completely disregard in treating foreigners in their midst when they are at war with countries of their origin.
Blanket deportation is objectionable, but one should not ignore the extenuating circumstances.
4. Inconsistencies in TPLF policies
When the TPLF-led EPRDF forces took power in 1991, they suffered from lack of confidence and want of experienced and trusted state functionaries. Widespread resentment and suspicion outside of Tigray had also made them vulnerable to their opponents. It was these factors that forced the TPLF to depend on EPLF and persons of Eritrean origin when the took power. Yet pragmatic policies that were partly meant to earn PFDJ’s goodwill and support in the first years of TPLF government, had made it so vulnerable lately. Policies that ensured less vulnerability vis-à-vis domestic opposition in the early 1990s, have unduly exposed them to the whims of Eritrean officialdom long before the beginning of hostilities. Since May 1998, that vulnerability was quite apparent to everyone. Thus the unceremonious and haphazard deportations measures.
From the point of view of TPLF, policies of encouraging Eritreans to vote for independence, to overlook the unlawful status of ‘dual nationality’ of Eritreans, etc. in the early 1990s, and recent policies of deportation of those same people, are only inconsistent in action, not in the objectives of minimising their vulnerability.
It is not fair on individuals who had been coerced to vote for Eritrean independence to be forcibly deported for doing so. It is not just to encourage financial and other contributions of Eritrean citizens to their government, and to throw them out of the country for such contributions. TPLF should be held accountable for those exceptional cases. But how many deportees fall in this category?
5. Impact of deportation on the on-going war
Implicit in some western media analyses on the subject is the assumption deportation had backfired on the EPRDF government. Underlying this assumption is perhaps the view that the furore against expulsion confused or derailed the peace process. Yet this view is questionable. Had there been no deportation, was it possible to resolve the border conflict speedily? Knowing that the border conflict is only a pretext to undisclosed conflicts of interest between the warring parties, it would be naïve to think that both would have not used prevarication to prolong the war in the hope that they win a victory to dictate terms on the defeated party.
Deportation have given Asmara a propaganda advantage; it helped to cover up its invasion of Ethiopian administered lands. Yet, if neither the OAU and other mediators nor Western governments declined to call Eritrea’s action as an invasion, it was to appease the Eritrean government, or not to be seen as taking sides, and/or perhaps not to jeopardise the chances of peaceful resolution. I don’t think it was because of deportation.
To the TPLF-led government that was incensed by humiliation of defeat, deportation provided ‘sweet revenge’, not to mention the significant advantages of preventing possible military operations aimed at destabilising the country, denying vital economic resources to the Asmara government, and of sending shock waves to the Eritrean community at home and abroad. To the overwhelming majority of Eritreans deportation was a painful reminder of the consequences of PFDJ belligerency, their own blind support to it, and of their provocative arrogance towards Ethiopians in general and Tigrayans in particular. This arrogant attitude, formed by an unrealistic view of their modernity and the invincibility of their state, perhaps partly explain why many Ethiopians feel indifferent to TPLF’s unceremonious deportation of so many Eritreans. Hence for the purpose of waging the on going war, TPLF definitely had much more to gain than to lose by deportation.
As to international condemnation, I dare say it made no difference to the TPLF leadership. They have been used to receiving sticks both from the domestic and international media about censorship, freedom of press, lack of democracy, abuse of human rights, etc. while the Eritrean government that had worse records in all these respects had been spared from such criticisms. Their disregard or disparaging remarks to the media and human rights organisations are, at times, justifiable.
6. Is there dual standard for deportation?
Most western media commentators on deportation ignored or made only passing remarks about forced Ethiopian returnees from Eritrea. Why are they not indignant when tens of thousands of Ethiopian civilians were expelled from Eritrea in 1991? Why do they fail to be equally vociferous about those induced to leave their homes and properties in Eritrea (over 40,000) since May 1998? Many who condemned the deportation policy of the TPLF-led regime keep quiet about that of the PFDJ regime. Is a secretive regime that conceals its actions of harassment, etc. - amounting to forcing people to leave its country - any better than a regime that conducts its expulsions in public and under the scrutiny of international observers? Is the infringement of the rights of well-to-do and well connected Eritrean deportees more important than those of poor forced returnees of Tigrayan and non-Tigrayan ethnic Ethiopians?
Outsiders different treatment of the two regimes in this as in many other areas of policies and practices is so stark. Somehow, international and human rights organisations, journalists and so-called ‘country experts’ like to treat harshly a relatively more open government than that which kept all its evil doings well concealed. They tend to be friendly and tolerant of regimes that deny them access to evidence and to independent observation.
7. General remark:Deportation is morally objectionable, economically disruptive, socially and culturally damaging; but any condemnation of it should target perpetrators on both sides.The PFDJ government is no less guilty than that of the EPRDF, for deporting Ethiopians, albeit unofficial and indirect, and for conducting irresponsible practices that played a part in the deportation of its own citizens.
Secondly, the secretive and vindictive nature of the two organisations is often overlooked in such discourse. Only TPLF could have picked out the individual deportees with such efficiency, because of their intimate knowledge of PFDJ activities in Ethiopia. (It is not unreasonable to suppose that many illegal, quasi-legal and para-statal Eritrean businesses, just as much as those owned by the TPLF and other members of the EPRDF, operated in Ethiopia with the connivance of the officials of the Ethiopian government.) That both organisations still behave beyond the norms of government - like businessmen, guerrilla or Mafia groups, etc. - indicate to a high level of illicit collaboration at times of peaceful partnership, but also to intensely violent clashes in periods of mistrust and hostility. Some of the erratic and inconsistent behaviour of both governments can only be understood with a proper appreciation of such factors.
The pains of Eritrean separation from Ethiopia had only been deferred in the first six or seven years of the overthrow of the military regime. They were never overcome, contrary to the views in the early 1990s of the admirers and apologists of the newly established governments in Asmara and Addis Ababa. With subsequent divergence of economic and political polices pursued by the two governments, making some painful adjustments were inevitable. In making these adjustments to finalise the complete separation of the two economies, large scale war, bloodshed and forcible eviction could have been avoided. Had we been blessed with humble, cool-headed and far-sighted statesmen such wanton destruction of the past fifteen months would have been avoided. Unfortunately we were cursed to be ruled by former guerrilla fighters, whose propensity to use force to resolve social and economic problems were legendary.
Thus it was only a matter of time before the instrument of brute force was employed to ease the pains of economic separation. What is more, the conflagration of war would be made worse by the existence of ubiquitous inflammable litter thanks to the legacy of bitterness of thirty years of civil war, widespread resentment concerning Eritrean independence, and prevalent misconception that confused ethnic and political identities. Once these were let loose, they were bound to impinge on civilians, many of whom learnt the real meaning of loss of their former citizenship and the traumas of alienation in their own country of birth.
For all these pains PFDJ, the darling government of much of the western media, are primary culprits. (Had they resisted the temptation of injudicious use of their military superiority to occupy disputed land, had they not underestimated their enemy’s capacity to build a matching army in a matter of eight months, had they pulled back their forces once their bluff was called, so much tragedy would have been avoided, including the deportation of their own citizens.) This of course does not absolve the TPLF/EPRDF, the media’s pariah, from criminal charges for rushing in blind fury to plunge Ethiopia in a bloody war, and for victimising some possible innocent deportees.