Sectarianism is not uncommon in Eritrean political history. After Italians lost their colony in Eritrea, Eritreans faced a serious challenge to secure a free and independent country simply because of their sectarian politics. The diehard Orthodox Christians and Muslims were unable to overcome their religious prejudice. Instead, each group worked for their interest.
The Orthodox Christians were in favor of the Ethiopian monarchy simply because they had a perception that their religious values and threats can be secured if they can join Ethiopia. This fear-based political perception was exploited by opportunists to solidify Ethiopian interference in Eritrean politics. This sectarianism soon developed to become an ideological background and mobilization strategy by then formed strong and Ethiopian backed Unionist Party which was working under the guidance of the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Markos.
On the other hand, Eritrean Muslims were against Ethiopian aggressive expansion agenda mainly in fear of their religious values and discrimination. Therefore, The Muslims came together to form a political organization that advocates Mulsim interest by rejecting any form of unity with Ethiopia. They organized all Muslim communities through an active participation of religious leaders to secure an independent Eritrea. To achieve their political agenda, they formed an exclusively Muslim dominated political party, the Eritrean Muslim League, presided by a religious leader Sayyid Muhammad Abu Bakr al_Murghani, from Al-Mirghani family.
These two sectarian political groups had dominated most of the Eritrean fate for almost two decades(1941 – 1961). Because of their extreme stands and values, they promote on, Eritrean case for independence was put in jeopardy. As a result, Eritrea was put in Federation with Ethiopia(UN Resolution Article 390(A)) which was later ended in 1961 through forced annexation by Ethiopia that led to 30 years bloody war.
This bitter sectarian politics of the 1940s and 1950s did not end there. During the early years of the armed struggle, Eritreans had no trustee among themselves. The Christian highlanders were treated as traitors. The leadership of the newly formed revolutionary front was dominated by Muslims. With the flux of many Christians to the armed struggle, a serious competition started to develop that ended into two opposing factional groups.
Although the armed struggle was inclusive to all Eritreans, mistrust among freedom fighters was prevalent. The Christian highlanders were felt excluded in decision making. This feeling was hijacked by young revolutionaries to form a separate front later called EPLF lead by Isaias Afewerqi. Isaias Afewerqi wrote a manifesto which specifically mentions the Christian Highlanders. This brought a new type of sectarian politics at a wider context hidden into nationalistic agenda.
Although EPLF became so large to include all Eritreans, its internal working guidelines had a strict code of conduct which maintained the original manifesto of “We and Our Objectives -Tigrigna Version” that discriminates Muslims who are a considered a threat to the mission. After independence, EPLF renamed itself “PFDJ”. Although it resembled more democratic, its internal working principle and excluding Muslims from day to day decision-making process over national issues became clear.
Although PFDJ is purely a totalitarian regime controlled by one-man, many Eritreans became resentful for its discriminatory approach. This gave a perception by some Eritreans the regime to be a Christian government. I do not agree with such labeling though I do acknowledge PFDJ favors Christians in most sensitive areas. But this is the nature of dictators. Anyone whom they feel confident with is not hesitant to work with.
Opposition Forces and Political Crisis
So far, the opposition has failed to build a strong resistance and united opposition group. The impact of sectarianism is prevalent everywhere. These sectarian feelings include religious, regional, ethnic and tribal sentiments. With the exception of some disgruntled and small political factions who promote radical agendas, these sentiments have not come to the surface as a well structured organizational working system.
Recently, regional-based civic associations are starting to take shape as a center of organization the wider population in the opposition camp. What is good about these civic associations is that they are trying to keep a distance from any agenda that is centered in power grabbing.
Social grievances towards PFDJ have led to perceive Muslims are excluded from power. To regain this, there are feelings which ought to proportionate power among Muslims and Christians fairly. This is a reasonable social grievance. However, power allocation based on religious affiliation can lead to unprecedented damage of sectarianism. Eritreans had experienced this in the 1950s. Most Eritreans rejected that tries to assume power based on religious affiliations. However, with growing political crisis and new political developments in Eritrea, some new initiatives are taking a momentum of a power-sharing mechanism based on an equal number of Christians and Muslims.
“50 – 50” Ideology
“50 – 50” Ideology stands for a power-sharing mechanism based on 50% Christians and 50% Muslims. Its basic hypothesis is, “to build trusteeship power should be shared equally”. One of the recent emerging pioneers in this ideology is coming from USA resident two Eritreans through their declared new manifesto called “Denver Manifesto”.
These two Eritreans who are in the forefront to promote the Denver Manifesto are Mr. Sengal Weldetnsae and Dr. Saleh Nur. Both are residents of USA and have extensive experience in Eritrean politics and profession.
Watching their interview with Tempo Afric TV, the content of the manifesto and its spirit seems great. So far, I have not found any issue which I disagree.
My concern is with the implementation strategy. On 21/10/2018, Mr. Sengal Weldetnsae had a seminar in London, UK. During the presentation, he said that in every committee equal number of Christians and Muslims. The reason was to allocating based on Christians and Muslims is to build trust among the divided Eritreans
This is the purest form of sectarian politics. If the actors behind the manifesto believe that their document is strong motion to solve most Eritrean political concerns, what is the need for injecting religion as a means to implement the manifesto?
If the manifesto can stand by itself, Eritreans can adhere to the principles no matter what religion they follow. Not only this, power-sharing based on religion can be a source of discrimination.
I do believe that any politics that have a potential effect on the overall Eritrean social make-up should be kept neutral to religion. Otherwise, unexpected negative sentiments could develop that will us into the bitter experiences we had before.