In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 11 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
The Issue of Official Languages
A Brief History Lesson
Eritrean Christians and Moslems lived in harmony for centuries; no recorded history or legend suggests otherwise. There was never a religious war or battle between Christians and Moslems. Of course, there were riots (Ambagaro) or feuds between a particular Moslem village and a particular Christian village. Still, then again, there were riots or feuds between only Christian villages or between only Muslim villages or tribes, but no feud ever involved the two religions.
Even the much-publicized feud between two bordering communities, between Tsen’A Degle, a Wereda of manly Christians, and Tor’Aa, a Wereda of mainly Muslims, in Akeleguzai, was a recent phenomenon, hatched up or exasperated by the Eritrean Fronts and the government of Ethiopia. But still, that feud never rose into a religious war; on the contrary, amid their rivalry, the two people never stopped reminiscing their many generations-old fond memories of each other.
The fact is, in the past, the Christians trusted their fellow Moslems, in some ways, more than they trusted their fellow Christians. For example, when entrusting their assets, especially their livestock, for safeguarding, the Christians trusted their fellow Moslems more than they trusted their fellow Christians, including their siblings. Many Christians from the Highland entrusted their livestock, which, by the way, in the past, constituted their entire asset or wealth, to be looked after by, or to graze on the lowlands, to their Muslim fellows, a risk which they would not dare taking with their own fellow Christians. The Christians audited their livestock usually once a year, but many times, they took the accounts presented to them by their Muslim trustees on faith. In addition, Christians who lived in towns trusted entrusting their money to a Moslem for safekeeping more than they did to a Christian or a bank.
Moreover, Christians and Muslims took many steps to reinforce their trust and prevent any mishap between them. For example, when many years ago, I saw Moslem Eritreans, mainly from the Saho people, settled in the predominately Christian villages on the imaginary line that separates the Tigrigna-and Saho-speaking people of Akeleguzai; I inquired a wise Christian man as to how the Sahos came to live among the Christians, then the man explained to me that their forefathers arranged for the Sahos to live among them so that they would serve as the Christians’ liaison with other Muslim villages and communities in western parts of Akeleguzai, or in the Semhar region; to help create a bridge of trust between the Christian and Muslim communities so that a Christian could cruise freely in the Lowlands and likewise a Moslem could cruise freely through the Highlands inhabited by Christians.
Throughout the history of Eritrea, language was never the cause of any feud between religions or tribes. Some people never had to learn a second language. Still, others, those who had to interact with other ethnic groups or those whose location bordered with different-language-speaking tribes, studied, at their own will, the languages of their neighbors or of those with whom they had to correlate, and vice-versa. Still, no legislation ever dictated them to prefer one language over another.
Official Languages in Federated Eritrea.
Language problems are new to Eritrea, and the two-language arrangement enacted during the Federation, which in a sense, implied one language for the Christians and one language for the Moslems, and which was championed by and drafted with the heavy hand of the British bureaucrats, was consistent with Britain’s post-colonial era. It could only be a time bomb planted by the British and set to go off long after the British left the crime scene, the former colony. Wherever Britain stayed or passed by, the nations became engulfed by many conflicts, some new to the countries and some caused by old wounds, which the nations, in turmoil, believed had long been cured.
Therefore, in my opinion, the constitution of the Federation concerning languages was dangerous for the long-term harmony of Eritrean Muslims and Christians and was aimed at adding fuel to the fire, and left alone, it could have caused to transpire a two-pronged unity in Eritrea: one-prong that would unite the Christians exclusive of the Moslems, and the second prong that would exclusively unite the Moslems; secondly, it would pressurize or regiment the minority-languages-speaking Eritreans, for the sake of solidarity with the fellow members of their religion, to voluntarily surrender to, or to allow their native language get wiped out by Tigrigna and Arabic; and finally it could drive a wedge of discord not only between Christians and Moslems as a whole but between the Christians and Moslems of every nationality, of every common-language-speaking people of Eritrea.
According to the old teachings, manuscripts, and publications of ELF, of ELF, Eritrea had nine native languages: Hidareb (Beja), Nara (Baria), Elite (Eleet), Kunama (Baza), Bilen (Blen), Saho (Shaho), Afar, Tigre, Tigrigna. The strange term here is Elite, a distinct language of native Eritreans, estimated roughly in the 1970s at about 2500-5000. They live on Mount Elite, northwest of Haikota.
The old teachings, manuscripts, and publications of ELF never listed the Rashaida people as the ninth Eritrean language. The Rashaida people helped the EPLF when it was besieged by the ELF in the Sahel region, during the “civil war” of the early 1970s, by smuggling food, medicine, and armaments. The PFDJ still regards the Rashaida people as its asset in fighting any opposition from setting foot along the Red Sea shores of the Sahel region. Nonetheless, I mention the Rashaida people here mainly to inform the reader that unless something has changed in the past 30 years, or unless the EPLF decided to disavow the Elite people, Eritrea is supposed to have ten native languages and not nine.
Be that as it may, in recent past years, the PFDJ and all opposition parties have been talking, sometimes by being specific and sometimes without being particular, only about nine Eritrean languages. And when they are being specific, it appears that they are dropping off the Elite language. The Elite people are the minorities of minorities, but also very poor people; thus, they do not have any political, financial, or strategic significance to any party. If the parties have decided to disavow the Elite language, they better have a good reason. Still, they better make their reasons known, including why they have decided to reverse their previous position on the Elite language.
Again, the arrangement of Arabic and Tigrigna always implied that Tigrigna would be for the Christians (though Christianity does not endorse a specific religion) and Arabic for the Moslems, which means:
- Tigrigna for the Bilen-speaking Christians and Arabic for the Bilen-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Tigrigna-speaking Christians and Arabic for the Tigrigna-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Kunama-speaking Christians, and Arabic for the Kunama-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Saho-speaking Christians and Arabic for the Saho-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Tigre-speaking Christians and Arabic for the Tigre-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Nara (Baria)-speaking Christians (if there are any), and Arabic for the Nara (Baria)-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Elit-speaking Christians (if there are any), and Arabic for the Eleet-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Afar-speaking Christians (if there are any), and Arabic for the Afar-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Arabic (Rashaida)-speaking Christians (if there are any), and Arabic for the Arabic (Rashaida)-speaking Moslems;
- Tigrigna for the Hidareb-speaking Christians (if there are any), and Arabic for Hidareb-speaking Moslems.
As anyone can see now, the two-language arrangement, one for Christians and one for Moslems, would divide not only the whole nation into two along religious blocks but also divide every common language-speaking nationality into two along religious lines.
Moreover, in the government of federated Eritrea, the politicians of that time reached a consensus to implement a power-sharing quota along religious lines, almost the same model implemented in Lebanon, which in the 1970s led to mistrust between the Lebanese Muslims and Christians, even though the Lebanese people were blessed with only one language, Arabic. In Eritrea’s case, the power-sharing quota along religious lines, the model which created turmoil in Lebanon, was to be augmented by the fact that the people of Eritrea were to be assigned two separate languages, one for the Muslims and another for the Christians, which again could have led the nation to a much worse turmoil than experienced by the Lebanese people.
I don’t know how many people would agree with me now. Still, I believe, had Eritrea become independent or stayed federated with Ethiopia under that same constitution and arrangement, I say, by the mid-1970s, Eritrean Moslem and Christians would have been at each other’s throats. The religion-based, two-language format would have raised Eritrean children segregated from each other, united only with the people of their respected faith, and developed mistrust between them. And, I believe, had the Ethiopians been smart, they would have left that arrangement to play itself out because, in the event of religious turmoil, the Christians would eventually have turned to Ethiopia for an alliance, helping it abrogate the Federation at their own free will.
Legislating Official Languages
The negative impact of the two-language arrangement, based on the politics of religion, still holds true today as it would 50 years ago. In today’s Eritrea, if the government legislates official languages, you have no guarantee that the Christians will study Arabic enthusiastically as the Moslems might; thus, you will have one language heavily endorsed by the followers of one religion and another by the followers of the other religion, which could mark the beginning of mistrust of two faiths, and in effect could mark the beginning of creating two identities. Besides, you can neither force learning nor legislate enthusiasm.
Once each language is heavily favored by the followers of a respective religion, as long as the Muslim/Christian population’s ratio remains balanced, each language’s status will remain balanced. However, when the scale of population tips in favor of one side or the other, the disadvantaged language and its favorers could feel threatened. As a result, mistrust could develop between the two faiths.
In Lebanon, though the Lebanese people were using the same language, in the beginning, mistrust developed between the two religions for whatever reason when, for example, Christian authorities chose to overlook crimes committed, for example, the import of guns illegally by Christians. Muslim authorities did likewise, and each side’s action, or lack thereof, contributed to rendering the law ineffective. The problem was later exasperated when a number of Palestinians, who were predominately Muslims, dwelled in Lebanon and caused the Muslim/Christian ratio to break in favor of the Muslim population, hence causing the Lebanese people to plunge into an even more terrible situation.
Similarly, in Eritrea, the balance of the population ratio could tip in favor of either side by people who migrate from Ethiopia or Sudan, which could break the Arabic/Tigrigna-speaking ratio of population, which could also lead to the misgivings among the native Eritreans. In essence, the uneasiness between the two faiths, in effect, could dictate the authorities of each part to give blind eyes to immigrants, who might be instrumental in advancing their respective causes. In the end, any mistrust between Christians and Moslems, which Eritreans had never experienced before in their entire history, could divide the Moslems and Christians and force them to seek new and possibly outsider alliances.
To that end, with Ethiopians staring squarely at Eritrea on one side (worth mentioning here is that the grudges that the Highlanders are harboring now against Ethiopia, in ten to twenty years, maybe sooner, will be all but forgotten, and more so amid worsening internal crises), and with Arab nations on the other side, there are no scarce of snoopers who will take advantage of any unfortunate event in Eritrea.
Having said that, in Eritrea, I believe no legislation will keep the Christian/Muslim ratio of the population fixed. But still, I do not have any suggestions on how to tackle problems that might arise due to the imbalance of the Muslim/Christian proportion of the population, nor do I know anyone who does. I am only trying to address problems that might arise due to the imbalance of the Arabic, and Tigrigna-speaking ratio of population, and its effect in upsetting the harmony between Islam and Christianity, because beneath the language, there always lies religion.
Next, will discuss the pros and cons of legislating official languages.