In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 12 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in May 2002)
What Could the Consequences of Legislating Official Languages Be?
It is true that Arabic is a much more developed language than Tigrigna. Given any chance, and if the Christians miraculously were to embrace it, not only might it wipe out the minority languages, but it might also wipe out Tigrigna.
But equally as bad as the annihilation of the native languages is, since Islam endorses Arabic as the choice for the Islamic religion, it becomes easier for a more significant number of Eritrean Muslims to be enthusiastic, even at the risk of letting their native languages getting obliterated, but also for a more considerable number of the Christians to be cynical about it. By the same token, if only Tigrigna is declared the official language, you still have no guarantee that it will transcend all Muslims and Christians because some Eritrean Muslims also mistakenly regard it as the language of Christians. But also it could destroy all minority languages. And if only Tigrigna and Arabic are declared official languages, there is no guarantee that both languages will transcend religious boundaries and win all Eritreans of both religions equally. But also, both languages could wipe out all minority languages.
Furthermore, suppose Eritrea, a nation of half Moslem and half Christian population, adopts Arabic as its official language for only religious reasons. In that case, it will be the only country in the world, maybe even in the history of the world, where half of the country’s population with different native languages embraces it for strictly religious reasons.
Many countries adopted more than one language as their official language. Each of them chose those languages by virtue of the size of the population that natively spoke them (the exception to this is that some former European colonies have adopted the language of their former colonizer as their official language or as one of their official languages), no country has ever legislated an official language for religious reasons alone, except unless one wants to include the state of Israel, which legislated Hebrew in a country founded as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which by the way has no relevance to Eritrea’s case, which by the way has no relevance to Eritrea’s case. (I will briefly discuss Djibouti, Comoros, and Chad, three counties that have adopted both Arabic and French as their official language, in part 13 of 24) Therefore, when implementing anything that no one has thoroughly tested, you risk stepping into unchartered territory, the risk of unwittingly introducing unforeseen problems. Therefore, if Eritrea chooses to do so, it needs, in advance, to have a clear blueprint worked out, including all the details about the implementation of the arrangement.
I believe the constitution of the Federation, which was never fully embraced by all Eritreans and was never thoroughly tested in Eritrea, should not be used as a blanket statement to promote the legislation of official languages. The nation needs to be able, at least theoretically, to answer all the possible “ifs.” If the decision bears dangerous results, it needs to have a plan to undo it without further dividing the nation along religious lines. Moreover, the answer to any of the “ifs” should not involve the law, or the police force, because doing so will only aggravate the problem.
Sometimes the problem might not look apparent initially, but it might flare up during economic recessions or high unemployment periods, commonly experienced by every modern nation; sometimes, the problem may even flare up amid economic prosperity. For example, in the marriage of convenience between Canada and Quebec, the Quebeckers, proud French-speaking people, threatened to secede from Canada even amid economic prosperity, risking the economic well-being of their province because English-speaking or English-favoring businesses and their employees flocked into Quebec and threatened the French language. Sometimes, the Quebecers tried to offset the gains of the English language by hastily importing French-speaking immigrants. So far, the Quebecers have held two plebiscites for secession and failed; nonetheless, the political instability continues to flare up every few years. And imagine religion is not even a factor in the Canada/Quebec case.
Again, my concern now in Eritrea’s case is that if having people who follow two competing faiths is not bad enough, why would one want to accentuate their differences by arming them with their own separate languages?
Drafting a Constitution.
The constitution should endorse no language; instead, it should give every citizen the freedom to choose one or more languages from the ten native languages. But most of all, no one should command the people to choose any language; and no government or taxpayers’ money should be used to advance such an objective. Again, the constitution or government should not force the people to do anything against their wishes. Instead, it should give every community or individual community member the right to make their own decisions to make or not make their own mistakes.
I am aware that even this provision – equal status for all languages – might not prevent a Moslems/Christian competition – the majority of Eritrean Christians might choose Tigrigna, and the majority of Eritrean Moslems might choose Arabic. But also, it would not be more instrumental to dividing the nation along religious lines than legislating official languages could. It will be less instrumental and, in the worst-case scenario, as instrumental. But most of all, it will protect the rights of minorities; and does not legitimize the division along religious lines; it will not legalize discrimination; it will not legalize inequality.
Again, I believe government should not endorse or promote any language because if it does, it will fail miserably. When Ethiopia imposed its language upon Eritrea, many Eritreans, including Christian students, protested by skipping the Amharic language classes and making fun of the Amharic language.
Though the protestation phase against Amharic in the past united Muslim and Christian Eritrean students, it would ignite a terrible feud between the two in the Arabic-Tigrigna case. It does not mean that there will not be an exception: some Eritrean Christians might favor the use of both languages, and some Eritrean Moslems might favor Tigrigna or both languages, but the overwhelming majority of Eritrean Muslims might favor using only Arabic, and the overwhelming majority of Eritrean Christians might favor using only Tigrigna, which, by the way, they should have the freedom to do so, but without being regimented or pressurized by legislation.
The Future of Eritrea
One of the main reasons why the U.S. Constitution stood the test of time is that the drafters of the Constitution, like Thomas Jefferson, did not buy into temporary interests; also, it seems that they were able to see hundreds of years into their country’s future. For example, Jefferson was opposed to slavery (yes, he owned slaves too, a different topic) and knew future generations would condemn slavery many years down the road. But 200 years ago, even this charismatic and influential man could not publicly say so without being condemned by the beneficiaries of slavery; Still, Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain when in 1776, he penned the U.S. Declaration of Independence and added to it the phrase “all men are created equal.”
Then many decades down the road, in 1863, when Lincoln, though he did not have a constitutional power, decided to free the enslaved people using only his wartime emergency power and thus issued the Emancipation Proclamation decree, he augmented and justified his “illegal” actions, and pleaded to the conscience of the anti-abolitionism by restating the “all men are created equal” phrase of the Declaration of Independence. Again, the Civil Rights Activists in the 1960s also used that exact phrase against the Government in their struggle for equality. The message here is that Jefferson did what his time permitted him to do so, and at the same time, he built a vital tool into the Declaration of Independence, which the more advanced generations of the future could use.
In Eritrea’s case, for the Constitution to affect the nation for hundreds of years in a positive way, the drafters first should meticulously study and assess its short- and long-term effects on religious harmonies. But also, its articles should take into account the voice of the minorities of the present generation and the voice of the future generations, which may or may not be in concert with that of the current generation.
The Constitution should leave an open door for future generations to undo what has been done by the present generation if they choose to do. On the one hand, the Constitution should not, in any way, imply to the nation in general and the speakers of minority languages in particular that the native languages are something to be ashamed of, or its articles should not lend themselves to such interpretations.
What Is to Be Done?
Suppose the nation was to hold a national referendum today on the issue of languages. In that case, the majority of Eritrean Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, might vote or be persuaded by the vocal pro-Arabic to vote for the Arabic-Tigrigna as official languages. On the other hand, most Eritrean Christians might vote or be persuaded by the vocal pro-Tigrigna to vote for the Tigrigna-only or the Tigrigna-Tigre-only as official languages.
But these matters should not be left to a vote because majorities tend to forget the feeling and the rights of the minorities, which in this case is the rights of those who favor developing their native languages, regardless of how little their number might now be. In addition, when people vote, they tend to rely on their present objective conditions or moods, which may or may not be the objective conditions or perspectives of tomorrow and, most of all, that of future generations.
If left to a vote, the four groups, the pro-Arabic and Tigrigna, the pro-Tigrigna only, or the pro-Tigrigna-Tigre only, and the pro-all-native languages votes might depend heavily on their own subjective needs or current moods without regard to the needs of the others and the well-beingness of the nation.
For example, for the majority of those who are in favor of legislating official languages (since the majority of those who are in favor of legislating official languages are Muslims), their decision might rely heavily on their view on Islam, on their perceived historical link between Arabs and Eritrean peoples, or the constitution of the Federation, or on the investment they have made to learn the language, anticipating that Arabic would flourish in Eritrea, or on their misgiving of Issayas, and, for very few, their decision might even depend on their qualms about the Christians.
Again, for example, last year, I read a communique of an opposition group posted on Awate.com. In that communique, that organization laid out its top and only agenda as being the issue of official languages. This particular opposition group expressed its misgivings about Issayas because he failed to advance Arabic – because Issayas failed to force all Eritreans to study Arabic. I don’t know how many people this particular party represents; nonetheless, its only driving objective is the advancement of Arabic.
Moreover, in the past, many of the vocal pro-Arabic have demonstrated that they do not even mind disposing of their native languages in favor of advancing Arabic. Well, the right and desires of these citizens should be respected; the Constitution should allow them to promote their agendas, including through, but not limited to, political campaigns and peaceful demonstrations. However, the Constitution should not be instrumental for them in squashing minority languages, including their own, or the Constitution should not be a tool for them to subdue the opinion of the minority.
For the pro-Tigrigna only (since the majority of those who favor a Tigrigna-only policy are Christians), their decision might rely heavily on their ambition to dominate others, their view on Islam, or the fear they have that all Muslims might neglect Tigrigna in favor of only Arabic, or the fear they have that their language might become marginalized by the much more developed Arabic, and on their fear of being Arabized.
For the pro-native languages, their decision might heavily rely on their fear that their languages might get wiped out by both Tigrigna and Arabic. Or the fear they have that their native languages might be treated with disdain not only by the majority but also by their fellow ethnic groups; their fear the promoting of Arabic and Tigrigna as the only official languages might drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in their people; the fear of their ethnic strength as minorities might further diminish when divided further into Christians and Muslims.
On the other hand, the future generation might base their decision on something other than the present objective conditions of the current generation. The present generation’s thinking might have very little relevance to theirs. Therefore, free of the shackles of the present generation’s political thoughts, their objective condition might be about developing their native languages, magnifying their backgrounds, and cherishing the experience of their people that had existed before this present generation. Or, they might choose to assimilate and accept what was handed down to them from the current generation. Since the present generation can not know now, all doors should remain open for future generations. And if the future generations choose not only to revive their native languages but also if they want their native languages to have equal status with the official languages, they should not have to fight through legislation.
Therefore, a referendum on languages might not be a fair and objective venue for all the scenarios mentioned above.
Again, my firm belief is that when drafting a law, one needs to ensure that the new law builds on and reinforces the centuries-old mutual trust of the peoples of different faiths and different peoples and should be careful of unwittingly igniting a new problem. And for this reason alone, the legislation of two official languages needs to be studied, and its pros and cons examined to avoid adverse effects. For example, the decision needs to consider, among other conditions, the below-mentioned five objectives.
- The need to prevent the birth of pro-Arabic and pro-Tigrigna competition, a situation which could easily elevate into a pro-Christian/pro-Islam militancy; the need to make sure that the model does not create unforeseen problems or does not negatively change the past; it does not upset the harmony of the two religions;
- The need to safeguard the rights of the pro-native languages and protect the opinion of those who favor native languages, regardless of the size of their followers;
- The need to protect the right of every individual to choose, use, and advance their preferred language;
- The need to consider the view of future generations;
- The need to ensure that the decision is democratic and not imposed by vocal proponents or to appease vocal
The country should not pass any legislation on languages. But if Eritreans insist on legislating official languages, that legislation better answer all the five concerns outlined in the preceding paragraph and lay a level playing field for all native languages, and not favor one over another.
In my opinion, legislating official languages and giving Eritreans, especially the pro-native languages, an either/or option is unfair, imposing, undemocratic, discriminatory, and does not put the view of the future generations into account. Moreover, it could spark competition between the two religions, thus potentially dangerous for the long-term harmony of the religions.
Please permit me to revisit the module I outlined when analyzing the land issue (in part 7 of 24) because I believe it will also apply in this case. I think in drafting a constitution that will preserve the past, benefit the present generation, and yet that withstand the test of time, you need to follow the three scenarios below. In this case, before declaring Tigrigna and official Arabic languages, you need to ask and find sufficient answers to the following scenarios:
- What will the short-term effect be? What will the impact be in 1 to 7 years?
- What will the long-term consequence be? What will the effect be in 25 to 60 years?
- In what way will it affect the past? (You can go back as far as 100 years)
If the answers to all scenarios are “good,” then you apply it.
If the answer to any of the scenarios is “bad,” you stop taking any action, but you may want to collect more data or revisit the issue at another time in the future, after some years.
If the answer to any scenario is “blank,” then in this case, “blank” means you are drawing blank, and the effect is unclear. This means you still need more data on which to base your decision. You either need to drop the idea, obtain more data, or revisit the issue at another time in the future after some years.
If these frameworks are adhered to, the present generation will save itself from making mistakes and being dismissed by future generations. And I hope the post-Issayas governments will apply this model to that effect when drafting any law or reviewing the existing law.
Next, part 13 will discuss how most Christians have long viewed the EPLF and ELF, why the ELF was never able to win the hearts of the Christians, and why the majority of those in favor of legislating official languages are Moslems. And finally, it will present a summary of the analysis and propositions.