IS RISTI AN ALTERNATIVE TO “STATE LAND” IN ERITREA? Part 5 .(The RKPHA November 2001)
When the Italian colonial rulers had introduced the principle of “Terreno Demaniale” in the Eritrean western-lowlands, they had a very clear idea who the prime beneficiaries were and were going to be:
the Italian authorities themselves;
the various Italian governmental and private companies;
the Italian industrialists and
the Italian agrarians, farmers or the so-called “I concessionari”.
These were given or had a concession, from the Italian government, to occupy, own and administer a piece of the Eritrean land of their choice.
The Italian colonial government needed a free access to and therefore had to have a full power on the Eritrean land in order to carry out its project of “turning Eritrea into a little Italy”. The whole principle was therefore to serve only the Italian authorities and
“la communitá Italiana in Eritrea”.
At the beginning, the local populations of the western lowlands, like the “nomads” Beni-Amer, “the agrarian and pastoral” Baria/Nara and the Kunama, were neither directly nor extensively affected by that legislation as the activities of the Italian government were restricted mainly in cities, towns, small centres and particular villages.
The Italian industrialists resided in the main and more important cities of the highland and the eastern Eritrean lowlands.
The Italian agrarians or “i concessionari” had occupied only pieces of fertile land in scattered localities around the country thus partly respecting the principle of “Risti” in the three highland regions of Hamasien, Akele-Guzai and Serae as well as living free the crop-fields and the grazing territories to the local populations of the western Eritrean lowlands.
One could therefore argue that, the legislation of the “Terreno Demaniale” was more to facilitate the acquisition of land, protection of the properties and the interests of the
“Eritrean Italian community” than to deprive primarily the local Eritrean populations of their land in a massive and disruptive manner.
The British had translated “il Terreno Demaniale” into “the State Land” but they did not seem to have had a particular interest in and enough time to come-up with a definite land policy and projects which could have suggested how much damage these would have brought to the Eritrean local populations and their land. Perhaps, the British, aware of their temporary administration of Eritrea, were interested more in the political than in the administration of the Eritrean land. As a matter of fact, their major activities worth remembering were in the Eritrean political and educational fields.
The Ethiopian imperial government had made use of the principle of the “State Land” in the western Eritrean lowlands, particularly in the Kunama Land, more politically than commercially or otherwise. As for land, Ethiopia has always had vast and immense territories in its southern parts and therefore it has never shown a keen interest in agricultural projects anywhere in Eritrea. It had however transported truck-loads of the highland Eritrean Tigrians in the western lowlands and offered them ample opportunities to occupy and administer land by even forcing the local populations to dislocate from their villages and countryside.
The political motive behind this project of the Ethiopian imperial government was to invade the “Moslem revolutionary and independent-minded Eritrean westerners” by establishing a large concentration of the “Christian highlansers” and faithful adherents to the “Andinnet”. The western Eritrea and its population were to be saturated with the Christians and other populations siding with the ideologies and the doctrines of the “Unionist party”. The principle of the “State Land” therefore very much served this purpose.
At the beginning and throughout the Eritrean Liberation Movement years, the land issue was not of a primary concern as all Eritrean forces were engaged only in their struggle for independence.
After the Eritrean independence in the 1990s, as the other Eritrean Liberation Movements were excluded and forced to begin a new “Eritrean Liberation Movement” abroad, the EPLF/PFDJ regime, was freely and unilaterally using the principle of the “State Land” to apply and implement its “Nhnan Ilamanan” theory.
The main question today is, if the principle of “Risti” is still in force in many parts of the three Tigrian highland regions, whereas that of the “State Land” is fully observed and applied particularly, in the Kunama Land, what is the alternative land politics fairly applicable to and likely to function in the whole of Eritrea?
Why a double and contradictory land politics in one and the same country at the present?
For the Kunama people, the EPLF/PFDJ’s land reform rules and their applications are having detrimental consequences as they are deeply affecting both the Kunama traditional land tenure and animal husbandry. They are being deprived of their fertile crop-fields and forced to rear their cattle in restricted and barren areas which are causing a considerable reduction in the growth and number of their livestock. It is an obvious application of very wrong land administrative principles deriving from initial failures made. The EPLF/PFDJ did not take enough time first to study, learn and understand the traditional local rules over the land distribution, ownership and administration. It had only decided to introduce and implement its own laws and regulations, at times, very contrary to the existing laws of the local populations. It is a proven fact that any new and foreign principles introduced into a given social setting cannot automatically function unless they are based on the local values.
Any new theory, no matter how innovative and in whatever human field, needs a careful study before being introduced and implemented in a particular society.
Societies like that of the Kunama, still very much attached to and dependent on their traditional and cultural values, face even more disruptions whenever external laws are brought in to regulate their life-style. The EPLF/PFDJ land reform laws are having identical effects on the Kunama people’s lives. They are destroying their very social structure.
Assuming that, “Risti” is still kept and is functioning, as it seems, in the three highland Eri-Tigrian regions, could it be taken as a remedy and an alternative to the already failed principle of the “State Land” with all its side-effects?
Eritrea homes nine (9) different ethnic groups with as many different traditions and cultural values. “Risti” is just one of the nine different “land distribution, ownership and administrative systems” and therefore it is not to expect to be generally accepted as it would somehow and miraculously function in and for all the different ethnic groups.
Coercive measures have never had positive and lasting effects on human beings.
According to a report by the two British nationals, Mr. James Firebrace and Mr. Stuart Holland, in their book, “Never Kneel Down” (pp. 35-36), “traditional land tenure in Eritrea before the Italian occupation was relatively egalitarian. Under the “diesa” system, land was a common property of the village with every family head having an equal right to its use. A redistribution occurred every seven years to take account of changing needs. But additionally some families owned private “risti” land, which made them the richest farmers and gave them local political power”.
As already and often pointed out, the Eritrean is a plural society with as many different laws in the use of land. There are other systems we are not yet aware of or acquainted with.
In the Kunama society, the “diesa” is not only a totally foreign system but even never heard of, let alone been applied. We in fact, believe it to be solely an Eri-Tigrian land law.
The information those two British nationals had on the “traditional land tenure in Eritrera” had been provided only by some Tigrian members who were either ignorant of the other different land laws existing in Eritrea or they were purposefully portraying only the Tigrian system, but surely such system does not at all reflect the plurality of the Eritrean society.
The Eri-Tigrian traditions and culture are not to be equated with those of the other eight (8) ethnic groups nor should Eritrea be as such. This in fact, seems to be the trap in which the EPLF/PFDJ had fallen with its “Nhnan Ilamanan” principle. That the whole of Eritrea has to be modelled on the bases of the Eri-Tigrian traditions and culture. It has been a wrong message all along and there seems to be no regret in having launched such a false ideology.
The conservation of the principle of the “State Land” seems to be only temporary as it will soon give way to the “Risti” because, practically the Eri-Tigrian land-owners and farmers are now freely invading the Kunama Land buying and using it as they please.
The Italian “Terreno Demaniale” and its initial purposes of serving the Italian government, the Italian industrialists and the Italian agrarians or farmers seems to being revived and revitalised to serve the Eri-Tgrian dominated EPLF/PFDJ regime, the Eri-Tigrian industrialists, land-owners and farmers. The interests of the Eri-Tigrian ethnic group members are today being openly favoured, encouraged and protected in the Kunama Land.
The “Risti and Diesa systems” have not been eliminated but cunningly given more impetus to stabilise themselves and guarantee the interests of their original users. One cannot otherwise explain and understand the reasons why today the Kunama people are being forced out of their villages, crop-fields and fertile parts of their ancestral land with the excuse of introducing the new “mechanised agricultural development” but practically favouring the Eri-Tigrian populations to outnumber the Kunama in their territory.
The Kunama villagers and rural population are being constantly moved, removed and forced to live in restricted areas whereas the government land projects are being tried in all dimensions, at the same time, giving the Eri-Tigrian farmers and new settlers ample freedom to settle, resettle and occupy land of their choice anywhere in the Kunama territory.
In the land matters in the present day Eritrea, the old history of the Italian colonisation is repeating itself changing only the colour and the language.
The aggressive and insatiable Eri-Tigrian drive to invade and possess the western Eritrean lowlands is going beyond what the Italians had intended with their “Terreno Demaniale”.
The EPLF/PFDJ regime today keeps preaching that, without it, Eritrea and the Eritreans would be falling into a civil war. It does not instead realise that its staying in and holding power is in fact, what is actually leading up to a possible civil war in Eritrea.
The present Eritrean regime’s social, political and territorial mismanagement is a catalytic force for such an ominous catastrophe.
We Kunama however have and are putting a lot of trust on the politics and activities of the Alliance of the Eritrean National Forces as we believe that they came up with a comprehensive principle of total inclusiveness of all the Eritrean ethnic groups respecting and defending their different traditional and cultural values. They have been so far keeping this policy and working towards its full realisation. The sooner therefore the EPLF/PFDJ relinquishes its political power in Eritrea the better, as it would shorten the time and reduce the dangers of a possible civil war in Eritrea.
Any Eritrean who does not see this reality has a problem with sincerity.
The RKPHA (November 2001).