RISTI ANSTI YWAGAALA Part 8 (RKPHA May 2002)
This saying in Tigrigna language which, roughly translated, means “even women would fight for (private) land property rights”, is a maxim the Tigrian ethnic group very firmly retains and adamantly defends it. “Risti” is a private family or communal land where neither the government nor strangers have any right to interfere. We Kunama are therfore asking:
is “Risti” a written document or is it simply a generation to generation and orally transmitted tradition? Is it perhaps a natural Tigrian ehtnic group’s customary and cultural heritage inherent of its social system? What does the “Defter” prescribe over “Risti”?
Whatever the answers, every Eritrean ethnic groups has its own well-defined laws regulating its land tenure system. As those ethnic groups are totally dependent on the goods deriving from their land, the whole of their social life is disrupted whenever external forces or agents interfere in the ownership, distribution and administration of their land and of the products of their land. Africa and the African people have not yet recovered from the disruptions the various European colonisers had brought to their lands and the endless problems they had created dislocating, settling and resettling the various African tribes, ethnic groups and populations according to their own plans and benefits. Africa is still suffering from that initial malice. One would therefore think that, once the colonisation period was over, the African statesmen and leaders would have tried to solve the conflicts among the different ethnic groups by tackling the primary cause which we believe to be the land and the various issues associated with it. Our African leaders are neither strangers nor ignorant of such problems. They have instead not only reiterated their masters’ land policies but even have added further problems of their own creation, like distributing land among their own political supporters.
A typical example of this very controversial land management is the principle of the Italian “Terreno Demaniale” introduced in Eritrea, passed on to the British as “State Land”, left unchanged by the Ethiopian imperial and the Dergue governments, but faithfully translated into “Meriet Menghsti” by the EPLF/PFDJ regime which is practising it very rigorously.
The present PFDJ leadership is not unaware of the conflicts its land policy is creating, not only in the Kunama Land but in many other Eritrean regions. The Tigrigna saying “Risti ansti ywagaala” (land property rights are fought out even by women), has a much deeper meaning than just stating a fact and it would not be a popular saying if it did not have its importance in the Tigrian social order. The principle of the “State Land” is precisely aiming to undermine that social order. According to the latest news from homes, in the towns of Dekmhare, in the Akele-Guzai and Deba-Ruba in the Serae regions, open conflicts were said to have taken place, between the regime’s civil servants and the local inhabitants, following free land distributions undertaken by the governments’ officials. These are not isolated cases in Eritrea but constant difficulties, for instance, the Kunama people are being confronted with in their own land on daily bases. What bewilders us Kunama is the fact that, the PFDJ regime seems to be having great difficulties in reconciling the opposing principles of “Risti” in the Kebesa regions and of the “State Land” in the lowlands, particularly in the Kunama Land. In the above mentioned confrontations, between the government officials and the local populations in the two Kebesa towns, those civil servants were said to have succumbed to the pressure from the local people thus showing their incongruent behaviour and lack of conviction of the viability of the land policy their government has so far been trying to implement. What is required is a communal land policy applicable to the whole country and acceptable to all the different Eritrean ethnic groups, but this, supposing that a homogeneous land policy could be popularly welcomed by the heterogeneous Eritrean society. Such lack of consequential application of the present land policy is being practised not only by the regime itself but also by many Eri-Tigrian highlanders who would let “even their women fight”, defend and preserve their “Risti” in their Kebesa regions but they would arrogantly and remorselessly try to invade and possess the Kunama Land. This is a deplorable double-standard which any honest citizen should condemn as it created conflicts among us.
We believe, in any African context, there are three very sensitive issues or areas our political leaders should be extremely careful about before interfering and exercising their powers on: “ethnicity, religion and land/territory ”. There are too many examples of conflicts based of these three issues to cite to prove this point. It suffice to state that, as regard to ethnicity, the PFDJ regime is experiencing an increasing rejection from the Eritrean ethnic groups which had been excluded from its “nhnan elamanan” philosophy. Up to EPLF/PFDJ’s ascension to power, religion, religious practices and religious institutions had always enjoyed their full freedom. The latest news from home however, have greatly surprised and deeply worried us that the regime has not only put restrictions on religious practices but also closed down the prayer places of certain Christian denominations thus creating new conflicts within the Eritrean communities. The regime seems to have forgotten that, religions in Eritrea are the bases and the guiding lines of its people. It has forgotten that the lives of the Eritrean people, no matter our different their ethnicity may be, revolve round their churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship from where they derive their spiritual strength.
Let us remind the PFDJ regime that religious persecutions have always led their persecutors to their eventual downfall. Religions touch people’s feelings to the point of turning them to extremism and fanaticism. Let Jihad be an example and teach the regime its lesson.
One could say that the land issue is just as sensitive as religion could be. People identify themselves with their ancestral lands and become extremely resentful whenever either governments or strangers interfere in their land affairs and disrupt their orderly social life.
According to the African Unification Front (AUF) “ownership and land use are a major source of conflict in Africa”. This organisation looks into the various sources of the land problems in many African countries, tries to identify the common features and suggests possible solutions to this perennial African plight. RKPHA has proposed itself to go over, comment on and highlight the points it believes could be of guideline to the land issue in Eritrea in general and particularly, in the Kunama Land where, unless appropriate and lasting measures are taken, we see catastrophe looming. The Kunama people are gradually losing faith not only in the present Eritrean regime’s policy which is continuing to amass, in the Kunama Land, the majority of the Eritrean refugees returning from The Sudan, but also in the future political leaders in their land who do not guarantee much in this regard. Our comments on the African Unification Front’s (AUF) “ Policy On Land Reform” will appear in series on our web-site, ” Land Section”. To begin with, in its introductory paragraphs, AUF states that it “recognises a socio-economic development model that puts people before profit”. This is in a clear contrast with the plans the present Eritrean PFDJ regime has made and the aims it has proposed to reach; the development of the land and the profits out of it under the state-controlled management, very often trampling on the local populations rights to dwell in their own lands, manage their crop-fields and be the first beneficiaries of their own products. The AUF points out that, “in many cases it is the state government that allocates and relocates land”. If the above reported cases of strong reactions, by some Eritrean local populations to the free “allocations” of land by the government to its own supporters, could mean the beginning of the citizens’ awareness that it is their rights to claim to manage their land affairs themselves, Eritrea could see some positive lights in its future land policies. The Kunama land had been already declared by the PFDJ regime as “Eritrea’s bread basket” and therefore it is to be put under the “mechanised land development”. The Kunama people’s crop-fields, the grazing areas for their livestock and the reserve-land for the fauna and flora in the Kunama land are being “allocated and relocated”, at will, by the regime. The primary concern of the present Eritrean state is not to develop the land for the people but in view of producing only profitable goods for the state, for the market and for its own rulers. The Eritrean people have to grow to the realisation that their land belongs to them before it belongs to the government and to any authority claiming to develop it.
The RKPHA ( May 2002 ).