The “Sankofa” in President Isaias’ Nov 3 Interview
By Metkel Sewra
President Isaias is known for giving thorough interviews that require three or four takes to fully appreciate the depth of his thinking and to grasp the far-reaching implications of each answer. The interview he gave EriTV on Saturday, November 3, 2018, was no different, and if one is honest and serious about understanding where we as Eritreans stand today, how we reached this stage, where it is we are heading, and the positive role each of us ought to play towards the consolidation of this peace process, then one must listen carefully to every single word in this historical national interview, his first after the signing of the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia on July 9, 2018.
I personally watched the interview on EriTV when it aired live on Saturday at 8pm, and then twice more via Denden Media’s YouTube channel; pausing, replaying, taking notes and underlining every part I felt needed particular attention.
The whole interview was absolutely brilliant, thought-provoking, and challenging in that it asks the viewer to step out of the comfort of the seemingly easy to understand immediate present and venture into a much wider, much deeper, and much more exhaustive analysis, that we have all come to expect from President Isaias over the years.
The whole interview would probably take several issues of this newspaper to fully explain, for the purpose of this Opinion piece, however, I would like to highlight the detailed answer President Isaias gave in response to the first question, which I felt was pivotal in setting the tone for everything else, and which I feel some people may skim through too quickly as they search for clues and announcements that affect the immediate here and now.
The image that kept coming back to my mind as President Isaias responded to this first question was the Sankofa bird.
Sankofa, a word in the Twi language of Ghana, is made up of three concepts: San – to return backwards; Ko – to move forward; Fa – to fetch.
The symbol for Sankofa is a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward and its head turned backwards, fetching an egg from its back. For the Akan, the largest ethnic group living in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Sankofa represents the need to reach back into one’s own history in order to reclaim that which is lost in an effort to move forward towards a bright and strong future.
In other words, although there must always be forward movement, the knowledge, experiences, and lessons gained from the past must never be forgotten and must inform and serve as guide, compass, when planning the future.
As he carefully responds to the first question – which the interviewer framed around the very recent announcement by the new administration in Ethiopia that it unconditionally accept the EEBC ruling of 2002 – President Isaias reminds us of the need to critically examine the root causes of the challenges of the past almost eight decades, and the need to search for the actual, often times hidden, reasons for the roadblocks placed in Eritrea’s path. Perhaps most importantly, President Isaias signals the importance of zooming out of the so-called “border conflict” and placing this new period, this new epoch, in a much broader and historical context that includes the now failed hegemonic maneuvering and designs for the Horn of Africa region. This maneuvering, President Isaias explained, began long before Eritrea gained its independence in 1991, when John Foster Dulles, in 1952, made the following infamous statement at the UN,
“From the point of view of justice, the opinion of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and world peace make it necessary that the country be linked with our ally Ethiopia”
This effectively denied Eritreans their rightful call to self-determination and cold-bloodedly set the tone for a deadly, misguided Western foreign policy towards this region for the next few decades.
No sane Eritrean can underestimate the effect of this statement and not even the most ardent member of the anti-Eritrea camp can deny the fact that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved had the Eritrean people been allowed to peacefully choose their own destiny, just like any other African country colonized at the time.
Another period that President Isaias highlights as key to understanding where we find ourselves today is the one almost immediately after Eritrea’s independence during which a deliberate plan was hatched to paint Eritrea as a “spoiler” in this region. Creating problems and proposing to “solve” them became the order of the day. This plan, as President Isaias explained, relied heavily on the shortsightedness of an “anchor” partner in this region, namely the TPLF, whose thirst for regional hegemony blinded it from seeing the long-term ramifications of its willful acceptance to obey orders. The cyclical hostility against Eritrea and the manufactured “border conflict” were part of this plan and so were the other “territorial” issues Eritrea suddenly found itself thrown into with Yemen and Djibouti. The baseless accusations of supporting terror in Somalia, leading to illegal sanctions, was also part of this grand plan to corner and subdue Eritrea. Add to this a long laundry list of what Eritrea was supposedly not doing – in the areas of “democracy” and “human rights”, where democracy was narrowly defined as window-dressing, procedural actions meant only to install a puppet power in place, and human rights was deliberately focused on paper-thin political and civil rights.
All of this falls under the regime change category and anyone familiar with the concept of the New World Order, which President Isaias briefly touches on during the interview, can recognize that everything Eritrea had faced post-1991 was similar in design, although much heavier in intensity considering the history and resolve of this people and Government, to the conspiracies other countries had faced. All of these countries had one thing in common: they were targeted for refusing to toe the line and in the case of Eritrea, as one author once put it, for being a “rotten apple”, i.e. a “bad” good example for Africa.
President Isaias’ response to the first question jolts one back to the very hostile past – one filled with death, destruction, displacement, denial of justice, manipulation, destabilization, demonization, manufactured conflicts, psychological warfare, politicized migration, regime change agenda, and everything else under the sun meant to destroy Eritreans and Eritrea – but then it picks up lessons and strength from all the trials and tribulations endured – how to move on, how to build trust, how to engage, how to recognize narrow-minded spoilers, etc – and finally, it smoothly sets one out to sail on a path towards a bright and hopeful future for Eritrea, for Ethiopia, and for the Horn of Africa region at large – a future based on a shared vision for a prosperous region, cooperation, development, progress, respect, complementarity, and most of all peace and unity in diversity.
As President Isaias broke down the past eight decades into four stretches of time, one cannot help but nod in full agreement that understanding each stretch in detail is absolutely crucial to appreciating the sacrifices paid, the opportunities lost, the resilience needed to endure, and the strength gained, as we enter this new stretch, this new epoch, that we must ensure is firmly forward-looking, reliably sustainable, and fully secure.
Sankofa, over and over again.
In essence, the implication of looking back and fetching key lessons from history is not done so as to minimize the importance of the current epoch and certainly not done to downplay the bright and promising future ahead. On the contrary, as President Isaias moves on to the second, third, fourth, and fifth questions – which deal with, inter alia, the necessary environment for this peace to solidify and bear real and tangible fruit, the need to identify and ignore ill-wishers and spoilers who were obviously caught off-guard and will do anything to derail the progress made thus far, the positive effects the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has had on the entire Horn of Africa region and perhaps even the whole continent, and the immense economic, social, cultural and political cooperation plans in place – he makes it very clear that history sets the necessary context needed to confidently move forward and upward.