Silver Jubilee of the Eritrean Referendum

NCEAApril 27, 2018

Silver Jubilee of the Eritrean Referendum

A woman in labor insists on being taken to the voting polls; she delivers her newborn in the field outside the polling station. …

An old woman kisses the ballot box after delivering her vote; tears of joy stream down her face. ‘Now I can sleep in peace,’ she says.”[1]

April 23rd-25th 2018 marked the Silver Jubilee of the Eritrean Independence Referendum and it has been twenty-five years since Eritrea was declared a sovereign country. This historic event was a watershed moment in the history of the Eritrean people. After half a century of suffering and sacrifice juxtaposed with inimitable courage and perseverance, the country finally secured its rightful and long overdue place in the international community. As such, it also became a sovereign and proud member of its global political, diplomatic and legal institutions.

The referendum was not an afterthought that came after victory. As early as November 23, 1980, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had proposed a referendum to decide Eritrea’s future. On May 24, 1991 when the EPLF, totally defeated the Ethiopian Army and liberated the entire country and subsequently formed the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE), it chose to honor its commitment from eleven years earlier by giving the Eritrean People the opportunity, denied to them by Ethiopia and its supporters, to peacefully and democratically express their wishes concerning the future of their country.

On May 29, 1991, Mr. Isaias Afwerki, Head of the PGE Provisional Government of Eritrea, called upon the UN to “shoulder its moral responsibilities [to help conduct a free and fair referendum on Eritrean self-determination] without further delay.” In April 1992, the PGE set up a Referendum Commission, and passed the Eritrean Nationality Proclamation (No. 21/1992) of April 6, 1992, which set the criteria for citizenship as a prerequisite for participation in the referendum. According to the Eritrean Nationality Proclamation “any person born to a father or a mother of Eritrean origin in Eritrea or abroad is an Eritrean national by birth.” All one had to do to get Eritrean citizenship under this criteria was to apply for it with proper documentation or supplying witnesses. Even a “person born in Eritrea of unknown parents is also considered an Eritrean national by birth until proven otherwise”. The proclamation also allowed provisions for citizenship by naturalization for those married to Eritreans, adopted by an Eritrean parent, or those who fulfilled certain domicile criteria.

Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 47/114, the United Nations Observer Mission to Verify the Referendum in Eritrea (UNOVER) was formed on December 16, 1992. Between April 23th and 25th, 1993 the people of Eritrea, unprecedented in their history, were able to freely and fairly vote “yes” or “no” to a simple question: “Do you want Eritrea to be a free and independent country?”.

The United Nations Observer Mission to Verify the Referendum in Eritrea (UNOVER), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), presently the (AU), the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, the National Citizens Monitoring Group and a host of Individual Observers unanimously concluded that the referendum had been free and fair. Mr. Samir Sanbar in his capacity as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and head of UNOVER stated “I have the honor to certify that on the whole, the referendum process in Eritrea can be considered to have been free and fair at every stage, and that it has been conducted to my satisfaction.”[2] Even Dr. Negasso Gidada, the Head of the Ethiopian Delegation observing the Referendum, had this to say:

Our group could observe the referendum process since the 21st of April in Achele Guzai, Semhar, Hammasien, Serae, Senahit and Barka. We have not only observed the procedures and the situation at the polling stations, but we talked to many individual Eritreans from different sections of the society, Religious Organizations and with varying political background and differing political organizational orientations, including oppositions to the PGE. We have also talked to Ethiopians who have taken Eritrean citizenship and have voted and those Ethiopian citizens who have retained their citizenships and have not voted and would continue to live in Eritrea.

On the basis of our observation, discussions and evolution of these observations and talks, I would like to state that the Ethiopian delegation has found out that the Referendum in Eritrea took place in free, fair, and in an impartial manner at the presence of many Observers from International Organizations such as UN, OAU, The Arab League and many individuals from Governments and non-Government organizations. … The Ethiopian delegation has witnessed the enthusiasm and the joy of the Eritrean People during the course of the referendum.”[3]

The picture shown below is that of Eritreans lined up to vote in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. [4]
Eritrean Referendum Voting in Addis Ababa face

The report from outside Eritrea was equally the same. Here is what the Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported on an Atlanta polling station.

Quiet excitement filled Atlanta City Hall on Saturday as hundreds of Eritreans from Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina voted on making a formal break with Ethiopia. A steady flow of Eritreans, some of whom traveled hours by car and van, took their ballots into empty voting booths to vote for independence. Their votes will be sent 5,000 miles to their African homeland. … The official who would not give a breakdown of voting totals but said the result was almost unanimously in favor of independence. … Election observers – local scholars, elected officials, media representatives, clergy members and representatives from the Ethiopian government – watched quietly from the sidelines. They all agreed the process went smoothly. ‘If this is the way Eritreans choose to organize their country, they have a great future ahead of them,’ said Dr. Kamla Dutt, a pathology professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, who watched the vote for three hours. ‘Everything really moved very smoothly,’ said Mohammed Hassan, an Ethiopian-born election observer who teaches history at Georgia State University. ‘Eritrea can play a very positive role in terms of peace in the Horn of Africa if they continue with this spirit.”[5]

On 27 April 1993, the Referendum Commission of Eritrea announced the results of the vote. The voter turnout was 98.52% of those registered to vote. Of these, 99.805% voted “yes” for Eritrean independence. Here is the vote detail by area.

Referendum Results

Area Total Yes No Invalid % Yes
Asmara 128,620 128,443 144 33 99.86
Barka 44,472 44,425 47 0 99.89
Denkalia 26,027 25,907 91 29 99.54
Gash-Setit 73,506 73,236 270 0 99.63
Hamasien 76,716 76,654 59 3 99.92
Akele Guzai 92,634 92,465 147 22 99.82
Sahel 51,187 51,015 141 31 99.66
Semhar 33,750 33,596 113 41 99.54
Seraye 124,809 124,725 72 12 99.93
Senhit 78,540 78,513 26 1 99.97
Fighters 77,579 77,512 21 46 99.91
Sudan 154,058 153,706 352 0 99.77
Ethiopia 57,706 57,466 204 36 99.58
Other Countries 82,806 82,597 135 74 99.75
Total 1,102,410 1,100,260 1,822 328 99.81

On the same day, 27th of April 1993, the head of PGE, Mr. Isaias Afwerki, addressed the Eritrean People and the International Community with these words:

The Eritrean people were compelled to suffer an imposed and destructive war deprived as they were of their right to self-determination and statehood. But, after a bitter struggle and precious sacrifices, they have managed to express their democratic choice through a referendum conducted in the full presence of the international community. It is thus with boundless pleasure that I express on this momentous juncture and on behalf of the Provisional Government of Eritrea, my congratulations to the Eritrean People for their historic achievement.

The express choice of the Eritrean People for full independence was never in doubt, and had indeed been long demonstrated without equivocation, through the peaceful and armed struggle they waged for almost half a century. But although they were able to achieve their liberation two years ago in May 1991 by confronting the spiral of aggressive designs meted out on them to suppress their rights and crush their resistance, the victorious EPLF nonetheless refrained from declaring outright independence and opted to form a provisional government. This decision was taken because the EPLF was keenly aware that the issues of sovereignty and membership in the international community were predicated on a democratic and legal conclusion of the conflict. In this spirit, the EPLF decided that the free and fair choice of the Eritrean people would be determined through a referendum and formed an Independent Commission to carry out the task. …

The freeness and fairness of the process has been certified by the observers and notably by Mr. Samir Sanbar, the Head of the United Nations Observer Mission to Verify the Referendum in Eritrea. This outcome is not surprising or unexpected. … In the event, it constitutes a delightful and sacrosanct historical conclusion to the choice of the Eritrean people. And although it has been decided that formal independence will be declared on 24 May 1991, Eritrea is a sovereign country as of today, April 27, 1993.

Finally, congratulating the Eritrean people who have persevered with heroism, patience and civilized norms to shoulder their responsibility and pay the heavy price of the lives of their best sons and daughters to make this democratic process a reality, I express my deepest thanks to the representatives of governments, international organizations and individuals who have participated in the observation process. I also wish that the new phase and future ushered in by this democratic choice will herald a period of enduring peace and prosperity… On this day, they won the ultimate reward for their struggle and sacrifice…. Freedom.”[6]

The peaceful resolution of the referendum was a clear testament to EPLF’s repeated but unheeded calls for such a process and the debunking of the long-held Eurocentric myth that Africans are inherently violent and, therefore, unable to resolve their conflicts peacefully and constructively. Tim Wise’s remark further underscores the plausibility of the above statement,

It may have been the most elaborate process in history ever carried out to achieve a foregone conclusion. The Independent Referendum Commission could easily have gone through the motions of democratic process. In a country arguably born as the poorest on earth, few could have faulted them. Instead, they made the referendum a national rite of passage, a sacred right for each Eritrean voter to tell the world—peacefully and democratically---their answer to the question no one asked them before.”[7]

It is noteworthy that there are still a hodgepodge of Western and Ethiopian groupies, for whom independent Eritrea has been a hard pill to swallow, and few renegade Eritrean opportunists who have been promoting revisionist history by advancing patently illegal and ludicrous arguments to appease their benefactors. One of our European detractors is a Norwegian armchair anthropologist who, by offering irrational and irrelevant speculations, tries to cast doubt on the authenticity of the 99.8% “Yes” vote for independence, more than two decades after the fact. “No doubt the Eritrean people wanted independence in 1993; but the reality behind the 99.8 percent ‘yes’ vote may be questioned.” [8] One of his reasons: “The outcome of the Eritrean referendum is one of the most affirmative in the history of elections, with a turnout of 98.5 percent of registered voters of which 99.8 percent voted ‘yes’.”

What Tronvoll refuses to admit is that Eritrea’s 30-year long war for independence was the longest in Africa, if not in the world as well. He doesn’t want to admit that of the fifty-three former European colonies in Africa, Eritrea was the only country that was denied its right to self-determination. He then gives bizarre justification for his revisionist theory:

Segments of certain ethnic constituencies (the Afar and Kunama) had previously displayed support for Ethiopia during the war of liberation; segments of the merchant and trading class would favour a stronger affiliation to Ethiopia as a safeguard for market access; and the Orthodox Christian Church and highland society had historically expressed interest in remaining within Ethiopia; these are all factors which presumably ought to be reflected in a vote on independence…. However, this did not manifest itself in the outcome of a 99.8 percent ‘yes’ to independence; and should again raise some questions on how the medium of ‘elections’ and ‘free opinions’ were communicated by EPLF during the transitional period.”[9]

What Tronvoll, supposedly an anthropologist and one who wrote a dissertation on an Eritrean village, is his failing to mention that Ethiopia had committed genocide against the Nara and Kunama of Eritrea and the Kunama like all Eritreans had no love for Ethiopia. In 1886 Ras Alula, Tigrayan King Yohannes IV’s army commander, had invaded southwest Eritrea and ruthlessly massacred about two-thirds of the Baria and Kunama population of Eritrea. Here is how Haggai Erlich's, Alula’s biographer put it:

"On 22 November 1886 the ras [Alula] ordered his army to march some eight miles southwards to the spring of Magalo. There he camped again, frustrated with his inability even to contemplate an attack on Kassala, and therefore ordered the greatest plunder in the history of the Baria tribes. During the last week of November, two-thirds of the people and cattle of the Baria and Kunama north of the Gash were destroyed."[10]

Tronvoll also knows well the Afar had no affection for Ethiopia. As for the Orthodox Christians, had he read Eritrean history as he should do, he would have found out that it was not the members of the Church but few clergy of the Church bought by the Ethiopian government who were coercing members to toe the Unionist line through the threat of excommunication; nothing more nothing less.

There are also still some Abyssinian chauvinists who wallow in a futile dream and don’t want to move forward. Their hope is to hoodwink the international community and to reverse the course of history. Such dangerous and anachronistic propositions will amount to nothing but an exercise in futility. Hence, in this historic anniversary it behooves every Eritrean to be in constant vigilance to protect his/her hard won liberty.
[1] Tim Wise, Observer- Director of Grassroots International, Boston-
[2] Referendum Commissioner of Eritrea, “Referendum ’93: The Eritrean People Determine Their Destiny”. The Red Sea Press, Trenton, NJ. August 1993.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eritrea: Birth of a Nation –Published by the GOE, Department of External Affairs, 1993.
[5] Elizabeth Kurylo. Eritreans Put Dreams in Atlanta Ballot Boxes: Exiles see end to Ethiopian rule. The Atlanta Journal/ The Atlanta Constitution, Sunday, April 25, 2018.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Tim Wise, Observer- Director of Grassroots International, Boston.
[8] Kjetil Tronvoll, The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea. Oslo Center 2009
[9] Ibid.
[10] Haggai Erlich. Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa: A Political Biography: Ethiopia & Eritrea 1875-1897. Red Sea Press, Trenton, NJ. 1996.