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Cablegate: One Heart, Many Divides: Ethnic Affiliation in Eritrea

VZCZCXRO0640
PP RUEHROV
DE RUEHAE #0945/01 3470655
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 130655Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY ASMARA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9323
INFO RUCNIAD/IGAD COLLECTIVE
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 1548
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 1726
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RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RUEPADJ/CJTF-HOA J2X CAMP LEMONIER DJ
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
RUMICEA/JICCENT MACDILL AFB FL

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 ASMARA 000945

SIPDIS

SIPDIS
LONDON AND PARIS FOR AFRICA WATCHERS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV SOCI ER
SUBJECT: ONE HEART, MANY DIVIDES: ETHNIC AFFILIATION IN ERITREA

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INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
------------------------

1. The shared experience of the 30-year struggle for independence
created a strong sense of national identity for most Eritreans. The
Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) promotes Eritrea as having
"one heart" or "hade libbi" in Tigrinya - a motto that is seen often
in the days leading up to Eritrean Independence Day on May 24. The
efforts of the GSE to establish a sense of nationality that is
greater than an ethnic or religious affiliation extends back during
the time of the struggle for independence. Isaias Afwerki, now
Eritrea's President, and the other leaders of the Eritrean People's
Liberation Front (EPLF) believed that overcoming ethnic and
religious identities by creating a nationalism that was stronger was
critical to a unified and successful Eritrea. This approach also
limited divisive issues around which Eritreans could organize and
thereby minimized threats to the EPLF positions.

2. Despite the efforts by the GSE to describe Eritrea as having
"one heart," ethnicity, religious affiliation, and regional ties
continue to have an impact on the political and social fabric of
Eritrea. While these divisions often go unobserved by foreigners,
they are an everyday reality for many Eritreans and often surface
during disagreements and periods of tension. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- ----------
THE EIGHT AREAS, ELEVEN ETHNIC GROUPS AND THE SIX ZOBAS
--------------------------------------------- ----------

3. In 1996, the GSE divided Eritrea into six administrative
districts or zobas: Maekel, Debub, Anseba, Southern Red Sea,
Northern Red Sea, and Gash Barka. These six zobas are
administrative only and overlap eight ethnic and cultural areas,
which had emerged during the Italian and British colonial periods.
The eight ethnic and cultural areas of Eritrea, with their "capital"
cities are: Akeleguzay (Dekemhare), Barka (Agordat), Hamasien
(Asmara), Sahel (Nakfa), Semhar (Massawa), Senhit (Keren), and
Seraye (Mendefera). Seven of the eight ethnic and cultural areas
are dominated by one religious group, either Christian or Muslim.

4. Some of these areas have their own languages and many have
sub-groups with alliances that pre-date Eritrea's struggle for
independence. Many of the movements during the struggle began as
local or regional movements. Even today, these ties to
organizations from the struggle, such as the EPLF and the Eritrean
Liberation Front (ELF) play a role in Eritrea's social fabric.
Eight ethnic groups are officially recognized by the GSE and largely
reside in distinct geographic areas, as do three other large ethnic
groups not officially recognized by the government. The eight
official ethnic groups, Tigrinya, Saho, Blen, Tigre, Kunama,
Rashaida, Nara, and the Afar, have strong ties to their areas and
maintain their own languages. The Djeberti, Hadareb-Beja, and the
Tukrir are ethnic groups that are not officially recognized by the
GSE, although the Hadareb, a sub-group of the Beja are often
considered the ninth ethnic group of Eritrea.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
EIGHTY PERCENT OF ERITREA: THE TIGRINYA AND THE TIGRE
--------------------------------------------- ---------

5. The Tigrinya ethnic group dominates the areas of Akeleguzay,
Seraye, and Hamasien. Often referred to as the "Christian
Highlanders," they are Tigrinya speakers. Most are Christian --
Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Christian -- although there are
highlanders who are Muslim, including the Djeberti sub-group from
Seraye. The Muslim Djebertis originated in the Tigray region of
Ethiopia although they have resided in Eritrea for centuries. They
consider themselves to be a separate ethnic group from the Tigrinya;
however, as their ethnic language is Tigrinya, the GSE denied their
request to be recognized as an official ethnic group. The
Akeleguzay, Seraye, Hamasien, and Djeberti are considered the four
sub-groups of the Tigrinya and some older Eritreans maintain these
social distinctions quite strongly, objecting to marriages across
the sub-groups. Many Christian Tigrinyans consider the Muslim
Djeberti to be of a lower status. Among the younger generation,
these distinctions have blurred to some extent into just being
Tigrinya; however, the historic alliances and tensions remain.

6. The Hamasien region, the area around Asmara, is the historic
center of power in the region. Many perceive that Hamasiens,
because of their residence in Asmara, tend to have access to better

ASMARA 00000945 002 OF 004


educational opportunities, giving them an advantage over their
fellow Eritreans from other regions. Within the Hamasien, there are
at least three sub-groups: Karenshim, Dembezan, and Seharti. The
majority of the senior government officials are Tigrinya. For
example, President Isaias is a Tigrinya, Hamasien from Karneshim.
The Head of Cultural Affairs for the People's Front for Democracy
and Justice, Zemehret Yohannes and Abraha Kassa, Head of the Office
of National Security are Akeleguzay. The Minister of Tourism, Amna
Nour Hussein, is a Djeberti. Minister Abraha Asfaha, the Minister
of Public Works, and the Minister of Finance, Berhane Abrehe are
Seraye. A majority of the Embassy locally employed staff is
Hamasien.

7. The Hamasien-Tigrinya ethnic group were the founders of the EPLF
and found easy recruits in their fellow Tigrinya speakers and
historic allies, the Seraye and the Akeleguzay. Yet despite these
alliances, the Hamasien sub-group tend to be overly represented in
the current regime, a situation resented by some Akeleguzay who
believe they provided more fighters during the struggle and suffered
more than others but have not received their fair share even today.

8. The Tigre people, together with the Tigrinya, comprise nearly
eighty percent of Eritrea's population. Some estimate that thirty
to forty percent of Eritrea's population is Tigre. Occupying areas
in the north and west of Eritrea bordering Sudan, they are mostly
Muslims. Living in the historic regions of Semhar, Sahel, and
northern Barka, many are nomadic shepherds. The Tigre language,
like Tigrinya, is considered a Semitic language. Saleh Meky, the
Minister of Health, is from the Tigre ethnic group.

-------------------------------------------
ALONG THE COAST: THE AFAR AND THE RASHAIDA
-------------------------------------------

9. The Afar, also called the Danakils, live in the Danakalia
region, or Southern Red Sea zoba. Predominantly Muslim, Afars also
live in Djibouti and Ethiopia. Many of them are herders and
fisherman, while some participate in regional trade and engage in
the black market. Ethnic affiliation is strong for the Afar people.
Many Afar prioritize their ethnic identity ahead of nationality,
with some advocating for the establishment of an Afar nation
comprised of the Afar-dominated areas of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and
Djibouti. The Afar historically have maintained only a weak
relationship with the GSE, in part due to the isolated geography of
this desolate and dry area of the country creating a limiting factor
on the GSE's delivery of service to the region. The Commander of
the Navy, General Ahmed Mohammed Karikare, is the most well-known
Afar in Eritrea.

10. North of Massawa, in the Northern Red Sea zoba is the domain of
the Rashaida. Extending up the coast into Eastern Sudan, this
Muslim tribe is one of the smallest ethnic groups in Eritrea.
Despite their size, they reportedly wield great influence as the
organizers and business leaders who manage much of the black market
activity supporting Eritrea's economy today. They are one of
Eritrea's newest ethnic groups, arriving in Eritrea from the Arabian
peninsula and Sudan two centuries ago. They are herdsmen and
smugglers and many Eritreans comment on their affinity for Toyota
pickups and Land Cruisers. They are isolated from the other ethnic
groups, particularly the highlanders, and like the Afar have an
ethnic affiliation that often supersedes their nationality. Some
Eritreans claim that the low representation of Rashaida in
government positions is due to their nomadic lifestyle.

--------------------------------------------- ----------
OUT WEST, IN THE LOWLANDS AND UNHAPPY: KUNAMA AND NARA
--------------------------------------------- ----------

11. The Kunama live on the Badme plain and in the areas surrounding
Barentu in western Eritrea. Formerly known as the Gash Seite region
and now part of the Gash Barka zoba, the region is part of Eritrea's
breadbasket and was ravaged during the 1998-2000 war. The Kunama's
religious affiliations are a combination of Muslim, Catholic
(converts during the Italian colonial period), and those practicing
traditional animist Kunama beliefs. The Kunama, like the Afar of
the Southern Red Sea, are fiercely independent and many of them
believe they should not be part of Eritrea, or any other nation.
The Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama
(DMLEK) is an active Kunama opposition party that seeks to separate
Kunama lands from Eritrea and establish a Kunama state. Some
foreigners and Kunama believe the GSE discriminates against the
Kunama and that they are not provided with the same level of support

ASMARA 00000945 003 OF 004


by the GSE as the Tigrinya and Tigre people. They are a nomadic
people traditionally and some Kunama live in Ethiopia. Some
highlanders speak disparagingly about the Kunama, using derogatory
terms for them, including "bariya," which means slave.

12. The Nara, who live in southwestern Eritrea near Tesseney and
the Sudanese border, are one of the smallest ethnic groups in
Eritrea and are predominantly Muslim. They are mainly farmers and
pastoralists. Speaking a Nilotic language, they are often subject
to discrimination and described in similarly negative terms as the
Kunama. The facial markings the Nara men receive during rites of
passage indicate their ethnic identity among the Eritreans. The GSE
often recruits Nara to serve as police in Asmara, telling the Nara
that the Asmarinos are mean and untrustworthy as a means to
instigate tensions between the groups and prompt the Nara to act
more forcefully toward the Asmarinos during round-ups and detention.
The Nara have limited educational opportunities and are not
well-represented in the GSE. Due to the high rate of poverty within
the ethnic group and the limited opportunities available to them,
some of those who are recruited by the GSE are reportedly just glad
to have a meal and a place to sleep and are easy victims of the
GSE's manipulation.

---------------------------------------------
SMALL, PROUD, AND INFLUENTIAL: SAHO AND BLEN
---------------------------------------------

13. The Bilen or Blen people are from the area surrounding Keren at
the edge of the highlands. Mostly Muslim, some of them converted to
Catholicism during the Italian colonial era for economic reasons.
There are few Protestant Blen, and even fewer Orthodox Christians.
They claim their origin in Ethiopia, having left Ethiopia several
centuries ago due to persecution by Ethiopians and the Orthodox
Church. Historically, because of their geographic location at the
edge of the highlands, many Blen are traders and entrepreneurs.
Most small businesses in Keren are owned by the Blen. Reportedly
because the Blen were well-represented in the Eritrean Liberation
Front (ELF), few Blen are represented in the GSE today.

14. Living in the hilly region of southeastern Eritrea, the Saho
people are mainly Muslims who live near Adi Keih and Senafe. Saho,
like Blen, is a Cushitic language. Some believe that the Sahos are
the third largest ethnic group in Eritrea. Primarily pastoral
nomads and farmers, the Sahos have held most land of the region in
common ownership, with some portions reserved for sub-group and then
kinship use. Perceived by Eritreans as being better educated than
other lowlanders and lowland Muslims (probably due to the region's
proximity to Asmara and Massawa and the presence of the Catholic
education system in Akeleguzay), they are perhaps the best
represented of the non-Tigrinya ethnic groups in the government.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Osman Saleh is Saho. The Minister
of Justice, Fowsiya Hashim is considered to be Saho as her father
was Saho, although her mother is Djeberti.

-----------------------------------
CROSSING BORDERS: THE HEDAREB BEJA
-----------------------------------

15. The Beja people are Muslim pastoralists who routinely move from
western Eritrea near Agordat across the border into eastern Sudan
near Kassala and Gedaref in Sudan. There are approximately 3
million Beja, divided into at least five subgroups that move back
and forth. The five primary subgroups are: Hadendowa, Amarir, Beni
Amir, Bishriyyin, and Halenga. The Beni Amir and the Hadendowa Beja
are the largest sub-groups in Eritrea and often collectively
referred to as Hedareb. The Hedareb-Beja are considered by some to
be the ninth ethnic group of Eritrea. The Hedareb-Beja speak Beja
and many also speak Tigre or Arabic. Many Eritrean Hedareb-Beja
intermarry with Beja in Eastern Sudan. The mother of Abdallah
Jabir, Head of Organizational Affairs for the People's Front for
Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), is reportedly from the
Beni-Amir-Hedareb-Beja.

---------------------------------
NIGERIANS IN ERITREA: THE TUKRIR
---------------------------------

16. The Tukrir are the descendants of a Muslim Nigerian group that
came across Africa on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 1940's and on
their return from the Hajj decided to stay in Eritrea. Not an
official ethnic group of Eritrea, the relatively small number of
Tukrir manage to maintain their own language. While some Tukrir

ASMARA 00000945 004.2 OF 004


emigrated to Asmara, most live near Tessenay in far western
Eritrea.

--------------------------------------------- -
NEW ADMINISTRATIVE LINES DRAWN: THE SIX ZOBAS
--------------------------------------------- -

17. The re-designation of the areas from eight to six in 1996 drew
lines through ethnic groups and religious affiliations, separated
ethnic groups administratively, and split up the former provinces in
a deliberate effort to destroy the strong affiliations to the
provinces, dilute ethnic identities, and ultimately ensure no one
group could become too strong. At the time, the GSE explained the
restructuring as one based on "economic and geo-climatic
homogeneity" and a policy that "takes as its basis national
resources, demography infrastructure and the unity of our people."
While the Southern Red Sea became more homogeneous for the Afar, the
Northern Red Sea, Anseba, and Gash-Barka zobas became more
ethnically diverse. During the division, the GSE also expressed an
interest in the resettlement and increased mobility of the
population in order to accelerate an inter-ethnic assimilation
process. In reality, the new lines largely only added Tigrinya
populations into areas which had been predominately occupied by
other ethnic groups; many of these groups perceived this
"Tigrinyaization" of historically non-Tigrinya regions of the
country negatively, as individuals from the Tigrinya groups are
believed to have better access to resources and senior government
positions in those regions. The Kunama, Nara, and Blen were the
greatest "losers" in the creation of these new zobas, but the Saho,
Tigre, and Hedareb-Beja were also significantly affected.

-------
COMMENT
-------

18. The GSE walks a fine line in trying to unite all of the
different groups under the "one heart" of Eritrea while also
reminding individuals to be proud of their ethnic heritage. On the
surface, this effort appears to foster pride in Eritrea's diversity;
however, many of the minority ethnic groups have a more sinister
interpretation of GSE policies, believing the goal is to minimize
ethnic and religious identities which might threaten the regime's
control of the country. Lowland Muslims, while loyal to an Eritrean
nation, often feel left out of the GSE and most of the known small
opposition groups, such as the DMLEK or the Afar Revolutionary
Democratic Union Front (ARDUF), stem from the lowland regions of the
Southern Red Sea, the West, and the Northwest. Nonetheless, the
Eritreans largely succeeded in creating a national identity during
the struggle for independence. Today, the internal dynamics of the
GSE are more dependent on individual relationships stemming back to
this shared battle history rather than on ethnic or religious
differences, despite the predominance of the Hamasien-Tigrinya in
the GSE. The ethnic affiliations and tensions remain just under the
surface of society, though, and most often come to the fore when
grievances between groups arise. End Comment.

MCMULLEN

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