A reflection on the National Conference for Democratic Change

By Petros Tesfagiorgis

asena panel discoFirst I would like to express my thanks to the Ethiopian Government for giving the necessary logistical support to NCDC to successfully hold the conference, and for the decision to help the Eritrean refugees. 


Head of the immigration department Mr. Isaias Gebregiorgis gave a talk to the participants that Ethiopia has decided to let the Eritrean refugees in the camp to freely make a living in Ethiopia. This is a turning point in their lives, in place of pain and loss they can exploit their potential for education, work and happiness. Now being the owners of their labour power they can start a journey to build their broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility. By spending 6,7,8,9 even more years in the Warsay & Yekeallo Development project they have lagged behind from their contemporaries the world over in every thing that life offers. As a consequence their life is being built on a shaky foundation simply because they did not gain certain experiences and skills not developed when they were at the right age for them. Because of that they need a lot of support to recover from their economic and social deprivation.

This dramatic move by the Government of Ethiopia has far wider implication not only among the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples but among the rest of Africans. The Horn of Africa in historical or geopolitical terms is a zone of perpetual conflict to which troubles are attracted as irresistibly as flies to sugar. EPRDF is transforming by pursuing vigorously the culture of peace and reconciliation. It is promoting it from within as people from OLF and ONLF opting for dialogue and reconciliation rather than violence and from without in the Horn and beyond.  It has become standing principle of EPRDF and positive influence for Africans.

Mr. Isaias has expressed that this will help to restore the friendship of the two brotherly people, it is true. On the other hand, the Eritreans must reciprocate the Ethiopian goodwill by being vibrant communities and contributing to the economic and social development of Ethiopia.

Amanuel Iyasu’s – interview

Amanuel Iyasu’s interviews during the NCDC were outstanding. He was a rising sun in  journalism. He covered adequately the most delicate issue of organisations based on ethnicity and religion. He was frank, blunt and straight forward. He helped the representatives of the ethnic and religious organisation to bring to the wider Eritrean audience the suffering and pain of the people they claim to represent. Indeed they made the suffering of the people much more visible than it used to be.

The impact of the interview:

The interview has revealed an incredible detail of repression not publicized in any media outlet.  I was particularly shocked to hear for the first time that the PFDJ has carried out indiscriminate killings of the civilian population of Saho. The Kunama representative highlighted the systematic illegal killing of Kunama people; they are being severely punished as traitors.

The voices of the representatives of Afar, Saho and Kunama etc. proved to be the voices of oppression of their respective nationalities.

Amanuel has asked the  head of foreign relations of Saho why the need to form a Saho democratic movement:

His answer was heart breaking: He said,” PFDJ is destroying our tradition and customs. During the nights our religious leaders are taken away from their residences by the security forces and are jailed. The most degrading is that they forced our people out of their traditional land and relocate them in Barka.  There was no amenities, no health care, no schools etc.  Our people demanded the right to have a say in policies that affects their lives and take care of their day to day activities and they are being severely punished for that. “

Another shocking revelation is the situation of the Afars. There are 20,000 afar refugees. in Assaita. I was humbled by my ignorance of the Afar situation.

It is these atrocities perpetrated on these diverse nationalities or communities that gave rise to the formation of these movements. These movements represent the pain and suffering of their own people. They are legitimate and have the right to get organised to address it.

But who is to Blame in all these?

It must be crystal clear that it is the PFDJ that is the perpetrator of these atrocities. The highlanders are also subjected to extreme repression so much so the fabric of their society is being destroyed. Today the institution of the family is very week among the highlanders be it Christians or Moslems. There is one issue that the PFDJ will not dare to talk about. The inhabitants of Sahel and Barka refused to send their women to Sawa and their commitment and their voice prevailed.  I have a lot of respect for these people. But the highland women are victims of drawing in the high seas crossing to Italy from Libya. They are violated and shot when crossing to Israel from Egypt. With the influx of young women in exile the institutions of the family is under extreme pressure.

Therefore although the question of unity is profoundly important at this moment in time we must not assume that there was lack of unity during various phases of the Eritrean political and armed struggle, on the eve of the federation, the federation, the annexation and during the long years of the armed struggle.

In fact the sovereignty and independence of Eritrea is the culmination of specific historical, social, cultural, and political dynamics in which the struggle for unity and territorial integrity was central.  However it has to be acknowledged that there were specific problems in the long journey of struggle concerning ethnicity, religion and region. For example the atrocities carried out against the Kunama are specific to the Kunama history. They were marginalized and discriminated not only by the fronts but also by their neighbour tribes. Their rights have been grossly violated. They were even treated as traitors by the fronts when they get help from the Ethiopian Government of Hail-Sellasie to defend themselves. Therefore they have every right to get organized as a group to fight for equality and justice and also for affirmative action to develop their area. On the other hand, there are no compelling reasons to wish the highland Christians to do the same. They were not subjected to discrimination or marginalized. What specific demands do they have that requires to organize to advance theirs own interests. The highlanders must fight for justice, equality, rule of law and democracy for each and every Eritrean. This is the challenge presented to the people of Eritrea by PFDJ. In such situation a multi-cultural political organisation would have a pivotal role in Eritrea.

Achievement of the conference:

The conference was profoundly succeeded in building trust among all those Eritrean who came from all segments of the Eritrean society. This is fundamentally important because it can serve as the basis to look for and search a common denominator in the struggle for a democratic change in Eritrea.

  • The conference has served as a platform for building understanding. This realization in itself represents a considerable degree of liberation.  The destiny of the country lies in the hands of all the people in Eritrea, understanding the fear and concerns of each other is critical for developing a united front for democratic change in Eritrea.
  • The conference brought out into the open the less publicized atrocities the PFDJ carried out against the people.  The repression of the Pentecostals is widely publicised and there is big international sympathy in the West that helped them to get international protection. But not the Afars and Kunama people until recently. On the other hand although there are about 20,000 Afar refugees in Asaita and other camp we hear very little of them. It is the Afar movements which has brought it to the forefront and made it visible.
  • It can be taken as a healing journey  – in the words of  Amanuel Sahle the outstanding critic of PFDJ  in his article titled “The National convention: A Healing Journey” at awate.com wrote, “Good God, after having attended the Wa’ala I found out how much we Eritrean needed such a meeting……..It was a healing journey.. For the country which is trying to find its soul and its identity.”

Issues which was not transparent:

It is fundamentally important to realize that the conference has built understanding among various religious and ethnic groups based organisations. From my point of view the present challenge has not been addressed adequately and was not transparent at least for those of us who depend on the media.  The present challenge is clear and simple.  In short it is to get rid of PFDJ repressive system and replace it by a democratic system. Therefore, the challenge of today is to restore the rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and install a democratic government.  For this the people are crying for political organisations to lead them. They are crying for leadership.

They did not specify the core strategies to guide them in achieving democratic change not any change. It can be expressed  in the form of theories or ideas and ideologies.

Political parties or movements need the support and approval of the people they intend to lead. However, to get their support, they need to explain to the people their political line (ideology or theory) with clarity and they need to be seen to implement it.

These theories provide them abundantly, vigorously and attractively with the will for freedom and the will to fight for it. The great advantages of theories are once people believe and internalize them they get themselves empowered.

From what I have understood this core issue was not transparent. The relationship among the various ethnic groups can only be sustainable and durable when it is based on principles of democracy and shared values.  On such premises and believe the movements can then acquire and maintain the level of support they need from the people to capture state power. Further more success comes largely due to committed leadership, organisational discipline.

The Empowerment of the people is one of the pillars of democracy:

Democracy can not be left to political parties alone. There is no guarantee of democracy unless the people are empowered. Today empowerment of the people has become a central issue globally. Likewise Eritreans can build true democracy only on the strength of internalizing the values of democracy. Once the value of democracy is shared among all Eritreans, and then when Kunamas or Afars are subjected to repression it is all the people who would stand up to the challenge, the same for Moslems, and the same for Christians.

Power is complex, however, and is best understood using various frameworks and adapting them to your context. And the civil societies have to promote and teach the a,b,c of democracy among its constituencies, the people,  in order to understand the underlying power dynamics of the situation. They can only do so if they constitute independent of any government or political parties.

However when it comes to government the best is secular government in whose constitution is enshrined freedom of worship, of association, of press, the rule of law and respect of human rights.  This is the only way forward in the era of globalization and where religious and ethnic conflicts are creating havoc in much of Africa and part of Middle East.

 

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