Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND) : Proposed Platform, Internal Working Memorandum, October 2014
Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND) Proposed Platform, Internal Working Memorandum, October 2014 “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” By the American essayist Ralph
Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND)
Proposed Platform, Internal Working Memorandum, October 2014
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
By the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we began this improbable odyssey over fourteen months ago, we promised to provide a statement of purpose to conferees that would serve as a platform for discussion and deliberation. Here we present it for your consideration. At the outset, we would like to thank all those who took time out to share their well-considered thoughts and invaluable suggestions, which we have incorporated with due diligence into our internally-generated ideas and suggestions. Since this memorandum is a distillation of diverse ideas and suggestions, it is not expected to reflect all ideas and suggestions in full in the form they were presented, but it does fully capture the spirit of all the propositions submitted to us. As we noted in our previous communications, the propositions and/or statement of principles and plan of actions that we are hereby presenting are not meant for adoption by the conferees but rather for stimulation of discussion and deliberation in ways that lead to the generation of even better propositions, the articulation of a strategic vision, the enunciation of progressive principles and the crafting of a practical course of actions to help us advance the cause of Eritrea’s rebirth. We have tried our level best to craft the ideas, suggestions, and plan of actions in such ways as to spark constructive imagination and reflective discussions. Honesty requires of us to profess that we have no magic bullet for how to solve the horrendous political, economic, and social conditions under which the Eritrean people are languishing, nor do we claim to possess peculiar capacities to present what has not been presented before. What we believe is that, by coming together and banging our heads against each other in an atmosphere of comity, brotherhood/sisterhood and shared concerns, we will be able to produce a consensus on a few fundamentals of the struggle whereby the paramount importance of unity is realized, so that the twenty years of nightmare will at last be overcome.
The scope of our overarching purpose is circumscribed by just one burning question: what are the basic conditions under which all democratic Eritrean forces can and must achieve national unity in ways that will lead to the installation of a pluralist, secular and democratic Eritrean state? As we have explained in our previous communiqués, we are not another civil society organization; we are simply an ad hoc group of concerned Eritreans calling upon all Eritrean civil society groups, political organizations, and individuals to come together to dialogue on how to reverse the fragmentation of our society. Our clarion call is rooted in the enduring belief that such a dialogue will eventually enable us to chart a broad-based platform which would allow all groups, despite their programmatic differences, to work together in bringing about a government that represents all segments of the Eritrean population and respects all the rights bestowed on them by their citizenship. There is no alternative to constructive dialogue, we believe, to reverse further fragmentation of the Eritrean society, and to reignite the process of nation-building and avert the risks of state failure. So as we deliberate together during these two days, let us keep in mind the following four essentials.
- The compelling reason for reconciliation
The theme that has received dominance in all propositions—both internally generated and externally received—is the indispensability of reconciliation among the internally fragmented political organizations and equally internally fragmented civic groups in the Eritrean Diaspora, on the one hand, and between EPLF and ELF patriots, on the other. We agree that reconciliation among the disparate forces in opposition to the one-man dictatorship in Eritrea is foundational to national unity and to the adoption of a common platform of struggle to maximize the effectiveness of the struggle and expedite the downfall of the dictator. This reconciliation ought to take place on two levels. The first involves reconciliation within existing organizations, whether political or civic. The second level of reconciliation involves overcoming the ELF-EPLF divide. When we propose reconciliation as an essential component of an effective struggle, we have to be honest with ourselves and with each other. Reconciliation does not mean papering over past mistakes or putting a positive gloss on some self-selective aspects of the past. Rather, reconciliation requires overcoming the politics of resentment and anger, and rechanneling them into a new mode of struggle based on mutual respect, inter-subjective communication, mutual understanding and putting the nation’s interest before personal ambitions here and now.
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It is in the splendid advice from the great American novelist Scott Fitzgerald that we ought to take to heart. Democracy is not defined by the liberty that one has to say what he wants to say, but rather, by his capacity to recognize and tolerate the liberty of others to say what they want to say even in the face of the views expressed by them that are diametrically opposed to one’s own. This is foundational to genuine reconciliation and constructive dialogue.
To find a role model for this kind of reconciliation, we need not go outside Africa; Nelson Mandela has left us with an enduring legacy on how to approach the politics of reconciliation. As we all know, Mandela had every reason to have been resentful, angry, and vengeful, and consequently to have advocated the pursuit of exclusionary politics. Instead, he farsightedly understood what this kind of political strategy could have brought in South Africa: destructive division whose cost could have been exponentially greater than the benefits of reconciliation with the previous oppressors. This is an invaluable legacy from which we can all learn. So we call upon especially the ELF-EPLF generation to come together and help the young generation move beyond the inherited politico-cultural divide and put the struggle against the Eritrean dictator on the right trajectory. We salute the ELF-EPLF generation for attaining the physical liberation of Eritrea against all odds, which was a stunning vindication and supreme validation of their collective life-long sacrifices. Now we summon upon the same generation to help the young generation to shoulder the burden of fighting for democratic change and peace in Eritrea.
To be sure, it is of paramount importance to acknowledge that reconciliation is more than bringing individuals or groups together on certain issues, however important that is. Reconciliation first and foremost mandates transformation of attitudes in a tolerant and constructive direction. The issue of national reconciliation is one of the great challenges which the conferees will have to grapple with during these two days of deliberation.
- Recognition of the primacy of internal forces
There is a general tendency within the Eritrean Diaspora community to believe that the political salvation of Eritrea is to be brought about by the efforts of foreign-based political organizations and civic associations. This is a wrong-headed understanding of objective reality. The decisive forces to bring about change are the Eritrean people themselves. The role of Eritreans outside the country is to give voice to the voiceless living in a suffocating political environment. This does not diminish the importance of the secondary role we can play from outside the country. If there are persons or groups who believe that they can and will overthrow the dictatorship from without either by the sheer force of their own resources or with the support of foreign power and then expect the internal forces to receive them with open arms, they are making tragic strategic miscalculations.
The correct strategy is to strive how to forge partnership with the internal forces towards overthrowing the current regime and to jointly find ways to democratically reconstruct Eritrea. In particular, inspiring, establishing trusting relationships, and maintaining regular communication with the Eritrean defense forces is of paramount importance for the formation of such a partnership. The Eritrean defense forces themselves have huge stakes in the political redemption and democratic reconstruction of Eritrea because they themselves are living intolerable lives. Having converted Eritrea into a supergiant prison, the dictator has made the once gallant fighters prison guards. They are distrusted and harnessed like dogs while the dictator moves them from place to place to keep them divided in order to prevent them from forging trusting bonds among themselves and from rethinking about their place in Eritrean politics and society or about alternatives. Therefore, any change in the terrible status quo of military servitude will be a long-awaited event for the Eritrean defense forces. The crucial task for Eritreans in the Diaspora is how to encourage and support the Eritrean defense forces to follow the example of Tunisia’s armed forces, who refused nearly four years ago to shoot at their own people; instead, they chose to observe their solemn oath to protect the country and its people against foreign and domestic enemies; this was why the corrupt Ben Ali fled Tunisia fearing for his life. In the Eritrean case, such a momentous occasion requires the development of an effective two-way channel of communication between inside and outside forces, and it is incumbent upon the outside Eritrean forces to telegraph their ideas and propositions in ways that would inspire mutual confidence and trust between inside and outside forces that will veritably lead to the shared recognition of the urgency for enduring partnership. This is another great challenge with which the conferees will have to grapple.
- Developing a long range horizon
Every political struggle is a process that moves through the stream of time; beginnings and retreats, and then rises and advances are inherent to this process. The early patriots of the Eritrean struggle never imagined that the physical liberation of Eritrea would take over thirty years, but it did. What is certain about a struggle is that the destination is subjectively clear, but the time frame of getting there is determined by the interplay of subjective and objective conditions over which no organization or group of organizations have total control. Nor is it possible to predict with exact precision the direction that a political struggle might take. What is required of progressive forces in such situations is to develop a clear strategic vision, well defined strategies, coherent course of actions, and adequate psycho-political preparations to constantly make prudent adjustments as events unfold.
To come to the main point, we all know that the immediate objective of the current political struggle is the overthrow of the one-man dictatorship in Eritrea. We are certain that the regime will fall sooner or later by the combined struggles of internal and external forces. However, the long journey towards the genuinely authentic resurrection of Eritrea begins only after the fall of the dictator. It is this resurrection phase of the struggle that must be of concern to all of us. The main cause of the current division among the political organizations and/or civic associations outside Eritrea is not over whether the dictatorship must go or over the means of overthrowing it, but rather, who would own or control the trajectory of the post-dictatorship political system in Eritrea. Therefore, it is incumbent upon this conference to face this challenge how to craft a clear roadmap for the post-dictatorship political environment.
- The compelling reason for passing the torch
A Chinese saying from antiquity admonishes that every crisis comes with two signs: one for danger and the other for opportunity. The danger sign points to the overwhelming inundation of confusion, indifference, apathy, despondency, pessimism, and cynicism within which some individuals and/or groups try everything to politically thrive at the expense of others. They can do so by elevating every issue whether small or big to such status that the most important ones are drowned out. By piecing and splicing together bits of fact and fiction, they can enhance their uncanny ability to manipulate and mobilize large followers. Usually, members of the intelligentsia are the leading culprits in such situations as they misuse their schooling to excavate mythological artifacts and reassemble them into a manual of guidelines for misapprehensions, suspicions, and divisions. One of the few things that we learn from history is that crisis situations almost always bring with them a season of paranoia in which a large number of individuals and groups surrender all trust in each other; mistakes, dissent, and differences are taken for treason. The use of sweeping pejorative labels brings forth raw and rancorous emotions during this melancholy time that obstructs constructive dialogue. Interpersonal or political animosities and mistaking hesitation for rejection raise a wall of separation between those who differ in political sentiments, thereby transforming past resentments and present frustrations into mutual recriminations. Thus, crisis situations can make or break genuine political movements.
During crisis situations, external markers of identity such as kinship, ethnicity, race, religion and region in particular become convenient fallback strategies for those who seek to advance their personal interests and ambitions under the guise of advancing the cause and interests of some groups they purport to speak for or represent. Their personal self-serving convictions, self-serving political considerations and their dwelling on the surface of things, as well as the degradation of their morals, the outright repudiation of collaborative endeavors and the constant vilification of their opponents unavoidably result in formidable contradictions and tangles that require unprecedented efforts to fight.
Cautionary lessons abound. The well-known British journalist and writer Michela Wrong entitled her 2009 book on Kenya It is Our Turn to Eat. The title of the book was taken verbatim from statements made by some Kenyans of Kikuyu ethnic origin. Between 1979 and 2002, Kenya had fallen under the grips of authoritarianism, nepotism, and the kleptocracy of the Kalengin ethnic group-based elite. However, having completely exhausted its legitimacy, the Moi regime stumbled forward from crisis to crisis between 1992 and 2002, always by rigging elections, muzzling dissenters and ruthlessly repressing the opposition. During the 1997 elections, for example, approximately 1,500 Kenyans lost their lives and over 300,000 people were displaced during the ensuing interethnic violence. Then a coalition of counter-elite from key ethnic groups that included the usually rival ethnic formations of the Kikuyu and Luo took full advantage of the crisis to coalesce around basic conditions of unity that forced the Moi elite to hold an internationally-monitored election. The coalition of the counter-elite won, culminating in the election of Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu) as president of Kenya in 2002. Unfortunately, the Kikuyu counter-elite who had been out of power for over twenty years thought that the long-awaited time had come for the Kikuyu to use the state to steer public resources and political privileges in their direction. Kibaki and his cronies reneged on their promise to do right by all Kenyans without regard to identity politics while, at the same time, arrogantly sidelining their erstwhile allies from other ethnic formations including the Luo political groups who were partners during the long struggle against the Moi regime. History repeated itself under Kibaki; Kenya descended in due course into kleptocracy and exclusionary politics and an ever deepening crisis mode. Now the coalition of the counter-elite became too powerful, threatening to snatch power from the Kikuyu-dominated elite. To survive in power, Kibaki and his political circle brazenly used Moi’s familiar method to steal the 2007 national elections that led to another episode of interethnic violence in which 1,500 Kenyans were murdered, followed by the displacement of more than 300,000 people.
The cautionary importance of this lesson is that crisis situations do present opportunities to put things right. When the 2002 crisis situation in Kenya brought the counter-elite to power, they had every opportunity to put Kenyan politics on the right course of political progress and economic development that could have benefited all Kenyans, not only the tiny class of Kikuyu elite who pretended to represent Kikuyu interest, which they did not. Truth to say, the Kikuyu masses were stuck in stark poverty and malnutrition to equal proportions as other ethnic formations throughout Kenya. However, since Kibaki and his cronies framed the political debate between themselves and the counter-elite opposition in ethnic terms, they succeeded in transforming the non-antagonistic differences in the external markers of identity among the diverse ethnocultural formations in the country into seemingly existential and extrinsic definition of identity. The net result was that the bloody violence following the 2007 elections took on interethnic dimensions. By taking similar approaches to politics that were brazenly practiced by Moi, the Kibaki elite squandered the opportunity that the crisis of governance had provided them to chart a radically different trajectory for Kenya, one that would have empowered the downtrodden and dispossessed Kenyan people and restored their sovereignty.
An equally powerful cautionary lesson can be drawn from the Somali experience. This is the only country in Africa which approximates ethno-racial and religious homogeneity, yet it has not been able to get out of the abyss into which it has been thrown for over two decades. This is so because of fierce clan-based inter-elite competition and rivalry, with each side claiming to speak for or represent its own clans. What is suggestive of the cautionary lesson from the Kenyan and Somali experiences is that leadership quality is a major determinant in how crisis situations are used, which can be directed either for the promotion of parochial interests or the advancement of the interest of the collectivity.
In every crisis situation, a struggle tends to assume three-sided dimensions. The first and foremost priority of progressive democrats is to reach the greatest number of people to sell their strategic vision and programmatic plans that would universally benefit all citizens without regard to kinship, ethnicity, religion and region. Doing so requires extraordinary efforts from progressive democrats, as they simultaneously battle the entrenched dictators, which is another unenviable task, on the one hand, and new political militias, whose rise is always fostered by crisis situations, complicating the struggle for democracy, on the other. Like progressive democrats, political militias seek to overthrow dictators and take their place. Indeed, the struggle against political militias can be harder than fighting the already discredited dictators because political militias have nothing to account for. After all, they raise the same banner of democracy as progressive democrats do, but the foundation to their politics is reactionary counter-mobilization of external markers of identity such as kinship, clan, ethnicity, religion and/or region. Thus, political militialization, the “it is our turn to eat” mindset and the consequent proliferation of self-serving factions, primarily with pushovers and syphoners, become insurmountable obstacles to democratic transition and socio-economic transformation.
A well respected Somali scholar who is also a friend of Eritrea recently admonished us against repeating the Somali experience with sectarian politics. The background for his prudent admonition inheres in the recognition that Eritrea is pregnant with similar tendencies and potential for destructive division. The scholar’s prudent counsel does resonate with us because, as the tempestuous contemporary experiences throughout Africa and the Middle East have demonstrated, we have entered a new age of the rise and fall of political militias who are tearing societies and polities asunder, all under the guise of fighting for democracy. The internet explosion has strengthened their capacity to do political damage through the manufacturing of misapprehensions, suspicions, confusion, anarchy and misunderstandings. Bent on outright repudiation of alternatives and universal demonization of their opponents, political militias tend to make the working out of compromises, the course of action, and the advancement of democratic values exceedingly difficult. In this fast-moving age of political militias, truth and corrections rarely catch up with the spread of distortions, misrepresentations and falsehoods.
Because they are demagogues on little things with little or no scruples about truth and the public good, overwhelming and undermining big things, political militias can be powerfully effective in the active or passive exploitation of external markers of identity, be it religion, region, ethnicity and other minor attributes related thereto. Not all political militias necessarily rise out of ill-will towards others, but rather out of past grievances, mistrust or out of misperception about the intentions of others. Such posturing eventually crystallizes in towering arrogance about their own virtues and purposes while, at the same time, otherizing all problems.
The cautionary message of the foregoing description of the dangers from the phenomenon of political militialization is of paramount importance for Eritreans concerned about the transition, something that we must approach with unsentimental realism. As the 19th century French philosopher Joseph Joubert said: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”
Dictators are not distant from identity politics either. In fact, dictatorial regimes welcome identity politics-driven internal fragmentation of the opposition as a heaven-sent gift since that would allow them to perpetuate their stay in power by the divide and rule method. As dictators begin to lose their grip on power, they, too, intensify their reliance on identity politics. They often adroitly play different identities against each other and begin to favor some identities in a desperate attempt to cling to power. Such activities unavoidably worsen societal fragmentation. Markers of external differences continuously manufactured by dictators frequently lead to inter-identity acrimony, which destroys the bonds of national unity. After all, the original failure to establish institutions of governance with a system of representation and accountability provides fertile grounds for societal polarization along lines of ethnicity, region, religion and class, which undermines the prospects for integrating the diverse groups of citizens under a shared system of institutions of governance to form a community of citizens.
In so far our struggle goes, there are two factors that merit close attention. First, the multiethnic and multireligious composition of Eritrea is fertile ground for those who seek to harvest enough raw material to weave a tapestry of differences among the Eritrean people in ways that advance their political fortunes. No inference must be drawn from this observation that we are finger-pointing at identifiable individuals or groups engaged in political militialization at this point in time. But we have to be frank with ourselves that the potential is there. If we think otherwise, then we must be trapped in irredeemable self-delusion and self-deception of a grand-scale. The burden of responsibility that we bear is that we must preempt the pregnancies of this nature from being born, which requires prospective vigilance.
Second, like virtually all post-liberation countries, Eritrea is suffering from what social scientists call the “liberation curse,” the notion whereby the original liberators conflate the war of liberation phase with the imperatives of civil governance during the post-liberation phase. They erroneously believed that what worked during the period of the war of liberation would work in the post-liberation period in exactly the same way; the present becomes the exact replica of the past with the original liberators remaining at the helm of leadership as the natural stewards of both the past and the present. When the Ethio-Eritrean war erupted again in 1998, several PFDJ leaders were quoted as having said that they were glad that the war happened when they were still alive, implying that the present generation would not have been capable of defending Eritrea against her foreign enemies.
The liberation and post-liberation phases are never identical. The war of liberation is governed by military culture that is not necessarily compatible with the political culture of civil society embedded in contentious politics and democratic exchange. Liberation fronts, by definition, are military institutions in which decisions are implemented first before questions are fully debated if at all, a normal practice which is incompatible with civic institutions where questions are raised first before decisions are implemented. This is the reason why no liberation front anywhere has ever successfully projected its military institutions and military culture on to a democratic post-liberation civic order. Eritrea is not an exception. The current disunity among Eritrean opposition organizations is just another manifestation of the “liberation curse,” something that underpins their inability to work together to effectively bring new ideas and alternative strategic vision and which presents themselves as the welcomed alternative to the tyranny of PFDJ.
This is by no means a subjective evaluation on our part. The late Ahmed Nasser, for example, took pains to make a call from his residence in Sweden a few months before his death to share his concerns about the future of Eritrea with one of our members. In a nutshell, the salient purpose of his call was to plead with our group to embark upon new departures in Eritrean politics since the existing political organizations had become dysfunctional. The testimonial—coming as it did from a veteran fighter who gave up the flowering youth of his manhood (indeed his whole life) for the Eritrean cause—said more about his somber exasperation with the existing political opposition than about our own credentials for we have not demonstrated anything of practical substance. We would only conjecture that he held up some hopes that some other forces would begin new departures in the struggle against the monstrous dictatorship in Asmara. And this ought to be the main point of departure in this conference: to get the conversation going and to get Eritrea moving again.
We believe that the foundation to constructive dialogue and national unity is the conviction that the age of the ELF-EPLF generation has ended; another age has begun. Of course, to suggest an absolute break with the past is extravagant and utopian; after all, politics is a complex and contradictory mixture of the past and the present, of revolutionary and reactionary aspects of political life that require extraordinary care to sort out; but to suggest passing the torch from the old generation to the new generation is the minimum one can ask for at this critical juncture in Eritrea’s history. Holding ritual conferences, seminars, and symposia, or forming fragile alliances, or revisions, editions, and innovations of old programs are no substitute for unity of purpose and unity of action. Here we take the liberty to speak the truth; the greatest service that the existing political opposition organizations can make is to inspire and remobilize the Eritrean people, in general and the youth in particular, against the paralyzing mortification at the current state of affairs, collective demoralization, political emasculation and hopelessness. At this critical juncture in Eritrea’s history, the most invaluable role that the ELF-EPLF generation can play is mentoring the young generation to carry on the torch forward and fight for the birth of democratic Eritrea; this will be compatible with their historic reputations as national heroes. This transfer is as much dialogical and rational as it is agitational and mobilizational. Dialogical, because the ELF-EPLF should engage the young generation by passing the torch; agitational and mobilizational, because the old generation must inspire the young generation to receive the torch and fight for it with unwavering determination of mind and sincerity of heart. However, the young generation must also make their demands deferentially and without apology on the old generation to pass the torch.
- The way forward
It is not uncommon to hear from members of the Eritrean Diaspora community blaming (as we have done in this memorandum) the existing opposition political organizations for not uniting among themselves in order to vigorously and effectively confront the dictatorship in Asmara. We believe that this is a very wrong way of approaching the new phase of the struggle. The right question must be: why are Eritreans in the civic Diaspora community not uniting for self-emancipation from being appendages of political organizations, whether at home or abroad? Genuine self-awareness and the sense of civic responsibility about one’s solemn dedication to the cause of the struggle begins with the recognition that, no more than any members of civil society, the existing political organizations or the men who lead them have no celestial revelations about earthly matters or particular obligations and peculiar capacities to bring about a radical change in Eritrea. If we continue to believe that these organizations and leaders do have exceptional abilities, then we are irredeemably lost in the thickest jungle of politics. Indeed, it is this kind of attitude, coupled with the total abdication of civic responsibility to political organizations and their leaders, that constitutes the unfortunate prelude to the undemocratic formation of political culture and political institutions. The ultimate destiny of democratization and democracy is guaranteed of success only when civil society reconquers its sovereign power to influence, direct, and control the evolution of its political life. Legend has it that a woman, anxious to know about the outcome of the American constitutional convention, howled at Benjamin Franklin as he was walking home after the adoption of the American constitution: “Sir, what have you got?” “It is a republic, lady, if you can keep it,” he howled back at her. The cautionary message of his answer was that the American republic was going to last as long as the American civil society was capable of preventing the powers-to-be from capturing state institutions to satisfy their personal ambitions and selfish interests. Franklin’s compatriot later added that the price of liberty was eternal vigilance. What both men were driving at was that the potential of governments, being institutions of men, for degeneration into autocracy or dictatorship is omnipresent unless they are constantly checked by civil society. Fabulous enumeration of high-sounding principles and rights in a constitution would amount to nothing unless people are willing and empowered to defend them. Indeed, every constitution is a paper-tiger until and unless citizens assume full ownership over its implementation, enforcement and observance of its provisions, constant rectifications of its gaps, and frequent circulation of politicians. In Africa, no one has written any glossier series of constitutions since independence than Nigerians. Yet, the Nigerian elite have not been able to promote and consolidate intercommunal cohesion and democratic governance or to overcome the stagnant poverty, gross malnutrition, and the organic unemployment that have overwhelmed the Nigerian society, despite the fact that Nigeria has made nearly a trillion dollars from the export of crude petroleum over the past fifty years. Rampant corruption, nepotism, political misrule, intercommunal and interreligious conflicts and mass unemployment have put Nigeria in perpetual motion of potential collapse.
The point we are trying to make here is that until and unless the Eritrean civil society actively participate in the new struggle against the dictatorship in Asmara and take full charge of the process to construct Eritrea anew democratically, economically and socially, we may be repeating history. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” are judicious words from George Santiana that we ought to take to heart if we are to avoid the reruns of past episodes as we move forward. So one of the great challenges facing this conference, or any Eritrean for that matter, is how to restore true sovereignty to the Eritrean people so that they will be the ones to determine the character and outcome of the present struggle. In the most crucial respect, the current struggle against the monstrous dictatorship in Asmara is simultaneously a struggle for the autonomy of civil society and the utter demolition of dictatorship.
The fundamental reason why virtually all liberation fronts miserably fail to measure up to their original promises and expectations is that they instantaneously overrun the public spaces that naturally belong to civil society. Without the explicit segregation between the civic and state spaces and without the existence of a robust civil society to defend this separation by demanding full accountability and compliance from those who wield the reins of state power, slouching towards dictatorship becomes the inevitable result. The greatest challenge for us in the Diaspora is how to contribute towards the downfall of the dictatorship in Asmara in the short run, and to the emergence and defense of a vibrant civil society in Eritrea in the long run. It behooves us to remember that the Eritrean Diaspora has always been integral to the Eritrean struggle; we have to rekindle the old spirit of struggle and the old sense of moral responsibility. To ritually lament the horrendous conditions in which our people live and to wail for the young Eritreans who routinely drown in the Mediterranean Sea or fall prey to kidnappings in the Sinai desert would only amount in the long run to platitudinous expression of lip service unless the specter of ineptitude and inaction haunts us to move on to unified mobilization, action and organization. The towering contributions that the Eritreans for Liberation in North America (EFLNA) made in the past is a shining example of what a robust civic organization could do. Of course, we must also learn from its defects that led to its downfall and eventual disintegration. One of its major defects was its unidimensional attachment to the EPLF without the autonomy to provide its input for serious consideration by the self-chosen “mother” organization.
Thus, we propose in this memorandum for consideration by the conference the resurrection of the old civic associations. We envision the recreation of four regional civic associations, namely, Eritreans for Democracy and Human Rights in North America; Eritreans for Democracy and Human rights in Europe; Eritreans for Democracy and Human Rights in Africa and the Middle East; and Eritreans for Democracy and Human Rights in Australia. These regional associations may come together under a worldwide federation as International Society of Eritreans for Democracy and Human Rights for purposes of amplifying their collective voices, enhancing their international visibility and coordinating their activity; this is only a desirable objective but not a necessary condition. It is worthy to note that the overarching mission of these organizations is to promote and defend democratic and human rights in Eritrea by creating pressure points to which any political entity must respond if it seeks to gain legitimacy and support from the Eritrean people for its program. Therefore, in order to maintain their positive neutrality and their credibility as anchors of effective pressure politics, these civic organizations must avoid partisanship and political affiliation with any political organization inside or outside Eritrea; their sole mission ought to be to advocate a level playing field for all democratic forces. Their methods of struggle for democracy and human rights in Eritrea rest on lobbying and campaigning against or naming and shaming antidemocratic forces that obstruct the transition to democracy in Eritrea or the promotion and consolidation of democratic and human rights values. In organizational terms, each regional association may form chapters in places or localities as it sees fit as compatible with its specific environment. Once in existence, these regional civic organization ought to establish various outreach programs that allow them to link up with various national nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and national public agencies dealing with issues of democracy and human rights to mobilize solidarity, support and resources in order to be effective in their pressure politics against the dictatorship and for democracy in Eritrea. Once the organizational structure is set up and all outreach schemes and their missions clearly defined, these regional organizations ought to prepare to play both short-term and long-term roles.
These are extraordinary times that demand unprecedented efforts from extraordinary leadership. So, we propose that these civic organizations ought to be run by paid fulltime professionals who are skilled in public diplomacy and conversant with the language, politics, and culture of their respective regions. Of course, local chapters may be run on the basis of voluntary leadership for budgetary reasons. In addition, it will be beneficial if the regional civic organizations can establish internship programs for college students who can help with outreach to the youth; the stipend does not have to be exorbitant.
A) Playing the short-term role
The first and foremost objective of the civic organizations ought to be how to find new ways to expedite the downfall of the ruthless dictatorship in Asmara. This begins with the somber recognition that the existence of so many opposition political parties at this stage of the struggle has become an almost insurmountable obstacle to the unity of purpose and action. The fact that these internally fragmented and non-strategic political factions have hitherto failed to work together for the very reason that should have united all of them, i.e., the unfocused efforts to remove the ruthless dictatorial regime in Asmara and to prepare an inspiring roadmap on how to empower the Eritrean people to be masters of their destiny have disappointed the Eritrean people at home and abroad. Obviously, the existing opposition political forces are a reality and we need to encourage them to coordinate their actions in democratic and transparent ways. But the civic organizations in the Diaspora ought to engage them to work together beyond differences and to primarily focus on what should unite them, which is on how to remove the brutal dictatorial regime that is ruining the country. So, we propose that the civic organizations call upon and insist that the existing political organizations speak with one voice by forming a common (united) front on a single purpose to overthrow the dictatorship. This common front must be governed by a consultative committee, representing all organized groups including members of civic associations; all decisions ought to be based on a simple democratic vote. The mission and/or objective of the common front would be to perform three things: 1) to campaign for regional and international diplomatic, moral, and material support against the dictatorship in Asmara; 2) to inspire, mobilize, and unite all Eritreans in the Diaspora in the struggle against the dictatorship in Asmara; 3) and to intensify efforts to forge and consolidate partnerships with the democratic forces inside Eritrea.
Even though it is hard to predict how soon and by what means the political change in Eritrea will come, it is certain that it will come. When it does, the civic organizations in the Diaspora ought to have a clear stand on the process for which they must prepare to strenuously advocate. They ought to call upon the forces that bring about change in the situation to fulfill the following conditions:
1) call upon the forces that have brought about political change to form an interim governing council that shall set up a caretaker government lasting for no longer than three months while negotiation on the formation of the transitional national assembly proceeds; the governing council shall select the acting president and acting vice president for the duration of three months;
2) call upon the caretaker government to release all political prisoners unconditionally;
3) call upon the caretaker government to unconditionally renounce all arbitrary and extrajudicial arrests, imprisonments and cruel and inhumane treatment of citizens even when arrested on legally defensible grounds;
4) call upon the caretaker government to publicly commit to observing all universal standards of human, political, economic, civil, religious, ethnocultural, and gender rights;
5) call upon the caretaker government to treat all persons implicated in corruption and gross violations of human rights during the previous regime in accordance with internationally accepted norms and standards of law;
6) call upon the caretaker government to invite all political opposition forces and civic associations for constructive dialogue on the construction of a democratic and equalitarian Eritrean state compatible with the country’s sovereign identity;
7) call upon the caretaker government to form a national commission as expeditiously as possible to draft a national charter effecting the transfer of power from the caretaker government after three months to a transitional national government;
8) call upon the caretaker government to facilitate the selection of two co-chairs of the commission who distinguished themselves by their relative political independence, perceived ability to strike the right balance between competing pressures, pragmatism, patriotism, competence, prudence, experience and expertise. Whereas the caretaker government shall appoint one chair, the political opposition and civic organizations in the Diaspora shall select the second chair;
9) call upon the caretaker government to accord the co-chairs of the commission full freedom to choose 21 commission members from inside and outside Eritrea without interference by the caretaker government or other outside forces; all commission members must fulfill standards of competence, expertise, experience, maturity, and ethnocultural and gender representation;
10) call upon the commission drafting the national charter to unambiguously establish the separation of powers between the three branches of government, all powers explicitly defined; 11) call upon the commission of the national charter to provide unambiguous mechanisms on how to effect the transfer of power from the caretaker government to the transitional government within a three months period;
12) call upon the commission to hold a convocation of representatives of recognized constituents to form the transitional national assembly in accordance with the provisions contained in the national charter;
13) call upon the national assembly to elect the president and vice president of the transitional government (one from inside Eritrea and the other from outside Eritrea) for a period of three years;
14) call upon existing political organizations to voluntarily suspend their organizations when the national transitional government comes into operation for a period of three years, in order to give both the national assembly and the transitional government a nonpartisan character;
15) call upon the national assembly to set up a constitutional commission in close consultation with the executive branch and on the expert advice of the judiciary to review, examine, or revise the constitution that was shelved by the previous regime or draft an entirely new constitution by taking the new reality into account;
16) call upon the national assembly to ratify the constitution by the beginning of the third year of the transitional period;
17) call upon the transitional government to hold national elections for the national government by the end of the third year when Eritrea begins the permanent course of its destiny;
18) to insure the integrity of the transition trajectory, call upon the commission drafting the national charter to place a few crucial conditions on the president and vice president of the transitional government including prohibiting them from running for any office after the end of the three years period so as to prevent them from spending the three years of their tenure in office on the cultivation of personal connections or bestowing some privileges upon some groups or persons for purposes of potential electoral politics, or to endorse and campaign on behalf their particular adherents.
B) Playing a long-term role
In the last two decades, the compound buzzword “nation-building” has been overused in various political discourses. Regardless of how it is used and in what context, the term suggests that rebuilding a nation politically, economically and socially in coherent and organic manners is always an arduous one. The few lessons that we must learn from contemporary history is that the construction of new democratic and equalitarian institutions that empower civil society can but be an arduous and a protracted one. The civic organizations in the Diaspora must continue to play key roles in the consolidation of democratic and human rights values inside Eritrea. The following are some of the areas in which they can continue to be effective advocates for those values.
First, Educational Demonstration: Given their long familiarity with and knowledge about how democratic and human rights values are jealously guarded in the advanced countries, as well as how civic organizations in the advanced countries operate, the Eritrean civic organizations in the Diaspora can play an important educational role by linking up with incipient civic associations inside Eritrea. As said earlier, keeping a democratic republic ultimately rests with the people. But, in order to build and guard the Republic, the public need education about their inalienable rights and responsibilities, and that will take a long time. Ideas and concepts about citizenship and the rights that reflect these ideas and concepts are never automatically granted by the state. They rather result from civil society’s continued struggle with and against the state. Therefore, the Eritrean Diaspora community can enormously contribute in this area through the provision of resources, holding seminars inside Eritrea, and by the constant expression of solidarity with internal civic groups.
Second, Defending Democratic and Human Rights: The defense of democratic and human rights values in any country mandates vigilant monitoring, investigation and publicizing of government policies, actions and treatment of its citizens. Again, the Eritrean civic organizations in the Diaspora are better positioned to perform those functions by putting the feet of the powers-to-be to the fire. Because they exist outside the jurisdiction of any government inside Eritrea, they can continue to be effective advocates of democratic and human rights values on behalf of the Eritrean people, and keep the democratization process moving forward.
Third, Fighting for Gender Rights: Some of the rights most spoken about and yet least observed are the rights of women. During the liberation years, we all Eritreans took pride in the active participation of women in the struggle, and many outside observers had expressed immense admiration for how the Eritrean struggle had brought women from the kitchen to other walks of life; not anymore. Even though people still speak of the importance of women participating in all areas of political, economic and social life, in practice Eritrean women are excluded from all basic decisions that affect their lives. Men speak of gender equality in public places, bars, restaurants, and conferences; yet when they go home, many of them subject their wives to all kinds of abuses, including beatings. We believe that the Diaspora organizations can and should take up the question of gender rights as something worth fighting for on behalf of Eritrean women.
Fourth, Fighting for Minority Rights: As noted earlier, Eritrea is a multiethnic and multireligious country in which tensions between different identities are bound to surface from time to time. This is something of paramount importance that the Diaspora organizations can and should monitor, investigate and then expose wrongdoings against any minority group, whether ethnocultural or religious, while unswervingly advocating for the rigorous observance of all minority rights. Without all democratic and human rights organizations displaying a compelling interest in the rights and welfare of Eritrea’s minority groups, the strained boundaries of distinction pertaining to ethnicity, religion, and region can be destructive in the long run.
Fifth, Fighting for Economic Rights: Almost in all cases, violations of political, ethnocultural, social, regional and religious rights have their roots in economic deprivations. After all, all politics is about economics. If people are well-fed, fully employed, properly housed, well educated, and healthy, politics loses much of its relevance. So long as poverty, hunger and malnutrition persist, all other rights lose their resonance. In particular, during the transition period, several questions regarding what to do with the existing PFDJ party/state-owned-or-run economic establishments are bound to rise to the top. Probably, a large number of people may point to privatization as the answer; but privatization to whom? The only people with modest financial resources who can buy these economic establishments are Eritreans abroad or foreigners. This situation has the potential to create resentment among those Eritreans who work those establishments. So, we propose that the Diaspora organization advocate the formation of cooperatives over the already functioning economic organizations, or, partnerships with those who possess working capital.
Sixth, Promoting and Defending the Distinct Existence of the “Fourth State”: Usurpation of power always begins with those who control the state taking over the production and dissemination of information and knowledge. The powers-to-be always view repression of the press, controlling the quantity and quality of information, and molding the general public knowledge of their purposes, plans and proceedings as the necessary preconditions for consolidating their position of power, hence formation of full-grown dictatorship. Power-hungry individuals know very well that transformation and consolidation of the character of power requires the removal of all obstacles to centralized state authority. So, they establish in rapid succession a political monopoly on the media, reduction of all independent civic associations to political appendages or they crush them forthwith, remold citizens after the image of their particular ideologies, accelerate the complete penetration of society by the state and, finally, institute police terror. Only the free flow of information and publications can stand in the way of this potential. We thus propose that the Diaspora organization advocate taking the government out of the business of producing and disseminating information. While the print press must be fully private, the Eritrean television and radio services ought to be independent chartered public corporations along the line of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The restoration of the right of criticism and the genuine freedom to ventilate all contradictory views are the essential conditions for the development of a democratic country.
To repeat what we said in the introduction, whatever ideas and suggestions we have expressed in this memorandum are tentative, incomplete, and a production of brainstorming. The ideas and suggestions are meant to serve as jump off points into proposing a credible path to where we ought to go from here. What is clear as of now is that the opposition forces, whether political or civic, have failed to rise to the occasion to speak with one voice, inspire the youth, galvanize the Eritrean people, and mobilize the international community against the dictatorship in Asmara. What the Eritrean people are experiencing daily today is a national crisis in self-confidence, doubts about the viability of the opposition forces to offer a different path, one that will deliver them from utter apathy and destruction. The Eritrean people, stunned and shaken to the very fiber of their being, deserve a movement that reassures them that Eritreans outside the country have not forsaken them nor have ignored their horrendous plight because of our internal squabbles over divisive matters. The current paralysis must lead us to the conviction that, just as blind admiration and unquestioning loyalty have gotten us a divided and dysfunctional opposition, rallying on the mere desire to drive the PFDJ out of power, will not guarantee better of an outcome. These difficult times for the Eritrean people are of the magnitude that requires total unity and total devotion to the cause of stamping out the PFDJ tyranny. Therefore, whatever ideological positions we take or whatever political convictions we hold individually or whatever political transactions we make with ourselves, the solemn obligation to alleviating and eliminating the sufferings of the Eritrean people must unite us all without residual rancor. We must reassure the Eritrean people that the struggle for creating a democratic, pluralist and secular Eritrean state is not in a paralysis; any hesitation, any equivocation, any false step, any sign of self-doubt, any lack of faith in the struggle can ultimately be disastrous. The Eritrean people are starving for a movement that will restore their hopes and reassure them that the future is not lost. But this can happen only when such a movement is shepherded by women and men with high reputations for integrity, sincerity, honesty and devotion to the country; women and men who inspire confidence in the belief that an honest assessment of present reality and future possibilities result from constructive discourse and hard work under essential conditions of unity. There is a lot of work to do and no room for a let-down. Let’s renew our own enthusiasm and that of the youth in particular to think about ways to get to the final destiny of our struggle. Let’s stick to the plain-spoken description of democracy and let’s keep the focus on its greatest challenges so that we can move forward with the urgent task of taking power from the hands of the dictator in Asmara and putting it into the hands of the Eritrean people.
Prepared by Dr. Okbazghi Yohannes for EFND
Note, we are indebted to the following friends who sent their inputs in writing:
Dr. Araya Debessay, Dr. Yebio Woldemariam, Dr. Tseggai Isaac, Habtom Yohannes, Amanuel Hidrat, Beyan Negash, Dr. Awet T. Weldemichael, and Tewelde Stephanos.