Pre-Requisites for Political Change in Eritrea
In light of a growing interest expressed by many Eritreans in the Diaspora, using social media such as face book, partisan and civil society gatherings and protests to emphasise the urgent need for political change to democracy, I am pleased to contribute to the discussion the following article.
In a related issue, I was recently exposed to a face book discussion in relation to my last article – Eritrea: The Wasted Decades - which generated over 400 comments among participants of the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC). I was impressed by the EYSC energetic interaction on the topics I raised in my last article.
The above article was a critique and an attempt to present a summarised counter-argument to the Eritrean “government controlled” official media’s portrayal of a rosy picture of the country’s situation as part of their preparations for the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Eritrean independence on 24 May 2011.
At present there is a wider public consensus on the need for “political change” in Eritrea, but formulation of the “how” i.e. how the process for change takes place is still confused and ill-defined.
Factors necessitating political change
The need for change is exacerbated by many factors including the following:-
1. Lack of “legitimacy”. The current ruling party in Eritrea came to power first as a “provisional government” 1991 – 1993, and continued to rule the country as a “transitional government” soon after the popular referendum for independence held in April 1993. This “transitional legitimacy period” came to an end once a supposedly “national” constitution was ratified by the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament in 1997. According to this constitution, the country should have been ruled by an elected president from 1997 onwards and for a maximum period of 10 years. This very constitution has limited the office term for an “elected president” to two 5-year terms. This means, even if president Issayas Afeworki was elected president in 1997 or soon after, the maximum time allowed for his presidency would have expired as early as 2008. It is clear that there is no legal basis left to legitimise the PFDJ rule except the rule by force that heavily relies on security squads, intimidation and manipulation. The latter includes attempts to subject the country to constant fear of the unknown and conflict situation with regional and international powers.
2. The level of human rights abuses by the PFDJ regime has long reached every quarter of Eritrea and every section of the Eritrean society, including religious institutions that were once allowed to practice their religious activities under lesser scrutiny . Large scale injustices are committed not only against perceived and real political opponents, but also against citizens imprisoned for non-political reasons, and yet never brought to justice to be proven “guilty” or “innocent” of their alleged crime.
It is now common knowledge that Eritrea is perhaps among the top ranking police states in the world in terms of refugee exodus, suppression of media freedom (no independent or private media exists inside the country) and total absence of rule of law, and lack of tolerance for political pluralism. Recognition of social and cultural diversity is strictly limited to folklore music and dance orchestrated by the regime for public relations and income generation purposes.
3. The PFDJ regime can no longer secure blank endorsement from their own loyalist followers. Their attempts to excerpt financial donations and forced taxes are increasingly failing. PFDJ loyalists in the Diaspora are increasingly demanding proper audit reports for all the financial support and bond-purchases they have made in the past two decades, and a clear time-table for transition towards democracy, before they can make any additional financial contributions. By the way, this is a positive development trend that aught to be encouraged by all independent pro-Democracy groups in the Diaspora. This development may also explain the PFDJ drive to recruit and organise unsuspecting young children in the Diaspora under ”youth organisations” like the YPFDJ. Some of the writings of these new recruits indicate that they are being indoctrinated with fascist ideology of hate camouflaged with alleged love for “Baba President” and the “fatherland”.
4. The PFDJ regime is increasingly isolated both at the regional and international spheres. The regime’s voice in regional institutions like IGADD and the AU is either absent or insignificant. Internationally, PFDJ-Eritrea is considered a pariah state as international public opinion continues to gather momentum against PFDJ’s favour. Added to this is the UNSC Resolution 1907 (23 Dec. 2009), which imposes “smart sanctions” on the PFDJ regime. The regime’s response to this latter issue does not indicate any change of heart. Instead of pursuing political reform and regional policy improvements, the PFDJ leadership are busy compiling petitions by coercion as well as by enlisting non-Eritrean opposition supporters from the Horn of Africa countries demanding the nullification of the UNSC Resolution 1907.
5. The regime has failed to build functioning state institutions and rule of law. The country is ruled under mafia style security and illicit business conglomeration spearheaded by the regime. This has already paralysed the country’s private sector and the economy at large.
Change-seeking in context
If we take the above as a token example of why “change” has become overly necessary, then the next issue to address is “how” do we achieve “change”. The following are worthy highlighting:-
1 As indicated above, the concept of “change” in Eritrea is still under development. I don’t think there is yet a unanimous view on the “topic”. For some “change” may mean the change of individuals in power, others may see it as dismantling and removing the entire PFDJ ruling party from power, and for many more others the entire system of governance should be revised and redefined under a legitimate national democratic constitution. I am personally in favour of the latter choice, because it is comprehensive enough and can re-launch our new nation state on an inclusive democratic track. I believe at this point in our Eritrean history, the most important issue to be addressed is not who rules Eritrea, but rather how it is ruled. I do not think it is helpful to spend time discussing whether party A is better than party B. Whether the leader of X group is better than that of Y. Such discourse would lead to the type of premature power-struggle that we have been witnessing in Eritrean politics since the liberation struggle era all the way throughout the last 20 years of post liberation era. Addressing the issue of “how the country is ruled”, however, leads to choosing a better and viable alternative to the present single party totalitarian dictatorship in Asmara. The alternative has to be conducive to Eritrea’s circumstances, fair, inclusive and representative enough of Eritrea’s social and cultural diversity that can rally all Eritreans in its favour.
I should also state here that while the aftermath of dictatorship will most likely be fair, inclusive and representative enough governance (especially if foreign interference and power-greed is minimised and controlled), it is much better to spell out and raise awareness of the available "alternatives”, while still advocating for the human and democratic rights of the Eritrean people.
2 Civil discourse on the issue of “change” should encourage the public to examine other relevant issues, commonly referred to as “sub-national” issues. No one has the right to define what grievances should be expressed by which group. An ethnic group is perfectly entitled to express grievances related to their ethnicity, and so on and so forth. For those with genuine interest in “change”, the challenge should be to understand the diverse grievances expressed by the different cleavages of the Eritrean heterogeneous society and to then come up with a more plausible solutions and resolutions that can be part and parcel of the very idea of “change”. Otherwise, changing individuals or parties may mean “change” for some, but not necessarily for all.
3 Doubts and confusion exist between various groups as a result of demands for rights of a given group and using such initiatives to attain power at the national level. Although, as indicated above, it is legitimate to seek individual group’s rights, be it ethnic, religious or regional, it becomes a “threat” if those demanding to address their individual and exclusive grievances become “political parties” that opt to seek power at the local and or national level. They become a “threat” to those who do not belong to the same group as well as to the entire nation-state’s peaceful co-existence and unity. This leads to misunderstanding and even resistance to exclusive ethnic, regional or religious rights, as long as it is pursued by a “political party” mobilised under and composed of a particular social cleavage. Hence, it becomes necessary to separate individual groups’ rights from partisan politics in order to effectively promote common understanding of the grievances and their resolution. After all, grievance, even if presented as individual group cases, addressing them is a national responsibility that aught to be part of any attempt to address Eritrea’s ills at the national level. Eritrean political parties that aspire to govern Eritrea with national political programmes should demonstrate and evidence how they intend to address ethnic, regional, religious and minority issues and grievances.
In the meantime and to minimise the overall threat the confusion of sub-national rights with political power attainment ambitions poses to communal cohesion and peaceful co-existence, it is best that individual group grievances are left to be better articulated by civil society movements including traditional religious, tribal and village (3addi/3ad) institutions. It is evident that our deep-rooted traditional institutions inside Eritrea have been instrumental in preserving our social capital. Similarly, the Diaspora civil society, in particular those that have been advocating for “refugees” and “minority religion” groups’ rights, have been successful in making their target community’s issues present at international and regional forums. A case in point is the “Pent-Costal Evangelical Christians”. Thanks to their activists’ focus, their persecution has been widely publicised. Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch often refer to their suffering under “Religious Persecution”. More professional groups, such as Eritrea Medical Association, Student Unions etc. are also displaying confidence in defending and promoting their particular group’s rights and interests thereby contributing to the foundation of a future Civic Democratic Eritrea. In this regard, the role played by the Eritrean General Student Union in Sudan is commendable. This Union, which is totally independent of political parties, provides highly needed support to Eritrean students in Sudanese universities and colleges. They also organise group trips and aid convoys to refugee camps and Eritrea to provide help in areas of their professions and expertise, including the construction of homes and provision of general medical advice under the supervision of professionals in the field. Likewise, religious. regional and tribal/ethnic rights can be promoted by dedicated religious, 3ad/3addi and tribal councils (at the traditional level) or a more organised advocacy and campaign/pressure group.
4 About six months ago, those of us who advocated for a peaceful means of struggle for regime change in Eritrea were ridiculed by many, including by those who claim to struggle for “change”. However, thanks to the Arab people’s uprising and the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian peaceful revolutions against the well established ruthless tyrannies the question of peaceful means of struggle based on people’s power has become a more viable option that we can all draw inspirational lessons from.
Within the context of Eritrea, the existence of armed “political” groups is not only a threat to a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy, but also a hindrance to the struggle for democratic change. Although “self-defence” is legitimate, especially against a violent regime such as the PFDJ, the establishment of “armed forces/cadres/wings” (call them what you may) only contributes to the militarisation of Eritrean politics thereby playing to the tune of the PFDJ music. The danger these so-called armed opposition groups pose should not be under-estimated, especially if we take into consideration the lack of credible democratic credentials among them and their visible failures to exercise “democracy” from within their small groups.
Democratise thyself and put priorities in good order
1. It is important that political parties put aside their political programmes and focus their efforts on advocating for human rights and promoting Democratic principles. Once inside Eritrea and under a constitution and appropriate party laws, political parties can be officially licensed to promote their political programmes to attract voters to enable them to govern the country. At present, we are on our way to this stage and hence the priority should be given to the effort to reach it.
2. For our religious political parties: it would be helpful if they clarify their position concerning the demand for religious rights of their constituents, and the aspiration to run for political power. In the latter case, I envision at this time that religious political parties may not be the best avenue to political empowerment as they can result in excluding others who do not belong to their religion as well as set the stage for the dangers of monopolising religious authority for political end, which would inherently lead to totalitarian and ‘theocratic’ dictatorship. The most feasible option for this group is to propagate religious values and virtues in the society, and without bias to a particular political system. They can propagate the virtues of religion without attempting to impose these virtues using force or state powers.
Religious groups can play constructive role in the development of the Eritrean society and politics, if they can opt to setting up research and study centres, schools, and charity organisations to help the needy. Fortunately, there is no “religious extremism” in Eritrea at present, and that means, engaging our religion-based politics parties is not a difficult business. I believe these groups should be engaged and encouraged to focus on welfare and educational activities. Those with political interests can always join any non-religious political party of their choice, or even create one, and pursue a political career without jeopardising the legitimate rights of their constituencies.
3. The same goes to the “ethnic/regional political parties”. As already mentioned above, ethnic rights can be effectively promoted via civil society groups and traditional institutions like tribal & village councils. It is too dangerous to have militarised ethnic political parties. This is so not only at the national level, but also at the local level (sub-national) where they can potentially behave as war-lords of their particular ethnic group. These groups, even if they appear willing to share power at the national level, they can be intolerant and dictatorial at the local level in their bid to become the ONLY representative of their ethnicities or regions.
4. Several Eritrean political groups state that they wish to see Eritrea governed under a “decentralised” and or a “federal” system of governance. I believe this is another pre-mature political choice, albeit its successful historical record for heterogeneous societies. This is because a system of a given country is defined by its “national constitution”, which means, it has to be embraced by the Eritrean people and their democratically elected representatives. A national constitution is something that will be brought before the Eritrean people once a transition from the present dictatorship to democracy is secured. Until then, these groups can only talk of different systems of governance as part of some consultation and academic exercises to raise awareness of the different alternatives available to the Eritrean people, but not as part of a political programme, charter or a hastily processed transitional/permanent constitutions ratified in some distant and un-representative conferences to be imposed on the Eritrean people from top down, if and when these groups find their way to ‘transitional’ power in Asmara.
5. Promoting a culture of tolerance and democracy should be seen as a fundamental pre-requisite for sustainable democratic change. From experience with the different Eritrean opposition groups, one can clearly see that the culture of democracy is absent. The symptoms of immature political culture can be seen when groups fail to resolve internal differences and end up splitting and creating new replicas.
The campaign waged by the EDA leadership and their cyber affiliates against the Brussels Conference 2009 and other independent political and civil society groups can also be mentioned as another manifestation of this immaturity. This undemocratic culture is also displayed in the type of narrow attitudes of the likes “you are either with me or against me”. The authors of the EDA letter also seem to consider of themselves as the sole representative of the Eritrean people, a typical syndrome all dictators suffer from, including the PFDJ as well as these dictators “in waiting”.
The current hoo-ha of the Addis conference is another indicator, where no independent voice is tolerated. The expectation seems for people to jump on to their bandwagon of ill-defined and controversial political events and gatherings or risk being subjected to “character assassination” and defamation campaign.
I think this type of undemocratic and anti-democratic behaviours hinders transition to Democracy and is increasingly leading to more confusion and mutual rejection among our different change-seeking groups and socio-cultural communities. Hence, defeating the vicious circle of political intolerance and confusion in the opposition camp should be seen as an integral part of the process for democratic change in Eritrea.
In conclusion, it is prudent that change for equitable democratic system is manifested in our ways of thinking and dealings with one another prior to achieving it. Further, prioritising issues in a practical and systematic manner is necessary. I suggest we adapt the following order: 1. struggle for human rights and restoration of democracy 2. Once the system of dictatorship is brought to an end transition towards democratic governance can start. During the changeover time national unity transitional governmental institutions can be established inside Eritrea – not in the Diaspora as some power-hungry souls are trying to do in Addis under the auspices of the Ethiopian Ministry of Defence - and drafting of a transitional charter and permanent national constitution, party and election laws can be enacted with full and inclusive participation of all Eritreans INSIDE ERITREA. This would then lead to: 3. Constitutional Democratic System of Governance in a Civic Democratic Eritrea.
Finally I would like to end my article by saluting all the independent civil society groups, political parties and young Eritreans in Cairo and elsewhere in the Diaspora, as well as those inside Eritrea and inside the PFDJ party, who are pursuing peaceful means of struggle and thereby laying the foundation for a Civic Democratic Eritrea.
I wish all Eritreans a blessed month of Ramadan, Ramadan Kareem!
May Peace and Justice Prevail in Eritrea
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