This website has been observing and reporting on the state of Eritrean opposition for the last ten years. In our view, the event with the most impact on the development in Eritrean opposition over the last ten years happened this year in Addis Abeba: the convening of the National Congress for Democratic Change (NCDC). 2010 is the turning point in Eritrean politics. We celebrate the NCDC not just for its accomplishment, but for its instant recognition of one major Eritrean weakness and its readiness to address it immediately. As great as the convening of the congress was, the planning of a bigger, more inclusive congress in 2011, is even greater.
Eritreans are proud, and rightfully so, that their nation, which is among the most diverse for its size, has had, for the most part of its history, peaceful co-existence among its various tribes, ethnic and religious groups. Sometimes, the peace was disturbed by intruders and warlords, most notably in the 19th century. Apart from that, Eritreans lived in relatively harmonious time. This was no accident: it is the result of the wisdom and tradition of our ancesters.
But the same claim cannot be made about our political or ideological differences. Since the 1940s, Eritreans have been attacking one another on the basis of political and ideological differences. These were not all instigated by foreigners, most of them were masterminded and executed by Eritreans. Beginning with the assassination of Adulkader Kebire and followed by the repeated assassination attempts on Woldeab Woldemariam in the 1940s, Eritrea has had no breaks in politically-motivated acts of violence. The ELF vs the ELM; the ELF dealing with splinter groups, including that of Isaias Afwerki. The ELF vs PLF under the leadership of the late Osman Saleh Sabbe. The Falul strife; the EPLF liquidation of Menkae and Yemeen; the EPLF-ELF strife; the ELF liquidation of what it called Yemeen. The EPLF search and destroy mission of post-civil-war ELF leadership; the PFDJ-G15 assault. All of these were due to a failure to manage political/ideological differences. We have had 70 years of a winner-takes-all, dominant/subjugated political culture in Eritrea.
Ironically, while almost every responsible person exerts great effort to make sure that we manage our religious, ethnic, tribal diversity (the one area that Eritrea has the least cause for worry), there is almost no attempt made to study and analyze the words, attitudes and deeds that contributed to Eritrea’s greatest causes of bloodshed–i.e., political and ideological differences.
We believe that words and attitudes are important to safeguard Eritrea’s religious, ethnic diversity or damage it. We take to heart much of the criticism directed our way from people of goodwill who say that, as publishers, our commitment to freedom of expression should always be tempered by the priority of keeping inflammatory words in check. And if, in our almost absolutist commitment to free speech, we conveyed the message that ‘anything goes’, we regret the impression.
But we also believe, however, that a far more damaging failure is the attitude and words of those who are dismissive and contemptuous of people whose ideologies they find unacceptable. Eritrean history has shown that there are many wise, religious elders who will nip any conflict in the bud—but far, far, far too few political elders who will, and can, nip political conflicts in the bud. Regretfully, many of the “political elders” are themselves practitioners of Political Diversity Malpractice: they are dismissive; they marginalize; they demean; they hold bitter grudges and rigid views…and their attitudes are those of hoodlums and not of statesmen.
Managing Ideological/Political Diversity
We believe that Eritrea is sovereign and whole and that it should remain one forever: i. e, no matter how badly things deteriorate, no people or segment of Eritreans should threaten their compatriots with secession or attack. We believe that Eritrea should be a secular state, one where the nation neither promotes nor suppresses religious institutions. We believe in democracy and political pluralism: that people should achieve power only after the ideas they espouse have been freely contested. We believe in the right of people to assemble in any manner they see fit, and to express their views without censorship. We believe in individual rights and civil liberties, that Eritrean citizenship—not any other criteria—should be the basis for all rights and responsibilities.
These are values that we adhere to and promote.
But there are also Eritreans, including Eritrean veterans of our revolutionary war of independence–people who bled and were exiled and lost everything for Eritrea—who hold a different view and have different priorities. They believe that Eritrean sovereignty and wholeness should be voluntary and people should have the right to opt out if Eritrea’s sovereignty is violating their dignity. They are suspicious of the word ‘secular’ which they equate with Godlessness, or an assault on their faith in God, or adopting a European value that has nothing to do with Eritrea. They believe that individual rights are the Trojan horses used to undermine the authority of tradition and religion. Thus, they believe that social, ethnic and religious rights should not be subservient to individual rights.
These are their values and, as citizens, they should have a right to adhere to them and to promote them.
The question that has bedeviled Eritrea for long is its inability to reach a negotiated solution without resorting to intimidation or gun power. Eritrea’s political history has always been to stick to a principle and absolutely refuse to yield an inch and to denounce the other as a political apostate who must be shunned. This began to change with the formation of Eritrean Democratic Alliance (it carried a different name when it was initially formed) in 1999. The idea for the ‘umbrella’ concept was simple: Eritreans, like any people on earth, will have different ideas on how to institute lasting peace, justice, and equitable development in their country; why not discuss, negotiate and formulate this in a roundtable!
The Negotiated Solution
On the subject of arriving at a negotiated solution—if not much else—the Eritrean Democratic Alliance proved that where there is goodwill, there is a way. Not long ago, there were two contentious and thorny issues that were considered practically unsolvable. Referred to as Article 2 and Article 3 per their placement in the EDA charter, they dealt with the matter of autonomy and religious freedom. When the EDA was dominated by groups and individuals who had an expansive view of the two issues, then, naturally, the charter reflected the membership and it stated that Eritreans should have:
(a) the right of self determination, including the right to secede,
(b) the right of religious freedom, including the right of Muslims to practice Sharia’a (Islamic law) in Muslim-populated regions.
Subsequent to the inclusion of these articles, there was resistance from “secular organizations” who had joined the EDA later and/or grew disenchanted with the articles. These issues became the subject of great discussion in the free Eritrean media and within the political organizations. This was then followed by a long debate within EDA itself and the articles were modified to include two words: “under Eritrean sovereignty” and “under Eritrean constitution.”
What that experience showed is that, if there is goodwill and a healthy respect for the opinions of others, there is no problem that Eritreans cannot solve if they sit down and discuss their options. Nothing. But we must have faith that people, no matter how polarized their opinion, can reach an amicable middle ground—if they feel that their compatriot is really listening to them and their concerns, with respect.
But the EDA was an umbrella group of Eritrean political groups. Whatever they discussed and agreed on was not necessarily endorsed, or even understood, by Eritreans at large. This is why, for the past 10 years, Eritrean political activists have been calling for the convening of a national congress. The idea was to enlarge the roundtable to include not just politicians, but political activists, journalists, refugees, and members of the civil society. And the congress remained an abstraction, a concept, until 2010.
At long last, this dream was realized—when the National Congress for Democratic Change (NCDC) convened in Addis Abeba last summer. It was the culmination of years-long effort by people who believe that there is no problem too big for Eritreans, if only they can sit down and discuss among themselves. It is the ultimate practice of democracy, to have faith in the collective judgment of people.
Was this faith vindicated?
We believe so: almost every report from Eritreans who attended the congress has been positive. But it can be improved, and the way to do that is to make it even more diverse, to tirelessly work to winning over wider number of Eritreans, so that representatives can participate with a mandate from larger number of people and make Congress 2011 a perfect microcosm of Eritreans. Congress 2011 will be considered a perfect success when it includes every Eritrean viewpoint. Then, collectively, we can decide what to do about people who believe that Eritrea does not need congresses, that all it needs is Isaias Afwerki, or his replica.