I believe next year’s National Conference for Democratic Change should be held in Asmara. Yes, Asmara as in Asmara, Eritrea. Calm down!…and hold your dismissive gestures please, for as one would expect, there are some fine prints–tiny conditions if you will–to this ridiculous suggestion.
Now, what on earth would be wrong with Eritreans of every stripe convening in their own national capital and discussing, debating, compromising, politicking and charting a better future than the road-to-doomsday we are currently on? Yes, it is utter fantasy to envision a scenario where representatives of every organization that is organized to see a better governed Eritrea, sit around a table and still resist the urge to bite each others heads off. But, can’t we just envision even within the realms of unattainable fantasy that for all intents and purposes there would be nothing wrong with such a meeting taking place inside Eritrea and without coercion or dominance by one group or another? After all, the driving principle behind “democratic change” requires just that. Comprise and reconciliation among equals–which is a far cry from manipulation and intimidation of a weaker partner–must be at the core of the change we would like to see. We compromise with our adversaries not with those who already agree with us; and we reconcile with our enemies, for it would be pointless to do so with our friends.
Hell actually might freeze over before we would be lucky enough to see ALL our civic, political, ethnic and religious leaders who stake a claim or claim a constituency to sit down and listen to each other’s grievances, suspicions and fears, but it does not take away from the fact that the practice of mature leadership, genuine patriotism and honest heart calls exactly for that. All the warring parties keep telling their followers and to the rest of us that everyone except of course their own group is still immature, does not care about the sovereignty or national security or harbors ulterior and hidden agenda. No harm in self aggrandizing propaganda, but in a democracy, it is the people who decide who indeed possesses a better wisdom and vision to bring about peace and prosperity. Since none of the political or civic leaders have a legally and morally sanctioned authority to lead, it would not be condescending to ask them to practice humility and to stop pretending otherwise.
The same humility also requires that each group must assume that the grievances of other members are as genuine and bona fide as their own and under no circumstances should any sector be allowed to question the patriotism of their fellow citizens. By the same token, the only legitimate way of defeating bad ideas is via legal framework that is erected under a ratified constitution. Until the day Eritrea can once again enter that zone, we have absolutely no choice but to assume that all actors, in spite of themselves and their track record have the right to be heard. The ethnic based organizations who seek more autonomy for their group under a decentralized federal system must be listened to and perhaps be convinced that their rights will be more respected under a democratic Eritrea. The religion based groups who have a list of grievances need to be given a chance to convince the rest of us how their ideas can be incorporated in a multi ethnic and multi religious Eritrea. We also must openly hear those who believe national sovereignty and territorial integrity should be given a priority and democratic rights can be exercised within that framework. Lastly but definitely not least, equal time should be rendered to the PFDJ and its philosophy that giving dictatorial power to one man and one party is actually a better alternative than the rest of all the proposed ideas.
Neither one group nor one person has the ultimate wisdom to know and decide all these. Obviously, depending on our particular biases some ideas are better than others; and some of the groups have a better chance of reaching across the aisles and creating a movement that is most likely to appeal to the mosaic of ethnicity, religion, ideology and regions that is Eritrea.
The fear mongers among us keep telling us that the very gathering of these groups under one roof endangers the future of Eritrea, while we know deep in our hearts that the opposite is actually true. The grave danger comes when we exclude and demonize not when we include and harmonize.
Barring those who rather die married to their dogmatic principles than actually achieve a sizable portion of their stated goals, we shouldn’t have anyone objecting to sitting down and calmly and peacefully debating and deliberating how 80% of the Eritrean population (those born after 1970) can live in harmony and in the 21st century. But sadly, our politics is still dominated by middle aged men of the Ghedli era whose lexicon does not include the words compromise, reconciliation, apology, redemption or forgiveness and who are helplessly stuck in the past. Hence, in this bizarre world, suggesting that a conference be held in Asmara to honestly and truly march toward peaceful and democratic era is reduced to wishy-washy fantasy of the meek, while flexing every muscle and shouting slogans of bravado and pseudo nationalism is viewed as a sign of strength. Be that as it may, it is actually the coward who refuses to exhibit flexibility and seek middle ground; while the traits of the confident and strong are to the contrary.
In the past few years, the opposition camp has shown some signs of compromise; a coalition, a merger, a tactical alliance here and there. It would not be fair to say they were not all borne out of genuine desire, but one thing is for sure; sheer necessity not to be left out and the need to create a formidable contender to the PFDJ pushed most of them to loveless marriages of convenience –which is still respectable. Nevertheless, not all marriages work out and the EPDP and EDA divorce seems inevitable; that is, if they heed to the wise and brutally honest advices being rendered. Amicable divorce. Most likely than not, that phrase does not exist either in our “Never Keel Down” machismo politics. The preferred method is always total annihilation of the opponent or short of that, murder and suicide. But who knows, they may soon stop bickering at each other like housewives of a dying baron and we may be pleasantly surprised. After all, they are both still very weak and they need each other.
But today’s topic is about the elephant in the room, the PFDJ, the king of inflexibility and the emperor of stubbornness. Would it even entertain the idea that it too belongs within the tent of the National Conference for Democratic Change? We know it would salivate at the thought of getting a chance in which it can dictate the terms and conditions of “the so called tent for the so called democratic change” to be torn and burned. The PFDJ sees itself not as a mere political party, but as the standard barrier of nationhood; the Alpha and Omega what was, what is and what will be. It perceives itself as the party, the front, the government and even the country. So how does one invite a political party to a tent and a round table, if it sees itself as the tent and the round table? Naturally, one has to resort to recommending the deluded entity to a swift psychiatric treatment, a dosage of Mai Chelot, a confessional therapy or something. However, in the slim chance that such a course of treatment leading to a healing, who is to say that the cured person does not deserve to be welcomed as a normal being once again?
Of course, I do agree that to expect the PFDJ to write itself such a mortal prescription is indeed very naïve and foolhardy. But, there has to be some conditional circumstance where even the PFDJ can be accommodated around the same table and somehow play a constructive role, isn’t there? After all, the outlandish idea of hosting the conference in Asmara still stands in this scenario.
Here comes the fine print: The PFDJ must first dissolve itself.
End of the Road
A few weeks ago, the state-owned EriTV run a program which I thought was uncharacteristically honest, articulate, redemptive and–at least from my vantage point–effective as well. Trust me, it had nothing to do with how the PFDJ government runs the affairs of the state or the people, it was about an HIV infected young man and his confessions.
This young man was giving a speech to the youth about the predicaments of his life and the irresponsible path he took that got him where he is –HIV positive, sustaining his life with expensive medication and facing a bleak future. This is to be expected; but what was noteworthy was how passionate he was about his message, how he bravely took full blame and never made excuses, how courageously he addressed a disease that has so much taboo and his public speaking skill was surprisingly lucid. Nevertheless, the prognosis of the deadly disease and what awaits him is probably not going to change, yet he seems to be prepared for a graceful and even meaningful exit. If his confession about dropping out of school, years of drinking and reckless promiscuity was meant to be a lesson for others, may be that is the very purpose of his life.
One couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this young man’s life story and the entity that shamelessly calls itself People Front for Democracy and Justice. Since its founding in 1994, year after year, it has veered away from what it publicly declared it was going to work towards. Instead, drunk from unchecked and unbalanced power, it dragged the Eritrean people from one disaster to another, wasting away every opportunity and scaring away every talent. Now, just like a patient inflicted with a terminal disease, it is trying to sustain itself at any cost. The brave young man was brought before the cameras and the impressionable youth to teach them a lesson. However, it is indeed the PFDJ that should be the primary beneficiary of his worthy advice. It’s time to admit mistakes and face the consequence of living a wildly reckless life. A graceful, peaceful and dignified exit is still possible, but just like that of a dying patient’s, the sands of time are slowly but surely running out.
A Failed Experiment
The PFDJ, even though we interchangeably refer to is as EPLF or Shaebia, it is hardly a transformation of the latter. Over the years, it has gutted out all the elements that made the EPLF successful in achieving its stated goal. From a semblance of a collective leadership to the popular participation of a public that sensed the revolution was on the right track, they were all systematically weeded out. Instead, while the skeleton of the EPLF still remains and its repressive character duly retained, what we have in the PFDJ is not Shaebia, but a hijacked version of its former self.
The truth is, when we judge the PFDJ purely on its own account without mudding the waters that separate it from the EPLF; we will find a colossal letdown of a party that has failed to achieve any of its stated objectives. 16 years is a life time for any organization and especially a political one. By any standard of measurement, the PFDJ has failed and at this time, the dominant debate among Eritreans who can freely express their thoughts is not whether the PFDJ should be removed, the only remaining deliberations are the how and the when.
The apologists of the regime keep telling us Eritrea has actually accomplished a lot under the PFDJ. But what their skewed and dishonest analysis fails to point out is what the country would have been WITHOUT the PFDJ/Isaias Afeworki. No one really knows where we would be now; we may even would have been economically worse off as hard to contemplate as that is. But I bet you over 19,000 young men and women would not have perished in a meaningless and avoidable war, the lives of hundreds of thousands would not have been wasted in mindless militarization and Eritrea would not be known as the gulag of Africa.
If this is not enough to call for the dissolution of the PFDJ and “kick the bums out” as it is done in the civilized world, we don’t know what is.
Immature Political Movement
Hgdef has perfected one magic trick that it successfully deployed over the years to immunize itself from blame and consequences. Every time it paints itself into a corner, it cries foul and runs hiding behind nationalism and patriotism as shamelessly as a four year old child would hide behind his mother’s dress.
Short of slogans, songs and poetry, the PFDJ has no political platform to stand on. A decade and half after its founding, it seems to be against everything that is written in its own charter. It holds no elections, debates and campaigns even among its loyalists. It has yet to develop the art of reaching consensus and accountability to its members, let alone the nation. At the rate is it is going, it will be indeed decades before it reaches the maturity required to be able stand on its own principles, debate issues with opponents and respect the people’s voice –which is yet another reason to dissolve the PFDJ and come up with something its purported members and leaders can stand on. No more hiding behind sovereignty, maps and flags.
A Terrible Brand
Almost everything that can be said about the evil nature of the PFDJ and its leadership at the helm has already been said. By now, the vast majority of Eritreans within the country and also in the Diaspora communities are keenly aware of this system that is utterly alien to the Eritrean culture. Even those who still profess to support the regime in public; the best defense they can offer is that “at least, it is the devil we know”. So much for genuine support, but the key word here is: devil.
The very name of an organization is supposed to resonate its values and principles. Today, the PFDJ has no political capital left short of threatening people and desperately trying to bring back what it had under the EPLF. Now, “Hgdef” is synonymous with cruely, lawlessness, stubbornness, hard-headedness, foolishness and impotency.
No right-minded person can build anything worthy out of something that the public fears but nevertheless has no respect for. If there is any hope for PFDJ supporters to play a constructive role in the future of Eritrea, it is by dissolving the PFDJ (a.k.a., the Derg incarnate) and rallying around a position they believe in, preferably under a new name. “Eritrean Communist Party” would be an appropriate one. Some people may raise eyebrows, but trust me, it is better that their cynical laughter about “Democracy” and “Justice”.
The Political Party that Never Was
If we are honest with ourselves, it is abundantly clear that he PFDJ was never meant to be part of any plural democracy in any shape or form. It was simply designed to be a vehicle by which Isaias Afeworki can stifle any opposition to his dictatorial tendencies. It was meant to give him an appearance of a modern political system but deep inside, it was just a convenient facade to freely move about the party, the government and the nation. In that regard, we can hardly say the PFDJ became a failure. Isaias placed the right kind of characters within the PFDJ who galvanize his supporters at will (flag waving drum beat), control economic activities (chase away the merchant class) and severe its EPLF roots (liquidate veterans and replace them with weaklings).
There wasn’t supposed to be a constitution, freedom of the press, competing political ideas or peace and stability. With each one of these in place, Isaias Afwerki knew pretty well his ideas and abilities would dissipate like a vampire in daylight.
In reality, what we have witnessed since Eritrea’s independence is the gradual exposure of a tyrant as he executes his vision. Nothing was going to go in his way. He liquidated potential opponents, intentionally derailed the implementation of constitutional governance and created an aura of fear and instability that justifies wanton militarization. He has been exposed; but we can barely say he failed from achieving his dream.
For the PFDJ, the end of the road is slowly approaching. The days where it could dictate who is a “real” Eritrean and who are “traitors” are gone. Eritrean are flocking to Ethiopia to seek refuge, claim lost property and even start business ventures and get an education. If that is not the ultimate writing on the wall, then God knows what is. For now, the PFDJ one enviable card, it is still in power and it use it to bring a smooth transition if it so chooses.
The Eritrean people deserve to choose who governs them and how. The opposition camp may still be weak and slow but the winds of change and history are on its side. The movement for change is gathering momentum and if the status quo is maintained, sooner or later the PFDJ will be toppled.
At this juncture, the best the PFDJ can do for Eritrea is make a “U” turn, dissolve itself and bring the National Conference for Democratic Change to Asmara, where it belongs. Otherwise, patriotic Eritreans have the right and the responsibility to hold such conferences wherever they deemed appropriate. Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Gonder or Mekele. The locations will not be issues; the main question will be what their demands are and why they were forced out of their own country.