After one of the group sessions, a Tigre speaking colleague who attended the conference remarked, “I do not like the Tigrinya word ግና ‘gnna’ (but). Some Tigrinya speakers express excellent views and suddenly everything they had stated is spoiled after they utter the word ‘gnna.” We had an outspoken Tigrinya speaker in our group who would use double and triple ‘gnna’ whenever he spoke that it was difficult to tell what he meant in the first place.
In Part 1 of this article I wrote positively about the Eritrean-Ethiopian relationship, nevertheless a few non-spoiling ‘gnna’s’ are worth stating in this part. There seems to be a special relationship between the nationality-based groups (linguistic group, as the ELF used to define them) and the Ethiopian Government. Organizations such as the Afar, Kunama and the recently formed Saho organization, have their constituencies living along the border with Ethiopia. Perhaps this makes them of utmost importance to the Ethiopian government in terms of intelligence, counter-intelligence and in confronting the regime in Eritrea. These organizations are also share the same EPRDF political philosophy of how to run a multi-ethnic society. Perhaps this may explain the close relationship. Some Eritrean political organizations express their misgivings about Ethiopia that it gives preferential treatment favoring the nationality-based organizations. The Ethiopian political leadership for its part officially states that it does not interfere in the internal politics of the Eritrean opposition. Whatever the case may be, it is important that Ethiopia maintains and adheres to its tated policy at all levels and it is important that all Eritrean opposition groups maintain their independence irrespective of the relationship they have with Ethiopia or with other neighboring countries.
The Ethiopians deserve all credit for hosting the conference an creating conducive environment for it to convene in a free and democratic atmosphere; ‘gnna’ there were a number of logistical issues worth mentioning. To the best of my understanding, the preparatory committee did not seem to have a free hand in terms of logistics: buying and changing tickets, having enough vehicles at its direct disposal to take participants out and into the conference premises, whenever needed, which resulted in many persons leaving in haste after they were told that their tickets could not be changed at the last minute. The participants from Sudan could have also taken a more relaxed trip. You cannot depend on external help and then demand you have full control on that aid.
Another glitch about Addis in 2010 was that the Internet connection was very slow even at the PhD students’ campus where we stayed, and the few places that I tried in town. The telephone charges were also expensive—both are monopolized by the state telecommunications authority which might explain the high charges. The Internet may not be a priority there, but some in the Ethiopian opposition claim that the government is obsessed with security and thus is keen in controlling communications. Whatever the reasons, Addis in 2010 seemed to be lagging behind in the information-based global world.
Was the preparation all perfect? No it was not. We were at times lost in translation between the Arabic and Tigrinya versions. However, none of those things undermine the accomplishment. But the preparatory committee took all the blame for cases that were outside its direct control. These are issues that the Commission needs to learn from in preparing for the upcoming national conference. It will be of importance to raise enough funds to depend mainly on its own resources.
Going back to the conference itself, I was among those who arrived first due to early booked tickets. I met one of the leaders of an Eritrean political organization whom I had not met for years. He took me aside and after exchanging greetings, he jumped to his first question. He asked, “Mohamed why did you come here, what do you want from the conference?”
I was taken by surprise. I thought to myself, this man thinks that the regime is about to fall and I am here as an “educated” opportunist to jump into the leadership wagon at the zero hour! I told him that I was there to support him and explained that the injustices in Eritrea has reached unprecedented proportions and that we all needed to contribute positively towards establishing a democratic Eritrea: I also explained that I did not feel I had contributed enough to deserve to be in the leadership. This was just a reflection of the sort of suspicions and misunderstandings that prevailed before the convening of the conference.
To begin with, there was a certain level of mistrust among the different political organizations and among the civic organizations that came from different parts of the world. There were suspicions between the political organizations within EDA and those outside it and between the political organizations and the civic organizations. There was a concerted and strong campaign by the PFDJ through its unmasked portal Meskerem, and the boycotters, to influence people not to participate either by declaring it a sole Eritrean Muslim conference or an ill-prepared one that doomed to fail; or driven by an Ethiopian agenda aiming to undermine Eritrea, or a combination of all the above. I say this with all due respect to the views of those in the opposition camp who boycotted the gathering. As for Alem Goitom (Wedi General), the webmaster of Meskerem, I had the honor of dining with him and his family in liberated Mendefera in 1978 when he was a tegadalai. Alas, he has, in the last few years, become a mouthpiece of the PFDJ.
The participation in the gathering was a microcosm of Eritrea in terms ethnicity, religion, age, gender, geographical spread and political diversity. Though of course, the EPDP was not there. As far as I can tell, the only ethnic groups that were not represented were the Hidareb (there could have been some that I did not know of) and the Rashaida. Unlike TV-ERI which airs almost 90% of its content in Tigrinya, and where the other ethnic groups are just entertainers and their role limited folkloric singing and dancing, at the conference everyone was equal and the ethnic groups were dictating their terms. The Kunama, for example, in addition to stating their political views, taught us that there are traditional religions in Eritrea besides Islam and Christianity that we need to respect. I came to learn in the gathering that the regime is endangering the Tigrinya too by putting them at odds with all other nationalities in Eritrea. I also came to realize that the ethnic factor was more important than the religious factor. It was also surprising that there are so many political organizations each with a few members only. But though those who claim to be national organizations do have national programs, almost all of them are composed of one main ethnic or regional group.
Since the EPLF (with the help of the TPLF) drove off the ELF from Eritrea and monopolized the political arena and political power after independence, a number of religious and ethnic-based organizations have mushroomed in the Eritrean opposition political landscape. It was a reaction to the oppressive and exclusive policies pursued by the EPLF and the PFDJ regime. There has been a lot of skepticism and suspicion regarding these developments. The mistrust among Eritreans had widened to the extent that there were questions about the possibility of Eritreans living together in one country again, as if they have not fought together and brought independence. There were issues about hegemony and social engineering practiced by the PFDJ in Eritrea. The umbrella of Eritrean opposition groups, the EDA and its predecessors has helped bridge this gap and has succeeded in holding the conference in 2010 and it deserves a big credit. In spite of its ineffectiveness and crippling differences, the EDA demonstrated that it is unlike the former ELF and EPLF and believes that Eritrea can accommodate different political parties that can work together for a common goal. This is a very important democratic exercise for the future of Eritrea.
The conference in Addis was the first biggest Eritrean gathering in the last two decades. Just to be able to sit down together and discuss all issues of concern and air grievances frankly and without any reservation was a big achievement. You cannot call such a gathering ‘waala halibo’ (futile exercise) at one point and then declare that its decisions are illegal on the assumption that many left before the concluding day. You cannot state that the conference was a solely a Muslim affair and then list the names of the participants that proved you were wrong without an apology to the readers you tried to mislead.
It was amazing to see people understanding and accepting each others’ grievances and build trust in such a short time—that was another great achievement. Lying down democratic mechanisms in place for the transitional phase after the fall of the PFDJ regime was another important contribution. The education policy and solutions for the unjust national service program in the transition period were also discussed. Bringing together political organizations within and outside EDA and civic organization to form a body that can work together to get us to a national conference is yet another accomplishment.
The papers presented by the preparatory committee touched very wide and crucial issues. With regard to the nationalities, the issue of the Jeberti and even that of the Eliet as a minority in the Gash-Barka region were raised. The Kunama participants clarified that the Eliet were part and parcel of the Kunama.
Even the few who attended the conference and were critical afterwards, like my former colleague at refugee school in Kassala, Sudan, Amare Gebremariam, whom I had the pleasure of meeting after so many years, were more critical of the procedures rather than the essence. One cannot but respect their views. It would be unfeasible to expect that all who attended would agree on all details. Amare and some others had strong objection to the lecture of Prof. Joseph Eliot Magnet on federalism at the gathering. I do not know how and in what capacity he delivered his lecture, but to be honest, I enjoyed listening to him. It was mainly a scientific presentation on how federalism is practiced throughout the world and what its advantages are in a multi-cultural society. There was nothing to lose by listening to it. Procedurally speaking, he should not have attended unless he was an invited guest, but his lecture was a blessing in disguise to me. He seemed to me like a researcher or a consultant either looking for new challenges or more funds to pursue his research interests. He seemed to undermine the participants as he came with a ready ‘Addis Declaration’ that he distributed. Nobody heeded any of that and the man had no influence whatsoever. If the gathering were not conducted in a free atmosphere and if there were hidden or forced agendas, we could have signed the declaration and proclaimed the gathering closed. In the future, I think it is important that we make use of such prominent expertise in various fields to assist us in preparing essential documents. Of course we need to set the agenda for them.
Another issue of contention was the issue of self determination. The discussions of each of the five groups were summarized by their chairs and they were further summarized by the drafting committee. As it appears now, some of these groups could have passed some resolution, others may have not. Whatever the case, the decision that national unity is based on voluntary will implies the same thing: the right to self-determination. Furthermore, if there are some who are against it, a congress will be convened and the issue can be revisited. These were no kuranic or biblical decrees.
The gathering was an opportunity to meet new and old colleagues and to build networks. One of those old colleagues that I met was the veteran munadil (tegadalai) Mohamed Ahmed (Duhein) who spent most of his life fighting for the liberation of Eritrea. He told Radio Assenna that he joined the ELF in the early sixties when he was about 13 years old and still maintains his sense of humor and his sharp memory. He recalled a political course we attended together in September 1979 where the cadre who taught the class said that Adam Smith (he pronounces the name just like he was an academician) said, ‘people who ate meat have larger brains than those who ate plants.’ To which one of the participants quickly remarked: “If it were true then hyenas would be ruling the world.”
There was time for fun, too.
The conference was a journey, a movement, a momentum of discovery, healing, building mutual trust and understanding. It was a journey that we need; we need to make as many people as possible come on board towards a democratic Eritrea. A few will definitely not come on board and others will disembark, but the journey has to reach its destination, undeterred. It was an important step in the right direction though the challenges lie ahead and we have meet those challenges head on.
If there are some in the opposition who still dream of engaging the regime so that they can share power with it, we can only say tza’da yitznahkum, wish you luck. As to the international community, it needs to engage the Eritrean opposition, not the regime as the International Crisis Group (ICG) recommends. We to be clear whether we want to bring an end to the brutal Eritrean regime and build a democratic country, or we want to prolong the suffering of our people by creating obstacles for the opposition.