Many readers have suggested that I say what I think I should say the way they want me to say it – flat with no sensations, no room for maneuvers and in black & white. Let us try if I come close to their expectations.
A few points to make sure that we actually engage in meaningful exchange:
(1) The assumption here is that you do not know how to bring political change in Eritrea. Of course, I do not know either and that is why I need your input.
(2) If you know how to “uproot the President and his PFDJ”, do not wait for a stamp of approval. We trust you, please go ahead, and show us some action.
(3) What I am promoting here is only one brand of the Third Way. There are a million other brands possible. Just employ your genius and come up with an alternative that satisfies two conditions and you are in the middle of the lane:
a. Any process of change that considers the possibility of a Civil War as an admissible means of political change is undesirable.
b. Any change that does not place the current Eritrean government as the object of change is unacceptable simply because all other alternatives on the plane must necessarily pass through a Civil War or its variants.
Good to Go?
The topic refers to all the regime-change advocates. I will not waste your time discussing what you already know. You are smart enough and it would be an insult to your intelligence for someone to explain to you that Regime-Change Agenda is nothing but a call for a Civil War. What the advocates of this approach are trying to shove into our heads is one core argument. According to them, the journey from our current state of “dictatorship” to democratic government must pass through a devastating civil war, as necessary evil. Here the PFDJ would be wiped out to give way for the alternative that if the opposition succeeds would be parachuted from Ethiopia and if it fails would come through a coup d’état, an armed rebellion and a bunch of assassinations. The Regime Change Agenda does guarantee to take us to the Civil War but it does not guarantee to take us out of it. The alternative of the Third Way holds that, whatever its justification, Civil War is straight evil and it cannot be necessary. Having seen what we have seen out of the civil wars of the armed struggle, it would be insane and irresponsible to wish for one more.
In A Nutshell
The Third Way starts from the admission that the current state of Eritrea is unsustainable and that change in the orientation of governance is imperative. The First Way (the PFDJ Way) is unsustainable because it follows an identical approach to governance as the Second Way (the Regime-Change way). They are both two faces of the same coin. Both of them rely on bankrupt politicians who have nothing to offer other than leading the nation to disasters. The Regime-Change Opposition counts on either regional proxy wars or some kind of coup d’état to remove the PFDJ government in a process that practically requires zero sacrifices and zero creativity on the part of the activists as individuals while they simply wait to be installed to political power through cheap and opportunistic mechanisms involving grave risks to the nation. The PFDJ counts on an endless tolerance and selfless obedience of the Eritrean people in serving abusive processes and opportunistic mechanisms requiring zero policy skills and zero creativity on the part of government officials as individuals in attending to pressing social welfare concerns within the national development agenda.
The Third Way (Our Way) attempts to recreate (not to create from scratch) the alternative that has at its core the imperative of saving the nation from the two brands of adventure, irresponsibility and risky politics. Drawing from previous experiences and operational flaws of original Eritrean civil and political activism, it targets the single most important pillar – the assumption of an endless pool of blind conscripts free of charge – upon which the two ways depend for their very existence. It proposes that we build new forms of alternative activism around two concrete causes. First, we should challenge the opposition to come up with solutions that involve sacrifice and creativity by the activists as individuals on the condition of outlawing the easy exits of Regime Change Agenda and any proposals that eventually lead to any forms of Civil Wars as solutions to the problems of governance in Eritrea. Second, we should challenge the PFDJ government to come up with a national development and defense program that eliminates (at least minimizes) the reliance on the free labor of citizens.
In the short run, as we go forward, we will focus on:
(1) Campaigning for the complete abolishment of the Compulsory National Service program in the long run
(2) Campaigning for outlawing programs such as the Warsay Yike’alo or other variants intended to give the government the license to extend compulsory national service to those that are entitled for demobilization
(3) Campaigning to support the Eritrean government in any efforts that may contribute to its capacity to phase out the reliance on free labor and to demobilize the national service program by joining its fight against all forms of economic & political sanctions that increase the need for reliance on free labor to execute development and defense projects
(4) Campaigning for building consensus against instruments (such as the National Service Proclamation and the 1997 Constitution), that intend to impose Compulsory Free Labor as unconditioned national duty on citizens
(5) Campaigning for accountability and transparency on the fate of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience
The call is to adopt a similar peaceful means of struggle for change to that adopted by the EPDP and other activists in the opposition camp a few years back. In their substance, the two methods are radically different in that, while the EPDP’s peaceful struggle aims at Regime Change by choking the government to death, the Third Way aims for a peaceful struggle that would transform the conflict environment where change would come by making the state of Eritrea better and the government stronger. While the Second Way rests on the politics of despair focused on dramatizing miseries, the Third Way builds on hope by proposing solutions to those miseries.
This frightening situation, where we have come to glorify the civil war as the ultimate dream, and work very hard to make it into reality is a new development in the struggle for democratic change in post-independence Eritrea. It is a bastard of unfortunate events in our recent history. This does sound outlandish even to me after having bought for so long into what seems obvious – the opposition as it stands today is a quarter of century old. That may not be exactly true if we consider some of the examples below. The opposition movement that operates within the four limiting criteria (presented in the previous article) was the mainstream of what Eritreans might have legitimately recognized as meaningful opposition movement.
The following are some of them:
The first was a movement of what may be considered an elite of the most cultured men and women that Eritrea could ever hope for, composed of well-educated diaspora Eritreans and established networks of families and friends in the Eritrean society who presented an unmatched challenge to the moral integrity of the nation. Most Eritreans including those who would advocate for extreme personal liberty, ordinary Eritreans and ironically the Eritrean Orthodox Church cheered the Eritrean government on the wrong side of the equation.
The substance of their message did not impress most people because they did not have the luxury to explain their side of the story first hand. Most Eritreans were stunned at the courage of such a tiny group of very sensible Eritreans who stood right on the monster’s nose, looked it in the eye and said they were not obeying any authority other than the Lord Himself. They refused to pay taxes and they refused to do military service. They called themselves the Jehovah Witnesses.
How did these immortals disappear from the victim-lists of those that are calling themselves civil society groups and advocates of human rights of today? When was the last time you heard about the stories of the Jehovah Witnesses in Eritrea – probably a couple of years ago when regrettably I bashed them in the heat of the land-grabber debate.
The second was the movement of Eritrean Pentecostals. This movement took the Eritrean government in general and the PFDJ (political party) in particular by surprise and essentially managed to neutralize the propaganda machine aiming to reconstruct Eritrean youth in the image of the warrior Yikealo. Within record time for any civic revolution, the Pentecostal movement played by the rules of the state of Eritrea to offer the profile of the highly disciplined, socially balanced and morally incorruptible model of the Eritrean personality as an alternative that almost aborted the premise upon which the PFDJ was to build the New Eritrea.
True to their word, all the thousands of young men and women who enlisted to take the Pentecostal vows obeyed every single law and policy of the State of Eritrea to the letter. They were among the first to volunteer for any services that would make a difference starting from minimal community level civic responsibilities to the highest forms of sacrifice and selflessness to serve the nation in its wars and development projects. Wherever they went, they presented the resume of a determination that never tires, a spirit that never dies and an alternative that would never be ignored.
The third came from a very unlikely source – the Eritrean Islamic fundamentalist movement – and was by far the most challenging form of political opposition to the PFDJ. Following the debate that Eritrean independence triggered in all the pre-independence liberation organizations, the most dramatic of these confrontations took place within the Islamic fundamentalist movement. As a result, a sizable number of these ex-liberation era fighters decided to continue the Jihadi armed struggle or to wage (unarmed) political struggle to pressure the PFDJ government towards some kind of negotiated change in Eritrea.
The core of the Eritrean Islamic fundamentalist movement, consisting of thousands of very educated young men and women primarily students in Sudanese schools, universities and institutes of higher learning decided to follow a different path. Many of them went back to Eritrea and enrolled in the national reconstruction efforts setting up private businesses, working as teachers and serving in the state bureaucracy. Others formed various civil society associations providing services to the needy in Eritrean refugee camps in Sudan. The most interesting of these associations was an Islamist students’ union with very close links to the organized Islamist opposition organizations that had in its membership the majority of Eritrean students in Sudanese universities.
Right in the most unlikely time, when the post-independence euphoria was at its peak and the Eritrean government had already declared Islamic Jihadism as public enemy number one and every bar in Eritrea was running the “Hamshay mesri’E” song, these guys approached the Eritrean government and demanded a space where they would do their part in the national reconstruction efforts. They loaded the needed supplies, headed to several Eritrean towns, and carried out amazing activities renovating schools, cleaning public places, helping the poor and running health clinics.
As far as I know, they have been doing the same year after year. For example, in early 2001, when the Eritrean embassy in Khartoum was inaugurated reopening after a long time of bitter relations, truckloads of these young men roamed the streets of Khartoum and around the embassy cheering the Eritrean delegation for what an improvement in Eritrea’s diplomatic relations with Sudan would mean for ordinary Eritrean refugees. They did it knowing that the improvement they were cheering would place enormous constraints on the political prospects of the opposition organizations in which many of them were also members. What astonished spectators was the political maturity of these youth, and the length that they had to go to make the statement that, in spite of their fundamental political differences with the PFDJ’s orientation and the practices and policies of the Eritrean government and the risks involved, they were there to be counted wherever Eritrea’s superior national interests were at stake.
The fourth was the example set by the movement in all the splinter groups and remnants of the ELF who congratulated one another for the dream come true and marked Eritrea’s independence in 1991 as the end of an era and the beginning of another. With the exception of a few bigots, the majority of the leaders and members of these organizations wished for nothing more than a dignified closure of an important chapter in our history. The least that should have been done by the President and his men at the time was nothing more than a face-saving proposal to transition some of the most honorable icons of our history including among so many that have passed away Martyrs Abdella Idris, Seyoum Harestay and Ahmed Naser (May they rest in peace!) and so many that are to date stuck in limbo.
I cannot go into my understanding of where the bigotry that caused us so much suffering came from without taking you back to the land-grabber debate where I had said what I sincerely believe to be true and I have made a U-Turn, that as I explained in my first article is premised on the complete omission of those dark forces from consideration. The relevant point here is the fact that all those ex-freedom fighters and former opponents of the EPLF knew they were stuck in a fight motivated more by personal pride than by the political justifications of a just cause.
Heartbreaking as it was, an amazing move in this context was the one taken by a considerable number of these former freedom fighters and leaders of various opposition organizations, who swallowed their pride for the sake of the common good. They convinced themselves that the task of liberating Eritrea was over, and the new task of providing an alternative to Eritrea’s future had begun, and headed to Eritrea both as groups and as individuals to do their part. Wherever they were assigned to serve, these former adversaries of the EPLF during the armed struggle froze their differences and played a critical role in tempering the tendency of the ultra-orthodox in the PFDJ from institutionalizing more bigotry than we already have. The symbolic move of these former opposition icons motivated hundreds of highly educated professionals from all over the Middle East, who contributed enormously to the constitution of the civil service and staffing of the educational system in Eritrea.
The fifth was a transitional phenomenon that defied the rhetorical posturing predominant in the opposition camp. When the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war broke, every single Eritrean in the opposition camp, with the exception of handful nutcases, stood behind the Eritrean government in defending and reinforcing its PR and diplomatic activities. In the cyberspace, the leader of the “gwayla” cheering every Eritrean move right or wrong and making worried readers more than relieved and proud that Eritrea had such strong and vocal men was no other than your own SY, in hundreds of posts (Google them).
Ordinary Eritreans were all pleasantly impressed by the veracity and madness with which each Eritrean cheered the Eritrean Defense Forces during the war. Most (including the President ironically) did not seem surprised at an opposition waging an armed insurgency supporting the perceived opponent in its efforts to win the war: it was what they were – Eritreans first and opposition next. Opposition organizations, several of whom had armed wings, could have turned post-independence Eritrea into hell, but they did not because of the spirit that can never be better characterized than that described by Brother Tesfai Degiga of EPDP in his most touching eulogy to the Great Ahmed Naser.
The sixth was the reform movement of first the G13 and then the G15. While all the preceding five variants of the Third Way opposition movement aimed at a bottom-up struggle for change, these two groups were premised on the assumption that change was possible through the introduction of a shift in the government’s top-down policy and practice of governance. Both these groups introduced the culture of shortcuts promoting the idea of challenging authority at the top to effect change at the bottom into the tools of the struggle for change.
The G15 arguably had a much larger impact and was a turning point in Eritrean opposition politics. What made the G15 movement unique was the timing of its incidence and its coincidence with the moment that marked the end of active war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the beginning of the Cold War between the two countries.
The end of the border war and the signing of the Algiers agreement transferred authority over all real issues at stake between the two countries to neutral international arbitration that would negotiate the details with no possibilities for either party to influence the final output of the negotiations by changing the military balance on the ground. The war ended and the national armies of the two countries took a break. Hostilities between the two countries, however, were far from ending and each side employed its genius in finding ways to destabilize the other. The intelligence establishments of the two countries went on a rampage to recruit dissidents of the other party who would enlist for the proxy-war that would soon start.
By the time the great men and women of the G15 reform movement came out in the open, the propaganda campaign to counter the new form of Ethiopian hostility had already taken off. War-torn ordinary Eritreans were probably more worried about exploitable cracks in the unity and integrity of the state that would serve as an excuse for yet another war than in institutionalizing what the official media and the President declared were dangerous tendencies and sensitive times. In spite of the noble cause and extremely valid concerns and brilliant proposals of the G15, bad timing deprived the reform movement from galvanizing popular support for the agenda of change. Contrary to what one would expect of a movement of high profile government officials and historic leaders with so much proximity to the core of political decision-making, the movement had minimal impact on ordinary life inside Eritrea.
The Believers in the Unseen
The seventh is the spontaneous movement of all Eritreans inside the country and in the diaspora trying every bit to challenge barriers and move our beloved country one bit closer to the ultimate dream. In Eritrea, for hundreds of thousands of young men and women, every day is a new day and a blend of pride in the achievements of the previous day, new challenges for the day and hopes for miracles in the next. Each has one eye on arms polished and ready for a bad neighbor who might jump the border at any moment, another eye on shovels and hoes digging holes in endless little projects, and a third eye asking: “why does it have to be this way?”
The parasites in today’s Advocates of Civil War actually shamelessly claim the legacy of responsibility, decency, courage and sacrifice of these historic movements and citizens that are no more, to be their own. The mainstream opposition of today presents the above examples not as variants of creative activism that must be emulated but as proof that those who tried them were too naïve to understand the only language the PFDJ government would respond to (the use of force-by-force in a Civil War). The possibility that those, who paid dearly trying to propose alternatives for the nation, might have done so – the way they did it – within the parameters of the Third Way – was to avoid taking the shortcut of igniting a Civil War and torching the nation in the process, is an argument that does not sell in today’s opposition camp.
The Witnesses and Pentecostals were branded not as conscious activists who paid dearly to make a difference, but as docile and naïve fanatic “victims of violations”. Reformers and formerly dignified icons of the EPLF during the armed struggle were made to bow down and apologize “for not knowing it all along”, making those who were motivated by a vision to pay dearly to make a dream, into abandoned puppets of the President. ELF veterans who served post-independence Eritrea with nail and tooth to give the bigoted nation a different flavor were required to regret every moment away from the wrong crowd and kiss the boots for readmission. The cyber nomads went back to their normal “Qwazeima” waiting for another disaster to happen where they would as always come back for a temporary visit home. Young refugees adopted a brand new identity and enlisted to destroy the dream they had built from scratch.
The following are the naked facts that draw a stark contrast that invalidates the claim that the current Regime Change Opposition was a continuation of the brands of activism listed above:
1. Contrary to the claims of Civil War Advocates (that the PFDJ and the President were always irrationally evil), the activists in the movements listed above were either home grown or inspired by the diaspora under the full knowledge and blessing of the PFDJ government during the sweet dreams of post-independence Eritrea long before the border war.
2. Compared to the Civil War Advocates, that included very few real (already involved) activists that were specifically targeted for their opinion or for what they had done, the movements listed above involved activists who were personally and specifically targeted, persecuted and liquidated by the PFDJ government for what they said or did.
3. Unlike most Civil War Advocates (people who found themselves in the diaspora for reasons unrelated to their activism or simply stayed out for fear of persecution), activists of the movements listed above had made a conscious effort to carry out their activism inside Eritrea in spite of the risks involved (by repatriating to Eritrea or refusing to leave in spite of their ability to do so at will).
4. Unlike the Regime Change Activists who have left no stone unturned to materialize a Civil War, at least some activists in some of the movements listed above had refused to do so and rejected the option even when they had armies that they could command at will to do as they wished.
These and many more contrasts that you can draw from your own personal experiences will prove beyond doubt at least two things:
(a) The Regime Change Agenda is a new development that came to dominate thinking in the Eritrean opposition after the end of the border war with Ethiopia and cannot be understood outside the toxic environment of proxy-wars between the two countries. Bluntly: the Regime Change Agenda and the associated Advocacy for Civil War is an Ethiopian agenda that has nothing to do with the Agenda for Democratic Change in Eritrea.
(b) The degree of ruthlessness with which the PFDJ government has been reacting to the various movements that challenged its monopoly of wisdom in Eritrea has never been a flat line that can only be explained by inherent evil of maintaining a blind dictatorship at any cost. The variability in PFDJ government’s reaction towards movements for democratic change from time to time can be explained by the very valid perception that, where an effective institutional setup to control the behaviours and linkages of non-state actors is not fully developed, potential cracks in the home-front’s ability to withstand pressure from hostile neighbours should be taken seriously.
BE OUR GUEST
It is my hope that the above arguments be understood in the spirit and context for which they are intended. The Third Way as promoted here is a conscious effort to suppress some very real dark forces from our politics in an attempt to create the positive environment of honesty and good will required for realigning our opposition movement and hopefully government towards a shared struggle for change that serves the common good.
I am, hereby, appealing to every group of Eritrean opposition activists and all the honourable opposition organizations to sit back and review their experiences and arguments with what they are doing and find creative ways of getting back on track. The catastrophic end of the Eritrean dream is an eminent and real possibility. Given the alarming deterioration of the social and political conditions inside Eritrea; the circumstances of too many caught up in bad politics across borders; and the incidence of dirt-fishing in our region, all responsible Eritreans should have a historic responsibility to temper scary alternatives on both sides of the Eritrean equation to help evade an impending disaster.
I am specifically inviting the following groups to take immediate action:
(a) All the good Eritreans who have so far managed to stay away from the messy and retarded politics of the opposition and their dubious connections to come up with things that do not replicate and reinforce the bankruptcy of the Regime Change Opposition. To those who are just starting, such as the Medrekh Group, I would like to say: “Please come back before it is too late! We already have enough of what you are proposing.”
(b) To all my old friends in the EPDP: “Please take the initiative and lead the crowd out of the mess this time. You deserve credit for resisting without success the temptation to throw yourselves into Ethiopia’s dubious and adventurous proxy wars against Eritrea. You have what it takes to do it and we are counting on you.”
(c) To all the people of faith in “The One God”: “Please come back and challenge the secularization of choice in the Eritrean society – as good Witnesses, Pentecostals and Islamic Fundamentalists. You have done it before and you can do it now. Eritreans are counting on you to hammer down the moral alternative to the messed-up de-cultured personality of the Eritrean profile.”
(d) To all the very decent ethnic and Muslim rights advocates: “We know you are the last that would ever sell on us and we appreciate your needs for temporary honeymoon and accommodation – please enjoy. We trust you know the only reason Ethiopia requires your presence is to provide the camouflage for what is cooking underneath: the New Unionists hatching in dirty ethnic politics. Please, do not disappoint us and do the right thing!”
Is that too much to ask?