It has been more than 10 years since different Eritrean opposition groups officially united under the umbrella of what was then called ENA and now EDA. Many Eritreans hoped for better and were optimistic about the future of Eritrea. Due to the absence of clear vision, strategic plan and lack of access to information about EDA it is difficult to evaluate its performance throughout its life span. A lot of time has been spent on debating controversial issues and struggle for power rather than trying to identify the gaps and working towards filling them. Little have been done to create new and strengthen the existing link with the general public and other Eritrean resistant forces such as media and civic groups. During these 10 years, rivalries rather than partnership and cooperation among media, civic groups and EDA were evident. This has not only slowed down the progress of the democratic struggle but also forced them to divert their limited resources to less important issues. On this article an attempt has been made to address the Brussels Conference in the larger context of Eritrean democratic struggle; why is it controversial and whether it adds value to the democratic struggle or slow it down..
Gedab news reported on Oct 29, 2009 that a conference on Eritrea will be held in Brussels. It also reported the participation of Eritrean “task force”. In reaction to this news, EDA chairman wrote a letter to European Commission president Mr Jose Manuel accusing him of exclusion and endangering the unity of EDA. In defence of the Brussels Conference (BC), Selam Kidane assured us “the sky is not falling” and the emerging doubts and concerns on merger of EDP, EPM and EPP by some Eritreans is just a “conspiracy theory”. Adhanom Fetwi shed some light on the BC and explained that he has no opposition having the conference but argued that the process and strategy employed wasn’t inclusive. The Awate team in its editorial wrote more clarification on the BC and was highly critical of the European union. Habtom Yohannes, on the other hand, dismissed the news as “erroneous reporting” and argued that organizing a conference is a “democratic right” of any citizen. EMDHR, on the other hand, defended the decision to have BC and explained the importance of criticism with responsibility.
From the above news, articles, responses and clarifications one can conclude that the conference has become controversial among different Eritrea groups and writers. In order to understand why this is controversial we need to look at it within the context of the current situation of the Eritrean opposition.
It is no secret that EDA is inherently divided into two distinct groups. Those who want to bring drastic change primarily through a peaceful means but don’t rule out any other conventional method and those who want to use peaceful solution and press for implementation of constitution. The former is commonly known as Tedamun and the latter which includes EDP, EPM and EPP are in the process of merging (Uniting Parties –UnP) to borrow from Habtom. It is also a public secret that the majority of members of each group predominantly come from lowland and highland part of Eritrea respectively.
It is difficult to know public opinion regarding this merger. The only available and possibly reliable data is the poll on Awate.com front page entitled “How Do You Feel About The Recent Merger/Consolidation Attempts Of The Eritrean Opposition Groups?”8 As of today, 52.2 % of Eritreans who participated in the poll think the merger is positive and 23.1% think it is negative. If we include the “indifferent” and “no opinion” participants as “not-positive” together with “negatives” this will give us about 47.8%. Further analysis of the “positive” groups may possibly reveal 26.1% “positive” from Tedamun and 26.1% “positive” from Uniting Parties. In other words, more than 47% Eritreans don’t consider the merging and consolidation of the opposition groups as positive considering Awate.com is a website visited by diverse Eritreans. But how is this related to BC and why is it controversial?
The BC was held at the time opposition groups and Eritreans are divided on many issues and on how to bring (and what) change in Eritrea. Firstly, the Eritrean “task force” who participated in BC doesn’t seem to represent the views and aspirations of all or most of opposition groups and Eritrean people. Secondly, some individuals who were invited to the conference are seen as controversial figures. Thirdly, majority of the participants have expressed their political stands in the past and it somehow coincides with the political stand of the UnP. Finally, the method and process to organize the BC lacked inclusiveness, transparency and accountability. It is true any Eritrean has a democratic right to organize any conference. It is also crucial to be inclusive, transparent and accountable to the people you convene and speak on their behalf in order to achieve the objectives you set out before deciding to have the conference.
This BC controversy is a classic example of why we haven’t seen progress in Eritrean democratic struggle. The political, economic and social crisis in Eritrea has reached an unimaginable level. The goal of bringing democratic change has become difficult to achieve. It is only rational to ask serious questions such as: why has it become difficult to achieve the goal? Are there any missing gaps in our knowledge of democratic struggle? Is there strong involvement of Eritreans who are directly affected by this national crisis in their daily life? Is there a need for changing of thinking in resisting the PFDJ regime? Are there any real partnership and cooperation among different Eritrean democratic forces? The “task force” may have rightly considered the involvement of international bodies in Eritrean cause as a missing gap. There seems to be a problem in filling that gap. In the process they were perceived as rivals and created an unintended confrontation rather than working in partnership and cooperation with other civic groups, media and opposition groups. In effect, in order to fill one missing gap they created another one—lack of partnership and cooperation. It is difficult to see this conference adding any value to the democratic struggle.