Ethiopia has hosted the Eritrean opposition political parties since 1999 when the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF) the precursor to the present Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) was formed. Then, as now, the EDA was made up of exiled Eritrean organizations who were based in Sudan, Europe and Ethiopia and many had, for many reasons, a tentative presence in Ethiopia. This has been said, and criticized often enough; what hasn’t been mentioned often enough—on the tradition, perhaps, that a guest should not be too critical of the host—is that Ethiopia’s relationship with the opposition was also halting, coy and shrouded in vagueness. The combination of the two (halting + tentative) has resulted in a decade of wasted opportunity. This is the subject of today’s Pencil.
About the most certain thing the two sides agree on is that Eritrea should not be governed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) because it is bad for Eritreans (politically, socially, economically) and bad for Ethiopians (a foreign policy based on mafia economy, domination and permanent war-footing.) There appears to be disagreement between the Eritrean opposition and the Ethiopian government on:
(a) how to bring about the desired change and
(b) what is the best arrangement for Eritrea to ensure durable peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia as well as co-operation and development.
How To Bring About Change
Of the fundamental questions a political organization must answer are: What do we believe in? What is our organizing principle? What is the most effective way to bring about the collapse of the PFDJ?
The answers that the political organizations come up with are unique to their history, or what they consider the learned lessons of the Eritrean revolution are. While the political programs of the dozen Eritrean opposition groups vary, it is possible to generalize and group them into distinct trends.
Meanwhile, the core of Ethiopia’s governing coalition, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had its own learned lessons, belief system and ideology from its own revolutionary era (1974-1991) and governing era (1991-present.)
For much of its presence in Ethiopia, the Eritrean opposition was, on the surface, treated with a hands-off approach (we will give you the political space you don’t have at home, but you have to figure out your own solutions); but, scratch beyond the surface and the Ethiopian government was always trying to promote Eritrean opposition organizations whose worldview was identical to its own.
In the early years, this meant De.Me.Ha.E, a liberation-era political organization, which believed in the same revolutionary milieu of the TPLF—ethnic federalism—as early as the 1980s. But De.Me.Ha.E. was small and very few knew of its existence—and those who had heard of it were introduced to it by the propaganda of the PFDJ which accused it of “leading the TPLF in its war of aggression against Eritrea.”
In 2002, the Ethiopian government made a push for Herui T. Bairou. Despite the fact that as recently as 2001 he was preparing himself for the PFDJ-promised December elections and despite the fact that his organization, the Eritrean Cooperative Party, was barely formed, and barely joined the EDA, he was inexplicably named the leader of the EDA—a move that led to the decision of the ELF-RC, led by the late Seyoum O/Michael, to withdraw its membership from the EDA.
The Eritrean Islamist organizations were considered too toxic in “post 911” world; the “secular nationalists” were considered too “chauvinistic.” Thus, there was a constant search for new leaders—sufficiently humble and sufficiently accepting of the “ethnic federalism” formula—to be groomed.
Eritreans are thankful to the Ethiopian government for its help in accepting Eritreans who would otherwise have been deported to Eritrea; we are thankful to the Ethiopian government for its help in settling tens of thousands of Eritreans escaping the misery of the rule of the Eritrean regime. We are thankful for its acts of charity.
But our subject is not about charity: it is politics for the Ethiopian government but for Eritreans it is a struggle for freedom and dignity. And as such, we would be denigrating the value of the partnership if we were to treat it as charity. It is an alliance on which the fate of Eritrea as a country and the fate of the bereaved Eritreans is based.
For the last twelve years, the Eritrean opposition has been stationed in Ethiopia but what the last twelve-years produced is negligible in terms of defeating the regime. In fact, every year came with its own disappointment and we had no one to blame but our own opposition: we said they are weak, they are fragmented, etc. But now we change course and ask: how is it that in a partnership, the cause of our tribulation is only one of the partners, the Eritrean opposition? How about the other partner, the Ethiopian side?
We firmly believe (and there is enough supporting evidence to indicate it) that the Ethiopian government’s dealing with the Eritrean opposition is double-handed: on the one hand is the diplomatic political approach; on the other is the security minded approach. Each, it seems, operating independently. We have touched on this a few times before but we feel that this two- pronged dealing has not helped the situation—while the political branch prepares a congress, the security branch is busy forming organizations. We believe Eritreans cannot defeat the PFDJ (and cannot have a stable country) with atomized opposition.
We also believe that the opposition forces’ failure to establish any meaningful diplomatic relations with any of the over one-hundred embassies, national, regional and international organization that are stationed in Ethiopia cannot be explained as anything but the lack of meaningful diplomatic support that Ethiopia could provide but failed to do so.
ENCDC – Hawassa Congress
In his meeting with the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), General Mesfin Amare, the Ethiopian official designated as Ethiopia’s liaison, asked: “It has been seven months since the National Conference was concluded and there has been no measurable work done. Why?”
Leaving aside for now why a military officer is the liaison to the Eritrean opposition—and we shouldn’t leave it aside because that is part of the problem—it is a very valid question. But it is a question that should be posed not only to the EDA, but to the elected leadership of the National Conference (ENCDC) which met at Hawassa, Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian government alike.
All previous experience aside, much hope was pinned on the formation of the ENCDC. There is a popular determination among the opposition elements to protect the Hawassa achievement with tooth and nail: this is because the event galvanized many sectors of our society and opened the doors for many who were standing on the sides to join the struggle. It is the only event where Eritrean citizens can claim to have elected their representatives since 1991.
In Hawassa, the jubilation was due to the fact that Eritreans debated, bickered and engaged in pure politics and came out with a relatively acceptable resolution–they didn’t do that out of malice to anyone who wished to see a different outcome. After all, the ENCDC, as a representative of the Eritrean opposition, should not accept condescending remarks from anyone. Eritreans have lost their freedom due to a brutal oppressor; they should not be willing to lose their pride.
After Hawassa, the prospects looked positive and encouraging: unfortunately now, after eight months later, it is looking so bleak and depressing state of moving on the same spot. What happened? Was it just another event like all the failed events?
If all those who declared their support for the ENCDC eight months ago, and all those who toiled to make it happen, do not continue their struggle to make it work, making it function and deliver as per popular expectation, it will turn out to be an uphill battle.
So far, we observe the weak resolve of the political parties to support it and the weak leadership that didn’t garner the needed support. Such an undertaking cannot be accomplished by part-timers who disappear the moment a meeting is adjourned. (another excellent question of General Mesfin: why are the offices of the EDA barely staffed?) But such are the problems associated with leadership by mandatory quotas—where people are placed in a position not with the intention of delivering results but with the intention of first representing some narrow political interest and second to work when time is available.
But the Ethiopians should also look-inward: if every time Eritreans elect their representatives and prioritize their agenda, the Ethiopian government feels those are not aligned with its interest and it must seek alternative actors and solutions, then it will be forever in the business of inventing and nurturing ever-new opposition groups. It is like erecting a series of half-finished building projects, instead of completing the ones that are already started.
Since the majority of the Eritrean opposition forces accepted the ENCDC as their voice, it would help greatly if the Ethiopian authorities will coordinate their Eritrean-related contacts through that entity. Overstepping the ENCDC and establishing a myriad of channels of Eritreans to hold high profile, large meetings, undermines the standing of the ENCDC.
For several months now, there have been frantic activities of invitations for a “Youth Congress” that will be held in Ethiopia starting July 4 for several days and in which 200 youth will attend. The 200 youth are identified by Ethiopia through its parallel channels—bypassing all existing Eritrean opposition groups. What, then, is the purpose the ENCDC’s Standing Committee which was established for such an undertaking: organizing the youth?
Like all decent Eritreans, we are thankful to the Ethiopian government for its act of hospitality—hosting Eritreans who face imminent danger to their lives and liberty in Eritrea. We also acknowledge and recognize Ethiopia’s right to plan for a post-PFDJ Eritrea which is not governed by forces hostile to its interests. Nonetheless, we invite Ethiopia’s governing body to conduct an assessment of its past and present performance vis-à-vis the Eritrean opposition groups in Eritrea and to answer the following questions:
Can Eritreans reject “ethnic federation” and still be present and future partners of the Ethiopian government if, for instance, they opted for regional federation or decentralized governance?
Are the Eritrean opposition groups considered present and future partners?
If they are, are we behaving in a way to demonstrate to them that they are?
If they are not, is the current policy we have of hand-picking their replacement while letting them wither on the vine the correct way?
Part of the “border war” between Eritrea and Ethiopia has been attributed by some analysts to the Ethiopian government resenting the PFDJ’s treatment of it as a “junior partner.” Is the Ethiopian government seeking a “junior partner” in Eritrea and, if so, is that a formula for durable and sustainable relationship?