We are in difficult moments. Hundreds of Eritreans are feared to have perished in the Mediterranean Sea; scores of innocent people were slaughtered in a grizzly fashion intended to terrorize humanity; many more are stranded in hostile lands facing eminent catastrophe at the hands of modern day barbarians. A sober and composed assessment of the state of our struggle is necessary. The situation urges us to do a frank evaluation of the efforts we have so far made in order to define our mission, clarify modes of its implementation, and explain the vision holding it all. It is also apparent that we need to look into our past engagements in order to come up with plausible explanations as to why our efforts to bring about a meaningful change in our country have not produced the anticipated results. After all, the struggle is meant to give hope to the youth in order to claim their stakes in their country.
Until now, the opposition has comfortably surfed the raging wave created by PFDJ’s blatant aggression on human rights, its naked assault on the rights of Eritreans to have a semblance of normalcy; its political, diplomatic and economic blunders which continue to bleed our nation. A genuine assessment is needed to figure out how much of the achievements we have registered in confronting PFDJ is due to the efforts of the opposition (domestic and diaspora), and how much of it is due to PFDJ’s own worsening self-defeating stupidity. The next step will be: couldn’t we have achieved a much better result have we paused and looked into ourselves critically? Could the urgency of our time bring our leaders to their senses in order to stop the stubborn trend of emptying our nation from its precious children?
In the aftermath of the Lampedusa incident of October 3, 2013, Eritreans rallied around one cause: confronting the root-cause and the source of similar disasters, confronting the prime instigator and originator of those mass exodus. Overnight, a long forgotten man was catapulted to the forefront of condemning PFDJ. The late Wedi Vaccaro, a man who had been long associated with PFDJ, took the initiative of leadership after publicly denouncing his past role. Despite his terminal illness, Wedi Vaccaro rallied a record number of Eritreans in his tours around the world. In his short life of activism, he became the answer when Eritreans were looking for such a miracle of leadership to crack open somewhere, somehow. Why did Wedi-Vaccaro appeal to many Eritreans despite his past relation with the government? Why didn’t the organized Eritrean opposition with much bigger resources and broader organizational networks rally a fraction of that number? The answer is simple, and it was imbedded in his rally speeches: Hope. He said Eritreans could do it; he called for unity; he said PFDJ hijacked a mission that every Eritrean family invested on, the mission of realizing free and just Eritrea. There was no question that the participants of those rallies found something in Wedi-Vaccaro that they didn’t find elsewhere in the opposition? Couldn’t we learn from that? Why did that ailing man attract so many crowds?
The barriers and the mistrust
Cultural barriers, and our revolutionary history, have made us very slow in trusting each other. It’s arguable if this “mistrust” is only promulgated by our political leaders or it has a broader societal scope. Eritrea is endowed with expressions of diversities that other nations and communities possess. Ethnicity, religiosity, regionalism, and other cultural expressions are not unique to Eritrea. If the reason of existence of our opposition is injustice, then understanding and accommodating of these grievances should be part of their programs. If that’s the case disagreements based on social grievances and demands should not be highlighted as obstacles hindering the unifications of factions and efforts. There is also another fact that is not exclusively Eritrean: every economic class or social group will fight in favor of ascertaining that its share of the whole is guaranteed. It happens everywhere, in developed and developing worlds.
As a totalitarian system, PFDJ has the advantage of flexibility. Since there is no room for deliberation, decisions could be hatched out without a legislative wrangling, and reach the level of implementation so quickly without hiccups that most democratic systems experience, due to the checks and balances implanted in their system. It can abort or change decisions and programs midway; PFDJ could reverse itself easily. It could make the capital city dance at once to a predetermined tune, and at a predetermined time and place. It could get thousands of students perform North Korean style choreographies at BaHti Meskerem, for the same audience, year after year.
But the opposition doesn’t have that luxury. It has to be creative, it has to be honest, it has to pause and evaluate itself critically. Exploiting PFDJ blunders smartly can help, but it needs to earn legitimacy and favor through its hard work and achievements. Therefore, it has to combine every drop of resources. It has to show that it’s better than PFDJ in all aspects in which PFDJ is seen competitive. Although activism has made visible progress, political organizations have lagged in gaining traction. Part of it could be due to crowding the limited political spaces with similar programs yet transmitted in different voices, but there should be a transparent communication. In doing so, the opposition may find explanations as to why stagnation has characterized its existence. But that’s not enough. Each of us also has to ask themselves: what have I done to make the leaders straight? What more could I do in order to make the struggle more appealing to the youth, women, and to the general populace?
There are many contentious issues that have been too tough to overcome in the cross-sectional communication within the opposition. The issues have become challenges unto themselves: the opposition and the Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, the scope of change (radical versus reformative), post PFDJ type of government and its form, violent or peaceful means of struggle, change from inside, outside, or by a combination of both, etc. There are also other subnational demands that often overshadow broad national challenges. Each of these challenges could be furthered, but that’s not the purpose of this article.
These are all valid subjects. Debating them in a civil way should be considered a character that separates us from PFDJ. How are we doing on this? The truth is we have yet to develop tolerance. Often, we overreact when provoked and lose sight of the purpose of why we are engaging. The contentious issues above are indeed tough; regretfully, discussions among friends often end unpleasantly; conferences get disrupted; Internet communications veer to nasty and sometimes prejudiced pitfalls simply because we tend to get possessed by the urge to react. The incessant plight of our people leave similar effects seared deep in our soul; we all cope with that. I don’t pretend I care more for our people than anyone else; I don’t claim I have done more than anybody. Actually, I know what I have done. And that’s, I haven’t done much except cursing off PFDJ profusely since its inception. Hence, if I take prejudice and preconceived notions of the person at the other end, it’s possible they could have done more actual contributions in the struggle than what I think I have contributed.
Eritreans need to come together and discuss because this juncture is serious; and what follows immediately after the fall of PFDJ is even more serious. Opposition leaders need to come back to the grassroots and seek help. There is more to change than just changing a regime or a system. There is more to opposition than just opposing PFDJ. Our resistance should aim higher than just bringing PFDJ to its knees. Not only for the day after PFDJ, but for years, and even centuries to come. The opposition needs to evolve into a body that could serve a bridge to future Eritrea; it has to show its preparedness to govern; it has to demonstrate that it’s a responsible alternate to PFDJ. Is it ready? If not what can we do to get it ready? And how could it talk about regime change without changing itself into an able body?
Let’s think about the following:
There are criminal individuals, networks, and syndicates who will fight the new reality tooth and nail. Our neighborhood is full with examples of this challenge. Look what the previous president of Yemen and his followers are causing to the country. Iraq’s remnants of the Baath party morphed into IS; and there is no doubt that Gaddafi’s remnants are among the killers who paraded Ethiopian and Eritrean victims to be killed and they are currently creating havoc in Libya. There are also social problems, including marginalized communities and persecuted religious sects; criminalized innocent citizens; demoralized youth, corrupted police force, socio-economic problems. Veterans of the struggle era are in retirement age with no social security safety net and a supporting economy. Therefore, any politician who vies for replacing PFDJ should brace for all these and many similar challenges.
All justice seekers should understand the cost of political change and get ready for the consequences. A unified macro and micro plans of transition needs to be prepared, and a road map of transition towards democratization must be drafted. The basis of the debates we recycle concerning our mode of struggle and the uneasiness we experience are the result of this stark reality. Are we ready? If not, what is missing, and how can we fix it? Usually, the heated debates we experience are the outcomes of our lack of common understanding regarding the state of the opposition versus the calls we make. Before making calls of dismantlement, it’s prudent if we spend some moments on how that task should be completed: running a list of preconditions that guarantee a successful and less costly transfer of power, among which a united and able political alternate becomes prominent. Do we have a united front that is ready to govern, a national force that could secure lives and properties, and borders of the country?
It has been more than two decades since the gem of this opposition was constituted. Can we speak of a national political force that serves as a center of gravity for our political pluralism, ready to govern? Ethiopia was saved in 1991 because the EPRDF had been positioned to govern. Similarly, EPLF transformed itself from a de facto government to a real one. Despite some bumps, things kept running. Therefore, our assessment and reflection should serve as an anchor and a reference point for our leaders in order to settle personal and factional ambitions for the sake of ending the tragedies we have become familiar to. We have to be able to build a united front that resembles Eritrea’s diverse society which represents Eritrea’s multiple aspirations. In order for that to take place, a critical look into ourselves is needed.
Some folks grew cynical at the setbacks we experienced. They tend to magnify Eritrea’s colorful parts individually, without appreciating the beauty created by the unity of those colors. A colorful collage could be meaningful only when seen in unison. Our political or societal differences are not a curse; they are not uniquely Eritrean. Without going too far, let’s observe Ethiopian politics. If a TPLF which did not wonder outside Tigray could form a coalition for ruling Ethiopia in a short period of time, if that coalition could pacify Ethiopia and lead it onto the Ethiopia that we all see today, there is no question that, if public role is recognized and Eritrean leaders are pressured, we can come up with a ready-to-rule alternate.
Of course, such a political entity will be accorded the blessing and good will of Eritreans for a reasonable period of time, provided that:
- It shows Eritreans that the newcomer is not going to repeat PFDJ’s disastrous policies; that it acts fast in reversing PFDJ’s unjust and disastrous policies, signaling a new dawn of a transparent culture.
- Speedy measures to ensure justice and reconciliation, and stay on schedule in honoring a promise to transfer power to the people.
- Prioritizing the rule of law and improving living conditions by creating jobs over long-term projects of state construction.
We are at a critical juncture; and to see that materialize, we need to give our people hope. We need to show them that we are different than the PFDJ. We have to respect diverse opinions; conduct ourselves in a way that’s completely different from that of the PFDJ). Let’s communicate to bridge our “inherent” differences; give supports to those who are willing to lead. At the same time, let’s offer them our critical appraisals in order to encourage them do better. Our martyrs of yesterday would want us to do that; the victims of the Mediterranean Sea and the Sinai desert would want us to come together; our prisoners of conscience and all those who lost their lives in trying to keep a noble ideal alive would certainly expected us to make compromises. Let us also remember that Eritreans and Ethiopians have been victimized without the discernment of national borders. May this calamity raise consciousness in the depths of our soul so that we recognize that we are all members of one community: the community of mankind.