Among many other issues discussed during the Sept 5-10 Addis Ababa meeting, I, as a participant, will try to share my short analysis on identifying and solving Eritrea’s main problems. I will first discuss on why Ethiopia’s government invited the meeting. Some would argue that Eritrean problems are only Eritrean national issue. Not really. The horn of Africa is a complex region. If we think what happens in Eritrea affects only Eritrea, we are wrong. Eritrean problems, as complicated as they have become, should be assessed within the context of, not only national concern but also their impacts at regional level. At both national and regional levels, the issues of concern manifest an angle of dynamics of power relationships. At national level, the concern is Eritrea’s present socio-political and economic situation. This concern put two issues as major existing problems. One is the pfdj political system and the second is the friction of power relationships between various societal groups of Eritrea. At regional level, the concern comprises part of power relationships which can be related to spheres of political rivalry and political influence. In this case, present power relationships between Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s governments have been reflected in the fierce proxy wars they have been involved at, for a decade or so by now.
The government in Eritrea has gone far and has been involved in sponsoring terrorist-linked groups in the region through which the main purpose would be destabilizing and, if possible, toppling the government in Ethiopia. This would put pressure on the regional governments mainly on Ethiopia’s government as it has become the main target. On the other side, this would mean counter offensive; therefore, Ethiopia’s government would declare its policy of openly supporting Eritrean opposition groups. In his introductory speech to the afore-mentioned meeting, Mr Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s Minster of Government Communication Affairs, explained that the main reason for inviting the invitees was to discuss on a recent policy Ethiopia’s government has issued with regard to the spoiler behaviour of the government in Eritrea. As is clear for all observers, the UN, IGAD and in particular Ethiopia have been complaining about Eritrean government’s destructive adventure in the horn of Africa and beyond. Therefore, Ethiopia invited all concerned Eritreans to discuss on what has been happening in Eritrea and what can be done in the future. This invitation was coordinated and facilitated by the Eritrean National Commission for Democratic Change (ENCDC).
Both governments – Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s – have their own internal political dynamics to which they contribute dearly and that whatever action they take outside their sovereign territories strengthens or affects negatively their internal powers. The government in Eritrea has for long lived in isolation as a pariah state. Its misadventure in the region has affected negatively its regional and international sphere of recognition. Recently, the UN assigned Monitoring group has confirmed that the government in Eritrea has been exposed as State-sponsor-of-terror. The latest report by the Eritrea-Somalia Monitoring Group has a significant contribution towards the sanctions imposed and about to be imposed on targeted elements within the structures of the government in Eritrea. IGAD has also played its role; so does Ethiopia’s government. Ethiopia’s government has been collecting all its efforts in further strangling its rival government in Eritrea. The meeting of concerned Eritreans from different walks of life is part of such an effort.
Ethiopia’s open declaration of readiness to support Eritrean opposition groups is an political opportunity not to be mishandled. This opportunity, if used responsibly, can contribute immensely to the ongoing Eritrean struggle for democratic change. I believe those who accepted the call for the meeting have in their mind that the meeting was an opportunity not to be missed. Around 70 participants attended the meeting. The participants came from different parts of the world: Africa, the Middle East, Asia, America, Europe, and Australia. Out of the 70 or so participants only four were women. The meeting was so intensive that 5-day sessions lapsed and yet some discussion points were not discussed properly.
The first day of the sessions was opened by Mr. Amha Domenico, chairman of the ENCDC, who made a brief and general introduction about the meeting. Two moderators were then named randomly from the participants of the meeting: they were Dr. Mohmamed Kheir and Mehret Ghebreyesus. Also were selected Mr Abduraziq Karar and Mehari Abraham as spokespersons of the meeting. Then Mr Bereket Simon took the lead and presented agendas his government would want to discuss about – with the Eritrean invitees. The main agendas presented can be summarised as follows:
Eritrea’s present situation (socio-economic and political). In this agenda was included Ethiopia’s policy towards the situation as it affects its interests within Ethiopia and the region. This makes the situation in Eritrea a common concern to the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In this regard, Ethiopia’s expectation would be that the Eritrean invitees could express their opinion as they comprise part of the opinion leaders in the Eritrean opposition landscape and could have a role to play in the political landscape of the horn of Africa.
How to face the present situation in Eritrea, which has become a common concern. In other words, how to solve the problem. This agenda of discussion included assessing the state of Eritrean opposition. Why the opposition is weak and how to address the weaknesses.
What common strategies and tactics to apply. These strategies and tactics – long term and short term plans of action – may create an enabling environment for the opposition to consolidate their efforts. This agenda of discussion included setting out a clear time frame – as short as possible – within which to bring a successful democratic change in Eritrea.
Then the floor was open for the Eritrean invitees to add their agendas if were not already included in what the Ethiopian side had presented. Most of the points raised by the Eritrean invitees could be included in the three agendas summarised above. However, some points made by the side of the Eritrean invitees can be summarised as follows:
How to galvanise the role of regional and international governments and non-governmental role players in support of the Eritrean struggle for democratic change. In this agenda of discussion, Ethiopia’s diplomatic role would be included as a crucial push-factor.
What would be the position of the government in Ethiopia if an unexpected death of Eritrea’s strong man, Isaias Afworki, happens? What if an unexpected coup d’eta happens?
The crucial part of these summarised agendas revolved around identifying Eritrean problems and how to solve them. According to my understanding, during the meeting two major problems were identified. The present pfdj system is one major problem; and the friction of power relationships between various societal groups of Eritrea is another major problem. At times these two major problems surface as one problem. At a different time they emerge as two different issues. During the meeting, while some argued that the main problem in Eritrea is the regime in the country – the pfdj system -, others argued that ‘ethnic’ base of the regime should not be ignored. ‘Ethnic’ base of the regime means cleavage – advantaged and disadvantaged – between ‘ethnic’ groups of Eritrea. I call this friction of power relationships.
Power in this regard refers to socio-political and economic relationships. This entails interactions of various societal groupings based on religions, languages, cultures, access to government structures etc. With regard to this friction of power relationships, there were three different views. One view contends that such an ‘ethnic’ cleavage should be admitted and not be ignored. A second view contends that ‘ethnic’ cleavage is a creation of pfdj and that it should not be put as there is an advantaged particular ‘ethnic’ group. A third view underlines that any grievances by any group should not be ignored, but at this juncture all opposition efforts should focus on removing the tyrannical regime in Eritrea. Therefore, based on these three different views, pfdj system and friction of power relationships between societal groups are two separate issues, and yet complimentary.
The pfdj system is the core issue. The view that contends that ‘ethnic’ cleavage as the main problem portrays pfdj system as a system that based its support on one ‘ethnic’ group, Tigrigna social fabric. According to this view, both pfdj system and friction of power relationships surface as one problem. The view that contends that ‘ethnic’ cleavage is a creation of pfdj and that no ‘ethnic’ group is advantaged portrays the pfdj system as the only problem and that it does not represent any particular ‘ethnic’ group. According to this view, pfdj system is the only problem and the issue of friction of power relationships between various societal groups does not exist or should not be seen in the context of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. The third view recognizes both pfdj system and friction of power relationships as problems, but it calls for a concentrated effort towards prioritization of removing the regime in Eritrea. These three different views agree on one issue: that the regime in Eritrea must be removed and a democratically elected government, which reflects and respects Eritrean diversity, should be established.
The pfdj system and friction of societal cleavages are two separate, but complimentary issues. This system, pfdj, is a criminal institution. It is a machination of gross human rights violation. Among so many issues, in Eritrean context, human rights violations include: category 1) murder, torture, disappearance, arbitrary arrests, kidnap, indefinite military conscription, and an absolute absent of judiciary system. Category 2) forced labour, restrictions of private economic activities, monopoly over economic activities, and confiscation of private properties including grains from the mouth of poor farmers. Category 3) absent of freedom of press, absent of freedom of conscience, absent of freedom of movement, and absent of choice.
In Eritrea there is no constitution. There are no any democratic institutions. There is no parliament and no functioning cabinet of Ministers. Therefore, there is no law. There are no checks and balances and no accountability. The pfdj system functions through networking of individuals who operate like racketeers and bandits. They abuse government structures to protect their economic interests. For such an economic interest to be protected and persist, it needs a trusted and strong networking. This trusted and strong networking can be established based on: mere interest or ‘class’, based on ‘ethnicity’, based on religion, or based on village or tribe. The question is: where does the pfdj system fit? As discussed above, the Addis Ababa meeting did not answer where exactly pfdj system fits. However, there was a general consensus on that: the pfdj system survives and persists by creating cleavages between diverse Eritrean societal groups.
The issue of pfdj system networking can also boil down to the issue of friction of power relationships between various Eritrean societal groups. It raises a question of who benefited from such a system. Is it an interest group – a ‘class’ – ? Is it a particular ‘ethnic’ group? Is it a particular religious group? Or is it a particular village or tribe? In a similar way as for the previous question, the Addis Ababa meeting did not have a clear answer for this later question too. However, the general agreement that: the regime (pfdj system) survives and persists by creating cleavages between diverse Eritrean societal groups indicate that power relationships between different Eritrean societal groups have been affected negatively.
The networking of pfdj system and who benefited from it on the one hand, and the gross human rights violation, which is grouped into categories 1, 2, and 3, as mentioned above, can be assessed over different historical phases. Both issues can be divided into several phases (years). A phase can be a period of one decade or more. It could include the two decades of Eritrea’s existence as an independent country. It could include decades of pre-pfdj formation. It could also include decades of legacy of Ethiopia’s occupation of Eritrea. However, as the Addis Ababa meeting did not have enough time to discuss about them in detail, the issue of a thorough assessment is left for upcoming gatherings, meetings, conferences, etc. which may be held outside Eritrea and will continue in democratic Eritrea.
The Addis Ababa meeting also discussed several problems which could be listed, one way or another, under the three categories of human rights violation mentioned above. No boundary of ‘ethnicity’, religion, village or tribe has stopped such gross violation. All societal groups have suffered under the pfdj system. Mainly, the youth have become the main target of the regime. Consequently, thousands of Eritrean youth are abandoning the country every month. Yet, the youth comprises a large component of the country’s productive force. Meaning: the process of production, mainly economic, has deteriorated badly due to lack of man power. Eritrea is in a brink of collapse. Therefore, priority should be rescuing Eritrea from a total collapse and disaster.
On the side of Ethiopia’s government, Mr Bereket Simon explained that his government does not portray the regime in Eritrea as a representation of one particular ‘ethnic’ group, but as a ‘class’ with an economic interest. However, Mr Bereket stressed that ignoring ‘ethnic’ differences and grievances could mean ignoring reality; therefore, should be addressed properly. With regard to changing the regime in Eritrea, both Mr Bereket and PM Meles Zenawi explained that it is up-to the people of Eritrea to decide; but they also expressed their determination to provide a support to a consolidated effort of Eritreans who strive in bringing democratic change in Eritrea.
Finally, what I have discussed above does not include all issues raised during the 5-day intensive sessions. Many participants have already explained their experiences, observation, and analyses through articles and interviews over different radio programmes and paltalks. My observation is that issues of major Eritrean problems should be discussed upon in different ways. However, discussing about major problems should not keep hostage the struggle for removing the regime in Eritrea. Nor should it be paralysed under the cover of prioritizing the fight against the common enemy.