The Genius in a Lamp: ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’
First things first: It is the purpose of this article to enlighten. Further, to provide insights into a very important (but optional!) political perspective in Eritrea’s cause for democracy in which many Eritreans – but in my view not many enough – wholeheartedly believe in.
Here is what this article is not about: Although I will convey my message with the necessary clarity of intent, it is not my aim to sideline other viewpoints, to divide, or ‘expose’, but to raise awareness about certain patterns in our cause and above all, to seek improved mutual understanding and political efficiency among us. We need the latter in particular. The path to democracy after all, rallies around the dissemination of certain ideas and values. In this spirit, this article is a humble step towards just that.
Genius? The Problem with ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’
The Problem with ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ is that it is widely misunderstood. Or in some cases it is understood and considered a confrontation.
It took me a while and a lot of back and forward on my keyboard to decide, if I should simply lay out a short and sleek analysis of ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ and cut out the unpleasant by-products that always seem to come with it, or, if I shall indeed present the whole chunk. In the end, I decided to write from my activist heart, because the message I want to convey is much more complex than the analysis or anti-paralysis of ‘a slogan’.
Consequently, my article ended up twice as long as I bargained for; forgive me for that, but I really hope you will read it carefully to understand why it may be significant.
As an Eritrean opposition member, believing in and promoting ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ as a mantra for change has often been a painful and difficult journey.
I sincerely wish that more Eritreans recognize how a very sincere attempt by some (with all its shortfalls, I’ll give you that) to bring a certain political direction for regime change into fruition – as an option! – is largely hindered by relentless…let’s call it….public stone throwing. And ever so often you get hit by a brick. Such patterns will without a question have a negative impact on all of us collectively in our quest to achieve freedom, justice, and the right to form a political opinion without fear from repercussions.
Spread across renowned opposition media channels in recent weeks we were yet again advised to stop advocating our non-violent political strategies in Eritrea and help refugees in Calais instead, that at least ‘can render a lot of support materially and politically’ and – contrary to our activities – was time well spent.
Another angrily ranted: ‘To them, conformity is the norm. This opposition camp is the fertile ground the dictator so adeptly exploited. It is not surprising, therefore, that people are migrating from Eritrea on biblical proportions…’
Seriously, is someone now even suggesting we are contributing towards the Eritrean exodus? This was a new one to me. But unfortunately, such nonsense, makes it repeatedly into leading opposition media and gets certain legitimisation.
And another activist jumps on the wagon on Facebook claiming: ‘This slogan [Eritrean Solutions for Eritrean problems] has become nothing but a stick to bash many members of the resistance for the crime of ‘having a base in Ethiopia’.’
In all honesty, the latest suggestions are a walk in the park…
As proponents of ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ you need an extra thick skin and perseverance. Even when you belong to the youth generation. We have faced massive public campaigns aggressively claiming we were ‘HIGDEF under cover’, ‘dangerous’, ‘sinister’ and ‘divisive’, and that the food at our conferences may entail poison…. Each time we organise a conference we know that members, participants, speakers, and even invited singers and key board players for the evening entertainment will be under direct pressure from others in the opposition not to attend by spreading fear and confusion. You would be surprised how many have told us they were approached or hassled. In fact, I think it should be mentioned for the first time, that our members have also received physical threats ordering us not to present ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ on Paltalk anymore’, and even uttering a death threat to one of our members over the phone ‘if you attend the Bologna Conference, then….’. Our sister stayed at home – understandably.
“Many have boycotted your Bologna Forum event” someone tells me again this year in London during the conference in July. “I know.” I respond.
When you get emotional people and seasoned opposition figures alike vehemently publishing or suggesting that the supporters of ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ (most of them also proponents of non-violent resistance as seen in Tunis or Egypt) want to bring change by throwing ‘bananas and oranges’ at the dictator, that they are knocking the dictator’s doors to hand over a bunch of flowers, that they are Ethiopia-phobic, have a sinister agenda to divide, are not better than HIGDEF or – in a more moderate version – are stating the obvious with this lofty slogan (‘don’t tell me a cat has four legs’) and are therefore wasting their time…., then it may be time for someone who has been active in that camp for three years alongside so many other committed Eritreans learning, planning, liaising, discussing, strategising, fundraising, working through nights, motivating, hoping, mobilising, communicating….to let you know loud and clear:
Nothing of that could be further from the truth!
“The way we conduct ourselves is everything”
I may never grasp how a nationalistic political mantra can cause so much unease and anger among our people who I have always known to be very nationalistic at heart. In fact, after joining the ‘opposition’ it was the most unexpected aspect to realise. I would not have guessed this in a hundred years.
And as much as everyone is allowed to express an opinion, none of the above outlined falls into the category of political argument, constructive criticism, or useful analysis that has the potential to advance us as a society. None.
“Why don’t you simply drop your slogan when it causes so much divide?” – Some voices advise. This advice is beyond me. How are so many failing to question how our freedom of expression and assembly has been breached for years by a continuous aggressive pattern of public bullying, and behind-the scene defamation campaigns against our members, and now we are questioned instead and asked to adapt?
Forgive my comparison if you deem it inappropriate, but it reminds me of voices who excuse or explain a case of rape, because obviously, the woman was provoking wearing a certain pair of clothes that others considered inappropriate. She should change her dress style! Others feel offended, because a black family is living in their neighbourhood. Seriously, are you asking them to move out, because people in the neighbourhood feel an unease about who they are or what they represent?
So, the question goes to all of us: In the best interest of our cause and nation, do we participate in a politics of cynicism, dirty games, and unlocking of personal insecurities, urges, and grudges or do we engage in a politics of hope for our people?
I am for reviving the Eritrean dream with a Politics of Hope. Anything else will fall short of the change we really want to see. Getting rid of PFDJ is one thing, getting rid of its destructive habits within ourselves another all together.
To disagree, sometimes even vehemently, is natural. In particular in a democracy. To always believe in the same strategies, methods, or values would defeat our objective to create a free and diverse society. But how we engage in disagreement is absolutely decisive.
The context in which “Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems” needs to be understood
Here is an important point that is antecedent for the understanding of “Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems”. Listen carefully: The Eritrean cause is not foremost about the downfall of a dictator. At least it shouldn’t be. He could die of a heart attack tomorrow and none of our political strategies would be relevant anymore in that ten-second incident. Instead, our political discourse and adopted strategy should foremost be about the replacement of a system with something better (not merely its destruction). So in other words, our goal should be to foster both the process of getting rid of a dictator and preparing the grounds for the initiation of a peaceful transitional period followed by an independent democratic governance for the people of Eritrea.
This goal has to come as a pack. And to understand that is crucial when you want to comprehend the significance or Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems.
We have seen many brutal leaders go, only to be replaced by something equally worrying. So, although only the universe holds all answers in its hand, and none of us can claim to hold the crystal ball, it should at least be our clear aim to prevent an aftermath of chaos from happening. We cannot simply promote the downfall of a dictator by hook and crook without using equally an approach – at least in best faith and within our own limited capabilities – that raises the potential for a peaceful aftermath.
How? By applying a political direction that accommodates the values and change we want to see. In an integrated manner. And the very first step of that starts with bringing that option into the awareness of the Eritrean people in general, and the active opposition in particular, before all else.
This brings us to benefit number one of Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems:
BENEFIT 1: It accommodates a sustainable long-term vision
So, what do I mean with it ‘starts with bringing that option into the awareness of the Eritrean people in general, and the active opposition in particular, before all else?’
Well, you cannot effectively bring something into realization, be it as an opposition or a nation if you don’t activate the very thing in your conscious awareness first. You need to be aware of it and want it. Only then, can it manifest.
So for example, if dominant parts of a nation promote war, there is a pretty big chance you act towards that and you manifest war and not democratic governance or peace. And it also works the other way around.
To acknowledge this is absolutely crucial, because it would require serious changes in the manner in which we advance the Eritrean cause, how we apply focus politically, and why the continuous promotion of certain values is time well spent and not time wasted.
Rallying for the downfall of the dictator by any means, for example, so even with the help of neighbouring states or their army (let’s get rid of ‘the same enemy’), validating that as a strategy among a nation, and then just hoping for the best once the dictator is gone, bears a huge risk. Because the strategy does not promote or accommodate a set of democratic values and very important attributes such as inclusiveness and participation of greater parts of the Eritrean society locally. However, they are a vital ingredient for a peacefully and democratically lead transition in Eritrea. So, by all means is foremost a tactical strategy in nature with short-term gain (getting the job done, no matter how, and as such it appears to happen faster), while the Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems approach focuses on the downfall of dictatorship but at the same time accommodates particular values and strategies in view of long-term viability and stability for Eritrea’s people during the aftermath. And this brings us to the second benefit of Eritrean solutions to Eritrean problems:
BENEFIT 2: Ownership and Inclusiveness
So what exactly is the meaning of Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems? I would sum up it this way: it is an emphasis of ‘owning up to your responsibility to solve Eritrea’s dire situation in a sustainable manner, through true collective ownership that is.’ It means to be the confident designers, leaders, and implementers of our national affairs. Not as this group or that group, but as a people.
A couple of years ago, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has urged staff to improve the “science of delivery” in development to improve results, which – according to the World Bank – requires crafting – quote – ‘local solutions to local problems as the basis for building effective public institutions’. Or in other words, finding ways in which local communities step up to their responsibility, using widely accepted local methods, that were more inclusive, and as a result, were sustainable and more effective.
Further, the African Union has adopted the mantra ‘African Solutions to African Problems’ in fact, many say the very formation of the African Union (AU) was precisely aimed at finding African solutions to African problems.
Their main objectives among other:
- To achieve greater unity and solidarity between the African countries and Africans.
- To defend the sovereignty, territorial integrityand independence of its Member States.
- To promote peace, security, and stability on the continent.
- To promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance.
I think we can relate to those goals. This is not about paranoia towards the rest of the world community nor does it suggest division because some Africans are better than others in living up to that goal. Instead, once more, it is a newly found conviction that there may be a better way helping Africa towards development and conflict resolution (which played a central role in the establishment of the AU) by deploying solutions that were largely owned and lead independently by Africans. African Solutions to African Problems was about a newly found responsibility, ownership, and call for inclusiveness of all Africans. But above all, it was about the start of a shift in mindset and political discourse.
And what more?
It was about unity !
A mantra that would unite Africans.
The World Bank, the African Union, and in fact many states in the world have used the mantra to empower their unity during times of great challenge while stepping up with renewed intent and increased responsibility to tackle complex problems of magnitude from within.
Further, and very importantly: Such a mantra is also always about a solution-driven approach, and as such, the mantra is closely attached to non-violent and sustainable solutions and can never be seen in consensus with a call for violence or war. Having said that it does not mean violence is unavoidable.
Now with that in mind, let’s come back to Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems.
It is to be viewed as a political direction in exactly that very context. As Eritreans we have not owned up to our responsibility during this time of national challenge and we have not looked for solutions within us. We have not used our internal resources and not rallied our capabilities. We have been victims, blamed each other and created division, we have hoped for faster regime change with Ethiopian backing and financial support, we have stayed silent and blamed the weak opposition for our own inactiveness, or we have decided to stick with a brutal regime for opportunistic reasons, fear, or just in case something worse may happen after the dictatorship.
These are not Eritrean solutions to Eritrean problems! These are at large no solutions at all. Or they are disillusioned solutions that keep us in certain dependencies from PFDJ, the Ethiopian government, or our own fears – and as the people of Eritrea we are not at the steering wheel! This brings us to benefit number 3.
BENEFII 3: It holds a hidden Power of Unity
But there is good news. We are also making progress towards the change we all are so desperate to see. Our nation had many, many moments of brave resistance even in the eye of imprisonment and death, and we had days of great dialogue and enormous hope and triumph.
Let me focus on the last few….
Wedi Ali and his group invading the Ministry of Information to peacefully demand the release of prisoners and the implementation of Eritrea’s constitution – he has achieved something incredible: when many in the Diaspora claimed no-one was left inside to take action, he was ready to sacrifice all for a chance to turn our nation’s fate around, and he has become a hero in the eyes of most Eritreans.
Further, the Catholic Bishops in Eritrea asking in an open letter “Where is our brother?”
Our youth ignoring the call for national training a total of four times between October 2014 and January 2015 – we all called them heroes.
The Demo in Geneva uniting thousands in person for the first time and hundred thousands more in spirit across the world, including in Eritrea.
These are Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems, because they were born and developed from within the Eritrean society, lead by Eritreans, and they were non-violent in nature. And while they still fall short of an overall organisational strategy and impact, they are born out of our peoples’ local resourcefulness, courage, and capabilities – proud moments we all fully own. And you know what – (except for a few lost PFDJ hardliners) – these solutions did not divide us, but by and large unite us as a people across backgrounds and political affiliations! And exactly that unity is the hidden power of Eritrean-owned, people-driven Eritrean solutions to our problems. Which brings us to benefit four of Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems:
BENEFIT 4. The PEOPLE own the outcome (Change will come from inside Eritrea. Period. Let’s rally for it!)
The chronic failure of the opposition to actively support and empower pro-democratic change agents within Eritrea is in my view the biggest collective failure of all. The single most important missed opportunity to accelerate change in the most meaningful way. Instead of figuring out means how to support those people, youth, serawit, former tegadelti, and religious community leaders inside Eritrea who are ready to act and in proximity to do so, the opposition spent years arguing about who attended Awassa and who stayed away, who owns the latest demo, and what those guys with this ever-so-obvious and divisive ‘Eritrean Solution to Eritrean Problems’ slogan are really up to. It is a tragedy. Where are our priorities and our principles as so called political leaders and participants?!
But it is more complex than that.
Change coming from inside Eritrea is not a question of opinion, as many believe. It is already a fact. And here is why:
Change is not a one-day or one-month incident. Unless you want to get a haircut or paint your house. But when talking about the dismantling of a dictatorial system and replacing it with democratic governance, change is a process.
And that process has long taken place. Inside Eritrea. It is happening right now while you read this. It is precisely the process that lead to the demonstrations by tegadelti in the 90ies, to an open letter by the G15, for Wedi Ali to occupy Forto, the Catholic priests to speak out, the many inhabitants of Adi Keyeih defending the destruction of their houses by throwing stones against the bulldozers, the youth showing brave non-cooperation when they were called to attend military service. All of them were risking their safety and even lives, and there are many, many more of these stories untold in their hundreds if not thousands from Danakil to Gash Barka and across the Highlands away from the spotlight or still in planning stage, but nevertheless, they are happening, small and large, and they are increasing. Yes indeed, our people are actively and bravely fighting the evil system!
That is what change from inside Eritrea looks like. It is an accumulated outcome of effects that precedes whatever is coming next. It is like a wave that has long formed as a motion under the surface of the ocean before it arrives visibly on the shores.
The tragedy here is: It has never been pro-actively supported in an organised and focused manner from the thousands of us in exile in an attempt to strengthen, accelerate, and amplify the process. Instead, we remain spectators and observers, analysts, and too many of us even turn into loud pessimists and cynics who claim: “Non-violent resistance will never work in Eritrea, those who tried it were locked up.” , ” There is no-one left to bring change because everyone has fled, the country is empty!” or “Look at them, they want others inside Eritrea do the job for them, while they sit comfortably in California shouting slogans”.
Be please aware that many of those inside Eritrea, who are risking their lives to resist, are equally your audience.
To say change cannot happen from inside Eritrea (or the lame excuse of: sure, this would be nice , we would all love that, but….) is in my view political obstruction and self-sabotage, and sadly it is happening – consciously and unconsciously – at a great level in the Diaspora and that needs to stop.
I would like to make one aspect very clear: If you do or do not believe in supporting armed Eritrean groups in Ethiopia who may be helpful at one point in time is not even the issue – they too are our brothers who are ready to sacrifice, continue to support them if you have your heart in it. However, the real tragedy is the blatant indifference and lack of belief in our many pro-democratic change agents inside Eritrea and the disservice so many pay by ignoring and even publicly denying their potential….and more: actively and continuously hindering the humble attempts of those Eritreans who finally want to change that and who call for a direct support of change seekers inside the country.
Well, if in fact, the sincere belief or even wish was there, there would have been ample opportunity to turn the Eritrean Solution to Eritrean Problem alternative at least into a complimentary option to what-ever else you are supporting. It would have been a non-issue and there would certainly be no need to spend so much valuable energy over years to minimise the camp to ‘HIGDEF in sheepskin, ‘banana throwers’ or ‘time wasters’. Does ‘by all means’ not also include the means of supporting non-violent change agents within Eritrea and enable them to lead? Is it exclusive of that?
Surely, it would be understandable when some Eritreans feel an unease about military invasion by Ethiopia when it comes to regime change, don’t you think? The whole world does not take such a step likely anywhere, and it always creates huge controversy. This is not an Eritrean phenomenon. So, to simply colour that concern into a PFDJ tendency across the board does not cut it by any standards. Because there is a big difference between fostering necessary diplomatic relations and brotherhood with our neighbours, or planning military support or invasion by another state.
On the contrary: Where is this widespread unease coming from when some Eritreans call upon all Eritreans to empower our very own people inside the country? How is this divisive? How did it end up to deserve years of mass ridicule and boycott?
Or as one leader of that camp recently said on Paltalk:” I sincerely fail to understand, how ‘Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems’ can cause so much discomfort and aggression among some Eritreans, unless indeed they believe in a different agenda all together.’
May some have the hope that outside forces, in particular Ethiopia, can speed the process up and bring an end to PFDJ rule, be it through financial recourses or military intervention?
Sure. Why not. There is indeed a chance that may happen. Your standpoint is respected. After all, holding this opinion and working towards its realisation is your choice, as it is equally the choice and right of others to express concern.
But here is the most important problem with this one-track option to work towards Ethiopian backing (alongside significant others, which I won’t discuss here). And that is:
No influence on outcome. None.
Change through foreign intervention, in particular military, may or may not happen. Resources may flow, or they may stop. It is not really up to us as Eritreans. Foreign intervention is based on foreign interests (usually owned by much larger powers) and as such we do not have any control over the outcome, in particular not as defragmented opposition groups with no state.
As Professor Gene Sharp who studied over 300 revolutions wrote: “Some foreign states will act against a dictatorship only to gain their own economic, political, or military control over the country.”
So the move is 1) not in the Eritrean interest to begin with and 2) simply may happen or not happen in accord with national developments in that neighbouring state.
We may beg for it, and it never occurs. Or we may despise it and it happens anyway.
The outcome is simply not up to us. That’s why this strategy as a primary solution is unsound. And this is why this is not an Eritrean solution to our problems. No matter how many flags or Eritrean conferences you attach to it. And as such, even if we promote it as a potential strategy or decide as Eritreans that it is us who wanted to liaise with Ethiopia, that indeed we lead the initiative, fact is, we have no true ownership in it, because we have no direct influence on its outcome. In other words, we do not own the process or the product. The same way American intervention in Iraq could never be called an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. It simply is not.
So, next time some people feel confronted by Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems and loudly shout we should not state the obvious, who on earth would want non-Eritrean solutions, well, it may help to be reminded of the last paragraph.
On the contrary however, focusing on change to be driven from within Eritrea we can positively influence the process. Significantly. Long-term. Because we are the very part of it. And even if not fully predictable, the process is in our very hands. The steering wheels are in our hands as Eritreans. Because no-one else owns our problems or really cares about them. Only Eritreans do. As a nation. And it is our responsibility collectively to step up towards that.
And yes, in case you ask, Eritreans can play a very significant role in that process even from thousands of kilometres away; being in Addis does not necessarily make better positioning just because you are close. Why would you even question that after Eritreans in exile in the US and Europe where in many ways the economic and public lifeline of Eritrea’s independence struggle – and that during a time when there were only small groups in the Diaspora compared to the large numbers we have today. Having said that, Eritreans in Ethiopia are part of our nation’s parcel, and they too can wholeheartedly believe in Eritrean Solution to Eritrean Problems and support our change agents inside.
Think about it! How empowering it would be for those inside Eritrea to know that the opposition and those in exile wholeheartedly and visibly believe in them. That we are united in this belief. What a milestone it would be if the Eritrean opposition at large and many of those in exile turn from passive spectators, observers, critics, and analysts – to pro-active and powerful stakeholders, partners, funders, loyalists, motivators, communicators, lobbyists and promoters standing 100% behind our people who have stood up showing non-cooperation towards the regime in so many forms. Yes, they are even fighting in spirit in their tiny prison cells.
Know this: A dictatorship only exists because people cooperate – out of fear mostly. If cooperation ceases, and non-cooperation starts spreading the dictator loses his grips. You don’t need an arsenal of weapons or other superpowers for that. And it is happening everywhere already, among the youth, serawit, tegadelti, religious leaders, former party members, and even higher ranks. We need to have faith and patience and fully support that process.
That is what Eritrean solutions should be to our problems. Empowerment from within. In an organised manner. It’s the only strategy towards a quick downfall of dictatorship and a healthy national society long-term. It’s the only outcome we can directly influence and that can truly unite us. It’s the only way forward with the highest potential for democratic governance by the people for the people. And every Eritrean should proudly own that journey. It would catapult our united impact and success many-fold if we pull it off together. Yes, we will!
Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems is not a slogan. It is a mantra, a conviction, a call for increased responsibility, confidence, unity, inclusiveness, and national and local ownership among all Eritreans. It re-enforces a can-do-attitude among our people and decreases the notion of violence, victimhood, dependency, or foreign interference by others (which will always remain a major point of friction in our society if we like it or not).
Eritrean Solutions to Eritrean Problems is an inward looking political direction. Both in regards to the downfall of the dictator and the peaceful transitions towards a democratic governance. It is highly participatory and owned by all Eritreans and lead by Eritreans. That’s the solution. That’s the crucial role we have to play. And it’s precisely that what PFDJ would fear most.
It should be our shared hope that many, many more will acknowledge that very soon, commit to it, promote it, find effective methods to do the work, contribute, continue the dialogue across the board, and actively help it to bear fruits. Fruits the entire nation can soon enjoy.
I thank you for reading. Allow me to dedicate this article to all those inside Eritrea who have faced repercussions, imprisonment, and death for speaking bravely up against oppression. They are all heroes! I pray that as a nation we will very soon all come together in peace and turn Eritrea into the amazing and prosperous nation it was meant to be. See you there!
By Miriam September, EYSC (firstname.lastname@example.org)