Uprising & opportunities
The last two years has seen an increased awareness, readiness and action oriented tasks involving a growing number of Eritrean youth in the Diaspora. Increased use of social media such as facebook and paltalk, inspiration from the Arab spring and the tragic fate of many asylum seekers in Sinai has given this trend a new energetic boost. Not only are Eritrean youth organizing in different parts of the world but at the same time they have taken coordinated actions such as demonstrations in many cities. The numbers of the silent majority joining the opposition camp are increasing by the day while the supporters of the regime are dwindling. Initiatives taken by the EYSC to reach Eritreans inside the country through ‘freedom Friday,’ and their organizing of a conference in Washington DC, as well as initiatives taken by the 24th of May Youth Movement in Egypt by making use of the margin of freedom made possible by the revolution in Egypt to promote the Eritrean opposition, and their last initiative to organize a world wide demonstration are commended. Various youth appeals and initiatives have made international media pay more attention to the plight of Eritreans–the weekly program ‘Eritrean Files’ in ‘Al Hiwar TV’ is the outcome of such initiatives. Most of the youth are independent and not affiliated to any political organizations and they are taking the lead in taking us out of the stagnancy of the traditional opposition. This is something that needs to nurtured and supported and they ought to be given a breathing space.
Victims of the regime
Eritrean youth are the main recipients of the regime’s brutality at home so they make the bulk of refugees leaving the country. As if this is not enough, many Eritrean refugees do not feel safe when they leave their country. Eritrean refugees in ‘Al Shagrab’ camp in Sudan live under the threat of kidnapping by human smugglers in addition to the miserable conditions they live in. Asylum seekers in Sinai have become victims of human organ trafficking. Corrupt Sudanese security officials allow the regime’s security a free hand to arrest and deport Eritreans. The unrest in Sudan and the deteriorating economic situation there does not make things better. Eritrean refugees in Djibouti and Yemen live under abject conditions. Perhaps, Ethiopia is the only safe haven in the region. There has been an increased verbal and physical racism against African refugees in Israel with plans to either deport or confine Eritreans to concentration camps. There are also reports of Eritreans killed under mysterious circumstances in Southern Sudan.
Owners of the future
The future belongs to the youth so it is natural that they get involved and that they play a major role in shaping the future. I do not want to dwell on the theoretical aspects on who the youth are and what characterize them. The youth movement is in its infancy and is thus characterized by lack of experience and unclear about the direction they take. If one follows the Paltak groups, one observes anyone who discloses the atrocities of the regime is regarded as a great hero, and whatever is said is taken at face value without any analytical questioning. It is very inspiring to see former fighters expose the regime’s brutality since the formation of the EPLF, and this is something that needs to be encouraged. The youth are part of the Eritrean society and though relatively better, they are neither completely free from its ailments nor from the weaknesses of the opposition.
Limitations & challenges
The youth are divided by geography (live in different parts of the world with varying degrees of freedom), those in the West have full access to pursue their political activities while those in the Middle East, specially those living in countries not affected by the Arab Spring, have very limited political space. Even those who live within the same country or city have different youth groups, perhaps divided by language (Tigrinya or Arabic speakers with a mix of other languages) or based on other considerations. The facebook or paltak groups that operate in Arabic or Tigrinya have much wider audience than those who operate mainly in English. A vivid example is the EYSC and the Smrr groups. Articles written in Tigrinya and Arabic have a much wider influence than those written in English.
The youth like the traditional opposition are also divided on issues (peaceful or any means of struggle, support the ENCDC or the EPDP, cooperate with Ethiopia or not, work independently or with the existing opposition, is the current problem in Eritrea based on the personality of Isaias or it is a system problem, shall we focus on just toppling the regime or shall we take into account also how the Eritrea of tomorrow will look like). The traditional Eritrean opposition on its side has failed to attract the youth and there is a fierce competition among the political parties and civil societies to win the youth which contributes to its division. There is also competition and struggle for leadership within and among the youth groups. The EYSC North America held a conference in the USA, other youth groups are planning to hold a global conference in Sweden in August. I am not sure how many of the youth groups practice democratic principles: have clear programs, hold regular meetings and elect their leadership on regular basis, abide by decisions taken by the majority. Yet it is important that the youth groups unite and consolidate their forces on general issues that concern all of them.
The EYSC conference in the US is to be commended as it was one of those conferences fully funded by the participants. It shows that we have many resources which if tapped correctly it can help achieve a lot. It is to be noted also that during the last ENCDC conference in Hawassa all of the apx. 600 participants paid for their transport. The EYSC conference had also its shortcomings. All of those who attended were able to pay for their travel but so many of the newcomers could not attend it. It also ended up dominated by Tigrinya speakers not by plan but by virtue of geography, perhaps and thus difficult to call it a national conference. Its slogan ‘Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems’ demands much explanation. Eritrean problems are generic and these are the quest for democracy, human rights, multiparty system, good governance and thus the solutions are also universal though they may have a cultural aspect to them. We are not a special breed as the PFDJ wants us to believe. But if it was meant to reflect the EPDP slogan of avoiding Ethiopia then one has a problem with it. I am of the opinion that we need to cooperate closely with our neighbouring allies without, of course, losing our independence and the only way we can maintain our independence is by uniting. I hope the organizers will explain to us in the future what is meant by the slogan. The EYSC has so far been careful to take decisions on controversial issues which has to be encouraged. Despite the limitations and as a first experience, the conference was a big step in the right direction and one looks forward to see all the outcome of it regarding its new vision and work plans. The EYSC has always been action oriented and thus one expects more creative and concrete actions in the future.
The youth are energetic, they lack experience, they are impatient and they expect very quick results. The society and the political opposition have also a lot and varying expectations from the youth. Every time a conference or a seminar is held any where, it generates a lot of controversy. It is as if the event will have irreversible results on the fate of the country. It is as if it will be the last event. It is like it is doomsday. We have seen this with every conference held in the past few years repeatedly be it on the left or right side of the political divide. There are wide conspiracy theories speculated. There are some of us who undermine the youth movement unless they join and strengthen the existing opposition. On the far end of the spectrum there are those who believe the youth, as they are, are the only saviors from the regime. Those have given up on all forms of the opposition. Unless organized, united and actively engaged in the opposition, I do not think they can achieve much. I am of the opinion that we need to have modest expectations. Then there are those who expect Ethiopia to do the dirty job of toppling the regime militarily but they do not want to pay the price for that. Those ones actually doubt the intentions of Ethiopia as they believe it can topple the regime any time if it wants to and are surprised why they are taking such a long time to finish the job. There are others who mainly follow the EPDP line, and who are very suspicious of Ethiopia and its intentions and do not want anything to do with it.
The expected youth dialog forum (conference) in Ethiopia
In the next few days a global youth dialog forum with participants from all over the world is expected to be held in Ethiopia. I have been one of those who actively encouraged the youth to attend. I firmly believe in the strategic alliance with Ethiopia where we have common interests that we need to pursue as far as those are not at the expense of our national interests. I believe that any gathering of the youth wherever it may be helps them to know each other better, enables them to network, gives them a platform to exchange views and experience, identify their weakness and strength and try to work out strategies and tactics to defeat the regime. This is besides the procedural experience you get in participating in conferences. The forum also gives them the chance to meet and understand the challenges facing Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan. If they find any hidden agendas (as the skeptics claim) then they can reject it. It is important for the youth to engage, one loses nothing by attending. To the best of my understanding it is expected to be a national forum representing the social, religious, ethnic composition of our society. Invitations have been sent to many youth groups and individuals. Though it was indicated that the main theme will be discussing the current status and role of youth in the struggle against the regime, suggestions to the agenda have been left open. As usual there has been a mixed reaction, those who support it and those who declined to attend. Those who oppose it do so for various reasons. Some feel that the invitations should have been done through the ENCDC and believe that Ethiopia wants to shelf the Eritrean opposition and replace it by the youth. Some of those still live in the past and still consider the current Ethiopia (muti-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural) as the one run by Haile Sellasie and Mengistu where it was presented as a Christian country. The idea of the conference precedes that of the ENCDC conference and the Washington conference. Though an inviting body has the right to invite whoever it wants to invite, the invitations have been open to most if not all youth groups. Others oppose the conference because it is held in Ethiopia (EPDP line) and so are very suspicious about its intentions. I find this line close to the regime’s line that does not want us to cooperate with Ethiopia as it knows the more we cooperate the shorter its life will be. Others claim the agenda is not clear. But many will participate in the forum and take a positive attitude. One respects the decisions taken by both sides and only the near future will show who was right. Let us not conclude before we see the results. To decline the request is acceptable but to indicate that those attending are just attending because they got a free ticket and accommodation is not only outrageous but insulting the intelligence of many.
My own expectations are humble. Our worst enemy in the opposition is MISTRUST. If the youth are able to know each other better, build confidence, exchange views and formulate plans then this is a big achievement for a future action. I guess conferences consolidate trust in the long term but for those of us who want quick results it may seem a failure. If the participating youth want to go further, then it is up to them. As the Tigrinya saying ‘Innehe meda innehe feres’ – meaning ‘here’s the field and here’s the horse. Ethiopia has provided the forum and that should be commended. Now it is up to the youth to make the best out of this opportunity. I wish the forum a success.