This article is written with the upcoming National Conference for Democratic Change as a background.
After a long hiatus from writing in the Internet sites except for transient events necessitated by the need to (1), I decided to write again. Since writing at this time, without addressing the issue of the National Conference for Democratic Change is considered out of the norm, there is nothing wrong to lean on it as long as it is a matter necessitated by circumstances. Not only that, but such an attempt is based on the background of differences that became addictive to our own political process, which it normally creates if not found—the vitality of the opposition is not reflected except in such circumstances. Although this is not an absolute evil on its own, but the evil could be in avoiding the root causes of the crisis, and instead wallowing in the margins. Although crisis are accepted by the political forces and are calculated on the rational of profit or loss while playing politics in such a time and place—and for that to be the rational of intellectuals is a matter of great concern. The concern I have is that the crisis of the National Conference is the same crisis that has been bedeviling opposition arena (Alliance-Coalition since its conception at the end of the last century. It is like a patient with a weak immune system, and therefore is vulnerable to any casual health crisis. Inevitably, a treatment could strengthen the immune system by dealing with the casual crisis. Otherwise, the patient would be vulnerable to yet another crisis which may be more powerful or weaker and on the long run, claim patient’s life.
Characterization of the political arena to the opposition
Although the political arena is full of a large number of political organizations and associations, perhaps more than eighty(2), but on this occasion, we can identify two prominent trends that were formed after a series of difficult labor and an open in pain that our people lived through, witnessing the conflicts flare up within the forces of the opposition (Alliance Coalition)(3) These two currents or trends, that carry within them a set of contradictions in a historical context, whose origins and the nature of their relations and its vertical and horizontal ideology foundations. But they agree on the general features related to the characterization of the crisis and the means of resolving them and the vision for the future.
Trend (trend) I: – (4)
Starting from the recent crisis on the National Conference for Democratic Change, let’s say that this trend is formed by the ten organizations in the Alliance that are in favor of the Conference as of a paramount necessity at this stage, despite the casual and substantive objections raised by the other trend (direction) of the other. In a cursory look, we realize that this trend is composed of organization, the first formed by the solidarity front under the name Tedamun, in addition to two organizations that form Nationality Rights organization, the National Salvation Front, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Front, the Eritrean Islamic Conference and Nahda Party.
But divisions along this basis may not serve the purpose of this analytical attempt because organizational or Front based classification is not a sufficient as a screening tool to categorize the positions related to events in totality, situation such as the Brussels conference or the National Conference for Democratic Change. Therefore, we will resort in this attempt to searching for the lines of convergence and intersection of these forces, since we’re talking about it as one trend and perhaps we might be able to speak about its contrast or parallelism it in other opportunity. For instance, we find in this block, organizations which are based on the basis of the nationality interpretation (ethnic) of the nature of injustice or crisis and therefore it is based on the same basis in finding a durable solutions; this block includes the Kunama and Afar organizations and to some extent, the Nahda Party. These groups find in the Ethiopian model of national (ethnic) federation a way out an acceptable solution because it also extends widely to the extent, which some of its trends might go to the degree of self-determination and secession if need be. And in this view of a solution based on federation of nationalities (ethnic), the Eritrean People’s Democratic Front (Sagm) previously, is in agreement. There are also organizations that are based on the interpretation of the nature of the crisis or injustice on religious (cultural) basis and they are, the Islamic Reform Movement, (Popular Congress), The Islamic Party, the Islamic Congress.
These organizations focus on the same logic for a solution on that basis that the crisis is between Muslims and Christians or Highlands and Lowlands. Therefore, the solution to the crisis lies in dialogue on the basis that towards a State of full partnership that would usher a thorough knowledge of rights and duties in advance. This view is based on the development of events of the recent political history starting from a period of self-determination going through the era of the armed struggle and the current model of the state. The third component of trends (direction) is the secular-oriented organizations, Eritrean Liberation Front, The Eritrean Salvation Front and the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement. The Federal movement meets with Islamist oriented organizations in its foundation of federalism for Eritrea in its formative years, since it presented a federal system consisting of three basic units: the Highlands, The Western Lowlands, and the Eastern Lowlands. But after a series of assessments it has become the link between the vision of national organizations seeking nationality federation (ethnic) and the religious based organizations (cultural) which pursue the solution for a partnership in such a solution since the federal idea can marry the two options. The Eritrean Liberation Front, which focuses on the history of the ELF as an national organization after a series of historical events we find it governed by the mainstay of its social component that also seek a resolution within the framework of a clearly defined partnership though it does not resort to religious interpretation a key factor but prefers the culture and social structure of the society i.e. the Highlands and the Lowlands.
There remain the Salvation Front, which consists of mating trends between the experience of ELF (RC), the EPLF and the Sagm movement and what makes side with such trends (direction) at this time is its recognition of the nature of injustice that befalls these forces by the Central ethnocratic State and therefore the solutions must be carried out within the framework of consensual democracy that meets the needs of the oppressed.
It may be useful to summarize the basic ideas on which this trend (direction) meets before moving to the second trend (direction):
- The definition of the state as a dictatorship based on the centrality of a socio-cultural component of one geographical location which is (Highland, Tigrigna, Christian).
- Rejecting the State and all its existing institutions and struggling to bring about a comprehensive radical change and replaced with a national federal state or Cultural Federalism.
- Demand from the supporting infrastructure, whatever its name, (Highland, Tigrigna, Christian) according to the meanings of religion, geography and culture, to recognize these rights and agreeing with it on the shape of the future through the vision that we talked about.
- This trend (direction) doesn’t object to the use of military force to achieve its objectives because the nature of the radical change that it desires is not incompatible with military action.
Second Trend (direction):
Since we are talking about the crisis that arose regarding the Eritrean National Conference for Democratic Change against a backdrop after the unification of the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party in December 2009, it will be based on this party, without denying the backgrounds of its components, which are well known since it married the experience of ELF (RC) and the EPLD (the EDP and EPM). It is useful in this context to emphasize that this new party, in a series of dialogues that led to its merger, had agreed to leave the interpretation of the events of history aside at this stage and leave it for specialists to handle in the future(5), therefore, it is the commonality of their approaches and visions that gets them together. The Revolutionary Council which based its views on the leftist background in the past and on social democracy at this stage, still views the factors, religion, culture and ethnicity with great skepticism considering it threats to national unity on the one hand, and contradictory to true democracy on the other. It continued refusing to deal with them until the mid-nineties of the last century. But it dealt with them pragmatically through an internal debates in later stages, something that led to the formation of Eritrean National Alliance in March 1999. To this day, this organization in its extended journey through ups and downs, still deals with issues of religion and nationalism as a real problem that requires a solution and not a beginning to the resolution of the problem. This view is supported by broad literature on political science that monitors social developments towards democracy, based on the European model and based on theories of function and new function, upon which human relations are founded, based on interests and jobs, not on the basis of the blood and sect (Sectarian relations) or ideology.
But the organizations with EPLF background, despite the agreement on the theoretical basis with the trend of Revolutionary Council in the definition of the form of aspired governance, it considers the ailment with the State is the absence of institutions and the control of one man. It attributes the clear imbalance in the equation of state to this reason and not to structural reasons relating to the organization of People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ formerly EPLF). And that is a dispute that was the focus of the ongoing debate between the two main components of People’s Party. The most prominent topics of this dialogue were: the Constitution, the flag and the nature of governance. It was agreed to overcome these issues on the basis of the democratic choice of the people through the mechanisms of democracy based on the functional theories as mentioned above, except for the system of governance, on which it was agreed that the system should be a decentralized rule based on geographical basis, which obviously differs with the Federal option which is based on culture or nationality. This implies that the parties agree on the structure of the current state and gradual reforms based on the circumstances of time and place and not radical change, the resolution of the issues raised in defining injustices and its causes, and addressing the issues of social justice within the context of justice and democracy. This also means rejecting the definition of the system as an ethnocratic dictatorship but define it as a dictatorial regime only. To summarize the main features of the agreement between the components of this second trend (direction) would be useful to put some points:
1. Defining the system as a dictatorship and that the crisis is the crisis of institutions and the solution is in a democratic system. And a high sensitivity towards describing the system as ethnocratic system because the description is part of its vision. Meaning, the acceptance of this definition would have implications on the nature of the alternative.
2. The gradual change of the system after the fall of the regime and resolving the grievances within the framework of institutions and the principles of central democracy and justice of the state.
3. Democratic change cannot be achieved through undemocratic means. Therefore, this trend adopts peaceful options because it leads to safe democratic change.
The crises of the entities of the opposition
We mean by that the opposition coalition entity component since 1999 (a gathering of Alliance) and as is well known, this entity had silent and declared crises as the ebb and flow of the wave’s tide and its addresses had been subjects such as: Islamic law, nationalities (ethnic groups), military action, position of leadership in other stages, the Brussels Conference and finally the subject of Eritrean National Dialogue Forum for Democratic Change. In spite of the manifestation of these crises on these titles, the basic premises have not been far from the specific intervals of the currents (trends) we have given in the previous section. Because the solutions that have been made to overcome these crises were not so deep to discuss the real issues; therefore, the reoccurrence of explosive event is normal and is not expected to end with the National Conference, which at this time is the problem. But the question is whether these two trends (directions) are parallel lines that can never meet. In other words is this a chronic crisis that would not be treated? The answer is definitely “no”.
They are objective differences and a solution can be achieved through deep objective dialogue. Simply put, it cannot be other alternative except resolving the issues, we own one country, and we cannot afford but to live in it together. Our choices are between living in it in peace, and this requires a serious objective dialogue, and mutual recognition and mutual respect, and trust based on the facts of mutual interests (win-win situation) and not on shaky trust built on maneuvers and political tactics, which is known as the win-win theory; the other choice is like a country where doubt reigns regarding the intentions of others, plotting against each other, trying to be vanquish the other and taking revenge from each other. This theory is known as the theory of win–lose theory, a theory where we have winners and losers. This theory is the one we have lived and continue to live within the opposition (Coalition- Alliance). Social scientists and policy makers say that the transition from the theory of winners and losers to the theory of all winners (win–win situation) can be achieved under two circumstances: (a) either change in the balance of power, or (b) balance of vulnerability. It is the nature of humans/societies is based on conflict and it is known as conflict of peers, where peers struggle to have dominance over the rest of the group, but if the power is equal or similar and struggling peers know they cannot win over each other, then mutual respect is created. If the Eritrean opposition is to wait until the balance of power is adjusted or shifted, we will need a lot of time, we cannot wait because the situation at home is deteriorating by the day and this leads us to the quadrant of vulnerability. But a question still remains: what determines the factors that delayed, and still does, moving out of this quadrant? Here I can mention the following:
1-The delusion of Power and the Weakness of Analysis
Although the opposition groups have experiences predominantly based on the era of the armed struggle, we find that the values of democracy are not deep rooted inside the opposition camp itself (individual thinking, corporate governance values and the practical values of the organization). Some still have residues of the thought of individual solutions (think that their solution is the only and best solution). This is due to the weakness of the analysis where some underestimate the strength of the other groups and doubt the intentions of the other without giving enough thought and consideration. In order to overcome these problems, we have to be realistic, because power is transient and changeable. Also we have to build trust based on interest and not on personal/individual relationships or love or hate, as the Arabs say (Mourning the love of women)(6), such an approach makes the nature of the relationships controversial and unhealthy as it will not help to prioritize and identify the primary and secondary contradictions.
2-Putting the real issues at the negotiating table
The opposition leaders were, and still are, dealing with each other in tactical language, by denying facts i.e. rights that they do not consider would serve their narrow interests. The denial of rights or issues arises from fear of acknowledging them to avoid recognition and the entitlements or benefits that may arise out of the debate. The outcome of serious debates might lead to the recognition of serious facts which may lead to some type of concessions from the powerful to reach consensus or delay some of the issues for the people to decide in the future. The reason to escape from the real issues is also related to the social components of the organizations of the opposition, and the political rhetoric used extensively for a long time which cannot be easily undone or retracted. This will lead to the loss of legitimacy of the leaders, threaten their existence or diminish it. There are also some leaders who leave issues unattended hoping that time would resolve them.
Our biggest issue is the crisis of the language of communication. As Mr. I. Aba Arre (God protect him) said: language is not a tool of communication only, but is also a tool for the exercise of power. And I add, language is the object that carries with it the primary factors of the manner of thinking and a way of dealing. On this issue, the opposition camp is divided in a section that reads Arabic and deals with it, thinks and speaks through and dialogues among itself it in the available platforms. The other section deals in Tigrinya or English, which of course is addressing itself through its own literature. Language is a significant barrier to understand and communicate with each other, and it is a crisis that persists at all levels: at the elite level, political organizations, the opposition camp (Coalition-Alliance) and the community at large. The issue of language duality is one of our main problems as well as an entry to our approach to solutions. Still today the language issue remains a limiting factor for transition from the current quadrant (status quo) of unresolved issues.
4- Absence of adequate Qualifications
Our political leaders inherited a political system according to specific historical circumstances which did not provide them chances to acquire qualities and characteristic needed by a leader such as dedication and sacrifice thought that are not enough. Most of the crises that bedeviled our political scenes today are testimonies to our weakness in managing negotiations, and the lack of scientific knowledge on how to conduct dialogues, specifically the factors of intersection and diversions, prioritization and the distinguishing between primary contradictions and secondary ones which all require high skills—which are acquired skills. I remember that during the period of containment that pursued towards the Sudan in 1998, the US State Department allocated ($20) million dollars for the purpose of training and rehabilitation on such fields, and I hope that this will be in the priority list of our political leaders in their meetings with friends, especially Europeans, and I hope that would preoccupy our civic societies’ concern instead of convening conferences that turn to be more disastrous for our political scene than beneficial.
5– The absence of the elite
Undoubtedly our current situation is the result of our slow social evolution, where a state has failed inside Eritrea, and the conflicting opposition outside it, and the fragile civil society organizations that do not have the basic qualifiers of a civil society, and the intellectuals and writers who are affected by shallow political ideology of the opposition and who become busied with the manifestation of the crisis instead of diving into its causes, is considered the biggest hindrance in the transition from this quadrant. It is the responsibility of intellectuals and the public opinion leaders to protect the communities from collapse and it is their duty to realize the causes of the crisis and to look for ways to overcome them. It is the duty of the elite to be aware of the issues, and be able to predict the future according to the tools and methods of analysis available, which is undoubtedly absent in our political and cultural arena.
6-Friends and allies
Political games requires that each opposition group allies should have allies and friends brought together by common interests or common enemies, and this applies to our opposition that changes allies following political changes, but the allies did not make enough efforts, or were not willing to help the opposition to move from this quadrant. This may be due to the fact that the allies did not have a strategy for these allies, or perhaps that is their very strategy. But whatsoever the reasons, this factor has remained an impediment to the attempt to move away from this quadrant.
Light at the end of the tunnel: –
Although the general picture is gloom, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, which is known as hope, and that hope is supported by evidence on the ground, in real life, which I will pinpoint as follows:
1. The experience of the opposition entity (Coalition–Alliance)
In view of our political experience that we went through, from the era of self-determination to the period of the armed struggle period, the charter of Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) is considered to be the finest that our political thinkers were able to produce. However, I can assure you that our awareness of this charter is not enough to the degree of its application or our commitment to it. In other words it did not come according to the natural evolution of the concepts of the opposition forces, but was dictated by certain political conditions. What gives us hope is that this experience, although it had a weak impact on the ground, all the forces think twice before retreating from the benefits gained or achieved by it, and the masses, although have weak relationship with the charter, and they bitterly criticize the charter’s application and opposition’s performance, they protect and nurture the charter. In all the past crisis of the alliance, the people exerted a lot of pressure to bring back the Alliance as an entity representing the opposition with its different orientations and views: political, national, religious and regional. Moreover, the Alliance is the real platform to manage a real dialogue on the fundamental issues that are avoided or ignored by our political forces.
2. Beginning of the debate on key issues: – Can be seen on two levels:
a) At the political level: In 2007 and 2008, a healthy debate begun in the Conferences of the Alliance (opposition) on major issues, such as the definition of the political system, national unity, religion, nationality, identity, governance, transitional period and other issues. In July 2009, the preparatory and primary workshop of NCDC, which was held in Addis Ababa, touched some of these issues. A document was published in the websites by EPDP under the title: (Our understanding of the problems of EDA and the mechanism of its solution and the desired National dialogue), raised the key issues and called for real and serious debate around the table. The EPDP (second group) was accused of avoiding addressing the major issues or the root of the differences of the opposition such as: NCDC, Muslim-Christian dialogue, nationalities, and the land issues. But despite the controversial circumstances in which the issues were raised, that is a considered a gain because started a dialogue on key issues.
b) Dialogue at an elite level: This was noted in some of the writings of conscious and deep matured thinkers who addressed the core issues in order to find solutions and not writing aimlessly for excitement. Here I can cite few examples e.g. the Eritrean Covenant (Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar) as a reference as one of the important writings. Also the writings of Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie can be considered as one of the factors that give hope that the elite can be a positive and useful companion and booster to the political forces in debating key and essential issues. Despite the big difference between the platforms of the document (Eritrean Covenant) and the writings of Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie, still there are clear points of intersection and convergence, giving hope that it can meet in the middle of the road without winners or losers.
3. The in-depth dialogue that took place between the opposition and the Ethiopian government last April, is one of the factors that give me hope. This is because the Ethiopians realized that the relationship between the opposition and Ethiopian government should be governed by clear understandings that takes into account the common interests of the two people and countries. Also these understandings must strengthen the opposition by strengthening the factors of its unity. Externally it would provide the particular factors in its struggle, and such a dialogue has remained pressing demand of the opposition in the past.
The state of the Eritrean opposition with all its multitude of differences, is like that of a people on a deck of ship in the open sea and who have to row together in one direction until they safely get to the desired destination. Otherwise, the stupid choices in rowing or paddling in different directions will make their arrival to the desired destination impossible. Similarly, in the case of the opposition, the lack of agreement on core issue will cause the opposition to spin in an empty circle engulfed with doubt; the belittling of each other will lead us to one of the following possibilities:
1. The continuation of the current regime, and this does not require much talk, as it is stating a reality that we live in with all its harmful aspects, where the regime lives on not because of its structural strengths, but as a result of the weakness of the opposition. It can be compared to a tree, even if dried, it can remain for decades without falling as long as it an outside power doesn’t come to which will push it to fall and this option is incompatible with the existence of the opposition that is already seeking change.
2. The change of the system (in Eritrea) by one of the trends (groups), is merely a continuation of the system of exclusion, and the continuation of the cycle of violence, even if that violence has subsided for a period of time because, normally, there would be a period until the masses discover the great deception, and resume the cycle of violence, regardless of who begins that cycle, which is the entrance to a new failed state.
3. The collapse of the state: a situation that referred to as Somalization, Lebanonization, Balkanization, Afghanization or even the Rwandan experience. Those who consider or believe that Eritrea cannot be dragged into one of these examples are living in an illusion; I do not know on what they are relying their views except in good intentions. Eritrea is a country whose people do not know each other well due to successive colonization. There are also very clear contradictions of cultural and ethnic differences and our conflicting interests have clear signs of our history of political struggle. In addition, we are a people who lost many lives in the internecine battles that raged between the liberation organizations than our struggle against the Ethiopian occupation. We as Eritreans paid and lost more people in the civil wars among ourselves, than we lost fighting the Ethiopian colonizers.
There is one incident stuck in my mind which I witnessed when in 1984 I was a child of 10 or 11 years, where I was living in Abu Rakham refugee camp in the Sudan. An EPLF cultural troupe came to our village and there was a seminar being conducted, where an intensified debate went on between the supporters of ELF and EPLF. This seminar turned out into a massacre where knives and sticks were used. I have only seen the knives being used to slaughter goats and sheep on Eid al-Adha, however in that incident I came across intestines flowing in front of me from the human belly, and the picture is still stuck in my mind. Those who watched the film: My neighbor, My killer, which depicts the genocide in Rwanda cannot rule out the possibility of state collapse or civil war—and why do we have to rule it out—it had happened in Somalia, a homogeneous state which turned the theories, that talk about the Nation-State and State-Nation, upside down. Also it happened in Lebanon, a country which enjoys the highest rate of education in the Arab world; it occurred in the Balkans, in the heart of Europe. The only guarantee to avoid civil war is a frank, transparent and open dialogue, mutual compromise, and trust based on common interests and not on good intentions, because good intentions alone are no longer a marketable policy commodity in the market of politics and conflicting interests.
Dispute over the National Conference for Democratic Change
Since this analytical attempt came in the context of the dispute over the Eritrean National Dialogue Forum for Democratic Change, I want to emphasize that the controversy was not far from the description that characterizes each of the currents (trends) listed. The solution lies in the willingness of these parties to talk frankly, seriously and with transparency about the fundamental issues that I have mentioned in the content of this analytical effort, since the second trend (trend) believes that preparing for this conference was done in a way that would lead to the adoption of solutions that correspond with the vision of the former trend, in light of this, that there is little time to digest these issues well, and meeting of the parties in the middle of the road with no choice but to snatch the legitimacy of the decisions or mechanisms emanating from such a conference, or at least not commit itself to it, raising procedural objections such as questioning if there is enough time, and the Preparatory Committee. The exclusion of some sectors or trends is in essence, which is in the overall analysis of the fear of this trend (direction) of the policy of fait accompli in the fundamental issues relating to the overall vision for the future of the country. But as long as it was agreed that the National Conference is an ongoing process and not a single event, the entering of all the parties after its creation based on guarantees at the level of the alliance, which is the political sponsor of the National Conference. However, because the confidence of the second trend (direction) on the leadership of the EDA is since the passing in 2008, including what happened during the Brussels conference, the withdrawal of the second trend (direction) from participating in the National Conference is a natural decision that is in line with its views.
The crisis of the opposition is in fact a crisis of society—from the state-based organizations and the opposition, the civil society organizations. Thus, whether as political organization, civic organizations or writers and intellectuals, we should not burn the boats of returning and we should keep our differences in its political weight. The situation, in its political dimensions, cannot bear permanent enemies or friends, and the National conference must take those assumptions into consideration and come out with resolutions, recommendations and mechanisms to be the expectation of the nation. The Eritrean field requires more than a National Conference to overcome its secondary contradictions. Everyone is in the same boat—they survive together and perish together.
Please send comments to: Abdul Raziq Karrar razig2002 @yahoo.com
Disclaimer: This is a translation of an original article written in Arabic. Any inconsistency should be understood as a deficiency in translation.
- Footnotes: –
1. Articles (some private and a few public, the nation that does not respect its symbols cannot progress – The Brussels Conference a word that should be said)
2. Series of questions and answers by the President of the Eritrean People’s Party Part II
3. Alliance crises 2002, 2005, 2007, 2010.
4. The annotation of the first and second Group does not carry any meaning or preference, it is used only to distinguish between the two Groups for the purpose of this analysis.
5. A chat with Mesfin Hagos in Addis Ababa in March 2010.
6. It must be understood in its scope/context as an example and not like in the context of discrimination (Gender).
NCDC National Conference for Democratic Change
NSF National Salvation Front
EFDM Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement
EPDP Eritrean People’s Democratic party
EPDF Eritrean People’s Democratic Front (Sagm previously)
IC Islamic Congress
PC Popular Congress – Islah (Reform Movement)
IP Islamic Party for justices and development
ELF Eritrean Liberation Front
ELF-RC Eritrean Liberation Front – Revolutionary Council
EPLF Eritrean People’s Liberation Front
EPP Eritrean People’s Party
EDP Eritrean Democratic Party
EPM Eritrean Popular Movement
EPFDJ Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice
EDA Eritrean Democratic Alliance