This interview with Ahmed Nasser was conducted by Saleh Younis. It was published at awate.com on January 29, 2001. We are republishing it on the occasion of Ahmed Nasser’s death on March 26, 2014
Editor’s Note: Eritrea’s proud history has produced heroes and giants, visionaries and selfless patriots. This is why awate.com feels no hesitation in bestowing labels like “legend” and “icon” on individuals whom we believe Eritrean history will judge as the Greatest Generation Eritrea offered. As part of its effort to acquaint the new generation of Eritreans to Eritrean leaders who have played a decisive role in Eritrea’s proud history, awate.com is pleased to announce that it will soon publish an interview with one of the many icons of Eritrean nationalism, Ahmed Mohammed Nasser. We are mindful of the fact that no single political party, movement or individual has a monopoly on Eritrean patriotism, vision of leadership or blueprints for development, unity and harmony. awate.com will endeavor to reach out to as broad and diverse group of individuals and spokespersons as possible regardless of whether these individuals are in Eritrea or in exile, in government or in opposition, active or retired. We hope that the exposure to diverse views and visions will lay the groundwork for preparing Eritrea to welcoming a common destiny that accepts, at minimum, values of democracy, truth, justice, unity, freedom and diversity. Below is the interview with Ahmed Mohammed Nasser…
Q1. Let’s begin by talking about the early days. What was your background before you joined the Revolution?
Early during my childhood, I lived in a political atmosphere where the proponents of Eritrean national independence were expressing their resentment towards the disappointing result of their struggle of the 1940s. This was also associated with another fact related to the chats among the elders who were casting light on the old relations between our forefathers and the Ethiopian invaders. They were narrating and reciting to each other stories and poems about their fathers’ valor and bravery in different battles. Among these battle areas I recollect Rubrubia, Tokhonda, Karibossa, Kabuna and Adaito etc. All chats or poems seldom missed to mention Ras Alula or Wbe.
During [the] fiftieth, Amharic language was introduced in all Eritrean schools under the pretext that it is a mother tongue that must be studied by all Eritrean children. It became a compulsory subject that determined the future of any student either for job or higher studies.
The above-mentioned factors obviously have their impact in developing some very rudimentary questions such as: “What is Eritrea?” “Why were the Ethiopians attacking our forefathers?” “Who is Haile Selassie?” “Why are we forced to study Amharic which is absolutely strange to us but claimed to be our mother tongue?”
Q2. When did you join the Revolution? And could you describe to us the different positions you held with the Eritrean Liberation Front [ELF]?
I became a member of the ELF in 1964. After I finished my secondary level [education], I crossed the Eritrean-Sudanese border and put myself under the disposal of the Revolutionary Command. In 1967, the ELF sent me to Iraq to study in its Military College and, after graduation, I specialized in artillery.
In 1970, I went to the field and was assigned as a cadre in the HQ [headquarters] of the General Command. Prior to the First National Congress of the ELF, I was given an assignment by the Preparatory Committee to mobilize the masses in accordance with the political items it issued subsequently. In 1971, I was elected from the congress as a member of the Revolutionary Council and as a member of the Military Bureau. In the second and third national congresses that were held in 1975 and 1989 respectively, I was assigned with the chairmanship responsibility until the fourth congress in 1995. Now I am a member in the Revolutionary Council.
Q3.What was the achievement of the First National Congress?
For the first time in the history of the Eritrean people and the ELF, a National Congress was held in which representatives of all segments of the Eritrean people participated. The Congress was a qualitative culmination of the 1969 Adobaha Conference that passed very important decisions and constitutes also a significant event in the course of the revolution. The achievement of the conference can be summed up in the following points:-
- Adopted political and organizational programs.
- Elected a leadership democratically for the first time since the inception of the ELF.
- Confirmed that the HQ of the leadership must be inside Eritrea.
- Defined friends and enemies of the legitimate struggle of the Eritrean people for national independence.
- Asserted the importance of establishing democratic mass organizations.
- Established institutions that assume responsibilities of public services.
Q4. What were the highlights of the Second National Congress?
The 2nd National Congress made some amendments in the resolutions of the previous Congress. It committed to solve the political conflicts between the two organizations, ELF and ELF/PLF, through democratic dialogue.
Q5. One of the frequent criticisms against the ELF waged by the EPLF [Eritrean People Liberation Front] was that the ELF practiced “sddi democracy”. Why do you think that is?
It has been an unequivocal fact that the ELF has been protecting the rights of its members to fully exercise publicly their inalienable rights and to participate in forming and holding their opinion on one condition: that the members adhere to the principle of democratic centralism. In the framework of this principle, every member, no matter his/her position in the hierarchy of the ELF, had the right to criticize the leadership either in broad meetings or in a written form.
No one was subjected to inquiry unless one otherwise deviated from this principle. This was the daily democratic political life that characterized the ELF´s activities since its first National Congress.
In addition to the above-articulated facts, ELF was holding its congresses in which democratically elected members, representing their respective institutions, were participating and freely electing the leaderships. From judicial point of view, the democratic right of a citizen to appeal from village court to regional, high court even to the Chairman of the RC was available.
In short, this was the way in which ELF practiced democracy since its first national congress. We cannot claim that its application was sound and perfect in every aspect; and no one is to be blamed for that because any experience can hardly evade committing errors in practice. Beyond doubt, the ELF, by pursuing this method, was partly ingraining the ideals of human rights in our masses and partly to habituate them beforehand to such style of governance in future Eritrea.
Unfortunately, some critics dubbed this style of ELF as being “sddi-democracy“! It seems that the only lesson from history that they are impressed with is an authoritarian system, which demands of people absolute obedience and submission to the ruler. The proponents of such systems relentlessly endeavor to inculcate among the masses that the ruler is endowed with unnatural inspiration that merits him to be the only source of wisdom. This presupposes that the people, despite their rich historical and cultural heritages and other potentialities, are too poor and barren to produce leaders from among themselves.
Since the critics construe ELF´s democracy as ´Sddi` to end up to the glorification of authoritarianism, I have nothing to say except re-affirming my pride in the legacy of the ELF. I prefer ´Sddi democracy´ of the ELF to that of suppressive—“nibleka sima’a wei aserka kirikeb aykonen; idna ikwa newih iyu” [listen to what we have to say or your traces won’t be found; our arms are long] system. In conjunction with this I call upon all Eritreans to get rid, once and forever, of such adjectives as `Qorratz’, [resolute] ‘Fellat’ [wise], ‘Sheitan’ [satan], ‘Gigna’ [brave] etc`, since they have become devoid of their appropriate meanings and have ended up in the glorification and legitimization of despotism in our country.
Q6. The EPLF seems to have understood something the ELF did not: that to wage a popular movement against an entrenched power, you need permanent symbols and myths. Like Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Jomo Kenyata, Mao Tse Tung, etc. Throughout the life of the EPLF, there was one constant: Isaias Afwerki. In contrast, the ELF went through many leaders and many competing and colorful characters. Do you think this was a mistake?
An excerpt from your question runs, “ELF went through many leaders and many competing and colorful characters. Do you think this was a mistake?” At the outset, I would like to emphasize that one of the very meaningful yardsticks of democracy is a change in leaderships because that reflects the general will of the people. A change in itself is a law of nature. In political and social realms, if it comes to embody and express a free will of the people, it is taken as symptom of healthy development. In a society that is characterized by religious, cultural and linguistic diversities, a change might preclude the hegemony of a majority group in that society, so to speak. At least it dampens a psychological feeling of subordination. Today, if we look at different patterns of democracies in the world, we find that quotas constitutionally solve the question of diversity in some societies. If there is any lesson to be inferred from this example, changes that were taking place in ELF were relevant to its composition; thus, in light of this logic, there is no room to term it a mistake.
Concerning permanent symbols in any society, it is not something that drops as manna from the heaven or an artifact. It is a contribution of roles played by individuals in their society and it is manifest in overwhelming respect, recognition and universal acclamation in the societies of the individuals and the world at large. Any leader whose influence fails to transcend the limits of his/her party or organization cannot be articulated as a permanent symbol of any society. By the way, symbols are immortal. Relatively speaking, the heroic leader Hamid Idris Awate, who pioneered the armed struggle for national independence, was a symbol.
Sadly, Eritrea has lacked and is still lacking a leader who has acquired a nation-wide consensus to his leadership. Let’s dream of a Mandela type leader who got admiration the world over when he secured an overwhelming majority in the first democratic election in South Africa and opted to form a government where different parties participated. And, before his term of presidency ended, he smoothly passed his power to the new generation of leadership. Let’s stop dignifying dictatorship in this ephemeral realm of power.
Q7. Let’s talk about a critical decision during the Second National Congress. During this period, the ELF was being transformed from a value system that was based on lowland, Muslim, rural and illiterate culture to a highland, Christian, urban and relatively literate body. Given this, do you think it was a big mistake that a symbol and a rising star of the new movement–Herui T. Bairu—was not elected in the Second National Congress? Some say that the rejection of Herui in the Second National Congress brought about the creation of Falul, which began the ELF’s long decline. What is your response to that?
It is incorrect and rather outrageous presentation to assume such transformation of ELF at that stage. The transformation was a national high time that led to qualitative and quantitative changes in the Eritrean political arena. It had nothing to with cultural dimension. One can hardly accept your assumption that all Muslims were illiterate. As a matter of fact, it was those members of the ELF you referred to who gave their votes and support unanimously to Herui T. Bairu to assume the vice-chairmanship in the first National Congress of ELF. This actually manifests their national political maturity irrespective of the level of their education.
To go back to your question, I don’t exonerate either Herui or the other side whom he blames for the errors. To be rational in his/her judgment, one must treat this within its historical context and gather detailed information pertinent to that episode. To give my conscientious verdict, I may partly lack some information for I could not participate in all the discussions [of the second national congress] for practical reasons.
After the congress issued its final statement, Herui immediately began to organize his group and instruct them in a way that would create an atmosphere that was conducive to forcing the ELF leadership to hold an extraordinary congress. As a result of this, the internal political and organizational life of the ELF was turbulent to a degree that, for roughly two years, turmoil and confusion became the daily order of the organization.
I regret that Herui resorted to these destructive tactics instead of dealing with that in a rational and peaceful way and wait another round. Obviously, this development was at the expense of the enhancement of the strength of the ELF, which was the strongest in all aspects in Eritrea at that time. No doubt, the ELF has been suffering from that deplorable experience until this moment.
I am of the opinion that we as advanced cadres of the ELF would have been able to surmount any difficulty whatever its magnitude might be if we had properly appreciated the new situation which was encompassing new political elements emerging out of the developments in Ethiopia, Eritrea and in our region as a whole.
Q8. Some allege that the Ba’ath movement virtually ran the Second National Congress. What is your answer to that?
No doubt, there were ELF-friendly countries in the Arab World who openly supported the legitimate rights of the Eritrean case. These countries unconditionally extended ELF and other political organizations with material, financial and educational aid that contributed a conspicuous role in our struggle. This is a historical fact no one can deny. Delegations representing these friendly countries were being invited to attend ELF congresses as an indication of our veneration to their solidarity and to help us introduce our struggle to world opinion. Such gesture did not necessarily mean ELF accepted their political influence. It is a well-recorded historical fact that ELF never allowed itself to yield to such pressures under any conditions. There are a lot of incidents one can refer to in ELF´s record. In spite of this fact, we do not deny the existence of individuals who had ideological tendencies to some Arab nationalist parties within the organization. However, their influence was very, very limited.
The sort of accusations your question embodies actually destroys the very reasons, objectives and foundations upon which the Eritrean national struggle had been based. In addition to the fact that this accusation is baseless, it goes in congruence with Haile Selassie’s diplomatic endeavors, which tried to prove that the Eritrean revolution was a movement instigated and manipulated by the Arab nationalists in their efforts `to invade Africa`. On one hand, this allegation reduces the Eritrean legal struggle for national freedom as if it were a product of an international fabrication and, on the other hand, it amounts to a betrayal of our fathers struggle during the fortieth and to those martyrs who shed their blood, for not less than fifty years, in order to restore the usurped Eritrean rights for self-determination and independence.
How on earth can one believe that any people would accept with good grace inconceivable and colossal burdens that entail perpetual massacres, bloodshed and comprehensive socio-economic destruction on behalf of, or rather as a proxy to others, on their soil!
THE COLD WAR
Q9. Recent declassified information reveals that you went to Moscow to meet with the leaders of Communist International. How did that meeting come about?
ELF leadership received an invitation to visit Moscow through the representative of the Soviet Union in the office of the Afro-Asian solidarity in Cairo. The invitation was handed to the late Idris Osman Glawdios who was representing the ELF in the Arab Republic of Egypt. The first visit was in June 1978 and the second in February/March 1980. The invitation was not subject to any condition as some, with ill intention, wanted to term it later. The invitation did not come out of vacuum, but it was a result of three factors: (1) the balanced and mature policy of the ELF; (2) the diplomatic pressure exerted from different states and national liberation movements that supported our national struggle upon the Soviets to open a dialogue with the Eritrean revolution; and finally (3) the wish of the latter to run preliminary meeting with the Eritrean side. The focal issues of our discussions can be summarized in the following points: –
* Evaluation of the development in Ethiopia under the Derg;
* Prospects of democratic settlement to the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia;
* Who would represent Eritrea in any negotiation with the Derg?
In discussing these issues there were divergence in some areas and convergence in others. With regard to settling the conflict, we were reiterating the same positions declared publicly by the ELF, i.e, that the Eritrean revolution is ready to sit for negotiation with Ethiopia with a view to reach a democratic solution that satisfies the legitimate rights and aspiration of the Eritrean people for national independence and founds a base for a good friendly neighborhood with Ethiopia. Concerning the representation in any negotiation, we were keeping firmly to the principle that a united delegation that represents all Eritrean political organizations must represent Eritrea in any negotiation. This was in contrast to all perversions and distortions that were being circulated by ELF´s political adversaries at that time. To mention one, there was the baseless accusation that we accepted regional autonomy relinquishing our hallowed national goals.
Irrespective of the quick, tangible and fruitful outcome our people might have anticipated at that time, the visit to the Soviet Union is considered to be one of the most significant signs towards gaining an international recognition for our national cause which was suffering a setback for a long time in this connection. Without doubt, the second visit was more fruitful because it was concurrent with the rising doubt of the Soviets about the developing situation in Ethiopia at that time.
Q10. In a separate meeting, President Isaias Afwerki also met with the East Germans. At the time, they [the East Germans] wanted assurances that the EPLF was the true representative of the Eritrean movement. Were you asked for similar assurances?
We have never been asked such sort of assurance. I think what I clarified in the preceding answer is sufficient.
Q11. Was this [seeking assurance that one front was the true representative of Eritreans], in your opinion, an invitation for the ELF and the EPLF to engage in civil war?
Maybe, but that depends wholly on [how it was accepted by] the Eritrean side. For example, in the last of its three secret meetings in February 1980, in the then Democratic Republic of Germany, with Ethiopian delegation led by Berhanu Baiye, it was the EPLF that forwarded a 76-page paper supplemented by 11-points on a separate paper assumed to be a base for settlement of the conflict. In March 1980, the Germans contacted us and informed us about the two secret meetings that had already been ran between the two sides [Ethiopia and the EPLF] excluding us. It was a shocking surprise to us that the EPLF leadership chose to behave so. When we signed an agreement on October 20,1977, we had agreed that any negotiation with Ethiopia would be with a unified delegation.
The ostensible reason for the Germans to contact us was to invite us join in the third scheduled meeting between the two. We categorically refused to join in that meeting but we showed our preparedness to run bilateral discussions with the UDSPG on our return from the second invitation to Moscow.
In the beginning of March, our delegation was in Germany. The EPLF delegation was also there for the third meeting with the Derg. When the EPLF delegation came to know that the secret meetings were disclosed, they took an initiative and handed us, through the Germans, the 76-page paper while withholding the 11-point paper. However, we could get that paper later from other sources through our diplomatic contacts.
It is worth reminder that despite the EPLF leadership’s flagrant violation of the agreement, the ELF leadership stood fast to its principles of common goal and re-vitalized the October agreement with EPLF by signing in May 1980, in Aden, a new document that was then declared public in the same month by a joint delegation in a press conference in Beirut.
Q12. During the 1970s both the ELF and the EPLF were competing for the mantle of the more “progressive” party. This brought about one of the least talked-about movement within a movement in the ELF: the Hzbel Amel [Labor Party]. Could you shed some light on this?
I was Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and Executive Committee. Therefore, I am ready to answer any question relevant to the ELF and allow me to refrain from answering questions pertaining to `Hzbel Amel`.
Q13. The ELF was always accused of being a front for the imperialists and the Arabs? Why was that?
When dealing with this question, it becomes helpful if one grasps the elements that intricate the political developments in the region in the past and more recently and how they interplay with each other. During the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, the pivot of Ethiopian diplomacy was revolving on accusing the Eritrean revolution as being the spearhead to the Arab cultural invasion of Africa. The object of this policy was to agitate the anti-Arab sentiments in Africa. And to the Western countries, the regime was trying convince them that it was facing extreme subversive Arab revolutionaries led by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
In accordance with the volatile political developments in the region, Ethiopian diplomacy was taking different covers. Seemingly, there was difference but in essence it was the same. When the Ethiopian international alliance switched to the Soviet camp in the era of the Derg, Ethiopian diplomacy continued to accuse Arabs and Islam as main backers and troublemakers to Ethiopia. Thus, they followed on the same track as that of the Emperor despite the Cold War’s semblance of influence on the Derg, to some extent.
In the framework of the rivalry among Eritrean political organizations, the same elements as that used by Ethiopian diplomacy were used in the same manner or vice versa to countervail each other and widen their space of influence in the region or in Europe.
In the 1970s, it became commonplace for some Eritrean organizations, when waging diplomatic activities in Western European countries, to accuse the ELF as an Islamic or an Arab oriented organization. The EPLF was well known for such activities. And some others, such as the PLF [Sabbe’s organization], when traveling to some Arab countries, were accusing the ELF as being a Marxist or a Baath proxy in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea area. When it so happens that these organizations` diplomatic activities were targeting an audience of leftist circles, they were dubbing the ELF as a reactionary and an agent of the imperialist in the region.
This kind of selective activity acquired a more intensified momentum when ELF´s delegation visited Moscow two times as I pointed above. It was an opportune moment for the rival organizations to orchestrate in unison, no matter their bilateral relations, to accuse ELF as accepting regional autonomy by concluding a pact with the Derg through Soviet mediation.
Ironically, while all these organizations were disseminating all conceivable slander against the ELF, they were putting their maximum diplomatic efforts to receive invitation from the Soviet Union.
The reality is that ELF had never and never been engaged in anything that exposed the national objectives to any sort of compromise. Moreover, it has never deviated from the principle that any negotiations must be done by a united delegation that represents the Eritrean revolution in general. And it has been sticking to this principle until our country became liberated in 1991.
The aim of those unfounded accusations was boiling down to an attempt to isolate ELF politically with a view to strengthening their position at its expense.
PART 2 OF THE INTERVIEW
Q14. In his book “Kalsi hzbi Ertra, Kabey Nabey”, Meles Zenawi gives the following reasons for the eventual military clash with the ELF (1) the ELF always treated the TPLF as a junior partner unfit to be an equal partner of “Gebha Abai” [“ELF The Great”]. (2) the ELF was the protector and guardian of I.h.A.Pa. (EPRP). (3) the ELF leadership was not progressive but interested in promoting feudal values. What were the manifestations of this belief?
Since its national congress in 1971, the ELF had adopted a crystal-clear stand towards the democratic struggles of the peoples of Ethiopia. It was its belief that the struggles in both countries are indivisible. No one can deny the fact that no other Eritrean organization has had the honor of precedence in this respect except ELF. Despite all objective constraints, the ELF had practically interpreted its stand in its co-operation with the nascent Ethiopian armed movements without exception. Ethiopian political organizations including TPLF cannot deny this historical fact. Nevertheless, we in the ELF cannot claim that we were angels and never committed any error. However, at the same time we have never committed an error with an intention to inflict damage upon others.
You remarked in your question that TPLF claims ELF treated it as a junior partner unfit to be equal partner of ´Jebha Abai`. Do such minor accusations give her the right to dismantle the mass organizations established in Tigrai by the ELF since the sixties in order to change their allegiance to its ally, EPLF? Why didn’t it accept our suggestion to arrange ways by which we can confirm the right of both organizations to organize their respective citizens who live in both countries on equal footing?
With regard to another accusation of the TPLF that “the ELF was a protector and guardian of EPRP ( Ehapa)”, that was nothing more than a propaganda consumption exploited to rally Tigraian masses behind schemes to create hatred sentiments among the people against ELF. In this connection I have two points that justify my assertion. The first is that, the more common ground of understanding on central political issues between the parties concerned prevails, the more likely the probability of better relations. The TPLF had more clear stand towards the Eritrean national struggle for independence when compared with that of EPRP´s. Therefore, the joint agreement between ELF and TPLF by which both exchange recognition was concluded in October 19977, whereas such agreement was not reached between ELF and EPRP. This would logically mean that ELF was more liable to seek ways with which it could strengthen its relation with the former. The second is that, no revolutionary movement, which respects itself, accepts to be under the guardianship of any power. And I am not of the opinion that EPRP was a movement ready to be malleable, let alone by ELF, but by regional powers.
What could have let TPLF to take a negative stand against ELF? To explore the presumable reason behind, it seems important to cast some light on the historical background of ELF´s relation with the political movements in Tigrai since early seventies.
Early in 1972, a group of Tigraians who identified themselves as Tigrai Liberation Front (TLF) contacted Dr. Futzum Ghebreselassie, a member of the [ELF] executive committee, and asked him to present them to the ELF. The leadership welcomed this and assigned Futzum, before his martyrdom in 1973, to be a contact person and decided to help them with anything at its disposal. After that, the relation between the two sides developed in different cities and towns inside Eritrea and Ethiopia. Gradually, TLF´s political influence was enhanced in Tigrai.
In 1974, the TPLF was formed under the auspices of Eritrean Popular Liberation Forces which later became the EPLF. Thus, by 1975, there were already two organizations in action in Tigrai. TPLF, backed by EPLF, was engaged in a process of monopolizing political power in Tigrai and began to liquidate TLF in 1976. At this instance, ELF being aware of the negative consequences that would result of such incidents on the struggle of Tigrai and Eritrea, tried its best to mediate and encouraged both TLF and TPLF to settle their differences in a peaceful manner.
It seems ironical that an organization, ELF, which suffers of a similar problem, dared to take a stand to give a piece of advice to others. But that irony in no way diminishes the nobility of our purpose. One is reminded of the deep meaning of the proverb “the burnt child fears the fire”. We were genuine in our effort to let the brotherly people of Tigrai avoid the same fate we faced.
Again, another clash erupted in 1980 in some parts of Tigrai, but this time between TPLF and EPRP. As an outcome of this fighting, EPRP units withdrew to the Eritrean soil and the ELF immediately disarmed and transported them to a safe place until they decided where to go. The TPLF was briefed with the measure taken and our objectives.
The above-explained positions of the ELF, at the two instances, were apparently construed by TPLF, as later developments showed, as if ELF was favoring other Ethiopian political organizations to it. Indeed, what we did, irrespective of the nature of relations we had with the Ethiopians, was purely on humanitarian basis. And I have no reason to regret that decision. In spite of all the facts I highlighted, I would like to repeat again and again we have never claimed that we are angels. With this spirit and in line with our conviction that geo-political reality makes running a constructive dialogue imperative, we were and still stand for re-evaluation of the past to open a new chapter that consolidates the relations between our peoples.
But for the sake of clarity, how can the TPLF leadership reconcile with its claims that it is a progressive organization whereas ELF is feudal, when in the 1980s the TPLF was openly declaring that its Marxist Leninist League of Tigrai was welcomed in USA, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia etc. while the ELF was pursued by these circles as an unwelcome organization?
Finally, as to the accusation that the “ELF leadership was not progressive but interested in promoting feudal values”, I have nothing to say except that it is not a matter of much concern to us because we need neither a political letter of indulgence nor a certificate of merit from any one except our people who better know who is who.
Q15. Let’s talk about one of the saddest chapters of Eritrean history: the TPLF-EPLF Alliance in the War against the ELF. What, in your opinion, was the cause of that?
It is difficult to exactly pinpoint what was the real cause behind that saddest and unholy war of the TPLF-EPLF alliance against ELF on the one hand and TPLF´s flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of Eritrea. Neither of them disclosed their reasons to this day. However, one cannot skip over the fact that both of them were exclusively preoccupied with the achievement of their hegemony over their respective areas. This ambition was converging with international political strategies drawn up for the region.
Was the aggression against ELF coincidental to be timed with those plans?! Do people know that a flow of logistics was not flowing to the ELF since 1978 for the Sudanese regime had refused to grant it facilities which was given prior to that time? In contrast to the ELF, other organizations were getting logistics in abundance. It goes without saying the direct result of that war was tremendously harmful to ELF as well as to the Eritrean people. But the most dangerous aspect of this war, which the two leaderships would bear its historical responsibility, is inculcation of the principle of intervention, which might be an exemplary precedence for the coming generation in dealing with internal political conflicts.
Q16. There are claims that what destroyed the ELF was not the TPLF-EPLF war against it but the internal contradictions and disharmony within its own leadership and the rank and file. What is your opinion about this?
This allegation is something that absolutely cannot be accepted. It lacks rudimentary logic. Those who say that ELF had withdrawn its military units in 1981 to the Sudanese border on its own claim so because they want to exonerate themselves from the crime they had committed against ELF. It was an outrageous attempt to hide the war that lasted for one year and was being waged by EPLF-TPLF alliance.
When the unholy alliance launched its aggression, ELF was confronting the Derg´s army at different fronts and liberated May Mine, then considered one of the Derg’s most famous bastions in Seraye Province.
If internal disharmony and contradiction were the reasons that destroyed ELF, what was the wisdom to withdraw an equipped army to another country to definitely expose it to disarming? It was not for the first time in its history that ELF had been facing crises. In 1964, even though the level of consciousness was low to a considerable degree, the veterans were able to surmount their internal problems. The same had happened in the late sixties and seventies. Such crises were settled by holding congresses and changing leaderships. Unfortunately some were ending in clashes.
Despite all these negative sides in the Eritrean revolution, no organization opted to settle its internal contradictions by moving to the Sudan. After all these clarification, is there any room for logic to drop the very destructive role the Alliance [EPLF-TPLF] had played in ensuing a heavy damage against ELF and our people? Yes, we had contradictions but their effect on ELF cannot offset the consequences of the crimes perverted by them against it. This is a fact that would never to be concealed back behind thick screen of smoke whatever endeavors might be exerted. The real reasons will be seen sooner or later; it is only a question of time.
Q17. Once again, to quote Meles Zenawi, in his book, he claims that the reason for the dissolution of the ELF could not have been the military setback it sustained. To make his point, he alleges that the ELF lost more people in Barentu and that in 1980 the ELF’s manpower and military might was virtually intact. How do you respond to that?
This question has close connection with the above already answered questions. However, there is one point to add concerning the allegation that ELF lost more people in Barentu. The battle of Barentu was only one of the many battles waged by the ELF army. A focus on it amounts as part and parcel of the quest for any justification deemed to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the torrential questions the alliance was facing in terms of their action against ELF in 1980/1.
Let me remind the reader the ELF army was waging different battles against the Ethiopian army of occupation when it was ill equipped in the sixties and early seventies. As an example, one can mention the Battle of Lokotat in 1970, which lasted one month. Furthermore, let me disclose something from the secret pages of the ELF army history: our fighter could sustain his morale and spirit to fight and defend his people when holding, for one year, only 35 bullets for Klashnikov and 18 for Simanov in 1971/2 during a full-fledged boycott against flow of logistics.
Q18. One of the reasons the ELF gave for why TPLF joined the Eritrean civil war was that the TPLF was encroaching on Eritrean territory and the ELF was the only Eritrean organization challenging its encroachment. Could you elaborate on this?
I have noted in my answers to the previous questions with regard to the relation of the ELF and the TPLF. Sadly, the relation continued to aggravate daily during late seventies due to TPLF´s territorial claims with EPLF ´s indifference and support, or rather a connivance with that attitude. Killing and expulsion of some Eritrean citizens as well as fighters of ELF ensued out of the continuous provocative practices of TPLF. Hence, although we were abiding to the responsibility of defending our sovereignty, territorial integrity and interests of our citizens, we nevertheless stood for removing any barriers that might curb the normal activities between two brotherly peoples and tried our best to damp any negative sentiments.
Q19. Now that the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict is going to be resolved through arbitration, each side is going to have to submit documentation to prove that the disputed territories belong to it. There is a great deal of talk that the ELF used to administer areas like Badume, Laileway Adyabo, etc. Does the ELF have documentation to prove this and does it have a mechanism to submit these documents to the Eritrean Government?
As I noted above, the ELF was the sole organization in the Horn of Africa whose military activities were internationally echoed from 1961 to 1974. By virtue of this reality, solely the ELF had been organizing all Eritreans not only in Eritrea but also in Ethiopian cities and towns. To maintain secrecy, it was administering the organized cells by very sophisticated methods. Obviously, it is clear that the territories where these cells were organized by ELF do not necessarily mean they belong to Eritrea. When an armed movement erupted and developed in Tigrai in the seventies, questions related with sovereignty eventually arose.
From the very inception of the agitation of that sort of problem, ELF dealt with it in a manner that reflects its conviction that such type of problem can be settled in a friendly way in the future by referring to the maps drawn by the European colonialists. Besides, ELF was considering raising such issues inappropriate at that particular moment.
The prominent site of contention was Badume area but still, although kept under low profile, there were other areas also. Rather than opting to the policy of exacerbating the friction to its maximum as pursued by the TPLF, it would have been applauded had it chosen the path of peaceful negotiation. The latter was our option in the ELF because we were aware of the fact that there is no other way to radically settle border conflict except through peace. In other words, border conflicts cannot be solved by war, which might recycle at any time.
Badume, yes we administered it with a firm belief that it is an Eritrean territory. Prior to the late Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict, and since independence, we have not seen any claim by EPLF government to this area, particularly during the declaration of independence. We were not asked for any documents or piece of advice, although the issue is relevant to national sovereignty.
With respect to submission of documents to the Eritrean Government, let alone to have such mechanism, it [the Eritrean Government] considers the opposition forces and the ELF, its peak enemies, second to none. The EPLF government is not ready to open a dialogue with the opposition; it is not ready to ask for any document pertinent to this case.
Q20. Let’s talk about the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many of us long-time ELF sympathizers and members were quite stunned by what we perceived as the ELF, once again, being insensitive to the true feelings of its constituency. Why did the ELF (and I mean the ELF-RC) not adopt, if not a nationalist, at least a neutral view?
To begin with your last expression “if not a nationalist at least neutral views” (!), I find attaching such expressions to the ELF that has been a pioneer of Eritrean nationalism, if I refrain to say outrageous, at least very unfortunate. In its long history, it [the ELF] has never compromised on anything that touches on Eritrean national sovereignty. I basically and totally refuse on principle to use the terms, nationalist and neutral, in matters of sovereignty. How can one conceive ELF takes a neutral position in case Eritrean sovereignty is being encroached!
The EPLF government alone bears the responsibility of decision-making with regard to declaring war and peace. ELF as an opposition has no a power of influence that transcends its real position currently on the political theatre. This objective limitation makes its stand confines it to declaring principled positions that safeguard the national sovereignty and strategic interests of our people and that promote a healthy, peaceful relation with neighboring countries. This was reflected on all the statements issued by ELF-RC since the war started between Eritrea and Ethiopia until the day a peace agreement was signed between the two sides in Algiers on 12 December 2000. Let’s ponder on the points included in different statements issued by ELF in connection to this war:
- Called upon the two parties to go back to the status quo prevailing prior the eruption of war and resolve to settle the conflict by peaceful means and to totally refrain from pursuing propaganda activities that harm the relation between the two peoples in the future.
- Called upon EPLF to immediately take practical steps towards national reconciliation to handle matters of war and peace on national level.
- ELF has considered Badume as part and parcel of Eritrean soil. However, it was aware that a conflict on it or elsewhere could only be solved properly by peaceful means.
Sadly, EPLF´s response to this position was irresponsible and irrational. It labeled ELF as ´traitor´ or ´ Wayanes´ as it found it pleasant to say so. But in the final analysis, it is a historical irony to find EPLF government accepting forcefully at every new phase of a battle much below what could have been saved if it would accept our early suggestions in advance.
Concerning ELF’s relation with Ethiopia, it is based on the above-enumerated principles and stands. Without doubt, ELF and other opposition forces have exerted their maximum efforts to save and secure the lives, properties and human rights of the Eritreans who live in Ethiopia so they may not be victims of any hatred sentiments that might grow among the Ethiopian peoples.
After all these clarification, is there any reason to reduce ELF´s nationalism to a mere neutral view as related to sovereignty?!
Q21. The ELF-RC claims that its presence in Addis Ababa has helped a great many Eritreans escape persecution and deportation from the Ethiopian Government. Let me pose this question: in his essay, “The Uprooted”, Professor Asmerom Legesse says that the number one reason used as “Real Criteria for Deportation” was voting in the Eritrean Referendum. My question is this: Given that the ELF-RC had called for boycotting a vote on the Referendum, wasn’t it, in essence, just “protecting” Eritreans who would not have been deported to begin with?
In Ethiopia there are about 200-300 thousand of Eritreans who have permanently lived [there] for a long time. During the Eritrean referendum, both regimes [Eritrean and Ethiopian] had a relation repeatedly termed as “strategic.” The Ethiopian government was giving to the regime in Asmara all facilities that helped the process of referendum to run smoothly. It is well recollected that the Eritreans´ enthusiasm to participate in the voting was very high to the extent one hardly doubts if there were non-participants. If voting was the number one reason used as “real criteria for deportation”, we know that the deported constitute less than 20% of all Eritreans. If that is the case, does it mean that the number of citizens who didn’t vote is round 80%? In accordance to the supposition of Professor Asmerom Legesse, does he mean 80% of the Eritrean population in Ethiopia support ELF? How do they reconcile this with their previous claim that all Eritreans in Ethiopia voted for independence and EPLF government? Thanks to the Professor who either tacitly wanted or unconsciously made clear for Eritreans that the result of direct, free and fair enfranchise in Eritrea would produce this result.
On this occasion I find it appropriate to raise one important question concerning the EPLF government scandal when it handed over data and statistics of Eritreans who voted in referendum to the Ethiopian authorities inside and to its embassies abroad. Therefore, who is to be blamed when Ethiopian authorities utilized this data whenever they saw it necessary to use it in pursuing certain policies toward Eritrea? To conclude my answer in this regard, the ELF has always defended the legitimate interests and rights of our people; and in line with that and to that end it defended in Ethiopia all Eritreans irrespective of their political affiliation.
Q22. Were alliance members present in any of the TPLF occupied Eritrean territories?
This is not a basic issue for Eritrea today. And sadly, such kind of issues have only been raised by EPLF leadership for mere blackmailing and character assassination. Eritrea gains nothing out of it.
Q23. Speaking of the Referendum, Why did the ELF-RC call on boycotting the vote on the referendum?
Since 1961, our people had clearly declared and translated their aspiration for full national independence and sovereignty. To attain that goal, Eritreans paid heavy sacrifices in all aspects. This fact conveys one truth: that the referendum you are speaking about was only a nominal process and had no significant and decisive role to play in changing Eritreans minds with regard to their position towards national independence. No matter the factors that pushed its imposition, the referendum was a de facto reality that entitled every Eritrean to participate and cast her/his vote in it.
From my point of view, a referendum is a principle by which an individual expresses his/her conviction freely. Hence, the implementation of this principle has no relation to a ”group decision”, regardless of the identity of the group. In this sense, the individual has a right to vote or to refrain; and this is unequivocal manifestation of the individual democratic right as I’ve noted. With the exception of a very few countries that make voting compulsory, the overwhelming majority of states in the world constitutionally guarantee the freedom of choice to the citizen.
In conjunction with the context of referendum and issues pertinent to it, it was imperative to put some questions in front of ourselves: How can Eritreans turn the referendum to an event of a positive democratic political exhibition? What are the best procedures to be followed to that end? How can we democratize its process to let it be a hallmark inaugurating Eritrean national reconciliation? The answers to these questions would be summarized in one expression: The process should be democratized from A to Z to make it exemplary for the coming generation.
ELF/RC was calling for democratization of the process and not boycotting it, as you phrased it in your question. We realized from the beginning that EPLF leadership was connecting the referendum process to a political calculation to help it attain monopoly of political power and of other areas that buttress its objectives. At the end of the day, EPLF leadership combined two irreconcilable factors towards an unprecedented legal equation: IDENTITY CARD is equal to VOTING CARD. No matter what your political persuasion might be, the very pre-requisite for voting, and to guarantee your voting right, was to accept EPLF I.D. card . (I hope people have noticed that by now.) The EPLF leadership deliberately equated proof of citizenship with proof of having an EPLF ID. In this case, it becomes illogical for one to accept or comply to such conditions. Members of ELF had no reason to alter neither Eritreanship to EPLF nor replace their political persuasion to the one outlined by another organization that had abruptly controlled power machinery in independent Eritrea. Our members were ready to vote as Eritrean citizens not as EPLF members.
All the above referred to complexities would have been avoided if registration were done properly. The specifications needed to be recorded were: a citizen’s full name , date/place of birth, a document from an Eritrean organization that attests to his/her Eritreanship etc. Such form would be enough to make an Eritrean eligible for voting.
All efforts we put with EPLF leadership to amend the undemocratic procedures ended in failure. The Referendum Commission, although claiming to be neutral and representative, was indeed performing the directly- or remotely-controlled instructions of the leadership. Amare Tekle, Chairman of the Referendum Commission of Eritrea (RCE), sent a very clearly articulated document of instruction to the branches of the Commission abroad. Among the orders he passed and one requiring strict observance by them, was the rejection of ELF/RC members request to obtain voter registration cards on the bases of their identity. He also instructed them to pursue a tactic of procrastination in replying to them so that their demands eventually lost their essence in terms of time.
Perhaps one might guess this is a pure allegation which has been woven from my side. To clear such doubts let me offer the exact text of the press release issued on April 8,1992 by the RCE:
“An officially received a copy of a declaration, dated 17 March,1993, allegedly made by the ELF/RC in which the organization, inter alia , calls upon the Referendum Commission of Eritrea (RCE) to recognise the ID card issued by that organization and to issue voter registration cards to holders of such ID cards. The RCE wishes to clearly state its position on the matter as follows:
The RCE was established by ,and must operate within the framework of the provisions of Eritrean Referendum Proclamation number 22/1992 issued by the Provisional Government of Eritrea on 7 April 1992.
Article 24 of the said Proclamation stipulates:
Any person having Eritrean citizenship pursuant to proclamation number 21/1992 on the date of his application for registration and who was of age 18 years or older or would attain such age at any time during the registration period, and who further possessed an identification card issued by the department of internal affairs, shall be qualified for registration (emphasis added [by Ahmed Nasser]). The RCE is thus bound by law to recognise only the ID card issued by the PGE [Provisional Government of Eritrea] since it is the only document that ascertains citizenship. It shall respect the law. Consequently, it will not recognise any ID card by any political party, movement or organisation including, for that matter, the Eritrean People´s Liberation Front (EPLF) and will not issue voter registration cards to any person not in possession of ID cards issued by the PGE.
Consequently, any endeavor with the Commission was immediately repulsed, sometimes with disdain. When the voting time was drawing on us, and it became a given fact that there was no room for further suggestions, the ELF instructed its members to vote but without dropping everyone’s individual right to exercise his/her option consistent with his or her conviction. And in light of these instructions, some of the members voted and some others went to the ballot-boxes and produced on the spot ELF-ID cards to vote and to prove that they are not against referendum but against undemocratic procedures.
Despite this fact, the propaganda machinery of EPLF regime perpetually attempted to propagate that ELF has been anti-independence or that its members are traitors who shall be submitted to trial for their treachery.
Ironically, EPLF leadership that was repeatedly calling for the protagonists of pro-union with Ethiopia to freely move in Eritrea amongst our people to advance their cause, was not ready to accept ELF in Eritrea to mobilise our people behind the slogan: ´´No Alternative To Full National Independence.”
Q24. Why did the ELF-RC not participate in the constitution drafting process?
The same errors–more detrimental this time–as to that of the referendum were repeated with the same aim but using different means.
As we all know the holiest secular document that is venerated by the people of any country is a Constitution. It is ´´the mother of laws” because it defines clearly the sovereignty of the people; the duties and rights of the individuals; the relationship between a citizen and officials in the state apparatus on whom the people vest authority to run the country and to observe rule of law. A document of this degree of importance should not be prepared, drafted and ratified by a group of persons belonging to one party. It needs a full-fledged participation of parties, organisations, intellectuals, experienced elder national figures and even foreign experts. It needs to be ratified democratically by a universal suffrage or democratically elected representatives of the people. Needless to say, the merits of any constitution cannot be gauged only by its highly styled presentation, content and formulation on paper. Such performance can certainly be conducted by any individual who has the intellectual capacity.
I see two alternative approaches to drafting constitutions.
One alternative when writing constitutions is to recognize that the most indispensable element is the democratic participation of the people starting from its drafting up to its ratification. A people’s constitution adopted in this manner can be respected for its sanctity, durability and consistency. It might lack style and it might embody shortcomings; but that would be amended gradually with relevant experience accumulated by its application and in accordance to the level of consciousness acquired by the people in due time. This is one alternative.
Another alternative is to have a well-formulated constitution with an admirable content and an embellished style, but framed by a handful of regime-crony intellectuals.
A document of that type comes under a guise of constitution to get its way for imposition upon the people. To bestow its legality, deceptive steps have to be followed, internally and externally. People are asked in advance to grasp it instead of deliberate on it. Procedurally, a theatre stage is systematically erected to achieve this end. The government schedules time and organizes meeting places for the so-called ”peoples deliberation” on the draft constitution. Nation-wide gatherings of the people commence as programmed. Juxtaposed with these arrangements, the foreign mass media are invited to attend the sessions. ”It is a good first step. This country is stepping on the right track of democratic governance” is heralded by the foreign media. And later, the same drama has to be repeated on voting day. The drama process culminates with an issuance of a widely echoed political declaration, signifying that the same original draft has been supported by more than 90% of the populace.
“A wolf that howls in broad light of the day may pose a danger.” As the opposition, we were aware of the lessons we obtained from the referendum experience. Therefore, when the question of constitution was raised, we had to think twice on ways that could enable us to avoid replicating the negative experiences of the regimes in developing countries.
Certainly, our option was to follow the first alternative. To attain that objective, we contacted, through different channels, the allegedly neutral Commission of the Constitution. The efforts were futile. The EPLF government, one that in pursuit of monopolising political power never fails to design models for every aspect of Eritrean people, was absolutely not ready to give an ear to any constructive view from us or anybody else. The leadership arrogantly continued to practice its authoritative project and imposed the already prepared `´constitution“ by a sort of a decree before three years. In spite of this fact, this document has still been kept in the drawers of the decision makers of EPLF.
Time has proven that our vision was right. The so-called democratically ratified constitution of EPLF is ´covered by dust in the cupboard´ to borrow Ato Herui T.Bairu´s expression. Had the constitution been of our people’s making, it could not have been possible to tamper with it by ´one person or oligarchy´, to quote Dr.Bereket H. Selassie who was the framer of that document.
Q25. We hear that shortly after the liberation of Eritrea, there was a call for Reconciliation and all Eritrean movements had been invited home. We also hear that you made it all the way to Kassala [Sudan] and, once there, you were told that the EPLF had changed its mind and that you are welcome to join as an individual but not as a party. Is there truth to this rumor?
The ELF was aware of the fact that the liberation of Eritrea had closed one chapter and opened another, which differed in all aspects from the former stages. The main task of the new chapter was national reconciliation in order to consolidate the Eritrean nation formation, drawing up reconstruction programs, establishing a political system and building compatible institutions relevant to the nature of the responsibilities. These ideas were submitted to the EPLF leadership in written forms and channeled through personal contacts. Finally, the EPLF replied with a suggestion to sit and discuss these issues in Asmara and fixed an appointment for the meeting. On the day the meeting was scheduled to occur and we were supposed to fly from Khartoum, we were suddenly informed that the meeting had been postponed. In fact, it is postponed up to this time! They didn’t elaborate nor give any palatable reason for that with the exception of a lame excuse that the leadership is engaged in extensive work, which ended in its failure to abide to the appointment. In different instances, when they were asked why they did not stick to their word with the ELF, they denied at times and that there was any invitation and, at times, they blamed the ELF leadership for disseminating issues when it had agreed to keep them in secrecy etc. On this subject, while in our hands there is a document from their side that disapproves their allegation, we absolutely negate that there was any sort of a protocol agreed upon to keep it as a secret.
All these lame excuses, in fact, reflect that the EPLF leadership was not genuinely trying to cope with Eritrean problems in an objective manner. As developments proved later, it is apparent it was exercising a kind of gambit, which asks us to comply with conditions that promulgate the dissolution of the ELF and to declare to join its organization as individuals. Of course, no organization that respects its long history and contribution as the ELF does, accepts such cruel political stipulation under any circumstances.
As for me, the issue is not a question of prestige and position seeking maneuver, but it is a concern of national interest.
Q26. Are you-or the ELF-RC-going to participate in the next elections?
Since independence, the EPLF and its exponents repeatedly attempted to imprint in the minds of our people that Eritrea does not need democracy. Ostensibly, the underpinning reason for that notion was that if democracy were introduced in Eritrea, whose population is characterized by diversity, it is so vulnerable; the probability of its disintegration would be high. Thus, they concluded that fulfilling certain prerequisites–among which are tremendous economic and social changes–must precede its introduction. From this, one can easily deduct that the only persons who are capable of gauging whether the scored level of achievement is satisfactory to introduce democracy or not would be the influential small group in the leadership of EPLF.
Suddenly, and without any prior notice, they changed their idea and began to speak in favor of democracy. My long experience with the EPLF leadership makes me very hesitant to take this gesture for granted and without questioning. However, irrespective of my well-stated doubt, I consider this a positive intimation in the framework of anticipating tens and tens of objective steps to be followed without delay. Personally, I don’t see any impediment to participation of the opposition forces in the election provided EPLF accepts the following points: –
* Declares its acceptance of the participation of all political forces on equal base with it in the Election Commission and that of Law Drafting Commission for the formation of parties.
* Declares the annulment of all regulations and other constraints of her making that curb political activities in Eritrea.
* Accepts publicly the neutrality and power of the Commissions to work independently without any intervention from the government. In addition to
this, all material needs, which facilitate their work, must be guaranteed.
* Approves the establishment of a Council of representatives of the political forces to overseeing the work of the Commissions.
* Asserts the equal rights of all political forces to utilize the available mass media from the beginning of the election process.
* Accepts international observers to attest the credibility of the election processes and procedures.
With regard to the factor as set by EPLF leadership for December 2001, I don’t see any reason why Eritrean political future would be pressed into such time period that the government would claim there is no time to fulfill the above-enumerated prerequisites. What is needed is a healthy and genuine political future and that would require a national planning.
Q27. Will the ELF-RC boycott the elections if the preconditions that you specified earlier are not met?
First of all, I would like to restate that the opinions expressed in this interview are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the policy of ELF/RC or The Alliance. However, in forwarding these points, it is obvious that my answers cannot be seen in isolation to ELF-RC’s general policy. The ideas I presented in the referred question are my contribution to what I think may constitute a minimum common denominator for all. Instead of terming them a ”precondition”, I would prefer to term them as a prelude for genuine election and to march on the right road that has as its rendezvous Eritrean reconciliation. Any side who rejects the spirit and letter of this idea will definitely bear the responsibility of the continuation of the present predicament of our people.
Q28. How large is the membership of ELF-RC? Membership of the Alliance?
I attach no significance to giving you the statistical data of ELF-RC membership. Instead of answering you with figures, I am inclined to referring you to the following fact: the most reliable figure is the number of votes ELF gets in any free, fair and democratic election. I am quite sure that in such an election, those who boast of having ’mass support’ could possibly be bested by those who are assumed to be considerably marginal. So, let the ballot-boxes speak in a democratic Eritrea! The same criterion applies to all.
Q29. Do you have a military wing? If not, are you planning on an Armed struggle?
No. Planning for armed struggle is not something one can engineer with sheer personal will. It is ,of course, a last option one resorts to at a time when every possible means to achieve one’s goal ends in failure. It is not a plausible means with which one settles the internal contradictions ;but still, one may be compelled to pursue that direction. Our primary option as ELF was and is to resolve our problems in a democratic manner. When we stressed on the fundamentality of peacefully settling our problems, some Eritreans naively thought that we were begging EPLF. Ten years have elapsed since the liberation of Eritrea but the authoritative regime showed no intention to solve rationally our political contradictions until now. Who is to be blamed for the resumption of internal fighting as the case was during armed struggle? The first one to be blamed is the ruling clique in Eritrea. As regard to us, we are happy that history has exonerated us of any negative development that might follow in the future.
Q30. Why did you fail to win over the sympathy of the regional, Arab and other countries to support you?
Generally all Arab countries shared sympathy with the legitimate struggle of Eritreans for national independence. Some of them practically helped Eritrean organisations without exception– militarily, politically, educationally and financially. Yet the magnitude of the aid differed from one country to another.
Eritrea, to which they extended help, attained its independence in 1991. No doubt, the only thing these countries expected from the first government of independent Eritrea was a good word that esteems the old relationship and solidarity. This reminds me of something that happened in the 1970s. When there was a crisis in the relationship between Angola and Morocco, the leader of Angola, the late Augustino Nito, did not fail to thank the Morocco for its aid to the independence struggle of his country, despite his personal views of Shaba.
But in our case, contrary to all expectations, the EPLF government denied the Arabs’ role in our armed struggle and began to extend its hands and inaugurated a new relationship with the Arabs sworn enemy, Israel.
Here, it must be clear that Eritrea has full right to establish relationships with any country in the world on the basis of mutual respect and interests. Nonetheless, it is wise and far better for Eritrea to reinforce its past relations before it thinks of cultivating new friendship world-wide.
But to understand the sense of betrayal some Arab nations feel, it is vital to remind your readers of an article that appeared in the Washington Post on October 14, 1992 under the heading of “Emerging Eritrea Finds Friendship– And A Model—In Israel”. The very early signal or rather bullying message that was launched against Arab countries from an independent Eritrea, on the eve of formal independence, was a shock to most of the Arabs. The bearing of this shock is still present and it still plays a negative role in molding their positions towards anything relevant to Eritrea. One cannot isolate the weak relations of Arab countries with the opposition forces from this fact. But limiting their positions only to the shock is obviously not enough. Surely, there are other regional and international factors that have contributed towards that.
No doubt, Eritrea became a sovereign state after independence. It is now a member of the United Nations and a considerable number of member states have diplomatic relations with it. This status alone compels other states to refrain from meddling in its internal affairs.
In spite of the afore mentioned facts , there is no doubt that some Arab countries, specifically popular Arab organisations, support or are sympathetic to the goals and objectives of the opposition forces. The same can be said about neighbouring countries irrespective of whether they are Arabs or not, albeit, all neighboring countries, without exception, are not in good terms with Eritrea’s ruling regime
Q31. You and the president (Isaias Afwerki) have more or less the same background. What are the obstacles that make reconciliation between you two so difficult?
I do not know whether our background is the same as you put it or not and whether a congruency in that area means a harmony in everything. Whatever the case might be, let me frankly say I have no personal conflict with Isaias Afwerki. The obstacles that make reconciliation between him and me difficult are purely political and nothing else. But one must understand that solving the nature and category of the problems we face on a personal level have no significance in a political realm. Any sort of such thought istantamount to de-railing from the right track of solving our problems to strengthen social coherence in our society, to promote peace and stability in our country.
Q32. Did any country or party ever try to reconcile your organization with the government of Eritrea?
Yes, but not many countries. In this sense there was an informal initiative from the Sudanese President, Omer El-Basheer. Isaias Afwerki´s response was to state absolute negation of the existence of Eritrean opposition forces. According to him, they are no more than groups of people who are of Eritrean origin but who have become naturalised Sudanese citizens.
Q33. What do you say to people who say Ahmed Nasser has a great reputation and has a great deal to contribute to Eritrea and it is a shame that he has to live in exile when the goal he sought all his life-Eritrean Liberation-is a reality and he could return home and help his country?
I didn’t expect that in independent Eritrea innocent fighters and civil citizens who struggled for their beloved country to be requited with imprisonment without trial for more than eight years or perish in dungeons under an Eritrean national government. The prevalence of this reality induces me to work hand in hand, not only with the ELF, but also with all Eritreans who struggle to promote the ideals to which our people shed their blood. I am playing my part with others, to the capacity my health allows, in an effort to change this deplorable situation in our country.
Sometimes, objective reality dictates the destiny of a person. It was not my personal choice to live in exile but a situation has been imposed upon me to do so. Now I am a member in the revolutionary council and participate in decision-making. Hence, the difference between the present site of my residence and the previous one is geographical rather than political. Despite the objective obstacles I have faced, I was trying, and still try my best, to surmount them and to be at the center of the events. To those people who say “it is a shame for Ahmed Nasser to live in exile when the goal he sought had become a reality”, plainly, I say to them, either they are convinced that I am a supernatural person immunized from facing any natural problem that might face any human being, or I should prefer to concede to the harsh political conditions of the leadership of EPLF and join them as an individual. Let them understand I am neither supernatural nor a person who, being enticed by personal gains, sells his political conviction. It would be a shame to me if I would have accounts in banks at the expense of our people. It would be a shame to me if I had committed crimes against our people and opted to live in exile escaping a trial. I am quite sure I will be in Eritrea sooner or later to live among our people.
Q34. During the Armed Struggle, one of the frequent sayings was that “we will not see a free Eritrea in our life-time. Maybe our children or grandchildren will.” Given that the independence of Eritrea was achieved in our lifetime, do you think many of our leaders (in government and in the opposition) are not psychologically prepared for this and act in ways that are self-destructive and place the hard-won independence of Eritrea at risk?
It is irrelevant to be asked with such sort of a question. Who is to be blamed for the predicament our people are facing today? Does a very small group or rather one-man government running our country constitute an objective base to taking it as a criterion to give your judgment to a whole generation?
Q35. The ELF-RC has, ever since the Second National Congress-declared that it is a nationalist movement that does not welcome sectarianism and regionalism. Why then has it joined an Alliance that includes the Jihad, the [Red Sea] Afar Liberation Front and the Kunama Liberation Front?
Yes, in its Second National Congress, ELF-RC declared that it does not welcome tribalism, sectarianism and regionalism. It still sticks to that political line in principle. Nevertheless, it has no intention to impose that upon our people by force but to convince them only through peaceful democratic means. This is clearly confirmed in our program after liberation of Eritrea. In line with our struggle to establish pluralist political system in Eritrea, there is no reason to make a veto against establishment of parties and flourishing of different ideas. Otherwise, we will contradict ourselves when we call for basic democratic rights while pursuing policy opposing that.
It is a given fact that any evaluation must be analyzed in its historical context. If you look at the Eritrean political map at the present time, you find it very colorful ranging from secular to religious to tribal organizations. This is primarily a result of a wrong handling of political issues by the EPLF before and after independence. If things continue in this manner, Eritrea might be exposed to multi-facial problems in the future. Should we be onlookers and keep our hands off, or take certain policies, which could secure our unity, or confront such development with a gunpoint as EPLF does? In our party, we want to explore ways that respect an independent political program for each organization and keep all these movements under an umbrella on the bases of minimum program. Among other important principles, they [the minimum programs] include two: compliance to the unity of Eritrean people and land and establishing a pluralist political system in Eritrea. In politics, what had been true at one historical stage may not be true at another. By the way, we don’t want to be tenacious to that old Tigrigna proverb that runs ´zeben Wbe zi tzememe Wbe kibil mote´.
Q36. Shortly after the May 2000 war, you gave an interview to the MBC [Middle East Broadcasting Corporation] wherein you suggested that the solution to the post-war challenges of Eritrea is to form a Unity Government made up of the EPLF and the opposition. This invitation was rejected by both the EPLF and the opposition. Now what?
At the outset, I would like to correct you in two points. My suggestion was to form a Unity Government made up of the opposition and the EPLF exclusive from those who were directly responsible for bogging our country in catastrophic and senseless war. The second is that, with the exception of the EPLF government, no one from the opposition had rejected [the proposal]. If this had been accepted, we would not face these humiliating consequences. Primarily, the proposal was a personal initiative and the idea was not necessarily only to the decision-making circles but it was a message to the Eritrean general public opinion.
Now, the radical remedy of our problems, I am sure, is embodied in the points I articulated in my answer dealing with the conditions for the next election. No matter how the parties concerned reacted to my proposal, I believe it is still vital to minimizing the continuing and far-reaching negative consequences on the future of our people and country.
Q37. Let’s say you were the President of Eritrea. What steps would you take to ensure that Eritrea is at peace with itself and its neighbors, is enjoying democracy and making progress towards development and prosperity?
First of all, this question is suppositious. So let me leave it to the Eritrean reader of this interview to discern something from my answers to roughly envisage the steps I would take, if I would be a president, to materialize the goals which I stand for as highlighted in my words at different stances in this occasion. Otherwise, from a suppositious question can only come a suppositious answer, the aggregate of which would be fantasy rather than reality, in the end.
END OF INTERVIEW