“Baito Baitona”: The Debrezeit Dialogue Forum
It was my first participation in a big Eritrean gathering of various youth organizations and diverse individuals: refugees, students, journalists, writers, artists and opposition leaders; and I met my Facebook and media acquaintances from all over the world and reminisced our school experiences and all the ups and downs of life in Eritrea. It was a great opportunity to build trust and share the burden by meeting face to face rather than waiting for others to do the assignment for you. The Dere Zeit event was a golden occasion to comprehend the nature of the complex Eritrean politics and particularly to evaluate the ability of the youth on handling such complications.
Why all the way to Debrezeit?
I have never been to Ethiopia before and the idea of visiting Ethiopia for the purpose of discussing Eritrean issues has never crossed my mind; not because of the history of the past, damn it, PFDJ is the worst colonizers of Eritrea, but because the venue is not favorable to gain the support of the innocent masses that are brainwashed by PFDJ’s propaganda. Once I knew that there will be a “conference” in Ethiopia where Eritrean youth groups and individuals from all over the world will attend, I simply accepted the invitation; there was no reason to boycott as long as it is an Eritrean gathering to discuss their own concerns openly. I was told that Ethiopia is funding the event and that the participants will prepare their own agenda once they meet, but that generally the gathering will deal with the role of the youth on establishing justice and democracy in Eritrea.
Honestly I had a list of objective questions to be answered before I join the dialogue forum, questions such as: Why was the dialogue forum kept secretly; why was the public not informed about it in advance? Wasn’t it better to prepare and publish the agenda earlier so that the attendees could absorb the main points of discussion before hand? Why was there no transparency regarding the organizing committee, and how did they get the Ethiopian link etc… I couldn’t get a convincing answer from the concerned people though to some extent I thought handling the information secretly might have positive consequences; combating PFDJ’s propaganda machine and its sympathizers from paralyzing the event even before it starts. On the other hand I did know that keeping all the information hidden would damage the credibility of the dialogue forum. It was indisputable that the public would ask legitimate and blatant questions that require an immediate answer. It was a dilemma though I took the risk: to go there and see for myself. I don’t regret it.
On this piece, I will share my experience in Debrezeit from the 7th-17th of July, 2012. I hope the readers will excuse for refraining from explaining the nature of the organizing committee and how it select the attendees. This is not my domain; they can answer that themselves. However, I will clarify to the best of my knowledge what happened during the 11 hectic days I spent in Debrezeit.
When I first stepped into the conference hall, there were lots of slogans hanging on the wall that portrayed the role of the Eritrean youth and the sense of urgency to save the state and the people of Eritrea: Let us mobilize all the youth resources to save the people and the state of Eritrea:, our vision is to establish justice and democracy,: all the resources of the opposition camp should focus on saving the people and state of Eritrea: youth power is the power of the country; the enemy of Eritrea is Isaias and the PFDJ, etc.
Once the meeting started, the organizing committee delivered an introductory speech that focused on the process and procedures and logistics. The organizing committee explained that they are volunteers and their role was simply facilitation of the dialogue forum; we were told that we are the owners of the agenda and we will lead it. It was definitely true, so far so good. Afterwards we received a welcome speech by the Sena’a Forum authorities; unfortunately I failed to understand the Amharic version, I could hardly remember a word except a few common words I used to hear when I was a child: qum and wombede. Nevertheless a good friend of mine was kind enough to highlight and translated a summary of the speech for me; it was welcoming word and an explanation that the forum is supported by the Sena’a Forum. Thanks to God!
The conferees introduce themselves to each other and their respective organizations. There were representatives from Germany, Switzerland, Middle East, North America, Canada, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, various refugee camps in Ethiopia, Addis Abeba, Holland, England, etc… The youth groups from the Sudan were a little bit delayed and in fact some of them couldn’t attend the forum due to the technical problems.
At the beginning of session, participants randomly nominated the secretariat or “dialogue moderators” from within the attendees. Language (Arabic and Tigrignya) and “leadership abilities” were fairly taken into consideration and we nominated eight candidates. Three of them withdrawn voluntarily and we elected four of the five remaining candidates by direct vote as one seat was left reserved for those who could arrive later, particularly from the Sudan, New Zealand and Australia. Despite the election of the secretariat was purely democratic and fair, slight party or interest frictions begun to arise right from the beginning. Some people wanted to be represented to lead the dialogue forum; they didn’t even believe on the democratic results. A habitual confusion I noticed during the election process was that many participants failed to accept that leadership is a scarce resource; we can’t be all leaders. It was irritating but this is the nature of our politics- everyone desires to be a leader. Yet the role of the secretariat was just to moderate the dialogue, a tough task that requires wisdom and patience; it had nothing to do with being the next president of the Sate of Eritrea.
I observed that the forum protocol was spontaneous and the organizers were not well prepared. Every idea and each decision was generated from the conferees; starting from setting the laws of the forum up to the end of the session. This reality proved that the participants were the sole owners of the discussion and that there was no ready-made agenda to be imposed on them.
The following day we were divided into six groups and received the major points of discussion as summarized as below:
1. What is the political, social and economic status quo in Eritrea?
2. Why we encountered these problems?
3. Why we couldn’t solve these problems?
4. What is the solution?
5. What is the role of the youth on resolving these problems?
Each group was fairly constituted from both sexes, though the number of women was limited, multi-lingual and unilingual; translation process was fairly good within the group discussions and excellent at the conference hall where the outcome was presented. Summary of the input from the attendees was presented in both Arabic and Tigrinya; it proceeded very smoothly and there was no sign of discomfort from the participants.
I noticed some brave positions from some conferees who generated free and audacious ideas. There was fair understanding of the overall Eritrean reality and the opposition block, in addition to the Ethiopian position on the ruling of the border demarcation. The degree of consciousness that the youth has developed was beyond my imagination. There were some sort of confusions and amateurish trickeries that were intended to misguide and direct the dialogue forum against the will of the sober youth. All the muddles were cleansed and thrown away to the place where they belong; there was no naivety and mujamala indeed.
The youth and the Mejlis (Baito)
The Eritrean opposition politics could be puzzling, especially for those who were being introduced to it for the first times; wudubat, kidan, baito, etc. We spent much energy and defining and clarifying their origin and how they can work together. A significant number of the conferees didn’t know the mandate and legitimacy of these political entities. One of the key facts I realized during my stay in Debrezeit was that, generally the youth had a negative perception about the existing opposition block even before they come to the dialogue forum; hence, several youth organizations and independent individuals chose to distance themselves and work independently without any coordination with the opposition forces or the National Council. This negative barrier was created basically due to the weakness and inaction of the opposition block at one hand and the self-isolation of the youth groups to find their own course on the other hand. Consequently, the blame of inefficiency was shared; neither the youth groups nor the opposition block was spared.
Yet I have never thought that the National Council enjoys such kind of legitimacy and sympathy from the side of the younger generation. Most of the voices I heard were echoing “baito baitona eyu”, and we have to act as a pressure group to push it forward and work closely with it. Constructive criticisms were leveled at the weakness of the National Council; the absence of internal regulations between the legislative and executive bodies and the lack of mandate to carry out specific tasks in a given time frame indeed caused anxiety among the conferees. But these reasons were not far enough to disqualify the recognition of the National Council, actually there were a lot of concepts among the youth that were in favor of knocking the doors of the baito, rectifying its weaknesses and promoting its duties.
Speeches of the Ethiopian authorities
For two days the Ethiopian authorities presented detailed information about the historical background of the EPLF and TPLF and the current position of the Ethiopian government regarding the building of sustainable peace and stability between the two peoples and states and the border ruling. Minister Berekhet Simon noted out that one of the fundamental reasons as to why the TPLF commenced the revolution against the Derg regime was its failure to properly accommodate diversity, ethnic suppression and imposing the Amharic language as a sole national language of Ethiopia. In other words, he delivered a good speech for Eritreans to consider the abovementioned issues when they envision a prosperous future for Eritrea. He also compared and contrasted the achievements Ethiopia has registered on economic, socio-political and diplomatic arenas with that of the PFDJ whose achievements on all aspects proved to be null.
By the end of the speech, the conferees were given an opportunity to ask questions and the Ethiopian authorities were confronted with tough and blatant questions by the youth: Why IS Ethiopia reluctant to implement the border ruling? Isn’t it a violation of the international law and Eritrean sovereignty to occupy sovereign Eritrean soil (Badme) etc….
Their answer regarding the border ruling was not convincing; they kept repeating the customary justification that “we have to dialogue before we implement”. Nonetheless, there was an extra rationalization that makes sense; they said that even if they implement the border ruling while the PFDJ is in power, they can’t guarantee a sustainable peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia. In other words, PFDJ will hatch another conspiracy to destabilize Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa even if the border ruling is implemented. Therefore, first, the PFDJ regime should go.
When we assess the outcome of the Debrezeit dialogue forum, I think we leaped one step forward and instituted a friendly foundation to deal, prepare and invite all the youth groups who either rejected the offer to attend or were not invited or failed to join due to technical and immigration obstructions on the coming congress that will be held after one year. Henceforth, it is our responsibility to encourage and strengthen it for the best results. Dialogue forums and conferences should primarily be judged by the final output. A common negative phenomenon I noticed in the culture of our politics is that we are so quick to criticize; we are not so patient until even the end of such gatherings. I believe that we have to fix this habit at best and introduce a rational and cautious observation before we publicize our judgments.
If there is someone who is still thinking that the Eritrean youth can be tricked by the traditional conspiracies, then I can say it is simply insulting our ingenuity; I have noticed consciousness and alertness in Debrezeit and I am proud of all who have taken part on it. The initiatives taken to make it more inclusive within the leadership of the youth council were definitely wonderful; we reserved one seat for our brothers inside the country-an unprecedented decision in the history of the opposition.
Finally, I can’t end my article without acknowledging the patience and wisdom of brother Khalid Abdu for his excellent managing of the dialogue forum; in fact he proved to be the master of the stage and I really appreciate that. I am also thankful to brother Abdulrazak Kerrar who possess amazing translation capacities on top of his high level of tolerance and modesty.