Eritrea: A Dissection Of The Opposition

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

The current Eritrean opposition organisations are offshoots of the mainstream politics of either the ELF or the EPLF; both organisations had a distinct political experience, stemming from different social and cultural background that contributed in creating separate trends that greatly impacted the course of the Eritrean history and general developments of the past and present national struggles.

The ELF by virtue of its origin in the lowlands had to a great extent reflected and assimilated certain characteristics of the dominant pastoralist culture that more or less shaped the Modus Operandi of its leadership; where society leads a more independent and loosely organised mode of life and where individual freedom is prioritized versus strict discipline. The prevailing, relaxed, slow pace and temp and the mode of living has induced a survival instinct that demands patient and endurance in facing hardships at the expense of a  much needed sense of urgency. This is typified by the conception and the approach that the ELF had adopted in dealing with the basic struggle’s motto and philosophy: The struggle is bitter and long but our ultimate victory is certain. It had been taken for granted that the outcome is automatically guaranteed and this mechanical process would finally evolve at a point in time to the fulfilment given enough patience and stamina. This has precipitated a negative culture of passivity, spontaneity, lack of conscious purposeful interventions, lack of initiatives and urgency in undertaking any task.

Though the ELF had been spontaneously evolving to truly represent the Eritrean diversity not neglecting the fact that its diversity and heterogeneity constituted challenges that were not properly handled. Its leadership had practically failed to realise the dream of transform it into a real melting pot. It was incapable of properly managing problems and attritions in time, and within the organisational framework, as assuming such a national role and responsibility demands. Problems that accumulated and primarily arose from internal disputes, issues of culture and power, among the different components: the old and the new comers, the right and the left flanges, the progressives and the  reactionaries, etc. that gradually weakened the organisation and exposed it as an easy and helpless prey to EPLF.


The ELF that prided itself on being the pioneer of the armed struggle and an all accommodating national organisation finally was unable to defend itself properly. It lacked the  military discipline, administrational capabilities, political acumen and logistical sophistications to quickly react and redeploy troops , weapons and supplies where and when needed; not forgetting the negative role of the ‘EPLF fifth column’ that had penetrated the ranks and files and that actively helped in eroding the ELF from within. Militarily it lacked a clear strategy where its military headquarter was based on the defenceless, open plains of Barka, and politically had not developed a clear political vision on how to deal with the EPLF that was considered a national partner despite the known ill intention of the later. In contrast, the EPLF had a clear strategy based on the elimination of the ELF. Diplomatically the ELF confined itself to the Middle East region. Consequently these developments brought about the untimely, tragic and unceremonious end of the ELF as a united organisation, even if splinter groups of ELF mainly comprise the major part of the current political opposition organisations.

The EPLF by designs of its inception was contrived to resemble and assume some characteristic of the feudal culture that reigned in Kabesa: centralisation of power under the leadership of a strongman (feudal lord); full and uncompromising loyalty of the subjects; habit of secrecy; xenophobia (especially fear of Islam); over-cautiousness prompted by a prevalent survival instinct; strenuous work habit; and consciousness about group interests are all shared traits of that culture. This had been the ground that furnished the basis on which the EPLF was formed and which the EPLF leadership had shrewdly exploited to the maximum degree to its advantage. The EPLF leadership was well aware of this cultural and social background and had realised at an early stage that it was a lost bet to try to control and transform the ELF into serving their agenda. It could not only be considered a suitable launch pad to embark from ton form a new organisation that would be tailored to the wishes, whims and objectives of Isaias and his group as stated in their declaration “Nehnan Elamanan”; The ELF was considered a consistent threat that had to be eliminated to secure the complete success of their project.

EPLF raison d’être was built on the myth that the initiators were prompted by the necessity of defending the Kabesa interests against their arch-enemy ELF (which they derogatorily called Amaa). A propaganda theme was adopted, developed and actively executed to mobilise, particularly Kabesa people, around the EPLF, to create a strong and centralised organisation of more or less homogeneous main base, where all powers were concentrated on only a few hands. All members had been made to play obediently the ‘horse’  character’s role as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm,  whose mantra was only to work hard and fully trust the leadership that is assumed to know and care for the subjects’ interest better than them. Under the very eyes and noses of the rest of us, in either complicity or a silence resembling consent of the majority, the EPLF has evolved into an unbridled, full fledged totalitarian dictatorship.


The majority of the current opposition groups came a long way carrying such a heavy burden from their past experiences. Especially true when they have evaded conducting objective assessments of their past whether separately or collectively to courageously bear their due share of responsibility in the failures, but always opted to escape forward in clear evasion of that duty, playing the easy blame game against each other, and reading the same common history in different versions and thus drawing different conclusions. Therefore, it is not surprising that it took many years to reach what should be obvious conclusion, that unless a certain form of a collective work mechanism based on a unity of action and purpose could be created, it would not be possible to score a victory against the incumbent regime in Eritrea.

The Opposition, after a long process at a turtle pace and with many ups and downs, finally was able to establish an alliance of ten political organisations, the EDA. Since then practically not much had been achieved towards realising the goal of deposing the regime. Many real reasons or pretexts claim that one was that Ethiopia has not sufficiently helped the EDA to make a difference, a fact that Ethiopia itself partly admitted during the seminar of the intellectuals. This is in contrast with the Eritrean regime’s full support to the degree of direct involvement along side the opposition groups it sponsors against the neighbouring countries. But the mere formation of EDA as an alliance composing different political organisations, was in itself an achievement not to be overlooked as it symbolised and represented a necessary step towards recognising the democratic rights of others, tolerating differences of opinion and co-operating with organisations that adopt different doctrines, under one umbrella.

Though EDA had realised early enough the importance of widening the popular base of the opposition by deciding to hold a conference for national dialogue, aimed at drawing civil societies and non-affiliated public groups into the opposition circle, it took a decade to implement that decision to finally culminate in the convening of the Addis Conference of 2010 (ENCDC). But the process was not smooth and without cost as EDA had to suffer collateral damage resulting in the withdrawal of one of its founding members mainly over the controversy about the purpose and the preparation processes of holding the conference.

The participants of the conference had entertained different understandings of the core purpose of the envisioned conference which was not clearly defined. It was generally inferred from the title name under which it was held and that gave different implications and meanings depending on the languages used; a matter that created great confusion. In Tigrinya it was called, the ‘Eritrean National Waala’, in Arabic the ‘Eritrean Conference for National Dialogue’ in English the ‘Eritrean National Conference for Democratic Change’ (ENCDC).

The majority of independent individuals and civil societies attended in response to the call and invitation made by EDA to the public to join and play its awaited national role in supporting the political organisations. This was a call meant to forge a new alliance between the public and political organisations to vitalise the national struggle and its mechanisms to realise the goals of the struggle to replace the regime in Asmara by a democratic system.

EDA members who called, prepared and sponsored the conference had also different opinions about the mandate and purpose of the conference. This fact clearly had been manifested at critical decision making occasions that followed lengthy discussions. Mainly, two conflicting opinions emerged: most of the political organisations asserted that the Conference or Waala had no powers to take decisions and that it was only called to discuss issues while the civil societies and independent individuals argued that the Conference like any of its calibre had to own itself and take whatever decisions deemed necessary in the proper procedural ways. Finally as a comprise it was agreed that the conference should be considered as a stage to prepare the ground for a future wider, all inclusive, well prepared congress that would be held in a year’s time and to that effect a commission was formed. Despite the fact that EDA is the initiator that should be credited for calling the Conference, it was apparent that it had no clear purpose or picture of the expected final outcome–even some members of EDA were sceptical leaving the impression that they had resented the decision of calling the conference resorting back to their respective organisational trenches in self defence against an envisaged attack to their interests. All these could be considered as normal reaction to such an introduction of a sudden and bold change in the mode of struggle. Thus it should be understood in the context of natural hurdles and difficulties that could be encountered in the course of a struggle that should gradually be overcome and normalised through building confidence and trust that could be gained in the joint work process. The writer in no way intends to disparage, underrate the efforts or doubt the sincerity of those behind the arduous work put into, particularly the process of holding that conference.

The main purpose and task of the congress preparation process that emerged was to consolidate the new alliance that had been forged by establishing a solid unity and trust based on purposeful joint work between the grassroots of the political organisations and the public; struggle to win the silent majority and engage them actively in the struggle for change; conduct an extensive well prepared and all inclusive process for convening a successful national congress that would be financed by the public to enable it to own its independent national decisions. Despite the commendable efforts exerted by the commission and supporting committees to sincerely translate the goals into tangible results there stood in the way some political organisations who worked on their hidden agenda that ran contrary to the declared aims and purposes of the process. Valuable time was wasted in counteracting attempts to derail and divert the process from its course and transform it into a platform for power struggle. Inadvertently or not loopholes were created in the process through which the balance of representation was skewed to benefit some organisations that actively worked to that end at the expense of the civil societies, the independents and non-affiliated public share.

Thus that was part of the explanation of how the current ENCDC leadership came into being incapacitated. The large number of the council (127) and the choice of leadership based on mere representation rather on merits was a liability. Though the ENDC was formed at a time Ethiopia reiterated assurance and promised shift of policy on Eritrea based on active engagement and full support, we still hear that Ethiopia is not helping the opposition enough but it is encouraging and looking into other alternatives.

It was obvious that the ENCDC was born crippled with inherent weaknesses and shortcomings that if not frankly recognised and properly attended would lead to its being dysfunctional and finally rendered paralysed and redundant. The hope was posed on a fact: no matter how weak and incapable the leadership might be, that could have been overcome through adopting strong parliamentary procedures that adopt institutional work traditions, making proper work plans, applying collective leadership and separation of powers. This task could have been done properly by activating the standing committees which in turn would have solicited and outsourced the advice and expertise from professionals, be it nationals or foreign consultants, to make up for the deficiencies on their side.

Up to now, for over six months, neither the ENCDC (Council) membership nor its leadership (that of the Council or the Executive) has done any meaningful attempt to move forward and resume their mandated duties, but went into a slump and are slowly drifting into a complete stand still situation.

To contribute my share into finding a possible solution, let me discuss what the root cause of the problem could be. The trouble of going through the history of the development of the opposition was partly intended to serve that purpose.

As noted, the problem is neither new nor easy to address or get a quick fix for; it is a complicated one, with roots extending back deep into history and is a cumulative result of a long series of unaddressed faults and shortcomings that unconsciously developed to instil a norm or work tradition of the opposition.

This doesn’t imply giving up on the opposition but to underscore the fact that the problem is general and deep rooted. Trying to attribute the problem to the current ongoing power struggle and squabbles between EDA and ENCDC as in some discussions that our elites have indulged in is a gross oversimplification and distraction from the real problem. At any rate, we cannot rewind the clock back to undo all the faults and shortcomings of the past but certainly we can do something if we focus on the present concern, the ENCDC and try to salvage what we possibly can.

The ENCDC is now an accepted and a de facto result of the National Congress irrespective of our viewpoints about the capabilities of its leadership or flaws that accompanied the processes of its formation. No reversing or retracting from the course and objectives is advisable, but the choice is to move forward to put the ENCDC on the fast track and get it rolling again. This is the primary task that is required of all concerned forces and individuals to focus on and help to realise it urgently.

The ENCDC is considered an upgraded version of its precursors  and has been promoted to a status of national organisation that encompasses under its umbrella wider popular, as well as political bases. But its leadership apparently is lagging behind to match the speed of development with corresponding necessary adjustments and to be up to thr challenge of the task.

To our dismay we notice utter loss and confusion of the Council’s leadership concerning its responsibilities, and its inability to lead the council to perform its mandated duties as legislative, policy making, planning and an overseeing organ. It failed to complete the structures of the standing committees and activate them to do perform their tasks. The council had only met once after its formation and that was just to nominate the members of the executive organ as if this is the only task they should do, and its members dispersed to supposedly meet again as scheduled, after one year. In the meantime, nothing has been done in setting internal guidelines that regulate and define the council’s work, its relations with the Executive Committee and its constituents. That would have spared  the current polemics as to who should do what; it would have also helped in setting a generic model for others to refer to in drawing their internal regulations including the executive organ. No work plans were set for the Executive Committee to implement, and a reference based on which the council would exercise its duty of scrutinising and evaluating the work of the executive offices to be addressed in the upcoming meeting.

Contrary to the recommendations of the bylaws of ENCDC, the heads of Executive Committee’s offices are simultaneously occupying other executive posts in their respective organisations–a fact that has hindered them from devoting all their time and effort to their respective assigned duties within the ENCDC Executive Committee. The office of the Chairman of the Executive Committee is unable to communicate properly with other executive members, taking a series of conflicting decisions together with only the members who are present in Addis Ababa–for instance, the controversial decisions related to the role of the executive members in supervising the process, and leading the work of the regional committees that were to be formed. This has led to more confusion in the manners in which the committees were formed in different regions depending on which of the decisions each committee followed. Generally speaking, the performance of the executive leadership is in no way better than its counterpart in the council. The resultant effect is the current stalemate that the ENCDC as a whole is suffering from.

The ENCDC is a national achievement and all concerned have invested dearly in it and therefore are keen to preserve and further develop it. Objectively criticising and analysing the probable causes is an important step when expressed in the right context and right attitude with the intention of helping it in solving its problems. This should be a collective concern and it would be more effective when meaningful efforts and capabilities are focused and engaged towards that end. Of course, it is beyond the scope of one person’s capacity to exhaustively deal with all the issues; everyone should contribute their share.

I believe the way forward should take the following into consideration:

  1. The public, civil societies, élites, either in their individual capacities or by forming specialised supporting groups or      other forms, should play a more active role in getting positively involved  in the change process and rally behind the ENCDC and provide it with the necessary material, technical, legal and diplomatic assistance and necessary advice.
  2. The ENCDC (the council & executives) should immediately call for a meeting to discuss and deal with the current situation with the aim of ending the stalemate in order to resume normal and proper functioning.
  3. ENCDC should be urged, and if necessary pressured by public opinion, to actively play its role of collective leadership; it should immediately complete and activate all the standing committees so that they can function properly; and it should exercise its role as a legislative, policy planner, and a scrutinizing, supervising and checking organ. The complete separation of powers between the two authorities should be strictly applied and be observed; accountability, transparency and institutional work should be adopted to entrench the culture and practice of parliamentary democracy.
  4. The Standing Committees and specialised groups should ask for professional help from experts to facilitate the task of drawing the needed work plans that would set work guidelines and objectives for the Executive Committee to implement creatively according to the priority and timetable. The Executive Committee should play its leadership role as effective implementer and facilitator for the ENCDC work plans. It should set its priorities by innovatively translating conceptual plans and principles from theories into tangible results in all fields of action. It has to seek and properly utilise all the potentials of the Eritrean Diaspora: skills, expertise, financial capacities and manpower to help develop and execute the ENCDC plans effectively.
  5. A Clear description of cooperative and organisational relations should be determined between the ENA and its composing elements, EDA, non-EDA political organisations, civil societies and the non-affiliated individuals and the public. Based  on that, the ENCDC and the Executive Committee would be able to draw clear lines that define the task domains of every group, thus clear confusions and unnecessary competitions and interferences from occurring.
  6. An evaluate of the ENCDC’s operational capacities, particularly that of its leadership (Council & Executive leadership) during the period that elapsed since its inception is and if necessary; and a reshuffling or completely changing the officers might be needed.

This is my modest attempt to find plausible explanations for the chronic problems that have inflicted the opposition forces, and an attempt to find a durable solutions that would help us break away from the vicious circle of continuously repeating old mistakes. I’ve tried to be as objective as possibly, but a subjectivity tint could not be completely excluded, and I cannot claim that what I asserted in this article are the only version of the truth or the whole truth.


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