Eritrea: The Fall of Dictatorship And Consolidation Of Democracy

I wrote my introductory remarks (Part 1 of this series) on this topic before reading Saleh Y’s latest piece. Saleh’s article was published on August 30th, mine on 9/3 but I actually sent it on 9/1. So I have not read his article when I wrote my introductory remarks. Curiously, I decided to write on this subject partly because I wanted to reach people like him whose views about PFDJ seem somewhat ambivalent but reading his latest article, I was gratified to find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of his ideas though I can still detect in him a desire to salvage PFJD in some way. An example of the latter is his description of total victory as a worst case scenario because of a power vacuum that will result. But why should there be a vacuum when it can easily be filled by the victorious (an interim government)?

I believe what motivates Saleh is a desire to avoid bloodshed at all costs which may also account for his ambivalence towards PFDJ. He is to be commended for such caution and for his deep concern for peace. Unfortunately, a bloodless revolution or coup is not always possible particularly when the army’s loyalties might be divided. In fact, it is more reasonable to presume that some factions within IDF will remain loyal to the end or at any rate during the initial stages of the revolution. “No bloodshed” as an ideal to shoot for is a splendid goal as long as we don’t make it a precondition for launching a revolution. If the regime was to violently lash out at the resistance to circumvent its impending doom, for example, are we to suffer it peacefully and allow the resistance or a coup attempt to be squashed to avoid bloodshed? Of course not! As far as talking to PFDJ is concerned, I hope Saleh is alluding to terms of surrender because there can be no other discussions.

His vision of EDF leading the revolt may also be problematic considering how often such scenarios lead to a military dictatorship. I think it is best if civilians (masses and the elite) lead the revolution (with the help of EDF of course). It is never good in my opinion to let anyone with might and guns taste of power because they usually never let go voluntarily! Overall though, Saleh has done a marvelous job at succinctly capturing the broad sketches of a smooth takeover and I enjoyed reading his insightful article. Coming to the topic….

After my introductory remarks, some took me to task for stating that the “overarching goal” of the struggle for independence was all about liberty from a colonial power. I appreciate the criticism of course but I wish readers would extract the gist of the message and avoid dwelling on things that few would disagree about. Should it be necessary for me to mention that the ideals of freedom, dignity etc… also formed part of the aspirations of the fighters? Aren’t these self-evident truths? Who would dispute (except for the YG’s and their likes) that the liberation movement and its actors were men and women of high caliber who were highly motivated, idealistic, and principled? Without such a vision, it would have been impossible to launch a movement that demanded such a heavy sacrifice and fortitude for so many decades.

But the question is did they have a feasible political program for a post-independence Eritrea? The answer is no except in totally vague conceptions. Even their perception of democracy was minted in Marxist models of “democratic centralism” that is more attuned to produce a single-party dictatorship than a democracy. They did the best they could under the circumstances they found themselves in. I am not faulting them but I am saying we should learn from such an experience the importance of looking beyond the immediate goal. The current immediate goal for democratic workers is the toppling of the dictatorship and the establishment of representative democracy. Between these two milestones (fall of the dictatorship and consolidation of democracy) is a period that holds the key to our success or failure in bringing about a vibrant democracy. This is the period of transition. This is when we decide what to do with the criminals, the torturers, the enablers, and the collaborators of the oppressive regime. This is also the time we build democratic institutions and transform the socio-political culture of our country to align them with democratic principles. Whether Eritrea’s transition will come about through mass protests or by an elite-led coup, it is what we do during this period that matter most. That, dear respected reader is the subject I have thrust upon myself to discuss.

Transition presents challenges at many levels: at the political level, we have to decide what to do with the old guard as we stated and how to go about building democratic institutions. Economically, we need to tear down the gigantic government monopoly. Socially, democratic attitudes and thinking need to be instilled in tandem with de-shaebiatization (deprogramming). There are many other challenges such as demilitarization and repatriation of refugees that need to be tackled. In short, an overhaul of the entire infrastructure is needed. We dismantle for obvious reasons: First, the dictatorial system is totally antithetical to democracy; Second, democracy needs to be protected from derailment and this requires the removal of all traces of the dictatorship and the weeding out of any institutional support mechanism that may enable it to reconstitute itself in a new garb. Third, to replace corruption and favoritism by rule of law and justice. The question is: how do we go about it? Here is my take:

Immediately after take over: the PFDJ cabinet should be dissolved and its members (including the president) detained and an interim government formed. The task of the latter will be 1) to ensure that law and order is kept 2) to secure and protect vital government property and documents 3) to set up an election committee 4) to appoint a constituent assembly for drafting of a new inclusive constitution. 5) To see to it that border patrol is kept to prevent serious criminals from fleeing the country. Names and photos of all high officials of the ousted regime should be given to those in charge of guarding the borders (at airports, seaports, and land routes). The interim government should also make sure that former collaborators of the regime are removed from all vital and sensitive positions. Should the interim government also task itself with tackling the refugee issue? I am not sure but a committee to research the issue could be setup leaving implementation to a future elected administration.

All government workers and other civilians who are not accused of serious crimes or of actively collaborating with the regime should be assured that their jobs are secure and that they will continue to receive their paychecks uninterrupted. To forestall restlessness and worry, the interim government should publicly announce this immediately upon takeover and summon all employees to report to work. Likewise, the police force should continue its work of keeping law and order uninterrupted but should be given new guidelines to ensure that human rights, privacy, and other democratic entitlements are protected and respected. No more Police State; no more harassing; and no more spying on innocent citizens!

Criminals and Collaborators: Supporters of the regime can be classified into two broad categories: i) those who committed serious crimes or are suspected of having committed them and ii) those who just went along to get along for fear or some other extenuating reason such as to support a family or simply survival.

People in the second category should be dealt with very leniently and charitably but those who committed crimes or are suspected of committing them should be fully persecuted and punished if their guilt is established. This includes those who abetted or collaborated with those who committed the actual crimes. Those who were in senior command positions will be presumed to have been aware of the crimes committed under their watch unless they can conclusively show they did not participate in planning, ordering, directing, or executing such policies, practices, or acts. Top military officials who may be culpable of gross human rights abuses should be detained but the rest of the military should continue as is (with partial demilitarization in the works). Detention is needed in such cases because otherwise, many top brass criminals would never be persecuted and would vanish before they are apprehended. The military’s main task should be to protect the borders and the interests of the nation including safeguarding vital state assets.

It may be asked at this point: are such persecutions really necessary? Why can’t we just forgive them all and start with a clean slate? There are a number of reasons why such a measure would not be wise. First, it would be unjust to the victims and their families who suffered grave injustice under the regime. Many would deeply resent it. Second, victims and their families might decide to take the law into their hands to get justice they were denied by the new government. Such vigilantism can disturb law and order and lead to a chaotic situation posing a serious threat to the nascent democracy. Third, setting criminals free encourages future violations. It sends a signal that we will be soft with future crimes. By persecuting past crimes, we send a strong signal to would-be saboteurs that we are dead serious against criminals and will not tolerate future violators and offenders.

It is important to keep in mind however that the goal is justice not retaliation. As a sage once put it, “for good, return good; for evil, return justice”. There will be a temptation to sidestep due process to settle old scores but we must rigorously adhere to the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Though common sense would indicate that PFDJ members and collaborators were at least accessories of the brutal regime and therefore obviously guilty at various levels, due process must still be followed before any punishment is meted out. By doing so, we are at the same time nurturing a democratic culture from the get-go.

Institution Building – the Political system: Institution building should begin by laying out the foundational pieces of democratic governance. A new inclusive constitution should guarantee fundamental rights such as equality before the law (no discrimination), freedom of speech, assembly, movement, freedom of religion, right to constitutional remedies, cultural and education rights and rights against abuse or exploitation etc…The constitution should also provide for a way to remove public officials for violations; define election rules, term limits, and the responsibilities of various government officials among other things.

In forming the government, the main issue will be deciding how much power should be retained at the central government level and how much authority should devolve to state/local regional administrations. Should we opt for federalism or other forms of decentralization? Federalism is distinguished from others by the constitutional guarantees it provides. Note that I am not even considering a centralized unitary government as an option for Eritrea because it can easily lead to abuse of authority and marginalization of minority enclaves. Decisions also need to be made about the form of the legislative/Executive functions we want in the government. Should we opt for presidential system, parliamentary, or a mix of the two? How about the electoral design? Do we go for Plurality/Majority, PR (proportional representation) or Semi-PR?

There are advantages and disadvantages to all forms of political systems. To me, the key is inclusion, inclusion, inclusion. The reason why we must focus on inclusiveness should be obvious. First, it adheres to the democratic principle of participation by all. Second, Eritrea is a religiously and ethnically diverse country. Whether we like it or not, ethnicity and ethnic politics are now a reality in Eritrea and must be accommodated at least temporarily to avoid conflict and to build confidence. Third, if any group feels underrepresented, it will have no incentive to support a budding democracy. The latter needs all the support it can get during its formative years and cannot afford to lose the support of anyone. Additionally, when minorities are fairly represented and respected, they will be less likely to resort to violence.

Inclusive engagement is needed not only during implementation phase but also during initial negotiating stages when laws and guiding principles such as constitutions are being deliberated. Disparity and unfair representation is the single factor that accounts for most of the conflicts around the world and is the chief reason why new democracies fail. In whatever we do, therefore major social groups and minorities must be included and feel included. We have roguish bigots of all kinds in Eritrea but what will save us in the end is the presence of a large majority of sensible individuals that believe in coexistence and in sharing power and resources.

The more I ponder on power sharing, the more I find myself leaning towards federalism as a solution (though I am not totally sold to it at this time). What draws me to it is its inclusiveness, its empowerment at the local level, and the relatively fair representation it accords to constituent units.   Many marginalized minority territories that have been suffocating for decades under the dictatorship’s iron grip will demand autonomy and a breathing space and we would be wise to grant it. In federalism, power devolves to regions equally and they have an equal relationship to the central government. The nitty-gritty details of how this will unfold in practice should be decided at a negotiating table to which all major groups or stake holders are invited. The constitution should specify exactly what powers are to be given to various territorial subdivisions and what will be retained at the center. Major issues that affect the nation as a whole such as defense, foreign affairs, currency etc…are traditionally (and quite sensibly) retained at the central government level.

Territorial subdivisions should be given the right to enact their own local laws and constitutions and to form a local government. They should also have control over local agriculture, commerce, culture, budget, and education among other things. This is also in keeping with the practice of many countries that chose federalism. Where local provisions clearly clash with central government’s policies, the central government’s specifications should prevail. This should happen only in cases where the state/local governments’ stipulations have a major impact on national interest. In all other cases, interference in local affairs should be minimal. In the United States, the constitution mandates that powers that are not specifically given to the central government are automatically retained by states. This is a great way to reduce the complexity of the federal arrangement. We should adapt something similar.

As far as the legislative/executive government is concerned, most countries fall into parliamentary systems or presidential systems and in rare cases a mix of both. However, experts tell us that in the last three decades, the long-term success rates of democracies under the parliamentary system were overwhelmingly greater than that of the presidential systems. A parliamentary system is structured to allow several political parties to form a government. For these reasons and for its inclusion-promoting features, I favor the parliamentary system over the presidential. To make sure that the parliament is inclusive enough, the electoral system can be designed with such goal in mind and this in turn must be stipulated in the constitution. To doubly ensure representation, minorities and other disadvantaged groups must be given a share (seats) roughly equal to the votes they earn.

This brings us to the issue of elections. Much of the failure of new democracies is attributable to mismanagement of elections. We can avoid such problems to a great extent if we structure the electoral design with inclusiveness in mind. Elections are the entry point (the engine if you will) that make all the other pieces fall into place. Though mere elections do not make a democracy, there can be no democracy in any shape or form without elections. Elections have a bearing even on the efficacy of the parliamentary system because the latter’s representativeness depends on how candidates that make up the parliament are elected and whether the design ensures that minorities get a fair representation.

Winner take all will never work in Eritrea in my opinion because it excludes smaller parties from gaining legislative seats and from being fairly represented. Some form of proportional representation should therefore be adapted. The latter is preferable because of its inclusion-promoting features. Some political theorists believe that incentives that force political candidates to secure votes across diverse groups is a better approach than parties based on ethnicity or religion. In the long run, this is probably the best approach but initially, political grouping based on ethnicity should be allowed to build trust. If during such processes, serious disputes arise, enlisting the assistance of a neutral party with expertise in the field should be sought.

For the very first elections, it would be prudent to appoint or invite neutral domestic and foreign observers to lend additional transparency and legitimacy to the process. The new rulers should encourage the formation of civil associations and independent media and other watch dogs. But however perfectly we configure the political system, it will mean little without the support of a vibrant economy. Hungry and miserable citizenry do not make good advocates of a democracy because their priorities are elsewhere. Serious reforms are thus needed in the economy to which we turn next.

The Economy:

In the sphere of economy, the government has so depleted the resources of the nation and has so impoverished the public that increasing food production and efficiency will have to be a top priority for the new administration. All government or state owned businesses must be scrutinized with the goal of privatizing them or eliminating them altogether. The economic policy must aim to close gaps between the rich and the poor and to foster greater equality. The wealth of the nation must be managed in such a way that the entire nation benefits from it. Regions with limited resources should receive assistance from the central government as is done in countries like the United States. Entrepreneurship, free initiative, and free competition should be encouraged with reasonable safeguards put in place to prevent exploitation and monopoly. But in the end, it is citizens and their attitudes that make it all possible. The socio-cultural aspect is thus as important (if not more important) than the political and economic aspect.

The Socio-Cultural Factor. There are many habits of mind that followers of a dictator inherit from their leader because of the many years of conditioning and mentoring they have been subjected to and this in turn rendered them totally untrustworthy and even dangerous to the establishment of a democratic government. A thorough de-shaebitization will therefore be needed as a rehabilitative stratagem. All confused and delusional thoughts about dictatorship in dichotomous terms must be discarded. The new government should give detailed account of the criminal history of the Isaias regime going back as far as needed. To drive the point home it must continuously keep harping upon it for a few more years to prevent nostalgia for the old system.

Tolerance, individual autonomy (instead of group-think), and acceptance of responsibility for own actions should be nurtured while blind obedience to authority is discouraged. Education must be stripped of all manipulated historical facts and citizens should be encouraged to think for themselves and to critically evaluate all facts including those given by official government or media. The new rulers should warn the public of the difficulties ahead by reminding them that consolidation of democracy will take time and mistakes may occur along the way.

Conclusion: I have to stop here though I barely scratched the surface because the article is already too long. To summarize, the goal of the transitional period is to dismantle the oppressive legacy in such a way as to prevent its comeback in any shape or form and to establish a firm foundation upon which a representative democracy can be erected. The triumph of democracy and freedom must be final and complete. This requires that we persecute criminals to send a strong signal that we are serious about implementing the rule of law. It also requires the removal of former collaborators of the regime from vital and sensitive positions. They should also be barred from holding key high offices for a set number of years. The goal is restoration of human rights, freedom, and the rule of law and protection of the nascent democracy not retribution or retaliation. As we dismantle the old system, we simultaneously build democratic institutions; form a government, revamp the economy, and reeducate the public.

If we can do this as a people, dictatorship will be history – a bogeyman to frighten posterity with. Let us genuinely respect one another; let us be bold; let us be optimistic; and this can be a reality we all wake up to one day–InshAllah. Not impossible at all! I believe we can do it. Don’t you?



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