Eritrean Democratic Struggle: The Missing Gaps
In my previous article I attempted to identify the missing gaps in our democratic struggle. From Brussels Conference (BC) we have learnt that the democratic struggle has been hampered not only by missing gaps in our knowledge of democratic struggle but also by not filling them properly. Others may reach to a different conclusion. In democracy, this is natural: have open debate; disagree respectfully and leave the judgement to the public. Other missing gaps in our democratic struggle include: learning from past experience, from other models and from other countries; partnership and collaboration among democratic forces[i]; new links with Eritrean people and leading the way. In this article, I will address leading the way as a missing gap and attempt to give my views on how to fill it.
Leading the way
For the last 10 years we have hardly seen individuals or groups practicing democracy. People are confused and want to know if an alternative to PFDJ is a better alternative. Democracy is not about slogans or charters. If it was, PFDJ would have qualified. Democracy is not merely being anti-PFDJ. Certainly, democracy is not simply about election or political parties. It is generally accepted that the definition of democracy includes two principles: equality and freedom. Any individual or group that claims to fight for democracy should abide by the above principles. With all its flaws, democracy is the best system we have and until we get a better alternative we will have no choice but to comply with its nature and principles.
Eritrean democratic forces should not only tell us why they are better than PFDJ but should also start practicing democracy and lead by example. They should reassure Eritrean people that they are genuinely interested and show commitment, in good or bad times, in bringing democracy (not only regime change) in Eritrea. In my view, it may be easier to introduce democracy in Eritrea than to sustain it. Sustaining of democracy would be difficult in the future if steps are not taken now to promote democratic principles in the wider Eritrean people starting from political and human right organizations. This can’t be achieved by mere slogans, meetings, conferences and symposium. It can only be achieved by following democratic principles in all democratic activities. Eritrean democratic forces should lead the way to democracy by living it – leading by example. By showing equality in all their activities.
While equality commonly refers to equality under the law it also means having equal access to power. Those who want power in future democratic Eritrea should prove to Eritrean people that they are for equality and empowerment of Eritreans regardless of religion, ethnicity, region and gender. It is with this principle of democracy in mind that many Eritreans raised their concerns regarding BC. By selectively inviting Mr. Woldeyesus Ammar of the EPP and others, the “task force” sidelined other civic groups and political parties/fronts. Consequently, groups left out from the invitation believe that Mr. Ammar was given an unfair advantage of exclusive access to a rare platform not only to promote his Party’s (and other Parties who are in the process of merging) political agenda but also to sway EU and US policy towards them. This was conspicuously evident in the document presented by Mr. Ammar in the conference. In retrospect, this justifies the anger of those who were marginalized and makes their concerns valid.
Equal access to power also means membership of democratic forces from bottom to top should reflect Eritrean diversity. The common excuses are “our political charter allows any Eritrean to be a member” or “any one can vote and be elected”. But these are not good enough. Efforts should be made to ensure that Eritrean diversity is reflected in all their activity either through policy or reserving seats or encouraging membership from minority groups. This shouldn’t be for the purpose of ethnic balancing whereby minorities are groomed to be in the front while the actual power lies somewhere else.
The reality is that the same individuals are leaders of the same parties for a long time and some of them since the inception of their party. In my opinion, it is vital to restore confidence and send a positive signal to Eritrean people by taking into account Eritrean diversity and the need for equal access to power during merger and consolidation of different Eritrean political forces/parties. I would argue that mergers and consolidations based on personal or group interest don’t last long. ELF and EPLF multiplied many times like amoeba and conjugated several times like bacteria. If history is a lesson we shouldn’t see the merger and political alignment of the 1960s. We shouldn’t rewrite toxic documents and remind Eritrean people the dark history of the past. In my view, the green paper regarding political party laws authored in 2001 by Mahmud Sherifo, with all its flaws, can be used as a starting point.
Every human being is born free in dignity and human right. Freedom also means the right of Eritreans to criticize democratic forces when they disagree with them without fear of cyber-bullying, vilification and character assassination. Often those who criticize democratic forces are seen as enemies and are confronted accordingly. In an attempt to monopolize good ideas, some democratic forces see critics as rivals and try to stifle their opinions. This is the reason we precisely decided to resist and oppose PFDJ. Democratic forces should lead the way by introducing open discussion within and outside their members. They should allow their members and Eritrean people to challenge them when they got it wrong. Eritrean people have an obligation and every right to scrutinize democratic forces who speak on their behalf. Without transparency and openness it is difficult to scrutinize democratic forces and hold them accountable.
Access to information and regular meeting with the public are vital for democratization of an Eritrean mind. Freedom also includes freedom of information. Eritrean people should be allowed to have access to information about democratic forces and how they run their business. This will permit Eritrean people to use it as a tool and evaluate the performance of different democratic forces. As a result, Eritrean people will have a better judgement about them. For this reason I applaud Awate Team for being open about the UPR session to be held in Geneva between Nov 30 and Dec 12, 2009. The team not only informed the public on what the session is about and who are attending but also went extra mile to tell us the source of their financial support. Awate Team is leading the way and hope others will follow.
Moment of Certainty
I hope equality and freedom will lie at the heart of all Eritrean democratic activities. Particularly, if democratic forces want to be taken seriously here is the challenge:
· Democratic parties/forces: to promote freedom and equality within their parties/fronts; show commitment to a fairer Eritrea and take urgent steps to ensure diversity is reflected in all their activities.
· Media outlets to: be more open and transparent with their readers and listeners; provide equal access to all Eritreans to their media and their editorials to reflect diverse opinions. This also applies to my friends at EMDHR.
· Civic groups to: promote equality by reflecting Eritrean diversity in their meetings, seminars, symposium and conferences; be open about their relationship with other democratic fronts/parties and media and finally be transparent about their activities including relationship they have with their funders.
· Party/front members and Eritrean people to: actively seek unbiased information about different democratic forces; to criticise without fear and hold democratic forces accountable and ensure that democratic forces practice equality and freedom in all their activities.
[i] For the purpose of this article I define Democratic forces as any individual or group which struggle to bring democratic change in Eritrea. This includes the opposition/resistant groups inside or outside EDA; civic groups including lobbyists and human right activists; media including radio, internet and hard copy.