Good Governance and The Challenges of Eritrean Cultural Diversity

“This essay was originally submitted to Awate as a contribution to a journal planned to be issued after the establishment of a foundation under the working name of Awate2020. It’s being posted here with permission of the publisher to add to the recent debates on the Awate Forum in regard to the topic of ‘individual right vs. group rights’. I believe it is an important addition to the discourse and I hope it will stimulate the intellectual understanding of the concept of ‘good governance’ and the ‘Eritrean cultural diversity.” Amanuel Hidrat

Diversity enshrines certain kinds of factionalism as a universal good, just like liberty and equality.” [Peter Wood]


The goal and the theme of this essay, “good governance and cultural diversity” is to distinguish experts and non-experts from all walks of Eritrean social groups, in order to engage members on comparative conversations and debates, to address the Eritrean “multiculturalism”, and the possible “good governance” that holds diversity together. Certainly, there is a Paucity of accessible literature and information on how to handle diversity and a dearth of intellectual capital available for investment in research and teaching about the subject in the Eritrean academic intellectual pool. The topic, of course, includes multicultural constitutionalism, super-structures, and mode of governance in an attempt to search a solution to the Eritrean reality.

Diversity is one of the most contested issues in domestic and international politics. Academicians, practitioners of comparative politics, conflict resolution studies, political sociologist, and political theorists are proactively in discussions about ethnic, linguistic, religion, economic diversity, political diversity, and their accommodations in the viable legitimate featured polities. Admittedly though, the scope and the magnitude of the topic deserve a more incisive and well-researched treatment. As such, this writer concedes that this study remains to be a work in progress. Invariably, the issue of multiculturalism in our diversity has the complexities of historical experience as well as the vicissitudes and demands of our social groups.

Therefore, in this essay, I will try to probe and make a cursory look at (a) the Eritrean nation-state and the problem with its cultural diversity, (b) The institutional contours and constitutional arrangement to resolve the cultural conflicts, (c) Some history lessons on how to settle the conflicts of ethnonational movements, and (d) how the Weberian concepts of meritocracy – the dystopian vision of class structure, and civil service work, against the interest of minorities in multi-cultural Africa in general, and in Eritrea in particular.

Historical Background

Politically, cultural diversity represents various cultural communities with a distinct way of life, beliefs, practices, and their views of the world around them. A culture of communities or social groups is generally embodied in “arts, music, oral and written literature, moral life, ideals of excellence, exemplary individuals, and the vision of the good life” [Parekh 2000, pp 143-144]. The cultural heritage of a nation is, therefore, the composite of the heterogeneous culture of the diverse social groups. Cultural diversity comprises three main components, namely cultural freedom, cultural rights, and multiculturalism. While “cultural freedom” is a collective freedom that “refers to the right of group of people (or social group for that matter) to follow or adopt a way of life of their choice” [UNESCO, 1995 pp 25], cultural rights “refers to the rights of individuals or community (social group) requiring to express, maintain, and transmit their cultural identity” [Parekh, 2000, pp 211]. When properly interpreted, “collective freedom” implies even to organize politically and socially within the context of “cultural right” to express their political view. The cultural right also implies “individual rights” as well as “group rights” within the nexus of cultural diversity.

Cultural freedom and cultural rights, if constitutionally guaranteed, affirms the equality status of all citizens (as individuals) and the equality of different communities as social groups. Equality of social groups refers to equitable power sharing and fair economic distribution.

The third component of cultural diversity which is “multiculturalism” represents the cultural difference derived from and among the social groups (ethnics) within a country, where cultural diversity is cherished, and where each social group also feels as a constituent of the national identity.  Henceforth, multiculturalism as a policy is, when a government recognizes cultural diversity as a basic character of a nation and ensures the rights and freedom of all social groups fully protected without coercion.

Conceptual Framing and The Aversion of Risks

The choice of language, of course, is very important. It is vital because language evokes frames, namely moral and conceptual frames. Frames shape the way of our thinking, our linguistic cognition, delineate the borders of a contextual issue and avert risks of misunderstanding and optical illusions. In social science, framing is “an art of schema and interpretation to social construction”, on which individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. In order to understand the subject on the issue, this writer chose an ideal case inscribed in the title of the essay and have framed his argument to the concept of multiculturalism and multicultural constitutionalism. With that in mind, I will tackle the challenges of state-building in a multi-cultural society of Eritrea.

The acutest challenges for state building in the third world countries today is the conflict between collective identity and the demand of cultural diversity for equitable sharing and equal respect in the common public sphere. Actually, many “cross-national comparative studies in social science have shown that the accelerated globalization and the end of the cold war have indeed brought the intensification of ethnic or national movement” [Gurr, 1993]. Equally though, “the growing robustness of international human right regime, in which the individual and collective rights of minorities are increasingly recognized, has strengthened the legitimacy of ethnic minorities’ claim for social movement” [Tsutsiu, 2004].

In an attempt to address the grievances, state governments are responding to the claims of minorities “in a variety of ways, ranging from utmost repression to pluralistic policies, such as communal representation, federalism or cultural autonomy” [Ghia, 2002]. The impact of various government policies and constitutional arrangement for the minorities, with a rational choice theory of social constructivism, have, therefore, reduced the conflict of cultural diversity. Comparative evidence also suggests that non-indiscriminative policies and responsive policies to the grievances of minorities contribute to the declining levels of conflict and decrease the support of secessionism [Gurr, 1996].

In non-democratic ethnic state “the state serves the national goals of one ethnic group only to the exclusion of the other ethnonational groups within the state, regardless of their citizenship status” [Nadim & Asad, 1998]. Nadin and Asad further elaborated “thus, it is not the citizenship or membership in the state system that determines the extent of service and privileges of the individual and group (social group); the determining factor is the membership in the dominant group.” That is why the minorities of the Eritrean social groups are registering their grievances and still warns the risk of tyranny of the majority even after the fall PFDJ regime. Yes indeed, Nadin and Asad are right, that in an ethnic state, the state is not neutral in the competition of the resources (provided to citizens) with the individual and the groups, such as political power and wealth, especially when the “state” and the “governing body” are the same, and when the governing party is anchored in the constitution to own property and run businesses. The current state of Eritrea is one of the prototypes that Nadin and Asad are alluding to.

Researchers identified two dimensions of social group diversity (a) social group distribution and (b) social group pluralism. Distribution refers to the configuration of social groups with a particular society. Pluralism refers to a multiplicity of social groups in a society. Geertz presented the well know typology of five social groups based on the relative size of the groups [Geertz, 1963]. And they are:

  • A large group which dominates the minority groups (eg. Cyprus)
  • One central group juxtaposed against a number of periphery groups (eg. Indonesia).
  • Two more or less evenly balanced groups (eg. Lebanon).
  • An even gradation progressing in size from several small through several medium sizes to several large groups (eg. Ethiopia and India)
  • A multiplicity of small groups (eg. Zaire).

Eritrea might be arguably represented in the first category – one social group dominating the other social groups, where the minorities are marginalized in every aspect of their lives, and hence the minorities are making their struggle against tyranny of majority in order to assure equitable sharing in running the state affairs of our nation and fair distribution in the economics of the nation.

The Eritrean social groups reflect the conditions and existence of cultural diversities that demand pluralism. The concept of pluralism reflects the social reality determined by languages, religions, ethnic memberships, and cultural traditions, and implies control of institutions by members of the constituent group (social groups) [Bentley 1971:337]. Therefore, the concept of pluralism is not the condition of existence only but also signify the vision and perspective of maintaining the social groups on the basis of equality and equal rights. According Berge’s, pluralism refers to “property or set of properties of societies wherein several distinct social and cultural groups coexist within boundaries of  single polity and shares a common economic system that makes them interdependent, yet maintain a greater or lesser degree of autonomy and a set of discrete institutional structure in other spheres of social life” [Berge’s 1973:961]. Henceforth, Eritrea requires “structural pluralism” that reflect the representation of our social groups in the state-structure that runs the business of the nation.

Democracy And Its Operational Conundrum

Contemporary researches in social science and political sciences are designed to generate empirical evidence to support the hypothesis of decentralization, inclusiveness, and institutionalized democratic process to counter and end the breed of autocratic and tyrannical parties. In the third world, particularly the African countries, political parties are characterized by top-down organizational structures, where power and decision making are highly centralized with no room for a deliberative decision-making process. As a result, political parties tend to be autocratic, preferring conformity rather than critical debates on issues. This organizational structure is inherited by the current regime in Eritrea and is enforced through covert and overt pressures, illegal sanctions, and the outlawing of any possible opposition.

Political parties are the institutional transmission belt that conveys the will of the people or voter to a government and back to the people. They are the vehicles through which popular sovereignty is expressed and transformed into public policy and actions [Chege, 2007]. In a democratic polity, Political parties play the central role as pillars of democracy in the wider society. Henceforth, it is unthinkable to conceive democracy without parties. Scarrow in his research alluded to the importance of intra-party democracy, and he saw it as a “desirable ideal” for political parties themselves. His assumptions are based on the premises that the increase of intra-party democracy leads to more party effectiveness; and subsequently electoral success on the one hand and strengthening of democratic culture in the wider society on the other [Scarrow, 2005]. Political parties are very important actors in bringing diverse interest. They reflect the social and economic milieu in which they are grounded [Cheng, 2007].

In non-democratic societies, state power extended over large parts of civil societies and the public sphere, where the borderline between the state and society is blurred and vanished altogether [Linz, 2000]. Thus, political parties and party activities are often severely limited, their rights abrogated, and in some cases outlawed by archaic public legislation during election campaign periods.

Most of the democratization literature has focused on the initial emergence of a democratic regime or the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic one [see Huntington 1991, Karl 1990]. To measure the progress of institutions, scholars study the period following a transition from authoritarian rule to the newly adopted democratic rule and practices that have become institutionalized. Indeed, post-Communist countries have focused mainly on establishments on the procedural, formal aspects of democracy, institutional choice, the effectiveness of political elites, and the technical competence of fragile state institutions [Lijphart and Waiseman, 1996]. The current Eritrean regime has a prototype of a communist institutional structure. The Eritrean intellectual, therefore, must debate on what will be the transitional procedural process, on the institutional choices that are appropriate to our cultural diversity, and on the formal aspects of democracy and its institutions.

Diversity and Constitutional Transformation

Donna Lee Van Cott has contributed a new literature on comparative constitutionalism based on the constitutional movement that swept the Latin American countries in 1990. Van Cott observed Latin American entering a new era of constitutionalism by developing multicultural constitutions. Her goal was to create a model to explain when the states decided to create multicultural constitutions – a model applied to the most recent Colombian and Bolivian constitutions.

In 1991 and 1994, Colombia and Bolivia respectively undertook constitutional reforms. According to Van Cott, these two countries had a problem of exclusion generated crises that triggered the decision to reform their constitutions. Both countries had three similar crises that came together (a) a representation crises – generated by non-representative political parties that monopolized access to the state (b) a participation crises – owing to the absence of means for most citizen to participate in decision making (c) legitimization crises – arising from discriminatory access to the protection of the law and equal membership in the nation, and to the absence of effective bases of legitimization to unite and guide the political community. The three crises were rooted on extreme social inequality that underlay an exclusionary state [Van Cott, 1999, Ch-2].

Van Cott actually argues that the convergence of crises of representation, participation, and legitimization prompts political elites to perceive constitutional revision as essential [Van Cott 1999, pp 8]. Van Cott’s argument is indeed instructive to Eritrean political elites to elevate their debate and engage in a constitutional transformation that split from liberal tradition to produce a multicultural constitution as has been seen in Bolivia and Colombia. Political organizations andcivicl organizations in the opposition camp are clamoring for constitutional reform. If we are unable to bring a multicultural constitutional transformation in the current struggle, then “a dictatorship in different guise and shape will likely to reemerge once the current regime is collapsed” [Ahmedi, 2012].

The legitimacy of states is measured in the international fora against their constitutions as well as international norms, particularly with respect on how they treat their most vulnerable (social groups) groups [Chamber, 1997, pp 426-27]. Henceforth, the decision to provide unprecedented recognition for the rights of minorities is part of the larger effort to bring the state legitimacy at home and abroad.

In the Eritrean political landscape, one has to examine the relationship between ethnic diversity and political stability/or instability, and probe beneath the surface to examine the basic assumptions about diversity and the politics that dictate them. In order to do that, some framing questions are imperative, such as do our social groups have comparative relevance in Eritrean politics? Are our social groups adequate for conveying the meaning of group identities in contemporary Eritrea? Will Cultural diversity leads us to strife? Are the prevailing mistrust will lead us to instability? – In order to address the social conflict properly to come to plausible solutions. So far our dyspeptic refusal to answer them is a stunning indifference to the hypocritical oath for justice. Fair treatment of minorities is one of a nation’s most fundamental and vexing responsibilities.

Eritrea: The Un-Exclusionary State

As had become the pattern, the parties that become victorious in a battle to marginalize the losers [Angarita, 1994, pp 40] creating subcultures and mutual antagonism. Interparty violence engendered sufficient hatred and resentment to solidify loyalties based on inherited identifications [Hartlyn, 1988, 25-27, 45] a threat that could mount to a social unrest.

The current Eritrean state and the pending constitutional document of 1997 are exclusionary state and exclusionary document respectively. The nature and pattern of victorious parties are to marginalize the losers as observed by Angarita. EPLF as the “victorious party” banned all the parties that existed before and after liberation and legitimize a single party ruling state with centralized unitary governance.

Eritrea is a multi-national country. Needless to say, the issue of minorities and their concern cannot be addressed under the current authoritarian regime of Asmara. The regime with its institutional structure and repressive surveillance respond with violence for all legitimate public and private formal claim, and national and social restructuring questions. Under such circumstances, we need a frank debate and dialogue, in order to administer the grievances in a rational and equitable manner, should we recognize the importance of justice and stability of our nation without a delay. This writer believes the following issues should be the subject of discussion, debate, and dialogue. Should Eritrea have a centralized unitary government or decentralized unitary government? Should the current administrative structure be preserved or reversed back to the former administrative units? If a decentralized unitary government is viewed as the alternative, should we reorganize in Federalist structure or other types of decentralized unitary government, knowing the variation of power distribution in federalism and other decentralization structures? How will the minorities be represented in the state and government structures? Does the 1997 constitutional document, that depicts a hybrid of centralized unitary governments, address the grievances of our minorities or our social groups? What structure avoids the tyranny of the majority of our social groups? These are some of the critical unresolved issues that inhibited cooperation between our social groups and deepened the mistrust that goes for decades. We need a rational dialogue to bring a multicultural constitutional document, to reform the very exclusionary and discriminatory constitutional structure waiting in the shelf.

Unfortunately, those yet unresolved issues are the very fact and reasons that made the oppositions unwilling to form a “united front” and chart a common roadmap to challenge the totalitarian regime of Asmara. Working with the opposition to facilitate a democratic transition, more so to consolidate the unity of purpose and avoid the historical experience, though limited in nature, this writer believes the demands of our social groups are instructive and must be dealt head-on without a delay. “Intellectuals and the growing sector of the political elites are increasingly viewed comprehensive political reorganization as a vital” [Gonzalez Casanova, 1996, 32] for ending the current power relations and social structures in the nation of Eritrea. Radical constitutional reform guided by normative criteria and normative considerations has become now a new phenomenon for the transformation of unconsolidated democratic regimes, into a distinctly different model of democracy and decision-making process to increase the legitimacy of democratic institutions.  The commitment to normative transformation requires that the constitutional makers should embrace their capacity to embody the political aspiration of the people and serve as a means to integrating a fragmented society into a political community [Elster, Preuss, 1998: 82].

Moral legitimacy is then the principal value to any political system. According to Nino’s observation on the Argentine and Bolivian constitutional reform, he noted that “the central value of a political system is its moral legitimacy – that is, its capacity for producing decisions that are morally justified and binding on those who are subject to them. Thus, assuming that the system whose value is at stake is a democratic one, the value cannot be specified without articulating a normative conception of democracy [Nino, 1996: 162-63].

The argument in this essay “situates the practices and production of cultural producers in their social context.” The cultural product – our social groups and the socio-political process – their representation and participation in the nation’s institutional building should be examined, as to how the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate the constraints of the particular material conditions, discursive frameworks, and ideological assumptions in which they will work collectively. Jon Elster in his series of scholarly inquiries into the process of constitution making, he made few remedies for positive and explanatory perspectives for the constitutional process. He invoked his influential “plea for mechanisms” defining as “frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns that are triggered under general unknown conditions or with indeterminate consequences” [Elster 1998:45].  That is why this writer argues consistently that the makers of the 1997 constitutional document failed to foresee the unknown conditions and their indeterminate consequences of the multiculturalism of Eritrean society and their grievances, and the exclusion of the political organizations that contribute to the liberation of the country under the pretext the winner dictates the norm and the polity of the nation.

Actually, the problem of the document can be described as the conflict between the creature and the creators on the one hand, and the conflict between the diversity and the document on the other. The Eritrean people are demanding a transformative constitution, a constitution that doesn’t seek to preserve the status quo, but instead, that overhaul the existing political order. Deciding how to decide is crucial in a constitutional process, in order the process and the outcome of the process to get legitimacy by the actors of the Eritrean political community and the Eritrean people at large. The dilemma of deciding how to decide really cast a long shadow over the constitutional document and its subsequent possible political ramifications. When some members of one political organization are also members of the constitution-making body, they always seek to embed their interests within the constitution as we have seen in the 1997 constitutional making process. In such a scenario, the constitution makers cannot reduce the role of the executive body and promote the role of the legislative body. We have to bear in mind that, the integrity of the constitution makers in themselves and mitigating the conflict of interest is one of the most challenging political processes – A text strongly against the interest of the political community and the public at large stood no chance being adopted and find legitimacy without dictation.

Cultural Accommodation: The Group Right Model

Group right model involves public measure and aimed at protecting and promoting the existing social groups, and the measure includes language rights, regional autonomy, land claim, and guaranteed representations in the national business [Galzer 1995 cited in Kymlicka 1995]. Galzer’s group right model demands the state and the government should devise institutions that guarantee representation of all social groups in a multi-cultural society.

This writer, taking this conceptual approach as means to resolve the current multi-cultural dissatisfaction, attempted to suggest a multi-cultural constitutionalism to guarantee the representation of our social groups, in running the state affairs of our nation, based on the analysis of dynamic cultural pluralism and differentiating the strands of a plural society. Ethnic articulation (especially in Eritrea) has neither of secession nor of an urge to replace the dominance of state power by a particular ethnic group, but the demand of sharing of state power equitably with distributive justice in multiethnic society [Kumar 2013]. By that, it means the state must be adequate adjudicator and regulator of cultural power in any multi-cultural society. The question is then what kind of state should we build in order for the state to be adequate adjudicator? And what kind of governance is suitable to meet the distributive justice that is on demand by our social groups and maintain the equilibriums of its parts?

Since Centralized unitary governments and authoritarian governments are the same except the former defines the nature of the system and the later defines the governing body [Hidrat 2014], this kind of structure of government is incapable by its non-accommodative nature and monopolizing behavior to address the demand of autonomy, fair representation, preserving the cultural values, to tackle the marginalization of our social groups.  The minorities’ risks model as depicted by Jonathan Fox explains the cause and effect of marginalization, grievance, and rebellion for any given conflict of diversity [Fox 2001].

Searching for new paradigms to this writer, it means to frame a new design and structure of governance and a new multi-cultural constitution that maintain the equilibrium of our social groups, the building blocks of our nation. To accommodate our diverse groups then, I had proposed a solution – “decentralized unitary governance with a bicameral legislative body, one with proportional representation and the other with equal representation to give a space to our minorities” [Ibid Hidrat 2014] and to avoid a hybrid regime and hybrid state, a political system that contains elements of democratic and autocratic system [Hidrat, 2015].


The cultural mosaic of Eritrea is unique of a multi-ethnic society. The growing sense of political, cultural, and economic marginalization of our social groups are clearly demonstrated if we don’t want to dismiss it. The managing of diversity and their differences for the purpose of nation-building is indeed a big challenge in front of us. A plural nation like ours should promote unity and diversity, only if we don’t confuse unity with conformity and demand a comprehensive cultural uniformity among our diverse social groups.

Equally though, we can demand justice and democracy, only if we don’t confuse democracy with a government by the majority group that ultimately marginalize the minorities. Democracy also means fair sharing in the affairs of the nation. In other words, democracy is not only the rule of the majority, but democracy also means a fair distribution of power among the diverse social groups. Always diversity demands a symbol of references acceptable by the entire population which plays as the foundation for the development of national identity.

*Note: The term “ethnicity” always conjures up images of instability and conflicts. That is why I preferred to use either diversity or social groups throughout my discussions and my argument.


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