Interview with Dr. Bereket Habteselassie (Part 3)

This is part three of the interview I’ve been conducting with Dr. Bereket Habteselassie. Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2. For convenience and ease of reading, I’ve broken the final part of the interview into two parts. Here is the first installment.

Semere: I know you had a really busy schedule this summer and you’re on an equally busy Fall Semester, but it is time that we finish what we’ve started, Dr. Bereket. I’m sure most of our readers have been wondering if we will ever come back to our interview. In this section of our interview, I would like to cover the substance of the document, and although I would have liked to immediately get started it is only right that I ask you first about the recent tragedies in Lampedusa and the refugee camps in Ethiopia which have rightfully shaken our communities everywhere. When most of us thought our humiliation and suffering could not get worse, it sadly did; and we are having a difficult time making sense of all of these tragedies that don’t seem to end and only get worse. How do you see it Dr. Bereket? As a prominent citizen, elder, intellectual, scholar, academic, and veteran tegadalay, can you, at least, try to help us understand our situation and make sense of it?

Dr. Bereket: You say it is time to move to considering the substance of the constitution, and I agree. But before we do that, you have asked good questions, Semere, and raised pertinent points about the continuing outrage involving the recent drowning at Lampedusa of over three hundred fifty Eritreans, mostly youth in their twenties. The tragedy has aroused righteous anger among Eritreans throughout the Diaspora. In addition to the massive reaction of ordinary Eritreans everywhere, it has touched the heart of some prominent Eritrean businessmen and human rights activists. It also aroused Eritrean refugees in Ethiopian refugee camps; refugees in the camp Mai Aini and others decided to organize demonstrations leading to some tragic death and the wounding of some of them. At least one Eritrean refugee has been reported dead in the Mai Aini camp.

Reviewing the reports about the Lampedusa tragedy and the Mai Aini incident, I feel it necessary to separate the issues involving the two tragedies.

First of all, true to character, Isaias and his government tried to bury the news of the drowning at Lampedusa by saying that the victims were “illegal immigrants from the Horn of Africa.” How callous and outrageous! But such denial, criminal as it is, should not surprise us; but it does show how stupid the government of Isaias Afwerki has become. Stupid and desperate. Isaias is desperate because he knows that the Lampedusa tragedy and the horrific crimes perpetrated in the deserts of Sinai in which his agents are deeply involved, will have the effect of hastening the day of reckoning.

Eritreans in Europe and elsewhere, and Amanuel Iassu of Assenna have demanded that the bodies of the drowned Eritreans be sent back to their homeland for burial. I support their demand because it is proper on moral and other grounds, and should receive the support of all right-minded Eritreans.  Now the Italian state has determined to give a posthumous citizenship to the dead, and as Italian citizens, must be buried in Italy. I find it difficult to applaud this decision by the Italian government. Indeed, I find it suspicious: Isaias Afwerki has long been known to have friends in some factions of the Italian political elite, including some in Berlusconi’s family. My response to the decision of the Italian president is:  Signor Presidente, E certo che lei abbia il potere di dichiarare la citadinanza Italiana al loro corpo mortale, ma non ha il dirritto di prevenire mandere il loro corpo mortale al loro paese. You may have the power to grant Italian citizenship to the victims of the Lampedusa drowning, and thus force their burial in Italy, but you have no right to prevent their remains from being sent to their homeland for decent burial in accordance with the burial customs and mores of their country.

I suggest that we mobilize all our friends in Europe and ask them to persuade the Italian leaders to do what is right: in this case the right thing to do is to send the bodies of our compatriots to their homeland where their loved ones are waiting for them. Our Eritrean activists, including the leadership of CIDRI and others know friends who have friends at the HQ of the European Union. This is surely the best time for all the different Eritrean organizations—both political and humanitarian—to put their heads together and work in harmony for a common cause. This is no time for raising issues of contention of whatever nature, and instead to work together and utilize resources like friends and supporters to good use.

Let us decide to use the tragedy of Lampedusa to spare our youth a similar fate, for as long as the Isaias regime is in power, Eritrean youth will flock to neighboring countries and, out of desperation, make similar attempts to cross over to Europe.  Of course the ideal action is to unify our efforts and direct them toward the overthrow of the hated regime. To that end, cavalier dott. Wedi Vacaro, one of my favorite Eritreans and a former comrade freedom fighter, has launched a moving appeal to those ends. (the link to Wedi Vacaro’s interview is provided at the end of this article)I salute Wedi Vacaro and appeal to other Eritrean elders to follow his example.

The tragedy in Mai Aini raises several questions concerning the predicament of our young compatriots who are in the Ethiopia refugee camps.

(a)     First is the question: how long will they stay in the camps under living conditions that cannot be described as ideal?
(b)     What kind of facilities are available to them, including notably educational facilities to enable them to continue their interrupted education? There are complaints that the Ethiopian government is not doing its best to help provide educational opportunities and the requisite facilities. Have the appropriate authorities in the government requested international organizations to help fill in the gap?
(c)      Lately, we hear reports by some Eritreans that opportunities that were supposed to be given to Eritreans have been taken by non-Eritreans, and that government officials have connived in this action. Is this report well-founded? If so, what have the authorities responsible for these matters done to correct such practice? In addition to the Lampedusa drowning, could the incident leading to the death of one Eritrean and the wounding of many have been caused by a belief by some of the participants in the protest that their compatriots were robbed of the opportunities to go abroad for resettlement or to further their education, opportunities given to non-Eritreans?
(d)     What about the conduct of the government forces in response to the demonstrations of the refugees? Were they necessary, or did they cross the line of appropriate action? As one VOA reporter asked: Did the forces fire the bullets over the heads of the protesters before they targeted the protesters? If not, what has the government done to hold the shooter(s) accountable? And what precautions does the government contemplate in putting in place to avoid a repetition of a similar tragedy?

Those of us who have friends in the Ethiopian government need to use such friendship to get to the bottom of the issues listed above in order to find lasting solutions.

Semere: I think you’ve covered all the pertinent issues and comprehensively addressed my questions and in doing so made my job a lot easier. I don’t think I need to ask more on what you’ve well-articulated and I hope many people will rise to the challenge and join hands in doing what you’ve clearly laid out.  Most of your recommendations are actionable items.  Let me therefore proceed with the main focus of our interview.

There are many instances in history where the constitutional making process was not the outcome of democratic deliberations; but, surprisingly, some of these countries have evolved to serve as models of democracy today. The two often quoted examples are Japan and Germany. Both constitutions (1947 Constitution of Japan and 1949 German Constitution) were heavily drafted by US lawyers after WWII. Even the US constitution was the result of a within-the-elite democracy—universal suffrage came much later. What was the wisdom of taking 27 months to draft a “bottom-up” constitution which is not, according to some Eritreans, much different from the 50 plus constitutions in Africa?

Dr. Bereket: You are right that many of the constitutions of the past were not the outcome of democratic deliberations. You give the examples of the post-World War II constitutions of Germany and Japan, which were drafted by lawyers of the victorious American government. You also point out that even the much-vaunted American constitution was the work of an elite group of people, not the product of people’s convention. You then asked: “what was the wisdom of taking 27 months to draft a “bottom-up constitution (in Eritrea)?”

First of all, it is worth noting that the idea and practice of popular participation in constitution making is of recent origin. The post-colonial constitutions of much of Africa were drafted at the colonial office, or ministry in the capitals of the colonial powers—London, Paris, Brussels…The first generation of African leaders were summoned to the European capitals and presented with a fait accompli of constitutions drafted by legal experts of the colonial powers. The African leaders were given a chance to discuss aspects of the draft constitution at the last moments, but they were not adequately prepared to challenge the draft constitution. Nor were they inclined to be engaged in a prolonged debate; they were in a hurry to be installed in government and get rid of their colonial rulers.

The practice of a popular participation in constitution making in modern times is a function of the spread and universal embrace of the democratic idea. Representative democracy as a governing concept is a paramount value of our epoch, reflecting one of humanity’s great achievements. It is also worth mentioning that there are two types of democracy. The first is direct democracy, practiced by village communities, which some call “Athenian democracy.” The other is representative democracy introduced as a result of European colonization of Africa. When Europeans colonized Africa, they divided it up creating new nation states defined by artificially fixed boundaries enclosing within them several ethnic groups. These different ethnic groups were forcibly brought together and became co-citizens of a new nation-state. They spoke different languages; so upon independence they were forced to adopt the language of the colonial power—English, French, etc.—to communicate with one another. They needed new government institutions, including a national assembly composed of elected representatives of the various groups. They were faced with the problem of creating a spirit of nationhood transcending their ethnic identities. Transcending it; not abolishing it. Thus the new institutions necessarily became instruments of nation-building in addition to fulfilling other functions of governance.

Now all of this meant that in redrafting the colonially imposed constitutions, African governments and peoples focused very much on the democratic idea to achieve two principal purposes: 1) proper representation of their constituents, and 2) advancing the nation-building agenda.

The democratic idea was thus involved in ensuring popular participation in all national endeavors, especially in drafting the basic law by which people are to be governed, i.e. constitution making. In Eritrea’s case, it took almost three years of intense meetings in which the basic ideas of the constitution and their implications in national political and social life were discussed in public meetings that turned out to be highly educational. One of the side effects of such educational exercise is that it gave people a sense of ownership of the constitution.

Semere: If we judge you on the basis of the two principal purposes you’ve mentioned: 1) proper representation of their constituents, and 2) advancing the nation-building agenda; how well do you think you’ve done? I know you and I share the love of reading the Bible and the Good Book says, “A tree is known by the fruit it bears.” Where is the fruit and how would the educator in you grade Dr. Bereket and the constitutional making process?

Dr. Bereket: Your question intrigues me, Semere. Your biblical quote would be relevant to this discourse were we speaking about the record of the impact of the constitution had it been implemented. The constitution on which we labored for almost three years was thwarted and later notoriously described by Isaias as just a piece of paper when he was asked why it was not implemented. The passage you cited from my answer speaks about the democratic idea inherent in a modern constitution of: 1) ensuring proper representation of the various constituents making up the electoral division of a nation, and 2) through representation, helping to advance nation-building in former colonial territories created by European colonial history in Africa.

I am not trying to dodge the question. Far be it from me to do that. If I understand your question, it implies that the democratic idea of representation and nation-building should be applicable to the process of constitution making; and whether such criteria were satisfied in our case. In other words, was the Eritrean nation represented fully in the constitution making process? I think we have covered that issue before in our previous interview. My own idea of proper involvement of all segments of the nation in the historical stage in which we found ourselves was to invite the former ELF to participate as an organized body in post-liberation Eritrean political life. I made this clear in a booklet published a year before liberation under the title “Reflections on the Future Political System of Eritrea. (Working Paper Number 3, Eritreans for Peace and Democracy. June 1990).  Not only did Isaias reject my suggestion, but he hyperventilated condemning me for writing the book, which was banned. The consequence of refusing to allow the participation of the ELF in Eritrean national political life was clear. Former ELF members felt disenfranchised despite the participation of individual former ELF members during the process of constitutional debates. Despite the participation of the majority of Eritreans inside the country, many adherents of the former ELF (belonging to different factions) argued that the constitution that was ratified as a result of the participation of the majority of Eritreans does not belong to them. They refer to the constitution as Isaias’ constitution, even after Isaias refused to implement it calling it just a piece of paper.

My own view is that such an attitude while understandable is not constructive, particularly in the current context of the need to form a united front to depose the PFDJ regime, which is destroying the nation. I hope to say more on aspects of this predicament later in the interview.

If I have misunderstood your question, please enlighten me.

Semere: A big part of what I’m doing here is to ensure that you do not dodge my questions; you’ve not done so so far, and I can’t be more grateful. Whether in this interview or in life in general, I try to strictly follow the precept of “tefaqer kem aHwat: teHasaseb kem gona.” Love like brothers and hold each other accountable like strangers. Saying that let me clear one thing. Our struggle, unlike that of Tigray and Oromia, was a national struggle that transcended ethnicities and other parochial agendas, but in our post liberation and constitution-making process, we now have several organizations in the opposition with narrowly defined ethnic and religious agenda. It looks like we have regressed; and it does not look like the Constitution-making s of nation-building, that you’ve beautifully articulated, played a meaningful role in solidifying what was already achieved during our liberation struggle, let alone to improve upon it. This is what I had in my mind when I quoted the verse of a tree is known by the fruit it bears. What do you say, Dr. Bereket? Am I being unfair?

Dr. Bereket: Semere, your reference to the biblical verse of a tree and the fruit that it bears is an apt metaphor applicable to the chaotic condition of our post-liberation condition. In fact our case can be described as a Hobbesian condition of the war of each against all. Elsewhere, I have described the continual splitting of our political groups as part of the DNA of Eritrean political organizations. It is a curse if I may be blunt about it. At least during the armed struggle, we had two major fronts. But, following the 1981 debacle, no sooner had one of the Fronts (the “Mother Front”) left the Field than it splintered into several factions. The fate of The Eritrean Democratic Party, a new EPLF-based opposition party was not much different: not very long after its formation, it split into two, then three factions.

It seems that we are destined to go through a period of such chaos of continual splitting before we settle down to be sensible about it. We will need to work out a mode of composing our differences and concentrate on what unites us for the common aim. That common cause right now is how to get rid of the PFDJ regime and save our benighted nation. One significant way to that end is to rally behind the 1997 constitution, which with what some call its defect, can provide a rallying point in the struggle of combatting the regime. When we get to the point of commenting on some relevant provisions of the 1997 Constitution, I will address the issues causing controversy. Moreover, in hindsight, I now know that there were certain gaps in its content, gaps that when filled may help provide a solution for some of our problems as a political community. I intend to address these and related issues of controversy with the aim of mobilizing the needed support for a common struggle to overthrow the PFDJ regime and beyond. In doing so, my aim is to bridge the gap and help resolve the division among most of the major groups constituting our nation’s political life, such as it is.

For aging revolutionary confronting seemingly insolvable issues, the temptation may be to throw one’s hands in the air and cry, “I give up. A plague upon their houses!” But that is not helpful; nor is it possible for an inveterate revolutionary who has devoted most of his adult life to the cause of liberation and self-determination. No, instead I say, A luta continua. Vitoria e certa! (Semere’s note: this is similar to what we say in Tigrinya qalsna newiH awetna gna nay gdn)

Let me now focus on the central point of your question: “we now have several organizations with narrowly defined ethnic and religious agenda. It looks like we have regressed; and it does not look like the Constitution-making of nation-building…played a meaningful role in solidifying what was already achieved during our liberation struggle.”

For anyone approaching the present Eritrean condition with a modicum of social science-based analysis, and with a minimum knowledge of Eritrea’s history of struggle, the current division should not be seen as a hopeless impasse with no resolution in sight. Such despondency would not tally with the history of heroic struggle against impossible odds of which we are all proud except a few misguided skeptics. To be sure, someone must make a thorough study of this phenomenon of factional splits and hopefully provide an anti-dote. But the ethnic and religious agendas should not, to my mind, be the cause of worry; they are part of the complexity of Eritrean politics and society. They should and can be addressed as such with an enlightened and fresh approach taking into account outstanding grievances in a spirit of reconciliation and (yes) nation-building in a newly minted nation dedicated to the proposition that we are all equal in the eyes of the law as enshrined in our constitution and rededicating ourselves to such a fresh and enlightened approach. Not to do so would be another betrayal of the promise of the liberation struggle and of our martyrs.

What the issues giving rise to ethnic and religious agendas is a matter that we should all ponder seriously and provide answer as a people united by our common history and liberationist ideals.  I am sure many of your readers will hasten to provide comments regarding this point, and I do encourage them to do so.

Semere:  There are people who argue that having a written constitution or not means nothing if there is no democratic political culture to support it. In your previous response, you’ve, of course, pointed out that one of the purposes of the constitutional-making process was to help foster the necessary political culture. The same people point out that the lack of noticeable public outcry on the non-implementation of the 1997 Constitution as a self-evident proof. Do you agree that there is no strong opposition to the government for its refusal to implement the Constitution? What do you have to say to these people since they also tend to be ones who try to undermine the importance of the 1997 Constitution?

Dr. Bereket: Reading your question and reflecting on what prompted it, I was reminded of a remark attributed to George Orwell (Of “Animal Farm” fame). He said, “At age fifty, a man gets the face he deserves.” Presumably he was looking at the mirror the morning after a late night party, and was disgusted by what he saw. Extending the remark to our contemporary politics, I would say, “A nation gets the politicians it deserves.” Indeed, there is an old saying that a people gets the government it deserves. Could this be the case for us Eritreans? Speaking for myself, I do not believe that the Eritrean people deserve Isaias and HGDEF.

Concerning what you call the lack of public reaction to the non-implementation of the 1997 constitution, my response is two-fold. First, as far as Eritreans living in Eritrea is concerned, it is not reasonable to expect them to go out in the streets to protest, as other people in similar situation might do. If they did, they would be met with bullets by the security machine of a ruthless regime. As far as Eritreans living in Eritrea, therefore, the absence of protest is proof of one thing and one thing only—the iron grip with which the Isaias/HGDEF regime has ruled Eritrea. The fate of G-15 is proof positive of how protests would be treated. Eritreans inside the country have learned a lesson from the fate of G-15 and the overall treatment of dissenters by the regime and decided to become part of the “silent majority.” But there is no way that it can be said that their silence means approval of the lack of implementation of the constitution on which the vast majority worked and ratified.

Let us not forget, also that the first demand that the heroic Wedi Ali and his group made was the implementation of the 1997 constitution and the release of all political prisoners. The brittle narcissism from which Isaias suffers made him scoff at the heroic attempt of Wedi Ali and his group, pretending to rejoice at the “end of the film.” The truth is that he was thoroughly shaken by it; for its message was not lost on the silent majority in the Eritrean armed forces who are just waiting for an opportune moment. The Eritrean armed forces consider the constitution as a crucial part of the fulfillment of their struggle, as was made clear by the demand of Wedi Ali and his group.

Secondly, as far as Eritreans in the Diaspora are concerned, people have been battling mightily with all the available means, including using social media and organizing mass demonstrations in many cities of the countries where they live—in Europe, America, Australia, Canada, and the Middle East. If the target of these enormous efforts by Eritreans were a government of a democratic country, it would have led to the resignation of the government, and certainly trial of some top leaders for crime against humanity and even genocide. The record of the Isaias government of the last twenty years is filled with egregious violations of basic human rights for which he should stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The latest story of Eritreans who drowned at the Italian port of Lampadusa represents a tragedy caused by what I call constructive genocide. I call it constructive genocide because those who drowned and many others who met a similar fate at sea or in the deserts of Sahara and Sinai were driven out of their home by the callous policies of a government that has held its youth hostage in a modern servitude from which there is no exit, and the world looks on seemingly unconcerned. At least Pope Francis (Bless his heart) has sounded the alarm and the Italian state ordered a day of mourning. But no bells toll in Eritrea for these victims and no flags are flowing at half-mast!

Now, as to the claim by some people that in the absence of a democratic culture it makes no difference whether there is a written constitution, my answer is that it does make a difference. But I need to elaborate on the question of what is democracy. As I think I pointed out in a previous answer in the earlier part of the interview, there are two kinds of democracy. The first is what may be called direct democracy practiced in the village communities in Africa and in ancient Athens.

The second is what has been called representative democracy. It is for this kind of democracy that a written constitution is needed. In the emerging national situation following colonial rule, as in all of post-colonial Africa, there is no way for the nations to function properly without a written constitution. Again, as I pointed out in a previous answer in this interview, the new nations are defined by artificial boundaries enclosing within them different ethnic groups. They, therefore, need a written constitution that provides a basic framework serving a historically created political condition, clearly allocating public powers and providing for people’s rights in a way designed to promote common citizenship and nationhood. In that respect, the Eritrean case is no exception; our different ethnic groups were brought together by Italian colonization to become an Eritrean nation. The long-drawn out war of liberation waged by Eritreans in the name of an Eritrean nation added an extra value by further deepening and cementing the shared sense of nationhood. A constitution should codify such shared value clearly allocating powers among the component parts of the nation as well as providing for rights and duties under a system of law equally applicable to all its citizens.  But whether a constitution-making process helps foster the development of a political culture of tolerance and other aspects of democracy depends on factors like the dynamics of relationship among significant groups within the society such as whether such relationship was characterized by cooperation or conflict.

In the Eritrean case, the history of division along an ELF-EPLF axis and the outcome of the conflict did not augur well for a democratic culture. And the monopoly of power held by the EPLF, following military victory, as well as the intransigence of Isaias did not—indeed could not—augur well for democracy. In consequence of that condition, individuals and groups opposed to the EPLF chose to follow the line of least resistance which meant putting factional interest above national interest. This is a critical part of our sad predicament. This is not to put the blame on the opposition and to absolve Isaias and his party from the blame. On the contrary, I think the judgment of history would put more blame on Isaias. At the same time, the leadership of the opposition would not receive the Nobel Prize for putting nation before faction. To summarize, I think it bears emphasizing:

That there are two types of democracy at work today;

That underneath the foreign imposed state structure, there are local laws and customary values including in most cases a village democracy that worked well for the village communities, remaining intact during the colonial rule.

That this simple mode of governance operated under unwritten, historically evolved values of community rules. Such direct democracy existed, and to a large extent still exists in African village communities including Eritrea. For instance in Eritrea, the different ethnic groups still rely on such customary values in their local governance particularly in matters of personal law, and in conflict resolution.

That representative democracy became an imperative in Africa by virtue of the fact that the post-colonial situation of a multi-ethnic nation necessitated the creation of a government representing all the component groups of the nation on the basis of an electoral system designed to ensure equal representation at the national capital.

That it is this representative democracy that some people have in mind when they speak of the absence of a political culture of democracy. As I already said, a written constitution is needed for this type of democracy. The reason is obvious: you cannot use any one of the unwritten rules of the individual ethnic groups, because they are different; you need a unifying basic law with equal application to all of them.

This elaboration was necessary because we need a common understanding of the subject matter. Much of the disagreement that we have labored under as Eritreans flows from the absence of such common understanding. But I also suspect that a few commentators who indulge in attacking the 1997 constitution do so deliberately, falsely calling it Isaias Afwerki’s constitution. I wonder how they would explain the fact that its supposed owner has not implemented the constitution for sixteen years, and calls it just a piece of paper.

Clearly, it is time to transition from a faction-based politics to one based on a common effort in the interest of our nation. Enough of this Inklil, this dialogue of the deaf! Enough!!

To be continued…

Click here to listen to Wedi Vacaro’s call for action

 Semere T Habtemariam is the author of “Hearts Like Birds” and the forthcoming book on the History and Faith of the Orthodox Tewahdo Church of Eritrea and Ethiopia. He can be reached:


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