[This is part 3 of 3 in a series under the title of “Can Mesfin Hagos Lead Under a Banner of “One Country, One Destiny”?]
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom” Thomas Jefferson
The earlier two pieces1 were meant to show how complex the Eritrean socio-political terrain can be. And negotiating such complexity requires a leadership that should rise above and beyond religious, regional, and partisan politics. One of the fundamental challenges that stood in the way of organizing, mobilizing, and challenging the system in Eritrea has been and continues to be having NO leader they all can believe in. A leader with a foresight, who can bring disparate political, civil, and social activists into one coherent movement is needed urgently. Our collective injudiciousness is one major culprit in this regard.
For the purposes of this article, a leader is defined as one who can build a consensus from mosaic political, social, and civil society. A leader is one who is able to streamline the mass toward a clear goal so the people may follow their leader(s) until the intended objective is achieved. The intended objective should have clarity and purpose. Clarity and purpose in Eritrea’s case is the removal of the brute regime so that Eritreans may have “one country, one destiny” in the process of joining the civilized world community.
For these to materialize, however, confidence building measures must be envisioned by the mass that is willing to be led. For example, in the three-part interview that Mesfin Hagos did with ERISAT2, he showed moral courage by taking a decisive position about the need for activists like Agazians to become obsolete. This is what a leader with a moral character does. Agazaianism stands in the way of “one country, one destiny,” therefore, it must be rejected.
The culture of secrecy may have served its intended purposes during the struggling years for independence. Unfortunately, that culture of secrecy appears to haunt the movements in diaspora today. On the other end of the spectrum, the ELF and EPLF cloaked in secrecy divided Eritreans then and continue to haunt the diaspora bitterly now. Can a leader penetrate that psyche and bring all involved into the fold?
What of the secrecy, concealment, and mistrust that is so pervasive in Eritrean society inside Eritrea and abroad? These are the most important components that a leader must unequivocally be able to disentangle from the Eritrean body politic. Secrecy and concealment of information breeds mistrust. The remedy: Eliminate secrecy. Period.
The ubiquitous secrecy that looms large in the country is writ larger by the 10-minute broadcasting done by France 24, the French public TV3. It secretly taped some footages that show Eritrean soldiers moving and breaking heaps of rocks seemingly out of the 19th century world with their bare hands. Amazingly, France 24 was able to interview some of the soldiers. Inside Asmara, too, the agency was able to talk with young Eritreans around a Cyber Cafe eager to connect with the world at large.
Of particular interest for this article is the incessant culture of secrecy and the ostensible negative outcome that comes associated with it. Lack of transparency, for example, in the diaspora can be mitigated by a leader who is able to navigate it. Such a leader would certainly have a better chance of leading effectively.
“Transparency is the antidote to hypocrisy and lack of it is a sign of dishonesty” Asik S. Kirare
Transparency in the context of sociopolitical activism requires finesse in what to share and what to withhold. On the one hand, a leader would need to keep the activist followers informed. A leader also needs to be keen to note what he/she shares will be countervailed by the regime at every turn. Therefore, the ability to separate the sociopolitical wheat from its chaff will be of paramount importance. As such, fellow activists should demand transparency until the objective of unseating the regime is realized. In other words, a leader needs to be keen on not only knowing the distinction between strategies and tactics but must also embody it to a hilt.
Mesfin Hagos’s visits to Tigray caused a rift within his political party to a point of its foreign affairs representative, Suleiman A. Hussein ended up resigning because of principled disagreements he had with the path his party chose to pursue4.
In a brief over the phone interview, Suleiman offered some ominous scenarios that could play out long term. Antagonizing Ethiopia by siding with TPLF/EPRDF (with a provincial power) will have an unintended consequence for the future of Eritrea. The narrative that TPLF/EPRDF of Greater Tigray that it is advancing can only come at the coffin of Eritrea and vice versa. There cannot be one without the other.
If one goes back a decade or so in the resistance movement, one sees leaders of one Eritrean group or another refusing to depend on the TPLF-turned-EPRDF to effect change in Eritrea. Ambassador Andeberhan is the epitome of this camp (See his compelling arguments in the link below)5.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of Eritrean political parties who embraced for the fight to take place in any space and place. Mesfin Hagos’ position evolved toward this position only recently. One of the contentious issues that rendered diaspora Eritreans ineffective is their disagreements of whether to fight the regime from Ethiopian territories.
There were two camps: Those who were vehemently against such a movement due to EPRDF’s mishandling of Eritrean resistance movement (Listen to Amb. Andebrhan’s interview cited above). And those who believed any place and space is as good so long it was conducive to rid of the regime in Eritrea. That line of division is still on the same trajectory. Those who believe it wrong to meet with TPLF/EPRDF (secretly or not) as these efforts left the opposition movements in tatters when EPRDF was in power. TPLF/EPRDF breeds into the frenzy of the mistrust, it not only magnifies it, but renders the movement ineffective, incompetent, and inept, all rolled in one.
The evolving of Mesfin Hagos to this new position raises more questions that he can only answer. In fact, it would be incumbent upon the man to explain what made it now pertinent to work from Tigray when it has retreated into its killil (province) as opposed to when it had the awesome power running Ethiopia? Why now? Why not then?
There is another layer of complexity to operating from Tigray State’s TPLF/EPRDF province. Can Tigray State really be an effective ally to the Eritrean resistance movement while the federal government of Ethiopia and Eritrea are political bedfellows in the ever shifting of alliances of the Horn of Africa? After all, isn’t the road to Mekelle via Addis? Be it Mesfin Hagos or any other leaders would have to go through the Addis Ababa government territory when traveling to Tigray province. The possibility of this working appears to be tenuous at best because without the federal government’s blessings, it is rather hard to believe a successful alliance can work between the Eritrean opposition group leaders and the Tigray State.
All indications at this moment are that Mesfin Hagos appears to have attracted attention from various shades of activists. Activists who wouldn’t see eye-to-eye are foraging for him to lead them to the motherland. But, Mesfin Hagos has yet to plainly assert for the people to follow him. He appears to have been caught by a surprise to the positive responses coming from the young and the old. Therefore, the fundamental question that Mesfin Hagos must answer is this: Is he ready to lead? If the answer to this question is in the affirmative, this paper assumes it is, then, based on this presumption, there are some corollary issues that he must be willing to address.
Suspend or Resign from Political Party
First and foremost, at minimum, Mesfin Hagos must suspend his political affiliation or resign from it so he may lead without any political baggage overshadowing the anticipated leadership. This is the number one critically important step that he will have to take. Next, he has to recruit individual veteran fighters as well as younger generation activists whom he knows he can count on. These individuals have to fulfill the number one criterion above about not only should they have no affiliation with any political party but also must be willing to abide by the principles of transparency and accountability
Additionally, in one of his interviews when Mesfin Hagos was asked about the younger generation being oblivious to the cause, his answer was, it is not just these categories who are missing in action. Where are the educated Eritreans was his rhetorical response, which leads to the following statement: Whoever takes this task cannot possibly do it without the help of technocrats, robust media outlets, conferences, meetings, outreach efforts to countries like America, rallies of various sorts, artists, including singers, etc. These kinds of spaces will require a fulltime job. Therefore, allocating resources will be one of the first needs that Mesfin Hagos and company will need. So, technocrats, bureaucrats, retired accountants, political scientists, sociologists, marketing and management skills will all be needed if the resistance is going to have any political teeth that can bite from diaspora all the way to Eritrea.
Just recently, Mesfin Hagos tried to make a clarion call not only to end SAWA but for the kids to abscond from going to SAWA (The indefinite national service) this year5. Now, this kind of a demand will have no biting power unless the security forces or the military in Eritrea is behind this idea who will look the other way, or the regime will force them wholesale by a gffa method, put those who absconded in jail, what have you? There is a campaign by younger generation Eritreans in diaspora6 who attended SAWA high school advocating the end of this military high school, which they say is a pipeline to indefinite military servitude or a path to exile? Now, this is why there needs to be a coordinated effort to effect change. SAWA is a symptom of the larger problem. The regime must vanish for a holistic “one country, one destiny” to take root in the country. The regime keeps doing what it does best: Taking Eritrea and its people to the brink of extinction. We can’t seem to prioritize what’s the most important fight that we must undertake to effect change.
This is why leadership that believes in transparency, honesty, moral integrity, political acumen, which will naturally lead for a trust to flourish among Eritreans the world over is urgently needed. A leader of any stripe should make a clear distinction between what needs to be kept on a short leash and what must be communicated to the public on an ongoing basis so the wavelength of activism, the morale, the motivation remains intact. If everything is kept under the rug, it will be replaced by a rumor-mill machination that would ostensibly destroy any movement.
For good or bad, leaderless movement is like that chicken with a severed head, it may stumble and walk a little, but its demise in short order is a definite outcome. TPLF-turned-EPRDF had done a wonderful job in guaranteeing Eritrea’s independence at the earlier stages in the aftermath of the revolution. However, its ethnicity based political movement up until EPRDF’s ousting from the seat of power by the Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Meghersa political genius, appears to be on a trajectory of a colossal failure. For more on the ethnic based body politic, see Saleh “Gadi” Joha’s recent interview with ATV.7
This isn’t to shift the blame to EPRDF as to why Eritrea’s opposition keeps stalling at every turn. There is a whole lot of blaming that can go around. Eritrean Forum for National Dialogue (EFND) came to the scene quietly and one conference later it was never to be heard from again. Medrek made a great deal of splash, gave a great deal more of hope to Eritreans, but, it too, evaporated into thin air. Baito seems to stall more than it does anything else and all other political opposition groups have contributed to the weakening of the movement.
Similarly, the civil and social activists, too, appeared to follow the same path as the political ones. Personality differences leads them to a hasty solution: The founding of their own civil society, which is really a lazy answer instead of working due diligently to rectify their differences while staying in the organization they helped cofound, they simply choose to start a civil society with almost identical goals as the one from which they haphazardly chose to sever from.
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- Links to Part 1 and Part 2
- Mesfin Hagos Interview with ATV: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
- France 24, French Public TV
- Suleiman A. Hussein’s Interview
- Ambassador Andebrhan’ Interview with ATV
- Mesfin Hagos’s Message to SAWA Students
- Fanus Network on SAWA
- Saleh G. Johar Interview with Selam Kidane