More Reflections On The Eritrean Opposition

Not fit to lead

Isaias is mentally unstable and unfit to lead. He is stuck in a cemetery of dead ideas and it’s foolish to expect him to change. His arrogance and ignorance knows no boundary. Who among us could have imagined any head of state to openly boast: “I don’t have an employment contract with the Eritrean people. The Eritrean people don’t pay my salary.” Call it lunacy or not, the man who is better suited for medieval rather than modern times believes what he says: he owns Eritrea and all Eritreans are his subjects. The mouth says what the heart is full of. According to his twisted logic, the Eritrean people have no right to ask him to step-down or to change his policies. Here is a man who had allegedly said, “hzbi ertra kem gerewenNa mqTqaTu”.

The first step towards a solution, therefore is to get rid of him by removing him from power; alive if possible and definitely most preferable, but dead is also as good; and, in the grand scheme of things, less costly. Personally, I would rather see him dead than the hundreds and thousands of our youth that are perishing in North African desserts and the Mediterranean Sea. Isaias is a true embodiment of the evil regime and removing him would be half the victory. Higdef is like a snake: you kill its head; you can then use its skin to make expensive wallets and belts and its body could be a delicacy in some parts of Eritrea.

Most likely, Isaias like his late friend Laurent Kabila would be killed by a disgruntled friend or loyalist and it would not be for political reasons. For God’s sake, the man through his many promiscuous and adulterous sexual escapades, bar fights, jailing and killings had humiliated so many honorable people and families and it is not far-fetched to imagine someone lurking out there for the opportune time to strike. Assassination would be too merciful for this lunatic who has defiled every good and decent thing about our culture.

Got Crisis?

This brings me to my 10 year old question: Is Eritrea in a crisis state that needs immediate salvation?

There has been a wide gap between our words and actions. Our track-records of the last ten years do not support the idea that Eritrea was in a state of crisis. As far as crisis goes, Eritrea is not in a much worse situation than its neighbors Ethiopia and the Sudan. Isaias Afwerki, Omer El Bashir and Meles Zenawi are not that much different on the issues we in the opposition like to invoke; the difference is so small they all have family likeness. What separates Bashir and Zenawi from Isaias is that they have not lost their sense of decency and still care about long established cultural, religious and moral norms. Hard as it is for me to appreciate people who have been in power for more than 20 years, both Bashir and Zenawi—to their credit—have acknowledged the presence of opposition to their rule and have allowed them some space to operate inside their respective countries. These steps are not that insignificant; they are steps in the right direction and both Ethiopia and the Sudan are relatively ahead on the democratic curve.

Isaias rules the country with an iron grip. There is no governance—security and order—problem in Eritrea and contrary to a common belief Eritrea is not a failed state. The problem with Eritrea is that it is too much governed and the crude and unenlightened dictator is shaping and molding it in his image. As far as security and order goes, there is no clear and present danger to the regime and it could easily continue its hold on power.

The future is messy:

The future of Eritrea is however in crisis and this is where the problem with the opposition lies. It finds itself in an unenviable position of having to warn people of impending disasters. It is like selling life insurance to recent third-world immigrants; they treat you like you are wishing them death. Eritrea is dying a slow death; a death that is not visible to many. The opposition has not been able to convince the public jury—beyond a reasonable doubt—of a homicide without providing the most important evidence: the dead body.  But most of all, Eritreans could easily tell that their country is not that much worse off than their larger neighbors which have been independent longer than theirs. What Eritreans are experiencing, the argument goes, is business-as-usual in Eritrea and for that matter in the entire continent of Africa. The Eritrean people have not seen better days; injustice, oppression and hardship have been part of their normal life. This psychological make-up is hard to shrug off. The truth is a bit of disorder is better than apathy. It is time to roll sleeves and flex muscles.

A Herculean task:

The opposition faces an impossible mission of changing this psychological make-up of the people. The general messages of democracy, human rights and free press do not instinctively resonate with the masses. It is very hard to effectively articulate the intangible, invisible, future and disastrous effects of poor management and leadership. It is natural for the common people to reason: If Isaias was good enough to lead us in our liberation struggle; he must then be good enough to rule us in liberation. As the leader of the victorious EPLF he has accumulated enough equity to last him much longer than we would like. It is probably much smarter to operate from the notion that Isaias is probably more deified than demonized by more Eritreans. Thousands of Eritreans who live in free and democratic countries recently came to New York to adore and worship him. Thanks to my Californian brother, Isayas Sium, of the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, I now realize that their turn-out, impressive as it might have been was 70% less than the last time it was held in 1999 in Washington D.C. (Habtom Yohanes has also made the same observation in one of his latest articles.) This is not a small dint but a gaping hole we have inflicted on the tyrant’s support.

(Let me digress and express my respect for the sacrifices the pro-government Eritreans [Yes! You read me right: I’m talking about PFDJ supporters.] have made to rally behind their president. I’ve to admit they were looking proud and beautiful because that is who they are—our families. I don’t doubt their love of country and most of them were primarily motivated by that love. I encourage them to hold on to that love and culture of sacrifice but warn them not to confuse it with love for Isaias. I say we, the opposition, share the same love and culture of sacrifices; but, ours unlike theirs is not a misplaced love. Leaders come and go; some will be good and others like Isaias will be bad, but our loyalty should always be to Eritrea and our people. I’m certain it is a matter of time before most of them—PFDJites—join us because we are fighting for the future and the future belongs to us.]

Humanize It!

It is therefore very important for the opposition to articulate the specific and actual grievances of individual people and groups. We need to humanize our suffering; that is the most effective way to bring our message home. As a father of four children, nothing aches my heart more than the tragedy that has befallen the Aster Yohannes and Petros Solomon family. This family deserves, if not justice, at least mercy. The sadistic monster, Isaias Afwerki, is incapable of showing decency, mercy and kindness. The primary victims of his barbarity are the innocent children who literally grew up without experiencing parental care and love. Petros’ and Aster’s youngest daughter had participated in the New York city demonstration and so did Ermias Debessai’s son in Germany. These are the exact people who need to be the faces of the opposition. They are the perfect moral voice of our struggle for change and every effort must be made to prepare them to better articulate their story of suffering. The sisters of Aster Yohanes, the like of Senait and Tsedal must be commended because they are once again giving us the best testimony that family matters. I appreciate their courage and the love they had shown for their sister Aster. If there is “family of the year” award, it should go to these sisters.

Decades old victims:

As a refugee who had grown up in the Sudan, nothing shames me more than the presence of hundreds of thousands of fellow Eritrean refugees—mostly Muslims—who had been living in abject conditions in refugee camps since 1967. It should have been the top priority of the government of Eritrea to help these Eritreans who had been dreaming of “alAwda” returning home for almost the entire duration of our armed struggle. If, as some people allege, the government of Eritrea, intentionally and systematically, and in order to maintain a Christian demographic  majority, made it impossible for these refuges to return home, then, it would go in history as the worst kind of ethnic cleansing. To make matters even worse, the dream of “alAwda” is turning into a nightmare as their ancestral land is being given to others by the government. As they say “men Hafera Hufreten liakhi feweqe’A fiha bnefsihi” (one who digs a grave for his brother gets buried in it himself.) the overwhelming majority of the new wave of refuges are Christians. And the overwhelming majority of the casualties of war in the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war were Christians. There is a concern that Eritrea might be following the trajectories of the Christian communities in the Middle East: migration has drastically reduced their number. There are today more Christian Lebanese in Brazil than in Lebanon.

Messaging the message:

The Eritrean people understand fairness and justice and that is a message the opposition can sell. Now this is easily said than done and it will require a lot of wisdom. How do you ask people to rally behind a national cause without undermining personal and sub-national causes? How do you champion personal and sub-national causes without undermining national causes?

First, we need to recognize that the national cause is mostly an aggregate sum of sub-national causes. The two are not mutually exclusive. The founder and leader of the Eritrean Muslim League, sheik Ibrahim Sultan simultaneously championed Muslim and Eritrean causes and is rightfully regarded by many Eritreans as one of the most important Founding Fathers of modern Eritrea.

Second, the new opposition needs to acknowledge that, although, September 18, 2001 was an important date in the history of Eritrean opposition; opposition to the regime even predates the liberation of Eritrea. It is crucially important to know the circumstances and issues that lead to their formation were not identical to that of September 18, 2001. It is only right that we know and understand the essences of these older organizations and give them the respect they duly deserve. All issues should be on the table and the democratic process should determine which of them should be given top priorities. No organization or individual has the right to preemptively and unilaterally decide which should be our top priority issues.

Third, the aim should not be to eliminate differences but to manage and channel them for the benefit of all. In the absence of true civic organizations that transcend traditional social ties, community ties such as ethnicity, tribes, churches, mosques, villages, districts and regions could fill the gap in the immediate future.  The long established trust among group members (deqi Hade ruba) is the social capital we need to protect liberty in this junction of our political development. There is nothing inherently evil about being a member of a tribe or a village as there is nothing inherently good about being Eritrean. It all boils down to what purpose it serves; which is the goal of any political life. Let’s not loose sight of the possibility that in few generations our descendants might not even refer to themselves as Eritreans, just as our great grand fathers and mothers did not. If we could allow IGAD and AU to do to do what they were envisioned to do, then, the regional identity of Horn of Africa, East Africa or even United Africa would be far more important to them.

 Fourth, we need to recognize that Ethiopia for now and the foreseeable future—for all reasons, be it historical, cultural, and economic and security— is the most important country in our foreign and regional policy. Once we recognize that, it will become abundantly clear that non-engagement is not an option. Only a stupid leader like Isaias would hold an entire nation hostage for the sake of Badme. This recognition does not license the Ethiopians to interfere in our affairs and does not negate their right to exert their influence. The same goes for us.  At this juncture, the Eritrean opposition needs Ethiopia but the Ethiopians must understand—even in our most desperate situations—if rape is inevitable, we don’t have to enjoy it. There is a fine line between helping us manage our affairs and managing our affairs. It is not in the best interest of Ethiopia for the Eritrean opposition to be perceived by Eritreans as their puppet. A strong and independent Eritrean opposition is in the best interest of Eritrea and Ethiopia. We should not engage the Ethiopians out of fear but we should not fear to engage them.

Fifth, the Eritrean opposition needs to diversify its moral, diplomatic and financial support base. The Arab Spring has created unprecedented opportunity to forge relations with democratic minded groups and governments. Let truth be told that an overwhelming number of Arabs supported our struggle for justice and freedom and we have no reason to doubt they would not continue to do so. We need to reach out to them and tell our story of unfinished revolution. Today, Africa has several democratic states that we can appeal to for support and mentorship. We should not shy away from knocking on their doors. To do this, however, we need to enhance our democratic credentials and commitments and show that we are serving the peoples’ cause. The opposition can no longer, for instance, ignore the plight of our refugees.  Where are the ERAs (Eritrean Relief Association) and the Eritrean Red Cross and Crescent of the past?

Last but certainly not least, the opposition should be on the road to Asmera. Because that is where the enemy is and that is where victory lies; but, most of all that is where most our people are. The people like the Disciple Thomas would not believe without seeing the nail marks. The opposition must show the people the nail marks, let them put their finger where the nails were and that is when they will put their hands on the opposition side. Seeing is believing.

Semere Habtemariam is the author of “Hearts Like Birds” (


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