On GiE: People Come, Organizations Go, Values Remain
“What are the new Eritrean questions that have been neither asked nor answered during our Revolution and, in fact, going back to the 1940s?”
~ Historian Samuel Emaha
This is my 3rd article on the Government-in-Exile (GiE) proposal. The first (It’s Time for a Unity Government In Exile) dealt with introduction of the concept and its rationale: the total loss of legitimacy of the PFDJ as a ruling party, the failure to gain legitimacy by the opposition to declare itself as people’s representatives and, thus, the urgency for reinstitution of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) headed by its exiled Central Committee members to form a unity government in partnership with other opposition parties whose roots were in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF.) The second article (Fleshing Out Our Unity Government In Exile) attempted to answer some of the questions that were posed as a result of the first: why government in exile? Why back to ELF and EPLF? What is the process to be followed? In this third installment, I will include the Concept Note (Concept Note) (Tigrinya and Arabic editions to follow) that was presented to the media by the National Taskforce Team (NTT) on Government In Exile. I will also attempt to address the questions that were raised to the NTT such as: what do you mean by ELF, Jebha, Te.Ha.E, and EPLF, Shaebia, h.g.Ha.E? And what is this “school of thought” you keep talking about: can you give us specifics? These organizations are long gone, some for decades: are you trying to resuscitate the dead? How do they, in any way, meet the questions posed by the youth? Do these organizations even believe the same things they believed when it comes to Eritrean self-determination and territorial integrity? Why do you want to take us back to them when we have vibrant social movements? And what exactly is meant by “unity government”?
I. Concept Note Summarized: Whereas, the Government-in-Power has lost all legitimacy to govern on legal, political and socio-economic grounds; whereas it has rejected all calls to return power to the people and earn its legitimacy to govern; whereas there are a million Eritreans in exile in comparison to the 3.65 million Eritreans in Eritrea, and whereas all prior attempts to create an effective opposition to meet the challenges Eritreans face have not succeeded, a National Taskforce Team (NTT) has taken the initiative to attempt to help the leaders and members of the two historic organizations and their iterations to convene organizational congresses, draft/renew political charters and call for an Inaugural Plenary Assembly and name, in equal numbers, their nominees to a Consultative Council (CC). To ensure accountability and checks and balances and to avoid deadlock, (a) the CC will also include members of Civil Society and Esteemed Citizens and (b) the Executive Council (EC) will be ratified by, but not from within, the CC. Instead, the Directors who make up the EC will be nominated by a joint commission of NTT and CC, and then will be ratified (or rejected) by the CC. The NTT, which is entirely independent of the government, will end its mandate once the government is constituted and will dissolve itself.
Below are some of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):
II. Jebha (ELF) & Shaebia (EPLF)
By Jebha & Shaebia, what is meant is the value system and not the people or the organizations. And by value system, what is meant is the formulas they espoused for an Eritrea that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, a democratic, just, prospering Eritrea where citizens (and peoples) have guaranteed rights and shared obligations. While Jebha and Shaebia are historical entities, and they happen to be the two Eritrean trunks–ELF: 1961-1981; EPLF: 1971-1991–they have given birth to many branches. The call now is to focus on the trunks and not the branches.
III. “Schools of Thought” or Political Tendencies or Belief Systems
Just as religions have their tenets, political organizations have their programs & principles. These programs and principles encompass the tangible (mission, goals, objectives and vision) as well as the intangibles (culture, will, fortitude, etc.) For comparison only, let’s list how these two different schools of thought deal with a variety of controversial tangibles, as outlined in their most recent definitive political documents of the two schools of thought: 1997 Eritrean Constitution (yes, the document espouses EPLF Value System) and the 2019 ENCDC Political Charter (ELF Value System.)
1. State Structure: “Eritrea is a unitary State divided into units of local government. The powers and duties of these units shall be determined by law.” (1997 Constitution, Article 1.5) “Recognition of a decentralized system of government guaranteed by the Constitution…” (ENCDC Charter, Chapter I.12). There are strengths, and weaknesses, to each view.
The above–degree of autonomy of Eritrea’s regions, and its outline in a constitution or statute–is the most fundamental difference between the two Schools of Thought and it informs their views on all other issues including:
2. Land Ownership: In Eritrea, says the EPLF School of Thought, “[a]ll land and all natural resources below and above the surface of the territory of Eritrea belongs to the State. The interests citizens shall have in land shall be determined by law” (1997 Constitution, Article 23.2) No, says the ELF School of Thought: “[l]and belongs to its own people, and any land and property appropriated unlawfully belongs to its owners….” (ENCDC Political Charter, Chapter I.17.) Again, there are strengths and weaknesses to both. If land belongs to the State, then the State does not have to negotiate with every district, every province, every region, every self-proclaimed collective, before mapping out its macroeconomic policy for rapid development. The negative to this is that it places the balance of power between the State and the People heavily in favor of the State and in countries like Eritrea where identity and citizenship are strongly tied to land, it creates layers of confusion.
3. Language Policy: “The equality of all Eritrean languages is guaranteed”: so says the EPLF in the 1997 Constitution, Article 4.3 and all its political programs that preceded it. No, says ELF, in Eritrea, going back to the 1940s, the very agreement to have a country called Eritrea was partly premised on the idea of having Tigrinya and Arabic as official languages. Therefore, while all languages are equal, “Tigrinya and Arabic are the official languages.’ (ENCDC Political Charter, Chapter I.9 )
4. Definition of Ethnicity: In Eritrea, ethnicity is defined by language and uniqueness of customs: there are 9 languages spoken in Eritrea, so there are 9 ethnic groups. So says EPLF in every single EPLF poster, every festival, its currency & textbook. Nope, says the ELF School of Thought: ethnicity is not just defined by language and customs only but uniqueness of history, ancestry, social treatment and psychology therefore it is the people, not the government, that will identify the number of ethnicities Eritrea has. “Any nation has the right to call itself the name it wishes, and the enforced integration of the regime should be prevented.” (ENCDC Political Charter, Chapter I, 16 )
5. Citizens vs People As State Units: Rights and duties are applied to citizens, in the EPLF political culture. Citizens have rights; and people have a right to develop their culture. In contrast, in the ELF political culture it is not just citizens but a people who have an individual right and group rights.
In addition to the 5 above, there are other issues that deal with Eritrean Narrative, i.e. how we interpret history where the two schools of thoughts have different perspectives.
Sadly for Eritrea, these two schools of thought have never been allowed to see one another as anything but “The Other” instead of what they actually are: different approaches towards the same goal. To the extent they even acknowledge the existence of each other, it is in accusations. One accuses the other of being an exclusive hegemon-wanna-be, and the other accuses the former of being a dangerous agent of fragmentation across religious and regional divide. Those who want to “rise above” this division think it is best to ignore it, or to pretend it is not there, if only we can have discussions only with people who think exactly the way we do. But the above are healthy, issues-based-differences and, yes, there is a lot of overlap: but the fundamental difference is about degree of regional autonomy, which manifests in any number of ways.
IV. What About The Youth?
Well, to go back to what Samuel Emaha asked, “what are the new questions, and new answers the youth have that were not asked and answered?” Incidentally, these questions were posed by the youth and answered by the youth of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, etc. So what are they? Even radical question like:
“Is Eritrea really necessary? Can’t we just be part of Tigray or Ethiopia? Can the Eritrean people really co-exist together? What do I, as _______ have in common with ______? I actually have more in common with ________”, were asked and answered decades ago.
So, what is it that the youth are asking that haven’t been asked and answered by the Schools of Thought mentioned above? If it is a case of “well, I agree with their questions and the answers, I just don’t have faith in their ability to lead”, remember: people come, organizations go, but values are permanent. We are asking the leaders to be transitional leaders and transfer their knowledge and experience to a new generation so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel, or building houses on a sand. Besides, this is deja vu: over a decade ago, “the youth” said the same thing and formed EYSC, which was supposed to transcend everything we do not like about our political organizations: fragmentation on the basis of the usual fracture lines. Where is EYSC now?
In organizational psychology, there is a new concept called “radical candor”, which is very different from “brutal honesty.” Radical candor says the most effective way to lead or to follow is to (a) care personally and (b) challenge directly. If you are not personally vested in the success of leaders, and if you are unable to follow, you can’t challenge effectively and bring the desired outcome. On the other hand, if you challenge directly but don’t care personally, your behavior is mistaken for obnoxious aggression and rejected. Besides, why is it that these Eritrean leaders (Arkan!) are only praised when they are dead? Appreciate them when they are alive, then you can challenge directly. But nobody is going to give up on the tried and true for the untried and untrue.
V. What About The Social Movements & Civil Society?
A government is a composition of political parties. It is not a collection of individuals (concerned or otherwise); it is not civil society (professional associations, cultural institutions, religious institutions, advocacy groups.) In fact, the very definition of civil society is “organizations not affiliated with government.” However, since some Eritrean “civil society” are political organizations masquerading as civil society, since the success of the GiE requires that nobody feels left out, the National Taskforce Team (NTT) envisions a role for them and “esteemed individuals” in the Government-in-exile. This is an outcome of the feedback from Eritreans responding to the GiE proposal. (Refer to the Concept Note.) Otherwise, a civil society is supposed to keep a watchful eye on the government, not be part of it!
VI. Why “Unity Government”?
A fairly intelligent friend actually thought that unity government means working on uniting ELF and EPLF. Heavens, no. If she mistook its meaning, chances are others have: it is actually the opposite. It is asking the ELF and EPLF Schools of Thought: please do not give up your beliefs, stand for your principles because your constituencies believe in what you stand for. Do not give up the demands of your constituents for the sake of faux-unity that won’t stand the test of time. Safeguard it, fight for it. Just make sure to serve your people by forming a partnership because, on your own, you don’t represent the entire people of the nation and without negotiating in goodwill you will achieve nothing but standstill.
VII. But Why GiE? Why Not An Umbrella or United Front?
At NTT, we are convinced a Government-in-Exile is the answer to the total absence of legitimacy of the Government-in-Power, which continues to enter into ruinous relationships with Ethiopia, UAE, Saudi Arabia using our name. We strongly believe that we owe it to history to say that there were two governments for a period of time and one of them rejected all the secret treaties, all the adventurous wars when the bill comes due to future generations of Eritreans. Remember, a GiE would not be necessary if a GiP had not totally and completely betrayed the promise of our Revolution. We also believe, strongly, that a GiE will enable us to speak with unified voice and help the world to separate the pretenders and posers from the true advocates. But, at the end of the day, whether we have a government or an umbrella organization is the decision of the people and the leaders we will elect. What matters is that (a) we, not fringe groups, own what it means to be an Opposition (one that, at minimum, accepts the formulas for peaceful co-existence, uncompromising position on Eritrean sovereignty and the righteousness of its Struggle for Self-Determination that were argued and settled by the historic organizations); (b) we in exile present a less ominous and less threatening face to our comrades-in-struggle inside Eritrea who, ultimately, are the stakeholders who have to live with the decisions that are being made.
VIII. Who Is Going To Be The President?
I was once asked, jokingly, “who is your Shelebi?” I had dismissed this question as entirely hypothetical but since people might be serious about the question, the answer is (a) there will not be a president but a Chairperson of Executive Council and (b) I have absolutely no idea: that is a decision for the CC. While we are on the subject, one of the requirements of being a member of the National Taskforce Team is to NOT be a contender for the Executive Council. Hope that answers another question that may or may not have been asked. While we are on the subject of answering the unserious questions, no, this has nothing to do with Weyane and those who say the “defeat of Weyane” and the “GiE” are related are the same people who say the arrival of Abiy in a town is related to rainfall. In logic, that is called the false cause fallacy: if A preceded B, it doesn’t mean A caused B. But for those who see that there are no accidents, no coincidences and everything is synchronized, and for those who have allowed Weyane to live rent-free in their head for decades, trying to explain this is a lost cause.
IX. What Is This Thing About NTT Members Who Want To Remain Anonymous
When we started NTT, we had to start with people who understood the urgency of getting started. Some had said they want to do the work but for reasons we found acceptable, they could not be public. But equally understandable is the people’s demand that ALL NTT members be transparent. So, the anonymous members have become advisors and the NTT is now in the process of replacing them using the same criteria it has outlined in the Concept Note. We will update the people on the make-up of the entire NTT which is now composed of myself, Samuel Emaha, Dr. Almaz Zerai and Habteab Yemane. NTT is under no illusions that it has all the answers and it will continue to have conversations with all stakeholders because the objective is a government that enjoys the support of the people.
X. What Can I Do?
First, we would like to thank all those who have praised us and criticized us and given us the platform to share our views. If you want to volunteer your services, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yes, we will have an EriGie website too. The Opposition is composed of human beings with human frailties. Some are afraid to try something new, fearing failure. Some are afraid of trying something new because they think they are being asked to leave their comfort zone. Encourage them, support them, and challenge them directly and respectfully. At the end of the day, all politicians want to make sure they have the support of the people. Show them by words and deeds that you will support such an endeavor which is the least we can do to bring relief to the long, long-suffering Eritrean people. If you are an organization, endorse the proposal. The time was yesterday, but yesterday is gone, so let’s do it today!