Reflection On The Bishoftu “Youth Dialogue Forum”
The first time I heard about the idea of planning to hold a youth conference in Ethiopia and other sectorial conferences was during the seminar of Eritrean intellectuals, professionals and other interested individuals held in Ethiopia in September 2011. It means the idea precedes the Eritrean National Conference for Democratic Change (ENCDC) conference and other youth conferences held in 2012. It was in no way meant to compete with or preempt the momentum and divide the youth movement as was widely speculated by our ‘rich’ culture of conspiracy theories. Nor was it meant to undermine the ENCDC conference held in November at Hawassa. As much as those of us in the opposition camp that attended that conference, the Ethiopians have also invested heavily on it so it does not seem logical they would undermine it few months later. It was my understanding then that the Ethiopian Government which have been hosting the Eritrean political opposition for more than a decade, wanted also to listen to and have dialogue with various components of the Eritrean people (intellectuals, youth, women, elders, religious leaders). Why would then should it be ‘halal’ to host the political opposition, but ‘haram’ to invite other social components. Is it the old mentality, the political organisations represent all the people, their concerns, their ambitions, their dreams! What is the problem or what is wrong if the other components are listened to. The Ethiopians even support and host the EPDP, even though the organization is very skeptical openly to the Ethiopian role in Eritrean politics.
The host country has, in principle, every right to invite participants in the best way it deems necessary. We also have to have a say as stakeholders, of course. The invitations were sent officially by Meriem Omer and Mehari Abraham and there were many of us who helped them reach the widest possible candidates. Why were these two individulas chosen and not others is left to the organisers to respond to. I have not known Mehari for long so I can not comment on his choice, but I have known Meriem for more than a decade. Her track record is clean. She is an independent, selfless former Tegadalit on the forefront of the fight against the PFDJ and actively engages with the youth. To the best of my understanding the message from the Ethiopians was very clear as was in the previous conferences; invite all active youth including those who openly have negative views about the role of Ethiopia. We also have a culture of why not me and we focus on personalities and not on issues. We tend to reject initiatives if we are not part of it.
I think we also make the mistake of considering Ethiopia as just one of the over 30 opposition organisations. Ethiopia is a country with about 90 million people, It is a well respected country in the region, in Africa and internationally. As a state, it abides by international law in its deliberations. It is concerned about and has mutual interests with neighbouring countries. Its approach towards the Eritrean involvement has been shy, perhaps it is time they get directly involved in future invitations. One other thing that we need to take into consideration is also the track record of many of the Eritrean opposition that are concerned more about getting their own follow members to such gatherings at the expense of national interests. What happened at the last ENCDC conference is a concrete example. Their insistence in getting represented in the leadership instead of supporting competent candidates, is another manifestation of their weaknesses. The leaders of the ENCDC that were present at the conference made it clear that they would have not been able to organize such a conference as they are in their infancy, so how would others insist that the ENCDC ought to have organized the youth form . Last, not least also is the point that most of the youth are not members of the existing political organizations and so it would have been difficult to attract them through political organisations
Dialogue form vs. conference & agenda
The initial aim of the organisers was that the gathering would be a dialogue form, an arena for a diverse group of Eritrean youth to meet and discuss timely and relevant issues, get to know each other and network and perhaps pave the way for a future major action. So it was not meant to be a conference where major decisions could be taken. Though the main agenda was for the youth to discuss the current situation in our country and enhance their role, the organisers left the agenda open. All youth groups approached were asked to suggest issues for the agenda, just in case they have special issues or concerns they want to discuss. This approach which was meant to give the participants the ownership to the agenda, was misinterpreted as agenda was lacking. I wonder what else can an Eritrean gathering discuss except the current situation. The participating youth owned the form right from the start, they elected the secretariat that run the form, agreed on agenda and run the show from the beginning to the end.
When the idea of forming a youth organization came up from the overwhelming majority, Amanuel Iyassu, myself and other observers raised our concerns. I was personally of the opinion forming a network or task force that calls for a general youth conference was the best option as it would give all other youth groups more ownership of the whole process. It also does not limit of those who did not attend either to be part of the new youth organization or not. Then there is the issue of the youth groups who have been in operation for long and one would not expect them to shut down their organisations and join in. There was also the risk that one just ends up as been an additional youth group. But all those concerned were not accepted by the participants. There was so much enthusiasm and energy and readiness to come up with some thing very concrete, the least of which was to form an organization that calls for an all-inclusive youth conference in one year. I was very much touched by the enthusiasm and if this momentum is transferred into action, then there is much hope for change and for quick sustainable change. It is this enthusiasm, it is this sense of urgency that the criticism to the gathering missed. So to those critics who think the organisers cheated the participants by inviting for a dialogue form and convening a conference, I boldly say it was the participants who opted to form an organization. All the deliberations were transmitted live so there is no room for conspiracy by the organisers, but those critics who are against the gathering in principle can not be convinced as the Amharic saying, ‘awgo yetegna sigasegsut aisemam’- those who pretend to sleep do not wake up even if one tries to wake them up. It could not have been more transparent.
The participation & diversity
To best of my understanding, the organisers have made it very clear from the beginning (as was the case during the previous conferences) that they want a diverse participation that represents the Eritrean reality. It seems to me the Ethiopians are more concerned about our diversity than many of us. The candidates who were supposed to attend were balanced religiously and ethnically, but a concerted effort by some witers discouraged some of the potential invitees not to participate. About 10 participants from Sudan were prevented by the Sudanese security agents from attending which may have resulted in slight imbalance. So far it seems the only place where we can have a diverse, representative group of Eritreans attending a conference is in Ethiopia. Another thing is that those organizations and individuals who attended were those who accepted the invitations, so if some were discouraged or were not interested to attend can not blame the organisers for their absence. Ironically those same Arabic-operating websites who were campaigning for boycotting the forum are now accusing the form for not being representative. This all does not mean that there could have been mistakes, that some youth groups or individuals may have not been reached, but in such cases it was not by intention. All the deliberations were in Tigrinya and Arabic and for me that is the yardstick for diversity and representation. There are those in some Arabic operating websites and facebook groups that blame the forum for undermining the Arabic language, as if they were present.
Unlike all the former conferences and seminars I attended in Ethiopia (ENCDC 2010 & 2011 and the intellectuals seminar), the deliberations were effective (not much focus on procedural matters), focused on issues, sensed the urgency, were more mature and there was no scramble for leadership. There were no old political baggage reflected. There was also much enthusiasm and readiness to bring change. The choice of leadership was more based on competence and there were more persons willing to work full time and it took relatively little time. My only negative observation was that the participants wanted quick results. In general the deliberations were very promising and gave us much hope that change is coming and coming soon, if the enthusiasm is transferred in to action. Most of the participants made it very clear that they value the sacrifices of the elder generation, they are part and work to broaden base of the Eritrean opposition and are not a replacement to it and that they will work closely with the ENCDC, despite that campaign by some of the former mentioned Arabic websites to anticipate to the contrary. The participants also made it very clear that using all available means of struggle to shorten the suffering of the our people and that they value and cherish the support of the Ethiopian people and Government. The motto was to save the people and the country before it was too late.
The Ethiopian dimension
Senior Ethiopian officials explained in detail the Ethiopian position on Eritrea and the historical relations between the two peoples and their political organisations and the sacrifices they paid by supporting the Eritrean peoples aspirations for independence. They also explained the last border war, the implications and mistakes done and efforts taken to correct them. In brief they shared their experience with the participants. A point worth noting is that fact that the TPLF has concluded in its assessment in 1980 that the EPLF is an undemocratic organization and it can not go beyond achieving independence. They also elaborated on the Ethiopian political culture that focused on strategic thinking and clarity of ideas that helped resolve many issues after the downfall of the Mengistu regime despite the huge challenges faced. They also explained on the huge development projects going in the country. They made it very clear that toppling the regime is the responsibility of the Eritreans though they can help politically.
The session gave the participants the chance to air their concerns and clarify many issues in an open environment. The participants were struck by the humbleness of the Ethiopian leadership and their vision in contrast to the militaristic, shortsighted leadership in Asmara. There many things that we learn from the Ethiopians as there are many things the Ethiopians can learn from us, be it positive or negative aspects. The regime has invested a lot to wedge mistrust between us and Ethiopia and such gatherings remove a lot such mistrust. I think the EPDP, though it receives support from Ethiopia and is based there, does a lot of disservice to its members and itself by discouraging them from attending gatherings in Ethiopia which deprives them to see the reality for themselves. The Ethiopians also made it clear that they believe in building up on what was achieved rather than replacing the older achievements by new ones. Some people also miss the point that it would have been difficult to isolate the regime, expose it and sanction it inside IGAD, Africa and internationally without the support of Ethiopia. That is in no way charity. They deserve our appreciation and thanks for being the only neighbouring country not only supporting us but also for hosting such gatherings that remove much of the mistrust among us. We need to see them as equal partners and engage with them and when we feel they are making mistakes, we need to correct them, not play into the regimes propaganda.
Tumuzghi, a new breed of Eritrean youth
It was a great pleasure to meet some of the active youth I knew through the facebook and many new faces. Yet the most touching encounter was to meet Tumuzghi who came back from Israel with a colleague to liberate his country. You can not but fall easily in love with his wide smile, his enthusiasm, his readiness and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his country without demanding that others follow his suit. He is an embodiment of the new breed of rebelling youth.
In general it was a inspiring attending the youth form at Bishoftu, I come back energized and empowered.