Regionalism, Identity And Political Organizations In Eritrea

This is a speech that was presented at The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville Maryland on June 25, 2011. Panelists presented their speech on an array of topics pertinent to Eritrea’s Path towards Democracy. The main issues that were presented by the panelists were: Diversity Management in Nation Building, Religion and Languages in Eritrean politics, Regionalism Identity and Political Organizations in Eritrea, Nationality Rights and Constitutional Design in Eritrea and Lessons from Constitutional Designs in Africa. This is a speech that was given relating to Regionalism, Identity and Political Organizations in Eritrea.

Thank you Dr Afeworki Paulos – from Carnegie Mellon University, Moderator and organizer of today’s discussion.
Thank you Dr. Kidane Mengisteab – from Pennsylvania State University.
Thank you Mr. Saleh Gadi – founder and publisher of
Thank you Mrs. Aisha Mussa Gaas Member of Eritrean National Commission for Democratic Change.
Thank you Dr.  H. Kwasi Prempeh – from Seton Hall University.

And ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming 

My name is Semere Tesfai. First I would like to thank you for inviting me. I’m honored and humbled to sit next to these highly distinguished panelists to voice my opinion; and I’m also honored to see you, to talk to you and to know you all in person. And I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity.

Today I’m going to say few words about ethnic identity, regionalism and political organizations in Eritrean politics. And this is my take on these issues:

Ethnic and regional politics:

We Eritreans are from different ethnics, regions and faiths. We all have our own unique cultural and ethnic identity that defines us. Our unique ethnic identity can be identified by the way we express ourselves – the way we interact with the land to make ends meet, the way we build our homes, the tools we use, the kind of food we grow, the way we cook our food, the kind language we speak, the way we dress, the way we style our hair, the way we dance, the way we interact with each other…all defines our distinct ethnic identity. And without a doubt, our self-esteem, our self-confidence, our self-worth and our pride as a community is predicated on, the sound existence of our ethnic identity. When we lose our ethnic identity we lose everything as individuals and as a nation – we lose our ethnic pride, our heritage, our values, and of course our unity and our colorful beauty as a nation.

Therefore when we say, our beauty, our strength and our unity as a nation is dependent on our diversity, it is not just good politics, but a vision for Eritrean pride and Eritrean strength. To preserve and to protect our Eritrean colorful ethnic identity, we must start by protecting our small ethnics who are at the verge of extinction. Standing for the protection of the ethnic Elit, the Naras and the Kunamas would be a good start. It is high time for all of us in the opposition to have a meaningful discussion about protecting and preserving the ethnic identity of each and every one of our ethnics. I’m sure there are many capable people on this field who are willing to play a positive roll in educating us, how to preserve and protect our ethnic identity and cultural values without compromising our national unity.

Today, we all Eritreans are witnessing the reality of ethnic and religious organizations that are fighting for the survival of their cultural values and the survival of their communities. Without a doubt, we all are being challenged by their demand. Our knowledge of handling these issues is very limited. With the limited knowledge that we have, we are cruising in an uncharted territory trying to do the right thing. We all are trying to figure out how to balance – preserving and protecting the ethnic identity and the religious right of our ethnic and religious communities on the one hand, and preserving the unity of our people and the territorial integrity of our nation on the other. And we all know the survival of one shouldn’t be at the expense of the other. And we fully understand the PFDJ’s ሓደልቢ, ሓደሕዝቢ, ሓንቲህርመት  mantra is a sham.  

Preserving and protecting our ethnic identity without compromising our national unity requires a lot of hard work and a clear vision. It requires building bridges and building trust among our communities. It requires crafting an effective and workable governing mechanism that is acceptable to all of us. It requires a candid exchange of ideas, of our best and brightest men and women from every ethnic and every faith of our community. It requires a common understanding that, building a democratic nation is not a one shot fix but an achievement of a long protracted reform process. And the success of this protracted reform process could be achieved, if and only if we have a common commitment and a common allegiance that we hold valuable above and beyond our differences – Eritrea.  Let me elaborate on that:

As individuals we all have our unique personal identity, but still we show loyalty to our family. As families we all are independent small institutions, but still we show our loyalty to our community. And as communities we all have our unique identity and unique values that define us, and it is very important to have the right to exercise our freedom to the fullest to preserve our uniqueness, but still we have to have loyalty to the Nation that we all admire – Eritrea. Because being an Eritrean is the only common thread that binds us together as a people and us a Nation. If we compromised the common thread that binds us together as a people and as a Nation, then we are nothing but perfect strangers. We all don’t speak the same language, we all don’t have the same culture, we all don’t have the same faith, we all don’t live on the same region and we all don’t share the same interest.

As a people it is important to have a dialog to chart our future. And it is a no brainer, we are going to disagree on a lot of issues; but if we keep talking and listening to each other in good faith, we would learn a lot from each other; and finally with continuous reform we would be able to create a government that is acceptable to all of us. But our dialog should be built on a solid foundation.  The only way we could build a solid foundation for a democratic, prosperous and peaceful Eritrea is, if and only if we believe we are Eritreans with a common destiny. And we have proved our unity and our common destiny with grief, sweat, blood, soul and treasure. Anyone who thinks otherwise could only be wrong.

Therefore, first we are Eritreans then we are whatever we want to be – Muslims, Christians, Hamassien, Semhar, Bilen, Kunama, PFDJ, ENSF, ELF, students, women, professionals etc. As free people from different ethnics, faiths and regions, not only we all should be free to practice our faith but also we should be free to organize ourselves in any shape or form. As free people, we all should be fairly represented in all layers of the government to fight for the best interest of our communities. We should have every right to organize ourselves into professional organizations, gender organizations, ethnic organizations, faith based organizations, regional organizations, people of certain age, people with physical limitations, for noble causes, labor unions; civic societies, you name it. And it is within our right to support and belong to a political party that fights for our best interest.

But governing the nation is different. We must have a higher standard to govern the nation. Any political organization that wants to govern the nation must look like the nation, talk like the nation and walk like the nation. Any political organization that wants to govern the nation must have a comprehensive national agenda. Any political organization that has an ambition to govern one day must fulfill the required criteria mandated by the law of the nation. Ethnic, religious and regional organizations don’t look like Eritrea; they don’t have national agendas that serve our diverse communities; therefore they shouldn’t even think about governing. Not only – they don’t have the confidence of other ethnics, faiths and regions to govern, but also due to the very nature of their organization, they are biased towards other ethnics, faiths and regions. You can’t have a political organization named Christian Orthodox Liberation Front and claim, the religious and cultural values of Afars as well as their interest would be protected under your Christian Orthodox Organization’s platform. You just can’t.

Political Organizations in Eritrean Politics:

We Eritreans are from different ethnics, faiths and regions; but faith has little or no effect on our politics. Those who are trying very hard to create a vibrant religious organization that would dominate Eritrean politics could only be disappointed like the ones before them. Trust me, religious politics doesn’t work. Politics is about effective governance, about justice, and about putting bread on the table. And these issues are local and regional issues. Every region has its own challenges; and every region has its own interest and set of priorities. And all people of a given region would be happy only if they are fairly represented on all levels of government, by people who would fight for them to improve the quality of life in their community.

To make a point, let’s see the diverse interests of different regions in Eritrea – for families in Asmara – employment, water supply, burning fuel, safe streets and trash disposal on time might be their top concern; but for families in Gash Setit, grazing land, animal vaccination, the expansion of farming and over populating of their region could be their top concern. For the families in the Red Sea region fishing, trade and tourism might be their top concern; but for the people of Kebessa, Farming, building water reservoirs and fighting land erosion could be their top concern.

Therefore, irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, the bread and butter issues that concern every Eritrean family are the same as long as they reside on the same region. People would support or oppose a political organization not because of the ethnicity or faith of the politicians on the top of that organization, but because of the platform that organization has adapted. Or simply, people will support or oppose a political organization based on where that organization stands, on the issues that matters to them the most.

No matter what we say and what we believe, we Eritreans will always have different interests and we will always have different political organizations that would fight for our diverse interests. And because of our diverse interests there will never be consensus on every issue. And that is not a curse but a blessing. The challenge for all of us is finding an effective governing formula that would accommodate each and every community to represent itself in all layers of the government to fight for its best interest.   

Every formidable political organization has its own strong base. The social base of this formidable political organization is loyal to its organization simply because, their organization is the only organization that would fight for their narrow interest better than any other organization. And when a political organization fights passionately about certain issues, it is waging its fight with the narrow interest of its constituents in mind. If a political organization doesn’t fight hard enough for its base, its base will desert it in no time; and soon it would be out of business.

And always keep in mind – any political organization can only represent a segment of the total population; and by the same token, the political base of any given organization can only be a segment of the whole population. PFDJ has its own base; ENSF has its own base; Tadamun has its own base; EPDP has its own base, the ethnic organizations have their own base; the religious organizations have their own base and so are others. The size of their base may be different, but make no mistake, all political organizations fight only for the best interest of their constituents.

If our objective is, all of our citizens to be represented fairly and equally in our future government, then the whole can only be the sum of its individual pieces. There can’t be a whole when individual pieces are missing. EDA doesn’t represent the constituents of EPDP and PFDJ; EPDP doesn’t represent the constituents of EDA and PFDJ; and PFDJ doesn’t represent the constituents of the opposition. IF you are one of those people who believe, the whole could be achieved while still some pieces are missing, then you are PFDJ in different form or shape. But if you are one of those people who believe the whole is complete whole, if and only if every piece is in place, then your slogan must be democracy with no political organization left behind. And you should accept the principle of level playing field for all political organizations provided they all are playing by the same rules; yes including PFDJ. 

Therefore, no matter how distasteful a political organization it may be, outlawing or sidelining any political organization could only be anti-democracy. If you are in the business of picking and choosing who should be in and who should be out; if you are the one who decides which political organizations should be part of the process and which ones shouldn’t be, then you are anther PFDJ. If you are going to deny or limit a segment of your population’s right to organize, to elect and to be elected, to represent themselves in their government, then you don’t have a democratic country. You can’t tell your people they are free when you are limiting their choice; because they are not free. If the whole hoopla and commotion for regime change is to pick and choose political organizations to fit your “democracy”, then you are anther PFDJ. There won’t be any fundamental change; it would just be déjà vu all over again. And that is not what we are after.

Final note: I know, and you fully know we don’t agree on every issue. But there is something that I can’t stress enough – my appreciation for your invitation. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion. And thank you for listening to my opinion with respect.

You and I have a lot in common; and trust me, I really mean it. You believed I’m your brother and you invited me to be part of your discussion. You believed my opinion is an opinion that should be heard and you cared to listen to my speech. You believed I am as patriotic Eritrean as you are and you welcomed me to discuss about issues that matter to all of us. You believed our Eritrea is Eritrea of diverse opinions and you cared to listen to my opinion with respect. And that is an attribute the PFDJ camp doesn’t have. And that is something the PFDJ camp of, ሓደልቢ, ሓደሕዝቢ, ሓንቲህርመት  has yet to learn. And that puts you way ahead of the Higdefite crowd. I’m proud to be your brother, and I’m honored to see you, shake your hands and get to know you in person. Let’s keep the good work. Don’t leave any organization behind. Our diversity is our strength; and our challenge is celebrating our difference.

Thank you all.


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