Some Reflections On The Eritrean Opposition


No human creation lasts forever; and, surely, the tyrannical regime in Eritrea will come to an end. But it is naïve to think time alone will put a dagger in the tyrant’s throat. A proactive, action-oriented and results driven struggle is way over-due. A future does not come with a guarantee but we can minimize the risks through careful deliberations and planning. The lingering fears, doubts and hesitations that had crippled us for many years must be overcome. It is time to roll our sleeves and go to work. We cannot expect a significant number of our people in Eritrea to rise up and confront death staring them in the face without believing in the alternative. The opposition must lead. An opposition that fails to be a viable alternative is no opposition.

For the opposition to matter its message has to resonate with the people. When it speaks the people in ERITREA must feel they are listening to their own voice. There are many voices; some parochial, others national and quite often the two overlapping. There is no one-fits-all single message for the entire population; to think so would be to deny the diversity of the population. The most pressing concerns for the youth, for instance, are not so pressing for the elderly. The needs of the densely populated urban areas such as Asmera are not the same as the sparsely populated rural areas in Barka. The people in southern Eritrea, in the areas bordering Ethiopia and currently under Ethiopian occupation, have different priorities than those in the inner-lands and under the Eritrean regime. (Isn’t ironic for a government hat has miserably failed, for 13 years, to safeguard Eritrea’s territorial integrity to portray itself as the ultimate defender of the country?)The interests of the men and women in uniform are not the same as the rest of the civilian population. In fact, the interests of the officers within the army are much different from the other soldiers. The priorities of the Diaspora and the people inside Eritrea are very different too.

In order to mobilize a significant portion of the people, it is therefore very important for the opposition to tailor its message to groups and individuals that are more likely to be receptive to its message. If the opposition cannot identify the Benghazi of Libya and the Shia and Kurdistan of Iraq in Eritrea, it should at least have the good sense to avoid the Sirtes of Libya and Sunni-Triangle of Iraq. A message that does not address the prevailing concerns and interests of the people is no message at all. A message needs two parties: one to say it the other to listen to it. There are many people in Eritrea ready to listen to the opposition and there are many others who are not. The opposition needs to recognize that all are important, but strategically it needs to urgently focus on the former. It is not that it doesn’t care about the latter; they just need more time than what it can afford them at this time. They are important but not (and should not be) of urgent concern to the opposition.

“I rob banks because that is where the money is!”

The Eritrean Diaspora is or could be very important and it can, to some extent, play a very significant role; but there should not be any confusion that the primary focus of the struggle should be in Eritrea. When Willie Sutton, the famous American bank robber was asked why he robbed banks, he responded, “That’s where the money is!” The business of opposition—I feel so stupid to state the obvious, but that is what we are missing—must be waged inside Eritrea because, “That is where the regime is! That is where the overwhelming majority of our people are!” The recent demonstrations in New York city, Germany, Sweden and others in the making are good and welcome developments as long as we clearly understand they are stepping-stones to our primary targets in Eritrea. The New York demonstration was by far the smartest and the one I regret not being able to attend. I commend all those who attended: Thank you.

History provides important lessons but it hardly hints at what lies ahead of us. In the aftermath of September 18th, 2001, most people did not expect the regime to stay in power for this long; so much so that some were talking about “soft landing” and “national salvation.” I was never totally sold on the idea since most of those conclusions were made by people who knew little about the regime and how it operates. A simple but very pertinent question that I and few others raised as early as “The Citizens’ initiative for the Salvation of Eritrea” held in September 6-7, 2002 in Soesterberg (Amersfoort), The Netherland was: Is Eritrea undergoing a crisis that demands urgent action or is it experiencing a wrong detour that can be remedied through a persistent and long-term oriented activism. I recall vividly phrasing the argument as whether it was a case of “af arkbu” or “megedi T’ina beAmet kida”.

There was no way I could have answered the question; I am like most people only as good as the information available to me. The truth is most of us—including those who were serving the regime—were not privy to the inner-workings of the regime. Now we know, based on 10 years of anecdotal, circumstantial and direct evidences where real power resides within Higdef.  We have come to sadly realize that even those former ministers we hail as heroes in the opposition were mere figure-heads who failed to honorably protest the rape and plunder of their ministerial duties. As we have come to learn the stories behind the stories, we cringe in shame to see our once towering giants shrinking into dwarfs for dishonoring the mantle of leadership and responsibility the public tacitly entrusted them. The sad truth is many of the so called G15 should have voluntarily and in protest resigned long time ago. Had they done that their credibility would have remained intact and the fight for democracy would have stood a better chance. That was then and now is now; and their ongoing suffering is a good cause to rally behind.

The Opposition Misses Hebret Berhe

To the best of my knowledge, the only person who resigned in honor to protest the wrong-doings of the regime was the former Eritrean ambassador to Sweden, Ms. Hebret Berhe. She was not at risk of being fired, frozen or recalled to Asmera. Little wonder, she had a clear stand of what needs to be done to fight the regime: degim Hji wn hzbi ynqaH yteATeq. Unfortunately, in our collective folly, we failed to appreciate her heroic act; honorable and principled moral and political stand. Her moral consciousness is only affirmed by her subsequent refusal to be part of the problem that is crippling the opposition—the ill-prepared, ill-thought out and promiscuous overnight mergers and counter-mergers that have crumpled overnight.  Quick marriages and divorces aka Los Vegas style. For the notorious repeat, one-night-stand offenders, we need to subject them to serious testing—for any communicable venereal diseases—before we take them seriously. Not having to do that is tantamount to condoning it. Reward and punishment is how we sort out the chaff from the grain. The truth is “zbeleTse ‘Incheyti ntabot zbeletse seb nshmet”. Let’s be careful of who we call leaders and of who we allow to be our leaders. We have lowered the bar of leadership so low that everyone thinks s/he is a leader. It is a pitiful situation of too many chiefs and no Indians or as my fellow Texans would say: too many hats and no cattle.

Being  practical and specific

In the absence of accurate and adequate information in the aforementioned meeting and others, many had to approach the issues from a theoretical and general angle. We invoked all those lofty ideas of democracy, rule of law and free press but as subsequent events attest we failed to incite any public outcry against the injustices committed by the regime. The problem was not with our principles, intentions and vision—noble as they were—but with our practical understanding of the objective realities of the regime, our people and country, but, most of all, Isaias Afwerki, the man at the helm of power and his inner-circle.  In this regard, Isaias is right when he belittles us as people out of touch with reality who dream about the manna of freedom without making the necessary sacrifices.

True, Politics ought to be inspired by the ideal but it must be grounded in what is practical. We have to get a grip of reality and embark on a course of action that would deliver victory. Isaias brags about his knowledge about the Eritrean people and country but his knowledge is devoid of wisdom and understanding and is incapable of bringing positive changes. Like a true and shameless “wedini”, he knows the hot-buttons to create a wedge among the people and is not afraid to use them. For once we can turn the tables on him and use the same knowledge but with wisdom and a better understanding of our people to bring the changes that will do justice and honor to the enormous sacrifices we have made in our long struggle.

Our Liberators; Our Tormentors

September 18, 2001 was a watershed moment in our short history as an independent nation. T o our profound disappointments, we discovered, in a typical African fashion, our liberators were our tormentors. Ten years later Isaias’ infamy has had soared into new heights but his regime is not teetering on the brink of collapse. Granted, he has shrank to a bare wisp of what he once was and his ship of state is staggering drunkenly, but, nevertheless, he is still powerful enough to stem  resistance to his rule. Power is tricky and inherently relative. All Isaias needs to do is ensure that the opposition stays fragmented and weak. The more fragmented and weaker the opposition, the longer Isaias stays in power. There is no power that freely bequeaths power when it fully knows it can maintain the status-quo. One thing is remarkably clear: the status-quo has to be shaken.

By any standard—material or not—the Eritrean people are relatively worse off than they were 10 years ago. For that matter, they are worse off than they were forty years ago. As despair and hopelessness takes hold, they are trying to make sense of their seemingly senseless situation. Beneath the anguish and confusion, however, is the uncomfortable recognition that the old values that had sustained our long struggle are no longer suited for our current realities.  A new way of doing business is needed; a change we can all believe in, but the system is incapable of accommodating it. This fundamental change that is slowly crawling out is what the opposition needs to articulate effectively to fill the void felt across the entire population. It is not an easy task to try to change the morbid pessimism that has pervaded every aspect of life in Eritrea with a culture of hope and can-do attitude. It is equally difficult to challenge the deeply rooted clichés of “Ertrawyan key nesemam’A tesemami’Ana ina,” “igzabhier intezey koynu niseyas zelgeso yelbon,” “bejeka nztesede imber nmen do zHalefelu alo,” “30 Amet teqalisna intay rebiHna” that pass as wisdom among the lemmings.

Time for a Think tank:

The opposition needs to recruit capable thinkers and experts who can analyze, understand and articulate this change.  If Eritrea is to survive and thrive as a nation, it has to produce leaders that are interested and comfortable with science and technology: a culture of learning. We can only fight and win against the two evils: poor leadership and poverty through knowledge, science and technology. Little wonder Islam teaches that the ink of one scholar is more precious than the blood of a thousand martyrs. Similarly, a Tigrinya proverb says, “zeytemahre neyedHn zeyteweqrwe neyeTHn”. Need I mention that Jesus was a teacher; a rabbi. Twice, in the Bible, He refers to himself as such and He is called a rabbi by seven groups that includes the Pharisees and the His own Disciples. The bottom-line is that learning matters. It is very important and timely to start a research or study center (a Think tank) that would serve as information clearing and intellectual power house the opposition leaders could rely upon. Morally and intellectually the opposition could easily outshine the regime. A small investment towards this—rather than in those endless periodic meetings— could generate great dividends now and in the future. Somehow, we have to figure out how to produce more with less. Now that would be smart and definitely anti Isaias and the darkness he represents.


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



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