In Part I, I touched on the preparations, the venue, and the deliberations. I apologize for the delay in presenting part II which deals with the process of electing the leadership, the Ethiopian role, current events and the way forward. Many articles were written about the Congress since I wrote Part I, therefore, I will only touch on those issues briefly.
The scramble for the leadership
Interestingly enough this issue attracted the attention of most of the participants; it seemed it was even more important than the valuable papers that were discussed and approved. There was a fierce power struggle by the various actors to have a bigger share in the leadership. It was surprising to see many individuals competed to be elected. The Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) which is the most organized political body that called for and prepared the 2010 conference was the most important actor in the Congress. It is composed of various blocks that have different interests. Those include the nationality-based organizations such as the Affar and the Kunama and the other small organizations affiliated to them; the Eritrean Solidarity Front (Tadamun), a group of Islamic and secular organizations and other organizations that act as one. Each group struggled to pursue its specific interests within and outside the EDA.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were the many (2 or 3 member) political organizations outside the EDA which competed to limit the influence of the EDA. Members of civil associations were less represented (despite the fact that the Chairman of the Commission was one of them) and less effective in pursuing their interests. The EDA was keen to regain the chairmanship of the National Council that was taken by the civil associations, while the latter was interested in consolidating gains made in 2010. The non-EDA political organizations wanted to have more share in the leadership.
A committee was formed from the different components to allocate leadership quotas. It professionally worked to allocate the 127 National Council seats. There were two conflicting opinions: 1) the political organizations (EDA & non-EDA) who represented the civil associations and 2) others. The later wanted to retain the 60:40 ratio in favour of the civil associations as was previously agreed. After a thorough discussion and the emphasis that the majority of the leadership should not be composed of part-timers, the committee reached a consensus, a comprise solution of 52:48 in favour of the political organizations. After adjustments to reach a fair and balanced representation by taking seats from Sudan and Ethiopia, the political organizations were allocated 66 seats and the rest 61 seats (20 % of those seats were assigned to youth and women). Then the real struggle to fill the seats started. The regions were to select their leaders democratically while the political organizations were to assign leaders. Threats of walkouts and much political maneuvering followed.
I previously thought the power struggle was more vivid within the Eritrean political organizations than those who were not affiliated to them. To my surprise, those of us who came from Europe and the USA were no better. I co-presided in the election of those who came from Europe. There were about 90 members present in the meeting and there were 32 candidates (there were more candidates to start with) competing for 8 seats since 6 seats were already allocated to youth and women and one seat to the Network of Eritrean Civil Societies in Europe. As people did not know each other well, every candidate was asked to make a short presentation of themselves. I simply do not understand why almost everyone would want to be a leader, but one can only speculate. Is it a cultural problem? Is it because it gives one influence and leverage? Is it regarded as something that does not require sacrifice? Is it seen as an entertainment rather than a heavy responsibility?
Those who do not support the ENCDC may claim that they are immune to such power struggle, yet they have the same membership base. Even among the youth, one notices the mushrooming of many Facebook groups. Certain individuals would rather start their own group than working with others. Even if some of the youth groups do not have such problems at present, they have to be prepared that such problems would arise down the road.
The other struggle for the leadership was between the EDA and the non EDA political organizations. The Non-EDA felt their seats were much less than the EDA and demanded more seats and there were threats of walkout too. This delayed the announcement of the members of the leadership from the political organizations at the closing ceremony. It was later resolved by allocating 38 members to the EDA and 28 seats for the rest.
The shortest path to the leadership is to be a member of a political organization which appoints you. This denies the public to chance to choose the best candidates. Perhaps, that is why we have so many of them since many who were not elected by the public secured their seats through appointments. Some political organizations lobbied effectively because they were better organized and had experience in participating in conferences and they secured more seats. The civil associations and the independent members who lost because they lacked experience in using such means. Lobbying is part of a one-man one-vote democratic process and every group has learned its lessons. Those who won will struggle to consolidate their gains in the future and those who lost can make a comeback, if they become better organized. Despite all those shortcomings, new faces particularly from the youth were elected which gives the leadership new, energetic blood to be added to the veterans’ experience. There is a need to devise a mechanism to select candidates merely based on qualifications, without comprising issues of diversity.
In Egypt, the liberal Facebook active youth group who initiated the Egyptian revolution lost in the elections and couldn’t advance neither their political views nor their candidates. The Freedom & Justice Party (the Muslim brotherhood) a long established party with public roots and experience won the majority of the votes. The other traditional parties did relatively well, too. If our youth want to make a difference in the struggle, they need to be better organized and need to gain experience by getting involved in politics, and by learning from the achievements and failures of others.
The role of Ethiopia
The Ethiopians have provided the venue and a conducive atmosphere for deliberations. Besides being a concerned neighbor, definitely Ethiopia has its own national interest in supporting the Eritrean opposition which has the responsibility of bringing about a regime change in Eritrea. Having a democratic regime in Eritrea that is friendly with Ethiopia and the other neighbouring countries is in the interest of Ethiopia. The interest of both Ethiopia and the opposition coincide in terms of ousting the dictatorial regime. Ethiopia has proved again that it is a friend in times of great need, actually the only friendly neighboring country. Ethiopia claims that it does not interfere in the affairs of the Eritrea opposition, yet some circles criticize it for not intervened to curb the mushrooming of the small political organizations. They also criticize it for favoring the ethnic organizations.
In pursuing its national interest that coincides with the opposition, it is important that Ethiopia consults with all stakeholders with equal footing. No group has to feel neglected or abandoned at the expense of others. The Eritrean opposition needs to be up to the challenge; otherwise not only does it risk losing the Ethiopian support, but it also loses influence on the Ethiopian policy towards Eritrea. We have to thank Ethiopia for standing up with the Eritrean people at those trying times and we have to call all other neighboring countries to follow suit.
The Congress at Hawassa, the agenda of the meeting and the resolutions taken, the election of the secretariat and the leadership was a purely an Eritrean affair. During the Congress, there were no clear attempt that indicates the Ethiopians interfered to influence the ongoing deliberations or the outcome of the congress. Some of the members of the secretariat were not much known neither to the opposition nor to the Ethiopians and they were democratically elected, so were the members of the leadership that were elected by the public. In a predominantly lowland dominated 27 member Secretariat, the Vice-chair, a Tigrinya highlander gained just one vote less than the chair—and this illustrates that participants had great maturity and responsibility during the Congress. The election of the 27-member secretariat to manage the congress raised representation issues in relation to Eritrean diversity, as I have indicated in Part I.
A learning platform for the youth
It was encouraging to see many youth from different parts in the world (including from the refugee camps in Ethiopia) participating at the Congress. Their involvement in the struggle against the regime is not only a precursor to success, but its guarantee. Perhaps the priority today seems to be the toppling of the regime, but the challenges that lie ahead after the regime falls are not easy. To be able to survive, the regime has sowed seeds of divisions and mistrust.
The ENCDC was a learning exercise for the youth starting from the simple matters of organizing and running a large conference, and the bigger challenges of democratization that lie ahead of us when the regime falls. It highlighted the challenges in terms of system for governance, diversity, ethnicity, religion etc. The youth had the opportunity to understand how people from different backgrounds define these issues and how strong they feel about them.
Such conferences provide the youth with experience, allow them to network with others, help them better understand the challenges we face and gives them the chance to evaluate thier performance and that of other organizations. I encourage the youth to effectively participate in such conferences and seminars, irrespective of their political affiliations. They have nothing to lose except to gain by participating. It is more credible to express views and criticize after attendance not by not staying away.
The Eritrean youth are organizing worldwide physically and through social media, and they are taking up the struggle against the Eritrean regime. We need to interact with them as they come up with new initiatives. They are relatively free from the negative political burdens, but as part of the society, they are not immune from its effects. Internet access in Eritrea is very limited and that renders it ineffective. As most of us can observe, there are many Facebook groups that have linguistic limitations and barriers that may make their efforts less effective, yet it is an important tool of struggle if the groups can reach out and mobilize the people inside Eritrea against the regime, particularly the youth.
One youth Facebook group that stands out distinctly is the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) which is so far the biggest and most action oriented group. It has devised a creative mechanism of reaching out to the people inside Eritrea by initiating the ‘Freedom Friday’ campaign that uses volunteers to call random telephone numbers inside Eritrea to persuade them to take a simple concrete action against the tyranny. I call upon all those who are active in the opposition to support this initiative which as any important initiative has to be supported irrespective of who is behind it, our participation makes a difference—and we are in dire need for such innovative ideas to enhance the struggle.
Much has been written on the Congress so I do not need to dwell on the achievements and shortcomings. In summary, I believe it was successful; we have built on the conference of 2010 and we are moving forward. The final communiqué of the congress clearly states that its role is to mobilize all forces to bring regime change in the country, thus creating the a conducive atmosphere to ensure that the Eritrean people assume political power. We have to support the National Council for democratic Change (NCDC) to pursue its activities, and it has to assert its leadership by drawing clear work plans for the Executive committee to implement. Its decision should be very transparent since that would limit rumors and speculations. The issue of membership of Teklai Abraha in the council is such a case that has to be addressed urgently.
The council has to build on the achievements of the Commission to establish efficient region and country support committees. It has to give priority to the refugee issues worldwide but with more focus on those who live in Ethiopia and Sudan. It has to urgently address the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers in Sinai and victims of human trafficking with relevant countries and international organizations. It also needs to address the plight of the first Eritrean refugees in Sudan who have become neglected by their own citizens and by the international community. Among its priorities should be the task of convincing Eritreans residing in Ethiopia to join the struggle for democratic change.
Those who support the ENCDC have to contribute monthly payments of say, $ 10 dollars a month to finance its activities. It has also to arrange fundraising activities to generate more funds—financial self-sufficiency is an important aspect of owning the whole process and it reflects our commitment. The ENCDC has to establish an effective mass media unit, particularly Radio and TV programs that would counter the huge propaganda machine of the regime. It has to make the best use of ‘youtube’ and other social media to communicate with the public, particularly with the youth groups. And no other body, be it the EDA or others, should work parallel to it. No support committee, be it in the USA or in Europe or elsewhere should challenge the elected leadership and its structure. We defeated failure in Hawassa, we need to defeat the regime. The sooner we do that, the better.