The G13 ’Berlin Manifesto’: Lessons & Way Forward (Part II)
In Part I, I dealt with the circumstances that led to the writing of the letter and the reactions then. President Isaias, neither listened to the G13 nor the G15. He has been systematically eliminating all his potential opponents or competitors since the early 1970s. It was not in his nature to listen, the fact that the G15 should have known better. It could have spared them their lives and spared the country 10 years of not only lost opportunity, but it could have saved many lives and spared us much suffering. He has since then got more brutal, more aggressive and more isolated. Ten years later, it shows us that he is good at and cares only about one thing: surviving and maintaining his rule by all means. When and if he dies then it goes like the Tigrinya saying about the donkey ‘Dihrey Saari Aytibgola’ (I do not care if the grass does grow after I die). Gazzafi claimed that he created Libya and he will be the one to destroy it. He did not create the country, yet he succeeded in destroying his home town, Sirte, to the ground. He brought so much misery to his own tribe. Not sure, how much damage and suffering, Isaias will cause in Eritrea and the region before he is ousted. He has not only lied to us all those years but he has abused us all along.
In 1997, there were few dozen Eritrean refugees living in fear (from the notorious PFDJ security apparatus) in Ethiopia, today there are more than 60, 000 of them, just there. In 2001, almost no one in Eritrea had good knowledge about Sinai, human trafficking or trafficking of human organs, drowning in the Mediterranean Sea; today there are thousands that have become victims. Thanks to the Egyptian uprising, some local private media and activists have started exposing the gruesome reality facing Africans in Sinai and the apparent silence of the authorities. Many families do not even know what happened to their loved ones who simply disappeared there. Some of them may live with this burden forever. This is a regime, contrary to our culture that beats women severely until they become crippled. Helen Berhane, the Gospel singer, who refused to give up her faith, was one such victim. It was both gratifying and a privilege to attend her wedding in Copenhagen last year and see her moving normally, thanks to the treatment she got there. Our country has become poorer, more isolated from its surroundings and the rest of the world. Worse still 10 years later there are those of us in the opposition who have not lost hope on the President that he can reform.
The psychological damage to which parents and their children are subjected to, every time the loved ones are taken from their homes to do summer campaigns or do national service or when they are on their way to escape the country, can not be easily measured. For the young students it starts when they are hoarded like goods into trucks and driven for many hours without even the right to exercise their normal biological functions such as going to the toilet when they need it, let alone the young females who have special needs. Imagine the first night of a young 12th grade student in a big dormitory in Sawa. Worse still are the cases of those young females that are systematically raped by military officials, the shame that goes with it and which obviously its scope is little reported. We simply do not have the luxury to leave this regime live one more day than it deserves.
Some of us still dream of landing softly on power, and still have hope that they can negotiate with the President not to deliver power to the people but to share it. There are those who actually negotiated confidentially with the regime but to no avail. There are still some of us who would offer amnesty to his major criminal collaborators (as if mandated by the people) to facilitate regime change. There are those who claim to be in the opposition, yet spent 90 % of their time attacking the opposition they disagree with, rather than the regime. There are also those journalists who are quick in prescribing death certificates and diagnosis of untreatable diseases to the opposition they disagree with, whenever an apparent opportunity arises. Forget about the people who adore the President and consider him close to a saint, like many of the ultra-nationalist Serbians who adored leaders and generals who were accused of ethnic cleansing (who brutally killed thousands of women and children), because they were also ‘Nisu Nessom’. We were told in June this year that a million people marched in Tripoli in support of Gazzafi. Where are all those now? The ‘Nihna Nissu’ crowds will also evaporate similarly, tomorrow. There are those of us who would deny victims of the violence of the regime inside Eritrea to use force to defend themselves. Despite all these distractions, we need to move forward and focus on fighting the regime, our biggest enemy. Both the ELF and the EPLF had previously told us that liberating the country comes first; no other issue should be raised before we attain independence. Twenty years later after independence, there are some in the opposition who tell us now we should just focus on toppling the regime, every thing else will be considered after the regime falls. We will not be cheated again. We need to agree on a national charter. I think, among the main weaknesses in the 1952 and 1997 constitutions are that they both fail to recognize our diversity and fail to state how we should mange it. We should struggle to topple the regime and at the same time we must lay clear grounds for the phase that follows regime change. We can afford to do both.
As to the G13, although it accomplished its mission, there was a tendency to begin with to maintain the group as an independent entity where it can be a rallying focal point for those who had similar views, but some its members became founding members of the Eritrean Democratic Party and thus the group ceased to exist. In hind sight, I think the group could have rallied many intellectuals and others around it if it had continued as an independent entity and could have played a big role in breaking the intellectual silence and in bridging the gaps between the different opposition organisations. It was an opportunity lost. Few years later, Professor Bereket Habtesellasie took a wise decision by abandoning the party and becoming a neutral opposition figure. I think men of his caliber contribute more to the opposition this way, rather than following narrow organizational political stands. This is not meant to say that ‘intellectuals’ should not be members of political organisations. I think the youth Facebook groups need to learn from this. They need to agree on a common platform that rallies all opposition groups and refrain from taking sides as a group, though the individual members will exercise their right to belong to political parties and civic organizations they believe in. I think the EYSC is on the right track, so far.
The G13 had broken the culture of collective silence. The culture of systematically silencing ‘intellectuals’, began with the establishment of the halewa sawra in the EPLF in the early 1970s. It was established after the crushing of the so-called ‘Menkae’ movement. Any criticism of the leadership was not tolerated then. Educated individuals who joined the organization were seen with suspicion as petty bourgeois opportunists and were targeted for criticism or had to criticize themselves for no reason so as to get milder punishment. Some were even eliminated. The culture of mistrust and suspicion was promoted and became the order of the day. This culture was then exported to the EPLF mass organisations abroad. Even after liberation the President, continued to show his contempt to educated Eritreans. As a chancellor of the University of Asmara (UoA), he has never presided over a graduation ceremony, to date. But all of our ailments are not caused by the regime, it is partly cultural. There is so much mistrust and suspicion of each other. Many times, one is challenged to quit working on politics and take refuge in some thing else. Particularly at times you find your good intentions are negatively interpreted and blown out of proportions. During such periods, you get frustrated and disappointed. During such moments, my best refuge has been and remains to be, literature.
All Eritrean intellectuals were neither silent, nor do they remain so. There are many of them who formed the Eritrean Liberation Movement, the ELF and the EPLF. There are many who left their studies and positions and joined the armed struggle. There are those who criticized the early excesses of the EPLF and who paid their lives for that. There are those who kept criticizing the regime in the cyberspace after independence, though they were regarded as insane by the supporters of the regime.
There are a number of academic articles that deal with the culture of silencing Eritrean intellectuals. To cite a few examples, a recent one ‘Postcolonial silencing , intellectuals and the state: Views from Eritrea’ that was authored by Peter Schmidt (a Professor of Anthropology and Archeology at the University of Asmara between 1998 – 2003). He states in the article that ‘the struggle between the National Museum and the University provides penetrating insights into state hostility towards intellectuals and containment of public education using the media of archeology and heritage studies, a conflict that prefigured state/university conflicts leading to the dismantling of the UoA’. He describes in the article how the centrist state in Eritrea acted both against the young intellectuals and the public with its purposeful diminishment of the Sembel on-site museum and how the state tries to exercise the tight control over the production of knowledge. He refers to the ‘ethnographic exhibit situated in a former jail where ‘the ethnic groups represented in the museum displays, each with its own cell, ironically captured the relationship of each vis-â-vis the Eritrean state – wrapped into artificial unity within a common jailhouse’. He further states, “The current political slogan, ‘unity in diversity’ papers over continued deep divisions in the Eritrean society that was expressed in a very bloody civil war between the ELF and EPLF during the liberation era. Only after the EPLF prevailed through force, there was a ‘united profile’.”
Richard Reid (a lecturer at the Department of History at UoA 2000-2001) wrote an article in 2005 that was highly critical of the GOE. In that article ‘Caught in the headlights of history: Eritrea, the EPLF and the post-war nation state’, Reid states that the PFDJ has become obsessed with its own history, and that a gulf had opened between the liberation struggle generation and the youth, particularly after 2001. He describes how political and social repression, rooted in a militaristic tradition and a profound fear of disunity had intensified since the border war with Ethiopia. He states that while the youth feel cut off from the rest of the world and its opportunities, the older generation feel a deep sense of separation from their past. He was slashed for that article by Sofia Tesfamariam.
Another article by Richard Reid in 2009 on the ‘Politics of silence’ examines the stand-off between the Eritrean government and the population. He states in the article that “the Government talks of ‘revolutionary values’ and the ongoing ‘national struggle’ and worries about what the ‘people’ (especially the young people) are thinking…ordinary people meanwhile despair at the lack of socio-political development, but also fear the alternatives…the young people flee the country accepting enormous risks in doing so; and thus the sovereignty and legitimacy hemorrhaging.” From his limited interviews in Asmara, he would like us to believe that the opposition is in disarray and that from the opposition leaders it is only Mesfin Hagos, who commands respect, there. He seems to believe also that the GOE is starting to listen and change and reform may be coming. Despite these flows, the article presents a deep objective analysis of the situation in the country.
An article by Bettina Conrad, ‘out of the memory hole: alternative narratives of the Eritrean revolution in the diaspora’ reflects on how the EPLF national myth was created, how it became powerful especially among the diaspora communities and how it is being challenged by the Eritrean opposition websites. It attempts to describe how the Eritrean memory of the revolution was produced and reproduced by the EPLF and how the individual memory was gradually subordinated and over written by a collective memory. It also reflects also on how these memories became more institutionalized and ritualized after independence.
There are also many other articles that deal with this issue, but to go into details on this matter is beyond the scope of this article.
On the way forward:
In my humble opinion, I think we need to recognize the following:
- The President can not and will not reform,
- He will not deliver power to the people willingly,
- Like all dictators he will hold to power to the last,
- The regime is not only an individual called Isaias Afworki, but a regime of beneficiaries, a system that has also a social base, the ‘Nhna Nissu, Nsu Nihna’ and we need to work to separate him from his social base,
- For me the regime has lost all legitimacy to rule us, represent us and speak on our behalf.
As an opposition to the regime:
- We have to accept unequivocally that the Eritrean people are the ultimate owners of their destiny and the current opposition role is to topple the regime and handover power to the people.
- Whatever we produce: a road map, a charter, a transitional structure, mechanisms of managing our diversity need to be approved by the Eritrean people after the regime falls.
- We have to practice democracy, uphold the rule of law and hold a higher moral ground than the regime in our own organisations, be it civil or political.
- We need to listen to and engage the youth and lay ground for them to be masters of their own future.
- The youth need to engage with the older generation, learn from their mistakes and build on their strengths. The future is theirs and they have to own it. They need to engage more in politics than just social media and demonstrations.
- We have to recognize and appreciate our diversity and agree on basic principles on how to manage our diversity in a democratic country.
- We must have a clear strategy on how to engage positively with our neighbors particularly with Ethiopia without comprising our independence. The policy of antagonism and insults practiced by some corners will not take us anywhere and only serves the regime.
- Irrespective of the structures we use and disagreements within the opposition, we need to agree on a common strategy to struggle against the regime.
- We need strong unified media and a common diplomatic action plan to counter the regime’s huge propaganda machine.
- We need to use all means available to bring regime change: peaceful – economic, diplomatic and surgical and targeted military options.
- Until we expose regionally and internationally the trafficking on human organs in Sinai whose victims are mainly Africans, and force the authorities to stop it, we need to create awareness among Eritrean asylum seekers to avoid risky countries.
- For those of us attending the ENCDC conference in Addis we can not claim we represent Eritrea, but we can claim we reflect Eritrean diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion, politics, aspirations, frustrations, hopes, difficulties and challenges. The fact that there are so many organisations attending reflects this reality. Such will be the norm in the first few years after the fall of the dictatorial regime as was in many countries that had to pass through this rough road on the way to democracy. The problems the ENCDC experienced with regard to change of the date of the Conference and the problems that arose in some areas regarding selection of candidates ought to have been avoided but still reflects this reality and is nothing abnormal. Yet the ENCDC is far from perfect and should never be immune of criticism.
- For those who do not believe the ENCDC will bring any positive change, refrain from attacking us and instead challenge us by producing the best alternative that can attract us.