To Paulos Tesfagiorgis With Love: An Open Letter

The first time I got to know you personally was in Khartoum in the late 80s while I was engaged with a group of Eritreans in promoting the rights of Eritrean refugees. Though I came from an ELF background and had sympathy for the organisation, at that time I was not affiliated to any political organisation. One day you invited me to the Eritrean Relief Association’s (ERA) office and showed me around; later you invited me to join the organisation, claiming that it is was independent. The office was quite impressive by Khartoum standards.  It was more like a Western country’s embassy than the office of an Eritrean humanitarian organisation. I had enough political experience by then to know that ERA was part and parcel of the EPLF which I did not intend to join, therfore you could not convince me otherwise. That was it and I did not see you again until Eritrea became independent. By that time you had fallen out with the EPLF leadership and were trying to establish a local human right organisation. 


The second time I dealt with you closely was when we met in October 2000in Berlin for three days to deliberate on writing a letter to the President of Eritrea which later came to be known as the ‘Berlin Manifesto’. You were instrumental in holding that meeting. We were the only two persons from the so-called ‘G13’ who remained in Eritrea after meeting the President. We used to meet from time to time to assess what was going on and to deliberate on the risks that we had taken. It was almost after a month that I learned you had left the country from other people.  


Another time we met was in Bergen, Norway, in 2003when I attended the ceremony that was held in your honour where you were awarded the ‘Rafto Prize.’  


The Rafto Foundation states: 


The 2003 Rafto Prize was awarded to Paulos Tesfagiorgis for his efforts to improve the rights and democratic influence of the people of Eritrea. By awarding Tesfagiorgis the Rafto Prize, the Rafto Foundation showed their support to Eritreans who fight, through non-violent means, against oppression and the militarization of the Eritrean society.


Tesfagiorgis fought for his people by establishing the only PFDJ (the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) licensed Regional Centre for Human Rights and Development in Eritrea. Tesfagiorgis is also co-founder and head of the Eritrean Relief Association during the Eritrean war of independence. Following Eritrean independence he was appointed to the commission which drafted Eritrea’s constitution, which was ratified in 1997. In 2002 Tesfagiorgis and 17 other Eritreans set up the “Citizens Initiative for the Salvation of Eritrea” (CISE).
Today, living in exile, he continues his lifelong work, through peaceful means and dialogue, to empower the people of Eritrea.


It was a big honour for an Eritrean to win such a prestigious award. A number of those who won this accolade later on won the Nobel Peace Prize. My letter will thus focus on the importance of wining such a prize.


By wining that prize you were made an influential person, not only locally, but also regionally and internationally. That means such dignitaries should be above the political, ethnic, religious and cultural divide and promote humanity at large. One would neither expect such a person to be a prisoner to his past political affiliation with the EPLF; nor can one expect such a person to be part of a political organisation, pursuing its agenda at the expense of other political organisations; or promoting one Eritrea news media at the expense of others; or funding seminars and conferences that are not inclusive. One expects such people to add and, not to subtract; to unite, not to divide; to build trust, not to sow mistrust; to be open and transparent about the conferences they arrange and on funding issues and to be more accountable than the rest of us—to be inclusive not exclusive. On the Eritrean level, one expects you to be one of the ዓበይቲ ዓዲ Abieti Adi (elders) who would not hesitate to say ageb ዓገብ (unfair) when something wrong is done and to be generous and say ኣገናዕ  (well done) when one sees positive things. Paulos, you have been closely affiliated with the then Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP) since its establishment and you have been promoting its causes and all organisations that are related to it.


A former close colleague of mine had approached me when the EDP was in its infancy . He asked me if I would join it as one of its founding members. I replied that if I were to join any party, it would have been more appropriate for me to join one of the Eritrea Liberation Front (ELF) organisations that I am more familiar with rather than joining the new party. I heard neither from my colleague nor from you afterwards. How can we build bridges on the basis of ‘if you are not with us, then we do not need to interact with you?’


Dear Paulos, you were instrumental in establishing ERA and making it an effective organisation, irrespective of whether we agree or disagree with everything that ERA did. Haile Garza, a person of a high calibre, whose only crime presumably seemed to be being a serious competitor of the ERA was eliminated. The assassination of the martyr Haile Garza, who was the Head of the ELF’s Red Cross and Crescent Society (ERCCS), shortly after returning from a successful donor conference to Khartoum in 1984, is a sad and vivid part of our history.


You are a highly competent person who, through ERA, has built a huge worldwide network which you still use to fund your various activities. My misgiving is directed towards your apparent desire to monopolise your funding sources, an undesirable trait. You tend to monopolize your contacts to get funds only for those organisations that you are affiliated with.


I was once in a refugee camp in Norway where we had a committee which ran the affairs of the camp in coordination with the refugee administration. A person who was assigned to clean the kitchen and in return he was paid a few hundred Kroners a month, which was a lot for an asylum seeker to earn. He did not do his job well and eventually the committee decided to replace him. He objected the decision and refused to hand over the keys to the kitchen. We wanted to resolve the impasse and we attempted to reason out with him: ‘Do you agree that presidents in Africa hold power for too long and refuse to hand over power?’


He replied in agreement.


We told to him that what he is doing the same thing—though the analogy here is a key to a room, the principle is the same. Paulos, you would have done the same if you held power. Fortunately, the man agreed and handed us the keys. In stating this, I do not implying that that I am an angel, and that I do not commit mistakes, we all have our weaknesses and strength.   


Paulos, since last year you have been more visibly active in organising conferences; and that is why this time I thought of writing to you this open letter. This is also a time when heated debates are going on in the Eritrean cyberspace. The regime in Asmara is much more isolated than it has ever been and the prospects for democratic change are looking more promising. I think you can make positive contribute at this stage. You have the potential to do so.


By virtue of the honour bestowed on you by the Rafto Prize and by the virtue of your long experience, I urge you to be inclusive, to be a bridge for mutual respect and understanding and for peace and justice among Eritreans. I urge you to be generous enough to support all Eritrean media outlets and all Eritreans, irrespective of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, and to stand up against all forms of injustice. I ask you to follow the example of Professor Bereket Habtesellasie and give up political affiliations and to work for the whole of Eritrea. Professor Bereket made a historic decision by leaving a particular political organisation and working for the whole of Eritrea. This gives him a historic opportunity to contribute to the country as a whole. Paulos, by following his example and the example of others like Omer Jabir, you will be an Eritrean hero, not a hero of a particular group or affiliation. We all need to have the courage to admit past mistakes and look forward to the future. Perhaps one day, you could be the first Eritrean to win a much more prestigious prize; but most of all, you will be able to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of all Eritreans—to borrow the ‘new’ phrase.


With best regards,

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