We, The People, Own It!
My 13 year old nephew once told me that all democratically elected presidents should convene a plenary session to pass a resolution that will forbid all dictators from calling themselves presidents. Oftentimes, it takes a child to let us know that “the emperor” is naked. Perhaps it is this recognition that made the prophet Isaiah proclaim that a child will lead when “the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat.” It is a topsy-turvy world where the new engulfs the norm to be the new norm. The antidote is to completely reject it; resolutely refuse to abide by its rules; and above all, to shun its misleading and corrosive language.
Words matter and caution is necessary. It is morally appalling and politically wrong, for those of us in the opposition, to call the petty dictator of Eritrea president; he is what he has become, a small town hustler who knows what will happen to him if he let go the tail of the tiger he is riding. Like all hustlers, he will say and do whatever it takes to hang on to power. A trade mark of all hustlers is the ubiquitous sense of no shame. He makes promises that have no price-tags, no expiration dates and specifics for he knows he has no intention to keep them. We should not be hoodwinked, bamboozled or distracted by a 70 year old, socially misfit, alcoholic who is not bounded by any sense of morality, decency, tradition and societal norms.
His latest ranting utterances are neither novel nor well-thought out national strategies, but quick fixes to confuse and placate an outraged citizenry and neutralize a mounting opposition. It is a continuation of a pattern that most sensible Eritreans have come to abhor and despise. He confuses shocking behavior with creativity and has made pornography out of public discourse. How would one explain his outlandish proclamation to draft a new constitution?
One thing this speech has done and has done it well is that it has redeemed Dr. Bereket’s argument that the 1997 constitution is a national document written with the best interest of the Eritrean people at heart, and not the regime. The document has check and balances that will not allow Isaias to exercise unfettered powers or even stay in power for more than two terms; a fact that has proven to be a thorn on his side. All along, the good doctor has argued that Isaias is the number one enemy of the 1997 constitution; and finally the dictator has come out in broad daylight to put the final nails on its coffin.
It should not be forgotten that several members of the Constitutional Commission had fought hard to preserve and protect the independence and autonomy of the process; and to the chagrin of Isaias, they effectively kept him at bay. To its credit, the Commission had even denounced the so-called Special Court and according to Paulos Tesfagiorgish, and corroborated by Dr. Bereket, the late Seyoum Haregot had played a leading role in this endeavor. Seyoum, at the instruction of Dr. Bereket, authored the Commission’s opinion which condemned the extra-judicial activities of the regime that contravened the spirit of the constitutional-making process, established practices and norms, and the letter of international law.
The 1997 Constitution was designed to do what constitutions are needed for: limit the power of the government and guarantee individual liberties. These are two seminal pillars that safeguard freedom; the public love them and dictators hate them. From the onset, Isaias demonstrated disdain towards the constitution. A brief look at the chronology of the constitution drafting process will attest that the non-implementation of the Constitution has nothing to do with the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. The constitution was ratified in 1997 and it was shelved for a year before the outbreak of the war. The war just became an important late addition to the arsenal of rationalization that has deprived many Eritreans of the ability to think clearly and sort the chafe from the grain.
The EPLF as well as the ELF were able to hold national congresses while waging major wars because they knew congresses and organizational political programs were a piece and parcel of an effective strategy of national liberation. The last time the PFDJ held an organizational congress was in 1994. If the EPLF was able to conduct such important tasks as a liberation organization, why wouldn’t it be able to do the same as a government?
The reason Isaias failed to implement the 1997 constitution was simple: because it was not his document, and knew it will limit his powers. All dictators hate good constitutions, and if there is any Eritrean who doubts the goodness of the 1997 Constitution, then, they don’t need to look further; Isaias has given them incontrovertible evidence. The 1997 Constitution is not a friend of tyranny; it puts the national above the government’s interest; and more importantly the people are the reservoir of power, and not the government. Now Isaias has inadvertently clarified who should be on the side of the 1997 constitution and who should be against it. The choices can’t be clearer: tyranny vs. freedom. The Eritreans who fight against tyranny and for freedom should preserve, protect and cherish the 1997 constitution, and those that don’t care can follow Isaias and his insane ideas.
The rallying cry of the majority of those fighting tyranny is the demand for the implementation of the ratified constitution, and it is the one thing that has put the government at a great disadvantage in catering to its international and domestic constituencies. This is one area where those of us in the opposition have enjoyed the upper moral hand; and Isaias in his diabolical move is trying to pull the carpet from under our feet. I admit it is a clever tactical move from his perspective of staying-in-power-at-all-cost, but a complete disaster for a nation that is already suffering serious atrophy. Once again, Isaias has brought the vehicle of statecraft on a fork-road, and how we decide now will determine how generations from now will experience their citizenry. Will there be continuity that leads to maturity, or Eritrea will be condemned to perpetual infancy where every disgruntled group will try to reinvent the wheels of the nation and fail to build on what has already been achieved?
All human endeavors are imperfect, and of all people, Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie, the principal author of the Constitution, will tell you that the only perfect feature of the constitution is that it admits its imperfections and accordingly allows people to make necessary and right amendments. The drafting process could have been and should have more inclusive; but let’s be candid and honest: no one was excluded from participating as an individual citizen. I admit those who boycotted the drafting process were bona fide patriots who played important roles in the liberation of the country, but the injustice committed against them should not be a license to categorically reject a national document where about 83% of Eritreans proudly participated. It is important to mention that one of the 13 states of America, Rhode Island, did not participate in the drafting and ratification of the 1789 US Constitution, but they’ve taken full ownership of it and like their fellow-Americans are committed to its defense.
The 1997 ratified constitution is right for Eritrea for its sake and its effect. Embracing it will do us good in the long-run as a matured society, and in the short-term it will give us the moral support we need from our people and the world to wage the democratic struggle. Some members of the opposition who have rejected the 1997 should not take Isaias’ absurd position as a validation of their arguments. Their argument is valid but it should not supersede the majority and their concerns could be easily accommodated with the help of those who have joined them in the struggle for peace, justice and democracy.
This is the time when the opposition appeals to the brothers and sisters standing with the regime to join their ranks and reaffirm their commitment to the ratified constitution. I’m sure many of them will question Isaias’s move to void and nullify the constitution and the opposition should be ready, emotionally and intellectually, to embrace them in solidarity.
The Preamble of the 1997 Constitution says, “We the people of Eritrea,” because it is the Eritrean people who own it. The constitution belongs to all of us; and let’s all stand for it.