Eritrea: Alliances, Operational Strategy and Eritrean Movements for Justice

By IndepthAfrica
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Jul 20th, 2013
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Eritreans at an outdoor cafe on Harnet Avenue in Asmara, Eritrea.

Eritreans at an outdoor cafe on Harnet Avenue in Asmara, Eritrea.

For any movement to succeed in its mission, it needs to stay one step ahead of its opponent; it needs to identify, develop, prioritize and execute strategic tactics of resistance based on full understanding of the situation, the barriers and opportunities. Despite the fact that an absence of cohesive strategy still persist among Eritrean movements for justice, they are nevertheless cohered around the aim to eliminate dictatorship in Eritrea and to reshape Eritrea’s future in terms of justice, equality, freedom, education and economic development. To survive ferocious government onslaught, the majority of these movements are based in Ethiopia, an archrival of the Eritrean regime. However, choosing Ethiopia as a base is a cause for concern for some Eritreans mainly because they question Ethiopian intentions in helping Eritrean movements. As an alternative, they suggest the regime in Eritrea should only be removed through military coup d’état or peaceful mass protest, modeled after the Arab Spring, specifically that of Egypt. This alternative idea is commonly referred to as “change from the inside only” or “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems”.

It is imperative for one to be aware of other movements that succeeded in achieving their goals and to carefully analyze the course of action that led to their ultimate victory. Case and point was South Africa during apartheid period. The massacre of 69 unarmed protesters in Sharpeville, South Africa and the subsequent banning of the African National Congress (ANC) made it clear to Nelson Mandela that passive and non-violent struggle alone would not force the repressive regime to change. Therefore, in mid-1961 he founded the armed wing of ANC known as “Spear of the Nation”. Though, numerous laws were passed to severely restrict the legal and political arena which almost eliminated ANC’s structures and networks; it reinvigorated itself by setting up military bases in neighboring countries. ANC’s approach to fighting the apartheid government was an all-round struggle with four components known as “the four pillars of struggle”; armed movement, underground organization, mass mobilization and international solidarity. Similarly, for the Eritrean struggle for justice to succeed it necessitates the same approach and cohesion.

As the resistance escalated, ANC’s use of Mozambique as its base became a major contributor to its military successes as compared to that of Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) whose base remained in South Africa facing government security forces head on. In the late 1980s, the mass revolt organized by underground organizations and intensification of the armed struggle enhanced mobilization of international condemnations of South Africa’s repressive regime. The moral legitimacy and necessity of carrying out an armed struggle was asserted in ANC’s manifesto as “The choice is not ours; it has been made by the Nationalist government.” The idea of moral legitimacy and necessity of armed struggle brings us back to Eritrea and raises the following question: What pillars of struggle Eritrean movements should have to effectively fight and defeat the regime in Asmara?

It is perhaps understandable why some Eritreans are fearful of Ethiopian government and suspect their southern neighbor having ulterior motives that are not beneficial to Eritreans after more than 30 years of war between the two nations and 15 years of feud that followed suit over their borders. However, these claims of ulterior motives have never been substantiated by evidence. The greatest fear most people who oppose Ethiopian support to Eritrean movements is that Ethiopia may forcefully replace the regime in Asmara by a puppet government that will allow Ethiopia to grab a huge chunk of Eritrean territory like the port of Assab. However, those critics fail to recognize that majority of Eritreans who fight for justice are doing so because they themselves refuse to be puppets of any regime in the first place. Furthermore, considering the current circumstances in Eritrea, Ethiopia would not need the help of Eritrean movements to occupy Assab if that was indeed its desire. The topic of baseless accusations that are directed at Eritrean movements and Ethiopian government has been extensively addressed by many Eritrean writers and politicians. Therefore, the focus of this article will be to highlight the importance of building geostrategic alliances with supportive governments as one of the pillars of struggle and a part of the operational strategy of Eritrean movements.

In the context of this article, a geostrategic alliance is an agreement between Eritrean movements and other states to deal with the political problems in Eritrea and pursuit of mutual benefits while keeping the independence of all parties involved. For Eritrean movements, these alliances are not instruments of convenience. They are critical tools for their success and a guarantee for their survival at a time where they are most vulnerable. All things considered, from all countries bordering Eritrea, the most suitable and worthwhile sanctuary for any Eritrean movement is Ethiopia. So far Ethiopia has opened its doors for all of these movements to freely operate within its territory and has provided limited financial and logistical support. In doing so, Ethiopian government has been clear about its goals and priorities when it comes to dealing with Eritrea; they know the PFDJ regime can’t be trusted again, they want a strong ally government on the north, and they want good economic cooperation between the two countries. For Eritreans, building alliances with Ethiopia and other countries present great benefits as well. Those benefits can be broadly categorized into pre and post the fall of PFDJ opportunities.

Presently, Eritrean movements can use Ethiopia to organize, plan, strengthen their military wing, conduct essential operations and avoid a more organized government force when needed. For example, ELF and EPLF used Sudan as a staging area from which they mounted several attacks and as an outlet for contact with the outside world for many years. Eritrean movements for justice are also in need of financial resources, arms and ammunitions, communications equipment, transportation, logistical supplies such as food and fuel that can be readily available and easily accessible from ally governments. In addition to Diaspora activities, friendly states can give Eritrean movements some political leverage. The states with their diplomatic clout can push for recognition of a particular movement in the international arena while rejecting legitimacy of the dictatorial regime. These states can also assist in brokering deals between different factions and put forward incentives to encourage integration of forces and establishment of stronger and more united front.
Without a doubt, PFDJ’s xenophobia and its attempts to gain unfair political and economic advantages over Eritrea’s neighboring countries has played a key role in escalation of hostilities in the region. Consequently, Eritrean movements share the responsibility of clearing mistrust that was spawned by PFDJ for over two decades. In post PFDJ Eritrea, depending on a number of variables, including healthy doses of economic and political ties between Eritrea and its neighbors will create prosperity in the region and avoid destructive competition that may otherwise arise between them. Therefore, Eritrean movements should take first steps to bridge the gap between Eritrea and neighboring countries and to educate the public about the short and long term opportunities of building geostrategic alliances with supportive states.

Additionally, disillusionment with previous wars and tireless PFDJ propaganda portraying Ethiopia as having ulterior motives has undeniably implanted isolationist mentality in some Eritreans. Although this mentality is common among PFDJ supporters, few anti-PFDJ Eritreans have not yet grown out of it, leading them to adopt slogans such as “change from the inside only” or “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems”. By adopting these slogans, they claim a desirable and authentic Eritrean solution to Eritrean problems can be achieved only if the people residing in Eritrea plan and remove the regime. Although, these slogans sound compelling, they often lack insight and are normally accompanied by ambiguous goals and trivial actions, which sometimes do more harm to the cause than good. Not only did they play a role in ideological divide between some organizations resulting in their breakup but also, people who adopt these slogans expect for a nonviolent movement to erupt in Eritrean towns ignoring the fact that a nation of less than four million is already housing more than 10,000 prisoners of conscience, the PFDJ is one of the most brutal regimes to exist in the 20th and 21st centuries, and peaceful demands made by some Eritreans has only resulted in disappearances of most of them. Additionally, most Eritreans who are between the ages of 16 and 45 have remained in the army as conscripts or fled the country leaving behind young children and the elderly. Given the circumstances in Eritrea, it would be highly unlikely for civilians to revolt peacefully. And in the unlikely event of a civilian revolt, the regime would not hesitate to use deadly force to crash it.

The other option for “change from the inside only” or “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems” ideologues is for a military coup d’état to take place in Eritrea. Although, it is possible for the Eritrean military to revolt and overthrow the regime, adopting this option as an independent and preferable solution is also problematic. First of all, any movement that claims to be fighting for justice should have plans and actions based on clear goals and objectives. Leaving the task of removing Eritrean regime to a military coup alone, which may or may not happen is an illogical strategy. Even if a military coup happens in the future, there is a great chance for it will be perpetrated by power hungry military officers seeking not to bring about structural regime change, but to rule the nation in their own way and without legitimacy. Therefore, the whole notion of “change from the inside only” or “Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems” is based on fear of Ethiopian intentions, believing in trivial actions, doing awareness campaigns to teach those who are already living it, not understanding the nature of PFDJ fully, thinking that the outcome can be controlled merely because the event is carried out by people residing in Eritrea and most of all it is a strategy based on emotions, not careful evaluation of realities.

Rather than dismissing some methods of struggle first and then asking how to manage with what’s left, Eritrean movements must adopt an all-round struggle with leadership that is capable of analyzing internal and external factors to understand available options, capabilities, priorities and a leadership that is meticulous in setting goals and objectives in response to the demands of current situation – and only when these plans are executed appropriately will they achieve their goals. Each situation is to some extent, unique and must be treated as such. Nevertheless, making intelligent choices in consideration to current situation and future implications is always critical for success. Therefore, when a movement defines its pillars of struggle, a careful analysis should be conducted on how internal and external factors come into play. Some of these factors are history and nature of the regime, strengths and weaknesses of the regime, political situations in the country and in the region, people’s sentiment, population centers, economic conditions in the country, and the regime’s external ties. One obvious fact is that there is a large Eritrean population in Diaspora; hence, forming a social movement in Diaspora to unite Eritrean people around a common understanding and goals should be the first pillar. Since the regime’s obsession with excessive force leaves no room for peaceful marches, having armed resistance as second pillar is not only legitimate but essential. Eritreans inside the country can’t openly and freely organize themselves; hence creating underground networks with links to the military wing should be the third pillar. While, the fourth pillar should be alliance building for Eritrean movements to have access to neighboring countries from which their military wings operate and to get political and material support from other allies. A movement that succeeds in building these four pillars may be able to rally Diaspora Eritreans behind its goals. Whereas, its military wing in coordination with underground networks inside Eritrea may carryout surprise attacks on selected government targets leading to the movement’s recognition by the international community and support for its cause. After all, ANC’s model of struggle with some adjustments may be what Eritrean movements need to succeed in bringing about justice, democracy, economic prosperity and lasting peace.

“Let us train our minds to desire what the situation demands.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Tomas Solomon

These are my personal views and may not represent the views of others.

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