Eritrean Diaspora Political Opposition: In Search of Prudence & Pragmatism
By Berhan Hagos
Although this article is critical of Eritrean Diaspora political opposition, it would be simplistic to portray their challenges as unique to Eritreans. Rather, we need to examine the challenges within the inherent nature of being opposition anywhere in the world today and throughout the history of mankind. Somehow, in some twisted away, it is a consolation and reassuring to know we are not alone in our failings. Moreover, it is also reassuring to know that others are making progresses despite these very same afflictions and shortcomings.
As heartbreaking as it is, the Lampedusa tragedy is not an isolated event. Over the past 15 years, thousands of Eritreans have lost their lives over conflicts of PIA’s choice and the subsequent political fallout resulting in the incommunicado imprisonments of tens of thousands of innocent Eritreans who are still languishing in the most inhumane conditions, and tens of thousands more of Eritreans who have lost their lives in the Sahara & Sinai deserts – only after surviving shoot-to-kill policies of this cruel regime, and how many thousands must have died from this cruel shoot-to-kill policy!
These endless tragic events make us wonder what we must do to accelerate our struggle to effect change. When days and weeks have gone, and as these tragic events fade away into distant memory, what will ensure that we are able to reach out to the general Eritrean public and mobilize them into action? Unfortunately, as in the Tunisian uprising, unless there is an immediate public uprising against a regime within few hours to a week of a tragic event, it can be said that the regime has weathered the storm, or at least temporarily. The regime’s 180 degree faceabout on its handling of the latest tragedy was designed to weather the one-week critically dangerous period. Of course, although the immediate threats to the regime may have receded for now, public anger is simmering just beneath the surface, and the latest tragedy has nudged the public closer a point of critical mass required for public uprising.
Eritrean Diaspora Political Opposition
It is probably more appropriate to start with some basic questions:
Why are political opposition so fractious?
Are there any Diaspora political opposition we can model after?
Why is Eritrean Political Opposition Unable to Launch Effective Campaign?
What are the political or other tools available to Diaspora opposition?
Why are political opposition so fractious?
Although this article focuses on Eritrean ‘political’ opposition, the non-political opposition, or more commonly referred to as ‘civic societies’ or ‘advocacy groups’, suffer from similar afflictions as the political organizations. In fact, some ‘civil societies’ are so politically oriented that it is difficult to distinguish them from the political organizations.
To blame Eritrean opposition as uniquely incompetent in the world would be unfair – incompetent, yes, but certainly not unique. Political opposition, be it in developed countries or else, is characterized by backstabbing, incoherence, hodgepodge issues, complex messages, infighting and continuous disagreements. We can examine American, European, Japanese or any other opposition where politics has supposedly matured over thousands of years and yet we see discords, deadlocks, and backstabbing in these Western oppositions. Western politics gravitates towards political gridlock despite centuries of political experience, and despite their highly enhanced negotiating skills. What worse fate awaits those aspiring political movements and politicians with significantly less experience?
One quick observation, contrasting those in power and in opposition, is that a government leader has an easier task of demanding allegiance from its followers, i.e. aspiring politicians, by giving or withholding political appointments – i.e. aspiring politician gains by conforming. In contrast, aspiring opposition politicians strive to obtain political positions and recognitions within the opposition camp by attacking, withholding support, and generally by being disruptive – i.e. aspiring politician gains by NOT conforming, thus wants to be courted. Different political dynamics are at work between those in power and those in opposition.
Infighting within opposition may be caused by:
Static Factors (Non-changing, at least in short-term)
Wide differences in political ideologies
Alliances based on religion, ethnicity, clans, and traditions
Differences in political platforms
Personal factors, i.e. continuous shifting and re-shifting of political allegiances among prominent politicians and among political organizations.
Modus operandi of waging resistance
The longer the regime stays in power and the greater the sufferings of the people become, the bigger the infighting within opposition as political hardening widens the opposition political spectrum.
Static and dynamic factors may not be mutually exclusive but may only be reflective of time horizons.
By nature, opposition groups are a motley crew, i.e. gatherings of all sorts of personalities and characters, ideological tendencies, and everyone and anyone with axe to grind against those in power. The difference between opposition groups in democratic and non-democratic societies is that opposition parties are part of the political institutions in the democratic societies which forces them to coalesce within narrower political agenda that will win them the next election. In contrast, when political opposition is outlawed, there is no political process that will constrain and narrow their political agenda. In fact, being outlawed, the political recourse that opposition must pursue widens and thus complicates the political agenda. For instance, the Syrian opposition is made up of some 1,200 groups against one relatively unified regime, as well as over 1600 distinct groups in Libyan politics.
Beyond clashes of personalities and political platforms, different religions, cultures, traditions complicate opposition political unity. Eritrea is no exception. Cultures and traditions play significantly in how we perceive politics, how we deal with each other, and how we address national issues. Politics IS NOT separate from our cultural and traditional beliefs. When discussing Eritrean politics and its dynamics, we have a tendency to address it as if it is one monolithic group. Many have concerns, or rather apprehensions, that to discuss Eritrean politics as multifaceted and inherently complex would open a can of worms. Fractious politics can be addressed in positive and productive manner only when the various religious, ethnic and cultural groups become sensitive towards each others fundamental needs, become cognisant and remain respectful of differences. Where we fail to sensitize ourselves to each others’ fundamental needs or assume that ‘one size fits all’ policies work, our differences are manifested in other superficial manners which may not directly point towards the underlying problems. We should not fear differences leading us to pursue superficial conformity through ‘hade libi, hade hizbi’, but rather we should celebrate our differences as source of our natural wealth and strength. ‘Hade libi’ mentality sends, rightly or wrongly, the message of ‘absolute conformity’ as in military structures, when addressing and resolving socio-political issues are about diversity, tolerance and acceptance. Ideally conformity is good, but it is not as workable as conventional wisdom dictates.
If these challenges aren’t difficult enough, Diaspora opposition members reside all over the world. The advent of technology: email, telephone, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, has made it relatively easier to engage remotely; however, this is not a substitute for living within a community where one shares the same experience. Over the years, these opposition members pick up different cultures of the societies they live in. We may speak the same language or communicate somehow, but our words mean different and our thoughts are lost in translations. It becomes CNN vs. BBC vs. Al Jazeera mentality. The political crack gets bigger! The gap also gets wider between the Diaspora opposition politicians and the very people they are trying to help because they are physically disconnected from each other. The political crack gets even bigger! If democratic representation is about knowing who represents you and being close to them, Diaspora opposition is as far removed as one can get.
For greater emphasis, it is worth reiterating that politics, political negotiations and compromises, social beliefs, law, conflict resolutions are inseparable from philosophical, cultural and religious beliefs. It is further complicated by lack of experience, personal and personal paranoia (esp. excessive suspicions), and various other factors. If we don’t make conscious efforts to overcome these differences, and instead if we are guided by self-righteousness or assumptions, we shall never overcome the overwhelming challenges we face to in removing the regime and in creating a prosperous and stable democratic Eritrea.
Political Challenges (and these are just the tip of the iceberg of issues):
Individual Rights vs. Group Rights?
Majority Rights vs. Minority Rights?
‘Democracy, dictatorship of the Majority; Consensus, dictatorship of the Minority?’
Understanding the deeper philosophical debates of Rights, Freedoms, Law & Justice,…’
Are there any political opposition we can model after?
In post-world world II (WWII) world, and more recently in the “New World Order” of post Cold War era since 1989, there are no external political opposition that Eritrean Diaspora opposition can emulate as a model. To examine pre-WWII history would not be too useful as many political factors have changed significantly since then. The creation of ‘static’ States, the advent of United Nations, globalization of not only economic but also political dynamics, the advent of technology and instant communications, and other factors necessitate that we limit our examinations to post-WWII world and more relevantly to post Cold-War World.
Even liberation movements have fizzled out in post Cold-War era as geopolitics has turned into economic competition rather than political survival. Those who gained their independence such as Eritrea, former Soviet colonies and East Timor have done so at the very end of the Cold War Era. East Timor, and much later, the South Sudan, have gained independence because of intense Western economic interests. However, these are exceptions than the rule in post-‘New World Order’ world. Some domestic ‘armed opposition’ movements in Central Africa and Latin America are operated more as business enterprises for profits than political issues. Central America probably had the most ideological political conflicts in the eighties, but these were among domestic antagonists. Western Africa conflicts in Sierra Leon, Liberia, Congo-Kinshasa had significantly different dynamics, i.e. they were armed rebellions rather than strictly Diaspora ‘political’ oppositions.
Examining past and current dictatorial regimes, overcoming paranoid and brutal regimes is an exception rather than the rule.
North Korea: is a quintessential example that a deeply entrenched dictatorial regime is almost impossible to dislodge.
Communist countries: China (Mao), Soviet Union (From Lenin, & esp. Stalin, to Andropov) and the USSR satellite countries survived under ‘communist dictatorships’ for decades. Although there were pockets of resistance in Hungary, (the then) Czechoslovakia, and then Poland’s Solidarity Movement (helped by Pope John Paul II), opposition were crushed and suffered all the “Gulags” and “White & Red” Terrors modelled after the French Revolution. Starvation and collectivization brought the population to its knees pacifying the population and wiping out any domestic opposition. Examining history, most brutal dictators have died of natural cause.
The Arab Spring is the most recent valuable lesson. While Tunisia is being the most successful and thus an exception, and Egypt with its unique political dynamics, Libya and Syria exhibit the most characteristics of total dictatorship – i.e. success can only come through direct and heavy external interference.
In Africa, most dictators – Zimbabwe, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, and many other countries still experience varying degrees of dictatorships. We can examine their experiences.
There might be more sophisticated dictatorships in Ethiopia, Burma/Myanmar, and others, but their opposition forces, both domestic and Diaspora, are engaged in more sophisticated political dynamics than for Eritrea.
Diaspora Opposition has had no success in organizing and mobilizing domestic movements in post-WWII and esp. Post-Cold War era. Some examples are as follows:
Cuba: Despite total US embargo since 1959 (which was mitigated by large USSR assistance until early 1990’s), large expatriate community in Florida (which is only a stone throw away from Cuba), 24×7 anti-Castro radio broadcasts into Cuba, and millions of dollars channelled to anti-Castro opposition, Castros (Fidel and now Raul) are still in power
Iraq: Despite a total UN embargo against Saddam Hussein, including no fly zones, Iraqi Diaspora oppositions were unable to dislodge him. It took a costly US invasion to dislodge Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan is a similar example.
Zimbabwe: the 89-year dictator President Mugabe has been in power ever since Zimbabwe gained its independent in 1980. Although the Zimbabwean internal politics is complex, it is suffice to say that despite strong domestic opposition and even stronger opposition from Britain and EU, Mr. Mugabe continues to maintain tight grip on power. There is power-sharing agreement with the opposition but Mr. Mugabe remains on the helm.
Some may say that religious figures have returned from exile to rule a country. But those are exceptions.
Modelling Eritrean Opposition and ENCDC
Diaspora Eritrean opposition can NOT duplicate opposition models from other movements because nearly all have been failures, except those installed through large external invasions. We can only begin from basic and general lessons rather than adopting a ready-made or pre-formulated model. Would that be reinventing the wheel? Not necessarily because although we can’t duplicate opposition models, the ingredients of change are the same – we just need to spice it up to reflect our capacities and dispositions. Today’s Diaspora Eritrean opposition is made up of
Political Opposition: which at last count were more than 35 organizations
Civic Societies: (including humanitarian, advocacy, news, etc… organizations) which probably number more than 50 organizations
Local organizing committees: which may be independent or composed of members of the various political and civic societies residing in particular cities
Supra-organizations: such as ENCDC
What does proliferation of opposition groups mean? For example, if there are 4 opposition groups, there could be 11 possible combinations of dealings, interactions, or contacts, i.e.
For instance, if there are 4 opposition groups called ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, then
Two-way meetings: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD (6 meetings)
Three-way meetings: ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD (4 meetings)
Four-way meetings (all-inclusive conference): ABCD (1 meeting) = (total =11)
But an all-inclusive meeting can’t be used for detailed negotiations.
Imagine if one had:
5 opposition groups: 26 possible combinations (think of it as meetings)
10 opposition groups: almost 1,000 possible combinations
25 opposition groups: almost 34 million possible combinations
35 opposition groups: almost 35 billion possible combinations
45 opposition groups: almost 35 trillion possible combinations
(Those playing lottery should be familiar with combinations)
Thus, the 35 opposition political groups, another 50 opposition groups can’t interact with each other without spending the next million years trying to work out their differences. Even we reduce the possible combinations to 1,000 for these 85 groups by holding conferences, these groups will be spending the next few decades trying to resolve their differences. But imagine, each group has 5 or 10 agendas on its political platform, multiply that by number of groups, then it become next to impossible to resolve issues. The most that can happen is that to divide ‘power’ without really resolving differences, and that can only be a recipe for disaster through destructive competition.
Observation: any groupings over 5 results in overburdening any form of structure if interaction is important. That is, if there are, say, 100 groups independent from each other are to engage in activities without interacting with others then proliferation isn’t a concern. It becomes an impossible task only when these groups must interact due to the nature of their activities, i.e. politics which must necessarily converge in order to share the same one ‘power’. Politics, unlike advocacy, is highly interdependent.
Due to the millions or billions of possible combinations, wittingly or unwittingly, political parties tend to form smaller alliances of 3 to 7 parties first, which is manageable for them to negotiate amongst themselves. Now, instead of, say, 35 political opposition groups, it is reduced to 5 to 7 political groupings, which makes it easier to negotiate amongst themselves. However, if these smaller groups are unstable, more energy and time must be wasted on endless political negotiations. No wonder our political organizations are busy without being productive!
Eliminating redundancies reduces energy lost in endless meetings. Most of the ENCDC member political parties have no existence outside the ENCDC ecosystem. Many of ‘political parties’ are probably no more than glorified discussion clubs with high sounding names. One suspect that each is trying to become a Minister of ‘Kingdom of Faerore’ or ‘Shangri-la’.
Every organization or supra-organization has raison-d’être, i.e. reason for its existence. The original intention of establishing ENCDC was to create a government-in-exile, which would then have requested formal recognitions from various countries beginning with Ethiopia. Formal recognition would have allowed explicit or overt economic and even military assistance to it. This would not have been unlike the Afghan and Iraqi governments in exile created under the ‘Coalition Forces’ before their invasions. However, due to disagreements within EDA, and the diverging views within Eritrean civic societies who wanted to join the supra-organization but without referring to ‘government-in-exile’, and possibly due to Ethiopian regime’s backtracking and always dubious support, the ‘government-in-exile’ project was shelved. With it, its real raison-d’être can only be declared DOA as soon as it was hatched.
Although still unworkable and inherently dangerous, a shift from Diaspora political alliances to a truly government-in-exile would have been a qualitative shift in the struggle. However, if the purpose was to simply create yet another supra-organization when an existing supra-organization, i.e. EDA, was totally dysfunctional, was tantamount to compounding and elevating a dysfunctional structure to much higher level. Some may say that including non-political organizations in the supra-organization was a qualitative shift. But this is not accurate because, for starters, the majority vote within ENCDC is still allocated to EDA. Second, the political agenda, modus operandi, and key leadership did not change from EDA years to ENCDC years.
Dysfunctional ENCDC has spawned yet more political and non-political advocacy organizations. As no one wants to put ENCDC out of it misery for good out of fear of damaging the credibility of the opposition camp, everybody is now paying lip service to it while pursuing alternative methods of struggle. Today’s ENCDC is a white elephant. Let us learn the lessons of today – here and now, instead of being preoccupied with and regurgitating the liberation struggle. What good is it if 20 years from today some whistle blower tells us what happened within ENCDC? Wisdom is about staying focused on today – even now! Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t ours yet. Let us be honest, what have we learned from the liberation struggle, despite so many writings and talk these days, that is pushing our campaigns today? Nada, zilch, nothing! If anything, the political opposition and cyber debates remain utterly distracted dwelling in the past. Let us be honest learn from today’s failures, and ENCDC is a prime example. Where did we go wrong? Failure isn’t about making mistakes, but NOT learning from them – and sweeping them under the rug out of fear.
ENCDC, as EDA did before it, does have one advantage – it has kept the old political infighting to the minimum. But again, it has come with a price – by tranquilizing its members into deep sleep. What has been lost by all the members going into self-induced coma for last two years? Probably nothing except political backstabbing!
Why is Eritrean Political Opposition Unable to Launch Effective Campaign?
It is too heavy to take off! It is like overloading a truck with 100 ton of cargo though being designed to carry maximum of 40 ton, or a plane designed to carry 100 ton carrying 200 ton of passengers and goods. Neither will move nor take off! Opposition camp has too many groups and parties whose raison-d’être is simply to overcrowd the bus, truck or plane.
Cluttered and Wrong Message! It is like filling your diesel truck with regular fuel or your plane with diesel instead of jet fuel. You destroy your engine!
The Cluttered Messages and False Wedge Issues
‘Tsigena’ vs. ‘Meseretawi Lewti’ – Cluttered Message & False Wedge Issue
The latest rage appears to be the debate between ‘tsigena’ and ‘meseretawi lewti’. Scanning some of the cyber articles, one is at a loss to understand what these terms truly mean. The latest calls for ‘national dialogue’ may have caused these apprehensions. The new radio broadcast, “Radio Medrek, Hagerawi Zete”, seems to have stirred a controversy. At its face value, it is difficult to define what the radio station means by ‘national dialogue’.
Although most of the cluttered messages apparently emanate from individual cyber writers and a couple of opposition political parties, one is left with strong impression that these cyber debates are inflamed behind the scenes by active political actors. Where there is lack of clear and coherent political message from the opposition parties, the public will assume that these private debates are a reflection of the greater debates within the political opposition. For sake of this discussion, I will take ‘tsigena’ or ‘tsigenawi lewti’ as ‘reconciliation’ and ‘meseretawi lewti’ as ‘fundamental change, but more like revolutionary change’.
Aside from their superficial meanings, the use of ‘tsigena’ and ‘meseretawi lewti’ have no political significance in pursuing prudent political course other than to create momentary confusion that slows down momentum within the opposition camp. Political opportunists would like to portray that ‘tsigena’ is about political capitulation by sharing political space while allowing the regime to continue its repressive rules. But this portrayal is hogwash! At the same time, the political labellers fail to enlighten us what ‘meseretawi lewti’ means.
‘Meseretawi lewti’ is a complex political slogan. It may mean an immediate and fundamental (both at once) socio-economic, political and legal transformation of a society and a nation. Historically, it is a remnant slogan from past revolutions such as the French, Bolshevik, Chinese and others – all immediate disasters and dubious legacy. ‘Meseretawi lewti’ may have been appropriate during oppressive feudal systems when the revolutionary call was for redistributing land from land owners to the peasantry or serfs. In its core, ‘meseretawi lewti’ can only be about immediately taking private property and distributing it to the disenfranchised. At its core and inherently any kind of ‘meseretawi lewti’ can only be evolutionary, gradual and long-term – anything else is about shock treatment, chaos and disaster. Political, social, economic, and legal reforms can only be sustainable when changes occur over long period of time.
Meseretawi Lewti can mean, for illustration:
capitalist system vs. socialist system (ownership of property & capital)
Monarchy vs. Republic
centralized system of government vs. federal system (system of government)
Secular State vs. Non-secular State
These are alternative systems that are all legitimate and people may espouse different systems. Changes can be instituted immediately (with possible severe consequences).
Meseretawi Lewti can NOT mean,
Beliefs in Rights & Freedoms
Rule of Law
These general or core principles that no one, i.e. reasonable person, can debate. Other universal services, education and health may be included in this category.
Reading some cyber articles closely, the ‘meseretawi lewti’ appears to advocate for removing the entire machinery of the regime – vendetta clothed in sheep’s skin. Indeed the regime’s crimes must be addressed, but to call the purpose of our struggle as ‘meseretawi lewti’ is equivalent to using a sledge hammer instead of sharp scalpel to perform delicate operations. In the process, one is calling for more destruction and misery. It is about lazy politics, fully lacking pragmatism and prudence. The call for de-Baathification will lead to chaos. This is the same mistake being repeated in Libya – after resisting de-Bathification at first it is now facing conflicts between the forces of ‘reconciliation’ and de-Bathification.
In contrast, ‘Tsigena’, or more appropriately ‘tsigenawi lewti’, where appropriately applied, is the most prudent and pragmatic approach to overcome the current Eritrean tragedy. More often, solutions are found somewhere between two extreme ends – something like Buddhist way of synthesizing ideas. It takes only but a moment to destroy, but it takes generations to build, and as such true ‘Meseretawi lewti’ can NOT be about destroying or waving the magic wand but about building through an inter-generational endeavour. It is about bringing inter-generational ‘meseretawi lewti’ through evolutionary ‘tsigenawi lewti’. It is like saying, things have undergone total transformation over two or three decades through evolutionary change – by building bridges, seeing that the past, present, and future are inseparably bound together.
Post-PIA can’t start from a clean slate. It is all about an interlocking chain from the past, to present, to the future. It is a relay race, and one can’t ask for a race to start anew because one of your racers isn’t performing. Rather it starts from all the mess created by the repressive regime. Whereas ‘meseretawi lewti’ has no political significance other than as a sugar coated arsenic, ‘tsigena’ or better to phrase it as ‘tsigenawi lewti’ has many advantages if it means:
Opposition is negotiating from point of strength, and that strength simply means that the regime is so weakened that it is willing to negotiate if it can get a face-saving exit
Immediate release of all wrongly imprisoned (i.e. political prisoners and/or prisoners’ of conscious) (a non-negotiable pre-condition) – i.e. After all, alleviating human misery immediately should be our utmost priority. They are suffering in the most inhuman conditions and should NOT be used as political pawns. Similarly if it means stemming down the exodus of our youths and return of those in limbo in refugee camps , then ‘tsigenawi lewti’ is a political option worth pursuing.
‘Tsigenawi Lewti’ may advantageous in bringing core regime supporters and power base to support political change. Most people who are affected by change, and as historically shown those who most benefit from change, all want an orderly change. Revolutionary changes are extreme conditions that usually lead to further chaos.
Whether Meskerem.net or the Real Housewives of PFDJ appear to advocate or criticize a political stance should have little bearing on which political course to pursue. ‘Abey Alekha zeybelkayo, E’nekhu yibl’. These are inconsequential characters trying to remain relevant in quickly changing political situation. Political differences aren’t wedges, rather they are differences of political beliefs tolerated under freedom of opinion and beliefs. They don’t set the agenda, the greater political opposition does. It is better to think of it as everyone having a role to play in the political food chain – including the scavengers and the parasites.
No one carried this message better than Nelson Mandela, may he rest in peace, who believed that bridging differences, i.e. tsigenawi lewti, regardless of bitterness is the most prudent approach. It is sad and telling how some Eritrean opposition groups have shown their similarities with the Eritrean regime by shunning Nelson Mandela’s demise as if they disagreed with his message. Too bad! It is about Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Marwan Barghouti of this world. Their message is one and simply, no one breaks our spirit.
Let us examine the political changes in recent past – China, Russia, Former Soviet bloc countries, Myanmar and many other countries. We see a clear political pattern that we can learn from.
Regardless of our bitterness, anger and disappointments, we have legal and moral responsibilities to pursue reconciliations and peace with all our fellow countrymen NOT because we want to but because we have to for the sake of prudence and pragmatism. Compassionate politics, not passionate politics, builds a country. Don’t cloud your judgements!
The role of Ethiopia – Cluttered Message and False Wedge Issue
Opposition’s relations with Ethiopia should be viewed like everything else in life – hold the fire too close and one gets burned, hold the fire too far and one gets too cold.
Ethiopia will pursue it political agenda based on its own domestic factors and political calculus – nothing more, nothing less. Ethiopia wants a weak and satellite nation in Eritrea, just as Eritrea would like to keep Ethiopia’s power in check. Somehow this false sense of camaraderie among the political leaderships of Ethiopia and opposition leadership, which for some share common history, is a double-edged sword that has clouded our political judgement.
Ethiopia has every right to pursue its national interests, as Eritreans do. Ethiopia can only be an effective partner, i.e. out of its own national interest, when the Eritrean opposition becomes prudent and pragmatic, i.e. slimmed down to an effective organization – not when it is too cluttered to take off!
The latest PIA trip to Kenya to celebrate Kenyan independence has no other purpose than to meet Ethiopia’s Prime Minister. Everybody benefits from better relationships, except PIA who is stuck between a rock-and-hard place. PIA is at the losing end of no-peace-no-war with Ethiopia and the world, and needs to write-off his loses with the world. But again, peace with Ethiopia will mean internal unrest, which is the least of his concerns at this political juncture.
‘Peaceful Resistance’ vs. ‘Armed Struggle’ – Cluttered Message and False Wedge Issue
In principle, the right to defend one’s life & right is an inherent right. In practice, within a context of bringing about political change and embarking on truly popular democratic movement, ‘peaceful resistance’ achieves the desired results than ‘armed struggle’. It should be noted that ‘peaceful resistance’ and ‘armed struggle’ are mutually exclusive. ‘Peaceful resistance’ is predicated on building grassroots movements – it is about exerting every effort to mobilizing the population. In contrast, ‘armed struggle’ is about overpowering your enemy in a military struggle – and not necessarily predicated on popular support.
In general, ‘internal conflicts’ should be only be resolved through ‘peaceful resistance’, while ‘external threats’ should be defended through military actions – ONLY as last resort and for self-defensive purposes only. To deviate from this principle is to invite perpetual misery and conflict.
EDA and ENCDC have supported ‘armed struggle’ more as political substitute for their organizational failures than as a means to bring about change. In fact, the ‘armed struggle’ political platform is the single biggest impediment to bringing about change in Eritrea. And for what? Despite vigorously advocating for ‘armed struggle’, not a single act worth reminding has taken place in the last 10 years – and almost nothing in the last 3 years. ‘Armed struggle’ is a lip service that has shown its futility, while unnecessarily portraying and stigmatizing the opposition camp as war mongers. All this for what, except to derail our message!
‘Peaceful Resistance’ is about reaching out. All opposition acts in the last 10 years, and particularly the last 3 years are forms of ‘peaceful resistance’. Our message to Eritrean opposition within and without should be, let us hold our hand together in peace and say ‘No’ and ‘Enough’.
Who is carrying our political message?
The first question is, what should the political message be?
No one cares about the political platforms of opposition parties. It isn’t worth the paper it is written on. Everyone claims to be democrat and believer in freedom – with hundreds of goodies for everybody. People can only trust leaders who reflect those values and are believed to have enough integrity for people to place their faiths in them. Not collective leadership, but each leader is accounted for on individual basis – then if collective leadership is needed, then each is accounted for individually. If not, it is all failure!
Political message is generally addressed to the public. But in Eritrea, over 80% of the population lives in rural areas, and largely doesn’t have access to public media. As such the political message is mostly targeted at Warasai-Yikealo who, aside from few hundred, are suffering under the regime. The message is mostly to urban population and, as critical, to former EPLF fighters who occupy most of the civil service jobs. It naturally follows that political messages should be catered to win over their confidence and address specific issues.
Opposition messages harping on how successful opposition meetings were without specifying what they achieved, harping how democratic their ideals or political platforms are, or harping on how miserable Eritrean people are won’t get them any brownie points, i.e. public support.
All this isn’t lost with our ‘astute’ and ‘experienced’ opposition leaders. Unfortunately, the burning desire for vendetta, vindication, jaded political views, cynicism, and political junk accumulated over years of bruising politics, hypocrisy, poor political judgement, dangerous politics that seeks shock doctrine to push forward dangerous political platforms into fragile and bruised Eritrean political system are the root causes of our failure to convey our message across to the forces of change in Eritrea.
Some two years later, it is apparent that ENCDC can’t carry our message. In fact, ENCDC leadership has caused almost irreparable damage to the opposition cause due to their irresponsible acts. Worse, instead of taking bold and public remedial actions to show its ability to resolve challenges issues, it has chosen to sweep it under the rug. There are times when issues must be swept under the rug, but sometimes it is a sign of strength to tackle challenges in open manner. Even worse, instead of tackling the bigger issues, such as the challenges of ENCDC, Eritrean cyber opposition keeps switching its radar towards fellow opposition leaders who are perceived to espouse alternative approaches to waging opposition campaign against the regime.
Game of Guess a Number (illustration)
If two opponents are asked to guess a ‘number’, and if the first opponent is so disoriented that he/she picks ‘1’, it would be utter stupidity if the second opponent picks the number ‘9’ just to be at the extreme opposite. Pragmatism and Prudence dictates that the second opponent jiggle at the stupidity of the first opponent and pick the number ‘2’. This way, the second opponent has a 90% chance of winning.
Similarly, many within the Eritrean Diaspora opposition have tendencies to swing to the extreme opposite lockstep with the regime when what we need is to squeeze the regime by suffocating the regime as anaconda would. We squeeze the air out of the regime in our pragmatism, flexibility, tolerance, and staying focused, thus occupying the entire political spectrum. In the end, the regime wins if it breaks our spirit by reducing us to hatred, doubt, and intolerant. No one has monopoly on self-righteousness! Our message should encompass the entire spectrum – not extreme position, but positions that reflect prudence and pragmatism.
Even in the arena of external diplomacy, EPDP has been carrying on effective campaigns when ENCDC should have been doing the same instead of dissipating its energy fighting internal crisis.
Ultimately, political messages aren’t carried in the political platforms of political parties or supra-organizations, especially in politically challenged systems.
Most important lesson: leaders carry messages – not communiques, not political parties but individual leaders embody messages.
The leader must appear credible enough that
the message he/she is carrying is prudent and pragmatic
Message isn’t buried in communiques but the leader must embody the message
the leader has sufficient integrity that people believe the leader would honor promises contained in messages
leader has sufficient support among wide range group of people. The sum of many leaders with wider support, as we may have with hundreds of leaders belonging to over 40+ political parties and ENCDC, doesn’t replace the importance of one leader that embodies the message. Too many leaders is a sign of weakness indicating inability to coalesce around a single leadership and message. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth! People don’t like that!
Question to readers: what do we expect our leaders to do when there is a disaster in an area, such as flooding or earthquake? Yes, we expect them to tour and possibly make a personal statement. We know that PIA is too far removed from reality to do something like this, but couldn’t opposition leaders take up what PIA has abdicated? It is about political positioning and becoming a real alternative. Key opposition leaders should have visited Lampedusa and other tragic places, and then publicize to the Eritrean public. They should make personal statements every time there is a tragedy or to rebuke PIA. In effect, in a subtle way the leader(s) should be seen as an alternative to PIA. Organizational communiques mean nothing … they may as well be written by this nobody writer, it is all irrelevant. ‘Condolence letter’ is only appropriate for foreign leaders, even that when not invited. Being real, hearing one’s voice – not once in blue moon – but in a consistent manner that even the public begins to expect it in advance. The public should be made to think, ‘Oh, if PIA is speaking, let us hear what ‘the’ opposition leader is saying the next day’. Same for tragic events – opposition leaders should personalize it, reach out, and let people become familiar. The leader and his/her actions are the only messages people want to hear.
What political or other tools are available to Diaspora opposition?
It would be irresponsible of any cyber writer to criticize without offering alternatives. It is easy to be critical, but the value of a critique is found in the practicality of the proposed solutions. Otherwise, criticizing for sake of criticizing would make one part of the problem than the solution. Far too many cyber opposition writers, as free as they are to express their views, are part of the problem.
Do sanctions work?
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: despite tight sanctions and no-fly zones after the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam survived until ousted by American forces,
Kims of North Korea: total failure
Syria: total failure
Cuba: textbook example of sanctions failing
Anywhere where sanctions worked?
Iran is too complex to simply attribute the current political rapprochements as sanctions working
Zimbabwe, again, still leaves President Mugabe
Sanction is a tool but doesn’t deliver the knockout blow. Sanction is like putting a choke-hold on your opposition and taking its breath out over a long period. After all, the mighty Soviet Union collapsed after 70 years (1917 – 1989), and China made a total U-turn after 27 years (1949 – 1976).
It won’t come as any shock if this writer claims that the ENCDC project has been an utter failure. It could have done much better, and this isn’t based on hindsight. This writer predicted just over two years ago giving ENCDC two years before it faded into the oblivion. It wasn’t because of ill-will towards ENCDC. There is no crystal ball. But it is like one’s credit history – if one has good credit history, one is likely to pay off one’s loans, and conversely if one has bad credit history. EDA was NOT building on success when it decided to form ENCDC. All it did was to build an even bigger organization on sand, with some excitement for few weeks, which faded into an even bigger disappointment few months later – only compounding its failures on bigger scales. Worse, we continue to debate what happened 10 or 20 years ago, something that should be left to history, when we should be debating about today’s challenges. ‘We have turned ‘we should learn from history’ into ‘dwelling on history.’
Instead of lamenting about our struggle of independence; instead of being revisionist historians; instead of finger-pointing like a bunch of failures'; instead of character assassination of those who abandon the regime (i.e. we should be embracing them like the prodigal son), isn’t it high time we use our intelligence, experience, wit, pragmatism and energy to push our agenda forward?
Our martyrs demand that!
Our prisoner’s of conscious cry for that!
Our youths beg that!
As one can see from this writer’s past articles, the best approach to weaken the regime which would then allow internal opposition to effect change is through decentralized local advocacy groups. Political opposition in Diaspora is too complex, slowing down the campaign to bring political change in Eritrea. Ideally, a couple of opposition parties, say an alliance of two nationalist groups – EPDP and ENSF – are more than sufficient to address the political aspect of the struggle. The other parties can roll up their political platforms into these two parties, remain in the background, and pursue their political ambition in post-PIA democratic Eritrea.
UNITY isn’t just about forming ONE supra-organization too busy trying to play musical chairs within its organization. Today’s Eritrea has no place for bruised political egos. UNITY of purpose can be achieved by totally decentralizing our advocacy activities, isolating the various parts of the struggle from neurosis of the central brain (leadership organ). Let all the initiatives emanate from the grassroots, and allow cross-linking among the various organs without the intrigues of centralized politics. At the risk of generalizing typical Eritrean character, one can say that Eritreans excel more as individuals, or smaller groups, rather than as large assembly of people. We tend to be offended easily, lack most of the technical skills, and tend to be too passionate to point of being blind.
UNITY of PURPOSE THAN UNITY of FORM is what we should formalize and strive for.
This isn’t a radical change being prescribed for the Eritrean Diaspora opposition. Rather it is a call to formalize what has been happening for the last 8 years in the proliferation of non-political organizations. These include news (cyber), human rights and advocacy groups, local organizing groups, and ‘dialogue’ or ‘bridging’ groups.
Let us face it, the following organizations have made their indelible marks on our struggle:
News organizations: such as Asmarino.com, Assenna.com, Asmarino.com. Awate.com, Erena, Togoruba.org
Humanitarian Organizations: Especially Ms. Elsa Chyrum, Ms. Meron Estiphanos, Dr. Alganesh Fesseha
Action Groups: ‘Arbi Harnnet’, so many locally organized groups in US, Canada, Europe and Australia – people who simply organize based on simple agenda and do all the works of opposing the regime.
Individuals: Like Mussie Ephrem and Ghezae Hagos
Moreover, Dr. Tewelde’s (Wedi Vaccaro) tour shows that there is significant open opposition to the regime but the political parties haven’t been to mobilize the wider opposition because of stale messages.
As we observe closely the dynamics of the Eritrean opposition camp in the past few years, all our tangible results have come from the above organizations; and glaringly absent from this list is the political opposition. The debate should be how to shift opposition focus from the political quibbles yielding nothing, if not, slowing down the campaign against the regime, to strengthening grassroots movements. Local groups have better understanding of local conditions and dynamics which allows them to adopt as needed. Moreover, failures are localized and isolated, while successes can be replicated elsewhere. In the nutshell, local groups are given maximum latitude to implement their initiatives. Smaller independent local groupings would tend to concentrate more on immediate and burning issues than attempting to address complex issues that can be only addressed in post-PIA Eritrea. If practical, even some friendly competitions can be made among the various local groups for recognition of most initiatives, creativity, tangible results, etc…
The local groups, through local initiatives only, would be organized along the following action groups:
Eritrean refugee support groups
Reinvigorate Eritrean Legal Societies to initiate legal actions and help others to do the same all over the world. This can against the regime, regime officials and foreign companies operating in Eritrea
Groups tasked with continuing to focus on cutting the regime’s financial lifeline
Groups tasked on encouraging open discussions and dialogue, etc…
There are many groups engaged in the ‘open discussions’ aspects but our campaigns in other areas are haphazard.
The emphasis on local action groups doesn’t make political groups or parties obsolete. However, the role of opposition political leadership should be left to a couple of political parties with national platforms and with proven track records in foreign diplomacy, where their skills and experience would be most valuable. Where political engagement is needed with the regime or foreign governments, it should be left to these groups to pursue – without every cook trying to put their hand in the pot, i.e. except with some degree of transparency and accountability rather than everyone wanting to get into detailed decision making. Their roles would be clearly defined.
Our motto should be: ‘An ounce of action’ is better than ‘tons of self-proclaimed successful meetings’.
My picks for 2013:
Dr. Alganesh: for her humanitarian work – what an inspirational person.
Assenna.com: Amanuel Iyasu defines what persistence means.
Arbi Harnet Group: This group could very well lit the spark that starts a chain reaction.
Kudos to all!
No one will break our Spirit!
Release Aster Yohannes & all Political Prisoners Immediately!
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