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Home مقالات Eritrean National Conference concludes as a stepping stone for democratic change
Eritrean National Conference concludes as a stepping stone for democratic change PDF Print E-mail
Written by Tedros Abraham Tsegay   
Monday, 27 September 2010 20:04

Eritreans from all walks of life, elderly, youths, intellectuals, refugees, mothers, young girls, priests and Sheiks, representing most of Eritrea’s ethnic groups gathered in Addis Ababa, in what is deemed the biggest ever gathering after the infamous 1947 Waela Betgergish. They came together for one major task: to search mechanisms of bringing down a dictatorial regime with intent of replacing it with a democratic one. They have been discussing on various issues that are of vital national significance ranging from: on how to make oppression and injustice history in a country exhausted of crying for salvation, how to build a country that accommodates everyone, irrespective of his ethnic or religious background, a country that treats all its citizens equally, a country where the rule of law triumph above all, a country where it’s hundreds of thousands refugees from all over the world could return to the place they call home sweet home and demobilise the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who are held under merciless captivity and thereby could lead a meaningful life and release all the thousands of political prisoners to finally sing the song 'free at last.' 

Undoubtedly, it is to be the most remarkable event in Eritrea’s post independence history on various accounts; first it gave tranquillity for all of the stakeholders, some of whom were suspicious that Eritrea’s political diversity can’t be accommodated in a civilised and democratic fashion. I was one of those sceptics; however, to the credit of the organizers of the conference, I have now been very convinced that I was mistaken to make that assertion, as the reality is speaking otherwise. The first ever conference was successfully held in Addis Ababa, with exceptional hospitality from the people and government of Ethiopia. I will deal with my observation about Ethiopians and its leadership in another article. Most often than not, I was so worried by the political incapacity and complexity of the Eritrean opposition camp, least had I known their agendas and inner colours as well. In the context of the events of the past nine days I can confidently argue that the future of Eritrea is much brighter than it was thought to be bleak, provided the existing political will and commitment is converted into reality. I have learnt so many lessons, opened my eyes to know the real challenges of the opposition camp, met with so many important political leaders and civic society representatives, at some stage I was about to weep seeing most of the elderly Eritreans, who are now in their late seventies and eighties, spent their entire life in search of freedom, now their only prayer is to see their motherland before they die. However, they want to see it under one precondition, with the fulfilment of their long awaited dream. Some of them saw Eritrea last thirty years ago, some even more, but they have a relentless love affair to the country that could not yet show them its uncompromising sympathy. Their patriotic spirit have never died, their long awaited dream never fade. Under normal circumstances it should have not been a big deal for one to live in the place entitled to claim as his homeland, but with a despotic leader like Isayas Afewerki, this is something impossible to comprehend. For Isayas Eritreans are good for nothing unless they worship him like God, that is why he never tolerates when other people worship their God. How many of us think, what would the fate of Eritrea look like today without Isayas being in power for two decades? Almost all the contentious issues on the agenda including some of the issues that we normally consider taboo were discussed and debated in a matured democratic manner. I have had the opportunity to understand the perspective of our Moslem brothers that they consider would be a solution for Eritrea’s problems. I also marvelled to see the Muslims counter debating each other with their differing political views on a number of subjects. They have explicitly expressed their grievances and sought for reconciliation and solution from their Christian counterparts, by far most of the issues were addressed in matured fashion. When it comes to religion it most often becomes a very sensitive subject to talk about, however, neither Muslims nor Christians blamed each other for any sort of religious attack directed from one group against the other, both groups were convinced that they have no religious antagonism, they are under attack by an atheist group, holding the disparaging power machine. Another contentions issue that was discussed is whether or not the new constitution would accommodate a religious based political party, if so would it be practical to impose Sharia law in a country that is half Christians and half Muslims. There was argument and counter argument on the subject, however, most of them concluded it would be unwise to institute sharia law in Eritrea, and Muslims were very much convinced it can’t work, to the relief of most of the Christian counterparts. This discussion had been enlightening and a perfect opportunity for building mutual trust and confidence among the different Eritrea’s political grouping. The issue of Land ownership was also on the agenda , under the existing leadership, land is owned by the state, they have discussed the pros and cons of this policy, and analysed the effects of this policy taking the Kunama people, and the inhabitants of the western lowland and the Central Zone. The PFDJ is has long been using land as a means of garnering foreign hard currency, without giving a due consideration the long term consequences of such a policy on the inhabitants. Hence, it was condemned by most of the participants; with a change of government it seems the change of policy would be imminent. They discussed how the regime is systematically dispossessing the Kunama ethinic group from their ancestral land by allocating their natural habitat to new dwellers, some of the participants stated ‘’such an act is like a time bomb that is about to explode any time in the future, once the PFDJ regime is out of power.’’ The Kunama ethnic group representatives Mr. Kernelios Osman called for urgent solution to their problem as he asserted that the regime is fiercely campaigning to exterminate them. The mining exploration left thousands of the Kunama displaced from their original habitat. Consequently, they have won many sympathetic hearts and their suffering is given a due attention by the attendees. Mr. Kernelyos also stated that the Kunama people does not have a hidden agenda for secession, even though they have declared in their charter, session could be one way of solving their problem, but he noted that ‘’it is in our best interest to remain with a big Eritrea intact, we have nothing to benefit by seceding if our individual and collective rights are respected. The burning issue of the Afar ethnic group was also on the spotlight. The Afar people like all other Eritrean people are down to misery by the irrational policy of the dictatorial regime. They have long been deprived of their sea, where they depend on for anything and everything. Consequently they have become refugees in Ethiopia in their thousands from where they managed to build a strong resistance army with intent of liberating their land from what they call ‘a colonizer.’ A Canadian government adviser professor Joseph Magnet was given a chance to make a power point presentation highlighting the suffering of the Afar people and recommended what he thinks could possible be a solution to the problem. He stated federal system of government can only guarantee the wellbeing and territorial integrity of the Afar people. The federal system of government is also advocated by the Kunama representatives as well. However, the most worrying aspect of the Afar people is that they have also stated that they could exercise their right for self-determination if all this options failed to materialize in solving their problem. They have publicly declared in their July 27, 2010, manifesto in Samara, a capital city of the Afar People in Ethiopia. A number of the participants in the conference were not pleased with presentation of the professor. They have even criticised to the preparatory committee of the conference saying that ‘he should have not been given the chance to speak on the floor in the first place. I talked with one of the Afar people representative, and asked him if they genuinely believe secession could be a real intention to the solution of their problem, this gentle man who is in his late twenties speaks softly in Amharic, ’Honestly we believe in united Eritrea, we know our fathers and brothers died for the liberation of our country, but what did we get in return?’ He also said ‘we want to remain part of Eritrea forever, but we can’t afford to live in misery, if Eritrea does not respect our rights and way of life.’’ His point was crystal clear; it is the regime in power which is aggravating their state of affairs, by its reckless policy aimed at controlling the lives of every citizen for his own hellish political ambition that benefit no one except himself. I have clearly witnessed the question of resistance to the dictatorial regime is taking an ethnic shape, with most of the ethnic groups are in grievances with the ruling government, some people say ethnic resistance is growing because it is relatively easier to win trust and mobilise an army as well. The Saho ethnic group resistance inside Eritrea, which was a widely covered incident on the media, is a case in point. I have also evidently learnt that the resistance from the Saho ethnic group is also growing. The issue of the Jeberti people was also on the agenda, as they claim they are deprived of their right to be identified as an independent ethnic group. They argue that they have a different history, way of life and feelings from their Tigrigna counterparts, besides religion. The Jeberti are the only Tigrigna speaking Moslems in the Tigrigna ethnic group. They asked ‘What does it take to the Tigrigna ethnic group, if Jeberti were to be identified as an ethnic group? ‘. Others counter argued that by definition Jeberti lacks the merits that could entitle them to be recognized as a certain ethnic group. It was hotly debated, however, as a group of people they have the right to claim such right, and it will get a due consideration on time, if it is feasible enough. The participants also discussed thoroughly one the issue of national and official languages that should be used in post Isaias Eritrea. Accordingly, it was agreed for Arabic and Tigrigna to be recognised as official languages, whereas the rest of the languages to remain National languages. Despite the fact that Arabic language is spoken only by the Raishayda, who constitutes 2% of the Eritrean population, however, our Muslim brothers predominantly opt for it to be used as an official language primarily in light of its religious and academic significance. Hence, it was adopted by choice but not by conviction, as some of the Christians were unsatisfied by arguing that there are no legitimate grounds for Arabic language to get an official language status, however, they submit to the fact that Arabic language was also instituted as the official language during the 1950’s federal system, and followed by the current regime. In addition the use of mother language in primary schools is another contentious policy in practice by the PFDJ regime. Some of the participants argued it is a worthless policy for it is hindering the minority groups when they look for job in other parts of the country, they are faced with the dilemma of lingafranka, and consequently this makes them unsuited. Nevertheless, there were also in favour of the policy, the confusion was finally settled by agreeing it should be up to the concerned people to decide on the subject matter on due time. The conference was attended by a good deal number of youths, who for the most part came from the different refugee camps in Ethiopia, even though a handful of them came from different countries of Europe, United States, Canada and Australia. They were pretty much very well organized and were actively engaged on the ongoing lively discussions. For seven consecutive days, they debated mostly on the evening hours i.e. after the end of the conference on a wide ranging issues. They had a fierce debate on the issue of the unity of Eritrea, most of them argued the Unity and territorial integrity of Eritrea as the forefront of their argument. Having seeing their sharpness and patriotic spirit I could see their promising future, provided they get enough space, or else they may have to create it themselves. At the end of the conference they have declared the establishment of worldwide youth movement, where they are tasked to agitate and mobilise the youths in their respective regions. When it comes to the participation of youth women, it remains a lot to be done in the future, as their participation was pretty much symbolic. They were not more than one digit in number, but they were very energetic and effective in making their voice heard. The role played by our women of the older generation, who flocked from all over the world, predominantly from the United States and Canada was very remarkable. They have played an inspiriting role and at times they were putting pressure for amendments and resolution on controversial discussions. Had it not been for their efforts, many doubt the conference could have been hijacked without notable success, as it has been the case in the previous occasions. The conference was very much dominated by the older generation, pensioners, who are in their late sixties and seventies. Most of them have been opposing the ruling regime from their ‘Meda’ days; consequently, some of them have never touched their foot in an independent Eritrean soil. That is why; some of the youth wonder ‘is it a fight for a democratic change or change of personality.’ The older generation also accuses the younger as being ‘opportunist and unpatriotic, when they get the chance to live in the west, they opt to remain silent, in worst case scenario they even tend to collaborate with the regime that at once used to torture them.’ There is clear mistrust and misunderstanding, that could have been resulted from failing to read correctly each other’s state of mind. I have discussed thoroughly about the missing link between this two generations, in my last year’s article entitled: situational Analysis of Contemporary Eritrean refugees in the Sudan. The question is how far the fight for a democratic change will materialize without the genuine participation of the youth; undoubtedly, there remains a lot to be done to narrow this gap. When it comes to the opposition parties they have clashed with the civic society organizations on more than a couple of occasions, however, it was addressed timely in a matured comportment. In this conference, the role played by civic society organizations, was pivotal in changing the course of the fight for a democratic change. The final amendment that was reached for the newly established commission to be made up of 60% from the civic society is a clear indication of their success. However, success should be measured by its outcome, they have been shouldered a big assignment, to mobilise the Eritrean masses from all over the world in an effort of establishing Eritrean Congress in Exile, within one year’s timeframe. If they could not live up to the task on the specified time they could also request an extension of additional six months. Most of the political parties are run by older generation, who have been in different leadership capacity for many years, and this clearly shows their lack of reform. A political party that is supposed to struggle for a democratic change, should champion itself with democratic principles first. They need a new blood leadership, if they are to win the minds and hearts of the youth. Some of the youth accuse them for closing their doors. Certainly, there is a lot of confusion when it comes to the political parties, one can easily understand this complexity by the number of the existing political parties, as we speak, their number topped close to thirty. Consequently, some people worry the opposition camp’s diversity could be the by-product of personality cult than principles. I had an informal talk with some of the political parties’ leaders, inside the KIDAN (Coalition), and outside of the coalition. And I have learnt that some of the parties’ opted to dissociate themselves from the coalition, for the coalition encompasses Islamic political parties, and Jihadist movements, when they claim in principle they fight for secular leadership. Hence, it becomes very unlikely for them to work jointly. This division is still been a very tormenting scenario, that needs to be resolved, if at all it could. So far the issue of religion in politics has been the most worrying and controversial issue in the opposition block. However, in the conference, there was no any notable manifestation of rivalry between these groups, as was predicted. However, some of the major shortfalls for the conference was that the agenda for discussion was kept secret until the final minute; many of the participants were not comfortable with this. They said it has hindered them for a well informed discussion, on the paper presented. The discussion paper which was chiefly prepared by the organizers of the conference touched almost all the most important issues that need to be debated. The issue of representation in the conference was very controversial before the start of the conference, however, it looked as an exaggeration when the figures that leaked on the internet contradicted with the reality on the ground. Having said that, it was not to mean a perfect job was done when it comes to representation of the two major groups. Some people criticised the decision taken by one political party for opting to withdraw from the conference, others were also complaining only predominantly Muslims were invited from the Sudan and other Middle Eastern countries. A group of thirty individuals from Sudan, members of different political parties were attending the conference, none of them were a Christian, and consequently, some of the participants were very dissatisfied for the conference overlooked the real suffering of the thousands of Eritrean Christian refugees living in the Sudan. I asked some of those participants from Sudan how it become very easy for them to participate in the conference, they state that most of them have Sudanese nationality. As I lived as a refugee in the Sudan myself for two years, I had the chance to notice what it means to live being a Christian refugee in the Sudan. Let alone to have Sudanese passport, their movement is very restricted outside of the refugee camp. There is indeed, untold story of suffering of Eritrean refugees in general and Christian refugees in particular. I have seen Christian refugees being tortured because of their faith, and we are also constantly hearing similar stories from Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These are the only countries mercilessly deporting Eritrean asylum seekers to the dictatorial regime; consequently, my love affair goes to the government and people of Ethiopia, who are intervening to rescue the lives of these unfortunate refugees. Accordingly, I have seen Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia very much appreciative of the Government of Meles Zenawi, for his positive impact on their murky lives. Hence, in the upcoming congress or any other gathering of Eritreans for that matter, this group of people should never be neglected, for an all inclusive participation; something needs to be done in order to insure their participation, as they have their own version of the story to tell. Finally I would like to conclude by stating that the conference was a stepping stone in cultivating the culture of tolerance in our democratic political culture. The conference manifested the Unity of our people with all its diversity, and the mood was breath-taking and the hope for a better future was a living testimony. It would be unfair to set out without mentioning, the organizers of the conference and the Ethiopian government, deserve the acknowledgment for diligently working in converting Eritreans dream into a successful reality.

Last Updated on Friday, 15 October 2010 19:56

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