Moral Crusade: That has changed the political landscape of Eritrea: Part 3
The Challenge to civil societies:
By Petros Tesfagiorgis
During the commemoration of the 22nd year of Independence the role of Eritrean Civil Societies has shined brightly worldwide. I was particularly impressed by the Washington March organised by Eritreans for democratic change where more than 2000 people participated.
The Eritreans went to the streets to shout louder, to give voice to the voiceless. They went out to claim justice and rule of law that is so urgent, so profound and so sincere. It is also to tell the American people and the American Government that the gross human rights violations perpetuated by PFDJ is an international moral issue and they have the duty to stand in solidarity with the people of Eritrea and to support all those who rise up to put an end to it.But above all it is a wakeup call to all those Eritreans in Diaspora who pretends not to see, not to hear and not to know while their Eritrean brothers and sisters are suffering..
These worldwide protests were so powerful as to cause PFDJ and their supporters to suffer a moral defeat.
All the demonstrations worldwide have carried a big message that the Eritrean Diaspora are sharing the pains and suffering of the prisoners of conscience at home, the refugees in the camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, those in the hands of human traffickers in Sinai and in various prisons in Egypt, Libya and in Israel. And it is a commitment that that they will carry the struggle until justice prevails in Eritrea.
In addition the organizers in Washington had provided a platform for debate. There were speakers such as Dan Connell, Dr, Alganesh Fesseha, and Tesfay Temnewo. Dr. Alganesh is an inspiration and a living legend, who boldly goes where no rescue mission dares to go to help the refugees in Sinai Dessert – the land of darkness where kidnapped African refugees mostly Eritreans are enslaved, chained and murdered by human traffickers.
I was unease when Tegadalai Adhanom Gebremariam raised a storm over Tesfay Temnewo’s interview. The fact that the EPLF had a dark side is not secret anymore. It is during the rise of the EPLF that the seeds of dictatorship was sown and fully blossomed on the day the G-15 and the editors of the private papers were arrested and remained incommunicado ever since.
How does Adhanom explain the killing of “Menka" a group who raised their voice for democratic change “They represent some of the best brains Eritrea ever had. Among them was Yohanese Sebhatu – the Marxist guru- who contributed a lot to the empowerment of the progressive university students in Addis Ababa in late sixties and early 70th. In that moment in time The Ethiopian progressive university students were inspired by the teachings of Marx and Lenin and started to see the socialist ideology as a way out of poverty and oppression. The EPLF and many of the Ethiopian liberation fronts such as EPRP, TPLF, SLM (Sidama National Liberation Movement) have ideological roots in the Hailesellasie 1 University progressive students’ movements known to be the most radical movement against colonialism and feudalism in Africa.
As I write this article I read a moving testimony by, a 14 years old girl, Abie Seyoum at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Abie is the daughter of Seyoum Tsehaie. – A French educated war photographer of EPLF. She called upon the international community to help her and her sister and all those who lost their parents to the PFDJ prison dungeons.
I was introduced to Seyoum Tzehaie through his photo exhibition in Embasoyra Hotel, Asmara some time in 1995. The exhibition sums up his photographic spirit and brilliance. His courage for taking photographs in the middle of bloody fighting was amazing. His black and white photographs could have been a hit had they been given to London's "The Sunday Times Magazine" a magazine that collects unique historical photographs.
I wrote an article titled "journalists cut in the bud", focussing on Seyoum's achievements on Awate.com. After being demobilized he became a journalist with Setit , Tigrinya Newspaper – his interview with former fighters was unique in that it was highlighting the problem women fighters were facing after independence. The articles used to expose the beginning of the mismanagement of the society and the economy by PFDJ that is defining Eritrea of today.
Such arrests the like of Seyoum and other forms of gross human rights violations has deprived Eritrea of its skilled, dedicated and experienced man power essential for rehabilitating the shattered economy and society of Eritrea because of 30 years of armed struggle .
Adhanom should not have been worried if the dark side of EPLF is exposed. Eritreans have a lot to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid repeating them in the future. The work of verifying the various claims of crimes committed by EPLF is better left in hold until a democratic government is installed. It may take the form of South Africa's, "Truth and Reconciliation" or any other form that contributes to healing the deep wounds caused by PFDJ repression.
The people of Eritrea are in the middle of a bitter struggle for smooth transition to bring democratic change and fill the leadership gap. There is no time for political and civil society leaders to waste their precious time arguing on historical rights and wrongs other than focussing on the bigger picture to end the pains and suffering of the Eritrean people.
By spending time on the past or bickering among themselves they are sacrificing the limited time and resources that must be spent on fight for democratic change. In economic terms this is called, “opportunity cost”.
At this stage it is helpful to share the wisdom of Tsegai Gebrehiwot in his dealing with history and its relevance to the present. I was intrigued/fascinated by his articles titled "ጽቡቕ ታረኽ መዕለሊ ሕማቕ ታርኽ መምሃሪ" Its Tigrinya translation is "Good story is for entertainment, bad story is for learning " ( Assenna.com). The articles are beautifully written. Tsegai has mastery of Tigrinya language. His message which he is sharing with the public is deep. I think he is the best candidate in the work of putting together a pedagogical material that can be used in group studies to raise the level of consciousness of Eritreans in Diaspora. Such work is a factor of rising up to the challenges presented to the Eritreans by the Forto 2013 uprising – it is a significant moral crusade.
Besides, it is beyond any doubt that the present is more important than the past because the present activities will shape the destiny of Eritrea and its people. We the generation of Ghedli have to listen to the youth which I hear some say "ELF, EPLF, Christian Moslem, Pentecostal, Hamasien, Akeleguzay, Seraye, Kunama, Afar, Saho etc. is no concern of us. We want to end the pains and sufferings and be free to exploit our potential for study, work, make a family be happy and creative; today we are nothing except free labour exposed to all kind of crimes. We have become easy target for traffickers." They even remark that goes." ንስኹም ዘይተኸለሰ ጸብሒ አቅሪብኩሙልና “means “You handed us an unfinished revolution.” Luckily today the youth are starting to be on the forefront fight to finish the unfinished business and n the spirit of the book titled –unfinished business – Edited by Dominique Jacquin-Berdal and Martin Plaut.).
The Challenge to the Eritrean civil societies in Diaspora is multi-faceted:
The interference of the Embassies:
The interference of the Eritrean Embassies all over the world not only have hindered the Eritrean civil societies from raising their voices against injustice but also made it difficult to give humanitarian support to refugees in camps in the Sudan and Ethiopia
The refugees in the camps lack basic necessities such as clothing, food, medicine and educational materials. Furthermore the interference made it difficult even to give proper services to the Eritrean communities locally. The interferences resulted in having a serious side effect. Those associations controlled directly or indirectly by the Embassies became limited only to organizing festivals and raise funds for PFDJ and completely sidelined to meet the basic needs of refugees. Community support is essential for refugees in order to adjust themselves to life in the country they have adopted. It is well known that the refugees from Eritrea have low educational achievements and their English is poor. It’s rare to find one with qualification to get a good job. That is why the supports of the Eritrean community organisations to their members become fundamentally important.
Take the example of the Somali communities. They run supplementary education during the weekends for Somali children. They recruit qualified teachers most of them voluntary to help them with their home works particularly Maths, English and science subjects. Over 6, 7 years the Somali Children moved from low achievers to become one of the highest. To run supplementary schools they get thousands of pounds in Grants. The Somali communities have become successful in empowering the people so that they become successful in schools, in business, in trades. The Somali communities shine and shine brightly.
More than 300 languages are spoken in the United Kingdom. All linguist groups have their own community organisations that provide support to their communities in skill training, employment, housing, education and benefits. These supplementary works is crucial for disadvantaged people mainly Black and Minority Ethnic (BMA). Eritreans are the most disadvantaged and yet support from their community organisations is very weak.
Yet the most challenging part of any Civil Society organisations is actually to maintain their independence from Governments and opposition political parties.
Claude Ake – the director of the centre for advanced social Sciences “at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria wrote in his article "Rethinking African Democracy. “Except in a few countries, such as Senegal, grassroots organisations in Africa do not significantly contribute to democracy. African regimes have been instituting them in order to lower administrative costs and deflect participatory pressure".
More often than not Governments or politicians want to use them to maintain power and not to serve the interest of the public. The Mass Associations of EPLF provide a burning example when civil societies are controlled by politicians.
In 1975 the EPLF managed the once independent Eritreans for Liberation in Europe and the Eritreans for liberation in North America to vote to be part of EPLF. Which they did innocently but actually voted to give power to EPLF rendering themselves powerless. They never had any influence even in policies that affects them. At that time nobody knew (except those who were expelled later on) that it was a trap meticulously designed by EPLF. The yearly conference was then transformed into festivals. When the independence of Eritrea became inevitable the EPLF announced that they disband completely "the making and unmaking of Mass Associations of EPLF" scenario. It is also use and throws policy. After independence the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), the National Union of Eritrean Students and Youth (NUEY) and the confederation of Trade Unions predominated. As their leaders were handpicked by the president they became instruments of repression for PFDJ.
There is a fundamental reason why civil societies must be independent autonomous and voluntary Associations. They cannot hold Governments accountable if they are not independent.
Some youth I talk with complain that they have so much pressure from the opposition political parties to work under them. For heaven’s sake being independent does not hinder to cooperate for the same goal. In fact it is to the advantage of the parties to have independent civil societies around there. To have a mature civil societies can help them to democratise the society and economy faster and hinders corrupt politicians to control power.
The challenge presented to the Diaspora is in the area of cultural values.
The arrest disappearance and other forms of human rights violations have created fear, terror and have ushered in a deep seated suspicion, among the population. Furthermore it has built a distrustful society where people are used to getting information through the rumour mill (03) that undercut sober public discourse. This system has given rise to ignorance and long-held tendencies towards mutual distrust and disdain. The closure of the only University in Asmara brought to an end an academic freedom essential for people to expand their world outlook towards social, economic and political advancement. Eritrean students were forced to take higher studies from 12 grades on words in an army camp. An environment with no academic freedom kills self-confidence and creativity. Instead together with the rest of the population the youth are feed with excessive propaganda of demonizing the USA and a threat of Weyane invasion – day in day out, to justify the enslavement of the labour of the youth and to silence the population.
All in all this is not a promising foundation for democracy in future Eritrea. It represents the greatest challenge the entire people of Eritrea faces.
The Eritrean Civil Society organisation has serious challenges more than any conventional Civil Society anywhere else in our world. It is a big problem.
This problem can only be addressed by a strong civil society organisations, organised and intellectually equipped enough to prepare materials for workshops, group studies that can raise the level of consciousness of the people in order to be empowered enough to participate in all the activities that brings democratic change in Eritrea.
The Diaspora Civil Societies have not been successful in the Area of Empowerment:
Let's take the example of Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea (CDRiE.) On its inception many in Diaspora have put a lot of hope on CDRiE believing that this is the organisation which is equipped to empower the people in Diaspora and can reconcile the various fragmented political parties and civil society organisations. On paper its aims/objectives, key activities and Governing principles are brilliant. The members being from all walks of life mostly intellectuals, lectures and various professional were added advantages.
The expectation to indulge in the core-strategy of empowering the people was nowhere to be seen. It has never produced an educational material that helps to raise the level of consciousness that empowers people. However, CDRiE was good in organising conferences and write protests and letters. It is not only CDRiE in this situation- I brought it as an example and also being a member I share the criticism, otherwise, there are others worldwide in similar situation and they need to reassess their activities and change.
In general we in the Diaspora have to look at ourselves over the past 12 years (since 18/09/2001 the date when freedom of expression is banned in Eritrea and admit we haven't been effective enough- and that hopefully we are now in a position to evaluate the past undertakings with the aim of changing to do better in the future. The phenomena of the recent two years and the show of strengths during the commemoration of Independence Day confirm that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The weakness is partly due to the lack of leadership in the opposition political parties and civil societies. This has been captured by Miriam September. She wrote a piece in the youth solidarity for change website – she came up with "two job theory”. One is to bring democratic change in Eritrea and the second to produce competent leadership and efficient organisations.
Having said so it is no all doom and gloom, I am just focussing on the shortcomings. A lot of work has been done. The most brilliant achievements are in the area of Human rights and humanitarian work.
There are also many civil societies and refugee community organisations operating independently of the embassies. They managed to do by falling back into their religious or nationality affiliations. They send closing and education materials to camps in the Sudan and Ethiopia and they give service to their members. But their impact is not big.
La Luta Continua: Democratic Eritrea will prevail