Democracy is the most challenging form of system of government. The other typical forms of government are dictatorship and monarchy.
As Sir Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The question is, are there certain types of political cultures that are more conducive to achieving democracy.
The idea of democracy has existed for over 2,500 years and has been practiced in one form of another for centuries. The easiest point of reference for most us is the “liberal” democracy that we are witnessing today in Western countries. It is to be noted that Western democracy has been evolving over the centuries but the form we see today has only existed for the last half-a-century.
Wishful thinking about democracy won’t get us to our destination! The question is, what are the political cultures that allow a nation to attain and maintain democracy? Political culture is not far removed from our societal cultures. Are we tolerant towards debates and disagreements? Are we conformists? Are our societies hierarchical to a point where deference is given to an elder or others in a position of power regardless of the merits of our arguments (Confucianism)? Do we seek to find common ground through skilled consensus building mechanism or do we solve issues through competitive process? Do we seek face-saving solutions, vindication or do we accept defeat and bow out gracefully?
When two Italians or Greeks debate, a non-Italian or non-Greek is forgiven for thinking that they are ready to start third world war. For those of us who are not accustomed to theses types of heated debates would be forgiven for being confused when one later sees the same two people laughing together over cups of coffee. For certain cultures, healthy debate with sharp words is an ordinary activity, whereas, for instance, in Oriental societies this would be perceived as impolite and an affront to the other person.
In practice, democracy is based on a certain degree of antagonistic and competitive political structures designed to keep different centres of powers in check. Antagonistic politics can be brutal as we are witnessing in the West. Antagonism exists within and among political parties, among tripartite powers (executive, legislative and judicial branches), among public and private sectors, and among different power centres (business, media, trade unions, interest groups, etc…). Unlike the 6,000 citizens of Athens, it is the equilibrium among the various antagonistic groups that keeps democracy on its desired course.
However, it would also be naïve to think that antagonistic and competitive political structure, including tripartite powers, are the sole guarantors of democracy. In reality, the most critical component in democracy is active participation at the grassroots level. Although democracy is loosely used to mean so many different rights and privileges, the strictest definition is government by the people. For this to happen, two things must happen; first, ordinary citizens must actively participate in political life. Second, ordinary citizens must be well informed to make proper decisions.
What is the implication? It is being overly optimistic to believe that democracy can be promulgated on paper just because a group of people are well intentioned. In reality, democracy is an evolving process that has to go through phases. As we go through the process, we need to ask what our political culture is and what its impact is on our journey towards our envisioned democratic Eritrea. Democracy is a continuous labor of love and this writer hopes that we don’t have utopian dream of everybody ‘enjoying life’ with green pastures in the background as we see in some posters.
If our political cultures clash between the Oriental style of conformism and Western style of confrontation politics, our democracy will suffer. What is our political culture? We need to know and define ourselves first!
Where do we stand?
Although the Eritrean opposition camp has grown and become more sophisticated and diverse, our approaches and arguments remain idealistic. Most of the Eritrean opposition cyber analysis tend to be very academic, wishful thinking and written with the benefit of hindsight masquerading as wisdom. Despite the ever increasing eloquent articles that adorn the Eritrean political cyberspace, we remain unable to relate to history, human behaviour and current political realities. The question is, what will make democracy work in Eritrea when the rest of third world countries are struggling? In May 1991, we thought we were different than the rest of the third world countries. In October 2010, we know we are no different than other third world countries. Eritrea doesn’t live in a vacuum. In order to find the answer, we must first ask the hard questions. It is easy to pay lip service to democracy, but the consequences will be very dire later. Those who advocate and actively pursue for certain solutions have moral, if not legal, responsibility to ensure that their activism doesn’t bring about chaos. One can’t just wash off one’s hands when situations go awry.
Let us look around in Africa! With possible exception of Djibouti, Ghana and South Africa, no other African country can claim to have practiced some form of democracy in the last few decades. South Africa can be seen as party dictatorship in African National Congress (ANC). Ethiopia has had two elections, but as the last election would show, it is really party dictatorship (TPLF/EPRDF). Nigeria has always had questionable elections. The Arabic-African countries are monarchical, one-man dictatorships, military (e.g. Algeria) or party dictatorships (e.g. Tunisia under Constitutional Democratic Rally, practically a one-party government). This writer will leave it to readers if there are more than a couple of instances where power has been transferred from one political party to another peacefully through democratic elections beyond two terms in third world countries. SO WHERE DO WE STAND? What does this say about our aspirations?
If we move to the Middle East, the record isn’t any better. Most of the Middle Eastern countries are ruled by royal families or dictators (e.g. Syria where the Assad family comes from a minority group). Turkey (rough journey) and Israel are probably the only exceptions, and Lebanon has an uneasy democratic system which is complicated by aggressive external interferences. Far East doesn’t do well either. Except Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, all other are either dictatorships or monarchy systems. The Asian Tigers suffered through dictatorships until they gained economic independence, allowing them subsequent political freedoms. The Philippines and Indonesia are slowing growing and has had uneasy democracy but continue to face challenges. China is a party dictatorship with Confusion hierarchical touch without elections, while India is also party dictatorship with democratic elections that ensures the Indian National Congress Party is the party of choice while BJP is the distant second choice. Of course, nothing is to be taken away from India’s exemplary democracy although PIA has derided Indian democracy, yet Eritrea is far worse.
In pursuing our democratic ideals,
1. Are we any different than all our neighbours? We were good in delivering independence against all odds but fell under dictatorship.
2. Do we have the political culture to debate and disagree without passions and hatred flying across?
3. Do we have the technical skills and experience to handle a sophisticated system of government? What do we need to address it?
4. Can we discuss issues in holistic and comprehensive manner than picking and choosing “safe” issues while conveniently overlooking the burning issues that will make-or-break a nation?
For instance, in pursuing a federal state type of government structure, we should ask what the experiences of other countries, esp. those with similar socio-economic structures, have been.
Does our political sophistication and culture allow a federal state type of government, which is the highest level of decentralized government? For clarity, a certain degree of evolving decentralized government might be desirable but a federal state type of arrangement, esp. with the right to self-determination, is just a call for a very complicated political culture and skills which we don’t possess at this point in time.
India is one example of a federal system but India is politically more sophisticated than Eritrea. Nigeria is a loose federal system, but central government wields a lot of power. The Ethiopian federal system is tightly controlled by TPLF’s political, economic and military machine. Would we have similar TPLF/EPRDF structure in Eritrea to manage and control our federal system? When we discuss various types of systems of government, we should also examine its underlying political vanguards. The answer is found in where the powerbase lies; and powerbase is about who is the most actively organized.
For the sake of debate, on the issue of the right of self-determination, one must ask,
- What is the mechanism of calling and conducting referendum on self-determination? Can a federal state call for referendum every year? What is and who determines the criteria for calling and conducting the referendum? What if all federal states don’t agree on criteria, do we pick the lowest denominator or have different agreement with each and among the federal states?
- With the spectre of eventual secession, should the federal states with the rights to secede share their economic wealth? After all, where the real or perceived possibility of secession is high, why should one federal state accept equal wealth among regions – out of benevolence? Especially in competitive political model, such as democracy, candidates with less tendencies to share wealth with other federal states win most of the time.
- If the purpose of federal state with rights to secede is to mostly share national defence only, would federal states from poorer areas bear more of the national pain while not enjoying national wealth?
Why ask now?
Why ask these types of difficult questions now? Some may say, we know all these questions but we don’t want to address them today because it would only weaken the opposition camp. Others may say, this writer is using fear to distract us from pursuing our democratic goals. In reality, reckless politics that attempts to muzzle debates through labelling and by avoiding hard questions is more dangerous to Eritrea than the open debates. Now that the ‘can of worms’ has been opened and insist on debating them, then it must be debated to its fullest. Of course, no one can unconvince the convinced, but at least those who want to understand the issues can weigh the merits of the debates themselves.
Democracy must be practiced unequivocally at a national level, because citizens do not have the choice to leave their country (of course one may emigrate to other countries but this is not a true choice) and are thus stuck to the political entity of their country. Citizens do not have the choice where they are born.
Democracy may or may not be practiced at an organizational level. Whether EDA or its member organizations or NCDC is democratic is up to its members to decide. It is perfectly acceptable for some organizations to accept one man as their leader for life. Members are free to join and leave organizations thus democracy or democratic principles aren’t requisite for organizations to exist.
In this writer’s view, there is a calculated propaganda within the EDA to label “non-conforming” opposition groups that do not abide by EDA’s hidden agenda as being undemocratic. It is one thing for the opposition camp to unite to remove the regime in Eritrea, but it is a totally different issue when opposition groups with different political stripes are told that the most democratic thing is to give up their beliefs and aspirations so that the ever evolving, rather devolving, EDA’s version of the future of Eritrea prevails. This is a total affront to the whole idea and workings of democracy and democratic principles, and is more suited for political drama and manipulations.
As we are observing lately, the opposition camp is sliding towards giving up its struggle against PIA. Instead, it is trying to keep momentum by acceding to all kinds of incongruent demands and by creating an illusion of a government in exile. The current enthusiasm is built more in post-PIA game of musical chairs.
- It is difficult to reconcile the political stance taken by certain opposition parties which believe in a nationalist government while simultaneously accepting the right of secession.
- If those opposition movements that advocate nationalist government are working together with those groups that advocate for right to secede, is this just a strategic relationship based on using each other for now and then abandoning each other when PFDJ falls? Then this is use-and-throw politics!
- If those opposition movements that advocate nationalist government are advocating TPLF style federal state with right of secession, then one should re-examine the power structure in Ethiopia. One minority group controls the armed forces, intelligence, security, political, and economic power. Do these Eritrean opposition groups have that kind of power and cohesiveness to make it work like Ethiopian politics? The answer is too obvious.
NCDC as Pawn?
For clarity, EDA/NCDC has the right to organize itself anyway it believes is the best way moving forward the opposition camp. Nobody questions that the 330 participants at the NCDC conference are well intentioned Eritreans who are doing more than most of us to move Eritrean politics in the right direction as they believe it. Instead, the debate isn’t about their patriotism and their dedication to Eritrean cause but the prudence and practicality of the goals they are pursuing.
Although the pretext for the existence of NCDC is to create a government-in-exile and to draw up a new constitution based on the right of ethnical groups for self-determination, inadvertently, NCDC participants have become EDA’s pawn in its effort to weaken one side of the political spectrum to ensure that its narrow agenda prevails.
In reality NCDC’s aspirations, unless we continue to harbour pipe dreams, are not grounded in reality in that there are no examples of government-in-exile that have been installed as government anywhere in recent history. We may think we are different but the bitter experiences of the last twenty years or longer, is a testimony to lessons of human history.
Even the Iraqi ‘government in exile’ couldn’t survive under the massive support of the US and crumbled to local political forces. Some of the opposition political forces, which do not accept the right-to-self-determination, have jumped on the EDA Addis Ababa project more out of conviction that only PM Meles can remove PIA, and have given up on internal movement to effect change.
But PM Meles (PMMZ) will not entertain a change of government in Eritrea through force because,
1. Mutual benefit for PM Meles is not as we believe of win-win situation, but on a pragmatic stance for TPLF, which is to create a weak Eritrea. PIA is doing a dandy job of killing Eritrea, so for TPLF, why should it save Eritrea?
2. Invasion from neighbours has never created democracy, e.g. Tanzania overthrew Amin of Uganda to be replaced by Obote which was later overthrown. Pres. Museveni has been in power for 25 years. Similarly, Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and overthrowing the brutal Pol Pot regime but didn’t achieve democracy nor economic growth as other Asian countries. The Afghan and Iraqi venture hasn’t yielded democracy either. Stability can only come from within.
3. PMMZ will not risk invading Eritrea because the wind of war is unpredictable. It would be naïve and convenient thinking to believe that just because Eritrea is a dire situation that it is now easy to invade it.
The secondary purpose of NCDC is to maintain enthusiasm within the opposition camp, which after ten years of intense activity and despite a help from the regime itself which is bent on destroying itself, there is no outward signs of collapse. NCDC MIGHT GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS ‘KEEP THEM BUSY’ PROJECT, SORT OF EDA’S VOLUNTARY ‘WARSAI YEKEALO’, LEST NCDC participants BECOME BORED. Or worse, these ‘civil societies’ may sharpen their pens against active opposition political parties. Yes, keep them busy!
There is no reason to bash NCDC, lest one creates unnecessary antagonism. After all, what can they, or we, do in Diaspora? In two years time the enthusiasm will wane because there isn’t much one can do in Diaspora. In the meantime, the idea of formulating a National Constitution might be exciting but will meet a worse fate than the 1997 Constitution. What else can they do? Form a government in exile and then what? Are they going to promulgate laws, formulate policies while being thousands miles apart and without the powers to implement them? Will they engage in foreign policy or armed struggle? Will they be any more successful than EDA?
One other lame reason given for the existence of NCDC is to mobilize the general public within and outside Eritrea. 95% of the Eritrean population in Diaspora hasn’t heard of NCDC and probably even less within Eritrea. EDA doesn’t fare any better. Ask ordinary Eritreans who the main opposition leaders are and even higher percentage (99%) have no clue – except for a couple of the ex-PFDJ leaders in the opposition camp. Will NCDC be stronger in reaching out ordinary Eritreans? So far the indication is that it continues to face the same challenges as EDA.
The core question remains, as it was asked for a number of years, how do you effect change?
The political strategy is complicated. Should the opposition parties that do not support the right-to-self-determination still work with the ethnic based organizations in order to continue obtaining EPRDF’s support and to use these ethnic groups for strategic reasons only, and that once power is attained to exclude these ethnic based groups from power? Indeed, this is one political strategy. In this case, it is truly dirty politics that will bite hard later.
The next question is, would the existence of ethnic based opposition political groups with the right-to-self-determination as their central agenda weaken the overall opposition camp in its efforts to remove the dictatorial regime in Eritrea? Only last week, EDA’s Afar movement declared its intention to secede. Would this weaken or strengthen our primary struggle for change? The answer is too obvious!
EDA/NCDC has also shown its inability to formulate coherent policy. For instance, NCDC stated in its final communiqué after the Addis Ababa conference that the participants agreed to the right to self-determination. Few political parties disagreed that the participants didn’t pass such resolution. No effort has been made to clarify this conflicting stance. Which one is it? Is this the kind of ‘democratic’ government we expect? If we can’t even get one communiqué right, how can we get anything else right?
Effecting Change through Armed struggle
In principle, one has the right to defend one’s basic rights as defined by universal declarations. But declaring one’s principles is significantly different than advocating for prudent course of actions. Which course of struggle is viable for both short and long term goals? Will it achieve our ultimate aim? What are the lessons of our own and human history in general?
Armed struggle requires significant participation and equally conducive world politics. Although there are few examples of African movements that waged armed struggle based in neighbouring countries (Liberia, Rwanda, etc...) and eventually overrunning their government, there is no recent movement that achieved such feat against a well-organized and entrenched dictatorial regime. The Eritrean and Tigrayan movement waged their war for 30-years with population that was solidly behind them at home and abroad, and with tegadelties who were committed to their ideals and based within their land. No such ingredients are there today.
Moreover, it is shown in history that those who come to power through the sword have a tendency to refuse to put down their sword. Of course, we Eritreans think that we are different except that we have proven wrong. We have become yet another textbook example of human history.
Let us look at results! After ten years of ‘armed struggle’, the opposition groups that have ‘armed wings’, have not captured one iota of land, have not mobilized ‘freedom fighters’ despite a huge pool of Eritrean refugees and discontent. No military cache of any significant value, no widespread Diaspora support and nothing else. Let us compare what was achieved 1961 to 1971 or 1972 to 1982 with 2001 to 2010.
The idea of ‘armed struggle’ is a distraction and an escape button from the more sophisticated political struggle – the only sophisticated skill that can build a nation. Can’t we have both? In our current struggle, only political struggle can remove the regime while building the skills needed for building an evolving democracy.
Effecting political change
Effecting change is not easy and Eritrean opposition has failed enormously. But blaming solely Eritrean opposition would be to miss the lessons of human history. The odds are stacked against any opposition party. The incumbent power has significantly more resources. Opposition by nature are factitious or divisive. Recent history shows that the battle is uphill,
1. Cuba – despite American embargo for over 50 years, with hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles stone throw away, Castro has maintained power. His brother, Raul, is now slowly releasing dissidents and opening the economy.
2. Zimbabwe – despite intensive boycott by EU (esp. UK and US), the most the West has managed against the 84-year old Mugabe is an uneasy marriage with the opposition. Mugabe is threatening to kick out the opposition at its next drama called election.
3. Burma (Myanmar) – despite public uprising by Monks and then the public, the military junta crushed protesters. The West has been very quiet.
In other words, without strong internal movement, the struggle against PIA is an uphill battle.
Changes in China came after Chairman Mao died and Deng Xioping managed the country in different direction. It took the death of Andropov and Cherneko to bring Gorbachev to power leading to political change in the Soviet Union. Soviet Union broke up and pursued an unsustainable political and economic reform resulting in Putin putting a brake on the reform movement. The Asian tigers had strong leaders whose death ushered new era. Malaysia’s Dr. Mahtir is a rare example of someone who willing gave up power after some 25 years in power with net positive effect for the country.
So where does this leave our struggle?
Eritrean opposition doesn’t have a coherent strategy to effect change, and has chosen to pursue an unrealistic goal of forming government-in-exile which is just another project aimed at keeping busy rather than pursuing prudent course of action based on proven human history.
The odds are overwhelmingly against the opposition. This is not so much because PIA is too strong or invincible but, by nature, opposition is divisive and factitious. Moreover, it lacks resources, which are partially made up through enthusiasm. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is susceptible to quick wear-and-tear.
First there needs to be a rallying figure. As Eritreans, we hate a figure but we can’t escape from that reality and human nature. Look at any coup-de-etat, Gen. Aman Andom, Thailand, Algeria, etc… The first thing they do is install some top army officer or public figure that has the widest appeal to the army and the general public. Where the British invade, if no other choice, they bring back an old royalty to use as a rallying point. It gives people comfort! It is naïve to think that just because the opposition is flying the ‘democracy’ flag that the public would accept them with open arms. That is pipe dream! Without a respected and recognizable face within the opposition, the opposition movement will have almost insurmountable uphill battle.
Respect and recognition of a leader can’t be created overnight. It is a drawn out process. That is why in the past, many movements, coup-de-etat and invaders have chosen those leaders and kings with already proven name recognition. If EDA is to pursue this matter, EDA would need to plaster its leaders for another 10 years and prove with solid results before people would begin to warm up to a new leader.
As it stands currently, Eritrean opposition lacks that public figure that people, esp. those in Eritrea and even more so for PFDJ power base, that they can look up to for comfort if PIA is removed. This writer has always supported Mr. Mesfin Hagos for this precise reason. There are other brilliant politicians and eloquent speakers, but no one can be a more suitable rallying figure than Mr. Mesfin Hagos at this time because of an established reputation. Ask any Eritrean, other than tegadelites, who the EDA leaders are and 99.99% of them won’t be able to name a single one. This is the beginning of our problem. Without a credible leader, there is no credible opposition movement! Faceless leaders can’t be a source of inspiration and comfort for a change.
The second problem with Eritrean opposition is that it is cluttered with too many open and hidden agenda. Yet, we do not have the capacity to prioritize and address issues in prudent manner. First, Diaspora opposition has the extra challenge of being spread out throughout the world. Second, our political thinking is based on idealism rather than reality because we are NOT directly affected by the situation on the ground in Eritrea. We are primarily hobbyists or political junkies! Third, we lack solid understanding of human history and nature. Fourth, we lack experience in the realm of policy making, organizational and public administration.
All these deficiencies create passionate politics without the requisite reality check.
How do we achieve evolving democracy?
Now that Mr. Fisseha Nair, whom I respect for his brilliance but totally disagree with on many issues, has been able to differentiate it for us between ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic principles’, this writer will divide democracy into the various stages of democracy or the journey. Every society has a starting point and then evolves towards a mature democracy. When most of us envision democracy, we automatically think of the mature democracies we see in the West rather than the journey itself.
Unfortunately, the experiences of many third world countries is that some kind of dominant political party is needed to guide a nation through political evolution towards mature democracy. Some may accuse this writer of being pseudo-democratic, but no one will dare to give example how their democracy will evolve from a dictatorial regime with severe socio, economic, legal and political challenges towards purely democratic form of government without sinking into chaos.
There needs to be one nationalist movement which internalizes the challenges within it and allow democratic processes to govern its internal organization. EPRDF/TPLF is one such dominant organization that is internalizing democratic principles while playing drama with national elections. But it is effective and Eritrean opposition need to consider it as a model! If we look into any other third world country, we find that there are dominant parties. ANC in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and other countries in Africa, Middle East and Asia pursue same politics.
Eritrea missed the best political growth when the reformers were imprisoned. The EPLF/PFDJ could have played similar roles as TPLF/EPRDF by becoming the engine of growth and change. Already, Min. Seyoum Mesfin has stepped aside as the foreign minister. PM Meles and other top officials are promising to do the same within the next five years.
Although the Chinese communist party is the sole political force in China, it is evolving towards internal political competition to bring about sustainable change. The mature democracies have only two or three political parties that internalize the widest spectrum of political issues.
Within the Eritrean opposition, EPDP and other nationalist organization can play the same role by joining forces and internalizing their politics. One solid EPDP- type organization with recognizable figure is also critical for rallying the opposition and giving ourselves a fighting chance against an entrenched regime. Any other arrangement such as NCDC is just “Look Busy” project that will fizzle out in two years. In the meantime, it will distract us from our main task.