A week of Conversations: Discussing the Nairobi Conference BOHASHEM: Salamat Selamina…hope you had a great week full of interesting events. One event that I would like us to start with our conversation this week is the Eritrean “National Consultative Conference” held in Nairobi on 27-29 November 2015. This event, organized by Madrakh/Muntada, was attended by some 12 “political” groups representing the old ELF/EPLF schools and some religious groups mainly “Islamic”. I also heard that there were some veterans from the liberation struggle who attended on their individual capacity. In general, what is your view on the event as a whole and the statement issued? SELAM: I will be very honest Bohashem… I haven’t read the statement that in detail; basically it doesn’t read much different to the many statements that we have heard from our veteran activists for so long… I think we should put the sentiments of the statement to the ‘proof of the pudding test’… What upsets me is how we fail to connect dots… already the Frankfurt event we were discussing last time seems to have been forgotten and this event in Nairobi… doesn’t seem to have built on it… the event in the US last year… the event in Pretoria …. Even the awassa conference all become disjointed events that only amount to creating a few headlines in Eritrosphere… making the events becomes an end rather than a means to an end…I hope we will see some difference this time I hope there will be an effort to build on previous initiatives rather than reinvent the wheel every time. The second concern I have is also the fact that this conversation amongst the veterans has been going on since the end of the 1970s… they even tried to exterminate eachother (not figuratively) and they seem to carry on from where they left off every time… the discourse needs to move on… what we need is a solution for today’s problems not for the problems that they should have resolved in the 1980s… here was a quick test I did in my head the other day… how many of the skinny freezy haired young men fleeing Eritrea today would be reassured about their future as a result of the Nairobi conference? I think the answer would be none or next to none. Our biggest challenge as a Resistance movement is restoring confidence: across members of the movement… with our people inside the country the international community Based on that scale I think I give the Nairobi conference a score of between 1 and 1.5 out of 3… BOHASHEM: The score is not bad at all. Your concerns and frustrations are very understandable. Given that the overwhelming majority of the Eritrean population is considered to be young under 30 years old, any solution proposal that does not take this fact into consideration is bound to fail before it event kicks off from the ground. Those who might have been physically detached from the country for decades may also find it difficult to grasp the new reality. EPLF/PFDJ have made sure that the generations born after 1982 are indoctrinated to fit an agenda that serves their grip on power indefinitely. In any case, the coming together for dialogue and consultation is not bad. What I find somewhat disturbing is the unrealistically high expectations that we sometimes tend to make out of such events. The problems are not confined to the seasonal events and seminars. They seem to cripple every group at the individual level. Many of us, for example, take for granted that we have “political parties”. If we measure this claim against the following criteria we might end up realizing that we do not and should not really have political parties at this stage: A political party may be defined as a group with a political program aspiring to govern a country. Despite notable ambitions displayed by some of the group leaders, none of them finds the courage to claim that they are indeed working to replace the tyrant and rule the country. Nor do they do anything that empowers the public apart from keeping their partisan trenches intact for any opportunity to ascend to power by “any means”. A political party would have a political program that is based on clear understanding and factual analysis of the country’s situation inclusive of all spheres: economy, social, education, agriculture, resources, etc. etc. etc. Clearly small groups of people with little or no access to such data in the country cannot be better positioned to draw political programs or solutions. Such attempts would just be political guesses at best. I think if all groups genuinely try to set aside their individual and partisan power ambitions and work together to address two fundamental issues: human and political rights, we would not have repeatedly failed to come together and remove the existing tyranny for our common good. By human rights I mean challenging all abuses against citizens both at the individual and groups levels, and political rights would entail advocacy for the restoration of a democratic constitutional order of governance. The role for political parties would come in the post transition era after enacting party laws. Is that too difficult to do? SELAM: I think it is the fact that the ‘political organisations’ don’t have that much of a constituency that could persuade them to engage in a more effective or sustainable way (focusing on current issues and solutions) that has become a problem… if the political organisations and their leaders are accountable to anyone it is to their highly selected or self selected small group of members who seem to not mount any major challenges (In the case of organisations like Medrek it becomes even smaller and more selective); the rest of the public is relegated to having almost the role of passers by and that gives the majority of Eritreans the permission to be either too sceptical or have unrealistically high expectations (incidentally both these positions have effectively the same net effect of having no expectations at all… for unrealistic expectation is the same as no expectations in reality). Those with resources and connections get to call the shots but lack the ability to implement any of the declarations and those who may have a chance of implementing things are no where near those discussion tables… they simply don’t have the clout. In a nutshell although what you are asking is not difficult non of those who are in the game currently remember it being played differently and the rest of us are not in the game at all…. Do you think the committee set up in Nairobi would be able to help us address some of these issues? BOHASHEM: Committees can only be as good as the members that they are made up of. There are unresolved grudges and mistrust among those who attended the Nairobi event. I would've become more optimistic if some form of reconciliation was first reached among the participants. This could have also become a trust building measure, which is a pre-requisite for any effective joint ventures. Unfortunately, our priorities are often in disorder. The success of the committee or the sponsors will depend on putting the priority order right and deploying the right human and financial resources. Other than that we'll a Committee that is not any different to the other committees that were launched and vanished without delivering tangible results. As for Madrakh/Muntada, if they stick to their declared aim of facilitating dialogue they can do a job that is highly needed as part of the struggle for change. They can always assess and evaluate their performance and improve as appropriate. If can conclude my part of this conversation by posing a question to you. Given the Nairobi meeting experience, what lessons can be drawn to improve future consultation meetings? SELAM: Reassessing our priorities is indeed crucial and I think that is the biggest lesson we should learn from all this events. Veteran activists from Jebha and Shabiya coming together to discuss the country they paid such a hefty price to realise is no longer the concern of the current Eritrean generation… it is important to lay that ghost to rest and trim the political shadow it casts because it was a significant shadow in our history… but the current task is reversing the impact of the political violence, hopelessness and victimisation of an entire generation…. The economy is in taters… education standards have dwindled and human security is at its lowest and so our priority should be dictated by that agenda. A declaration that doesn’t make the young person about to choose the Sahara Trek over awaiting their prospects inside Eritrea isn’t worth the paper it is written on. I therefore invite the committee of the Nairobi conference to spend a day on the streets of Khartoum… in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and East Sudan… on the streets in Milan and Rome and in the refugee camps across Europe and get to grips with the issues of concern for the current day Eritrea and get their refocusing in progress…. If not the next conference will be only about getting those who are were not onboard this time to come and continue the same conversation that is being had for three decades… we are not looking for solutions to yesterday’s riddles we want a remedy for today’s ailments! BOHASHEM: It has been great talking with you on yet another topic for conversation. I do hope we all draw useful lessons from our past and present experiences. SELAM: Yeah there is a lot that we ought to learn from our experiences and unless we learn them lessons we are going to painfully repeat these cycles over and over again. Thanks for the chat mate!