Two-Days London Conference: "Eritrean Political Parties and Civil Society Organisations: Clarifying the Roles" 4, 5 June 2011

My Impression:

Lessons to learn:

The conference was organised by Eritrean Education and Publication Trust (EEPT) with the support of Centre for Initiative of Change who provided the venue. It was also in memory of the late General Mencorios Haile who was a leading figure in the work of Eritrean Communities in the UK. He was a senior adviser to EEPT.

Berhane Woldegebriel the head of EEPT gave the welcome address. Berhane was the engine and the driving force of the conference. The team work of the EEPT group was excellent.  I extend my congratulations to them.
There was something that made this conference unique. The organisers invited non-Eritreans who shared their invaluable experience in the journey of building civil societies in their respective countries. Also all the participants were invited as prominent individuals and not as representative of their organisations.

The experiences were covered under the title of the ‘Experiences of Neighbouring States’.  I can not comment on all the presentations but the challenges and the problems they faced were invaluable lessons to learn from because there were lots of similarities to the Eritrean situation.

The most impressive of the presenters was the Chair, Dr. Mohamed Suleiman, Director of the Institute for African Alternative (IFAA). His great sense of humour made the long two days conference seem shorter. He is also the one who presented Personal testimony on Sudan’s experience.
Ambassador Mohamed Sharif Mohamud, former Under-Secretary General of the Arab League- gave testimony on Somalia and Mohamed Sheikh Mahmoud, spoke on London Local Government on Kenya. Mr. Richard Graham – Head of International Grants of Comic Relief- gave a talk on civil society organisations in Africa. Following his talk there was interesting discussion of the need of Comic Relief to divert its aid to those in the Diaspora because there is no independent civil society in Eritrea to give aid to.

Clarifying the Role: The main topic of the conference:     

Professor Gaim Kibreab was the first speaker on the main topic of the conference, the role of civil societies. Prof. Gaim defined the core strategy of civil societies as serving the interest of the people and as a watch dog in case the people in power subject the population to abuse. He said there is no way the Civic societies can play such roles if they cannot maintain their independence.  

Quoting many experts on the subject he defined the function of civil societies against which he assessed the viability of the Eritrean Civil Societies in Diaspora.  He said they do not live up to the standards of functioning civil societies. Their independence is compromised by working in collision with the political movements. And he labelled them as non existent except for few.

Many people were angry and they stood up and debated to prove him wrong. Things became worse when he was asked how he rates CDRiE. He said it is probably the only independent one. For that he was accused of using the platform for propaganda purposes to raise the profile of his organisation, CDRiE. That was the time when the friction was at its highest. In spite of that, Dr. Gaim was staunch defender of the independence of civil societies.  He stood his ground firmly; however, he tried to clarify some of his statements he thought wrongly understood. The debate was smooth, thanks to the skill and statesmanship of the chairman.  

Prof. Gaim’s presentation was followed by Dr. Mohamed Kheir Omer, scientific researcher – Norway. His focus was on the need to listen to the views of others, to be tolerant and avoid personal attacks and address issues.

He was brilliant; he introduced a new ground rule “the code of conduct “by which people ought to abide by.

On the morning of the 2nd day, the first speaker was Mr. Asefaw Ghebrekidan. He is a founding member of and relentless activist with the Eritrean Human Rights in UK. He took us through a journey of its establishment and its activities.  Today the UK based Human rights organisations have accumulated lots of experiences, a legacy to the youth who are starting to shine. In addition to Asefaw’s organisation there are others such as Eritrean Release and Eritrean Concern who are high achievers. After Asefaw Mrs Khedija Ali gave a talk.  Khedija is a woman of many hats, she works for the Association for Disabled war veterans, and she is working to form an Association of women and she actively participates in the fight for democracy in Eritrea. She said that in the context of present day Eritrea where the people are subjected to gross human rights violation the civil societies must work together with the political organisations.

The next speaker was a member of the Eritrean Youth Global Movement: Mr. Bereket Kahsai.

Bereket briefed the audience on the genesis of the formation and demise of the Asmara University students Union.  The students did manage to form an independent university students union.  But it was short lived when its chairman Kesete was jailed and the entire students got imprisoned in remote parts of Eritrea called WIA.  Two students died of heat stroke. Since then higher education from 11th grade upwards was militarized and any possibility of an independent and dynamic student union was rendered impossible. The movement was cut in the bud. During the struggle against Ethiopian occupation Eritrean students were very active in organizing demonstrations and by joining the fronts in their thousands.

President Isaias Afeworki being himself part of that generation understands the power of student movements and he has to make the Asmara University Students powerless so that he can stay in power unopposed. In the absence of political parties and trade unions it is only the students who stand up against repression by the state.  The closure of the Asmara University and militarizing higher education is about power and control and has nothing to do with the “threat of Weyane invasion” as PFDJ would like everyone to believe. Thus demonising “Weyane” is just an escape goat for holding the youth down and crippling any activities for change.
 The good news is as of recent the Eritrean youth are emerging from many years of being held down. Partly, they are inspired by the revolution taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. But the road is long they are just starting from a scratch, simply because they have not gained certain experiences or skills, their precious years were squandered in the service of “Warsay and Yekealo” development project.  
Day two after the break: on functional relationship between the Eritrean Political Parties and Civic Society organisation:

This session is the one with very high expectation because the speakers are from   different political orientations.  
The sitting arrangement was a reflection of the divisions. Mr. Amaha Domenico , the chair of (ENCDC) Eritrean National Commission for Democratic change popularly known a the “Commission” and political organisation that have become part sat on the right side of the hall and Mr Woldeyesus Amar,   Head of Eritrean Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), colleagues and their supporters sat on the left side. That was not to say that there were others like me who don’t belong to either and sat on the basis of seat availability.

Woldyesus Amar – the Chairman of Eritrean Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP)- spoke first. He gave a talk on chronological order on the formation of EPDP. One of its objectives was to bring the ex ELF and EPLF together to put aside past grievances  and work in unity to get rid of the PFDJ repressive regime and install a Government chosen by the people.
His presentation was comprehensive and detailed. .He made clear that EPDP is defined as an embodiment of non-violent method of changing the Government.

There were two speakers behind him. One is Yohanes Asmelash who belongs to one of the political organisation and he is part of the Commission. He was very articulate and demystified the rumours that gave a bad picture of the conference.  He promoted that the Commission is working for the good of all and it is   quite inclusive.

The last speaker was Amaha Domenico. He is soft spoken, cool and very convincing of the need of people to participate in the October Conference. He was very frank in stating the weakness and shortcomings of the Commission but said what alternative is there except to join it and strengthen it. He said that although the driving force behind was EDA, now the Commission has evolved independently and it has a life of its own.


The Consensus: It was remarkable to witness that all parties supported the idea that the Civil Societies must be independent of political parties.
On the issue of debate and tolerance it looks the Eritreans have advanced a lot:  The Commission and the EPDP were talking. People may take this for granted but I do not. I was amazed even when Amha Domenico appealed to Woldeyesus Amar to come on Board.  
There was an agreement for the need of respect, tolerance and unity of the voices of the opposition.  Dr. Ibrahim Mahmood from Holland speaking on the issue of conflict on the basis of religion, region or tribe, said with  passion “We Muslims and Christians have lived together for years; I ask what is this talk of rapprochement? We are one people.  That is our strength and that we have to realise.”
Such kind of conference underlines   the need of all parties that oppose PFDJ’s tyranny to engage in debate that enabled them to work together for the good of all.