Eritrean National Conference concludes as a stepping stone for democratic change
Addis Ababa Part I
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 an 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.
To be continued...