By Seyoum Tesfaye
My belief in Nonviolent Strategy for resolving our National crisis was based on a through evaluation of the alternative options and with a clear understanding of the validity and applicability of the Nonviolent Peaceful Path to the Eritrean transitional challenge. I have chosen to repost this article ( previously posted on Awate on August 14, 2003 ) to further reinforce my firm stand that I still believe that popular Nonviolent Struggle by far is the most prudent path to the democratization of Eritrea.
Nonviolent does not mean practicing the art of dropping out of political engagement or becoming an expert in wishful thinking. On the contrary it means wagging a sustained multifaceted vibrant nonviolent activism to bring down a dictatorial system to its knees.
People's uprising has a broad nonviolent "arsenal" to deploy from in it its effort to overthrow tyrannical regimes as we are presently witnessing by the struggle of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya. It is the determination and steadfastness of the people that must matter the most to us. Tyrants are by nature violent but in front of a determined and unyielding nonviolent people's uprising they crumble without any sense of self-respect, grace and become a caricature of themselves.
If I have an amendment to this 9 years old article is that the removal of the top leadership of PFDJ is now- at this time in our political process - a prerequisite for the Peaceful Transition to Democracy to become a reality. Live and learn. Time has been generous to me. I have lived and learned. Hopefully I intend to present consecutive articles addressing the relevant aspects of the Strategic Nonviolence Path as a means to Eritrean Democratic Transition.
By Seyoum Tesfaye
Volumes have been written to summarize and conceptualize mankind’s progress in the process of creating a democratic polity. In the last half century, central to the debate and discourse on democratization, has been the question of how best to introduce democracy into the developing nations. Post independence Eritrea’s is now tussling with the issue of delineating a strategic path to democratization. It has two clear options: The path of peaceful transition or a bloody violent transformation with all the unintended consequences.
My definitive assertion, encapsulated by the title of this article: The Path is The Agenda- derives from deep conviction that the strategic path we choose will frame all political, ideological and diplomatic agenda. The decision will affect our hope for a healing national reconciliation, potential alignments in the context of structuring an umbrella opposition, how we will mobilize international support to further isolate the repressive regime, how to design the framework of the democratic transition’s platform and the deliberations of an opposition’s preliminary consultative conference to sort out of issues of transition.
I cast my one vote on the side of those who will stand for a fully engaged non-passive peaceful struggle to create the conditions for non-violent transition to democracy and multi- party political system without endangering the nascent sovereignty of the State of Eritrea.
I believe the Nonviolent Path is an infinitely superior, appropriate and a very effective path to follow in our determined effort to transition Eritrea into a working democracy. In part one, I will present my general reasoning why I feel the issue of democracy will rise or fall on the path we choose. It is my fundamental stipulation the method for achieving the goal is the very essence of the goal. We cannot separate the means from the end. Only a democratic method can guarantee a democratic result. Succinctly put, the path is the agenda. I sincerely believe the people must have more choices than the traditional two totally antagonistic camps of an armed opposition or a vile regime. A democratic-national political force grounded on the principles of peaceful transition can be a legitimate choice. I am convinced that a historic transformation can be made by making the Peaceful Path the overarching orientation of the democratization process. A concerted and organized effort must be made to popularize the peaceful democratic path and to garner a strong support for it at home and aboard.
From the “cultural exceptionalists" to the authoritarians, who believe the world community should not suggest, leave alone demand they democratize and follow rules of law, have used the “exception” card as an excuse to entrench their political power and deny the people their legitimate right to govern themselves. This trait has been more pronounced among African and Asian tyrants. They refuse to accept that the basic principles of democracy and self-governance have universal applicability. The tendency to confine democracy’s relevance to the Euro- centric culture and go on a wild goose chase trying to manufacture some kind of indigenous ideology that will be a substitute for modern democracy has been tested and failed to deliver any appreciable result.
Under the present global reality few dictators can dare utter the anti-democracy diatribe that was so prevalent during the cold war and convince the world that democracy has no relevance. The large amount of money invested on lobbying to present milder and more palatable excuses as to why the introduction of democracy should be delayed is a clear evidence of the effort by anti-democracy forces to update their excuses. This approach is also slowly losing ground.
The shift from challenging the validity and applicability of democracy to nations likes Eritrea, Zimbabwe, and Uganda etc. to the question of how and when to introduce democracy has changed the focus from issue of relevance to the question of method (how) and timing. This strategic paradigm shift has profound implications for the opposition as well as the ruling elite in power. It demands maximum flexibility and adaptability on both sides.
In the post cold-war world the fundamental relevance and viability of democracy is not an issue. With the collapse of the Communist agenda, the strategic shift is now on how to proceed in democratizing. The details of democracy are subordinated to the method of the struggle. Armed struggle will prepare the groundwork for another form of tyranny and further exasperate internal and regional instability. It will compound the suffering of the people and add to their misery index. No amount revolutionary bravado and stale rationalization under the pretext of right of self-defense will alter the strake reality that democracy cannot come out a barrel of a gun. It can produce a deformed ultra nationalist government or give birth to a populist anti-democratic government but it will not produce a democratic system. Elite displacement and power usurpation by a determined armed opposition does not automatically guarantee democracy. The peaceful path is the only time-tested insurance we have in the political market that can protect the people from the ravages of politically induced violence and the possible emergence of a power hungry megalomaniac within the bosom of the opposition.
Hoping to build the foundation of democracy over a wrecked nation and ruined economy is no more an option. It is the easiest way to guarantee perpetual poverty and a bad credit rating for a nation. Bringing down a brutal regime while at the same time protecting the fundamental national interest from vultures and scavengers is not a cakewalk. Armed struggle by definition opens Pandora’s box. Who knows what will come out of a troubled box? The peaceful option makes it possible to protect and advance our national interest while at the same time actively struggling to lay the foundation for the dissolution of the undemocratic regime.
With the end of the cold war the use of armed struggle (civil war) to transform the internal conditions of a given country has become basically irrelevant and anachronistic. This reality has taken root in most of Latin America and Asia. In Africa it seems the protagonists have not read the writing on the wall. The regimes and the oppositions in general seem to be stuck in a mutually destructive time warp. The allegiance to Kalashnikov has not faded. Power born out of and sustained by the barrel of a gun seems to be the lingering theology. It has destroyed nations and economies like Angola, Somalia, and Liberia etc.
This dangerous trend is beginning to cast a shadow on the future of the new Eritrean generation. The idea of arming one segment of the Eritrean youth to face off their forcefully conscripted classmates and childhood friends (government army) is being floated in a cavalier and a matter of fact fashion. As if an unavoidable 30 years of War of Independence, a preventable tragic civil war, a costly Yemen-Eritrea conflagration and a devastating Ethio-Eritrea war was not enough, to contemplate another civil war, even theoretically, is beckoning the Dark Age. Even when packaged in the so- called last resort agenda it lacks merit and it is an affront to civilized thinking. The last card scenario may expedite the narrow calculation of ambitious and driven politicians on the extreme sides of the political matrix, but as far the peace starved people of Eritrea are concerned the thought of their children killing each other once again is not a part of their daily wish or prayer. Reasonable politicians must cringe at the thought of the possibility of Eritrea once again turned into a fratricidal war zone and take a firm stand against this brewing madness.
The responsibility to contain and diffuse this danger falls primarily on the shoulder of the centrist political forces. In the last decade these political forces failed to boldly take the center stage and lead with the vision of peace, reconciliation, sovereignty, democracy and development. One wing failed to push openly for the institutionalization of the basic principles of democratic governance while it had access to political power. The other wing squandered precious time trying to appease the left and right within the opposition camp by diluting the center’s agenda and strength by failing to evolve into a cohesive political party with clearly defined liberal democratic agenda.
Upon ushering in independence the nationalist democratic force within the ruling party failed to move to the center, practice a modicum of democracy and create a political space for the other nationalist forces outside of its political circle. It equated consolidating independence with consolidating and centralizing power in the ruling party’s hand. It did not struggle against the deliberate and systematic marginalization of the opposition. If that were not bad enough, the leadership followed the usual pattern and further allowed the concentration of power in the hand one single individual. The rest is the present reality.
The force that brought independence arrogated the responsibility of drafting a National Charter without making an effort bring closure to the tragic civil war by way of national reconciliation. In a very shortsighted move, the leadership started anointing itself as the guarantor of the newly established State. The same patronizing arrogance almost destroyed the new state when the authoritarian leadership mismanaged the Ethio- Eritrea war of 1998. The reformist democratic wing within the ruling party became a casualty of a calculated final move by a ruthless tyrant.
Opportunities were wasted and chances were overlooked. More opportunities will slip by unless we pull all positive elements from the four corners of the Eritrean political galaxy and avert a slowly cresting possibility of civil war. There is now a strong consensus that this regime must go. Even the supporters of the mercurial president have started focusing on the question of how it can happen and on the question of who will take his place. Their irrational out bursts have been replaced by statements like “bezihoo” (It is too much). There is a growing strong undercurrent in support of finding a way out of this dangerous impasse. Consolidating this positive desire and utilizing the collective goodwill of all peace loving citizens can help facilitate the peaceful resolution of our internal conflicts.
The challenge for the opposition, under the circumstance, is how to design a strategy to solve this intricate national problem by leveraging from the center to the periphery. If the center keeps debilitating itself, the possibility of peaceful transition will be practically impossible. Expanding the political center while ideologically and politically struggling to contain and mellow the left and the right is in the interest of national reconciliation, democracy and national survival.
The opposition is being tested not on its nationalist credential or its right to oppose and challenge the tyrannical regime in power. It is being challenged on its capability to produce a realistic and workable national agenda that can be internalized by the majority of Eritreans at home and abroad, while at the same time be welcomed by the international community so it can consolidate and utilize all leverages to make Peaceful Transition inevitable.
If a strategic decision is made to employ violence to get rid of the brutal tyrant, it will trigger political and social earthquakes for which we are not prepared to sort out and manage its unthinkable consequences. We will harvest bitter fruits in the form of national dislocation. To add to the burden of responsibility, the post September 11 world demands more clarity and political calculation, both in terms of strategy and tactics, before we become so sure that the opposition’s definition of violence is qualitatively different and ideologically, politically and spiritually justified than the ruling clique’s violence. In addition to this, East Africa’s inability to emerge out of a mutually destructive politics of “you burn my house, I will burn your house” scenario does not project a healthy environment for future national economic development and regional prosperity. Adding fuel to the fire will only guarantee that poverty and death will be endemic to Eritrean society.
The division over which strategy to follow (Armed Struggle or Peaceful Transition) will ultimately dwarf any other differences that exist in the opposition’s camp. Those of us who strongly believe the Peaceful Path deserve a chance to coalesce and conduct a systematic political campaign to do everything possible to stop the nation from slowly sliding into another fratricidal war. We must cross all political lines and sectarian interests and pull our heart and mind together to formulate and consolidate a peaceful agenda and present it to the people in a coordinated way. We have to expose all shallow arguments that try to equate the nonviolent path with surrendering to the tyrannical regime and all exaggerated propensity for violence with heroism.
The best thing the opposition can do for the suffering people of Eritrea is to openly and unilaterally renounce armed struggle and all implied intents of violent insurrection even as a theoretical possibility. By liberating itself from this corrosive ideology, the opposition will have more political, diplomatic and moral leverage to utilize in combating the tyrannical regime. It will avoid the possibility of the emergence of an armed hegemonic group within the opposition camp. It will guarantee that neither the extreme right nor the extreme left will put the unarmed political forces under their mercy. The Peaceful Path will make national reconciliation inevitable. It will minimize the possibility of opening door for a destabilizing interference by friends and foes alike. It will minimize direct intervention by regional hegemonic powers directly or through possible surrogates indirectly. It will assure the world that we are capable of working out our difference without turning our country to a Liberia or an Angola. In a violent confrontation it will not take much to turn a fragile state to a failed state. The remotest possibility of inadvertently contributing to the collapse of the State of Eritrea should trigger serious rethinking and reevaluation by the proponents of an armed struggle option.
The tyrannical government might look invincible and formidable. This is only a matter of appearance. In essence it is a weak and isolated regime. Every day its support base is shrinking and narrowing. It is governing without the consent and support of the people. Its lies and deceptions have run out of steam. Its version of “the Great Leap Forward” has turned an entire generation into a prisoner and unpaid labor force. This economically unsound approach to development will collapse like it did in Communist China in the 1950’s. (At its core is the philosophy of breaking the will and spirit of individual citizens and molding them to the wish of the mighty State. This collectivist anti- individual pathology has not worked before it will not work in Eritrea. ) Diplomatically the ruling clique is completely isolated and contained. If the opposition chooses the armed confrontation path it will help strengthen the regime’s hand. It will help upgrade its propaganda currency and validate its militaristic posture. Other nation’s experience has repeatedly proven this point. We will benefit by learning from others costly experiences.
We will do better to mobilize, organize and lobby effectively to further isolate and politically paralyze the ruling clique. Every tyrant has a breaking point. We should not give the battered tyrant the gift of war, for war gives him the excuse to further justify his extremist actions. Nonviolence takes away his contrived excuses and exposes his true political nature to the people. He will find his way to the table if we double our peaceful effort by undertake extensive mobilization, highlighting our clarity of purpose and by narrowing the target of our struggle to encourage defection from the tyrant’s camp by reasonable and peace loving Eritreans, who are forced to endure humiliation, to the camp of peace, democracy and reconciliation.
We have plenty of global examples to back up our peaceful effort. Recent political history affirms the viability of the peaceful route to democracy with a resounding clarity. The people of Eritrea are entitled to harvest the benefits of this vast experience. I will summarize the extraordinary experiences of other nations that managed to find the wisdom and courage to follow a peaceful path to resolve their intractable national conflicts in follow up articles.
It is my hope the new generation will pick up the banner of Peaceful Transition to save the nation and itself from further suffering. For ultimately the young people will be the direct victims of any war or the immediate beneficiary of peaceful struggle. Reform will slow the transition and violent revolution will destroy the foundation of the nation. The future of Eritrea and its youth can only be worked out by a negotiated peaceful transition.
August 14, 2003.