Eritrea’s pro-democracy forces are more united than many want to admit. These forces may be fighting as members of political or civic organizations or on their own as individuals - be it as bloggers, website or other media network editors, essayists, poets, etc, but they remain united in the important task of freeing and democratizing Eritrea.
Hailemariam Tesfai is Chairman of the North America Regional Administration for the newly formed Eritrean National Commission for Democratic Change, ENCDC. He believes his organization is the most broad-based and diverse force that can bring all Eritreans together and challenge the Asmara regime with one voice.
In this Q & A, San Diego-based Political Scientist Hailemariam, first explains why it was necessary to form ENCDC
HAILEMARIAM TESFAI: Independent nations, with democratic institutions elect their governments through a political process. This electoral process is guaranteed by a constitution, and under no circumstance should it be interrupted— whether it is a natural disaster or a border war. Eritrea lacks institutions of democratic governance; hence its opposition parties are all exiled in neighboring countries and spread all over the world. The opposition political organizations were all operating on their own until they formed an umbrella organization - the Eritrean Alliance of Democratic forces, currently known as the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA).
We all hoped the alliance would be an effective fighting tool with a strategic plan to mobilize and organize the Eritrean people; we hoped the alliance would provide us with a road map to remove dictatorship, and hand over power to the people through a national conference. For the past ten years political organizations were only united when they come for a conference - where they would debate on the issues that separate them the most, and leave after producing an elected body that had no support mechanism. The job to lead an umbrella organization when not fully supported by its member organizations was a very difficult proposition. The EDA suffered a lot when member organizations left the collective goal behind to do their individual organizations’ tasks. Every organization worked on its own plan, conducted its own foreign diplomacy, while EDA was operating on meager financial support. Despite these shortcomings, EDA was more representative of the diverse political, social and cultural base of our society. The turning point of EDA’s journey was when it introduced a proposition to include civic society organizations as observers in 2008. At the time, in the presence of the civic organizations that traveled from Europe, North America, Australia and the Gulf, refugee organizations from Sudan and Ethiopia, and opposition media networks - which are now playing important role - the EDA decided to broaden its horizons to reach out to a wider base by holding a National Conference. The National conference convened in July 2010, was a big success and came out with a transitional task force – the Eritrean National Commission for Democratic Change to mobilize, and organize the Eritrean people and create a more inclusive organ with legitimate power to represent the Eritrean people, and challenge the regime in Eritrea with one voice. At the present, there is no organized voluntary Eritrean political force as united and as diverse as the ENCDC - be it at home or in the diaspora.
MICHAEL: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced in April that he was boosting assistance to forces opposed to the Eritrean government. The UK also warned it was taking stern measures against Eritrea. What do you think foreign governments’ role ought to be in the campaign to bring change in Eritrea?
What Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia or Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham of UK said in April should not be our primary concern. They were both addressing their respective people and their legislative institutions about their countries’ policies towards the regime in Eritrea; they addressed the fact that their policies were not working and wanted members of their parliaments to explore additional “robust” measures to pressure the government in Eritrea to abide by international law.
The primary focus of ENCDC and the Eritrean people should be on what we want to do this coming October to pressure the PFDJ government to hand over power to the Eritrean people. It’s important that we unite, and depend on our own people’s human and financial resources to accomplish the desired goal. I don’t see any need for Ethiopian government’s role in bringing democratic change in Eritrea. With a concerted, and harmonized effort by the Eritrean people, the opposition forces, and the defense forces of Eritrea, I believe we can defeat the evil forces in Eritrea, and free our people once and for all.
We are at a critical juncture of time; it is the time for transformation of political organizations, and civil societies into establishing a transitional alliance to form a representative body or congress that will challenge the regime in Eritrea, and bring about democratic change. In due time, if we need any assistance, diplomatic or otherwise, from neighboring or other countries, it is within our right to do so with absolute transparency and accountability.
ON ENCDC’S ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
ENCDC is 53-member commission that made up of a seven-member Executive body, and the position of Auditor General, which is headed not by a member of a political organization, but a civic society representative; this structure was designed to send a message to the Eritrean people that the national conference for democratic change means real change not business as usual.
The Executive offices include the following positions:
2) Vice Chairman
4) Head of the Political Affairs Office
5) Head of the Finance Office
6) Head of the Organizational Affairs Office
7) Head of the Media & Information office.
There are also five regional Commission Administrations - each assigned to Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Regional offices are organized to operate in major metropolitan cities in order to put together “Committees for the National Congress,” whose structure mimics the executive offices of ENCDC.
ON ENCDC’S PRINCIPLES AND OBJECTIVES
The main objective of ENCDC is to mobilize, organize and harmonize the struggle against the dictatorial regime in Eritrea. The commission is mandated to draft necessary documents to guide its constituent assembly through a political process to remove the dictatorial regime and hand over power to the sole owners - the Eritrean people. If you want me to, I would like to provide you with the guiding principles described in our bylaws:
Founding principles of ENCDC:
- “Independence: the ENDC is a sovereign body, totally independent of all those groups, political or other, that compose it. All its members owe loyalty to it and not to the group from which they originated.
- Superseding Mission: The mandate of the ENCDC and the underlying beliefs, thinking and views is a sum total, the synergy of all those espoused by the different outlooks, ideological affinities and other special interests of its member groups. It is thus specific to it and is necessarily placed over and above all those of its components.
- Accountability: The ENCDC is responsible to the waela/conference that founded it and is accountable to the forthcoming gubae/congress. Beyond these bodies, there is no other group that can exercise any form of authority, supervision or influence over it.”
ON THE 500-DELEGATE ENCDC CONFERENCE IN OCTOBER – GOALS< PREPARATIONS< PARTICIPANTS.
The 500-member delegation, representing participating political organizations, civic societies and independent Eritreans (intellectuals, elders, religious leaders and veterans) will convene in October to debate and ratify the four documents drafted by the commission. These documents are the Road Map, the Political Charter, the Transitional Constitution, and the Structure of the new institution to be named by the congress. The commission will conduct several seminars and a major symposium to facilitate the political debate, and by the end of June 2011, we will focus towards other remaining organizational tasks. All Eritreans in the diaspora are invited to participate in the process, and our people inside the homeland will be joining us with their good wishes and prayers.\
ON PAST AND FUTURE PARTICIPATION OF POLITICAL AND NON-POLITICAL ENTITIES IN ENCDC CONFERENCES
There were eleven EDA members, eighteen non-EDA political organizations, over fifty civic societies, and a number of media organizations that participated in the National Conference in July last year. The only political organization that did not participate in the conference was EPDP, which later joined, after the conference, to fill in the reserved 2 chairs, leaving behind EPDP II. The Civic organizations throughout the world are many, and most of them participated in the conference. Those who wanted to stay out were due to their own restrictive bylaws or other reasons known only to them.
ON WHAT TO CALL THE NEW POLITICAL STRUCTURE TO BE CREATED IN OCTOBER
We do not have a name yet, but the generic names in the air include congress, council, baito, mejls, beit-mekri, or parliament.
ENCDC’S FUTURE RELATIONS WITH ERITREAN POLITICAL PARTIES
I don’t know exactly what the future relations will be like with Eritrean political parties, but I believe the era of Eritrean opposition parties going around the world competing for members by defaming each other is over. We are in an interim period of cooperation to achieve a common goal of creating a higher, and credible democratic institution. All political organizations must be flexible enough to adapt to the upcoming political platform. From my own assessment, and imagination, the role of EDA as an umbrella organization may diminish or become phantom as the new organization stands to represent the Eritrean people. It is also logical that a stricter definition and higher standards of criteria to gauge a political or civic organization may follow.
ON ETHNICITY, NATIONALITY AND RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS IN A SECULAR AND DEMOCRATIC ERTIREA
The issues of ethnicity and nationality needs a well-researched response, and cannot adequately be addressed in this interview. The fundamental principles of democratic governance, entails that all ethnic groups and nationalities be fairly represented in decision making, and have equal rights and opportunities in the socio-economic development of the nation. Nation building and modernization must not deprive nationalities of their rights to exercise their cultural heritage, and this issue must not be used by individuals or groups to advance their political agenda. Human rights must be respected, equal rights of all religions must be guaranteed by the constitution, and the state must not interfere in the religious affairs of the people.
ENCDC’S PARTICIPATION AT THE RECENT SAN FRANCISCO PROTEST RALLY
The rally in San Francisco was extraordinary. I attended the rally representing ENCDC and delivered a message calling for democratic change in Eritrea. The youth in Bay Area did a good job in conducting the demonstration. We marched departing from 7th Street and Market heading to City Hall chanting anti-dictatorship slogans. All invited read our messages, and headed to a dining hall in Oakland for a luncheon and post-rally evaluations. This was one of the best events organized by Eritrean Youth for Change (EYC). Eritreans of all ages expressed their anger against the regime in Eritrea, and vowed to do more to coordinate their activities. The young generation is emerging to capture the moment of change, and receive the torch to lead. We all acknowledged that this generation of young men and women were deprived from leadership roles, and now must seize the opportunity to participate in the political process for democratic change set out by ENCDC.
THE JUNE 25-26 ENCDC SYMPOSIUM IN WASHINGTON DC
The symposium in DC is comprised of two events. The first day, Saturday June 25th, will be a panel discussion to be moderated by Dr. Afwerki Paulos, a Political Science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. A group of panelists will be delivering research papers on various issues relevant to the Eritrean political reality. The panel discussion held under the theme of “Eritrea’s Path towards Democracy: Dialogue on Constitutional Issues” is submitted by independent writers and administered by guidelines of academic freedom. The topics are selected by the moderator, and focus on areas like governance, the role of religion, issues of nationalities, regionalism and the constitution. Some issues are controversial in nature, and panelists will present their arguments followed by a question-and-answer session. Unlike the old one-sided story of Eritrean politics, this symposium will open the stage for opposing ideas to be debated with academic freedom; this will help shape the political, cultural and socio-economic development of the nation, Eritrea.
On the second day, Sunday, June 26th, the ENCDC commissioners—and representatives from many North American cities—as well as guests will congregate to review the four drafted documents. On this day the participants will discuss all comments submitted by the people’s committees and record them to be submitted to the congress in October, where representatives of the people will ratify and hand it to an elected body as a guide to bring democratic change in Eritrea.