Eritrean Opposition: Rethinking Means of Freeing their People

Q+A with Dr. Yosuf Berhanu, M.D., Executive Chairman of the new Eritrean National Assembly for Democratic Change

As Dictator Isaias Afewerki prepares to give his recycled New Year message of gloom, his democratic opponents in exile have been huddling together in a bid to bring hope and freedom to the Eritrean people. They held their first Congress last month in Hawassa, Ethiopia, and formed a new 127-member coalition to be headed by Dr. Yosuf Berhanu – veteran fighter and physician. Michael Abraha recently sat with him in Addis Ababa and first put to him what the National Congress has achieved?

Dr. Yosuf Berhanu:            The conclusion was positive. It was an assembly of 600 Eritreans from all over the world under one vision. The convention represented the interests of all people, their regions and faiths. The gathering was an opportunity in which Eritreans from varying political and civil society groups as well as youth and women’s associations freely discussed and debated all issues and problems facing our country and our people today. We formed a new coalition, the National Assembly for Democratic Change, with an Executive Office made up of 21 members to run daily activities. In the final analysis this 12-day event in November and December was an important event marking the beginning of a new era for Eritrea.

Q:        Some groups and individuals boycotted the Congress. Why?

A:        The reasons given for not joining the process were not persuasive or relevant to our current national reality, in my judgment. It would have been good if all had participated. But, I can assure you we are still open and we will remain open to any group or individuals who want to join the process unfolding now. We are prepared to talk to them and accept them. They are welcome any time.

Q:        As you said earlier the country’s interests may have been represented enough at the Congress in Hawassa. But the composition of the delegates was not representative enough. There were for instance more lowlanders than highlanders. Did that bother you?

A:        First, it must be stressed that whatever their places of origin or religious background, the participants were open-minded, tolerant, understanding and fully united and ready to serve the nation. If more people came from the lowlands, it is a reaction against the negative political legacy left by the Isaias clique that has deprived them of their right to equal participation and protection despite their contributions in the liberation struggle. For instance, there are still tens of thousands of Eritrean lowland refugees languishing in the Sudan, whom the regime has neglected. If their number was bigger at the Hawassa gathering, it was not out of a desire for special consideration, but a sign of their eagerness to swiftly end tyranny in our country. The point is the purpose of the Congress was to tackle every problem faced by all Eritreans, be they of lowland or highland origin, Moslem or Christian or other compatriots. Delegates deliberated on and planned at the national level, not at regional levels. At the same time, there was harmony and tolerance, and that was why the Congress was successful.

Q:        The majority of the 127-member National Assembly come from existing political parties, thus placing civil society groups in the minority. The Executive Office, made up of 21 members, also appears to be almost entirely in the hands of these political parties. What are the implications of this?

A:        As you know, the delegates at the Congress represented all categories of people, groups, beliefs and interests. Regardless of our background, as members of the new National Assembly, we now belong to one family, one body committed to the Eritrean cause. We are not to categorize each other as members of particular parties or civic associations. For example, I am a member of the Eritrean National Salvation Front. But I can assure you I am not going to lead our new coalition from that political position. We will have a negative impact if we were to be thinking and acting based on our affiliations. We have to fight any such tendencies.

Q:        What will be the future of the various political parties in the aftermath of the establishment of the National Assembly and its National Executive Office?

A:        The Executive Office is a coalition of political parties, civil societies, women’s groups, youth and other elements operating under a minimum political program. Many political parties are members of this body. This does not mean they will now cease to exist as independent political parties. Of course, they will continue to exist and develop outside the new national coalition.

Q:        What happens to the military wings of the political organizations?

A:        Discussions are going on among those parties that have armed wings with the aim of bringing them under one military command. Our Executive Office has a Military Branch which will be mandated to coordinate military activities.


Upcoming part II of Michael’s interview with Dr. Yosuf will deal with diplomacy and international relations.

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