Q + A with Eritrean Youth Leader Daniel G. Mikael
by Michael Abraha
"Our main target is the Eritrean people inside the country, change is coming soon"
Daniel G. Mikael
Mass demonstrations in protest against repression in Eritrea will be staged in major cities around the world during the last week of this month. In addition to rallies, hundreds activists are to hold a conference in Washington D.C. not only to celebrate Eritrea’s independence but also to reflect, evaluate and chart out plans on how to expedite the desired democratic change in the country. Michael Abraha had a quick online talk with Daniel G. Mikael - Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Youth Conference. Daniel also heads up the Interim Board EYC-EYSC (Eritrean Youth for Change – Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change). He first points to the central theme of the D.C. conference, May 25-27.
Daniel G. Mikael: The theme we have selected for this conference is "Eritrean Solutions for Eritrean Problems" - and it is a rallying call for the Eritrean public in general and the youth in particular to no longer stand on the sidelines, while our country's situation keeps deteriorating.
Q: Who will be attending and who are expected to address the symposiums and rallies?
A: While the conference is open to all, most of the attendees will be young Eritrean activists from North America and Europe. In that regard, most of the presenters and speakers will be from the same pool of activists who have been leading by example and whom we believe will inspire and embolden the audience. Our keynote speaker will be Haile Kiflai, a young man with a very inspiring personal story. There will also be presentations by renowned human rights advocates like Elsa Chyrum and Selam Kidane; writers like Yosief Ghebrehiwet; and journalists like Aaron Berhane.
Q: What other events are planned in addition to speeches and protest marches?
There will be a protest demonstration in front of the Eritrean Embassy in Washington DC and this will be in solidarity with similar protest marches that are scheduled in several cities around the world. Since our main target is the Eritrean people inside the country - we have plans to creatively make them aware of what we are doing on their behalf.
While the core objective is to come up with an action oriented strategy to defeat the dictatorship in our homeland, the daytime conference events will be followed by nightly entertainment sessions. As the mood of Eritreans in the Diaspora keep tilting toward the calls for democracy and change, these cultural entertainments go a long way in inspiring more people to join the grassroots movement. This time, legendary singers Tewelde Reda and Hussen Mohamed Ali will be accompanied by today's young stars, musicians, poets and other entertainers.
Q: Diaspora Eritreans in their hundreds of thousands may not very much be politically united but are, by and large, totally united in their thinking and attitude to create a free, democratic Eritrea. How much worried should we be about the lack of promising political unity?
A: I think what matters most is that we are united and in agreement about the urgent need for change in Eritrea. While the idea of political unity is attractive, it should not be placed as a precondition for taking a swift action to get rid of the dictatorship, and do it now. Over the last decade, we have witnessed respectable attempts to unite the opposition groups and create some semblance of political unity. Unfortunately, that has not translated into actions that are designed to dislodge the dictatorship from its grips of control inside and outside the country.
By and large, the younger generation is more united and able to separate what needs to be done in the here and now, from the debates of what kind of country we need to build after the despotic system is defeated. At the same time, we all need to be comfortable with the notion that unity does not mean we all agree on everything. The building blocks of democracy are freedom and justice, but not necessarily unity.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the best strategy to remove the dictatorship?
I believe except for a very tiny minority, whose interest and probability of survival are intertwined with that of the dictatorship, the Eritrean people are ready for change. What is missing then is a credible and trustworthy alternative to the status quo. Credibility and trust cannot demand and they must be earned. Therefore, the best strategy is to create a grassroots movement that the public at large can confidently support and rally behind. That is why the focus should now shift away from the traditional pre-independence based politics and toward the younger generation that came of age after independence.
Naturally, if the public believes the change agents are actually their own children who are attempting to create a better future, that in itself will create a stark comparison to life under the dictatorship. It's really important that we create a better vision of Eritrea; otherwise, the choice of surviving under the dictatorship is always there and it can be a sad but viable alternative.
Q: EYC-EYSC believes in Eritrean solutions for Eritrean problems. What kind of foreign support is acceptable?
We acknowledge that there will be a need for material, moral and political support from the neighboring countries and the international community. The Eritrean people's quest for democracy and justice is a rightful cause and it deserves to be supported. We also believe that Eritreans just like everyone else in the world deserve to be masters of their own destiny. While help based on doing the right thing is welcome, and support based on mutual and long term benefit of the peoples of the region is acceptable, we unequivocally reject interference in internal Eritrean matters. The agenda of getting rid of the dictatorship and erecting a better system should always remain under the total control of Eritreans. And, that is not too much to ask.
Q: What message do you have for the pro-regime YPFDJ on this independence anniversary?
YPFDJ is a baffling phenomenon, but at the same time I understand how the dictatorship was able to dupe these young men and women into thinking it deserves their support. The abbreviation Y.P.F.D.J. is supposed to stand for Young People's Front for Democracy and Justice. I know some of the active members are young and impressionable but they are not children. The same information about the condition of our people and how the country is run is available to them as well. Now, if they want to continue and fool themselves that Isaias Afeworki's one-man system is what is meant by "Democracy and Justice" they should go ahead and keep applauding, while the fabric of our society gets undone as a result of tyranny, corruption and lack of hope for young Eritreans. But if they continue to do so, history will be harsh on them. In this day and age where photos and videos are plastered everywhere and forever, I think it would be a mistake to associate themselves with a despotic system. At the end of the day, our people will remember who stood by them and who stood against them.
On May 24, 1991 after fighting fierce battles against the Derg army, brave fighters triumphantly entered Asmara on top of tanks and trucks. A lot these very fighters are now in jail, including the very commander of the units that captured Asmara. Independence and liberty are not the same thing. Neither are PFDJ and EPLF.
Q: About 800 YPFDJ members gathered in Stockholm, Sweden, last month, chaired by regime ideologue Yemane Gebreab. What are your thoughts about such meetings? Should and could that anti-freedom gathering have been aggressively discredited and prevented from happening?
A: Sweden is a democracy. Democratic systems allow free expression of speech. I believe the free exercise of speech is much more important than YPFDJ. Now, those who oppose the ideologies and tactics of the YPFDJ also have the same right - and duty - to publicly discredit them. It is important that the Swedish public and authorities find out if public funds are being misused as it is well known that the YPFDJ misleads public officials and agencies about its true nature. Last year, the authorities in Norway found out after the fact and demanded that grants that were handed out toward the YPFDJ conference be refunded. Private entities who rent venues should also be made aware what the YPFDJ holds values that are contrary to the Swedish values. While it should not be illegal, it should be immoral to provide facilities to this despicable group.
Now, if all that adds up into frustrating the pro-dictatorship organizers and prevents the gathering from taking place, then good riddance!
Q: The D.C. youth conference and the other related events around the world will be coinciding with Eritrean independence anniversary celebrations. Why the coincidence?
A: I have to admit it was a coincidence, but a happy one at that. When the conference organizing team was identifying possible dates, it was looking for what we in the States call "long weekend" - where the Monday after a weekend is a holiday. The American Memorial Day weekend coincides with Eritrean independence anniversary and it provided us with a great opportunity to gather our people and remind each other that the dear prices that were paid for our country's independence deserve much more than what we have now.
Even though the defeat of the Derg’s army and Eritrea's statehood are worth celebrating about, the Eritrean revolution has been hijacked for the benefit of the dictator and a few of his lackeys. We should remember that every day but especially during this season.
Q: What one or two things should be achieved in D.C. in order to declare it was a successful event?
A: First and foremost, the 300 or so activists who will be gathering under one roof and most of them meeting for the first time in person will be emboldened to continue to work together and build trust among each other. Secondly, a strategy to defeat the dictatorship in the Diaspora and at home will be adopted which will be something that can easily be implemented by the opposition camp in general and the youth-centric ones in particular.
These being the measurable goals, the fact that we are able to hold a successful conference in the heart of Washington, DC , where the PFDJ influence is the strongest will send a great signal of hope to our people everywhere that change is possible and it is coming soon.