July 10th, 2009 - ANJ Online

Your browser may not support display of this image. The weekend of June 19 – 21, saw members from the Eritrean Community hold a peaceful March at the nation’s Capitol, Washington, D.C. After the March, The African News Journal interviewed the Chairman of the Eritrean Global Solidarity, a civic movement that gained momentum in the past few months. In our discussion which touched different areas of politics in the Horn of Africa; the Chairman Seyoum had this to say.

By Ndze Ntuv Evaristus Tunka

ANJ: Could you tell us the role the Eritrean Civic movements played during the liberation struggle?

Seyoum Tesfaye Chairman of the Eritrean Global SolidaritySeyoum: The civil organizations before the declaration of the armed struggle have not gotten the attention they deserve due to the fact the political literature is more focused on the armed struggle period. Eritrea had a vibrant civic society and democratic discourse, a parliamentary culture etc before it got annexed by Ethiopia. The emerging and developing liberal democracy culture with all its signatures Trade unions and political parties was crushed by imperial Ethiopia.

The version of civic societies that were prevalent during the armed struggle period was basically known as “mass organizations”. Even those they were directly under the control of the liberation movements they played a tremendous positive role in mobilizing the people and materially and finically supporting the liberation front’s to continue the struggle for independence. In most case they did not have relative independence. They were actually controlled and managed by the liberation front cadres. This was typical of the dominant left culture at that period. We are now recipients of both the positive and negative effects of this kind of civic organizing modality.

We are trying to revive the pre-armed struggle civic moment without throwing the positive results of the mass organization period. We are lucky we have rich experience on both sides of the ledger.

ANJ: When was the Eritrean Global Solidarity formed and what is its mission and goals?

It was organized about a year and half ago. The mission is to create a civic space for the Diaspora Eritrean American and Canadian community so that we can find ways to contribute for the establishment of a constitutionally elected government in Eritrea by mobilizing our community, creating multitude of awareness through publicity and lobbying about the tragic crisis in Eritrea. There are also other immediate concerns like immigration and refugee resettlement issues etc.

ANJ: How well organized is the civic societies in the Diaspora? What are the obstacles that prevent the flourishing of independent civic associations inside Eritrea?

Seyoum: We are just getting started. Like all other new ventures we are trying to get a true feel for the magnitude of the challenge as we move forward. But right now we have 11 civic organizations and 2 independent websites under the EGS umbrella. We just got request by 4 new civic organizations to join the EGS structure. There is now a growing trend around the world where there is Eritrean expatriate community to organize a vibrant civic movement. We are making a measured progress.

As far as any chance of having independent civic association flourishing inside Eritrea let me put it this way there is a snow ball’s chance in hell. Eritrea is presently known as the North Korea of Africa. That is truly a correct summation. One party controls every aspect of the society. There is no parliament. No free press, no civil or criminal law etc it is a harsh as a political state can be. Under this circumstance the chance of an independent civic society is unthinkable. As a continuation of the armed struggle culture there are ruling party controlled “labor union, women organizations, youth league etc”. These pseudo organizations cannot breathe without the direct approval of the party cadres that manage them. The democratic experiment due to the repressive circumstance inside the country is now being undertaken in the Diaspora laboratory.

ANJ: In your opinion, given the historical and current misgivings of civic associations in Eritrea, how is it possible for anyone to start building an independent civic movement?

Seyoum: If you mean inside Eritrea I just tried to explain the dire circumstance and why it is impossible even to contemplate the idea. Maybe we might have to encourage the unhealthy alternative and take a pragmatic approach of starting underground organization as it happened in Eastern Europe under communism.

If the question is about building an independent civic movement in exile or Diaspora well it is a daunting task but not impossible. First of all you need dedicated few who will dare to launch the effort. Then you have the protection of the American law. The irrationality of the regime in power forces lots of former bystanders to move forward and try to contribute in a civic way. A combination of these factors has created a favorable environment to slowly build a young civic movement. There is no alternative but to follow this route until we see major change inside Eritrea.
Your browser may not support display of this image. ANJ: What was the purpose of the Peace March, Symposium and Lobbying held from June 19Th through June 21st in Washington DC? What has been achieved?

Seyoum: Succinctly put the entire purpose of the four day June event was to test the capacity of EGS to plan and execute four major tasks. I would like add to your list that we had also organized a commemoration for the Martyrs. We feel we did well. For a very young organization that was a confidence building move. The members, the leadership of EGS and the Diaspora community have been energized by the activities. We have got a clear idea of what our skill capital and deficit looks like. We are expanding our repertoire when it comes to the types of civic engagement we are going to plan in the future. Gone are the days when we marched and protest and got back to our states to resume our normal lives. While the activities by themselves were very productive and have achieved the desired goals the most unquantifiable victory is what the engagements have done to our collective moral. We are energized and ready to move to the next stage. We have a clear idea what our next move is going to be. Our goals are clearer and our momentum is strong. This has been achieved. This is the summary version of the result of our effort.

ANJ: On what basis does a civic umbrella organization such as EGS form its alliance, or create working relations with politically oriented groups or other civic associations?

Seyoum: This is a theoretical, practical and to certain extent a legal issue. Because both the civic society and the organized political opposition oppose the absence of democracy in Eritrea their natural and legal disposition is not identical. Civic societies do not have a political program per se. They are not interested to come to power to implement any specific agenda. They are interested in the establishment of the rule of game that will constrain and guide the political parties. The game is secondary to the establishment of the rule of the game in the form constitution, rules of law, bill of rights etc.

In the final analysis political parties are established to eventually hold power and translate their specific vision. Well and good. But those of us in the civic movement want the parties to earn the right to govern Eritrea through the approval of the Eritrean people. We want to move from one party absolute power control to a multi-party environment where the possibility of a permanent majority is minimized and dissenting voice are not silenced or simply marginalized or targeted. We are not exclusively focused on the present crisis alone. The future vision of democratic Eritrea guides our long range vision. The gripping immediate national crisis demands our practical involvement in exposing and consistently condemning the presiding regime for its atrocities, cruelty and lawlessness.

With this understanding on the basis of the present reality where there is not even an inch of democratic space in Eritrea all elements that are struggling to democratize Eritrea have to look for a common ground to work together without blurring the particular definition of their organizing principles. This can only be done by building a horizontal relationship. No one dictates or tries to controls no one. The mass organization approach is null and void. Cooperation with mutual respect is the in thing. On the basis of this clear understanding we can work with political organization periodically within the confines of the law. The June Peace March was a practical translation of this guideline.

ANJ: How can a Diaspora based civic movements contribute or play an active role in the dismantling of the dictatorial system and help establish a democratically elected Government?

Seyoum: I am not sure we can play a direct role since we are not inside Eritrea. We are civic organizations. Our strength is in making an honest effort to mobilize the Diaspora so that it can stop financially sustaining the regime, be an advocate for the voiceless, expose the atrocities of the regime, lobby the international powers-to- be to take a firm stand against the regimes anti-democratic policies and actions etc.

Find ways with the cooperation of the Diaspora free media to disseminate democratic discourse over the radio and the new media so that our people are not totally isolated from the world due the regime’s blanket repression.
Dismantling the Eritrean regime is the duty of all Eritreans and primarily those inside Eritrea who are carrying the main burden. We can make a committed effort to influence the result of the struggle in favor of the democratic elements. That is the level of contribution we can hope for. The fact that we are outside of the country puts certain practical limitations on us. In spite of that we are going to try to be a positive factor- one among many.

ANJ: What is your reaction to those who say that sanctions on Eritrea will hurt the people more than the intended target, the government?

Seyoum: We can discuss this topic until the cows come home and yet not come to the same conclusion. EGS does not have a stand on this issue. If you allow me I can give you a glimpse of my individual thought. There is such a thing called Smart Sanction. I feel the present American government might be leaning in that direction. Let us wait and see. AU, IGAD and even the UN are asking for sanction. US might have to weigh in sooner than later. The momentum to make decision is accelerating and I believe US wants to make a last minute effort before making the tough decision. We have to wait and see.

ANJ: How inclusive is the EGS in terms of Religion, Regional and its Ethnic basis? What effort or outreach is being designed by EGS to allow the participation of all segment of the Eritrean civic society?

Seyoum: We are bringing this issue into focus in structured way. It is an area that needs our serious attention. We started with the organization as they joined-we started with what we have. The first year was not as productive we had liked it to be. Internal challenges kept us out of planning bigger things. Six months after we had our second congress we managed to organize 4 activities. Through the process we have come to realize the question you raised have to be addressed in a proactive and deliberative manner. Not to please anybody but as matter of principle it has to be addressed seriously. We will have to open up the organization by make the vision, agenda and focus of EGS as public as possible and attract the various sectors of our mosaic community to join and make the organization their own.

No organization can have all aspects of its long range ambitions fulfilled at one stroke. Diversity is crucial and critical but accepting and working for the common vision of EGS is also a prerequisite: content is as important as the form. The organization is open to everybody. No one is automatically excluded or included.

This was one area where we have faced challenge is the process of organizing our first symposium. Due to the absence of direct and independent access to some of the most knowledgeable Eritreans who could help us figure out the challenges faced by the Eritrean people in their own words we organized the symposium with the help of the talents that responded to our request for paper and participation. The symposium was not as representative as could have been. We will work at it earnestly for future forums and symposiums.

ANJ: Does the EGS have a plan to work and develop relations with the Horn of African Communities? If so, what are the outlined principles?

Seyoum: Definitely yes. This is part and parcel of our expectation. We intend to initiate some platforms and hope to participate in other deliberation and dialogue. We must talk. We have to talk. There is nothing else to do but talk with the hope of understanding each other’s perspective and hopefully in an effort to find a common ground to expand the conversation. We cannot be dictated by the behavior- the likes and dislikes of the national leaders. We have to talk as expatriates of the Horn of African and as immigrants trying to find our rhythm in the big USA.
The principle for bringing The Horn of Africa community to the table is a simple as talking to each other with respect; never starting our conversation with the intent to win an argument and always we should learn to listen with generosity. Suspend judgment and listen to what is being said and not said. Hope to have a follow up conversation on one to one basis and when the opportunity avails itself organize a wider conference. We should not come to accumulate political capital at the expense of others. Find a mutual ground and expand it. I think this kind of foundation will get us started on the right direction.

I would like to extend my thanks on behalf of EGS to the editor of the African News Journal and also to all the Eritrean community members and sympathizers who joined us in the marches in D.C. Thank you.