Famine and refugee related problems and issues were the topic of discussion over the weekend at the annual meeting of the Eritrean Global Solidarity in Minneapolis, USA. These same issues were high in the agenda during talks between EGS members and US government officials in November. The meeting with Congressman Donald Payne was the highlight of EGS mission to Washington D.C. In this interview, EGS Chairman Seyoum Tesfaye first discusses why it was important for his group to meet with Donald Payne.

Seyoum Tesfaye: Congressman Donald Payne is one of the most knowledgeable Representatives in the US Congress. Africa is his passion. You will easily understand his genuine feeling for Africa after you walked in into his office. He has 21 years of rich experience in the congress. He is on his eleventh term in congress. In his understanding of African issues and politics, he towers even the academicians who make a living out of studying Africa. He is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and more importantly, he is the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. His opinion matters not only in Congress but even to other policy making institutions. Having the opportunity to seat down with his Excellency and present our perspective of the Eritrean reality was something EGS has been planning and hoping for sometimes. In our effort to reach out and inform critical players within the Legislative and Executive Branch of the new US Administration, we put high premium on the meeting held with the Congressman. The EGS delegates were welcomed both by his Excellency and by his hard working staff. We were given ample opportunity to present our case to the Congressman. He was very generous in sharing his experience with African Countries and his trips to Eritrea. We made modest effort to suggest some areas where our young civil organization can work with the Congressman’s office in addressing such issues as famine and refugee resettlement. In addition, we hope to continue the exchange of ideas with the Congressman’s office moving forward. We feel the effort was worth it. We came a bit informed and more encouraged to reach out to other critical players within the US government. We benefited from the experience.

Q: So, the refugee crisis was on top as an agenda item during your mission to Washington.

A. Yes, the ever-expanding refugee issue was central to our focused discussion with the institutions and the representatives we had the opportunity to meet with. In the absence of a responsible government that is willing to curve its inflated ego and openly inform the world as to the massive nature of the famine in Eritrea, the EGS had to try its best to bring up this issue with the State Department and his Excellency Congressman Donald Payne‘s attention. We have raised our concerns and the need for US to go on the record with its desire to help. We have explained our genuine fear that the possibility of the 1974 Ethiopian famine replicating itself in Eritrea due to the regime’s utter failure to deal with the crisis in an honest and open way. We have set the groundwork for further discussion on this urgent subject and we promise to do follow up visits to DC in the near future to expand the discussion.

Q. This is a complex problem, which needs a coordinated approach. Were you successful in getting your message across?

A: The central point with the refugee and political asylum issue is that there is a need for a synchronized policy approach within the various US government departments – the State Department, Homeland Security and the US Congress. We have to present our case in an organized and coherent way so that there will be a policy shift at the highest level that will take into account the draconian nature of the Eritrean national crisis. We need to convince the US policy makers that a policy that is equivalent to that of accepting Cuban refugees and asylum seekers with open arms must be formulated based on the fact that the evaluations of various experts and serious observes are equating the situation in Eritrea with that of North Korea. A drastic policy shift is needed within the US governmental institutions. This was the message we tried to get across in our conversation. It will take more than one conversation but we have started the conversation in earnest. We hope to work at it diligently with mature and tempered diplomatic tone. We have made some concrete suggestions to some responsible officials who could make a difference should they choose to act on our modest suggestions. We will continue to stay engaged and improve our lobbying skill. We are just getting started.

Q. Do you see a favorable environment that will help you build on the contacts you have created?

A: Everything we did is anchored by the fact that EGS is a civic organization bound by the Federal rules and guidelines of a non-profit civic society that gives US citizens the right to peacefully organize and access their Congressional Representatives and government institutions to make a difference in the formation and implementation of US policy. We have a right to try to influence America’s policy towards our ancestral homeland as well as its immigration and refugee policy since it affects our people and extended families directly. We are learning to access our constitutional privileges just like all other immigrants before us have done. That is to say there is no mystery or extraordinary thing here: We are trying to move from the periphery to the center. Our trip to DC was a modest effort in that direction. The fertile ground is there; we just have to learn how to negotiate through the process.

Q. The Eritrean government says there is no starvation in Eritrea. The UN insists close to 70 percent of the population needs emergency food aid. There is no access to famine stricken areas. Why is the government acting as if there is no crisis?

A. I do not expect the regime in Asmara to say or do anything that is remotely close to the truth. Truth has been exiled from Eritrea for sometime. Eritrea’s Dan Quixote is busy trying to finish what the Soviet Union could not achieve in seven decades of Herculean effort: defeat the US. Famine to a revolutionary “leader” invested in this kind of logic is an acceptable cost to his irrational adventure. To accept the fact that Eritrea is part of drought/famine stricken Horn of Africa, will be a testimony to the failure of the land, farming and food security policy of the regime that has been deafening our people’s ears with empty rhetoric. The Eritrean dictator’s aversion to the truth is a given. At a minimum 70%, if not more, of our people need immediate food aid.

Q. Now that the rubber has met the road and the regime cannot deliver, what should be done?

A: Do the opposition and the civil societies continue to merely condemn the regime and keep stating that nothing can be done, as long as the regime is in power, or do they have a responsibility to think and act in out-of-the-box manner? We should demand in one voice that the regime should not be allowed to use “sovereignty” as an excuse to preside over government sanctioned “faminecide”? Don’t we have the obligation to insist that the UN, EU and USA should openly discuss this kind of genocide and demand that the Eritrean Government must allow international food help to be delivered directly to the people and refusal to do so will be a ground for prosecution by an international court? Are bullets and machetes the only means of committing genocide? The stakes are too high. Revolutionary rhetoric by itself will not deliver. We have to create a practical unified platform and raise the issue to the highest level for the world to demand that the regime help its people and open the door wide for transparent food delivery.

In our DC trip, we have tried to stress the gravity of the famine crisis and when this kind of famine is combined with North Korean style politics, it belongs to a different category. We want to change perception and convince policy makers this is a different kind of famine. We have to go beyond that and approach the world media in a concentrated manner and raise the conversation to an elevated level. In other words, we have to start investigating the legal dimensions of this politically amplified starvation of innocent people by a tyrannical regime.

Q. The number of people fleeing is a staggering tens of thousands every year. What measures do you hope the US could take in assisting and resettling these refugees?

A. I think we have presented a rational argument as to the need to review and adjust the US refugee policy vis-à-vis Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers. There are two possibilities: the Congress and the Homeland Security route. The easiest task will be to convince the Homeland Security-Refugee Department with the help of the State Department to make major adjustment on its approach to Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers. The congressional approach will demand serious engagement and investment of time. It is not impossible but it will take some serious effort. That route also has to be studied. However, most of the major task is to get the issue in the public and policy makers’ radar. Coordinated and sustained publicity is needed. I believe that after its third congress the new EGS leadership will give major attention to this task. They have to build on the ground work that was outlined by our visit. This is first and foremost a humanitarian issue for civil organizations. The political side of the issue is better handled by the political opposition. All Eritrean refugees must be given protection and status adjustment by the US government and hopefully by EU as well. We have to work hard and smart for this to be a reality.

Q. Two important conferences recently reviewed the situation in Eritrea. One in Brussels and the other in New York. Prominent European, American and Eritrean experts, politicians and scholars took part. The main objective was to try to influence American and EU policy makers to help end the human suffering in Eritrea. Are these two events part of a growing Western sympathy and solidarity with the oppressed Eritrean people?

A: Here I can only express my personal perspective. In the wake of EGS’s June 2009 “Enough is Enough” events in D.C. I came to the conclusion that the role of demonstrations and web-based polemics was going to diminish and that our politics was entering a new phase. The bankruptcy of the regime was now the given aspect of our politics. Both at home, in the Horn Region, in Africa, Europe and US and finally in the UN the image of the regime is standardized. Whether we should take all the credit for this is another issue. One way or another making the nature of the regime clear to other nations is now a done thing. The main task now is convincing the Eritrean people and the rest of the world that a viable alternative exists in the event change happens or an alternative that is capable of inducing change in Eritrea was in the making.

Q. What kind of skills do you believe are needed to navigate in this phase of struggle?

A. The political art needed to manifest this strategic need is a different kind of politics art. Stating firm positions and being fixated on how tough and unbending your political stand is will not work. The politics of stubbornness is passé. The street struggle and photo opportunity organizational meetings were not going to be sufficient enough for the new stage in the Diaspora based political struggle. I believe we now have to be polished civic, political and more importantly diplomatic marketing agents. We are entering a different arena. This is happening at the time when we have not yet made a discernable inward move to the American system or the European political process. We were too busy with periodic internal squabbles and paramecium like politics where the division over personality and tangential differences were more important than our points of unity. But the reality on the ground was demanding we rise to the occasion and start counter-facing with institutions that have different semantics and grammar than our revolutionary abd defiant “Attack the Headquarter” politics. Good for feeling but terrible for conducting pragmatic global politics. We were not institutionally prepared for this kind of engagement. With very underdeveloped conflict management skills and rudimentary knowledge about the Western system’s operational process we were trying to make headways. How can we be the best interlocutress with the institutions we are trying to influence with this kind of shortcoming? Add to this the fact that we are doing this on part time basis, you can understand that in the early part of the process of “accessing the system” if we fumble and fall short, it is understandable. While dealing with our internal differences in a mature and constructive way we should keep our eyes on our primary goal: helping our people to find ways to transform Eritrea from an authoritarian controlled hell to a peaceful democratic nation.

Q. Can you name any negative factor that is hampering movement toward a bold diplomatic engagement?

A. There is the politics of shoring up your immediate constituency even at the cost of the long-range national solution. Rallying the believers and wining the argument of the day without any concern for the residual effect that will frustrate future relationships is endemic to Eritrean politics. We have to take this as part of the ongoing challenge even when we are now slowly entering the international playing field and our efforts, skills and ability to understand the rule of the game are being quietly observed. This is not going to be easy as the evidence already shows.

I take the two meetings (with all their shortcomings) you mentioned as the early stages of our venture to the outer orbits of the diplomatic engagements. For the EU and the US Executive leaderships to take us more seriously and consider us as a critical actor and factor in the search for a solution for the Eritrean national crisis, we have to demonstrate that we have a seasoned understanding of the process of engagement and we cannot impose our definition of politics on established international institutions. It has not worked for the ‘firebrand super-revolutionary’ Isiaias, it will not work for those of us who are struggling for rule of law, democracy, justice and human rights. We need to slow down, breathe deep and digest this point. In the long run, it will serve our people well.

Q: EGS has had a very busy year. What are your hopes and plans for the future?

A: More organizations are willing and ready to open their doors, hear our grievances, and search for common grounds upon which we can base our relationship and find ways to influence the influence makers that will influence the decision makers. They are slowly realizing the gravity of the Eritrean national crisis with its multifaceted regional and international implication and they are willing to seat and talk. Are we ready? That is the crux of the question. It will be a painful process but we will get there somehow. If we do not put aside our petty differences and wage a robust diplomatic and civic engagement, we will miss lots of opportunities. That will be a tragedy.

All that depends on one fundamental premise: that Isiaias will not preempt the opposition’s progress to diplomatic evolution by accepting some of the preconditions set by the West and declare a mediocre liberalization program to further consolidate his hold on power, then the Diaspora political calculus will be a different one. If that happens, the dynamics of our politics will be highly acidified and too toxic to deal with. God save us from this. This is my personal opinion. One man’s perspective for what it is worth.

As an umbrella civil organization, EGS is in the process of obtaining a tax exempt status. This will enable us to take full benefit of the federal law protection and all the benefits entitled to tax exempt non-profit civic organizations. If we have the fund and the manpower we should be able to organize well thought out local (US) as well as international events. Nothing is impossible. We have so much work to do. And everyone has a role to play. There are enough tasks for everyone who cares to stand up for justice, truth and democracy. We cannot abandon Eritrea to brutal tyranny. We just cannot. I have deep faith in the Eritrean character. We will get it done.

Thanks for the opportunity.