Reporter Michael Abraha got hold of Seyoum Tesfaye - chairman of the Eritrean Global Solidarity to discuss the outcome of the recent pro-democracy events in Washington D.C. Michael first asked him if expectations have been met.
Seyoum Tesfaye. Thank you for the opportunity. As far as meeting expectations this is a loaded question. If we look at it from the perspective of the suffering Eritrean people we have not even scratched the surface. They expect much more from us. Justifiably so.-We are lagging behind the people’s expectation. Way behind. This is not meant as critical remark towards those who are doing their best to organize the opposition as well as the civic society. But in all honesty we are way below the expectation of our people. That is my personal take.
Our struggle to transition Eritrea to Constitutional Democratic State by now should have been a full-blown dynamic popular movement. The June 18-21 activities measured by our urgent national responsibility are still not enough. That said for an organization that is only 18 months old the effort was a daring undertaking. We wanted to challenge established standards by combining four major projects under one package. Not trying to do something would have been a total failure. Doing something and learning in the process was a golden opportunity we could not miss. Strictly judged by EGS’ cursory “evaluation” of the events we undertook we think we have fared well. We are not wasting time congratulating ourselves. We have launched a thorough evaluation internally to make sure we do not avoid facing our shortcomings. We are going to dissect the agenda, the time line, the tasks, actions, team work, skill, time management , process flow, publicity, dissemination of information, diversity, cost, subject matter etc. in order to learn from our experience and do better next time. We have come out of this experience more united and determined to strengthen and expand the civic society.
Q. What were the demographics like?
A. The most significant change in this year’s activity was not just the types of activities but the fact the struggle seems finally interning the generational transition period. Leave alone those of us who were directly involved in the planning and execution of the four day events even our opponents will recognize that the dominate elements of the whole process were members of the post independence generation. It will not be an exaggeration if I were to say 65% of the participants were young people. We were lucky to be a witness to this kind of phenomenon. You agitate for it. You pray for it. You wait for it and then there it is in front of you. The independence generation comes face to face with the liberty generation in a worthy undertaking. The former become more reassured about Eritrea’s future and the latter starts to understand that building and leading a movement for democracy needs more than energy and desire. The generational nuances have to be sorted out under the same roof. This we witnessed in DC. The events we undertook created the venue and the background for this historic convergence. The issue now is to use the momentum to expand the generational discource. The liberty generation must come front and center through direct engagement and give the Independence generation a badly needed break. Respect and cooperation will make the transfer of responsibility more smooth and practical. EGS tried to create this environment in the four day events and we feel we made a modest progress.
We still need to canvass our community at large and find ways on how we can get the mosaic nature of Eritrea to be reflected in our activities. We have to take a closer look at it and be purposeful about it. One symposium does not make or break a civic moment as long as the goal is to proactively and incrementally expand the democratic tent moving forward.
Q. You also met US government officials. What message did you deliver and what was the response?
A. Yes we did meet with officials of the State Department. By “we” I mean EGS and EDA representatives. This meeting was necessary. We appreciate the fact that the State Department representatives made time to seat down and converse with us on a wide range of issues. As a civic society the representatives of EGS did not try to inform the US government that the regime in Eritrea is awful and tyrannical. They know more about it than we do. We feel the pain more but they probably have more facts about the regime than we do. The focus of our agenda was to stress that any conversation between the Obama administration and the Isaias regime will not be productive if it only dealt with the regime’s involvement in Somalia. We strongly believe the wholesale suffering of the Eritrean people has to be the major part of the agenda.
The issues of Human Rights, Democracy, Constitutional Governance, Rule of Law, basic civil liberty, press and religious freedom etc we feel have to be components of the conversation package. We respectfully expressed to the State Department representatives that any deal made at the expense of the Eritrean people will be short lived. We deeply feel like the previous administration the Obama administration will also come to the same conclusion: The regime in Asmara is lawless and unrepentant!
The regime has been terrorizing its own people before arriving in Mogadishu and across the Horn of Africa. The strategic solution is the establishment of a democratic government in Eritrea. We over stressed this point for two reason. Primarily for it is the fundamental solution and secondly to go on the record in the early period of the new administration’s effort to engage with the brutal regime in Asmara adding our two cents worth of observation: we feel any attempt to address the external behavior of the regime without linking it to its draconian internal behavior will be doomed to failure in the long run. For what it is worth this is our understanding.
In addition to this we presented a legitimate argument based on experience that the Eritrean Embassy in Washington DC has become a command and control center for flagrantly interfering in the lives of Eritrean American citizens. The State Department has to protect American Citizens from the various types of unwarranted interference by a government that is violating its diplomatic charter.
We also asked the State department in the light of the massive repression and the exodus of Eritrean youth that it entertain the idea of recommending a favorable immigration policy towards Eritrean asylum seekers and refugee status seekers.
There were other issues we raised with them as well. But the most important point is that the growing civic society has expressed its desire to engage on an ongoing conversation with the State Department and other relevant institutions.
Q. Do you believe the US has a sound policy towards the repressive Eritrean regime which has become even more hostile in anti-US rhetoric?
A. It is very difficult to comprehensively evaluate the US policy towards the Eritrean regime. The contradiction is that their extensive evolution and periodic reports point out how the regime has gone from bad to worse to put it mildly. The regime has not been bashful in its anti-American crusade. Its media is dedicated to this priority task. Not only in Eritrea but even in the USA under the ruling party’s youth league known as YPFDJ the regime is recruiting American born children of Eritrean ancestry and feeding them consistently a virulent anti-American propaganda diet. Think about this if Castro was to organize a Cuban Communist Party youth league within USA what do you think US’s reaction will be? It is forcing citizens to give a copy of their US federal tax papers in order to collect the infamous 2% tax within USA proper! The regime has collected bonds from Eritrean and Eritrean American within proper USA without following the proper federal rule and guideline! These are just few items in a long list of its illegal activity. Forget the fact that it had declared war on all civic societies that are not controlled by its ruling party “cell” members within America-not in Eritrea-within USA. With all this going on the US government’s attitude towards this regime has been at times undecipherable. Part of the problem is us: our lack of coordinated and sustained campaign.
There has been a congressional hearing (in some cases more than once) on Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia by the Congressional Sub-Committee on Africa. It behooves me that not a single comprehensive hearing has taken place specifically on the Eritrea regime’s treachery towards his own people and the destructive role it is paying in the horn of Africa. We hope through sustained grassroots diplomatic effort to correct the Diasporas’ deficiency and slowly build a credible diplomatic committee and work tirelessly to at least have some input in how US’ foreign policy on Eritrea is defined and articulated. A huge undertaken but not beyond the bounds of the reach’s of determined and well organized task committee.
In the end the USA should face the reality and grasp the fact some regimes consider compromise, dialogue and civility as a central weakness. The regime in Asmara is a classic example of this reality. While we must appreciate the American administration’s and noble deep desire to engage the regime in Asmara in a civilized dialogue we will be irresponsible if we did not, in the most pleasant way, suggest to them that this regime does not have the tendency to respect any deal it has made or will make. The least expensive suggestion we can make to the American government is: Go to Asmara with no expectation.
The US is in for another disappointment. That is not our wish but based on ample experience and some unmentionable traits of the top “leader” of Eritrea, the present diplomatic core assigned to deal with Isaias will need our prayer and moral support to even get a chance to seat across the table and listen to his demeaning discombobulated lecture. In the process we hope they will realize what they are hearing is not Eritrea’s finest mind but a huge historical miscarriage. That said we wish them the best.
To put it in a nutshell we have lots of work to do. Our struggle has to move from the NIKI to the Armani stage- from demonstration to getting inside the American system and figuring out how the game is played. We have to mobilize our constituency. The role of the Diaspora elements that are determined to contribute to the democratization of the Eritrea have to put marching in its proper context and now prepare themselves for a more nuanced diplomatic struggle. We have to come from the periphery to the center. We have to work at it diligently. That will increase our chance to be heard. It all hinges on our joint effort. To tackle a task of this magnitude we have to surrender our egos to the agenda, curb our individual ambitions and stop worrying about who gets the credit. Let us just do what has to be done.
Q. Professor Bereket has called for a non-factional and non-confessional politics in the current Eritrean struggle. Do you share his concern? If so, what should be done?
A. I understand his concern. The regime in power is an equal opportunity offender and abuser. At this stage of the game the Isaias regime has a mono -dimensional agenda: hold on to power. It has used all unethical methods to divide the people. It has not succeeded to the level it had hoped for. Thanks to the wisdom of the Eritrean people. This does not mean that the scare left on all sectors of the society have identical intensity. This genuine feeling is caused by the level of brutality. We cannot gloss over these particularities. Yet we have to come to the realization that unless this regime is replaced by a democratic government we all might not have an Eritrea to talk about. The urgency puts extra demand on all of us. While we should not abandon or abrogate our particular issues and agendas unless we pull together and wage a unified non-partisan civil and political struggle we will not move forward. We will be moving in circle and wondering out loud why we are not making progress. Saving the nation has really become the thread that is pulling all political and civil fabrics together. From that perspective we have to look at the bigger picture in everything we do.
First let us save the nation and then find creative ways to sort out all of our internal challenges in a structured and constructive ways. If there are elements who are thinking of using the present national crisis as way to position their agenda and political team in an advantageous posture for the post-Isaias period I feel this kind of maneuvering is a shortsighted strategy. Looking for a better seat in a sinking ship is a not logical. The period after Isaias is going to be demanding and challenging. We will be inheriting all the residual effects of all his evil doing.
The period where political groups can function like silos is gone. Convergence, synergy and symbiosis- these are the vocabularies we need. No single political: leader, organization or bloc can solve Eritrea’s complicated political crisis let alone the economic disaster. If there is a joint project this is it. Even after we pull all our resources and talents we will still need some kind of divine intervention to catapult us to a reasonable victory. I understand Dr. Bereket’s advice in this sense. I take it he means focus on the bigger picture in short. I hope you will get a chance to interview him so that you can get the details of his recommendation. I might not have done justice to his idea.
Q. Looking back to the four day events what do you think you could have done different?
A. I have a responsibility not to short-circuit EGS’ internal evaluation process. But since you raised a very important question I will do my best to give you and your readers a brief answer. As I stated previously EGS leadership team was well aware of the challenge of trying to do four major activities within 4 days. It was not going to be a piece of cake. We tried to get away from the usual song and dance kind of event organizing. The march was well coordinated. EGS and EDA agreed to make “Enough is Enough! It is time for Change in Eritrea” the lead slogan. We feel this slogan really captivates the general feeling of not only the vocal opposition but the silent majority who have distanced themselves from the regime. This was welcomed by everyone who participated in the march.
The turnout was not as we expected it was good but not as good as we wanted it. We are going to look into the why in this particular case but also make an effort to review the overall role of demonstrations as an organizing and mobilizing event in our civil and political struggle moving forward.
The candle light Martyr’s commemoration went well. I am not sure if there is anything different we could have attempted in this context. This solemn occasion was well attended. The best way to remember our martyrs is to intensify the civil and political struggle. This profound message was well registered in the commemoration. The best way to remember our Martyrs is to bring forth the second agenda: the agenda of freedom and Liberty into fruition. Everyone attending the commemoration has made the promise to honor the martyrs by doing everything they can to bring a just nation governed by constitution and ruled by law.
The diplomatic and lobbying effort- This was our first attempt as a civic organization. More important this was a first joint effort between EGS and EDA. I feel we did well but the two organizations have made a modest effort to review the process and we have both agreed that we could have done something’s better by coming up with talking points and clearly delineating the responsibilities in the presentation as well as the most basic fact of making sure all of us have a business card whenever we engage in this kind of effort. Both the political and civil points were made to the State Department to the best of our ability. We will be a bit polished for next time. We are in a learning mode.
The symposium was an EGS project. Bad or good the entire responsibility lies in the hands of the EGS leadership. What is it that we could have done differently? As organizers individually we might have attended all kinds of symposiums or forums. But trying to organize one was first of all a challenge since none of us was an expert. We read and tried to research how best to do it. We did not have the capital to hire consultants. We had asked for abstracts. One or two were forwarded in timely manner. We did not want to put restrictions on our presenters. Our biggest concern was creating a platform where views and perspectives are presented without restrictions. We had no ideological or political precondition for this platform. This was not an opposition platform it was a democratic platform where presenters are accorded the respect they deserve as individual human beings to present their own narrative, interpretation or projection of the Eritrean national crisis in their own ways. EGS was a mere conveyer belt. This is the concept that underlines our effort to open a venue for honest discourse free from political control and manipulation. Of course there will be wide range of interpretations by the listeners of the presentations inside the symposium tent or across the ocean. That is normal and healthy. That is what we want. This is what we intend to do in upcoming symposiums.
More directly to your question I feel (here I am only speaking for myself) we could have done three things different:
- To make this event a high priority and advertise the need for presenters on independent websites. We used all the human right contacts we have. That was not enough. We have to develop an independent EGS contacts list so that EGS will have a broader listing of possible presenters in the future. We have to get to know our community and start direct contact with as many talents as possible.
- We could have been more specific and more proactively focused in trying to garner the participation of diverse voices within our community at large. We did try. We could have paid more attention to the issue of inclusiveness. We promise to do better next time.
- Now that we have publicly gone on the record saying we are going to do more symposiums we hope individuals interested in participating and working with EGS will take the initiative and contact us or send us recommendations subject wise as well as names of presenters. We look forward to the public’s participation. Those who want to be included have as much responsibility as the organizers to reach out and help improve the form and content of the symposium.
We cannot deal with all issues in our maiden symposium. We will try to organize regional symposiums dedicated to various topics and issues. Based on the subject matter we intend to reach out and identify the talents within our diverse community and make the conversation inclusive and educational.
We intend to build a strong civil society organization with a well established brand name dedicated to building a democratic culture, be a voice for the voiceless, a platform for individual’s right to self expression, defender of human rights etc. We are not political actors. We are not contending for power. We want justice and rule of law to prevail. We want individual rights to be respected. This is our driving vision. While trying to move assertively to translate our worthy vision if we make genuine human errors in the process of organizing events and symposiums we apologize for our shortcomings. We sincerely do. We will go public with EGS’ feedback email address and we would like to hear everyone’s ideas how we could do better. We are open and willing to hear constructive suggestions.
The last thing I want to say about this is that as soon as EGS gets done with its in-house review (that is the EGS executive team) it will forward it to the Board and for an open discussion with the board and hopefully share it’s summarized finding with the public. This is my hope.
Q. Where do you see EGS five years from now?
A. At the Washington DC symposium we had unexpected good news: about 4 more civic organizations announced their desire to join EGS. You could not believe how happy the present executive leadership of EGS was. That by itself was the single most important source of joy for us. That is not to say that we were not happy about the four day events. The reason is simple. We want in a democratic Eritrea an institutionalized Human Rights organization that will not be at the mercy of the governing political group. That work for us starts now. In the absence of a democratic space in Eritrea we have to experiment wherever we are.
We have to work hard to expand the civic space. By definition the civic space has to be greater than the political space. Political parties might end up being up to 50 or let us even say 60. They will first expand then dwindle too few as then political process in Eritrea matures. Eastern Europe after the fall of the communist system went through the same process. But Civic Society has no numerical limitations-it moves in the opposite direction. We are not in competition with political parties. We do not want to govern the nation. We want to make sure those governing the nation are not above the law or corrupt the law. Political parties, movements and leaders have nothing to fear from civic societies as long as they accept the same rule of law that the individual citizen lives by. In fact they have the moral duty of being the perfect practitioners of the democracy they were struggling to enshrine. In a modest way we are the watchdogs.
There are two tendencies we need to guard ourselves from: one is the desire to neuter the civic society and make it a mere demonstration manger and the second is the hope to turn the civil society into a full-fledged political opposition. Both tendencies have to be contained and neutralized. As we grow and expand we have to navigate with this fundamental awareness.
We consider the possibility of the formation of: The Association of Families of Political Prisoners and the Disappearing a must civil society. We look forward for the formation of Eritrean Journalist Association in Diaspora, another civic society. Association of former political Prisoners, The Union of Veteran Independence Fighters, and the possible list is long. You see the logic I am following. Civic society is here to stay and I hope EGS will make major contribution in institutionalizing the civil concept in Eritrean polity.
I am saying that 5 years from now EGS hopefully will be a very mature organization with more member organizations sharing a common platform of creating a wider civic space for Eritrean American to make their impacts felt on the American system and contribute with idea, talent and resource to the democratization of Eritrea. The two tasks are linked. By then I am absolutely convinced individuals in my age bracket will have moved out of the stage gracefully, with our dignity intact and just be lucky enough to witness the miracle of a Developing Democratic Eritrea under a rational, modern and globalized leadership that can benefit from the accumulated skill capital of the Diaspora born multi- talented new generation. Then maybe we can start talking about Singapore. Then we can say we never abandoned Eritrea and the people of Eritrea in its darkest hour. We tried to do our share and we did it for generations that follow.
Politics is not for everybody. Civic engagement is an alternative route to doing something about the crisis in Eritrea and about our life as immigrants. We cannot seat in silence when a brutal tyrant destroys all historical institutions in Eritrea and comes across the ocean to disrupt our communities and house of worship. Those who waste a tremendous amount of time lamenting the status of the opposition and stay disengaged we hope will take a look at the civic route and get involved. We have to stop playing the fiddle when our country is burning in flam and its youth is being decimated. Less armchair critiquing and more engagement is what the people of Eritrea need now. The door is open.
EGS has a unified leadership, a working governing board, it is building an advisory board and it has the confidence and determination to execute its vision. The participation of the youth has also energized it to do more. If we continue with the same trajectory I do not see why EGS will not have the opportunity to mobilize a large segment of the Eritrean American and Eritrea Canadian community. I see a bright future. I believe in EGS and its members. I thank those who had the wisdom and the foresight to lay its foundation. Kudos to them!!
Please allow me to thank all those who came from all corners of USA, Canada, and Europe etc. to participate in the four day events. We ask them to forgive our short comings and always stand by our effort to be the voice for the voiceless. If you are interested in organizing a civic society in your community we are willing and ready to extend our help.
To the leadership of EDA North America we would like to send our sincere appreciation and let them know that we have many tasks that will demand our united effort. We look forward to our joint efforts in the future.
We thank those who made the symposium an actuality. Thank you for your eloquent presentation. To those due to time constraint were not able to present their papers we extend our public apology. To those we did not reach out we assure you that it was not intentional and we will need your participation in future symposiums.
To the independent media: Assena, Asmarino, Awate, Meselna Delina, Radio Meqaleh, Paltalk etc thank you for your support and dedication.
Mr. Michael: I did not mean to take so much of your time. I thank you on behalf of EGS leadership for giving me this opportunity.