The Critical Challenge Facing Eritreans Today: 

A Paper Presented at the EGS Symposium, June 20, 2009

By Bereket Habte Selassie,

Distinguished Professor of African Studies and Professor of Law

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 


I am deeply touched by the honor bestowed on me by the conveners of this symposium.  I have been assured by the organizers that the honorific chairmanship does not involve any role beyond just being present, sitting on the chair.  To be the object of such honor is indeed humbling; but I am reminded of what they say in the south of the United States, when there is so much praise.  The saying goes something like: “I now know how a pancake feels when syrup is poured on it.” 

I begin with a question that has been in the minds of many Eritreans: what is the role of the Diaspora opposition, in the face of the outrage being committed on our people?  What should we do when the government, which is supposed to protect us, becomes a predator?  The role I have in mind includes not only systematically exposing the outrage, but also providing remedies to the victims, especially those who escape from the open prison that our country has become.  It should also involve everything possible to change the government, particularly as it concerns the political parties.  And what should it involve as it concerns the rest of us?   

Much has been said by opposition organizations on the outrage being committed, but action speaks louder than words.  We have not been able to cause regime change, or to apply the necessary pressure to cause the regime to change its policies and politics.  I am perfectly aware of the huge constraints under which the opposition political parties operate—of their financial and logistical problems.  I am also painfully aware that they have not made much progress in uniting their efforts, at least not to the extent expected of them by the public.  We honor them for their dedication and sacrifice; but the people expect them to unite and form a credible opposition front.  Only an effective united opposition can draw the unquestioning support of the people and thus secure international support.  Only such united front can ensure the change that the Eritrean people have sought for so long.  The lack of a credible united opposition has been a major reason why the opposition (both political parties and civil society organizations) have not been able to draw to their membership the vast majority of the thousands of Eritreans in the Diaspora, particularly the increasing number of the escapees. 

As part of my analysis of the role of the opposition, I have looked into the make-up of the Eritrean Diaspora.  A cursory analysis shows five groups:

  1. First, there are the active members of the opposition, who belong to various political parties and civil society organizations.  We have a rough idea of the numbers of these groups; we do know that they constitute a small percentage of the overall numbers; but we do not know their exact number.
  2. Second, there are those who provide moral and material support to the opposition but are not actively engaged in their activities.  Their support is based either on their hostility to the PFDJ regime, and/or their sharing of the aims of one or more of the opposition parties.  There is no available record of their numbers and it is reasonable to assume that it fluctuates.
  3. Third, there are the passive supporters, who are critical of the PFDJ government, but do not come out openly in support of the opposition.  It is even harder to know the number of this group.
  4. Fourth, there are the supporters of the PFDJ government.  No systematic study has been made aimed at assessing the strength of this group, or of any of the other groups, for that matter; all we have are estimates based on attendance at meetings and rallies.  The number of this group tends to be exaggerated by agents of the government.  Lately, we are witnessing a massive desertion of members of this group, as their members realize they are backing the wrong horse.  This has no doubt been caused by the incoherent blabbering of Isaias Afwerki, as exhibited in his many recent interviews.   
  5. Finally, we have, of course, the recent arrivals—the young escapees that we may call the Sawa refugees.  A few from among these have joined one or more of the political parties; some have joined the civil society organizations.  The vast majority remain outside of the opposition groups, tending to go with the flow and concerned with their daily problems of survival, and many wishing to forget the harsh life they left behind.  Many indeed express extreme sentiments about their experience and do not want to be reminded of it, or even of Eritrea.  This is one of the saddest aspects of the current Eritrean reality.  It raises some serious questions with deeper implications for Eritrea’s future, as I will explain further.  No one can blame them for any extreme sentiment, but we have a duty to restore their faith and belief in the future of their country.  For, they are the future of the nation.         

The Role of Civil Society Organizations

What is a civil society organization? The term civil society has been in much use, among Eritreans and others, in recent times.  Sometimes, civil society is characterized as a society with rules for civility in social interaction.  In fact, this was the sense in which it was first used by 18th century Scottish Enlightenment writers.   A standard description of civil society accepted by most scholars, social activists and development professionals is that it is a “collection of diverse interest groups and social organizations that is strong enough to provide some autonomy and protection to individuals from authoritarian and hegemonic tendencies of states.” It is a description that juxtaposes civil society and the state, reflecting their dialectical relationship.  In fact, in some of their activities, notably in the field of human rights, civil society organizations are viewed by some governments, especially in the Third World, as inimical to government.  On the other hand, their members and supporters view them as the conscience of the nation and thus useful in helping check government abuse or misuse of power.   

Since the 1970s, the concept of civil society has been used as an ideal linked to the emancipation or liberation of oppressed groups in society.  It has helped to mobilize and inspire democratic struggle against authoritarian governments the world over.  Beyond academic scholarship, the concept of civil society has become the weapon of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to human rights.   

Many writers trace the intellectual source of the notion of civil society in modern times to the 19th century French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose book, Democracy in America (1835), emphasized the importance of independent associations to the growth of a healthy democracy in the United States.  Some social scientists who have been examining the ancestry of the term civil society now trace it to an earlier period.  According to them, as noted earlier, the origin of the concept is now said to lie in the Scottish Enlightenment (1740-1790).  The Scottish luminaries of the time like David Hume and Adam Smith began to regard the market of the emerging capitalist economy as a cohesive element in the then emerging modern society.  

In this conception, civil society was thought to be intimately related to commercial society.  This may sound strange to us in view of our ideas about some of the negative aspects of modern commerce.  Commerce was considered capable of pacifying political ambition and thus promoting civic virtue.  These original theorists of civil society considered market interaction to promote manners of civility.  This view is in direct opposition to the view of the market as a socially destructive force; and the battle of these opposed views was joined in the field of private property.  The anti-market theorists saw private property as a source of division in society.  By contrast, the Enlightenment theorists (including French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and German philosopher W.F. Hegel) considered the institution of private property and the mechanism of its protection to be fundamental to civil society.  Hegel, for instance, regarded the market, or what he called “the system of needs,” together with public laws, the courts, the police, and corporations as the pillars of civil society, and civil society to be the ethical foundation of the state (my italics).  In this view, political society and the state are made possible by the development of civil society. 

It is worth noting that the quality that these theorists saw in the 18th century market is absent in the modern market of industrial and post-industrial society.  Today, most civil society activists are opposed to the monopolistic tendencies of the modern market, and they see the state as agent or collaborator of such monopolies.  In prizing civil society for its promise of independence, autonomy, and separation from the state, human rights activists may appear (and some do appear) opposed to the state.  It is important to remember, however, that apart, form its regulatory function, an important function of the state is to protect civil society as it is to protect private property.  In a constitutional democracy—in a state of law—the modern state helps to create civil society by promoting a political, economic and social environment in which independent associations may form and operate.  This ideal is buttressed by constitutions and laws. 

Clearly then, although in a lawless state, as in present day Eritrea, civil society and the state can be and are often antagonistic, it does not follow that the two are necessarily antagonistic to each other.  A state of law—a democracy—accepts and tolerates the operation of civil society organizations even when they agitate against some of its policies.  And civil society organizations need to operate within the purview of the law.  If the law denied them their rights they can organize to change the law or even the government.  This is what has been happening in much of Africa over the last twenty years.  It is important to note that in such endeavor, both civil society organizations and political parties work for change; their only difference is that whereas political parties aim to attain power and replace the government, civil society organizations have no such aim.          

The Challenges Posed by the Eritrean Reality  

On this, the 18th anniversary of our homeland’s liberation from Ethiopian occupation, we are faced with a different kind of occupation.  Ethiopia’s army of occupation is gone; but in its place, we are stuck with a national army controlled by a cabal of corrupt officers and their commander-in-chief, an irresponsible individual who has betrayed the trust of his fallen comrades as well as the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation.  Isaias Afwerki and his one party, the PFDJ, are ruling Eritrea by the use of naked force utterly devoid of legitimacy.  Whatever legitimacy the EPLF might have had, with Isaias at its head, has been lost.  That legitimacy was acquired through sacrifice and dedication to the cause of liberation, and it has been lost in consequence of the regime’s abandonment of the principles of democracy and rule of law for which thousands gave their lives.  The EPLF was lauded for its efficiency and apparent lack of corruption when it was a fighting front, which enhanced its legitimacy.  Its successor, the PFDJ, has proved to be not only oppressive and corrupt but incompetent.  This deadly combination has driven our country to the edge of ruin, a fact that reinforces the demand for democratic change.  Today, the only basis of legitimacy is through democratic rule, as was promised in two EPLF Congresses, and in the much heralded EPLF Charter.  

Needless to say, in modern times, a legitimate government’s authority is derived from a popular mandate gained through popular election.  Even in our traditional mode of acquiring mandate, the people’s will was expressed through the act of chosen elders who more often than not placed a laurel (Qoxli) on the head of the potential leader. Typically, the potential leader would resist accepting the laurel, running away from the elders that make the demand; and the elders would pursue him and, after catching the reluctant man, place the laurel on his head.  Some of us have seen this happen in our respective village communities.  This was direct, or participatory democracy, as practiced in our village communities, not much different from what is called Athenian democracy.  The Athenian model of direct democracy has been replaced in modern times by representative democracy, carried out through periodic elections.  But citizens must do more than electing their representatives—they must control them; and this is the central tenet of democracy, as the paramount political value of our epoch.  We cannot escape the global democratic revolution that has engulfed much of the rest of the world. 

With the advent of Europeans to Africa through the history of colonization, Africa has been obliged to embrace this mode of rule, by dint of historical circumstances.  Eritrea is no exception in this respect.  Superimposed over the traditional village customary rules of governance over local affairs, the new post-colonial nations of Africa, Eritrea among them, have inherited a representative kind of rule that is necessary to cement the various groups that were brought under colonial rule.  Whatever we may think of colonialism—however we lament its negative side—we are stuck with its preeminent political legacy of disparate groups united in one nation sate.  Eritrea is one such nation state, and its need of representative democracy is a function of the need to sustain it as a nation state.  

Hence the democratic imperative with its demand for electoral law and politics.  Hence also our demand for the implementation of a ratified constitution that provides the basic framework for such politics.  And we insist on this despite some criticisms regarding the constitution’s perceived imperfection both in content and manner of drafting.  The general consensus now is that the ratified constitution can serve as a crucial weapon in the struggle for democratic change, and that it can be amended to accommodate the demands for any necessary changes. It seems to me that the sensible thing for Eritreans to do now is to move forward along this consensus. 

Meanwhile we face some serious challenges.  Every nation faces some critical questions, from time to time—questions that trump all other questions and that cry out for resolution.  A critical question facing Eritreans today, one that demands urgent attention is the survival of Eritrea as a nation-state.  During this past year, I have raised this question in two conferences convened by Eritreans, and have also written to many friends privately. In these communications, in an attempt to solicit discussion and a search for an answer to the problem, I used a dramatic Tigrigna expression as a defining theme—Midhan Hager. I preferred MidHan instead of DiHnet because MidaHan, as an active verb, has a mobilizing character.    

In order to drive home my point about the seriousness and urgency of the issue, I pointed to the tragic phenomenon of the mass exodus of Eritrean youth fleeing from their homeland, crossing the border to neighboring countries in the thousands.  That number has passed the 30,000 mark, by some account, and it continues to grow.  Why did I single out this fact among the many other indicators of the crises our people are facing?  For after all, Eritrea today is a country in deep trouble in all respects, despite the strenuous efforts of denial by the Isaias regime.  Its economy is in shambles and on the verge of collapse with worsening social consequences.  Its politics reflect neither the will nor the need of the people, contrary to the promise of the revolution. A cruel and irresponsible cabal has been practicing a politics of domination to the exclusion of all other worthy citizens.  Its method of rule resembles that of the Mafia.  The defiance by the country’s supreme leader to the opinion of the world community is matched by his contempt for the Eritrean people.  Indeed, Mr. Isaias Afwerki seems to revel at offending everyone, especially the United States of America, as his interviews demonstrate. And the interviews become more and more outrageous, exposing a troubled personality, desperately trying to prolong his autocratic and destructive rule. 

The politics of domination and exclusion that marks Isaias Afwerki’s rule is a complete denial of the democratic ideals for which scores of thousands sacrificed their lives—a betrayal of trust epitomized by the refusal to implement a ratified constitution.  An astonishing element of this policy and politics involves a systematic denial of Eritrean citizens of their God-given right to make a living using their skills and resources, a denial carried out by granting a royal monopoly of all economic activities, including all trade, commerce and industry to the government party’s economic juggernaut.  This act of inordinate greed of the Isaias regime has impoverished our country, killing the creative genius of Eritreans, and driving many small businesses to ruin or to seek refuge and alternative opportunities elsewhere, outside the country.   

Making matters worse for the ordinary citizens, the regime has passed a decree prohibiting the sale or purchase of grain without government permission.  Indeed, in a practice that is reminiscent of the Pharos of old, the PFDJ army has confiscated grain from the threshing field or even from the stores in homesteads, giving a pittance to the hapless farmers as compensation for the confiscated grain.  In a Stalinist style of spying system, the citizens are encouraged to tell on each other with regard to the sale or purchase of grain.  No previous ruler of Eritrea has ever done such a cruel thing—not the Turks, not the Italians, the British, Haile Selassie, or even the hated Dergue!  The diabolical strategy of control adopted by the dictator, as was revealed in his New Year interview, is to place all farmers under his control, and through his monopoly control of food resources, to put the captive urban population at the mercy of his government; and, through such draconian measures to set the people against one another.

In these circumstances of uncommon cruelty and cunning, when we ponder Eritrea’s sad predicament and its cause, we feel a sheer impotent fury that a clique, led by an unelected, irresponsible man could abuse a whole nation, wreaking such havoc.  The irony of this leader’s career is that he spent half of his life leading an army of dedicated men and women to victory only to lose a war that he himself provoked in 1998.  Another, and more revealing irony about the man is that he spent a lifetime in the ruthless pursuit of supreme power only to end up without a coherent strategy or purpose for his hard-earned power.  When I say hard-earned power I am particularly referring to the bloody path he took to achieve it.  In previous statements, I have said that his accountability for the bloody deeds, and those of others with similar past in the Eritrean armed struggle, must be left to the judgment of history in the interest of the greater good of national unity.  But it is worth stressing that in eighteen years of rule, Isaias Afwerki has shown no remorse for his bloody past deeds, nor a compelling political vision for the good of the country.  The EPLF Charter, proclaimed in the aftermath of liberation, with the democratic transition it promised, lies buried together with the ratified constitution.  One of the principal architects of that Charter, Haile Dru’E (some say he was its chief architect), is wasting in the dungeon of Era-Ero together with Petros Solomon, one of the principal architects of EPLF’s military victory against the Dergue army, and others.  They are accused of treason, with other members of the G-15, but have not been charged and brought to court for trial, and have been held incommunicado for almost eight years.  The inhumanity of Isaias knows no bounds.     

From the perspective of the nation’s future, a more significant, and potentially more damaging policy of the Isaias regime is that of forced labor, which has driven and continues to drive thousands of Eritrean youth out of the country.  I have chosen to focus on this issue because over and above its tragic, human dimensions, it has serious strategic implications to the future of our nation, as I mentioned earlier.  The reason is simple—the youth of a country constitute its future; without the presence of its youth, a country can have no future.     

Why are thousands of Eritreans, mostly in their twenties, leaving their homeland to face an uncertain future?  Many among these have perished in the desert or have drowned at sea.  And at least on two occasions, a few hundred of them have been forcibly repatriated back to Eritrea by the government of a country where they sought temporary refuge awaiting resettlement in Europe or North America.  The vast majority have been leaving from the Sawa military camp, euphemistically called National Service.  Supporters of the Isaias regime contend that the Sawa training camp and its companion project, the so called Warsai-Yikaalo Campaign, are the guarantors of Eritrea’s security.  Its critics oppose this view, have persuasively argued that Sawa is in fact a camp of servitude, contravening international norms that prohibit forced labor.*

Now it is generally agreed among scholars and practitioners that national service as such is not a bad thing.  A nation’s military service can act as a unifying factor creating a sense of unity of purpose among different ethnic groups. There was a time and a sense in which Eritreans, including myself, considered Sawa as an authentic vehicle of national service, bringing together different sectors of Eritrean society.  That is conditioned on a legally defined limited service, which was the case under the law establishing the (Sawa) national service.  After 1998, the war with Ethiopia (1998-2000) was used as reason to abandon the original idea of a limited term of service in favor of an endless forced labor in which young Eritreans were conscripted to serve without end in sight.  Many have been there for over ten years, and they have no guarantee of ever going back to their civilian life, to help their aging families, or to marry and raise families.  According to eye-witness accounts by escapees from Sawa, life there is harsh in the extreme with unit commanding officers having the right of life and death over members of their units. 

This tragic circumstance poses a serious challenge to us Eritreans. To begin with, is it possible or even desirable to stem the tide of this mass exodus?  The reason why I ask if it is desirable has to do with the fact of the intolerable conditions that drives them out.  Is it fair for those of us who are outside that condition to question the flight, when we should welcome the escapees and single-mindedly mobilize support for them in their new circumstance wherever they are?  We regret the fact of their flight from their homeland, for such flight, if continued indefinitely, will leave the country utterly vulnerable.  Contrary to the founding idea of Sawa as a guarantee for Eritrea’s security, the prevailing view now is that it might conceivably have the opposite effect.* [* See Gaim Kibreab, Forced Labor in Eritrea, J. of Modern African Studies, 47, 1(2009).  The ideal solution, short of regime change, is to cause a reversion to the original idea of limited service, defined by law.  But that depends on whether the regime is willing to change its policy.  On this question, in the keynote address I gave to CEDRiE in January of this year, I speculated that Isaias is not likely to change unless forced to do so.  To that earlier statement, I would add that the reason why Isias is not willing to change the policy of forced military service is that he will face thousands of unemployed youth in Asmara demanding change.  Let us remember that these are young people who have been trained to use arms.  


In conclusion, I am going to ask you to imagine the worst scenario possible for our country.  Let us assume that the current regime will continue its policy of military service, forcing hundreds of thousands of our young to be pinned down in the wilderness without an end in sight.  Let us also assume that as a result of this policy the youth keep escaping, reaching a critical mass of Eritreans thus leaving a gaping gap in our country.  Those who remain behind do so because they do not have the means or the ingenuity to escape.  Can you imagine these unlucky ones who remain in the wilderness putting up a last ditch fight in case the country is invaded?  It is hard to imagine them putting up a brave fight, given the way they have been forced to waste their lives and the harsh treatment to which they are subjected. The only conclusion we can reach in such a scenario is that there will be no free country to speak about—no more independent Eritrea.  Imagine!

My dear compatriots, we are faced with a critical challenge.  Therefore, we in the Diaspora need to agree on the following:

  1. First, and foremost, we need a common plan of action.
  2. To that end, we need to go beyond factional and confessional divisions.  We have to leave the divisions of the past behind and agree on an agenda for national salvation, what I have called Midhan Hagher
  3. In pursuit of a common agenda, we need to support our emerging progressive websites that are doing a good job mobilizing our people and giving a sense of hope, hopes of change, especially to the rank and file of our defense forces. 
  4. Civil society organizations, now unified under the umbrella of EGS (including CEDRiE), must be supported with ideas and money.  That requires membership drive.  In that regard, I like the slogan written on the Awate website logo: “Inform, Inspire, Embolden.” To that I would add two more slogans: a) “Look forward, not backward,” and b) “Don’t agonize, organize.” I borrowed this last slogan from the great Kwame Nkrumah.
  5. Civil society organizations and political parties must establish joint committees everywhere—wherever Eritreans live in large numbers.  The task of such committees should preeminently include plans and programs to help newly arriving Eritreans.  The help should include legal and logistical matters such as contacting immigration lawyers and finding housing and jobs and facilitating access to health and educational services. The joint committees should approach local civic and religious organizations to secure the necessary assistance.  Above all, the joint committees should encourage the formation and growth of Eritrean communities dedicated to help their members and to maintain their culture especially geared toward the increasing number of children born in the Diaspora.  The Communities should focus on cultural issues, free from factional politics.
  6. Last, but not least, the Opposition organizations should establish a coordinating committee to set the above recommendations in motion.  It can be done.  It must be done.  And when the rank and file of our defense forces learn about all this they will redouble their efforts to continue their underground movement for democratic change.  I urge the participants of this symposium to consider these proposals seriously; and if need be adopt binding resolutions to put them into effect.

It can be done, Insha’Allah!