What is Diaspora Eritrean’s Political Outlook?
Twenty-five years after Eritrea’s independence, the future of the country looks even more uncertain. Nevertheless, some diaspora Eritreans are in festive mood celebrating its 25th independence, while others are in a state of utter silence marred by confusion, asking themselves, what does independence really mean? A quarter of a century may perhaps seem a short period in a nations’ history, however, for individual Eritreans who have suffered insurmountable injustice, this is a time for deep self-reflection, in learning what went wrong and how it should be fixed.
The magnitude of Eritreans leaving the country is increasingly growing by the day, taking the relative small size of its population, if the exodus continues unabated, some raise legitimate fear of looming existential threat to the nation. In 2015, President of France Francoise Hollande even stated, ‘Eritrea is becoming empty’ of its citizens.
Predominantly the young generation is leaving, among them many with higher education degrees. The fear is reasonable, without an educated class and vibrant young generation to build the future, Eritrea’s survival remains unsustainable both in terms of demography and economic development. Amidst these catastrophic realities, Eritreans are blamed for passivity and inter-group rivalries, while a tragedy unfolds in front of their eyes. I asked myself, what is behind the division, and why have Eritreans failed so far to fix the country’s existential challenges?
Therefore, it is necessary to understand Eritrean diaspora’s political opinions i.e. government supporters and opponents alike. Eritrean diaspora is classically divided into two major blocks, opponents and supporters of the homeland government. But, this dichotomy ignores other implicit significant factors that create inter-group factions within both blocks.
Systematic study of Eritrean diaspora’s political landscape is difficult, as one could find, conflicting features in every group that could overlap with the other. However, I come up with twenty groups having their own unique distinctive features. However, it is possible to find one individual affiliating with more than one group at a time, loosely or strongly.
The discussion presented below is the result of my observation in different political workshops in Europe and Africa, on individual interviews and data gathered from the internet mainly from social medias such as Paltalk and Facebook, where diverse Eritrean political groups use as a political forum. I have divided them in to three main groups and twenty sub-groups.
Ultranationalists(Nsu Nhna): These are the most diehard and candid supporters of the government. They often accept the Eritrean government’s policies without questioning. They also consider President Isaias, as the God father of Eritrea, without him in power, Eritrea would cease to exist. Any name-calling of their dear leader, for them it is simply a conspiracy to tarnish the image of ‘the great nation.’ Most of them hang the image of Isaias in their homes or wear T-shirts with his photo.
Most of them happen to be with low academic background, hence, their worldview is largely shaped by Eritrean-Tv propaganda and watch it on a daily basis.
Opportunists (Zbereket Sehayna): This group understands the existence of gross human rights violations in the country, but they don’t seem to care. They are accused of involving in spying activities both against fellow supporters and opponents alike.
Most of these individuals are alleged to have financial link with the regime involving in remittance activities or in collecting 2% income tax clandestinely. They also run unofficial PFDJ financial institutions registered in their own names, this is more evident in Africa and the Middle East than in Europe.
Even though there are some young new comers among them, most of them have spent large part of their life in the diaspora.
Superficial Supporters (Amselu): This group are not genuine in their support to the Government. They tend to support the opposition block behind the scene and even spy on pro-government activities and PFDJ organized public seminars for the opposition. They are mostly composed of individuals with investment back home (mostly housing). They fear speaking up openly against the Government could end them up with their property confiscated and losing the privilege of a summer vacation in Eritrea. Individuals suspected of opposing the government are subject to imprisonment when they get back into the country.
Second Generation Immigrants (Beles): This group mainly belongs to youth born and grew up in the diaspora from diehard supporters of the Government and they are widely recognised as the YPFDJ, an acronym for Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. They are the brain-child of Yemane Ghebreab, political affairs head of the PFDJ, the only political party in the country. Besides their month long summer vacation, they know little about Eritrea and this has enabled for the PFDJ cadres to easily indoctrinate them with lofty nationalistic dogmas.
Besides that, growing up in the west, some face racial discrimination and this lead them into asserting homeland identities. In some countries, they are often addressed as second-generation immigrants, a term that creates uneasiness and a constant reminder that they are still outsiders. Hence, getting an opportunity of membership with an organization that has to do with the homeland fills the void of identity crisis. In this case, they are not in the real sense supporting the Government, but they predominantly see themselves simply expressing their sense of belongingness.
Border Demarcation First (Bsfrna): These individuals are sympathetic and apologetics of the Government, for all the socio-economic and political misery in Eritrea, they blame the Ethiopian government and its foreign backers especially the United States. The Ethiopian government accepted the decision of the boundary commission on principle but refused actual demarcation without negotiation. Therefore, they argue denial of border demarcation is an existential threat to the nation and it should first be addressed before dealing on the pertinent domestic affairs.
In addition, they see Eritrea as a victim of its exceptional self-reliance development strategy by western powers, who often use aid as a means of interfering in the domestic affairs of African countries. They hate Ethiopians in general and the Tigrians in particular. If someone opposes the government they often use slang words such as ‘Woyane’ ‘Agame’  aiming to belittle and character assassinate them.
Reformists (Tfelto Seytan): Those who fall in this group wants to see change and admit the situation in the country is getting worse before getting any better, yet widely remain reluctant in opposing the Government publicly. They believe in reforming the ruling party rather than removing the entire government. They distaste the opposition parties, as much as they hate the leadership in power. Predominantly former EPLF fighters, who later abandoned the government are included in this group.
They believe the existing Eritrean opposition groups in diaspora, can’t bring peace and tranquillity to the Eritrean people; rather fear the destruction of religious and ethnic harmony of the people, something that has been maintained over the last twenty-five years. Their major fear is seeing Eritrea divided along religious and ethnic lines, hence, in avoiding that scenario, they are accused of surreptitiously supporting the Government in Eritrea.
Silent Majority (Nabraka Trah): This group is in confusion and illusion, as they don’t know whom to trust. Mostly preoccupied with their individual life and at best try individual solution to a common problem, mostly by sending money back home to their family and when they have the ability, pay for their escape.
They hate the Government; equally don’t have affection with the opposition parties. They do everything to avoid engaging in politics and attempt to live a peaceful life in a muddled environment both at personal and societal level. They are grossly undecided about what they can do; to end the agony of the country they see it in tatters.
Ethiopia Born Eritreans (Amches): After the outbreak of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in May 1998 thousands of Eritrean origin were deported from Ethiopia to Eritrea. However, they faced integration challenges and most of them left the country soon after to a third country. Especially the young generation dealt an identity crisis with some even returned back to Ethiopia and others opted a third country. Their role in the diaspora based political movement is largely minimal or invisible.
Ethiopian and Eritrean Parents Offspring (Frki gonom): These are individuals offspring of parents from Eritrea and Ethiopia predominantly born before Eritrea’s independence. The agony generated from the deep identity crisis by this group is mostly unnoticed by the larger Eritrean public. In Eritrea they are often socially ostracised, insulted and face social marginalization often by the prevention of intermarriage with fellow Eritreans, mainly due to their Ethiopian blood. If they were to play an active role in the Eritrean political life either as activists or members of diaspora based parties, they often get insulted citing their parental identity. Someone with an Ethiopian blood regardless of his upbringing in Eritrea, is untrusted to represent Eritrea. As a result, they are often invisible in the opposition. However, there are some vocal protagonists for the regime.
Pentecostal Christians (Ftah Kab Fetari): The government officially outlawed churches operated by followers of Pentecostal faith starting as of 2002. Eventually, members were forced to create house churches from where the government started to hunt them down, jailing thousands of them. Most escaped into exile and created new churches in the diaspora, enjoying an increase in membership. However, they are inactive in politics raising the theologically argument of Saint Paul insisting not to oppose governments as their power is God given. In spite of their persecution, their involvement in the homeland politics remains negligent but some work in fundraising to support families of imprisoned fellow Christians.
Invisible Young Women and Men (Zeyerkebu): Predominantly young men and women in their twenties and thirties are invisible from the diaspora political arena. Different explanations are given to elaborate this assertion.
Women: the launch of the national service programme in 1994, brought an enormous consequence for women. In the national service their fertile age got depleted after having to spend several years in the military. Most in desperation plan to get pregnant in escaping from the harsh military life. However, they end up becoming single mothers with no financial assistance either from the father (military conscript) or from the government. Few of this women manage to come to the West. However, they seem to have neither the time nor the interest for politics, as they get overwhelmed by the massive responsibility of raising children alone or helping family members back home.
Men: the young men coming to Europe escaping lifelong national service, simply meltdown with no significant interest for the homeland. The assertion is that, they have been subjected to traumatic experience to the extent not wanting to talk about Eritrean issues. In addition, being a new refugee struggling to learn a new language and adopt to a new environment is a challenge in itself.
In Addition, there are those who seem determined not to return back in the future, even if conducive atmosphere would be in place. In some cases, they even facilitate for their parents to leave the country and encourage them to seek asylum in the countries they live. Seeing elderly parents seeking asylum in the West has become the norm recently.
Islamists (Kufar): Subscribers of this group views Eritrea’s political impasse through the lenses of Islamic worldview. They believe religion and politics are the two sides of a coin. They blame the incumbent government is dominated by Christians by marginalizing Muslims. In an event of a new government, if possible, aspire to establish Islamic law (sharia), if not at a bare minimum a Muslim need to be the head of state. Doing so, would eventually enable them for Eritrea to acquire membership in the Arab League, strengthening the heavily contested Arabic identity of the country. They also strongly oppose institutionalization of mother language in the primary educational, instead advocate for Arabic.
Ethnicity Advocates (Biherawi Chikona): Eritrean government officially recognizes nine ethnic groups, however, some accuse the government of ethnic oppression and genocide. They believe the government doesn’t reflect the ethnic make of the country and highlight cultural and linguistic oppression. They state, the future government should be established considering fair ethnic representation and the best way of achieving that goal is through introducing federal system of government, arguing as the only means to guarantee their self-rule. This group come in constant conflict with the Islamists, who seek unitary administrative system, on the umbrella of Islam and Arabic language. Some of the ethnic group advocates are the Kunama, Afar and Saho.
Inter-Province Rivalry (Zey Natna): Those belonging to this category feel members of one province in particular are privileged and play instrumental role in the sustenance of a dictatorial government. The rivalry seems more focused between some members of Hamssien and Akeleguzay, with the later accusing the former of supporting the ‘dictatorial’ government.
The Tigrigna ethnic group is composed of three provinces namely Hammsien, Seraye and Akeleguzay. There is political mistrust and social marginalization among these three groups, an assertion often denied perhaps deemed sensitive. And this is more widely noticed in the diaspora than inside the country. Some blame such a rhetoric as the governments desperate tactic of divide and rule to micromanage the diaspora thereby preventing popular mobilization against its injustices. If it is so, this has proven to be an effective method. And some attributes to this quagmire, as the main factor in derailing the establishment of solid opposition block with robust diaspora support.
Tigrigna Speaking Muslims (Geberti): The Geberti’s main demand is the recognition of their ethnic status as the current government doesn’t acknowledge their demand. They strive for the removal of the government and in making sure aspire to play a noticeable role in the future government with a recognized ethnic status. However, some from the Tigrigna Ethnic group often accuse them of raising an illegitimate demand, arguing as long as their mother language is Tigrigna, they cannot be anything else. However, it is important to point out not all Geberti’s agree on this subject.
The Revolutionaries (Smerrr): The youth categorised in this group mainly work prioritising the removal of the government from power in rescuing the nation from its deep socio-political mess, but often they don’t know how to achieve that.
Their end goal is removing the regime from power, and advocate both peaceful and violent means of struggle towards achieving that goal. There are division on this issue however, as some believe the promotion of armed struggle is counter-productive. However, they both agree on the end but differ on the means. They are increasingly getting active in the social medias such as Facebook and Paltalks organizing demonstrations and national conferences. However, they are blamed their activism is more emotion than purpose driven, as they lack clearly defined political roadmap for the post-Iseyas period.
Former Eritrean Liberation Front(ELF) members (Gebha Abay): The members of this group are mostly members of the ELF that eventually defeated by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the civil-war in 1981 from the liberated areas of Eritrea. Most of them were relocated to Europe and the Unites States, from where they continued their opposition long before Eritrea’s independence. Most of them have never visited Eritrea after its independence and they harbour deep sited enragement against the incumbent government.
One of the criticism they face from the youth is that, they failed to embrace them in their political organization and gave little attention to their plight. Likewise, ELF members blame them as opportunists and unpatriotic, who are not ready to fill their shoes. There is outright mistrust and misreading between these two generations.
Highland vs Lowland Divide: The history of the lowland highland divide goes back as far as in 1940’s. The division is not only motivated by geographical disparity but also has religious and linguistic element. Predominantly the lowland Eritrea is inhabited by Muslims, while the highland by Christians. The lowlanders have the impression that the current leadership is dominated by highlanders excluding the lowlanders. As noted, this suggests religious marginalization.
The lowlanders reject the constitution that was ratified in 1997 but still unimplemented. They also reject the symbol of the current flag, in demonstrations they often use the flag of the 1950’s period, when Eritrea was in federal union with Ethiopia enjoying relative autonomy. They also strongly advocate the institutionalization of Arabic language at educational and governmental level.
Educated Elite (Temahirom Zeymhru): Prior to being shut down in 2006, Eritrea had one internationally recognized university. Most of the graduate of the university left the country, but their role as think-tank or having some kind of leadership in the diaspora political organizations and civic organization is minimal. Many from the older generation argue, without the active participation of the young educated class, the Eritrean struggle for a better future is bleak.
Some from the educated class blame the polarized atmosphere in the diaspora as a discouraging factor for them to play a meaningful role in its leadership, in creating awareness campaign or in enlightening the diaspora masses. However, recently some academics are waking-up and took some measures by providing a roadmap for a democratic transition, Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND) is one such example.
Unionists (Andnet): This group advocates the lasting solution for Eritrea’s internal problem is its reunification with Ethiopia. They claim, Eritrean independence relegates the historical, cultural and linguistic relationship between the two countries. They also argue, the armed struggle was mainly instigated by Muslim lowlanders, nurtured by Egypt, “a country with a grand-plan of weakening Ethiopia using Eritrea as a proxy”. Egypt and Ethiopia has centuries old dispute over the share of the River Nile.
The unionists predominantly made up of highland Eritreans and actively engage in social media in refuting the narration of Eritrean nationalism.
These are all Eritreans whose voice wants to be heard, and dream best for their country in their own terms. And possibly once a democratic atmosphere is put in place; all these divisions could play out or perhaps not. The questions is however: are Eritreans ready to tolerate one another despite these seemingly big differences in their view points. One can only kill an idea with a counter idea, resorting to violence or character assassination against those who don’t subscribe to your view points is simply primitive and will not help solve the daunting problems the country faces. If Eritreans learn to give mutual respect irrespective of political stand, will end up defending each other’s rights.
No one has the right to condemn the other, based on his/her political views. As long as one stays non-violent; has a God given freedom to enjoy thinking freely. The Eritrean people in the homeland will eventually decide his own destiny in the ballot box, and for that to happen, ‘democracy’ (people’s power) should be the uppermost aspiration. We should not waste our energy in becoming opponents of an opposition group, because one can’t be a gatekeeper for others and equally a democracy proponent.
- Global Policy Forum, “Ethiopia and Eritrea”, available at https://www.globalpolicy.org/security-council/index-of-countries-on-the-security-council-agenda/ethiopia-and-eritrea.html
-Assenna, “Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue (EFND): Proposed Platform, Internal Working Memorandum, October 2014” available at http://assenna.com/eritreans-for-facilitating-national-dialogue-efnd-proposed-platform-internal-working-memorandum-october-2014/
-Refworld, “Eritrea: Treatment of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians by authorities; including members of the Mulu Wongel [Full Gospel] Church; incidents of arrests and detention of Mulu Wongel Church members in Asmara (2002-October 2014)”, available at http://www.refworld.org/docid/55acc8e24.html
-Romans 13:1 “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
-Tigraionline, “Egypt and Eritrea Change tactics to destabilize Ethiopia” available at http://www.tigraionline.com/articles/eritrean-egyptian-spies.html
-VOA News, “France's Hollande: Eritrea 'Becoming Empty' as Residents Leave”, available at http://www.voanews.com/content/eu-offers-african-nations-1-8-billion-but-some-question-response/3052919.html