Communiqué of the Exploratory Meeting of Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue
An exploratory meeting of a group of concerned Eritrean academics and civic association leaders was held on August 16 and 17, 2013 at the Marriott Hotel (1700 Jefferson Davis Highway), in Arlington, Virginia. The purpose of the meeting was underscored by the necessity and urgency to identify the major obstacles to consolidating the struggle against the Eritrean dictatorship, and to exchange views on the challenges that lie ahead pertaining to how to build a democratic order once the dictatorship is removed from power. Core to the meeting was how to ultimately bring the various political and civic forces in the Eritrean Diaspora together in a national conference to constructively formulate shared principles and objectives to further the cause of unity and chart a road map to achieve a democratic political system in the country. To be sure, the principal aim of the meeting was to explore ways of creating a platform where concerned Eritreans, regardless of their political affiliations, can engage in ongoing discussions aimed at removing the dictatorship from power as well as promoting democratic governance and informing policy that would reverse the ills that threaten the country. This communiqué highlights the objectives of the meeting, the most important issues discussed and some suggested future activities.
Issues Discussed in the Meeting
State at Risk
The absence of a constitutional delineation between the identities, functions and responsibilities of the state and government in Eritrea was one of the central topics discussed in the meeting as hindering the evolution of our country towards a democratic state. As outlined by the participants, the state is the organic personification of society as a whole, embedding its highest values, ideals, and a set of constitutional institutions. A democratic state can be constitutionally structured as a unitary entity as in the United Kingdom or France where administrative powers are devolved to local, provincial or administrative units where they are best performed within the constitutional framework. Alternatively, a state may be federally organized as in Switzerland or Nigeria. However, core to the modern democratic state, regardless of its structural form, is the existence of an impermeable wall between the state and the government. Composed of functional bureaucracies, a government is simply an administrative machinery entrusted by the constitution to give concrete expression to the values and ideals of society by formulating and executing policies, programs, and strategies in ways that simultaneously promote the economic welfare, cultural development, and national security of society. But these core values can be realized only when there is an unambiguous separation of powers among the constitutional branches of government whose existence and legitimacy must be justified by their answerability to each other and, ultimately, to society.
The grim reality in Eritrea is that the state and government are one and the same. As a result, the indivisible fusion of state and government functions has transformed the political necessity of rule of law, transparency and accountability into perished commodities whereby the Eritrean state is on the verge of collapsing. The most important lesson to internalize here is the simple fact that in many African countries the executive branch of government dominates the other organs of the state, there by weakening accountability of governments and producing autocratic heads of state. Our country, Eritrea, represents an extreme case of this phenomenon, in which the head of state has complete monopoly of power. In the absence of any meaningful separation of powers between the executive (represented by the head of state) and the other organs of the state, personal rule supplants institutional governance. It also makes autocratic governance unavoidable since the different organs of government do not have the power to demand accountability from the executive. Under the circumstances the state and the regime become the same, where democratic governance becomes impossible. The greatest risk, however, is that when the regime falls, and ultimately all regimes fall, the government as well as the state fall with the regime, since they are one and the same and there are no institutions to sustain the continuity of the state. The unfortunate result can be having a country without government and state ala Somalia. The absence of a united organization of opposition forces greatly accentuates the risk of state collapse when the regime falls.
2. National Unity at Risk
The exploratory meeting also reviewed the danger of how disintegration of the state can irreparably undermine the urgent task of nation-building. Nation-building entails integrating the diverse groups of citizens under a shared system of institutions of governance to form a community of citizens. In the absence of constitutional rule guaranteeing legal equality and inclusive political representations of all segments of the population, different groups within the population begin to feel that the autocratic system of governance does not represent their interests or that it advances the particular interests of others at the expense of theirs. This perceived exceptional partiality of the state may or may not be real but any group that is not represented in the making of laws, and governance arrangements and policy can rightly feel aggrieved. All segments of the population may also feel aggrieved simultaneously. Such grievances, however, unless constructively channeled to the actual problems at hand, may lead to inter-identity acrimony, which destroys the bonds of national unity and defeats the solemn purpose of overthrowing the illegitimate regime. The strains of this sorry reality on national unity are abundantly evident in post-independence Eritrea. It is, indeed, imperative that all nationalists and leaders of diverse political and ethnic formations commit to defending our unity by tackling sectarian tendencies. The only endowment that those of us in the Eritrean Diaspora have is our underdog status, raising the banner of freedom and justice in opposition to the irredeemable dictatorship that has imposed itself upon our people in cold blood. However, raising the banner of freedom and justice alone by no means guarantees a democratic future. No revolutionary forces have ever raised the banner of freedom and justice higher than those contemporary forces in the Middle East; however, they have yet to effectively chart a democratic trajectory of governance. This is a very useful lesson for us. We sincerely believe that the true way forward is to create a united political movement steeped in a culture of tolerance and trust.
3. Security of the Nation at Risk
The exploratory meeting reviewed in depth how poor governance has placed the security of Eritrea at potentially catastrophic risk. Three key components of poor governance have been identified and discussed in detail. One is the deprivation of the population of citizenship rights. Citizenship is not merely about carrying an identity card. Rather it is the right to participate in running the country’s affairs. One could hardly claim today that the Eritrean population has the right to participate in its governance. All violations of human rights, including the exodus of the youth and the well documented long-term detentions without trial, the absence of a free press where people can express their views and provide input to policy are some of the most obvious indicators. It is clear to everyone that Eritrea has become a country of subjects and not citizens.
Another governance problem menacing the national security of our country is poor management of the national service. Frustrated by the open-ended character of the national service, young Eritreans have been abandoning their country in droves. As a result, Eritrea owns the dubious distinction of being the largest refugee-producer in the world on a per capita basis since the number of refugees has reached thousands in the past decade. Many of those choosing with their feet a life of refuge in foreign lands are by and large from the country’s military. The national service program, purportedly having a potential to strengthen the country’s security, has become detrimental to national security due to poor management.
The economic stagnation prevailing in our country has also created another layer of tittering disaster. Eritrea now has the lowest per capita income in the Greater Horn of Africa, except for war-torn Somalia. It is the most food insecure country in the region with the highest ratio of its population suffering from malnutrition. Amnesty International has noted that half of Eritrea’s population of five million suffers from stark poverty and malnutrition.
The dictatorship’s amateurish foreign policy has also weakened the country’s security. Eritrea is today completely isolated in the international system and finds itself languishing under crushing sanctions.
4. Combating the “Culture of Fear”
The exploratory meeting took into earnest consideration the danger to our national cohesion posed by the corrosive culture of fear. What has been most remarkable about the Eritrean dictatorship is its ability not only to methodically and effectively create a general “culture of fear” among its citizens in the country, but also to intimidate the Diaspora community, including academics. The cultivation and maintenance of a “culture of fear” as a weapon of control was manipulatively devised during the armed struggle, but the PFDJ dictatorship has transform the technique into a reign of terror since independence. This grim reality underscores the necessity to double our collective efforts to fight the “culture of fear” and create in its place a culture of openness, tolerance, constructive dialogue, critical thinking, mutual respect, and trust. A dialog that lacks civil discourse can only amount to mimicking the regime’s destructive and arrogant culture and, in the final analysis, will feed into paralyzing antipathy, cynicism, pessimism and mistrust. With the severely weakened sense of Eritrean unity and democratic culture, Somalia’s recent history is not a far-fetched scenario for Eritrea’s near future.
Who We are and Our Mission
The aim of this concerned group is not to form a new political or civic organization. We are rather an ad hoc group that is motivated to facilitate dialogue among all Eritreans in general and among existing political and civic organizations in particular about the daunting challenges that our country is facing. Thus, our primary aim is to establish a conducive platform for democratic dialogue through organizing meetings, seminars, workshops, and conferences. In the meantime, this ad hoc group would continue to work with broad intellectual autonomy and shall remain wide open to the future expansion of its members.
The ad hoc group in its present structure will be called Eritreans for Facilitating National Dialogue, (EFND). Our aspirational objective is to gather all concerned Eritrean political organizations and civic associations in a national conference. Once adequate preparations and logistics are put in place, we will invite known compatriots who combine representation and expertise to make a series of presentations at the conference on the present reality in Eritrea and on the character of the transition to democracy once the dictatorship is removed from power. Following constructive deliberations of the proposals before it, we expect the conference to issue a declaration of principles and recommendations to which all political and civic organizations will commit themselves.
List of participants
Dr. Okbazghi Yohannes
Dr. Afeworki Paulos
Dr. Kidane Mengisteab
Dr. Ghirmai Negash
Dr. Mantai Mesmer
Dr. Yebio Woldemariam
Mr. Teklai Abraha
Mr. Tesfagiorgis Ghebreslassie
Dr. Angessom Atsbaha *
Mr. Amanuel Hidrat *
Mr. Tewolde Stephanos *
Three scholars requested their names not to be listed
Names with the sign * those who sent comments and suggestions to meeting.
October 4, 2013