It becomes necessary to ask some hard questions in the wake of the unexpected Second Congress outcome of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA) held earlier this year in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia. All member organisations of EDA claim to struggle for democracy in Eritrea. Yet, judging from what had transpired in Addis-Ababa, they have failed to follow proper democratic procedures to elect their executive leadership, leading to the split of EDA into two ‘Blocks’. These same organisations also claim to stand for national unity, some with strong rhetoric and others with different interpretations of national unity. However, their records and actions indicate otherwise, even at the organisational level, let alone during broader proceedings of the Alliance. It could be argued that their slogans are not principled assertions but ones stemming from ‘empty rhetoric’, since their words most of the time are irreconcilable with their practices. This is a brief notation of the not-so-reassuring nature of most of the Eritrean opposition groups when it comes to democracy and national unity.
In this article, I intend to discuss two topical issues in two parts: the first part discusses the chronic illness of the ‘split-merger-split’ behaviour of the Eritrean opposition groups. To address this phenomenon, EDA split is put into a historical perspective without referring to the events that caused a deep rift in the Alliance during its Second Congress. The historical scope of this article reaches back only to the era following the spectacular collapse of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1980-81. Also, in this first part, it is my intention to remind those who are dwelling on unnecessary bickering are in fact removed from the important issues pertaining to the current situation in Eritrea. The second part sheds some light on the ramifications of EDA split to the struggle for democracy in future Eritrea and to a much-needed national unity.
At the outset, some background of what has already been said in response to EDA’s split seems relevant to mention. The split has been interpreted in many ways:- Salih Younis of Awate.com argued that “power struggle” was the driving cause of the split. Fesseha Nair of the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement (EFDM) attributed the cause of the split to a lack of established procedures or “objective criteria” to resolve conflicts and to a long-running bad culture of Eritrean politics nurtured on defamation of characters rather than tackling the real problems. Nharnet Team came up with a detailed explanation of how democratic procedures operate in an Alliance, and it seems that this group backs up the analysis of Mr. Abdurazig Karrar, a journalist with the Eritrean Centre for Media Services. Berhan Hagos, on his part, analysed some of the core issues from a perspective that placed some focus on the legality of the elected leadership of “EDA” following the disagreements and the emergence of Block 1. Omar Jaber, in his latest interview with Awna website attributed the crisis within EDA to two main reasons: firstly, mixing of priorities and the collision this creates with EDA member organisations’ [political] programs; secondly, weakness or absence of [political] maturity in conceptualising and practicing democracy. Finally, Dr Y. Ligiam, among other interesting comments, had this to say:
“The only way forward is that all the opposition elements (block I & II, civil societies, individuals) need to come together to a National Covenant and establish a single objective and a single strategy on how to overthrow the oppressive system. They can exercise their organizational “convictions” and “interests” until the cows come home during the transition period.”
These are some of the views and analysis that surfaced following EDA split. Many others expressed their opinions on the disappointing EDA Second Congress outcome, some objectively whereas others with ill-tempered subjectivity. This author neither will indulge into a discussion that commends one group nor one that denounces another, as such discussion is fruitless. Similarly, I am not suggesting all the above-mentioned commentators did so in their analysis of the subject.
Some may argue that putting EDA split in a historical context is far less important than focusing on the current issues causing friction and disagreements between the two EDA blocks. Under normal circumstance, that is a valid and correct admonition; but I am of the view that EDA split needs to be looked at in a historical context. Problems created in the past often have long-lasting influence on present and future decisions and could hinder progress eventually. The split that occurred within EDA is not new, although the disagreements that emerged during EDA Second Congress has surprised many observers and it also has shocked those concerned with the plight of the Eritrean people and others who gave EDA the benefit of the doubt. Split during EDA Second Congress was remote from the minds of those who were expecting EDA to devise a new strategy in the fight against the Eritrean tyrannical regime. The expectation, on the contrary, was for EDA to emerge from its Second Congress more united, stronger and with a clearer strategy so as to effectively face the dictatorial regime entrenched in Eritrea, proving in the process to the Eritrean people that the Alliance is a better alternative. Naturally, the final outcome of the Second Congress should have been a positive one for many reasons, two of which are explained below:
Firstly, the prolonged suffering of the Eritrean people doesn’t allow for any unnecessary delay in ‘removing’ or ‘changing’ the Eritrean regime. For the Alliance to split when all Eritreans are facing gross injustice is beyond the imagination of the majority of us. Either EDA leaders don’t care about the suffering of the oppressed people and the sorry state of Eritrea or else they don’t understand the real calamity or the grave situation of the country. Secondly, the sensitivity of the timing and the critical time EDA had been faced with in light of the recent political developments in the region and in the international arena should have made it a must to succeed. One of the most relevant developments posing a direct threat to the existence of EDA might have been the positive development in the relationship between the Sudanese and Eritrean governments. Whilst it is a step in the right direction to forge cooperation between the people of these two neighbouring countries, enhanced Sudano-Eritrean relations could also be a threat to EDA existence. The above reasons alone should have been enough drivers for the Alliance to pull together and to encounter political challenges posed to its existence. That didn’t happen!
For an observer familiar with Eritrean politics, it takes little scrutiny to work out that EDA split in its Second Congress is along similar lines that emerged when the one time eminent ELF disintegrated into the small ineffectual factions existing today. That split occurred almost a quarter of a century ago, and no doubt it represents one of the critical moments in the history of the Eritrean struggle for national liberation and political independence. But to be influenced by a crisis that was created such a long time in the past is unjustifiable, especially considering the current situation in Eritrea. Indeed, living in the past and thinking about the past created enormous gap between Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the various ELF factions prior to independence of Eritrea, and between the Eritrean government and the opposition groups post-independence. Ten years would have been enough for the ELF factions to reinvent themselves and be a credible and an effective opposition group. That would have nearly coincided with the liberation of Eritrea in 1991. Today Eritreans wouldn’t have been subjected to PFDJ extreme abuses that emanated from assuming ‘absolute power’ and its attendant arrogance.
Here it would be appropriate to quote the renowned theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, who has a collection of quotes. In one of them, he says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I believe this is the case with most of the Eritrean opposition groups, whose origins can be traced back to when ELF disintegrated. Here, I am not trying to ignore or to downplay the role of other EDA member organisations of a non-ELF descent, but it can be said that their presence within EDA did not play a vital role in shaping the current ‘power struggle.’ The split is a factional fight among the various ELF groups centred on personalities. This must stop if EDA needs to be taken seriously by the Eritrean people!
The need to apply in effect the principle of Einstein’s wisdom was emphasized by ELF-Revolutionary Council representative in Australia, Haile Gebru, in his address to the Eritrean Democratic Forum in Australia held about two weeks prior to EDA Congress. It seems it was a timely reminder to EDA Congress participants to heed that kind of wisdom, but obviously it fell on deaf ears. Most of the Eritrean opposition groups are unable to change the mindset they had when the ELF disintegrated, so they are unable to move forward. Again, failure is attributed to the absence of a mood for a change and the desire for a fresh start! I have deliberately constrained the historical context of this article to post-1981 merely to emphasize the stalemate that has prevailed since the demise of ELF.
For those who are wasting time on bickering, rather than dwelling on the blame shift game, it is obviously better to focus on the future to deliver the desired outcomes. The only beneficiary from the split and the subsequent bickering is the dictatorial regime ruling Eritrea. Factionalism in the opposition prolongs and helps consolidate its grip on power. Let me explain how silly it is to bicker by giving this simple example. Assume you woke up late in the morning and you are rushing to arrive at work in time. Unexpectedly, you find a big stone blocking your car in the driveway. You are faced with the dilemma of removing the stone or finding who placed it in your driveway. You need to decide which choice or course of action is advisable to take? If you are serious about arriving at work in time, the best thing to do is to remove the impediment which is blocking your way. Simple logic informs thus! Similarly, the overarching issue for Eritreans today is regime ‘removal’ or ‘change’. But we should also continually refine our vision of future Eritrea all along.
Turning the attention to the second part of this article, some people have contemplated that EDA split has no ramifications for democracy and national unity. They argue that EDA was established as a short-term ‘tactical’ alliance to unite all opposition forces to effectively fight the tyrannical regime in Eritrea, and therefore, its split has no serious implications to the struggle for a democratic change. The issue of a ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ alliance have recently been discussed in the annual Stockholm Conference organised by the Eritrean Association for Peace and Democracy (EAPD); the terminologies tactical and strategic have been defined by panellists as:
“The terms strategic and tactic are complicated and are used intermittently without clear definitions, but tactic is the method used to achieve short term goals while strategy is the method used to achieve long term objectives. I think alliance building from time of the second world war and up to now has been practised by long term objectives, for example, the countries who won the second world war built alliance and after developed this method further to a union so called today European Union. If the alliance of the Eritrean opposition was based on this principles- thus first allied to win the dictator and later their long term to build democratic Eritrea, therefore it is a strategic but if it is only to win the dictator and then split, then is tactical.”
Ibrahim Mohamnmed Ali, ELF-RC speaker described EDA was a ‘tactical’ alliance and its split didn’t surprise him, but what surprised him was its failure to elect its executive leadership via proper democratic procedures.  The latter point undoubtedly is the saddest episode in the whole saga, as it demonstrates the split was about ‘power struggle’, supporting Salih Younis’s arguments mentioned earlier. The failure to elect the leadership has been condemned by almost everyone who commented on EDA split.
With all due respect to ideas about whether EDA was tactical or strategic alliance, the split is sparking further polarisation of the Eritrean society! Those who can’t see this happening or are contemplating that the problem will recede over a period of time, are under illusion. To suggest that EDA split has no ramifications for democracy and national unity is a gross simplification of an enormous problem. It is true that EDA has never been instrumental in mobilising the Eritrean population to rise massively and to stand up against the dictator with great courage and determination. Also, EDA has never been an inspirational organisation with most of its leaders lacking long-term strategic vision and other leadership qualities that would have enabled them to achieve their political aspirations. It is also true that most of EDA’s leaders have never convinced a large portion of the Eritrean population to unite behind the umbrella organisation. These are facts observable to most Eritreans and can hardly be disputed.
But to be fair, there is one thing EDA has achieved prior to its split in February this year. The umbrella organisation at least created a forum for dialogue among Eritreans and brought together the diverse Eritrean political groups – perhaps for the first time – into a negotiating table. The Alliance was as diverse as it could be for a small population of the size of Eritrea, although some may argue that diversity could be good and bad. Its make-up was almost inclusive of all the multi-ethnic and multi-religious groups of Eritrea, and this heterogeneity would have been a recipe for success if proper conflict resolution procedures existed. Practically, the creation of EDA was a first good step towards practicing democracy in Eritrean politics. Indeed, in my opinion, one of the achievements of EDA prior to its split in February this year was the initiation of ‘consensus-based’ democratic process and for this alone, the founding member organisations should be commended.
However, the split has nullified any progress. Unfortunately, the failure of EDA member organisations to reach some consensus in their last congress has serious implications for democracy in Eritrea and a likely setback for national unity. How? The leaders of these divided groups can easily influence their constituents – as we see it happening now – and this is sparking further division and polarisation of the Eritrean society. To ignore this grim reality can be interpreted as a denial of the present situation.
Also to be fair to EDA’s leaders, it is important to say this: whilst leadership is important for moving foreword, I am equally convinced that sometimes ‘good’ leaders face challenges beyond their means to rectify. This is particularly so in the case of the Eritrean society, which assigns all failures to its leaders. Although there are no good reasons for EDA to split early this year, the leaders should not always be accountable for all failures that are beyond their means to identify and then fix. The way forward is to embrace “Top-bottom” and “Bottom-up” accountability, and not only blaming the leaders all the time. The Awate Team, in its Pencil editorial of 1 June 2007 wrote an instructive article titled “Be The Alternative You Seek.” The relevant part of the editorial to this article is the last section, “Do Something – But Do It Right”, where the Awate Team clearly articulates everyone has a role to play, and not making the failure of our opposition groups to achieve tangible outcomes an excuse for inaction.
To sum up, the recurrence of the ‘split-merger-split’ phenomenon has become a norm and a standard practice within the Eritrean opposition politics. It is frustrating at best and demoralising at worst for those who are eagerly and enthusiastically advocating for a better change in Eritrea. The two EDA ‘Blocks’ now remain to be seen whether they are also unpopular as their predecessor single EDA or they will deliver outcomes that will make them relevant. The concern about the split is, it is along unhealthy (ethnic/ religious/regional) lines, which could jeopardise the road to democracy and a much-needed national unity. Just to reiterate, the split of EDA is a test for Eritrean democracy and a major challenge for national unity. The question is, what type of democracy is suitable for Eritrea and what type of national unity we want? This will be a subject of analysis in a future article.
 People’s Front for Justice and Democracy
 The reader can refer to the Eritrean Political Organisations chart produced by the Awate Team.
 For a longer and earlier historical context than discussed here, the reader can refer to an excellent article written by Mr. Abdurazig Karrar. His article is titled “EDA crisis viewed from a wide angle [or perspective].” I come to agree with his deep analysis of the most contentious issues dividing the Eritrean society.
Ibrahim Mohamnmed Ali is a person of great intellect, reflected in his capacity to comprehensibly answer those intriguing questions presented to him by two rising star journalists, Abdurazig Karrar and Jamal Humed of Adoulis.com