All of us could claim that we are for unity, and for sure we are all against polarization which horrifies us terribly. However, the methods we choose may go astray and cause us commit the sin that we do not intend to commit. That is why many writers are hinting that it is high time to look into the structure we today know as the Eritrean National Alliance and see if it is polarizing those of us in the opposition or not. Like many compatriots, I wished to see its development, its restructuring, its transformation into a better tool for our struggle for unity, change and democratisation. One cannot conceal the concern one has about its current shape, its failure to represent the genuine wishes and aspirations of the innocent nation waiting for something to come from us. Of course it is not representative. It is not even capable to accomplish what the nation is waiting for.
To restate the fact, there was nothing wrong with its establishment. It was given birth at a time when all those in the opposition agreed to settle on a minimum programme acceptable to all to start with. Under prevailing circumstances of March 1999, helping hands were welcome to help to a certain degree. It was not the fault of the opposition if there was imbalance in social/geographical composition of the organizations that made up the then Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF). Yet, one can reasonably ask questions today as to why there was no improvement in the structure and the composition of the alliance at least since the emergence of dissidents from within the PFDJ regime as of the summer of 2000. Three years had passed and only reverses were registered in the alliance. In fact, Dr. Beyene Kidane, the former head of the Information Office of the ELF-RC, correctly described the new situation in a public commentary/message he personally wrote and had it read over the ELF-RC international radio broadcast, Voice of Democratic Eritrea, in December 2002. He aptly stated:
“Comparing the so-called revised Charter of the Eritrean National Alliance with the previous document, we can dare say that it is a step backward (kem shinti gemel ndaHar temelisu knibil zedfrenayu). If it is not taken care of as of now, the new Charter is carrying in its belly explosives dangerous for our future. One of the dangers is the controversial provision that states: ‘Followers of the Islamic faith in our country can be guided by Sharia law in all matters of life’. We can say that our forefathers were more enlightened than what we are [introducing] today because they wisely limited the practice of Sharia laws only to specific matters like matrimony, divorce and inheritance...Won’t this revised [ENA Charter] encourage the creation of hostile religious blocks which did not exist in our past? In our [ELF-RC] opinion, it is only the establishment of a secular democratic State and by separating religion from the State that we can guarantee as before a peaceful and harmonious co-existence of our multiple cultural and religious reality. And above all, what we will have to respect is the will of the people and not the desires and wishes of those Moslem elite who claim to be knowledgeable [of what should be done]...”.
The good doctor (a veterinarian) also strongly expressed his antipathy to the new provision in the ENA Charter about “the right of nationalities for self-determination” and condemned what he called “ethnic elites” and “ethnic mobilizers” for promoting this divisive and highly disruptive ideas at the level of a ‘national’ Charter. Dr. Beyene concluded his article by the following words:
“ As we [ELF-RC] see it, the ENA has moved many steps backwards instead of going forward. The main reason is that it did not yet develop the [required] national consciousness that can inspire it to work for the loftier action of national salvation. Instead, it is mired in narrow group and individual self-interests and calculations. If the Alliance is ever to remove the question marks handing over it, and evolve into a capable and credible body in the eyes of the entire nation, it will have to correct its past mistakes, make full review of its past actions and inactions, and make a new start. It will have to be mindful of the past failed alliances in the [Eritrean] arena. Otherwise, Eritrea belongs to all of its people and it is possible that the [ENA] can be superseded by other emerging developments.” [Added emphases are mine].
That was Dr Beyene Kidane at his best eight monthly. I have quoted him quite extensively because I could not express the ideas we jointly shared then more eloquently. What Dr. Beyene missed to add here was the fact that the ELF-RC delegation at the 5th ENA meeting of October 2002 in Addis Ababa took six days of the sessions to argue against the two provisions Dr. Beyene commented above. In addition, the ELF-RC delegation pressed to introduce the principle of proportional representation at the leadership of the Alliance but had no success in all counts. In addition to all these, the ENA unwisely suspended membership of an organization as important as the ELF-RC and then exacerbated differences within it. Equally disturbing was to watch the ENA condoning the violation of the rule of law and democratic procedures of an Eritrean organization like the ELF-RC by a breakaway minority group that took hostage an entire organization. (Unfortunately, Ahmed Nasser’s side believed it held the magic name of a ‘known leader’ and the trump card of keeping intact the socio-religious diversity in the ELF-RC, and wanted more than two-thirds of the RC to bend to its will unconditionally. As usual, the Eritrean elite remained docile at a crucial time for the opposition. The only input so far was the regrettable ridicule and mockery from an unexpected angle to a section of the affected organization. Apparently, the derisive and biased language from Awate.com was far from being reconciliatory, to say the least.)
In short, the ENA has not proven itself that it will grow into a viable, all inclusive national coalition. It has been reluctant in the past three years to reform itself. As the 18 August 2003 press release of the International Relations Bureau of the ELF (led by Abdalla Idris) belatedly but correctly stated, the creation of the existing alliance has remained an ‘inadequate response’ to the demands of the period. The statement further noted that we cannot let “single member organizations [to] continue to have the last say in the Alliance’s policy making” and that this existing Alliance “can no more postpone its own restructuring.” The said statement concluded : “If we do not learn form our history, that same failure will replicate the tragic predicament that followed the dissolution of the ‘Independence Bloc’, and [that failure] is still haunting us as a people and a nation”.
But so far, Abdalla Idris and the rest of the top leadership of the ENA had done practically nothing other than plunging the alliance into a serious crisis that affected the entire opposition for a whole year. The ENA leadership repeatedly made it clear that it is not yet ready to restructure the alliance and improve its image. Instead, the leadership assisted in worsening the situation by its suspension of the ELF-RC, and worse still by ENA’s disastrous position on the ELF-RC crisis.
The current situation is frightening indeed. Everyone of us may by now have the feeling that the much dreaded polarization is at our door-steps. For this reason, I feel everyone of us for sure has his/her ideas of how best we should stop it and handle our problems in the opposition in order to come out with an effective tool for change, peace and democratization.
I do not see that the existing alliance, as it now stands, can go far in consolidating the entire opposition. I believe that those Eritreans who fervently think it can make it are utterly wrong. Since we all say that the structure is in dire need of urgent overhauling, let us start doing just that. At this point in time, some Eritreans have better vantage-point than others to address the malaise. If not, the steadily growing polarization can reach a stage that will not be salvaged by any redoubling of collective efforts in the future.
(The text below is an addendum to the above article on polarization. It was posted in Awate.com in April 2001 under the sub-title of ‘Are We Polarized?’under my series on ‘Reconciliation and National Unity: Vital Terms in Eritrean Politics’. The article was partly a criticism to Dr. Tekie Fessehazion’s allegation that the Awate.com was promoting hidden or ‘subliminal sectarianism’ for its then timid support to the old opposition. Dr. Tekie was sounding like the PFDJ dictator when he talked of ‘we’ and ‘they’ of Eritreans and asked his ‘we’ camp to forget the old opposition when he wrote: “It is time to go without them”. The following excerpts from that article are hoped to add some elucidation on the meaning of polarization.