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| Interview: Dr. Habte Tesfamariam on the ELF-RC Split
By Saleh Gadi
Sep 28, 2003, 12:26 PST
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Interview Reference: Acronyms, Names & Shorthand
|Shorthand/Accronym||Relevance To Story/Interview|
|RC:||Stands for “Revolutionary Council.” It is the legislative arm of the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC.) Sometimes, “RC” is also used as shorthand for ELF-RC, to distinguish it from other organizations with ELF prefix to their names.|
A city in Northwestern Ethiopia where the ELF-RC held its 5th National Congress in August 2001. Used as short hand because previous ELF-RC congresses were held either in Eritrea or the Sudan, but not in Ethiopia. Significance to story: Mr. Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, who was then the chairman of the ELF-RC as well as the chairman of the Eritrean Alliance, the umbrella of the Eritrean opposition groups, could not muster enough votes to be a member of the RC. Mr. Ahmed Mohammed Nasser was elected chairman.
|2nd Session of RC:||Held in August 2002, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Significance to story: Mr. Seyoum Ogbamichael replaced Mr. Ahmed Nasser as Chairman of ELF-RC|
|“Alliance meeting” or “Addis Abeba”||5th Ordinary session of the Eritrean National Alliance held in October 2002, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Significance to story: the Alliance abandoned its “rotating chairmanship” model for a more permanent Secretariat. Mr. Herui T. Bairou, a recent member of the Eritrean Alliance, was elected Secretary General. Relevance: ELF-RC delegates—the recently elected ELF-RC Chair, Mr. Seyoum Ogbamichael, and the recently deposed ELF-RC Chair, Mr. Ahmed Mohammed Nasser--staged a walk-out from the meeting.|
Dr. Habte Tesfamariam is a veteran member and leader of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and, after its split, the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council (ELF-RC.) His involvement in Eritrea’s liberation struggle dates back to the 1960’s, when he was co-founder of the Eritrean students movement in Europe. We invited him to provide us his insight on the recent split of the ELF-RC. We have also extended an invitation to another RC member to provide us his perspective on the split, so readers can have a more complete picture to draw their own conclusions. Saleh Gadi conducted the interview:
1 - Dr. Habte, there is a confusion that I would like you to clarify: what was your position in the RC… because there were two spokesperson’s position, one position, spokesman for the organization, ELF- RC, held by you, and another spokesman of the RC held by Ibrahim Mohammed Ali. What is the difference between the two?
I was the spokesman for the whole organization while Ibrahim’s position is similar to that of the president/speaker of the parliament in a government... he would receive reports from the executive officials, take care of meeting logistics and call for meetings… the two are different positions.
2- Alright. In 1991, Isaias made his notorious statement, “nay wdbat Hashewye aykhllun Eyu”… [No more will there be hashewye (circuitous activity) of the fronts] which was understood by many in the opposition to mean that there will not be pluralistic politics in Eritrea, while his supporters understood it to mean there will not be partisan conflicts that will drag on and on. Would you not agree that the 12 months that was consumed by the RC internal conflicts was in fact a typical Hashewye?
Isaias’ statement was not related to what happened to the RC. His remarks were typical of an oppressor who gets his prestige by squashing any opposition… it is typical of an oppressor who promotes his name and eminence by belittling his opposition. The crisis within the RC has its causes-- many made extensive, tireless efforts to contain the crisis and it is sad that we did not manage to contain it before causing the damage that we witnessed…
3- You have said that you--meaning the ELF-RC leadership--has failed. Outside the Third World, in politics, failure is associated with a price. What is the price that the ELF-RC leadership will pay for its failure? To date, the RC leadership has not apologized to the Eritrean people. What is the meaning of "accountability" if people don't even admit their errors, much less correct and take responsibility for them?
What you said is absolutely correct. Principled leadership must be accountable to its failures and should present an apology to the Eritrean people… but in Eritrean politics the truth is, “success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.” In our political history, it is very rare that failed leaders accepted their failure and apologized to the people… that is why, instead of accepting and correcting our mistakes, we keep repeating the same errors…
As far as the price is concerned, many unscrupulous leaders… in one way or another have paid it. Even Isaias is not ruling the country in the way he wanted… and I hope he will pay a bigger price in the near future. The RC, as a collective leadership, is already paying the price. The acceptance of RC by our people as a principled leadership is no longer there… and individual leaders of the RC who threw the bomb over the organization will pay a dearer price because our people… in politics… are very sensitive and are able to judge the acts of their leaders.
Being a member of this leadership, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Eritrean people for the failure of not keeping the ELF-RC in tact and not leading the opposition to a complete success as the people had hoped.
4- What have you learned from this debacle…?
Our organization was hit at its foundations… it is not different than the splits we went through during the days of the struggle…. Owning responsibility was lacking…the crisis happened at a time when the ELF-RC started to regain its fame and prestige; wider acceptance from our people and improved performance internationally… the crisis happened in such situations and it is a confusion, Zergi... it is against our principles… Mainly, it is the mistrust among the members that led to the split.
For twenty years, we have been building this organization: stone by stone, brick by brick. And when we were gaining much hope, the crisis flared… it is sad that so much damage could be done in a matter of months…and many principled members were saddened... ELF-RC was an organization that was an example for the opposition and our society; however, sadly it was overtaken by the ailment of splitting…the worst is the manner and method of the split… it is risky for the future.
You see, destruction is easy and not much energy and time is needed to do it. Building is more difficult. Still, the foundation of the struggle is there and our people will rebuild the ELF-RC and, together with other organizations, we will continue to struggle to break the shackles holding our nation.
5- Dr. Habte, you say it took you 20 years to rebuild the ELF "brick-by-brick" after its disintegration in 1982. Why wouldn't a student of history be justified in believing it will take you another twenty years to re-build the ELF-RC that has just been shaken at its roots?
This is a logical question but it cannot be mathematically calculated. A political organization, according to my knowledge, is the principle, the commitment, the strategy, political program, the process and the road map by which you can reach your final goal, which is the maximum program. That is why I am suggesting to go on the road map half way and concentrate on removing the oppressive dictator in Eritrea and democratize ourselves and our people in transferring power peacefully. Then, to complete the road map, the maximum program of a re-organized ELF-RC can be accomplished even as a party in free Eritrea.
6- You talk about mistrust as the cause for the ELF-RC split. How is it possible that a group of people who went through difficult and tough times for decades would have hidden mistrust that was not evident to the public, including those who observed your organization closely?
The mistrust was not old; it started, unfortunately, just before the 5th National Congress in Gonder [in Ethiopia, in August-September 2001…]
There were conflicts within the Executive Committee of the ELF-RC and those conflicts sipped down to the bases. The involvement of the chairman to be part of the conflict has exasperated the situation. Before the congress, we had committees formed to resolve these problems and we thought we had reached a stage where they were solved. But the conflict was widened and, in Gonder, Ibrahim [Mohammed Ali] was not elected as full member to the RC.
7- Is that the main cause for what followed next?
The congress was adjourned with a few of the members considering the result [Ibrahim not elected and replaced by Ahmed Nasser] as a coup d’etat while others saw it as an outcome of a democratic process. But we never thought the issue was pending; we thought the issue was behind us.
8- So then, what made it become the cause of the crisis that followed?
There were those members of the leadership who were not happy with the outcome and they started to design to change the chairman right away. And the worst part of it all was that they started to bring wounding and sensitive religious justifications for their convictions. We never elected officials based on their religious or other identities; it was always a consensus. The idea of advocating the change of the chairman based on religious grounds caused the mistrust to begin.
9- Are you talking of what happened at the Gonder meeting?
That was in September 2001. Immediately after the congress, one of our colleagues in the leadership described the result of the election as “This is a coup d’etat, a repetition of Rasai” and that Ahmed Nasser was given only one year to stay as a chairman. Such sentiment simmered until its climax in the second regular meeting of the RC, where the situation exploded.
10- Would you be specific Dr? What religious justifications? Would you explain it?
There is a Tigrinya saying: Entezeytdef’aani Men Mewdeqeni [I would not have fallen, had you not pushed me]. The campaign was waged among some Christian members only. The campaigners were careful lest the excluded Moslems know about it. Eleven Moslem members I can remember off my head were kept in the dark and were kept excluded from the campaign.
11- Could you tell us the names of those you could mention from the top of your head? Those you say were excluded?
Yes, the eleven who were excluded were: 1) Abdella Hassen 2) Hamid Mahmoud 3) Negash Osman 4) Mohammed Omer Yehya 5) Ahmed Nasser 6) Osman Shum 7) Hassen Eman 8) Mohammed Jabir 9) Yousif Berhanu 10) Osman Mohammed 11) Dini Ismael.
12- You talk of people--Muslims--who were excluded from consultations. What was the format of these "consultations"? Were they e-mail groups? One-on-one meetings? Secret meetings? Could there be an innocent explanation for these exclusions?
One can make consultations through different means… and I cannot make any parameter for its format… but it is the intent of the consultation that is important… As far as I know, there were factional consultations within the RC. There was some e-mail that leaked… about which I had been informed. There were one-on-one meetings; for example, I was informed of that by the main campaigner during the ELF-RC festival in Kassel. I have also heard of secret meetings of some RC members in Kassel and another broader one in Wabishebelli Hotel in Addis Ababa… both of the latter meetings [Kassel and Addis] I cannot confirm.
If it were innocent, was there any need for exclusions? That is why when I was informed in Kassel I took it quite normal and innocent. But when I went to Addis for the RC meeting the picture was absolutely different -- when I saw the exclusions I immediately saw the danger, which was hanging over the organization. It was in such situation that I gave my speech on the risk of the split of the organization, which, unfortunately, came to be a reality.
13- What, in your view, was the result of the machinations you just explained?
It was the plots, maneuvers and secrecy that were carried out to effect the election of Seyoum [Ogbamichael] as Chairman to replace Ahmed Nasser.
14- But how is that different from the previous election where Ahmed Nasser replaced Ibrahim Mohammed Ali?
There was no comparison at all between the two elections. We had chairmanship crisis prior to the session in Gonder. I, myself, had been approached by some members to take the Chairmanship, which I declined because I was not ready for that position. Then, they assigned me to convince Ahmed Nasser to accept that position [of chairmanship] and it took me three evenings to convince him to accept, which he did.
But in Addis, when the nomination started, I stood and said that “what is being followed in electing the chairman is a dangerous precedent; some in the meeting knew it and others did not…” and I continued, “let’s talk here why we are changing the chairman and, when we elect, let’s have consensus. The manner of the campaign is neither democratic nor in the culture of the ELF-RC.” And I explained to them the history of splits within the ELF and how they happened -- one by one, starting from Isaias to Sabbe to EDM and Herui to Abdella Idris and Sagem. And I warned that we couldn’t be exempted from the split, if we follow the method that we were pursuing.
15- Regardless of your arguments, the majority was convinced of the counter-argument. And they elected Seyoum Ogbamichael.
All right. I have also mentioned this. I had said, “Raising hands and being counted is not enough for democracy. Democracy is an all-inclusive tool … especially in our situation, it should be more comprehensive than votes or selective attitude.” That is when one of the campaigners angrily stood up and said “What Habte is saying is a mischief to stop us from the election process so that some candidates would leave before they are elected” and another stood and said that my comments were “sabotage”… but regardless, I continued my speech against what I considered an ensuing split…
16- And the split happened anyway?
Unfortunately, yes. I didn’t succeed in preventing it; we failed there. You see, if a tree is hit at its roots, it will be damaged; the RC was hit at its roots and the split happened. And the sad thing that caused it was this: since we didn’t elect our chairman by consensus, he was preoccupied with protecting his authority exposing the organization to great risks. He just lacked the self-confidence that comes with being elected by a great majority or consensus.
17- But what you are leveling against your ex-colleagues is very serious allegation, Habte. And I don’t see that the split was based on religious basis, although we have seen many members who were trying hard to give it a religiously motivated cause. How come there are followers of both faiths, Moslems and Christians, in both camps of the now-split RC?
Of course, there were some Moslems in the split. The roots were destroyed, as I mentioned earlier. Consider the message of our colleagues, those who campaigned for Seyoum, have referred to the others as “ethnic groupies.” “Ethnic groupies have gone to the Alliance.” The right question would be, “Who made them?’” Furthermore, the “ethnic groupie” remark is an insult. They are dedicated strugglers; they are full time strugglers with the exception of one or two members. It is a serious provocation to exclude people and then call them, “Ethnic Groupies.” The question is why exclude a group of people and, ironically, once you have excluded them, why call them groupie? This is why I think there is similarity with our past…
18- But the accusations are mutual and identical: one part accusing the other for causing the split and calling each other splinter groups. How do you explain the similarity of the accusations being hurled by each party against the other?
It is not who split and who is a splinter that is important; it is the cause, the cause of the split, which is important. Truly, I have colleagues in both camps and I believe in minimum programs and the main minimum program is the conviction that power would be transferred peacefully and democratically after the regime [PFDJ] is pushed.
I don’t like to be involved in such criticisms and allegations but I have a reason. I saw all of these developments in their historical context and the relevance they had, and the similarities with what happened in our history. I like to follow historical ends, study them, and analyze them. History is lessons we learn and not knowledge we boast about….
Religious and ethnic problems are not new to Eritrea… and the process that followed the split within the RC made me compare it with historical incidents that had similar characteristics. Why are they repeatedly hammering the ENA as Islamic, etc? This is what the EPLF did in the past: in order to create a platform for itself to mobilize Christians, it repeatedly hammered the ELF as an Islamic organization. The same trend is being repeated here. Religious and ethnic feelings were not used only by those who wanted to protect their power; they were also used by those who were filled with hate and narrow feelings.
19- Please be specific, Doctor. What is the “historical context” and its relevance to the current split of the RC?
Certainly. Even those who were not involved in power struggle and competition fell in that trap, the religious mobilization trap. Our much-respected patriot, Ato Weldeab Weldemariam had also committed such mistakes.
But first, let me ask the reader to understand this: I am not saying this to accuse Aboy Weldeab or to minimize his role in the struggle for the independence of our country. It is also not my intention to minimize the struggle of the EPLF that was waged to accomplish the independence of Eritrea. I mention this to give the reader a historical perspective so that, maybe, we can understand the risks more clearly and try to find a solution for them.
In July of 1968, the Eritrean students union in Europe passed a resolution to meet Eritrean students in the Middle East and to meet with the Supreme Council of the ELF. In my capacity as the Chairman of the students union in Europe, I led a delegation to Cairo for that meeting. We traveled there to meet with Eritrean students and members of the Supreme Council and to report to our union when we return. I met with the late Idris Mohammed Adem, who was surprised to find out that Eritrean students in Europe struggled for the liberation of Eritrea...
20- Didn’t he know that?
He said that he thought we struggled for the goal of making Ethiopia a republic [a feudal monarchy under Emperor Haile Sellassie]. I myself was surprised because we had been communicating with the leadership since 1963 and we were sending them copies of letters we sent to the UN.
Then we met with Ato Weldeab who we had been corresponding with since 1965. He talked to us for hours and gave us a lot of encouragement and boosted our morale and concluded by saying, “The conviction that I’ve reached through analysis tells me that Eritrea will be free and there is going to be a free country called Eritrea.” And we left. Later, he sent a messenger who told me Aboy Weldeab wanted to meet with me in private.
When we met, he told me about the peaceful struggle he and his colleagues waged, the political parties of the forties, about the individuals of the time, about the “Aynfelale” [Let’s not be disunited] slogan of the Zemen newspaper, about the symbolism of seven Moslems and seven Christians sharing a meal together. We talked for five hours. The history part was very encouraging and enlightening to me. But then he arrived at the sixties and the ELF, of which I was a part and the talk became a debate.
I met him six times. And in one of those sessions, he said to me: “My son Habte, what is called ‘Jebha’ is a Moslem organization; it is not our organization. If we as Christians are to participate in this struggle, first we must form a Christian organization. And when we build an army equal to their army, we say to them, here, you have this much army and we have this much army; therefore, let’s combine them together and lead them equally.”
When he said this to me, I was stunned and, for minutes, I could not say anything. After a while, I overcame my shock and suggested to him the following: “why don’t you, the elder politicians, form a parliament in exile and let the field commanders take care of the tasks in the field?” I also mentioned to him the fact that among them they have Idris Mohammed Adem, and Tedla Bairu, both known ex-parliamentarians, as well as himself, as the leader of the Eritrean labor movement and other qualified persons…
21- And what was your reply to his views of considering the ELF a Moslem organization and suggesting the formation of a Christian organization?
I told him that I can’s swallow his reasoning and that was not the understanding that I had when I came to Cairo...
22- What was your understanding?
My understanding was that we were beyond these views and that our unity was not in question… and what minor issues we had we should find other solutions…
23- Like what?
It is true the ELF started with a predominantly Moslem membership. And that is owing to social and historical reasons. The solution should be different from what he envisioned. Whatever the formation of the organization, we should encourage and have the Christians, or the Kebessa people, to participate heavily so that we achieve a fair and equitable representation. I told Ato Weldeab that his views were dangerous because we are not talking of normal civilian situation but of people who would carry guns. And that such views would cause a civil war. And I told him that I would still continue my struggle within the ELF.
24- What was his reaction to your views?
He didn’t like it. The way I see it, in hindsight, the idea was long impregnated and came to life a little later…and the revolution was not successful because of that but because the people supported it… but those views were the cause of civil wars and destruction… I bring up this issue because it caused destruction and I have the moral obligation to bring this to the attention of the public because we should not allow this to happen again. Seeing the reasoning behind what happened in the RC’s second meeting, I see similarities and I will not allow myself to be dragged into it and I have decided to struggle with the part that I believe in…. it is fair.
25- Did you ever meet Aboy Weldeab again?
I did. In 1976, after I came to Cairo from Lusaka. I met him in the Somali Embassy in Cairo.
26- The Lusaka kidnap attempt, I know this is a digression, but would you tell us about that before we continue?
It is a long story, so let’s leave the details for another time.
When I was attending the OAU Liberation Committee and Afro-Arab conference in Lusaka, the Somali Ambassador was tipped about an Ethiopian plan to kidnap me from the plane. I was at the airport, about to board a flight when the Somali Ambassador in Dar Es Salam came and saved me. I had money, and documents of the ELF, which I handed to him and it was sent to the Somali Embassy in Cairo. I went there to collect it, and that’s where I met again Aboy Weldeab…
Of course we talked and he asked me “do you remember, Habte Wedey [Habte, my son] the case we discussed long ago, and the idea you rejected?” And I told him, “Yes I remember it very well” and asked him if he remembers the risk I feared about creating another force and that what he promised was not completed and the risk was not avoided: simply because he [Isaias] had Sabbe on his side did not mean that his organization was inclusive.” He replied, “now it is not up to me; it is beyond me and it is the responsibility of us all.” He recognized that the authority had been taken by others in the field, mainly Isaias.
27- So you are saying the other part of the RC [RC Frankfurt] is following the path of religious rivalry?
They still haven’t reached that stage. What I am saying is that their propaganda and actions are irresponsible and very risky and I cannot be part of it. I cannot struggle in that system because my conscience will not allow me to. But still, I have principled colleagues in both parties of the RC and someday…
28- But the RC members have been very effective in burning the bridges behind them. What good is friendship without bridges that you all burned as if you were not going to need again to cross to each other? Are you accusing your ex-colleagues with sectarianism and religious rivalry?
I cannot accuse Weldeyessus Ammar and Ibrahim Mohammed Ali with sectarianism. But this is what I make out of it and that is what I saw in the process over the last few years.
29- How could a Moslem, for example Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, be part of a Christian scheme as your explanation a while ago?
The scheme is not religious per se; it is power and social consensus considerations. Religion here is being used as a tool and not as a faith or in a sectarian self-centered manner.
30- But then religion has been used to mobilize the people in different phases of our history. Could the reasoning of having a Christian leader, instead of a Moslem leader, have some merit as explained by Weldeyessus Ammar?
It is true. Let’s take Ibrahim Sultan, for example. Shekh Ibrahim told his colleagues, who were more traditional Christians, that he would organize and mobilize the Moslem constituency and lead them to struggle for the independence of Eritrea. It was transparent and a political calculation which he reached with his allies, the Christians who blessed his action, and he delivered. He mobilized the Moslem population and made it a national force under the Independence Block.
Our colleagues could have argued their views openly to all concerned members of the RC. We would have treated it as a political matter. They could have made their argument that Isaias is using the religion card and we can face him effectively by putting a Christian leader. Probably, we would have found a political solution. But they chose to do their campaign in secrecy and by excluding others. That created suspicion and mistrust. And that is why I don’t think it was an innocent calculation.
31- But then the ENA could have elected Herui T Bairou because he is a Christian. Wouldn’t that possibly be a political calculation as well?
But power hunger is blind; it is not only love that is blind. The fact that Herui would be in a higher position than Seyoum was not accepted.
32- “Where to Now”?
We cannot work together on a maximum program, because we lost trust among each other. But a minimum program could accommodate us all. We are in a peaceful political struggle and we couldn’t transfer power democratically. I would say that what we need is a common muscle that would have two driving objectives, 1) to get rid of the oppressive regime in our country and 2) to agree on transferring authority democratically. At this moment, we can only meet on minimum programs.
33- As ELF RC 1 and ELF-RC 2… or RC Kassel and RC Frankfurt?
We can have an extension and continue. A name is just a name, identification. It is part of our history… nothing new.
34- In the meantime, you both claim legitimacy to inherit the legacy of the ELF?
The legacy belongs to anyone who would be able to succeed in establishing a national democratic system in Eritrea. No one can claim it beforehand. For now, we are all RC.
35- Tell me something about the October 25, 2002 debacle in the ENA… the walkout and what followed?
The Alliance is an organization that we are proud of and honored to have…. We in the RC have presented the Alliance as if it was going towards being one force… we made statements to that effect. It was said within the RC that we shouldn’t inform the public as if we were forming one unified organization. The Alliance charter was not well understood by the public and we didn’t do a good job in explaining it. However, the walkout was contrary to our pride in the Alliance. If we didn’t like the Charter, we should have been prepared to debate issues and register our reservations. And before taking major decisions, the decisions should have been presented to the RC for ratification.
36- You are saying the Chairman took decisions that should have been ratified before he does so?
37- Alright. Let’s clarify some confusion: we have election of Herui, foreign interference, article 3 and 4 of the Alliance Charter, etc. Successive reasons were being presented for the separation. What is the central problem?
Since Herui was given full membership and the RC didn’t object, he has a right to be elected and that is not an issue. The articles, 3 & 4, are internal issue that should be debated…
38- But Seyoum [Ogbamichael] and Ahmed [Nasser] knew this fact when they walked out from the meeting and the crisis started?
Yes, they knew it. It was all about power protection.
39- Both of them were protecting power; you mean protecting the power of the RC?
Yes, they were protecting the RC power…
40- And how did you, the RC, deal with that… did you settle the issue?
Of course we did. They were both criticized for it.
41- Did they admit their mistake?
We are not keen on criticism but looking into the issues objectively…
42- Wait a minute. A decision, a major decision has been taken. Don’t you think you should see the underlying causes to rectify a mistake if you recognize it as one?
They were criticized because they first accepted article 3 and 4 without registering their reservation when they should have and walked out during the election time, which they shouldn’t have done. Even now, we are still asking the ENA and we are continuing the dialogue regarding article 3 and 4… we in the RC still believe that those two articles should be either taken off the ENA Charter or at least be frozen until a time when they pass through a referendum. We believe that it is a constitutional issue and must be seen in that light. That is what we believe in and that is what we are debating in a calm way. But that was not their issue. I believe it was an excuse for a premeditated move.
43- What premeditated move?
The premeditated move for the split. Seyoum had already started to say “we” and “them” and his exclusionist attitude was worsening. Whatever was happening was happening with the backdrop of mistrust and there was confusion. And all of that started because Ibrahim Mohammed Ali was not elected to the RC [in Gonder.] Surprisingly, until he became the chairman, Seyoum was keeping a low profile but once elected, he started to act aggressively..
44- Do you think there was a plot and conspiracy in not electing Ibrahim [Mohammed Ali] to the RC?
Honestly, I was surprised that he was not elected. But I understood why many members didn’t elect him. And I told him that he was given a political sentence by the electors.
45- So here we have three conflicting stories for the disintegration of the ELF-RC and the eventual divorce with the Alliance. You are saying that it was because Ibrahim Mohammed Ali's people were upset that their man was replaced by Ahmed Nasser [in Gonder, in August 2001]. Some are saying that it was because Ahmed Nasser's people were upset that their man was replaced by Seyoum Ogbamichael [in Addis, in August 2002.] Some are saying that it was because Seyoum Ogbamichael's people were upset that Herui Tedla Bairou was elected to a position that Seyoum Ogbamichael was gunning for [in Addis, in October 2002.] Doesn't this really vindicate critics who say that the opposition is far more interested in individual and organizational ambitions and the people's agenda mean next to nothing to them?
Let me try to make my explanation very clear. Ibrahim Mohammed Ali’s supporters were upset because they believed that he was removed from the RC by a “conspiracy” and they were looking for vengeance. Any leader who has the people’s agenda, and unless it is a difference of principles, does not go for a split. Other differences should be presented for dialogue and compromise. Such a leader uses his utmost capacity with patience for the integrity of his organization and unity of his people. Unfortunately, all splits within the Eritrean organizations happened by forgetting or abandoning the principles and priorities.
46- Is it fair to say that given its recent experience the ELF-RC cannot possibly play a leadership role?
It is unfair to say that the ELF-RC cannot possibly play a leadership role. I still believe that there are principled leaders in both of the RC factions. The experience of the ELF-RC and its political program has a big potential for the future development of our country. I believe very much in collective leadership and it is the only way Eritrea can be governed safely.
47- When the split of the RC occurred, many members of the RC made public statements regarding their stands, others didn’t. You didn’t make a public statement, why?
First, I wanted to give myself a chance. And besides, I don’t want to pass without criticizing Ahmed Nasser and Dr. Beyene. I believe there was a better way. Then I opposed the principle of splitting… and the perceptions that were being promoted along religious and other sensitive lines… I didn’t want to confuse the grassroots of the organization with a power related splitting that damaged the whole organization… I don’t need to declare anything regarding an organization that is split into two; there isn’t a new organization that was born: it is the same RC. Though Seyoum says that there is no split and that it is only a group who left the organization. I opposed him on that characterization, in public, in Frankfurt [at the festival.]
48- Let me digress a bit and ask you about one single article [“RC & Its Spinning Bottle”] that created a lot of anger among one part of the RC split, the Frankfurt RC. When awate.com published a table listing the names of the RC leadership including what it considered their stand in regards to the split, some junior members of the split were so angered and started to attack awate.com. What do you think was the reason?
I think they wanted to shape the perception of the crisis as if it was just a few people leaving the organization based on ethnic and religious grounds. The table exposed this wrong propaganda and showed that the crisis was in fact a split. The table also showed that the defamation--ethnic, religious, etc--was not true and therefore it spoiled the plans that would have misled the people in knowing about the crisis.
49- How did you personally react… or how did you feel about it when you saw it first?
My reaction was positive. I think it was a wonderful job and awate has done a great public service by introducing the main players of the RC to the public. There are many dedicated patriotic strugglers in the RC and they should be presented to the people in different ways. But “The RC Spinning Bottle”… even with the few minor errors… it was all right with me because awate.com asked for corrections and encouraged the concerned to challenge the contents of the table… I was glad you introduced the names to the public… I believe it is the responsibility of the media to act as an ombudsman of the people in dealing with politicians… I was happy the table, the Spinning Bottle, was published.
49- Gerezgheir Tewelde [Gere Tewelde, an influential and respected RC leader] makes the following argument: even if you are unhappy with the leadership of the Chairman, you are still bound by organizational rules and you should have followed them and waited until the next election cycle. In other words, follow the rules whether you are winning or losing. What is your response to people like Gere who argue that Ahmed Nasser and Dr. Beyene were willing to play by the rules only so long as they were winning but once they were in a minority, they decided to circumvent the rules?
In the first place I am not defending or justifying anybody’s mistake. I am only telling the truth for history’s sake, past and present, and it is up to the reader to give his judgment. Dr. Beyene and Ahmed Nasser can defend themselves by presenting their arguments and I think they did.
Gere’s argument makes sense in normal conditions… he is right when he said we used to follow those regulations but Gere did not see the bitter experience of the 2nd regular session of the RC because he was absent. One should make a difference in situations where an organization is pursuing its political and organizational process peacefully and an organization which is in deep crisis… where one cannot speak of integrity and sincerity when engulfed with mistrusts, doubts, and suspicions. In the RC situation, even leaders were not talking to each other. In such circumstance, how can one abide by rules and regulations alone? In such difficult situations, the only means you have to resolve problems is through political dialogues and compromise. I cannot deny that we tried to do that in the 3rd regular session of the RC [June 1-10, 2003]. But we didn’t succeed because the solutions we offered didn’t satisfy the power-oriented members and the organizations practically went through a vicious circle.
50- Why does this sound like secret political party maneuvers, like the days of the Labor Party… is the Labor Party alive Habte?
No. Not at all. The Labor Party is long dead. Besides, the Labor Party was more of a group of people who wanted to protect elite group authority than an ideological party. It was the party of the overly ambitious.
51- Could there be a secret party similar to the Labor Party within ELF-RC?
I don’t know…
52- If I am a 20-something Eritrean who knows about the ELF and who has heard about nothing but its continuous disintegration, why should I have any faith on your organization and why shouldn't I believe that regardless of the nobility of its causes, it is a waste of time to follow it or join it because it cannot execute?
This is a difficult question. And I see the advantage of history looking at it from my own experience. I was in my early twenties when I left Mahber Shewaate and joined the ELF. This period was the most difficult time for the organization to continue as a viable organization. It had a serious leadership crisis on the field and outside; it was also under political and armed pressure from the ELM [Eritrean Liberation Movement], or Haraka, [movement.] And it didn’t have international recognition and support. All this information was coming to me from different corners and it was quite demoralizing. But it did not stop me from pursuing my goals and I continued struggling for change.
I have another example: there cannot be a more disturbing incident than seeing a civil war flaring in front of your eyes. Ironically, it was around that time that the highest number of recruits joined both organizations [ELF and EPLF] with determination to stop the internal war and fight against the enemy. If one is determined to be free, one hopes and tries for a better tomorrow and that is achievable. Just practice patience and hard work. As long as the cause is noble, joining it can never be a waste of time… My motto is: “try with determination!”… Let The Opposition Join Hands And Break The Chains Around The Necks Of The Eritrean People