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Political reconciliation and
political opposition

Excrept from Eritrea:
Towards Unity in Diversity by DAVID POOL published in 1997 Minority Rights Group International
Neither the ELF nor the EPLF tolerated opposition
during the armed struggle. With the disintegration of
the ELF into factions some of the latter joined the EPLF
during the 1980s. After liberation, the EPLF’s criteria for
the return of members of opposing fronts and factions was
that they were welcome to return and join on an individual
basis, but were not allowed to function as political
organizations. Some did return and were given guarantees
of freedom and of the establishment of a democratic political
system. Two were subsequently appointed as provincial
governors and others were appointed to the
referendum and constitutional commissions. In the
provinces, it was not unusual to meet former ELF fighters
in administrative positions. In some cases, the reintegration
did not work out. After a violent clash between one of
the governors and EPLF members, the former returned
abroad for hospital treatment and when the provinces
were altered, the governor was not reappointed.
Other opposition fronts rejected return on the terms
set by the EPLF and the system established by it. Eritrean
Islamic Jihad (EIJ) viewed the new government as highland
Christian; EIJ called for its overthrow and replacement
by an Islamic government. Abdallah Idris’s faction,
with a following among the Bani Amir, rejected the government
outright. The ELF faction with the largest following,
mixed Christian–Muslim and members from most
of the communities of Eritrea, was the ELFRevolutionary
Council (ELF-RC). Its views place it within
the mainstream of Eritrean nationalism with its stress
on democracy, nationalism and secularism, and merit
some examination. An analysis of its publications and an
extensive interview with its leaders indicate a fundamental
opposition to the EPLF and its policies.32
Other than expressing positive views about the EPLF’s
liberation of Eritrea, the ELF-RC is critical of all the
processes and policies pursued by the Eritrean government
since liberation. Their main argument is that the
EPLF is undemocratic: its leadership is a ‘totalitarian
clique’ and runs its dictatorship through the PFDJ. It
views the constitutional process as illegitimate: it was
drafted by a commission which was hand-picked by the
EPLF. Key policies on land rights, language, nationality
and the press, were decided before the constitution,
reflect narrow EPLF policies and bolster its power.
The ELF-RC proposed an alternative constitutional

process involving representatives of different organizations
and personalities that had participated in the liberation
of Eritrea and had expressed a clear commitment to
democracy. On these grounds the EIJ would be excluded.
It also argued that ratification should be done by referendum
and that Arabic and Tigrinya should be the official
languages. Although the ELF-RC shares with the government
a commitment to the separation of religion and politics,
members of the leadership stressed to the author
that the sharia (Islamic law) should be considered part of
Eritrea’s cultural heritage and that if the EIJ emphasized
Muslim rights rather than an Islamic state, cooperation
with it would be possible. They also stressed that local customary
laws should be maintained as part of Eritrea’s
democratic tradition and that although both sharia and
customary law might be adapted, it would have to be done
by consensus.
On these sensitive issues, the different approach
appears to be one of emphasis rather than principle.
While PFDJ leaders talk of establishing a national legal
system in the longer term, ELF leaders talk of adaptation
through consensus.
For the PFDJ, the ELF-RC produces destructive and
divisive criticisms without offering constructive proposals.
Many independent Eritreans believe that the ELF-RC
missed its chance by not returning after liberation, (the
ELF-RC remains in exile). When this point was put to
ELF-RC leaders they responded that returning would
compromise their commitment to democracy and that the
record of the treatment of returnees has been poor. They
cited the disappearance and likely imprisonment of some
ex-ELF fighters, and had given their names to human
rights organizations. The author found it impossible to
disprove or verify such claims. If these claims are true,
they suggest a limited tolerance of critical opposition and
strong grounds for clearer provisions for public trial, if
only to dispel reports of arbitrary imprisonment.33 It
remains to be seen whether critical organizations, like the
ELF-RC, could reform as parties in the post-constitution
period. Unlike other opposition elements the ELF-RC
cannot be portrayed as ethnic, regionalist or sectarian.
However, under the terms of the constitution, it could be
proscribed on the grounds of threatening national unity.