PART II: RE-BRANDING OF THE OPPOSITION: Civil Society Vs Youth and women
Civil society must aim to lead the debate and actions on a sustainable struggle towards democratic change and beyond the fall of the PFDJ in future Eritrea. Political action usually needs mobilising and inspiring and this is what civil societies can do. What that means, with their fantastic descriptions and rhetorical language, civil societies inspire action in a way that uninspiring political discourse does not. However, civil societies may be dominated by elite-run groups and may have only tenuous ties to the general public on whose behalf they claim to act, as these are common practice in our case.
Mean while some civil societies and youth movements are boldly going their own way. On the other hand some concerned citizens in Diaspora have issued warnings to both the critics of the opposition political leaderships who are calling for a return to the armed struggle era’s method when they were part of Mass Organisations and other civil societies who condemn them, vowing: we are going to do this our own way. First and foremost we should condemn anti-political opposition rhetoric. I think one cannot claim to be good whilst castigating others as bad. Apparently some civil society members whom I attended a seminar with have expressed very well their brand of non-party politics in Diaspora but have affiliations to a party of their choice, therefore they say obituary to EDA and others who participated in the National Congress.
I say challenges facing Eritrea now are totally different from pre independence and end of border conflict with Ethiopia. We should pledge to continue modernizing or Re-branding. However in Diaspora community we must first seek to usher in a new phase of youth dominated leadership. I admit though both civil society and youth have yet to show what make them “tick” to fill in the boots that they would be left. Civil society should show the opposition the new way of working if they manage in succeeding of acting alongside both the youth and women.
Civil society must try to learn the values, which won the Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries civil societies then wanted to build on the decisive moves they showed over mobilising and organising the popular uprising, which ultimately led to both Bin Ali and Mubarak regimes to cede power and made sure that there would be radical transformation to democracy to have made boldness their hallmark. It was vital for them this time it would not be unfinished Revolution unlike ours who then gave up on everything to PFDJ. Of course comparing to those countries our situation differs to some extent but still there are things worth learning from. It seems a smoke dream at least for now much we might want and think it is time for significant, radical change in Eritrea and the political opposition structure that would like to be alternative to reform itself. The opposition forces are too mentally scattered to get together for a single cause yet.
As civil society there is center ground they have to speak and appeal to, and unlike the opposition organisations it is really important that they do it in a way that reflects the 21st century not 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s. Prior to that it would be also right for our time what they need to do is set out plain sense of how you think both the opposition and PFDJ regime need to change and how they are going to change them. At the end of the day the Eritrean public will judge civil societies on the substance of their arguments.
Some youth recently have voiced their concern over the civil society of allowing feuding with some opposition elements. As these times are too serious considering where Eritrea is plummeting into, the persistent plights and issues of youth inside and outside the country and in particular in Sinai has already become too grave, for us including the opposition to say it is not about substance.
Another talking point among the youth is there has to be limited or fixed term and years on how long any opposition figure can lead his party/organisation. The same leaders had been there for years and years and are easily identifiable. Let’s encourage aspirations of role models as the people will need someone fresh ones who have charisma, the wow factor, proactive, dynamic and directional leadership. Bluntly, the majority of Eritreans irrespective of their affiliations could back whoever can save Eritrea. For me it is the civil society’s role to put pressure on the opposition arguing that it’s time for change and hence the status quo has to change too.
However, it has worried a lot of people when some political and civic organizations and individuals have demonstrated their intention to abandon their principles and core values in pursuit of their short-term aims (power or seats). I am afraid the opposition’s trust has been slightly damaged. Some even went far further when the civil societies opted to support the Conference and Congress to accuse them of discrediting themselves by engaging in scrambling for power with some of the opposition to get privileged posts. What is more, others have demanded for a protocol to define and identify the role and membership of political and civic organizations in respective opposition bodies. It is assumed that civil societies engaged in the struggle against the PFDJ are always autonomous financially and politically. In fact most civic societies in Diaspora are actually affiliated to certain camps. You can’t be both at the same time. The current system apparently offers to some 2 or so votes and membership with which to choose again both a representative and also run for election in both or so entities while others are denied their equal share. These can be unfair and unrepresentative and could only have a negative impact on the people’s perception but also proves all the scarce credibility, as a meaningful opposition force.
I believe the danger lies in denying power not rather in sharing power in our case. In the aftermath of the National Congress, the latest development the council experiencing is far from unique around the opposition camp, the scope and pervasiveness of friction is staggering. For instance some have thought the latest fiasco of North America involving Teklai of EGS and the council has been handled and dealt with inefficiently. If this debacle proves anything, it is that both the council’s decision and explanation will not address future unforeseen problems. Tensions are palpable as a result, and these are having an adverse impact on the whole opposition camp, especially among the women and youth. Whether we like it or not there is political imbalance reflected on the composition of the council membership. The political committee of the commission proposed and prepared a document to be discussed in the congress so that to be used in compliance with the statute (bylaws) of the council seen as a mechanism for facilitating reform and the introduction of parliamentary/council democracy if and when there are developments. But unfortunately it was ignored; I am not sure yet who to blame. Obviously the overwhelming majority participants were from the opposition (EDA and non EDA) subsequently they had dominant decision-making power, setting the agenda and shaping preferences.
In fact, literally speaking it was the secretariats duty and responsibility to make sure what had to be discussed and the smooth running of the congress once they were handed over the responsibility from the ENCDC there. For now I would not like to complicate things by adding too many details, as the theme of my article is not to explain the complexities of the situation at least for the time being. With out going into detail for example there were 2 articles embraced in the council’s bylaw that we all may agree with and are relevant in the Eritrean context, regarding the inclusion of absent opposition forces both political and civil from the Congress. Both articles delineate power to the council to call them to join in afterwards. In addition to this, the other one ensures reserved seats for those inside Eritrea (the people, technocrats and important figures). I guess we failed to cover those two serious and critical points and some more as many participants were too busy mobilising bias and manufacturing allegiance and consent to exclude and marginalize others so that they can ensure their hegemony in the council. Any way, if it had been covered it would have offered flexibility and would have easily at least allowed the inclusion of Teklai of EGS as a significant ally and partner of the opposition forces.
Whether one agrees or disagrees therefore there was a pattern of certain organisations and individuals manipulation of council election at the congress according to some congress participants who confided in me. God forbid we will not have any more such scenario and I did not mean to cause any inconvenience by commenting. Keeping quiet was probably the least thing I could have done as I want to help the council and the opposition to flourish. I will try to give a clear and concise summary of what happened from my own perspective and that of others soon.
Ethics protocol: It is wise if civil societies practice smart intervention in some cases to block the discussion of divisive issues, subjects, and cyber space civil war in media outlets. And most importantly identify divisive figures. We would like to see substantial changes in this respect. It is worth mentioning that we have Association of Eritrean journalists in Exile doing a fantastic job but they should think about implementing and taking actions on the ratified ethics protocol. I would like to see many more other media outlets beginning to abide by that protocol soon. It is high time the opposition collectively takes decisive action through going back to basics to improve its image.
Neither the opposition forces nor the civil society have sufficiently set out compelling and clear alternatives to what PFDJ is proposing for the youth and women so that they could join them in their struggle. Targeting the grass roots at the bottom is an ideal option. If both the women and youth are at this level well organized and well managed and also become strong in numbers, they tend to acquire a voice in the Eritrean prevalent issues.
Mass Organisations of Women, students and youth unions became the raw material upon which the ELF, EPLF/PFDJ built a dynamic political machine so rapidly as we might be aware. There are, however, a dozen or so reasons both women and youth are still not joining the opposition or forming one at the moment apart from what I already have mentioned at the preceded article.
They are not trying: From low self-esteem through to too high expectations, women in particular more than the youth are experts when it comes to jeopardising potential recruitment/joining before they have even had a chance to get off the ground. The good news is that there is something the civil society can do about it. I recommend in the highest term empowering both groups through different action programmes. We are blessed with a lot of academics that have expertise knowledge and experience in different community work in Diaspora and would like them providing a platform for the new emerging youth and women movements, a legitimisation of their activities.
Youth are being too fussy. EYGM UK our movement has some youth insight for those of youth and with a long and detailed checklist against which every potential opposition force (organisation, civil society, and youth or women group) to join must be measured. Vast long-term commitments are not made from interests in common political allegiance or affiliations, shared belief of systems or policies. They are made from people being thoughtful about their country concerned with prevalent issues and people who have national, human and moral obligations and more importantly bring them their common shared vision.
Pessimism It may sound harsh, but neither the youth nor women will be joining any opposition group at all if they are just going through the motions with a negative “I will never meet an ideal opposition” attitude. Consequently some have had a few bad attempts with certain opposition, and still have faced dilemma, rejection and disappointment. It’s all part of the ups and downs of joining the opposition and they need to be strong enough to brush it off and not become disillusioned with previous experience.
Unapproachable: Both women and the youth should be encouraged to take a more positive approach to meeting opposition groups. It is equally important they should be empowered enough to believe there is one group they can join out there for them, otherwise they are never going to find one. Making the opposition in particular civil societies more approachable is a real solution.
The opposition’s hung up on its past/ELF: If one finds the opposition talking a lot about its previous achievements during the ELF’s hey days when the youth are out to engage with the civil society, it means they are probably not ready to be interested in inviting them to join in yet. Past talk is never attractive to a potential youth recruit and negative talk about former colleagues and leaders in ELF or hatred of EPLF may end up showing civil societies or the opposition in a less than flattering light. Civil societies should make themselves a rule never to bring up the subject of former ELF Vs EPLF differences when engaging with both the women and youth. Yet it sounds the hardest task for ex ELF to adhere to such rule.
In conclusion, we should all work for empowerment in civil society to offer the promise of bringing the ‘inside’ outside be it split and friction in the opposition camp or humanitarian crisis affecting our youth fleeing Eritrea- a perverse boomerang effect. Although the idea of civil society is an emancipatory one, every citizen should be allowed and offered a level playing field created by the civil societies to engage in the discourse and debate about how to find just solutions to the incredible issues affecting us all. Every one of us has a stake in future Eritrea; it will be what we make most of it. Thus it is wise to engage in active citizenship; after all it is each and every Eritreans duty to take responsibility to move Eritrea and its people forward. Sadly the Eritrean public appears to be in the midst of successive tragedies and crises- social, political, economic and humanitarian. There is no other way out of the current perilous stalemate than trying to construct a social contract that gives the majority public more meaning.
De Tocqueville said, “If men are to remain civilised or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio as the equality of conditions is increased.” According to him civil society can play an active more political role primarily through self-organisation. What happens however depends on politics, in our case on the agency of Eritreans who might be ready to make history.