The speech delivered at the 2nd EASE Afar Congress in Brussels, discussing the themes of self-determination, democratic governance, the respect for rule of law and human rights in Eritrea.
Thank you, Mr Chairman,
Fellow Compatriots, Invited Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure and, indeed, a distinct privilege for me to have this opportunity to convey the warm solidarity of the Forum for National Dialogue (FND) to the 2nd Congress of the Eritrean Afar State in Exile (EASE).
The central theme of the congress is Restoring Eritrean Afar Self-Rule and Federal Eritrea. I will try to put this essential theme in the context of the struggle for democratic governance, rule of law, respect for human rights, etc., in our home country, Eritrea.
Let me start with a brief sketch of: (1) the nature of the regime; (2) the internal situation; (3) the struggle to replace the rule of man by the rule of law; and (4) the need for common action guided by a shared vision.
1. Nature of the regime
1.1 Historical Legacy
The protracted armed struggle of the Eritrean people was waged as much for national liberation as for basic political, economic and social transformation. In investing their youth in the armed struggle, Eritrea’s freedom fighters were inspired by the progressive ideals of liberty, equality and justice. As a people, we fought for freedom, democracy, justice and prosperity. Ironically, we ended up with the polar opposites. Why?
1.2 Agency of liberation turned into a tool of oppression
The EPLF, which built an effective military machine to win the war against all odds, morphed into the PFDJ three years after the historic victory and turned into an instrument of repression. The EPLF thus failed to transform itself from a politico- military organisation waging a war of national liberation into a functional political movement running the affairs of state.
1.3 Failure to build a constitutional government
A hitherto progressive national liberation movement has atrophied. Once secure at the helm of power, its leadership betrayed the original aims of the movement and became the new guardian of the privileges and inequities of the status quo. A liberation movement that seized power through the force of arms failed to establish an inclusive, participatory and accountable government.
1.4 A brutal dictatorship
The effort to establish a constitutional government committed to the rule of law, democratic principles and respect for human rights was aborted, depriving the State of a legal basis and the people of sovereignty. There is no freedom of expression, freedom of assembly or freedom of association. In the absence of a representative parliament, an independent judiciary or a functional cabinet of ministers, the president wields absolute power and rules the country without any legal or institutional restraint.
2. The internal situation
Eritrea today is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. For a quarter century now, our people have been denied the right to constitute a government of their choice and to live in peace, freedom, dignity and justice. Under tight regimentation, Eritrean society endures ruthless repression and the privations of a coupon economy, which has failed to deliver even the most basic needs of the people.
The youth endure open-ended active national service; Eritreans from the age of 18 to 70s are forced to bear arms and fight in the regime’s unending wars. The unbearable condition created by severe political repression and pervasive control, aggravated by economic hardship, has pushed the youth to flee the country in droves at tremendous risk to their lives.
Some use traffickers; others march on foot. Many die from sunstroke in the Sahara trek to North Africa, drown in the Mediterranean Sea in transit to Europe, or perish from organ harvest in the Sinai. Remember the tragedy in Lampedusa!
The substitution of the rule of law by the rule of man has allowed the arbitrary detention of senior officials and army officers for advocating democratic reform, of journalists for covering dissenting opinion, and of elders for counselling dialogue and reconciliation. Freedom of expression, assembly and association is absent; autonomous political and civic organisations are banned; independent opinion is suppressed and dissent is equated with treason.
Political repression and the crackdown on the private press closed the political space. The state owns the media and controls the message, banishes diversity and criminalises dissent. Strict control and censorship have enabled dictatorship. The closure of the political, economic and social space and centralisation of every aspect of national life has alienated the people and isolated the regime.
3. The struggle to replace the rule of man by the rule of law
What does ‘rule of law’ mean? The UN defines it as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.” Justice Tom Bingham, Rule of Law (2010)
Under the rule of law, as distinct from the rule of man, all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. In a political system that adheres to the supremacy of the rule of law, the law is paramount over the acts of the government and the people. In a dictatorial form of government like ours, governance and the rules of conduct are set and altered at the discretion of a single person, or a select group of persons.
The Eritrean people aspire for and have an inalienable right to liberty, dignity and justice. And they are determined to secure them, making change inevitable. Despite the lack of freedom of expression, assembly or association that has made organized peaceful opposition at home impossible, absolute repression has provoked growing organised resistance inside and outside the country.
4. Common action guided by a shared vision
Banned and suppressed inside, political opposition has boomed in exile. Let me firmly state here that every Eritrean, as an individual or a group, has the right, indeed, the duty to resist the dictatorship as he/she deems fit. But, we need to overcome the current fragmentation and bring the multiple political, civic and media groups into common action based on a shared vision. Then, and only then, would we be able to create the synergy necessary to bring about democratic governance, rule of law and respect for human rights in our country!
The Ad-Hoc Contact Organ (AHCO) set up in Nairobi I is preparing for Nairobi II to chart ways and means to accelerate democratic transition and institute the rule of law. Parallel effort is underway to build a political bridge linking the open external opposition and the covert internal resistance to muster the critical mass necessary to crystallise an Eritrean owned change from within.
Establishing a decentralised system of government would allow the people to exercise real self-determination at different layers of government through duly elected representatives. It would de-concentrate central power and provide for the devolution of political and economic power to the people. Essentially, it would enable them to determine the structure, content and form of local governance to manage their communal affairs in their interest. Furthermore, decentralised government would allow the people to have a voice on crucial issues of national concern.
Let me conclude by reiterating that Eritrea is the homeland of all Eritreans and the State of Eritrea is the product of the collective struggles, sacrifices and sufferings of the entire Eritrean people. Since Eritrea belongs to all of us, we should all live in equality.
Eritrean society is multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious. The unity, progress and prosperity of the Eritrean people are predicated on ensuring mutual respect and harmonious coexistence in diversity. I hope that this 2nd Congress would contribute to the advent of a new Eritrea based on constitutional governance and democratic principles that guarantee the absolute equality of all Eritreans in every sphere of national life.
Victory to your 2nd Congress!
Eternal glory to our martyrs!
Thank you for your kind attention.