Struggle for Democracy in Eritrea – Past and Present

Struggle for Democracy in Eritrea – Past and Present

Presented at EU meeting sponsored by EEPA

by Dawit Mesfin

Brussels, 10 Nov 2009

Democratic governance and respect for human rights are the foundations for political and social stability and economic progress.  They are also intrinsic to the goal of development. Today, in Africa, the struggle for democracy and human rights continues. As in the past, international support can play an important role.  African victories in recent decades in overcoming colonial rule and other Cold War era forms of dictatorship, notably military dictatorships and one-party political systems, have marked important progress and empowered Africans to a certain extent. While democratic advances have been made across the continent, serious challenges still remain. As is the case everywhere, we can safely state that democracy in Africa is a work in progress.  In Eritrea, although it is a country which finds itself at a crucial political juncture, the work has not started yet.  

Generally speaking, contrary to what the Eritrean government wants us to believe, the concept of democracy is not new in Eritrea.  Our fathers and forefathers used some aspects of it in their village system of governance, our freedom fighters waved the banner of democracy throughout the liberation struggle, and the post-independence generation is fully versed on the ideals of democracy. 

Let’s look at three different eras of our history to trace signs of democracy. The aim is to refute government’s claims that Eritrea has a long way to go before it embarks on the democratic course. 

The Early Days (1940 – 1960)

The second half of the 1940s, a few years after the British defeated the Italians, Eritrea witnessed drastic political changes because the formation of political parties were allowed, the role of the print media increased, and most of all Eritreans began to think about their future. Nine parties grew out of the political freedom the British accorded to Eritreans. There were three different aims among the nine parties: five parties wanted independence, three wanted unity with Ethiopia and one wanted to divide Eritrea into two sections and surrender them to Ethiopia and the Sudan. Basically, Eritreans began to exercise their democratic rights long before other countries in Africa.

The Ethiopians were anxious to eliminate any traces of democracy, and to that end they exasperated the leaders of the independence movement until many of them fled abroad. With the collaboration of their Unionist allies and in violation of the Eritrean constitution of the time, they suppressed all attempts to form autonomous Eritrean organisations. Political parties were banned in 1955; trade unions were banned in 1958; and eventually Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia in 1962.  Therefore, the current government cannot employ any pretext by saying the old generation knew very little of democracy and are still unmindful of their democratic rights.

Let’s look at the era of our Armed Struggle. 

During the 1960s, the Eritrean independence struggle was launched as a response to the erosion of our people’s democratic rights. Led by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) Eritreans began to fight back.  In 1970, members of the group had a falling out, and a group broke away from the ELF and formed the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF).  By the late 1970s, the EPLF had become the dominant armed Eritrean group fighting against the Ethiopian Government.  During that era, Eritrean fighters repeatedly declared that their aim was to liberate Eritrea and set up a democratic state.  

The EPLF officially vowed that people’s democratic rights were going to be respected in their political programme.  Basically, that included freedom of speech, the press, assembly, worship and peaceful demonstration.  Moreover, in the 1987 Congress, all pillars of democracy were comprehensively endorsed. The declaration specifically stated the future government system would be based on multiparty system, would usher in mixed economy and constitutional governance.  At the time that was considered by many analysts a departure from the past struggle.  The ideals and rallying calls of the previous era were mostly characterised by the emphasis that dwelt on the joint struggle of workers, farmers and the combatants themselves. 

Again, the current government cannot use such ploy by saying Eritrean fighters and their followers are not ready for democracy and are unmindful of their democratic rights.  Clearly, it is the president and his party who are not ready for democracy and its institutions.

Post Liberation

After independence, the EPLF enhanced the 1987 democratic ideals in its 3rd Congress of 1994.  In its National Charter it opted for a democratic, just and prosperous future. Moreover, the Charter spelled out people’s democratic rights and the necessity of forming political organisations.   During the same year, the Government set up a Constitutional Commission to draft the Eritrean Constitution which was completed and ratified in 1997.  The Constitution clearly shows that democracy was at the heart of its formulation.  It was designed to recognise, protect and secure the rights and freedoms of Eritrean citizens. It was anticipated that it would usher in ‘a democratic order that is responsive to the needs and interests of citizens, guarantees their participation and brings about economic development, social progress and harmony’.  Unfortunately, although the constitution has been ratified, it has yet to be implemented, and general elections have not been held, despite the ratification of an election law in 2002.  Consequently, Eritrea remains a single-party state, run by the Government’s party - People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which does not allow multi-party politics. Concisely, today’s Eritrea is not the Eritrea that its citizens yearned for. After decades of hardship and sacrifice don’t Eritreans deserve better?  Eritreans cannot be considered as people who lack certain elements that hinder them from sustaining the pillars of democracy. The moral infrastructure and political consciousness already exist.

The ideological guidelines outlined by the PFDJ, for structuring politics and institutions in independent Eritrea, were simply forgotten. The six basic goals that were summarised in the Charter were national harmony, political democracy, economic and social development, social justice cultural revival, and regional and international cooperation all of which turned out disastrous. In today’s Eritrea there is no national harmony and no political democracy.  The country’s economy is in turmoil, and social justice is simply used as delaying tactics.  The president’s ‘economic and social democracy’ programme - to build up the country’s infrastructure, create an equitable distribution of the country’s wealth, to develop the country side ...etc, have priority over democracy. 

Long-term improvements in health, education, economic growth or the environment in Eritrea ultimately require responsive, responsible and a representative government that can implement the changes necessary to promote and consolidate such gains. According to the president, there is no rush for the country to head towards a democratic process unless social justice is firmly in place. Such programmes will certainly run for decades before they come to full fruition – well, not in his life time.

Let’s look at a slightly different aspect of the problem.   Lack of opposition groups in the country is playing its part in solidifying the regime’s life.  One of the frequently used arguments given by the president, which is dismissive in its nature, is the fact that there is no opposition to him inside the country.  That seems as a plausible argument to the credulous because the Government of Eritrea has not allowed any organised political opposition to emerge within the country to date.  Those who have been voicing their objection, various organised and unorganised opposition groups, are forced to operate in exile, away from the Eritrean public.  However, this does not mean that there are no groups who are opposed to the government’s ways in the country. One can ask who are those that are silently and marginally opposing the government inside the country?  Well, the answer is that opposing groups are in every segment of our society.


·         Parents whose children have been forcibly taken away from them.

·         Those whose children have left the country.

·         Family members of those who were killed in the futile 1998-Badme war.

·          Mothers whose children are languishing in prisons or have simply disappeared.

·         Religious groups who have been denied to practice their faith.

·         Business people whose businesses have been taken over by the government.

·         Young Eritreans who are stuck in trenches without any future.

·         Ex-fighters who have been unceremoniously side-lined.

·         The unemployed.

·         Farmers who are not allowed to sell their produce.

... and the list goes on.  In short, there is opposition inside Eritrea. 

What is to be done? 

President Isaias Afwerki is very much preoccupied with anti-West rhetoric losing the opportunity to introduce real democratic changes in the country. He continually hides behind his futile attempts in justifying the chronology of his implementation as best suited to Eritrean culture and socio-economic development as well as the political culture of the EPLF. The principle crux of the matter is that every change affects his control of power; therefore, his position has evolved into fighting every move towards change.

In situations like this there are many things that can be done. It is a bit far-fetched to believe that Eritreans inside the country would rise up under the current circumstances.  I will avoid to explain in detail why it is difficult for our people to stand up for themselves. For now I guess it suffices to say the control mechanisms are stringently in place. The other alternative is for the Diaspora to reorganise themselves.  The opposition groups, civil societies and activists need to work together in dealing with the problem at hand.  And of course, since that will take time, the opposing groups need to look elsewhere for help.   The International community.  And that is where the EU comes in.  

Perhaps it is time to consider applying other strategies in EU's dealings with Eritrea.  Lateral thinking, as Edward De Bono calls it, or 'thinking outside the box', as some may call it, is designed to break current thinking patterns.  If EU's carrot and stick strategy is not producing the right results then apparently there is a problem with the approach. Therefore, there is great value in using a 'De Bonian' strategy - creative thinking to find other possible solutions.  As the EU tries to plot its way through these frustrating endeavours, I am reminded of the point a friend of mine, an academic at Birkbeck College, stressed in a meeting we both recently attended.  He argued that very few governments or international agencies ever think outside the box.  That reminded me that the EU has been thinking vertically all along. I have a feeling that the EU bureaucracy focuses more on managing its programmes than it does on understanding a rapidly worsening environment and designing interventions that serve as catalysts for change.

To me democracy becomes ineffective when considered a geographical right. A big portion of Eritrea is now outside Eritrea.  Eritreans in Europe and in other parts of the world need to be added to the equation for change.

I have tried to argue that the Eritrean democratic struggle expressed in our national liberation movement and our independence remains incomplete. I know Eritreans cannot accept to live under bondage forever. Past governments have come and gone. This too will go. And I am sure we Eritreans will one day be allowed to go back to Eritrea and celebrate the fruits of democracy.