Eritrea’s Perennial Preoccupation

By Sami Mehari

Sept. 30, 2002

Like the Eritrea of yesteryears, today’s Eritrea continues to have many factors of disunity that are quite familiar to most of us. Therefore, the struggle for unity today is, as ever before, a major preoccupation of all responsible individuals and organizations in the society.  

Parties of the 1940s

Parties and fronts proliferate when there is a simmering crisis that needed an urgent solution. Take the second part of the1940s when many parties appeared and disappeared within a short span of time. By the year 1950, the total count of parties and political associations reached 15. 

No parties in the 1950s

Like the Eritrea of the 1990s and of today, the Eritrea of the 1950s did not have parties because Ethiopia’s interferences in internal Eritrean affairs caused their forced disappearance. In other words, Emperor Haile Selassie did not want “Hashewiye partitat”.  However, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, there emerged underground groups by patriots coming together with the wish of “doing something”. They gave names to their cells, but those small groupies could not come up with a programme or action because of the circumstances of the period. (This writer knew individuals who were engaged in letter writing to threaten high officials in the name of ‘organizations’, which did not actually exist – like someone’s Madena’e for mahber deleyti natsinet ertra!) Eventually, the organizations that garnered the wishes and aspirations of the patriotic youth of that era were the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM/Haraka/Mahber Shew’ate) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). 

Divisions in the 1970s

In the early 1970s, internal organizational crisis in the ELF gave way to the creation of separate groups most of which still survive in a way or the other. Another crisis that ensued the military defeat of the ELF in the hands of the EPLF/TPLF in 1981 also produced a good number of new political and social groupings, which also exist till now.

Today’s Groupies Reach 30+

The defeat of the PFDJ leader’s military adventures against all neighbours has, since mid-2000, given way to a new wave of groups and associations, all of them  “wishing to do something” to solve the grave national crisis in today’s Eritrea.

One cannot be sure how many fronts and (declared) parties we have at the present, but one can estimate more than those Eritrea had in 1950 – i.e. more than 15.  But if we take into account the various politics-oriented movements and associations for peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights as well as the public forums and foundations amongst the Eritrean Diaspora, the number could reach as high as 30 or more. At this point, one can sense trouble with having too many disparate bodies, turning our political discourse to a ‘Tower of Babel’. It then becomes important to pull these forces together so that taking effective action could be possible.

Mergers Called for

The concern of Eritreans today is, therefore, not shortage of organizations/associations outside Eritrea but their unwieldy big number. This situation calls for urgent streamlining.  It is for this reason that its former critics are belatedly appreciating the existence of the Alliance. There is need for more tightening up within the existing political organizations in the opposition and among the fast increasing civic societies. Consolidating the scattered human and material resources could definitely generate a big energy that can be unleashed to remove the dangerous PFDJ setup in Asmara that can even put an end to Eritrea as we know it. The danger is as serious as that!!  It is  in this light that our people warmly welcomed the latest announcement of the initial steps taken for unity talks between the ELF-RC and the ELF headed by Abdalla Idris.

The ELF-RC/ELF Promise for Greater Unity

We all know that ELF, the mother organization of the Eritrean Revolution, started breaking down ever since three splinter groups left it before the convening of its first congress in October-November 1971. The ELF again broke into groups following a military action by the former military chief of the front, Abdalla Idris, in March 1982. 

Since then, we had the ELF-RC under the legally-elected leadership of Ahmed Nasser and his team, the ELF faction led by Abdalla Idris, and the Saghem which was in the initial period known as the ELF-Central Leadership. The ELF we knew between 1971 and 1981 thus ceased to exist after the military incident of March 1982 at Rasai in the Eritrea-Sudan border. (I add the following note for the information of those who were too young to know: - former PLF factions other than the EPLF also started to be known as ELF-something, and not PLF-xy. E.g. the ELF-UO or united organization of the late Osman Saleh Sabbe and the old Obel group, which existed as the ELF-National Council until it reportedly agreed earlier this year for merger with the ELF of Abdalla Idris.)

In effect, if the ELF-RC, the ELF and the Saghem come together, it would mean the reconstituting of the pre-March 1982 ELF. But that may not be easy to achieve today, and others would say it is not even desirable.  It is true that the political cadres in general had retained common Jebha culture like: a) staunch belief in national unity that they could not achieve but, instead, fell victim to it; b) the desire to have a front accommodating Eritrea’s diversity (which was not a Shaebia culture); c) respect to the common folks and the wish to serve them, whenever possible; and d) the devotion to exhaustive discussions and commitment to elections etc.

But we must take note of the fact that, during the past 20 years, the three organizations mentioned here underwent different experiences and dropped and/or absorbed different political thoughts and trends that were not part of the old ELF. The ideologies and new trends alluded to include social democratic thoughts, commitment to Arabism (e.g. ELF-NC which is now within Abdalla’s ELF) and the Marxist ideology, including the claim for ‘self-determination up to secession for Eritrean nationalities now under the yoke of the Tigrinia Nation’.

I am mentioning these points to show that our factors of disunity keep increasing with time. However, one can see that it is within the possible to come to terms on many major issues for the sake of national salvation, which must come above everything else at this stage of our struggle to remove an obstacle to Eritrea’s much needed democratic transition.

The very fact that the two have agreed to study ways and means of coming much closer than at present is in itself a welcome development. The proposed joint reviews of past experiences and problems will for sure contribute to the much needed reconciliation and mutual acceptance, and scale down feelings of animosities. 

But also assuming total unification takes place between the ELF-RC and ELF,  which is also possible, it will then mean three fronts in the Alliance have merged.  This is so because the ELF is a unity of two factions, which until early this year were led by Abadalla Idris (ELF) and Hassan Al-Assad (ELF-NC), respectively. Due to the influence and weight of the ELF-RC and the ELF in the Alliance, one can also expect a ‘domino effect’ thus accelerating the much dreamt of  unity. The Alliance would by then be able to take bolder measures to clear its own house and be able to receive other partners in a national coalition bound by a national charter or ‘covenant’. This coalition would bring together a strengthened/streamlined Alliance, the EPFL-DP and other parties and/or political associations. That will be the time when the opposition holds a national conference.

Our Hopes and Expectations

Eritreans today are not that enthusiastic for the rebirth of the old Jebha and Shaebia, as they existed. This trend would have to be broken. Although no one would be against today’s unity efforts in order to strengthen the opposition and assist in removing the dictatorship, yet the great expectation for the post-Isayas era is to see a new breed of parties emerging with members from the entire Eritrean diversity and unaffected by the Jebha and Shaebia barricades of the old.

The Eritrean people want all unity moves to succeed in order to build strength for the forces opposed to the militarist regime. The civic societies are also expected to tighten up their networking so that they may help in the struggle to build a new democratic system over the ruins of PFDJ.

And may the current attempts for unity between the ranks of the opposition succeed!!