Federalism in the Eritrean Political Context

By Salah Ibrahim, 22 August 2005

The creation of the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement (EFDM) and other organisations did not surprise many of us, knowing that the Eritrean government’s policies strongly favour some sectors of our society over others. It is evident that the majority of the people who embraced the philosophy and ideals of EFDM are those from the most disadvantaged ethnic groups, who deeply felt that they have been alienated and marginalised by the regime’s discriminatory policies. Although EFDM has a clear vision for future Eritrea as outlined in its official website http://www.gabeel.com/, one could say that its emergence was a reaction to the ruling regime’s favouritism policy and as an expression of anger and frustration against the unjust rules. I understand that EFDM has other additional justifications: one of these is that the Eritrean people, although they acknowledge their differences, have never agreed upon a system of government that guarantees fairness and coexistence among them. It is natural for a segment of a society to dissent and fight against discrimination and oppression, usually reflected in the ideology of radical organisations. In saying that, I am not suggesting that EFDM is a radical group.

But, in recent years, it has also become clear that the whole country and its people have been victimised by bad governance at the hands of the irresponsible leadership of PFDJ. The only real beneficiaries under the current dictatorial regime are those who strongly support the government, as if the rest of the people are not citizens of the country. In a democratic society, the government has obligations to treat its citizens equally. But in Eritrea, the government adopted a discriminatory policy simply because it is not elected by the people and so it does not represent the will of the diverse population. In the absence of equality, fairness and justice, and the growing disparity between the privileged and the disadvantaged segments of the Eritrean society – due to the discriminatory policy of PFDJ – the emergence of EFDM is justifiable.

Following this brief explanation of the root causes for EFDM emergence, let me now elaborate on what has already been said in relation to the EFDM leadership’s visit to Australia. A delegation made up of the General Secretary, Beshir Ishaq and Secretary of Resources and Treasury, Fesseha Nair has recently left Australia after holding a successful public meeting on 6 August and a seminar on 13 August in Melbourne. The delegation explained that their organisation has embodied “Towards Justice, Democracy, Freedom and Equality in Eritrea” as its motive. For more information on EFDM’s vision, the reader can visit its official website http://www.gabeel.com/eng_index.html. In the meeting and seminar, numerous intellectually challenging ideas were discussed. But the discussions were also rough and sometimes confrontational due to the sensitivity/nature of the issues raised. I am afraid, they are issues we will have to confront at some point – no matter how unpleasant they are – if we have to acknowledge our differences and live in harmony.

The visiting delegates explained their vision of federalism as a methodology for conflict avoidance and as a viable and democratic system of governance that ensures freedom, equality, fairness and justice for the diverse and multiethnic Eritrean society, without jeopardising the unity and harmony of the people. The visitors enlightened the audiences with the key issues the EFDM stands for. The audiences, in turn, were very participative and have openly expressed their views (positive and negative) on federalism. My initial plan was to write on the audiences’ responses, but the discussions were so broad and lengthy to be included in one article. I call upon the participants to write their own views on federalism and post them on the Eritrean websites. As usual, representatives of the three Eritrean electronic media in Melbourne attended the meeting and the seminar; I direct the reader to http://www.awna1.com 

and http://www.farajat.com/surawatalik/efdm/efdm2.htm for reports on the events. I consider these reports as snapshots of what was discussed. The actual dialogue was much broader and at times even very stimulating. The Eritrean group in the community radio of 3CR also conducted interview with the visiting delegate and the transcript of what was said can be viewed at http://www.awna1.com/int8-JULY.htm.

From my own perspective, one of the key issues that struck my mind most was the controversial issue relating to the unlawful distribution of land by the current regime. The General Secretary of EFDM asserted that the policy of illegal and unjust distribution of land implemented under the PFDJ rule must be reversed upon the removal of the dictatorial regime and the establishment of a democratic system. Land distributed unlawfully must be returned to its traditional owners, he said. I absolutely support the assertion of the General Secretary in condemning the illegal distribution of land. But at the same time, I am not against ownership of a land by any citizen in any part of the country regardless of his/her backgrounds, provided the land is not confiscated or, in other words, the land is purchased according to the rule of law. I am completely against the distribution of a land to a citizen as a reward for supporting the government of the day. The EFDM delegates also clarified that their vision of a federal system is not about moving citizens from one region to another because of their ethnicity or religion, so in the light of this, ownership of a land by a citizen in any corner of the country is guaranteed.

Land seized unlawfully is always a source of instability. A classical example that illustrates the huge problem associated with illegal land ownership is the disengagement plan of Israel from Gaza Strip and another four settlements in the West Bank. Who would have expected the pullout of the Israelis from the Palestinian territories they occupied since 1967, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who himself, was a lead commander in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) during the occupation of those territories? Who would have expected the end of the illegal settlements and the return of the land to its traditional owners, i.e. the Palestinians? Who would have expected the well armed IDF that oppressed the Palestinian people for so long in order to protect the illegal settlers would turn against the latter? We have witnessed IDF and Israeli police removing settlers forcibly if they refused to obey the eviction order. I do not intend the example as a parallel to what is taking place in Eritrea presently. I am simply emphasising the centrality of land to peoples’ livelihood.

What is/are the cause/s of this unexpected withdrawal? Is it because of the Palestinian uprising/resistance or is it because of international diplomatic pressure or both? Or is it because of a moral conscience from the Israeli side or some other complicated issues beyond the comprehension of the lay people? I can’t rule in one factor and rule out another simply because I don’t know the answer. But there is a lesson to be drawn here, and that is land seized by force is always a source of instability and anxiety. How many lives have been lost in the fight for reclaiming land and sovereignty on Palestinian side, and on the basis of historical homeland and security grounds on the Israeli side? Many lives as everyone knows. Israeli vice Premier, Shimon Peres should be admired for his fairness, tolerance and moderation; some of his own words are stated below:

“The withdrawal was a moral choice”, he said. “We were not born to govern another people against their will, and we want them to be free so we shall be free in our own beliefs and principles”, he added. “We agreed to see a Palestinian state living in peace, in freedom as our neighbour, and wish them really well from the depths of our heart”, he further added.

We need fair minded leaders like Mr Peres to live in harmony and to prosper in a viable nation; not a government that oppresses its own people and creates a mistrust and hate among the sectors of its society by favouring one over another.

Two Views of Governance

ELF-RC leadership visited Australia in May/June this year; the leaders clearly spelled out their nationalistic views and their firm believe in national unity, reconciliation and democracy as a way forward. For more information on what the ELF-RC views its central objective, I would like to direct the reader to this address:



The central vision of ELF-RC can be summed as:

“ELF-RC is of the conviction that the establishment of a democratic system of governance would put an end to all the ills in the society by giving full respect to human rights and promoting the equality of the diverse cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic segments of our nation. Introducing a suitable decentralized administrative structure, that does not jeopardize the unity of the land and its people, would guarantee just distribution of national resources and address the existing imbalances of regional development”.

The other vision is that of EFDM. As Fesseha Nair explained to me, EFDM vision of governance is:

  “Introducing a [democratic] decentralized administrative structure [enshrined in the constitution], which does not jeopardize the unity of the land and its people, would guarantee just distribution of national resources and address the [multicultural imbalances existing now]”.

So, in my opinion there are many common principles in the two visions. Both organisations are passionately advocating for the establishment of a democratic system that promotes civil and political rights, namely, better human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of association and the right of political participation. Also, the organisations view fairness and equality fundamentally important parameters for unity and harmony. I strongly suggest that these two organisations work to narrow their differences through civilised dialogue. Ultimately, we cannot afford to be governed by different systems. Indeed, the two groups must initiate high-level discussions if they need to present themselves as a credible alternative force. Otherwise, people will cast doubts on the integrity of the organisations. It is not possible for one view to override the other, as it was the case in the past, and which led us to disunity. The two organisations must formulate a methodology and strategy satisfactory to both groups, and more importantly, one that convinces the majority of the Eritrean people. The two organisations must also study carefully the shortfalls associated with their preferred governance systems and try to find solutions to those problems. Furthermore, they should refine and shed more lights on their preferred government system progressively.

To uphold the fundamental principle of democracy, the majority of us in Australia have began to think afresh and give every idea/initiative a “fair go”, whether it is initiated by ELF, ELF-RC, EFDM etc.. Indeed, it is our intention to create an environment conducive to constructive dialogue that leads to a healthy democracy and one that guarantees a free society and equality for all. The Eritrean Community in Australia should be commended for its civilised approach towards delegates of different political persuasions. If one was to ask: why does Eritrea have a dictatorial government? Who has created the dictator? The answer is, we the people! How? Because we supported smear campaigns that were waged against intellectuals; those unfounded/unsubstantiated allegations killed innovative ideas and damaged the reputation of those intellectuals, who today, would have been good leaders. In the old days (i.e. during the national liberation struggle), EFDM members would have been labelled as regionalists/narrow-minded/non-progressive/ etc., regardless whether their views could have been beneficial to the nation or not. Today, they are not viewed as such, an indication that our tolerance and democracy are maturing and taking us in the right direction. To the contrary, the time has come to praise those who inject new ideas and initiatives.

I am sure EFDM has action plans. I also acknowledge the significant contribution of some talented EFDM members to the current healthy debate on democratisation, but I think EFDM needs to work harder to convince the Eritrean people that it stands for great ideas that will be of great benefit to all. Since the idea of federalism has been in the Eritrean political arena for nearly two and half years, it is time for EFDM to conduct online questionnaire to know how well/bad its ideas are received by the Eritrean people. It would be good for EFDM to conduct online poll, so that it knows exactly where it stands. Such polls need to be conducted free of fraudulent processes to be meaningful. I would further suggest that EFDM should initiate comprehensive and independent studies at a PhD or even higher level, each study focusing on different aspects of a federal system (power, economy, ethnicity, cooperation between states, etc.). To be slightly hypothetical, the candidates need to have full and easy access to gather information from people in abroad and at home in order for their studies to be complete. Of course, under the current political climate, the candidates will never conduct independent studies inside Eritrea, so their studies will remain incomplete and in some cases irrelevant until the right political conditions are created. It is possible to lobby funding bodies/agencies to provide scholarships for potential candidates. Knowledge based decisions will guarantee a better federal system, and it can only be achieved through comprehensive and unbiased investigative research.

Let me make a relevant point by referring to the successful federal system in Australia that has existed since 1901. As most of the readers know, Australia is made up of five States and one Territory, all bonded by federation. Currently, Labor governments rule all the States and the Territory but federally a conservative government chaired by the Prime Minister John Howard has been in power for nearly nine and half years. Although the States and the Territory are ruled by a party with opposing political view to the federal/commonwealth government, Australia has not experienced a serious political turmoil in recent years, except for few occasions, when the conservative federal government introduced radical industrial relations (IR) reforms that the opposition and the unions believe are designed to hurt the working class. Even then, disputes are resolved peacefully. The most famous industrial dispute occurred in 1998 when a company sacked its unionised work force and replaced it with a non-union workers trained in Dubai, UAE. The maritime union challenged the company and the federal government in the high court and the unionised work force was reinstated after a court injunction. Again disputes were resolved peacefully because there are mechanisms put in place to resolve disagreements. Have we reached that level of political maturity? Or do we have a mechanism put in place to resolve disputes? Of course not! Therefore, those who genuinely like to see a prosperous Eritrea should play a crucial role in shaping the future of the country either by supporting the current leadership through innovative ideas or through physical involvement. In my opinion, EFDM is heading in the direction, but it needs to refine its vision tirelessly.

In conclusion, it would be difficult to know whether a federal system is a viable option or not without conducting comprehensive studies on the subject. But, undoubtedly the federal system EFDM is preaching for is much better than the current government, and it might guarantee fair share of power and resources to all Eritreans. Federal system of governance might bring justice to the oppressed and minority groups in Eritrea. I am neither totally against the views of federalism nor totally supportive of the ideas, but I am of the view that further research needs to be carried out on the subject. I am not a researcher in federalism, so I cannot make a clear/firm conclusion. It is for the prospective candidates to comprehensively research the subject and categorically approve or disapprove the viability of a federal system. Until such studies are conducted, I am more inclined towards a centralised government with strong and equal representation of every sector of the Eritrean society in a national parliament. The Members of Parliament (MPs) should preferably be elected on merit basis. I am of the opinion that national unity and reconciliation should be given a second chance. Federalism was initiated by decent Eritreans who probably felt the bitterness of discrimination more than others, and should not be discouraged in uncivilised manner.

Finally, I congratulate EFDM for challenging our minds, as expressed by the feeling of one the audience. Well done EFDM, keep the momentum of innovative and creative discussions. Dialogue is the best solution for the current mess Eritrea is in. We all need to develop the culture of tolerating others view, accept positive criticism and move forward.

Final Note

I came across a news article in shabait.com, the websie of the Eritrean Ministry of Information. The article titled President conducts tour of inspection in Gash-Barka region”. The content of the article was not much informative, but I found something relevant to my article, and that is, “President Isaias was accompanied by the Administrator of Gash-Barka region, Mr. Kahsai Gebrehiwet, the Commander of Operation Zone 4, Maj. General Haile Samuel, and the head of Segen Construction Company, Mr. Tesfai Goitom”. Again, nothing surprising or new, but it reinforces the argument that there is extreme inequality in Eritrea. It is natural for one to raise some questions. Where are the locals of Gash-Barka region? Some of them are exiled and those at home have not been given the opportunity to administer their own region. Is this a fair nation? Of course not! It is completely impossible to understand the justification for such extreme discriminatory policy. It must be strongly condemned by those who believe in fairness and equality.



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