News analysis

Charting a way forward for Eritrea

First published on Eritrea Hub

President Isaias Afewerki’s rule, once all but unchallenged, is now questioned from all quarters. Can Eritreans chart a way forward?

For more than four decades one figure has towered over Eritrean life. Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea with a rod of iron, just as he once led the liberation movement that successfully liberated the country in 1991.

Previously an enormous asset, he has become the chief obstacle to progress. But his rule, once all but unchallenged, is now questioned from all quarters.

On the walls of Asmara: “Isayas step down, let’s protect our country”

Eritrean youth—many of whom having fled abroad—are no longer prepared to live in conditions of servitude, chained to a system of indefinite conscription that never ends.

Some have been in National Service for 20 years and more and rather than continue this way, they have fled abroad in record numbers. Now they have taken up the call in meetings from Canada to Belgium – Enough! Yiakl.

Their slogans now appear on the walls of Asmara: “Isayas step down, let’s protect our country.”

Building democracy

But removing President Isaias alone is no guarantee that Eritrea will emerge as a functioning democracy. The Arab Spring and its aftermath show how regime-change can go awry.

The events in neighboring Sudan are an indication of just how complex it can be to rid a country of a dictator, without falling into the hands of another group of autocrats.

This was the background to a two-day conference that was held in London on April 24 and 25.

Called ‘Building Democracy in Eritrea’ it heard from one of Africa’s most senior diplomats, Ambassador Haile Menkerios.

A former Eritrean ambassador and special representative of the UN Secretary General, Haile Menkerios called for a “national conference of the Eritrean people” to transform the country into a participatory democracy, saying it was the only way to avoid violence.

Eritrea has “the notoriety of being perhaps the only country in Africa that does not have a functioning constitution, a legitimate elected government, nor legitimate and functioning governance institutions that ensure accountability,” Ambassador Menkerios said in a message to the conference.

The conference was opened by Thangam Debbonaire, Member of Parliament for Bristol West, and chair of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.

Attendees at the ‘Building Democracy in Eritrea’ conference

For two days some 70 senior Eritrean academics and human rights activists, together with international experts who have worked on the country for many years, worked on this issue.

Some flew in from as far afield as Botswana, with contingents from the USA and a number of European countries.

Subjects from rebuilding the judicial system to reform of the economy were debated.

There were contributions from Dr Bereket Habte Selassie, who wrote Eritrea’s constitution – a constitution adopted by the National Assembly in 1997, it has still not been brought into force.

Dr Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association, offered his organization’s support in working on the legal system and the judiciary.

Dr Asia Abdulkadir, a gender consultant with the United Nations and chairwoman of the Network of Eritrean Women called for the inclusion of women and minority groups in every stage of the rebuilding of the country.

“We are not prepared to wait until after democracy – we must be part of the process,” she demanded.

“The objective of ‘Building Democracy in Eritrea’ is to bring together Eritreans and international supporters to begin thinking about tangible, realistic objectives for the establishment of democracy and the administration of justice in the country”, said Habte Hagos, Chairman of Eritrea Focus, which organized the event.

“The time for this is now.”

Funding for the conference came from the US National Endowment for Democracy, and private donors.

Uncertain future

But conferences come and conferences go, with only limited impact. As one delegate observed, “there have been 52 initiatives for change in Eritrea since 1993.”

The question is how to turn the papers that were presented into working documents that genuinely help to chart the future.

This is what will now take place.

A series of working groups have been identified that will discuss a range of subjects, so that any transformation will result in the ‘softest of landings.’ There will be particular attention to diversity. “Unite, don’t harmonize” – was an appeal from the floor.

Of course, there is no guarantee of how change will come to Eritrea. There are far too many examples of change that have come sadly unstuck: Zimbabwe is a recent case in point. But unless work begins, little will be possible when the day of reckoning dawns. So leads have been identified; task allocated.

“This conference must be a process, not an end in itself,” observed Habte Hagos.

Over the next few months progress will be monitored before the next meeting is held with the aim of contributing to the emergence of a genuinely free and democratic Eritrea.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: On the walls of Asmara: “Isayas step down, let’s protect our country”

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Martin Plaut

Martin worked for the BBC for nearly 30 years retiring as Africa Editor, World Service News in 2013. He then joined the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London as Senior Research Fellow and has written extensively on the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa.

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21 Comments

  • To Dan, You didn’t read the article at all. I didn’t find anything in it which talks about reunification, reversing the referendum.. Read it again.

  • Checked with several people in Asmara and no one could confirm that the picture with a writing on the wall is in Asmara/Eritrea. The was no need to use a fake picture to write about a meeting that took place in reality!!

  • Foolish if u think Eritreans will allow these traitors to infiltrate and destabilize the country; you’re better off staying in England and tending to your own problems

  • here we have someone who hasnot swallowed yet, the bitter truth that eritrea is a sovereign nation.
    This irreversible fact is based up on the wishes of over 99% of its population and the sucrifice of at least of 100,000 eritrean heroes and heroine.pls forget this “motherland” rethoric of the butcher mengistu who pledged to wage the war until the ethiopian population is reduced to only one man but fled without any bullet smell and is hiding in his rat hole ever since.
    you have to blame menelik the 2nd for signing wichale argeement, blame haileselasie for uninstalling the federation, blame mengistu for commiting massacre in eritrea
    All these three coundnot look over the edge of their plate and the result is the loss of access to the sea for over 100millon ethiopians.
    so coopertion between these two sisterly nations ?yes ! but reunification ?NO

  • Thank you for all your hard work. Keep it up. But,Please, don’t give up. Abraham weldezion
    Eritean from dallas Texas.

  • “Conferences come and go” as indicated in the summary of the conference held in London last week, this one like the previous ones will die a natural death. To my surprise, Haile Mekerios’s name is mentioned as one of the contributors to the meeting. As you know well he was one of the instruments in Isayas’s toolbox. How can a person who played a destructive role for years is now turned to save the “country”? Eritrea is a colonial creation. It has no basis in history or culture to be a viable state. That is the reason for its current misery. The West supported its break-up from Ethiopia since Ethiopia under Mengistu was considered a “communist” so anything goes as long as it serves the western interest.

    Unlike Jim Holloway who believes that the state of Eritrea as a separate entity is sacrosanct, I think it is a wise idea for Eritreans to devise some form of federation or confederation with Ethiopia. Thousands of Eritreans already live in Ethiopia and the Ethiopians are treating them as one of their own. Thousands of Eritreans are fleeing to Ethiopia everyday Eritreans are spiritually, and as a matter of fact, they are Ethiopians. And for a lot of Eritreans, this truth is becoming apparent except for some fools like Asmerom Legesse. Unless Eritreans settle their identity problems, no matter how good a conference is, would not bring an iota of change.

  • It is sad and frustrating to hear that 52 initiatives have been held since 1993 and none have delivered any solutions for the poor country.
    But I would like to suggest some points:

    Does all Eritrean really support the so called independence or is it political decision by the elite?

    Separation from mother land at the time of globalization ( correct/incorrect)

    Dictatorship vs owenership of the African governance ( Case study in Eritrea)

    Roles & interests of the regional or the global powerful countries for Eritrea liberation…….

    Confederation vs federation???

    Peaceful Eritrea vs war mongering isolated country ?

    Historical truth vs colonial time falsehood ?

    I just mixed up ideas so as to navigate deep inside of the problems.
    Please be honest and give your opinion in away to look forward .

    • I think that it would be a great mistake to try to revisit the issue of “separation from mother land”. This only fuels nationalism in the service of repressive forces in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many are unhappy that Dr Abiy appeared to support Isayas, but in my view his opening to Eritrea was a necessary step: to acknowledge Eritrea as a genuinely independent sovereign state, responsible for its own future. And in doing this, he has given Isayas a great and difficult challenge: to grasp the opportunities for peace and reform, or to demonstrate to all Eritreans the bankruptcy of his rule.
      All Ethiopians should accept with good heart that, for better or for worse, Eritrea is independent, but that all regional countries can work together for a more prosperous and peaceful joint future.

    • If this is funded by the US Government how come it wasn’t inclusive and why didn’t it take place inside Eritrea (unless there is a hidden agenda from the people)?

  • No one takes these people serious. Eritrea’s internal affairs will be solved by Eritreans in the country, not these self serving Diaspora bootlickers and their white saviors.

  • It’s about time that Eretrians leader go home retire Now.. Eretrians rise up and reclaim the best life possible for your families..it’s about time Eretrians rescued from the Mediterranean Sea waters to Europe. It’s about time the 1million and more Eretrians abroad stood up and end the current leaders undemocratic leadership now… Africa won’t change until these thug leaders are removed. We have this division in Africa because of this thug leaders bin place in most parts of Africa it’s time Eretrians together with the military took this thug leader out Now…many to follow in Uganda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Togo, And many..

  • This has too be the most ridiculous collection of individuals who have a horrible past in and regarding Eritrea. Starting from the fictional “journalist”. Named Martin Plaute who has been attempting to overthrow the Eritrean government as far back as 1998 when he was refused entry into Eritrea and was bought and paid for by TPLF, cash value unknow at this point but will be determined once the Tplf hands over its Eritrean subversion files soon. M.Plaute who appears more Eritrean than any Eritrean has written uncountable number of Articles against Eritrea, Attended/organized and participated in God knows how many Anti-Eritrea seminars and meetings with the goal of replacing the Eritrean government, who incidentally refuses to be intimidated by Mr. Plaute ‘s Imaginary status as a ” Journalist ” for the BBC and other similar organization whom everyone is aware of represent other , behind the scenes organizations.
    To verify this anyone can check his Facebook, Twitter or articles written by him. And please don’t forget to check out this old puppets egg on the head moments. Literally some Eritrean fed up with his antics poured over his head , and figuratively he has been caught so many times with his outright lies but he has no shame, that’s because he doesn’t really care nor beleive in what he is writing, but rather his sponsored money is his goal.

    • For some hard to describe reasons there are some heartless individuals who quench joy out of the misery of citizens. Those individuals are witnessing the suffering of countless nationals but still in spite of the evidence, chose to do the wrong thing. For these individuals, logic, reason, citizens right, the law or adhering to any relevant social norm are not applicable.
      Isaias considers the nation and the people as his private property. I have no idea how he was able to suppress the test but Eritreans current state is incomparable to any other country. Eritreans have suffered enough; ISAIAS AND PFDJ SHOULD GO AWAY

    • Aron,
      Can you provide a bit of evidence for your claim? You said the author is lying, can you support it with evidence, otherwise how do we verify your version of claim holds water?
      I am not saying you are wrong, I just need you to support your claim with evidence. lack of evidence may seem stretching the truth.
      My take from the author is Eritreans deserve better governance, the core message of the article is:

      “For more than four decades one figure has towered over Eritrean life. Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea with a rod of iron, just as he once led the liberation movement that successfully liberated the country in 1991”

      What is a way forward for Eritrea? it has been 28 years since independence, ever year its getting darker. I agree that Eritrea’s affairs will be solved by Eritreans, but how? It took 30 years to liberate Eritrea, however Eritrea is still under dictatorship. If you don’t agree that Isaias Afeworki is a dictatorship then you are one of them.

      • I believe we have to work on progress and not loose so much energy against each other. It is not helpfull to degrade each other but to work together to topple down dictatorship and work for a change. It is not easy and the price will be very high to bring a change in Eritrea but the process must start and the earlier the better. The Dictator is selling our country and unless we are united to remove him now, the price will be higher. We have to be united under the slogan Yiakel and remove first the Dictator, who has shown, that he is working against our interest and has no respect for Eritrea and Eritreans. Let us say we Can and work united from inside and outside Eritrea to remove this Dictator.
        Keflay Welday , Frankfurt