Afewarki and Eritrea in Crisis

By Abdullah A. Ado
Jan. 06 2009

Since 1993, there have appeared various analyses, by Eritrean and non-Eritrean writers alike, of the causes and effects of Issayas Afewarki and his regime’s crisis; and the likely impact it will have on the overwhelming majority of the population within Eritrea proper in the near future. These include descriptive summaries of events of failed 'nation building experiments'. Vivid facts are cooking like latent volcano underneath the surface. Reasons are many. But let me ask only the following leading quarries: Do highlanders and lowlanders maintain any shared aspirations to speak of? Are the dreams of lowland Afar and kunama people and that of the highlanders mutual? Do highland–lowland divisions allow passage across obstacles? Do we know and love each other at all? Or do we remain at odds ever since? In the lowlanders view, Eritrea remains a divided nation yet in the making; struggling to come out of the clouds that overshadow its mere existence as a stable nation because of the border dispute along the Badme-Tsorena lines. Yes Eritrea is yet in our minds not solidified even as much as Djibouti is in the eyes of the outer world. Communities within Eritrea have a long way, longer and harder way to go, than the idealist Eritrean highlanders have always taken for granted; and wished that the nation building process is a done deal since Afewarki assumed power. But by so thinking they readily fell flat when it comes to explaining Eritrea’s own internal differences between highlanders and lowlanders; between the resentful Kunama and Afar societies on the one hand and the hard-handed Afewarki’s tyrant regime on the other. A case in point worth mentioning is the recent UNSC resolution. It is a good example of a well researched resolution that not only provides a detailed exposition of major mishaps that lead the contemporary crisis within the Afewarki regime, but also an objective analysis of the events which led naturally to a coherent and cogent set of UNSC’s objective resolution.

At the other end of the spectrum are always pseudo-intellectual rants mainly of Highland Eritrea origin who permanently publish on various Eritrean websites, warning the imminent danger that may result in the collapse of Issayas Afewarki and his regime’s polity. Obviously as its nationhood crafting is not based on solid grounds the aftermath will obviously lead into long-anticipated anarchy and chaos. There will emanate continuous sources of problems and irritation to not only the 9-major ethnic groups within Eritrea proper; but also to the neighbouring states in the region. One thing clear for those of us confined within Eritrea proper is the naked fact that the style of age old authoritarian governance within the Afewarki regime is not only young and fragile, but also outdated and demagogic. Thus it has to be replaced instantly. Unless we are ready to carefully nurture the situation with tools that help eradicate the maladies it will remain a source of fight for our respective community rights. It is this common premise that bears closer examination since it is patently very true. So before I commence my brief discourse, it is useful to define some basic terms in the interests of clarity and also in order to set the parameters of the discussion below within the context of socio-political theory.

The first term that needs to be defined here is “democracy”, since this concept lies at the very heart of the issue under discussion. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines democracy as a:  “ (a) government by the people; especially : rule of the majority; (b) government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” The important point to note here is the phrase “… usually involving periodically held free elections …” We know from experience that free elections are not, in and of themselves, a necessary pre-condition for a democratic system of government; although they usually comprise an important element of such a system.

The central feature of a democratic system is that, government power is vested in the people and they exercise this power either directly, or through freely chosen representatives, which act in their behalf. This central democratic governance concept was articulated and enunciated, perhaps most famously, by Abraham Lincoln of the USA in his Gettysburg Address as: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people…” In fact, this precise and pithy exposition of a democratic system of government has become the popular definition of democracy.

To this effect, this central point leads me to the critically important concept of “political consent”, (i.e. the consent of the people to submit to the authority of government). In a democratic system, the people consent to a governmental authority because that very authority derives from the people freely choosing their leaders through periodically held elections.

As an Afar fellow by origin, I consider my own pastoral and clan-based system as the basis of our societal make up in which direct participation by each adult male in major decisions of the clan, or sub-clan, (e.g. whether to go to war or to resolve disputes with other clans/sub-clans through dialogue and negotiation) take place. Indeed, in the socio-political structure of traditional Afar, Kunama and other pastoral society remains extremely egalitarian and democratic; each with its own inner structure of appointing wise leaders without any public election system in the Western sense of it; and without any sophisticated provision for any electoral process. Even then, we can still characterize the Afar, Kunama and other pastoral communities as democratic. We adhere to the point of customary law and order by our direct, participatory nature of the system of social and political governance in each of our pastoral society whereby important issues are openly debated in mass public meetings and the majority views prevail and become binding upon all clan/sub-clan members after all the viewpoints are thoroughly aired out and deliberately discussed. This indigenous, participatory democracy has neither formal institutions nor any formal office holders (for example the Tajura and Asaita Sultanates remain purely ceremonial with no formal powers); yet each not only works, but has thrived and commanded the allegiance of our people for centuries, if not for millennia. Indeed, in traditional, pastoral, Afar society, clan elders are not elected but chosen through an evolutionary, dynamic, almost osmotic, process whereby those clan members that are perceived by their kinsmen as wise, reflective, or visionary do decent and honourably emerge as spokesmen and socio-political leaders whose opinions and judgments are widely respected and followed. This may be viewed as a social equivalent of the Darwinian evolutionary principle of ‘survival of the fittest’; except that it may be characterized as ‘emergence of the wise and honourable’. Thus, the success of the Afar-Kunama and other pastoral people in establishing a functioning, democratic system within their respective communities by defying Afewarki’s regime in the wake of a prolonged, devastating civil war against a tribally based, highland military dictatorship that had ruled for nearly two decades is not surprising.

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