Eritreans' opposition Congress, launched in Ethiopia, seeks global backing

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We can now approach the United States, the European Union, European, and African and Arab countries to of course first ask for recognition and eventually urge them for their economic support for our struggle and for our people

[Global: Africa]

As President Isaias Afewerki prepared to give his New Year message, his democratic opponents in exile were huddling together in what they say is a bid to bring hope and freedom to the Eritrean people. They held their first Congress last month in Hawassa, Ethiopia, and formed a new 127-member coalition called the National Assembly for Democratic Change to be headed by Dr. Yosuf Berhanu – veteran fighter and physician.

The morale of Dr. Yosuf’s side has been boosted as the Security Council moved to further punish the Isaias regime early in December for what the UN says were illegal acts of reported human trafficking, extortion, terrorism and destabilization. Journalist Michael Abraha recently sat with Yosuf Berhanu in Addis Ababa and asked him how he saw the latest UN measures against the Eritrean government.

Dr. Yosuf Berhanu: I hail the UN action although it came a little bit late.  The sanctions are very important from one point of view: The Eritrean government is now completely isolated from the rest of the world. And in my opinion the UN action is vital as a deterrent and is supportive of the plans and objectives of the Eritrean democratic movement. It is essential for us to take this opportunity to further isolate the regime and intensify the struggle until it is removed and replaced by a democratic system.

Q: What real impact will the new UN measures have ....?
A: This is an important step not only for the Eritrean people but also for the neighboring countries. The regime in Eritrea is creating havoc throughout the Horn of Africa Region. It is interfering in the internal affairs of Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen.  Its war with Ethiopia over a decade ago resulted in the loss of life of tens of thousands of youngsters.  It is indeed a disaster.  And this is a reflection of one thing: You cannot be a dictator and a despot inside Eritrea and be democratic and peace-loving externally. This is not possible. That is the ugly nature of the regime in Eritrea. Isaias is treating the neighboring countries the same way he is treating his own people.

Q: Hundreds of Eritreans were in Hawassa recently for their first Democratic National Congress in exile. What was achieved?
A: The conclusion was positive. It was an assembly of 600 Eritreans from all over the world under one vision. The convention represented the interests of all people, their regions and faiths. The gathering was an opportunity in which Eritreans from varying political and civil society groups as well as youth and women’s associations freely discussed and debated all issues and problems facing our country and our people today. We formed a new coalition, the National Assembly for Democratic Change, with an Executive Office made up of 21 members to run daily activities. In the final analysis this 12-day event in November and December was an important event marking the beginning of a new era for Eritrea.

Q: Some groups and individuals boycotted the Congress. Why?
A: The reasons given for not joining the process were not persuasive or relevant to our current national reality, in my judgment. It would have been good if all had participated. But, I can assure you we are still open and we will remain open to any group or individuals who want to join the process unfolding now. We are prepared to talk to them and accept them. They are welcome any time.

Q: As you said earlier the country’s interests may have been represented enough at the Congress in Hawassa. But the composition of the
delegates was not representative enough. There were for instance more lowlanders than highlanders. Did that bother you?
A: First, it must be stressed that whatever their places of origin or religious background, the participants were open-minded, tolerant, understanding and fully united and ready to serve the nation. If more people came from the lowlands, it is a reaction against the negative political legacy left by the Isaias clique that has deprived them of their right to equal participation and protection despite their contributions in the liberation struggle. For instance, there are still tens of thousands of Eritrean lowland refugees languishing in the Sudan, whom the regime has neglected. If their number was bigger at the Hawassa gathering, it was not out of a desire for special consideration, but a sign of their eagerness to swiftly end tyranny in our country. The point is the purpose of the Congress was to tackle every problem faced by all Eritreans, be they of lowland or highland origin, Moslem or Christian or other compatriots.

Delegates deliberated on and planned at the national level, not at regional levels. At the same time, there was harmony and tolerance, and that was why the Congress was successful.

Q: The majority of the 127-member National Assembly came from existing political parties, thus placing civil society groups in the minority. The Executive Office, made up of 21 members, also appears to be almost entirely in the hands of these political parties. What are the implications of this?
A: As you know, the delegates at the Congress represented all categories of people, groups, beliefs and interests. Regardless of our background, as members of the new National Assembly, we now belong to one family, one body committed to the Eritrean cause. We are not to categorize
each other as members of particular parties or civic associations. For example, I am a member of the Eritrean National Salvation Front. But I can
assure you I am not going to lead our new coalition from that political position. We will have a negative impact if we were to be thinking and acting based on our affiliations. We have to fight any such tendencies.

Q: What will be the future of the various political parties in the aftermath of the establishment of the National Assembly and its National Executive Office?
A: The Executive Office is a coalition of political parties, civil societies, women’s groups, youth and other elements operating under a minimum political program. Many political parties are members of this body. This does not mean they will now cease to exist as independent political parties. Of course, they will continue to exist and develop outside the new national coalition.

Q: What happens to the military wings of the political organizations?
A: Discussions are going on among those parties that have armed wings with the aim of bringing them under one military command. Our Executive Office has a Military Branch which will be mandated to coordinate military activities.

Q: How do you characterize Ethiopia’s role and support for your plans?
A: The support we are getting from the Ethiopian government is a genuine support. And this is due to one major factor: We as Eritreans want to get rid of the current system in our country; the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian people also have the same interest and want to get rid of the dictatorship as well because they are also suffering from the negative attitude and hostile and violent actions of the Isaias regime. It is working to destabilize the internal situation in Ethiopia, Djibouti and other countries in the Horn. That is why I salute the Ethiopian support. And thanks to that support 600 of us Eritreans convened in Hawassa last month coming from all corners of the world and representing all Eritrean society to discuss our internal and national problems without any interference from the Ethiopian government.

Q: Apart from the UN sanctions what kind of support are you looking for from the international community - the European Union, IGAD, US and
others?
A: Well, we have to first gain political recognition before speaking of assistance. It has been disappointing so far because political organizations have been acting separately. There was utter lack of coordination among them. But this time after the successful conclusion of the National Congress in Hawassa, Ethiopia, we have created a new outlook. We can now approach the United States, the European Union, European, and
African and Arab countries to of course first ask for recognition and eventually urge them for their economic support for our struggle and for our people. I may say we are now on the right track.

Q: What lessons can be learned from the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East?
A: Nothing can be more encouraging for the Eritrean people and the youngsters in particular than the experiences unfolding in Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. After twenty, thirty, forty years of suffering, the people there at last decided to shed their fears paying all the sacrifices needed to topple tyrant after tyrant until they became masters of their own destinies. Eritreans can and should act in a similar way, and speak out and come out and hasten the end of the dictatorship in our country.


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