Eritrea in transition – The role of civil society
By Nahum Kidan
When the tide of change finally reaches Eritrean shores, the new transitional government will be presented with monumental challenges, including the urgent need to rebuild the three branches of the state (executive, legislature and judiciary) which will be critical to sustaining our democracy. State institutions and the systems of checks and balances they confer have been systematically dismantled by Isaias Afwerki over the last few decades, enabling him to consolidate his totalitarian rule.
Amongst many of its tasks, the transitional government will be kept busy undertaking constitutional review and the development of electoral laws to pave the way for a multi-party system and elections. But it won’t be the transitional government’s role alone to ensure a smooth transition; the success and sustainability of our fledgling democracy will heavily rely on the contributions of Eritrean civil society in supporting and monitoring the activities of the transitional government, ensuring it fulfils its mandate and is held accountable during its time-limited tenure.
Civil society also has an important role to play in facilitating citizen participation in the affairs of state and educating the public on their rights and responsibilities in a constitutional democracy. Educational programmes will be critical in ensuring citizens are empowered to exercise their rights responsibly, including the right to vote. We will need to eradicate the culture of fear, mistrust and impunity which has become deeply entrenched since independence and replace it with a new ‘normal’, where every citizen can confidently assert their rights without fear of retribution from state actors.
What is Civil Society?
The concept of 'civil society' is not new to the social sciences literature. It has been used by many political thinkers, including Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx. Nevertheless, many have interpreted 'civil society' differently, so it’s important we clarify our interpretation before moving on. Civil society refers to all the organized groups that are independent of the state, voluntary and to some extent self-reliant. In addition to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), this also includes grassroots organisations, independent media, advocacy groups, think tanks, professional associations, universities, and social and religious institutions.
Civil society is located in the public realm of human affairs, with organizations/associations pursuing inherently public goals and interests such as: human rights, women’s rights, refugee rights, the environment and promoting the interests of professional or social groups. Furthermore, the actions of civil society are often targeted at the government; civil society groups often work closely with governments in the development of public policy, but must always retain their independence and not seek power for themselves. A key role of civil society is ensuring accountability and transparency from the government of the day.
Civil society groups also play an important role in empowering communities, by giving a voice to the citizenry, promoting their interests, raising awareness of social issues, marginalized groups and advocating for change.
Why is Civil Society important?
Civil society plays several important roles. They are an important source of information for both citizens and government. They monitor government policy and actions, holding government accountable where they act outside their constitutional remit or against the interests of the people. Civil society organisations engage in advocacy, proposing policy solutions for government on a wide range of issues including human rights and food security.
Some organisations are involved in humanitarian and relief work providing essential services to vulnerable citizens and refugees.
Throughout history, civil society has played a crucial role in leading pro-democracy movements of change, toppling authoritarian regimes in South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa and introducing democratic governance and practices to developing countries.
The Arab Spring succeeded in toppling four dictators in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia and led to other countries introducing political reforms and/or offering concessions. Nevertheless, the Arab Spring has been somewhat of a mixed bag with Libya, Yemen and Syria descending into civil war. After the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Egypt began a transition to democracy only to revert to a military dictatorship in 2013. Tunisia has been a relative success story, with the ousting of Ben Ali in 2011 leading to the country transitioning to democracy and holding free and fair elections. So why was the Tunisian story different and how were all sides able to come together in the 2013 National Dialogue and build consensus? This has been partially attributed to the strength of Tunisian Civil Society Organisations, four of which served as mediators in the 2013 dialogue which enabled the key players to agree on a democratic framework and way forward.
Civic Space in Eritrea
“Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations can, organise, participate, and communicate without hindrance. In doing so, they can claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions.” (Civicus, 2021)
The aversion of the PFDJ to independent Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) goes back to 1996, when it dismantled the Eritrean Women War Veteran’s Association (BANA). Founded in 1994, BANA was created to help recently demobilised women fighter’s transition into civilian life. By 1996, its almost 1000 members had set up successful cooperatives and the association had raised significant revenue from international donors. When BANA refused to fall under the control of the state sponsored National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) and later the government’s Demobilisation Agency, it was shut down and its assets seized. As of April 2021, civic space remains firmly shut in Eritrea.
Article 19 of the unimplemented Constitution of Eritrea guarantees the right to freedom of association. Furthermore, Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Eritrea has acceded, also guarantees the freedom of association. Despite these commitments, the PFDJ has failed to comply with its legal and moral obligations to the Eritrean people.
Proclamation No. 145/2004 of 2005 (Non-governmental Organization Proclamation) places onerous restrictions on the scope and operation of NGOs, empowering the authorities to exert control over their activities. Article 2(1) limits the definition of NGO to those engaged in relief and/or rehabilitation work, thereby excluding human rights CSOs, women’s associations and others. The proclamation states that any NGO wishing to operate inside Eritrea must apply to the Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare, who must inform applicants of the outcome of the application within 30 days. The Ministry has failed to process the application of any NGO not supportive of the actions of the PFDJ, effectively banning the operation of any independent CSO inside Eritrea.
Consequently, independent CSOs, such as the EMDHR and Network of Eritrean Women (NEW) can only operate outside Eritrean borders, making it exceedingly difficult for CSOs to monitor and hold the PFDJ to account.
Civil Society - Diaspora
Given the unprecedented restrictions on civic space in Eritrea, over the years, Eritreans in the diaspora have organised themselves into a wide range of organisations/associations/groups to promote the interests of the Eritrean people. Many of these groups have generally focused on promoting human rights and democracy in Eritrea, whilst others have focused on specific issues such as marginalized groups, refugees, and political prisoners. Some have formal organisational structures and are set up as non-profits, whilst others are a more informal association of people.
Over the last 2 years, we have observed a growth in Eritrean civil society, with the formation of professional associations, think tanks, humanitarian fundraising groups and powerful single-issue campaigns such as #EndHighSchoolinSawa and #LetEritreanKidsLearn. This trend is to be welcomed as each group fulfils a specific need which is not being addressed by the PFDJ. It is imperative that we support and strengthen our diaspora civic organisations as they will form the bedrock of our future democracy.
Over the years, it is evident that there has been growing apathy and disillusionment towards the organisations that comprise the Eritrean opposition, with no differentiation being made between those who seek power (political parties) and those providing important services to and advocacy on behalf of the Eritrean people (civic organisations). This frustration and apathy is understandable as Isaias has continued to tighten his grip and hopes of change can at times feel bleak. The intention of this article is not to evaluate past and existing weaknesses of the opposition; this has previously been covered in a 2015 paper by Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad and Kjetil Tronvoll, published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF) and certainly warrants a review in 2021. Whilst failings have occurred in the past, it is important we recognise those civic organisations working tirelessly to improve the condition of the Eritrean people and lay the foundations for our future democracy.
To build confidence in our civic organisations, we encourage more organisations to be proactive in engaging with the public and sharing their work via media, social media, and open-source platforms. We also encourage Eritreans to do their research and make an effort to evaluate each organisation on a case by case basis, based on their vision, aims/objectives, and outputs. After studying these organisations/associations/campaigns, make an informed decision to support and or/join those organisations you believe are working to make a positive contribution to our cause.
Finally, we stress the importance of working together. By coordinating our campaigns, pooling our resources, and working towards shared objectives, we maximize the fruits of our labour. The EMDHR works in partnership with a range of Eritrean civil society organisations. A big part of what we do is providing training and capacity building for Eritrean human rights defenders (HRDs). In 2019, we organised a two-day training course in Kampala, Uganda for Eritrean HRDs based in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. The training provided them with the tools to monitor, document and report human rights abuses and to engage in advocacy using the various African mechanisms – AU, ACPHR and regional bodies. By strengthening our civil society today, we provide tomorrow’s democratic Eritrea with a greater chance of thriving and sustaining itself.
We will at a later stage be announcing a new initiative to strengthen Eritrean civil society and enhance coordination on shared objectives, so stay in tune!
Endnote: The Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) is an autonomous and non-profit seeking organisation. It is independent of any government, political affiliation, ethnic & regional affiliation, economic interest, or religion.
It was founded in 2003 by Eritreans in the Republic of South Africa in response to the absence of civil, democratic rights and rule of law in Eritrea. Today, EMDHR has members from all over the world, including Executive Committee and Board members based in the UK.
Our work focuses extensively on educating the Eritrean public on their rights and empowering them to assert their rights. In 2006, EMDHR published a manual in Tigrigna, titled - Bidho Antsar atehasasbana ('Let's challenge our mindset and beliefs') on active, non-violent struggle against dictatorship. Inspired by the Serbian revolution, it provided readers with 198 tools for challenging dictatorial rule in Eritrea. The manual was distributed both inside Eritrea and in the diaspora, and was widely accepted by the Eritrean public, becoming an inspiration for many Eritrean organisations to adopt a similar non-violent strategy. The manual is available for download on our website.
The EMDHR also engages in advocacy, lobbying governments and international organisations to advance human rights in Eritrea and ensure the protection of Eritrean refugees. EMDHR works in partnership with a range of Eritrean and non-Eritrean NGOs to fulfil its objectives.
(Heading art by Celeste Beyers)