A conference organised by Eritrea Focus has been held to consider some of the key issues facing the Eritrean nation – both inside the country and across the world. Below is a keynote closing speech by Dr Mebrahtu Atewberhan.
The conference (the third in the series) took place from 22-24 November at the Senate House, home of the University of London. It was hosted by Dr Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The BBC and Eritrean media were present and reported on the event live.
The subjects covered included:
- Eritrea’s international relations and its relationship with the Horn of Africa
- How to reform and improve Eritrea’s international relations
- Lessons from other African transformations
- Eritrea’s economy: reform and recovery
- Eritrea’s economy: challenges of social rehabilitation
- Eritrea’s economy: challenges of demobilisation
- Eritrea’s economy: rehabilitation of the financial sector
- Plight of Eritrean refugees
- The human rights situation in Eritrea
- Eritrea and the Tigray war
- The rule of law
- Administration of justice
- Transitional justice
In addition to the formal conference there was a dinner at which there was an opportunity for delegates to discuss these, and other topics, informally.
Closing remarks by Dr Mebrahtu Atewberhan
My name is Mebrahtu Atewberhan. I am a member of Eritrea Focus and one of the conference organisers.
I would like to thank our three speakers, Mr Isaias, Habteab Yemane and Paulos Tesfagiorgis, for their detailed and insightful speeches on; the Rule of Law, Administration of Justice and Transitional Justice. Also thank you to this afternoon’s moderator, Dr Meron Ogbandrias. I also would like to thank the audience for your time and contributions made both in person and by zoom. I would especially like to thank those in various places in East Africa who have joined the conference remotely as individuals or groups over the last 3 days. Yesterday alone, we had 36 people from one of the neighbouring countries on a single screen – a clear manifestation, if one is needed, of their commitment and love for our country.
What has become clear from the speakers and various contributions in today’s session is that Eritrea has become a lawless society, where the constitution and the judiciary in all intent and purposes has become defunct, and has been so for the last 30 years. This has resulted in tens of thousands of our fellow citizens been picked up from the streets, from their homes and workplaces, and locked up in prisons (some in shipping containers) for years on end. The prisoners never face the due process of the law nor do they have any idea what they have been imprisoned for. They languish in prisons for decades without adequate food, overcrowded cells that are very cold at night and unbearably hot during the day. Their family do not know their whereabouts – not even if they are alive or dead. Eritrea has become a prison state, and a hell on earth for its people in the hands of Isaias and his thugs. I am not sure if what Sue Onslow said in her opening speech on Tuesday, presenting Eritrea as an Orwellian case, describes the system well. I am certain George Orwell would have written a different book to describe Isaias and his regime.
I don’t remember who said it. The war is between Isaias and Eritrean mothers’ wombs.
Therefore, as all the speakers today described, reverting into a society that abides by the rule of law post regime change is not going to be easy but not impossible. We need to plan carefully and engage our experts dispersed around the world now even before the imminent downfall of the regime. There is no doubt in my mind we will create a nation that respects the freedom and rights of its people so they can live a normal life, in peace and harmony in their homeland.
Key questions are: How are we going to address the issue of prisoners, not only the 36000-50000 that were mentioned by Prof. Kidane yesterday because the whole of Eritrea is a big prison? How are we going to have an equilibrium between peace and the administration of justice? Who should we give a soft landing to? To what extent can we allow elite bargain, or should we let the perpetrators go unpunished for the sake of peace?
Speaking about Isaias’s wars and in line with today’s topic of the rule of law and transitional justice, the topic of reconciliation becomes crucial not only inside Eritrea but also across our borders. Yesterday, Professor Araia Debessay asked how we were going to address the issue of the property that was looted from Tigray. But the problem is more than the monetary value of what was taken from Tigray or what was destroyed. It is about the action. The cars and factory machines are rusting in ዓሻ ጎልጎል (Asha Golgol) or in Embatkala. No one is using them. Whatever the intention, how are we going to improve and rebuild the relationship, not only with the people of Tigray but also with other peoples of our region?
We also spoke about some of Isaias’s shameful statements regarding the national economy. I will add one, hoping that it doesn’t promote him. In the 2019 interview, after the peace deal with Ethiopia (remember it?), this is what he had to say. “I don’t care about people who carry ‘Samsonite’ briefs, samsonites that you don’t know what is inside. I’d rather help someone in a remote area of the country, with 5 goats and grows them to 50 or more. Yet, we all know who Isaias’s friends are. They are those with samsonite briefs, people that run his cartel. The ones with 5 goats are the cannon fodder of his adventurous wars.
To go back to the question: Where is our money? One of the takeaways of this conference is tracking where Isaias and his cliques have stashed away the money they have collected from their contraband system, from the extractive sector and humanitarian and development aid. This is one of the objectives Eritrea Focus will follow up over the coming few years.
It is probably true that at this conference, we did not provide solutions to the satisfaction of many, especially on how to oust the regime. It is beyond our capacity, and the responsibility of all. But we asked questions, and as they say, understanding the problem is finding half of the solution. More importantly, people are talking everywhere. Our people are ready but what is lacking is leadership. All indications are that new ways are needed. New ways, that look from the inside-out, not the other way.
But there are things we could do from the outside as well. We need to stop fighting over anything and everything. Which flag? Which constitution? Jebha vs. Shabia and their history and ideology. If given the chance, our people know what to choose between Isaias’s Afewerki’s brutal rule and any constitutional order. Also, the issue of the flag is a non-issue. At the moment, the flag that we deserve is a black one, and that is flying at half-mast.
With that, I bring the Eritrea Focus November 2022 conference to a close.
Thank you and have a safe journey and a Happy Thanksgiving to those in the States.