This statement was given at the Mercorios Haile Memoriol conference, in honour of the late Eritrean national leader, held on 30-31-5-2011 at the centre of Initiative for Change. The theme discussed was “The Eritrean Political Parties and Civil Society Organisations”.
First of all I would like to congratulate you on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the independence of the Eritrean people, which was won after heavy sacrifices and after a fierce and longstanding war of liberation which lasted 30 years. It was heroic and unique against all odds, because the challenges were insurmountable, notably if you put into consideration the international legality represented in UN resolutions and the organisation of African Unity charter which made the dream of the Eritrean independence almost impossible.
It is a great honour for me to be given this opportunity to address you in this event which will consider matters of great concern to the march of your development and progress.
My interest with Eritrea started in my early childhood on the eve of the deliberations of the future of Somalia and Eritrea at the United Nations in the late years of the forties of the last century. My father who had close relations with the leaders of the Eritrean community in Mogadiscio, with whom he used to exchange views on how to pursue the path of independence for both countries, used to bring with him Eritrean newspapers in Arabic, which were of great value to inform and educate of the Eritrean aspect of the same the struggle. From these Eritrean newspapers I got my first contact with politics. Later on as a student in Egypt, we Somalis were in close relationship with our Eritrean colleagues because of shared common political values and a common history of living together under Italian colonial administration. I came to know wolde woldmariam, the father of the Eritrean Independence and Osman Saleh Sabbeh, another great leader of the Eritrean Liberation movement while in exile in Egypt in sixties and later on in Mogadiscio working hand in hand in the eighties in their unrelenting struggle for the Eritrean Independence. I also had the privilege to be in charge of the Eritrean file when I was in the Arab league.
Speaking from the experience of my country, the biggest challenge starts after achieving independence, which is more ardous and difficult than the phase of the struggle for national liberation. It is the task of building the state from scratch, instituting the economic infrastructure, creating state institutions, combating illiteracy and the promotion of education, managing internal ethnic and regional disparities and conflicts and mobilising the energies for the common good. We trod the first steps graciously; it was the period from July 1960 to 1969 when national harmony was at its peak. Political decisions were taken on basis of consensus at all levels. Never a citizen was arrested for political reasons. The constitutional system was parliamentarian where the powers were distributed fairly between different organs. All segments and components of the society were represented in state institutions satisfactorily. The administrations in that period respected the provisions of the constitution where democracy, public freedoms, multiparty system and alternation in power was respected. The government was held to account through parliament control. Free press, mass demonstrations, pressure groups also took part in making the voice of the people heard.
On the other hand we had crippling hardships, our budgetary deficit was covered by foreign assistance, we had no means whatsoever to finance our economic development, we had huge defence challenges because of the nature of the colonial history of our country which swallowed 90% of national income, but we had peace, national harmony, hope for a better future and, a sense of pride to belong to a nation that is confident to achieve what it aspires to.
I recount this story to contrast with what happened after the coup d’ etat of 1969, with its turbulent history of violence and the aftermath the collapse of the military regime in 1990, which produced the disintegration of the country, the dispersal of the Somalis across the world, the agony of continuous military campaigns to settle accounts with Somalia under different pretexts, sometimes in the name of hot pursuits of expansionists, in others on humanitarian claims to restore hope and in other occasions to eliminate the Islamists and last but not least to eradicate the terrorists. The catastrophes of drought famine and floods and piracy were a natural consequence of total chaos and the inexistence of a state to manage and protect the public interest.
The lesson to be learnt from the Somali tragedy is that, if the government loses legitimacy and defies the public will to change the course of historical march and if the opposition groups do not combine their forces in a unified front for a common purpose and think strategically, it gives the opportunity to foreign spoilers who benefit from internal strife to drag the country into the quagmire in which we are in now. And when the Somalis stood up for their statehood and unity after 20 years of suffering in June 2006 and defeated mercenary war lords who were in the pay of the international and regional powers, and imposed the reign of peace, order and tranquillity over a vast majority of the Somali territory, that accomplishment did not suit the strategies of the guardians of the international community. After six months of good start and the ground work for reconstruction was laid down, and Somalis from all corners of the world welcomed the achievement attained, Ethiopia was persuaded to invade and occupy our country. It was a time of terror, destruction, bloodletting, and in December 2007 in Djibouti again, the cycle of the absurd conferences of peace and reconciliation had been launched again.
Our hope to change the course of events depend on our ability to mobilise the conscious people of good will towards adopting a unified vision and a political programme embraced by everyone, based on solid national cohesion, for the purpose of restoring the Somali state and its institutions and realising national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The new models of political organisation sponsored by the young leaders of the revolutions of the Arab spring are an inspiring example which merits to be seriously considered.
One of the positive developments in our society is the birth of a vibrant Somali Diaspora community that have established solid ground in business, finance , investment, communication and mass-media and the promotion of education who are maintaining the functioning of the fabric of the Somali survival irrespective of all the challenges. It is a community that defies tribal allegiances and works on national grounds and its activities cover the whole country despite the barriers of ethnic, tribal and regional boundaries. This community is holding high the banner of national unity which will be translated politically in the near future. The Somali satellite t.vs based in London are getting increasing audience across political spectrum and its weight is felt in shaping the Somali public opinion and in exposing the machinations that are engulfing our country. Art is also playing a major role in spreading the message of hope, self confidence, determination and the will to overcome the plight of our nation.
Another area of interest to us is the process of organising the Somali community in Britain which is very huge and is dispersed across different cities and face many difficulties such as integration, marginalisation, unemployment, crime and lack of educational opportunities and the need to create a representation for them that promote their interests and make their voice heard. In this regard we have to learn from the experiences of Asian communities who by organised work had succeeded to integrate their compatriots in the British society and reach high standards in education, business and professions that made their contribution to the wealth of Britain palpable, and made their presence visible. This objective could further accelerate the advancement not only of their fate in Britain, but could contribute considerably in stabilising the country and take part in rebuilding our state and its economic, social and educational advancement.
Since your forum is discussing political parties and civil societies, I have nothing to contribute other than, when military regime came to power in Somalia in 1969, it has abolished all democratic liberties, including the right to exercise any political expression, especially the right to constitute political parties. That act, beside other measures, had detrimental effect on the cohesiveness of our nation, because people were deprived of the legal means to shape public opinion on national ground in fear it would destabilise the military. Due to repression, the only option open to form political opinion was through refuge to clandestine tribal ties. It was the only outlet permitted, aggravated also by regime’s tactics of divide and rule as the only means to perpetuate their reign. So when the regime collapsed, there was no political institution to hold together the fabric of the nation through a common vision and organisation that could maintain the continuity of the state and its institutions. There was no credible political institution to fill the vacuum of statelessness. Political parties, founded on national basis, inclusive, with a clear-cut programme, disciplined and credible is an essential instrument in preserving the continuity and harmonious progress of the nation and safeguarding the participation of the masses in the political process and higher interests of the state.
Civil society’s organisations had flourished in Somalia after the breakup of the state and played a major role in covering the needs of the population due to the lack of public services. By collecting funds from Somali businessmen, Diaspora and regional and international aid groups, they established schools, hospitals and other public services, thus contributed to alleviate the plight of the nation.
We have many civil societies in Britain which are performing a commendable job of assisting their constituencies at home in health, education, veterinary services, building of wells, opening of orphanages and helping displaced persons and other services.
Recently, 23 Somali civil society’s organisations, based in Britain after lengthy debate have concluded that they could achieve greater results, get more funds, their mission could be more effective and could build bigger projects, if they could cooperate and work collectively and constitute one umbrella organisation, well structured, transparent, credible and professional, will undoubtedly gain the trust, and therefore the respect and the support of the international donors. So, they have come to realise that tribe, region. Ethnicity and any kind of exclusivity is not only useless, but detrimental even to their narrow-minded interest. They are now working nationally.
We Somalis and Eritreans, have so many things in common. What unite us is bonds of common history, the same political challenges, similar social and cultural background and have the same aspirations.
Both our communities in Diaspora are facing the same challenges and preoccupations, we need to cooperate, to exchange views and experiences and coordinate our efforts to make our voice heard and to reassert our presence.