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Eritrea: From Dictatorship to Democracy and Back Again

August 2005

By Dan Connell

Eight months ago, Grassroots International ended its longest-running overseas aid program–that in Eritrea. The decision was an agonizing but necessary one. The story of how Grassroots arrived at this point closely tracks my own evolution as a writer and an activist for social justice.

Thirty years ago I set out with a back pack, a notebook, a few pens and a small wad of cash and travelers checks to explore Africa. Several months into it and spurred on by reports of a fierce but largely unreported counterinsurgency, I hitched into Eritrea to witness the massacre of dozens of civilians by Ethiopia’s U.S.-supported military regime.

I wrote this up and sent it to The Washington Post, which ran the story on the front page, marking the start of an odyssey that has yet to end.
Over the next six years, I dashed in and out of Eritrea from neighboring Sudan to report on Eritrea’s independence war against successive U.S. and Soviet-backed Ethiopian dictatorships and to chronicle the Eritreans’ impressive efforts to unify and transform their starkly unequal society. I filed for the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters and more than a dozen European and North American papers. But it was not enough to just talk about it.

In 1983, with the war intensifying and famine looming, I founded Grassroots International to bring greater attention to this catastrophe and to channel aid to its victims, as well as to help long-neglected war victims in Lebanon, where I had set up an emergency program for another aid agency. Grassroots and a handful of mostly European NGOS provided modest support to the Eritreans in those early years.

The Eritreans achieved an extraordinary level of cultural and political unity among their diverse constituent parts–Christians and Muslims from nine ethnic groups–at a time when most of their neighbors were mired in civil war and sectarian violence. And during their first five years of independence, they managed a growth spurt that was the envy of Africa.

Despite the inherited poverty and widespread destruction, they ended food relief and embarked on an ambitious program of self-reliant development. They streamlined the State while maintaining a largely crime- and corruption-free environment. They provided new opportunities for women and extended services to formerly excluded ethnic minorities. They drafted and ratified a new constitution in a process that drew in virtually the entire adult population. They opened new schools and clinics, built new roads and dams, terraced badly eroded hillsides, planted millions of trees, and more.

Then came renewed war with Ethiopia and, with it, a disheartening retreat into repression and dictatorship. In September 2001, President, Isaias Afwerki clinched this stunning reversal by arresting his leading critics, shutting down the independent press and imposing a coercive regime on the population as a whole. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse.

So–what to do?

Last December, Grassroots shut down its 22-year aid program to protest the trampling of human rights. But I remain convinced that the legacy of this remarkable freedom struggle lives on in a younger generation that craves liberty as much as life itself–and is organizing to get it. Their victory will rock Africa.

This emerging democracy movement brings together activists in more than a dozen countries outside Eritrea as well as clandestine supporters within the country. Young Eritreans in South Africa are taking a lead role in building a global democracy network called the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), formed early this year by refugees and exiles whose aim is to build an independent civic movement to alter the way politics is done in Eritrea.

The EMDHR has initiated a global dialogue among Eritreans on the future of their country. Drawing on the experiences of other democracy movements, including that in South Africa, they’re developing a manual for non-violent resistance, which they will print in several Eritrean languages. They’re doing workshops on democracy and human rights for their community in South Africa, and they’re planning an electronic newsletter.

Their goal is not just to replace the present dictatorship–a charter member of President Bush’s “coalition of the willing”–but to hold any new government accountable to the wider population. As one young activist said, “We want to be a toothache to whoever is in power.”

Dan Connell is founder and Board member Emeritus of Grassroots International.

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