“… if we want to go forward, we must move from politics of passion to politics of realism” (Amanuel Hidrat, 2014)
It is naivety and curiosity that made me indulge myself in assessing the writings of Amanuel Hidrat, one of Awate’s renowned columnists. It is risky, especially when the thinker is still perfecting his thinking. Had I know my limits, as he says “know you limits” when he disciplines Awate Forum members when they debate Eritrean history, I could not have critiqued his work since I know my limits in the topic. Nonetheless, no matter how risky it could be, I will do it. My main goal is to provide an objective critique of his works that might enrich our political atmosphere.
I will confine myself to a certain period by focusing on Amanuel Hidrat’s archives at Awate though his work is very extensive and dates back to the 1970s, a decade before I was born; in the country, he fought to liberate his country in the ranks of the ELF. After independence and the launch of cyberpolitics, he was writing at asmarino.com. Awate’s archive shows that Amanuel Hidrat started his column “Tebeges” in 2009 and it is active to date, he has written about forty-four articles:
(see table above).
The main objective of his writings are summarized in four points: (i) to break all the chains of social taboos in Eritrean politics (ii) to respond to any distorted historical accounts (iii) to attempt to offer solutions for our social grievances and (iv) to endeavor to formulate pillars for social bridging.
With the exception of 2013, where he contributed only one article, he has graced Awate Website with his wisdom and critical thinking on Eritreans matters that covers social grievances, political history, analysis and critiques of conferences, solutions of our political dichotomy, his opposition to other’s political views and call for unity and reconciliation by accepting our diversity, based on his firsthand experience during Eritrean struggle for independence, and being at the center of all the political turmoil, the rise and downfall of a formidable revolutionary front, exile and reorganization, his involvement in Civic Societies and Organizations, participation in the unifying attempts of the opposition camp, his concrete political principles and solid ideological view on social justice, as an advocate of social justice and equality as well as his fondness and enthusiasm with former Eastern European political ideology, and as bridge between the highland-lowland divide of Eritrea are all reflected in the articles he wrote. It is not simple to give the gist of his idea conclusions or his overall views, though it is quite clear what he actually promotes. Most of his works are of high calibre, rich in theoretical perspectives outsourced from deeper philosophical thoughts. His forward-looking and solution-oriented strategies are based on accredited historical and social grievances, existing frustrating political discourses surrounded by fragmented opposition camp. He prioritizes ‘Trust building’ as a direct proliferation of strength and resource utilization.
I found most of his writings objective based on theoretical foundations, mentioning Greek philosophers to offer his unsolicited advice on the necessity of wisdom. He encourages knowledge gathering through patience and learning. He openly expresses his concern on the silence of Eritrean intellectuals in today’s struggle for freedom. On those who try to manifest historical grudge by twisting facts or deconstructing the era of Ghedli he didn’t miss an opportunity to confront or challenge them (be it an individual’s or organization). Without denying the past historical complexes of the struggle period he doesn’t acknowledge its effect in today’s political paradox and its detrimental effect to failures of unity. He praises when he agrees honestly and condemns those who nurture further divisions and hate. He was honest to admit his early anti-Arabic language stance until he came to understand that big segments of the Eritrean society embrace it to be their official language, be it for religious or cultural reasons.
His political views cover a wide array of topics. The areas where he concentrates most are in social justice, equity of power sharing, governance through representation, social grievances, the downfall of PFDJ and the transition period, and strategies to overcome current deficiencies, etc. Though I found him to be very conservative on Eritrean political history and timid on exposing those who were the main actors in the Eritrean political failures, whom he personally knows them on time, through careful analysis of his writings it is not difficult to track historical testimonies he shares occasionally. Often he expresses his frustration and disappointment on today’s political chaos. He advocates for fundamental change and dismantlement of PFDJ institution while opposing reforming the regime or trying to make cosmetic changes through a military coup.
- His principled Struggle
It has been now around 45 years since he sacrificed his precious life for the cause he believes on strongly: Justice and Freedom for Eritrean people. Since the time he joined ELF, first as a clandestine member of students that work to recruit freedom fighters and then to the field, he didn’t change his conviction and principles of struggle. First, he joined the armed struggle to get rid of Ethiopia from Eritrean land and then when he witnessed a totalitarian regime hatching inside Eritrea he fought against it. While the former was accomplished, the later still is continuing. He has never said enough for his struggle. Today he is among the few to be considered sane, well principled and energetic freedom fighters.
- His Strong belief on Diversity
Mr Hidrat argues that Eritrean social groups (ethnic groups) are the pillars of Eritrean identity. Not forgetting religious formations, representation of these groups in the governance system considers it as a way to build a sustainable representation, an easy means of voicing social grievances, equitable power sharing, and building trust. In line to this, he calls due consideration in the constitutional making process diversity of Eritrean social groups to be at the centre of due processes.
- His Advocacy for Social Grievances
Mr. Hidrat never failed to make an emphasis on Eritrean social grievances. He is an ardent supporter of people’s rights to govern themselves within a decentralized unitary government system. He prefers social justice as a means for equity and as a means for proper resource sharing among stakeholders for fair governance. He stressed in electoral representatives for equitable power-sharing. As a means, he had provided a broader and detailed analysis on how to bridge differences between the majority and minority social groups. He also calls to strengthen and build trust among stakeholders to attain a meaningful change
Though Mr Hidrat criticizes the 1997 Constitution of Eritrea as a non-inclusive one, he does not believe on overhauling it. Rather, he suggests basic revision works aimed at correcting missing elements. His central argument says, “The constitution reflects mainly the interest of one political group and ignores main actors who could have played a crucial role during the process. Some of the major elements that he outlined for major changes are language and land/property issues, changing the system of governance from Centralized Unitary Government (CUG) to Decentralized Unitary Government (DUG) and reforming the legislative system.
Mr Hidrat elaborated in detail on potential threats of “Tyranny of the Majority” in every point he raised in the discourse of social grievances concept in line to the majority-minority social divisions or groupings in general and the notion of Highlanders versus lowlands historical grudges of political domination in particular. He argues that submission to the will of the majority over the minority is evil and no history has proved that the majority cares about the minority. He came with another constructive argument when he refuted claims of majority rule system in a sense that those who favour it welcome individual rights while suppressing group rights.
To avoid political domination of the majority, he advocates a decentralized unitary governance system formed by representatives from respective social groupings. In contrast to those who advocate federalism or autonomous states within the sovereign country, as a system of governance, Mr Hidrat claims that DUG provides ample degree of freedom for locals to govern and exercise their power in their localities while adhering to the unitary government. He highlights implications of federalism within the Eritrean political reality and how hard it can be if each region is allowed to govern itself.
- His Reconciliatory Approach
While emphasizing about the existence of historical, regional, religious and ethnic sentiments, mistrust between respective actors and hopelessness, Mr Hidrat stresses on due consideration to be taken on adopting productive interaction methodologies. For example, he referred ‘Constructive’ and ‘Instrumental’ as available argumentative tools choices while stressing the importance of constructive arguments in today’s delicate Eritrean politics. He calls for ending the existing complex a high tension dilemma between “Anti-diversity mono-lingua proponents and pro-diversity multi-lingua proponents” for hegemonic actors within existing political atmosphere. Nevertheless, he never failed to call for a genuine reconciliatory approach to be taken for uniting all existing forces to fight against the bigger enemy.
- His call to “Focus on PFDJ”
Often the struggle for justice and freedom is dragged by internal conflicts and unnecessary side effect within the opposition camp. Every scenario is demanding a great deal of energy and time without bringing tangible effect on the bigger cause at hand. Mr Hidrat always reminds actors to focus on the main target. He does so by explaining the causes of conflicts and methods to resolve them for a better end.
- His strong belief on Democracy and Rule of Law
Politics of ‘Rule of Law’ and ‘Democracy’ are complex subjects to be interpreted in an ordinary language. One cannot survive without the other one and it becomes much more complex to implement them in a struggle full of political chaos. When different actors fight to install democracy, rule of law is hard to be respected. The struggle for democracy needs rule of law and to establish rule of law that serves all needs a democratic environment. Often these symbiotic relations are intermingled complex subjects to be dealt. Mr. Hidrat narrates a provocative critique by asking a simple question for those who favour Rule of Law before Democracy by saying, “…but what kind of law must Rule?” This has puzzled me. Such deep self-motivated questioning puts Mr Hidrat in the peak of search to build an equilibrated political atmosphere.
- His Mistrust on Political Organizations as Change Agents
It is not hard to conclude that Mr Hidrat favours role of Civic Societies over Political organizations. There are strong indicators to consider him as such. Since the dissolution of ELF as a liberation front, there is no information about his membership in any political organization or party. What I know little about him is his membership to Civic Organization(s). He openly advocates for the necessity of technocrats as change agents.
In 2011 Congress, he held a sit in the political coalition of Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change (ENCDC) held in Ethiopia as an independent candidate though he went to participate thereby representing a Civic Organization. He became a member of the umbrella parliament leadership committee by representing only himself. Not belittling his political experience and his dedication to people’s cause, it is hard to put him as an equal stakeholder with those political actors that represent a political organization.
In nature, Civic Societies are not for taking a political position. No one can deny that Civic Societies play a vital role in bringing change in the cause they fight for. Often they attract technocrats and leading agents without creating a conflict of interest among members. What makes their role limited is the non-aspiration to control power. In this regard, Civic Societies require strong political organizations to implement the cause they are fighting for.
This is the main problem as well as confusion in today’s Eritrean opposition camp. Not many are inspired to control power. Everyone is fighting for a cause without creating loyalty to or building trust to a political organization. Mr Hidrat could have legitimate scepticism not to join political organization/party nonetheless what he seems to miss is that the cause he fights for is just a voice of the voiceless people without an agent who hears these voices. Within this premises, it is not, therefore, a surprise to see him his trust over the government of Ethiopia to as an indispensable agent to topple PFDJ regime. In fact, this is one of the main problems of modern Civic Societies: they have no trust of political organizations and hence they become dependent on well-established institutions or strong governments to bring the change they are fighting for.
- His Center of Arguments: Pillars of Eritrean Identity
Mr Hidrat’s main argument revolves around what he calls “pillars of Eritrean identity”, Eritrean Ethnic groups and respective religious groups. This argument extends to the formation of representative governance. The system of governance he advocates could also be interpreted as either Federalism or decentralized governance of respective social groups. To some extent, what he stands for resembles like that of current Ethiopian system. This makes his advocacy for DUG ambiguous. There are four mixed grievances that he focuses on his centre of politics: (1) ethnicity or social groupings (2) religious issue (3) majority vs. minority divisions (4) lowland vs. highland. Unless he comes with a clear line of grievance definitions to define the governance system he advocates for it will be problematic to approve his political thinking.
Without a doubt, I found Mr Amanuel Hidrat is a unique political thinker and freedom fighter. His advocacy and principles centred on social grievance with respecting diversity make him in a unique position to be embraced by all political actors. What I found him an exemplary is his sanity on historical grudges and his reconciliatory approach. He is a forward looking and always in search of justice for all. If there is anything that I criticize him strongly is on his mistrust on political organizations. In my general understanding, being not a member of any political party or organization is hurting his political vision to come true. As a Civic Society member, it needs a political organization or other powerful actors to make his ideas worth to be implemented. This makes him a dependent politician. In addition, the governance system he advocates need to be focused on a specific line that fits the governance system he wants to formulate. The system of power sharing through the representative system could also be potentially a source of political instability. Nevertheless, the argument he raises needs serious academic studies and political debate to clear out the ambiguities.