Martin Plaut

For more than four decades one figure has towered over Eritrean life. Isaias Afwerki has ruled Eritrea with a rod of iron, just as he once led the liberation movement that successfully liberated the country in 1991.  Previously an enormous asset, he has become the chief obstacle to progress. But his rule, once all but unchallenged, is now questioned from all quarters.

On the walls of Asmara: “Isayas step down, let’s protect our country”

Eritrean youth – many of whom having fled abroad – are no longer prepared to live in conditions of servitude, chained to a system of indefinite conscription that never ends.

Some have been in National Service for 20 years and more and rather than continue this way, they have fled abroad in record numbers. Now they have taken up the call in meetings from Canada to Belgium – Enough! Yiakl.

Their slogans now appear on the walls of Asmara: “Isayas step down, let’s protect our country.”

Building democracy

But removing President Isaias alone is no guarantee that Eritrea will emerge as a functioning democracy. The Arab Spring and its aftermath shows how regime-change can go awry.

The events in neighbouring Sudan are an indication of just how complex it can be to rid a country of a dictator, without falling into the hands of another group of autocrats.Group-Photograph-Eritrea-Conference-ICS.jpg

This was the background to a two-day conference that was held in London on 24 and 25th April.

Called ‘Building Democracy in Eritrea’ it heard from one of Africa’s most senior diplomats, Ambassador Haile Menkerios.

A former Eritrean ambassador and special representative of the UN Secretary General, Haile Menkerios called for a “national conference of the Eritrean people” to transform the country into a participatory democracy, saying it was the only way to avoid violence.

Eritrea has “the notoriety of being perhaps the only country in Africa that does not have a functioning constitution, a legitimate elected government, nor legitimate and functioning governance institutions that ensure accountability,” Ambassador Menkerios said in a message to the conference.

Thangham Debbonaire MP Conference Institute of Commonwealth StudiesThe conference was opened by Thangam Debbonaire, Member of Parliament for Bristol West, and chair of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.

For two days some 70 senior Eritrean academics and human rights activists, together with international experts who have worked on the country for many years, worked on this issue.

Some flew in from as far afield as Botswana, with contingents from the USA and a number of European countries.

Subjects from rebuilding the judicial system to reform of the economy were debated.

Dr Bereket Habte Selassie, Eritea Conference ICSThere were contributions from Dr Bereket Habte Selassie, who wrote Eritrea’s constitution – a constitution adopted by the National Assembly in 1997, it has still not been brought into force.

Dr Mark Ellis Ex Director Int Bar Association, Eritrea Conference ICS

Dr Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association, offered his organisation’s support in working on the legal system and the judiciary.

Dr Asia Abdulkadir, Eritrea Conference, ICS

Dr Asia Abdulkadir, a gender consultant with the United Nations and chairwoman of the Network of Eritrean Women called for the inclusion of women and minority groups in every stage of the rebuilding of the country.

“We are not prepared to wait until after democracy – we must be part of the process,” she demanded.

Habte Hagos Eritrea Conference ICS

“The objective of ‘Building Democracy in Eritrea’ is to bring together Eritreans and international supporters to begin thinking about tangible, realistic objectives for the establishment of democracy and the administration of justice in the country”, said Habte Hagos, Chairman of Eritrea Focus, which organised the event.

“The time for this is now.”

Funding for the conference came from the US National Endowment for Democracy, and private donors.

Charting an uncertain future

But conferences come and conferences go, with only limited impact. As one delegate observed, “there have been 52 initiatives for change in Eritrea since 1993.”

The question is how to turn the papers that were presented into working documents that genuinely help to chart the future.

Eritrean women at the Conference

This is what will now take place.

A series of working groups have been identified that will discuss a range of subjects, so that any transformation will result in the ‘softest of landings.’ There will be particular attention to diversity. “Unite, don’t harmonise” – was an appeal from the floor.

Of course, there is no guarantee of how change will come to Eritrea. There are far too many examples of change that have come sadly unstuck: Zimbabwe is a recent case in point. But unless work begins, little will be possible when the day of reckoning dawns. So leads have been identified; task allocated.

“This conference must be a process, not an end in itself,” observed Habte Hagos.

Over the next few months progress will be monitored before the next meeting is held with the aim of contributing to the emergence of a genuinely free and democratic Eritrea.

Discussions, Eritrea Conference ICS



  1. Welol done, brothers & sisters, Alena YES WE CAN Alena as Dr Rueson said it before, ALEWNA; ALEWANA. Deqi ERE Nberulna, this is the way the path the road twards a bright Future!
    Pleased to see you all.
    Thinking about yesterday is History which is a reference for future
    Thinking about today is solving a problem
    Thinking about tomorrow is a Plan, a raod Map
    The united we stay the more we can improve our ability to see the future!

    • The barking dog never bites his master. Where were all acadamics, you talk about the current situation. You were dormant when the Eritrean people immigrated to the neighboring countries. Are you aware now about the current situation in Eritrean and you would like to advocate on behalf of the Eritrean people. Where were you were Una and Shiep were copleatly destroyed? You were on your acadamic studies, and have taken an opportunity to have your studies first and back home to govern us. What is your mission statement and objective. It is not clear to the Eritrean people. You are not represent the Eritrean Peoples strutification. Make your objectives clear for us.
      Mechinech ( Economist graduate from London Universities)

  2. My point of view is, to work to dismantle the regim’s roots abroad would be very crucial.
    Try a mechanism where his backups can be included in the revolution for change.

  3. As a former US Peace Corps volunteer with years of experience in the country and personal connections with Dr. Be reket and Ambassador Haile, it is time – far past time – for me to re-connect with the democracy movement. Please put me in contact with one of the working groups,Martin.

    Thank You!

  4. Very happy to see our intelects participating in the ongoing peopkes “Enough or yiakil” campaign.
    “Step down” dictator Iseyas

  5. It is good initiative; but as long as it does not impact on the regime; it will be pointless; the regime is isolated in abroad by the eritrean diaspora. However we need to find how we can influence the international community in order the regime to lose legitimacy.

  6. It is good initiative; but as long as it does not impact on the regime; it will be pointless; the regime is isolated in abroad by the eritrean diaspora. However we need to find how we can influence the international community in order the regime to lose legitimacy.

  7. This is what we have been waiting for—- the process of building a core leadership to dismantle isaias afewerk and his cronies. This core leadership must also aim at completely eliminating the various organizations that have mushroomed over the years as ” oppositions”, who played nothing positive but destructive role over the unity of the people of Eritrea and towards the intransigence of isaias afewerk who used them as scapegoats in his propaganda of deception.

  8. It’s nonsense. With out an idea which is different from The Eritrean national which I merges from colonial Moselini of Italian never come to changes.


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