Eritrean Opposition: Role and Status after Reconciliation between Asmara and Addis Ababa

Eritrean Opposition: Role and Status after Reconciliation between Asmara and Addis Ababa

Policy Paper: The Center for Arab Progress in London

Assad Kanjo – Ali Al Hindi

The result of the Second World War in the Horn of Africa, the extension of British control of Eritrea and the expulsion of Italian troops, saw the stage of political and cultural recovery, and resulted in the establishment of political parties and private newspapers and an active business. However, this period resulted in the alignment of Christians behind the Unionist Party, which was demanding the annexation of Eritrea to the Ethiopian Empire.  While the Muslims opposed the idea of ​​unity and established the Islamic League, which had a major role in the process of independence of the Territory later. At that time, the Ethiopian emperor supported the voices calling for his country’s accession, which exacerbated the split within Eritrean society, prompting the United Nations to declare in 1950 that Eritrea would join Ethiopia in a federation. Within a few years, Addis Ababa dismantled the rules of the federal union that guaranteed Eritrea’s limited autonomy one by one, ending with the emperor’s declaration that Eritrea was annexed to his kingdom, overturning federalism and autonomy for Eritrea. He banned political parties, the use of local Tigrinya languages ​​and Arabic, and the imposition of the Amharic language as an official language. He also launched a major crackdown in Eritrea, the vast majority of whose victims were Muslims who opposed coercive unity, forcing many Muslim intellectuals, politicians and activists to flee to Yemen, Sudan and Egypt. The Christian majority welcomed the unity they had previously advocated.

Eritrean Liberation War:

In 1958 a new generation of Eritrean nationalists established a secret movement to liberate Eritrea in Port Sudan on the western coast of the Red Sea. The movement sought to end Ethiopian rule through the coup without success. In the late 1950s, Eritrean intellectuals and politicians, based in Cairo, known as the Eritrean Liberation Front, were influenced by the Algerian revolution, most of them from Islamic and Arab backgrounds. The movement produced a military wing and adopted the armed struggle in 1961. It was under Muslim control in its early stages, since the majority of the Eritrean Christians were advocates of unity with Ethiopia and had no demands for independence. The country was subsequently divided into a state of violent conflict, political chaos and human suffering. Although the beginnings of the Liberation Front were Arab and Islamic, but the years after the start of the entry of diverse sectors of ethnic, racial, religious and diaspora countries in the rules of the front. The first fighters received training in Syria, China, Cuba and Iraq. Training centers have been opened in liberated areas of the country. Within the next 10 years, the movement has become a serious threat to Ethiopian rule in Eritrea.

The Rise of the Afwerki Star:

In 1970, the Eritrean liberation movement was hit by a crisis. After the allegations of killings and liquidation of Christian leaders and fighters, in addition to the resentment of a wide range of elements of the convergence of the front with the Arab and Islamic worlds, emerged three groups. They formed the first nucleus of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea under the current Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who was keen to show the fledgling front far from Islamic and Arab faction in the Liberation Front. Since its inception, the Popular Front has been characterized by a strong central system based on the Marxist-Leninist principles of organization. Further, they have claimed to embrace and represent all segments of Eritrean society.

In the same year a series of armed clashes between the mother movement and the Popular Front broke off, a struggle for hegemony and influence. Finally, in 1982, after its alliance with the Ethiopian armed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tigers, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated the Liberation Front and other small groups. The majority of FLN leaders fled to Sudan, some chose to migrate to Europe and North America, some chose to join the Popular Front, and in 1991 the joint forces of the PFLP and the EPRDF overthrew the Ethiopian military regime. Under the full control of the Popular Front, Eritrea achieved the right to self-determination in 1993 after a United Nations-sponsored referendum, in which 99.8 per cent of the Eritreans voted for independence. In 1994, the Popular Liberation Front (FPL) became the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) under the leadership of Isaias Afwerki, who has been president since then.


Remnants of the Liberation Front

After Afwerki succeeded in defeating the Liberation Front in 1982, its factions split into different factions, most notably the Liberation Front under the leadership of Abdullah Idris, Akiki of Bani Amer, the Liberation Front – the Revolutionary Council led by Ahmad Nasser of ethnic Saho (Asawarta) Another splintering front is the Liberation Front – the Central Committee or known as Sakum, which has a Christian majority and whose bases are centered in Tigray. Other groups of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Hizb ut-Tahrir) groups adopted an Islamic speech, distanced themselves from the Marxist orientation of the leftist political wing of the Liberation Front. They formed the Eritrean Islamic Jihad in 1988, which participated in a rebellion against the Eritrean Defense Forces between 1994 and 1997, before the start of the “border war” with Ethiopia (1998-2000). In contrast, the Eritrean Liberation Front and the Eritrean Liberation Front enjoyed a relatively strong political base in the diaspora even after their defeat and exile, including in Europe, and the  United States and Australia. At first they tried to open a political dialogue with the Popular Front, but the latter refused to accept them as political organizations in Eritrea and banned any opposition activities within the country. Some members of the Eritrean Liberation Front who returned as individuals in the early 1990s were either imprisoned or killed.

Establishment of the dictatorship:

With the arrival of Asaias Afwerki to power, keen to remove all political and military components, to prevent the establishment of any political parties or the establishment of the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice. He established the only political party in the country, and carried out “cleansing” on the inside, where he eliminated any potential threat, and carried out executions and imprisonment against his comrades, as well as all opponents or critics of his dictatorship.

In the wake of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, a dangerous political crisis emerged within the first leadership of the party and the state. When a group of leading cadres, known as the Group of Fifteen, called for revisions within the front, political reforms and national elections. In September 2001, President Asayas Afwerki responded by arresting 13 of them, as well as hundreds of students, journalists and other activists. These events led to the emergence of the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP), founded by dissidents from the ruling party in exile. Maskin Haqos, a former Afwerki leader and defense minister who was abroad when the arrests took place, played a prominent role in founding the party. The party’s goal, he declared, was “to move away from the one-party dictatorship and the transition to a multi-party democratic political system.”

Attempts to unite opposition:

In the last two decades, with the intensification of repression, terrorism and restrictions on freedoms, various manifestations of dissent have begun to emerge in the country. In 1997 relations between the PFLP and its former comrades in arms, the Tigre Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which formed the center of the Ethiopian Government (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) party, deteriorated. In 1998 Eritrean forces entered Ethiopian territory and a bloody war ensued, leaving some 70,000 dead, during which time the Ethiopian Government helped establish Eritrean opposition movements based on ethnicity.

In 2003. The so-called Eritrean Democratic Alliance was created as an attempt to unify the dissident groups of the Liberation Front, as well as the opposition Islamist movements. Sources indicate that the coalition is composed of 13 groups, which were able to hold a conference in 2008. The following are some of these groups:

  1. The Red Sea Democratic Organization (RSADO) and the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Konama (Eritrean Liberation Movement) are both marginalized minorities in Eritrea. Both groups continue to operate against the Afwerki regime and claim to have 20,000 troops, yet they have not been able to challenge the Eritrean regime militarily. The two movements aim to protect the rights of ethnic minorities in Eritrea and to protect their indigenous cultures.
  2. The National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Saho, founded in 2009. Islamic organizations such as the Reform Movement, the Islamic Eritrean Party for Justice and Development, and the Islamic Conference of Eritrea.
  3. Eritrean Liberation Front (claimed to have an armed wing).
  4. Dissidents from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea and remnants of the Revolutionary Council’s Revolutionary Council forces, including the Eritrean Democratic Party and the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (the former Eritrean People’s Party)
  5. Others: the Eritrean People’s Movement (EPM), the Eritrean Renaissance Party and the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement.

These groups witnessed a number of mergers between some of its components but at the same time failed to include the People’s Party which is led by Ould Issam Ammar. He is one of the leaders of the first Eritrean Liberation Front, to particularly oppose the party’s approach to dealing with the host country Ethiopia as well as the preparation for the Awasa Conference.  However, the Alliance nevertheless made a good move in bridging the gap between the opposition factions and narrowing the differences between the Christian and Muslim opposition. Further, and it was a good attempt to overcome the old differences between the highlands and lowlands in Eritrea.

Awasa Conference:

One of the main weaknesses of the Eritrean opposition in exile has been its fragmentation, the lack of a stable political agenda, and the frequent divisions. In 2011, a new attempt was made to unify the political opposition and push it to coordinate with emerging civil society movements. The Eritrean National Conference for Democratic Change was held in the city of Awasa, Ethiopia, which resulted in the election of 127 representatives from the diaspora. However, it later emerged that the leadership of the Conference and the committees that came from it were largely ineffective and were unable to achieve any significant achievements in pursuing the desired goals. Including the establishment of a strong opposition umbrella against the Eritrean regime.

In February 2014, Eritrean and Ethiopian opposition groups held a new conference in which they sought to form a new “consultative group” aimed at reviving the Eritrean Democratic Alliance. However, this initiative did not achieve any of its objectives, which focused on transforming and unifying the Eritrean political scene in a cohesive bloc that could constitute a substitute or little challenge to the regime in Asmara.


The continuing dictatorship in Eritrea has left social and economic disasters and a complete desertion of political life, as well as the confiscation of politics in favor of a terrible repressive security regime. This has been dominated by conflicts and permanent schisms and its dependence on the policies and interests of the host country. Further, it is the end of national frameworks and the ideology of the united, which characterized the Eritrean movements that were formed during and after the liberation war. It also led to the return of opponents to their tribal, ethnic and ethnic origins. It contributed to the failure of all attempts at unification or building alliances influential opposition that enables them to provide a new alternative to change in the country. However, the reconciliation between the Eritrean and Ethiopian regimes, which resulted in the exchange of ambassadors and the signing of trade agreements, could open the way for the normalization of internal life. After the disappearance of the external threat that Isaias Afwerki invoked for the continuation of his security system. may allow the return of exiles and the release of detainees, the holding of free and fair elections, and the establishment of a democratic system.  This puts the opposition to the task of re-review programs and the previous speech in favor of contributing to support the peace process in the country and with the neighborhood.

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