“We want to reform the entire resistance movement”
The human rights activist from Eritrea in conversation with Susanne Berger (Washington D.C.)
Samson Solomon is the son of Solomon Habtom, Eritrea’s former director of telecommunications. Habtom was arrested in 2003. He spent fourteen years in Carcheli prison in Asmara without charge or trial, without any contact with his family or the outside world. He died in 2017.
Samson Solomon came to Germany in 2002. He studied linguistics, political science and sociology at the University of Marburg. Today he lives in Frankfurt. After the death of his father, Samson decided to continue the fight for democracy and the rule of law in Eritrea in his spirit. He is co-founder of the YAKIL! (Enough!) protest movement. He conducts seminars and workshops with the aim of politically engaging the Eritrean exile community. In 2019 he published his first book, Risti Gujle 15 (The Legacy of the G-15).
“Enough! – We have a 14-point plan”
SB: You are one of the co-founders and main activists in the Eritrean protest movement “Yakil!” which had its beginnings on social media in 2018. How did this happen and what exactly is this movement about?
SS: It started when some activists on Twitter and Facebook used this call, this motto – Amanuel Dawa in the USA for example, and also the Swedish journalist and activist Meron Estefanos in Sweden. They were the first to take up this new campaign on Facebook. “Yakil!” means “Enough!”, “Enough is enough!” This is similar to the “Kifaya!” movement in Egypt – “Kifaya” also means “Enough” in Arabic. We simply had enough to be oppressed, to keep silent about the terrible situation in Eritrea.
We then asked other activists to take up the call and spread the word. And that’s how it developed. We also tried to have a “Yakil!” group in every city. It worked well in the beginning, and many cities got together and organized groups. This worked both online and offline. We also founded a special satellite television station (ERISAT) that broadcasts this movement and all our work to Eritrea. This has triggered many positive reactions.
SB: What exactly are your goals now, how do you try to achieve them?
SS: It all came about very suddenly, with no fixed program. We have now tried to create a first plan to give it a more concrete form. For example, we have put together a 14-point program that is to take up and realize the Yakil! movement. Basically, our aim is to weaken and fight the Eritrean government where we live. Because the regime in Eritrea is also very active abroad. The Embassy monitors and eavesdrops on activists, they threaten us and try to intimidate us. They are also very strongly represented in the churches, and it is precisely at these positions, where the regime is strongly active, that we want to fight it.
SB: So weakening the regime also means that you want to counter official propaganda?
SS: Yes, exactly. The problem is that Yakil!, as I said at the beginning, is basically a protest movement, but it should also lead to concrete actions. Unfortunately, we have wasted far too much time organizing ourselves instead of simply taking direct actions against the regime. Secondly, the actions should be decentralized, that is, each city should organize itself under the motto “Yakil! But this is not necessarily custom in our society, in our tradition. We have also tried to start a campaign nationwide, i.e. in Germany, Sweden, the USA and so on. But exactly when you start to operate under one roof, you run the risk of working into the hands of the regime.
SB: So with this campaign you are trying to trigger a wave of protest, mainly through social media, which is supposed to overwhelm the regime from the outside, but also weakens it from the inside, so that resistance is building up in Eritrea itself. I can imagine that this is not easy, because the people there have no possibility to protest. You mentioned earlier the satellite television station that intends to reach the people of Eritrea. So, what exactly does that look like and what do you hope to get out of these television programs?
SS: We provide, for example, information inside and outside of Eritrea about non-violent movements, about the emergence of protests, about civil disobedience, and so on. Many people have reacted to this and are now trying to organize themselves somehow, to create posters and flyers to spread information, also directly in Eritrea. This is a non-violent action and it is of course very difficult to gain a foothold there. But just the beginning is always the hardest part. The problem is also that many of those who got involved put themselves in danger and were later arrested or had to flee. And all the initiatives that took a lot of time and effort to build up were completely destroyed overnight.
SB: It is always very difficult to create protest in a dictatorship, because it has no room to manifest and develop. Therefore my question: How exactly do you design the content of the satellite channels? How often do you have the opportunity to broadcast them in Eritrea? And who produces these programs?
SS: Well, it’s a group of young people who are scattered all over the world. We have pooled money for this satellite program because it is very important to provide the people in Eritrea with information. Because at the moment they receive nothing but the TV programs and the propaganda of the Eritrean government. We have, for example, many programs that are on YouTube and that we broadcast in Eritrea, which show the true face of the country. Many people who live in Eritrea don’t know very much about the regime and they are thrilled to get information. Above all, we also show alternatives, what possibilities there are for the future. So the people in Eritrea are now much more informed than is generally assumed or seen. Now comes the second piece of the puzzle, so to speak. The first step has been taken, now it is a question of how we can do something about this situation.
SB: What possibilities do you see? What do you think of the relatively new Global Magnitsky Act, which allows for the punishment of serious human rights violations worldwide with targeted sanctions? Have you ever tried to lodge an official complaint against members of the Eritrean regime, in the US or Canada?
SS: At the moment it is incredibly difficult to convince legislators to introduce new sanctions against Eritrea. Eritrea sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council and the world applauds the peace agreement with Ethiopia in the summer of 2018, and the AfD (Alternative for Germany) has even advocated new measures to support the Eritrean president and new funds to allow Eritrean refugees to return to Eritrea.
The first who need to take action are the people, and that is us
Our main concern is to reach the public in Eritrea, the people themselves. We have waited years for someone to do something about this total oppression. That was exactly wrong. The first who need to do something are the people, and that is us. We ourselves have to stand up against these conditions.
SB: So, your main goal is civil resistance, the mobilization of the citizens in Eritrea and abroad.
SS: I mentioned our 14-point plan earlier. The basic idea with Yakil! was that each city focuses on one of these points, so that the whole action is decentralized. So for example Frankfurt takes point 1, Berlin takes point 2, and within a short time the regime could be overthrown. In this 14-point plan there is also a point that aims at punishing human rights violations. The Eritrean President said in 2018, after concluding the peace agreement with Ethiopia, “We have lost nothing”. So, he said that the whole decade-long conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was ultimately just a misunderstanding, and we have lost nothing because we are now making peace. He said that literally and that made people very angry because they had lost so many of their friends and relatives in this conflict, in this border war.
SB: And thousands of people had to flee Eritrea.
SS: Exactly, and that led to an uprising, but in the end it was only a protest, which was ultimately supposed to lead to concrete action, but that hasn’t happened yet.
SB: You emphasize that you are striving for non-violent reform of the political situation in Eritrea. How did you personally decide on this approach, since there are certainly voices that call for the use of force in Eritrea?
SS: We have clearly won our independence, our freedom as a country, through the use of force. At the same time, it has been scientifically proven that violence does not necessarily lead to democracy. We see non-violent action as the best way to solve our current problems. It is a modern form of resistance to weaken and overthrow the regime. I am firmly convinced that this can also succeed in Eritrea, with all its problems. If we use violence, it may lead to civil war and then we will have a new problem.
SB: So your goal is to achieve a peaceful overthrow of the regime, because you think that violence ultimately only generates new violence? Do you have any role models for this peaceful struggle, authors who have influenced you?
SS: Yes, certainly. Gene Sharp, for example, and Maria Stephan. Erika Chenoweth has done research on all the changes in power since 1900, with and without violence. With few exceptions, all the changes of power that have occurred through violence have failed within five years in the attempt to introduce a democratic system. In contrast, more than thirty per cent of peaceful changes of power have been successful in trying to introduce democracy. I can certainly see signs in Eritrea that it would also be feasible there. After all, even many structures loyal to the government there want a change of power. It is only the fear of change that still holds them together. And that is where we have to start – show realistic alternatives, and then the regime will collapse of its own accord, that is my conviction.
SB: That was also my question just now about your assessment of the situation in Eritrea. Are you optimistic or rather pessimistic about the timeframe of the desired changes?
SS: I am very optimistic. We had very good experiences in 2019. I have been fighting this battle for over a year now and in 2020 we will do everything we can to bring about concrete changes. We also have a lot of feedback from members of the regime. They would like to do something, but they don’t see any alternatives and that is what we are trying to change. We want to show feasible and realistic alternatives when we take power, what exactly the changes are we are trying to bring about.
SB: You are trying to convey this aspect of positive alternatives to the current dictatorship in seminars and workshops that are mainly aimed at the Eritrean community.
SS: My goal is to activate and politically engage the Eritrean community. And I also see many signs that the younger generation, who have just come to Germany or Europe, are very interested. However, at the same time, these young people in particular have no idea what they actually want to do. We give them a concrete idea of how they can get involved, in which programs and so on. In some places this works very well, in other places not quite as well as it could be.
SB: How do you see the role of the internet? In Egypt a few years ago it seemed that social media in particular would be an important tool in the struggle for freedom. And then, relatively quickly, the dictators undermined this still very new medium and used it for their own purposes. Do you see similar problems for your campaign? And are you worried that the current protest movement against Eritrea is not focused enough?
SS: The main problem is that we have a generation gap between the ‘old’ generation and the young of the Yakil! movement. The older generation thinks that we should simply follow their example. We, on the other hand, want to find a new way, take a new direction and reform the whole resistance movement. The internet is used much more by the younger generation. But the discussion is too often marked by hatred and disorientation. The Internet also has many disadvantages. After all, the Internet only exists abroad, not in Eritrea. And therefore it is not a means of reaching the people in Eritrea. That’s why there is a certain aimlessness, especially on the web – there are partly debates about pointless things and that’s how we get away from the really important subjects.
Interview: Susanne Berger (Washington D.C., USA)
Film: Jakob Gatzka (Vierkirchen, Germany)
Editor: Dr. Irmtrud Wojak (Eschenlohe, Germany)
© BUXUS STIFTUNG
Quote: “Samson Solomon, ‘We want to reform the entire resistance movement.” The human rights activist from Eritrea in conversation with Susanne Berger (Washington D.C.)”, in: Fritz Bauer Blog, March 21, 2020, URL: https://www.fritz-bauer-blog.de/en/home/samson-solomon