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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
New unity in Eritrean opposition
By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa editor

The opposition to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has been meeting, leading to the most significant shake-up in Eritrean politics for many years.

President Isaias Afewerki
President Isaias has ruled Eritrea since independence in 1993

Opposition groups, which have been notoriously disunited, have come up with a common set of objectives, which could - for the first time in years - begin to pose a greater challenge to the president's hold on power.

Since achieving independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been a one party state, with the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) the only party allowed to function.

But there was a critical moment in September 2001 when some of President Isaias' closest associates sent him an open letter calling for the implementation of the Eritrean constitution, which guaranteed a wide range of human rights.

The president's reaction was to detain his critics without trial, some of whom had fought alongside him during the 30-year long war of independence.

All independent newspapers were closed and journalists arrested.

Border ambivalence

Many members of the PFDJ living abroad formed the Democratic Party, but have since then been attempting to come up with a strategy for resisting the president's rule.

Now the Democratic Party has agreed on a common set of objectives with two older parties, the ELF and the ELF-RC.

At a meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, the parties agreed to work together to try to bring about what they called a "national dialogue".

An influential student grouping - the Movement for Democratic Change - led by the exiled former President of the University of Asmara student's union, Semere Kessete, has decided to formally merge with the Democratic Party.

This has left the Eritrean opposition in two clear camps.

One camp - the Eritrean National Alliance - is based in Ethiopia and wishes to overthrow President Isaias by force.

It has refused to take a stand on the contentious issue of where the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea lies - something the two countries went to war on in 1998.

Determined opposition

The other camp includes the Democratic Party, the ELF and ELF-RC.

They resist Ethiopian intervention in Eritrean affairs.

They also support the adjudication of an international tribunal, which ruled in Eritrea's favour over key aspects of the border with Ethiopia.

This grouping also appears willing to meet President Isaias - if that would lead to a democratic renewal in Eritrea.

For the first time in many years, President Isaias now faces a more united and more determined opposition.

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Country profile: Eritrea
05 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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