The news that members of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) took over the Ministry of Information building (located at Forto, Asmara) on January 21; announced on air their demand for constitutional government and release of political prisoners, and occupied it for nearly 8 hours was so huge that, within days, there were no fewer than 300 news articles written about it. News sources as big as New York Times, BBC and Al Jazeera, wire services such as Reuters and AP, and political analysts throughout the world wrote or commented about the news. The myth that Isaias Afwerki had built around his regime for 21 years, a continuation of the myth that originated from his days as a guerrilla leader 40 years ago–that he was the beloved leader and chief commanding officer; that there was no opposition nor dissent to his one-man rule; that Eritreans are too cowed to rise up–had dissipated in one day in “Operation Forto 2013”: the call for rule of law to replace rule by man.
The Possum Act Fails
Whenever faced with an unexpected challenge, the tendency of the Isaias Afwerki regime is to circle the wagons: to clam shut. Its primary self-defense mechanism is that of the possum: to play dead. However, in this instance, the news was so huge and amplified, some of the second and third-tier officials began to speak. On January 21, Eritrea’s ambassador to the UN, Araya Desta, acknowledged that something had happened when he said that “everything is going to be solved”; on January 22, Eritrea’s ambassador to South Africa, Saleh Omer, who discovered the magic of twitter and hasn’t stopped talking yet, tried the total denial approach. This was followed by the chief of staff of the President’s Office, Yemane “Charlie” Gebremeskel; the camera hog and always auditioning for Foreign Minister title but now Eritrean ambassador to the African Union, Girma Asmerom had his moment in the sun; as did the Eritrean ambassador to the UK, Tesfamicael Gerahtu.
“Operation Forto 2013” was supposed to be a one day story, but the world media and Eritreans in Diaspora would not co-operate. The story was kept alive by the following factors:
(a) The history of the EPLF has been the story of Isaias Afwerki taking credit for everything and reducing all revolutionary fighters to anonymous nobodies. Forto 2013 turned that upside down. It showed that the Eritrean Defense Force did not just have a group of corrupt generals and terrified lackeys and conscripted soldiers. It also has heroes with unique achievements, too. Names such as Saleh Osman and “wedi Ali” were suddenly household names and their brief biographies narrated. People finally had something to rally around: leaders who stand up to an emperor. Yes, said the people, not only was change possible, it is the best kind of change: one that is organic and homegrown.
(b) The names of the individuals and, more importantly, their call (constitutionalism and the freeing of political prisoners) were enough for people in the diaspora to rally around them. No longer would Eritreans simply demonstrate and chant “Down With Isaias”; they would go to the extent of occupying an embassy (UK), delivering petitions for change to an embassy (Germany) or getting arrested while attempting to do both (Washington, DC). Forto 2013 had emboldened Eritreans in a way that nothing before had in the 21 year rule of Isaias Afwerki. The fear had dissipated; and the belief that change can come from within was strengthened. The demonstrations were different in kind: they were attended by young Eritreans who had personally been victimized by the policies of the Isaias Afwerki regime
(c) The Isaias regime’s typically ham-handed approach to problem-solving–round up and arrest people–were also a factor. Among the arrested are two long-time loyalists of the regime: Abdella Jaber, the director of organizational affairs for the ruling party; and, Mustopha Nurhussein, the governor of the South Zone. Because Abdella Jaber was instrumental in the development of the comprehensive peace agreement that Khartoum signed with the Eastern Front, and because Isaias Afwerki is one of the few allies he has, Sudan’s Omar Albashir (as well as his defense minister and chief of intelligence) met with Isaias Afwerki in Asmara on February 2 to inquire on the true nature of “Operation Forto 2013.” Omar Albashir was told, according to our sources, that it was a simple case of a colonel who was disgruntled because he had been reassigned to a different post.
The Isaias Afwerki regime had a dilemma. On the one hand, Isaias Afwerki has created a system where he is the alpha and omega, the sole indispensable unit that only a word from him could reassure his nervous fans–and he had to speak. On the other hand, if he addressed their nervousness then he would be admitting that Forto 2013 was significant enough to warrant a presidential address. On February 8, the regime offered a lollipop to calm the nerves of its fans: a brief statement by the dictator that the “21 January incidents” were nothing to be apprehensive about. But that was not enough: the fans wanted to see and hear the man. This is what happened on February 14, 2013: an “interview” with Eri-TV. We have already summarized the interview here; what follows is our analysis.
The Isaias Afwerki Eri-TV Interview
Watching Eri-TV employees interview Isaias Afwerki is a lot like watching Fox News employees interviewing Rupert Murdoch. The difference being that whereas the worst thing Murdoch can do to his employees is to fire them, the kindest thing Isaias can do to Eri-TV employees is to fire them. It is important that we keep that in mind when we watch Eri-TV “interviews” with Isaias Afwerki. The interviews are mostly monologues/lectures interrupted by polite intermissions for the tyrant to rest his mouth and his flared nostrils.
Isaias Afwerki had several messages to get across: (1) the “incidents of January 21 are so insignificant that we shouldn’t spend any time discussing them”; (2) “it is not me against the army; it is actually us (including me) against a handful of confused soldiers”; (3) the “incident” is over; (4) the people should not be apprehensive about such developments; (5) there is nothing more to the story and, if you don’t believe me, those who were present on January 21 can tell the story. Let’s see how he did in each category.
1. The “January 21 Is Insignificant” Argument: A man who is too busy and too important to attend the annual “Operation Fenkil” anniversary held in Massawa February 8-10 can’t possibly be bothered to discuss an insignificant incident that lasted minutes. Therefore, a subterfuge was required: conduct an ordinary Ministerial Cabinet meeting which would be followed, on the margins of the meeting, by an oh-by-the-way-while-you-are-here interview with state television, Eri-TV. Since the “Ministerial Cabinet” meeting is, by nature, a farce (it is mostly Isaias Afwerki talking and the “cabinet” listening like school children) it was called to a meeting to “approve” (as if it has the power to disapprove) the 2013 budget (Eritrea is apparently on March – February budget year). This is a people’s budget which, for 21 years, has been a state secret. The “Cabinet” is such a joke in Eritrea that the only reason people watch it on TV is to learn who is present and who is absent and presumably defected or arrested or frozen. So, instead of highlighting the insignificance of January 21, all Isaias Afwerki managed to do is showcase the insignificance of the Cabinet. And when he says that this incident of January 21 was so insignificant that “kof ilna baHansab ina kene’elilu wiElna mlue meAlti” (we sat around and talked about it all day), well, that appears to be a significant event if it keeps him and all his ministers busy, doesn’t it?
2. The “I Still Have A Loyal Government” Argument: No fewer than three times in the interview, Isaias mentioned that throughout the Forto occupation episode, he was with his cabinet discussing the issue. Ane nyere. Ministerat nyerom [I was here, ministers were here], Abzi nyerom zbezHu ministerat [they were here, most of the ministers]… Which cabinet members were there and which ones weren’t? Well, that was Isaias at his trickiest since quantification, whether talking about macroeconomics or people killed in wars he ignites, is not his favorite activity. At one point in the interview, he said “beHabar ina nyerna kulom ministerat nyerom, zbezhu, darga.” [We were all together, all the ministers, most of them, almost.] If “all ministers” are 15, and “most of them” are 8, and “almost most of them” would be, what, 5? In any event, nobody said Isaias doesn’t have loyal ministers; the whole premise of Forto 2013 was that Isaias Afwerki, the chief commanding officer, does not inspire confidence in the soldiers. They hate his leadership.
3. The “Incident Is Over” Argument: Isaias Afwerki was eager to send one other message: the incident is over. He used dismissive terms like “film”, “fable”, etc to show that whatever it was, it is over. But elsewhere in the interview, when asked if there was the hand of foreigners, he said that it is something he doesn’t know yet. Why didn’t he disclose information earlier? Because he didn’t have enough information about the sudden event. When he was asked how is the stability and security of Eritrea after the incident, he got rhapsodic talking about the dignity of “this country” and “this people” (apparently, it is dignified to take abuse quietly) but he had no answer as to who has been arrested. He hesitated in calling those who were presumably arrested after the Forto operation as the leaders of the movement (“isatom Kendi kblom ayk’ilin iye.”) He is still blocking Al Jazeera TV. He is still jamming Erena and other radio stations which broadcast to Eritrea. He is still rounding up people. Considering all of the above–he doesn’t know if foreigners were involved, he doesn’t know its impact on the country’s stability, he is not sure those whom he arrested are the leaders, and he doesn’t have enough confidence to allow foreign-based media to broadcast in the country–he did not give a convincing claim that the “the incident is over.”
4. The Future Shock Argument: The entire purpose of the interview was to reassure the Diaspora Eritreans–particularly the “adetat” [mothers]–and their purses, and necklaces, and earrings, mostly–to stop worrying about him. It is really never about “this country”, but him in person. In this regard, he did not say that whatever is causing these incidents that are causing you stress will be addressed. No, he told his supporters in the Diaspora that they will continue to become anxious every time there was an expression of dissatisfaction with his rule but that is ok because, since it is skfta Halyot (your worry is based on genuine concern) worrying is a form of patriotic expression. Now, for good measure, just to show his supporters that he is the same “badass” they love, he did the pumped chest, head shaking scornful act and threw in some choice words for his enemies: senef, znedeye, zTefeshe, wduQ, Harich ab nfas, etc. (It is not by accident that Isaias Afwerki always uses kitchen metaphors: he always has a specific audience in mind.) This is music to the ears of his cult who will, no doubt, start hurling these insults beginning now. However, what he could not do is assure them that there won’t be a repeat performance tomorrow. Thus, he cannot give any warranties that the whole edifice of “my people love me” won’t come crumbling down, as it did in Libya.
5. The “If You Don’t Believe Me, Ask The Witnesses” Argument: Now, everything above could be subject to debate. Those who support Isaias Afwerki can give rebuttals to it, point-by-point, if they choose to. But there is one that they cannot debate and it is this: when Isaias Afwerki said that there are witnesses to the Forto 2013 and that they can tell the story (“ab’u z’weAlu kgeltSuwo yikiulu iyom’, as he put it), well, of course that is a lie. The Ministry of Information is staffed by hundreds of employees. And all of them have friends and family members and connections. And they were talking on January 21: and that was the source for most of what was published in the independent media. But they can’t talk now. Because, whenever a “hostage situation” like that happens, what a media outlet does is ask the what, when, where, how and most importantly WHY? Why were the soldiers at the Ministry of Information? What was their demand? What did they want? These are not things that Isaias dare mention; it is not something that Eri-TV dare say; and it most certainly is not something that those “ab’u z’weAlu” can speak about freely without being hauled to jail.
There was a time when Isaias Afwerki’s long tales would have convinced, or even charmed, the audience. Now people are either disgusted by, or dismissive of, his lies. 21 years is a long time for one man to rule a country. When a “leader” brags about how he and his regime have been challenged over the last ten years, and describes the outcome of the challenge as if it is something to be proud of–a country emptying out its youth, a country rationing essential food, a country without electricity or even water, a country that is on the Worst of the Worst list of every list compiler, a country which has been sanctioned by the UN twice, a country whose youth are being brutalized by human traffickers, a country that 21 years after its statehood does not have a constitution or a mechanism for peaceful power transfer… when this is what you have to showcase and you consider that success, what is failure?
The fact is that in the traditional culture of Eritrea, Isaias has been “tedefiru”: it has been demonstrated that his regime is vulnerable and it can be pricked and it can bleed. The invincibility armor is gone. People in Eritrea now very openly talk about what a colossal failure Isaias Afwerki has been as president. This is why we said that “January 21” is a prologue and not an epilogue. And, we believe, time will prove us right.
inform. inspire. embolden. reconcile.