A man came to my office at the Paradiso Campus of the University of Asmara, showed me his ID card, placed a revolver on the desk in front of me, and asked to use the phone; he called his headquarters report that he was with me. He then began questioning me in detail about my relationship with the late Abdalla Dawoud (an alternate Central Committee member of the EPLF, a long-time member of the ‘Secretariat’ of the office of the EPLF Secretary General before liberation, and head of the Personnel Department after liberation). The man was investigating Abdalla’s mysterious and tragic death on May 4th 1993, and it was apparent from his questioning that I was one of the suspects. I was not very much surprised because I had an ELF background and a close friend of a senior EPLF official (the deceased) and that would put me in such a situation. At the end of the investigation, he read to me the minutes and asked me to sign it. I agreed to sign provided he changed a sentence which did not reflect what I said, and which I felt was offensive to both me and the deceased. He changed it and I signed the document. He then spoke on the phone the other side that he had finished questioning me. He said he would contact me again if there was a need—I didn’t hear from him again. That was one of my interactions with the security.
The investigation was straight forward. Perhaps they already knew the cause of Abdella’s death just wanted to fulfill formalities. The norm is that if you are suspected in any case against the regime, the security personnel will take you away and nobody will know about your whereabouts after that.
This event took place shortly after the announcement of the results of the referendum on Eritrean independence. The Government ended the investigations and closed the case as a suicide; but many still dispute that finding. One of them was his brother who openly continued to accuse the security services of the regime for the death, and he was an open critic of the government’s educational policy. He also died in 2009 in mysterious circumstances. More evidence has emerged since his death: he was thrown by the security agents from his fifth floor apartment and died.
Abdalla was a very intelligent person with an amazing memory. I knew him from at the University of Addis and an Agordat where he used to come during summer vacations. He firmly believed in the EPLF and its role in Eritrea and was proud to be part of it. But unlike some of his colleagues, particularly those who were not involved in the military wing, he was very humble and maintained relation with his old friends. He did not believe, like many arrogant others, that he was a special person just by virtue on him being a senior EPLF cadre. He availed himself and his car for the service of all the combatants (tegadelti) at any time. There were many young EPLF combatants who regarded him as their father. I changed my negative views about the EPLF after many discussions with him; he has a good sense of humor.
He once recalled that he took literacy classes in Tigrinya with his unit; he joined the EPLF in the mid seventies when he was a third year University student. He didn’t boast for being better educated than his colleagues; and I imagined him repeating ha hu hi ha after his teacher who could have possibly completed elementary school. The EPLF had contempt for the educated class whom they regarded as petit-bourgeois, an enemy of the revolution. One day while he was studying Tigrinya alphabets, a senior cadre who knew him arrived and thus the literacy classes came to an end. Although he grew up and studied in Addis Ababa and was one of those that Alemayehu Eshetu identified, ‘Addis Ababa betu,’ his wish after demobilization was to go back to his childhood town of Tukumbia and live a simple life for the rest of his life, not to cling to power forever like our President, a man regarded as a hero then, but proved to be a brutal dictator later. Abdella will always be missed by his relatives and many friends.
I met many Western visitors who came to Asmara after Independence were very impressed by the peaceful city where there was no police or military presence; it was unlike any other country in different of Africa. This is not Africa, they would exclaim, inflating our ego. They just saw the surface. There was one exception, a Norwegian guest that I will never forget. One evening while we were strolling on Liberation Avenue, he said, “Behind all this peacefulness and cleanliness I sense a heavy security presence, it reminds me of Eastern Europe in the 1980s where you do not see any police but you feel you are watched all the time.” He also noted, “The people look neatly dressed and tidy, but if you could open their cupboards you would find skeletons there.” It is true, the city is clean and people are friendly, but that is our culture; his observations were real manifestations of a regime obsessed with security, which many of us failed to see at that time.
Let’s us look at the events that recently unfolded in Egypt: on the evening of the 5th of March 2011, demonstrators who were fed up with the slow pace of reforms stormed the offices of Egypt’s State Security (SS), Amn el Dewlaa, in Cairo and other cities. That happened after news spread the officials of the SS were destroying documents to hide evidence. The SS worked for the regime’s security and not for the state. As is the case with other dictatorial countries such as ours, the SS was a notorious and highly feared apparatus—just mentioning its name, let alone coming close to it, sent shivering waves of fear among the population. Many got in and never came out. Many were tortured there in a manner thatincluded all means to extract confessions. Some of these methods included sexual abuse of the inmates or their families. It was not feared anymore on that day. The protesters were astonished at what they found inside: secret underground prison cells, torture chambers, secret burial places, lavish sleeping rooms for the officials, and many sensitive documents that were not destroyed. Some of the documents showed that the SS had files on almost every Egyptian that was thought to be working against the former regime. There were dossiers of collaborators with the SS from all walks of life, including senior government officials.
According to Al Dastour newspaper, one such document contained elaborate plans to blow up a big Coptic church in Cairo and to link a fake evidence to senior officials in the Coptic Church to manipulate the Pope to tone down his criticism of the former Mubarek government. The former Egyptian Minister of Interior, under Mubarek, who is currently in prison, is accused, among other things, of organizing the blowing up of the Coptic Church in Alexandria during Christmas last year; the incident was blamed on Islamists. Another document shows how Amn el dawlaa planned and executed the bombing in Sherm el Sheikh in 2005 which was blamed on Islamists. The next day Egyptian daily newspapers carried headline news: ‘The night the SS was caught,” “The fall of the SS,” and ‘The fall of the SS Empire.’ This shows how ugly a regime security apparatus can be to protect its masters. The Amn el dawlaa was placed under the supervision of the Egyptian army and the Prosecutor General.
Later on, an Egyptian wikileaks version was established on facebook to post the confidential documents; and the army and the new prime minister have called on the public to return the documents. It is just unimaginable how much money and resources are spent on protecting a particular regime rather than using these resources to protect state security. The newly formed cabinet has dissolved the SS and formed a new agency that called ‘Agency for national security’ which will focus on state security and will have nothing to do with snitching on individual; but the fact that security agencies can endanger their own citizens for the mere interest of a leader or a regime is not something new.
It is widely believed that Hitler was behind the burning of the Reichstag in Germany on 27th February in 1933, an event that paved the way for his accession to power. I look forward to the day were our own Amn el dawla would be caught intact so that relatives of thousands of those who simply disappeared will know what happened to their loved ones.
Our own dictatorial regime, like others, employs the so-called state security arm to protect itself though brutal means. Tens of thousands are recruited to spy on people at large including family members. Spies are also recruited among Eritreans abroad; resources are spent on the young PFDJ and others to promote the regime and recruit young fanatics. So much of our meager resources are spent on protecting Isaias Afwerki and his regime and thus prolonging the suffering of our people while state security is neglected. Neighboring countries are destabilized. The consular offices in the embassies act as cover for security services.
In the late nineties, there were incidents in the Gash-Barka region where the security services disguised themselves as Islamists and carried out brutal murders. There were also incidents in the region in the same period where some Eritrean opposition groups carried out military operations against the regime and then the authorities responded by mass punishment of entire villages. At that time, there was a popular joke in the region: Once there was a mass exodus of rats crossing the border to Sudan. An astonished cat (worried about food security) asked them why they were fleeing their beloved country. One of the rats replied, “A mine blast damaged a military vehicle of the Government and a rat was observed near the place and so the security are hunting for any one of us they find on their way.” If we had an efficient state security apparatus in Eritrea, we could have avoided the devastating war with Ethiopia or if it were unavoidable, at least we could have managed it in a better way.
All countries have intelligence services that they use to protect their national interests. In democratic countries these institutions are governed by law. The CIA works as an independent government agency which provides national security intelligence to senior policy makers. There is some degree of transparency on it mission, values, organizational structure which you can find on its website. The agency has carried many ugly operations, particularly during the Cold War era to protect the interests of the United States. But intelligence agencies in dictatorial regimes protect the interests of the regimes and their heads of states who do not have term limits, rather than serving the interests of their countries. They operate under the direct orders of the ruthless rulers. We have seen this during the current uprising in the Middle East. Tunisia had a brutal agency and Gazafi’s has special forces led by his sons who are terrorizing the people—they have nothing to do with the state interests. Yemen’s special force, the Presidential Guard is led by the President’s son and his close relative is the head of the security services.
There is a lot of secrecy about the EPLF/PFDJ and the current Eritrean Government’s security apparatus. Some information started to leak out in the last few years due to defections from its ranks. These leaks are mostly related to operations; they do not give insight into its general structure and its mode of operations. Since 2001, the security services has become more aggressive in protecting President Isaias from any opposition to his rule.
In 2002 the Eritrean government created a Commission for Diaspora Affairs and appointed Tekeste Tesfamariam (Wedi Bashai), who is considered to be close to the president. Probably at the same time, an Office for Diaspora Affairs was created within the PFDJ with Abrehet Arefaine (Gual Fano) as its head. But contrary to what their names might suggest, the main function of these offices is not to give service to the Diaspora, their task is rather to disseminate the policies of the government/party among the Diaspora and to gather information from it through the Eritrean diplomatic missions in close collaboration with the Eritrean National Security.
Since 2003, the commission has begun to extensively collect data for through a very detailed questionnaire which was distributed through the diplomatic missions. As the return of the questionnaires was not very high, every Diaspora Eritrean who needs a consular service is now obliged to fill out the questionnaire or they will not be given services. The questionnaire asks not only for details as to when and how the person concerned left Eritrea, the resident status in the respective country, family status and name of spouses and children, work, income, etc, but also information about family relations inside Eritrea, political activities prior to leaving Eritrea, and if the person has fulfilled the National Military Service (NMS)–for those who left Eritrea after 1994. Data on Eritreans who didn’t fill out the questionnaire were collected through security agents and informers within the Diaspora.
According to a confidential source within Eritrea, as part of this massive computerisation drive undertaken since 2002, now the Eritrean authorities have digitalised a huge amount of older files. Today most government offices are electronically networked and have extensive databases on their “personnel, clients and customers.” With the help of the Directorate of Diaspora Affairs in the Foreign Ministry, the Diaspora Affairs Department of the PFDJ, and the external security-networks, the Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) also has build a rather comprehensive database—both on Eritreans living within the country as well as the Diaspora. The database of the security has been greatly expanded by making use of the various databases established in the various government offices and institutions. The information available indicates that today the following categories of Eritreans, that are often overlapping, are more or less “inventoried” in the databases of the security and other government agencies with security tasks:
a) all past and present soldiers and NMS-conscripts
b) all government employees
c) all students who attended educational institutions since 1994
d) all Eritreans who legally left the country since 1994
e) all Eritreans who live abroad and who have or have not paid the national tax and other special contributions required from the Diaspora
f) most Eritreans who left the country illegally, especially those who fled from the army/NMS
g) all Eritreans who come to the attention of the security organs
h) most members and sympathisers of opposition organisations in the Diaspora including persons who are only suspected of such affiliations
i) a substantial part of those Eritreans who adhere to one of the non-recognised faiths.
j) all Eritreans, who had already came to the attention of the EPLF/GSE security services in the past.
“The growing interlinked databases at the disposal of the GSE and its security organs on an ever growing number of Eritreans has allowed the authorities to identify the families of deserters and draft dodgers and exact punishment payments from them. Those lists were also used on the crackdown on Pentecostals”1.
A colleague whom I met recently informed me that in 1994 he went to the Administration of the Southern Region in Mendefera looking for a service. He was told to see a senior EPLF officer, a woman ‘tegadalit’ by the name of Ginti. When he got into the office, the officer took a form and started asking him questions and filling a form on who he was, where he lived, what he did… for almost 30 minutes without looking at him. When she finished, she asked him what he needed. He was then told to go to another office.
When the Isaias group (Selfi Nazenet/Alla group) separated from the ELF in 1970 together with two other factions and later formed the EPLF in 1972 presenting themselves as a democratic alternative to the ELF, the most serious challenge they faced was a reform movement that challenged the leadership of Isaias and, according to its members, it called for democratic reforms. The leadership of the EPLF named it Menqae and described it as an ultra leftist movement. The struggle between the leadership and the Menqae has since then shaped the security policy of the EPLF. Gaim Kibreab had dedicated Chapter 7 of book , ‘Critical reflections on the Eritrean war of independence’, to this movement. He notes, “the single most important event that seems to have shaped the dictatorial frame of mind of the EPLF leader, Isaias Afworki, toward any form of internal dissent or external opposition both during and after the war of independence was the internal opposition of 1973- known as ‘Menqae’.” He further states that halewa Sawra was created after the successful suppression of the Menqae in order to prevent the emergence of any future opposition. The culture of silence and fear that is evident in Eritrea is partly due to the repression that has developed from that institution.
When I went back to Eritrea after signing the so-called ‘Berlin Manifesto’ of the G-13, there was hardly any university staff (except one or two) who could dare be seen with me outside the campus. These same people appreciated what I did when they met me in private. Things started to improve after the G-15 wrote an open letter to the President.
Part II will be on the history and structure of the security services in Eritrea and some of its crimes.
1 Taken from a field research note by an author who prefers to remain anonymous at present