Book Review: Eritrea-Inception and Consolidation of Dictatorship

Published 2020, Uppsala Sweden. Text in Tigrinya.
ISBN: 978-91-519-5571-1
Pp. 365 plus list of references. 

Reviewed by Tekeste Negash
Emeritus Professor

July 24, 2020

This book, Rezene Tesfazion,( RT) explains in the introduction, is about life in exile. It explores the political reason (underground political activities in Asmara before 1974) as the main reason for exile. It is about life in Sweden and the generosity of people and institutions which inspired him to write about his childhood. It is about his political activity with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the support he gave until its regression to decay.

It is about the problems created by internal dictatorship which in turn destroyed the faith that he had on the Eritrean People´s Liberation Front [EPLF which changed its name in 1994 to Peoples Front for democracy and Justice, PFDJ]. Although he is  proud of his contribution to the goal of the struggle for national independence, he has been forced to revise his support to that organization (for what it is doing to his people) and he is determined, (even at his old age) to fight for justice, human rights and constitutional government in Eritrea.

Does the book live up to its promises?

Reviewing this book is a great pleasure and a very difficult task all at the same time. Rezene is a very good friend. When I first came to Sweden in the spring of 1977 to find out how good the country was for me, I stayed with him and his family for two weeks. And when six months later I decided to move to Sweden for good, I stayed at his home for the second time until I could get my own accommodation. The whole process took two weeks. Politically, we were both members of the Eritreans for Liberation in Europe. I left the organization by the end of 1977 but Rezene and I remained friends; he respected my views (Eritrea had no reason to break away from Ethiopia) and I respected his views as a staunch supporter of the EPLF, until 2001. Although I pushed him very hard to write his political autobiography, and I am very glad that he did, he did not want me to read drafts of the book. I only saw few pages of chapter 8 on his school years in the early 1960s. He did not allow me to read it beforehand because, I suspect, that he knew or felt that I would raise serious questions as to his narrative style of mixing dates and experiences.

I have designed the review of this book as follows: First, I shall summarize each chapter, partly to do it justice and partly for the benefit of those readers not fluent in Tigrinya. I shall put my comments as footnotes. Second, I shall evaluate the book as a whole with the firm belief that this book is RT´s first but not his last. RT has a great potential and I urge him to continue to write.

The book has 25 chapters.

In chapter one on: Inception and consolidation of dictatorship, RT tells the story of how he was mobilised in 1972 by his friend (Asmerom Haile, a martyr)  RT describes his place of birth and the valley of Gemni (located few kilometres south of his village) where his family cultivated a plot of land. The valley of Gemni is located on the Eastern escarpment landscape (commonly known as Bahri and what the Italians called pendici orientale) a valley that is approximately 300 kilometres long and about 20 kilometres wide. Many farmers from the highlands of Hamassien and Akeleguzay were compelled to cultivate in the eastern escarpment because their plots in their highland villages were too small. The family of RT had perhaps more reason than others because, his family was unusually large, with ten surviving children to feed.

RT describes in idyllic terms the conditions of life on the Eastern escarpment valley (Bahri). There were no permanent settlements in the valley only cultivation plots. Cultivators arrived from the various villages in the surrounding highlands and were assigned their plots by villages chiefs. The practice of highlands farmers cultivating the valley at the Eastern escarpments started long before the arrival of Italian colonial rule. A family had the right to cultivate the same plot but forfeits its right if it fails to cultivate the plot on regular basis. The Eastern escarpment (Bahri)  is often foggy and gets good rains between October and May. The Eastern escarpment is neither hot as in the lowlands (below 500 meters above sea level) nor cold as in the highlands (above 2000 meters above sea level).

RT writes that cultivators of the Eastern escarpment (Bahri) went about their lives with great confidence and security and with great harmony until the arrival of the EPLF in the early 1970s and its consolidation of power in the 1990s. And finally, in 2012, the notorious dictator of the country (Isaias Afewerki) forced all those who cultivated on the Bahri to move back to their villages in the highlands fully aware that their livestock would die due to lack of feed. The act of Isaias is much worse than what the Ethiopian regimes did in the Eastern escarpment. Isaias forced families to die of hunger. He could do so on the argument that the land which belongs to the state (indirectly to him) would be used for better purposes such as tourism. His action has forced many young people to leave Eritrea in desperation.

RT  writes (p.6) that the land policy of Isaias is based on a sinister logic: he knows that land is the pride of every Eritrean and by depriving an Eritrean of his land, he has forced many Eritreans to migrate via the desert of the Sudan into the Libyan waters and to their death. RT draws a direct correlation between government confiscation of land and youth migration of Eritrean youth to North Africa and the Mediterranean. RT writes that what the EPLF did to his parents (pushing them out of their lands) is comparable to what the Italians did in Eritrea few years after the occupation of the country. RT relies on Tesfaye Gebreab’s historical novel where he wrote that Bahta Hagos rebelled against the Italians because they confiscated his land[1].

Tesfaye Gebreab tells a story of an Eritrean mother who lost her child to a hyena while migrating away from her hunger-stricken village of Halhal (Bogos) region to Massawa. This took place between 1888 and 1890, when Eritrea was a war ground between the Ethiopian state (with its capital at Mekelle) and Egypt (1875/6) and Italy (1887). Moreover, Eritrea was the first region to be severely hit by the Great Ethiopian Famine (1888-1892).

RT connects what happened to the mother in the late 1880s with what happened to his nephew in 2000s. His nephew was attacked by a hyena while fleeing from the clutches of EPLF (PFDJ).

RT further argues that in the 1880s the Eritrean mother fled from the political rule of Tigray and other natural calamities to what she considered to be  safe haven – at that time it was Massawa and the Red Sea. Making the connection, RT wrote that (p.8) like the Eritrean mother of the 1880s, the Eritrean youth of today are fleeing from the oppression (that includes imprisonment, physical punishment, hunger and thirst, death and gross violations of human by rights) perpetuated by an internal enemy, PDFJ and its absolute leader Isaias Afewerki[2].

RT writes on p. 8 and 9 that we know that the PDFJ and its leader are deeply engaged in undermining the national political identity that the Eritrean people paid dearly with their blood. We also know the regime and its leader have uprooted the people from their ancestral lands and created mistrust and suspicion among them. But what we do not as yet know is why the regime of Isaias is committing so much violence on people who through their sacrifices brought him to power.

All the examples of the violence, RT continues, have their origin in the 1970s when the group led by Isaias Afewerki (known as Peoples liberation Front, group two). This group was also known as the Karneshim group, because it was active on the Eastern escarpment valley where Rezene´s parents had their cultivation plots). The Eastern escarpment had been used as a place of refuge for political bandits (in the 1940s) but such activities did not disturb the equilibrium that existed in the villages. The political bandits of the 1940s had higher moral code than the People’s liberation front led by Isaias Afewerki. RT mentions a case where the group of Isaias punished an entire family because (Keleta Tekle) one of its members (pp. 11 and 12) abandoned it and submitted to Ethiopian authorities; Isaias Afewerki confiscated all the animals of the family (a pair of oxen and some sheep and goats) and thus condemned the family to lasting poverty.

The long arms of the Isaias group also reached Ainialem (the brother of RT) who was a friend of the runaway Keleta Tekle. Ainalem was severely beaten and he was tied to a tree and left there to die. He was discovered by another battalion of Isaias Afewerki and was saved. RT was asked to persuade his brother to break clean from the Isaias Afewerki group. But Ainalem refused saying that the struggle for independence was correct that he was mistakenly accused and beaten (p.21). And RT who sympathised with the Isaias Afewerki group agreed with the decision of his brother. Ainalem joined the Isaias group and was killed in battle in 1976. RT´s other two brothers who also joined EPLF were killed in 1977 and 1985 respectively.

RT retells a fascinating story (p.16) on the relations between the EPLF and the people of Afdeyu (one of the villages on the Bahri. This was in 1978. The people of Afdeyu were forced to provide food and other provisions to the EPLF front by night. And the opinion of the people of Afdeyu was that there would be neither peace nor security if these people (EPLF) ever come to power and thus the people prayed that these people would never succeed. Another story from the countryside of Karneshim told in 1980s describes the differences between the ELF and the EPLF. The general opinion of the people of Karneshim was that one could reason with the ELF (because they understood the mentality of the population) but not with the EPLF led by Isaias Afewerki. The EPLF led by Isaias defeated the ELF with the support of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front because he wanted to be the sole front in the country and not because of the political or ideological differences between the two organizations. So eventually, the Eritrean people were left with one dominant organization led by an absolute dictator.

RT writes that the strategies of manipulating people that Isaias refined during the last fifty years were conceived in the 1970s in his village of Gemni[3].

In chapter two RT reconstructs his first acquaintance with the Eritrean Liberation Front, that is in the beginning of the 1970s. he was in Asmara and he was secretly and slowly introduced to the operations of the Eritrean Liberation Front. His friend Tamrat Debas was eventually arrested in 1973 and since then he felt that his life was in danger. Once arrested Tamart Debas was after the legally required investigation, brought to court where he could defend himself through his own lawyer. Like Gaim Kibreab (2009) before him RT writes on page 36 that the dispensation of justice was much better under the enemy rule (meaning the Ethiopian government) than that put into effect by the Eritrean government that has been in power since 1991. Explaining why he was attracted to the Eritrean liberation movement; RT mentioned the lowering of the Eritrean flag and the abolition of the federation[4].

In chapter three RT writes about the silent police harassment based on the fact that he was a friend of some people put in prison for political reasons. The police had no evidence, but they used his connection with suspected friends for extortion/protection purposes. While under the subtle harassment from the police, RT describes in chapter four (pages 39-48) a most fascinating part of his early adulthood. He was active in the Young Orthodox Tewahido Church movement, first as a self-made preacher and later as an officer of the organization. RT tells about the involvement of the state in the movement and the remarkable support that the movement had among the youth of Asmara, especially those around the neighbourhood of the main central Church, namely, St Mary Church. The youth movement had its own newspapers and a radio station. This chapter is by far one of the best written both in composition and coherence.

It was quite logical for the police to suspect RT because several of his friends were in prison charged with political subversive activities – which at that meant secret support of the Eritrean Liberation Movement. RT had every reason to feel worried – prison life is bad everywhere. Yet it has to mentioned that going to jail during the imperial period (that is up to September 1974) was very different from going to jail during the first three years of power vacuum, that is from end of 1974 until 1979[5].

In chapter five, RT writes about the development of sports in general and that of football in particular. RT writes that Eritrea under colonial rule (Italian, British and Ethiopian) had a proud history of sports from the 1940s but this positive development was crushed since it became independent. RT compares the status of sports before 1991 and after 1991 and he states very clearly that the pre 1991 era was better (p. 49).

RT appears to follow an autobiographical praxis (where experiences are accounted in chronological order) but not consistently. Here is an example from p. 49. Relying on Teklit Lijam´s book on the history of football in Eritrea, RT writes that the head of the Eritrean police forced the major Eritrean football teams to change their names. The famous team of Hamassien assumed a new name – Asmara football club. This was done in 1963. [RT does not explain the reasons for the change of names. The government of the day was worried that these football teams had become expressions of provincialism and it was an attempt to fight it that the teams were forced to change their names.] In the same paragraph, RT accuses Isaias and his regime for abolishing the old historical names of the regions and provinces and for introducing new structures without the consultation of people. It is quite a long harangue of how evil the dictator Isaias and his regime are to the people of Eritrea. From the early 1970s, the Eritrean police were effective in hunting those young people who showed any sign of support of the Eritrean liberation struggle. Those who were caught were given stiff punishment and many young people either kept their mouths shut or left the country.[6] RT had every right to fear for his security.

Nevertheless, RT writes a fascinating incident where he was blackmailed to bribe a couple of policemen for the simple reason that his friends were in jail for political reasons. RT describes the judicial system that existed in Eritrea until 1974 and he compares it with the system of PFDJ and Isaias Afewerki. Once again, RT states clearly that the system of justice was much better than that exists in independent Eritrea ruled by PFDJ and its leader.

In chapter six RT tells the story of how he managed to get a letter of invitation (to attend a Bible School in Sweden) through his good friend Tesfay Haregot. RT was a very privileged man. He went to Addis Ababa and acquired a passport within one day because he carried with him a letter of recommendation from Asmara. RT had contacts both in Asmara and Addis Ababa who facilitated the acquisition of passport and visa[7]. RT left Asmara on January 16, 1974 and arrived in Sweden – a country that was quite different from what he imagined it to be by judging the behaviour of few Swedish missionaries in Eritrea. RT described in graphic terms his first impressions in Sweden in general and how a Swedish nurse Ester Höglund’s simple act of buying him a fur hat made him think of the first years of his school life.

The first part of chapter 8 is by far the best. RT writes with great eloquence and flow his first years of middle school (from grade 5 to grade 8) in the early 1960s in Asmara. He commuted (weekly) from his village about 20 kilometres distance) to Asmara and stayed in a rented room together with his other school mate. RT tells moving stories of the motherly care that he got from his Muslim landlady and that she treated him as one of her sons. But then RT leaves the subject and the period and writes extensively on the terror that is being unleashed by EPLF/PFDJ- a dictatorship that amounts to slavery or in the words of RT nab barnet zigemagem nabra (p.81). Such conditions are manifested by the shortage of basic goods such as food, water and other policies that forced people to leave their country.

RT discusses the relations (pp.82-3) between the people of Azien and the EPLF from 1975 onwards and sweeps the period and comes to the 1998 war and its impact on land ownership. And then he goes back to the 1960s to the conflict between SEDAO (with its dam for hydropower) and the people of Azien. In the same paragraph RT recounts that the people of Azien had the right to use the lands on the fringes of the sea for cultivation and pasture but are now (since the last ten years) forbidden by the PFDJ government. RT cites Zemihret Yohannes – on Italian colonialism in Eritrea and accuses him of not commenting the current policy of the PFDJ on land policy. RT criticism is wrong because Zemihret did not study the current policy. RT accuses Zemihret of complicity, because Zemihrtet is still working for the government.

The harangue on Isaias (from page 80 to 85 was completely un-necessary and it broke the flow of the autobiography.

RT and his friend stayed at the house of Adey Tsehaitu his Muslim landlady for one year free of rent.

RT (p.87) jumps from the 1960s to 1976 and comments on the political literature that he read in Sweden as a member of the EPLF. It is so confusing[8]. RT could have written a very captivating chapter if he could put his concentration on the topic and the period.

On chapter nine RT started the story of his first days in Sweden in a beautiful way- describing the family of Ester Höglund, his first day in school, his encounter with a one year child, his description of the school system and then he jumps to the 1990s (page 93) and discusses the cultural politics of EPLF with Yemane Gebreab (the second most powerful man in the Eritrean government) roaming around Europe mobilizing Eritrean youth.

In the following chapter RT writes about his first encounter with Christmas in Uppsala, his friends and the entire story of how he applied for political asylum and how and why he got his Swedish passport is all exciting and told very well. RT makes a cheap point on p.109. If someone wants to apply for Swedish citizenship, one has to produce a document of identity. A person who cannot produce an identity of origin has to wait for eight years before he gets her/his citizenship. But if you produce one (the EPLF would give you one on the condition that you paid 2% of your income to EPLF) you would get your citizenship in five years. RT blames all those Eritreans who choose the short cut. RT (p.114) paid 2% from 1991 until 2000. He broke with the EPLF soon after the arrest of the G 15 on September 18, 2001.

Chapter 11 is supposed to describe RT’s relations with the Eritreans for Liberation in Europe movement but says very little on the subject. It is however in this chapter that RT admits that he was a staunch supporter of the EPLF, and he is happy to get the opportunity to regret the shameful position he had. RT could have told us how he thought and acted from 1975 until 1981, when he first visited the Eritrean liberated zones as a member of the EPLF mass organization. He could have told us what he thought about the Eritreans for Liberation in Europe and about the conflict between EPLF and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the role he played when the EPLF decided to wage a total war of annihilation against the ELF with the support of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front. Chapter 11 is neither an account of his activities ordered chronologically from 1975 onwards nor a chronological account of the development of EPLF from 1975 onwards.

Under the title:  Consolidation of Dictatorship, RT writes about his visit to Eritrea in July 2001 where there was relatively open political climate in the country. There were several free newspapers and people were talking loudly about corruption the suppressed constitution. The G15- a group of high-level politicians who made their critical views open was quite well known in Asmara. RT (p.140) was informed that the government would take action against the G15 and RT claims that he expressed his views to his informant. RT finds problematic the position of former EPLF politicians who now have joined the opposition camp. He accused them of not burying their past crimes; they need to reconcile with themselves, ask pardon from the people.

This is a very short chapter (made up of six pages) where RT tried to prove that it was in the summer of 2001 that the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki was fully consolidated.

Making use of the relatively open political climate that prevailed from the peace agreement with Ethiopia in July 2000 until September 18, 2001, RT expressed his political views and went to the extent as saying (p.141) that if the G15 were arrested the consequences would be bad for the country and the responsibility for the failure of solving this problem peacefully would rest on the shoulders of the president[9].

RT believes (p.142) in a rather naïve way that the change that would eventually come would have nothing to do with the system that was built over half a century by Isaias. He argues that it is only when the culture and the institutions created by EPLF are completely destroyed that we would get peace.

On chapter 13- Break up of Eritrean organizations in the diaspora – RT reconstructs the development of Diaspora Eritreans political engagement with the armed fronts at home. The Eritrean in Europe and North America were at first supporters of the ELF, but since the formation of the Eritrean liberation Forces led by Isaias and Osman Saleh Sabbe, the Eritreans were divided into two factions; those who supported ELF and those who supported EPLF. RT (p.153) admits openly that he supported the views of the EPLF (in the front) in the internal struggle between Osman Saleh Sabbe and EPLF. That was in March 1976. That is the best paragraph, because it is here that he writes about his political make up during those years. He wrote that he did not have his own opinion and he did not fight for a critical support. Although not a member of the EPLF mass organizations, he followed the orders coming from the EPLF itself.

The violations of human rights is the title for chapter 14 and Rt reconstructs the campaign against Jehovah witnesses carried out by the government in Eritrea. He compares the regime of Isaias with that of the Nazis– sees parallels if not direct comparison. He then draws sweeping conclusion that Isaias was set to destroy the country’s identity after cheating people that he was fighting for the independence of Eritrea. RT mentions the statement of Isaias: that the Eritrean and Ethiopian people are one people (p. 163; and p. 161). It is a long jump and the comparison is not fully discussed[10]. RT (p.174) praised the struggle conducted by the Catholic Church (in defence of the entire population). Rt mentioned the 2014 pastoral letter with the title (Where is your brother) as a delayed punishment, the Isaias government closed 29 clinics operated by the Catholic Church. RT also mentioned the persecution of Muslims and the Muslim school in Akria, Asmara. Its founder Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur aged 94 was put in jail and died there.

Elaborating on the catalogue of violations, RT mentioned how, the government forced people to pay for the homes they built before 1991. Isaias destroyed homes on the grounds that they were built without proper permits; he destroyed Asmara by total neglect; he does not like -Asmara and Asmara does not like him.

RT concluded the chapter by a quote from the book by Berhane Abrehe, (2018) former minister of finance and now in jail, where he wrote that PFDJ has failed to work for the interest of the people and that Isaias is fully aware of the bankruptcy of his creation- the PFDJ.

In the following chapter with the capturing title: Dictatorship marches on, RT cites from a book by Tsegu Fessehaye, in 2014 on the Secret party of the EPLF where the author states that the only gain of the Eritrean liberation struggle was the achievement of the independence of Eritrea. As to the liberation of the people, RT writes, the project has been hijacked by Isaias and his group and now the Eritrean people find themselves under conditions of slavery (p.181). RT digresses from the topic and tells a story of his travel to Eritrea in 1981 to participate in all Eritrean Students association. And in the process of telling the story he explained the rise and fall of the Eritreans for Liberation in North America. The Eritrean associations (both for men and women) broke with the EPLF because the latter failed to condemn the USSR as a revisionist and anti-Eritrean. The EPLF ignored the decision of the Eritreans in North America, which led to the dissolution of the organization. Eventually, the EPLF managed to bring back most of the Eritreans to the fold without itself changing its position on the Soviet Union.

RT concluded this digression and seemed to continue the main story of the 1981 meeting but diverges again and begins to tell a new story as to what happened in 1992. It is so confusing.  RT (p.192) returns to the main story of his participation in the congress of Associations of Eritrean students and he reported that he voted for those people whose names were put forwarded by the EPLF. One of them was Hagos Gebrehiwet (Kisha) who is still the right-hand man and cashier of Isaias Afewerki. RT says that he was an accomplice to the manifestation of dictatorship.

RT talks quite a lot about the formation of community on chapter 16 although the title of the chapter was on the Red Star invasion and its defeat[11]. In the first part of chapter 17, RT does an excellent job describing the development and spread of Eritrean community Associations from 1986 onwards. Although such associations had by, Swedish law, to affirm that they were free from any political interference and affiliation, everyone knew that these were pro-EPLF organizations. The chapter discusses the reception of an EPLF music and cultural delegation (made up of more than 20 people) in 1989, where the Eritrean communities association in Sweden (ECS) with RT in the centre played important role. The support to the Eritrean EPLF cultural group was immense and RT mobilised the best superlatives that he could master to praise it. RT documented the role of ECS (Eritrean communities in Sweden) in helping Eritreans to integrate into the Swedish society and also in negotiating with Swedish authorities on behalf of those Eritreans who were denied asylum soon after the independence of Eritrea in 1991. But in the middle of this chapter RT devoted several pages demonising Isaias for putting in jail (without trial of course) one of the most famous musicians who visited Sweden in 1989.

RT ignores chronology and its narrative value by constantly jumping from the period he promised to discuss to the current policies of Isaias. And his hatred of Isaias is so deep that he never runs short of words to describe his evil deeds[12].

RT devoted a couple of pages to discuss the cruelty of Isaias in the case of Senait Debassay – the famous EPLF fighter musician that visited Sweden in 1989. He accuses Isaias as the evil person who is determined to destroy the Eritrean family, by jailing Senait, the mother of three children. But RT cannot explain the fact that the husband of Senait is a high ranking official and still in Asmara serving loyally the regime of Isaias.

ECS (Eritrean communities in Sweden) according to RT worked very hard to create a good environment for the evolution of stable Eritrean family in Sweden through seminars and meetings. ECS worked with the Eritrean youth and did what it could to build up their moral. RT writes in the same paragraph (p.255) : “Now when I hear that Yemane Gebreab comes to Sweden to inculcate love of country and unity of the Eritrean people, I feel moral anguish because what he would do is to tell the greatness of his boss the dictator and I ask myself how much the brains of these parents are removed from the truth”.

RT presents the activities of the ECS from 1989 until 1996 where it was used as an instrument of the sinister policies of Isaias. RT was informed in 1996 (p.234) of the dictatorial nature of Isaias by the Swedish delegation that came to Asmara from Addis Ababa. Instead of investigating the allegations thoroughly, RT decided to write a public letter against the negative Swedish policy on Eritrea. RT continued to support EPLF until September 2001.

The following chapter 18 was planned to discuss what happened after the liberation of Massawa in early months of 1990. But RT says nothing about it. Instead he talks about the sixth invasion (1982) and EPLF praxis of forced recruitment. He admits that there were people who were forced to join the EPLF against their wishes. (p.247). And he jumps to 1994 when he visited Eritrea for the second time since independence[13].

RT described the pride he felt with the military success of the EPLF during the capture of Massawa in 1990 but concentrates on the role played by an EPLF fighter Tesfazion Teklemariam (P.249-51) in defending Bure and capturing Massawa. RT writes ECS efforts to send two Swedish journalists to Eritrea in 1989 but this was rejected by the EPLF officers in Sweden and Norway. RT (p. 253) praises to the skies the fighter Tesfazion Tekelmariam and recalls his meeting with him in 1994 and his vision for a bright Eritrea, but RT does not problematise the harsh fact that some of the soldiers of EPLF who sacrificed their lives might have been those recruited by force, that is against their will. RT (p. 254) is fascinated with war stories and he accuses the EPLF government of building a monument to the plastic sandals used by the fighters instead of building monuments for people like Tesfazion Tekelmariam. RT (p.254). continues to rumble on his party’s (Eritrean People’s Democratic Party resolution of 10 July 2019) to respect the decision of parents to choose the place of burial of their dead relatives. Then RT comments on how Isaias treated the dead body of Naizghi Kiflu, who died in London, but his relatives were refused permission to bury him in Eritrea. RT describes the evilness of Isaias Afewerki paragraph after paragraph and concludes the chapter on the occupation of Massawa in February 1990 by stressing once again the role Tesfazion Tekelmariam played in its realization.

Chapter 18 contains 45 paragraphs. More than a third of these paragraphs (18 of them) are variations of condemnations of Isaias Afewerki. The chapter is expected to give an account of RT´s reading of Eritrean political and military situation from 1989 to February 1990. Instead of keeping to the timeline and do what he promised, RT diverges far and wide and used his rich and fertile imagination to describe Isaias, the inhuman dictator. RT calls Isaias a traitor twice on p.257 and 258.

Chapter 19 on the fate of Eritrean community organizations in Sweden is by far the most coherent chapter but quite difficult to follow because it is poorly connected to chapter 17. At any rate, the leaders of the EPLF mass organizations (students, women and workers) used the opportunities available in the Nordic countries and formed community organizations with the objective of providing assistance and advice to their members. From the perspective of the Swedish government, there was a strong belief that community organizations were good channels of communication between the state and the foreign communities living in Sweden. Foreign community organisations, such as the Eritrean organizations were not political organizations; their objective was to inform, protect and advise Eritreans living in Sweden of how best they can cope with their lives in Sweden.

RT was a member of the EPLF mass organization and in that capacity,  he visited Eritrea in 1981. So, in 1986, RT and his friends felt ready to both transform the EPLF mass organization into a community organization partly in order to access the funds that they got from the Swedish state to run their activities. [The Swedish government paid ten times more for every penny that members of the Eritrean community organization paid as membership fee] From 1986 until 1990, there was no conflict between the EPLF office and the Eritrean community organizations. Problems arose soon after the victory of Massawa where the EPLF decided that the Mass organizations that were first established in 1978 were no longer needed. By this time, the Eritrean community organizations in Sweden were beginning to demonstrate their usefulness to their members in particular and to the country in general. The Eritrean community organizations in Sweden were about to challenge the workings of the EPLF office in the Nordic countries from a base of strength – they could access money from the Swedish state as long as they have sufficient members.

Chapter 19 tells in great detail the contradictions between the autonomous Eritrean community organizations to engage the EPLF office on democratic grounds and the ambition of the EPLF for complete obedience to a chain of command that starts with Isaias and the secret political party[14].

On chapter 20 under the title: Dictatorship in the open, RT attempts to reconstruct the relations between ECS and the newly established government of Eritrea. In 1992, the office of the EPLF in Stockholm dismantled officially the Eritrean community organizations. And proposed a new form of affiliation. RT is very furious partly because he was the chairman of the Uppsala Stockholm branch and partly because the ECS had a series of activities that did not contradict their allegiance to the EPLF. But the EPLF office wanted to recruit new supporters and the euphoria around formal independence gave them the moral right to reorganize Eritreans in the diaspora.

This chapter, like the other chapters, does not tell the story and the process of dismantlement straightforward. It diverges (by commenting on Isaias visit to Addis Ababa in 2018) and about the secret political party (RT did not know about the existence of this party until April 1994) and he puts the blame [virtually for everything) on the shoulders of Isaias, his secret party and his employees. In a very short section (five pages) RT manages to include negative comments on Isaias not less than eleven times.

In 1992, the highly weakened ECS had ambitious anti-HIV programs that involved the participation of Swedish experts, but this was rejected by the provisional government of Eritrea. RT is convinced that this was done because the EPLF leaders did have the interests of their people at heart.

RT writes in a beautiful manner the efforts the ECS took in order to build homes (for its members) in Eritrea and the difficulties it encountered. RT is convinced that the Mafia type government of Isaias did everything to discourage the accumulation of capital and the participation of Eritrean diaspora in the economy. RT asks rhetorically of why all the Eritrean opposition groups failed to work together. He answers the question: Because the opposition parties have political ambitions in a post-Isaias Eritrea.

Referendum as a solution to a political/military conflict is the subject of chapter 21. RT (p.292) writes that the idea of a referendum (or solving the Eritrea issue by referendum) did not start in 1993 but had a long history. He mentions the position of the EPLF in 1980/81 which proposed referendum as a solution to the armed struggle between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrean people would be asked to choose between, i) union with Ethiopia; ii) federation with Ethiopia or, iii) independence. The EPLF supporters in Sweden, led by people like RT believed that in the unlikely event of referendum being held, EPLF inside and outside would campaign for independence.

RT supported the 1980 position of the EPLF on referendum as a solution at that time[15]. Forty years later, RT writes that the referendum proposal of 1980 was a sinister plan of Isaias and it is part of his strategy of uniting Eritrea to Ethiopia. As a prime evidence RT cited the interview given by Mesfin Hagos towards the end of 2018 where he stated that Isaias informed the EPLF inner circle of his plan to build a united government together with Ethiopia. The now most incriminating statement of Isaias of July 14, 2018 – Eritrean and Ethiopian people are one people in two countries is taken as further evidence of his sinister plan of uniting Eritrea to Ethiopia (p. 295)[16].

RT admits that he supported Isaias and his EPLF for over 25 years until he realised in 2001 that Isaias was a traitor leading the country to destruction. He left the EPLF and started immediately to fight against Isaias with the same vigour as before. RT allows himself the right to change his opinion, but he does not allow others to do so. There could hardly be any connection between the 1980 EPLF referendum proposal and the statement made by Isaias in 2018.

RT (.p.298) defines those who support Isaias as those who sold themselves to slavery. The rest of the chapter is a good description of the referendum process of 1993 where Eritreans in the Nordic countries (nearly 6000 of them) voted. RT describes his role and intimates that he had unresolved issues with the EPLF office as regards the fate of the ECS.

The dismantling of the ECS is continued on chapter 23. Riding on the euphoric environment connected to the independence of Eritrea, the office of the Eritrean government wanted to capture as many Eritreans as possible and without any interference from the ECS. RT does a great job in documenting in detail the campaign carried out by the Provisional government in Eritrea. By 1993 and during the celebration party of the outcome of the referendum, the Provisional Government of Eritrea announced that it would create a mass organization that would be all inclusive. The ECS, founded by RT and his companions were described as divisive and incompetent.

RT gives an account an account of the contradictions between the perceptions of the Eritrean community associations in Sweden and in other parts of Europe and their reception in Eritrea. It was during this time that the death of both mass organizations and the hybrid Eritrean community organizations was announced. It was also during this congress held in Nakfa in 1994 that Isaias announced the existence of a secret political party formed in April 1971. Isaias announced the dismantlement of the secret party in the congress held in Nakfa in 1994.

RT as usual diverges and he shows a result of his careful search on the identity of Isaias Afewerki – whether he was fully Eritrean or not. Affirming that Isaias is “fully Eritrean”, RT accuses him of committing the sin of silence; his refusal to set the record right and his decision to let others spend their energies fighting among themselves concerning his identity.

The fate of ECS is another beautifully constructed story of the relations between the ECS and the provisional government of Eritrea. The ECS had written a letter of protest to the national congress held at Nakfa in 1994. Nothing happened then. But in June 1994, RT as an official of the ECS went to Eritrea and to get some answers to their letter of protest. The encounter between RT and the EPLF bureaucracy is indeed fascinating to read. After being harassed in all subtle ways, RT finally met the vice minister of foreign affairs who assured them the government would send a committee to investigate the case between the Embassy and the ECS.

The government did indeed send a committee and investigated the matter and gave a verdict in support of the views of the embassy and that the letter of protest send by the ECS contained elements that throw suspicion against the activities and actions of the Eritrean government that there might be ground to bring those who wrote it to court.

Sometime later, in 1995, a new ambassador arrived (Ambassador Adhanom Gebremariam) accompanied by Petros Solomon the Minister of Foreign Affairs. RT was assured both by the new ambassador and the Minister of Foreign Affairs that, the embassy would spare no effort to facilitate their work. RT´s faith on the EPLF was by and large restored until it crumbled on September 18, 2001 on the aftermath of the arrest of the G15.

In the last chapter 25, RT writes that for a short time the relations between the Embassy in Stockholm and the ECS were good but soon deteriorated. RT describes the roles of the former Eritrean ambassadors to Sweden in a sharp and uncompromising language. The relations between the Eritrean ambassadors and the Eritrean people is similar to that of the relations between the Amhara colonial rulers and the Eritrean people. The Amhara colonial rulers were more interested on the land of Eritrea and not its people[17].  Likewise, and even worse, the Eritrean ambassadors are servants of their dictator and are busily engaged in the destruction of Eritrean culture of autonomy. RT leaves the performance of the Eritrean ambassadors in Sweden aside and reviews the destructive policies of Isaias and his supporters from 1991 until the end of 2018. RT accuses Isaias for what he said about the state of the economy in Eritrea[18]. RT argued that Eritrea could have had a thriving economy had it not been for the anti-development policies of Isaias. As usual RT never runs out of negative words to describe the evil intentions of Isaias. Squeezed in between the pages of this last chapter is a fascinating encounter between RT and Ambassador Adhanom Gebremariam in Asmara in 2001, RT´s last visit to Eritrea. Ambassador Adhanom saw to it that RT´s youngest brother could take a leave to visit his mother; RT has lost three brothers in the war for the liberation of Eritrea.

RT describes what happened in Eritrea since 2001 as a tragedy where Isaias pursued economic policies which led to the destruction of the material basis of Eritrea. The question is whether he is incompetent concerning the management of an economy or whether his policies are deliberately designed to destroy the country and its population. The 2018 peace treaty with Ethiopia has led nowhere, apart from showing his inclinations to betray Eritrea.

RT concludes this chapter in a language used by preachers rather by seasoned politicians. Here is my free translation: “Eritrea would be freed from its corrupted leaders and achieve a state where honey and milk would flow and where, famine, thirst and lack of clothing would be things of the past and where our traditional cultural values would be revived, and within a short time experience real development. Our hope and faith is based on a vision towards peace and development; the dark forces of power would be defeated by the forces that respect liberation and human rights” (p.363).

Concluding remarks

The book is neither a political autobiography nor a treatise on Eritrean politics and society. It contains some autobiographical material (the table of contents gives the impression) but this material is mixed up with views and comments that do not take into account the opinions of others. It contains elements of political treatise, but this is not carried out systematically. Let me take chapter 18 as an example. RT set out to discuss what happened in Eritrea from 1989 to 1990.  But he does not. He anchors the chapter on Tesfazion Teklemariam an EPLF fighter who played a very decisive role in the liberation of Massawa and who died in the 1998-2000 war. The capture of Massawa was an achievement that RT is extremely proud and there is no doubt that RT is one of those who glorify the military valour of the EPLF. But here RT fails to give some credit to Isaias Afewerki as the supreme commander of the Eritrean Liberation Army. RT undermines his own case by losing a perspective that is so obvious and clear. No matter how much RT hates Isaias (and I am utterly  surprised by the amount of hate that RT demonstrated in this book) he has to credit him for the leadership he provided up to independence. Reading the book, I sometime wonder whether RT has forgotten the fact that he was a loyal supporter of the EPLF system (including its leader Isaias Afewerki) for more than 25 years.

RT is not the only person writing very critically about Eritrea. But I have yet to find a person who hates so much as RT. I think this is unfortunate. It is the preacher in him that has blinded him so much that he seems to be fully unaware that many innocent people are included in his blanket condemnation of “Isaias and his one-man rule”. Because it is not true. There are Eritreans who see some logic in serving under Isaias – probably driven by the same logic that RT had when he was a blind supporter of the EPLF itself. This reality introduces a new complexity to Eritrea and its future. Eritrea is not simply under the iron rule of one dictator but is under a system that made possible the inception and consolidation of dictatorship. So, it is not simply a question of pushing Isaias out through the window but of changing a system of governance that was built though the last fifty years by active support of people like RT himself. The death or disappearance of Isaias would not necessarily lead to democratic transition.

Every chapter is unfortunately kidnapped by RT´s boundless hatred of Isaias and his system. This is a great pity. Because RT has a great deal to tell about his life and career in Sweden, a story of great importance for thousands of Eritreans in and out of Eritrea. RT used his engagement with Eritrean politics to accumulate enough experience and deep knowledge of the workings of the Swedish society. RT is one of the very few people who succeeded to maintain a healthy balance between political activism, family life and academic career. He was awarded a second degree in Social anthropology at Uppsala University in 1985. His commitment to the Swedish Social Democratic party and system is deep and profound. In 2002 RT was voted to the Swedish Parliament by his constituency in Uppsala, Sweden. He is still serving his party in various functions. RT is a model for success and integration of Eritreans in Europe. The whole story of the build-up to this brilliant career should have been told on its own merit.

This is a big book that has a great potential. RT is an excellent writer and a seasoned politician as well. But as it stands now, the book is dominated by hate of Isaias so much that it failed to deliver what it promised, namely a political autobiography. Out of the 360 pages, I am almost certain that more than one hundred pages is a character assassination of Isaias Afewerki.

The Inception and Consolidation of Dictatorship is the first book by RT; I do really hope that it won’t be the last. RT could use the experience accumulated in writing this book as a foundation and take the courage to write at least two more books. I suggest that RT writes about his life and times from his childhood to 2001, the year he broke with the EPLF/PFDJ. He should remind himself not to pre-empt events so that he avoids the problem that he encountered in his maiden book. I also suggest that he writes a sequel to it where he dialogues with Eritreans about his political and cultural activities since 2001 without losing focus the important role he played as a member of the Swedish Social Democratic community.

[1] I do not think that the Italian occupation of land is comparable to the current Eritrean government’s policy of evicting seasonal cultivators from a government land. Moreover, the dispossession of peasant lands is a universal phenomenon which can be seen as liberating (the transformation of peasants to workers) and at times as exploitative (the transformation of peasants to tenants working their lands for the profit of landlords).

[2] From 1868 until 1889, most of what is now central Eritrea was directly administered from Tigrai. Ras Alula ruled from Asmara for the most of the 1870s and 1880s. Earlier, most of Eritrea was controlled from Gondar, which served as the capital city of the Ethiopian empire from 1632 until 1855. By linking the experience of the 1880s to what has been taking place in Eritrea in the decade 0f 2010, RT collapses a century and leaves wide open the course of history that took place in between.

[3] The first chapter covers the entire period of Isaias Afewrki’s leadership, from the beginning in the early 1970 until the present. The first chapter captures the title of the book, that is the inception and consolidation of dictatorship. This chapter pre-empts the contents of the chapters that follow and it confuses the reader as to what would follow next. This chapter could have been used as one of the concluding chapters – sort of summary of the inception and consolidation of dictatorship. As a record of political activity, RT should have followed his political developments chronologically telling us what he thought and why at the early years of the 1970s. This is important because the RT of the early 1970s was not the same RT in 1991, or in 2001 or in 2018. We are interested to follow his political developments and he has promised to deal with it. In this chapter he did not.

[4] The federation between Eritrea and Ethiopia was abolished in 1962. By 1973, RT could not really explain the damage caused by the abolition of the Federation. Admittedly, RT was quite young and busy with other more fascinating things in life (sports and religion). Even at that early period (1972-73) the organization that harassed peaceful peasants was not the Ethiopian government but the nascent armed group led by Isaias Afewerki, that came to be called the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front.

[5] From November 1974 until the end of 1978 was very difficult period for the citizens of Eritrea. All the branches of the Ethiopian army (air Force, navy, ground forces, etc) had their own intelligence services and committed serious violations of human rights. This period is very well covered by Isak Tsegai, 2019.

[6] I also grew up in Asmara. RT is two years older than me. While RT was on the orbit of the Eritrean police, I was as far away as possible from the police. I graduated from Asmara University in 1972 and was immediately employed as a graduate assistant. RT lived a life (an officer of the famous Asmara football team and an active member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church and was exposed to a large public, while my life was much more secluded and focussed on studying and later teaching. I was brought up to keep clear from any political activity that was not sanctioned by the Ethiopian state.

[7] Yet, nearly half a century later, RT is silent of who his protector was in Asmara. Was it Haregot Abay, the mayor of Asmara whose son Seyoum Haregot was both a minister in the Ethiopian government and married to the Ethiopian royal family?

[8] I am indeed surprised that RT did not mention the document WE AND OUR OBJECTIVES, allegedly written by Isaias Afewerki in 1971 and which functioned as a manifesto of the EPLF in its campaign of vilification against the ELF. The 1971 document was written by Christians for Christians. For a best analysis to date see John Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa, Cambridge University Press, 1985:132-3.

[9] What does the arrest of the G-15 together with some journalists, the most notable of whom is Dawit Isak, mean in terms of governance? Was the measure sign of consolidation of dictatorship or a sign of weakness of the dictator?

[10] Rt writes that (p165) the Ethiopian government (when in power in Eritrea) did not condemn either the Jehovah Witnesses or the Pentecostal Churches in the same was as Isaias.

[11] In 1982, the Ethiopian government launched a multifaceted campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Eritreans people and to defeat once for all the EPLF. The Red star campaign is known by the EPLF as the sixth invasion since 1977.

[12] I am really surprised to read how much RT hates Isaias. I suppose his hatred of him has a lot to do with the fact he served him for over a quarter of a century. I do not hate Isaias, partly because I had no respect for him in the first place.

[13] When did RT know for the first time about the forced recruitment of Eritreans by both the ELF and EPLF? And how did he react to it?

[14] It was not difficult to dismantle the Eritrean community organizations in the diaspora, first because many of the members were staunch supporters of the EPLF, and secondly, there were many more Eritreans who were not captured by the community organizations. The EPLF tolerated the ECS up to 1990 because it did not have other options. EPLF dismantled it when it made sure that independence was within reach.

[15] I remember RT and I discussed the EPLF referendum proposal as a tactical move. EPLF had nothing to lose and quite a lot to gain if the Ethiopian military regime were to accept it. However, the EPLF knew that Ethiopia would reject its proposal, which it did. But Rezene supported the proposal or politics of the EPLF quite strongly.

[16] The problem of the section above is that it reads history backwards. The opinion of Isaias on Eritrean Ethiopian relations in 2018 is used as a yardstick to define his opinion on the same issue fifty years ago. In other words, if Isaias had pro Ethiopian views in 2018, it means that he must have had similar opinion when he was 19 years old.

[17] As far as I am concerned, I have not been able to find evidence when this view was stated as a policy of the Ethiopian government on Eritrea. On the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence on the special treatment of Eritrea and Eritreans during the period of Emperor Haile Selassie, 1941-1974.

[18] This was during the conference on Eritrean held in June, 1991, few weeks after the entry of EPLF to Asmara. While Eritrean experts from the diaspora were talking of making Eritrea into an African Singapore, Isaias Afewerki stated that Eritrean has no economy and that the first task is to devise an economic system that would ensure basic needs of food, education and shelter. According to my reading of Eritrean economic history, the assessment of Isaias was more realistic.


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