Eritrea: Ten More Years Of Dictatorship

Let’s get down right to it. Who among us honestly believes that the PFDJ regime will collapse or get toppled in the year 2011? How about 2012? Maybe? It’s a blind guess, isn’t it? Barring any unforeseen circumstances, there is little indication that the system is in an imminent danger of caving in. Yes; definitely the tyrant is slowly loosing his grip on power and the dictatorship is decaying, but there is a big difference between dying and being dead. Now, we know it is customary to foretell the inevitable fall of your political adversaries and boost the morale of your fellow activists by telling them that the victory we have been waiting for is just around the corner. The fact is, anything can indeed happen even as I type this word. A blood clot might be working up its way in the dictator’s veins; officers within the Eritrean military might finally be taking measures to save the country; or an angry street protest might spark a nation-wide rebellion. Anything, at least in theory, can happen. But it does not necessarily mean that it will. We have to be able to delineate the difference between realistic assessment and wishful thinking.

Let’s again be brutally honest with ourselves. What is the biggest thing we, the Diaspora opposition, have in store for fighting and removing Isaias Afwerki before the end of this coming year? Is it a set of mergers and breakups of our political groups? Is it the conferences and seminars? Is it the guerilla attacks by the armed factions? Is it our alliance with the Ethiopian government and our hope that it will surgically remove our tyrant for us? Is it our prayer that Isaias will commit another blunder that will do him in for good? All part of resisting tyranny, but don’t they all amount to fighting a kitchen fire with a squirt gun and a prayer?

Let’s assume for instance that the Eritrean dictatorship has less than a couple of year’s time left and that the end is near. If that was the case, history tells us, by now, a lot of things would be occurring in and outside of the country, which simply are not. Yes, people are immensely suffering, the economy is impoverished and there is palpable dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, these are merely symptoms of a nation in distress and not necessarily that of an imminently collapsing regime.

Two years before fleeing to Zimbabwe, Ethiopian dictator Menghistu Hailemariam’s army was practically surrounded by the EPRDF and EPLF. In our case, the reality is, Isaias still is firmly in control of his domain and then some. The figurative front-line is nowhere near the seat of the presidential palace in Asmara. Sadly, it is still at an Eritrean community center near you.

If we are willing to learn from the eventual downfalls that engulfed some of the world’s notorious dictators such as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, Mobutu Sese Seko of the then Zaire, Uganda’s Idi Amin and Somalia’s Siad Bare, when the real change comes it is rarely out of the blue. The final unraveling sometimes takes years and in cases where the rebellion is not sustained by mighty force or overwhelming public protest, the dictatorship can drag on for years and even a decade or longer. And then, there are the types of dictators that seem to have more lives than the domesticated cat.  Neither man nor nature seems to break them—Gaddafi, Castro, Mubarek, Mugabe, to name a few. So, which phylum, class, order, does our own Isaias Afwerki belong?

This issue of the Flipside will attempt to show that unless there is some major shift in the strategic thinking of the pro-democracy movement, the Isaias regime, in spite of itself, can linger for the next decade. Needless to say, this is not meant to discourage our fight and demoralize those who are working day and night to bring an end to Eritrea’s despicable system. It is meant to be a wake up call for all of us to come to grips with the reality on the ground and take immediate measures if we don’t like where things are seemingly headed.

It would have been nice to talk about the “impending and imminent fall of the regime”, which is on its “last legs” and on its “death bed” inside the “intensive care unit” waiting for someone to “put it out of its misery”. It simply is not there yet. In the long run, it definitely will reach that stage. But how long is this long run? 2 years? 5 years? 7 years? If we have the wherewithal, the will and the pragmatic thinking that will take to drastically shorten the PFDJ’s lifespan, it does not have to be that long. The main question is: Do we want to win or make a point? So long as our goal is just to make a point but not actually win, Isaias and his gang will likely stay in power. This dynamic is within our power to change; again, if we dare to admit that the current winds of change are not strong enough to capsize the dictatorship’s boat at this time.

Here are my top 3 reasons why I believe we may have ten more years of dictatorship in the horizon unless we are ready to give it a genuine “final push”, a pragmatic and realistic blow.

The End of Brinkmanship

Around 2006, Isaias started taking risky and foolhardy measures hoping that he would emerge victorious on the other end. From frustrating the UNMEE into leaving the demilitarized zone, to the melding in Somalia, to all the anti-American posturing, to bullying Djibouti and the self imposed isolation from IGAD and AU were desperate attempts to rectify grave errors of prior years. However, as they say, one can not solve problems with the same type of thinking that created the problems in the first place. At the end of the day, other than getting slapped with the detrimental UN Security Council sanctions and driving the Eritrean people into further poverty and desperation, he has nothing to show for it.

Inadvertently though, he may have achieved one thing of major consequence: He has invigorated the Eritrean opposition movement and the calls for change. Nevertheless, let’s not forget that we were (and still are) largely reacting to his moves. As he led the country from one disaster to another by upping the ante and daring the powers that be to punish him, it became easier for the opposition to make its case. A good example is the UN sanctions. But can we honestly say that the opposition movement was able to capitalize on that? 

As the dictator was rallying his flag-waving remote-controlled crowd to the streets of America, Europe and Australia, the organizations in the opposition were paralyzed by the lack of either knowledge or decisive leadership. It was like handing a slice of cake to a hungry newborn baby; the opposition did not know where to begin or what to do.

As Isaias is wiggling his way out of the sanctions by reversing the actions that got him there, the movement for democratic change is slowly missing an opportunity that might not come again. As a result, Isaias showed no signs that the Eritrean people might rise up against him internally or abroad. To him we still remain a side show, an annoyance of sorts he can easily ignore but he knows that the US, UN, Ethiopia combination is detrimental to his dictatorship. That is why, I believe in an attempt to hold on to his power he will accommodate these forces. He is already on his way to do so; despite the trash talk and fake bravado. Badme and the issue demarcation are faithfully forgotten like the name of an ex-lover after a bad break up; the friction with Djibouti and the meddling in Somalia will likely be resolved to the letter of the UNSC demands albeit in hush-hush; and relations with the US might move back to at least lukewarm. In each case, all Isaias has to do is agree to bark in his own backyard.

In the coming months, look for thinly veiled moves from the regime as Isaias figures out ways to signal to the UN Security Council, the United States and Ethiopia that he is willing to back-off and listen. Of course this will be coupled by face saving diatribe about “independent thinking” and “resilience” as he wink-wink other signals to his followers that he is indeed surviving.   He might even try to declare victory and take credit for “defeating Eritrea’s enemies” into seeing things his way. Yes! zeyHafr dumus Gebremariam shmu…Only in Eritrea can such a ridiculous balancing act be contemplated.

We can not discount that the tyrant will never miss an opportunity to jump into the thick of any looming crisis in the neighborhood at least to boost his own insatiable ego, but at this time, he does not seem to have the hard currency or the political capital to play pissing contest with Meles Zenawi or America. Instead, I believe he will retreat, take his time to gather some steam and avoid direct or indirect confrontation in the near future. He might even try to strike a deal with Ethiopia into a mutual kicking out of opposition forces.

Betting on Unrealistic, Divided Hopes

There are now basically two prevailing schools of thought about how to best achieve regime-change in Eritrea. The side that proclaims peaceful means only and the side that does not want to limit itself. In principle, both methods can probably be defended and a case can be made how one is a better alternative than the other. The fuzzy, “peaceful resistance” has indeed gotten us nowhere as brother Ismail Omer-Ali eloquently elaborated in his article. But so long as the alternative to the “non-violence mantra” remains unspecified and equally fuzzy, it also fails to be a viable option.

When it comes down to it, one means of resistance aims at shaming the regime into impotency and the other means hopes to wound it into surrendering. The last 10 years are ample proof that one can not shame the shameless nor can one reason with the unreasonable. Isaias and his mafia have no good names to live up to and it is pointless to just continue to expose their evil deeds. Unabated, they have made it clear that they rather be feared than respected. When a legal avenue to redress national issues is totally absent and peaceful pleas to end the dictatorship fall on deaf ears, of course the people have every right to raise arms against their oppressors. But this is where reality needs to set in and clarity need to be brought to the fore.

If the alternative is indeed for the opposition force to arm itself and fight the dictatorship head on (which essentially means the Eritrean military as it stands today), the next logical question is: The opposition and what army exactly? Whether we like it or not, Eritrea under Isaias maintains the largest standing army in Africa—living aside the details of who is capable of doing what to military experts. The currently floating idea is of course, the one that purportedly includes the backing of the Ethiopian military.

If we are willing to remove ourselves from the rather too simple a vision of surgically removing the despot through some minimally invasive invasion—if there is such a thing—then doesn’t it require us to start asking what that choice might entail? Yes, dictators have been removed in such a manner before, but what is the maximum cost we are willing to pay? And then of course, there is the fuzziest notion that still has to be answered: What is in it for Ethiopia? I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question where one might imply that it would be to re-annex Eritrea or take Assab by force. I for one do not believe the current Ethiopian regime would entertain such a stupid idea. The cost of trying to do that far outweighs any conceivable benefits. But the question remains the same. Why would the ruling party in Ethiopia risk everything to unseat a lunatic tyrant who is essentially wearing a straight jacket? The policy of ignoring Eritrea and maintaining the no-war-no-peace status quo has worked for them so well that I seriously doubt Meles would be able to convince his people to die in order to democratize Eritrea.

As the divided opposition wallows between “non-violence” and the Ethiopian-backed invasion, I believe the dictator will benefit either from the impotent inaction or purported confrontation. Either way, more likely than not, he will be able to use the “boogey-man Ethiopia” card to the umpteenth degree and even as way of redeeming and exonerating himself. Not to mention, if history is a lesson, this can hardly happen without first agitating the Ethiopian public to at least be given a chance to beat the usual zeraf! zeraf! drumbeat to war. To seek Ethiopia’s help to provide the Eritrean opposition a platform for fighting back is one thing, but to rely on it to get the job done is quite another.

Furthermore, it does not seem to bode well with the Obama Administration’s Africa policy, which boils down to working closely with allies and maintaining stability (not to be read as dispensing justice). It is hard to believe that America wants to rock the boat in this fragile neighborhood. Now, does the dog wag its tail or does the tail wag the dog? Who has the upper hand in the Ethio-American relations? It remains to be seen if Ethiopia can convince the U.S. to let it launch a war preemptively or under the guise of some plausible pretext, which better include a clear and present danger to the security of the United Sates. As I tried to infer in previous postings, Isaias’ support of extremists in Somalia will undoubtedly qualify as such, but the likely case is that Isaias has pushed that envelope as far as he could and he is now capitulating. (But we might be giving Isaias too much credit for rational thinking). Nevertheless, as far as our quest for democratic change is concerned, no matter how efficiently this is accomplished, it is a messy and dangerous process that will take years to accomplish, if at all. Besides, so far, there is no clear indication from the neighboring countries, the US or the UN that they are willing to take action just because Eritreans are suffering

The Gold Boost

No matter how large or small the immediate value of the soon to be extracted gold and other minerals from Bisha gold mines is supposed to be, the dictatorial system will be garnering substantial hard currency it did not have before. The reports in the Wikileaks cables seem to minimize the significance of the mining prospects. Still, for a country that exported only $14 million dollars of goods in 2008, the cash flow that will be coming the dictator’s way is a heaven-sent wad of money. In an opaque and secretive police state such as today’s Eritrea, one can expect that the dollars will be used to benefit the oligarchy that defends the system and to weaken and hunt supporters of democratic change.

Therefore, if the fight against the PFDJ seems an uphill battle, just wait and see what the beast can do once it gets drunk from power and gold. Without a doubt new characters that will defend the regime’s indefensible history will emerge from the woodwork. They will start viewing the opposition movement as a threat to their investment and, most likely than not, will employ tactics that will give the dictator a breathing room. Just take a look at the mining company Nevsun’s presentations about the Bisha project. They describe Eritrea as “Single party state, no corruption, UN sanctions, no impact on Bisha”. It just makes one wonder how they would describe the Eritrean people’s quest for justice and rule of law. This is before they even extracted a dime from the venture.

Nevsun, a Canadian mineral exploration company whose major shareholders consist of gigantic investment banks including Vanguard, Franklin Templeton and JP Morgan among others is at the center of this.  It may not be fair to accuse them of wrongdoings at this juncture, but directly or indirectly they are about to go to cahoots with an evil system that enslaves its youth and tortures those who peacefully exercise their rights.  

Such is the curse of natural resource—the paradox of plenty—and what always ailed Africa. As our pursuit of rule of law, justice, freedom and democracy enters a new year, it would be foolish to ignore what these hurdles mean to the movement. Our interests are about to get more intertwined with the material interests of the rich and powerful, who would not hesitate to put a lipstick on the pig that is the PFDJ and sell it as a beauty queen.


2010 was a remarkable year. The unprecedented National Conference for Democratic Change, in spite of its shortcomings (and who doesn’t have one), was a stride forward that busted many myths. But our movement will only be measured by how close we get to the finish line, not by how correct one group is and how wrong the other was.  The finish line—the defeat of the PFDJ—is an ever moving line. Some say politics is the art of postponing issues until they are no longer relevant. Isaias has been playing that game perfectly and is about to enter the “let’s just forget things and move on” era and make the need for change irrelevant. Simply put, he wants the world to forget his Eritrean victims. It is conceivable that he might continue to do so for the next decade and beyond. The above mentioned topics will make things easier for him. It would be a grave mistake, on the pro-democracy movement’s side to let him get away with it.

The odds stacked against us may seem insurmountable but a lot of things remain within the circle of influence of those who want genuine change. Isaias and his PFDJ can be defeated and Eritrea can enter a hopeful era and still avoid unnecessary chaos. So, how do we defeat this tyrannical system and assure the poor Eritrean public that the replacement will not be more evil or more tyrannical?  The answer will depend in our ability to stay focused and prioritize goals; it depends on if the Eritrean youth will remain on the sidelines or take front and center of this revolution; it will also depend on our ability to do away with parochial and sub-national issues; and more importantly, it will depend on our willingness to see where the finish line is and to take this fight inside Eritrea where it belongs.  Yes, all are easier said than done and how do we execute them exactly? That’s for all of us to figure out. I promise to try to answer these questions and offer my suggestions in the next issue of this column.

In the meantime, especially during these holiday season and the ushering of the New Year, let us solemnly remember those who are suffering at the hands and as a result of Eritrea’s cruel regime.  Let us pray for the well being of those who are tied and bound in the countless jails, prisons, containers, foxholes and warehouses that make up Eritrea’s gulags. Let’s not forget those who are taking desperate measures to cross borders into Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel, and Libya. Let us dedicate moments of silence for those who have disappeared into thin air as if they were not born, lived and loved. Let us also remember the mothers and fathers who, thanks to this evil system, are left destitute and childless with no one to take care of them in their hour of need.

Ten more years of dictatorship means ten more years of suffering of the Eritrean people in a manner that will pale in comparison to their current predicament.  If the one man dictatorship is allowed to continue, it also means the eternal separation of those who have chosen to stand up and get counted in the fight for democracy from their loved ones inside Eritrea and from the very land they cherish.  Decent people will miss the chance to bid farewell to their ailing loved ones; funerals will not be attended by those who should be there; citizens will be denied the right to be buried at home. There will be empty seats at weddings, baptisms, religious holidays and other rites that give meaning to the meaning of life.

Even after a decade, the PFDJ will be defeated, beaten and uprooted. No doubt about that. The question that faces us today is: Are we willing to wait that long?  In the long run nature will take its course and the despotic system will die.  But then again, in the long run, so will all of us!


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