ISAIAS AFWERKI’S RESUME AS PRESIDENT OF ERITREA
Honour the spirit of the Martyrs. Speak, act and fight for those who have no voice.
1993: Only two months after independence, Isaias orders the forced transport of 12, 000 disabled freedom fighters to concentration camps outside of Asmara. While marching to Asmara for a face-to-face meeting with Isaias to protest their treatment, five veterans are gunned down and nearly a dozen are injured.
1994: Following the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front’s (EPLF) third congress, Isaias kicks out many political rivals, veterans and potential critics from the leadership under the banner of “youthanizing” the Front; his intention is to militarize his personal power with impressionable youth. This change of the vanguard is concretized by the renaming of the EPLF as the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
1997: The Eritrean constitution is created and ratified by both government and the Eritrean people, only to be scrapped by PFDJ members soon after. It has yet to be implemented to date.
2000: 13 prominent intellectuals (mostly living abroad) publish a letter to Isaias named the “Berlin Manifesto”. The document urges him to implement the constitution, allow for public freedom of expression, and abolish the government’s Secret Courts. Among the signers is the Chair of the Constitution Commission, Bereket Habte Selassie. The letter is ignored by Isaias.
2001: Although one-third of Eritrea’s Parliament was meant to be reserved for women, by this time the Office of the President – entirely governed by Isaias and an inner circle of men – has assumed direct control over all facets of government, including the determination of when Parliament congregates.
2001: In spite of his hollow rhetoric of “self reliance” and “anti-Americanism”, Isaias volunteers Eritrea to join the United State’s Coalition of the Willing in response to the World Trade Centre attacks.
2001: In an attempt to hide worsening human rights violations and aggressively crush resistance to his government, Isaias bans all privately owned media and orders the jailing of 15 high-profile critics within the PFDJ (known as the “G-15”, although 3 critics were out of the country and 1 recanted). These prisoners of conscience include few Ministers and unofficial Vice President, Mahmoud Ahmed Sharifo, who is believed to been killed in prison.
2003: In an especially gross act of public terror and lawlessness, a former liberation fighter and critic of Isaias – Aster Yohannes – is kidnapped by government forces upon her arrival at Asmara Airport. Witnesses observe that a bag is pulled over her head before being dragged by armed guards to an underground prison of unknown location. Before departing for Asmara, Aster was assured by PFDJ members that she would receive no punishment for her criticism. As Aster’s husband was jailed in the 2001 crackdown, her four children currently reside in Asmara without the care of their parents. Upon her kidnapping, Aster told spectators, “If I am arrested, tell the world!”
2004: Well known Eritrean recording artist Helen Berhane is jailed for her religious belief in pacifism and refusal to recant her Evangelical faith. When released, Helen reveals to Amnesty International that she had her legs and hands tied together in the “helicopter” position and beaten by guards regularly until losing the ability to use her legs. She would only be released after two years of torture and international outcry. Helen’s story sheds light on the treatment of uncharged prisoners in the PFDJ’s expanding network of underground prisons.
2005: Following extensive interview research with former EPLF fighters, two prominent Eritrean-American professors publish Anatomy of An African Tragedy. In the publication the authors estimate that Isaias ordered the summary execution of up to 3,000 EPLF soldiers during the War of Independence. Most famously eliminating at least 11 high profile fighters part of a splinter revolutionary group in the 1970s (Menqaa movement).
2006: Isaias shuts down the University of Asmara and moves the final year of all high schools to Sawa (the nation’s military training ground). This move shifts government priority away from youth education and toward a national policy of indefinite conscription. This would not mark the first attack against the countries intellectuals. During the 2001 freedom of expression crackdown, the government conducted a forced transport of 2, 000 critical university students to one of the hottest places in the world, in between Massawa and Assab, where they were tied in the “helicopter” position and exposed to 113 degree heat. Two students died from heat stroke and many more were hospitalized.
2008: The Toronto Star reports that Eritrean women now make an average of 33% less than men and face an obvious disadvantage in the workforce. Over the years, successful women’s trade unions – such as Bana (1996) – have also been targeted for shut-down by PFDJ forces. This was part of a government campaign to replace progressive and independent women’s organizations with the more conservative and patriarchal National Union of Eritrean Women.
2009: Eritrea surpasses North Korea as the world’s worst ranked country on Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
2010: The entire Eritrean men’s national soccer team escapes the country and applies for refugee status in Kenya. Despite evidence, Isaias continues to deny they have left.
Sources of Information
Dan Connell. Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners. Trenton, New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, 2006.
Dan Connell. Rethinking Revolution: New Strategies for Democracy & Social Justice :The Experiences of Eritrea, South Africa, Palestine & Nicaragua. Trenton, New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, 2002.
David O’kane. Biopolitics, Militarism and Development: Eritrea in the 21st Century. Berghahn Books, 2009.
Kidane Mengisteab & Okbazghi Yohannes. Anatomy of an African Tragedy. Trenton, New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, 2005.
Tricia Redeker Hepner. Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Toronto Star, Archives
Friends of Aster
Reporters Without Borders
Eritrea Daily: Eritrea International News Trove
“When confronted with criticism, it is not useful to think only in terms of digging up trenches and launching counter-offensives; criticism should be accepted with an open heart and an environment of tolerance; institutionalism is the best approach to decision-making…nobody or no institution has a monopoly on wisdom and foresight.” – Petros Solomon (Prisoner of Conscience)