Eritrean Spring: Oqbe Abraha Edition

This being ten years after 2001, I have been thinking a great deal about what happened in Eritrea ten years ago. Ten years ago, there was a conflict: on the one side, you had journalists, reformers, students, the elderly, ordinary citizens all politely and peacefully requesting modest changes; and on the other side you had the PFDJ, its chairman and functionaries engaged in a brutal campaign of defamation. If I describe this conflict as a contest between good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark, spring and eclipse, I will lose my secular fundamentalist friends. Secular fundamentalists are not very comfortable with words like “good” and “evil”: they are too absolute for them. They prefer neutral terms like acceptable and unacceptable; desirable and undesirable; and the line between the two is so blurred, it requires a great deal of nuance and contemplation and, therefore, they will decide to remain seized of the matter, thank you very much. But I consider 2000-2001 as the contest between sunshine and total eclipse and, unfortunately for us, darkness won.  But eclipses don’t last forever.

Ten years ago, I was not sure of many things, but of one: that if Isaias Afwerki prevailed, there would be an attempt to erase from history what transpired in 2001. That is what dictators do. So, I printed out virtually every interesting writing—including letters to the editor—which appeared in Eritrea’s private press.  And my objective for 2011 is simple: Alnahda will focus on what was chronicled by the Eritrean private press which, in its short life-span, was able to give us a rare look into an Eritrean citizen losing his fear, and an Eritrean regime confounded and losing its footing. I will call the series Eritrean Spring. It is really important that those of us who get opportunities to write do not accidentally promote the one desire of the Eritrean regime—to whitewash this important epoch of Eritrean history—and that we must re-print, translate, and widely distribute them before they are forgotten. It will embolden and inspire those fighting for Eritrean freedom; it will renew your faith in the Eritrean people, and it will show you that the dictator, for all his huffing and puffing, is mortal and easily spooked.

That it will annoy as hell the PFDJ and all its henchmen is just a pleasant side effect that I will learn to live with.

I wasn’t sure where to begin until I read this email from a correspondent responding to an Awate Team article about Isaias Afwerki’s habit of deflecting accountability by sending his own comprehensive exam.  The writer says:

When Ogbe Abraha sent a letter telling PIA that several people are discontent with his administration, the President’s response was a list of questions. Who are these people? What are they saying? When did they say? …The letters were published in one of the private news papers and I still remember how amazed I was on how blatantly he was trying to change the subject of discussion. When I read the Editorial, the first thing that came to my mind was this response. Thanks for the article.

I start my day with awate. Thanks for informing and inspiring me. Hopefully I will be emboldened soon.

The correspondent is referring to a February 12, 2001 interview that Qestedebena [Tigrigna for rainbow], one of the now-banned private papers, had with General Oqbe Abraha, a distinguished man of many accomplishments, among them being the fact that he was one of only two 4-star generals Eritrea has (the other one being our supremely disappointing current defense minister, Sebhat Ephrem.)  Would it be considered emotional manipulation if I tell you that General Oqbe Abraha, one of the G-15, died at desolate Eira Eiro and that, to add massive insult to injury, the Eritrean regime buried him with “full military honors” at the “martyr’s cemetery” a few years ago?  After it denied him the right to due process, to self-defense, and minimum requirements of human decency such as having a sick person visited by family members?  Am I stacking the decks in my argument that what Isaias Afwerki did, and what his enforcers enforced, is pure concentrated evil?

I suppose I am.  So here is my translation (from Tigrigna) of the relevant part of the interview.  They are the full contents of his 11/27/99 letter to Isaias Afwerki and the responses he got from Isaias Afwerki a month later. I am not including the follow up letter from General Oqbe, and the typically infantile second letter Isaias wrote. For context: the period  that the letters were written was between the Second Offensive (2/99) and Third Offensive (5/2000) of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war, after Ethiopia took back Badme and the morale of the Eritrean army was at its nadir.  Words in brackets are those I added to make the translation read better. All errors in translation are mine.

Letter No 1:

Dear President:

First, I hope you are in great health.

After a lengthy deliberation, I have decided to share with you my thoughts and I present them to you.

[Even] as I present you these points, I still retain my high regard for you.  Given that these [issues] are being discussed and griped about by every senior official, including myself, and given that they are getting worse, I have faith that you will assess it seriously and find a solution for it: after all the sacrifices, wrongs and offenses our dear people endured, they don’t deserve to hear ill of their leaders and they don’t deserve to have the enemy laugh at them.

As to what these points are, I will attempt to present a summarized version.  Some may have other points to add, but what most of us talk about are, in my view, generalized as follows:

1.     Comrade Isaias has changed; he is not how he used to be:

  • He no longer consults with his closest peers
  • He thinks there is none like him, doesn’t think that anyone except him is working hard for the country
  • He has developed a habit of taking lone decisions
  • The Cabinet meetings are a subterfuge

2.     There is no institutionalized work:

  • All talk of “institutionalization” is just that: talk.  The government doesn’t accept it.
  • Institutions have no autonomy: there is a great deal of intrusion to their work.
  • The attitude of “who cares” and evading responsibility is getting worse.

3.     Unclear policies

  • There is no continuity to the policies we develop.
  • Consequently, we alienate our allies and supporters.
  • It [the inconsistency] discourages investors
  • Lack of structure results in duplication and lack of clarity
  • No legal or constitutional framework regarding national security or human dignity

These [the above mentioned] are the ones which I feel are the major ones which will get worse if we continue on our current path.  Since they can’t be solved by bad-mouthing, we should meet to solve them and safeguard our national security.   In my view:

a.     Even though the cabinet has legality, I have great reservation about addressing these issues at a cabinet level. What happens is that cabinet members only talk to people close to them.  I know clearly how many are capable of reforming and reorganizing and it would be unhelpful to the nation if the issue gets overheated.

b.     A second choice, and a better one, is to have a meeting with those who are truly concerned, particularly those of us who were long-standing members of the political bureau, and to have a discussion.  Dear Comrade Isaias, because this issue, if not addressed properly, could deteriorate quickly, please listen attentively to what I have written. I expect you to find a solution with the spirit of our established norm of marching together in harmony, leading our people legally and the right way for as long as we are here, and until we are replaced.
As I present this request, I realize that we are in a bad situation; but it appears to me that if it takes more time to address, we will be in an even worse situation.

These weeks, when I am approaching 50, I don’t want to hear or participate in any bad mouthing anymore.

Victory to the masses

Your comrade Oqbe Abraha

Lets look at this letter: General Oqbe Abraha is telling Isaias Afwerki that he respects him as a leader and is saying that the Eritrean government has problems and goes on to itemize them: Isaias Afwerki not consulting anyone when making decisions; developing policies on an ad-hoc basis resulting in inconsistent policies and un-institutionalized execution.  He identifies the harm: the people deserve a better government; our allies and supporters are being pushed away and our national security is endangered.  Then, after identifying the two existing approaches to solving the problem–ignoring the problem and letting it fester, as advocated by the Isaias Afwerki wing; or just whining and griping, as practiced by the other wing, which includes Oqbe Abraha—he proposes a solution: let those with experience in solving problems and crisis get together and talk.

Now, you can find flaws with what General Oqbe Abraha has written. The Ghedli Demonizers will question whether there ever was a time when the decision-making process ever considered the good of people, focused as it was on what was good for the Front; some will even say that this is just a case of sour grapes of a man no longer on the favored list of advisers, replaced by younger guns.  The point is that General Oqbe’s letter was respectful, coherent, and it was solution-oriented.

Let’s now read the response of Isaias Afwerki to his old comrade (the “c” below is for Comrade) Oqbe:


Warm greetings.

I have seen the private letter you sent me on 27/11/99.  After I read it, I was speechless. I did not respond immediately: I said better to choose to deliberate and I thought better to deliberate about the issues you raised–the institutions and the individuals–in great detail.  I took time.  In the end, I was amazed by it all. I don’t accept it.

  1. Who said my personality has changed? When did this change begin to occur? As for “no longer consults” with whom and about what?  Although the claim “he thinks there is none like him” is defamatory or emotional, can it be shown how this is so with evidence?  Who are the people who say this?
  2. “There is no institutionalized work”: in which institution or institutions? “There is a great deal of intrusion into the work of institutions”: which institutions?  Where and how? Who said “who cares” and why?
  3. “Unclear policies” or “lack of continuity in policies”: which policies? How? “Alienating our allies and supporters”: which allies and supporters?  Who alienated them and how?  “Discouraging investors”: Which investors? Who discouraged them?  How? “Lack of clarity in policies and duplication”: in which jobs? How?
  4. “There is extra-constitutional work”: which one? When and how? “Lack of putting national security and human dignity under constitutional framework” is a big crime so how was national security harmed? Whose human dignity violated? How? “Work that is not governed by law”: which one? How and when?

These are, at minimum, some of the questions that were raised in my mind.  And it was difficult for me to figure out who are the ones engaged in bad mouthing.   Although bad mouthing is always there.  It is not clear what the “bad consequences” of these issues or questions are: rather than getting answers, all they do is raise more questions.

I thank you for presenting what you heard and observed.  It helped me to deliberate further beyond the few questions I presented.   I would be pleased to sit down and talk.  But before I embark on that, I am presenting them [the questions] so you could, in the meantime, harmonize your thoughts.

Victory to the masses!

Isaias Afwerki

There was an old Monty Python routine about a guy who goes to an Argument Clinic to have an argument and all he gets is a contradiction. It is a funny bit.  But the childish way Isaias talks about life-and-death matters is anything but funny; it is quite tragic really. And annoying, and a clue to his mental state which is quite disturbing.  And when I hear about people who want to bring about change by talking to Isaias Afwerki, I get amazed by the lengths people go to fool themselves.

Several weeks ago, columnist Daniel G Mikael wrote “From Tahrir Square to Godena Harnet“, which I consider the young Eritreans manifesto for bringing about change.  It politely chides the older opposition for failing to bring about results and issues a siren call and a challenge to the young Eritreans to take over. As I wrote him and I will say again, “what took you young guns so long?” I must say I am very impressed with what Daniel G Mikael and his colleagues have been able to accomplish in such a short time: they have a clear mission statement, clear demands, and they have tapped into something that I hope they can sustain.  What do they need, above all else, to succeed? Well…a short story from one of my favorite authors (Annie Dillard) from one of my favorite books (“Teaching A Stone To Talk.”)

The weasel bites his prey at the jugular or the base of the skull.  And once he bites, he never, ever, ever lets go.  A hunter once shot an eagle, and as the eagle landed on the ground, the hunter was shocked to learn that at the “dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat” was still there!  Long after the eagle won the fight, the weasel still didn’t give up: he was still, post-mortem, biting the eagle.  From this, Annie Dillard gives one of her most famous advices to living life:

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.  Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.  Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”

This is one of the many qualities I admire in my friend Saleh “Gadi” Johar.  ms neKese ayleQ’Qn iyu. He knows his “one necessity” and he doesn’t, can’t and will never let go. This is how our freedom fighters, our combatants, our tegadelti lived and died–a fact that is completely lost on the cynical Ghedli Demonizers.  And this is how the Eritrean youth, including the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change, with its nearly 3,000 members must live: if you have made Eritrean freedom your call, if you have made, as your mission statement says,  the immediate stepping down of  Isaias Afwerki, the unconditional release of the political prisoners, and the end of the campaign of slavery as your task, then, you must make it your “one necessity” and never let it go.  Never be discouraged, never lose hope.  You will have good days and bad days, and you cannot, you must not be discouraged.  Focus and stamina is what will be required and you have it, if only you know where to look when it feels like the eclipse is coming: in the pages of the Eritrean Ghedli, and in the Eritrean private press of 2000-2001.  And if somebody calls you a weasel, say thank you! In fact, adopt it as your avatar. It sure beats the damn tortoise.

And here at awate, us old timers will try to find ways and means to embolden and inspire you. Unless…what was I saying? Oh, my back…oh, my knees…oh, kids, get off my !@#% lawn! I know your parents!


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