Isaias Afwerki And The Eritrean People (Part 2 of 3)

To recap, in Part 1, this column argued that one of the primary reasons that Eritrea is in the mess it is in, is because of the Isaiasness of Isaias Afwerki. Thanks to wikileaks, the whole world is now getting a much more detailed, and frightening, glimpse of what every Eritrean knows: that the man is completely off his rockers. The two other unintended consequences of the wikileaks are that it will now make it much easier for Eritreans seeking asylum to document the hell they escaped—given that the source is not an Eritrean opposition website but the representative of the country that they are seeking asylum in—and, unfortunately, it will also result in more Eritreans being arrested because it will be easy for the Isaias Security Director, Wedi Kassa, to figure out who was talking to the American ambassador. Part 2 and Part 3 (sorry) will try to answer a more challenging question: is there something about Eritrea, or a plurality of Eritreans, our culture, or our history that has allowed one man to lord over us, uncontested and unrestrained, for decades? What is the X-factor? To help me answer these questions, I have reached out to opposition leaders who have some insights on the subject. They are Adhanom Gebremariam, Woldeyesus Ammar, Beshir Ishaq, Mohammed Nur Ahmed, Hassen Salman, and Herui T. Bairou.  I will also incorporate arguments from readers responding to Part 1 and, if relevant, responding to Part 2. This won’t be a Q & A format, it is organized thematically and you will find their contributions embedded in the articles.  Due to the length of the writing (I think Eritreans invented blog writing, we write like we get paid by word count) , I am going to have to add a 3rd and final (honest, I mean it) part and you won’t have to wait a month for it.  And at the conclusion, we will ask the same question V.I. Lenin asked almost 100 years ago: “What Is To Be Done”?

(1) It’s The Ideology, Stupid

Adhanom Gebremariam has very, very little patience for Isaias Afwerki-obsessed politics. A veteran of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) where he was a distinguished military commander, and a man who held executive and diplomatic posts in post-independent Eritrea, and a member of the G-15, Adhanom was characteristically blunt: “If it wasn’t Isaias the Dictator, it would have been Derue [Haile Weldetensae] The Dictator; if it wasn’t Derue, it would have been Ramadan Mohammed Nur The Dictator… I could have been a dictator! In fact, of the lot, I always thought he was the better, certainly better than Ramadan who was a total ideologue…If it wasn’t Isaias, some other Supreme Leader would have emerged. Remember, after Stalin, Brezhnev continued the process. And even when Gorbachev came, he had every intention of continuing the legacy: it was the implosion of the system that forced him to change.”

What is to blame, explains Adhanom, is the ideology of the era, communism and its goal of establishing “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” in Eritrea. Whether they came from Sudan or Ethiopia, Eritrea’s intellectual class, who actually created the movements to liberate Eritrea, were greatly influenced by communism. “Our forefathers say ‘sebere zbelwo indiyu zgebere!'[Eritrea’s hardy soybean is named Sebere—literally “breaker”–for the health damage it inflicts on those who consume it.],” explains Adhanom. The expression translates to: the breaker did what they named him.  You can’t call something “Breaker” then wonder why it is breaking things.  Adhanom’s point is that you cannot espouse Dictatorship as your guiding light, and then be surprised when you produce a dictator! Using this logic, the name Adhanom translates to….no pressure, just kidding.

But, I protest, that was then, from the 1950s to the mid 1980s. In the late 1980s, at its Second Organizational Congress, the EPLF essentially embraced—in writing no less—political pluralism and the free contest of political parties. [Yeah, when Isaias told a reporter nobody promised Eritreans political pluralism and democracy, he was lying: but what else is new?] So, I ask Adhanom: that was no conversion?

Adhanom describes that period as the turning away from communist ideology. “We threw away all our communist books and began to read fiction!” Why? Adhanom has written a 36-page treatise on this, and it is entitled “The Hybrid Philosophy of PFDJ”, which is the last chapter of his Wefri Warsay Yeka’alo Wefri Barnet series. In my interview, Adhanom explains that “the birth of cynicism is always the same: when what your eyes see is different from what your ears hear!“ Adhanom explains the EPLF combatants turning away from communism was caused by their disgust with the common knowledge that far from creating a classless society, the EPLF had created three classes: the very privileged (Isaias), the privileged (his cronies) and the underprivileged (the combatants.) The difference between the lifestyles of the privileged and underprivileged was so extreme that when Harbegna, an EPLF publication (edited by Alemseghed Tesfai), conducted an interview of combatants, “the published answers—of combatants valuing liberal democracy—really scared the leadership,” explains Adhanom. Of course, the publication was immediately discontinued. And so it was a case of leaders just getting ahead of the parade, I ask. “It was a calculated move to maintain power. The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ stuff was said out of conviction; but, the talk of election, political pluralism was just a cynical means to retain power,” he explains.

In short, explains Adhanom, Isaias is a dictator because the Eritrean field was a dictator-manufacturing factory.

(2) The Raw Power Of Ethnicism And Regionalism

In nearly all political groupings, including the so-called classless organizations that are supposed to owe total allegiance to an ideology (Baath, communism, socialism, etc), loyalty to a family, a tribe or an ethnic group often supersedes loyalty to an idea or a program. Did this happen in Eritrea? To what extent? Did it contribute to the rise of the Isaias Afwerki dictatorship?

Perhaps the one person who has written the most sustained critique of Isaias Afwerki as an ethnic agitator is Woldeyesus Ammar, a veteran of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and now chair of the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP.) Woldeyesus referred me to two pieces he had written on this subject. One was from 1982 which “was written at a time of anger, having fallen immediately after the defeat of ELF,” Woldeyesus concedes.  The other was an excerpt from a book he published in 1992 (“printed—of all places—in Iraq.”)

In an article entitled “EPLF: Profile Of Adventurism In Eritrea” (Eritrean Newsletter, 1982), Woldeyesus Ammar advises the readers of the paper that they won’t quite understand the “current situation” [the post civil war Eritrea] unless they grasp that the “political essence of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front” is a “cancerous growth.”

He then goes on to explain, for three pages, why the EPLF was a cancerous growth. The organization was cancerous because it was a vehicle for a dangerous man, Isaias Afwerki, who combined three traits: fear and loathing of Moslems; oversized pride—which made repeating a failed class at Addis Abeba University unthinkable and the “jungles” of Eritrea as an only option—and an unquenchable thirst for total power. Hatred, Pride and Ambition.  Woldeyesus characterizes Isaias as a man who since “early childhood” was “imbued with dangerous confessionalist Ethiopian propaganda of hatred and fear of non-Chrsitian Ethiopians (or Eritreans.)” All his classmates, says Woldeyesus, always heard Isaias Afwerki “talking about the ‘jihadist’ bandits in the Eritrean lowlands.” After he joined the ELF in October 1966, he combined his fear and hatred of Muslims with his ambition for power. Woldeyesus explains that Isaias spent “the whole of 1968 and 1969…writing letters to selected friends (selection based on the criteria of region and religion) urging them to join the ELF en masse so that the ‘Kebessa’ (highland) people can have their weight and dignity’ in the Eritrean struggle which he somehow happened to be a part.”

Woldeyesus goes on to explain that Isaias spurned all ELF movements for reforming and democratizing the organization as this would not have suited his goals of ethnic mobilization:

  • At the June 1968 Aredaib meeting, he called for dividing the ELF “into two divisions: one consisting of Moslem fighters and the other Christians.”
  • In April 1969, he refused fighting against the Israeli-trained Ethiopian anti-guerrilla commandos who were Eritreans by birth. (He confided to close friends: “I don’t see any sense in killing Kebessa brothers by ‘jihadist guns”).
  • In October 1971, he refused to attend ELF’s First National Congress and, a month later wrote “Nehnan Elamanan” (We And Our Objectives) which was “a document of lasting and shame and insult to the Eritrean Revolution.”
  • After his split, his organization began publishing the magazine Fitewrari (or vanguard) and in its first issue of January 1, 1973, it declared: “The history of the ELF is a history of domination of one nationality by another.”

In short, Woldeyesus describes a man who was able to exploit the “backward social mileu” of a segment of Eritrea by fanning fear and loathing of the other segment and demanding from one segment “absolute harmony and with firm commitment.”

Adhanom Ghebremariam, who describes “We And Our Objectives” as a call to reform (sound familiar?) dismisses its ethnic appeal as a factor. “Look,” he says, “by the time the PLF [one of the proto-parties to the EPLF, later PFDJ] was forming, the ELF had been reduced not only to an intra-lowland feud, but an intra-Beni Amer feud,” he explains rattling off prominent Beni-Amer leaders of the ELF. “If the PLF call was entirely ethnic, none of the fighters from Sahel would have joined it. And without the 100 plus armed fighters from Sahel, the PLF would not have survived at all. And what attracted the Sahel fighters to the PLF? It was the ideology espoused by the PLF and the mistakes of the ELF!”

Here, Adhanom offers a distinction that may help answer the question that has been raging on the Eritrean Internet for years now: Does Isaias use ethnicism for political mobilization? Yes, Isaias uses the raw power of ethnicism but not in the way those who make the point state it. Isaias Afwerki exploits people’s fear of the power of ethnicism and uses anti-ethnicism and anthi-regionalism as powerful tools. What’s wrong with that?  Because he was, most of the time, inventing the charge to exploit Eritreans’ fear of division. The skillful rallying of people to fight an imaginary ethnicism and regionalism that a political enemy is guilty of is one of the four “hybrid ideologies” of EPLF/PFDJ–and thus Isaias, as outlined by Adhanom.  Adhanom says in the progressive era of the 1970s, ethnicism and regionalism was such a taboo, that Isaias was able to accuse even people who had internationalists credentials—the so-called “Menkae”— people who “thought Eritrea was too small a cause and that they were ready to fight and die for Mozambique and Angola” of harboring narrow regionalist views! And this same pattern was repeated over and over and it was one of the tools he used to isolate the G-15.

Woldeyeus says that Isaias, motivated by his irrational fear of Islam, used appeal to religion and region to create an us-vs-them camps. Adhanom says that Isaias exploited (and still exploits) Eritreans’ fear of ethnicism and regionalism to accuse his political enemies with the charge. In either case, both are saying that Isaias Afwerki used the raw power of ethnicism/regionalism to his benefit.

3. A Defining Moment: Establishing Nationalist Credentials

“Personal ambition, political shrewdness, ideology, organizational fitness or using violence alone would never be enough in itself to help any one rise to power or sustain it,” says Bashir Ishaq, the leader of the Eritrean Federal Democratic Movement (EFDM.) Bashir Ishaq, an ELF veteran held, among other positions, the post of university student union chairman. He says that Isaias Afwerki is a “talented ethnic mobilization strategist”, who “won the hearts and minds of a large and strong segment of our society” by giving them “an alternative vision of a revolution, one which was opposite to the one he characterized as ‘Amma Haradit’, ‘Amma Qatalit’ and ‘Amma Arabic’.”

One of the things that is hard to reconcile is this: if Isaias Afwerki was such an ethnic agitator, why did the ELF keep giving him one promotion after another? Not everybody was selected to go to China, not everyone was appointed political commissioner in such a short order. Herui Tedla Bairu, who was the Number 2 (a very strong Number 2) at the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) during that time, has an explanation:

“The event that brought him [Isaias] to prominence was the debacle of the Fifth zone. [interviewer’s note: Eritrea was then divided into 5 military zones–sound familiar?] This zone was intended to recruit Tigrinyi nationalists; it overreached the goals set for it in a short period of time. For reasons that is best left for historians [to] tackle, a conflict emerged that propelled the commander of the zone and a large number of Tigrinyi fighters to leave field, in the direction of Asmara or Kessela. Isaias emerged as one of the leaders of the group that decided to continue the fight. His nationalist and stand attracted the attention of the leadership of the ELF – leading to a privileged leadership training in China. This led in its turn to a top leadership position in the reconstituted Fifth Zone, and an alliance with the Fourth Zone via his lifetime friend Ramadan Mohammed Nur. Within a year, Isaias claimed the leadership of the Tigrinyi fighters and allied himself with a large constituency represented in Fifth, Fourth, and Third Zones.”

So this is the “standing on a razor’s edge” moment:  There was a clear choice here: surrender to Ethiopia, run to Sudan, or stand and fight. And Isaias Afwerki chose to fight.  Regardless whether his motivation was ethnic pride (as Woldeyeus Ammar alluded to) or personal ambition, the message that was registered to the ELF leadership was that this was a nationalist guy.

4.  ELF Propulsion And Alliance With Kindred Spirits

Ironically, it was the ELF which, by providing the training (China), and the title (Political Commissioner) set the projectile for Isaias’s search for power. But without the confluence of other events, Isaias Afwerki—and his newly created Selfi Natsnet (PLF3)—would have been just another frustrated leader in search of elusive power. But there were two other movements: PLF1(Sabbe group) and PLF2 (Obel Group.)  Here’s Herui again:

“The second event that propelled Isaias to a high leadership position was the debacle of the General Command and the creation of the Selfi-Netsanet Eritrea–an autonomous Tigrinyi organization that attracted a large part of the Tigrinyi community in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The strength of this community propelled him to new heights.

“This led to the third event that opened the doors of financial and military power – when the Selfi joined the PLF as an autonomous Tigrinyi organization in the constellation of the three PLF’s.”

I think by “debacle of the General Command” (Qiyada Al-Amma), Herui could be referring to its decision to reject dialogue with the splinters leaving only the confrontational option to slove the political split. The ELF had to deal with three splinter groups: PLF1, which was predominantly composed of combatants from the Red Sea (Sabbe’s group); PLF2 were from Obel (Barka) and  PLF3 from the highlands (Isaias group.) The decision of the General Command was inherited in October 1971 by the ELF at its First National Congress , where it, among other things, reinforced its position that the Eritrean field could accommodate only one front, though the congress singled out the Isaias group for dialogue. The ELF first went after PLF2 who were the ones encroaching on its base after they allied themselves with Sabbe’s PLF1. Because the two groups were entirely composed of Muslims,  the military attack against them would at least not have a  sectarian tinge; but an attack against Isaias’s group would–which is why his group was singled out for dialogue.  PLF3 (Isaias’ group) trekked to the hideout of PLF1 and PLF2 in Sahel and allied itself with them against the ELF in the civil war.  The three PLFs (or their surviving members) are the proto-party to EPLF.

ELF’s decision to carry out military attacks against the Obel group, while sparing the Isaias group (for religiously sensitive reasons) resulted in Isaias Afwerki finding protection at a critical juncture. The Obel group had access to arms and men and the Sabbe group had access to all: men, arms, finance and external connection.

5. Perfecting The Paradox

In Hamlet, the prince says, “I must be cruel, only to be kind: Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” No, I didn’t interview Hamlet: I am only borrowing Shakespeare to illustrate the paradoxical nature of some things. In the play, Hamlet is plotting to kill his step-father who had killed Hamlet’s father to marry Hamlet’s mother. So he tells his mom, killing your husband may appear cruel, but I am only doing it out of kindness towards you.  In the real world, there is nothing more paradoxical than the army: the purpose of every army in the world is to protect the freedom and independence of the citizens, and the army does this by denying the armed men freedom and independence.

Isaias simply perfected this paradox and took it to the extreme: while espousing its goals of bringing about independence and freedom to Eritrea, he demanded that the EPLF combatants live with as little of it as possible. Don’t ask questions that are not directly relevant to your assignment, don’t develop any curiosity about anything because if you do, there is “Halewa Sewra” (Revolutionary Guard) to disabuse you of that nasty habit. Whether there was a spy in every unit or not is not as relevant as the fact that the recruits believed that there was and calibrated their behavior accordingly. In his book, Eritrea: Root Causes of War & Refugees, Woldeyesus Ammar quotes an American journalist John Duggan who visited the ELF and the EPLF in the field and wrote the following in December 1978:

“When I left the EPLF zone and got back to Port Sudan, I felt as though I had just gotten out of prison…the EPLF is a really repressive organization with no internal democracy… During my stay there, I did not hear a single complaint or criticism of anything in the EPLF organization or its line. I stress, not once from any body…This is not so in the ELF.”

The EPLF had created a police state within the field to…liberate Eritrea from the police state that Mengistu Hailemariam had converted Eritrea into. There was a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in the EPLF or, as Herui T Bairou puts it, Isaias “organized the Choguar Danga in order to subdue the educated stratum.” This is why, to this date, a revolution that raged for 30 years has only produced less than a half-dozen books, and the majority of them were written by non-Eritreans.

But how did this happen? How did an entire organization which had more than its share of Eritrea’s better-educated population allow one man to become the supreme leader? Rewind:

When PLF splinter groups (the Sabbe group, the Isaias group, and the Obel group) got together, they acted like any three modern Eritrean political groups would: they gravitated towards each other, they formed a secret party to guide their groups, they had their disagreements, and then they were at a standstill, headed towards oblivion. Following ELF’s decision to use military force,  the three formed a mutual defense pact, and to adopt a defensive survival mode posture. The stalled secret party, the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), the ideological nerve center, was reinstated. Now, here was the first act of exclusion: the secret party had only one member from PLF3(Isaias’s group) and that person was—drum roll—Isaias Afwerki. Herui says, Isaias  “manipulated key fighters, who were trained in China (Ramadan and Mesfin), Cuba (Ibrahim Afa), and Addis Marxists to establish the EPLF – dominated by the PRP.”

So, in step 1, he ensured that none of his fellow Selfi Natsnet comrades were in a position to share in the secrets.  In step 2, he outmaneuvered the other ideologues from PLF1.   In step 3,  after making sure that they were redundant, he cut off those who were in a position to cut him off (Sabbe, etc.)   But how?   Is it because he is smarter, a deeper strategic thinker than the others?  No, says, Herui.   “Isaias is not gifted: those who meet him discover soon enough that he is idea-poor and lacks strategic grasp or complex tactical configurations.”  But? But he “is a cunning actor, who has a knack of identifying the best and the brightest for the purpose of eliminating them. Isaias is a self-made person who knew what he wanted when the others lived in a mist of idealism.”

With the rest of the Secret Party members swimming in “a mist of idealism”, the PLP kept doing everything in secret—having secret agents, spies, everywhere. Being good enough to join the party was considered joining the elite, and to be good enough meant to compete and excel in values sought by the secret party: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Political patronage was created, a pyramid system: the closer you are to Isaias, the more power you had. But no matter how powerful you thought you were, you had no rights, just privileges. And you are free to compete for these privileges, a zero sum game because you can only get it from another privileged “leader”. All this served Isaias perfectly: when those who were competing for the privileges got a bit too extreme, he would rein them in, and echo the combatants’ complaint against the privileged class. And since these privileged classes could be rotated at whim—there was the always handy “regionalism” accusation—they were no threat to him.  Now, there was no power that could stop the inevitability that was surrounding Isaias Afwerki.  Except for the ELF.  “…except the ELF. You know the rest,” says Herui.

5. Succumbing To The Paradox

But the Eritrean people had a choice—it was well known even then that enlistment in ELF was less stifling than the EPLF. Why didn’t Eritreans enlist in the ELF? Why didn’t the EPLF combatants defect to the ELF, where they could experience a less stifling life?

The answer to the first question is: they did. Between 1974-1977, long after the reputation of “Amma Haradit” had been propagated by PLF in literature and songs, there were more Eritreans flocking to the ELF than the EPLF. This is because ELF was seen as the “mother” and the PLF as the spoiler splinter which was committing a grave mistake of dividing and weakening Eritreans, and their belief that only a united opposition could defeat “Ethiopian colonialism.”

But a large number of the new recruits within ELF soon started registering complaints that were pretty much identical to the ones that were verbalized by those who ended up splintering to create the PLF. And what exactly are those? Again from Adhanom’s write up:

  • The ELF leadership had a “patronage network” with a in-your-face politics of favoritism: “who got scholarship, who didn’t? Who, once sent to vacation in Sudan, was having fuhl for breakfast and who was without? And worst of all, the criteria for who was trustworthy and who wasn’t had nothing to do with merit or volunteerism”;
  • The ELF was quick to use military means to resolve secondary differences;
  • Instead of tending to the recruits nationalistic fervor by throwing them into a melting pot, the structure of the administrative units institutionalized differences and was an obstacle to unity.

The pressure relief valve of the ELF worked too well to the point that it forgot that it was, when all is said and done, a military organization with a military hierarchy, and it was flattened out. In the late 1970s, it was common for many ELF combatants to refuse the direct orders of their superiors. And the ELF never found a workable solution to maintain its self-description as a fighting force and as a democratic organization.

Or, as Hassen Salman, the leader of the Islamic Congress, puts it: “the democracy of the ELF was a luxury that made everyone feel good but was not effective in challenging the main goal of liberation. It was not geared towards achieving a goal.”

So, to the EPLF combatant, the ELF provided two lessons: before its collapse, it was an organization to be avoided because it was a sectarian, undisciplined organization which persecuted highlanders. After its collapse, it was shown as a test case of how values like democracy, freedom of speech, etc, could be detrimental to the survival of military organization. And the bitterness and sense of betrayal that the pro-ELF Eritreans experienced following the collapse  of “Jebha Abbay” in 1982 also marked the elevation of Isaias from a charismatic and visionary leader to a Prophet who had prophesied the dissolution of the ELF. And if there is one thing people do to prophets who have been proven right: follow them to the end of the world.

To Be Continued….

PS: Part 3 and final deals with: (6) Hero (Even An Imperfect Hero) Worship; (7) Guilt: Where Were You? (8) Eritrean Culture; (9) The Other Eritrean Culture; (10) External Factors; (11) What Is To Be Done?   I will also include my favorite political quote of all time, and it is from Hebret Berhe, circa 2002.

PPS: Ah, the clue from Abrar Osman from his song Tse’bah and you can see which category it fits in:

what of your shrewdness? 
Is it cruelty or care?
And how can I trust you…
and walk with you?
Many threatened to dispatch of you…
Not a single accomplishment, they were bid adieu.


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