Isaias Afwerki And The Eritrean People – Part 1

Would the same Isaias Afwerki, but born a Somali, be able to acquire and hold on to dictatorial power for decades in Somalia? Would any Eritrean who didn’t possess the traits of Isaias Afwerki but had strong dictatorial ambitions be able to acquire and hold on to dictatorial power in Eritrea for decades?   If you answer no to either of the questions, you are saying that what accounted for Isaias Afwerki’s rise to power and his consolidation of power to the point that he has become an omnipotent god is due to (a) unique traits that Isaias Afwerki possesses; (b) an accommodating Eritrean culture/subculture that tolerated/encouraged his rise to uncontested power or (c) both. This is what Alnahda will cover on this issue and because many of you have complained that the column is being published too infrequently, it will make up for this deficiency by torturing you with pages and pages of content, most of which will be a synthesis of what other Eritreans have written.

You will notice that I used Isaias Afwerki’s name four times in one paragraph.  This is because I believe that his judgment day is coming, and we are long past the day when we refer to him as “Nsu”, “Iti Sebay”, “The Man”, “The President,” “The chairman”, “the commander-in-chief” and other monikers we have used to communicate the message that we are not grudge-driven, or obsessive, or whatever if we utter his name.   We owe it to the thousands of Eritrean victims of Isaias Afwerki to mention his name, preferably in the exact manner he chooses to spell it, when listing his crimes: it will make compiling the evidence against him easier for this (if we are lucky) or for future (if we are unlucky) generations.

Why such focus on Isaias Afwerki?  If you think he is at the top of the list of what ails Eritrea, and if you think removing him from power is the most important urgent task facing Eritreans, then it makes perfect sense to do so.  You have to know the strength and weakness of your opponent if you are to support or reject proposals designed to remove him from power.   But this decision cannot be made with a total focus on Isaias Afwerki—it also has to focus on the Eritrean culture/subculture in terms of what it is willing to pay (or at least tolerate) as a price for his removal from power.

Why do I keep saying culture/subculture? Because there is a genuine difference of opinion on this issue.  You won’t find many Eritreans who will disagree with the first half of the assertion: that Isaias’s rise to power and his retention of it is partly due to his Isaiasness—what makes Isaias Isaias—cunning, ambitious, monomaniacal, unprincipled, and ruthless.  But on the second half of the assertion of who else facilitated his rise and/or hold on to power, there is a wide array of groups who find fat fingers pointed towards them: the ELF, the EPLF, the PFDJ, the Tegadelti in general, Christian highlanders, the Diaspora, the Intelligentsia, and so on.    Those who find fingers pointed at them have, to, of course to defend themselves and thus the circular firing squad that is our Opposition.

The difference on who besides Isaias  Afwerki is to blame for the mess that Eritrea finds itself in is not only one of the major contention points of the Opposition groups, it is what defines their raison d’etre.   Why do the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) and Democractic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK) gravitate towards “self-determination up to secession”? Why does the Tadamun coalition insist on some type of a federal system?  Why do the EPDP, the ENSF and the Nahda party push for a decentralized governance within a unitary state?  Why do some groups advocate a “by any means necessary” strategy while others advocate a “peaceful” process?   It all has to do with each group’s assessment of (a) who Isaias Afwerki is and what he will do to hold on to power; (b) who, when the chips are down, will be his supporters or perceived inheritors of his oppressive system; (c) what the Eritrean people at large is willing to pay for the sake of democratic change.

In a two-part edition of Alnahda, I will focus on the two pieces of the puzzle—Isaiasness of Isaias and the Eritreanness of Eritreans.   My aim is to try to understand—and hopefully to help readers understand—why Isaias does what he does and why the opposition groups do what they do.  This is not to excuse it or, God forbid, to support it.  Just to understand it.

Understanding Isaias Afwerki

A proper approach to political contest is accepting your opponent not as you wish him to be, but as he is.  This means acknowledging his strength (politically speaking.)  And, in the case of Isaias Afwerki, they are formidable.  He has massive willpower, a thorough understanding of Eritrean culture, and a survivor instinct that provides him with a limitless capacity (unrestrained by humanity) for cruelty and an unprincipled willingness to turn on a dime (unrestrained by shame.)

1. Willpower

Ismail O Ali is many things—sharp as a tack, consistent, and fearless.   He has been criticizing the Isaias Afwerki rule long, long before it was fashionable to do so. Suffice to say he is not a member of the Isaias fan club.  Still, this is what he had to say about Isaias Afwerki:

It is testimony to the incredible power of a forceful personality that a single individual brought EPLF into existence, the same individual carried it through the turbulent years of the struggle for independence, and the same one remains its sole leader to this day!

Call him anything you wish: Eritrea’s Napoleon, Eritrea’s Stalin, “a dictator with no clothes” but no sensible person who pondered over his achievements (in his heydays that is) would call Isaias a stooge.  A small ragtag army was all he had in the beginning and his precious “nhnan elamanan”.  From this humble beginning he rose to erect something very akin to an “empire” that he still presides over undisputed: the EPLF/PFDJ/GOE colossus.   I must therefore grudgingly salute him if for nothing at least for his will-power and cleverness.

It is his willpower that created Isaias The Father Figure.  Right around the time that Isaias Afwerki was feeling under siege and the Eritrean people had to take on the “attaboy: ajoka, aytisembed” abadi role, out came a video of a precocious Eritrean child who does a stand-up routine mocking the monolingual George Bush and admiring the linguistic skills of Isaias Afwerki.  She refers to him as “Baba Isaias.”   Baba Isaias really eats it up—he is laughing heartily, slapping his knees and looking around to see if others are enjoying the hilarity.  Hilarity ensues.

Isaias As The Father Figure was a strategy pursued relentlessly for 40 years.  This is because a father, unlike, say, a president, can be authoritarian, disciplinarian—in fact, you expect him to be one—because he is doing it all for your own good.  To help you to grow up to be good little boy or girl.

2. Understanding Eritrean Culture/Subculture

Aklilu Zere, who had already chronicled the birth of despotism in the EPLF, has an interesting insight into how, when and where the metamorphosis from Tegadalai-combatant Isaias to Aya-Sir Isaias occurred.  In the process, he also discloses one of Isaias Afwerki’s political strength: his understanding of Eritrean culture.

Ask anyone who is a veteran of the EPLF and they will tell you that showing any interest in anything that operates at the “sub-national” level—region, religion, traditions—was considered a big taboo that could result in your disappearance or, at the very least, political re-education.   Yet, Isaias Afwerki often betrays a massive interest in this subject, which manifests itself unofficially and officially.

Most of the jokes he tells and subjects he entertains himself and his friends with deal with the peculiarities of Eritrea’s tribes.  Ask him whatever happened to an Eritrean citizen (as an Eritrean did in a Juan Williams-hosted NPR interview in April 2000; as another Eritrean did in a meeting he held with Eritrean students in South Africa) and the first question he will counter-ask is, “who is he? Where is he from?”   At the official level, virtually every form that the PFDJ has created has this question: “Place of Birth/Ethnicity”.  Every couple of years, he sends the PFDJ census workers to gather data on the ancestry “meboqel” of every Eritrean—information that is compiled but never published: it just sits at the President’s Office for him to analyze the whole country.  So, in essence, the only individual in Eritrea who is allowed to ask about the ethnicity, origin of every Eritrean is Isaias Afwerki.  Now, that is information advantage.

Keep this in mind when you read the following from Aklilu Zere about an event that occurred 40 years ago (Aklilu refers to Isaias Afwerki as “Nsu” in a way of mocking his fans who consider it some sort of taboo to utter his name in vain):

Nsu was actively fanning the rumor and he was advising any struggler who approached him to not only run away and stay in hiding but if possible to go to villages and agitate villagers of the alleged atrocities committed over Christian strugglers by the hand of their Moslem brothers. He must have been good at it because those who approached him left impressed and emboldened. All their suspicions and hatred over him were gone like the dark cloud that scatters away with no rain. “He is the man” was commonly heard them say.

No one knew what his plans were or why he wanted them [to] run away while he himself did not. No one asked him why he opted to stay while preaching danger and calamity to others. Was he immune from danger? If so why was he the only one immune?

The boys lacked directness and sophistication. The lack of these essential characteristics rendered them easily confused and unable to ask relevant questions. Nsu said and they accepted his advice without argument. They took Nsu as a prophet with extraordinary vision and supernatural courage who was sent to lead and protect them. Those who run away made his name legendary. They forgot his secretiveness and greed. They forgot his asocial and sometimes violent disposition. They forgot his divisive tactics and grudge stuffed soul. They created a new Nsu in their mind from a wish hidden in the depth of their isolation. He filled the vacuum left by their fathers who left all the responsibilities of raising them to their mothers. Nsu became the surrogate father [Aya] they wished they had.

How About Then?

Again, that was 40 years ago—when Isaias Afwerki was in his 20s! And Aklilu summarizes brilliantly how Isaias Afwerki was able to acquire power and it is the same technique he has used to retain power: a thorough understanding of the Eritrean psyche, a revolutionary zeal to re-make the culture so that he and only he is the father figure (“Aya”), and a masterful ability to create and sustain (sometimes from thin air, sometimes legitimately) The Other – the Hungugu, the boogey man, that only he can protect us from.

3. A Survivor Instinct

Isaias Afwerki will do what it takes to get power, and to keep power.  Sometimes this means unusual cruelty; sometimes it means unusual flexibility.

3.1. Unusual Cruelty

Many say that they “will do whatever it takes” to get the job done but for most human beings there is a threshold they can’t cross—their humanity, their conscience.   Isaias Afwerki has no such nuisances to deal with.  He is completely incapable of feeling the pain of others—even if the “others” were people who were really close to him—or as close as he allows them to be.

Any ordinary tyrant will torture people and kill them.  But it requires a whole different pathology to make people disappear and then to pretend that they were never born.  Even Mengistu Hailemariam’s killing of people and then charging family members with the cost of the bullet used to kill their loved ones is more humane than Isaias’s approach of pretending that the people just never existed—forever denying the grief-stricken family an opportunity for closure.  The disappeared are summoned by security officials because they are “wanted” but “only for a little while”—the little while has stretched into decades for some.  To add more to the cruelty, almost every new year’s eve, they float a balloon: “Isaias is going to pardon the arrested and the disappeared” and after they pump the grief-stricken family with false hope, then they pop the balloon and they…..say nothing and do nothing.

Eritrea is full of stories like that, as Milikias Mehretab—another fearless writer who has been clear about the nature of Isaias Afwerki since Day 1 of his exile—narrates in an example of a family he knows:

As any wife in a similar situations will do, the young Kalthoum was fearful but didn’t want her apprehensions to affect her young sons (The eldest Adil was around 14). Together with her family and friends she begun frantic search for Mohammed Said all over the place—Police stations, Kebeles, Administration offices (Mimhidar), detention centers, Military camps. Every where.  No one knew where Mohammed Said was; time went by without any trace of him. Sometimes there were flickers of hope: some one said that he saw Mohammed Said and other prisoners in the town of Ghindaa. Kalthoum would leave every thing behind and travel to Ghindaa to look for her husband; sometimes she spent months without any success. Another person would claim that he thought he saw Mohammed Said in Hagaz (nmohammed said ab hagaz zireakhuwo yimesleni). For the anxious and dispirited family, this seemed like a breaking news and Kalthoum and her sons will travel to Hagaz in search of Mohammed Said abdella, Ybba, as he was fondly called by his children. The lead would turn out to be useless.

3.2 Unusual Expedience

The whatever-it-takes position is not just limited to negative actions (cruelty) but positive actions as well (friendship with those who have no business being our friends.)  Eritrea is an ally of the Somali Shabab, the Ethiopian supremacists, rogue arms dealers and other assorted hall of shamers, and the Egyptian police state.   The Somalis Shabab have killed innocent people, including Eritreans, in Uganda; the Ethiopian supremacists have yet to acknowledge what their heroes Haile Selasse and Mengistu Hailemariam did in places like Ona and She’eb; and the Egyptian police state has been shooting Eritreans on site.

In exposing the do-whatever-it takes expediency of Isaias Afwerki, Burhan Ali gives us a tutorial (too good to excerpt any paragraph out of it) of the culture of the Egyptian elite.  Many of us already know about Egyptians self-aggrandizing version of history (“Mesr Um’Adunya!”) and their hilarious lack of awareness that Egypt is considered part of Africa. Their elevation of pretention to an art form—where paying a bill at a restaurant changes into a big fight with the owner insisting that you don’t pay or tip him (“Mush mumkin Ya’beh, mustaHil, wenebi…”) when all the while you both know you will; or how they have developed a large vocabulary to express their appreciation for gourmet, like a bon vivant, completely unaware that they are the world’s second worst cooks (the world champs being the Brits who, to their credit, know they are.) Or how the greatest Egyptian who ever lived, Mohammed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, is actually an Albanian. Or how they complain so bitterly about US aid to Israel when they too are beneficiaries of its largess…you get the idea.

But whereas most of us are too charmed by, or too dismissive of, the Egyptian buffoonery, Burhan Ali ties this attitude to a policy, with respect to The Nile.  The Egyptian elite have developed their own version of Manifest Destiny: it is mine because God willed it so.  And those who have been conquered should appreciate that we brought to them our civilization—whatever that is.  And hidden not too far beyond the surface is the belief that they can surely beat any African state into submission—after all they, unlike any other Arab nation, had “defeated” Israel in the war of 1973.

And is Isaias there to protest their shoot-on site policy concerning the “Afariqa”—including Eritreans—who are caught crossing the border?  No, that would imply that Isaias actually cares about Eritreans who do not pay 2%.  Actually, it is to milk short term gains even if this puts Eritreans at odds with 7 of the 8 River Nile riparian states. These states, after negotiating the damn (not dam) deal for 10 years are still using accommodating and peaceful language, and Cairo is using blustering language and which side is Isaias on?

Well, you say, politics is about expedience and if by taking that position he can align himself with Arabized Africa (Egypt and Sudan) to win the favor of Arabs, what’s wrong with that?  Why is that expedience?  Well, because only a few weeks earlier, in an effort to win another favor, he was offering his formula for peace in the middle east—a formula that just happens to be the one espoused not even by mainstream Jewish opinion but by every Jewish extremist group: Trans Jordan.

So Isaias has climbed to power and held on to it tenaciously because he has some exceptionl leadership skills; he has a thorough understanding of Eritreans and he will do whatever it takes to stay in power.

What about the corollary to that: after all, Isaias could not be an absolute dictator in Somalia, for example.  What is it about Eritrea and Eritreans that enables him to be a dictator for life?   That is what I hope to tackle in part 2 (and final) of this version of Alnahda.  In the mean time, you can find one clue to Isaias Afwerki’s staying power in Abrar Osman’s song “Tsebah.”  What?  Yes, Abrar.  When it comes to Abrar, there are two kinds of people: those who love his music, and those of you who are just wrong.   And that, too–the I am right, you are wrong assertion I just made–is another clue.

To be continued


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