Isaias Afwerki Deals With His Regime’s Suicide Note

The goal of all authoritarian leaders is to create a state that does not have alternative power centers or breeding grounds for a leader to emerge and to challenge them. In Eritrea, the institutions which incubated emerging leaders were traditional, religious, civil society, and the military. After a 50 year-long assault by secular fundamentalists, social engineers, and Maoists, the established regional, ethnic, tribal, and religious institutions and authorities were de-clawed and the emerging intellectual, civil society, trade associations were co-opted.  Now, all that is left of Eritrea’s institutions are the President’s Office, the military, and the blueprint outlined by the 1997 Constitution.  Put another way, the only thing that is preventing the transformation of the extreme authoritarianism of the self-declared President into an outright totalitarianism are the military and the still flickering constitution.  And, oh yes, the president’s office has plans for both–particularly after Forto 2013.

“How did this happen to us?” is not a useful question now.  Suffice to say that this is hardly new to Eritrea.  One observable fact in group dynamics is: individuals and small groups love liberty, but mobs and large groups love security above all else.   A person who is selling security almost always wins over the person selling liberty–even in the land of liberty.   Furthermore, people love transformative figures and builders over enlightened leaders. This is why there is a statue of Menelik II (who forcefully incorporated the Southeastern and Southern territories to Abyssinia) in Addis Abeba and not, well, name some other enlightened Ethiopian ruler—my history of Ethiopia has become sketchy.  This is why there are pictures and statues of Chairman Mao in China and he is, to many Chinese, a god to worship and pray to despite the fact that, according to historians, Mao was (fully or partially) responsible for the death of 49 to 78 million Chinese people over a twenty-year period (1949-1969) and it was Deng Xiaoping who transformed China into a superpower on a trajectory to be the world’s largest economy.

Ok, now that’s two mentions of Mao.  What does Mao have to do with Eritrea?

President Isaias mentioned ten times during the course of the evening his “42-year long relationship with China,” dating from his 1967 training as a political commissar during Mao’s Cultural Revolution….He remarked repeatedly on his admiration of Chairman Mao and claimed that Mao laid the foundation for all of China’s subsequent achievements. Other Chinese diplomats tell us Isaias dislikes Deng Xiaoping because Deng attempted to undermine Mao’s legacy. Isaias avidly consumes biographies of Mao and has refused offers of books on Deng and modern China.

That was America’s ambassador to Eritrea, McMullen, reporting to his bosses about an event that happened in October 2009 at the Chinese embassy in Eritrea.

So, when we are trying to speculate on what Isaias Afwerki intends to do with the Eritrean Defense Forces and the ratified 1997 Eritrean constitution, we are asking what will somebody who “avidly consumes biographies of Mao”do?  And if you are asking “what constitution?” and “what EDF?” and why would he even consider those a threat, consider this: the Eritrean opposition is full of people who question the legitimacy of the 1997 constitution; the Eritrean opposition is full of people who question the ability of the EDF to bring about change;  the Eritrean opposition is full of people who question the wisdom of bringing change at the point of a gun.  Yet, when a few colonels and soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information on January 21 (Operation Forto) to announce, at gun point, their demand for the implementation of the 1997 constitution, everybody was cheering them on.  Why?  Because, I think, people know that our last chance at a remotely orderly change is via the EDF and via the constitution. Whether the people have articulated this or not, I think they know it: this is why there was so much support for “wedi Ali” and “Forto 2013” from some of the most unlikely sources.

Authoritarians may have terrible records when it comes to identifying what is good for their country but they are exceptionally good–can see around the corner–when it comes to what is good for their power.  An authoritarian may rail against the evil of nepotism, corruption or regionalism, but he will have no compulsion to have family members and fellow villagers raiding the state coffers so long as they are protecting him.  This is why the EDF and the Eritrean Constitution are a menace to Isaias Afwerki.

EDF No More?

During Eritrea’s revolution, Isiaias Afwerki was the undisputed leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA) which became the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) after Eritrea’s liberation when Isaias Afwerki was briefly enamored with the New World Order and was scraping off whatever reminded the world that his background is revolutionary Marxism/Maoism.  But the EDF is not the fearsome unit the EPLA was—what with Ethiopia crossing the border and hitting anything anytime it feels like it; what with soldiers deserting their units by the tens of thousands, and what with unmotivated commanders obsessing over their daily life and the countdown to old age without retirement benefits or even respect.  Thus, it becomes necessary to recreate the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army (EPLA) from scratch.  (Coincidentally, Mao never changed the name of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA.)

The problem with the EPLA was that it had incubated lots of heroes who had authority (military leadership authority) that was not dependent on the largesse of Isaias Afwerki but on their own heroism and gallantry.  But over a 40-year period, they have been purged, eliminated, emasculated or maligned from an assortment of enemies.  In post-independent Eritrea, the attack on them is from the Isaiaists (“they are all midgets who looked like giants because they were standing on the shoulders of Isaias!”), from the wounded opposition (“they are no better than Isaias! Their hands are just as bloody as his!”), and from the De-Romantics (“the problem is not just Isaias! The whole armed struggle was a mistake! Eritrea is a mistake!”)

So, the EPLA has to be created.  Step one was the creation of an elite team with total loyalty to Isaias Afwerki.  That was achieved years ago (you can learn about that courtesy of another wikileak.)  Step two was the hallowing out of the existing army—if they are going to leave anyway, you might as well profit from their desertion.  So, in a devilish plan, if you believe the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea (and I do), Isaias Afwerki actually benefits handsomely from the trafficking of Eritrean youth—from Eritrea to Sudan, Sudan to Sinai, Sinai to the West.  Step three is creation of a people’s militia.

When it come to the new militia, we focused on the superficial side of it: that Isaias Afwerki was arming old men: there were pictures of men in their 60s using their AK-47 as canes and women holding them next to their vegetable stands. Ha ha.  But the real question is: why would Eritrea need two military forces? The goal has to be the creation of an army that has no remnants from the revolution demanding respect from their years of service and contribution during the armed struggle.   A people’s army led by generals with little role in the armed struggle, but absolute loyalty to Isaias Afwerki to replace the EDF as it withers on the vine.

The Constitution (The Suicide Note)

Under the terms of the Eritrean constitution of 1997, the citizens had the right to form political organizations (right of assembly), to publish newspapers (press).  The State could hold a prisoner without charges for no more than 48 hours, and the president could be the head of state for no more than two 5-year terms.  Well, let’s not get confused: with all due respect to the independence of the constitutional commission of Eritrea, if Isaias Afwerki did not want any of these liberties for the citizens (or any of the limits on the state) they would have been stricken from the constitution. In 1997, Isaias Afwerki, then practicing the philosophy of enlightened absolutism, was so popular he could have made dictatorship popular.  But, back in 1991-1996, when he was part of the “New Generation of African Leaders” (insert appropriate trademark sign here), Isaias Afwerki had drunk from the New Democrat Kool Aid.   This is because the world had changed in 1988—and the New World Order looked like it was here to stay.  He would brag to friends and foes that the constitution is pretty much based on the booklet he distributed at the Municipality (enda municipio) meeting in 1995.

The problem was that this was not an organic growth: the EPLF was many things but “democrat” wasn’t one of them. It is something that he felt he had to mouth because the alternative was to be a pariah in the New World Order.   It was the path to respectability and relevance and being the new voice of Africa.  It was the path to American bases in the Red Sea, and blessings from the World Bank and the IMF.    By 2001, the New Generation had become the Not-So-New Generation: ironically, while all the old generation of African leaders were embracing liberal democracy, all those who were being hailed as heroes in the early 1990s—Uganda’s Museveni, Rwanda’s Kagame, Ethiopia’s Meles, and Eritrea’s Isaias—had rediscovered their inner-Mao.    Whatever their differences, all had come to develop the same view towards the citizens: they are infants who cannot be trusted with such a complex machinery known as liberal democracy.  Their legs are not stable yet, and you want them to run marathons? First must come stability: peace, food security, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other goodies that take a generation or two or three to materialize.  Meanwhile, the Not-So-New Generation will just have to assume their heavy burden of being the guardians of their countries to protect it from all temptations, foreign and domestic.  But what to do with the suicide notes they had penned?

The other members of the former New Generation found a way to deal with the suicide notes they had once penned.  Musevini did it the Old School way: he just amended the constitution to allow him to run indefinitely; Kagame has his regularly-scheduled programming: the farce runs every seven years, on time, and his coalition party (including an Islamist party) wins anywhere between 80% to 95% of the seats; Meles had his scare in 2005 when his opponents discovered the magic of coalition building and his party was reduced to a 60% seat, but equilibrium had been achieved with the 2010 elections when his coalition, in a “peaceful and well organized” election (according to EU which is why EU is becoming a joke) won 499/547 seats.

Meanwhile, Isaias Afwerki’s suicide note, written in a different era was sitting around gathering webs.  His regime was stuck between a triangle of opposite beliefs: 1. The 1997 Eritrean Constitution was a marvel, a result of PFDJ’s ability to ensure popular participation; 2. The Eritrean constitution cannot be implemented now because we are in a no-peace, no-war situation; 3. The Eritrean people have rebuffed all efforts to hold them hostage of Ethiopia’s evil intentions and it’s business as usual in Eritrea.    The answer to the question of “if the no-war no-peace situation is of no consequence, why not implement the constitution and have election?” was to mock elections in Africa, which is always a fertile land for mockery when it comes to self-government.

The 1997 Constitution was a document that was produced when Isaias Afwerki actually believed that liberal democracy was the wave of the future—which is why he insisted (according to Dr. Bereket Habteselasse, the chairman of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea) that term limits be incorporated.  But now, when he has rediscovered and embraced his inner Mao, how does one reconcile term limits with his claim (Riz Khan Interview Al Jazeera) that there won’t be political pluralism in Eritrea for three decades, four decades, maybe more? How does one reconcile term limits when he tells an interviewer (ABC – Foreign Correspondent) that resignation is not something “that will ever cross my mind again any time in the future as long as I am alive.” ?

You can’t.  Well, I couldn’t.  But I am not as smart as the ideologues of PFDJ because they have come up with a perfect plan.  The way to solve a complicated problem is to complicate it further.   It goes like this.  The 1997 Eritrean Constitution is a marvelous document.  However, the Chairman of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea, who had (and has) become a foreign lackey, had unbeknownst to the rest of his colleagues “fatally compromised their autonomy and the legitimacy of the Commission”,   “may have irreparably damaged the future of the constitution.”

When I read it first (in a piece, allegedly by two no-names in a review of Dr. Bereket Habteselasse’s book, but really penned by friends of the President’s Office), I felt like Yossarian in the novel Catch-22 when he learned of how catch-22 works: “Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” After boasting for years that the document had popular participation, expert reviews, layers of ratification processes, to claim now that the Eritrean constitution is “fatally compromised” and “irreparably damaged” because of the actions of one man…. Phew.  That is brilliant, really.  Because the only thing you can do to a “fatally compromised” and “irreparably damaged” document is to change it. Of course! The only way to undo this damage—for the sake of national unity!—is to draft anew.  Except that this time, all clauses referring to political pluralism, civil liberties must—for the sake of national unity!—more explicitly be made subservient to stability and national unity!


Eritrea had organic institutions for incubating the next generations of leaders.  They were traditional, religious, civil society, military and law.   The assault on traditional, religious and part of the civil society (student, teachers, arts associations) began in the Eritrean field during the armed struggle and continued through post-independence with the redrawing of the traditional provinces, emasculating religious leaders, and co-opting the civil society.  Leaders who emerged from the Eritrean field and did not owe their authority to Isaias Afwerki were purged, disappeared, killed, or imprisoned.   The rest, now aging and without any safety net for their families, feel trapped.

From the perspective of Isaias Afwerki, there are only two choices when it comes to the EDF:  to recreate the Eritrean People’s Liberation Army with an all-volunteer army or just to purge the EDF of its revolutionary-era leadership and maintain its conscript army.  Either option eliminates whatever minimal independent authority remains with the EDF.   Similarly, with the 1997 constitution, which was written in a distant, relatively-enlightened era,  Isaias Afwerki has two choices: if he wants to avoid the infamy of presiding over a country that has no constitution, he can amend the “irreparably damaged” constitution so that there are no laws that can be used against him in a court of law or language that poses a threat to his power or to his legacy.  Or he can, as he has now for 15 years, choose to not have a constitution at all and to have a country in a de-facto state of emergency.  All that requires is a crisis of one sort or another, and one can never run out of crisis.

From the perspective of the exiled opposition groups, there is no one voice that speaks on their behalf: we have a cacophony.  Some said that the 1997 constitution is a non-starter because it was illegitimate, exclusive, and unfit to solve Eritrea’s complex problems and some said it is workable; some said change cannot come at gun point; some said it is the only way it can come; some said that change cannot come without Ethiopia’s help, some said there should be no role for Ethiopia.   The exceptional appeal of Forto 2013 was that there was clarity in thought and action.  What people were thrilled about was not based on the precision of the operation—it was somewhere between bumbling to good effort—the thrill was that, at long last, there were Eritreans who knew exactly what they wanted to do, and then tried to do it.   It was a clarifying moment: one can have a constitutional government or Isaias Afwerki: but not both.  One can have a country governed by rule of law or by Isaias Afwerki: but not both.  One can have a country where the accused are brought to a court of law or a country governed by Isaias Afwerki where yesterday’s heroes become non-persons or, worse, their death is spoken of as if they are common criminals.  But not both.   What Forto 2013 said was: one can initiate a momentum for change and win, draw or lose pursue it; or one can provide a long list of preconditions for initiating change.  But not both.  This is why Forto 2013 was so powerful and why it has led to more arrests in Eritrea than even the September 2001 challenge to the authority of Isaias Afwerki.


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