January 21: A Closer Look
It’s much bigger than we thought.
The events of January 21st, the takeover of Eritrea’s Ministry of Information by members of Eritrea’s military for twelve hours, cannot be understood properly unless one has been following Eritrea’s exiled opposition media for the preceding 3-4 months. These include the Paltalk rooms in Europe that cater to Eritrean exiles; the France-based Radio Erena, the UK-based assenna.com; the US-based Asmarino.com, the Ethiopia-based Wegahta radio, the globally dispersed Eritrean social media (facebook, twitter, etc) and of course, awate.com. All of us have been saying that the Eritrean regime is giving signs that the beginning of its end is near. Since awate.com’s server is down, we refer you to an October 12, 2012 Gedab News article, now housed at Indepth Africa, with the title “Is This The Beginning Of The End For The Eritrean Regime?”
The Eritrean opposition media describe a nation which is emptying out its youth at the rate of 3,000 a month; a nation which either stands by quietly or benefits financially from the inhumane and savage treatment of its youth in Egypt’s Sinai as they are being raped, killed and their organs harvested; a nation where even senior officials and elite pilots and elite athletes no longer see any hope for reform and are leaving in droves; a nation facing dire economic challenges where basic necessities are available only via contraband; a nation whose infrastructure is crumbling apart; a nation which is the subject of sanction and global isolation; a pariah nation where power is getting even more increasingly centralized in the office of the increasingly paranoid president.
Seeing from this context, whether one calls the January 21 incident an act of frustration, a coup d’etat attempt, a mutiny is irrelevant. What is more important is that some people finally said “Enough!” and laid bare the ugliness of the Isaias Afwerki regime for the whole world to see. It was specially sweet that the only media in the world–Eri-TV– that was trying to deny the truth was forced to tell the truth. And given the global press coverage: mission accomplished. Isaias Afwerki’s twenty one year campaign to show that he is beloved by his people, that whatever “opposition” (opposition always in scare quotes) he faces is external was demolished in 12 hours by brave Eritrean soldiers.
But the details are important because, if nothing else, truth is its own reward. So, below, we will try to stitch together what we know while we realize there are still many important and unanswered questions.
On Monday, January 21, the employees of Eritrea’s Ministry of Information (MoI) at Forto (hill top in Asmara) were disturbed by an unusual commotion inside the building. Our initial report was that there were nearly 100 soldiers in the building but subsequent reports indicate that, counting the soldiers surrounding the perimeter, the number was about 200. There was no attempt made to limit the movement or activities of the employees inside: none of their properties were confiscated, no threats were made to them, nor where they asked to do (or refrain from doing) anything. (Remember that when the regime accuses the young soldiers of “terrorism.”) They went about doing their job–and, incidentally, the source for our initial reports was precisely because they were not hindered from emailing, messaging or making/receiving phone calls.
Those who spoke to them described them as young soldiers who are frustrated with their quality of life and their bosses inability to bring about meaningful change and cause for hope in Eritrea. Now, this is standard language made by almost every Eritrean and there is nothing unique about it. In the course of their conversations–where are you from? Where are you based? Which division do you belong to?–the name of Colonel Saleh Osman was raised by different soldiers.
While complaining about life–and conscription without end–is not unusual, what happened next is unusual: the soldiers (or those in charge of the soldiers) ordered the director of Eritrean Television, Asmelash,to read out their demands. Their demands are the same demands made by almost every Eritrean (including, reluctantly and meekly, by those who support the regime of Isaias Afwerki): end to the unannounced rule by martial law. Free political prisoners, implement the constitution… before the newscaster could read the entire demand, the broadcast was interrupted and a “color bar” appeared.
How was the broadcast interrupted and why were the soldiers not even aware of it? Eri-TV has a terrestrial broadcast (Channel 2, which can be seen via aerials/antennas) and two satellites (ArabSat.) Eri-TV begins normal broadcasting at 12:30 pm. The controls for the satellite broadcasting are within (and only within) the Ministry of Information. The controls for the terrestrial broadcast are at the MoI and the transmitter is at Biet Giorgis. So, the switch was turned off either at the MoI or by an alert technician at Biet Giorgis. The “rebels” may not have been aware of this since the broadcast would appear at the monitors of the studio, something that could have been easily rectified by placing contacts in the city who could have reported whether the broadcast is airing.
There have been tweets from Eritreans in Asmara saying “what coup? what disturbance?” Assuming that these are legitimate questions from ordinary Eritreans (and not Eritrean regime plants), it is entirely possible that many Eritreans were completely unaware of the demands that were aired, however briefly, by the Eritrean soldiers demanding change. What is also true is that enough Eritreans were, particularly in the retail business community, who, anticipating trouble, closed their business and went home.
The 200 soldiers were well-armed and possessed artillery and, reportedly, tanks. An informed source whom we asked to verify this information questioned the presence of tanks: “if you believe your own prior reports about the dire straits Eritrea is in, and you should, you will know that fuel is such a scarce commodity that no tank would be authorized to move, full stop.” But enough eyewitnesses who went to the MoI when the broadcast was made and were waved off by the soldiers guarding the building say that they saw the presence of tanks and anti-aircraft artillery.
This begs the question: is the Ministry of Information, ordinarily, guarded? The answer appears to be that it used to be in the early 2000s but it no longer is.
The next question is: who are the soldiers and where did they come from? When the name of Colonel Saleh Osman was floated, we (and others) implausibly mentioned Assab and quickly retracted it. This is because Colonel Saleh Osman made his name defending Assab in Ethiopia’s offensive at the Burre front. The legend was verified by Saleh Osman himself when Eritrean state media was briefly controlled by the now-disappeared Beraki Habteselasse (part of the G-15) that he and other officers (including Hadish Ephrem) took a stand to defend Assab despite orders from their superiors to withdraw. When the Isaias Afwerki hardliners were accusing the G-15 of “panic and defeatism”, the G-15 replied that it was not them who gave the order to withdraw from Assab, a clear dig at Isaias Afwerki’s disastrous leadership of the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. In any event, subsequent reports said that Saleh Osman was actually stationed in Serejaka, then Kushet. The confusion is understandable since Isaias Afwerki is constantly rotating military officers and ministers to ensure that they are not at one position long enough to establish a power base.
The latest word is that the soldiers came from the Tsorona front. A further clarification: the central command (CentCom) for the Southern Red Sea Zone (Assab) front is in Mai Edaga, near Dekemhare (in the South Zone.) And so, the report that Saleh Osman was last seen in the Dekemhare/Adi Keyh (in the South Zone) area is plausible, particularly if he wants to take a “last stand.”
Meanwhile, at the President’s office, a meeting was held to discuss how to deal with the uprising. The typical attendants of such a meeting are Abraha Kassa (“wedi Kassa”), Simon Gebredengel (the chief and deputy, respectively, of national security) Tesfaldet, Halibay, and the two Yemanes (Yemane “Charlie” Gebremeskel and Yemene “monkey” Gebremariam)–all from the President’s Office. The typical approach is ad hoc: there is never a contingency plan. The typical solution is: do we destroy them now, or do we destroy them later? That is, should we take forceful action now, or should we take forceful action later. The third option–should we listen to them? Should we bargain? Should we negotiate?–is never considered. The decision arrived at was: let’s destroy them later. For now, let’s send a mediator to buy time. It is our understanding that the mediator was General Omar Teweel. Presumably, this is because he is the military commander of the area that the rebels came from–South Zone (Zoba Debub.)
Negotiations went on for hours. Meanwhile, the government took security measure to secure government buildings including banks and the foreign ministry office. The negotiations didn’t amount to anything: how could they because General Omar Teweel is not in a position to meet the demands of the rebels.
At some point, as the large contingency of soldiers outside the Ministry of Information drew attention, some individuals and officers took the initiative just to go there. Two of them (one is “Wedi Mokye”, the other is not named for now) drew weapons and there was a brief fire fight. Both were wounded; Wedi Mokye survived, the other died from his injuries later.
Driving their Land Rover, the leaders of the uprising made an exit or were given safe passage. It is not clear how they left, but it wouldn’t be hard given the location of the MoI. The soldiers, who had been at the Ministry from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm, now leaderless, were taken under the custody of government soldiers. All Ministry of Information employees were released and sent home.
January 22 – January 23
The waves of arrest began.
On Tuesday morning, the regime arrested Abdella Jaber and Amanuel “Hanjema” Haile. Abdella Jaber is the Director of Organizational Affairs for the ruling party, the PFDJ, and a member of its Executive Committee. (The party hasn’t had an organizational congress since 1994 and the youth franchise of the party, Y-PFDJ, actually reports not to him but to Yemane “monkey” Gebreab, who is the Director of Political Affairs of PFDJ and a “presidential advisor.”) Amanuel “Hanjema” Haile was the political commissar in Division 96 in the “Southern Red Sea” Front, when it was under the command of Samuel “China” Haile. He, too, had been “frozen” lately.
On Wednesday, at noon, dozens of soldiers and plainclothes security officers surrounded the residence of Mustafa Nurhussein, arrested him, and he was taken to an undisclosed position. Mustafa Nurhussein is the regional administrator (governor) of the South Zone. South Zone is sometimes known by the local word for South: Debub. (Historically, and until the redistricting and renaming of 1996 this area, was known by its two component parts: Akeleguzay and Seraye.) Mustafa Nurhussein is often seen hosting Isaias Afwerki when he is making “inspection tours” of the South Zone and was, until recently, reputed to have close friendship with the president. On January 18, Mustafa Nurhussein had attended a “regional administrators” meeting chaired by President Isaias Afwerki.
Also on Wednesday, Eritrea’s former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Osman Jem’ee Idris (as well other government representatives to other embassies–whose names may be disclosed in future publication) were taken to prison or placed under house arrest.
There are rumors of other arrests–including that of a minister–but so far we have no confirmation. One name we have heard of is Lemma Hailemariam. He was once the deputy administrator of the Anseba Zone. He has been “frozen” since 1998.
The Land Rover that the leaders of the uprising were driving was found abandoned in the “South Zone” (place unspecified) and the leaders are supposed to have continued their journey on foot from there. They have not been heard of since.
January 21 Reconsidered
The arrest of Abdella Jaber and Mustafa Nurhussein may be completely unrelated to the January 21 incident. While the arrest of Mustafa Nurhussein is surprising (given his reputedly close relationship with Isaias Afwerki), the arrest of Abdella Jaber is not: he had, of late, been complaining bitterly and publicly about the poor and unjust leadership of Isaias Afwerki.
As for the rest, there seems to be some common thread. The names that have been mentioned so far–Amanuel “Hanjema” Haile, Saleh Osman, Hadish Ephrem all served in the Assab front during the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war and had (1) distinguished careers and (2) were serving in capacities far inferior to their capacities. “Wedi Ali” and “Wedi Suleiman” (both division leaders), reportedly leading the January 21 occupation of MoI, are linked to Saleh Osman. Lemma Hailemariam–a famous name to ELF veterans because he represented the EPLF when the organization, accusing the ELF of obsessing over premature trivial border issues, signed over Badme to the TPLF in the 1980s–holds one of the longest records for being “frozen.”
It is inaccurate to refer to the January 21 incident as a “mutiny” because the soldiers were not demanding that there be a change in leadership. It is also inaccurate to refer to it as coup because they were not asking for a change of government. You can’t do any of those things with 200 soldiers. It appears that the goal of the soldiers who took over Forto was to initiate a popular uprising. The goal was to publicize the grievances of the people via the only sanctioned media–state media–and to embolden them to rise up against the system and to demand changes. Given the utter frustration of the Eritrean people, it would have worked. The people are ready–as is clear by the frequency and boldness of the people’s grievances. However, their inability to have total control of the entire broadcasting system and to have representatives inside the city to monitor the broadcast and to encourage the uprising short cut the process.
The most convincing argument for this analysis is the reaction of the Eritrean government. They have, in a panic, resorted to the only playbook they have whenever faced by a real threat–they used it against “Menkae”, “Yemeen”, “G-15” and every opposition to their rule: it is always a foreign agenda, an Islamist agenda, or a sub-national agenda. The apologists of the regime have already begun the defamation process. This shows that they have no interest in doing anything other than tightening things even further, which will only increase the pressure felt, and the reaction, by the Eritrean people. This is why we said, and we continue to say, that January 21 is a prologue and not an epilogue. And one simple evidence for this is the decision by liberty activists in the Eritrean Diaspora to show their solidarity with Forto 2013. It will not stop.
inform. inspire. embolden. reconcile.