PFDJ’s Eritrea: Klashnikov Diplomacy

Eritrea, under the despotic rule of the People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ), has rushed to war and strolled to peace, and it has always accepted peace under terms much worse—after a lot of blood, toil, tears, and expenses—than the initial peace deals. The regime has had direct wars with Yemen (1995), Ethiopia (1998-2000), and Djibouti (2008) and a proxy war with Sudan (2000-2005) where it was providing the training, arms and occasionally manpower on behalf of three autonomous and/or separatists movements ( South Sudan, Darfur and Eastern Sudan) and Somalia (2006-present.) The disastrous consequences of each of these conflicts should have been a “teaching moment”, but what is clear is that the Eritrean regime and its supporters continue to treat each conflict as distinct and unrelated to the other and that, in each case, Eritrea was the victim and it was the other party that was the aggressor. Consequently, the PFDJ seems as committed as ever to its doctrine of Klashnikov Diplomacy and a life of permanent war–something that the Eritrean people can’t afford.

1. Rush To War:

Throughout the long struggle for Eritrean independence, Eritreans had developed a sense of justified bitterness towards the international community. Eritreans were angry at the world powers for colluding with Ethiopia to undo the will of the people for outright independence (and, later, semi-autonomous status) and to turn a blind eye when Ethiopia annexed Eritrea; we were aggrieved that all the world and regional powers which were set up to safeguard the interests of the people (UN, OAU, etc) turned a deaf ear to our cries. But after Eritrean independence, and particularly after Eritrea joined the United Nations affirming its status as a sovereign nation, most Eritreans were ready to forswear a life of war and concentrate on peace and national development.

Having renamed their front from Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) to People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ), the liberation warriors sounded entirely credible when they said they had given up war in favor of peace and development. After all, they had borne the brunt of the war, and why wouldn’t they? And so, when the Chairman of the PFDJ, President Isaias Afwerki, addressed the UN and OAU and spoke of their impotence, most Eritreans treated it as an articulation of a long-withheld frustration, and not as an omen of things to come. How wrong we were! More unforgivable, we already knew that the lasting ideology of Chairman Isaias Afwerki’s was sealed in his formative years when he went to China for political/military training and accepted Chairman Mao Zedong’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That should have been our clue that Isaias Afwerki and his party believed in Klashnikov Diplomacy.

(a) Sudan (1994-1995)

On October 4, 1995, after three years of on-again, off-again skirmish with Turabi’s Sudan, and only two years after Eritrea was admitted to the UN as a member state, President Isaias Afwerki told The Economist: (subscription needed: )

“We are out to see that this [Sudanese] government is not there any more. We are not trying to pressure them to talk to us, or to behave in a more constructive way. We will give weapons to anyone committed to overthrowing them.” [emphasis added]

If there were Eritreans alarmed by this development, or calling on the Eritrean regime to reverse course, they were not heard. People generally assumed that Eritrea must have a good reason for publicly calling for the overthrow of a neighboring government and pledging to “give weapons to anyone” to make this happen. Domestically, this resulted in the rounding up of 150 Eritrean “jihadists”—mostly religious school instructors—and making them disappear. An escaped prison guard (Mehari Yohannes) and an escaped Eritrean journalist (Mehari Abraham) would later on confirm to that these Eritreans, who were never tried, never given an opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law, were summarily executed in June 18, 1997 (The Executed….., March 13, 2001)

“On January (Tiri) 23, 1997, with a secret order from Abraha Kassa, the chief of the National Security Office of Eritrea, and under the direction of President Isaias Afwerki, security forces rounded up 150 Eritrean Moslem men under the guise of being collaborators with the Islamic Jihad movements. They were picked from their homes and workplaces. News coming from Asmara has confirmed that, six months after they were taken in custody, with the knowledge of both [Abraha Kassa and Isaias Afwerki] they were executed on 18 June (Sene) 1997 from 8:20 PM to 2 AM the next day…”

When the deputy of the aforementioned Abraha Kassa, Naizghi Kiflu, was in the United Kingdom undergoing medical treatment, there was Elsa Chyrum, a brave Eritrean human rights activist, who was trying to get him tried for his crimes against humanity. The British authorities were receptive, but they wanted first-hand testimonies and accounts from witnesses or individuals with credible information. The Eritrean people, who have been cowed to submission by the brutality of the PFDJ, would not come forward fearing retribution to their family members and he was allowed to return to Eritrea.

(b) Yemen (1995)

With the guns from its confrontation with Sudan still smoking, the Eritrean regime started, in 1995, another “border conflict” with Yemen over the Hanish Islands. At the time, the Eritrean people were told (and they had no reason to doubt this) that this was a case of the Eritrean government trying to assert itself and discourage Yemen from encroaching into remote Eritrean territories. Since Yemen had already gotten some notoriety by engaging in a pointless “border war” with Saudi Arabia, and since Yemen was dominated by loud, flag-waving, jingoistic media and politicians, the claims of the Eritrean government seemed credible and its officials, at least in comparison with those in Yemen, statesmen-like. They were given a pass and, indeed, support by the Eritrean people.

In reality, what the record would show is that Yemen and Eritrea had agreed to discuss the issue of Hanish Islands (Kabeer and Seqir): both nations had already agreed, with a French diplomat mediating, to an Agreement on Principles in May 1995. In the Agreement, both nations pledged to seek arbitration, “to refrain from using force and to abide by the verdict of the arbitration tribunal.” In August 1995, Eritrea invaded Hanish Seqir: it withdrew under the threat of UNSC action. Talks were scheduled for February 1996. Meanwhile, Yemen decided to build a resort at Hanish Kabir and to deploy 200 troops; Eritrea gave Yemen a one-month ultimatum to withdraw its troops, and when Yemen didn’t, Eritrea launched its offensive in November 1995.

Two wars, three months apart, AFTER you have signed an agreement to refrain from using force, AFTER the UNSC compelled you to withdraw? This is a clear case, if any was needed, that the PFDJ held firmly to the view that talks are fruitless, it is only Klashnikov Diplomacy that brings results.

Again, if there were Eritreans that saw warning signs in the disturbing pattern that was emerging, they were hard to find. If they spoke at all, they were drowned out by Eritreans who expressed a great deal of goodwill to their “sons and daughters, brothers and sisters” who made up the Eritrean government and we just KNEW that they would never go to war unless their hands were forced. Again, we were wrong.

(c ) Ethiopia (1998-2000)

At the time the Eritrean government was feuding with Sudan and Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia had a mutual defense agreement. In fact, some of the war machinery that was/to be used in Eritrea’s war with Yemen came courtesy of Ethiopia. Given the long and complicated history between Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, this war was an intensely emotional moment—which is to say, it was even harder to decipher the truth. What was clear is that during the first weeks of the conflict (May 1998), there was a lot of similarity between the Eritrea-Yemen and Eritrea-Ethiopia wars. The Eritrean regime, which has perfected stonewalling and stalling into a science, appeared stoic, measured and statesmen-like, whereas the Ethiopian government and its media appeared emotional, hyperbolic and unhinged.

The Ethiopian government also had an unfortunate tendency to use the language and tone that pressed the recoil button of most Eritreans who had listened to years of the bullying language of its predecessors. And any Eritrean who had already seen a disturbing pattern in the behavior of the Eritrean regime, or was able to seek facts unburdened by emotion, was completely thrown off balance when the Ethiopian government committed its biggest mistake: deporting Ethiopians of Eritrean ancestry.

But, long after the war and the fog of war was settled, what became established by an independent body (Eritrea Ethiopia Claims Commission) investigating the genesis of the war was identical to was already established in the Eritrea-Yemen conflict: mediation talks, bilateral talks were interrupted by the Eritrean regime in pursuit of a premeditated war strategy. Once again, the Klashnikov Diplomacy had prevailed. The key difference was that Meles Zenawi was no Ali Abdella Saleh: his political calculation did not mandate flexibility because, unlike in Yemen, the conflict zone was densely populated. Thus, whereas the Hanish Crisis was shortlived, the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict dragged on for two years.

(d) Djibouti (2008)

Of all the pointless wars that the Eritrean regime has engaged in, the short war with Djibouti has to be one of the most absurd. Assuming this is a border conflict, it is not the first: “border confusion” had arisen between the two nations in 1996, and it was quickly put to rest with the intervention of France. There is a great deal of documentation put forth by Djibouti to the UN of efforts that were underway to resolve their conflict before it deteriorated into a shooting war (Refer to UN Document S/2008/294) and none (of course) by the Eritrean government, and one can’t say with certainty what triggered the war.

But, given the history of the Eritrean regime, what is likely to emerge is that it pursued bilateral talks (if at all) half-heartedly and, when it was ready to pounce, it did.

In all these wars, and perhaps some we don’t know, what emerges is a disturbing pattern to resort, quickly, to arms. The Eritrean government seems to believe that talks do not deliver results, only “action” does. This is why it is dismissive of all deliberative bodies: UN, AU, parliaments, assemblies, it hates them all. The Isaias Afwerki “cabinet”—a farce–is modeled after the ones run by all strongmen, whether it is Mao or Saddam: the strongman talks, the enforcer listens and takes notes. Debates and votes are considered chaotic. When it comes to maintaining political supremacy, PFDJ believes that political power comes only from the barrel of a gun. This is not just a foreign policy; it is also domestic policy: treat your fellow citizens the same way: let them never doubt who is boss, and it is not them. This mindset is unlikely to change and, as long as PFDJ is in power, the Eritrean people can expect endless wars. The only thing that may change is the terrain of the war, but war is as needed by the PFDJ as air is by human beings.

2. Stalled Peace, Diminished Return

The PFDJ’s rush to war is always coupled with a very slow pace to peace. Since it considers diplomacy and engaging in discussions and negotiations a waste of time, it has never developed a diplomatic corps that comes close to matching the skill set of its military commanders. The PFDJ is a closed organization—with a “no need to apply” sign firmly placed to those outside its club—and is incapable of attracting, developing or retaining high caliber diplomats. When it is in need of them, it outsources the service—just like it outsources recruitment of teachers, professors and professionals. The regime will spare no amount to hire high-powered American and European lobbyists and lawyers, but it is entirely incapable of growing them organically. It is culturally incapable of doing so, and it doesn’t want to create a power base that could potentially dwarf or compete against its military machine. Like a paraplegic with strong upper muscles and atrophied lower body muscles, the PFDJ has strong war machine and a weak diplomatic corps.

Therefore, it is always incapable of practicing the art of peace. And when it finally gets peace, it is always imposed,  it is always after a long time, after Eritrea pays a lot for it, and it is never lasting peace.

After threatening to overthrow the government of Sudan in 1995 and waging a proxy war for 10 years, the Eritrean regime turned around and made peace with the Bashir government in 2006. The Khartoum-Eastern Front peace agreement that was signed in October 2006 is supposed to provide the Eastern Sudan states of Kassala, Gedarif and Red Sea regions power and wealth sharing but in reality, it was an agreement reached to give a time out for Bashir and Isaias to focus on other areas of mischief/trouble spots while they put the issue of Eastern Sudan on hold. Isaias Afwerki, who denies his own people the right to self-rule, cannot be a credible advocate for power decentralization and Bashir knows it.

The Yemen Hanish Crisis was resolved via international arbitration. Eritrea did not get anything it couldn’t have gotten without losing the lives of 15 Eritreans who were unnecessarily sent to an early grave. And as the “Sana’a Axis” and the constant headlines of Yemeni fishermen arrested by the Eritrean regime show, its peace treaty with Yemen is likely to unravel any time.

The terms of the 2000 Algiers Agreement, following the Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict of 1998-2000, were no better than the US-Rwanda agreement which had been offered to Eritrea in June 1998. The only difference was that 20,000 Eritreans lost their lives; Eritrean lands were mined and devastated; tens of thousands of Eritreans were internally displaced; and a massive economic and psychological damage was inflicted on the nation–a damage that will take generations to heal.

And now, with Djibouti. The Eritrean government has accepted the exact same terms it rejected when it was presented by the UN Security Council a year earlier: recognize its conflict with Djibouti, withdraw from disputed territories, agree to a binding arbitration. Many of the supporters of the Eritrean regime may see the regime’s use of Qatar mediation as a creative approach: one which meets the terms of the UN without accepting UN-imposed enforcers. But they seem to have misread a key clause in the Qatar mediated agreement (Refer to the PDF original Eritrea Djibouti Mediation Agreement published in its entirety here):

“Having considered the request by His Excellency the President of the Republic of Djibouti that His Highness the Emir of the State of Qatar intervene to resolve the dispute between the Republic of Djibouti and the State of Eritrea….”[emphasis added]

The problem between Eritrea and Djibouti would STILL have been unresolved, and the supporters of the regime would still have claimed there is no problem, had it not been for the initiative taken by Djibouti and Djibouti’s knowledge that Isaias Afwerki, despite all his pretensions to independence, is always reliant on two benefactors: the Emir of Qatar, and the dictator of Libya. After spurning every offer by the UN, the AU, the League of Arab States, the Islamic Conference, Yemen, it all came down to Djibouti making a call to the sponsors (and plane provider) of Isaias Afwerki. This is how a nation is reduced to one man.


Several years ago, shared with its readers a database that documents the Eritrean regime’s best kept secret: the names of young Eritreans killed in action. At the time, we only shared part of the database, since there was a real probability of renewed conflict with Ethiopia and we did not want to disclose information that could be a genuine national security threat (as opposed to PFDJ security threat.) When the time is right, we will disclose the contents of the entire database and the people will learn that there hasn’t been a single year since 1991 when an Eritrean youth was not “martyred”–a word now rendered meaningless by the PFDJ because it is used even when an Eritrean youth is executed by the PFDJ, or an old man dies in his sleep at his bed.

What is clear is that the Eritrean regime has yet to meet a war it doesn’t like. It is ready to jump to any conflict–South Sudan, Congo, Darfur, Somalia–if it can make a buck of it. It treats young Eritreans as unpaid mercenary troops who can be sent anywhere, anytime for any reason. And there is no end in sight.

After forty years of uninterrupted war, the Eritrean people deserve better. They need a government that goes to war almost never, and only with their consent and pursues peace as doggedly as the PFDJ has pursued war. The Eritrean family unit, which has been disrupted by PFDJ’s war machine, needs to be made whole. The Eritrean land, which has been parceled into prisons, boot camps, cadre schools, and mineral mines, needs to be returned to its rightful owners. The Eritrean people, who have been made strangers to one another by the fear-mongering politicians, need to sit and talk and chart out their future. The war of independence was to enable Eritreans to do this without foreign intervention. The new struggle is to do it without the heavy handed political organizations, the PFDJ and those that will come after it. None of this can happen with a people terrified: to embolden Eritreans at home, Eritreans in Diaspora should be braver, more determined, and more committed to change.

We think that, after almost a decade of false starts,Eritreans in exile opposed to the regime have put together the framework for a reconciled Eritrean polity. The recently formed Eritrean National Congress for Democratic Change (ENCDC)–a result of the Addis Abeba Conference– is the first Eritrean civil society-driven instrument for change. In the Eritrean political arena, there have been mass-organizations and “branches” who are essentially wholly-owned subsidiaries of the parent political organzations. There have been small, independent civil society groups, but they have been limited by geography and goals. ENCDC is the first global Eritrean civil-society dominated organization trying to steer Eritrean politics towards participatory democracy. It is an organization that combines the strengths of civil society and political organizations. It is the only organization that reflects, relatively speaking, the gender, ethnic, religious, and IDEOLOGICAL diversity of Eritrea. It is the only organization whose leadership was directly elected by a conference which reflects the real Eritrea, without the stewardship of paternalistic organizations who want to “guide” and midwife our democracy and, like an irrigation system, give us what we need,  drip drip, when we need it–at a time of their choosing. It is the only organization that can be judged not just by its stated programs and goals but also by its membership. It is all-inclusive not just demographically but also ideologically.

Not surprisingly, there have been individuals and organizations who did not want the ENCDC to be born because they were denied the job of being its midwife. And once born, they have been waging a shrill campaign to say it is still-born. We urge you to give,  to participate in it, to provide it moral support, to assist it as it embarks in a journey that, if successful, will result in power not just snatched from the PFDJ, but handed to its rightful owners: the people.


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