Recognizing The Games Dictators Play

Have you ever wondered why dictators loom so large in all our history books and why they are so often mythologized and eulogized despite the horrors they unleash? Fear of punishment may explain the submissiveness but what explains the fascination many people have or have had with dictators past and present? More close to home: how did a militia-turned-president manage to maintain his nightmarish hold on our people for so long despite his colossal and repeated failures?? Why has it taken decades for many to see through the charade and why do some continue to kowtow to his every whim?

As we commemorate our 24th Independence Day, sadly Eritreans are still agonizing under the dictatorship with no letup to their suffering and with no end in sight. To make matters worse, many Eritreans remain clueless of the nature of despotism we suffer under. To some, it is something that suddenly descended upon us out of nowhere in the 2000s while to others, it is an unfortunate condition from which a good government could be whipped up quickly with a few strokes here and there. Both these misconceptions arise in turn from another bigger illusion namely, the belief that pre-independence EPLF was totally different from post-independence PFDJ/GOE and that removing Isaias will somehow cleanse the organization of all its flaws!

What such people fail to realize is that there has never been an independent Eritrea free from dictatorship ever and that as we count the number of years since independence, we are also counting the years under a dictatorship. Yes. To our misfortune, Eritrea’s independence arrived tightly wrapped in a military dictatorship from the get-go. EPLF did not just spearhead us into independence but brought with it a culture deeply steeped in authoritarianism.

This should not surprise us however because an organization almost always reflects its leader and the more authoritarian the leader, the more closely it reflects him. How can EPLF then – the brain-child of such a narcissistic and authoritarian leader – be anything but an abnormal institution? PFDJ/GOE – dear compatriots – is nothing but EPLF in Government attire and I sincerely believe that if our country is to have a prosperous and peaceful future, not only must Eritreans dismantle the GOE /PFDJ regime but must also bury with it all traces of EPLF’s rigid and militaristic culture.

Going back to the questions we started with, how do dictators like Isaias manage to repeatedly dupe multitudes and maintain their power for such a long period of time? Among the many explanations that can be given, the following stand out as the most effective and the most often practiced.


All long lasting dictators have this trait in common. They always begin their career by establishing their reputation and espousing legitimate causes. In addition to espousing legitimate causes, they also dazzle others with their confidence, charisma, passion, and great enthusiasm for a cause and it is such positive qualities that initially draws people to them.

In his earlier career, even Hitler was an exemplary soldier who sought to unite Germany and to reverse the humiliation caused by the treaty of Versailles. A German colonel once wrote about him that he “set a shining example to those around him. His pluck and his exemplary bearing throughout each battle exerted a powerful influence on his comrades and this, combined with his admirable unpretentiousness, earned him the respect of superiors and equals alike.”

Isaias earned his legitimacy by joining the struggle for Eritrea’s independence in the 60’s where he quickly gained stature. This gave him a base of support and helped establish him as a selfless patriot. But Isaias, who had bigger ambitions, came to perceive the Arabized culture of Jebha as an obstacle to his long-range goals which finally drove him to break away.

As a side note here, we should remember that Arab culture was nothing new to the founders of ELF most of whom already spoke Arabic and practiced a culture which was in many ways similar to the Arab customs across the border. Moreover, Arab neighbors were their chief patrons at that time. So of course, they were not going to change their ways to accommodate him. Nonetheless, Isaias, who came from Tigray-Tigrigna cultural background, found this “alien” culture totally repugnant and deeply offensive to his messianic sensibilities. So, unlike others who sought or hoped for a gradual cultural balance within Jebha, he opted to separate himself and EPLF was born. This provided him with two rewards: first, he became the supreme undisputed leader albeit over a smaller and totally homogenous segment. Second, it enabled him to propagate his religio-cultural philosophy of de-Arabizing and de-Islamizing Jebha (and subsequently Eritrea).

To his dismay, things did not run smoothly for him even among his carefully selected followers. The most serious threat came (in the ever-paranoid eyes of Isaias) from the Menkae movement. Quick as a wink, he dealt with them as he would all future threats to his rule: by nipping it in the bud which bring us to the 2nd reason for his success is his… 


Throughout his years as the leader of EPLF, Isaias demonstrated on numerous occasions his readiness to use deadly force to eliminate all opposition. We just alluded to Menkae movement but as we all know, ruthless purge of opponents continued to be his modus operandi long after independence. All protests that arose after independence such as the one staged by disabled veterans at Mai Habar and the mild protest by the G-15 were all similarly dealt with. To this day, weeding out opponents and smothering all protests before they gain momentum continues to be his trademark and is one of the secrets to his longevity.

But as effective as ruthless suppression of opponents can be, it sometimes generates sympathy for the victims and may eventually trigger a revolt. Isaias knew this and to tighten his grip on his people, he resorted to another powerful weapon, namely…


EPLF/PFDJ used propaganda for two goals. 1)To glorify and canonize itself (EPLF/PFDJ/GOE) as the only genuine nationalist movement and 2) to demonize all others as working against national interest and unity.  Early on, Isaias realized that if he was to compete with the larger ELF, he needed to totally and thoroughly demonize it as an organization solely bent on wiping out Christians and on supplanting Christian/Tigrigna culture with Arab/Muslim culture. This he did with his polemic masterpiece Nhnan Elamanan. In subsequent years, he did it by constantly painting all opponents as Jihadists or sell-outs.

In sharp contrast to demonization of all others, shaebia itself is constantly and ceaselessly hailed as the ultimate miracle worker unbeatable in the battlefield and in all aspects of life while Isaias is always depicted as a hero, a genius who can do no wrong.  Similarly, those who support shaebia are always portrayed as true patriots and those who do not are ostracized as enemies of national unity. Since the media is totally in its hands and the accused have no way of defending against such charges, they are easily discredited not only by active supporters of the Government but also in the eyes of some innocent nationalists who through the power of propaganda have come to believe in the official propaganda.

Looking back, we can say that Shaebia’s propaganda at the gutter level was horrifying effective in both respects (i.e. in aggrandizing itself and in demonizing its enemies) and also in terms of its depth and reach. Nothing speaks more loudly as to its eerie effectiveness than the fact that it took a devastating war and an entire decade for any of his core followers to even whisper a mild protest! Its power can also be gauged by the fact that even today – this late in our nation’s life -and despite its glaring and colossal failures at multiple levels, Shaebia continues to retain significant followers.  Even those who no longer support it fully seem to suffer from residual effects as is evident by the presence of many who still dream of reform and some who would even make a u-turn.  I believe many of the ills the opposition suffers from such as mutual distrust and fragmentation and the desire to de-link EPLF from PFDJ/GOE are directly traceable to shaebia’s powerful propaganda.


The above bag of tricks in a nutshell is just a tiny sample of how dictators manage to enslave us for years.   If you are one of those who still innocently believe in reforming the dictatorship, it is time to calmly accept the fact that you may have been hoodwinked by a clever charlatan and his cronies. Think about it:  Why would a dictator and his repressive paraphernalia suddenly acquiesce to people’s wishes when they have never done so for decades?  Why would Nsu and his entourage, guilty of many untold crimes against humanity, risk being held accountable?   Besides, wasn’t the brutal repression of G15’s mild protest disastrous enough to convince you of the futility of such endeavor?  I hope sharing the above at least made you think. Happy Independence Day!

Related reading
Eritrean conditions: Reflections On Independence Day (May 23, 2013)


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