The Uprising In Eritrea: A Prologue, Not An Epilogue

A day after young soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information and held in captivity the employees of the ministry, resulting in the state television, Eri-TV, to go off-air, Eritreans have more questions than answers. Who were the soldiers? Did they really hold the Ministry of Information employees captive? Who was responsible for the state television to go off-air? Was this an uprising? A mutinee? An attempt at a coup d’etat? Were did the soldiers go? How many of them were there? If they were, as reported, about 100 of them, how is it possible for 100 individuals to organize and plan an event in a country where a special permit is required to assemble more than seven people? How is it that soldiers who engineer a takeover of a government institution are allowed to “return to their base”? What did they accomplish anyway?

Whenever we Eritreans have questions we cannot answer, some immediately blame it on President Isaias Afwerki. Thanks to decades of aggressive marketing, the man has claimed for himself (one which we as a people co-operated in bestowing) superhuman characteristics. Thus, it was not surprising that, within minutes of the news surfacing, some Eritreans were saying that this was all his handiwork. Those who make that assertion do not answer the follow-up question: towards what end? Apparently, to enable him to know who is loyal and who is not. To draw attention to himself? To create a crisis, to “solve it”, and then to enhance his image for problem-solving and invincibility?

While nothing can be ruled out with unstable totalitarian rulers, it would be quite a stretch to argue that the events of January 21 enhance his image in any way. Topping the list of what dictators sell is “peace and stability” and it could not have helped him in any way for the world media to state that there was an attempted coup in another African state. For a man who has cultivated the image that he is the least African of African heads of states, this could not, in any way, be spun as a positive development. For a man who is pushing for investment in Eritrea, providing instability would not reassure investors. At last count, there were over 300 news articles from virtually every media outlet in the world covering the news, all of them highlighting the fact that Eritrea is a police state, that Isaias Afwerki is a dictator ruling without a constitution, while concluding that the uprising is likely only the beginning of what it is to follow. Hardly something a dictator, no matter how irrational, would like to draw attention to.

So what exactly happened?

The Hammer, The Anvil—But No Cavalry

On January 21st, at about 10:00 am, employees at Eritrea’s Ministry of Information were surprised to see young, armed soldiers in their midst. According to estimates we have heard from employees of the MoI, the young soldiers numbered around 100. Crowd estimates are always difficult so the number provided must be seen within that context. The soldiers made no attempt at “crowd control” because the employees of the MoI, most of whom are, statistically, most likely former soldiers or at least people with military training, did not scream or panic. The soldiers did not confiscate property—like cellphones—and they gave no orders at all in terms of what the “hostages” could and could not do. The hostages were not, as some reported, rounded up to one room: they were actually free to stay in their offices and resume their work. Consequently, the employees of the Ministry of Information were free to call or email their family and friends and describe exactly what was going on.

The MoI employees had conversations with the young soldiers. They described them as young people frustrated with life in Eritrea and how the senior officers were doing nothing to bring about change. Several of the MoI employees we talked to said that the soldiers were not from Asmara and that some had described their unit as one reporting to Saleh Osman. (Saleh Osman, who made a name for himself in 2000 at the Assab front for foiling an Ethiopian offensive by disobeying the directive of his commanders had, back in 2000, been interviewed by the state radio, Voice of the Masses, where had also criticized the lack of preparedness and seriousness by some of his peers.) Since Saleh Osman is closely associated with Assab, some in the MoI assumed that the soldiers were from Assab—but subsequent reports indicate that he is stationed in Serejaka. (Martin Plout says that their base is actually in Kushet, in the suburbs of Asmara, by the airport.)

The young soldiers—let’s call them rebels for the sake of brevity—then ordered Asmelash, who was recently promoted to the position of Director General of Eri-TV– to read their demand for constitutionalism and freeing of political prisoners. The feed was interrupted and the station blacked out. So, the first question is: how did this happen? According to our sources, there is no way to stop the transmission remotely or externally: the broadcast, via two satellites, is controlled from within. So, either the “hostages” turned the power off, or the rebels did—from within the Ministry. If the “hostages” turned the power off, then it would have been fairly easy for the rebels to notice—there are TV stations throughout the MoI—and turn it back on. If it is the rebels that turned off the TV, it defies the first rule of rebels: stay on the air and broadcast your message, whatever it is. The only other possibility is that to the young rebels, Eri-TV is synonymous to the ever-present Big Brother announcements from George Orwell’s “1984.” Perhaps they wanted to bring a brief relief from the non-stop propaganda of Isaias Afwerki?

Some of the MoI employees who spoke to the rebels say that their demands were more comprehensive than the minimalist call for implementation of the constitution or release of the prisoners—that they wanted a transitional government, an end to the corrupt practices of senior officers, etc. But they never aired this on Eri-TV when they had total control of the station.

So, we have rebels who have control of a TV station, but they don’t have much to say. And they have “hostages” that they have no intention of using as human shield: they had already announced that they will not harm them and that they will let the women leave. Meanwhile, with information of the occupation of the Ministry of Information filtering out, government officials positioned a tank and some soldiers as a show of force outside the Ministry.

By 7:30 pm, the rebels had decided to let the women leave the building. Government guards stopped them and asked them to return back to the building until they can ensure that the rebels had left and the government soldiers had secured the building.

From 7:30 pm to 10:00 pm, there were “negotiations” between the rebels and the government soldiers. To the best of our knowledge, this did not involve special commando units, or SWAT teams, or special hostage negotiators. It was essentially a group of Eritrean soldiers from one unit, speaking to another group of soldiers from another unit—a low-key discussion, with one side giving its demands, and the other reassuring that they would provide a safe passage.

By then, Eri-TV services had been restored and the government program was a surreal lifestyle feature about the importance of knowing what you want and how to get it.

By 10:00 pm, the rebels were given “safe passage” and they mounted their vehicles and left. It is possible that, by then, the soldiers had indicated that they were there because their squad leader ordered them to do so; it is possible that the followers were separated from their leaders. Where they were headed to—or even if they made their destination—is unknown although Martin Plout, an Africa specialist for the BBC, says that they returned back to their base in Kushet, a suburb of Asmara—not too far from the airport. All employees of the Ministry, male or female, who wanted to leave had left the building.

On Tuesday, the day after, it was like Monday did not happen. Eritrean Television was back to its regular programming—which, of late, has been light on politics and heavy on lifestyle and entertainment. Government officials which had conceded that there was something abnormal on Monday—Eritrea’s representative to the UN, Araya Desta, told Al Jazeera that “the problem will be solved”—had gone back to their classic categorical denial of everything—Eritrea’s ambassador to South Africa, Saleh Omer, denying that anything had happened in Eritrea.

Some Eritreans find the whole idea of the Isaias regime allowing the rebels to have a safe passage and return back to their base absurd. But this assumes that there is a clear hierarchy of power where it is clear to everybody who is in charge of security at the Ministry of Information. This also assumes that the Isaias Way is to directly confront—arrest, try, sentence—when his preferred methodology is the indirect way: assure everybody that he is sympathetic and understands and then, when they least suspect it, to round them up and make them disappear.

So, this begs the question: why? Why would Eritreans, after the experience of 1994, after the experience of 2001, rise up when the outcome is clearly known? But isn’t the question we have been asking for long: when do the Eritrean people, particularly the armed forces, say “enough is enough!”? It appears that on Monday, January 21, 2013 a few soldiers did. And the goal of these incidents is not always to overthrow a government; it can be a case of publicizing an event to the world. There is precedence to this in the Eritrean struggle for independence: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Eritreans hijacked, or attempted to hijack, Ethiopian Airlines at least three times for the sole purpose of publicizing the cause of Eritrea. It can also be a case where people find no other alternative to an inescapable trap: in 2004, Eritreans who were being deported from Libya to Eritrea, hijacked the plane and forced it to land in Sudan. Or, it could be a case of a well-organized campaign that was aborted by the Eritrean regime. We do not know yet. What we do know is that the claim that Eritreans will never rise up against Isaias Afwerki, and the claim that we need external powers to initiate the campaign to rid Eritrea of Isaias Afwerki have both been proven wrong.
inform. Embolden. Inspire. Reconcile.


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