Eritrea’s divisions – funded and fuelled by President Isaias Afwerki

The Tigray war

The war – now two years old – is raging, even as the first official peace talks are under way in South Africa. If the rumours are true, the conflict is now being directed by and staged increasingly from Eritrea. Ethiopian divisions have been flown into Eritrea and are fighting alongside Eritrean forces in a wave of attacks on several fronts. The Tigrayans have fought and fallen back, drawing their enemies deeper into their territory before using a sophisticated combination of conventional and guerrilla warfare to wear these forces down.

The death toll is appalling. There are confirmed reports of the scouring of the Eritrean cities and countryside for troops. Men as old as 70 have been called up. Children are forced out of hiding as their families are thrown out of their homes if they do not reveal themselves. Many have little training, but are being thrown into the war. Hospitals in Eritrea are said to be overflowing and yet the wounded still keep streaming into them.

Foreign observers wonder why the Eritreans, who fought so bravely for their independence over 30 years, have not revolted. The answer is that they have been cowed by the systematic repression they have faced down the years. The system of spies and informers are buried deep into their society, even dividing families. There are so few anyone can really trust.

There have been attempts at rebellion: the most well-known being the army revolt in 2013 that saw a column of tanks advance to the outskirts of Asmara – the “Forto rebellion”.

Tank during Forto rebellion

But Eritrea is not the only country with a dictator whose army never turned against him. One needs look no further than the German army which – apart from one assassination attempt – served Hitler loyally even as the Soviet tanks rolled into Berlin.

What’s special about Isaias?

Africa has many dictators, but Isaias Afwerki really stands out. One anecdote explains why.

It was told by Haile “Dure” Wold’ensae during his interview with Dan Connell on 13 March 2000. Then Haile was Minister of Foreign Affairs, but he became critical of Isaias during the 1998-2000 border war and came out openly with these criticisms as a member of the G-15, only to be arrested in September 2001. He has remained in jail ever since – a prisoner of conscience.

Haile and Isaias had made contact with the Eritrean Liberation Front prior to going to Addis university. But in September 1966 Isaias left Addis and joined the ELF in Kassala in Sudan. In December that year Haile joined him. This is where the story, as told by Haile to Dan Connell, gets interesting.

When Haile reached Kassala he knocked on a door, to be admitted by Isaias. But instead of welcoming his old comrade, Isaias immediately instructed Haile to say nothing – just register himself with the ELF that they were joining.

“I was shocked, I tell you,” Haile explained. “What has happened to the guy? Why is he so afraid.” Isaias told him: “This thing is completely opposed to what we were thinking, and we cannot talk about it here.”

Isaias set about establishing a tiny, secret organisation consisting at first of just three people, to begin clandestinely building the kind of movement that he – and Haile – envisaged. Plotting against any and every alternative to his own power base was integral to Isaias’s character from the very beginning.

Constructing the dictatorship

It was from this tiny seed that current Eritrean dictatorship would be built. But it was a long and winding road.

In 1967 Isaias would be sent for training in China during the Maoist dictatorship. He learned military tactics, but also came to understand how a Marxist-Leninist party functioned. On his return to Sudan and then Eritrea his plotting would continue.

First, he broke with the ELF, then founded what became the EPLF. But the real power lay in the secret Marxist-Leninist Party at the EPLF’s core: the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party (often referred to as the “People’s Party”) which Isaias led from its foundation on 4 April 1971.

It was by controlling this tight-knit Leninist organisation that Isaias took Eritrea to liberation from Ethiopian rule in 1991. Although the EPLF became the PFDJ in February 1994, little changed.

After the catastrophic border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000) Isaias fell out with some of his closest associates (including Haile) who came out in open criticism of his authoritarian rule. In 2001 they – along with student leaders and a range of journalists – were rounded up and jailed indefinitely. The dictatorship was complete.

Plotting beyond Eritrea

Isaias schemed his way to power. He then continued his plotting beyond the borders of an independent Eritrea. He has never produced a clear blueprint of what he sees for the future of his country, or the wider region. Eritreans are told by the president that they have failed to produce an effective economy, as if this is not his responsibility, despite Isaias’s complete dominance of the country since independence three decades ago.

At home Isaias enforced a system of repression, spying and conscription to indefinite “National Service” that has broken almost all resistance. Abroad he has constructed a parallel system of informers and bullies who extract taxes (the 2% tax among them) and loyalty from the worldwide diaspora. Anyone who stands up to this faces intimidation, threats and cannot expect any help from the Eritrean government with papers, visas or permissions.

Opposition movements abroad – already divided by the catastrophic “civil wars” between the ELF and EPLF prior to independence – have been infiltrated. Agents loyal to the president have been paid and funded to control or undermine and destroy opposition Eritrean organisations in the diaspora. Only total loyalty to Isaias is acceptable.

Minor differences are exaggerated, disputes amplified and divisions turned into issues principle. In so doing Isaias played upon the secretive and fractious nature of so many societies across the Horn of Africa. Traditional chauvinism has deprived the opposition of many far-sighted, intelligent women who might have overcome these hurdles.  As a result, the opposition in the diaspora has failed to bring together a people broken and intimidated by the dictatorship, to build a powerful resistance movement.

Will the Tigray war see these divisions overcome? Perhaps. Wars have a habit of being turning-points in history. Predicting how this will end is impossible, but one thing is sure: all dictatorships finally come to an end. As Dr Martin Luther King rightly observed: “the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”

Note: See Dan Connell, Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners, Red Sea Press, 2005, for the complete interview with Haile


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