After at least a week in which there has been a blizzard of speculation on social media, and next to nothing firm from the Eritrean government, it’s time to try to put together a picture of what appears to be taking place. This is a ‘best guess’ – arrived at after having spoken to several sources. If you want certainty, please read no further.
For a start, it’s clear that life is far from normal. Asmara is under a complete lock-down and not just because of Covid 19. There are numerous reports of security forces on the streets, which are all but deserted.
Permission is required even to go to buy necessities. Even people inside the country don’t know what’s going on.
Patients have been moved from hospital to hospital: without reasons being given. Again, there is a suspicion that this is not just because of the virus.
There has been endless speculation about the health of President Isaias Afwerki, with reports that he is in Saudi Arabia for treatment, that he has had a stroke and even that he is dead. There is simply no clarity.
What we do know is that the British pulled all their embassy staff out of the country and told their citizens to leave. Again, this could be because of Covid 19 and the closure of Asmara airport for two weeks (which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office mentioned) or it could be for other reasons.
Residents of Asmara speak of two aircraft landing nightly. Members of the diaspora have been tracking this from their radar signals, which are turned off as they approach Eritrean airspace. There is speculation about what these are bringing, with rumours of everything from Sudanese mercenaries to shipments of arms from Saudi Arabia or the UAE. But for what purpose?
Who holds power?
Some suggest that a handover of power is already under way, with speculation that considerable power is now in the hands of Colonel Simon Ghebredenghil, of the National Security Agency, whose role was highlighted in 2007 when an attempt was made on his life. The leaked US cable provided a rare glimpse into the workings of the regime [see below]
Others say that the situation is changing, with different members of the security forces and military wielding power. There are suggestions that Gaim Tesfankiel – head of foreign intelligence – is the key figure. He reports to Abraha Kasa, as head of intelligence, but since Abraha is in poor health, Gaim is said to be pulling the strings.
Members of the Eritrean diaspora are quick to remind observers that the Eritrean regime has deployed rumours to throw their opponents off the scent for many years. Is this what is taking place now?
Few can be certain and in the absence of hard facts, speculation is rife.
26.10.2007: ASMARA ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT: MORE DETAILS EMERGE
SE C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 ASMARA 000850
LONDON, PARIS FOR AFRICA WATCHERS
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/25/2017 TAGS: PGOV, ASEC, ER
SUBJECT: ASMARA ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT: MORE DETAILS EMERGE
REF: A. A) 00821 ASMARA
B. B) 00838 ASMARA
- B) 00838 ASMARA
Classified By: CDA Jennifer A. McIntyre, for reasons 1.4 (b)
- (S) Summary: As the investigation into the shooting of National Security Agency Deputy Colonel Simon Ghebredenghil continues, an Eritrean businessman believed to be involved in the assassination attempt was shot and killed by Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) officials near the Ethiopian border. The GSE allegedly has arrested over 500 individuals in connection with the shooting, which may include the arrest of General Gerezgheri “Wuchu” Andemariam on October 24. The emerging details surrounding the assassination attempt are shining a bright light on the extent of corruption within the senior ranks of the military and showing the cracks in the outwardly unified face of the President Isaias’ government. Post will continue to monitor fallout from this incident and its possible implications for the GSE’s inner circle and military preparedness in the face of possible conflict on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border. End Summary.
IMPLICATED BUSINESSMAN SAMSON KILLED BY THE GSE
- (S/NF) Following the October 13 assassination attempt on Colonel Simon Ghebrendenghil, wealthy Eritrean businessman Samson (LNU), who had been implicated in the attempt, fled Asmara. Accompanied by the personal driver of General Gerezgheri “Wuchu” Andemariam and a military guard under General Wuchu’s command, Samson traveled overland in a military Landcruiser stocked with a cache of arms. The group took refuge in an Eritrean Orthodox Church monastery near Adi Quala (to which Samson previously had made donations) waiting for the right time to flee across the Ethiopian border. GSE officials tracked Samson to the monastery. A firefight ensued and Samson was killed. The driver and guard were taken into custody and returned to Asmara. In a separate conversation with Emboff, GSE Attorney General Alemseged Habeteselassie (protect) confirmed Samson’s death, the existence of the weapons cache and the presence of General Wuchu’s driver and guard at the shootout between Samson and the GSE officials.
- (S) Samson, who was also know as the “civilian general”, had a long-time business relationship with General Wuchu and others in the Eritrean military. In his late 30’s, he ran a hardware and import/export business reported to have made millions by means of government contracts arranged by high-ranking military officials, and illegal foreign currency transactions and import/export exchanges over the past ten years. A partial owner of the Midian Hotel, Samson reportedly used the hotel as a means to launder money for military and government officials.
GENERAL WUCHU ARRESTED?
- (S/NF) Rumors abound as to the status of General Wuchu. The reports have varied from claiming his departure from the country to his death. One Eritrean contact told Poloff he saw General Wuchu driving through Asmara on Monday, October The resident Reuters stringer shared with Poloff that in the late afternoon on Wednesday, October 24 one of his sources informed him of General Wuchu’s arrest. Egyptian Consular Officer Mohammed Wagih stated to Poloff on Friday, October 26 that the GSE had arrested General Wuchu earlier in the week. (Comment: Post has been unable to confirm this report. Local observers also claim that over 500 individuals have been arrested so far and anticipate that more arrests are on the horizon. These interlocutors also believe no government or military officials are immune from indictment. End Comment.)
BUSINESSMAN FIKRE’S DEATH AND HIS FUNERAL
ASMARA 00000850 002 OF 003
- (S) Reading like a John Grisham novel, more details of the circumstances leading to Fikremariam “Fikre” Andemariam’s death are coming to light. (Fikre’s death allegedly was the lead up to the assassination attempt.) According to a well-connected Eritrean, the saga began several months ago when Samson and three other businessman approached General Wuchu to contest the awarding of a tender to Fikre’s company for installation of water pipes in the city of Asmara. Despite the protests and GSE investigation, Fikre retained the contract. (Note: Fikre’s company had also received all of the supply contracts for the construction of the Sawa Military Camp in western Eritrea for the past 10 years. End Note.) Tensions arose given the fierce competition among the few Eritrean businessmen who receive government contracts) contracts that are primarily awarded to friends of high-ranking government officials (namely the military) who then skim a portion of the profits for themselves. Fikre reportedly began to fear for his life and asked for protection from his military ally, Air Force Commander and Head of Military Training, Major General Tekle Ghebreselassie. General Tekle could not provide military guards for a civilian, so he arranged for Fikre’s transport to Wi’a Military Camp under his command. (Note: Wi’a is located in the Southern Red Sea region of Eritrea. End Note.) General Wuchu learned of Fikre’s location and pressured General Tekle to return Fikre to Asmara with an agreement that General Tekle would receive weekly reports on Fikre’s condition in the jail. Fikre returned to Asmara the week of October 1, at which point, the GSE detained him in Police Station #2, with at least two of his brothers. (Note: The brothers were released after a few days. In addition, employees of Fikre’s supply company have been in detention in Police Station #2 since the middle of August. End Note.)
- (S) Fikre reportedly died in jail on October 8. The family requested an autopsy be completed prior to his burial, protesting that Fikre had been young and healthy when entering the jail only a few days earlier. An Eritrean contact told Poloff that only President Isaias, Colonel Ghebredenghil and Commander Tekle received copies of the autopsy report. Despite never having done his mandatory national service, Fikre received a hero’s burial and was laid to rest in Asmara’s Martyr’s Cemetery on October 12. The funeral became a city-wide event. One witness commented that attendance at Fikre’s funeral exceeded that of the two biggest funerals since the country’s 1993 referendum – the former Foreign Minister’s funeral in 2005 and the funeral of one of the founders of the struggle in 2000. He observed that the turnout essentially represented a silent demonstration by the people, as they are unable to protest in other ways.
THE GSE’S OFFICIAL SPIN
- (U) The Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) announced Tuesday, October 23 that “perpetrators” of the assassination attempt on Colonel Simon Ghebredenghil were in GSE custody, although the announcement did not include the names of those arrested. In an interview with Reuters, Acting Minister of Information Ali Abdu stated “the government had full control of the situation” but refused to comment on the details of the detentions. According to the Acting Minister, the investigation is ongoing.
- (U) Complementing the statements about the investigation, the GSE published an editorial about fighting corruption in the Arabic, Tigrinya and English government-controlled newspapers. Describing corruption as, “treason against our martyrs”, and a vice that “pollutes and weakens any given society”, the editorial likened fighting corruption to continuing the independence struggle and urged the people to join with the Government to fight against corruption. The editorial further insisted that “law enforcement bodies and the means for surveillance at their disposable should be strengthened and constantly updated”, thus empowering the GSE to fight corruption by any means necessary.
WHAT THE MAN ON THE STREET SAYS
- (C) Residents of Asmara state they were aware of the shenanigans of their military officers and their corrupt business activities. For example, General Filipos Woldeyohannes (formerly head of the western Gash Barka region and now head of the Asmara region) is well-known as the “go-to” general to arrange an escape to Sudan. Many Eritreans regularly gossip about the homes which have been appropriated from civilians and given to military or government officials, or about the foreign travel of the officers’ families. As the details about corruption in the military become public, Poloff has heard a common refrain that “it is about time” these activities have come under public scrutiny. Many Eritrean observers believe that this incident will begin to crack the iron grip of President Isaias and his military officials over the government and the people of Eritrea. One high-ranking government official told Emboff, “Thank goodness. Now maybe things will change for the better.”
- (C) The assassination attempt on Colonel Ghebredenghil has created a real dilemma for the GSE by publicizing the existence of deep-rooted corruption within the military — making it impossible for the GSE to hide or deny these charges. Within the higher levels of the GSE, there appear to be a split into two tiers: those who are still committed to the ideals of independence struggle and who will use any means to bankroll and continue the struggle, and those out to make as much money as possible for their own bank accounts. The question remains: can the first tier ) the President and his immediate circle – effectively battle and contain the fallout from this incident or does this incident presage the beginning of the regime’s fall from grace?
- (S/NF) Post will continue to monitor the potential impacts on the military. Multiple sources indicate that the GSE leadership anticipates an outbreak of hostilities with Ethiopia in the near future. With General Wuchu possibly in prison, speculation from many observers that General Filipos is next, and reports that numerous colonels have fled or are in prison, the military leadership is clearly shaken and the impact on morale of the military is unknown at this point. Finally, if the GSE cracks down on the illegal financial operations of the military and its privileged businessmen, the GSE may end up limiting those resources available to the military for maintaining its large number of recruits and to prepare for conflict. End Comment.