Radio Erena: 14 September 2020
President Afwerki has swiftly dealt with any oppositional challenges that have arisen during his 27 years as president. Aside from a genuine talent for political plotting and manoeuvring – helped along by his early-career visits to Maoist China – it is an ability to be unrepentantly ruthless that keeps him in power. In the early stages of formation of the EPLF, Isaias, before asserting his leadership over the growing movement, faced one major internal challenge. The faction that challenged Isaias’ authority was led by his ‘blood brother’ Mussie Tesfamikael.
As was common during the revolutionary years, it was a difference in an ideology that drove this internal debate. Mussie, holding to the left-wing Marxist ideology then prevalent among revolutionary movements in the developing world, pushed for the adoption of more radical policies. He also questioned the absence of democratic decision-making within the new organisation. Mussie and his associates met covertly, late at night, earning them the nickname: menqa, or ‘the bats’. Mussie and his supporters underestimated Isaias, who, learning of their existence, denounced them in a publication entitled: ‘The destructive movement of 1973’. Following this, Isaias gathered his supporters, established a committee to try them and rounded up the menqa. Any pretence of a fair trial was quickly demystified, and around eleven menqa members were arrested and detained. Mussie, who had been a close friend of Isaias, was executed on 11 August 1974. This small-scale dispute acted as a pilot study for Isaias’ upcoming role as president, he had made it very clear that he was willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power. This article will examine some of the ways he has been challenged during his presidency, and how he has shut those challenges down.
In the two years between de facto independence in May 1991, and formally declaring independence in May 1993, the EPLF made a number of decisions. Perhaps the most disagreeable was that its freedom fighters, who had not received pay for two years, would have to wait another four years before being compensated – regardless of what job they were given. On 20 May the fighters posted around the capital rose up. Many of them had been happy to fight with no reward in mind except the freedom of their country, but now they were living in Asmara, and the cost of living was high – they needed compensation. The fighters made quite an impression on the capital, rolling along the roads in tanks and armoured vehicles, denouncing the EPLF leadership and castigating them for abuse of power. They demanded that the president meets with them to discuss their hardship.
Isaias met with the fighters, who ordered him to walk to Asmara Stadium and address the troops, who had been transported in by bus and truck. The stadium was full to capacity with armed troops. The president listened to their demands and assured them he was sympathetic to their plight. He told them that 7 million US dollars would be allocated to their most urgent needs and that a commission of inquiry would take place to investigate the allegations of abuse of power and corruption. He also promised to call a third congress of the EPLF. By 7:00 pm that day, Isaias had heard and accepted all their demands and the troops begrudgingly agreed to return to their stations. However, once tucked away in the safety of his office, the president went on air to label the fighters as ‘misguided and infantile’. Over the next few months, around 250 troops were rounded up and imprisoned at Adi Qala, where they remained for the next two years before being sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Isaias’ treatment of the injured and disabled soldiers was similar. During the war, the EPLF had done a good job of caring for its wounded fighters, even in open combat. The primary hospital was called Orota, and its doctors were heroes, reconstructing the broken bodies of thousands of troops. Why then, in 1993, once the long war had ended, was the government so unreceptive to the formation of the Eritrean War Disabled Fighters’ Association? A rehabilitation facility was built at Mai Habar, just a few miles outside the capital. It was ready to receive 3000 veterans, however, they arrived in much greater numbers and the facility struggled to manage. Shamefully, Isaias refused all outside offers to help the facility, whether from the diaspora or international organisations.
In 1994, the Disabled Fighters’ Association requested a meeting with the president, but he refused their call. So, on 11 July that year, the veterans marched on the capital, despite being told that they did not have permission to do so. They were met by police and ordered to disperse. The disabled veterans had been hardened by war, and stayed strong against police orders, refusing to turn around and leave. Some veterans launched stones at the police, who retaliated by firing live rounds into the crowd. A handful of protesters were killed, news which sparked outrage among citizens in the capital, who believed liberation heroes deserved better treatment. There were whispers that a massacre had taken place, yet the president responded dismissively: ‘We cannot afford to slaughter sheep for you every morning’.
Unbelievable as it may seem, the first real challenge to the president’s power came from the third sector. Since its establishment in 1975, the Eritrea Relief Association (the humanitarian wing of the EPLF) has channelled considerable amounts of money to help the suffering people of Eritrea. It had built a strong reputation among the international community, with both Eritrean diaspora and international humanitarian organisations (Oxfam, Save the Children) recognising and trusting it. Managed from Khartoum, the association had moved huge quantities of aid into Eritrea – especially during the famine of 1984-85. The organisation was led by Paulos Tesfagiorgis, who came from a well-known family in the capital. Although a member of the EPLF and the People’s Party, Paulos was an independent operator, who faired easily in relationship building with important members of the international community.
In 1987, the People’s Party came together to forge the future of Eritrean society. At this time, Paulos told Gaim Kibreab (who is now a professor and course director of refugee studies at London South Bank University) that he had prepared a paper for Isaias on the role of civic society organisations in a free Eritrea. The president regarded the issue as ‘premature’ and – according to Paulos – from that point on purposefully undermined the Relief Association’s independence. In 1991, once the war was over, Paulos went to see Isaias again, this time with a proposal to establish a new humanitarian organisation, the Regional Centre of Human Rights and Development. According to Paulos, the meeting was encouraging, with the president remarking that the country was lacking in skilled labour workers and needed a developmental boost.
Assuming he had the go-ahead to establish the centre, Paulos went ahead and registered the organisation with the Department of the Interior. The only caveat was that he had to promise that the centre would allow the department to have full oversight of all its activities. The government required copies of all international correspondence to be filed with them. Paulos, initially perturbed by this imposition, eventually agreed and the centre was registered. For a few years, everything went well, and in 1994 the centre even hosted a regional development conference. But eventually, the government, uneasy about the centre’s autonomy and freedom and after many confrontations, ordered the centre to be closed down and had its assets confiscated.
In September 2000, after the president received substantial criticism from many of his senior party members for his conduct during the 1998-2000 border war, and after he dismissed Mahmoud Sherifo, the man tasked with ensuring general elections took place before the end of 2001; an open revolt took place. Thirteen renowned intellectuals met in Berlin. They wrote and signed a letter to Isaias, demanding a clearer explanation as to the cause of the border war, and calling for more transparency from the government. Among the signatories was Paulos Tesfagiorgis (the only one still inside Eritrea). The ‘Berlin Manifesto’ as it came to be known, sent ripples through Eritrean circles after being leaked to the media but did not bring about any change in government policy.
In May 2001 fifteen of the EPLF’s most senior members published a letter to party members. The group, now known as the ‘G15’, included men and women who had fought bravely for Eritrea’s independence for decades. In the letter, they accused the president of damaging the country, and they called for human rights, an independent judiciary and the establishment of a ‘constitutional government through free and fair elections’. The signatories included Mahmoud Sherifo, Minister of Local Government, Haile Wold’ensae, Minister of Foreign Affairs and then Trade and Industry, and Mesfin Hagos, former Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defence Force. Over the following months, the signatories gave interviews to both local and international media expanding on their criticisms.
Isaias, as we have seen, is not one to let challenges to his position flow openly. And on 18 and 19 September 2001, in dawn raids, the president had his security forces round up eleven of the fifteen dissidents. Three signatories were not in Eritrea, and one had abandoned his support for the ‘G15’. At first, the detainees were held at a naval base and were then moved to the newly constructed Eiraeiro prison, north of the Asmara-Massawa road. None of the prisoners has ever been seen again, and some are reported to have died in prison. The only explanation given by the government was that the dissidents had ‘committed crimes against the sovereignty, security and peace of the nation’.
Before the detainment of his closest advisors and staff, Isaias had rounded up 400 students from the University of Asmara, who, in August 2001, were demonstrating to free one of their leaders. They were held in a desert detention camp, and at least two were rumoured to have died from heat and dehydration. Isaias subsequently shut down the university and transferred its students to vocational schools in military camps.
On 18 September, alongside the arrests of members of the G15, the government shut down all private newspapers and publications. Isaias went on French radio to vilify thirteen journalists and editors who had been detained, saying ‘these are not even journalists, you cannot say a spy is a journalist’. The imprisonment didn’t stop there. In November 2006, another surge began, this time it was journalists from the state media who were jailed. A small group of elders who tried to alleviate the tension between Isaias and his critics was also jailed, with some never to be seen again.
I am a firm believer that free expression and a free press are the last defences against tyranny. It would seem however that there was very little physical threat offered by Isaias’ challengers over the years, and indeed most of them appear to have used words and language to try and affect change. Perhaps this is why the president remains in power, and why so many of his challengers continue to rot in prison. Isaias is simply more ruthless than those who oppose him, so we are left with the question, how do you overthrow a dictator who is willing to do anything to keep his power?
By Matthew Norman.
Matthew Norman: Freelance Journalist with a background in international development, now fighting for the extension of universal human rights.