Forto: A Lesson for Change

Radio Erena: 26 January 2021

The morning of 21 January 2013 was unusual in Asmara. Asmarinos woke up that day with no radio or TV transmission filling the air, they eventually realized that an event of an expansive magnitude hovered over their city of 70,000. Indeed, a group of disgruntled Eritrean Defense Forces officers had occupied the Ministry of Information building towering on Asmara from a hill locally known as Forto; or the Forte. Calling this abnormal event ‘Operation Forto’ by the Eritreans reflects the shaping of their languages under thirty years of military struggle. The event, which turned out to be a revolt by angry army officers was akin to a coup d’état against the brute Eritrean dictator than being an operation on that strict sense of the word.

Knowing in advance that the dictator would be chairing a meeting in the Ministry, the officers had decided to capture him and pass their decisions, which included the demand of the immediate release of the prisoners of consciousness and to put into force the ‘frozen’ constitution of 1997. These demands were supposed to be transmitted on the air in the local radio and TV, but the transmission was cut, and the message was confined to the newsroom. Not so much is known on what exactly happened that morning; but what was quite certain that the dictator had a tip of what was planned in that morning. The officers moved tanks from the border town of Tsorona, which is probably 110 km from the capital. Tanks dashing toward the capital gave the onlookers sense of something wrong going on; let alone the military intelligence.

However, by noon, the group led by Said Ali Hejjay, aka, Wodi Ali, realized that their message hadn’t been through and the units which were to control the airport and other important posts in the capital have utterly failed. The dictator, whose whereabouts were not known but to a few, sent some officers to negotiate the surrender of the group. By the end of the day, sensing the failure of the movement, most of the revolting officers surrendered; and the leader of the group Wodi Ali fled to the nearby hills where he lost his life in fire exchange with the army units. The government version reported that he committed suicide avoiding the fall in the hands of his pursuers.

This January marked the 8th anniversary of this operation, movement, or event, name it as you wish, but the lasting depiction of it will always be the heroic or daredevil attempt of political change in the bereaved country that fills a victim to one-man rule.

What is known about this operation is little; though most of its heroes are still alive; but they are forcedly silent behind bars. There is a deliberate and carefully planned plot to keep the details of this operation buried. Foremost by depriving its designers and executors of the due process of law as bringing the accused to justice would entail the exposure of a massive number of facts. Such facts may endanger the very essence of the dictatorship.

Secondly, the ruthless treatment of the Forto Operation heroes is an intelligible threat message to all army officers and civilians who may think of deposing the dictator. It rather seems like hitting two birds with one stone. The question which remains is: Would such repressive measures stop the change in Eritrea whether it’s led by the army or by people taking to streets against the ruthless dictatorship?

It may well delay it, but will never be able to curb its tide.

By Fathi Osman