Isaias Afewerki and Eritrea: a nation’s tragedy

About the author

It is rare that a country's entire condition can be summarised in a single word. That is true of Eritrea today, however; and the word is tragic. There are many indices of this tragedy, among them Eritrea's appalling record in hunger, poverty, human rights and freedom of the press. But the most painful is that of stolen promise. Eritrea's people fought so hard and succeeded in so much that was deemed impossible, only for their achievement to be snatched away from them. Today, Eritreans both inside and outside their Horn of Africa homeland are living with the consequences, and trying to understand why their nation's history took such a cruel twist. The answer, for very many of us, lies in the political character of one man: Eritrea's president, Isaias Afewerki.

Selam Kidane is an Eritrean human-rights activist

Africa's newest nation-state won its de facto independence in May 1991 after an arduous thirty-year struggle against rule by Ethiopia (a status confirmed by international recognition in May 1993).  By then, every Eritrean family had been touched by war - and many were blighted by its devastation.  But the post-independence spirit was optimistic, even noble: Eritreans had maintained their ideals even under pressure of conflict, and vowed to build a state that embodied them. They were determined that their social cohesion, strong work-ethic, low levels of crime and corruption, and scarcity of ethnic or religious tension would become  trademarks of their new state: a country worthy of its dignified citizens, a lasting tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to attain independence, and solace to their families. This was to be something new under the African sun.

Some falling short from such high aspirations is forgivable, but the cracks that started to appear in the first decade of independence were the harder to bear for being largely self-inflicted. Eritrea fought with every one of its neighbours, accumulating smouldering political and economic animosities with each crisis. This cycle culminated in a renewed conflagration with Ethiopia over the two countries' disputed border; the result, in the war of 1998-2000, was the death of countless young Eritreans and Ethiopians. The war, moreover, left the issue unresolved; it threatens periodically to erupt and create renewed devastation (see Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war", 18 January 2006).

Also on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in openDemocracy:

Ann Pettifor, "Ethiopia: the price of indifference" (19 February 2004)

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa - old images, new realities" (26 May 2005)

Becky Hogge, "I didn't do it for you...by Michela Wrong" (16 August 2005)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war" (18 January 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery" (20 December 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads" (10 January 2007)

Edward Denison, "Ethiopia's hostages to history" (5 March 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (13 April 2007)

Lyndall Stein, "Ethiopia: the tears and the rains" (23 July 2008)

Ben Rawlence, "Eritrea: slender land, giant prison" (6 May 2009)

The domestic repercussions of this war pushed Eritrea towards the abyss. In September 2001, President Isaias Afewerki - who had by then been in power for a decade - unleashed the full power of the state to crush opposition and dissent. He arrested eleven of his former comrades, all veterans of the independence struggle and members of parliament in independent Eritrea; closed all private media sources; and followed up by restricting or expelling global and regional organisations working in the country (including NGOs and charitable organisations who stood by Eritrea and the president himself during the independence struggle). The effect of all this was to turn Eritrea into a prison for its citizens (see Ben Rawlence, "Eritrea: slender land, giant prison", 6 May 2009). 

The pathology of power

Eritrea's fall has led many today to describe it as the North Korea of Africa, and Isaias Afewerki as its Kim Jong-Il: a paranoid, irrational, eccentric and reclusive leader. There may be some truth in each of these descriptions, but in seeking to make sense of decision-making in today's Eritrea they may also mislead. For to consign Isaias Afeworki to the realm of near-madness is to underestimate him: an examination of his political record during and after the fight for independence reveals him to be an often astute political leader, far from random or erratic in his approach.

Isaias Afewerki himself has attempted to explain the move to a more hardline policy as necessary to maintain "national integrity" against foreign plots and influences when "the nation has and continues to suffer under exceptional circumstances." The problem is that the same formulae were used when concerns about his authoritarian tendencies were raised in earlier years; this suggests the existence of a long-term pattern of ideological rationalisation rather than a genuine response to new circumstances. The increased centralisation of power in Eritrea and the erosion of other centres of influence seems to reflect the view that all actions are justified if they serve the president's needs and ambitions.

Everything comes back to the excessive need for power, which is manifest too in forceful actions that can include physical assaults, verbal threats, accusations and reprimands even for the mildest challenge.

Some of those who were close to President Isaias during the pre- and post-independence years add a further layer of understanding. They say that he takes an immensely detailed interest in policy- and decision-making, finds it very difficult for to delegate tasks, and has a strong (perhaps inflated) sense of his own ability to influence what happens outside as well as inside Eritrea.

By a familiar historical twist, the very traits that fuelled Isaias Afewerki's rise to power allowed him to consolidate it in ways that damaged everyone around him. Eritreans and to a degree the rest of the world had been beguiled by the dashing hero's charisma and ability to get results. But in time it became evident that he saw power not as an instrument for social and national progress  but as a weapon of self-aggrandisement that nothing would be allowed to put at risk.

The lost sacrifice

President Isaias's conduct of  the 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia is a case-study in his political character. In February 1999, the international community - shocked at the unfolding brutality in the Horn of Africa - mounted an great diplomatic effort to bring it to an end. The combined influence of the United States, the European Union and the  Organisation of African Unity (OAU, later the African Union) contributed to a peace deal agreed by the Eritrean cabinet and backed by an OAU-organised mediation committee. At that point, President Isaias declared to the national media that to withdraw from the town of Badme - the flashpoint of the war, whose evacuation by military forces was a central element of the peace accord - would be equivalent to the sun never rising again. The deal fell apart.

The Ethiopians responded by launching an offensive on 23 February 1999 which they named "Operation Sunset". By 26 February, the media in Eritrea announced that the country's forces had withdrawn, leaving Badme in Ethiopian hands. A year and much carnage later,  an agreement was signed that ended the war, established a United Nations force to monitor the ceasefire, and put the issue to international arbitration (in April 2002, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague settled the border and implicitly awarded Badme to Eritrea, a decision that Ethiopia refuses to accept).

Afewerki, required to account for his decisions and actions amid the fallout of war, responded by severe repression - which, in addition to the measures described above, included elevating to power a new cohort of handpicked cronies who owed their promotion to their obedience to and fear of the president's whim.

Issaias Afewerki is surrounded by military associates whose  single purpose is to maintain him in power; while those who played key roles in Eritrea astonishing  feat of winning independence against so many odds either languish in unnamed dungeons or survive in temporary homes as exiles and refugees. Many others have fallen victim to the president's suspicious plotting.

Today, Eritreans in the diaspora are discussing an unconfirmed report that Chinese bank-accounts hold millions of dollars of funds in the names of President Isaias Afewerki (who trained at a military college in Nanjing in 1966-67) and his son. If true this would be yet another insult to tens of thousands of hard-working Eritreans - housekeepers in Italy, domestic workers in the middle east, taxi-drivers in the US, factory-workers in Europe - including many who long supported the president, lived austere lives in the greater cause of their country's well-being, and once considered Afewerki one of them: a brother, a son, a fellow-combatant.

There are no systems of accountability or free information in place which could allow the Eritrean public to verify or dismiss a report which, if true, would align their country with Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. The Eritrean tragedy continues. After all, it seems, there really was nothing new under the African sky in May 1991.