Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki – the Thorn in the Horn

Opinion

(Source: Tghat, By Eyob Tadelle) –

Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki – the Thorn in the Horn
 

The US and EU must join hands to stop genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

The horrors of the hidden war in Tigray – an out-of-sight war from the world  – has started to come to light. 

From CNN’s ‘Massacre in the mountains’ to New York Times’ ‘Ethiopia’s War leads to Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray region’ to Channel 4.com’s ‘The Horrors of the Hidden War’ stories of unimaginable human sufferings have emerged.

Los Angeles Times’ ‘In an out-of-sight war, a massacre comes to light,’Washington Post’s ‘People are starving,’ CNN’s ‘Women reveal rape being used as weapon of war in Ethiopia’ and other countless stories on such major international media outlets as BBC, Al Jazeera and France 24 have also revealed extremely disturbing stories of heinous crimes amounting to genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

First-hand accounts of survivors and victims’ testimonies, videos and satellite imagery have also vindicated the massacres of civilians, of mass killings, of beheadings, of extra-judicial killings, of indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardments of densely populated areas, among other acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The most horrific weapons of war – mass starvation, of over 4.2 million people who need urgent humanitarian aid, and mass rape, of young girls and women, are also being used in the war on Tigray.

Arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, vandalism, arson and lootings of religious heritages, private and public properties have become ubiquitous.  

After five months of official denial, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his handpicked Human Rights Commissioner admitted what the world has already known – war crimes. 

These grim material facts of the war or actus reus, apparently reveal the underlying mens rea or intention of the perpetrators: to make as much civilian harm and humiliation as possible – to make the harming of innocent Tigrayans the end in itself and to raze Tigray to the ground.

The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called it an ‘act of ethnic cleansing,’ while other diplomats and political analysts have called it ‘The Scorched Earth Policy.’ Others more appropriately, have referred to  the atrocities which have allegedly been perpetrated by the tripartite allied forces of the Ethiopian Army, the Amhara Armed Forces and Eritrean troops as ethnic and cultural genocide.

Addressing the illegitimate House of Peoples’ Representatives on March 23, 2021, PM Abiy admitted the presence of Eritrean troops and half-heartedly accepted the possibility of war crimes. But most importantly, the PM reaffirmed that Eritrean troops will stay in Tigray for an indefinite period of time, implicitly admitting the internationalization of the war and the inability of his government to handle the crisis. But above and beyond all these, the PM tells the world who sits  in the  driver’s seat   of the ongoing war in Tigray – Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki.       

Against this backdrop and the depravity and complete lack of humanity surrounding the war, it is a desideratum to raise the question: can we limit our lens to recent events when the atrocity demands a much wider focus and a very different approach? To this end, we need to uncover the archaeology of the mastermind behind the war – Isaias Afewerki. As such, we cannot understand the matter without a discussion on the complex politico-historical and socio-psychological factors that have shaped the Eritrea-Tigray ties, identity politics and the psychological effects of colonization.

The urgent questions that must be addressed quickly, however, are: can aid reach to the needy in the presence of foreign invading troops? Can an independent investigation on the alleged crimes of war be possible in the presence of both Eritrean and Amhara forces in Tigray? Why an urgent need for more Draconian measures, beyond mere economic sanctions on both governments, by the international community, especially by the US and EU? 

Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea and Shattered Lives 

Isaias Afewerki is to the Horn what Ares was to ancient Greece – both possessing such obnoxious aspects as brutality, warfare and carnage, among others, in abundance.

He is a shrewd politician who knows the nuts and bolts of the political physiognomy of the Horn and beyond. 

His colossal role during the armed struggle for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia has long been surpassed by his contribution in shattering the Eritrean dream.

Isaias, along with hundreds of thousands of his comrades, helped Eritrea secure its independence in 1991, yet he, along with a few of his cronies, took away its dreams.

A once promising Eritrea has been betrayed. 

Martin Plaut, the author of the book: ‘Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa’s Most Repressive State,” writes: “Eritrea is a nation without freedom.”

Not only that, it is a country without a Constitution, opposition political parties and free press. It is a country that has never had an election since its independence in 1993. Its socio-economic performance is negative. It is a country without even a single university – Asmara University, a prestigious university pre-1991 Eritrea, has long been closed. 

The destiny of its young generation has always been to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea – to join the military, after completing the mandatory permanent national service at Sawa, or to risk their lives fleeing Eritrea. Hundreds of thousands are said to have fled Eritrea through the borders to Sudan and Ethiopia. Thousands are said to have died while travelling the Sahara desert, and others crossing the Mediterranean Sea, in their attempt to reach Europe.

“Many do not survive – their bones littering the Sahara, their bodies floating in the Mediterranean.”

Still they flee ….

There has never been so cruel a generation in the history of humanity to its younger generation as that of the Isaias’, notes Yosef Gebrehiwet, a prolific Eritrean writer, contributing for the Discourse, a defunct journal used to be published in Ethiopia. 

Opposition is unthinkable. And those who have dissented, their whereabouts are not known. He is a man who never misses a single opportunity to squash his enemies in full force till the end. 

Martin Plaut also shares this grim reality in his recently published article entitled, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki: a tactical authoritarian who might be president for life, saying ‘the regimes human rights abuses are well documented.’

Isaias, at home, is a man with a ‘rich history’ of systematic human rights violations. He is a brutal dictator – a merciless butcher to his own people. His relations with his neighbors are even worse. He declared a bloody war on Yemen in 1995. He declared war on Djibouti and Sudan on several occasions. Isaias also declared a grinding war on Ethiopia in 1998.

He is a man anathema to peace. As such, he has left, and is leaving, a trail of wreckage behind, not only in Eritrea, which he has ruled in an iron fist for almost three decades now, but also throughout the region, as he is doing now  in Tigray, one of the nine sovereign regions of the Ethiopian federation. 

Isaias’ Utopian Project: A Nation without Tigrayan Roots

In fact, this is not the first time that Isaias has attacked Tigray. During the 1984 famine and an ongoing protracted armed struggle in Tigray, Eritrean People’s Liberation Front forces (now People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the sole political party in the country) blocked roads to keep displaced Tigrayans from crossing to Sudan through Eritrea. Also, he invaded Tigray under the pretext of border issue in 1998. His successive aggression on Tigray is not simply because of his loath towards the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) or because there was a border issue, but rather Isaias considers the very existence of Tigray and Tigrayan identity as the major obstacle to his utopian nation building project: the invention of Eritrea devoid of its Tigrayan origin. 

Relations between Tigray and Eritrea have always been tied to history, identity, politics, language and geography. Mereb Melash, the original name for most of Eritrea before it was rechristened by Italian colonizers in 1890, was part and parcel of Tigray since time immemorial, and thus, of the grand Tigrayan civilization in Axum. Thus, Eritrea is a product of Italy’s colonization of part of Tigray. Decades of colonialism and cultural imperialism in Eritrea’s history – more than six decades, first by Italy and then a short-lived British occupation, coupled with the carnage of the thirty years of war for independence, seem to have left their mark on the political psychology of the man who was born in Asmara under colonial rule and raised under the shadows of colonization. The same man who has played and greatly determined much of its modern history.

Like in any other colonized country, during the period of Italy’s colonial rule, the colonizers purposely and intentionally, also as a policy to divide and rule the people north and south of the Mereb River, regarded many aspects of the rich and beautiful Tigray culture with disdain, and propagated colonization as a civilizing mission (while erecting one of the priceless heritages of the Tigray civilization on Porta Capena Square, Rome – the Axum Obelisk). Eritrea’s colonization was framed as an act which was beneficial to the indigenous people, rather than a process of political and economic dominance by a foreign power. As such, the concept of Eritreanism developed as a result of this Italian colonial prominence. Later, after the independence of Eritrea from colonial rule and its reunification with Ethiopia, the psychological impact of colonial mentality started to surface when some began to see themselves as the ‘heirs’ of the colonizers – by emulating the qualities of their previous masters, what Franz Fanon calls, the ‘internalization of colonial prejudice.’

As such, Eritrea’s history of colonization was the historical justification for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia – we have a different history, and a resultant psychological makeup and identity which is different from the larger Tigrayan identity. True, the scramble for Africa had crippled the continent’s social, economic and political structures; however, the psychological damage is recurring. And, we have been witnessing how recurring its pathological effect is with the man who has led Eritrea for almost three decades now.

Isaias has been trying to develop an Eritrean identity which is completely severed from its Tigray origin – for this he has used several strategies: the first one is a complete denial of its Tigrayan roots, second, the politics of hate against Tigray. The intentional damage and destruction of Tigray’s historical, religious and cultural heritages such as Debre Damo monastery, an ancient church with invaluable heritages, and the Al Nejashi Mosque, the first mosque in Africa, are part of this project, which one political commentator calls it – cultural genocide. 

Yet, his efforts of inventing an Eritrean identity with its umbilical cord severed from its Tigray origin has proved impossible. The Ag’azian movement, with its roots in the Tigray-Tigrigne movement which had started right after the colonization of the northern part of Tigray by Italy, is gaining currency on both sides of the Mereb River. It is mainly propounded by Eritreans and Tigrayan Diaspora to reunite both people in order to realize the rebirth of the Medre Ag’azian. 

And also, emboldened by his success in the armed struggle for independence, Isaias developed an extremely inflated self image. He has developed unchecked ambition to become the uncontested political figure in East Africa. However, he could not design sound and practical socio-economic development strategies and foreign policy, among others, that could uplift the war-torn nation from poverty. His frustration grew to such an extent that he resorted to bloody conflicts with all its neighbors. His highly miscalculated war against Ethiopia in 1998, however, was almost an act of suicide. Ethiopia, led by the late PM Meles Zenawi, who was also the chairman of the TPLF, meticulously yet completely crippled him, both militarily and diplomatically. This was one reason, but not the only reason; there were also other irrational reasons behind Isaias’s loath against TPLFites. As such, Isaias has had a bitter hate towards TPLF and its social base – the people of Tigray. 

At any rate, Isaia’s war on Tigray is a continuation of his grand project of inventing Eritrean identity which is free from its Tigrayan roots. 

The coming to power of Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly created a golden opportunity for Isaias. He clearly, and at once, saw Abiy’s political naivety and immaturity. Isaias found a protégé that could be easily ‘straightened or crooked’ as per his will in a bid to materialize his ‘grand design’.  

Abiy, on the other hand, was in great haste of consolidating his power that he had secured it by great chance, almost ‘miraculously.’ As such, he was looking for whatever kind of friendship – especially with those who he thinks hate TPLF, and he was ready to make any and whatever deal, regardless of its consequences, to defend and consolidate his power. 

No doubt, there was a mutual tacit understanding from the very first day when they both unofficially and in closed doors agreed to make a pact for the ‘normalization’ of the relations of the two countries. The ‘peace’ deal that followed and celebrated in Oslo was, therefore, a precursor to the war on Tigray!  

Abiy, who lacks a better sense of history and political wisdom, might have not understood the gravity and consequences of his political decisions on the destiny of Ethiopia. But Isaias, the old master of chaos and conflict, knew from the very beginning where Abiy is going to take the country to – to a quagmire of civil war!

Having prepared for some two and more years, Abiy declared war on Tigray – in the name of ‘law enforcement,’ for the mere reason – at least the ostensible and immediate reason, that Tigray had conducted ‘illegal’ regional election, though it was legal as per the FDRE Constitution.  Abiy’s accusation of the TPLF for attacking the Northern Command seems a pretext to garner support and was irrelevant while the war on Tigray had already been tacitly declared some time ago.

In the name of ‘enforcing the law,’ Abiy blocked all roads that connect Tigray to the rest of the country (in fact, the main road that connects Tigray to Addis has been blocked for almost three years now). He even made a deal with Sudan for the latter to close its border with Tigray. The government has also cut off telecommunication networks, access to the internet, and all means of communication, as well as electricity and water supply and everything.

In such a complete and total communication blackout, Abiy and Isaias have committed unimaginable atrocities on the people of Tigray which amounts to genocide. By declaring war on Tigray, Abiy has fallen in the snare of Isaias. Ethiopia has failed internally, regionally and internationally. 

Isaias’s role on the war, the alleged crimes which amount to genocide, is equal to, if not greater than, that of Abiy. 

In fact, there seems unanimity of opinion around the international diplomatic community about what has happened, and is going on in Tigray. But there is no unanimity about what should be done. So, the US and EU must take the lead by joining hands to put a Draconian and punitive measures against the governments in Addis Ababa and Asmara thereby press for the complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. This should be an urgent task. Why? Because in the presence of Eritrean troops aid cannot reach for over 4.5 million people who need urgent humanitarian assistance. In the presence of Eritrean troops an independent investigation into the alleged crimes would be very difficult. In the presence of Eritrean troops the atrocities will continue and peace cannot be restored in Tigray, among others. So, the international community must interfere to stop the unspeakable human sufferings that are being committed against innocent and vulnerable Tigrayans. And finally, a prompt, impartial and transparent UN-led investigation, and holding those responsible accountable, must be the prerequisite and co-requisite in the initial stages of resolving the crisis in Tigray. 

 


Eyob Tadelle

Eyob has a B.A in Sociology and an M.A in Philosophy. He studied Social and Political Philosophy at Radboud University, the Netherlands. He worked as a journalist for different Ethiopian newspapers published in English including the Ethiopian Herald. Currently he is an independent researcher and lives in Germany
 

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