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The Coup fiasco in Eritrea and its scanty support

The Coup fiasco in Eritrea and it's scanty support

Ghirmay Yeibio

Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes,  or figs from thistles?   Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit  . . . . . Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.  Matthew 7: 16 - 20

ካብ እሾዂዶ ፍረወይኒ ይቕንጠብ ?  ካብ ዳንዴርከ በለስዶ ይእረ ?  ከምኡ ድማ እቲ ጽቡቕ ኦም ጽቡቕ ፍረ ይፈሪ  ፡  እቲ ሕማቕ ኦም ከኣ ሕማቕ ፍረ ይፈሪ  ።  ጽቡቕ  ኦም ክፉእ ፍረ ከፍሪ፡ ወይስ ክፉእ  ኦም ጽቡቕ ፍረ ከፍሪ ኣይክእልን እዩ  ።  . . . .  እምብኣርከስ ብፍሪኦም  ከተለልይዎም  ኢኹም  ።  ወንጌል ማቴዎስ  7: 16-20

Eritrea witnessed a small political tremor in the last week of the month of January.  On 21 of January 2013, several members of the Eritrean defence forces with their armored vehicles, occupied the Ministry of Information in Asmara and transmitted a demand requesting the implementation of the 1997 Constitution and the release of Prisoners of conscious.  

After the incident a lot of news has been disseminated  by the International and Eritrean media outlets.  Most of the news that was coming out was mainly based on assumptions and opinions by individuals.  Nobody knew the true extent and nature of the incident or can tell in certainty what transpired on  that day.   There was a lot of information and disinformation flying about.  Some said it was a mutiny, but some said it was an attempted coup d'état.   Some even labelled it as a coup d'état in progress which is still playing out.   While some say it involved most of the high brass of the military, others say it was a spontaneous act by a few disgruntled officers.

The Eritrean government downplayed it by saying it was a very minor incident that was exaggerated beyond proportions by the international media.  Despite the fact that the government wanted to downplay it, the fact that President Isayas Afeworki gave interviews on the issue shows that it was more than a minor incident. 

Following the incident,  a spike in the activities of opposition groups in the Diaspora has been observed.   Peaceful occupation of Eritrean embassies and demonstrations were conducted in most major cities where the Diaspora lives.  Despite the increased activity by some in the Diaspora, the incident appears to not have created much of a stir in Eritrea itself.   Surprisingly most residents of Asmara learned that there was a mutiny or attempted coup d'état  (whichever one might want to call it) from family members in the Diaspora.  They confirmed to callers that the city was peaceful, and went about their daily life as usual.


The Demonstrations in support of the mutineers were attended by only a few Eritreans in each city.   In cities like London, Rome and Washington, the demonstrators were not able to attract more than a hundred or two at best.  It was a dismal show up for cities which host tens of thousands of Eritreans and a testament to the fact that the opposition has not made inroads in the Diaspora community.  Despite the wide international media coverage and hyperactivity by Eritrean websites and other medias; by and large the reaction of Eritreans was very low.

Why did the General population not seize on the opportunity and staged a peoples uprising in Eritrea to overthrow one of the world's most repressive regimes ?  Why did members the Eritrean Defence Forces not rise up in support of their colleagues ?  Why didn't the Diaspora stage massive demonstrations in support of the coup and why was the response in general so pitiful ?  These are questions we need to ask and seriously look into.

When it comes to Eritreans at home, it confirms the belief that there is no one in cities and villages to stage an uprising.  The government of Isayas has effectively emptied out the nation from its youth which could have spearheaded the uprising.   Since all the youth is either in the trenches or fled the nation, the majority of residents of cities, towns and villages are; women, children, the aged, the infirm, the civil servants consisting mainly of demobilized ex EPLF combatants and its security personnel.  So a people's uprising by such a group is just a pipe dream.

On the other hand the Eritrean defense force is an army in name only,  which is demoralized, dispirited and poorly equipped.  Eritrea at one time boasted of about 300,000 strong, enthusiastic, well trained and formidable fighting force.  After the devastating debacle of the 1998 border war,  the army was decimated.  Members of the national service, disillusioned and frustrated have been abandoning the army and going into exile in droves during the last decade.   In actual fact,  it's number has been depleted so much by desertion,  currently Eritrea does not have an army to speak of.  Approximately 70,000 in Ethiopia, 150,000 in the Sudan,  30,000 in Israel  and tens of thousands in Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Europe and North America;  well, do the maths for yourself.   The Eritrean Defense force is just an empty shell.

Due to the secretive nature of the nation, it is difficult to get actual numbers but according to some sources, a Brigade which normally should be 2000 strong, consists of 100 soldiers including administrative personnel i.e. a couple of platoons in actual strength.  That is one of the reasons why the Asmara government recently embarked in the arming of civilians as old as 65 years of age including women, in cities, towns and villages, to augment its army.   Therefore,  a successful uprising by such an army is most unlikely.

But the most fundamental reason why the people of Eritrea both domestically and in the Diaspora showed very little support to the mutineers, is the fact that they could not identify themselves with the coup plotters.  The leaders of the Army, the Generals, Colonels, commissioned officers and regional administrators are simply two sides of the same coin with the Asmara government in the eyes of the Eritrean people.

It is a well documented fact that the top Brass of the Eritrean Army, are hatchet men of the Asmara regime, who are equally responsible for the degradation, abuse, destruction and mayhem in the last 50 years.  The Colonels and Generals are members of the Asmara regime who were pillaging and plundering the nation for decades.  They are the very same officers who were rounding up Eritrean youth to the national service, who enforced the shoot to kill policy of the government and massacred thousands of draft evaders and deserters.  They are the right hand men of Isayas who were raping female recruits in the army and imprisoned family members of draft evaders ,  Pentecostal Christians, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. etc.

They are the ones who supported and conducted without any objection the devastating border war with Ethiopia and led tens of thousands of youngsters to their untimely death.  They are the elites who were terrifying and terrorizing the people for decades.  The Eritrean people know them, and did not care what was happening in the dog eat dog world of Isayas.  It does not matter what their slogans were or what demands they had or the issues they raised.

Military coup d'état leaders, always speak the language of the people initially in order to secure support.  In 1974, the Military overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie following a people's uprising in Ethiopia.  "Yalemenem Demm enkenua yiwudem" without bloodshed the problems of the nation will be removed was the motto of the military Junta of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam also known by the name "Derg".  Once the Junta established itself firmly in the palace, it massacred millions of Ethiopians during its reign, specially the red terror campaign era.  It subjected the nation to untold terror and suffering until its demise in 1991.

The Military Junta of Mengistu Hailemariam did raise up the issue of the exploitation of the masses by the few, land to the tiller and other progressive slogans initially.  Military Juntas start with a promise to constitutional governance and return to civilian rule within a year or two etc. etc.  Once in power, they transform and become no different than the dictators or monarchs they removed.  The same was the case of Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central African republic, etc. etc.  The list is long.

The coup attempt of January 21, 2013 also looks similar to the May 1989 failed coup attempt on Mengistu Hailemariam by senior military officers of Ethiopia like Major Generals Merid Negusie, Amha Desta, Demissie Bulto and others, which were dissatisfied with Mengistu's administration and handling of the civil war.   Both coup attempts were poorly organized.  Another parallel between the two failed coups  is that they were not supported by the people, because they were planned and executed by the very people who were members of  the very regime that they attempted to overthrow.  The Eritrean opposition should also take a lesson here that the government of Mengistu Hailemariam was not removed by a coup d'état but by the well organized and coordinated military action of EPLF and TPLF. 
Hence, Eritreans in their usual silent way, told the mutineers that they were part of the problem and could not bring any change whatsoever.  The dismally low turnout in the demonstrations called by the opposition in the Diaspora and the lack of any visible support domestically confirms that.

In the words of the good book, i.e. the Bible, “No bad tree bears good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit". That is simply what the Eritrean people are saying. "You cannot pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers''. The fruit of the  Eritrean revolution "Ghedli Eritrea" in general and these Colonels and Generals in particular, was misery, death, and destruction.  No good thing could come out of these thorn bushes and briers.  That was the message of the Eritrean people expressed through silence and indifference.

After 50 years, the people have realized that the independence struggle was wrong and that they were used as cannon fodder by the butchers of Nakfa and Barka.  The very notion and concept of "Ghedli" has become unpalatable for the millions of Eritreans who had to endure decades of mayhem and bloodshed.  The people know that these officers are part of the problem and not messiahs descending from the mountain  or "Forto Baldisera" to rescue them.  Eritreans know better and have expressed it silently by withholding support. If one cannot understand the silence and lack of adequate support to the attempted coup by Eritreans, then one cannot understand even if they speak out loud.

It is time for Eritreans to look elsewhere for redemption.  It is time to make a U-turn and back track our steps to our roots.  It is also time for all concerned to encourage and help Eritreans retrace their steps and welcome them with open hands.   The healing process is complex but must begin now.  It requires a lot of effort by all parties, and would eventually produce a fruit which is nourishing, advantageous and beneficial to all.

Ghirmay Yeibio   
Winnipeg Manitoba
February 2013

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