Eritrea: The President’s Illness?

Michael Abraha – Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

There is nothing unusual about the Eritrean dictatorship collapsing sooner or later. History has never been friends with dictators. 

The extraordinary story built around the presumed illness of autocratic President Isais Afewerki was meant to cover up his critical political ailment. This became more apparent in the wake of the demolition of three Eritrean army bases by Ethiopian infantry forces in mid March. There was no resistance of any kind from Eritrea’s 200-thousand troops guarding the 1000km-long border with Ethiopia.

Commander-in-Chief Isaias made no convincing waves in the name of national pride or national sovereignty for which he has gone to war in the past with each neighboring state at the drop of a hat. This time, the government, which has long espoused the idea of ‘might is right’, shamelessly confirmed its political and military weaknesses by brushing off the Ethiopian action as a US sponsored “ploy” to divert attention from unsettled boundary demarcation issues still leaving dusty, little Badme in the hands of Ethiopia.  

The implications of the Ethiopian army penetrating 18km deep into Eritrean territory could only be guessed at. After the raids, Ahmed Nasser, one of the prominent builders of the Eritrean struggle for independence from Ethiopia, spoke of a crucial leadership crisis the Ethiopian action could create to the Eritrean regime. He maintains: “Eritrean troops have long been demoralized and the regime is badly damaged politically in the Horn Region; further exposure of its military vulnerability may fatally impact President Isaias and his henchmen”.

For some Eritreans in exile, the ‘news’ of the president being terminally ill meant they may soon return home after all. Earlier this month, this reporter met Eritreans in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, who were rejoicing at this possibility and some had even packed to go back to Eritrea. They couldn’t wait to be with family and friends again.

Commenting on the made-up story of Isaias’s death, one Kenyan International Affairs expert visiting the Tanzanian capital said she hoped the next Eritrean leader would not treat the country and people as if they were his own personal property.

The Eritrean leader had refused to consult with his people or with his rubber-stamp National Assembly (the Parliament) when he decided to go to war with Ethiopia in May 1998. The war drugged on till December 2000 killing 19,000 Eritrean soldiers. Unofficial accounts put the number at over 65,000, about the same as those lost during the 30-year Eritrean independence struggle that ended in 1991.    

The Ethiopian government is equally if not more conservative with its official figures. It puts the number of troops killed during the two-year war at less than 19-thousand. The two nations are believed to have sacrificed between 100-thousand and 120-thousand souls mostly in hand-to-hand combat operations around their common border. Journalism may not accomplish it today, but history will one day honor those martyred young men and women by liberating them from being victims of misleading official statistics. 

It was one of the stupidest wars ever fought on the planet in the last 100 years. It was initiated by the Eritrean government, according to a UN finding. Asmara was bent on making its point clear on the battle field instead of the negotiating table ostensibly in retaliation against unfavorable trade terms offered by Addis Ababa in early 1998. The new proposed trade and business arrangements amounted to an Armageddon on the Eritrean government’s income. It was the most serious threat to the President’s dream to build the largest, invincible military machine in the Horn and East Africa region. By 1998, impoverished Eritrea (still healing from decades of a brutal liberation war) already had over 150,000 trained fighting men and women compared to Kenya’s under 30,000 troops or Ethiopia’s estimated 35,000 active personnel at the time. 

Today, after two rounds of UN sanctions accentuated by an incapacitating arms embargo and confronted by a more determined opposition and facing a more aggressive Ethiopia to the south, the Eritrean leader is believed to be under a horrible distress and anguish. If he is suffering from poor health, it must have been caused by the gruesome political quagmire he finds himself in.

Information Minister Ali Abdu was probably telling the truth when he said the president was as “fit as a fiddle”. The minister was referring to the condition of the much-talked-about president’s liver. If the government itself was the source of the manipulated information about the president’s ‘terminal liver illness’, it sure did succeed for a while in deflecting public attention from the most serious crisis facing beleaguered Isaias Afewerki caused by his uncontrollable fear of a possible full-scale war with Ethiopia, which, if it happens, may lead to his downfall. 

The Eritrean government is unlikely to ever get sympathy from the African Union, the UN or US as they all have already expressed their displeasure and desire to see its demise by imposing sanctions justified or not. 

Domestically, no matter how futile, the regime cannot afford to look troubled or weak by, for instance, freeing a dozen political or religious prisoners or by allowing limited freedom of speech or by improving food ration or by offering to talk to Ethiopia. Such measures are out of the question because they would encourage people to be asking for more and more concessions which may lead to demands for democratic changes. That would be opening a Pandora’s Box.

The opposition is yet not united to be fit to “lead the needed change”, asserts the Frankfurt based Eritrean People’s Democratic Party. But the Addis Ababa headquartered 127-member National Democratic Council representing almost all Eritrean political and civil society movements world-wide believes it is ready to play its role. Urging greater solidarity with Eritreans inside the country, Council Chairman Yosuf Berhanu (M.D.) warns against “cosmetic changes by the regime or by possible coup leaders waiting in the wings to replace Isaias Afewerki.” Dr. Yosuf cautions against lifting of UN sanctions “before full transfer of power to the people is achieved and unless human and democratic rights are assured first”.

Poorly organized and with meager resources, the opposition poses no immediate threat to the “ailing” president. But he is deeply worried by what Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi may have under his sleeves. Isaias has no incentive to normalize relations with Ethiopia because that could prove fatal to his survival.

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