Eritrea: Promises of More of the Same
Eritrea’s Charge d’Affaires to the United States is Berhane G Solomon. A protege of Yemane Gebreab, the ruling party’s Director of Political Affairs, Berhane even has Yemane’s body language: the exaggerated hand movements, the awkward smile and, of course, flashes of brilliance. In short, he is very good at his job, a job that requires him to be bad. To lie, to obfuscate, to stall, to confound and to confuse.
This prowess was brought to bear on Eritreans assembled for the Scandinavia Festival, held every summer in Sweden. These particular set of skills were particularly in high demand since the festival coincided with the period of time that a new line of Isaias Afwerki was launched by President Isaias Afwerki; and because there hadn’t been any preview of the new product, people were confused. The new version of Isaias Afwerki was very deferential to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (a man he barely knows); appeared to settle for a secondary role not just for himself (unusual for such an alpha male) but the country he leads (a country that fought for decades not to be subservient to, or part of, Ethiopia); and, for a man who had shown his people an austere, stoic image for decades, he was very touchy-feely: blowing kisses and tugging his heart. Nerves were rattled among the faithful; the unfaithful didn’t help by reminding them that the man’s loyalty to Eritrea is suspect, he had always been rumored to be a stalking horse, either because of his lineage (yawn) or that Eritrea was too small for his ambitions.
This short speech by Berhane G. Solomon was a rebuttal and it has six arguments, presented in less than five minutes (I told you he is good):
1. Singular to Collective: Remove the focus from Isaias Afwerki to the leadership. Instead of the singular, talk about the collective;
2. Absurdity of Freedom Fighter Being A Betrayer: Present the “obvious” absurdity of the argument that those who fought the hardest and longest to bring about Eritrea’s independence would surrender it;
3. Place Isaias Afwerki’s Speech Within Cultural Context: Re-define the sentence Isaias made to Abiy Ahmed in Addis (“you will lead us”) as consistent with Eritrea’s traditions of village assemblies (the romanticized bayto under a tree) where each able person presents the other as more able. Have no worries, the real agreements will be in writing and will be reviewed by lawyers, he said;
4. Consider the Source: the same people who are criticizing us for being too energetic in the peace effort are the ones who (with Weyane) were accusing us of being isolationists and anti-peace;
5. We Won: We long ago decided that change in Eritrea and the region cannot come about unless there is change in Ethiopia, so this is the fulfillment of our hard labor;
6. No Time To Talk But Work: Our leaders are racing to bring about the fruits of their hard labor. This is not the time to demand they speak to us: “hard to talk when you are racing.”
Let’s listen to it, and view the reaction of the audience here. The counter argument to Mr. Berhane G Solomon will follow, point-by-point:
1. Collective to Singular: Nobody is accusing Yemane Gebreab or Osman Saleh of betraying Eritrea. Nobody is saying they long harbored intent to surrender Eritrea to Ethiopia. Nobody is saying that they were so ambitious they wanted to lead something much bigger than Eritrea. At least, I am not. All the allegations have been against Isaias Afwerki and him only. Berhane Solomon unconsciously (or consciously) concedes this point when he rhetorically asks, “if selling out Eritrea was their goal, why didn’t they do it in 1992?” Of course, Eritrea became an independent country in 1991 and not in 1992, and he knows there is 1991 (post independence) literature of Isaias Afwerki trying and failing to convince Eritreans to prepare them for confederation with Ethiopia. Thus, the reference to 1992.
But moving on: let’s get more testimony. And they are not all “allegations”: some are just presented as a matter of fact. And who are the ones making them? They are (A) Mesfin Hagos, one of the founders of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (now PFDJ), a 25 year veteran of the 30-year armed struggle (member of G-15, now exiled); (B) Dr. Dima Negewo, one of the founders of the Oromo Liberation Fronts (OLF), and in charge of its Foreign Office (who represented his front during the negotiations the Tripatriate meetings regarding post-Mengistu government.) Additionally, two Ethiopians testify that Isaias Afwerki was open to the idea of being in charge of a unified Ethiopia: he was thwarted by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ambitions to dominate Ethiopian politics and they are (C) Dawit Woldegiorgis, the administrator of Eritrea for the Derg regime and (D) Andargachew Tsige, the leader of Ginbot-7, one of the Eritrea-based armed Ethiopian opposition groups. Links for all the interviews mentioned are provided below, with time set to the relevant part:
2. Absurd To Call Freedom Fighters “Traitors”: Well, that’s rich coming from a spokesperson for PFDJ which has accused long-serving freedom fighters like Petros Solomon, Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo, Haile Woldense, Mesfin Hagos, Ogbe Abraha, Hamid Himid, Saleh Idris Kekya, Estifanos Seyoum, Berhane Ghebrezgabiher, Astier Fesehazion, Germano Nati, Beraki Gebreselassie, Adhanom Ghebremariam, Mohammed Ali Omaro, Omer Tewil, Abdella Jaber, Mustapha Nurhussein and many others FROM ITS OWN LEADERSHIP as traitors and made them disappear. We won’t even count the thousands of patriots accused of being fifth columnists from outside the EPLF/PFDJ. The accusation that one individual (Isaias Afwerki) is a betrayer makes more sense than the claim that everybody who opposes him, literally in the thousands, are. In any event, the allegation of “betrayal” here, at least from my perspective, is not that he wants to surrender Eritrea to Ethiopia. The betrayal is that he is doing whatever it is he is doing in secret without consulting the people, or their elected spokespersons in a parliament. Heck, he is not even consulting with the rubber stamp cabinet of ministers. He is betraying the cause of the armed struggle, as he has done for the last 17 years.
3. Isaias Afwerki & Cultural Context: The speeches of Isaias Afwerki that people have an objection to are (a) his delegation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a leader to deal with all issues Eritrean and (b) his claim that, henceforth, it is incorrect to call Eritreans and Ethiopians as two people. What is the flaw in Berhane G. Solomon’s argument that was just “polite talk” “reconciliation talk” consistent with the Eritrean culture of humility and diffidence, specially in public service? Two things: first, President Isaias Afwerki went out of his way to iterate that, no, this wasn’t just idle talk or flattery: he really, really means it. Second, there is nothing in the history of Isaias Afwerki that shows he has any respect for Eritrean culture, chief among them being, “do not pass a judgement before you give the accused an opportunity for self-defense.” Or, “get the consent of the governed to govern.” In fact, if there is one thing that will come to define the Isaias Afwerki regime long after it is gone is that it was a very unjust and cruel system, indifferent to the voices of the people or their culture.
As for his claim that we shouldn’t be anxious because all agreements will be in writing, which will be reviewed by lawyers: sorry to say but it rings hollow. The most glaring example of it was that following the outbreak of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, what became apparent was that the two governments had no written agreement to refer to and they were reduced to sharing with us private correspondence between Isaias Afwerki and Meles Zenawi. That and “colonial treaties” signed by Europeans over a century ago.
4. The “Consider the source” Argument: and other tricks of guilt-by-association will boomerang on the Isaias Afwerki administration because those he associates with, and those who consider him as their personal hero, just happen to be ardentOne Ethiopia Ethiopians who either don’t accept Eritrea’s sovereignty or question the entire basis of its armed struggle. The point here is that: the Isaias Afwerki regime was wrong to stumble Eritrea into a war (in 1998); it was wrong to escalate Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the final/binding ruling by miring Eritrea in Somalia and getting the country sanctioned; and now it is wrong in pursuing secret deals with Ethiopia without consulting the stakeholders, ie: the people. The “you are accidentally agreeing with people we don’t like” may work on the weaker supporters of the PFDJ but it can’t work on all of them.
5. The “we won” argument: is something the PFDJ uses without ever considering the price that was paid. Firstly, how much did the Isaias Afwerki regime contribute to the downfall of the TPLF from the leadership of the EPRDF-coalition? 100%? 75%? 50%? 25%? Ethiopians will have to answer that, not the “humble” PFDJ. And whatever the answer was, was it worth the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans exiled, sanctions, and an entire generation of Eritreans who wasted their lives to guard a border because dialogue was not possible prior to their demobilization and now demobilization is not possible even after dialogue that wasn’t supposed to happen before demarcation? Was it worth it for them to hear their chief commanding officer saying, “we lost nothing”? Was it worth it for them to hear a veteran of the armed struggle tearfully saying, to Ethiopia’s tearful Jossy “now that there is peace, when I look back at the 40 years I spent in the armed struggle, I regret it?” video here When is the Isaias Afwerki administration going to face the people not to “lecture them”, but to listen and to be accountable for its actions: what was paid for this win, was it worth it, were there other wins forfeited?
6. Too Busy To Talk: Between 2001 and 2018 (17 years), the Isaias Afwerki government was too busy to talk to the people and be accountable to them because it is too busy protecting the nation from imminent danger. Now that there is peace, the Isaias Afwerki government is too busy to talk because it is too busy catching up for opportunities it didn’t lose because we lost nothing. Busy, busy, busy. It is the same “heads I win, tails you lose” trick. But if there is one lesson it should have drawn from all its former allies–Muammar Kaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Hosni Mubarek, Meles Zenawi—is that you can fool the people for some time, but not indefinitely. At some point, people will no longer be persuaded by their “trust us, just be patient” reasoning. This, I think, is what Former Finance Minister and now author Berhane Abrehe is trying to warn them with this message:
Will they listen? Judging from the reaction of their uberfans, there is little hope to be optimistic: first they denied he wrote the books; now they are doing “voice analysis” to prove it is not him sending his message from Asmara on September 1. But the message of Berhane Abrehe is the same one made by General Bitweded Abraha two decades ago: listen to your people, try reconciliation, and be accountable. And we know what they did to him: disappear because he was another freedom fighter who was a traitor, apparently.
The PFDJ is still relying on its “revolutionary legitimacy”: Berhane says that when we question the PFDJ leadership’s commitment to Eritrea, we are claiming that we care for the country more than they do. Well, no; firstly, some of us are not saying they but him. Secondly, all of us are saying that they are servants of the people and they are accountable to the people and the people, via their national assembly, have the right and duty to express their confidence in them or fire them.
The PFDJ continues to give the people an impossible choice: to get your freedom, you must first topple us; and to topple us, you must be prepared for civil war. Or, if that doesn’t look attractive to you, wait for it on our schedule. Hating both options, the people continue to latch on to people like Berhane Abrehe: that change will come from within and it will come with little or no bloodshed by coordinating with the opposition. Twenty seven years after Eritrea’s independence, you can’t continuously come up with reasons and justifications as to why you don’t have a constitution; you are not accountable to any institution; you have our youth in indefinite conscription; you have political prisoners; you have no independent press; refuse to reconcile with anyone; ignore the hundreds of thousands of your people in exile and close up all political space. And when a critical mass of them rise up, because there is no constitution, no institutions, no civil society–nothing but PFDJ–there will be nothing to save them from the wrath of the people.