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The Despotism of Isaias Afewerki

Eritrea’s dictator makes his move on Tigray

No country in the world has a purer autocracy than Eritrea. The state of Eritrea is one man, Isaias Afewerki, who for twenty years was the leader of a formidable insurgent army that won a war of liberation against Ethiopia in 1991, and who has since ruled as president without constraint on his power. Three decades after independence, Eritrea has no constitution, no elections, no legislature, and no published budget. Its judiciary is under the president’s thumb, its press nonexistent. The only institutions that function are the army and security. There is compulsory and indefinite national service. The army generals, presidential advisers, and diplomats have been essentially unchanged for twenty-five years. The country has a population of 3.5 million, and more than half a million have fled as refugees—the highest ratio in the world next to Syria and Ukraine.

President Isaias—Eritreans use the first name—got to his position and held it because his overriding concern is power. The country has no shrill personality cult, no slavish performances of obedience to the leader. Isaias is an underestimated cypher, a lesson in understated ruthlessness. In an era when autocrats have adopted new guises and mastered new tactics, he has persevered with old-fashioned forms of absolute despotism. He has not even pretended to change. He simply outlasted his most vigilant adversaries, expecting that, in due course, a new set of foreign leaders and diplomats would suffer amnesia, gamble on appeasement, or simply not care about norms of human rights and democracy.

The latest twist to Isaias’s despotism is his effort to contrive a war between the federal government in Ethiopia and its antagonists in the region of Tigray. He wants to see both weakened—and Tigray so badly mauled that he can eliminate it as a viable political entity, once and for all.  

Isaias’s logic is genocidal. In November 2020—when the world was distracted by the U.S. election—Isaias sent his army to join Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s forces in a war to “crush” the Tigrayans. Abiy gave him political cover, lying about the Eritrean role. After a year of mass killing, rape, and starvation inflicted on Tigray, as well as havoc across Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa more widely, the Tigray war settled into a stalemate. It was broken late last month with a fierce battle between Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian federal army. The Tigrayans won the first round.

On the morning of September 1, the second round began. Eritrean artillery opened up huge barrages, firing at Tigrayan defenses while Ethiopian conscripts readied for Isaias’s signal to charge into battle.

Eritrea was an Italian colony, carved out of the northern reaches of the feudal empire of Ethiopia during the late nineteenth century scramble for Africa. Isaias was born in 1946, five years after Italian defeat in World War II. Eritreans of his generation have a love-hate relationship with their former colonizer. The Italians exploited Eritreans as laborers and denied them education. But the imperial power also made Eritrea special. Italy’s initial interest was in the Red Sea coast, then as now a strategic shoreline. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as much as one eighth of the world’s maritime commerce passed through the channel between Eritrea and Yemen. The same is true today, and every global power wants a presence in the Red Sea: China’s first overseas station is in next-door Djibouti, and Russia is negotiating for a naval base in Eritrea.

Benito Mussolini dreamed of a new Roman Empire in Africa, including Libya, Somalia, and Ethiopia—with Eritrea as its model. The colony became Africa’s second biggest manufacturing center after Johannesburg. Architectural historians salivate over Eritrea’s capital Asmara, considered a showpiece for Art Deco buildings. Its Fiat Tagliero gas station modeled on an airplane is especially cherished by aficionados, of whom Isaias is said to be one. Successive wars have left the city undamaged and undeveloped, a museum of modernism. When a tall and ugly contemporary apartment block was built overshadowing the futuristic Fiat garage in 1994, the president is said to have intervened to insist that central Asmara retain its character. It is one of the few places where the fascist emblem of the bundle of sticks remains on public buildings.

Mussolini’s new Roman Empire was the “first to be freed” by the Allies in 1941. The British Military Administration dismantled much of Eritrea’s industry in the name of war reparations and referred the future status of the territory to the United Nations, which proposed the delicate and ambiguous solution of “federation under the Ethiopian Crown.” The British left in 1952, remembered for impoverishing the territory but introducing a parliament and newspapers. The federal formula required that Emperor Haile Selassie rule with restraint, but after ten years of contrived unification with the rest of Ethiopia, dissolving Eritrea’s autonomous parliament, a small rebellion escalated. The first shots were fired in September 1961, and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF)—founded in Cairo the year before—began its guerrilla operations shortly thereafter, with the single goal of independence.

Isaias was a science student at university in Addis Ababa when he slipped across the border to Sudan and joined the ELF. He dedicated himself to learning Arabic because the rebels relied heavily on Arab countries for support. In 1967, he went to China for military training. On returning to the field, he was dismayed by the ELF’s lack of consistency in applying its revolutionary tenets and its failure to follow the Maoist model of consolidating a base area: any Eritrean nationalist was welcome to join, and differences of opinion were resolved by putting people of different political leanings in different units or holding inconclusive meetings. Along with another leftist who had trained in China, Ramadan Mohammed Nur, Isaias set up the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1970. It was nationalist but also revolutionary.

The merciless elimination of dissent is the original sin of many revolutionary movements.

Successive Ethiopian regimes—imperial and communist—fought their wars in Eritrea on a huge scale and with unremitting brutality. Once or twice a year, they launched vast ground offensives. The emperor’s forces burned villages and singled out suspected nationalist sympathizers for detention and torture. Haile Selassie was overthrown in a revolution in 1974, and the head of the military junta, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, switched to the Soviet bloc. The USSR supplied an arsenal and trained Ethiopia officers in its use. They mounted artillery barrages at EPLF-held hillside strongholds, after which massed infantry brigades stormed them, time and again, with relentless futility. Daily daytime air raids meant that the EPLF became nocturnal—all activities from transporting supplies to cooking and laundry took place during the hours of darkness. In the EPLF-controlled areas, every dusk, anonymous hillsides would transform into hives of activity as fighters emerged from their hideouts.

The EPLF’s ethos was egalitarian and ultra-disciplined. That was what ensured its survival under relentless onslaught. Its leaders insisted that Muslims, Christians, and members of all Eritrea’s nine ethno-linguistic groups were considered equal. Rather than postponing its revolutionary agenda until after the war, it enacted land reform and women’s emancipation in its “liberated areas,” and set up schools and hospitals for fighters and civilians alike. During its twenty years of armed struggle, it had no formal ranks, only positions of commander for specific tasks. After liberation, when it set up a memorial to its martyred fighters, the EPLF chose a monument in the shape of a plastic sandal. Manufactured in an underground factory dug out of a mountainside, sheltered from the daily air raids, plastic sandals had been the ubiquitous footwear of the guerrilla fighter.

This was the image that Isaias projected to the world: an austere revolutionary, first among equals among comrades. Less mentioned was the fact that the EPLF was also Leninist in structure and discipline. The decisions of the central committee, once adopted, were to be implemented without question. Nor did the EPLF hesitate to kill. On many other occasions, EPLF members were executed on the merest suspicion that they might be spies. Scores of Eritreans were “sacrificed” in these purges, and hundreds perished in the vicious internecine war with the older, fissiparous ELF. In one episode from the early days of the EPLF, a band of well-educated volunteers was purged because they dared challenge Isaias. Known as the Menqa—or “bats”—because they supposedly conspired in darkness, the moniker says as much about the executioners as their victims. (Among them was Mussie Tesfamichael, one of Isaias’s close friends from his school days.) The Menqa were at least subjected to a process of investigation, and their fate became the subject of whispered debate. Not so for the next challenge to Isaias, from a group dubbed Yamin—“rightists” in Arabic—many of them highly educated, who simply disappeared without trace. The merciless elimination of dissent is the original sin of many revolutionary movements, a dark spot that cannot be erased.

Ultimately, would-be dissenters fell in line because the EPLF was an astonishingly effective military machine. To call it a “guerrilla” movement would be a misnomer. It became a conventional army, defending its base areas in mountain trenches and fighting huge armored battles. The town of Nakfa in the desert hills close to the Red Sea—bombed into ruins by day-in-day-out attacks by Ethiopian fighter jets, yet never yielded by the EPLF—became the symbol of their resistance. (Eritrea’s post-independence currency is called the Nakfa.) After years of relentless combat, the EPLF turned the military tide. In fighting at the port city of Massawa in 1990, the EPLF captured ninety-nine Soviet-supplied tanks and inflicted thousands of casualties. They won a decisive victory in 1991, which was duly followed by a 99 percent vote for independence.

The seven years after liberation were a period of hope for Eritrea. Fighters turned their energies to reconstruction. The diaspora returned, with professionals from Europe and America starting businesses, teaching at the university, and building retirement houses. Aid flowed in. Eritrea had the good will of the world.

Signs of incipient autocracy, however, were evident from the outset. The secretive, centralized command structure that had been so efficient in wartime didn’t vanish when the EPLF became an ostensibly civilian government. Days before the declaration of independence, fighters protested the decision that they should continue to serve without pay for two more years. A group of disabled veterans marched—there’s no verb that conveys the determined collective motion of their wheelchairs, artificial limbs, and sticks—towards the capital to demand their pensions. They were shot at with live ammunition. Some were killed, others were arrested and disappeared. At a political convention in 1994, the EPLF dissolved itself and established the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice as a civilian political party. It was ostensibly to be one of many in a multi-party system, but in practice, the PFDJ was indistinguishable from the state itself. The EPLF’s shadowy financial network, set up for clandestine arms purchases, morphed into the party-owned Red Sea Trading Corporation, later the focus of UN investigations for a host of illicit activities.

Veterans began to vote with their feet. Ramadan Nur quit politics. The minister of foreign affairs, Petros Solomon, a hero of the liberation war, asked to be demoted to run the ministry of maritime resources. Following elaborate consultations across the country, a constitution was drafted, but after the Constituent Assembly ratified it and handed it to the president in a ceremony at the national stadium, no more was heard about elections, an independent judiciary, or freedom of the press. Isaias had a reputation for knowing Eritreans one by one, forgetting no one, with an uncanny ability to espy their secrets. His intelligence network was both invisible and pervasive.

In May 1998, Isaias escalated a border skirmish into a war with Ethiopia, which was governed at the time by a sister revolutionary movement, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ethiopia had a tradition of martial imperialism that the Eritrean leader had learned to fear. Isaias’s border incursion—claiming a small town known as Badme—re-awoke Ethiopia’s militaristic spirit.

The battle that was unfolding was both a comrades’ war and a cousins’ conflict. The two sides knew each other intimately. The EPRDF coalition was dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), founded during the revolution of 1974–1975. Over the next seventeen years, the EPLF and TPLF literally fought in the same trenches against Mengistu’s army, which employed Soviet tactics of relentless obliteration by artillery and airstrikes and massed infantry assaults.

During that time, the EPLF and TPLF resisted with astonishing stoicism. But they also quarreled over doctrine and tactics. While the EPLF dug trenches to defend their base area in the desert mountains of northern Eritrea, the TPLF waged a textbook guerrilla war among peasant villages, withdrawing when the government army attacked and counterattacking when they could fight on their own terms. They disagreed over political doctrines too, in arcane debates that a generation later seem to belong in the seminars of Marxist theoreticians. Was the Soviet Union a “social imperialist” or ultimately an ally, even though it was the major backer of Mengistu? Were Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups—known in Marxist terminology as “nationalities”—entitled to self-determination?

The worst falling out occurred in the depths of the great famine of 1985, when the EPLF closed the main road that brought relief aid from neighboring Sudan. But three years later, they patched up their differences in order to defeat Mengistu, accomplishing the task in May 1991. For the next seven years the EPLF in Asmara and the TPLF/EPRDF in Addis Ababa appeared to be the best of friends. But their differences were deeper than the factionalism of leftist politics.

Isaias held the TPLF and its leaders in a special contempt. He and many of the Eritrean leaders hailed from the Eritrean highlands, historically coterminous with Tigray. They speak the same language—Tigrinya—and share the same history, dating back to the Axumite kingdom of the first century C.E. that were divided by the colonial boundary drawn at the turn of the twentieth century. Many Eritrean and Tigrayan families are intermarried. Isaias grew up in urban Asmara, where his father was among the first Eritreans to go to secondary school. Middle-class Asmarinos’ maidservants were often from Tigray’s northernmost district, Agame, as were the street sweepers and boys who hawked prickly pears. Their Tigrinya has a different accent. In private, members of the Asmara elite disparage the TPLF—including their leaders—as “Agames,” the sons of their maids. For them, it is unthinkable that Tigrayans could be their military equals or that Tigray’s prosperity could surpass Eritrea’s.

The ostensible reason for the 1998 war was a minor territorial dispute over the town of Badme. Underneath it was the question of who should be number one in the Horn of Africa—Isaias would never be content to be anything else. A few weeks earlier, when President Bill Clinton had traveled to meet Africa’s “new brand” of leaders—the other three were Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi—the White House chose Kampala as the venue. To the dismay of White House staffers, Isaias declined the invitation. He knew he wouldn’t dominate the meeting and didn’t want to sign up to a coalition he wouldn’t lead.

A few weeks after the outbreak of that war, I went to see Isaias with Paulos Tesfagiorgis—who ran the Eritrean Relief Association during the liberation war and had after independence overseen the country’s only human rights organization, the Regional Center for Human Rights and Development, for a brief period until it was shut down. Isaias carefully stage-manages every encounter and likes to meet alone without staff to keep a record. But the Badme War seemed to have shaken him. Arriving at his office, the guards were casual in dress and manner. Security checks were minimal. The receptionist, wearing her fatigues, waved us upstairs. The austere camaraderie of the guerrilla days lingered, but every visitor was monitored.

The presidential office was an unremarkable Italian-era building with the spacious corridors and high ceilings favored by Mediterranean architects from the era before air conditioning. Isaias’s own office was capacious, simply furnished, and dark. The curtains were drawn, and there was just one dim light shining on a coffee table. Isaias himself sat at a large desk, head in hands. He glanced up only to wave us to sit down. He was wearing a khaki safari suit and plastic sandals.

We sat, we waited. Then Isaias stood up, more heavily than his frame seemed to warrant—he is tall but slim—and joined us. His few steps were tired, and he slumped into the low chair, summoned coffee, and sighed. His face is normally inscrutable. At that moment he looked weary and wounded. He seemed at a loss for words. What he said next was the only time anyone can recollect any hint of remorse or self-doubt. If it was a performance for our benefit, it was a convincing one. “What have we done?” he asked. “What have I done?”

But Isaias’s brooding demeanor lasted no more than a minute. As he spoke, he transformed, becoming focused and energized. For more than an hour he surveyed the political and military landscape, the state of world geopolitics, and the failures of the previous seven years. His coffee remained untouched. He shifted his forceful gaze from Paulos to me and back. He was in command of our encounter, and our cups of coffee also went cold.

Perhaps eighty thousand soldiers died on both sides in battles that resembled the western front of World War I.

Eritrea had made the first gains on the battlefield. From Isaias’s encyclopedic monologue, battalion-by-battalion, he seemed utterly confident in victory. He was up against a much bigger country, however—and as Ethiopia cranked up its military mobilization, it would outnumber and outgun its smaller neighbor. Then again, overcoming long military odds was a familiar predicament for Isaias, even a comfortable one. Since leaving his university studies for the field in the sixties, forging the most efficient insurgent army in Africa, out-fighting Ethiopians was just what he did. We couldn’t tell if he believed in his own mystique, but he was certainly compelling: there was no detail on which Paulos or I could challenge him.

As Isaias detailed the deployment of his troops, their logistics and fighting capacities, he also portrayed himself as strategist, diplomat, quartermaster, and military tactician. All the other commanders who had led fighters in the previous war faded from his telling. And indeed, many were pushed away from any active role in the command. Isaias was determined that the victory should be his alone. We left the meeting with a clear sense of Isaias’s focused, manic micromanagement of the war, and a glimpse of the dark void that lay behind it. There was also no vision beyond battlefield victory and the inexorable working out of historical inevitability.

Isaias ran his war and lost it. Perhaps eighty thousand soldiers died on both sides in battles that resembled the western front of World War I. In May 2000, the Ethiopians overran Eritrean trenches, and the rout began. Veteran EPLF commanders hastily took charge of the disarrayed units and organized a last-ditch defense which slowed the Ethiopian advance. Isaias, who had previously scoffed at any suggestion of a ceasefire, desperately called Washington, D.C., to beg for one. Prime Minister Meles then ordered his troops to halt. The Ethiopian army chief of staff, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, rued that order for twenty years. He is now a member of the Tigrayan central command, organizing the defense against the Eritrean attack.

Meles’s calculus was that Isaias would be overthrown or contained, which seemed possible at first. Eritrean veterans knew who had bungled the war and who had salvaged some honor in the defeat. Demands for change grew louder. Paulos organized a group of independent Eritreans to petition for human rights and democracy. They met in Germany, writing a letter to Isaias, reflecting on their country’s predicament and asking for Eritrea to turn towards the path of democracy. (The story is vividly told in Stephany Steggall’s book, The Eritrean Letter Writers.) In November 2000, the “Group of 13” (G-13) met with Isaias in Asmara.

This was not an encounter that Isaias wanted and one for which he appeared astonishingly ill-prepared. Meeting the group alone, he began by accusing them of betraying Eritrea and giving solace to its enemies, then demanded they apologize and retract the letter. They of course refused. One of the G-13, the eminent physician Haile Debas, read out the substance of their letter, watching Isaias’s reactions closely. The president was ill at ease and unable to handle a well-articulated challenge. Leaving the meeting, Haile remarked to Paulos, “We have a bigger problem than I thought. He is mentally unstable.”

A few months later, fifteen senior EPLF leaders—the “G-15”—formulated similar demands. Isaias ignored them. They made the fatal error of waiting. In private conversations (some of them recounted in Dan Connell’s book, Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners) they shared their dismay at how Isaias had betrayed their dreams and their remorse over their own failure to confront him over his abuses. For his part, Isaias was biding his time. A week after 9/11, with the world’s attention distracted, he struck with his trademark ruthlessness.

Petros Solomon returned from his morning jog to find security men waiting for him outside his home. His young children were waking up inside. They have not seen or heard from him since. Their mother, Aster Yohannes, was studying in the United States at the time. After negotiating with the president’s office, she flew home. When Aster’s flight landed at Asmara airport, security agents boarded the plane and took her straight to a prison camp. Her children waited at the arrivals holding their flowers until the airport had emptied. She, too, has been neither seen nor heard of since. Their daughter Hanna has patiently campaigned for her parents not to be forgotten. She told her story in PBS Frontline’s Escaping Eritrea last year.

One of the G-15 dissidents recanted. Three were abroad. The other eleven—among the most celebrated leaders of the liberation struggle—disappeared into Isaias’s gulag. Some are feared dead, others incapacitated. No one knows. No charges have been published.

Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018. A reformer and relative political novice, he offered an olive branch to Isaias. One veteran diplomat compared it to a rabbit asking a cobra for a dinner date. The two men declared an end to the conflict with Eritrea, and Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The details of the deal weren’t revealed to the African Union or the Ethiopian parliament, however. Best practice—and the standard procedure at the African Union—is for a peace agreement to include provisions for democratization, human rights, and demobilization of over-sized armies, all subject to international monitoring and reporting. In this case, everything was chanced on words of goodwill. The Nobel Prize was a triumph for wishful thinking, but the Norwegian committee wasn’t the only one guilty of gullibility. The deal was greased by prince Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Tibor Nagy, anticipated a “warm, cordial” relationship with Eritrea. Isaias got sanctions lifted, a security pact with Ethiopia, and an emergent axis of autocrats that brought Somalia into his sphere of influence.

After Eritrea was brought in from the cold, Isaias didn’t relax his grip. Instead of demobilizing his vast army, he shopped for new weapons. Instead of allowing his people to move freely, he dispatched security agents to Addis Ababa. When Covid-19 hit, he took the opportunity for a rigorous lockdown. He trained special forces for the Somali army, reportedly with the goal that President Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” could dispense with the inconvenience of an election. The Somalis are skilled at restraining would-be autocrats, however, and managed to hold their election in May, removing their aspiring dictator. Isaias is also fishing in Sudan’s troubled waters.

But for Eritrea’s despot, these are sideshows. The contest with Tigray is the main event.

For Isaias, this portends a final decision by force of arms. He will fight without mercy. If he prevails, his lifelong ambition of becoming master of the Horn of Africa will be within his grasp. Should Isaias fall, a complacent international community will be able to claim no credit for the end of his dictatorship and destabilization. Hopefully, after a lost generation, Eritreans will be able to enjoy their long-awaited liberty.