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Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki - the Thorn in the Horn

By Eyob Tadelle Gebrehiwot
Tigrai Online April 1, 2021


The umbra of the horrors of the hidden war in Tigray – an out-of-sight war from the world, has started, itsy-bitsy, 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’ tell stories of unimaginable human sufferings.

Los Angeles Times’ ‘In an out-of-sight war, a massacre comes to light’ and Washington Post’s ‘People are starving’ to 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, Aljazeera 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, inter alia.

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.

Also, arbitrary arrests, forced conscription, vandalism, arson and lootings of religious heritages, private and public properties, among others, are ubiquitous.  

By and by, after five months of official denial, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his handpicked Human Rights Commissioner unwillingly 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 Tigreans the end in itself, pari passu, to raze Tigray tooth and nail.

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


Addressing the illegitimate House of Peoples Representatives on March 23, 2021, PM Abiy has admitted the presence of Eritrean troops, though it completely contradicts with his previous official statements, and halfheartedly, possible war crimes. But most importantly, the PM has reaffirmed that Eritrean troops will stay in Tigray for an indefinite period of time, implicitly admitting the internationalization of the war, the inability of the Ethiopian army to end the war by itself and the incompetency of his government to handle the crisis. But above and beyond all these, the PM tells the world who has seated on the driving seat on the ongoing war in Tigray – Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki.

Yet two days later, he announced Eritrea’s concession to pull out its troops, which many political analysts believe is unlikely, and was designed to buy time and ease the high pressure from the international community.

Against these backdrops, and also, 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 find a parallax - beyond its recent politico-economic cause, in a bid to see a new dimension and uncover the archaeology of the master mind 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 and 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 as was Ares to the 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 risk their lives to cross the border. 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 til 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.’

Just recently, on 22 March 2021, the European Union imposed sanction on Eritrea and blacklisted its National Security Office, which is responsible for ‘serious human rights violations in Eritrea, in particular arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances of persons and torture.’

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, is even worse. He declared a bloody war on Yemen in 1995. He declared war on Djibouti and Sudan on several occasions. Isaias 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 it in an iron fist for almost three decades now, but also throughout the region, and now in Tigrai, one of the nine sovereign regions of the Ethiopian federation.


Isaias’ Utopian Project: Building a Nation without Tigryan 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, Eritrea People’s Liberation Front (now People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the sole political party in the country) forces blocked roads against displaced Tigryans 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 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 Tigryan identity as the major obstacle to his utopian nation building project: the invention of Eritrea devoid of its Tigryan origin.

Relations between Tigray and Eritrea have always been tied to history, identity, politics, language and geography, among others. Mereb Melash, also called Medri Bahri, the original names for present day Eritrea before it was rechristened by Italian colonizers in 1890, was part and parcel of Tigray since time immemorial, and thus, of the grand Tigryan 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 their mark on the political psychology of the man who was born in Asmara under colonial rule and raised under the shadows of colonization, and who has played and greatly determined much of its recent history – the first, and also current, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki.

Like in any other colonized countries, 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 or almost all 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 – the Axum Obelisk, on Porta Capena Square, Rome). Like in any other colonized countries, 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 building a country called Eritrea or better Mereb Melash without its Tigryan roots, was first designed and later 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 Frantz 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, i.e. the claim that Eritrea has different history, and a resultant psychological makeup and identity which is different from the larger Tigryan identity. True, the scramble for Africa had crippled the continents social, economic and political structures; however, the psychological damage is recurring. And, we have been witnessing how recurring this pathological crisis 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 Tigryan roots, second, the politics of hate against Tigray. During the first month of the ongoing war on 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 Tigrai-Tigrigne movement which had started right after the colonization of the northern part of Tigrai by Italy, is gaining currency and has been spreading like a wildfire on both sides of the Mereb River. It has been mainly propounded by Eritrean and Tigryan Diaspora to reunite both people in order to realize the rebirth of the Tigray Proper, Tigray South and North of the Mereb River.

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 even 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 had 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 chair man 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, Isaias’ war on Tigray is a continuation of his ‘grand’ utopian project of inventing Eritrea which is free from its Tigryan roots, and if possible, in the ruins of Tigray.

 The election of Abiy Ahmed as Chairman of the EPRDF, and later the PM of Ethiopia, was a good omen, a political miracle, for Isaias. They both agreed to annihilate Tigray under the pretext of a ‘peace’ deal, which in fact, and appropriately, was a war deal on Tigray.

Abiy, who lack 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 postponed the national election because he was sure his party could not win the election in Oromia region, where Jawar Mohamed’s, a prominent and popular Oromo politician, OLF party was given high chance of land sliding victory. As such Abiy canceled the national election, and Tigray, in defiance of the federal government’s illegal postponement conducted the historic Tigray 2020 elections. Hence, 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 and openly 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 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, and are still committing, 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’ role on the war, the alleged crimes which amount to genocide, is equal to, if not greater than, that of Abiy.

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 of opinion about what should be done. Of course, the EU has imposed sanctions on Eritrea, but that is not enough. Hence, 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. Moreover, the US and EU must use all available means for an immediate deployment of an independent team to observe the complete withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray. This should be an urgent task. Why? Because in the presence of Eritrean troops and Amhara Forces aid cannot reach for over 4.5 million people who need urgent humanitarian assistance. In the presence of both forces 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. To this end, the international community must interfere to stop the unspeakable human sufferings that are being committed against innocent and vulnerable Tigrians. And finally, a prompt, impartial and transparent UN-led investigation that does not include Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission, and holding those responsible accountable, must be the pre-requisite and co-requisite in the initial stages of resolving the crisis in Tigray.