The Making of the Absolute Dictator of Eritrea

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05/03/2021 01:10 AM

The Making of the
Absolute Dictator of Eritrea.

by Dr. Herui Tedla Bairu,
Stockholm, 2021-02-25

The Making of the Absolute Dictator of Eritrea

The Making of the Absolute Dictator of Eritrea.
by Dr. Herui Tedla Bairu, Stockholm, 2021-02-25

First Part

The following is a digest of chapter 13 of my book: Eritrea and Ethiopia: …Issues of Conflict…And Peaceful Resolution. The Red Sea Press, Copy Right 2016. This chapter is intended as a framework of a forthcoming book.

The First Decade of Independence: 1991-2000 I was determined from the outset not to accept an executive post in Isaias’ administration. In accordance with my decision, I took a course in business administration in Stockholm, for the purpose of preparing myself for a business venture. Two Swedish partners and I registered a company in Stockholm; there remained registering the company in Asmara. After the independence celebrations, I had the opportunity to meet Secretary General Isaias Afwerki, to identify areas of cooperation. In the meeting, I stuck to my decision not to accept an executive post, but expressed my willingness to partake in think-tank initiatives, constitution-making, and parliamentary work. The first business idea that I broached with him was building large warehouses for Scandinavian export goods, leading to the construction of a permanent Scandinavian exhibition centre aimed at Middle Eastern markets - with the aim of establishing a tax-free port.

The First shock

In his first speech after independence, the secretary general of the EPLF, Mr. Isaias Afeworki, declared that non-EPLF fighters may return to Eritrea as individuals; in the same breath he forbade non-EPLF organizations from operating inside Eritrea. The policy of keeping out the ELF, and its derivative organizations, meant that Eritrea was to be deprived of multi-party democracy and would, henceforth, be ruled by a one-party system. Afeworki’s declaration amounted to stigmatizing the non-EPLF organizations as fifth columnists thus depriving their families their right to have their offspring and relatives amidst them; the jubilation of victory was marred; by this method, the dictator kept inter-Eritrean conflict alive. The Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) that was largely composed of intellectuals was disbanded; so were the mass organizations abroad.

The Provisional government

Immediately after the military liberation of the country from the control of the Derg, a Provisional National Assembly was put together, composed of members of the Central Committee of the EPLF, and some personalities from the non-EPLF organizations, for decorative purposes. The Provisional Assembly established in its turn, the Provisional Government of Eritrea (PGE), with Isaias as the head of state. In 1992, the PGE was formalized by a proclamation. The PGE lasted until May 1993 – the date Eritrea became a formal member of the United Nations. The UN-legitimized Eritrean flag was replaced by the insignia of the EPLA. The symbol of the Eritrean nation became the camel, while the Eritrean currency was named Nakfa in commemoration of the liberated base-area of the EPLF.

The other Point of View

Haile Diru’e and AL’ Amin informed me that my name was registered for membership of the Provisional Parliament and wondered whether I would consent to the proposal; I expressed willingness because of the opportunity it provided me to play the role of articulator of the other point of view, in matters of national interest. Among the issues I took up the most important were the language and land issues. On the land question, my intervention was provoked by the then Mayor of Asmara who announced that several villages would be co-opted into the municipality of Asmara. I protested by saying: “under which law has the municipality of Asmara taken it upon itself to unilaterally expropriate land that belongs to villages (communes)?” I continued, “the charter under which the Asmara municipality was established does not empower it to confiscate land unilaterally.” The mayor retorted: “land belongs to the people, don’t you agree?” To which I answered: “land belongs to Adi’s specifically, and not to the “people” in general; the question of land needs to be protected by constitutional law, buttressed by the customary laws of Eritrea.” Having stated my position, I turned to the SG, who was chairing the session, and asked: “Comrade SG what are the principles that govern land ownership in Eritrea, private or collective ownership?” The house was enveloped by a hostile hush; after a long wait the GS answered: “Land ownership shall be governed by a mix of private and collective principles, just as in Sweden where you live.” There was a sudden sigh of relief; after all, their leader diffused the loaded land issue by a charming joke. Every statement I made became a topic of discussion in town; the public awaited more of the same: for a short while, I managed to forge a platform for an alternative voice.

Ambassadorship at the UN

I was asked by Naizghi, who was at that time responsible for national security, to spend the weekend with him at Mendefera; I accepted the invitation gladly because it gave me the opportunity to see his mother; a courageous lady who went through unthinkable suffering during the days her son was imprisoned for being an activist of the ELM, related to our group. On our way to Mendefera, we were accompanied by General Ghirmay Mehari, the director of prisons. Naizghi asked me, point blank, if I would be interested in taking up the post of ambassadorship to the UN, to which I answered that I would not. Naizghi pursued the matter by arguing: “the independence of Eritrea hanged on the results of the referendum and that a person of your caliber is needed at the UN during this sensitive, transitional, period.” and added: “Isaias believes that you are best suited for this task”. I declined the proposal politely, but firmly. Shortly after we returned to Asmara, I met the General Secretary at his office regarding my business project, he commented: “I hope you did not perceive the ambassadorship to the UN as a mere diplomatic chore; it is related to making the referendum successful.” I stuck to my guns; after that encounter, I felt a veil of mistrust emerging between us.

Revolt inside the EPLA

In 1993, just before the referendum, the fighters took over the capital and presented Isaias with a series of political and economic demands; mostly related to the expectations of fighters after liberation. He acquiesced to their demands, to buy time, after which he disbanded the rank and file, and imprisoned the leaders. A demobilization order was issued intended to intercept a potential challenge on the part of the army. Consequently, the size of the EPLA was in effect was reduced substantially.

Revolt of the War-wounded

Another serious challenge came from the direction of the war-wounded, who demanded humane treatment, better medical attention, and a voice in the NGO organizations set up in their name. The war-wounded organized a demonstration located midway Massawa, to lodge their protest in Asmara. Government troops attacked the war-wounded, killing several of them; the sight of handicapped fighters fleeing from death at the hands of their comrades, remains etched in the memory of nationalist Eritreans.


Military victory alone did not suffice to guarantee independence and international sovereignty. A referendum was required to determine the issue of national independence or union with Ethiopia, once again the intervention of the United Nations revisited Eritrea in the form of organizer of the processes of the referendum. The acquiescence of the Ethiopian state was an important condition; the Ethiopian policy of acceding to the results of the referendum cemented the international legitimacy of Eritrean independence. Almost 100% voted “Yes” to independence.

Steps toward Dictatorship

Disarming the most important components of the EPLF, were essential to Isaias’ coronation; this did not suffice, the removal of prominent personalities in the EPLF by introducing the idea that the old leadership ought to give way to “new blood”, was also central. The top leaders rejected the proposal; but they did not have access to party rank and file, and party funds, to make their refusal stick; they were paralyzed, Isaias had already prepared the team that would replace them at the projected third congress.

The Third Organizational Congress of the EPLF

To round off his campaign for the sole rulership of Eritrea, the would-be dictator organised the 3rd congress of the EPLF in1994; the delegates to the congress were carefully screened and selected; only after minute preparatory work did the Secretary General dare hold the Third Organizational Congress (TOC). The election process was a kind an organisational coup by Isaias against his old organisation. He was able to remove the old guard from his government and replace them by a group of cadres who were dependent on him.

The new name of the organization became the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). It was announced that the secret Maoist party was abolished but denied that it was going to be replaced by another secret party. The party adapted a political document called the ‘National Charter’ and elected a new executive committee. The new party, which is better known to the public by its acronym the PFDJ, became the sole, legitimate, political organization in Eritrean politics. Today, the PFDJ controls the commerce, industry, and financial institutions and mass organizations of Eritrea. The PFDJ also controls the cultural output of the country and holds a lid on the Eritrea army.

Proceedings of the Congress

The secretariat selected to administer the proceedings of the congress was composed of the so-called “new-blood-team” - a team whose role in the liberation of Eritrea was marginal. Isaiah speech was an abridged history of the events of that led to the formation of the ‘Selfi’, that in turn led to the formation of the EPLF, in1977. He concluded his long speech by stating that national independence was achieved by the struggle of the Eritrean people, the EPLF, SAGIM, and the Eritrean Democratic Movement (EDM). Ramadan M. Nur, the Vice Secretary General announced that the secret Marxist-Maoist organization that controlled the EPLF, from its inception, has been terminated; many were surprised by the admission to the existence of this tightly kept secret; somebody asked: “does this imply that another secret party has been organized to replace the old one?” No official answer was given to this central question; it was simply assumed that the new-blood-team were the leaders of a revamped Marxist-Maoist party. The Vice President was coerced to resign by announcing his exit directly to the plenary session: this abominable act of humiliation of a person, who was instrumental in bringing Isaias to power, was a sign of things to come.

The Ideology of “New Eritrea”

The congress came out with a charter that reminded one of the political tracts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: it ordained PFDJ’s role in the politics, culture, and economy of Eritrea as supreme. In politics democracy was replaced by the notion of tolerance and flexibility – left to the magnanimity of the ruler. In economics, the notion of self-reliance became the leading idea. In culture the ruling party was accorded the authority to guard the hegemony of the working classes by establishing party-controlled organizations; in this respect, the party was accorded the mission to replace the “obscurantist culture of the past” by the revolutionary culture, cultivated, in Sahel, the base area of the EPLF - understood as the equivalent of Mao’s base area: Yenan. Now that everything was in place, the risk-free elections were held. The old guard’s showing in the elections was low; the score of the new-blood-team was high - after all, the ballot boxes were under their loving care. The Third Organizational Congress “crowned” a dictator for Eritrea; Isaias radiated with triumph; his true image hitherto camouflaged by a pleasant mask, was revealed for all to see.

The ideology of New Eritrea was an adaptation of Mussolini’s ‘Nuova Italia’; the difference being that the Italians based their fascist ideology on the history of the Roman Empire, while the Asmarinos aimed at eradicating Eritrean history and the foundations of its society, with the limp justification that the cultures of successive colonial powers have corrupted Eritrean society. Only the collective experience of the EPLF in the Sahel base-areas, and the glorious armed struggle, it was argued, could save the Eritrean society. Isaias claimed that Eritrean society was fragmented by colonial powers, and the savage anti-colonial war; he regarded Western democracy a continuation of colonialism by other means.

The campaign against national groups and regions represented another important aspect of the dictator’s policy of creating a culturally uniform “New Eritrea”. The New Eritrea strategy was a copy of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the main ingredients of which were, the idealization of the liberation army, the promotion of aggressive military nationalism, and the worship of the personality of the dictator.

The Asmarino stratum knocked out and replaced it by PFDJ and took over the Eritrean state: they became the dominant power-factor from the president down to the middle bureaucracy, party, army, and government. With the control of the state, they soon controlled the economy of the country and emerged as a new class. The strategy of takeover went unnoticed during the armed struggle due to liberation efforts that outweighed other matters. The takeover was noticed only when the most important individuals in the party and government were found to be Asmarinos.

The Constitution

As a final step in the legitimization of his new powerbase, Isaias set up a constitution drafting committee that drew its inspiration from the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (the country where he acquired his basic military training). Likewise, the decisive step in the legitimization of one-party rule was taken by the establishment of a constitutional Commission; a vast campaign, intended to inform the people about constitutional matters, and gather the views of the people on constitutional matters, was set afoot. There was also a parallel campaign conducted in the Eritrean communities abroad. The referendum type of campaign for the constitution conducted by the commission was intended to formalize a ready-made draft constitution by the president’s men in the commission. The constitution did not make provisions for election; it was tailored-to-measure to legitimize Isaias the dictatorship. It can be argued that from 1997 onwards Eritrea was transformed into a guerrilla state run by a guerrilla army.

The legitimization of one-Party rule

The second major step toward the legitimization of one-party rule was taken at the third-party conference. At this conference, the true intentions of the general secretary were unveiled. Firstly, the principle of multi-party democracy that was the centrepiece of the party programme of the EPLF was replaced by a charter that promised to rule with tolerance and flexibility in lieu of democracy. The second phenomenon was the emergence of the president’s men, firstly, as members of the preparatory committee of the congress, and secondly, as members of the leadership of the party.

As the result of the coup the president conducted against his organisation, the PFDJ emerged as the state party. Like other state parties it put the mass organisations under its tutelage; the masses of the Eritrean people were coerced to join the party – anyone who was not a member of the party was treated as second class citizen. The meetings of the party at the highest and smallest unit were secret. Public debate was discouraged: the objective of the party was to spread fear and perpetuate ignorance.

The Provisional National Assembly (PNA)

Isaias legitimized the new power structure by putting up a brand-new parliament (composed of his military and civilian supporters) and formed a provisional government composed of second rank, yes, men. Shortly after, a Transitional National Assembly (TNA), composed of 75 EPLF members, and 75 civilian members was established for the purpose of electing the Transitional Government The second government was known as the ‘Transitional Government’ which lasted until the 1994. These parliaments met seldom; legislation was made by decree.

Totalitarian Dictatorship

Intoxicated by the achievement of national independence, the Eritrean people gave a Blanc Check to Mr. Isaias to do with Eritrea as he willed. Having secured the unquestioning adulation of the masses, Mr. Isaias went about, unhindered, to build a one man, one party, state. The key posts in the party, such as the offices of party organization, and party finances, were allotted to the new-blood-team; likewise, sensitive posts in the government, such as ministers and advisors, were occupied by the new-blood-team. The old guard were given window-shop ministries, with little power or influence - until their time came to be put on ice. There remained the security sector; namely, the military and security forces: in addition to being the head of the party and state, Isaias became the commander-in-chief of the military establishment. The authority to nominate officers, who were answerable only to him, completed his dictatorial powers. The official media, represented by the government-controlled TV, radio, and newspapers, launched a systematic personality cult: with these steps emerged the most absolute dictatorship Africa has ever witnessed.

The Wars of Isaias

The dictator provoked a conflict with Yemen over the Red Sea islands Hanish Kabir and Hanish Sequir; Yemen’s position was that these islands fell under its sovereignty; the Eritrean dictator chose the stratagem of imposing his will by armed conflict; but when his military adventure failed, he was compelled to seek a wrong diplomatic solution; by consenting to international arbitration, he abandoned his case to outside players, over whom he did not have control. Face-to-face bilateral dialogue would have led to a face-saving compromise solution.

There was also the Eritrean-Sudanese conflict that led the severance of diplomatic relations and, ultimately led to a proxy war in the form of supporting the southern and eastern Sudanese opposition forces. The draft constitution was given a death blow by the Badume conflict that led to a full-fledged war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In late 1997, government and party functionaries begun to change the language of friendship, that reflected the honeymoon of the EPLF and the TPLF, to the language of hostility. All was not well. We were told Eritrean youth who were in the Badume area had not been heard of; military units operating in the Barka area were ordered to investigate the whereabouts of these youth in Badume; after a while we heard that Eritrean troops entrenched themselves in Badume. Eritrean troops took military positions over the entire Eritrean-Ethiopian border. At this stage, the Ethiopian government took its case to the parliament that resolved to ensure the respect of Ethiopian territory by force of arms. An international initiative known as the Rwanda-US was rejected by Isaias. The initiative aimed to return to the status quo ante so that a full-scale war could be avoided failed due the procrastination of Isaias. Not all the members of the government were for war; few had the courage to express their views to the dictator; among the few were Berakhi and Ugbe Abraha.

Herui Tedla Bairu,
Stockholm, 2021-02-25

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See also recent articles and Seminars by Veteran Dr. Herui Tedla Bairu
ካልኦት ብ'ብገዲም ተጋዳላይ ዶ/ር ሕሩይ ተድላ ባይሩ ዝተጻሕፉ ጽሑፋት ሰሚናራትን ኣብ ታሕቲ ተወከሱ :-

See also Related /  ምስዚ ዝተኣሳሰር ሓበሬታ፡-

International Conference for Democracy in Eritrea, 15-18 December 2000, Stockholm.
ዋዕላ ንደሞክራስያ ኣብ ኤርትራ፡ ክፉት ዓለምለኻዊ ዋዕላ ስቶክሆልም፡ ንደሞክራስያ ኣብ ኤርትራ (15-18 ታሕሳስ 2000)።

Permission to publish this documentary video on has been obtained from Dr. Herui Tedla Bairu.
እዚ ቪድዮ`ዚ፡ ብፍቓድ ዶ/ር ሕሩይ ተድላ ባይሩ፡ ብመንገዲ ዝቐርበልኩም ዘሎ ሰነድ ኢዩ።
International Conference for Democracy in Eritrea, 15-18 December 2000, Stockholm.
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Permission to publish this documentary video on has been obtained from Dr. Herui Tedla Bairu.
እዚ ቪድዮ`ዚ፡ ብፍቓድ ዶ/ር ሕሩይ ተድላ ባይሩ፡ ብመንገዲ ዝቐርበልኩም ዘሎ ሰነድ ኢዩ።

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