Exit for the President of Eritrea: the Menghistu Way

Zekre Lebona

The tiger is on the back of the Eritrean masses, the same tiger about which one of the founding fathers of the movement for Eritrean independence, Weldeab Woldemariam, often loved to mention in his speeches. He described the “dilemma” of the Ethiopian regimes, which had the tail of the animal firmly in their hands but would only let it go at the risk of their political existence. The irony is that this veteran politician completely missed the menace from the tiger to the Eritrean people, who were in the grip of the state that personified the ferocious animal, and remain prostrated to this day. Who will help them extricate themselves from the tight hold of the predator state? Who will they lean on to stand upright and heal the scars on their back that are not, figuratively speaking, different from the burned backs of the Eritrean Sinai victims? A super power such as the United States did it once before, and if it has the will can do it again.

In 1991, EPLF rebels took Asmera while the EPRDF, an amalgam of insurgent groups organized by the TPLF, were quickly advancing towards Addis Ababa, where Mengistu and his party were allegedly to make a last fight. The fate of the city was uncertain; the fear of a civil war leading to massacres was not excluded from the comments of the experts on the Horn of Africa, whose memories of the events in Somalia were still fresh. Luckily, Addis Ababa was spared from such calamity. What factors prevented the possible outcome of massive violence and looting in the metropolis of many diverse ethnic groups? While many pundits pointed out to the “discipline” of the insurgent armies, which were compared to conventional armies, the quick removal of the dictator Mengistu from the political scene was more important.

Herman Cohen, the Under Secretary of State for African Affairs at the time, was holding a meeting with some of the major fronts battling the Ethiopian regime. Although Ethiopia had been under the influence of the Soviets, the United States had not given up on it, which explains its prominent role during the conference in London. More importantly, the rebels, who were quickly shedding their Marxist ideology, were also receptive to the mediation under the American government. Although the Secretary of State for African Affairs had to be even handed and consider the interest of the Ethiopian caretaker government and the representative of the Oromo opposition, the political outcome from the meeting was the rise to power of the EPLF in the newly separated Eritrea and the emergence of the EPRDF in Ethiopia. The impact of the decision has been controversial among many Ethiopian nationalists and the Oromo militants hostile to the elite from Tigray. Wrongly or otherwise, they accuse the American diplomat of conspiracy. His other crucial role in helping avert a disaster in Addis Ababa is however forgotten, and yet to be appreciated.

In light of his background, Herman Cohen’s recent proposal for the resolution of the no-peace-no-war situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea twenty years after the conference in London is disheartening. Demanding for the political exile of a dictator like Mengistu, who was under the huge onslaught of military forces of the EPRDF and the EPLF, may not be as farsighted as asking for the same condition in Eritrea, a country whose people have so far failed to show little organized resistance. The likelihood of sectarian wars applies to a country where people are on the surface docile but restive, waiting and angry for an opportune moment following the fall of the regime out of its own inertia.

Scenarios such as what happened in Mali and the Central African Republic recently are not difficult to contemplate in Eritrea. Ignored and forgotten by the international community for a long time, the civil wars simmering in their land led to the appearance of vicious military organizations which have no respect for civilization. Alarmed, France, the old colonial power, was forced to intervene with some technical support from the United States. Scenarios of this type may happen in Eritrea.

Understandably, this will provoke the ire of the nationalists in Eritrea, who pride of their thirty-years-war with Ethiopia, and of their being exceptional to the rest of the continent. They believe the state of Eritrea is beyond the tribal politics ensconced in Africa. They entertain of not only removing the totalitarian leader though they do not provide any time- frame for it, but have some illusions about bringing the dictator to court in Eritrea itself. It is absurd to contemplate such an event in a country that has been bereft of any semblance of civil and judiciary institutions for decades, leaving it under the guerrillas, (who had no respect for the rule of law) It is silly to entertain such notions in a nation where many of its citizens have internalized the values of the rebel organization. Unfortunately, perception and reality are not different in Eritrean politics, nor is the article, “Time to Bring Eritrean in From the Cold”.

Mr. Cohen proposes the lifting of the United Nations sanctions made to punish Eritrea for its involvement with the Islamist extremist Al Shaabab, ignoring the slave like existence of the populace and, most importantly, the possibility of implosion of the country. He proposes to enroll Isaias Afwerki in the war against Al Qaeda, which has made its presence in the Horn, fn Somalia and Yemen, evoking the politics of the Cold War. According to the former diplomat, Eritrea had a good track record fighting the extremists in the past and had shown a positive attitude towards its former enemy, Ethiopia, and therefore, deserves a new and friendly approach from the United Nations Security Council. He recommends Europe’s policy with Eritrea as the most reasonable one to emulate. The good diplomat seems to be looking for the typical strongman of the cold era.

Isaias, however, is of a very different specimen. His organization, EPLF and its successor, PFDJ, are one and the same totalitarian organization that was ruling over the Eritrean populace with little concern for its basic welfare. Nor were the nations in the vicinity such as Yemen and Djibouti left in peace. The regime embroiled them in war under auspiciously a border issue trapping the public within Eritrea in perpetual militarism. Yet, Mr. Cohen believes that a good gesture from both Eritrea and Ethiopia around the Badme issue, with some good mediator, would reverse the stalemate. [1] He is dead wrong.

After all, it is the Isaias regime that, notwithstanding its claim about a fight with extremist Islam, has been trafficking in people and smuggling weapons with some lawless entities such as the Bedouin in the Sinai. Islamist extremism works in tandem with human trafficking and arms smuggling as observed in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the Isaias regime that puts the blame on the United States for the mass flight of the subjects of the country and the horrendous torture inflicted on them in the Sinai, Egypt, and the inhospitable deserts of Libya, a behavior that no strongman of the old type would lower himself.

Isaias, Mr. Cohen, deserves a safe exile possibly to Qatar, his favorite destination in the Middle East, a favor you once did to the Ethiopian people. Your successors at the State Department should consider it. Dubai or any other Arab state would be a nice place for the dictator to exchange notes with his former nemesis, Mengistu, in Zimbabwe and for Eritrea to return from the “cold.”


[1]Cohen, Herman J. ‘Hank”. “Time to Bring Eritrea in From the cold”, December 17, 2013.

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