Isayas Afewerki settles a debt of forty years of reality; returns Tigrai into abject poverty and dependence.
6 April 2022
President Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea is a vindictive megalomaniac who has never failed to get even with those he holds had crossed his path to pay the ultimate price with either their freedom or life. He believes that there is no better army than his and no world policy that has helped people better than his. He is a first order malignant narcissist, perhaps slightly exceled by Donald Trump. He drove Eritrea to the ground with less than half of the population it had when he took over 30 years ago.
Isayas dropped out of Haileselassie I University in Addis Ababa and joined the anti-Ethiopian government movement to liberate Eritrea. He then rose to be the leader of the Eritrea People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). When the military junta ended Emperor Haileselassie’s reign in 1974, several liberation fronts sprung across the country. Tigrai Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) along several others was one that was established in Tigrai.
Several of the smaller organizations looked up to Isayas’ EPLF for guidance and training which raised his ego and reaffirmed his claim of the leadership. In the Mid-seventies and early eighties, Isayas Afewerki became the uncontested leader of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) played a power broker and an organization builder with a future that was to ultimately place him as the leader of the Horn of Africa.
Equally ambitious but low-keyed organization was the Tigrai Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). Isayas preferred the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) over TPLF as a larger and more commensurate with the future he was seeking in the Horn.
There were thus: EPLF, Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), EPRP, TPLF, and Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) operating in Eritrea and Tigrai. They all had a common enemy, the military junta (Derg meaning Commission) in Addis Ababa. They, nonetheless, had to sort out the leader or controlling organization among the freedom fighters in Eritrea and Tigrai. Although, EPLF and ELF’s causes were oppression by the Ethiopian government, I wonder whether given an opportunity Isayas would not have happily led EPEP had he been afforded the opportunity. His goal was to reign over the Horn of Africa unchallenged.
Isayas had shunned TPLF as small regional organization and encouraged EPRP to quash or eliminate TPLF to become the sole group in Ethiopia. This is not the last time Isayas to show his resentment of this (TPLF) small organization as a pest requiring control. He had already counted ELF as less relevant in Eritrea and his organization would eventually defeat and chase it out of the territory when appropriate. TPLF continued as thorn on Isayas’ side puncturing his balloon every so often.
In the interim, ELF continued crossing over the Mereb river into TPLF’s turf and continuously harass Tegaru in and around Sheraro demanding that they pay protection fee. It defied TPLF’s request to stop the harassments which eventually led to an open war between ELF and TPLF; the latter prevailed and joined by EPLF from the Eritrean side chased ELF out of Eritrea and existence as an organization. Members of ELF to this day blame and hold TPLF as having altered the history of Eritrea because they still believe that EPLF was less democratic and should never have prevailed as the liberator of Eritrea.
EPRP fought TPLF twice and lost and was also eventually chased out by TPLF from its last hold Wolkait. Members of EPRP also curse the day they were beaten by TPLF because they believe they were better organization to lead and liberate Ethiopia. TPLF’s fight against EDU was formidable that costed lots of lives on both sides. At the end EDU also lost to TPLF and went out of existence in the field.
Thus, at the end of the struggle for the elimination of the weak and survival of the fittest, TPLF and EPLF prevailed to become the sole freedom fighters in Tigrai and Eritrea respectively. The two then consolidated their organizational power and course in their respective areas. Both organizations were proud communists with slogans to liberate their people from imperialist oppression.
Russia was a major power that was helping Mengistu subjugate the Tigrai and Eritrean people. TPLF condemned Russia in the strongest terms as no different than other imperialists. Isayas, on the other hand, refrained to go that far because he considered Russia too big of an adversary to criticize. That costed him the support of international student movements, but he gained the support of a more significant ally, Russia.
In 1982, the different stand on Russia between the two organizations started a rift that gradually escalated for both to critically review the stand of each other. Isayas up to this point was a self-appointed leader of all the movements in the Horn of Africa. At least his Eritrean followers believed and made sure that the world knew that there was no organization close to EPLF let alone equal it. All was well and the debate whether Eritrea had the right to secede was being lost with TPLF as an ardent supporter of such a move.
So, when Meles Zenawi, who was not even the leader of TPLF at the time wrote a critical analysis about EPLF in Amharic: “Analysis, EPLF where to from where”, the entire EPLF followers were angry and shaken by the idea that there could be such a challenge from TPLF which it considered was too small and irrelevant. However, instead of ignoring the writing, EPLF amplified it by responding to it in a major way. The feud continued. Each organization despising and criticizing the other for not living up to the other’s expectation. The Tigrai and Eritrean Diasporas played critical roles in diffusing the conflict.
Meles states that EPLF was not fit to lead itself let alone the people of Eritrea; that it was a failure as a guerilla fighting unit and unnecessarily had so many young fighters sacrificed fighting conventional war when it should have known that it did not have the capacity to engage in conventional warfare against the largest mechanized army in Africa. Isayas counters by pointing out that it had taken TPLF too long to build to a level to engage the Ethiopian armed forces conventionally. Meles says never will TPLF line up its fighters to be mowed by helicopter gunships with impunity and jabs Isayas the age difference between the two organizations: 20 years vs 7 years.
In 1985, the contention between the two had reached a boiling point where Isayas ordered a convoy of 120 trucks loaded with lifeline to get Tigrai out of the cycle of poverty and endless beginning to be halted in Teseney; offense number 1 aimed at the existence of Tegaru. The trucks were loaded with humanitarian aid and seeds to be planted during the rainy season to begin the first round of self-sustaining agriculture. The government of UK was determined to see this project through and replaced what it had donated to go into Tigrai once they determined that the 120 trucks were going to remain stuck in Teseney past the rainy season which was about to begin.
It was miraculous that the leadership of the two organizations refrained from giving orders to shoot which would have started an all-out war between the two; Mengistu Hailemariam would have emerged as the de facto winner of the campaign for the liberation of Ethiopia which included Eritrea at the time. Both followers of EPLF and TPLF spent 1985 trying to diffuse the rift between the two organizations. I recall my friends on the other side of the disagreement telling me that Isayas will never forget this development unless the TPLF leadership admitted it made a mistake, apologize, and beg for his forgiveness.
Past 1985, Tigrai survived the famine crisis and started to rebuild as did TPLF which gathered momentum after a couple of wins of major confrontations with the military junta. The TPLF military leadership was smart to stay with guerilla tactics to land major victories against a well mechanized army and create confusion and moral decay among the Ethiopian military leadership that had suffered a huge setback because of lack of competent field command. It was all centralized and conducted from Addis with major resistance against any adjustment in the field even when conditions indicated it; which demoralized the commanding officers and their troops in the field. Mengistu Hailemariam undermined the military institution and its leadership in time of war which ultimately led to its defeat.
Long story short, TPLF grew exponentially while EPLF required saving by TPLF fighters in Naqfa. Another shortcoming of the invincible army which was kept a secret for fear it would drive Isayas insane were it to be publicly told. Eventually, the Derg faced the end with Mengistu fleeing to what had been prearranged for him by Mugabe of Zimbabwe. It is believed by many critical thinkers that TPLF allowed EPLF token representatives to march into Addis Ababa in 1991 to restore the Eritrean pride. However, the Eritreans claimed the entire victory and as usual there was silence from TPLF. Only Tegaru who were in Addis Ababa in 1991 and the command posts in Sudan and Tigrai, which had been liberated for over a year knew none of the commanders who entered Addis were EPLF commanders.
Meles Zenawi had risen to the top of TPLF ranks and led and chaired the formation of a transitional government of Ethiopia composed of all opposition factions except EPRP which refused to agree to zero hostility clause. Isayas watched the drama unfold from the balcony of the ECA with a former attorney general of Ethiopia to his right and Ethiopia educated lawyer to his left. This was another humiliation of Isayas Afewerki who had anticipated his coronation of the leader of the Horn of Africa. There were some who suggested it would have been best for Meles to allow Isayas to lead because that would have kept Eritrea as a province of Ethiopia, would have obviated the 1998 – 2000 Ethio-Eritrea war and Ethiopia would not
The establishment of a transitional government in Ethiopia with Isayas as onlooker and not a lead participant was the third let down of a megalomaniac. Thirty years of armed struggle and nothing to show for it. This revelation was what I learned from my Eritrean friends who attended the 1991 ECA meeting lamenting not only Isayas’ dismay, but also their disappointment that he was not even recognized at the meeting. That is true whether done deliberately or accidental, Meles did not pause to recognize him. And his friends were only too eager to let me know that Isayas never forgives those who cross him and that TPLF had several times crossed Isayas.
At the conclusion of the transitional government formation, many Eritreans who I went to college with at Addis Ababa expressed their disappointment to see Meles whom they knew very little assumed such power and prominence with Isayas sitting idly. The Ethiopian educated lawyer sitting to right of Isayas during the meeting expressed his wish for Meles to hand over the leadership to Isayas. And when asked about the freedom of Eritrea he did not hesitate to reply that will be acceptable with Isayas at the helm nothing will go wrong. Eritrea will get fair, if not preferred treatment.
Was this ever presented to the two antagonists? The answer was less than clear but apparently had been the assumption of the EPLF followers all along that Isayas would at the end rise to lead all the states of the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia. They reminded me that the reason they strongly advocated that there would be no free Eritrea without democratic Ethiopia was to underscore this point, that Ethiopia needed to be liberated from the grips of the junta under a new leadership and there was no better leader than Isayas at the time. Meles Zenawi was too small and an unknown. They expressed their dismay that we were so ignorant and out of the mainstream to miss this assertion.
It was thus no surprise Isayas would invade Ethiopia in 1998 because he truly believed he could defeat a nation of 75 million people when he only had a total of six million people. He suffered a defeat then in the hands of rapidly mobilized army not as formally organized as his army. Both sides then prepared for an all-out war in 2000. He was outsmarted by TPLF military thinkers and strategists. He lost air superiority to the Ethiopian air force and his invincible army could not hold its ground against an offensive that combined conventional and guerilla fighting tactics. Ethiopia rebuilt its army back to the largest army in Africa after that.
For those who have followed Isayas’ growth, survival and return to power to crush those who were dismissive of him and his speeches and simplifications, one is impressed with a personality disorder of a megalomaniac. His power craziness has manifested ever since he led EPLF; he has ruled with an iron fist and no compromise. He has been witnessed to make tyrannical moves without remorse. He chose to pursue arms struggle in one of the poorest countries in the world instead of transitioning to economic and social growth as Meles did. He fought Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti and then eventually Ethiopia in a short period of time to his demise.
He was shamed on every move he made to rise to the top. His defeat in the world arena by leaders of TPLF had added up immensely. For the next twenty years he dreamt of nothing but getting even with a region that he considered land of Aggames* not worth existing in this world. His dream and evil prayer were eventually answered. God rewarded him with a second life; he sent him a man named Abiy Ahmed Ali who like him was looking for the shortest way to the top of the world. The evil minds added up to come up with the greatest fraud ever and were met by eager buyers with money and power who could not resist what they were being offered: Ethiopia and the Red Sea.
The prizes were Ethiopia’s assets: agriculture to feed the Middle East, the Nile and hydropower and wide variety of minerals and the Red Sea. These two were singing music that the Arab world had been waiting to hear for a long, long time. The US was going to facilitate and coordinate the signing off these deals. These were worth Saudi Arabia and UAE medals and the Nobel Peace Prize to get the world to endorse the deal of the century.
It also presented Isayas a lifetime opportunity to get even with the Aggames he was going to release vengeance that had been pent up for twenty years. He was going to kill, brutalize, humiliate, and dehumanize Tegaru at home and elsewhere. When he is done with them, they will never ever be able to raise their heads again.
The final insult to Isayas’ psyche was when after 20 years of being shut out from the world, Eritreans were allowed to cross over into Ethiopia and saw what shocked them; Mekele which was a village when they knew it had now grown to a full-size city much larger than Asmara which in comparison is now the village. Their
surprise was told in the streets of Asmara and had made it to Isayas’ ears who renewed his vow to wipe out Tigrai to below the Eritrean state. Abiy helped him accomplish that.
Prior to the November 2020 encounter, Meles Zenawi had spared Isayas by ordering the Ethiopian troops to arbitrarily stop their march on Asmara under a fabricated claim that the US had ordered Ethiopia not to proceed into Asmara in 1998. Sources close to President Clinton reassured us otherwise, all the president wanted was for the conflict to end very rapidly.
The same story was repeated in 2000; this time because the “Ethiopian defense had miscalculated the logistics required” and thus was ordered to abort its march on Asmara. Such an account would only infuriate a megalomaniac like Isayas. His military’s invincibility was no longer his only loss but also his followers and to make matters worse, he was sanctioned by the US and UN and was not until Abiy Ahmed extended the lifeline he started to breathe again; he took giant breath with “game over” at the end of it. Megalomaniacs do not know moderation. They want it big and want it now.
- * Aggame in central Tigrai is one of the richest areas and land of prominent Tigrai lords and rulers. During the rainy season, when people have planted all their seeds have very little to eat until harvest time. They, therefore, resort to digging widely growing plant with edible roots. Eritreans saw this as sign of abject poverty and referred to people form Tigrai as “Aggames” to mean of inferior poor race.
Geopolitics is the Achilles heel of TPLF because of unnecessary simplifications and disregard to spend the necessary time and effort to gather intelligence and analyze what their environ is made up of and what the world thinks about them. Some of that is due to pure arrogance that parallels Isayas’; belief in self-created and perpetuated slogan “our power is our mission”. So, war came after Abiy and Isayas planned and prepared for two and half years; caught TPLF ill prepared that totally underestimated the brutality with which Isayas’ forces were to avenge and how eagerly the Amharas were going to join them because of hate of TPLF campaigned on by Washington, DC Amhara elites. For 30 years before the eventual war, Tegaru had been interchangeably linked with TPLF; at the end they became one and the same, hence the brutality and cruelty of the genocide and ethnic cleansing carried out in Tigrai in the minds of many Amharas was justified.
It was thus inevitable when Tigrai leadership allowed a situation where Isayas’ army gained the upper hand militarily, it would spell the cruelest punishment any group of people would ever have faced and witnessed.
No one, however, would have imagined the extent of Isayas’ wrath, which reflects the magnitude of his megalomania. Forty years of pent-up anger and fury was unleashed in Tigrai the week of November 2020. That he went as far as innovating cruelty and atrocity explains how much his ego had been shaken and traumatized. TPLF, an insignificant faction according to Isayas saved him at Naqfa from being eliminated and defeated. Isayas was not a grateful victim; he took TPLF’s sacrifices in Naqfa for granted and expected more, for instance he ordered TPLF fighters to staff the front while EPLF fighters followed. This went on for some time until Saare joined the TPLF fighters and reversed Isayas’ order and became the arch enemy of the megalomaniac.
It is a safe bet to conclude that the TPLF leadership never ever saw Isayas and his army as an arch enemy of Tigrai. There is a logic that has escaped me to make this acceptable about most leaders. It is notable that the rank and file of TPLF that has conveniently forgotten that they were defeated and basically eliminated to be hunted down by Sha’ebya and ENDF and brought to sham justice to be executed or jailed for life without parole. However, arrogance in the conduct of military missions never pays and most of the time backfires. Such is the case with Abiy’s ENDF and Isayas’ Sha’ebia; when they believed they had the last elements of Tegaru fighters cornered in Tembien** and went down for a final kill and mope up, they were encountered by militia so disciplined and fierce that kept on scoring victory after victory that when the small victories were added up the two forces had lost significant number of their fighting units and had to abandon Tembien and flee out of most of Tigrai.
This was a turning point for the rise of TDF and defeat of Abiy and Isayas in Tigrai. Take a pause here and ask the question, what next? TDF fought the Amhara militia and then headed south towards Addis Ababa.
It is to be noted that TPLF had vowed that it would never resume leadership role in Addis Ababa during and after the conspiratorial election of Abiy Ahmed.
So, what was that all about? Very expensive charade to scare off Abiy’s allies? Was not the logical choice to eliminate Isayas’ force that were beginning to choke Tigrai? Of the two enemies who destroyed Tigrai the most? Who wanted to really exterminate Tegaru? Who were the architects for Tegaru in Addis and
elsewhere in Ethiopia to be rounded off and put in container jails? Who destroyed Tigrai’s history beyond recovery? Who innovated rape violence to traumatize not only the rape victims, but also their families? Who has come out and said he was not done with the Aggames?
** Tembien is a land of fierce fighters that have always prevailed in the Ethiopian wars when invaders were always checked if not defeated in and around Tembien. Case in point: during the Italian invasion of 1936, the Italian force was held for over a month at Tembien, but once it broke through the Tembien front, it only took it 15 days to reach and occupy Addis Ababa.
Any logical person would fight such a beast threatening his people with every ounce of his strength. That is not what happened; TDF marched all the way to DebreBerhan to only return when the US barked at it. It has since been dancing in circles after it returned from the outskirts of Addis like a chicken with its head cut off. Isayas at his weakest was again spared for the third time at the expense of the Tigrai people.
TDF crushed every force that Abiy, Isayas and the Amharas combined threw at it. TDF is the people’s army and that has volunteered to bring the wrong doers against its people to justice. We all believed this and rallied behind the cause. Our people have now been put in a choke hold which is tightening around their necks until their last breaths are snuffed out. It has already started to happen. The numbers are grim. What makes them even worse is the fact that equal number of Tigrai youth sacrificed their lives for the cause which has turned into a political ping pong ball. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Tegaru have been betrayed by their leaders; they win battles to only lose the wars for lack of leaders with spines, fortitude, and integrity. The greatest betrayal of cause in the hands who want to continue to stay in power and control the destiny of a nationality.
TPLF leaders in the past had boldly bragged about them being better Eritreans than the indigenous people; they affirmed that they fought more for Eritrea than the Eritrean cadre and Sha’ebia leadership. I do not believe for one moment that that sentiment has ever left the ranking files of TPLF. If it did, I would love to hear it aired. Please note, I am not advocating for conflict between Tegaru and Eritreans. I believe that the two Tigrigna speaking people who were deliberately divided by Menelik II 130 years ago should come together and form a multiethnic nation in the Horn of Africa.
The military leaders in Tigrai should assume leadership role, organize, and engage Isayas’ force in Humera to open humanitarian aid corridor. They must continue to conclude the war whereby Isayas is captured or chased out of the continent and a democratic transitional government installed in Asmara. In the interim, TPLF leaders must prepare for transitional government in Tigrai. You owe the diaspora explanation if the above assessment of where we are is not true. You failed at the outset, and you have also failed at the end to the detriment of Tigrai and Tegaru.
For reasons you have yet to provide us with, you only had no more than 9,000 fighting unit to fend against 80,000 ENDF and 120,000 EDF and made us believe that Tigrai will prevail. We believed you and were in state of shock when we saw your defense crumble under the crushing force of Abiy, Isayas and Amhara Militias. You left Mekele for every household to fend for itself. Now that you have been saved by TDF, you assumed power and continue to ignore to provide appropriate clarifications of contradictory developments that do not make sense.
We fail to understand why Tigrai is in a siege if what you and your government has been telling us is half true that TDF is ready and could crush any force that dares to stand in front of it. Why when the people are dying from starvation has TDF not engaged EDF in Humera and assured relief corridor. Once that is open, there would be no relief agency that will decline from sending aid to Tigrai through that corridor. We did it in 1985 when the Christian Consortium in Europe resolved to save lives despite the political incorrectness; Mengistu’s cry about sovereignty notwithstanding. Please, explain the contradictions if the assumptions and questions here are baseless or wrong. Otherwise, you owe us and friends of Tigrai an explanation why TDF has ceased to exist.