>>>> Note: I finished preparing this opinion piece on Monday morning, June 28, 2021, but hesitated to publish it due to the new developments on the ground in Tigray, but now decided to publish it as is. >>>>>
It appears, in this war in Tigray, from day one, Isaias was on the offensive. He fought the Tigrayans on their home turf; not only that, for months, he deployed his military in central, and past central Tigray, into Qolla Tembien, the southern part of Tigray.
Furthermore, especially during the first few months, Isaias deployed many large contingents against the Tigrayan strongholds in the hope of scoring a quick victory. In many battles, he attempted to overrun the TDF strongholds and overwhelm them with the sheer number. No one knows how many Eritrean soldiers have been perishing in this model of war tactic.
Nonetheless, I do not believe the Tigrayan Defense Forces will let Isaias continue to fight them on their home turf. If we use American football as a metaphor, the team that desires to defeat the opponent must move the ball or the line of scrimmage onto the opponent’s 50-yard territory and move toward the endzone. Therefore, I think the TDF might, at some point, decide to fight Isaias inside Eritrea.
For over 20 years, some Eritreans have been claiming that they don’t need any external forces to help them get rid of Isaias. If there are Eritreans with a solid plan or strategy that can remove Isaias from power and withdraw his Army from Tigray, in that case, naturally, they should be applauded and supported. However, these actors need to realize that they are running out of time; they have a tiny window of opportunity to realize their plan. The Tigrayans are not going to wait for other forces to help them defeat their enemies either.
Isaias has been wreaking havoc all over their region, and no doubt he will continue to do so, not just in Tigray but all over Ethiopia, until someone put an end to his war adventures. For as long as Isaias is in power, Tigray will never have peace. Therefore, if the Tigrayans decide to fight Isaias in his territory, they will be doing that for themselves and not for Eritreans. As a result, they won’t need permission from any Eritrean to engage their enemy in a territory of their choosing. Eritreans should not be surprised when that happens because they need to realize they will have no say in this matter.
On that note, in my last opinion piece, I suggested that the Tigrayans make a concerted effort to communicate with the Eritrean civilian and military population, lest their mission is misconstrued, or worse, exploited by Isaias. Moreover, it behooves the Tigrayans to bring the Eritrean public over to their side to minimize the losses of Eritrean and Tigrayan soldiers’ lives, which is very important. None of the Eritrean and Tigrayan children deserve to die in this war.
Although looking from afar, Isaias’s army appears to be united, there is a belief by others that it might be sharply divided internally. It is believed the soldiers all respect and fear Isaias but don’t respect or fear one another. One of Isaias’s most fantastic skills is that he has built a mighty and conformist army, but that might also be deeply divided. He achieved this level of conformity by driving wedges among all commanders, from the lowest to the highest ranks, and by planting spies that directly report to him by overpassing the chain of commands. But these phenomena may not become apparent to the nation or even to the military until the demise of Isaias.
Dictators who do not leave power peacefully leave big messes behind them. No one lives forever, so, somehow, someday, Isaias will leave this world, in one way or another. Be that as it may, I don’t see a sign of Isaias leaving power peacefully so far. Isaias does not have grudges on the Tigrayans alone but on all Eritreans as well. No one knows for sure what caused it, but it’s clear that he’s been nursing grudges against Eritreans his whole life. Isaias is so vindictive; therefore, it is fair to expect from him that he might decide to take the nation and its people down with him when he goes.
I hope to be wrong, but I am just saying, let’s, in advance, explore all probable or conceivable scenarios that could become real in the wake of his demise and prepare for any eventuality.
Let’s first take a look at another Eritreans experience below.
1981-1982, Korokon, Sudan
In August 1981, the Eritrean Liberation Front’s army was driven out of Eritrean soil and into Sudan by the joint forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Soon after, the defeated Army took refuge in Korokon, Sudan. There, no sooner had the army arrived in Korokon than longtime friends started pointing fingers at and blaming one another. Power struggle started, although there was no real power to be had or to speak of. Long-times friends found themselves in different and opposing political camps. Accusations and counter-accusations proliferated in the political camps. Feelings of resentments or anger that had been buried deep came out in the open. Everyone wants to exonerate themselves. That is what defeat and hopelessness can do to any people, including longtime friends.
Thanks God, in Korokon, except for very few exceptions, they were all unarmed and did not do physical harm to one another, again, except for few exceptions. Still, that experience in history has prevented them, forever, from coming together and forming a formidable opposition.
Again, I hope and pray to be wrong here, but there is no guarantee that the experience mentioned above won’t transpire among Isaias’s army after the demise of Isaias. When they lose their commander, naturally, all defeated armies become divided and start pointing fingers at and blaming one another, even when they did not have an apparent division in the first place. Therefore, one has to expect, defeated and without a leader, Isaias’s army to start reevaluating their entire lives. Usually, when things go wrong, people want to blame someone else, but never themselves. As a result, resentment and anger suppressed due to military discipline, fear, or love or respect for the organization (EPLF) might come out in the open. However, what will make this phenomenon different from the ELF in exile, or the Korokon experience, is that they are all armed. But more importantly, there could be many internal and external actors waiting and ready to exploit their divisions and turn them into many antagonistic factions.
However, in my opinion, there is one clear solution: keeping the army intact and under one commander, and that part of the task will have to fall on the shoulders of all Eritreans. Later, I will suggest how all Eritreans make their chief priority to help the military remain intact.
In the meantime, let us first look at other recent experiences in different nations so that all Eritreans will understand the consequences of not keeping the army intact and under one commander.
The Somali Experience:
In 1991, a coalition of clan-based rebels defeated the Somali National Army and forced President Siad Barre to flee the country. However, the rebels who defeated Barre had not formed one national army under one commander before overthrowing Barre; therefore, they immediately turned against each other and into warring factions. They could not create one national army because the only thing they had in common was the deposing of Barre. They all had separate visions for the country’s future, and each wanted to impose its will on others. There was no powerful national army or police that could disarm the warring factions; each faction was as strong as the other.
So far, Somalia has not been able to form a strong national military. As a result, the civilian government’s security has fallen at the mercy of foreign nations with competing interests and influences.
On the other hand, after having given Mengistu Haile Mariam a safe exit in the same year, the EPDRF entered Addis Ababa with one national army, which allowed it to maintain law and order and establish a government quickly.
The US’s Iraqi Experience
When in 2003 the US invaded Iraq, Saddam had hundreds of thousands-strong regular, combat-tested, and disciplined national military.
However, in the wake of Saddam’s defeat, there appeared to be a consensus among many political analysts and historians, who appeared on US airwaves, and that was, they all were suggesting, by citing the post-Nazi Germany as an example, that the US disband the Iraqi national army and start the de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi society, and build a new army from scratch.
But later, some policymakers admitted that the US’s biggest mistake to be its failure to keep the Iraqi’s national army intact. Because, faster than the US could start building a new national army, insurgency ensued. Former members of the military who lost their dignity, and their livelihood, their jobs in the military, joined many insurgents and factions and militias and together wreaked havoc on the nation and frustrated any US’s attempt to build a new national army and build a politically stable Iraq
The Libyan, Egyptian, Syrian, and Sudanese Experiences
In 1969, Lieutenant Gaddafi came to power through a military coup against King Idris. Thereafter, because he had feared a military coup against his government, Gaddafi deliberately weakened the national army. As a result, when Gaddafi was deposed, the already weak and divided national army collapsed along with him.
It has been almost ten years since Gaddafi was deposed. Still, the country has not been able to form one national army under one commander, making the country a battleground for external actors with competing interests.
There was nothing wrong with the revolution that toppled Gaddafi; the problem was that the process did not have one strong national army to stand with it and maintain law and order.
On the other hand, a robust national military under one commander has saved Egypt from the hands of the Moslem Brothers, who had made it their central policy to target the Christian minority and moderate Muslims.
Likewise, with the help of Russia and Iran, a powerful national army saved Syria and its people from viciously intolerant forces.
Although there is no doubt both the current governments of Egypt and Syria are dictators, they are much better than the forces that attempted to replace them. Therefore, for the interim, until someday other parties with genuine democratic aspirations rise against them, the current governments are preferred to keep law and order and save their minority or moderate populations from being slaughtered.
Sudan has also been another example of a nation saved by its strong national army from descending into chaos or civil war so far.
Shared Blame and Responsibility
How many of us would have violated the chain of command and acted differently from what the soldiers have been accused of doing in Tigray had fate thrust us into the Eritrean army? (This is not about those who have been accused of war crimes. Chain of command does not excuse any soldier to commit war crimes) How many of us would have acted differently had the system regimented us to conform and fear, indoctrinated, or even mesmerized us since childhood on how to think, behave, and what to believe in?
Don’t get me wrong; I want the Isaias military to be defeated and driven out not only from Tigray but from all over Ethiopia. The sooner they are defeated, the less time they will have to carry out orders from Isaias, commit even more crimes against humanity, and bring about more shame upon their country. Moreover, the sooner they are defeated, the better chance they will have to spare their lives because only through defeat will they spare their lives. Those unfortunate souls are our flesh and blood and have mothers, fathers, spouses, and children, so I wish their lives could be spared if not for themselves for their families.
The military isn’t any different from the general Eritrean population in exile or in the country. Like all Eritreans, their judgments have been clouded by blind nationalism. For many decades, Eritreans only wanted to see good in Isaias, and their mind guided them to see only the good in Isaias. Many Eritreans still do not find any fault in Isaias and never want to hold him responsible for any wrongdoing. Even those who flee the country and arrive in Europe or North America, through torturous journeys, go back to Isaias and sign “remorse papers” as soon as they get their resident papers from the free nations.
For the past 20+ years, Eritreans, including I, have been saying that Isaias has done these or that to us. But we all know that nobody can do anything to you unless you allowed them. Not only have we allowed Isaias to do to us, but we encouraged him. So then, shouldn’t we all Eritreans be responsible for our situation, not just the military or the system of government.
If we blame others in order to feel good about ourselves, or exonerate ourselves from any wrongdoing, who do we blame first? How many dead and alive people do we blame or prosecute — hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands — and where does the blaming start, and where will it end?
Moreover, who will be the judge? Who will select the judges or the prosecutors? Won’t they be accused of favoritism or parochialism? Questions might arise, “why was this or that guy not indicted; is it because they are from this land, village, region, or religion? Why those who were with them are not indicted? You will be opening a Pandora’s Box.
Worse, by extension, the consequence could significantly divide the national army into many antagonistic factions.
Eritreans should never tempt themselves to go down that rabbit hole. It is not worth it. For instance, suppose you get a few individuals convicted and executed; that could generate you a week-worth of a feeling of schadenfreude, then what? Wasn’t that what they got, the Ethiopians, the Amhara Political Elites, who uncorked the champagne bottles last year?
Again, suppose the nation punishes only a few individuals. But would that be right? Do we say “business as usual” and put all the blame on Isaias and a few individuals? If we were to do only that, the rest of the population would feel vindicated or blameless, as though they had not contributed to the source of the nation’s predicament, in one way or another. As a result, the country will not have learned anything in the present or the future. The only way to guarantee that this generation or future generations will not repeat what has been experienced so far is when the entire population shares the blame, guilt, responsibility, and shame. Yes, shame, because even if only some of what Isaias is being accused of doing in Tigray proves to be true, it will be an ugly chapter in Eritrean people’s history for generations to come.
Eritreans must make a conscious decision to accept collective responsibility, leave the ugly past behind, forgive one another, and move on. Focus on the bigger picture. Exercise in spirit and practice the wise expression of the lost generation of forefathers and foremothers: “ኣንጭዋ ትትሕለፍ ፣ ምእንቲ መጎጎ”.
But primarily, the nation needs to make a concerted effort to heal the divisions that might exist among the army. Nothing will be possible unless the military remains united and under one commander. Any accusations or counter-accusations, or taking sides with this or that, may lead to more acrimonious, even bloodshed, making healing and moving forward impossible.
Eritreans need to refrain from making accusations or innuendos on the military, even on few individuals. Any offhandedly made charge may push hundreds or thousands of them into a corner – always remember the proverbial cornered animal. Because even when you accuse few individuals offhandedly, you will have no way of knowing how many nerves you are hitting until it’s too late.
Let’s all agree all adult generations up to this point failed the nation, no exception – by our actions, inactions, misdirected or wrong efforts, or with our silences. Only when we all agree to share the responsibility, then future generations will learn.
For example, let’s take the 1998 border war with Ethiopia: Isaias may have started the border war with Ethiopia, but the fact was, all Eritreans inside and outside the nation took the war ball, so to speak, and ran with it. In that war, tens of thousands of bright Eritreans perished, and many thousands of others became crippled for life. So, who was responsible, Isaias, the army, or all Eritreans?
For example, in the diaspora, it’s hard to get the percentage, but suffice to say, an overwhelmingly large number of Eritreans supported the war. Moreover, for anyone following Dehai.org’s email distribution, it was easy to learn messages from the 99%+ distribution list members favored the war. So, there is plenty of blame to go around.
During that war, no one had stopped to ask what happened to the constitution that took several years of fanfare to prepare? Only a few asked, is it wise to go to war and pay more Eritrean lives after we just came out of a thirty-year war? Does this dispute with Ethiopia really have to be solved this year? Can it wait for 10 or 20 more years until we rebuild our nation or set up a constitutional government? Is Ethiopia or the EPDRF an existential threat to the country right now? Is not having that piece of plot detrimental to the nation? This year?
What’s worse, that unconditional support given to Isaias from all Eritreans has also given him carte blanche to deep-six the constitution and rule the country as an absolute monarchy.
There are many nations with border or territorial disputes but never go to wars. For example, Russia has been occupying four Japanese islands since the end of WWII. Still, the Japanese people or government never decided to put their entire life at a standstill, like Eritrea has done, and prepare to go to war with Russia. The Japanese people certainly have the know-how to build highly sophisticated weaponry. Another case in point, China respected and waited patiently for the 99-year lease of Hong Kong to end and to get Hong Kong back peacefully. Imagine, had Isaias been the leader of China with millions of soldiers and nuclear bombs, would he have said the lease was arbitrary and unfair, so I should break the lease and start a war with the UK?
Let’s learn great lessons from post-Nazi Germany and the GDR in the post-unification of Germany
Another evil, like Isaias, conscripted, mesmerized, regimented, and dragged millions of Germans into committing horrifying crimes against German citizens, the Jews, and others, and its neighbors, and brought about Germany unimaginable shame. But after WWII ended, some Germans openly and others quietly accepted collective guilt, but generally, the nation decided to leave its ugly past behind and move forward. And in doing so, the Germans rebuilt their decimated country faster than all pro-Allied nations in Europe. Although, of course, Germany was under occupation by the victors, nonetheless, had the Germans opted to blame and point the finger at one another, no one knows what might have been the consequence.
Of course, there was also the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, set up by the victor nations. Some criticized that Tribunal as the “victors justice,” and other prominent Americans described it as “ex post facto.” It appears the Tribunal was set up to show a semblance of justice to the world, or tame the anger of the victor’s peoples, or to make a gesture of tiny “closure” for the victims of the Holocaust. Because, although the Nazis had millions of followers, the Tribunal convicted only 24 Germans for high crimes.
Moreover, in the post-unification of Germany, the East Germans decided essentially to move forward. In 1990, Peter-Michael Diestel, then Minister of Interior of East Germany, described the impossibility of going after all the citizens who committed crimes under the previous system this way: “there were only two types of individuals who were truly innocent in this system, the newborn and the alcoholic.”
Isaias’s Next Move
Our experiences from the past fifty years have taught us that Isaias always finds a way to escape and spare his life when he faces a threat to his life. Unless he dies of natural causes in his bed, I have a feeling it won’t be any different this time around, either. I doubt that exiles to a foreign country; no country is safe for him. Most likely, he will take shelter in a familiar environment, in the northern end of Eritrea. If that were to happen, he wouldn’t be alone; there are some Eritreans who are smitten with him and who will follow him to the gates of hell. But, again, if that were to happen, I would not recommend Eritreans make pursuing them their priority. The nation’s priority should be keeping the remaining army intact and united because only one national army can save the country from descending into chaos or something worse.
“Living well is the best revenge” quote from a 16th century English poet. In our case, the best revenge against Isaias and those who follow him, wherever they may end up, should be by showing them that the nation can survive without them. It can live well and prosper and build peaceful relations with its neighbors and among its people.
What Type of Interim Government?
Many Eritreans feel that a national convention should be held before or immediately after Isaias is removed from power to set up a civilian government and organize elections. While I applaud their optimism and enthusiasm, I really do not see how this can be done. For example, how to ensure equal representation or participation without first conducting a census. And who will be the inviter and the invitee, and who might feel left out? What happens if the participants do not come up with an agreement that will satisfy them all? How many participants will gather in that hall, and for how many days or months? What will happen if some of the participants start walking out? Who will keep their security, who will exercise the authority to govern them all or act as an impartial arbitrator?
It is healthy for any nation to allow political parties of diverse ideas, and Eritrea should be no exception. But before allowing parties to move freely and share their political platforms with the public, there needs to be peace and security in the nation; there needs to be a government or an authority that can immediately take over and govern the country. You cannot talk about elections or civilian government before having a safe environment where the citizens can live and move freely. Unfortunately, in my opinion, in Eritrea, only the military might be the only viable option for an interim government.
However, this will not be easy. The military’s name has been tarnished, especially by its recent gruesome behavior and possible war crimes in Tigray. Besides, as explained before, the army might be sharply divided, but we won’t know for sure until Isaias ceases to be their commander. This being the premise, the public needs to help narrow the divisions among the military, not accentuate the differences. The public will need to refrain from and immediately condemn or call out those who might be tempted to add fuel to the fire. The public will need to realize that it will be on its shoulders to help unite the army. But, that can only become real when all Eritreans share the blame and responsibility for which the county is finding itself, not only the military.
Again, Eritreans will have no choice but to work and create peace and reconciliation among the military. Only when the army is reconciled and united can the country exist. Only when the country exists can we talk about justice, elections, democracy. But, again, unless the military remains united and under one commander, it will be impossible to talk or think about forming a constitutional government.
All Eritreans need to agree to keep the army as an impartial arbitrator and the guardian of the process or the political landscape toward setting up a civilian government. Parties should not attempt to recruit the military to their side, nor should the army allow its members to be recruited by any party. Eritreans need to refrain from making accusations and innuendo that might drive wedges among the military.
Isaias used the army for injustice, but it can also be used to promote justice and maintain law and order, and at a minimum, prevent the nation from descending into chaos.
My suggestion is that all influential Eritreans who live inside or outside the country must start working for that objective, or at least start pondering or talking about the idea right now.
Look, I am not in favor of a military government, but let’s be real here; independent Eritrea has never had a civilian government. Isaias is a military, and PFDJ is a military government. To deceive Eritreans, Isaias may not have assigned himself a military rank or wear military attire; nonetheless, he has been the war general of all the wars he started, including the current war in Ethiopia.
Interim Military Government
After the demise of Isaias, I my opinion, I would like to see the following to happen in Eritrea:
- The nation to be governed by the military for a defined term;
- At the end of the defined period, the military transfers power to an elected civilian government;
- If for some reason, the transfer of power to a civilian government does not become feasible, then the nation goes through another intermediate transition. For another defined term, the country adopts the Sudanese model, a joint military-civilian government.
During the specified tenure, the interim military government should not get involved in judicial matters or positions; civilians must fill those positions. Still, the military must do these, and many others that are outside the scope of this opinion piece:
- Maintain law and order across the entire nation;
- Start building an independent judiciary;
- Appoint interim attorney general, inspector general, judges, prosecutors, district attorneys (DA’s)…etc.
- Work with democratic nations to quickly train attorneys, paralegals … etc.; (one of the cruelest legacies of Isaias is that he decimated the judicial system, even the one that had existed in Eritrea under many governments, never trained attorneys);
- Allow the judicial system to prosecute those who incite violence;
- Enumerate the population or conduct a census;
- Register political parties;
- Deregister or disqualify parties that receive foreign funding;
- Provide a level-playing field for all parties to promote their political platforms;
- Allow freedom of expression;
- In collaboration with the political parties, establish electoral boards and election rules;
- In collaboration with the parties, set up voting stations and ballot boxes;
- Allow the parties to supervise the entire election process and investigate any wrongdoing;
- Allow the independent judiciary to prosecute those involved in crimes against humanity.
- Work with international organizations to train leaders.
- As it is, Eritrea is suffering from lack of capable leaders in all areas. Because he wanted to present himself as an indispensable Eritrean and the only person endowed by the creator to run the country, for the past 50 years, Isaias has purposely produced only followers. Moreover, he either discouraged, turned them into followers, or eliminated those born with excellent leadership qualities.
Will the military refuse to transfer power to the public? Yes, that is a real possibility. Once the military consolidates power, it may not do any of the tasks listed above. The only thing one hopes the military will do is to maintain law and order and prevent the country from descending into chaos.
In order the prevent the military from consolidating power, the public should:
- Keep the military’s feet under fire, and demand from the interim military government, from the start, to assemble freely, demonstrate, and form political parties and civil organizations, and establish free press.
- Keep a watchful eye on the military. The public should not sit on the sideline and watch the army consolidate its power.
- The public needs to discourage or condemn openly and call out those who will start worshiping the new leaders before the new worshipers become too strong and create another monster.
In my opinion, I would love to see soldiers who have been languishing in prisons, some for more than 25 years – if they are still alive – or the individuals that have been made “frozen” by Isaias, to be part of the interim military government. Having experienced injustice themselves, I feel those soldiers will most likely be the ardent defenders for justice and the little guy. But that is just my opinion.
Intervention from External or Internal Actors
Suppose a time comes for external forces, such as from Tigray, NATO, or the US, or from internal actors, to intervene and remove Isaias from power. In that case, I firmly believe those actors should make keeping the Eritrean army intact their chief objective.
Although the Eritrean army is being accused of war crimes, I believe most of the military are good and can be used to promote justice.
After the demise of Isaias, only one powerful national army can save the county and its people from descending into chaos.
As for Tigray, Eritreans will need to ask for forgiveness from their Tigrayan brethren; likewise, the Tigrayans will need to take into account only a peaceful, politically stable, and economically prosperous Eritrea will guarantee their security in the region.
Isaias is Still a Formidable Enemy
He is formidable because his goal is simple; he only wants to stay alive today. For instance, if the war in Tigray were to end tomorrow, and if Isaias had lost tens of thousands of his soldiers, he would consider that a victory and would sleep like a baby if he were still alive. The grieving and wailing of mothers wouldn’t wake him. If half of the nation’s population staves to death, but he is still alive, he will still sleep like a baby.
His second-best skill is patience. He patiently waits for the situation to change in his favor, one day at a time. No doubt right now, his future appears to be bleak after the whole world has learned about his war crimes in Tigray, but he is a survivor, and his enemies should never underestimate him. God forbid, if tomorrow, a much more severe crisis develops in other parts of the world that could shift the world’s attention away from our region, Isaias will turn that crisis to his advantage, and he will make deals with whoever can help him stay alive, one more day.
Lastly, often, Isaias bases his decisions on impulses. But also, he bases his decisions on hunches and night’s dreams. If he interprets his night’s dream or hunch as something is brewing against him, he orders what is known as “Protective Sweep”; that is, he arbitrarily sends dozens of random Eritreans into prisons, hoping one of his enemies would be among them, even when he had absolutely no proof. Those prisoners never get charged with any crime but remain locked up forever. This is also why it has become so hard for anyone to organize any force to topple him.