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From Pariah to Statesman: The Failure to Rehabilite Eritrea’s Despot

From Pariah to Statesman: The Failure to Rehabilite Eritrea’s Despot


By Elias Dawit 03-13-20

For decades, Isayas Afewerki was considered an international pariah. Known as the “North Korea of Africa,” Eritrea remained trapped in the fog of its own mythology—led by a narcissistic despot who managed to crush the once celebrated spirit of the Eritrean people through everyday cruelty and mendaciousness. The pettiness of his tyranny and the parsimony of his authoritarianism over time exhausted the people of Eritrea, leaving them choking on their own wasted potential.

And then came Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his American backers. Why not change the narrative from “no war, no peace” to “peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea”?

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In the early days of the new Prime Minister’s rise to power, there was a pressing need to legitimize a man who seemingly came out of nowhere to lead Ethiopia out of 27 years of darkness. At the same time, the U.S. desperately needed to “bring Eritrea in from the cold,” to counteract increasing Chinese and Russian influence as well as expand its economic interests in the natural resources rich Horn of Africa.

The U.S.-brokered deal to rehabilitate Eritrea’s unrepentant despot was a Faustian bargain to serve the interests of Ethiopia’s newly installed Prime Minister and the U.S. economy.

Immediately following the announcement of peace between the two former combatant countries, images of Isayas and the Prime Minister were broadcast globally—photos and videos of Isayas dancing, embracing and kissing Abiy Ahmed. Eritreans and Ethiopians were shown weeping in the arms of family members who had been stuck on two sides of a stubbornly un-demarcated border.

In a matter of days, the Eritrean President was transformed from pariah to statesman. He was hailed by his surrogate, former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen, as “a regional elder statesman and peacemaker in highly volatile, strategic Red Sea sub-region”. The international press wrote about the “history-making peace” between the two former combatants.

And then came the Eritreans into Ethiopia.

With the borders open, Eritreans took planes, drove cars and walked into Ethiopia—leaving behind their homes, families and communities. It was an exodus of Eritreans who dared dream of a better life—away from the day-to-day humiliations of living in a police state with a collapsed economy and a dying mythology.

At first, the international community celebrated this family reunion. Trade resumed between Eritrea and Tigray. Flights took off from Asmara to Addis and Addis to Asmara. Delegations from both countries were photographed clasping hands.

Something was happening, however, that was hard to ignore. Eritreans were leaving and not returning home. In a country of five million people, the hundreds of thousands (over half a million worldwide) of Eritreans who left never to return has essentially de-populated the country of many people in their prime. The country’s labor force, and future, is being compromised by flight.

Indefinite military service. Forced labor. Inadequate education. No rights to free speech, assembly or association. No constitution. No independent judiciary. No elections. Just Isayas  and the hundreds of daily humiliations experienced by the Eritrean people.

The irony of it all is that Eritreans have fled to Tigray, home to Isayas’ most vexing enemy—the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF).

How does Isayas feel about his own people seeking safety and security in the arms of his sworn enemy? By the tone of his constant braying against the TPLF, it appears as if President Isayas is, indeed, unhappy. His steadfast ally in this is the Ethiopian Prime Minister, despite the bitterness and resentment Isayas feels about the latter’s Nobel Peace Prize. Waging war against the TPLF is perhaps the only common goal shared by the two leaders.

Isayas Afewerki has squandered so much in his life. He has certainly squandered his place in history. Instead of being remembered as a hero of Eritrean independence, he is forever tarnished as a disgrace and an insult to the courageous and self-sacrificing martyrs of the thirty year struggle. More importantly, he has squandered the limitless potential of a proud and capable people who have more to give than blind fealty to a despot.

To those in the international community who wished to rehabilitate a remorseless and unchanging relic of the past, let it go. The tragedy of Eritrea cannot be wiped away with empty words and gestures. The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is closed again. There appears to be no steps forward to demarcate the line that separates the two countries. Eritrea continues to die a slow and painful death while Isayas stews in his own rage against the TPLF.

Eritreans know that despots cannot be rehabilitated. They remain who they are until vanquished and discarded into the dustbin of history.


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