Back to Front Page

The Godfather of Dictatorship and His Last Dance

The Godfather of Dictatorship and His Last Dance

Aynalem Sebhatu


In 1969, Mario Puzo published The Godfather, a novel about a fictional New York mafia family.  The reader immediately learns a quote from Honore De Balzac, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” as the author begins his narration.  This quote always matched my preconception of Isaias Afewerki’s vision of Eritrea. Indeed, I reached the conclusion that Isaias’ killing and imprisoning of many Eritreans is more to satisfy a personal feud and personal power with potential rivals than to implement any ideological convictions he may have had. It is the mafia style code of honor system within the inner circles of the leadership and the active support of the enforcers, the army and the security apparatus, that brought down Eritrea to its knees. After years of sacrifices and hard-won freedom, the people of Eritrean found themselves, politically and economically, in dire straits. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Eritrea is today a nation of high wall prisons than ever before in its history.

Videos From Around The World

When Isaias Afewerki became the President of Eritrea in 1993, it was a milestone in ushering of a new era and people were jubilant about the bright future of the country. Eritreans started to see the devastating and protracted war in their rearview mirror and began to dream of building their country to a prosperous one.  Even though the country’s economy was in a debilitated state from the long devastating war with Ethiopia, the aspirations, the dreams and the determinations of Eritreans to build their newly minted country were overflowing. However, to the disappointment of the people of Eritrea and to the betrayal of the cause of the long armed-struggle, Isaias was not accountable to, or representative of, the Eritrean people and he started practicing his dictatorial leadership. Since then, the meaningful participation of all Eritreans in the realization of a new democratic and prosperous country quickly disappeared and the country effectively moved from one Amharic speaking dictator, Mengistu Hailemariam, to the Tigrigna speaking dictator. 

A major tool of conduct for the Isaias regime seems to me to spring from the enlargement of the security apparatus and the military. It is predictable and is classic of a totalitarian state that no national life can exist free from the political control of Mr. Isaias. Everything from sport clubs and worshiping places to commercial partnerships and farming communities must pay strict loyalty to Isaias’s objective, must, if demanded, serve the country in never ending national service in the military. The state of Eritrea became the only “real” organization, and all other institutions are obedient to it. In turn, Mr. Isaias runs the state of Eritrea as his private casino in an isolated desert.  The young and the political deviants lose their trust and devotion, like casino customers losing huge sums of money, of their loved country and they increasingly vote with their feet subjecting themselves to an exile. Otherwise, one will end up in the military service or in one of sprawling dictatorial complexes, the high walls of hidden prisons. A very few Eritreans might actually make a profit, especially those who are skilled at games such as blackjack. These are the security and the military brass of the country, such as the generals of the military.

As luck has it, Abiy Ahmed was apparently attracted by Isaias Afewerki’s resume of dictatorship, warmongering notoriety in the neighborhood and his professed hatred of TPLF and Tigrayans. Abiy Ahmed’s extraordinary political gamble in finding a hired gun ends a long spell of isolation of Isaias, as the Eritrean economy and the social fabric of the country declined steadily beyond repair.  As Abiy presented Ethiopia on a silver platter, Isaias regained some of his composure that was lost for the previous twenty years. So, Isaias is ready to add a hefty fire power to juice up the fire power of the federal government of Ethiopia as well as the manpower of the Amhara. But more adrenaline-fueled political sessions and protracted war lie ahead. What will determine how this gamble turns out? Abiy and Isaias will have to get to grips with the reaction of the international communities to their genocidal war in Tigray. But in short terms most hang on the activities of the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF) and the people of Tigray, who are tenaciously fighting against three sworn enemies.  

If there is one thing which comes out of thirty years of dictatorship in Eritrea, it is the perfection and the efficiency of the security apparatus in terrorizing and subjugating the people of Eritrea. Isaias has also developed the capacity of exporting his reign of terror to the neighboring countries. the predominant thinking is that Eritrea should export military and security services to Ethiopia now and that the trade surplus should be used to expand the country’s treasure. One for sure, Abiy Ahmed will pay in foreign currency, coffee and teff for the military and security services. The second sources of revenue are the looted goods and stolen cash from banks in Tigray.  The stolen Ethiopian currency from Tigray is already circulating in Addis Ababa. Well placed Eritrean agents, protected by their securities, are discreetly flooding the black market in search of foreign currency. Some of the stolen Ethiopian birr is spent to purchase teff in Bahir Dar and Gondor.   The godfather and his enforcers think that these activities would allow the country to have a bigger and more powerful army and navy and more colonies in Tigray or other places.  

Balzac’s quote “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” combined with foreign trade gives an insight into the economic thinking of the godfather and his inner circles in how to develop Eritrea. It is based on Mafioso-Mercantilist thinking of the godfather controlling economic and criminal activity leading to a successful nation at the expense of those less successful. This kind of parasitic thinking led to the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998 and it also reminds me of the intervention of Eritrea in Congo in the 1990’s when the Eritreans were extracting mineral reserves to support the Eritrean economy.  As they say “those who do not learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.”

I do not think that Isaias and his cronies are going to get out of the war in Tigray completely unscathed. Isaias’s army is facing severe headwinds in his war efforts in Tigray.  These developments coupled with Eritreans raising against the dictator might signal the beginning of the end for the godfather of dictatorship in the Horn of Africa. The war in Tigray might be his last adventure and dance.

Tigray will prevail!

Eternal Glory to our martyrs! 

Back to Front Page