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The Tale of the Two Dictators

The Tale of the Two Dictators

Aynalem Sebhatu 03-26-21

A contest between Colonel Mengistu and Isaias Afewerki would indeed have been a great comparative study in dictatorship in the Horn of Africa, but instead of Mengistu, we suddenly found ourselves dealing with a charlatan and a pathological liar, a man cut from true fascist cloth: Abiy Ahmed.  For one thing, Abiy has never been, nor he can ever be a democratic leader. He carries a good deal of demagogic political baggage.

In Abiy’s recent convoluted speech to his parliament, the more he vigorously defended the killers, the war criminals, the rapists and the genocidaires, the more he is written off as small minded, petty and a sociopath dictator with an active imagination for “alternative facts.” It is a pity that most Ethiopians have not critically examined their leader more closely.  

As they might say forecasting in politics is not the same as charting and sequencing the virus. With my appreciation of the complexity of the politics in the Horn of Africa, allow me to guess about the fate of Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki. The ill-fated political journey of the two dictators began with a revengeful war plan against the people of Tigray. Since the war plan was drafted and developed in Eritrea; with the consent of Abiy and few Amhara political elites, Abiy sealed his fate with a well-established and unhinged ruthless dictator, Isaias Afewerki.  

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Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki have no unique observed leadership quality or intellectual capacities to speak of. Both are absolutely dependent upon brute force from their security apparatus and reliant on a fear-based chain of command wielding big sticks. Most of the time they do not have advisors or ignore their advisors due to their “pretense of knowledge.” They love to lecture on people. Have you ever seen Abiy Ahmed interviewed one on one with a journalist?

Both men are very much obsessed with maintaining their power and projecting it at will. Both are very revengeful leaders who always demand loyalty at any point in time. Driven by their dictatorial complex, they want to substitute their own personal desires for the personal desires of everyone else. Due to his belief in positive thinking, Abiy spent scarce resources (millions of dollars) on lavish parks and shiny objects while Isaias’s spending has been on Eritrean youngsters and adults toying with guns.  

I shall not examine Isaias Afewerki’s leadership style and the political system in detail; suffice it here to note that he is one of the symbols of dictatorship in the Horn of Africa. Isaias is a creature of the EPLF, excessively control freak, and without a hint of any appreciation of the role played by the people of Eritrea for the independence of the country. His personal and political records clearly show he is a cold-blooded dictator. Moreover, I do feel compelled to write that Isaias has sucked the blood out of Eritreans more than the blood spilled during their struggle for independence.  

When Isaias exacts his revenge on his political opponents, it is as if he is capitulating to his long-term addiction of painkillers. In short, he steered the aspirations, hopes and dreams of Eritreans into disillusionment and despair. Disappointment and disillusion have been fueled by the never-ending military service and his efficient security apparatus’ constant surveillance and terrorizing the public thereby leading the young to leave the country at alarming rates.  Yet, Isaias was able to convince a significant number of Eritreans by shifting the blame on TPLF and the people of Tigray.  He never takes any kind of responsibility and accountability for his choices and actions.

The Isaias leadership appeared to be betting on a wave of militarism to satisfy his personal ego. He has convinced his military brass that the war against Tigray will remedy the economic and social defects of his drained country.  Once Isaias, Abiy and the Amhara political elites rout out the people of Tigray, the prosperity of the Gulf States and other economic powers will flow via the port of Assab. Harnessing the flow of goods and services requires a strategic partnership with Ethiopia. This entails having a strong joint force of the army and navy supported by an efficient security apparatus.  This vision of bringing Assab into the sphere of influence of Ethiopia gave a second incentive to bring the Amhara political elites to this partnership.  The first incentive was vindication against Tigray.

The odds of implementing the Assab based prosperity (ABP) is like the odds of winning a Jackpot. If the odds are so low, why play it? Is it worth playing? Well, the ABP meant to sway the tide of the Eritrean and Ethiopian public opinion for the war.  At least Isaias used it to convince his rank and file of his military brass. There were reports about Isaias talking about confederation with his high-ranking officers. The ABP also meant to bring the attention of the UAE and the Saudis into supporting the war in Tigray. Eventually, the UAE played a lion’s share in disarming Tigray.

The war adventure of the two dictators and the Amhara elites is mainly driven by vengeance and blind hatred and I submit, the war can be understood more in this context. The problem with the ABP vision is that the two dictators and the political elites of Amhara are too unpredictable to follow it through and it is difficult to implement the vision without the backing of their respective citizens. Given the ruthless nature of Isaias Afewerki, it is very hard to imagine how people could trust him and sooner or later he is going to mess up. He is a man who thrives on conflicts not partnerships. As they say the proof is in the pudding. The use of his army and his security apparatus inside Eritrea and inside Tigray have consistent record: mercilessly killings, rape and imprisonment with impunity.

The way things are going in Abiy’s Ethiopia, the Isaias military and security apparatus are destined to repeat the same fascistic deeds inside other parts of Ethiopia. He doesn't care whose blood he sheds, and he is an equal opportunity killer. Most Ethiopians think that the Isaias army and his security apparatus are operating only in Tigray and they have no clue he is at striking distance of the Arat Kilo palace under the guise of protecting the security of Abiy Ahmed. For sure, the best investment Isaias ever made was on Abiy Ahmed and he will protect his investment at any cost.  At the end, the boomerang effect of Isaias policy is going to inflict serious damage to Eritrea’s sovereignty down the road.

Even those who applaud that there is a meaningful connection to be made between Isaias Afewerki and Abiy Ahmed have some problems with Isaias Afewerki’s Eritrea. Several months before the war in Tigray started, a supporter of Abiy Ahmed (well-educated and close to Abiy’s political circles) told me Ethiopians must all rally behind Isaias Afewerki and bring Eritrea to its mother land, Ethiopia. I could easily sense what the conversion was all about: the Assab based prosperity.  I suggested gently that I could not see Ethiopians supporting and glorifying a man in love with killing, imprisoning and exiling his own citizens. The reply: Isaias Afewerki is utterly unimportant; it is “Medemer” that counts.  But Isaias is important, and I have never known a man who treated his citizens as his objects. When such an addict of war and destruction appears in the politics of the Horn of Africa, mouthing new sounding friendship slogans, are Ethiopians and Eritreans to deny the insights of the last 30 years experiences of Isaias’s brutal dictatorship for Abiy Ahmed’s figment of imagination of Medemer or Prosperity?

While Isaias Afewerki and his army generals repeated the litany of revenge and invoked going to war against Tigray, Abiy Ahmed began an accepted war of maneuver. Abiy’s logic was simple and compelling: the Tigrayans, the Amhara and the Eritreans neutralizing each other, it is safe for Abiy’s kingdom to play at small conflicts in other parts of the country. The Amhara political elites, he correctly reasoned, were not prepared to lose western and southern Tigray to save the areas taken by the Sudanese forces—any more than Abiy would be ready to defend Tigray from the Isaias army.  Unfortunately for Abiy, the two thorns in Abiy’s sides are getting dangerously deeper and could become fatal; the operations of the OLA in all parts of Oromia and the TPLF in all parts of Tigray are expanding and are making significant strides.

The duration of the war in Tigray heavily depends on the availability of incentives for the two dictators, the Amhara political elites and the military strength of the TPLF. Losing in this war means not only loss of power but also suffering death or imprisonment. Even though the TPLF peacefully transferred its power, the punishment was severe enough to warn those who are in power today and in the future to make sure they fight to the last man. Otherwise, they might be facing the same fate as leaders of the TPLF. For the Tigrayans, winning is the only choice they have. Therefore, the war drags on till the repressive military and security apparatus of the dictators are significantly depleted. Till then the two dictators will determine whether the months or years ahead represent a pleasant warming trend between Ethiopia and Eritrea or a red-hot pot that leaves the citizens of the Horn of Africa burned. Add the extraordinary political gamble of the Amhara political elites on side of the two dictators, the political pressure cooker gets so intense no one wants to predict what comes next.

Tigray will prevail!

Eternal glory for our martyrs!

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