Esaias is a Complicated Villain That Would Intrigue the Best Biographer
By Melkamu Teka
April 14, 2021
Young Esaias had a notable, if fishy, beginning as a revolutionary/liberator. He joined the Eritrean armed struggle in 1966 after spending one year at the College of Engineering of Haile Selassie I University. Joining at a young age of 20, he endured the long years of struggle for 25 years, mostly in positions of leadership. He emerged as an undisputed number one in the EPLF in 1987, four years before the front stormed Asmara, while he had served it as its vice secretary-general for ten years.
President Esaias of Eritrea is an astute dictator who is able to befuddle his subjects and successfully project merit where he has little, and he has done that for so long. His sophistry, which he plays out to perfection, has deflected potential condemnation and protest. Even a rumor of death and ill-health is used to create a sense of invincibility and control. From time to time, speculation is made to reign in the gossip channels about his death and being mortally ill. A week or two later, he would be seen visiting a place or talking to a journalist.
Esaias has ruled Eritrea for 30 odd years with an iron fist. Under his rule, there is no constitution, no parliament, no free press, no independent judiciary, and truly little armed opposition despite all these. All along, he has been an intractable figure in politics; determined and able to carry out his wishes and whims no matter what. He would do what it takes to fulfill his inner impulse, even when that serves only his ego. If that impulse is for going to war, he would call the shots as he has done already in Tigray. If it is for closing borders, he would give the order for it. Even throwing innocent comrades-in-arms into horrid prison cells is, for him, as easy as walking in the park.
Esaias is never coy in the defense of his dysfunctional policies, and in deriding international standards. He is on public records for lambasting elections. According to him, the clamor for election for African countries is a mere ploy of western countries to debase the continent. He would many a time subject citizens, over the TV screen, to vacuous but sound-looking arguments just to brainwash them, and he does that with a great level of skill. He is a loud critic of global powers and regional organizations, and an obsessed advocate of a perverse genre of self-reliance. Many a time, he makes it appear as if Eritrea is the envy of every nation, big and small; and as if it is a constant target of a concerted global plot.
Esaias presents the running away of thousands of Eritreans on an insanely risky journey as the work of the Woyanes and the USA. According to him, the ones detained within the country under a permanent free national service are in the noble goal of building a nation and are on a state of alert against Woyane’s invasion. The neglect of Asmara, the little Rome, serves the interest of other towns in Eritrea and is meant to bring about equitable regional growth.
Esaias had a golden opportunity in 1991 to start afresh by breaking ‘clean’ from his past sins. It was an advantage, if a squandered one, that almost all countrymen in the 90s used to look upon him as a true liberator, ultimate savior, and a glamorous leader. They had sung for him as a great hero. Even those who were steeped in western libertarian ideas tolerated his deviant policies and authoritarian actions yielding to his assumed fatherly figure and liberating role. In short, citizens were focused on his image of stoicism, down-to-earthiness, plain lifestyle, and outgoing manners. For that reason, they gave him years and years of benefit of the doubt.
Evidently, Eritrea has slided down the drain with each passing year. Halfway down his rule, many reached a point where they could no more reason out in favor of him. Still, the same people were not in the mood to judge him critically in public. In fact, even when millions increasingly saw in him a destructive side, denouncing him openly was left for the few courageous activists. For the rest, open criticism was tantamount to a betrayal of the nation, and even to pandering to the Woyanes. This actually was, in my view, a major factor that sustained his dictatorial rule over three decades in addition to his playing the tunes of dictatorship competently.
That the nation has lately been on a high chance of failing as a viable nation is an open secret, but for Prime Minister Abiy who embraced him warmly and got him out of the woods. Abiy has given Esaias a much-needed support when the latter was up against the wall. But Esaias’s knack to make others be awed by him is also evident in their relationship. Abiy, a leader of a much larger and resourced country, acts meekly in front of Esaias to the sheer dismay of some Ethiopians.
History will fully chronicle Esaias’s over five decades journey in politics. Yet, even at its kindest, history will not find much redeeming value in him as a leader. It will rather judge him guilty for ruining the hope of a viable nation, actively destabilizing a region, murdering innocent civilians in Tigray in tens of thousands in cold blooded manner, and destroying the livelihood of millions of farmers in the same region with unprecedented wickedness.
At the same time, Esaias will certainly be remembered for his unique contribution to the Tigrigna language and for fending off Arabic culture from taking center stage in Eritrea. He helped Tigrigna thrive as a formal official medium. He expanded its diction, and re-baptized near-to-extinct words that he has popularized through a refreshing usage. But this pales very much when put alongside the innumerable atrocities he committed against humanity. But before history judges him well after death, he may as well be brought in front of the international court of justice for his genocidal acts, crimes against humanity and war crimes. After all, the judgment of history will not assuage victims and loving families. Only his days in a court of justice will assuage them.
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