Eritrea: Isaias’ hostility to the West is about survivalism

By Hagos Gebreamlak

Posted on April 11, 2022 12:33

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrives at the Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrives at the Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu, Somalia December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

In the recent UN meeting held on the Russia-Ukraine war, Eritrea voted ‘no’ to the resolution that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The vote was surprising for many including those who claim they are experts on Eritrea. However, it was never newsworthy given it is pretty normal for Eritrea to always vote against all resolutions and decisions initiated by America and generally by the West.

Many gave their analysis on why Eritrea opted to do so. Some said that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is ideologically anti-West. Others explained that it was because of the American sanctions, including the recent one, on Eritrea.

Some argued that Isaias is a dictator and chose to side with his fellow dictator, President Vladimir Putin. Others said that Isaias sought Russian patronage and political protection in the UN Security Council, vetoing potential measures against his regime.

None of these arguments are convincing.

‘Mere tactic’

Isaias has never been ideologically anti-West. His anti-West rhetoric is a mere tactic. On the other hand, he gains no significant political or financial support from Russia.

He is least vulnerable to external pressures. Isaias is rather threatened by internal dynamics.

Isaias doesn’t want to put himself under the influence of any power be it Russia, America, or China. He has to be able to stand alone in bad times or in the absence of political protection from veto powers.

When the UN Security Council imposed a brutal sanction on Eritrea in 2009, he sought no political protection from Russia or China as other regimes do. Almost all regimes such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea, which are hostile to America, seek protection from Russia or China so that these veto powers block multilateral actions in the UNSC.

Isaias doesn’t lobby alternative powers in the UN system to thwart or get rid of sanctions. Sanctions and animosities are the sources of Isaias’ span of power.

He needs to perpetuate the hostility with the West to keep his totalitarian regime going. The regime is immune to sanctions so they can’t pose any significant impact.

When the UNSC imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, many said that it was the beginning of the end of Isaias Afwerki. They expected the regime would immediately face a crisis and eventually fall.

Strenghtening his ‘tyranny’

Sanctions and hostilities have greatly helped Isaias to reinforce his tyranny on the people and the army.

Eritrea is not like other African countries that are very vulnerable to external pressures. It is internally very stable. The country is homogeneous with an overwhelming majority of the Tigrinya people. The people and societal institutions, due to centuries of wars and invasions, are equipped with resilience. Eritrea is at least food independent, whether from foreign markets or domestic production.

Devastating wars with external powers and recurrent conquests by outsiders always haunted the Eritrean people.

Eritrea’s glorioius past

Eritrea is one of the ancient civilizations, although its current map was shaped by Italy. It was the hub of the Geez (aka Aksumite Empire) civilization that flourished along the western coast of the Red Sea. It survived redundant Islamic incursions.

The Geez civilization is the only surviving ancient civilization in the region. Adulis, an ancient city, 40 kilometres south of today’s port city Massawa, was one of the busiest trading centers of global trade through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that had linked the Roman Empire and China 2000 years ago.

The UN decided that Eritrea be yoked in the name of federation with Ethiopia to best-serve American geostrategic interests in the Red Sea region, as John Foster Dulles said in a 1950 UNSC session.

The civilization began to decline due to the expansion of Islam. It was crippled and isolated from the outside world and besieged by emerging Islamic powers.

Its strategic location in the heart of the Red Sea has made Eritrea a target of a millennium of raids and conquests. Many powers including Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Ethiopia, Mahdist Sudan, etc. invaded at different times.

Nation ‘divided into two’

During the era of the scramble for Africa, the Tigrinya nation was divided into two, Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Tigrinya ethnic group is the overwhelming majority in Eritrea and dominates every aspect of the country. They have no tribal or clan-linked institutions and have deep social trust. The Tigrinya people in Ethiopia, also known as Tigrayans, live in the Tigray regional state and makeup six percent of the country’s population.

Italy colonised Eritrea for over half a century (1882 to 1941 ) and it was one of the most industrialised colonies in Africa. Britain governed Eritrea for a decade after WWII.

Despite being a separate colony, Eritrea’s fate was decided by external forces at the cost of its sovereignty. The UN decided that Eritrea be yoked in the name of federation with Ethiopia to best-serve American geostrategic interests in the Red Sea region, as John Foster Dulles said in a 1950 UNSC session.

Ethiopia later dismissed the federation and annexed Eritrea by force, undermining its autonomy. Eritrea passed through decades of bloody warfare with Ethiopian regimes heavily supported and armed by the US (during Haile Selassie), USSR, East Germany, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Israel, and South Yemen during its independence struggle.

‘Deep mistrust of outsiders’

This millennium-long experience shaped the psyche of the Eritrean people, making them think that they have to bear with their government, be it good or bad. The people have a deep mistrust of outsiders. The series of wars and foreign encroachments make Eritrean history full of lamentation and resilience. This saga influences the mindset of the common people and the strategic thinking of the elite.

The only source of the regime’s legitimacy is a perceived ongoing defensive war.

Isaias always capitalises on this perception of the Eritrean people that the country has many near and distant evil enemies that are ready to destroy Eritrea. He exploits this psychological makeup to tighten his control and monopolise power.

No social base

Isaias is originally from the Tigray regional state of Ethiopia. Members of his inner power circle, the senior leadership of the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), are also from Tigray or from the peripheral areas of Eritrea. However, the army and other institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by people from the central region of Eritrea, previously called Hamasien.

The president and his regime don’t have a social base in the densely populated and political-economically central area of the country.

Therefore, he can only live in a permanent military mobilisation and a permanent state of emergency. Isaias introduced forced and indefinite military service. The only source of the regime’s legitimacy is a perceived ongoing defensive war.

Isaias depicts himself as a popular and nationalist leader. He cannot publicly declare dictatorship in a nation that has a centuries-old written and well-practiced indigenous law [Hgi Endaba, lit. Law of Fathers].

Number 1 enemy: America

To maintain this permanent military mobilisation and state of emergency status, Isaias needs endless hostilities with the West. This means nobody should question the rule of the regime during this dangerous time.

The regime’s propaganda machine has echoed that Eritrea is in a war with the US and its proxies. It portrays America as an evil and permanent enemy of the Eritrean people.

For any problem, he blames the US. He tells the people that the neighbouring countries’ governments are agents of America and thus the US has declared a proxy war on Eritrea using these neighbours. He had even accused the Derg regime – which was anti-America and heavily armed by the USSR and the-then socialist states – of being an agent of America to destroy Eritrea.

Many argue that Isaias is a ruthless dictator and has no popular legitimacy inside Eritrea. Eritreans who live within the country think their government is fighting a war waged on Eritrea by external forces. He has successfully created a belligerent state of mind in Eritrea.

Exercise in manipulation

The regime has monopolised the media and communication sector. There is only one television, one radio, and one newspaper. Private media outlets are unthinkable. It has a narrative monopoly. There is no alternative narrative. Isaias isolated the people from the external world both physically and virtually.

For his  his survival, Isaias has employed the following strategies:

  • Media and narrative monopoly;
  • Invent evil enemies;
  • Isolate the country from the external world;
  • Depopulate the Tigrinya youth;
  • Tightly control the people and the army;
  • Prevent dependence on any foreign power.

To sustain the animosity with the West, he always goes against decisions made by the West, particularly the US.

It’s all about ‘survivalism’

Therefore, Isaias’ antagonism to the West, including the recent vote against the UN resolution regarding the Russian-Ukraine war, is all about survivalism. The vote was not about Russia, the US, or Ukraine at all.

It was to intensify hostilities with the US. It was to offend America and invite reactive measures and statements. The president has utilised animosities and sanctions as tools to reinforce his propaganda that America is trying to demolish Eritrea.

As Eritreans may gradually grow weary of the regime, in a desperate attempt to keep the people with him, Isaias is expected to seek further hostilities with the West to divert attention and externalise the discontent of the people and the army.

This hostility has to be endless and overwhelming for the regime to perpetuate its fierce grip on the people and the army.

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