SHY AND clumsy, teenager Issaias Afwerki did not stand out. As a student in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, the future president was known less for his bookish brilliance than for his sudden outbursts of anger. One day in the early 1960s, his physics teacher, an American, gave him a particularly poor mark. Issaias calmly walked to the front of the class and slapped him in the face. An act of revenge as well as self-confidence, it has been a hallmark of man for the rest of his life.
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It has been 30 years this month since Issaias, as leader of the breakaway Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, finally succeeded in overthrowing the Ethiopian military dictatorship. In alliance with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a rebel movement from southern Eritrea, Issaias, now 75, seized power in Asmara, while his TPLF friends have taken over the reins in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Two years later, Eritreans voted in a referendum to separate from Ethiopia. Issaias became the first and only president of the country. There have never been an election.
Few African leaders have ruled their compatriots so harshly or treated their neighbors so aggressively. In 1998, Eritrea went to war with Ethiopia over an expanse of barren land that was worth next to nothing (pictured). In two bloody years, perhaps 70,000 lives have been lost. The remnants of Eritrea’s nascent democracy have been crushed. A decade later, Issaias invaded Djibouti, which borders Eritrea at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Today the Eritrean forces, made up of conscripts, are fighting again. This time, they are in Tigray as allies of the Ethiopian government in a catastrophic war against the former allies of Issaias, the TPLF. Eritreans have been accused of war crimes, including massacres of civilians and mass rape.
The secrecy of the Issaias regime breeds endless speculation about its intentions. Some say the president’s main goal is to outsmart Ethiopia and remake the Horn of Africa in its own undemocratic image. Although this is sometimes exaggerated, it is believed that he wields great influence over Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, with whom he signed an opaque peace deal in 2018 that ended nearly two decades of cold war between the two countries. He also connected with the authoritarian President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known as Farmaajo, and welcomed and trained thousands of Somali soldiers.
Issaias’ foreign policy has three main components. The first is his belief that the Horn of Africa is a bear pit where there are no permanent friends. Second, the use of force is always legitimate. Third, even a small, poor country like Eritrea can ruthlessly and cunningly strike far above its weight. Ask North Korea.
The rupture of Issaias’ relations with his former comrades TPLF testifies to his conviction that no ally can be trusted. The defeat of Eritrea in the border war with Ethiopia (then led by the TPLF) in 1998-2000 made him very bitter. Awet Tewelde Weldemichael, an Eritrean from Queen’s University in Canada, compares Issaias to “a camel that can never sleep without settling a score.” When Abiy, an Oromo ethnic group from southern Ethiopia, took office in 2018 and dismissed the old Tigrayan guard, Issaias saw his chance. Six months ago, his troops joined the fray as allies of Abiy, almost as soon as fighting broke out between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF.
The destruction caused by the Eritreans in Tigray reflects more than a desire for revenge. It also stems from Issaias’ long-held belief that the TPLF threatens the very existence of his country. The butchering of young Tigrayan men, as well as the looting of infrastructure, food and medical supplies, should – Issaias believes – rule out any chance of this happening. Likewise, the destruction of two camps in Tigray, housing Eritrean refugees and dissidents, was aimed at preventing the TPLF to train and arm potential opposition to the Issaias regime.
However, Issaias’ ambitions go far beyond Tigray. “Eliminate the TPLF aims to remove an obstacle on its way to Addis Ababa and the region, âsaid Seeye Abraha, former Ethiopian defense minister who was once high in the TPLF. Recently in Foreign police, an American newspaper, he argued that what Essaias really covets is access to Ethiopia’s wealth.
In his attempt to master the Horn of Africa, he sought to influence Abiy, who rules a much larger and more important country. Last year, with the support of the Ethiopian and Somali leadership couple, he set up a new regional bloc, which he hopes will replace the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, until then the first club in the region. region, which also includes Djibouti (seat of its secretariat). , Kenya, the two Sudanese and Uganda. The executive trio are courting South Sudan to join the new club. This particularly annoys Djibouti.
Even more controversial are rumors of plans to bind Ethiopia and Eritrea in some kind of union. Their armies cooperate along Ethiopia’s fragile border with Sudan, as well as in Tigray. In March, a spokesperson for Ethiopia’s foreign ministry suggested that Eritrea’s independence was a mistake that political integration could one day rectify. He apologized for a backlash. But Issaias spoke enthusiastically of a confederation with Ethiopia after the 1993 independence referendum. Can he consider such an arrangement again, provided Eritrea gains more leverage alongside its larger partner? strong? “Issaias will never allow any federation with Ethiopia that does not allow him to dominate it”, explains a former colleague, now in exile.
At present, Issaias has more pressing concerns. His troops are stuck in Tigray, although he and Abiy agreed in March to withdraw them. “We see nothing that leads us to believe that there are preparations on the ground for such a withdrawal,” said a senior State Department official. The US administration is threatening sanctions against Ethiopia and Eritrea. the EU has already withdrawn more than $ 100 million in aid from Eritrea.
Issaias’ survival depends on winning his last war. “He bet the house on [it]Says Dan Connell, author of a book on the war of liberation in Eritrea. “He threw it all in … He has to keep fighting.” â
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Master of the Horn?”