In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 1 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in April 2002)
Give the Devil (Melles/Woyane) His Due.
Eritrea came out victorious in 1991 militarily and in 1993 politically, and the timing of these victories was wholly attributed to the EPLF’s alliance with the TPLF. Yes, Eritrea would have emerged victorious eventually, but not in 1991, militarily or 1993 politically.
Though the Af’Abet Battle marked the beginning of the end of the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea, that victory alone would’ve accomplished very little, or nothing had it not been followed by the total control of Tigray by the Woyanes.
Even the capturing of Massawa by the EPLF could’ve accomplished very little, or nothing, to tighten the noose around the Dergue’s neck had Tigray and Begemidir not been under the Woyane’s control. The Dergue could’ve returned into Eritrea’s liberated regions through Emini Hajer, Badme, Merab, Tserona, Wollo, and Zelambesa. It would have been impossible for the EPLF to defend the excessively long borders with Ethiopia or contain the Ethiopian forces in Eritrea. Even if the EPLF managed to expel the Ethiopian troops from Eritrean, that victory would have been temporary because Ethiopians would have continued to regroup and quickly enter Eritrea from the Tigray and Wello provinces.
Moreover, this has been told repeatedly: had Melles not agreed, against the wish of many Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia, to resolve the Eritrean issue through an UN-sponsored referendum, no nation would’ve dared to recognize Eritrea as an independent nation. Again, without Melles’s permission, the UN would never have supported a referendum for Eritrea’s independence.
Therefore, even considering the negative contribution of the Woyane, including its interference in Eritrean internal matters at the invitation of the EPLF to assault the ELF in 1981, undoubtedly, its positive contribution to the Eritrean revolution outweighed by a large margin the negative role it had played.
I am mentioning this in response to the many bitter complaints by many Eritrean writers during the border war, claiming, “how could the Woyanes do this to us after we have done all the wonderful things for them.”
Many Dashed Hopes for Issayas, Before the Badme War
While in Sahel, Issayas, for many years, fantasized about replicating the Soviet empire in our region. The Soviet Empire, after surrounding itself with friendly and subdued states, not only did it feel secure behind the Iron Curtain, but it also served as the economic, military, and political center of its satellites, its subdued neighbors. Thus he, too, had this daydream to make Eritrea the economic, military, and political center for the nations of the Horn of Africa, from Sudan to Somalia, where his safety and power would be protected forever by subdued countries from external oppositions and internal reformers.
With this dream in mind, when in 1992 Somalia plunged into chaos, convinced that he could cure Somalia’s ills and after that install his grand plan, Issayas sought the permission of the UN to send Eritrean troops to Somalia, but his hope was dashed when the UN refused because at the time Eritrea was not yet a member of the UN.
Furthermore, his dream of replicating the Bolshevik’s thesis (with no smell of opposition and no free press) in Eritrea was dashed when the Islamist-controlled Sudanese regime refused to hand him over all Eritreans opposed to his regime.
Angry at the response of Sudan, in 1995, Issayas threatened against and took action to overthrow and replace the Sudanese regime with a pro-Bolsheviks (pro-PFDJ) regime and assured himself he would turn his dreams into reality within two years. But that also disappointed him when neither the SPLA nor the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) failed to score any victory against the government of Omar al-Bashir.
Furthermore, before the Badme War broke out, many other issues were pressing on Issayas:
- He had many Tegadelti locked up in prisons as political prisoners, including some from the 1993 demonstrations against his regime, which he did not know how to deal with. He obviously could not deal with the prisoners as he used to when he was in Sahel (execute them) without leaving some traces.
- During that time, thousands of students competed for a couple of hundred admissions at Asmara University every year. All the procrastination ploys that he contrived, such as National Service and military training at Sawa for all high school graduates, were not buying him enough time as he had hoped they would.
- From the outset, Issayas never promised liberty to Eritreans but “economic prosperity” based on his terms. However, his idea of economic prosperity through a Planned Economy, a doctrine which the Soviets had earlier tried but failed, was, to his surprise, failing him. Still, because he was convinced that there was nothing wrong with the doctrine of the planned economy but with the failed communist states, and in Eritrea, too, he was confident that there was nothing wrong with the doctrine but with those who were surrounding him, and, to that end, at one time, he publicly expressed his dismay with those that he had chosen to surround himself by saying, he could not clap with one hand. Yet, he still did not know how to deliver on the economic prosperity he had promised the nation.
- Eritreans were getting uneasy about his regime, and his popularity was going into a free fall inside and abroad. More Eritreans were being comfortable investing in Ethiopia than in Eritrea. Moreover, Melles was appearing and being regarded, as an astute and a better politician than Issayas, by both Eritreans and world leaders.
In the meanwhile, in a deliberate attempt to stall the establishment of a constitutional government and also to buy time to strengthen his fortress, Issayas had ordered the drafting of the constitution to go through twists and turns. Still, his fear of establishing a constitutional government, or lack thereof, came true when in May of 1997, the constitution’s drafters completed the draft law and handed it over to him. Though he had ensured that the constitution be drafted to his liking, there were articles, such as the press and multiparty law, which he did not intend to implement. Therefore he shelved the draft law and directed his media to suppress any news about the constitution. But despite his efforts, behind his back, the request for the implementation of the constitution was getting louder among the Tegadelti; thus, he was looking for any excuse, and the means, to mute, and if not, to extinguish the voice of the vocal Tegadelti.
While this was going on, after many years of plundering Ethiopian wealth freely through his conglomerate of organized crime (PFDJ), the Wonaye was getting assertive and trying to get out from under his thumb; as a result, with the introduction of his currency, Issayas’s benefit was being severely limited in Ethiopia.
Therefore, amid these challenges, Issayas attempted to create two conditions: In Eritrea, he wanted to create a frenzy, which could enable him to buy time and divert public opinion, even for a short period. And in Ethiopia, he wanted to intimidate and blackmail its leaders into abiding by his terms. Hence he knew he could accomplish these two objectives in the only way he had known – a show of force and military victory.
Therefore, in February of 1998, Issayas mobilized his army, active and reserve, took inventory of the members of the Army paramedics, including those that he had abandoned for many years, and ensured that all systems “go.”
After that, in May of 1998, before he left for Saudi Arabia, he had ordered his Army commanders to carry out an assault on the Ethiopian militia in Badme, typical of Issayas’s modus operandi and one of his favorite and played-out maneuvers.
Throughout his political career, when a crime was committed or appeared to have been committed by someone, he wasn’t home; he was in Lebanon, in Khartoum; he was far away and had “an air-tight alibi.” Then if the operation succeeded, he would hog all the credit for himself, but if the operation failed, he would publicly scold the commander, demote, or transfer him elsewhere.
Issayas Afeworki’s Dilemma in the Aftermath of the Badme War
In the wake of the first battle, Issayas faced two antagonistic phenomena: In Eritrea, he got more than he had bargained for — his popularity skyrocketed, but in Ethiopia, his action backfired.
On the Ethiopian Side:
First of all, with all his bragging about his knowledge of the internal secrets of Ethiopia, his only knowledge was that he had known that Ethiopia had fewer armaments and less prepared armies than Eritrea did. But he did not realize that Melles would be powerless to accommodate Issaya’s ego when attacked, nor did he expect Ethiopia to react as it did. So, he kept telling himself that Melles or Ethiopia was not supposed to respond as they did. They were supposed to be intimidated by my show of force and recede, or so he thought.
Issayas is always used to having it his way – dictating agreement on his term. In the past, he bluffed Sudan, and Sudan blinked; he invaded Yemen, and Yemen restrained; he attacked Djibouti, and Djibouti receded; he bluffed Ethiopia, but to his surprise, Ethiopia reacted in a way he had never remotely anticipated it would. Ethiopia was not supposed to react the way it did. He still believed nothing was wrong with his actions but with the reactions from Ethiopia.
An Attack on Badme Was a Direct Attack on Melles
At a time when Melles was taking tremendous heat from the Sye group, trying unsuccessfully to justify his previous decisions regarding Eritrea’s independence to his people and friends of his country, Issayas Afeworki, in his infinite arrogance, as usual, miscalculated, and attacked Eritrea’s only friend, Meles Zenawi, because the attack on Badme could only constitute a direct attack at Melles. Yes, by attacking this lone friend of Eritrea, Issayas empowered the enemies of Eritrea in Ethiopia.
What was Issayas expecting in return for the assault he directed against Ethiopia? Was Melles, a leader of a nation 17 times the size of the population of Eritrea, a leader constantly accused of betraying Ethiopia’s 50-year principle of keeping Eritrea inside Ethiopia, going to turn the other chic? No, he could not turn the other chic. Had Melles not reacted as he did, he would not have survived a day.
But even after Ethiopia reacted the way it did, a prudent leader would’ve immediately consulted with his staff and legislators and sought a peaceful way out of the situation. But instead, Issayas became so furious at Ethiopia’s reaction thus resorted to manipulation. He presented his ten-point agenda and commanded, literally, that Melles meet him, that Ethiopia accepts his request, and that the conflict be resolved within six months. He started talking about finding a long-lasting solution to the Badme’s border problem, something which he should have done so publicly before launching an attack on Ethiopia and before spilling the blood of Eritreans and Ethiopians, something which he should have done so between 1993 and 1997. But what was also astounding to many was that he wanted to continue occupying the territory he forcibly occupied. Simply because Yemen had let him stay in what was rightfully hers, a territory he had forcibly occupied, here, too, he had expected Ethiopia to accommodate his ego. Again what was worse was, when thanks to him, Melles was under extreme pressure from the Sye group, being blamed for the way Issayas was treating Ethiopia, Issayas thought this severely wounded leader, Melles, was in control of the situation in his country, that Melles had the power to meet his demands. Nonetheless, Issayas opted to enjoy his popularity among his people.
On the Eritrean Side:
Not only was he able to send off the “unruly” vocal Tegadelti to the war front and thereby eliminate them, but also he was able to bury the draft law. But what was worse was that many Eritreans, including many scholars, blamed the Wonaye for short-circuiting the drafting of the Constitution. They really believed the drafting of the Constitution was yet to be completed when War broke out. And even those who knew the draft law had been completed and transferred to Issayas a year before the War broke out refused to inform the misguided ones. The truth was that between May 1997 through May 1998, during the period of peace, that is, before the War broke out, Issayas had more than enough time to implement many of the articles in the Constitution and to lay the ground for the implementation of the rest, which he had not done so, none whatsoever.
Nonetheless, a couple of months into the War, Issayas, the man who had been mentally disturbed and demoralized person, found a new reason to pat himself on the back for the “job well done” and enjoy popularity. He was not about to share that popularity with his staff. He took control of the War and made the War his own. Moreover, though Issayas precisely knew what the cause of the War was, he exploited both the Woyane’s maneuvering of its army around Zelambessa and Assab and its miscalculation of the pride of Eritreans, which immediately allowed him to turn the conflict into “a war for pride” and him as its spearhead. To that end, he attempted to justify the War and provided Eritreans with the following five reasons as being the cause of the War:
- Woyane has a grand plan to link Eritrea to Tigray and create a Tigray-Tigrigne nation.
- The Woyane issued a new map that encompassed Badme into Ethiopia. (the issue of territorial integrity)
- The Woyane killed 7 to 12 Eritrean civilians (the exact number varied many times) who approached it to broker the then-ongoing border problem.
- The Woyane wanted to colonize Eritrea. (the issue of national sovereignty)
- The Woyane wanted to overthrow the GoE.