In Solidarity With the Forces of Good
(Part 3 of 24)
By Yonas Araya
(First Published on Asmarino.com in April 2002)
In part 2, I explained why the 5-reasons excuses presented by PFDJ’s commissars during the war could not justify the declaration of an all-out war and the loss of Eritrean lives. Also, in part 2, I assessed that of the five reasons, the issue of territorial integrity and national sovereignty hit home for Eritreans and hence helped inspire a surge of patriotism among Eritreans and rally Eritreans around Issayas. In spite of that, later, the PFDJ appeared to focus only on the Badme border issue as the cause of the war. Therefore, if we still take that claim on faith value, war should have been an option only as a last resort. First, Issayas should have resolved the border issue before or right after the referendum, when his cordial friendship with the TPLF was at its peak. Second, if that was not possible, Issayas should have followed the following seven basic steps before triggering a war.
- Take the issue to his ministers;
- Take the issue to the Eritrean National Assembly;
- Inform the Eritrean public in Eritrea;
- Inform Eritreans who were residing in Ethiopia;
- Take the issue to IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development )
- Take the issue to the O.A.U;
- Take the issue to the UN.
If all of the above steps fail, then as a last resort, Issayas needed to ask the Eritrean National Assembly to declare war against Ethiopia regardless of whether the constitution required him to do that or not.
- Take the Issue to His Ministers.
Right after the war broke out, Issayas, in his own words, admitted that he did not see a reason to inform even his ministers, much less the Eritrean people, as he was trying to resolve the issue in a hush-hush manner with Melles. And later on, to back up his claim, he released excerpts from the secret conversation he had conducted with Melles.
So if we follow his logic, when his secret negotiation with Melles did not bear fruit, he resorted to bluffing with a show of force, a method which he had successfully used against Yemen, Sudan, and Djibouti, but which in this case brought him “an unintended” result.
- Take the Issue to the Eritrean National Assembly.
Two heads are better than one. Negotiating the issues with Melles was a good beginning, but it should not have been the end. Had the matter been thoroughly discussed by the members of the National Assembly, Eritrea might’ve taken an entirely different course in resolving the issue. But not only did Issayas not see a reason to consult with the National Assembly before he triggered a war, but also after the war was raging. He still does not see a reason to discuss the issue with his staff, the National Assembly, or the Eritrean public.
On September 30, 2001, in a gathering of all Eritreans he invited at Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington DC, the Eritrean ambassador to the US, Mr. Girma Asmerom, reiterated Issayas Afeworki’s logic by saying there was no time to sit down and discuss with the National Assembly amid the war, so Issayas was handling the war alone.
But for anyone who has followed Issayas Afeworki’s pattern of behavior, it was typical of him not to involve his staff in the decision-making, but more so in this war, because he was confident that victory was at hand. He wasn’t about to share it with any member of his staff.
- Inform the Eritrean Public
Not only did the public have the right to know what was going on behind the doors, but it deserved to know since it was the one that was about to bear the consequences of the war.
But as far as Issayas was concerned, not only did he not believe he should inform the public about the war, which he knew well, more than anyone else, of its devastating effect on Eritrean children, but he also denied the public of any means of information from all sources.
Had Eritrea had an independent press, Eritreans might have been informed of the other side of the story by curious journalists. But also, independent press like the one we enjoyed briefly in 2001 could have benefitted Issayas and his Clique. It could have informed Issayas of the imminent danger he was leading himself into, information that his own press would not dare to print.
But Issayas does not want to be told he is wrong. He is not used to it. Thus by surrounding himself with appeasers, individuals, and the press, he created a shield between himself and the public, depriving himself of the necessary information or advice to enable him to exit the war honorably.
What was worse was his control over the dissemination of information to Eritreans was not confined inside Eritrea but also on the Internet, like Dehai.org, which he had cordoned off by his blind followers, individuals who were snarling like junkyard dogs and charging like bulls against anyone who dared to question his wisdom.
- Inform Eritreans Who Were Residing in Ethiopia.
One cannot declare war against a country where more than three hundred thousand of his people are living comfortably, no matter the cause of the war or how much he thinks he is right. He just can not justify that.
Even if the war was imposed upon Eritrea, as Issayas and his commissars claimed to be, Issayas needed to give concessions to Ethiopia. At the very least, he needed to bend his back, let Ethiopia take the village of Badme, and accept the US-Rwanda “quick-fix proposal,” as he dubbed it so that his people could exit from the enemy territory peacefully, i.e., if he really did care about his people.
Furthermore, why wage war against a government that he believed had not had a mandate from its people to govern its nation, against a government that he was claiming would not last long? Why not then wait a few more years until it dissolves itself?
However, Issayas’s response had more of a threatening and warmongering angle because when the world, literally the whole world, begged him to accept the US-Rwanda proposal, the most comprehensive and fair framework for peace, his answer was, “I will not withdraw from Badme even if it means that the sun may never rise for Eritrea again.” This kind of remark must be one of the most bizarre remarks that any dictator or warmonger uttered in the 20th century. Nothing was more important to him than winning the war. But worse, nothing was more important to him than proving himself right. He would not give any concession; he could not be blackmailed by Ethiopia, not even if Ethiopia were to annihilate all Eritreans inside Ethiopia, not even if all Eritreans were to die, not even if Eritrea would cease to exist.
But wait a minute, was not one of the reasons why he went to war was because the Woyane murdered 7 or 12 Eritreans. Now he wanted to win the war at the risk of endangering the lives of more than three hundred thousand Eritreans in Ethiopia and at the risk of destroying the whole nation?
- Take the Issue to the IGAD
The natural course would have been, after dialoguing with Melles, which he had done, after consulting with members of his cabinet, which he had not done, after informing the legislators, which he had not done, and after notifying his people inside and abroad, which he had not done, he needed to take the issue to the regional organization. Of course, going through the first four steps would take years; hence, the Woyane government in Ethiopia might expire by then. Still, even if it did not, the time Eritreans would have to wait to resolve their conflict with Ethiopia would not be more painful than plunging into a war, into a quagmire. After all, Badme was transferred by Issayas to the Woyane in 1981 and had been under the Woyane until May of 1998, so what was the rush? Why not wait 10 to 20 years, even if it required that long to resolve the issue peacefully?
- Take the Issue to the OAU:
Yes, the issue should have been presented to the OAU before the war broke out since both nations are members of the OAU.
- Take the Issue to the UN.
Yes, Issayas should have taken the issue to the UN since both countries are members of the UN. But the most responsible step should have been for Issayas to invite the UN to demarcate Eritrea’s borders with Ethiopia right after Eritrea held the UN-sponsored Referendum; otherwise, for which parts of Eritrea could we say Eritreans voted at the Referendum?
Now, is this the leader who was claimed, by his blind followers, as the most intelligent and the most farseeing leader in the world?
The Role of the UN after the War Broke Out:
Eritrea had an ample opportunity to get out of the war honorably even after the war broke out if only Issayas would follow the following four basic principles:
- Agree to withdraw from the village of Badme right after he was asked by the mediators, without giving any excuses, and retreat just one- to two kilometers into Eritrea, to the strategic terrain ranges behind the village of Badme, inside Eritrea. (Succumb to Ethiopia and give up about 20-30 square kilometers. By the way, one needs to compare that now with the more than 24000 square kilometers that Issayas had to give up for the DMZ (demilitarized zone) after he was defeated militarily)
- Request that the UN place its soldiers between the two nations.
- Give the UN a six-month ultimatum. (Give the UN six months to prepare and intervene with UN soldiers)
- Make it clear to the UN that if it does not take the matter seriously and does not intervene in six months, it (the UN) should shoulder the responsibility fully and that Eritrea would have the right to regain Badme by any means, including through a military force. (Put the ball in the UN’s court)
You see, it does not take a genius to declare war, send children off to war, and die, but it takes a farseeing leader to conceive what works and what does not long before something emerges.
However, in the beginning, both Issayas and many Eritreans did not believe that the UN should have any role, claiming:
- We don’t need the UN.
- The UN had forsaken us during our armed struggle.
- We made it on our own.
- We will do it again on our own.
But how soon did they forget! The war for independence took 30 years, so did they want to wage war for another 30 years to prove to the UN that they could do it on their own again? Could Eritrea have become internationally recognized without the UN’s involvement in the referendum for its independence? It would’ve been like Somaliland, which declared its independence in 1991. In fact, it would have been worse than Somiland’s because Ethiopia would have continually regrouped and invaded it.
But what was worse was ordinary Eritreans, including all its scholars, refused to comprehend the role and obligation of the UN in a border conflict between two of its members, that is, if the war really was the result of a border conflict. Ordinary Eritreans were holding a grudge against the UN and banking on Issayas to prove the UN wrong “again.”
Again, let’s see, first of all, the revolutionary war was won militarily with an enormous price to Eritrean families, but also with the help of the Woyane. And politically with the help of both the Woyane and the UN. Nevertheless, Issayas also refused to comprehend this and the cost of another war.
After Badme Was Captured by Ethiopia – after February 1999
Before February 1999, before the whole world was begging Issayas to withdraw, to avert the loss of Eritrean and Ethiopian lives, to accept a “quick fix,” he first stubbornly refused to heed their pleas. Still, later, he claimed that he had been administering Badme before the start of the war. But that claim did not hold water because the UN proved him wrong after conducting its own independent study. Soon after, he resorted to sending countless contradicting preconditions, demands for verifications, and assurances. And sometimes, he resorted to threats; in short, he stuck to his gun, “I will not withdraw even if it means a new day will never dawn on Eritrea.” To prove his point, he ordered poor Eritrean youngsters to dig trenches and fortify the border from the Merab/Gash river through the Tekeze/Setit river by planting more than four hundred thousand landmines.
But land mines are known to render the land useless for many decades, even after the wars ended, due to the complexity of clearing them up. But by mining the land, Issayas proved to all Eritreans of future generations that the war was never about regaining Badme and restoring the Badme region to Eritrean peasants who lived off it but about restoring his damaged ego. He terribly wanted to repair his broken ego by winning the war, at any cost, the cost of Eritrean lives and land, which has now been rendered useless.
Meanwhile, Issayas’s supporters continued reaffirming their support for Issayas, chanting on Dehai.org’s posts, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” They also strived to refute Ethiopia’s demand for Eritrean withdrawal as a precondition for any negotiation by drawing a ridiculous analogy: Yemen did not present us with the withdrawal precondition over the Hanish island; thus, Ethiopia should not do so. They refused to comprehend that maybe Yemeni’s leaders understood the consequence of a long and drawn-out war; perhaps they were threatened by the military pact that h Ethiopia and Eritrea had signed at that time and did not want to face the two nations, but most of all, maybe because Yemen was not Ethiopia, they are two different countries.
Nevertheless, In February of 1999, after eight months of preparation, Ethiopia succeeded in punching into Badme and humiliating Issayas, albeit after paying a heavy toll of deaths when crossing over the thousands of landmines. But the war was far from over; Issayas Afeworki’s Joseph Goebbels, Yemane, attempted to lie to the world that Eritrea was ready to withdraw anyway, with or without Ethiopia’s raid. But, of course, the world did not believe him.
Another Miscalculation of Each Other.
Issayas had correctly calculated the Ethiopian Army’s weakness when he attacked Ethiopia at Badme in May of 1998. Still, also he miscalculated Ethiopia’s long-term ability to produce and procure more armies and armaments and win the war.
On the other hand, when the Woyane attempted to divide and conquer by opening three new fronts at Assab, Tesrona, and Zelambessa right after Badme was taken from it, from a military standpoint, that strategy would’ve made sense. Still, in this case, it played right into the hands of Issayas and his propaganda machine because it enabled him to prove to Eritreans that the war was not about the border conflict anymore but about the recapturing of Eritrea by Ethiopia. Not only that, but the Woyane also miscalculated its military strength and thus ended up losing those fronts to Issayas, which enabled him to control new territories that Eritrea never administered.
(Ethiopia always administered the town of Zelambessa, and Eritrea always administered the town of Tesrona. Beyond Tesrona lies the Belessa brook (Ruba Belessa), which had always served as a border between Ethiopia and Eritrea; thus, Ethiopia always administered the land beyond the Brook. James Bruce, the famous Scottish explorer, also mentioned the Brook in his book. When referring to Assab, I am referring to the front, not the port of Assab itself.)
But after Ethiopia regained Badme, enshrined in a new sense of superiority, the Woyane requested that Issayas withdraw from the three new fronts he had also taken from Ethiopia. And the UN agreed, reluctantly. However, Issayas and his supporters’ response was: the first UN resolution referred only to Badme and its environs; it did not mention the three new fronts; therefore, Eritrea should not withdraw from the three new fronts it took from Ethiopia.
After Ethiopia put his withdrawal from the three new fronts as a precondition to signing a peace agreement and the UN agreed, Issayas’s ego exploded more than ever; he lashed out at the UN for “taking Ethiopian side,” then in an attempt to throw the UN a curve and reverse the situation to the pre-February of 1999, to where he had vowed earlier that he would not withdraw even if it meant a new day would not dawn on Eritrea, to where in February of 1999 he had claimed he was going to withdraw anyway with or without Ethiopia’s raid, to where he had believed he could negotiate from strength – he set out to recapture Badme.
An Attempt to Recapture Badme.
In an attempt to recapture Badme and prove his belligerence to the UN, between May and June and July of 1999, Issayas raided Ethiopian fronts at Badme several times and sacrificed more than 9000 Eritrean lives.
Question to Eritreans: is Issayas Afeworki’s ego worth 9000 lives? This is the leader for whom his blind followers sang at that time “Wedi Afeworki, Wedi Afom, Tekelakaly Tanki, Jigna, etc., etc. .”. How was Issayas leading the battle? You guessed it right, from Asmara.
How is the courage of a leader measured? What kind of courage does it require to send other people’s children (OPC) to war needlessly? I think a leader’s courage is measured by the painful decision they make at critical times, decisions that go against his\her personal ego and pride.
Yet, after Issayas failed to recapture Badme, and also after the Woyane failed to retake the three new fronts, Melles still promised to “sign on the dotted line” only if Eritrea pledged to him to withdraw from the remaining Ethiopia-administered pockets of lands from the three new fronts which Eritrea had taken from Ethiopia after the war broke out. On the other hand, Issayas requested that both nations sign a cease-fire before he could sign a peace agreement. Issayas wanted Ethiopia to sign a cease-fire while he was still occupying the territories it had administrated before the war broke out. He wanted Ethiopia to accommodate him in the same way that Yemen had accommodated him.
Had Issayas explained to the UN that he would not trust Ethiopia, that Ethiopia might use the fronts as stepping stones to launch fresh attacks against Eritrea once he turned in the three fronts to her, and that he would not withdraw until a UN placed its forces between them, his positions could have been reasonable. But he did not say any of those; he simply wanted a cease-fire.
There Was Still a Role for the UN to Play.
What is a cease-fire? A cease-fire is when two or more antagonists agree to halt firing against each other temporarily. In reality, any of them could violate the cease-fire and blame the other for initiating the shoot-out unless a middleman physically monitors it.
In essence, a cease-fire is useless and, in and of itself, cannot lead you to peace. On the contrary, a cease-fire could bring terrible consequences to the warring parties because the foes can use the lull atmosphere created by the cease-fire to regroup, reinforce their armies and elevate the war to a higher level.
Again, Issayas did not make the intervening of the UN the precondition to his signing for peace, but the cease-fire. Had Issayas made the physical intervention of the UN as a precondition to his withdrawal, and not the “I will not withdraw, even if a new day will never dawn on Eritrea,” or the signing of a cease-fire, or all the verifications and assurances he was demanding, then he would have saved tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian lives from death, but also would have saved himself from the humiliation he suffered at Badme in 1999, and from receiving a blow at the last battle of 2000, which led to his acceptance of the DMZ to be inside Eritrea.
In other words, after February 1999, his bragging about Badme in 1998 still ate him away inside. He believed he could not vindicate himself before his people unless he could force Ethiopia to agree to peace on his first terms. Therefore, he was merely asking for a cease-fire until he found a suitable time to justify the loss of Eritrean lives.
But why did Melles insist on the withdrawal of Issayas from all fronts to the signing of a peace agreement? Because had Melles signed a peace agreement while Issayas was still occupying territories that Ethiopia had administered, he would not have survived a day; therefore, the position of Melles could be justifiable. On the other hand, Issayas should have withdrawn from the three fronts because he would still be in a better position to sign for peace even after withdrawing from the fronts that Ethiopia had administered before the war broke out. He would still be in a better position than he is now. Of course, Eritreans, or history, might have asked Issayas why he did not withdraw early from Badme and the three new fronts long before he squandered Eritrean lives, but regardless, he might have been better off than the state he is in now.
To Issayas, a cease-fire was the means to an end that could justify the loss of Eritrean lives. Did Issayas sincerely believe that the cease-fire was going to lead to peace? Did Issayas want the UN to intervene? The answers to both questions are no.
Throughout his political career, Issayas believed in one principle. The end justifies the means. If you can wrap up the war with victory, no one will care what you have paid to achieve that victory. Thus, in this case, he knew he could not justify the loss of thousands of lives for a piece of land. He needed more than that. He did not expect Ethiopia to finally punch in again and leave him in his present situation. He would not let the UN short-circuit his ambitions by allowing it in; hence, he only needed a cease-fire.
On the other hand, it was clear that Melles was willing to sign for peace, especially after he failed to recapture his territories, provided Issayas withdrew from all fronts first, because that would enable him to justify his signing for peace to his people.
The Missed Out Opportunity on a Win-Win Exit
Issayas had the upper hand militarily even after the February 1999 victory of Ethiopia and until April 2000, the final victory of Ethiopia. At the same time, Melles was willing to exit from the war gracefully after he attempted to retake the fronts of Tserona (beyond Ruba Belesa) and Zelambessa fronts failed, the fronts which fell into the hands of Eritrea after the war broke out.
(Again, Tserona was administered by Eritrea and Zelambessa by Woyane before the war broke out. But the land beyond Belessa was always administered by Ethiopia. I am using the Tserona front to refer to the regions beyond Belessa, which Ethiopia had administered.)
On the other hand, Issayas had other problems. It was not in his nature to reconcile with his enemies. He does not feel vindicated unless he obliterates them; he has done that with ELF, Sabbe, and many others and doing it now with the Reformers. But during the Badme war, by insisting on having it his way, he dumped the baby out with the bathwater. The final battle changed the balance of power in favor of Ethiopia; thus, he was forced to withdraw from the three fronts and give up more than 24000 square kilometers of Eritrean land for the DMZ. (bkebero abias bHimbiTiT, ብከበሮ ኣቢያስ ብሕምብጢጥ)
Only an Elected Eritrean National Assembly Should Declare War.
War should’ve been declared only as a last resort by elected legislators, only after negotiation fails, and only after negotiating with the foe and involving the UN for many years, even if it takes over 20 years.
Has the War Ended, Officially?
The war has not ended in such a way that both Melles and Issayas, though more so for Issayas, can justify the means by the end to their people. If one can overthrow the other, each government could justify the means by the end.
At this point, the presence of the UN in the DMZ has brought both a blessing and a curse to Issayas. He knows he needs the UN in the DMZ and knows he cannot win any battle against Ethiopia, but on the other hand, the UN is watching over his shoulder and monitoring his human rights records, which is making him nervous
(Eritreans will be relatively safer from the menace of Issayas while the UN soldiers are in their lands)
In the meantime, Issayas is hoping for this miracle to happen: It is believed that the first secret but futile meeting was held between his advisors and Ethiopia in June or July of 2000. Issayas is still looking to blame someone else. Due to his internal crises, he prefers and hopes to strike some deals with Melles, to have Melles agree with him so that both could blame the Sye group and the Reformers as the culprit for the war. At this point, nothing matters to Issayas more than staying in power. All the principles that he demanded of Eritreans to die for, the principles for which Eritreans have died, and the expelled Eritreans from Ethiopia are not his concerns now. There is nothing he won’t sell out to Ethiopia to quell his internal and external, real and imagined enemies, and stay in power.
(In my opinion, Melles would be ill-advised to make any deal with Issayas. Though no one could guarantee him power for life now, he is in a better position than Issayas, and he will gain very little, if any, but will lose a lot if he makes any under-the-table deal with Issayas. Secondly, Issayas never rids himself of grudges against his former enemies and never rests before obliterating them. He is known to sign agreements with his old enemies for temporary benefits until he finds a suitable time to crush them. Anyway, the Eritrean oppositions need to keep an eye on Melles as he is a slick and illusive politician. He may sign an agreement with Issayas and drop them like a bag of dirt if he believes his power faces danger. The Eritrean people will lose most from an under-the-table deal between Issayas and Melles. Peace with Ethiopia is good, but those Eritreans hoping that Issayas will establish a constitutional government once he makes a deal with Ethiopia are wrong. For Issayas, the agreement is only a means for him to turn against Eritreans. He will turn Eritreans against Eritreans.)