Teflon Don Isias Afeworki

During the last six decades, the West has generated the most talked about spectacular downfalls of men at the helm. The reasons for their demises are as variable as the color of their preferred lust. I-am-not-a-crook Richard Nixon sent five burglars to break in to the office of the Democratic National Committee. He had a preference for illegally digging black dirt of opponents he perceived as threats. Bill Clinton, been an eloquent speaker, always preferred the oral work of younger girls. He almost got impeached. Tanaka Kakuei, prime minister of Japan in the early seventies was brought down by the Lockheed scandal. His was a lust for the green color of money. He took a handsome bribe from the aircraft manufacturer, which wanted to sell wares to the Japanese All Nippon Airlines. The respected West German Chancellor Willy Brandt had to resign his post because one of his aides turned out to be a spy for the dreaded East German secret police, Stasi. He was a dignified and admired statesman who swiftly resigned from his job because he felt personally responsible for the lapse in security in his office. No lust here. Just an honorable resignation commanded by a righteous attitude. All these incidents, which lead to the downfall the great statesmen pale in magnitude to the gigantic fiasco personally engineered by head of state of Eritrea. Surprisingly, a colossal scandal, molded by three years of senseless war against Ethiopia, sniffed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, decimated an economy and uprooted half of the popluation seems to have put small dent in the armor of its principal creator, President Isias Afeworki. His irresistible affinity for the red color of power, coupled with his penchant for confrontation, drove him to single-handedly steer Eritrea into the death cliffs of the East African Rift Valley. The country, now broken and ailing, is trying to cart itself back to normalcy, while the errant driver is still imposingly in control of her steering wheel.

The dramatic fall from grace of a revered leader is painful to take by ardent followers. Often the initial shock of a scandal leads the later to avoid the hurt by denying their leader’s capability to become disgraceful. Frequently, they respond by huddling around the chief to fend him off prying eyes or attacking hands. They give no consideration to the bare essential incriminating and conclusive facts because the followers develop a subservient attachment to the leader, akin to one who nurtures a slavish attitude to a lover. All is fair in love and war, even the disgracing of the honor of a nation. This shameful disposition is evident in the many men and women who have blindly supported the endeavors of EPLF, the guerilla movement that freed Eritrea from the grips of Ethiopia, but then chose to extend this courtesy to its error-prone leader. Of these fuddled followers are many who occupy important positions of community associations of Eritreans in Diaspora. They are tentacles for the despotic ruling of one man declared by former colleagues-in-arm to be a lawbreaker. A scandal in the magnitude of the disastrous Ethio-Eritrean war would have sent any western top dog back to the den with the tail between his legs. But the conspicuous absence of democratic institutions in Eritrea has created a void in responsibility and accountability enforcement body capable of reigning in abuse and corruption by those in power.

Since its inception, Eritrea has been ruled by single political entity, which adopts the autocratic rule of one man. The events following the Ethio-Eritrean war have clearly revealed to the world that the PFDJ (Party For Democracy and Justice), the de facto ruling party and a political wing of the EPLF, is run like an underworld crime organization where power of the don is maintained by the muzzle of a gun. Malcom X once referred the circumstances of the death of John F Kennedy as a case of “chickens coming home to roost”. The PFDJ has learned and adopted only one way to handle descent – incarceration or total liquidation. And thus it was no surprise to realize the imprisonment of eleven top brass members of the organization for publicly criticizing the leader in his handling of the war. But save your sympathy for the deserving. Had this group of dissenters succeeded in wrestling the leadership off Issias Afeworki, they would have employed the very same methods to neutralize his relevance. After all, they are birds of a feather. Isias Afeworki knew this reality only too well. He acted swiftly. He chose not to become a sitting duck while the flock colluded to put him away. Nowadays, with his foes safely contained, the man is enjoying a bit of a respite. To the delight of his supporters, he is fashionably wearing a teflon coat that has, at least for the moment, made him impervious to the wrath of his enemies.

Since coming to power a decade ago, Mr. Afeworki has committed a series of political gaffes that has become a source of embarrassment to every Eritrean. The first episode of the misadventures of Isias Afeworki started with the invasion of the Hanish Islets, a group of small islands in southern tip of the Red Sea long governed by Yemen. The later refrained from going to war with Eritrea. A timely intervention by an international arbitration body rendered an unequivocal decision in favor of Yemen. Then followed a second episode in the form of a confrontation with Djibouti, a country that benefited a great deal from Ethiopia’s decision to boycott the use the Eritrean port of Assab, which was until then a lifeline to landlocked Ethiopia. Djibouti’s head of state, Ismail Omar Guelleh, raised the ire of Isias Afeworki by undercutting Assab’s docking fees and opening his ports wide for Ethiopian use. When Isias ranted, raved and threatened him, he played his hand coolly by letting Ethiopia handle the don’s menace. Then it was Sudan’s turn where the Teflon Don openly meddled in its internal affairs by supporting armed opposition against the government of Omar Bashir. Alas, Sudan is oil rich now. The friction against Eritrea has drawn it closer to Ethiopia than ever before. Finally, the mother of all embarrassments was handed to Isias, courtesy of his close friend and comrade-in-arm, Meles Zenawi, the current head of state of Ethiopia, in the hamlet of Badme.

Eritrea is broken, ailing and bankrupt. All of its resources have been fruitlessly expended to indulge in the war-mongering whims of one man. These days, others dubiously regard the country as a pariah nation incapable of observing the basic norms neighborly civility. Bill Clinton must be pulling his gray hair for once prematurely declaring Isias Afeworki to be a “model” leader for the new Africa. Little did he know of this guerilla fighter who could not get used to the silence of his guns in times of peace.

With a glaring lack of requisite political skills necessary to steer Eritrea through a path of peace and prosperity, the don’s mishaps will continue to engulf Eritrea like a wet blanket for years to come. Isias Afeworki reminds me of a story about a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him on his back while crossing a lake. The frog weary of the poisonous sting of the scorpion refused. But the scorpion pleaded his case and convinced the frog to go with the act. Midway through the trip, the scorpion bit the frog, which prompted the latter to ask, “Why did you sting me? Now both of us will drown”. The scorpion replied, ” It is my nature. I can’t help it.” It is in the nature of Isias Afeworki to be belligerently confrontational, trigger happy and downright troublesome. Lets hope Eritrea will rid this scorpion off her back before she drowns from his stings.

Jamaal Agdoobai (pseudonym) writes essays and commentaries about the African country of Eritrea.