The attack on General Sebhat Efrem is only the latest attempt to end the Eritrean dictatorship. There have been several attempts to oust President Isias Afwerki. This runs against the grain of the propaganda put out by the Eritrean government.
The official portrayal of the president is of a man who is so certain that he enjoys the support of his people that he thinks nothing of strolling into any bar in Asmara to have a beer or a coffee with ordinary men and women. Not for him the phalanx of bodyguards used by other African heads of state. Isaias Afwerki is a simple man, who does not require armed guards, outriders or convoys of cars with blue lights flashing to travel around the country.
It is a myth.
In reality Eritrea is ruled through fear. Networks of informers have been in place for years. Some go back to before the liberation of Eritrea in 1991. This includes ‘zero three’ – the notorious rumour mill, designed to undermine the reputation of anyone who opposes Isaias.
This is a partial list of attempts to end Isaias Afwerki’s rule.
- The Menqa (Tigrinya for bat, or ‘those who move about at night.’) This group of left wing opponents developed between 1973-74. Led by Mussie Tesfamikael, and school-mate and close friend of Isaias it called for more democratic systems of accountability for the leadership of the liberation movement and greater respect for the rights of the fighters. They were arrested and tried in June 1974. At least five were executed – others were jailed for many years.
- On 24 May 1991 the fighters of the EPLF finally liberated Asmara – to the joy of the vast majority of the city’s population. It was the end of 30 years of armed struggle. But many fighters were not demobilised. Instead, they were told they had to continue serving their country without pay, as they had done during the liberation struggle. In April 1993, shortly before the referendum to endorse Eritrea’s independence there was a brief revolt. Troops drove around the city, demanding that Isaias come and talk to them. This he did, but when they returned to their bases they were rounded up. More than 100 were court martialed – some were shot.
- In 1994 a march by disabled fighters into Asmara was fired on by the police and members of the security services. Although not an uprising, it was a sign of discontent.
- In September 2001, after the tragic border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia [1998 – 2000], President Isaias was challenged by some of his closest associates. This is what Human Rights Watch wrote: “Eritrean security forces arrested 11 of the 15 high-ranking government officials (the “G-15”) who had signed letters to the president complaining he was “acting without restraint, even illegally.” They called for the legislature to be convened regularly, as well as for elections and political parties – none of which had been permitted since Eritrea’s 1993 independence from Ethiopia. They asked that a Special Court, created by Isaias and reporting to him alone, be dismantled. That same month, the government destroyed Eritrea’s independent press, arresting ten leading journalists, leaving government-run media as the sole domestic news source. All reporting on the G-15 complaints and other discontent with Isaias’s rule ended. Since then, those officials and journalists, along with other political prisoners, have remained in incommunicado detention in a remote concentration camp called Eiraeiro. None have been brought to trial. The only one seen in public since 2002 is Dawit Isaac, a journalist who was admitted to the hospital in 2005.”
- On 13th of August 2009 an assassination attempt was carried out against the president. First lieutenant Daniel Habte Yihdego,opened fire on the president on the road between Asmara and the port city of Massawa at a local area called Atal. After an exchange of fire with president’s personal body guards he was killed.
- 0n 21 January 2013, around 100-200 Eritrean soldiers launched an attempt to oust the president when they advanced on Asmara with tanks. They took over the area known as Forto, occupying the radio and television station. The rebels attempted to negotiate with forces loyal to Isaias, rather than shell their own capital. Finally the coup attempt collapsed. Those involved were brutally dealt with.
The attack on General Sebhat is the latest in the line of attempts to oust the president. None have so far succeeded. There have – of course – been other attempts by Eritrean movements to oust the government by force, but these were internal challenges to the regime.
The Eritrean government propaganda that President Isaias is universally loved is contradicted by the evidence.