Eritrea: President Isaias Afwerki’s Reign in Absentia
For starters, I would like the reader to briefly visit Shabait.com and check the news article titled “Ministerial Cabinet holds meeting at State House” (posted on April 30, 2012) on the front page. You will see a picture of Isaias accompanying the teaser paragraph on the front page. With that, the first thing that would come to the reader’s mind would definitely be that of President Isaias Afwerki presiding over the ministerial cabinet, as he used to do regularly in the past. At minimum, you would expect Isaias’ presence in the meeting, even if all he had to do is symbolically sit it out, or else you would be at loss to explain the need of Isaias’ photo in a meeting he was neither present nor made subject of its discourse. But when you click at the title and open the article, your fears are confirmed: Isaias is neither quoted as saying anything in the meeting nor is he mentioned by name, not even once.
Well, it even gets worse if you follow Eri Tv’s version of the meeting. With a background of a video of cabinet meeting, where Isaias looks more energetic than the one in the interview, the reporter never mentions Isaias; it is all about what the cabinet of ministers said. If Isaias was actually there presiding over the ministers, we would have heard what Isaias said regarding this and that – as it has always been the case in the past. But not to be quoted even one time in a meeting that the president was supposedly presiding would be nothing short of astounding! But this report goes even beyond for a first – not even his name is mentioned; that is even as eastafro.com titled the news clip as “President Isaias Afwerki and Ministerial Cabinet meeting”.
So what is Isaias’ picture in Shabait’s version of the story and a video clip of Isaias presiding over a meeting in Eri Tv doing, if both have absolutely nothing to do with the news they are supposedly reporting? That is exactly the point I will be addressing below, albeit using last week’s drama: the Ministry of Information is trying to bring Isaias in front of the public eye without actually dragging the seriously ill Isaias to public places, using a virtual tour as a ruse. In the above mentioned two cases, the con artists at the Ministry are trying to conjure up his presence in a meeting he has not presided: the picture and the video are meant to leave that impression on a reader/viewer who would probably not take his time to read the whole article or make the obvious connection between the montage and the reading in the video case. Isaias’ reign in absentia has started in earnest.
Preparing the public for long absences to come
As you are all aware by now, in the past week there has been unconfirmed news that Isaias is terminally ill or even dead. While the latter has been put to rest by Isaias’ appearance on Eri Tv on Saturday, April 28, 2012, the former seems that have even gained more credence by a visibly enfeebled Isaias with a lot of make up and a shaded lighting to hide his jaundiced face, a loose shirt to hide his bloated stomach, another frequent symptom of liver disease [look at the photograph taken at his son’s wedding on February], and an equally loose story whose two versions – Ali Abdu’s and Isaias Afwerki’s – are at odds with one another at many junctures. And where they happen to agree, the credibility gap is to be found in between actual udets (tours) of the past and a virtual udet they invented for this special occasion.
The Eri Tv appearance of the president is staged not to dispel the rumors that he is dead, but to exploit that rumor maximally for another purpose: to dispel the rumors that he is terminally ill and possibly dying. Or to put it in another way: they were worried about the rumors of his death not because they couldn’t provide counterevidence to it, but because that evidence could not be presented to the public without giving them away at another level: that he is terminally ill. The rumors of his death are too easy to disprove; all that is needed is for him to show up his face on TV even for a minute, even if he has to undergo a makeup artists’ makeover and be propped up by his aides to sit down properly at times of severe bouts of illness. What would be very hard to dispel would be the rumors that he is terminally ill. This requires not a simple appearance on television, but his constant presence in the public eye, as he has been doing for years in the past. This is a man that has made his presence felt in the national media – the only media – almost every day. So it is not easy to deceive the people on this regard, for they have a solid memory of the recent past to compare it with; and hence the great worry.
For such an omnipresent man, to suddenly disappear for a whole month from the public eye, there has to be a rational explanation. And if this is the case of two con men (Ali Abdu and Isaias Afwerki) conjuring up this disappearance so as to make the grand appearance of the president effective, then this extended disappearance will never take place again. But if there is fear on the side of these con men that these disappearances will be frequent in the near future because they are beyond their control in nature, then it would be simply the case of using a good opportunity (the rumors of his death) to hide the true reason for an unavoidable disappearance. That is why the most important information that the television appearance of the leader meant to convey was not simply that he is alive, but that he has no health problems at all – none to worry for the public.
With this good opportunity to dispel the rumors of his death (an easy task), the message that the president wanted to convey to his followers was one and one thing only: that if he disappears for a lengthy time in the near future, as he anticipates he would, not to believe the rumors of his severe illness. It is important to remember again that he is not worried of the rumors of his death at all – easily disprovable as they are so far as he is alive and breathing. For him, his only worry is that he would lose control if he is known to have a terminal illness and possibly dying soon as a result of it.
The president knows but too well that, in the event of these rumors of his terminal illness persisting for too long, his die-hard followers who cannot imagine a world without him would panic, many opportunistic followers would start jumping off the sinking ship, his juniors in the administration would be emboldened to seek an alternative to him, the opposition would be emboldened to put its house in order (for whatever it is worth); and Ethiopia might put him to test again and again. And since he has rightfully guessed that his illness would mean long absences from the public eye, he is skillfully using the rumors of his death to prepare his followers for his extended absences in the future. His strategy is rather simple, but very effective, “If these people can fabricate such rumors about my death, imagine what they would say about my health!” Notice that even though it is his good health that is harder to prove, simply because mortality is worse than morbidity, it is easy to swindle his hapless followers in convincing them that since he has proved his opponents wrong on the toughest part of the rumors, there is nothing to worry about the minor one.
The image of a healthy and vigorous leader who is in total control of everything that goes under his dominion is very important to a totalitarian system that commands allegiance among its followers partly by feeding them surreal images of strength, prosperity and happiness – especially for those foot soldiers that worship the Supreme Leader from a distance, the Diaspora followers. For these followers that have for long equated their leader with the nation, his strength and stability too is equated with the strength and stability of the nation. Therefore, the image of a president going through a marathon udet, with a long and windy itinerary that starts from Gash-Barka, then extends all the way north-east to Sahel, and then down along the coast to Massawa, and then all the way up to Asmara is meant to give the impression of an unusually energetic leader capable crisscrossing the entire region within 14 hours, stopping in between to accomplish various tasks. That this is an entirely fabricated tour can be easily seen from the contradictory accounts and flimsy explanations of the con men themselves. But before we go into the details of that virtual tour, let me go back to the communist era of Nikolae Ceausescu to find parallels to the surreal world of Ali Abdu’s and Isaias Afwerki’s making.
Too many extra hats
In an interesting, humorous Romanian movie, “Tales from the Golden Age”, there is one particular tale (The Legend of the Party Photographer) that describes the predicament that our two con-artists, Ali Abdu and Isaias Afwerki, face in the process of creating the image of a strong leader in total control of his administration.
The scene in the movie starts with two photographers pondering over some photos, trying to choose one that befits most the story in the newspaper. But this is not some regular story; it involves none other than Nikolae Ceausescu, the Romanian leader, who is seen in the photo with the visiting President Giscard d’Estaing of France. The young photographer simply chooses what he thought is the best photo aesthetically, but the older one, old enough not to have forgotten the horrors of the revolutionary past, was more wary in his choice. The problem was this: in the photo, Ceausescu comes out as too short when standing side by side with the tall French president. The old photographer wisely proposes to add some few inches more to the height of the dear communist leader, so as to make him look more dignified in front of the Romanian workers, in whose hands those papers are finally to end up.
After endowing Ceausescu with a dignified height that he deserves, the two photographers take the photo to the committee, possibly lead by a Minister of Information (a Romanian version of our own Ali Abdu), that finally decides which photo to go with the story. The Boss doesn't like what he sees; not at all. You see, in the photo, Ceausescu, as a gracious host, takes his hat off in a humble deference to Giscard d’Estaing. But for the Romanian “Ali Abdu”, the picture is too ambiguous for him to feel comfortable. God forbid if the workers are to see a humbled, ingratiating communist hero humiliating himself in front of a capitalist leader! This won’t do at all; something has to be done. After pondering over the matter, it isdecided that the hat in Ceausescu’s hand should respectfully go back to where it has always belonged: to the head of the Supreme Leader! Besides, such a correction would also resolve the height problem handsomely. The photographers are given half an hour to correct their mistakes; and, in the meantime, it is decided that the public trains that were to carry the newspapers to the workers of Romania would be made to delay, if necessary.
Half an hour later, the two photographers triumphantly present the committee with the corrected version; and as it turns out to be, to everyone’s satisfaction. The printing press is made to churn the newspapers quickly to meet the deadline. After that, the bundled newspapers are quickly loaded on to the waiting trains. A triumphant end, you say – not so fast!
A few of the newspapers have already been distributed among the workers in the building, who are expressing surprise or dismay every time they look at the picture. After that, we see someone running upstairs in panic, with a newspaper in his hand, to show the two photographers what has gone awry. The veteran photographer has almost a heart attack. And soon the mishap comes to the attention of the powerful committee. The problem is this: in the rash to put the hat back on to Nikolae Ceausescu’s head to meet the deadline, the poor photographers have forgotten to take off the hat in his hand, thus ending up with the ridiculous picture of a Romanian leader with two hats – one sitting on his head, and the other held in his hand!
So what is to be done? The public trains have to be stopped wherever they happen to be, before the newspapers end up in the hands of the workers!
One would think that with the coup de tat that the PFDJ conducted in Eri Tv, they would come out of this conjured-up world unscathed. But the story that the con artists concocted have left Isaias Afwerki, like his counterpart Nikolae Ceausescu, with too many extra hats in his hands.
The discrepancy between Isaias Afwerki’s and Ali Abdu’s accounts
It is said that no two lies of the same “fact”, stated by two liars, look the same. If you carefully compare the two accounts told by Ali Abdu and Isaias Afwerki, as many of you who have followed both the interviews must have easily detected, they differ in many points, the most important of which is: while Ali Abdu extends the itinerary of Isaias from the coastal area to Zoba Debub (Mendefera), before he finally lets his boss peacefully settle down in Asmara, Isaias prefers a shorter version. Here is how Ali Abdu put the president’s itinerary in the interview he gave in Voice of America: 3:00 AM in Gash Barka, 6:00 AM in SAWA, 9:00 AM in Zoba Anseba; 12:00 PM in Zoba North Red Sea; 3:00 PM in Zoba Debub (Mendefera); 4:30 PM in Zoba Maekel (Asmara). Ali Abdu further goes to assert that after these 16 hours of arduous itinerary, he met Isaias for work at 7:00 PM on the same day (Sunday). If we give an hour or two for this work to be done, we can see Isaias having a day of more than 20 hours of relentless travel and hard work. The Boss though begs to differ.
The president’s shorter version opts for a 14 hours work day, period. Besides eliminating the udet to Zoba Debud, thus saving himself two precious hours, he contradicts Ali Abdu in saying that he went directly to sleep. It seems that for the visibly enfeebled Isaias, the idea of stretching the itinerary to Mendefera before he settles in his final destination to rest is too much for his imagination, let alone for his liver-disease debilitated legs. His itinerary goes on like this (in his own words): Gash, Keren, Afabet, Gulbub, Massawa, Gahtelay; and then he unambiguously states that after having breakfast in Gahtelay and taking care of some work in that place, he drove directly to Asmara; the journey to Mendefera entirely disappears from this account. The over-zealousness of the sycophant Ali Abdu stretched the believability scale to unacceptable point, and Isaias meant to surreptitiously correct it with his own shorter version.
The other point where the two liars begged to differ is as to when Isaias came to know about the rumors of his death. Isaias wants us to believe that he had no clue of what was going on: he doesn’t check the Internet regularly; he was outside the country (by the way, never reported in the nation’s media, another oddity) ; and immediately after his arrival, he was on “udet” crisscrossing the country; and as soon as he arrived in Asmara, he went directly into a long and blissful sleep of the innocent not knowing that the world was conspiring against him. It was only after he woke up on Monday morning that he came to know what was going on, with his dear Weyzero Saba as his sole witness. Fortunately for us, the overzealous lackey does all the countering again. He wants us to believe that just after the 16-hour itinerary, the super-human Isaias was not only wide awake until 7:00 PM but also went to work with him right after that. And if indeed Ali Abdu met Isaias at 7:00 PM, it would be absurd not to let him know of the rumors that had set the Ministry of Information into frantic action in his absence. Already Asmelash of Eri Tv had gone public in redressing the wrongs that have been done to our Dear and Beloved Leader a day earlier, and Shabait had come out with its own version of press release from the Ministry of Information, spicily peppered with “myrrh and incense”.
Thus, for this con artist, to tell us that he didn’t know of the rumors until the last moment, and even then attended it with little interest, was meant to convey the image of an unhinged leader in the face of these rumors – an image spoiled by Ali Abdu’s account that leaves His Excellency with one extra hat in his hand. Now add the contradictory time tables mentioned above, we have two extra hats in the hands of the despot – and still counting.
Time frame: equidistant in threes
Another sign that this tour story is entirely fabricated is that it comes too neatly packaged to make it believable: if we go by the arrival schedules at each Zoba so graciously provided to us by Ali Abdu, it is that they fantastically follow each other within three hours of a difference – as many others might have also easily observed: 3:00 AM, 6:00 AM, 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 3:00 PM. The only journey that Ali Abdu was forced to cut in half was the short road from Mendefera to Asmara, thus making the arrival time in Asmara at 4:30 PM.
Beside the uneven distances that require uneven timings in between, what makes this schedule absurd is that it would be impossible to cover all the distance unless one is in a race car, with nothing else happening in between for it to count as a real udet. For instance, take the road from Massawa to Mendefera (if we are to believe Ali Abdu’s extended tour version). According to Ali Abdu’s time table, Isaias was in Zoba North Red Sea by 12:00 PM. If he was in Massawa by 12:00 PM, taking into consideration whatever he accomplished in the city, at earliest he would be at Gahtely by 1:00 PM. What is funny is that the President contradicted his Minister by saying he had breakfast at Gahtely. Be it breakfast or lunch, let’s give it half an hour for them to finish their eating and another half an hour for letting the president accomplish what he mentioned as “work”. Now imagine driving from Gahtely to Mendefera in one hour to make it by 3:00 PM. And further, to make it to Asmara by 4;30 PM, they must have stayed in Mendefera few minutes, barely enough for them to attend their bathroom needs. No wonder our president reluctantly cuts some distance from what Ali Abdu wants him to heroically traverse!
Even if we are charitable enough to squeeze in as few events as possible requiring few minutes only to attend to, it would be impossible to see how this tour was undertaken within the time frame the two con men have provided us with. Indeed, it is especially hard to believe that they would make it by Ali Abdu’s timing, beautifully choreographed as it is to be equidistant in time – as if a Zoba would be offended if the time our Illustrious President gracing it with his presence, god forbid, turns out to be only a multiple of two. The extra hats that these two clowns have to carry – of course, in deference to the devil – are already coming in multiples of three!
The nature of a virtual “udet”
Isaias had before conducted long udets that crisscrossed the country, but none of them had ever been undertaken in such a short time. This has been so even as he abhors staying in any one place for long, rather preferring to be a moving target for security reasons. These brief visits he often conducted with land cruisers had no other purpose but for public display, which brings us to another important point: as many others have pointed out, if there was such a long itinerary, how come it was not shown on Eri Tv. Given the rationale for these public displays, this is indeed a legitimate question.
What makes a tour an udet is not simply the fact that it took place on the ground, but that it is made to show that the president is in touch with his subjects. At one time we see the president standing beside a micro-dam advising the farmers on how to tend their farms; at another time, we see him dancing with the crowds; and, at another time, we see him taking a long walk with a bereaving crowd, all on their way to a martyrs’ cemetery. Without these montages skillfully displayed on Eri Tv, the president’s tours would have been non-events. Thus, by definition, an udet that is not for public consumption is not an udet at all. Hence, the problem that Ali Abdu and Isaias Afwerki faced was: how do you make an udet that never took place a public event?
We have to remember that in the old tours that Isaias conducted, crowds were made to welcome him at every stop. But if no one in Zoba Gash Barka, Zoba Anseba, Zoba Keyih Bahri and Zoba Maekel (And if you would rather believe Ali Abdu’s version, please include Zoba Debub), not a single person remembers His Excellency Isaias Afwerki conducting his udet as he passed through his/her area, then that would be a conclusive proof that no such visits have ever taken place. Realizing this, the two con artists have made this tour as inconspicuous as possible when it “actually” happened, but as conspicuous as possible in its absence. Since they are fully aware that an udet’s worth is entirely in the public eye, the drama they conducted on Eri Tv was staged with one single purpose in mind: how to make this virtual udet a public event – and that has been the main goal of the drama.
Of course, they were fully aware that the question that in the mind of the public regarding this udet was: how come we haven’t seen you in your udet in public media? Remember that this udet was never mentioned in Hadas Eritrea or in Dimtsi Hafash, let alone to be shown on Eri Tv. The rationale that Isaias provided was that it is not necessary to make every udet a public display. But if this udet indeed took place, it wouldn’t count as any tour, given that it was taking place after an unusual extended absence of the leader of the country from the public eye. In fact, had it been carried on Eri Tv live, it wouldn’t only have quashed the rumors of his death but also of his illness, as his interview could hardly do. Seeing the president taking long walks, dancing with the crowd and standing as he attended long ceremonies would have gone a long way in dispelling rumors about his health, as a propped up, sitting president conducting an interview would never do. But even then, a one day’s healthy appearance wouldn’t explain a month long absence. What is required is consistency in public appearance, the way it was in the past. Any extended absence from the public eye in the future, be it in a continuous or intermittent manner, would for sure be a sign of an ailing president; and, for that, terminally ill – this will indeed be the litmus test that Isaias will have to live up to.
There is no doubt then that this marathon itinerary (plus the extra work), which Ali Abdu made it last for 20 long arduous hours but Isaias sparingly cut it to “believable” 14 hours, is entirely fabricated to give the impression of a 66 years old national leader so vigorous that he could conduct a long land trip crisscrossing his country just after he had arrived from a week long journey to the Gulf States, and go immediately to work, with sleeves rolled, after that. The other superlatives Asmelash of Eri TV and Ali Abdu used – “kem menisey bibirku yestenfis” (“fit as a fiddle”), “energetic more than a 16 year old”, “300% healthy” – are meant to buttress this image of a healthy, energetic leader on top of things and in total control of his domain. And if they are going to such a length to convince the public that the Supreme Leader is kicking and alive, that is precisely where the problem lies: the idea that Eritrea has a terminally ill leader at a time when the image of a weak nation incapable of defending itself, as shown by the recent military incursion of Ethiopia, will not only lead to fractured loyalties, but would also embolden enemies from inside and outside.
The liver connection
The irony of the drama exhibited on Eri Tv on Saturday, April 28, is that here is a man who wants to reassure his subjects that everything is fine in the nation because the Emperor is in fine health, while keeping silent on every tragedy that has befallen on his people. This is a man that hasn’t uttered a single word of sympathy or condolence to their families when 400 young Eritreans drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, trying desperately to escape his totalitarian grip. Nor did he show any outrage or protest to the Egyptian authorities when thousands of Eritreans were subjected and are still being subjected to ransom, torture, rape and death under the hands of Bedouin Arabs in the Sinai. This macabre character believes that the nation is more worried about his wellbeing than the wellbeing of its sons and daughters, who are either trapped in an endless slavery inside the nation or wasting their lives in refugee camps at neighboring countries or losing their lives in alien deserts and seas. But the irony doesn’t stop here.
One has to go one more level up to understand the macabre nature of the Ogre of Asmara. It is indeed an irony of the supreme kind that when young Eritreans’ kidneys, livers and other body parts are plucked out of their tender bodies by filthy Bedouin Arab hands to extend the lives of bed-ridden aging Arabs by few more years, a 66 year old Eritrean despot is going back and forth to the Gulf States to tend to his liver ailment and, if need be, to undergo a liver transplant, no doubt benefiting from the huge black market whose main supply comes from the body parts harvest of Eritrean hostages in the Sinai. The irony of ironies is that while this filthy character finds it important to the nation that his 66 years old life be extended at whatever cost, tens of thousands Eritrean lives are being cut off at early ages – through war, slavery, imprisonment, destitution, torture, drowning at alien seas, killings in the Sinai, etc. Gruesome as it is in its actual occurrence, it is rather this image of Yikealo veteran living off the body parts of Warsai at it metaphorical level that describes the plight of the Eritrean masses at best.
For someone unencumbered with the romantic view of the revolution, it would have been easy to notice that what really happened when the nation was supposedly liberated in the early 90’s was that as the Yikealo generation (the liberators) moved in to the cities and towns of Eritrea, the Warsai generation started moving out of the nation, with the exodus picking up speed after the border war. For someone with a birds eye view, not blinded with confounding variables provided by an senseless revolution, what clearly is seen from a distance is a constant case of displacement, where the liberated space has been rendered so small that it can only accommodate the fittest – the Yikealo generation. In such a narrow living space, the first displacement occurred from the cities to the wilderness, soon followed up by a second displacement from agelglot (national service) to sidet (refugee life). In the first displacement, those long years of enslavement, the Warsai are needed for nothing else but their body parts: either to serve as defenders the Yikealo princes (to borrow an apt phrase from Zekre Lebona), with an Ak 47 in their hands, or to work in their various projects for free, with a shovel in their hands. In every task that they are given, it is not their minds that are needed, but their bodies – the quintessential feature of a slave.
That the fate of Warsai has been actualized in the second displacement by reaping apart their body parts in Sinai is but a logical continuation of what took place in the first displacement; after all, it is the harsh agelglot that is driving tens of thousands of desperate Eritreans to the foreboding Sinai desert. And looked at closely, the two places have eerie resemblance to one another. In both cases, the young Eritreans are kept as hostages through sheer brutality. If a hostage attempts to escape from his captors in Sinai, the attempt at his life is enacted twice over: first by his Bedouin captors, and second by the Egyptian border guards. Similarly, if a Warsai attempts to flee Eritrea, there is a shoot-at-sight policy zealously enforced by the regime’s death squads. Even the ransom enterprise flourishing in Sinai has its counterpart in Eritrea. If a Warsai manages to escape from the clutches of PFDJ, his parents are held hostages in prison until they come up with the $50,000 Nakfa demanded by its captors. And the resemblance doesn’t stop here: to mention one case, the raping of Eritrean women by the Bedouin Arabs has its precedent in the trenches of Eritrea, where the generals and colonels are having a field day with women old enough to be their granddaughters. One can go on and on …
At a more conceptual level, this metaphor of a Yikealo prince living off the body parts of Warsai can be stretched to include the Revolution itself –" the Revolution devouring its children", best exemplified in Shaebia’s relentless effort to unnecessarily stretch its lifespan by devouring young Eritreans, one generation at a time. This cannibalism, 21st century style, is indeed the culmination of an ugly, unnecessary and visionless revolution – a point to ponder for all those hapless creatures whose feet are itching to hit the dancing floor come Independence Day on May 24!