Martin Plaut

Journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa

Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Horn of Africa

Lord of Misrule: the presidency of Isaias Afwerki

Lord of misrule

There is an ancient European tradition of appointing a ‘master of misrule’ to conduct the celebrations around Christmas and New Year. He was probably a rather jolly figure: sadly the same cannot be said for the Eritrean president. But one thing seems certain – he is someone who thrives on misrule.

Consider this. When Prime Minister Abiy made his pathbreaking visit to Asmara in June this year he received a raptuous reception. Then President Isaias made a similar visit to Addis Ababa. Since then there have been a series of meetings involving Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. It seemed for a moment that a new era of peace might be dawning.

Peace brings its challenges

But peace might be more difficult for President Isaias than crisis and confrontation.

Without an external threat, why continue indefinite national service in Eritrea? Tens of thousands of young men and women might return to their communities. What work would be found for them and what would happen if they discovered that their future was still bleak?

If there was no threat from Ethiopia pressure would increase for constitutional rule in Eritrea. The National Assembly could be recalled and there would be pressure for the country to hold its first ever elections.

There would also have to be the transfer of border communities all along the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, to conform to the new boundary established between the two countries.

These prospects would have been deeply troubling for President Isaias, who is a past-master at manipulating situations when they are complex, difficult and in crises. Peace and stability would be an entirely new situation for him.

Crises return

Luckily for the president, events have come to his aid.

Ethiopia is in turmoil, with vast numbers of people forced to flee as ethnic groups jostle and fight for their rights as the authoritarian rule from the centre weakens.

The Tigrayans – once such solid allies of Eritreans – are facing threats as their lands are challanged. The TPLF, with whom the EPLF fought side by side to overthrow the Derge, are in real trouble with their neighbours. There is a return to the old hostilities that once set the TPLF and EPLF apart, with the Eritrean authorities now gloating about the problems that beset their southern neighbours.

Meanwhile, Sudan, which closed its border with Eritrea earlier this year, is also in the throes of a crisis.

So President Isaias can end the year quietly satisfied. He has neighbours in crises. He can argue that Eritrea is still facing threats from abroad and cannot afford to relax. Vigilance and patriotism must – once more – trump human rights and democracy.

All this is likely to be reflected in his anticipated New Year’s message.

But who knows? Perhaps this is quite wrong and President Isaias will anounce a programme of radical reform and renewal. The Constitution will be enacted, opposition parties will be allowed to return to the country, political prisoners and journalists liberated from the dungeons in which they languish and free and fair elections will be held.

I am not holding my breath.

We might conclude by recalling a poem of the great Alexandrian, C.P. Cavafy.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Translated by Edmund Keeley
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
       The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.


2 thoughts on “Lord of Misrule: the presidency of Isaias Afwerki

  1. That explains the DIA devilish behaviour. Above all PIA has chosen an evil instrument to extend his brutal rule and that is starving Eritreans literally so that they do only think of Bread and water. This is also an ancient technic to hold a population docile and mum.
    How cruel can Dictators be? The people of Eritrea do not deserve such cruelty and never asked more than Freedom and Constitutional rule.
    God save the dwindling number of Eritrean Citizens than maybe been instinct in their own country.

  2. Funny how the rest of the world is now coming to terms with what has been happening for the past 20 years. The world is quick to accept claims of peace yet they have turned a blind eye to all the injustices that has befallen Eritrean people. Somebody needs to get rid of this evil man once and for all. Eritrea will never get peace and her children will never see democracy until this totalitarian beast is removed. If the western world wants to help, all they need to do is persecute him for all the injustices he has committed and the injustices run way deeper than just starving his people and confining them to indefinite military service.

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