Isaias’ hostility to the West is all about survivalism
Many gave their analysis on why Eritrea chose to do so. Some have said that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is ideologically anti-Western. Others explained that it was because of US sanctions, including the recent one, against Eritrea.
Some have argued that Isaias is a dictator and have chosen to side with fellow dictator President Vladimir Putin. Others said Isaias sought Russian patronage and political protection at the UN Security Council, vetoing possible moves against his rule.
None of these arguments is convincing.
“A simple tactic”
Isaias has never been ideologically anti-Western. Its anti-Western rhetoric is just a tactic. On the other hand, it does not enjoy any significant political or financial support from Russia.
It is the least vulnerable to external pressures. Isaias is rather threatened by internal dynamics.
Isaias does not want to put himself under the influence of any power, be it Russia, America or China. It must be able to stand alone in difficult times or in the absence of political protection against veto powers.
When the UN Security Council imposed a brutal sanction on Eritrea in 2009, it sought no political protection from Russia or China as other regimes do. Almost all regimes like Syria, Iran and North Korea, which are hostile to America, seek protection from Russia or China so that these veto powers block multilateral actions within the UNSC.
Isaias does not pressure alternative powers in the United Nations system to thwart or get rid of sanctions. Sanctions and animosities are the sources of the extent of Isaias’ power.
It must perpetuate hostility with the West to maintain its totalitarian regime. The regime is immune to sanctions, so they cannot have any significant impact.
When the UNSC imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, many said it was the beginning of the end for Isaias Afwerki. They expected the regime to immediately face a crisis and eventually fall.
Strengthen his “tyranny”
Sanctions and hostilities greatly helped Isaias to reinforce his tyranny over the people and the army.
Eritrea is not like other African countries which are very vulnerable to external pressures. It is internally very stable. The country is homogeneous with an overwhelming majority of the Tigrinya people. People and societal institutions, due to centuries of wars and invasions, are endowed with resilience. Eritrea is at least food independent, whether in foreign markets or domestic production.
Devastating wars with outside powers and recurring conquests by foreigners have always haunted the Eritrean people.
Eritrea’s glorious past
Eritrea is one of the ancient civilizations, although its current map was shaped by Italy. It was the center of the Geez civilization (aka Aksumite Empire) which flourished along the western Red Sea coast. It survived redundant Islamic incursions.
The Geez civilization is the only surviving ancient civilization in the region. Adulis, an ancient city, 40 kilometers south of the present-day port city of Massawa, was one of the busiest commercial centers of world trade across the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that linked the Roman Empire and China he 2000 years ago.
The UN has decided that Eritrea will be harnessed in the name of a federation with Ethiopia to best serve US geostrategic interests in the Red Sea region, as John Foster Dulles said during a session of the UNSC in 1950.
Civilization began to decline due to the spread of Islam. It was crippled and isolated from the outside world and besieged by emerging Islamic powers.
Its strategic location in the heart of the Red Sea has made Eritrea the target of a millennium of raids and conquests. Many powers including Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Ethiopia, Mahdist Sudan, etc. invaded at different times.
Nation “divided in two”
At the time of the Scramble for Africa, the Tigrinya nation was split into two, Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Tigrinya ethnic group is the overwhelming majority in Eritrea and dominates all aspects of the country. They have no tribal or clan institutions and enjoy deep social trust. The Tigrinya people of Ethiopia, also known as Tigrayans, live in the regional state of Tigray and make up 6% of the country’s population.
Italy colonized Eritrea for more than half a century (from 1882 to 1941) and it was one of the most industrialized colonies in Africa. Britain ruled Eritrea for a decade after World War II.
Although a separate colony, Eritrea’s fate was decided by outside forces at the cost of its sovereignty. The UN has decided that Eritrea will be harnessed in the name of the federation with Ethiopia best serve U.S. geostrategic interests in the Red Sea region, as John Foster Dulles said during a 1950 session of the UNSC.
Ethiopia later rejected the federation and annexed Eritrea by force, compromising its autonomy. Eritrea went through decades of bloody war with Ethiopian regimes heavily supported and armed by the United States (during Haile Selassie), USSR, East Germany, Cuba, North Korea, Libya , Israel and South Yemen during its struggle for independence.
“Deep distrust of foreigners”
This millennial experience has shaped the psyche of the Eritrean people, making them think that they have to put up with their government, be it good or bad. People have a deep distrust of strangers. The series of wars and foreign encroachments make Eritrean history full of lamentation and resilience. This saga influences the mindset of ordinary people and the strategic thinking of the elite.
The regime’s only source of legitimacy is a perceived ongoing defensive war.
Isaias always capitalizes on this perception of the Eritrean people that the country has many evil enemies near and far who are ready to destroy Eritrea. He exploits this psychological make-up tighten its control and monopolize power.
No social base
Isaias hails from Tigray Regional State in Ethiopia. Members of his inner circle of power, the senior leadership of the ruling party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), are also from Tigray or peripheral areas of Eritrea. However, the military and other institutions are overwhelmingly dominated by people from the central region of Eritrea, formerly called Hamasien.
The president and his regime have no social base in the densely populated and politico-economically central area of the country.
So, he can only live in permanent military mobilization and a permanent state of emergency. Isaias introduced forced and indefinite military service. The regime’s only source of legitimacy is a perceived ongoing defensive war.
Isaias describes himself as a popular and nationalist leader. He cannot publicly declare dictatorship in a nation that has had native law written and well practiced for centuries [Hgi Endaba, lit. Law of Fathers].
Enemy number one: America
To maintain this permanent military mobilization and this state of emergency, Isaias needs endless hostilities with the West. This means that no one should question the rule of the diet during this dangerous time.
The regime’s propaganda machine has echoed the fact that Eritrea is at war with the United States and its proxies. It portrays America as a perverse and permanent enemy of the Eritrean people.
For any problems, he blames the United States. He tells people that the governments of neighboring countries are agents of America and therefore the United States has declared a proxy war on Eritrea using these neighbors. He had even accused the Derg regime – which was anti-American and heavily armed by the USSR and the socialist states of the time – of being an agent of America to destroy Eritrea.
Many argue that Isaias is a ruthless dictator and has no popular legitimacy in Eritrea. Eritreans living in the country believe that their government is waging a war against Eritrea by outside forces. He succeeded in creating a warlike mood in Eritrea.
The regime has monopolized the media and communication sector. There is only a television, a radio and a newspaper. Private media are unthinkable. He has a narrative monopoly. There is no alternate narration. Isaias isolated people from the outside world both physically and virtually.
For his survival, Isaias employed the following strategies:
- Media and narrative monopoly;
- Invent evil enemies;
- Isolate the country from the outside world;
- Depopulate the Tigrinya youth;
- Tightly control the people and the army;
- Prevent dependence on any foreign power.
To maintain animosity with the West, he always goes against the decisions made by the West, especially the United States.
It’s all about “survivalism”
Therefore, Isaias’ antagonism towards the West, including the recent vote against the UN resolution on the Russian-Ukrainian war, is survivalism. The vote did not concern Russia, the United States or Ukraine at all.
This was to intensify hostilities with the United States. It was to offend America and invite reactive action and declarations. The president has used animosities and sanctions as tools to bolster his propaganda that America is trying to tear down Eritrea.
While Eritreans may gradually tire of the regime, in a desperate attempt to keep the people with him, Isaias should seek new hostilities with the West to distract and externalize the discontent of the people and the military.
This hostility must be endless and overwhelming for the regime to perpetuate its fierce grip on the people and the army.