27 January 2013

Ethiopia: Eritrean Showdown - Coup or Showbiz?


Yemane Gebremeskel, director of the Office of the President of Eritrea, reflected, last Tuesday, on the showdown of last Monday, saying, "all is calm today as it all was yesterday."

The well-known spin-doctor of the regime, Ali Abdu, the minister of Information, was absent from the show this week, providing more credibility to the two-month-old claim that he has defected.

Calm is a relative word. But the showdown on Monday - where approximately 200 hundred soldiers besieged the Ministry of Information (MoI) of Eritrea and tanks rolled into the city - cannot be normal, even by Eritrean standards, where the number of military personnel per capita is among the highest in the world.

In fact, the mutineers went as far as forcing the director of Eri-TV and acting Minister of Information, Asmellash Abraha, to read a statement declaring that the Ministry was under their control, along with a list of demands. Transmission was interrupted, however, after he had read just two of the demands.

When the satellite transmission returned later in the evening, its headline news was the heavy snowfall in Paris, France. Almost at the same time, it was learnt that the troops had returned to their barracks, near the capital, Asmara, after receiving pledges from President Isaias, who had had them surrounded by his loyalists hours earlier.

Beyond these sketches, the details of the incident, its background and the politics behind it remain unclear.

It is difficult to shrug off the possibility that Isaias himself could be behind it.

Unlike what many might think, Isaias' supporters take the claim that Eritrea is engaged in a struggle against an unjust global order, who consistently stand in opposition to Eritrea's interests, as well as the belief that Ethiopia is bent on dismembering their state, very seriously. But this cannot suffice to legitimatise his rule for too much longer.

The fact that his administration earned two-rounds of United Nations sanctions, and condemnations, even by the African Union (AU), which rarely takes a stand against its members, has cast doubt on his stature as a 'genius'. The thousands of youth that cross the Eritrean border every month seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, is a clear indicator of just how much his public approval rating is dwindling.

He certainly needs to improve the way that he does things. This could entail minimalistic measures, such as; dismantling the high-profile structure profiting from smuggling youths across the border, or restructuring ruling party companies to raise the payment for youths forced to work under the pretext of national service. It could also mean bigger things, like; demoting top civilian and political officials to pave the way for his hand-picked successor or starting peace talks with Ethiopia, without any pre-conditions.

For such drastic changes, he needs justification. And, the bigger the crisis, the freer his hands will be.

However, the implications of Monday's showdown appear too big to be to the liking of the control-freak president, who relentlessly demonstrates his invincibility with sudden appearances in public places. The fact that the mutineers demanded the implementation of the 1997 Draft Constitution and the release of political prisoners goes beyond what is needed to achieve the above-stated objectives.

Their act, by itself, sets a dangerous precedent in a country where the army is disgruntled by a virtually permanent life in the barracks, with only meager provisions. Thus, given the strain the incident has left on the stature of the government, even if it turns out to be a drama of Isaias' own making, it indicates that a bigger crisis exists underneath.

In fact, a series of events in the past months indicate a serious problem may be unfolding. The defection of two pilots to Saudi Arabia flying fighter jets and that of his right-hand minister, Ali Abdu, are both noteworthy recent developments.

The claim that Isaias intends to stand down soon, which appeared on an affiliated media outlet weeks ago, indicates that the 'president-for-life' has felt it somewhat necessary to make such claims. The recent move to arm urban-dwelling civilians, under the pretext of being reserves, can be taken as a move to dilute the army's monopoly of violence. These things give some credence to the claim that demands for 'reforms-of-sorts' have been made by some officers in the Eritrean army, which has become the lone centre of power, since the purging of the big wigs of the ruling party a decade ago.

However, not many wish to call Monday's showdown an attempted coup d'état. Eritrean activists, wary of international opinion, frown even on the use of the term mini coup d'état and laboured to downplay reports of injured and missing army officials as a consequence. Moreover, the mutineers' demands were rather minimalist, falling short of asking Isaias to resign, although some claim that was also somewhere further down on their list of demands.

Others, like Leonard Vincent, insist on the phrase 'coup de force', as the showdown appears to be aimed at showing what the army would do, lest Isaias resume negotiations for political transition and, rather, continues to drag his feet.

Perhaps, the widely used word, negotiation, is a misnomer, as it portrays the army as an institution, which possesses some sort of independence from Isaias' Office. On the contrary, Isaias works to undermine the hierarchy and authority of military chiefs by intervening in operational and administrative matters and, more importantly, by dealing directly with their deputies.

Bypassing, sometimes sidelining, the high-ranking officers, is not only a result of Isaias' disregard for formal structures, but also it is intended to keep the locus of powers fluid. This includes constantly rotating army heads and the placement of army units themselves. These manoeuvres, coupled with the crony and bitter rivalry among army chiefs, engineered by Isaias, certainly precluded potential threats for the last decade, when Eritrea, for all practical reasons, became a military dictatorship. In fact, Isaias managed to create a system where no one can even tell who the second-in-command is.

As Isaias mistrusts his top officials and advisers, and is presumably disappointed in how they fail to grasp his grand ideas and designs, he would naturally resort to consulting with mid-level officials, where he has an iconic status. Inviting them into meetings and letting them present recommendations is not only a way of undermining the military's chain of command, thus preempting potential threats, but also cementing his image as an altruistic 'real' son of the state, crippled by incompetent top leadership.

The drawback of this approach, however, is that, through time, it emboldens the mid-ranking officials to see themselves as darlings of Isaias and, thus, hold free discussions on political issues in their camps and bars. Why the youth cross borders, evading conscriptions en-masse, was allegedly one of Isaias' favourite talking points with his mid-ranking officers.

Unlike his advisors, however, these officers have more integrity and hesitate to counter his claims, belittling the youth and theories of grand conspiracy. In fact, they would think their iconic leader needed some insights to make things better. But it would only be a matter of time before they started doubting his competence or sincerity, or both.

One cannot help but ponder a possible resemblance to 1974 Ethiopia, where Emperor Haile Selassie played down the threat coming from mid-ranking officers who dared to organise themselves and make demands in three rounds. The demands ultimately, albeit hesitantly, evolved into ousting the Emperor - only once the army usurped all state institutions.

Like the Emperor, Isaias barely trusts his advisers, who presumably provide him with contradicting recommendations, either to please him or to sabotage their peers. Thus, Isaias, apparently, casts his lot with the lower officers who consider him an icon.

As a result, he naturally snubs reports of frequent mid-level officers' gatherings and concerns with his rule. Such reports would be suspected as being exaggerated by senior officials, who sought to reassert their authority.

Just like the Emperor, it is likely that Isaias would insist, if the mid-level and lower officers ever gathered into a mutiny, that it is because of mal-administration by their superiors. Unsurprisingly, this was the line used by the pro-Asmara journalist, Thomas Mountain, to spin Monday's showdown.

Similar to Haileselassie's final days, Isaias is now frequently ill, alone and too old to act swiftly; not to mention his frequenting of bars, where he allegedly was when Monday's showdown was unfolding. Thus, he might have failed to preempt the showdown, being unsure as to where to start, in order to turn the table around in his favour.

Moreover, 'paralysis by analysis' - not reacting to events for which he does not have a certain way out - is Isaias' way of doing things. The achievements on his resume have mostly been accomplished by waiting passively until things turn in his favour.

But, maybe, this time around, he waited too long. But, still, equally, maybe he did not.

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