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Eritrea at 21: still in President Isaias’ unyielding grip

Eritrea celebrated its 21st independence day yesterday with President Isaias making his address to the nation in a manner that befitted his penchant for conspiracy theories. There had been a number of recent rumours suggesting he was seriously ill after he failed to appear in public for a month. The stories reached a point where the regime had to go to absurd lengths to prove he was alive and well, concocting a truly bizarre itinerary of supposed activity to dispel the rumours. Yesterday’s celebrations were another opportunity for the Eritrean President to show that he is firmly in charge of the country he has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years now. His address yesterday was certainly clear proof that he is indeed alive and more importantly apparently healthy.

Whatever the state of his health which will continue to be a subject of speculation, it was quite clear from his speech that his old habits and beliefs were unchanged. His sense of paranoia remains intact. He still thinks he, and he alone, has all the answers to the world’s problems. His government is continuing to make unequalled progress in all areas. America is still out to get him personally, and wars of all sorts, both military and psychological, are constantly being waged against Eritrea.

In his speech, President Isaias stated his country has lived in an undeclared state of emergency for the past twenty one years. He appears not to have been referring to the totalitarian manner by which he has led his nation into its current state of despondency as he quickly turned to others to explain the suffering of the Eritrean people. Certainly none of it was his fault. According to the President, his country’s most pressing problem is not poverty nor a lack of good governance nor even his health. The most important problem his country is facing is the fact that, despite a binding international decision "confirming" Eritrea’s sovereignty, it’s “sovereign territory is still under occupation due to the complicity of the US administration through its surrogate, the TPLF". The President still refuses to consider that Ethiopia is a match for his overactive adventurism; in his make-believe world, it is only a super-power than can be responsible for Eritrea’s problems.

In a possible reference to his health, excellent or otherwise, he tells his audience that psychological warfare is being waged against Eritrea and its people “under different guises" in order to disrupt the harmony of the people of Eritrea. This ‘harmony’, which is characterized by thousands of Eritrean youth pouring across the border to escape the conditions inside the country, is apparently perceived by the likes of America as a dangerous threat. As a result, the US is now making all sorts of effort to try to destroy Eritrea including invention of rumours of his health. It is not entirely clear why these should be sufficient to destabilize the country unless that person is considered, if only by he himself, to be the only representation of that country. Why would an otherwise vibrant nation and its people face such an existential threat because of the deteriorating health, real or perceived, of just one man? The answer is clear enough: Eritrea today has been largely reduced to becoming the sum total of President Isaias’ whims and capricious decisions.

According to the President, the campaign against him and against Eritrea is not confined to this psychological warfare. There are also economic conspiracies" to clip" the national economy and “diplomatic encirclement” to encourage aggression. The UN sanctions regime is part of the “desperate campaign” of the US and its allies. This is born out of their realization that despite all their efforts Eritrea’s successful efforts to defend itself is gaining momentum by the day. He thanked the people’s steadfastness for the far stronger position in which he claimed Eritrea finds itself today!

President Isaias reassured his audience that his country’s march towards progress is not just the mining boom but is rather the result of the integrated development efforts of his government. Even the “recent aggression” against Eritrea by the US and its surrogate could not prevent Eritrea from marching ahead. The fact that he had chosen not to escalate the conflict after the recent attack across the border was actually in consideration of this “miraculous” progress Eritrea was making.

In conclusion, he told his audience, which included President Al-Bashir of Sudan, that Eritrea had no responsibility for instigating conflicts with all its neighbors or any shred of responsibility for the countless destabilizing activities against Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, that he has underwritten over the years. Everything is blamed on the United States which he accused of meddling in the affairs of the region in order to hold the people of Eritrea and of Ethiopia as hostage. “The past 20 years witnessed a wave of illegal and illicit acts of conspiracies weaved by the Administration in Washington and its cohorts to bring about disintegration of the independence and unity of Somalia, as well as manage the chaos spawned, to plunge Eritrea and Djibouti into a fabricated conflict situation, keeping hostage the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia through exposing them to a state of permanent tension, thrusting the people of both Sudans into perennial crisis….”.

All this might be classified as a considerable insult if it had come from any normal politician, but it can be shrugged off as nonsense coming as it does from a leader whose capacity for failing to make sense is unequaled in the region if not more widely. At the same time, his capacity for blaming others for everything he has done does make one additional point. Indeed, President Isaias is underlining with distressing clarity that the people of Eritrea should not expect any voluntary changes in Eritrea while he is alive.

* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – May 25, 2012 issue, titled ‘Eritrea at 21: still in President Isaias’ unyielding grip’.

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