From Exemplary Revolution towards a Failed State: What Went Wrong with the Eritrean Dream?

By Dr Salah Ibrahim, 18 November 2005

Undoubtedly, many mistakes were made during the Eritrean struggle for national independence. Among other things, this includes physical eliminations under mysterious circumstances and unfounded accusations of some of the finest patriotic Eritrean intellectuals. Assassinations of elite politicians and military leaders who held opposing political views, kidnappings and disappearances of talented and hard-working Eritreans, and many other crimes that did not come to light for the general public to know about them. The legacy of all these misdeeds culminated, unfortunately, in the highly polarized Eritrean society of present. In spite of this, the Eritrean revolution is still regarded as one of the exemplary revolutions of its time. Note that revolution in this context does not mean great movements such as “The Russian Revolution of 1917” or “The Cultural Revolution of China in the early 1960s” that brought tremendous changes to their society. It simply refers to the firm resistance against occupation. This article contains two parts: the first will take the reader through some historical events that demonstrate why the Eritrean revolution is viewed as exemplary, whereas the second part will deal with the sequences of the dreadful events that have led to the ill situation that Eritrea is in at the moment.

I will begin the first part by recounting the sufferings of the Eritrean people following the illegal take over of our country by the Ethiopian colonial power. As the reader knows the Eritrean Parliament was abolished in 1962 by a royal decree authorised by the then emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. Following the unjust occupation of Eritrea and the failure of peaceful protests, primarily due to the US’s anti-Eritrea position in the UN assembly, the Eritrean people opted for military course of action to regain their sovereignty. For thirty years (1961-1991), Eritrea was a battle field between the colonisers and the liberation fighters. The latter fought indefatigably for their right of self-determination and national independence. Certainly, the independence was realised as a result of huge human sacrifices and economical or material loss. These sacrifices brought about the fall of the communist regime of Ethiopia that inflicted agony, suffering and the displacement of Eritrean people.

The question is, why is the Eritrean revolution considered a world-class fine and exemplary experiment? To answer this question, one needs to briefly look at some of the important events and crucial stages in the history of our revolution. I will examine two critical periods: 1961 – 1970 and 1980 – 1984. This does not in anyway mean or be interpreted that there were no other crucial stages in the history of the Eritrean struggle for national independence. Indeed, the Eritrean struggle is rich in historical events marked by great heroism that deserve admiration. To comprehensively and properly document those events, a strong commitment and hard work is required and it would be better to be narrated by those who made that history itself. But it is my opinion that during the above specified periods, it was possible for the colonisers to uproot and crush the sprit of the revolution if the will and determination of the Eritrean people was not strong. How?

As history reveals, numerous revolutions were decimated in their early days, evidence that the initial stage is harsh and extremely difficult. In spite of this, the small-numbered and ill-equipped Eritrean Liberation Army (ELA) fighters faced the large and well-equipped Eritrean police, “field force” and later the regular Ethiopian army with courage and determination. Sustained and relentless war campaigns by the aggressors to destroy the Eritrean revolution failed. On the contrary, the gallant ELA fighters inflicted terrible casualties on the occupying force in several encounters ( This uplifted the sprit of the fighters and the revolution gained momentum to survive those hard years. What captured my interest most reading the above article was that in many of the battles, the commanders were the ones who were martyred, evidence of an era when sacrifices for the national cause meant great honour. The 1960s was an era of complete devotion to the principles and ideals of the revolution, unlike today’s era which is dominated by selfish interest to hang onto power. I commend Nharnet Team” for keeping this great history alive.

The guerrilla tactics employed by the ELA fighters and their determination and strong believe in the objectives of the struggle ultimately led to success. The veteran ELA fighters set good examples for others to follow; Eritreans in great numbers enthusiastically joined the struggle and the revolution gathered momentum. The fact that the Eritrean revolution survived the initial difficult stage is attributable to the unique courage of the veteran fighters and is indicative of an exemplary revolution. To gain some understanding of the difficulties encountered by the veteran ELA fighters during the early stage and to appreciate their determination and sacrifices, I direct the reader to this interesting article It is an interview conducted in 1981 with a veteran member of the ELA, Mohammed Ibrahim Bahdurai. Another interview with another great ELA veteran, Mohamed Ali Idris (Abu- Rijeila), famously known as the leader of the battle of Togoruba, can be viewed at To access the latter article click on (لقاء العدد). When documents that describe the early stage of the struggle are made available, younger generations should see this as an opportunity not to be missed.

The second critical stage in the Eritrean struggle for national independence is represented by the years that followed the unexpected withdrawal of the ELF from the field. Although it was a self-inflicted weakness on the revolution because of the EPLF’s role in driving the ELF out of the field, the former faced the ever growing number of the Ethiopian army and its sophisticated arsenals with courage, determination and strength. Here I would like to remind the reader of what happened between 1980 and 1984, as I still was residing in my home town of Keren at the time and I lived through the war propaganda aimed at intimidating the general Eritrean public. I also witnessed the huge mobilisation of the Ethiopian army gearing itself up to uproot and crash the Eritrean revolution. Following the failure of five successive offensives to capture Nakfa, the last strong hold of the EPLF, the Dergue regime launched an unprecedented attack in 1982, famously known as the “Sixth Offensive”. The Dergue regime intensified its war efforts supported by the massive military and logistics support provided by the eastern bloc nations, especially Libya in an effort to wipe out the Eritrean revolution. Ironically, President Qaddafi today is the best mate of President Afewerki!

Keren, because of its central location, was the logistics centre for the Ethiopian army. The huge build up of military preparations continued for nearly a month. As usual, the EPLF fighters stood firm against the large, massively equipped Ethiopian army and defeated the aggressors in a humiliating manner. Thanks to the gallant EPLF fighters and the strategic terrain of Nakfa that disadvantaged the advancing Ethiopian army. Then came the “Silent Offensive” in 1983, so named because, unlike the preceding offensives, especially the sixth one for which the Dergue regime immensely displayed military manoeuvres and involved in psychological warfare tactics, this one was launched without any advance warnings. It even took by surprise the EPLF fighters who always seemed ready to face any aggression regardless of its magnitude. Again the EPLF fighters encountered the enemy with courage and the Eritrean struggle was not crushed as Mengistu hoped for it would be. The Ethiopian army not only failed to capture Nakfa, but faced another defeat in a different front. The courageous EPLF’s commandos stormed Asmara’s airport in 1984 and set ablaze numerous MiG Fighters and ammunition depos. Unfortunately, the EPLF fighters left behind one of their comrades who took part in the operation. What happened to this Eritrean hero? Mengistu ordered his forces in Asmara to bury the EPLF’s hero with full military honour. The honorary burial of the hero was a rumour that circulated widely around the country during that time, but until today I haven’t found any reliable information to confirm or deny the rumour. I appreciate if anyone knows the truth to correct me.

The failure of the Ethiopian army to capture Nakfa – the symbol of Eritrean resistance – and the successful commando operation inside Asmara lifted the sprit of Eritreans in the occupied cities and villages to join the revolution and fight against the occupation. Meanwhile, in 1984 the Degue regime announced a compulsory national military service. The miscalculation of the regime was to make the service compulsory to Eritreans. This ill-informed decision backfired on the Dergue’s regime, as many Eritreans joined the revolution to avoid the conscription. A significant number of young Eritreans joined the liberation struggle during the first half of the 1980s. Of course, the magnitude of the influx to the rebel field was not as huge as the unprecedented influx of the mid 1970s. In my opinion, the period 1980 – 1984 was another turning point in the history of the struggle since the revolution was relatively weak and the coloniser was strong. The EPLF stood firm and the revolution survived. That is another attribute of an exemplary revolution.

The EPLF’s astounding victories and achievements culminated in the liberation of the whole country. Ever since the 24th of May 1991, Eritrea became a new sovereign state in the Horn of Africa. Eritreans were relishing in the spirit of independence and freedom. They were expecting political freedoms and the prospect of development of the country, which unfortunately are completely absent in today’s Eritrea. What went wrong following independence?

The then EPLF, in its second organisational congress in 1987, adopted a resolution that it would establish a multi-party system of government in Eritrea after liberation. All Eritreans counted on the promise of the EPLF, the organisation to which many belonged and supported with integrity. Eritrea attained sovereign statehood at a time when democratisation has become increasingly a viable option in Africa after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given the multi-ethnic make-up of the Eritrean society and the plural political reality of Eritrea, the country needed democracy more than ever before. Conversely, after the EPLF consolidated its grip on state power it backtracked on all promises made regarding the democratisation process and the issue of reconciliation with the other national organisations that contributed to the ultimate success. The EPLF resorted to discrimination and exclusion policies that further polarised the Eritrean society into internal and external factions. When the demand for political reforms started mounting, the regime in no time created wars with neighbouring countries in order to divert the attention of the people from further demand. The war with the Sudan, Yemen, the provocation of Djibouti and the full scale war with Ethiopia have swallowed the meagre economy and wasted the lives of the innocent young men and women of Eritrea.

The regime (hereafter referred to PFDJ as EPLF is not exactly PFDJ) in Eritrea has curbed on democracy and denied any space for others after independence, despite there have been a number of political organisations in the Eritrean political arena before the coming into being of the PFDJ. The PFDJ regime has cracked down on opposition political movements by either imprisoning all its political opponents or forcing them out of the country into exile. In an effort to dominate the Eritrean political arena and to stay in power longer, PFDJ has denied the existence of opposition movements and outlawed any type of dissent. The issue of democracy and the establishment of a multi-party system has not been raised or discussed and the plea of the people for reform has not been heeded. The PFDJ regime supported by its notorious security apparatus has focused on silencing its critiques either by putting them behind bars or by physically eliminating them.

Cases of kidnapping, assassination and deaths under mysterious circumstances have increased steadily ( The targeted victims are not only the opposition groups, but even members of the then EPLF who expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s political practices have suffered severe punishments. There are many who have been liquidated. A classical example is that of the G-15. The PFDJ regime does not tolerate dissent from even within its own rank, as manifested by the arrest of government ministers – commonly known as G-15 – on 18 September 2001. The ministers expressed grave concerns and opposition about the inability of the Eritrean President to resolve diplomatically the border conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia. They also voiced their objection to the delay of implementing the constitution that calls for the establishment of a democratic system. The ministers and numerous sympathetic cadres were apprehended and their whereabouts are unknown todate. Some of the G-15 members, luckily were outside the country at the time of the arrest, and so managed to escape the ill fate of their comrades inside Eritrea. PFDJ is an extremely violent organisation that readily resorts to force to crash political opposition. The government of Eritrea is an authoritarian regime similar to the deposed regime of the communist dictator of Ethiopia.

The economic system likewise is “planned economy”, fully under control of the state. It is the regime that owns and controls over 80-90% of the economy. I admit that this is a complex subject and some may argue in favour of planned economy over “free market economy”. I support a mixed economy and I believe such an economic system would have strengthened the economy had the Eritrean government adopted a balance between the two systems. If the reader wants to know more about the advantages and disadvantages of planned economy vs free market economy, please read this article: Ultimately, unlike President Afewerki, who thinks that PFDJ’s administrators excel over MBA holders as expressed in this article, I leave the judgement to the economists who know better which type of economic system is better/best for Eritrea. I am sure if Eritrea had many administrators with MBA qualifications, the state of the economy would have been in a better shape. Whilst I agree that real world experience is important, no one can argue against knowledge-based management skills that proved to be more efficient. Why do highly experienced public and private managers go back to university to gain MBA qualifications? It is simply because it adds value to their practical administrative skills. In this respect, although I disagree with Alem’s discussion in one aspect (, I fully endorse her visionary proposal stated below:

“We need a fresh start. Our gedli era experiences had served the purpose and it is time to give it a decent burial. We need an educational system that is geared to take the nation, into the 21st century and beyond. We should not be afraid to experiment with new ideas and concepts. The days of “village mentality” are over. Yesterdays experiences have served the nation well, but it is not a solution for an Eritrea that has to compete increasingly, in an overcrowded market”.

To sum up, the Eritrean revolution is an exemplary revolution because it achieved its prime objective, which was the liberation of Eritrea from colonial power. From the very moment that many patriotic Eritreans joined the liberation organisations, first the ELF and then the EPLF, the intention and objective was to fight against the colonial power and to gain sovereignty. That was achieved. Nevertheless, Eritrea is drifting towards a failed state because, under PFDJ, the country has not succeeded in creating an environment conducive to social harmony and cohesion among its diverse groups. Instead, PFDJ regime instigates internal and external conflicts among the non-homogenous populace of the country in the polity. PFDJ confiscated the peoples’ freedom, suppressed human rights and tramped over their dignity by throwing behind bars many innocent Eritreans and by physically eliminating those who championed in the fight for democracy. On the economic side, the cost of living is skyrocketing, the prices of essential goods are soaring, and dissatisfaction with the government’s performance is growing. These are significant factors that contribute to the demise of a nation unless Eritreans reflect back on their proud history and decide to change the present course of events by acting collectively to reverse the current unpromising Eritrean situation.

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