Genesis of the Eritrean Islamist Movement
During the armed struggle, sectarian tendencies were subservient to the unity of the Eritrean people and its territorial integrity. The sharp turn to sectarian tendencies in Eritrean politics by some Islamists is a relatively new incident. A contributing factor was the frustration of traditional and conservative nationalists with the ideologies that the leadership of the Eritrean revolution was espousing. Both the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People�s Liberation Front (EPLF) were slowly taken over by radical leftist elements. Loyal to the teachings of Marx who espoused, �religion is the opium of the masses,� the radical leftists looked down at overt signs of worship: praying or showing signs of faith, by both Moslems and Christians, was considered a practice of �reactionary forces� by the ELF and EPLF elite alike.
The two organizations were controlled by hard-line communist and secretive sub-parties: the Labor Party and the Eritrean People�s Revolutionary Party. Most of the internal contradictions within the ELF were a result of the dual leadership and dual loyalties of its membership. The communist sub-party of the EPLF formed an alliance with the Tigray People�s Liberation Front�s communist sub-party, then known as �Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray�, or MLLT. By 1981, after two years of battles, the joint forces of the TPLF and EPLF militarily defeated the ELF. Consequently, both the Islamists and the Baathists (who had, thanks to Syria and Iraq, maintained powers of position within the ELF) lost their positions in the organization.
For all its shortcomings, the ELF was a formidable and socially representative force and its absence from the field presented the EPLF a gaping hole to its claim of being truly representative of Eritrea�s entire constituency. The EPLF�s lack of sensitivity to the emotions and rights of traditional societies and its hard handedness in meddling in the social affairs of the Eritrean society exasperated the situation. One such incident that triggered the confrontation was the killing of civilians by EPLF forces in Ad Seydnna, Barka, when the villagers refused to allow the EPLF to forcefully enlist their daughters. This, among the considerable external factor of Sudan and others, led to the emergence of political-Islam as we know it today.
The Formation Of The Eritrean Jihad
One of the most comprehensive sources of information regarding the history of the Eritrean Jihad movement is a book (Arabic) authored by Idris Aba-Arre, a veteran of the EPLF. While assigned to 72 (intelligence), he had closely tracked the jihad movement for years. Written while the author was a senior cadre, the book, which was authored in 1996 and published in 1998 (with an introduction by Dr. Dehli), has been criticized by some for being no more than a �government propaganda� piece, as it omits many of the �atrocities� that were committed by the government. To what extent this is true is unknown; what is known is that the book was excerpted in the government�s Arabic newspaper, �Eritrea Al Haditha,� helping to lay the political framework for the persecutions that followed. Ironically, Idris Aba-Arre who was assigned to the position of Director within the Ministry of Labor, came to see the disasters caused by social experiments he used to espouse and promote aggressively (like mother-tongue education) has been jailed without charges since September 2001 and may be in the same prison (Sembel) as some of the �Jihadists� he wrote about.
In his book, Aba Arre writes that by November 1981, a group called Munezemet Arrewad Almuslimeen AlErtrrya (The Eritrean Pioneer Moslem Organization) had been formed. This was the �first group that carried an Islamic name� explicitly. Some of the founders were Moslem combatants who were released from the ELF�s jails where they had been held after being accused of forming a secret cell within the ELF. In August of 1983, another group called Jebhat AlTahreer AlErtrrya AlIslammiya AlWetenniya (Eritrean National Islamic Liberation Front) was formed in Gedaref, Sudan. In 1988, the two groups and three others--Lejnet AlDifae AlIslamee (Islamic Defense Committee), Hareket AlMustedafeen AlErtrrya (Movement Of Oppressed Eritreans) and AlIntifada AlIslammiya (Islamic Uprising)--merged into a new organization called Islamic Jihad Movement (IJM.)
Though following 1981 there was genuine Moslem indignation against the practices of the EPLF, the cause for the emergence of the Jihad movement cannot be limited to the EPLF. The coup d�etat of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in the Sudan under the leadership of Dr. Turabi and the �popularity� of the Jihad movements in the Middle East was another important cause. In addition, the governments of the region (Saudi Arabia, some gulf states) saw in the IJM a substitute for the failed ELF. The literature of the IJM created fear among Eritreans who didn�t subscribe to the mostly confrontational and sectarian rhetoric of the IJM.
In 1988, a split was witnessed among the IJM and two of the founding organizations were accused of secretly working to advance the secular values of the ELF; that they were prot�g�s of Abdalla Idris and that their members were communists and remnants of the ELF�s Labor Party. On July 23, 1989, the IJM launched its military wing by sending ninety well-armed combatants from Sudan into Eritrea.
In 1993 the IJM split into two once again: one faction was led by the hardliners under Mohammed Ahmed (Abu Suhail), who reportedly fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and the other faction was led by Arefa Ahmed, an ex-teacher in a PLF founded school in the refugee camps. The Arefa faction was accused of becoming lenient and starting a secret dialogue with the EPLF under the auspices of Dr. Turabi and his party, the NIF. In April 1996, Ibrahim Malek announced the formation of a third faction called, Al Mejlis AlIslamy Leddaewa WeIslah Fi Ertrya (The Islamic Council of Endowment and Reformation in Eritrea). The new faction issued its first communiqu� and accused Abu Suhail�s faction of extremism including tribalism, unfair imprisonment and torture of people, and corruption.
The Role of Sudan
Sudan�s National Islamic Front came to power in June 1989, through a military coup engineered by General Omar AlBashir, its current president. For years, there was confusion as to whether the NIF was subservient to the military or vice-versa. In this fog of confusion, the chief ideologue and leader of the NIF, Dr. Turabi, was described as a �moderate,� mainly because he was Western-educated, spoke fluent French and was �urbane.� Meanwhile, Dr. Turabi made no secret that he believed it was the �course of history� for Islamic states to rule from Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and that this would come about from, among other causes, the further disintegration of Ethiopia and the creation of Muslim Oromo state. Asked if this would come by force, he would respond it would come about from the world watching and learning from the Sudanese experiment.
The Eritrean government relied on its �friends� within the Sudanese military (including Brigadier General Abdulaziz Khaled, who would later head one of the opposition factions) who assured it that they held the real power and were not subservient to Dr Turabi. It is in this environment that the government of Eritrea signed a defense and security agreement with the Sudan on August 23, 1991. Based on this agreement, the Sudanese government surrendered three members of EIJM, shortly after the first (post independence) military skirmish between EIJM and the Eritrean government in January 1992. The relationship between Eritrea and Sudan remained strained but managed: Sudan facilitated, with the UN, the referendum process at the refugee camps and Omar AlBashir attended Eritrea�s statehood proclamation in May 1993.
However, within four months, the situation deteriorated further: EIJM POWs captured in September 1993, �confessed� that they had been trained in Sudan. More significantly, in a battles held in December 16, 1993, Eritrea claimed that among the dead were two foreigners: an Afghani and a Moroccan. The Eritrean government filed a complaint with the United Nation�s Security Council. This was followed by more meetings of �high level delegations� between Eritrea and Sudan, until January September 1994 when, in another EIJM/government forces clash, the Eritrean government reported that three foreigners were killed: an Afghani, a Yemeni and a Moroccan. Eritrea�s Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed an �Aide Memoire� (a summary of complaints against the Sudan) and accused the UN of inaction. By December 5, 1994, when Eritrea cut all diplomatic ties with Sudan and surrendered the Sudanese Embassy to the opposition forces, it had reached a point of no return: mediation efforts by Yemen and the OAU were spurned. President Isaias Afwerki told the Economist (10/14/95): �We are out to see that this government [Sudanese government] is not there any more. We are not trying to pressure them to talk to us, or to behave in a more constructive way. We will give weapons to anyone committed to overthrowing them." A week after he broke off diplomatic ties, President Isaias Afwerki would tell Reuters (12/13/94) "I don't want to fight a war�but sometimes it is necessary; people need to learn the hard way. We have a saying in our tradition: you advise someone; if he refuses to listen to logic, then trouble will teach him."
Eritrea�s then Foreign Minister (now detained without charges since September 2001) Petros Solomon told the Middle East periodical: � We, Eritreans, we are hot-headed, we are not so diplomatic�Our relations with them can only go from worse to worse�We told them we could not tolerate activities that went against the very fabric of our nation, its religious and ethnic diversity, and we asked them to stop arming and training these extremist groups�.We told them they should work out a federal solution that reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the Sudan and that Islamic law should not be imposed�.We are the best fighters in the Horn of Africa; the Sudan is not a country that can destroy us."
From then on, the Eritrea-Sudanese relationship (in fact, Sudan�s relationship with the world) did go from �worse to worse.� On January 1995, Eritrea complained to the UN that Sudan was harassing Eritrean refugees and creating a fertile ground for EIJM recruitment; in retaliation, Sudan demanded that Eritrea and Uganda (which would eventually break off diplomatic ties with Sudan) be expelled from IGAD because both are providing military training to Sudanese opposition. In February 1995, President Isaias Afwerki, while in a visit to the United States informed senior US administration officials that Sudan�s support of EIJM is part of a �global strategy of Islamization of the Horn of Africa.� The Clinton Administration signed agreements to transform Eritrea�s liberation era army into a regular army and committed itself to providing more cash aid as well as in kind contribution through International Military Education and Training (IMET.) Later that year, Eritrea allegedly began training Sudanese Beja rebels and provided radio outlet to the National Democratic Alliance, Sudan�s opposition umbrella group
Meanwhile, there was no longer any doubt that the NIF�s chief ideologue, Dr. Turabi, was the real power behind the Sudanse government and an unapologetic proponent of Islamic states. In late March 1995, the brainchild of Dr. Turabi, the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC) held its third conference, a meeting attended by over 300 �Islamic organizations.� PAIC expressed its support for �oppressed Muslims� everywhere, mentioning specifically �Eritrean Muslims.� News would leak out that the PAIC leadership planned to set up an office in Mogadishu, which would co-ordinate the activities in the Horn of Africa. From Somalia, both Aideed and his rival, Mahdi, who were trying to establish their Islamist credentials, attended the PAIC meeting. In June 1995, Sudan was accused (by Ethiopia) of being behind the assassination attempt against Egypt�s Hosni Mubarek, then in Addis to attend an OAU Heads of States session.
In 1994, Sudan had assisted French intelligence in the apprehension of �Carlos the Jackall�; in 1996, Sudan had expelled Osama bin Laden, auctioned off his businesses and/or turned them over to the UN. But all of these �signs of good world citizenship� were deemed too little, too late. By the time the United States bombed the Al-Shiffa factory (August 1998), Sudan had practically no friends to come to its defense: it was already listed as a terrorist state and the Clinton Administration identified it as the only African country which poses a direct threat to the United States. By 1994, Nelson Mandela, under intense criticism, had stopped selling arms to Sudan; Iran, Sudan�s �commercial partner� was making overtures to the US; even France 2 had distanced itself from it.
In short, Sudan was completely isolated. No wonder that its enemies would be given carte-blanche authority to take whatever measures against it and their own nationals considered sympathetic to it.
The Reign Of Terror Is Heralded
The PFDJ (formerly EPLF) took advantage of the USA�s fight against terrorism and fundamentalism and started to liquidate its opponents. Beginning with 1994, schoolteachers from Keren, Ghinda and other places were (check letters ) jailed and disappeared. Mobile squads under the command of Brigadier General Tekheste, aka, Shaleqa Tekheste3 instilled fear among the citizenry. The squad used unregistered cars, mostly tinted-glass Toyota Landcruisers, to pick civilians and disappear them. Many citizens disappeared from Keren, Ghinda and other places. According to family members of the disappeared, the PFDJ leadership cannot feign ignorance on this subject: while they were in Keren attending the wedding party of Yousif Saiq, (member of the PFDJ central committee and currently the jail warden of the G-15), they were approached by the relatives of the disappeared to whom they promised to look into the matter. They never did.
In December 1996 and January 1997, skirmishes between Eritrean forces and the Islamic Jihad movement were reported around the village of Mensura. Earlier, the assets of HEDCO, a Daarotai based agricultural and packing company formed in a joint venture between PFDJ�s Red Sea Corporation and Eritrean returnees from Saudi Arabia, had been burned to ashes by armed opposition forces. Around the same time, a Syrian educated school principal in Mensura was killed. The PFDJ accused the Jihad for the killing. This was followed by a series of killings around Maria, Sahel with the EIJM and the PFDJ blaming each other for the murders. The PFDJ shared this information with many western intelligence entities and embassies to secure a political cover for what was to follow. Reportedly, the government gave its intelligence officers carte-blanch authority to liquidate anyone accused of being a Jihad sympathizer.
When four Belgian tourists were killed in the Merrara region, scores of villagers were rounded up from Sheab, Gedged and ShebaH by Colonel Osman Bekhit and his squad; scores more were rounded up from Seber by General Wuchu. The citizens were then allegedly executed for �harboring subversive elements.�
It should be noted here that the liquidations and alleged executions were not limited to Muslims and �jihad sympathizers.� The �carte-blanche� provided the government the cover to go after all its enemies; since this was prior to the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, the Eritrean government had no territorial constraints even if it meant pursuing its enemies in Ethiopia. It was during this period that government officials killed (execution style, silencer-equipped gun) Zecarrias Negusse, the vice president of Eritrean Democratic Movement, in Dessie, Ethiopia. The president of EDM, Gebreberhan Zere, now disappeared, was kidnapped on his way to Humera.
The allegations that are being made are of incidents that occurred 6-10 years ago. Why is this information surfacing now? To the opposition, these allegations are not new, as they had been making them for years. Nor is the information new to family members and loved ones of the victims. However, to former and current members of the PFDJ or to those who are sympathetic to the PFDJ and the government of Eritrea, these allegations may be new. Why?
Until the emergence of the reform movement within PFDJ (September 2000), the party was a tight-lipped organization where information was distributed on a need-to-know basis. Most of the membership does not know what goes on and those who knew did not follow up because, according to the structure of the organization, it was �none of their business.� Even now, many former senior government officials who have resigned or defected profess to have no direct knowledge about the MenkaE and Yemeen liquidations, even while acknowledging that they did occur. This culture of silence began to change in September 2000 when senior members of the party demanded openness, transparency and accountability and, in 2001, actually began to follow up on their demands.
In August 2001, Eritrean diplomats were called to a meeting moderated by Dr. Dehli, (head of the Eritrean Strategic Studies think tank) and attended by Ali Said (Foreign Minister), and Fozia Hashim (Minister of Justice.) At the meeting, some of the attendants asked of the disappeared citizens. The Minister of Justice replied by stating that she knows nothing of the subject but the government of Eritrea does have a Hopeas Corpus procedure and relatives of the disappeared can open court cases. Some of the attendants challenged her by stating the procedure is of no value unless the citizenry is informed of the procedure. Dumbfounded, she responded that she would be interested to see names of those who disappeared. Some people volunteered to compile the names and incidents and actually accomplished the task. But when they came with their findings and lists, they were thrown in jail and disappeared themselves. Two such victims are Ali Mohammed Saleh, (Still in jail without trial, Gedab, News, April 8, 2002) and Suleman Mussa Hajj (Still in jail without trial, Gedab, News, Feb 24, 2002).
Why June 18, 1997?
Many of the sources we spoke to are reluctant to speak on this subject because they fear it might inflame the Eritrean people. �The opposition must remain focused on issues that unite us and should avoid any subject that may divert us from our mission,� said one source. They are willing to speak about the suffering the �Eritrean people� in general are being subjected to; however, they do not wish to speak of Eritrea �in segments�, whether it is �Christian, Muslim, highland or lowland� as they feel there is no proper �political framework� to address grievances.
But why June 18, 1997? In speaking to some family members of the disappeared, we heard a common theme. Many had been assured, from junior cadres, that the government would not impose the death penalty on civilians since it has no laws that permit it to do so. Eventually, they were told, your family will turn up. This changed on May 23, 1997, when Eritrea�s Constituent Assembly ratified the Eritrean constitution which explicitly authorizes the state to use death penalty as a form of punishment. It would be ironic, but not surprising, if the government, which has been repeatedly accused of being lawless, implemented a section of the constitution, the death penalty, while ignoring all the articles dealing with due process and individual liberties, to give its actions a legal garb.
At its zenith of power in 1995, the Eritrean Islamic Jihad was estimated to have a fighting force of 500. Nonetheless, the Eritrean government effectively played up the �anti-Islamist� card with all regional powers, thanks to the aggressive and high-profile ideological push of Dr. Turabi. Eritrea strengthened its ties with Israel, whose strategic interest is preventing the Red Sea from becoming an �Arab lake;� it convinced Ethiopia that Sudan was behind the �Itihad� movement; it convinced Egypt that what Egypt fears most (a breakaway Southern Sudan complicating Nile Politics) is more likely to happen with NIF in power; and, on the basis of five killed foreigners, it convinced the United States, which was still waiting for the �moderates� in the NIF to triumph over the �hardliners�, that Jihad poses a huge threat to the entire Horn of Africa. Having laid the groundwork, it then went about its campaign of abduction and jailings. Even citizens who disagreed with the methodology pursued by the Eritrean Islamic Jihad movement and its ultimate goals of establishing an Islamic state were not spared from abductions and imprisonment. This was the case because they agreed with many of the �mainstream� issues the EIJM espoused, including empowering local government and traditional centers; implementation of Arabic as official language, rejection of nationalization of land, mother tongue language and compulsory military service for women.
In post Nine Eleven world, there is no sign that the government will moderate its behavior any time soon.
The claims that the Eritrean government targeted Muslims because it is �anti-Muslims� is not supported by facts. The government is anti anybody and anything it perceives as a threat to it. Shortly after independence, Eritreans in the highlands convened �secret� committees to distribute land to the men, before they would be nationalized by the PFDJ and distributed to women, something the traditionalist found objectionable. After the women�s association complained, the government rounded up the organizers of the secret committees.4 The government has also persecuted Jehovah�s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Catholic parishes, atheists, everyone. If the Sudanese government was run by Southern Baptist Christians who were fundamentalists, the Eritrean government most likely would have arrested many more Christians.
We find it credible and provable that the government of Eritrea has abducted, arrested people. But did these waves of abuse include executions?
Unless the government directly informs the Eritrean people that it has executed the disappeared or the disappeared are released and contradict the allegations, we cannot know for certain on the fate of the disappeared. Those who oppose the government have the following circumstantial evidence against the government:
- We know that it has meted out �revolutionary justice� against its opponents (MenkaE and Yemeen) during the war of liberation;
- We know that hundreds of people who were rounded up in the early nineties from Dembelass and Qohain after being accused of serving the defeated Dergue regime, having been members of the Revolutionary Ethiopian Workers Party (a.k.a. ESAPa) and of having worked in the Kagnew Station (an old USA communication camp that became the Ethiopian Army�s camp) and there is no news about them;
- We know that some citizens have disappeared because some were released long after their disappearance;
- We know that some of those disappeared are actually in jail because we have the testimony of people who saw this first-hand (e.g. Semere Kesete and Mehari Yohannes);
- We know that it does not feel accountable to the people on those who are in jail, as evidenced by President Isaias Afwerki�s response to a question in South Africa (�we will release them when we feel like it�)
- We know that the government has been structured to empower four generals General Samuel Haile (�China�), General Teclay Habteselassie, General Filipos Weldeyohannes, General Gebrezgheir Andemariam (�Wuchu�), with full authority to administer �justice� the way they see fit;
- We know that with the world focused on the �war against terror�, and the opposition mired in squabbles, it senses that it is under no pressure to modify its behavior;
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence. The presumption is that it is not a big leap to conclude that a government that is this cruel to its citizenery would also go the extra step and execute them. But there is no �smoking gun� and there won�t be one until more people from within the PFDJ actually come out in the open and disclose what they know. They won�t do this unless they know that they are eventually accountable for these crimes. For starters, the PFDJ members who are outside the reach of the government should begin the process of chronicling the information and following up on it. Justice must be sought from pertinent courts based on International laws regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity and Eritreans must provide whatever information they have, however small they think the tidbits are, to the human rights watchdog groups.
References and notes:
1.Mehari doesn�t want to give further details because he doesn�t want to give a chance to the �regime [that] might try to hide evidence or kidnap and kill witnesses�. He says that he has heard rumors when he lived in Eritrea and �for months [he] couldn�t find enough evidences but bits here and there�. He then pursued his leads that included an army officer, captain Fiqre Weldai, who was �assigned to capture Kassala during the Sudan �Eritrea standoff and who has witnessed many crimes�.
2.There was the requisite condemnation from the Arab League but nothing from the individual Arab states. The bombing of the factory was later deemed to be based on flawed intelligence. France�s interest in Sudan were based on its need to acquire an oil concession for its oil giant, TOTAL, to replace the US giant, Chevron. France�s �constructive engagement� policy with Sudan was also an attempt to get close to Dr. Turabi who was supposed to be influential with Algeria�s Islamist party.
3.Brigadier general Tekheste was an Ethiopian Army Major, with the Ethiopian Armed Forces before defecting to the EPLF in 1976. He was sent to Uganda for a brief period, worked in the Dongollo camp and then he was an advisor to Isaias Afwerki before being assigned commander of the military intelligence unit in 1994.
4.Read Dan Connell�s �After the shooting stops: revolution in postwar Eritrea.� Which appeared in Race and Class, April-June 1997 issue.
Acknowledgement: We like to thank the family members of the victims as well as former government officials for speaking to us on background. Source documents used include Middle East Policy, Middle East International, The Guardian and Intelligence Newsletter.
Source http://www.awate.com/portal/content/view/679/ The �Executed�: No Smoking Gun, but plenty of circumstantial evidence