What Can Isayas Afewerki Learn from Robert Mugabe?

The Strathink Editorial Team

It should come as a surprise to no one that the removal of Robert Mugabe brings to mind the current rule of longtime strongman Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea. The commonalities between Mr. Mugabe and President Isayas are many. What are lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of a once hero of Zimbabwean independence.

Let’s begin with former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe led his country from 1980 to 2017, serving as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 and as President from 1987 to 2017. Robert Mugabe began his early career as a teacher, moving to Ghana for higher education where he was exposed to a new kind of African nationalism espoused by Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah combined self-determination, social justice, and Pan-Africanism into a Marxist framework that served as a transformative ideology for the anti-colonial African resistance.

Mugabe brought this ideology to Zimbabwe where he formed a youth league for the National Democratic Party. The Rhodesian government banned this party and Mugabe later on joined Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). He and others then broke with Nkomo to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

Robert Mugabe spent eleven years in a Rhodesian prison following the formation of the new party. He openly discussed waging a guerilla war against the British colonial government and was given the opportunity in 1974 when Ian Smith, the current leader, released him to attend a conference in Lusaka.

Instead, Mugabe crossed the border into Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and put together an army of guerilla fighters who waged war against the white minority government until 1980. In 1980, Southern Rhodesia was liberated from British colonial rule and the Republic of Zimbabwe was formed. Following tensions with Nkomo, Mugabe and his party, ZANU, prevailed, thus beginning his almost 49 year rule over Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe was not always the despotic strongman he was when he left office. To Zimbabweans of the older generation, he was a genuine hero.

To Zimbabweans, Robert Mugabe and ZANU was a liberation hero of the first order. Long after the majority of Africa was freed from colonialism, Southern Rhodesia remained under the yoke of white minority rule. Robert Mugabe led his fighters into victory over the colonial powers. He then took away the land from Zimbabwe’s white settler population and distributed it to the majority black population. Zimbabwe took its place among independent African states.

While Mugabe increasingly consolidated one-man rule over the country, he diverted attention away from his authoritarianism by demonizing the white minority in Zimbabwe. He famously said “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man and ”Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy!”

Meanwhile, Mugabe managed to fast track nation disaster by: 1) destroying the country’s economy through bungled economic policies; 2) monopolizing the flow of information and engaging in Soviet-like (now Trumpian-like) lies and fabrications to create a false narrative of reality; 3) crushing any dissent; 4) scapegoating the minority population long after they had any kind of power; 5) scaring off foreigners/investers ; 6) behaving badly to neighboring countries; and 7) killing his own people.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Isayas Afewerki, like Robert Mugabe, began his long political career as a national hero. He was revered for his role in the struggle for Eritrean independence. Isayas embodied the courage and sacrifices of Eritrean fighters and the victory over the mighty Ethiopian military. Isayas stood for everything that was noble about the extraordinary 30 year run of the independence struggle. Dressing simply and walking the streets of Asmara, Isayas Afewerki cultivated a “man of the people” image that appealed to Eritreans and non-Eritreans alike. He was nothing less than an icon.

Like Mugabe, Isayas Afewerki was not the despotic strongman he was today. In the beginning, Isayas spoke of becoming the “Singapore of Africa,” yet his self-reliance and antipathy towards outsiders has crushed the potential of its economy. The country is a police state where the social fabric of a once tight-knit society has been rend by a network of informants—no one is safe. Isayas controls the narrative of the a country in constant warfare with the rest of the world. Isayas controls all information coming in and out. Eritreans are some of the least connected people in the world—left behind in the global technology revolution.

Isayas Afewerki’s penchant for destroying any and all opposition—including his own Cabinet Ministers—is unrivaled. He has sown discordance and conflict throughout the Horn of Africa and his human rights record has earned his country the moniker, “the North Korea of Africa.”

And his scapegoat? Well, Ethiopia is the cause of all of Eritrea’s problems. No constitution? Ethiopia. No elections? Ethiopia. No economic growth? Ethiopia. No human rights? Ethiopia. No war, no peace. Ethiopia. Ethiopia.

This all sounds familiar.

Robert Mugabe was 93 years old when removed from power and had ruled Zimbabwe for over 40 years. What was the tipping point that finally led the military to force his removal? Mugabe was grooming his wife, Grace, to succeed him. Mrs. Mugabe had ambitions to become Zimbabwe’s next president. This was not acceptable to the military. Although Robert Mugabe was said to have eventually backed off support for his wife’s ambitions, Mrs. Mugabe unabatedly continued her campaign.

In June of this year, the military expressed concern that Grace Mugabe’s plan to succeed her husband, believing that the campaign could potentially result in political violence. The military supported Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa, another veteran of the independence struggle. By the end of November, Mugabe was out; Grace was out; and Mnangagwa was in.

What can President Isayas Afewerki learn from Robert Mugabe?

It can end. After 40 years of his absolute rule over Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was forced to step down by his own party and his own generals. Yes, it took a long time and not before decades were lost in the nation-building process following independence.

But it ended.

The tipping point, it appears, was the succession plan. The tolerance for Mugabe, and others like him does not pass on to family. There have been long held rumors that Isayas has been preparing for his oldest son, Abraham, to take over the family business of governing Eritrea.

It won’t fly. Abraham is not Isayas. The veneer of the heroic icon Isayas is struggling to maintain is not passed on dynastically.

Legacy may not be important to either Mugabe or Isayas but history will be the ultimate judge of their political life. Instead of remembering Mugabe as a hero of the liberation, he will be memorialized as Zimbabwe’s first, and hopefully last, despot. His longevity offers a treasure of misdeeds and failures.

The simple and humble “man of the people” image cultivated by Isayas will also be relegated to history’s dustbin. What will be remembered is the cruel tyranny exercised over a people who had sacrificed so much for Eritrean independence.

Eritrean youth, who make up the bulk of the population, have no memories of Eritrea’s independence struggle, no memories of the glory that was once a free and independent Eritrea. They are not held back by their parents’ nostalgia for the heady first days of freedom.

Many Eritrean youth are fleeing TOWARDS Ethiopia, not away from it, as a haven from the brutality and oppression that is now a fact of daily life in Eritrean. Their view of contemporary Ethiopia is not that of the oppressor but of the liberator who can free them from the hopelessness of their lives in their own country.

This is the irony of Eritrean youth.

Isayas Afewerki can learn a great deal from the experience of Robert Mugabe. One day the people—maybe the generals, the Cabinet or the masses of young people—will have had simply enough.

The center cannot hold indefinitely.

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