(fithinews.com, Biniam Yohannes, Feb 10, 2016) A decade after independence, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which won the war of independence from Ethiopian colonisation in 1991, had started becoming the very enemy it drove out during its 30-year popular struggle. In 1994, a year after a national referendum almost unanimously voted for independence from Ethiopia, the party had dropped the word ‘Liberation’ from its name and added ‘Democracy and Justice’. A national army was set up, an Eritrean currency circulated and a new constitution ratified. The first seven years of independence seemed to hold true promise for the future of the newly independent nation. But, even before the euphoria of independence had worn off, a border war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998. The war took a heavy toll on Eritrean politics, society and the economy. By 2001, a blame game within the party about the handling of the war had led to the imprisonment of major politicians(G15) and army commanders. The free press was shut down, the economy slowed and any freedoms that the people had enjoyed for the few years between independence and the war were taken away.
As the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) cracked down on real and potential opposition within Eritrea, it forgot to deliver on its promises and its popular support faded fast. In 2004, the dictator-led ruling party started a cadre school at the secluded Sawa National Military Training Center with the hopes of finding a base for the propaganda that it needed to rationalise its tyranny after the end of the war with Ethiopia. Young people with high school or lower level education were selected from ministries, party-sponsored national associations and the army for the cadre training. The training was focused on creating propaganda agents who would revive the political base of the PFDJ among society.
Nakfa is seen as a ‘capital-city’ of the armed struggle.
Within the early trainees, members of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) were most active and were crucial in spreading the desired modes of thinking among fellow trainees. The six months that the trainees spent at Sawa were more about institutionalised class hatred and isolation than about learning. The first trainees of the Sawa Cadre School reflected the 1970s EPLF-style analysis of society and social classification. The 1970s propaganda system itself copied Nazi, Soviet and Maoist tactics, tailored to suit the situation in Eritrea and needs of the PFDJ.
Most of the new generation cadres openly criticised the collection of wealth by individuals, the ‘claim’ to knowledge by intellectuals and individual thinking. Businessmen were accused of having amassed wealth while everyone else was fighting for independence, and intellectuals were accused of trying to impose western textbook ideas on the ‘patriotic society’. For reasonable thinkers it was very difficult to argue with cadre graduates about issues of governance and society. Instructed in hate, many of the cadres would resort to vehement accusations or the various derogatory names for intellectuals ranging from ‘lesser bourgeoisie’ to ‘class sub-nationalist’. But the whole reasoning system was too weak to hold for long, even in the minds of the graduates themselves. By the early 2000s, Eritrean society had not forgotten the ‘struggle era’ cadre techniques, and it did not take much time for the government to opt for another generation of cadre and a newer version of propaganda.
By 2004, many active members of the NUEYS, including its chairman Muhyeddin Shengeb, had deserted the regime. Most of its core members who were now deserting or at least fearfully criticising the government were recruited before independence. As the reality showed that the government’s claim of progress was diametrically opposed to its struggle era promises, the union’s role as a representative of the party among students and young adults was weakened. The original plan that allowed for the foundation of the union as a long-term recruiting ground for EPLF loyalists and second-generation politicians became untenable.
A ‘CONSCIOUS AND MILITANT’ YOUTH GROUP IN THE WEST:
In 2006, it was obvious to the government of Eritrea that it had lost most of its earlier young supporter base. Party leaders Abdallah Jabir, Yemane Gebreab and Zemhret Yohannes wanted a new wing to replace the NUEYS. As chairman of the Party Affairs branch of the PFDJ, Abdallah would arrange the organisational needs of the new wing. As head of Political Affairs, Yemane would be concerned with its political programme and propaganda and, as head of Research and Documentation, Zemhret would provide the necessary material. Hagos Gebrehiwet would provide the funds from Economic Affairs. In their words, as they discussed it with other party officials, they wanted the new wing to be a ‘conscious and militant’ alternative that could be given enough political mentoring to enable it to carry the PFDJ line forward into the future. A rearrangement of the NUEYS was needed to give the new parallel group enough space to grow.
Yemane Gebreab, Zemhret Yohannes and Abdallah Jabir who remains incarcerated since 2013 on trumped up charge of being a Saudi Spy and architect of the attempted coup (Forto Incident) in early 2013
At a conference in Nakfa that summer, a congress was held for the union in which the new national chairman and regional heads were appointed through a prearranged election. Except for Sultan Said, who was the vice-chairman of the youth union before being appointed chairman, all the other regional heads were new suggestions by inner members of the party. The event marked a departure from the struggle era nationalist-based structure to more tightly-controlled, strictly propaganda-oriented organisation within the country and abroad.
Zemhret Yohanes, perceived by the public as the most liberal member of the party, would not be the ideal founder of the new ‘militant’ wing. Abdallah Jabir, currently in prison as one of the architects of the attempted coup in early 2013 in Asmara, usually had a different vision of the party’s future than the president and Yemane. Zemhret and Abdallah’s position was also already weak, as their origins in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) before they joined the EPLF in 1987 were being used to side-line them. As the president’s longest serving and closest political ‘yes man’ since his recruitment into Isaias Afwerki’s inner circle in 1988, Yemane was favoured to take charge of the programme. Being close friends with the party’s money man, Hagos Gebrehiwet, meant he would have access to the necessary funds and, on top of the political support he gained from Isaias, he was the best contender to mentor the new wing.
By 2007 it was obvious that Yemane was the only one in charge of creating and running the European branch of the proposed ‘conscious and militant’ youth organisation. And, even as he indirectly used the YPFDJ as a recruiting ground for future supporters for his own presidential ambitions, Isaias never appeared to disapprove. The union’s branches within diaspora communities changed their names to ‘Young PFDJs’, as the party’s political affairs head, Yemane Gebreab took charge of their organisation. As their views diverged on how the new creation was to be handled, Abdallah Jabir ignored the Middle Eastern branch with which he was tasked to create. Zemhret was later side-lined from the show.
The new structure of the union within the country and the YPFDJ in the Middle East, Europe and North America focused on fighting challenges to the ruling party. Initially the groups included all possible sub-groups within the diaspora youth. Many were conscious nationals who thought the YPFDJ was there to help them improve their participation in the national process. But it did not take much time for Yemane and his associates to filter through the groups and give prominence to the most gullible and the patriotic ‘wannabes’. The groups provided new definitions of nationalism and patriotism and redefined enemies in the form of western governments’ global hegemony, with the biggest focus on the US. Radical western thinking that challenges traditional structures was incorporated as proof of the rationality of the Eritrean dictatorship’s suspicion of democracy.
In the early years, many young 2nd generation Eritreans in Europe and the US started flocking to the annual YPFDJ conferences to strengthen their bond with their roots and participate in the nation building process
More than all the inculcations of radical thought, ideologised hatred and selective reasoning, it was the intensive value provision by the PFDJ that attracted the diaspora youth. Thinking of themselves as refugees from an obscure poor African country, whose history even the youth themselves did not fully understand, most children of immigrants had a need to belong. High cadres from the government understood that catering to this almost spiritual need for pride and belonging was their ticket into the hearts and minds of the culturally-stranded children of mostly poor Eritrean immigrants in the West and Middle East. In exchange for the respect that the feared PFDJ government gives them, most of the young adults in the diaspora are ready to act and belong to a group that promises them purpose and meaning.
It did not take much time for Yemane and his associates to turn the group into an indoctrination camp and filter through the groups and give prominence to the most gullible and the patriotic ‘wannabes’
A NEW POWER BASE OF THUG CADRE:
By making recognition from the PFDJ seem like the greatest possible prize a YPFDJ member could be given in their life times, it did not take much time for diaspora youth to internalise the new official ‘conscious and militant’ mindset. All-expenses-paid trips to youth festivals in the country and invitations to participate in cadre courses at the Nakfa School of Social Sciences helped create the desired mind set within a few years. The sense of importance and responsibility the systematically-selected youth were given was the motivation needed to create a culture of vigilantism against dissent among Eritreans living in the diaspora.
The YPFDJ is the result of such efforts to proselytise western-raised youth of Eritrean origin into a cult of nationalism and hatred of other systems. Their immigrant and less-affluent position in the west and the natural need to rebel at that age makes them attractive targets for the PFDJ. Having lost all hope of recruiting its next generation of politicians from inside the country, the PFDJ has capitalized on grooming the strongest and most active followers of the cult in the West for power. How active and ideologically suitable members are can be measured by their vehemence in attacking any and all other ideologies, except that of Yemane, Isaias and their circle.
Selective reasoning: How active and ideologically suitable members are can be measured by their vehemence in attacking any and all other ideologies, except that of Yemane, Isaias and their circle.
As the marriage between hatred and selective reasoning is taken as a liberating truth by the YPFDJ members, their mentors’ thug mentality takes over, masquerading as nationalism. The same verbal attacks and physical threats the government is known for are employed by members of the group on any one who opposes the system. This process in itself increases the growth of recruitment into the ranks of the YPFDJ. To a young adult belonging to a government-sanctioned thug culture, united by a cult-like devotion, on top of the promise of belonging to the mystified leadership in the promised land, which always comes out ‘victorious even when the whole world is trying to destroy it’, is a very powerful recruitment draw. Even though a very small percentage are groomed for possible appointment to power in the future, the alternative world view, the sense of belongingness, and the recognition by high-level cadres are addictive for many diaspora youths.
EXPORTING HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND DISCOURAGING THOUGHT:
The PFDJ equivalent of the WW II fascist Black shirts were given a street gang sounding name, the ‘Eri-Bloods’. The Black shirts model for the group worked for Yemane Gebreab and the Los Angeles-style gang name attracted western-raised youth who grew up idolizing the black American gang rap culture. The thug mentality was encouraged as proof of true nationalism. The apparently loose, but effective and efficient organisation allowed for intimidation and harassment missions to be ordered by their PFDJ superiors and carried out without questions asked by the youth members, many of whom were glad to be given such a chance. With such a structure, the PFDJ implements — through the Youth PFDJ and Eri-Blood, its operation of surveillance and intelligence gathering on opposition Eritreans, human rights and civic activists, and international activists who called attention to the gross human rights violations in the country was easy to accomplish. Information is collected and passed on by word of mouth to the highest officials. As more attention is given to those members who collect as much intelligence as possible, the whole group is geared towards continuously looking out for challenges to the regime back home. With such an apparently loose structure it would be very difficult to trace and connect any politically-motivated crimes to the right sources, and the PFDJ would simply turn their backs on them or even disown them if a legal problem were to arise.
Inside Eritrea, the PFDJ had discovered, as soon as the war with Ethiopia was over, that it could not easily rationalise its dictatorial position and its punishment regime to the wider masses. But the part of society that had subscribed to the cult-like acceptance of the party was unquestioning in its belief in the righteousness of the party-line, regardless of the reality. New cadres were taught to follow the cult-like preaching instead of reasoning. This was supported by an extremely skewed selective reasoning and world view, which always proved that the PFDJ’s Eritrea was right in fighting the wrongs committed upon it by the whole world. And this was to be taken as the truth, and the only truth, and doubters were punished by death. Providing a common and brand new origin narrative, a spiritual purpose and salvation in the form of acceptance by PFDJ cadres is what fuels the devotion to the YPFDJ.
Even when setting up such organisations in the diaspora and working hard to win back a part of the youth inside the country, the PFDJ still does not want to allow real political participation. Apart from the few it wants to slowly bring into its ranks, the mass of the YPFDJ is only useful for continuing its campaign against Eritreans opposing the regime in the West. The PFDJ provides the resources needed in their concerted efforts to silence activism in social media. Members usually have multiple accounts on Tweeter and Facebook from where they disrupt critical discussions by adding ethnic, regional or religious tones to exaggerate differences in political views and disrupt common agreement. If this does not work, trolling and threats are employed. People are forced into silence with the threat of social blackmail by people who dig into every individual’s background.
In 2009, to summarise his plans for the YPFDJ, Yemane Gebreab told participants at the first European YPFDJ congress in Germany what the party wants from them: “We want nothing from you. The only thing we want you to do for us is to help us silence opposition in the diaspora. The government will provide as much funds as you need.” As the thug organisation in the diaspora is streamlined to preach PFDJ philosophy and intimidate any voice different than its own, youth inside the country are being taken to the cadre school to learn to stop thinking. During a class in a cadre course in the summer of 2008, the then Defence Minister, General Sibhat Efrem, summarised the whole approach to youth inside the country in a few sentences. Participants at the course remember him saying: “We do not bring you here so that you can hear us talk and tell everyone what we want. You are brought here so that you know what we want from you and keep quiet, and if you’re good enough you can tell everyone else to keep quiet. All we want from you is for all of you to keep your mouths shut about politics.”
Meseret Bahlibi, former chairman of Ypfdj Netherlands reporting from a demonstration organised by the Eritrean regime in Geneva against the UN Commission of Inquiry report which exposed gross and systematic Human Rights violations in Eritrea