The Roots and Evo­lu­tions of YPFDJ, in search for 2nd gen­er­a­tion cadres

(, 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.


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’


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.


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