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Unearthing Eritrea’s leadership potential

Opinion piece by: Nahum Kidan

“Where are our leaders”; “The opposition lacks leadership”; “I don’t like Isaias, but the opposition is no better”; “Who will replace Isaias”; “He is the only one - በይኑ ኾይኑ”. These are just a few of the comments I occasionally hear from people bemoaning the state of the opposition; to some, it seems the opposition is afflicted by a leadership deficit. In this piece, I contend that within our communities, we are blessed with a wealth of potential leaders, some waiting to be unearthed like diamonds. These individuals are not necessarily more intelligent, brave, charismatic or extrovert than the average person, but they display certain skills and behaviours/values conducive to driving a movement for change and for being political, social and corporate leaders in a post-Isaias Eritrea. But do we recognise these individuals when they are in our midst; do we recognise what good leadership looks like? Interestingly, from my own observations of deleyti fthi (justice seekers) over the last 2-3 years, I have found that many of those with the requisite skill-set, behaviours and values to make effective leaders also tend to be “reluctant leaders”; they do not seek the spotlight but are drawn to leadership due to an overwhelming sense of duty to improve the condition of the Eritrean people. Otherwise, they are quite content being anonymous workhorses and planners behind the scenes. This virtue of modesty can be a constraint where it prevents these individuals from being recognized and rising to positions of influence where they can drive the strategic direction of our movement, civil society organisations and political parties.

What makes a good leader

“Tall, dark, handsome, strong, mysterious; the most accomplished leader in the world today

“As a young guerrilla fighter, Isaias got a tattoo of the letter ‘e’ on his chest to symbolize Eritrea and the Eritrean Liberation Front”

“He’s the only leader in Africa that can be seen walking around in urban centers without any security detail”

These are some of the words which have been used to describe the former EPLF leader, turned President, turned autocrat, who has held the country hostage these past 30 years. His supporters overlook the gross human rights violations, underdevelopment, hunger, destitution and compulsive warmongering and point instead to his modest attire of khakis, sandals and a crumpled cap as proof that Isaias is a selfless, incorruptible leader in the mould of Buddha; a ‘great man’, born to lead, the guardian of Eritrean sovereignty and values. This deifying of Isaias is not unique to the Eritrean context. Originating in ancient Greece and Rome, the ‘great man’ theory of leadership characterized leadership as being related to specific mental, physical and personality characteristics. The theory postulates that leaders are born, not made and that history can largely be explained by the impact of great men or heroes; highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their God given attributes have a decisive historical effect.

The great man theory has parallels with the notion of the divine right of Kings to rule over their subjects, with Kings acquiring their legitimacy from God. One only must look at the myths surrounding leaders like Haile Selassie to see how a compelling backstory can elevate an ordinary man into something of a deity amongst their followers, often distorting objective historical assessment of their leadership. Like Menelik II before him, Haile Selassie claimed descent from the Solomonic dynasty. The Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings) is an ancient text and the source of Haile Selassie’s myth; inspired by the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopian rulers have conquered lands and enslaved ethnic groups (Woldemariam, 2019).

In 2013, the PFDJ affiliated Madote media said of Isaias: “But Isaias isn't your ordinary president. He fought for a quarter of a century as a freedom fighter and led his people to victory. Since then, he has transformed the country for the better too. Eritrea has arguably accomplished more in 22 years than any developing country in Africa.”.

Without a Solomonic lineage or democratic process to legitimize him, Isaias carefully cultivated a cult of personality; the image of the tall, handsome, heroic liberator of Eritrea, who devoted his life to the struggle and who alone knows what’s best for Eritrea’s interests. Many of the myths surrounding Isaias are manufactured or greatly embellished, whilst downplaying or erasing the contributions of his former comrades, which may explain why his supporters did not bat an eyelid when he disappeared heroes of the liberation struggle, such as Bitweded Abraha, G-15 members including Petros Solomon, Haile Weldetinsae (ድሩዕ), Mahmud Sherifo, and many others. Nevertheless, his mythical appeal has persisted in being highly intoxicating to those who continue to support him, despite the overwhelming evidence that he has overseen the economic, social and cultural destruction of Eritrea. Even before the Badme war, Isaias’ comrades had grave doubts over whether he was a leader suited to the demands of peace (Wrong, 2005. pp 375).

In addition to being perceived as a great man by his supporters, Isaias is also a strongman, a type of authoritarian rule characterized by autocratic military dictatorships. A 2014 study found that strongmen and juntas are more likely to engage in human rights violations and civil wars than civilian dictatorships (Geddes, Frantz and Wright, 2014). The cult of victimhood is a defining characteristic of a strongman; rather than representing their people, the strongman creates the perception that they embody the people, and the people embody them (“nhna nsu, nsu nhna / ንሕና ንሱ፡ ንሱ ንሕና”); in so doing, the people must bear the failures and humiliations of the leader as if it were their own humiliation, the nation’s humiliation. Berlusconi, Trump and Erdogan all used the term “witch hunt” as a strategy to externalize their failings, disassociate themselves from responsibility and make their followers feel protective over them. In a 2013 article, Madote described Isaias as “one of the most demonized politicians in Africa”; on a daily basis, we see PFDJ supporters fail to distinguish between country and ‘Government’, in attempting to portray any criticism of Isaias as an attack on Eritrea and Eritrean sovereignty; in doing so, they reflect the sentiments of Isaias, who once proclaimed: “The PFDJ is Eritrea, and I am the PFDJ.”

A recent study comparing the profiles of 157 world leaders found that autocrats score significantly lower than non-autocrats in relation to agreeableness and emotional stability; furthermore, autocrats are significantly more likely to display signs of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (Nai and Toros, 2020), traits often attributed to Isaias. The personality types of political leaders are an important though under researched area, as it can help us explain the links between the characteristics of a leader and their performance in office, also helping to determine the suitability of a prospective candidate for high office.

After a strongman loses power, they leave behind a weakened society; a country bearing the scars of prolonged physical, psychological and societal trauma. Institutions degraded, experts driven out, ideologues and zealots devoid of critical thinking skills occupy Government ‘institutions’ and all because the strongman focused on consolidating their own power instead of building the institutions of government and empowering the leaders of tomorrow. After the fall of the Soviet Union, entire generations had to be retrained.

The great man theory is morally and conceptually flawed as it erases actual events and people; history is defined by what the ‘great man’ did (or is perceived to have done) and the contribution of others and historical context is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Traits & behaviours of successful leaders

Due to flaws with the great man theory, the trait theory evolved which considered key characteristics or traits of successful leaders; this approach was commonly used to recruit people to leadership positions, especially within the military. Whilst some common traits of successful leaders have been found in several studies (see table below) – such as adaptability, diplomacy, decisiveness and organizational skills - no consistent traits could be identified (Stogdill, 1974). How do you measure traits such as ‘loyalty’ and ‘honesty’?

Another challenge with trait theory is that it considers individual characteristics in isolation and not in the context of the leaders’ relationships/interactions with their followers. For example, we all know intelligent, charismatic individuals who are skilled rhetoricians; but they may have a tendency of promising to do things but failing to deliver; or they may struggle to translate a promising concept into an operational solution; they may also lack the patience and stamina required to build and manage a team capable of delivering desired outputs. Because of the limitations of trait theory, attention shifted towards behavioural theories and what leaders do, not just their qualities (real or perceived) (Mcgregor, 1960).

In the Eritrean context, I sometimes see individuals being lauded as potential leaders based on a speech they have given, or slogans they trumpet on social media such as “One Eritrea”, “Unity”, “Democracy” and “Justice”. Whilst sloganeering has its obvious benefits, in the context of leadership qualities, how often do we scratch beneath the surface and say, ok, what are YOU doing to make this possible; where is your strategy and/or outputs? If you advocate for unity, do you practice what you preach? Are you putting in the hard work behind the scenes to build an inclusive and unified opposition? Are you putting in the hard work to build strong, organized and meritocratic civic organizations, recruiting capable people to deliver on objectives? Are you collaborating with others in relation to post-Isaias transition planning or simply operating within a silo? This is hard work which requires stamina, patience, sacrifice, collaboration and a single-minded commitment towards the betterment of Eritrean communities at home and abroad. This is what leaders do, they walk the talk (preferably more walking than talking).

Transformational leadership

Contemporary theories of leadership place more emphasis on the interaction between leaders and followers, thus placing leadership in context. Transformational leaders create an inspiring vision and motivate their followers to buy into that vision by providing inspiration and empowerment; these leaders help manage delivery of the vision by setting clear goals, high expectations and inspiring individuals to believe they can achieve the impossible (Bass, 1985). A transformational leader is also action-centred, directing the job to be done (task structuring), supporting and reviewing the performance of individuals and ensuring coordination of projects (Adair, 1973).

In my experience, transformational leaders invariably possess high levels of integrity, empathy, communication skills, vision, collaborative skills and social and emotional intelligence. These leaders understand and prioritize the needs of the Eritrean people and have the courage to go against popular opinion where necessary.

Like transformational leadership, ‘Servant leadership’ encourages trust, collaboration, listening and the ethical use of power and empowerment. Both leadership styles recognize the role of mentoring, recognition and listening skills as being key to empowering followers. Successful leaders ask questions instead of dictating, are effective at delegating work, provide opportunities for collaboration and opportunities for others to lead. Servant leaders are humble and listen to those who know best due to their education/skills/ experience, but are also critical thinkers who can look at issues holistically. For example, in deciding whether Eritrea should grow genetically modified food crops, scientists might say: “we need to do further risk assessments and develop an approval system”, the economists might say: “yes, it’s an economic imperative”, farmers might say: “of course, it will greatly enhance our productivity”, whilst consumers might see the benefits but have serious concerns on safety and ethical grounds. A wise leader would seek counsel from relevant experts and consult industry leaders and consumer groups before making an informed and transparent policy decision.

Servant leaders assume leadership positions because of an overwhelming desire to serve and improve the condition of their people, not out of self-interest.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature” (Greenleaf, 1970)

Too often, we find ourselves looking for a ‘hero’ to free our people from the shackles of dictatorship, when in reality, the leader(s) we need, may be the perfectly ordinary and unassuming person you drink macchiato with on a Saturday afternoon; in fact, it might be the person you see staring back at you in the mirror every morning! Leadership is not about an individual’s traits in isolation, it is about how they apply them to the monumental challenges facing the pro-justice movement; the ability to plan, strategize, organize, mobilize, build institutional capacity, inspire and empower others.

The illegitimate leadership in Asmara have proven that they lack the technical competence and behaviours/values to meet the social and economic grand challenges which lie ahead for Eritrea. As an independent nation, Eritrea requires leaders who will meet these challenges through the barrel of a pen, not through the barrel of a Kalashnikov. Let us not make the same mistake of looking for another strongman or ‘Great man/woman’; look out for our dynamic servant leaders and where you find them, recognize them, nurture them and help facilitate their transition into positions where they can influence and drive our strategic direction. They are out there in our communities, doing good work, much of it away from the public gaze, but like unearthed diamonds, you will find them……if you look hard enough.

1. Adair, J.E. (1973) Action-Centred Leadership. London: McGraw-Hill.

2. Bass, B. M. (1985) Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.

3. Geddes, B; Wright, J. and Frantz, E. (2014) Autocratic breakdown and regime transitions: A new data set. Perspectives on politics [Online]. 12(2), pp.313-331. [Accessed 06 June 2021]

4. Greenleaf, R. K. (1970) The servant as leader. Cambridge, Mass: Center for Applied Studies.

5. McGregor, D. (1960) The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.

6. Nai, A and Toros, E. (2020) The peculiar personality of strongmen: comparing the big five and dark triad traits of autocrats and non-autocrats. Political Research Exchange [Online]. 2(1). [Accessed 06 June 2021]

7. Stogdill, R.M. (1974) Handbook of leadership: A survey of the literature. New York: Free Press

8. Woldemariam, Y. (2019) The romantic rewriting of Haile Selassie’s legacy must stop. LSE [blog]. 4 February. Available from: The romantic rewriting of Haile Selassie's legacy must stop | | Africa at LSE

9. Wrong, M. (2005) I didn’t do it for you. London: Harper Perennial

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