IRIN interviewed President Isaias Afewerki in Asmara, on 1 October. Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in general remain chronically vulnerable in humanitarian terms due to drought, conflict and poverty.
A process to resolve the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains stalled after numerous attempts at resolution over the past seven years. The 1998-2000 war cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced thousands of civilians. In 2002, a Boundary Commission ruled on a new border between the two countries. However, demarcation of the border has not begun.
The stalemate continues, raising fears of renewed conflict. Eritrea accuses the international community of insufficient action in compelling Ethiopia to comply. Eritrea stands accused of backing rebellion in Ethiopia and Somalia. In Eritrea itself, the government’s relations with the UN, aid agencies and donors have been chequered and Eritrea has shown reluctance to accept international aid.
Isaias reviews some of these issues in the interview.
Q: Mr President, the peace process with Ethiopia is at a stalemate; what is the way forward?
A: Well, I think the way forward is very clear. Legally, the decision was made almost five-and-a-half years ago, which charted the way forward. It was final and binding. The implementation [of the decision] is what is missing and it is blocked by the regime in Addis Ababa in collaboration with the administration in Washington. Demarcation [of the border] should have taken place a long time ago. Details and the technicalities for demarcation have been worked out but unfortunately the way forward has been blocked.
There is no illusion or unclarity as to the way forward. It is very clear legally and technically. The possibility and the only option for going forward would be to demarcate the border and for the international community, particularly the [UN] Security Council, to take its responsibility and obligation as far as the treaty [Algiers agreement] is concerned and the decision [of the Boundary Commission] is concerned and enforce that decision.
Q: Ethiopia recently accused Eritrea of being in breach of the Algiers agreement. How do you react to that?
A: I think this was very theatrical - it is theatrical to me - because all the evidence is there. The Algiers agreement is very clear. In fact, one of the advantages of the agreement, which was anticipated probably by the wise men who drafted the document, was very detailed and very clear, and the binding and final nature of the decision [the ruling on the border] is part of the agreement. And the decision given, as I indicated earlier, was also very clear. Eritrea accepted the decision and that is the cardinal issue as far as the Algiers agreement is concerned. [It] was meant to resolve the border conflict by the establishment of a commission and also making it clear that the decision of the Boundary Commission will be final and binding. Ethiopia has not to date accepted and has violated the agreement.
Q: Eritrea has also been accused of supporting armed groups in Ethiopia and Somalia, including direct involvement. What is your response to that?
A: Sometimes people do not even remember what happened yesterday and pretend to forget their own history. This government in office now in Addis Ababa forgets when it was fighting Mengistu’s government and when so many Ethiopians, marginalised Ethiopians, including Tigreans, fought for self-determination in Ethiopia, not to fight an occupation force, but to change the government. Armed struggle was one of their means of fighting that regime for so many years. Doesn’t it apply to them? If today’s fighters, anyone, the Oromos, Somalis, Tigreans, the Amharas and what have you in Ethiopia are fighting for their rights inside Ethiopia, isn’t that also what the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front, senior member of Ethiopian ruling coalition party] did during Mengistu’s times? How can one who lived through that process point a finger at Somalis fighting for the reconstitution of their land and for the freedom of the Somalis and categorise them as terrorists? This is an empty accusation in my opinion. It is meant to benefit from the political environment that came after 9/11 and categorising every opposition and every freedom fighter as a terrorist.
We stood by the TPLF all those years, we supported the right to resist and fight the Mengistu regime or even the previous regime. We stood on the side of all Ethiopians without distinction – the Oromos, Amharas, Somalis, Afars, Tigreans - for a new Ethiopia. If these people now believe this government is not representative and this government is leading Ethiopia to the unknown, they fight for their rights. If the Somalis who today see their land occupied fight this occupation; isn’t it legitimate for anyone, any peace-loving [person] to support their cause?
Q: Is your government concerned that the current situation may lead to direct military confrontation?
A: You mean between Eritrea and Ethiopia, well we don’t need any confrontation. We have our right to self-defence. We have been committed to our legal obligations as far as the border is concerned. As I indicated earlier, we will abide by the letter and spirit of the agreement. We have politically and legally struggled to see implementation of the decision through demarcation. Unfortunately that has not been the case. We continue to struggle on that line.
Q: There was a Somali opposition conference here. How successful was it and how does it contribute to the realisation of peace and stability in Somalia?
A: As I repeatedly said it only expressed the wish of the Somali people. I would even go as far as saying it may also be expressive of the wish of so many within the so-called transitional government in Somalia. It is unthinkable to imagine that any Somali anywhere would accept occupation as a fact of life. Somalis have to get out of the bleak situation [of] the last 16 years. Somalis aspire to get out of that situation and create an environment or conducive climate for reconstruction and reconciliation among the Somalis. This will take a long time. It is not an easy task but I consider the conference held here as part of that process. It is a process in the right direction. Definitely, it was a success because it was a genuine expression of the aspiration of the Somali people in spite of their political positions or their views about how the future would go in Somalia.
Q: How do the recent negative developments in the peace process with Ethiopia affect the humanitarian situation in your country?
A: We don’t have any humanitarian problems now. We can say that we have successfully implemented programmes on food security and we may have reached a level where we do not need any food aid from outside. The economy is performing well - not in terms of statistics - that would be very misleading. The performance could only be measured by the changes in the quality of life of people here.
We can talk about the infrastructure; we can talk about a number of economic sectors, the social sectors, health and education. Our achievements are tremendous and probably equal to any other experience with the limitations and the challenges we have faced. We no longer talk about economic problems in this country, we talk about growth and development and the measurement for growth and development is steady and sustainable economic growth.
Q: Your government has embarked on ensuring food security solely based on self-reliance. How is that working?
A: It is not self-reliance. It is not even food security per se. It is a programme for the short term and probably for the medium term. We aspire to increase production in agriculture and fisheries to enable this country to export food commodities, processed or raw. We can now confidently say we have gone a long way to secure food. That is a priority; that is for the short term. We need to do more to achieve the level that will take us to a situation where we can say we are beyond self-sufficiency. So it is not a question of self-reliance or isolation or what-have-you in the vocabulary of many who can only think about third world countries in terms of hunger, famine and crises. That is not the case here in Eritrea. The picture is very clear and definitely we will go beyond self-reliance or even self-sufficiency in terms of food to achieve our goals beyond that limit.
Q: You have just returned from touring the regions, assessing the situation and apparently living among the people. What is your impression of this year’s harvest?
A: In the past 16 years we can say this is probably the maximum in terms of food production because of two main factors. The programmes we have been implementing in terms of food security, soil and water conservation, introducing new technologies, educating people and using available resources to enhance the production in agriculture was one major factor. The other factor was the rains. The rains have been good even though in some areas very devastating but the fact that the population was prepared with the necessary infrastructure and tools to deal with this situation did complement and enhance our production this year. It is premature to predict now, we will have to wait a few weeks or probably two months to evaluate the production level, which seems to be highly encouraging. I have witnessed that with my own eyes and definitely I am very optimistic but we will have to wait for the actual assessment.
Q: Ensuring food security is a long-term endeavour. Don’t you think the humanitarian community can be used to bridge the gap in the short term?
A: It depends on how you see that programme because depending on outside support may have its positive consequences but the negative consequences always outweigh the positive consequences. It is highly risky to think that external humanitarian or whatever support will bridge the gap. You may end up not bridging the gap but widening the gap. So you will have to make the choice and the best choice or the best option would be to implement realistic and practical programmes to bridge the gap. That has two advantages; on the one hand, you develop the capacity to solve your own problems, while at the same time you bridge the gap by increasing production. So you will have to be careful judging where you sign and what you choose.
Q: What role do you expect the international community to play and how do you think they can support Eritrea’s efforts?
A: It is again a stereotype, I would say, politically at least, for so many African countries and communities to think of what we call the international community and its support as a temporary solution to enable them to overcome the immediate difficulty so that they can solve their own problems on their own. Developing the habit of depending or expecting the international community to solve problems has developed to a chronic level in so many cases. And I would say it is high time for every one of us on this continent to think otherwise; not to expect the international community to solve our problems. Yes the international community can make contributions but it should only be seen in light of short term [intervention].
Q: How can relations with international agencies, particularly, the UN be improved?
A: It depends on which agency you are talking about, but overall the United Nations and its agencies could be useful organisations for support when the need arises. But it depends on whether their support solves problems or otherwise. With all due respect to the UN, this continent will have to find a way to minimise the presence of UN intervention in each and every aspect of our lives. Yes, the UN can be helpful in the short term but the presence of the UN and its agencies should not be made sustainable for an indefinite period of time. So here in Eritrea, yes, we would like to cooperate with the UN and its agencies, but the cooperation would have to come when we need it and in areas we identify are in need of the support of the UN and its agencies. People may not like it. but that is the way forward. There is no alternative.
Q: What is your vision for Eritrea in the short and long term?
A: This is a great country with great potential. It is a country with a great people, I believe, who have achieved tremendously in their fight for their freedom. They have achieved their independence. It is a country of people who aspire to improve their quality of life, induce economic growth and development that will ultimately serve generations to come. So we may not have achieved our ambitions due to many obstacles, but definitely the determination is not only emotional; the aspirations grow every time with achievements. Definitely Eritrea will succeed, despite its limited resources, despite its small size. Eritrea can be a constructive partner to many in the region; Somalis, Ethiopians, Djiboutians and Sudanese. We don’t pretend to be bigger or much more resourceful than others but we could make our contribution. And that is I think a legitimate aspiration for people to have. We would like all our neighbours to have the same aspirations and work towards achieving the same goals. It will definitely have a synergic effect on our collective benefits.