former Italian colony in the Horn of Africa changed hands after the
War II, becoming a British Protectorate from 1941-1952 when a UN
federated Eritrea with Ethiopia, ignoring Eritrea's desire for
independence. 1961 saw the start of armed struggle for independence
years of peaceful protest.
Using armed force, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally
Eritrea, escalating the war for independence. The Eritrean People's
Liberation Front finally liberated the country from Ethiopian
in 1991 and after a referendum, the country became formally independent
1993 under the leadership of President Isayas Afewerki who has led the
country to date.
From 1998-2000 Eritrea fought what turned out to be Africa's most
devastating border war with Ethiopia, which claimed some 60,000 lives
I met President Isayas in Paris and asked him to first give a balance
of 10 years since formal independence.
[Isayas] - The main challenge has been and remains to be rebuilding the
country that was destroyed by one of the longest wars in Africa,
the country in terms the economy, social and cultural infrastructure.
Building a nation under normal circumstances takes a long time. But, we
say we have achieved much [in] the last 10 years. We have been able to
build a capacity to deal with all sorts of problems in the country.
The difficulty of the challenge was not to continue develop capacity
build what was left by colonial powers, but do whatever is possible to
rebuild what was destroyed. Roads were almost destroyed. Leave alone
tanks could not move on the roads that were left by the Italians. The
manufacturing infrastructure was completely destroyed, but it seems
rebuilding what was destroyed by the war was more difficult than even
fighting a war for liberation.
[RFI] - Many observers indeed say that you have squandered very valuable
in regional conflicts and supporting dissident groups in neighbouring
countries, instead of using the available resources for economic
development. Do you agree with that?
[Isayas] - The people in Eritrea have gone through very difficult times,
paid heavily in terms of sacrifices to liberate the nation. Peace and
peaceful coexistence means more to the Eritrean people than anyone else
has never seen a war like we have gone through; who have never seen any
destruction like what we witnessed in the country. Unfortunately our
neighbourhood has never been safe.
When we achieved our liberation in 1991 we worked with the government
Ethiopia based on the long-standing relationship we had before 1991. We
made our ports open and free for Ethiopia. We worked together to
policies. We used Ethiopian currency and postponed issuing our own
independent currency with the hope that we could integrate our
the long run.
We signed a defence pact to secure stability between the two countries.
Unfortunately in 1998 war was declared by the government of Ethiopia to
lead to more of the destruction that has been witnessed in the last
years or so.
Relations with Sudan
[RFI] - Some people say you are just a trigger-happy, trouble causer [as
heard], who has gone to war with literally all your neighbours,
[Isayas] - Again in the case of the Sudan, before 1991, in 1989, a
came in the Sudan with an agenda called the civilization project. The
civilization project was intended to impose an ideology of a minority
in the Sudan, an ideology that was supposed to transform the social and
cultural fabric of the Sudan without taking stock of diversity, impose
Islam or the version of Islam of that political group.
It went beyond that to export its own ideology in the region and
internationally. It made or returned the south Sudan into a staging
for terror and subversion. Everybody knows that Carlos and Bin-Ladin
there. Bin-Ladin was only there until 1996.
Sudan could not impose that ideology or sell the ideology to its own
people. It fomented domestic crisis, crisis with its neighbours. An
of assassination on the Egyptian president in Addis [Ababa] was a
example of the political programmes of that regime.
Its isolation globally, led to more of complication of the internal and
regional situation. We were targeted as an infidel government that
be removed and be substituted by a political group called the Jihad
was to take over and impose again that ideology on the people of
The same was the case with all Sudanese neighbours. Unfortunately, that
again to a problem in the region complicated to this day. Sudan has
political problems with its neighbours. Unfortunately we were victims
that kind of ideology.
So, I think after 1991 the hopes and desires of the Eritrean people
frustrated because of territorial ambitions on the part of Ethiopia,
hegemony of the region, the ideological flaws of the government that
in 1989 through a coup in the Sudan which destabilized the whole
And [being] part of the region, [we] became victims. We tried to face
challenges by addressing them on a number of regional and international
We had the right to defend our sovereignty, we had the right to defend
people from external aggression and external imposition of an ideology,
[in] which I think we can say Eritrea has been successful.
War with Ethiopia should have been avoided
[RFI] - Couldn't you have avoided the 1998-2000 war?
[Isayas] - In the first place the war was unnecessary. It was not
in any way. 1998 came as an unwanted development. We tried our best to
solve the problem bilaterally. We never felt there was any reason for
Ethiopia to go to war because of a place called Badme. There is no
why we cannot resolve [the disputes] peacefully. We didn't draw these
borders in the first place. Colonial treaties brought them like
[else] in Africa.
To our surprise [the] 1998 war was declared by Ethiopia. Everybody in
Eritrea was surprised. Finally, the problem was not solved by military
means, we had to go to a legal process and finally everybody discovered
that Badme was not an Ethiopian territory.
The commission [UN appointed Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission,
decided that Badme was Eritrean territory. Now you can tell what the
intentions of the Ethiopian government were in 1998. So was the war
necessary? Couldn't we have done better by working together, solving
problems peacefully and amicably without resorting to war and wasting
resources. We could have used the resources wasted in this war for some
other useful purpose.
So, it's a matter of regretting the situation but I say this today, I
it four, five years ago, I said it in the middle of the war; this is a
senseless war. It should have been avoided.
"For Eritrea, the chapter is closed"
[RFI] - Exactly. It has been said that you have made it clear that you
wouldn't be the first to fire the first bullet to start a new war
the two countries. Could you be more categorical on that, because in
weeks we've seen again there was some diplomatic Ping-Pong on the side
Ethiopia and Eritrea.
[Isayas] - Again the question is clear now. When the war started
asked, do we need this war? Now after the decision of the boundary
commission - this is a court of law agreed upon by both parties with
support of the international community, the UN, the OAU then - now,
we have to squabble about at the moment?
The problem is Ethiopia made a big mistake to declare war, to resort to
[of] force to solve this problem. So, that's where the problem comes
What does Ethiopia want from Eritrea?
From five years ago people were misled and misinformed about the story
declaration of war on the part of Ethiopia. Ethiopia claimed that Badme
an Ethiopian territory and our case was not understood then. Now after
the destruction we have arrived at a legal conclusion to the problem.
does Ethiopia want from Eritrea?
I think its still goes back to the attitude of Ethiopia and the
government which declared war in 1998 without any justifiable reason.
think its a matter of attitude, it's still the political attitude of
rulers in Ethiopia that becomes a problem. Otherwise, for Eritrea, the
chapter is closed.
Eritrea seeks "legitimacy"
[RFI] - Some of your international partners and critics alike have voiced
concern about press and political freedom in Eritrea under your
and indeed dozens of journalists were detained and the private press
down. Why should that be the case in these times and yet when one reads
history of the Eritrean liberation struggle, these were some of the
you said you were fighting for?
[Isayas] - We uphold the principles of liberation and freedom for
It's a very long history that developed a political culture of popular
participation. Nothing could have been achieved in Eritrea without the
participation of the people of Eritrea all over, inside and outside the
country, for 30 years.
1991 came and we could have declared independence unilaterally. We said
we want legitimacy. The rule of law. And we postponed the declaration
independence to go through a process of a referendum. People were
why not do it in a very easy way? Why not look for shortcuts? We don't
shortcuts! We want a political settlement at an international level, we
want legitimacy. We can't declare independence simply because we were
victorious militarily. Military victory is one thing and political
will have to depend on legitimacy and legitimacy means the legitimacy
comes through the participation of the population.
1993 came as a formal independence when Eritrea was virtually
in 1991 because we wanted to allow the population say it loud to the
international community that we would like to be independent. Popular
participation, free _expression of attitudes in any aspect of life of
society was part of the political culture.
Arrested journalists were spies - Isayas
Unfortunately, this war came in 1998 and it created a lot of chaos. It
very natural that during war, during difficult times, people surrender,
people capitulate. With all that in the middle of the war an external
intervention came about. An external intervention which wanted to
solution by asking for compromise. Compromise on sovereignty,
something we paid dearly - 30 years [of] fighting.
External interference went to the extent of abusing the freedom of
that we introduced in the middle of the war, by buying journalists,
financing them. It was not journalism, it was not freedom of press. It
one way of engaging or conducting psychological war in the middle of
war, dividing society, vertically, polarizing society into religious,
ethnic, regional, linguistic divisions. But in the middle of the war we
to check, we had to say enough is enough.
External powers come and bribe journalists and in the middle of the war
that kind of intervention is not acceptable. These are not even
journalists. You cannot say a spy is a journalist. I do not know of any
journalist, a professional journalist, who was supposed to communicate
objective information about realities and developments to the
under detention. Not at all. This was not expected. We never expected
war could come. We never expected this external intervention could come
create discord amongst communities. We have gone through the challenges
I think the people have learnt a lot. Now what is the fate of these
who did try to create discord and confusion in society? That will have
be addressed with time.
"Remarkable track record" in handling AIDS, malaria, polio
[RFI] - If I have to ask you one final question of social and economic
[issues], Mr President Isayas, it is basically about how you and your
government is handling the problem of AIDS?
[Isayas] - In terms of AIDS, the last figures were declining. It was
between 1 to 2 per cent at times people have predicted it could have
reached 3 per cent of the population. Now it is down to 2.2 per cent
according to formal information coming from the Ministry of Health and
trend is going down not like other communities or countries in Africa
the AIDS endemic is becoming a serious national threat. In our case,
achievements are very remarkable. We have eliminated polio. Polio does
exist in Eritrea. We are listed as one of the countries that have
eliminated polio. We have done remarkably in controlling malaria.
which is a threat to society in many parts of the continent.
Our track record in our social programmes has been remarkable and we
say it has been one of the achievements we did in the last 12 years or
since 1991. Now we say we need to do more. I can tell you that we are
self sufficient in terms of hospitals, referral hospitals at a national
level, at regional level, health centres and clinics are all over the
country providing services for the population.
Our focus which was part of the tradition we cultivated during the
liberation years, we had to work hard to provide services to remote
and reach places that were not even reached by any government in the
100 years. So I can assure you our record in terms of combating AIDS is
amongst the highest in Africa. We have been the most successful in
combating the spread of that endemic in our country. Introducing
of educating the population on the implications of the AIDS epidemic in
country, ways and means of preventing its spread and educating every
citizen, every person in society now is aware about the implications of
Developments in education after independence
Since 1991, we adopted a policy which says if we want to implement
programmes in any sector, agriculture, tourism, industry, whatever
infrastructure, we need to educate our people. We cannot do anything
without skill and professional citizens participating in the
programmes. How do we do that? We need to expand our education
all over the country. When we took over in 1991, probably 40,000
were enrolled in all the schools from primary to university level. Now
have beyond 550,000 [students] in our schools. We still are striving
to improve the quality of education we deliver in the country by
curriculum for a number of colleges and institutions in the country,
expanding educational services to very remote areas. People who never
any opportunity to send their children to school today find schools in
their neighbourhood and send their children to school. Because this
need some time until we can sufficiently say we have done enough to
[and] educate our people to acquire skills and professions, we need to
lot in that. But comparative to others, we have achieved a lot in that
[RFI] - Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki, ending this edition of
Source: Radio France Internationale, Paris, in English 0732 gmt 16 Apr
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