PROFILE

Eritrean president gives interview to French Radio
Radio France Internationale
April 16, 2003
Hello, welcome to "Voices". I am Billy Okedemeri [phonetic]. Today we talked to Isayas Afewerki, president of Eritrea. As Africa's youngest nation, Eritrea has a unique history as one of the very few countries on the continent colonized by an African neighbour.

The former Italian colony in the Horn of Africa changed hands after the World War II, becoming a British Protectorate from 1941-1952 when a UN resolution federated Eritrea with Ethiopia, ignoring Eritrea's desire for independence. 1961 saw the start of armed struggle for independence after years of peaceful protest.

Using armed force, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally annexed Eritrea, escalating the war for independence. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front finally liberated the country from Ethiopian colonialism in 1991 and after a referendum, the country became formally independent in 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 on both sides.

I met President Isayas in Paris and asked him to first give a balance sheet 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, rebuilding the country in terms the economy, social and cultural infrastructure. Building a nation under normal circumstances takes a long time. But, we can 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 and build what was left by colonial powers, but do whatever is possible to rebuild what was destroyed. Roads were almost destroyed. Leave alone cars, tanks could not move on the roads that were left by the Italians. The manufacturing infrastructure was completely destroyed, but it seems that 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 time 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, have paid heavily in terms of sacrifices to liberate the nation. Peace and peaceful coexistence means more to the Eritrean people than anyone else who 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 in Ethiopia based on the long-standing relationship we had before 1991. We made our ports open and free for Ethiopia. We worked together to harmonize policies. We used Ethiopian currency and postponed issuing our own independent currency with the hope that we could integrate our economies in 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 five 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, including Sudan.

[Isayas] - Again in the case of the Sudan, before 1991, in 1989, a government came in the Sudan with an agenda called the civilization project. The civilization project was intended to impose an ideology of a minority group 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 ground for terror and subversion. Everybody knows that Carlos and Bin-Ladin were 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 attempt of assassination on the Egyptian president in Addis [Ababa] was a shocking 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 should be removed and be substituted by a political group called the Jihad that was to take over and impose again that ideology on the people of Eritrea. The same was the case with all Sudanese neighbours. Unfortunately, that led again to a problem in the region complicated to this day. Sudan has been in political problems with its neighbours. Unfortunately we were victims of that kind of ideology.

So, I think after 1991 the hopes and desires of the Eritrean people were frustrated because of territorial ambitions on the part of Ethiopia, hegemony of the region, the ideological flaws of the government that came in 1989 through a coup in the Sudan which destabilized the whole region. And [being] part of the region, [we] became victims. We tried to face these challenges by addressing them on a number of regional and international fora.

We had the right to defend our sovereignty, we had the right to defend our 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 justified 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 reason why we cannot resolve [the disputes] peacefully. We didn't draw these borders in the first place. Colonial treaties brought them like everywhere [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, EEBC] 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 our 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 said 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 between the two countries. Could you be more categorical on that, because in recent weeks we've seen again there was some diplomatic Ping-Pong on the side of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

[Isayas] - Again the question is clear now. When the war started everybody 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 the support of the international community, the UN, the OAU then - now, what do we have to squabble about at the moment?

The problem is Ethiopia made a big mistake to declare war, to resort to use [of] force to solve this problem. So, that's where the problem comes again. What does Ethiopia want from Eritrea?

From five years ago people were misled and misinformed about the story of declaration of war on the part of Ethiopia. Ethiopia claimed that Badme was an Ethiopian territory and our case was not understood then. Now after all the destruction we have arrived at a legal conclusion to the problem. What does Ethiopia want from Eritrea?

I think its still goes back to the attitude of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government which declared war in 1998 without any justifiable reason. So I think its a matter of attitude, it's still the political attitude of the 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 leadership, and indeed dozens of journalists were detained and the private press shut down. Why should that be the case in these times and yet when one reads the history of the Eritrean liberation struggle, these were some of the things you said you were fighting for?

[Isayas] - We uphold the principles of liberation and freedom for peoples. 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 no, we want legitimacy. The rule of law. And we postponed the declaration of independence to go through a process of a referendum. People were saying why not do it in a very easy way? Why not look for shortcuts? We don't want 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 victory will have to depend on legitimacy and legitimacy means the legitimacy that comes through the participation of the population.

1993 came as a formal independence when Eritrea was virtually independent 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 is 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 impose a solution by asking for compromise. Compromise on sovereignty, compromise on something we paid dearly - 30 years [of] fighting.

External interference went to the extent of abusing the freedom of press 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 was one way of engaging or conducting psychological war in the middle of the war, dividing society, vertically, polarizing society into religious, ethnic, regional, linguistic divisions. But in the middle of the war we had 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 population under detention. Not at all. This was not expected. We never expected this war could come. We never expected this external intervention could come to create discord amongst communities. We have gone through the challenges and I think the people have learnt a lot. Now what is the fate of these people who did try to create discord and confusion in society? That will have to 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 probably 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 the trend is going down not like other communities or countries in Africa where the AIDS endemic is becoming a serious national threat. In our case, our achievements are very remarkable. We have eliminated polio. Polio does not exist in Eritrea. We are listed as one of the countries that have eliminated polio. We have done remarkably in controlling malaria. 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 can say it has been one of the achievements we did in the last 12 years or so since 1991. Now we say we need to do more. I can tell you that we are now 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 areas and reach places that were not even reached by any government in the last 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 programmes of educating the population on the implications of the AIDS epidemic in the country, ways and means of preventing its spread and educating every citizen, every person in society now is aware about the implications of that epidemic.

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 development programmes. How do we do that? We need to expand our education facilities all over the country. When we took over in 1991, probably 40,000 [pupils] were enrolled in all the schools from primary to university level. Now we have beyond 550,000 [students] in our schools. We still are striving hard to improve the quality of education we deliver in the country by improving curriculum for a number of colleges and institutions in the country, expanding educational services to very remote areas. People who never had any opportunity to send their children to school today find schools in their neighbourhood and send their children to school. Because this woul! d need some time until we can sufficiently say we have done enough to train [and] educate our people to acquire skills and professions, we need to do a lot in that. But comparative to others, we have achieved a lot in that regard.

[RFI] - Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki, ending this edition of "Voices".

Source: Radio France Internationale, Paris, in English 0732 gmt 16 Apr 03



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