Eritrea real clear politics's Weblog

September 19, 2009

EU calls on Eritrea to free political prisoners

Filed under: News — eritrearealclearpolitics @ 1:20 pm
Fri Sep 18, 2009 10:07am EDT

STOCKHOLM, Sept 18 (Reuters) – The European Union said on Friday it was “deeply concerned” over continued abuses of human rights in Eritrea, calling on the East African nation’s government to release all political prisoners.

The Swedish EU presidency said in a statement that Eritrean authorities had arrested a number of political figures and journalists over the past several years, keeping them detained without charge.

“The European Union remains deeply concerned that the Government of the State of Eritrea continues to severely violate its human rights obligations under domestic and international law,” the presidency said in a statement.

“In particular, the European Union urges the Government of the State of Eritrea to unconditionally release all political prisoners.”

In a statement earlier this week marking the 8-year anniversary of a clamp-down by the Eritrean government, Reporters Without Borders labelled Eritrea the “world’s biggest prison for journalists”, saying at least 30 had been jailed.

The case of Dawit Issac, a journalist with dual Swedish and Eritrean citizenship who has been held without trial in Eritrea since 2001, has sparked outrage in the Nordic country, the current holder of the EU’s six-month presidency.

Asmara bristles at repeated accusations by rights groups that it puts independent journalists and non-Orthodox Christians in jail, tortures detainees, and keeps people indefinitely in military service.

“We are not children. We were not born yesterday. No one can educate us on what freedom means,” President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters in an interview in May. [ID:nLL236492]

“It is not a question of human rights, religious rights. It is part of a fight, of a powerful opposition, and this powerful opposition has not succeeded in achieving anything,” he said. (Reporting by Niklas Pollard)

 

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  1. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki Interview with Financial Times At the presidential reception house in Asmara on July 21 2009, he spoke to Barney Jopson, the FT’s East Africa correspondent, about international relations, domestic politics, military service, economic management,western aid and on the people known as the G15 who were arrested and remain in jail. His answer was “”That is history””. If you want to read the interview here you can have it.

    Interview with Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki
    Published: September 18 2009 14:19 | Last updated: September 18 2009 14:19

    Isaias Afewerki led a guerrilla army that helped to overthrow the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 and win independence for Eritrea, which the Red Sea country secured after a referendum two years later. As Eritrea’s president, he initially pledged to introduce multiparty democracy and free markets. But a border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 led to a sharp change in course.
    Today, Mr Isaias is accused of being a dictator and Eritrea is one of the most secretive and insular corners of Africa.

    At the presidential reception house in Asmara on July 21 2009, he spoke to Barney Jopson, the FT’s East Africa correspondent, about international relations, domestic politics, military service, economic management, and western aid. These are edited excerpts from the interview.

    [[Click here to read Barney Jopson’s “Letter from Eritrea” in the FT Weekend Magazine]]

    FT: Let’s talk about Eritrea’s international relations. You don’t have a lot of allies in the rest of the world. You’re often described as an isolated state, even as a pariah state. Can you give me your take on how the country has got to this point?

    Isaias Afewerki: Who said that?

    FT: Many independent analysts would describe Eritrea that way.

    IA: It’s their own choice … We have not endorsed the policies of the previous administration in Washingon for very obvious reasons. The policies were misguided. Part of the problems we talk about in Somalia, the Horn of Africa, were a result of the misguided policies of the previous administration. I don’t want to exclude anyone in this administration, but it’s too early. The last eight years of the previous administration was chaotic. We disagreed on almost everything and they categorised us as a pariah, or whatever you called them. It’s demonising someone who does not agree with you. We’ve sustained our position and said in spite of the demonisation we have our views, be it on Somalia, on the Horn of Africa, Sudan, name it. We need to have our own independent positions and we need to defend those positions … We have disagreed [with the US] on a number of other issues. But that’s not unique. It’s misguided policies not only in the Horn but everywhere else. Yes, for those who control the media, for those who have special interests, who have made this world a very difficult place to live in … demonising Eritrea has been based on misguided policies, and even those who have disagreed with us are now changing because the world is now changing.

    FT: Which people do you think are changing?

    IA: Everybody else. We maintain our policies and our positions have proven to be correct. And many who may not admit it officially are changing. Changing by denouncing previous policies and previous interventions here and there … I don’t exclusively mention one party or another as to whether they’ve become favourable to us or not. I don’t think that’s relevant because we don’t live on the favours of others. We don’t expect others to be very kind to us or very generous to us when we disagree with them. We don’t like that to happen. We would like to agree and disagree, but we should respect the opinion of others and others will have to respect our opinion.

    FT: You said it’s too early to judge where the Obama administration is going, but do you have any hope that the new administration might …

    IA: Not at all. It would be very foolish to hope for this or that. We don’t live in hope. We don’t have that culture. We don’t expect manna to come from the skies. We don’t expect any administration in Washington is going to bring in solutions for everything … We don’t have that kind of culture. We’re not even interested. We’re not even interested in hoping. Hoping for something is disabling … You cannot expect anyone to come with some miracle to solve your problem. And it’s not interactive. It does not engage people on the issues because you will be sitting around, hands folded and expecting somebody to do it for you. We don’t have that culture. No hopes. No expectations. No dreams. Nothing like that. We would like to see real things happen on the ground and we would like to be party to those things.

    FT: Okay, so setting aside hopes and dreams, would you like to improve your relations with the US?

    IA: The US will have to improve its relations with us. We have done nothing wrong. We were not even doing anything to harm the US at all. To the contrary. So the US will have to come to improve its rels with us. We don’t go and ask for improvement of relations. We don’t ask their favour. They have to correct their wrongs and then we can make friends. We don’t go their and ask for their favour. Not at all.

    FT: Now, you laughed when I used the word “pariah”. Another comparison that’s been made is with North Korea. Eritrea is sometimes described as the North Korea of Africa.

    IA: Isn’t it ironic? This isn’t a country with nuclear weapons. This is a very small country of three million people and the comparison is even daunting to me. And that’s part of the game – demonising someone, intimidating someone, trying to frighten people. It’s a very sick psychology. It’s a very sick attitude for those who think they can demonise, intimidate and frighten people. We have resisted to that kind of attitude and we don’t think it’s healthy. It’s sick.

    FT: Now, let’s talk about the domestic situation here. Your party is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice but Eritrea is a one-party state that’s not had elections since independence.

    IA: That’s no problem. That’s not a problem.

    FT: But where’s the democracy then?

    IA: You go and ask the Chinese on their democracy. You go and ask the Mauritanians, the Iranians, the Madagascari. You go and ask Congo Brazzaville. You go and ask the Hondurans. You go and ask everybody else. You go and ask people in Europe. People in Europe have not even participated in the politics. You may know that only 20 per cent, 18 per cent in some countries, are interested in politics in Europe and we, in this country, in spite of all the demonisation, we have everybody else participating. Every citizen in this country participates in what happens in the life of this country.

    FT: How do they participate?

    IA: In all forms. They have their own organisations. They have their own ways of participation. We are unique in the diaspora – the only people who are organised and working together for the benefit of their own family, their own neighbourhood, their own people and it’s in spite of the demonization that you find. People participate in politics, social, cultural, economy, security, everything.

    FT: But people do not feel free to express opinions about the government.

    IA: This is an opinion of special interest groups in Europe and the United States. They would like to have one or two individuals who are mouthpieces for their own special interest and they want these voices to be heard … If you want to talk in Europe as a citizen of the United Kingdom, a citizen of France, of Italy, if you want to talk in the name of the special interest groups in the United States, say it direct. Don’t come and say it through a puppet or some dummy here and there. That’s a mistake many in Europe and the United States [make], to think that they can speak through the mouths of some individuals who are compromised or bought by some agencies in those countries, and we are told these are representative of the people of this country. The people of this country know what they want. They know who represents them. They know how they participate in the life of their country. So, how can you possibly tell people that voices are not heard. Which voices?

    FT: Well, I’m not talking about these interest groups in Europe, I’m talking about the mood here on the streets, and there seems to be a climate of fear. People are scared to give their opinions. They’re scared to criticise the government because the government doesn’t seem to be tolerating dissent.

    IA: It’s a very important discovery on your part. You’ve been able to discover this in how many hours?

    FT: Well, I’ve been here since Saturday.

    IA: It’s very unique. You must have a very unique brain.

    FT: I don’t think so.

    IA: To be able to know and read everything in this country in a matter of hours, it’s amazing.

    FT: But it’s my impression that people are nervous.

    IA: It’s amazing. It’s amazing. I say it’s amazing because you can make judgement in a matter of hours. You must be a super-human.

    FT: Well, I’m not.

    IA: You may be, because doing something in a matter of hours is something for super humans who can do miracles by seeing through things and trying to read the minds of people and trying to read the minds of, say, the citizens in this town, that would be 400,000, and reading that is very funny.

    FT: Well, let’s look at it in another way then. Are people free to offer critical opinions of the government, if they want to?

    IA: They’re free. They’re free. This is a free country. This is a free country… I mean, I would have expected you to say something else had you been in Nairobi, in Lagos, other capitals, even in Europe, where you can’t even move after five o’clock in the evening…

    FT: That’s safety. That’s a different issue.

    IA: … where you can see it in the faces of human beings and make a comparison. You can make a judgement, even though that’s qualitative and it’s not inclusive of everything. You can make judgements. Anyone has the freedom to make judgements but this is the place where people can move freely and think freely. It’s a place very unique in terms of the freedoms people enjoy, in spite of the demonization, again… If you have come with a notion prior to your travel to this country, you can say it but…

    FT: No, what I say is based on my conversations with people, not with 400,000 but with…

    IA: Well, it’s amazing. I would even question that, again, because that’s where journalists are not very professional or even honest with themselves and say, ‘Oh, I talked to one or two people’. Where did you get these people? Where exactly were you when you talked to these people? And how many hours did you take to make a judgement when you talk to someone?… It’s not honest. It’s a pre-judgement of something and it actually is a distortion.

    FT: So, you say there’s freedom of speech, there’s freedom of thought. Why then the crackdown in 2001 on the people known as the G15 who were arrested and remain in jail?

    IA: That is history.

    FT: But they were…

    IA: That’s something related to the national security issue, related to war, related to the water conflict. It has nothing to do with the domestic politics or the political reality of this country. That is history.

    FT: But they were expressing their own opinions and you said this is a free country.

    IA: They were not expressing their opinion. They were working for something that is a threat to the national security. I was interested to listen to Obama saying the other day, national security is not an open book. It’s not an open book in the United Kingdom, it’s not an open book in France, in Italy, in Europe, elsewhere. National security is not an open book. And don’t mix what national security is and what politics is.

    FT: Well, let’s go even further back in history. In 1987, I think, at the second congress of the EPLF you agreed to introduce multi-party democracy. In 1997 the Constitution was ratified but it’s not yet been implemented. So, it seems there was a commitment.

    IA: Agreed with whom?

    FT: Among yourselves. Among the EPLF [guerrilla army] or…

    IA: It’s our own choice. We don’t agree with anyone.

    FT: No, but you seemed to be supporting democracy and elections then.

    IA: What is democracy?

    FT: Well, it can be multi-party elections.

    IA: That is something else. You talk about multi-party elections, you talk about democracy. You have your own definition of that.

    FT: So, what is the definition that you understand for democracy?

    IA: It’s participating in the life of the country.

    FT: But not through elections?

    IA: You may not like the result of the elections in Iran and you make a lot of noise about that but that’s for the Iranians to decide… In Europe you have standards, multiple standards, about democracy, about freedom of speech, about elections, about freedom of press but who can trust or believe what you say in Europe is democracy? The recent parliamentary elections in Europe were proof that people are not interested in politics. Do you know that in some countries in Europe only 18 per cent of the electorate participated? And 82 per cent are saying, we are not interested in politics. So, where is participation in politics?

    We need, first of all, to define what we mean by democracy, what we mean by elections, what we mean by participatory politics… The problems we see today happening in every corner of the world have been as a result of people who have tried to tell us what economics is all about, what participation in politics is all about, what democracy is all about, when it’s Madoffs, it’s corrupt officials here and there, when special interests have made life very difficult for people who talk about democracy … We believe we have to go through a process. We need to socially, economically transform societies, allow for participation of each and every citizen. We don’t have to allow division amongst ethnic, religious lines – what we see happening in so many parts of Africa. There is no democracy. There is no participatory politics that involves everybody. It’s more groups, even families sometimes, who manage countries like shops or supermarkets.

    FT: So, you say you are in the midst of a process. Is this process going to end up with some kind of multi-party system, with opposition allowed and elections?

    IA: It’s not a process that will end up… This is a process for generations to continue, yes. There is no political process that starts and ends somewhere. If you have that notion, then that’s a misguided thing because life continues, life perpetuates and generations come and go and definitely the political process goes indefinitely.

    FT: Let’s talk about national service, which is an important part of life in Eritrea today. Can you explain why national service is necessary for this country?

    IA: It’s necessary for every country.

    FT: But not every country has conscription.

    IA: It’s necessary for every country.

    FT: But not the mandatory national service.

    IA: You can imagine. It’s been there for, I don’t know, for more than a century now. When government and countries can afford it, they may have one form or another of national service… Every country has got its own preferences. We have gone through a very long war and we’ve, unfortunately, found ourselves trapped in so-called border conflict. We have our national security and we need to plan, like others, and we have to find an alternative for that. National service is not very unique. It’s not a problem in this country. It’s like every other place where you have national services under different names and different forms.

    FT: Well, you say it’s not a problem but there does seem to be some resentment over two things. One is that people receive very low salaries and, two, is that the national service can be indefinite. So, why the…?

    IA: It’s not indefinite. If the United States can deploy troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and those who served one year ago are again obliged to come and serve again, what do you call that?

    FT: No, but these people volunteer to join the army in the first place.

    IA: They never volunteered. No one volunteers. They were enticed. They were lured in in a very sophisticated manipulation and they suffer the consequences. I don’t want to talk about that. That’s a very long story. You tell me these are voluntary people. Do you know how people are recruited in the United States? Do you know the mechanism of manipulation that takes place there? Do you know the abuse that they have in recruiting people in the United States? Do you know that?

    FT: No.

    IA: This is a different story. We don’t mislead people. This is a duty for every citizen, every young citizen. As long as the threat remains, we need to be vigilant. That’s very natural. I have indicated earlier national security is not an open book. And you talk about salaries. This is a very, very, very broad issue. We talk about salaries in Europe, salaries in the United States, salaries in China – this is a different story. It has nothing to do with national service. National service, you are obliged to do service without any pay.

    FT: Do you think that’s fair?

    IA: It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. It was in Europe before Europe overcame the whole difficulty after the Second World War. You go into Germany, France, Italy, everywhere, and you know what was going on there and you cannot come now and prescribe something else for me when you have justified what you did 40, 50 years ago was right and you tell me now that was wrong. That’s not making any logical sense at all.

    FT: But it seems there are a lot of young people who don’t like the idea of doing national service.

    IA: Who likes the idea? Who likes the idea of doing service in the army?

    FT: Well, not many people.

    IA: Who likes the idea? Tell me. Who likes the idea? This is your duty. This is a duty imposed upon every citizen in spite of your liking or not liking. This is a duty… Every citizen of any country has a duty to perform. It’s one thing when the Prince of Wales or any other part of the United Kingdom participates in a service for his country. You would uphold that as something very holy. But when people are doing service in their own countries, like here in Eritrea, you think that is a curse. That’s not a curse. It’s a blessing to do your duty and everyone may not like it but it’s a duty for you and for everybody else in the country because equality is the basis of citizenship and everyone has an obligation and a duty to participate.

    FT: I’m interested in the difference in the minds of the generation of people who fought during the struggle, like you, and young people who were born at the end of the struggle. I mean, somebody born in 1991 is today 18 years old. The liberation fighters obviously have a lot of pride in everything you fought for. But for the young people, do you think they have the same passion for that cause?

    IA: Maybe more but in a different form. Everyone has pride. A human being, any human being anywhere has pride. It’s part of you. Generations come and go. Generations have their own culture, their own values, but definitely pride is one thing. It’s something 20, 30, 40 years ago; it’s a different thing today, but it’s still there.

    FT: What about the willingness to sacrifice? Because the struggle was all about sacrifice but now Eritrea has won freedom. Do you think the young people are still ready to sacrifice?

    IA: Now, look, sacrifice is part of the value and the psyche of the human being. You want to make money? You want to accumulate capital? You will have to forego some of the benefits you think are immediate for you now. Sacrifice is not something you do for free. It is something you do for something else … But to think getting this generation back 40 years and trying to expect them to fight for history, what does that mean? You don’t fight for history. You fight for the future and any sacrifice, you do it for the future. So, I don’t see anything unique for this generation or the generation that is going to come after that. They will have to do their own sacrifices and what provokes sacrifices is the challenges that face communities and human beings.

    FT: There are some young people who don’t want to sacrifice for a future in Eritrea and they’re leaving the country, often illegally.

    IA: Not at all. This is part of the human trafficking and organised international crime. This is a different story.

    FT: Who is organising this?

    IA: There’s organised mafia everywhere – within the country, in Sudan, in the neighbouring countries, in Europe – who are making money out of this business. How do they do it? They will have to make something in the future somewhere very attractive and they will have to organise the ways of taking these people somewhere else. Say, for example, they will say “Oh, Europe is heaven. You can go to Italy, you can go Turkey, you can go to Israel, you can go to the United Kingdom and life is better there. You can clothe better, you can eat better, you can have a better shelter, you can wash dishes but you can make more money than serving the country under the national service and I can organise a trip for you, a vacation.” He will organise for these people to secretly move out of this country, go to Sudan… They will take them to Egypt, to Libya, to Israel and from there they take them to Europe. They end up in concentration camps. That heaven is a concentration camp.

    FT: You mean the refugee reception areas.

    IA: They’re concentration camps. And these people ended up in these concentration camps because they were told that this is heaven and they can go there and make a better living rather than live in this country without salary, with no future, as far as they are told. Where do you end up? You end up in a situation where your future is destroyed. If you are 20 now and if you can live 80 years, 60 years of your life is destroyed because of this organised crime of human trafficking. And this is obvious. Everybody knows it. It’s no secret anymore. And it’s very sad that these young people end up there. And the excuse always is, oh, why do national service. You can go to anywhere in Europe or the United States. You can live there. We can facilitate that. We can prepare documents for your travel.

    FT: Let’s talk about the economy. We’ve mentioned the financial meltdown, the global recession. How is this affecting the economy of Eritrea?

    IA: Not at all. It’s not affecting us. I mean, it’s not affecting us in a big way. Why? Because we’ve been very serious about our economy from day one and we have not been living on handouts. In spite of the limited resources we have in this country, we have appreciated that our human resources are our human capital. Investing in people means allowing them to produce something… I’m not saying this is heaven. I’m not saying everything has been resolved but, again, we have been focused on the real things we need to do. With meagre resources, you need to sustain the difficulties and hardships and overcome that by working and producing.

    Now, we have invested heavily in public programmes, infrastructure. We still have a long way to go. But without putting that in place, it’s going to be difficult to talk about any growth in any economy. And we’ve been sacrificing to do that, sacrificing and sacrificing and sacrificing so we put in place an environment that is viable for future growth of this economy… I don’t think we have committed any mistake. In fact, now, in hindsight, I can say we took the precautions at the right moment. It does not imply that we have found a solution or a panacea for all the problems. We have not committed mistakes that would lead to a serious challenge, given the current financial meltdown or economic crisis globally. We’ve been able to sustain it by maintaining an economy that feeds the realities of the day. We have not exaggerated the expenses of the government. We have been very austere economically in our dealings. We have focused on serious economic programmes. We may not have gone a long, long way but we have created a situation where we can easily sustain shocks and challenges that may come as a result of global and regional change.

    FT: Now, you mentioned as part of this people are making sacrifices and, again, I’ve heard that there are hunger problems in different parts of the country, people not having enough to eat.

    IA: Not hunger problems, no. One thing in this country is you don’t have someone with a full belly and someone else hungry. We don’t… I mean, distribution is one of the basics in our economics. The limited resources will have to be distributed in a manner that is equitable. You may sound to be very egalitarian when you say that but that’s not egalitarian, it’s reality… Yes, some areas have been producing surplus, some have been self-sufficient, other areas have not been able to produce… Nomads are the ones who are easily affected because they are not producing food, they are living on livestock and livestock are affected by drought and other natural circumstances. When they cannot afford to sell their livestock and buy food or a substitute for what they need, definitely you will have to have a mechanism for distributing and that’s what we have learnt.

    FT: But I’ve spoken to people who say they have relatives in rural areas who are struggling to feed themselves.

    IA: You will have to go and see that. People can tell you stories. I have heard a number of things in this town but it’s not true at all because there is a distribution mechanism, a distribution mechanism that does not allow for famine. Hunger may be there as a phenomenon at different seasons of the year in different parts of the country, but we have an almost efficient means of distribution. We cannot allow for people to die of famine in this country when we can afford to have three meals a day in some parts of the country. That’s not at all the case. Yes, food may not be available in abundance everywhere. I don’t pretend to say that but, again, we have to be able to distribute what is available to those who need it and we have been very good at doing that and that’s been one aspect of our success story and the economy. This is not big economics we’re talking about. It’s small economics but managed well.

    FT: And let’s talk, again, about the global recession because one of the big sources of income for Eritrea is remittances from the diaspora and in Kenya and in Senegal and in Zimbabwe, which also depend on remittances, the amount of money has been falling because the Kenyans and the Senegalese and the Zimbabweans overseas have been losing their jobs. Are you seeing a fall in remittances here from Eritreans living overseas?

    IA: Yes and no. That’s one issue which is part of the economies of so many developing countries and it depends on the attitude or the responsibility of individuals. In some cases remittances are not even there. People migrate to places in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Canada, any other place in the world, but they don’t send back money… I wouldn’t disagree with someone who wants to go somewhere and find a job and make money and come back here to support family or even start a good, new life. That would be sensible. [But in] the circumstances now, it’s doing a lot of damage to individuals who are going there not finding jobs. Even those who have been there before them don’t have jobs. They’re laid off. They can’t find jobs. So, that’s a bad thing. That’s one negative effect of the global financial meltdown… It has affected our diaspora in a very bad way… We’ve been encouraging people outside [to] work hard, focus on savings, don’t spend a lot of money luxuriously, collect money and look towards a future and try to have a home, try to have a good place to live in ultimately We are looking for alternative solutions to the challenges people face in the diaspora, given the global economic crisis.

    FT: Now, Eritrea’s never had a lot of foreign exchange of dollars and the Diaspora’s been one source of that but the shortage has caused a lot of shortages of materials in this country. That’s why the Coca-Cola factory closed down, I think. That’s why beer production every now and again stops. How do you manage with such a…?

    IA: There is no abundance of foreign exchange anywhere [in the developing world] but the issue is how do you manage foreign exchange. You need to have priorities, priorities for long-term plans, for medium-term plans. Short-term is consumption, consumption meaning you can spend foreign exchange on something that you need today and that would sacrifice the long-term programmes that would have a sustainable impact on the growth of your economy. You’ll have to make a choice. That’s where we have been on the right track. We have focussed on infrastructure, for example. I would say the whole population will have to sacrifice a breakfast, for example, and you can use that saving for putting in place a road anywhere which will enable communities to use that road for producing and doing trade and business in their own neighbourhood.

    FT: So, breakfast for a road.

    IA: Name it. You have to do something for the long-term and there has to be a balance on what you do today and what you consume today and what you save for tomorrow and for the day after. You need to be very careful on that … It’s not an individual sacrifice but it is sacrifice at a national level.

    I want to put in place roads, clean water, schools, health services, electricity, communications. These are basics. If you postpone to do them today, you will never be able to do them any time in the future. To do them today for the long and medium-term, you will have to sacrifice what you need today and that’s a very simple logic. So, yes, foreign exchange may be scarce, may be limited, but the question is how do you manage that resource available to you.

    FT: But one of the biggest [targets] of foreign exchange spending is the military. Is that correct?

    IA: Not at all. Why would you say that?

    FT: Well, as you say, you’ve still got the border issue with Ethiopia. There’s still a threat there. That’s why national service is important.

    IA: Not at all. It’s a matter of contingency for us… We decided early on not to be held hostage to this reality. Yes, we have a contingency. We would like to be vigilant all along, we’d like to be prepared all along but we shouldn’t be held hostage, meaning our human capacity will have to be engaged on some other productive activity. That’s where the army and national service are being engaged in productive activities. If you see what has been achieved in the last ten years in any aspect of developmental programmes – infrastructure, agriculture, agricultural production, fisheries – it’s all done by these young people who may not like it, may have other alternatives had circumstances been completely different but, again, their contribution has been tremendous. We could have done better without this conflict. We could have done better without this psyche of having a conflict that is not resolved, being prepared for any eventuality. That limits your resources but, again, you don’t have any other choice. The best choice for you is to not be held fully hostage to this circumstance and find other productive activities that will ultimately benefit the whole population.

    FT: But my point was just that you need dollars to buy tanks, to buy weapons.

    IA: Not at all, no.

    FT: Well, you have to buy them from Ukraine or Belarus or…

    IA: No. It’s a misconception… It’s not missiles, it’s not heavy tanks, it’s not heavy artillery that does the job. And for us to seriously consider an option, a contingency, for self-defence we’ll have to think in a different manner. It’s not tanks, it’s not missiles, it’s not sophisticated weapons that make the difference in any military or conflict situation. I say this [after] very long experience. Yes, it may be useful to have tanks, artillery. [But] they’re not at all 100 per cent useful compared to other options. So, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on heavy artillery. Napoleon has said two-thirds or maybe three-quarters of any battle is morals.

    FT: Okay. Now, on economic management, it seems that in the last few years the party has been increasing its involvement in the economy – withdrawing some business licenses, taking control of construction companies, for example. Why is that?

    IA: It’s transitional… It’s a matter of efficient use of resources and efficient use of time… Under the circumstance where the economy is underdeveloped, where you don’t even have the kind of businesses that would assume the responsibility of putting in place programmes in a number of sectors then the government will have to intervene. And this is transitional. It’s a necessity. It’s not part of a long-term policy. Governments have a job to put in place an environment that is conducive for investment, putting in place an environment conducive for investment means roads, electricity, water supply, telecommunications and that’s not an easy task and you cannot do it in a disintegrated manner… No private sector can do a charity job by putting in place a road or an infrastructure programme here and there… How was Europe rebuilt after the destruction of the second world war? How much sacrifice, how much control of government was there and how was it possible for those economies to arrive at where they are now? You can’t do miracles.

    FT: So, I understand the logic of creating public construction companies, for example, to build roads, but why at the same time would you withdraw the licences from the private companies?

    IA: There are no licences withdrawn from private companies.

    FT: But now there are no private construction companies.

    IA: They’re out of business… They don’t have the capacity. There is no capacity … Any individual can come and tell you: ‘Well, I’ll do this.’ No. How can you possibly do it? Do you have the equipment? Do you have the money? Do you have the human resource? How can you possibly put in place a huge project with a limited amount of money?

    For the transition there is no other alternative except for the government to assume responsibility to put in place … What we see now happening in Europe and the United States is trying to reverse the process. Where government should have been there to regulate and control and private companies come and do the job, the lopsided relationship has created this problem we see now and governments are obliged now to intervene.

    FT: But you’re not trying to create a Soviet Union style command economy, or are you?

    IA: We have never had any illusions about that kind of economy. We have lived that experience when we were deep in the struggle.

    FT: Right. The Mengistu struggle.

    IA: Not Mengistu. Mengistu didn’t represent anything but I remember the political programme for the EPLF, now the PFDJ, was clearly defined as mixed economy … It’s a realistic way of managing an economy and I don’t think we have at any point in time tried to emulate any experience. I mean, your own unique realities will have to be appreciated seriously and you tailor a programme that suits or fits your own reality. Copying examples from outside or having stereotypes is not always a solution.

    FT: Let’s talk a little bit about NGOs and the UN. I think at the high point there were maybe 40 or 42 NGOs in the country. Most of them have now either left or felt driven out and, similarly, UN agencies are under very tight restrictions here. Why do you have this tough attitude?

    IA: It’s one of the phenomena that has damaged economies of developing countries. I mean, it’s unfortunate that this phenomenon mushroomed in a very short period of time without anyone taking it seriously and checking on what this phenomenon means to developing countries. You can find books everywhere now talking about this problem. A more recent book is [Dambisa] Moyo’s.

    FT: Dead Aid, yes.

    IA: We simply asked questions about the validity and viability of NGOs in developing countries. Is it doing any benefit? Ultimately we arrived at the conclusion, which is now appreciated by everybody, it’s very crippling. It may have started as a good intention on the part of some individuals and groups in Europe who wanted to help needy people but gradually it was transformed into monsters or institutions that could be considered monsters. The people employed, the money wasted, the opportunity lost in terms of creating viable institutions of government in developing countries is huge… It’s not something emotional. It’s not liking or hating individuals or it’s not a matter of liking or not liking NGOs… If you have these institutions, you will never be able to put in place viable institutions of government because they will substitute everything. The money wasted by these organisations is in billions, if not in trillions… These institutions have developed to be institutions without any accountability and transparency and whenever you try to ask for accountability and transparency, you are demonised as someone who is against NGOs or humanitarian support. No. I think now people are sober enough to seriously consider this matter.

    I’m glad this time that people are realising that even those countries who’ve been categorised as donors are now reconsidering the policy of providing aid and even using NGOs as a means of implementing programmes. Economic and developmental programmes could be implemented in a different fashion and we don’t need to continue depending or even give more legitimacy to these institutions of non-government organisations to be an obstacle in the two-way relationship of trade and investment between the developed world and the developing countries.

    FT: And what about the United Nations, which is an organisation of government, it’s not an NGO?

    IA: Even some NGOs are better than UN agencies. I can tell you one thing, one very simple example… We had peacekeepers here. For how many years I don’t know. Their annual budget was $200m. They stayed here for more than five years. They may have had a budget of more than $1bn. Where this money has gone nobody knows. Now, when they had to terminate their operations here, we discovered things that we suspected all along. We were asked to take garbage of all the resources that were used by them. They took what they wanted to take. They sold some of the equipment. Where, no one knows. How much they sold it for no one knows. Now, can you imagine almost 5,000 people sitting here in this country as if they were tourists, enjoying life, not even doing anything risky for them with $200m per year and no one knows where this money has gone… Their expenses are to me not only a wastage but an embezzlement and there is no mechanism for checks and balances to guarantee accountability and transparency.

    FT: Now my final question, a two-part question. How would you, firstly, describe your own style of leadership and, secondly, are there any other leaders in other parts of the world who you particularly admire?

    IA: My style is very simple. I say simple and direct, inexpensive and efficient… I can see many [other world leaders] could have done their job better under their own circumstances, given their own unique realities, and I don’t think it’s easy to compare different realities.. There are shortcomings and failures here or there. What you need to do is benefit and learn from the good of everybody else… Most of the times you would like to see what these developed economies have done. You don’t go and look for similarities with those who are like you. I don’t think that’s the best way of learning. What you need to learn is how others have been able to do what they have done to change the quality of life of their own people. You may not have the resources, you may not have the time, you may not even be able to emulate them but at least you learnt something and you tried to do it by relating it to your own unique circumstances.

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    Comment by eritrearealclearpolitics — September 19, 2009 @ 1:32 pm | Reply


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