Interview with President Isaias Afwerki

Articles - General
  • Part v & Final: domestic Issues

It is to be remembered that on 7 and 9 February 2020, National media outlets, Eri- Tv and Dimtsi Hafash Radio Programme, have conducted exclusive interview with His Excellency President Isaias Afwerki on range of subjects focusing both on regional and domestic issues. Excerpts of the fifth and final part of the interview on domestic issues follow:

 

  • Mr. President, in light of the developments in relation to the prevailing peace in the region, what are the plans charted out regarding the regional partnership in development programs, foreign investments and the encouragement of local investors?

Our view of investment is comprehensive. Investment does not mean the arrival of an investor carrying his bag of money. The real investor is that farmer who seeks here and there to market his products from crops and livestock. It is this that revives the economy and helps accumulate wealth. If it provides an appropriate environment for this activity, this means that there is an appropriate environment for investment. But to achieve this reality, what should be done? Here it is necessary to refer to the national programs. If you are seeking to create a suitable atmosphere for the promotion of development, you must look at the condition of your infrastructure -- asphalted roads, railways and others. I mean, what is the status and reality of the infrastructure components that help to push any economic activity? What are the costs required for structural projects? If there are impassable methods, we can move as easily as we want, and we can produce more with lower costs. In the event that such opportunities are available to most of the people of the country, the total return on benefits to the national economy will be very large. I mean, the investors must find, whether it is from the inside or provided from the outside, the foundations of qualified infrastructures that enable them to perform their duties comfortably.

If we take electricity, for example, the power plants in Hirgigo and other sites have not been able to provide the required services. Therefore, a fundamental solution to the energy problem must be found, and the electricity services must be integrated so that investors can work without obstacles. At the same time, the cost of energy services needs to be appropriate. Energy should be made available everywhere, whatever the source of energy. The same applies to land, sea and air transportation as well. This is how you create the right atmosphere for investment.

Education and health services are among the most important factors for economic growth and development. You may have money or natural resources, but skills and capabilities are the most important. An investor requires skilled professional capabilities to accomplish his project, especially in an era that requires technical know-how.

If we asked about the level we have reached in the field of vocational training so far, then most of our programs that were not profitable are our educational programs. Every year, more than 10,000 students complete their secondary school education, and we wonder what these young people have achieved. We must change our educational system from ground up as it is related to our development. The number of those who go to college does not exceed 15%, so where do the rest go? What can a high school graduate do after 12 years of education? We can attract investment and the ability to accumulate wealth, but we must work hard to enhance our human capital, which is the basis for ensuring sustainable development. Thus, it is important to create an appropriate environment for investment.

Of course, it is not possible to compare our economic standards with the major industrial countries. If the industrialized countries are the standard of technical development, then we must create economies that are more industrialized, and in order to achieve this we must fully meet the requirements of development.

There is no difference between a foreign investor and a domestic investor. No investment can be underestimated. A small project for livestock farmers in the villages may have a good contribution to the economy. The important thing is to create appropriate conditions for this situation.

The current challenges and obstacles facing us in our development efforts are not few. The economic war that was waged against us for 20 years to prevent us from developing our infrastructure and economic capabilities was more powerful than direct military aggression. What did countries do when the dispute occurred between us and Ethiopia, which was a source of happiness for them? They want us to live in this state of hostility forever, fall behind in development and fail to compete. They have no desire to see a joint action to achieve development. In such a situation, you cannot accomplish any project, build roads and airports, or exploit your marine resources. What they want is for other countries to advance and for us to wait at the bottom. You must be disabled and paralyzed so that you cannot catch up with them. In such a situation, I remember Britain’s actions in Eritrea in the past. The economic development in this country was big and unparalleled in the region. A railway was established and we had cable cars. We had an active port in Massawa, which was known as the Pearl of the Red Sea. The first thing that the British did to ensure that this country could not rely on itself to survive was to attack the economy of the country until it collapsed. After that, wars came, and there is no room for reconstruction under the weight of war. We missed many opportunities. These events did not happen by coincidence, but were deliberate because economic war is worse than military war.

The story is still continuing today. There are obstacles facing us. We cannot pave roads and implement energy and other development projects. This means that this matter is not new; it is a continuation. Of course, it is not something that terrifies us and affects our morale. In fact, we are working and we are aware of its existence. So we continue on our path, and in this context our products should be distinct and able to compete in the local and global markets.

The priority in investment is our people. We must create an appropriate environment for development in any location, on the shores of the sea, with our marine resources, or in the field of agriculture, including livestock, or other natural resources, especially mining. Our focus is to strengthen our people’s capabilities to produce. In the same way, we need to create a suitable atmosphere for Eritreans in the diaspora to provide them ample opportunities in any field they wish to invest in.

There is no difference between foreign and domestic investments. If we look at the textile factories in our country in the past, we know the manufacturing industries had been very well established. There was cotton plantation in Aligidir and other areas. The cotton was processed and turned into garments at manufacturing plants. The added value made manufacturing profitable and helped create many job.

The leather manufacturing factories that functioned well in the past do not exist anymore. There is not much to talk about the best shoes that were once made here. And exporting leather as a raw material is not profitable. What must be done is building solid economic foundations for better and more valuable production, with fewer expenditures, and job opportunities for the largest number of people.

What we are witnessing today are obstacles aimed at stopping the growth of our economy and the development of our nation so that we can fall into the arms of charitable organizations. We are not facing these challenges alone.

There are other peoples who also live in the same atmosphere and suffer from this reality. If we are to get out of this cycle, we should do more to improve our economy and encourage foreign investment. For example, when investors asked to buy Ex-Baratollo Textile Factory, a committee was set up to assess the factory. But, what is better for us -- the millions that we get from selling the factory or rehabilitating the factory? And if it is to be sold, the investor should work to modernize the factory through advanced technology, by giving training to the work force, and by improving the quality and quantity of production.

The glass factory in Asmara was unparalleled in the region in the past, but today it does not exist. Today, we produce gold, but we sell raw materials that have not been refined. It is not possible to run an economy this way. So in order for us to strengthen all productive institutions and take advantage of our competitive advantages, our ultimate goal should be to raise the level of the economy. The issue is not whether the investor is local or a foreigner. As is known many factories were privatized in the early nineties, but there hasn’t been any change. What is most important is producing premium products to be sold at low prices so that they can compete in the world market. We need to create a suitable atmosphere for this to happen.

  • Your Excellency, in the speech you delivered on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of Eritrea’s independence, you mentioned 11 points that focused on development programs that would be implemented, including social services, infrastructure, industries, housing projects, and others. What are the programs that we can start working on this year?

These programs will be implemented using not only local resources but require regional collaboration. Joint action helps to produce good results and tangible development quickly. I am not certain that we have overcome all challenges. But we must work hard to enable the ports to become fully operational, not only for Ethiopia, but also to make good use of the available opportunities. As we are a maritime country, in addition to strengthening the ports we should also benefit from the international waterway. We also have to work on medium and large scale infrastructure to take advantage of our long coastline, including Assab, Barasole, Edi, Tio, Beilul and Zula as well as other areas in the northern coastal region. But before doing anything else, let’s start by activating the operation of the two main ports.

We have designed a development plan regarding the port of Massawa, but we are not in a hurry to implement it at the present time. We have to start with the first stage, which is its rehabilitation. The second stage relates to developing the port so that it can provide better services. The third stage includes the port’s expansion. The port can be expanded by 20 kilometers from the north side as well as the southern side, and we will start this with our local capabilities or take advantage of external loans, if necessary. We are also making efforts targeting the port of Assab. We have developed a road map aimed at developing and expanding the port, but it is better to start with what is available.

As for the fisheries industry, preliminary studies do confirm that we have stored marine wealth estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000 or 120,000 tons, but what percentage have we harnessed in the past. The rate does not exceed 10,000 tons. Are there any reasons to justify this? We must establish the infrastructure. We built jetties in Edi, Tio, and other areas. Despite the provision of facilities, such as refrigerators, in these jetties, they were not utilized at full capacity. So we have to establish all the requirements needed to start benefiting from the marine industry. We have to create roads linked to the beaches from the southern and northern sides.

The total amount of raw materials at the Gedem cement factory does not exceed 30 million tons, and the raw materials for the cement industry in Tio are estimated at 100 million tons. The development of this factory meets local as well as export needs. We also have potash resources at Colluli although production has not yet begun. But starting production requires the provision of electricity, water and transport. We are well placed to identify those plans for the management this year.

The Massawa - Dekemhare - Serha - Zalambesa road is being rehabilitated. The road needs to be expanded and bridges of various sizes need to be built heavy machinery and more manpower.

The “Ring Road” that connects Asmara-Adi-Guadad-Dekemhare and Mendefera is under construction. And the construction of the Adi- Guadad - Mensurea -Akordet - Omhajer road will start this year.

As for the energy sector, we will upgrade Assab electric supply by 30 megawatts, Massawa by 20 megawatts and Asmara by 10 megawatts. All in all, there will be an addition of 60 megawatts and this will be gradually upgraded to 120 megawatts and then to 240 megawatts.

And in terms of transportation services such as cable cars and other means of transportation, we are working to complete studies which will help us to have a clear picture. I do not think that there are any obstacles that can impede the completion of the task.

Water is the most crucial thing because we cannot accomplish any task without preserving sufficient water. So, we will continue to construct small, medium and large dams. Nothing can be carried out without performing these tasks. We are not in a hurry to work on “White Elephant” projects. Instead, we have to work on development projects that progress at a steady pace. To do this successfully, we have to secure our human resources, raw materials, heavy machinery and other equipment and then proceed with the implementation of the projects..

As for the mining sector, we are still working hard. Generally, we do not just talk about our programs in the new era of development of peace and partnership. We must try to understand the joint work that is going on between Eritrea and Ethiopia. How do we connect roads and railway networks between the two countries? We can also implement this jointly with our Gulf partners. Likewise, these actions can be carried out with Sudan. You can start the journey alone but we would like to succeed jointly with our partners. However, there are many forces that work hard to block these joint actions, especially with Ethiopia. So, we take into account these obstacles in the context of our development undertakings and design practical strategies. Before talking on the media or conducting public relations campaigns, we have to learn about how to connect roads and railways that benefit everyone. All of these programs will start in 2020 if preparations are completed, and if not they will start in 2021.

  • Your Excellency, for 20 years we went through a difficult stage to protect our sovereignty, and we finally won because of our determination. What is your message to the Eritrean people, especially the youth, at this stage?

We do not distinguish between age groups. During the past two or three years we have carried out successful evaluation projects. We planned for zero wastage of human resources. The youth, and generally all citizens, should make good use of their time, without wasting time on what is not beneficial. Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in our academic programs as we should have.

We have to organize effective vocational training courses, and these only succeed with the empowerment of human capabilities and accumulated experiences. All people, especially the young, must be involved. Every young person must acquire a profession.

We have introduced vocational training program at SAWA, and the established training schools have accomplished a lot. But we should not be complacent. The potential of young people must be strengthened, and we must employ those capabilities in the required programs. Whatever technology and equipment we have, we must provide effective human power and this is a major priority.

Our educational programs, from preschool all the way to higher education, need to be reviewed. Of course, no one expects this to be accomplished in just a year or two. We understand the need for strengthening human power, but the question here is not about how the programs are completed on paper. The issue lies in identifying the human resources before everything. We really worked hard and we have tried some programs. We are still working to empower citizens through training programs offered locally and abroad. Despite this, it has not progressed as it should. The need for skilled human power is now considered essential, especially for the youth. Some programs have started and some are under study. We do not want young people to waste their time. It is necessary to provide the youth with training programs to develop a qualified workforce.