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Our mantra: “The dog barks but the camel treads on… We will continue on the same mode”, President Isaias

President Isaias Afwerki gave a live Radio and TV interview to national media outlets on the 22nd and 23rd of January 2016 on a wide range of domestic and regional issues. Excerpts of the Interview, (last part), follows:


Q. Internationalization of domestic affairs of States has virtually become a common occurrence. Direct military intervention under the umbrella of the UN or through the establishment of “coalitions”; these are often spearheaded by the major powers. How do we see the legitimacy or rationale of these trends in terms of fundamental pillars of international law?

President Isaias: The developments that have unfolded in the past twenty five years and the various mechanisms set in motion are our reference points for analysis of this phenomenon. In this respect, it is clear that domination of regional and international organizations has been one of the key tools employed by the protagonists of a uni-polar world order. The delineation of zones and spheres of influence, the associated designation of Anchor States is part and parcel of this configuration. Within this scheme, Africa has been divided into four sub-zones with four “Anchor States”. Similar proxy security architectures exist for Asia and other continents. The strategy also encompasses cultivation of influence and leverage of various international and multi-lateral institutions – UN, the Security Council, the World Bank, IMF etc. This is discernible even at the level of corporate priorities, guiding principles, managerial and other senior staff allocations, as well as other affiliations and networks that regulate the operations of these institutions.

Let us look now at the separate events. Sadam’s misguided policies against Iran (in the 1980s) could perhaps be explained in terms of regional power rivalry. The invasion of Kuwait and the conflagration that ensued was utterly unwarranted and a perilous act of folly. Still, the invasion of Iraq under the false pretexts of possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Colin Powell flaunted at the time and accusations of Iraq’s alliance with Al-Qaeda were not tenable as it is well-known today. The war that the US and the UK launched without a supporting UN resolution can only be seen as a violation of international law.

The military intervention in Libya under the pretext of protecting civilians is another recent episode. The issue is not whether Gadafi’s leadership was in tune with the hearts and aspirations of the Libyan people. This is a matter that concerns the sovereign people of Libya alone. But a resolution was passed in the UN that allowed the invasion to take place. Many of the countries – big and small – that originally supported the launching of the attack have expressed regrets subsequently.

International law must conform with and uphold the respect of the sovereign rights of countries and peoples. And, the sovereign rights of States and peoples comprise the territorial integrity, independence of the countries and unity of the peoples concerned.

The events associated with the “Arab Spring”; what transpired prior to these events as well as its sequel, fall into the same pattern. In a nutshell, respect of international law has been corroded for the most part of the past twenty five years of dominant uni-polar world order. Indeed, we have seen selectivity where international law is invoked when suitable and discarded in other instances. This is the reason why there are growing calls and consensus for the reform of the UN structure at the global level. The UN’s structure needs to be rectified so as to meet and be responsive to the demands of 21st century; to promote and secure remedial and effective solutions to numerous regional and global problems.

We can also discuss about the former Organization of African Unity (OAU) that has become the African Union (AU) today. There are numerous regional and sub-regional organizations. All these organizations are virtually subordinated to the dominant and hegemonic power. Therefore, apart from the domestic issues of concern, the global order needs to be restructured anew if change is to occur. Huntington (writer of “The end of History”), Fukuyama (writer of Clash of Civilizations”) and other philosophers had advanced, in their extensive writings, conjectures and postulations to convince us that the uni-polar world order is unassailable and here to stay. But, what is the reality on the ground today? Were the predictions right? The unilateral world order is in a process of transformation. The influence of the dominant power is waning, so to speak. The multinational corporations too do not have the presumed capabilities. The world is indeed changing. But, why is this happening? It is due to the prevalence of growing opposition, from different regions, against the violation of rule of law and against domination.

Another lamentable trend that elicits attention is the failure of conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms and missions. We can talk about Libya and other current events. More than often, the focus is on personal monetary gains and other narrow interests. And instead of resolving the underlying causes, the task becomes escalation and complication of the situation. Again, this trend underscores lack of effectiveness of the international organizations. All these flaws highlight the need for change. But above all, the economic and political dominance of the uni-polar global order has been gradually weakening in the past twenty five years. As it is adept in crisis or chaos management, it may have succeeded so far to dampen the momentum of change. In any case, we cannot say that there are effective global institutions today that can resolve conflicts and upheavals or address chronic problems that people all over face. Likewise, there is no respect for international law. The latter is often breached by instrumentalising international and regional institutions.

Question: External interventions often fuel political and security problems and preclude economic integration and concerted development efforts in our region. What are the prospects for reversing this trend to restore normalcy in the short term?

President Isaias: It will not be fair to attribute these problems fully to external dominant powers. The indelible fact is there are local satellite forces who pin their political survival on external support. These are the main culprits. In this respect, we can examine the dynamics of external intervention in Africa. In our case, for instance, we can look at the genesis of the border war with Ethiopia. The TPLF regime had made its own choices. To control Ethiopia, it pursued policies of sowing internal division and economic dominance. The TPLF felt that these policy objectives cannot be realized without alliance with and subservience to a big power. And in this big scheme, Eritrea had to be victimized. The border war was thus launched to serve these purposes while comprising the friendship and common interests of the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

A peace keeping force was deployed in Eritrea after the war and in accordance with the peace agreement. The five-thousand strong mission (UNMEE) stayed in our country for five years. The annual budget was about two hundred thousand US dollars; thus the aggregate expenditure was around one billion US dollars. The litany of complications and problems that ensued were countless. In the event, we were compelled to seek and ask for UNMEE’s departure. We have documented cases that have not been divulged to the public. In brief, once deployed, these missions have no intentions to finish their task and leave. Their presence is tantamount to control of the country by proxy. The external powers that control the mission literally administer the country’s affairs through this entity. We see the same pattern in the Sudan. Our interest is to see durable peace and stability in the Sudan. The interests of the Sudan and the region will not be served by perpetual conflict and turmoil. Unfortunately, we see the same complications in the deployment of the AU peace-keeping mission in Darfur. The issue is not the capacity or resources of the AU. The original AU peace-keeping mission was in fact reinforced by a hybrid AU-UN force of 25-27,000 troops. You can extrapolate and compute the annual expenditure for the maintenance of this force from the figures I cited earlier for for UNMEE. And what has this big force achieved in these past years? The pattern is the same. If a conflict erupts in Africa, it has to be managed, with all the attendant complications, by external powers. These conflicts simmer on and continue without tangible and durable solutions. This is also true elsewhere in the world. The deployment of peacekeeping missions becomes an end in itself to provide an institutional umbrella for continued control of these countries.

Question: So, how will this bleak pattern change?

President Isaias: We need to take note of the cumulative and increasing resistance against the prevailing practices. These days, virtually all Member States are raising the issue of UN reform in the September annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. There are no countries that openly “oppose” the call for reform although they may resort to various under-handed means to derail the process. There are permanent and non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. This has to change. The fundamental tenets of the UN Charter may not change, but it is vital that create a robust international organization that can address the challenges of the 21st century and the problems that crop up in various parts of our globe.

The principal players – the US, the UK and France – may not be comfortable with the envisaged changes. Certain countries seem also to be pushing for gaining a permanent seat in the UN Security Council on the basis of the criterion of size, influence etc; or those who wish to represent Africa, instead of advocating for substantive changes. But all in all, change is bound to happen as the aspirations for global peace and stability is growing and gathering momentum with time.

Q. How is Eritrea’s regional strategy of “safe neighbourhood assessed against the backdrop of the prevailing global reality?

President Isaias: There are fundamental pillars and principles that define our foreign policy. Our national security interests are intertwined with and cannot be seen in isolation from the realities/events in our region.

From the perspectives of geography, our neighbourhood consists of four interlocking components. Our policy approach in terns if how we interact for concerted solutions to the problems that crop up or may arise in these areas was articulated immediately after our independence. The linchpin of this policy is that problems that arise in the region must be solved through local efforts; without relegating the task to the UN, OAU or other external forces. There were many initiatives then to bring together the Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda in the Horn of Africa. The concept of the “Greater Horn” was also contemplated to add Rwanda and other countries into the grouping. IGAD was subsequently revitalized with an extended mandate. The positive winds of change brought about by the independence of Eritrea, related changes in Ethiopia and the prevailing presumption then of the advent of global peace, had given us all hope of a new environment that was conducive to cooperation and growth in our neighbourhood. Unfortunately, these hopes and expectations were soon aborted.

The negative developments that have transpired in the past years cannot, however, diminish the validity and relevance of our foreign policy principles and objectives. There is no alternative to the mechanisms and ideals of regional cooperation that we all have to cultivate. The issue is not why and how previous programmes of cooperation were obstructed and failed. As I stated earlier, our foreign policy has not changed. Countries in the Red Sea require to foster ties of cooperation of the neighbourhood.

Similarly, the countries in the Horn of Africa and Nile Basin require to cultivate regional cooperation ties that promote their shared geographical, economic, security and cultural interests. In the Middle East, we can envisage cooperation ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The different geographical components have their own specific realities but the linkages and complementarities are obvious. This is not a matter of choice as it is determined by geography and location. Failure to cultivate these ties will only create a vacuum and vulnerability to external interests and agendas with the associated chaos that we have witnessed. We are also mindful of forces that aspire for “regional hegemony’ and that stoke instability by exploiting local fault lines or through alliance with external powers. In the event, our foreign policy must take into account all these factors. It should not vacillate in a rudder-less fashion but must be formulated with far-sightedness and with a long-term perspective. Of course, we cannot say that we should not discard what is innately unworkable in view of our negative experiences in the past years. For this continuous review and assessments are vital. Our stance on cooperation against terrorism and other negative trends in our region remain solidly in place.

Q. Mr. President, the issue of the Nile River and the Millennium Dam that is being built by Ethiopia may also have ramifications to regional stability. In the last few weeks, there were meetings between Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt regarding the technical modalities (agreements) associated with the ongoing construction of the dam. What are the points of controversy in regard to the Milleneum Dam?

President Isaias: This is one of our neighborhoods that I described earlier in discussing our regional policy. In this case, it is unfortunate that there are tendencies to overlook the main issues and dwell on peripheral matters instead. These may have been conveniently couched in technical terms. But those are not the real problem. Historically, various Ethiopian regimes have used the Nile as a political instrument. Generally, the geopolitical issues associated with the Nile River are controversial. The geopolitics of the Nile has remained controversial for a long time. Mengistu’s regime portrayed Eritrea as “an appendage and instrument of the Arabs” and was brandishing the Nile River as a countervailing force to the “oil of the Arabs”. Shortly after independence, Prime Minister Melles raised the issue of the Nile River with senior Egyptian authorities on the margins of the OAU Summit in Cairo that Eritrea also attended for the first time. We had misgivings about the purpose and timing of raising the matter when the Prime Minister consulted us in advance since we were working and cooperating closely on a variety of regional issues. At the time, there were widespread rumours that Egypt was diverting the Nile River to sell water to Israel; that a new canal was being built through Suez Canal and the Sinai to Israel…”. Melles was furious after his meeting with Omar Suleiman, whose response was apparently “condescending”, and vowed that he will “make them buckle under one day”. So the Millenium Dam under construction has historical baggage that goes back to those days and perhaps earlier times.

We can also relate our own experience. We initiated a project for the mutual use of the Setiti River. A feasibility study was subsequently conducted. Later they abandoned the project and went their own way. That choice was not made on the basis of sound project appraisal but for ulterior reasons.

To come back to the Nile issue, our views are not influenced by the current conflict or severed ties we have with the TPLF regime. We also recognize that both the Sudan and Egypt may adopt their respective sovereign positions on the matter. We can never say that the people of Ethiopia should not benefit from the Nile River. The point is the objectives of such a project should take into account, first and foremost, the interests of the Ethiopian people. This boils down to the benefits and dividends that accrue to the Ethiopian people in various parts from this project in terms of expanded electricity supply, agriculture, manufacturing, as well as the industrial and services sectors. And from what we know, we cannot say that the project was driven by these primary factors. I am not saying that the expected output of six thousand Megawatts is huge for Ethiopia’s needs. But there are so many associated technical issues that have not been disclosed – even if one advances the argument the information is an internal matter and not in the public domain – and that corroborate that domestic use was not the primary consideration.

One can also discuss the ramifications of mega or white elephant projects elsewhere that have mostly ended up in failure. Power plants that are primarily geared towards export to neighbouring countries have to grapple with a host of technical and commercial hurdles. If the primary target is for national or domestic use, the ground work has to be laid down properly. In view of all these factors, I do not think that the conditions for an exhaustive and sober discussion on the rationale and potential consequences of the project have been reached yet.

Q. In regard to Eritrea’s diplomatic ties, there are positive trends that illustrate the failure of ploys by certain external forces to isolate the country. In this connection, there are ongoing endeavours to expand and strengthen political and economic ties with the countries of the Middle East, the European Union, China and other partners in the Far East. Which are the sectors of economic cooperation with these countries?

President Isaias: To begin with, one needs to properly recognize the extent of unprovoked hostilities and war that have been waged against this country under the auspices of the uni-polar global order in the past 25 years. The unilateral measures of hostility against the people of this country were not warranted and emanate from misguided perceptions and calculus. In retrospect, one can see that the Hanish conflict did not occur suddenly or as a result of good-faith territorial dispute. The arbitral resolution itself contained elements that perpetuate hostility; Hanish was awarded to Yemen but Eritrea was given rights of fishing in Yemen’s territorial waters. This can only be seen as a trap. Nonetheless, we accepted the arbitral award as we uphold agreements we have signed.

Immediately thereafter, the border conflict with the TPLF regime was instigated. This was part and parcel of the scheme of portraying and demonizing Eritrea as a “pariah State” in the region. In any case, the dispute was resolved through arbitration. Yet, the implementation of the arbitral award was blocked. UN sanctions against Eritrea were imposed on Christmas Eve in 2009 through stealthy maneuverings. The pattern of demonization through trumped up charges has gone on and on. But things are changing; also because similar pattern elsewhere have backfired with time. Today, most countries realize that the sanction have no legal basis, even if they may not say so publicly for a variety of reasons. The growing ties with the countries that you have cited and others must be seen against this backdrop. It is not due to our efforts alone; but because you cannot suppress the truth forever. The policies of demonization, isolation, intimidation and subversion have not worked because of the resilience of our people; because of their indomitable efforts. We cannot downplay the damage incurred. We can also expect new, last-ditch fabrication and ploys. But we are confident that these lies will disappear in thin air. Our mantra in the past was: “the dog barks, but the camel treads on”. We will continue in the same mode.

Q. Mr. President, what will be the impact of these growing and substantive diplomatic achievements, in rectifying the injustices – the unwarranted sanction, violation of Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity etc. – perpetrated against the country?

President Isaias: The adversity we faced did not come of our volition. But on the positive side, challenges always tend to make people stronger, wiser and more resilient. As they say, “iron is molded in fire”. Nobody wants to face tribulations, suffering and pain. And all the belligerence and hostility towards Eritrea has taken its toll. We can enumerate the damages inculcated on our people. But it has also engendered unparalleled resilience. We had high hopes in 1991 after our hard-won independence. Our focus was on development. We would have achieved much more had we been allowed to live in peace and to foster the regional environment of cooperation and stability that we cherished and aspired for. Still, the capabilities we have developed in our attempt to overcome all the hostilities directed towards us in the past 18 years are considerable. We have paid the precious price of 100,000 martyrs in the war of independence and the border war with the TPLF regime. These painful sacrifices have solidified further our social cohesion and unity, our resilience and our determination to defend our sovereignty. It has imbued greater weight to our independence, sovereignty and our fervent commitment to rebuild our country. When we evaluate what we can do this year, as well the subsequent years, we see that our capabilities to achieve more, irrespective of hostilities, are by far greater than they were anytime in the past. We have a more clear picture of what we can achieve in the period ahead. The ties that we have and are cultivating with countries in the region and outside our region are more robust than any time before.

Even the diplomatic lexicon is changing. The discourse these days with our partners is not about sanctions and hostility. The agendas are dominated by positive discussions on what can be done jointly. The tone and focus of discourse with our partners is changing in a positive way.

Q. In the past 25 years, we have gone through and overcome difficult challenges to ensure our survival as a nation and people to secure our development. How do you assess the progress we have made when our past trajectory is gauged from the perspective of our aspirations and the numerous challenges we have faced?

President Isaias: The 30 years of armed struggle we have waged and the national independence that we achieved can explain the character and mettle of our people. Of course we can think in terms of what we could have achieved under normal circumstances. We can also draw gratification from resilience and strength we have acquired in order to withstand and vanquish the hostilities imposed on us. Adversity has taught us to work more; the culture we have developed to do more with less; the ethics of commitment and selflessness have increased our efficiency. Still, we should not exaggerate our achievements. We should focus on what we can do without exaggeration. We should not compare ourselves with others. Let us focus on what we can do. As I stated earlier, we are in a better position than any time before. Can we say that 2016 will be a turning point? Let us march forward with greater pace than before. In some ways, this will be a year to gauge our real capabilities. I feel that we are better placed to close the chapter of the past phases and embark on a new phase.

Q. Finally, Mr. President, if you have any additional message to our resilient people on the occasion of the beginning of the New Year…

President Isaias: We can say we have weighed the capability of our people through the prism of three generations. And it is really substantive. We are all in the same wavelength and we all know what we can do. The ultimate goal is to rebuild our nation, resolve all our problems and bring about prosperity. This requires hard work and increased productivity. This will enable us to say that we have vanquished all hostilities and that we have won. So we need to redouble our efforts to increase the pace and momentum of our development drive. I do not consider this as a message from me but mere emphasis of what everyone already knows.

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