- Part II: Regional 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 second part of the interview follow:
- There have been fundamentally positive developments in our region since mid-2018 with respect to the relations between different states of the region. The ‘Asmara joint declaration of peace and friendship’, signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia, is just one major example. How is the progress towards achieving the goals of this agreement, which has five basic pillars, assessed?
…. Surely, Abiy has taken a bold and positive decision. In the circumstances, what is our obligation and response? What are our options and capabilities? How do we see the internal situation in Ethiopia? The internal situation in Ethiopia is of primary concern particularly in view of its fluidity and with domestic and external forces doggedly trying to reverse the change. The problem warrants prudent and wise approach. After all, it is much easier to drive a wedge and sow discord among the peoples than to foster mutual understanding and nurture a viable and positive environment conducive to cooperation.
We cannot downplay the magnitude of the problem. We have to appraise the situation in all its complexities and devise solutions accordingly. This is what we have pursued in the periodic bilateral consultations that we have carried out so far. We also need to monitor and gauge, on a constant basis, the various subterfuges weaved by hostile forces. They are and will definitely continue to foment internal strife in order to roll back the momentum of change and peace. But this will only augment our resolve; it will not in any way weaken our desire and commitment for constructive engagement. The adverse impact of fomenting ethnic strife and polarization has to be assessed fully. We have to recognize its dilatory impact – the fact that the fruits of the political goodwill that we all cherish may not be achieved in a year or two.
Indeed, we may not have achieved much in the past year and a half. But we have done our utmost in our primary task of eschewing reversal and obstruction of the peace process. We will stay the course until this process, which is still at its incipient stage, is consummated. It is absolutely essential that all these facts are well-known to our people. Rigorous sensitization programmes are vital to increase awareness and prompt our people to shoulder their responsibilities. We have to monitor developments meticulously and these must be explained publicly. There are forces who are especially using social media to distort facts and to spread false information; to stoke tension and strife. We need to fully understand the challenges that we are confronting to become well-equipped to thwart them.
What I have explained in this interview sheds some light on what is at stake. But it will be imperative to follow developments closely; to identify the obstacles that will crop up as well as the tools at our disposal to overcome them. This is essential in our endeavours to strengthen our policy of friendship and cooperation. Our people must also be informed accordingly on a constant basis.
The central point is we will not be derailed by obstacles but continue to work with greater vigour to recoup lost opportunities and redress the devastation inculcated in the past decades.
- Mr. President, how do you describe the role and resilience of the Eritrean people in the last three generations and what do you foresee the future will bring?
The resilience of the Eritrean people in the last three decades against external conspiracies, for me, is unimaginable. May be we could see it lightly because we live in it and we are part of it. The hostilities and machinations the Eritrean people have faced, the ordeal they had to go through in the past three decades is simply incomparable. Few other people could summon the requisite reliance to overcome such an ordeal.
The change that has unfolded after 20 years is the result of the dynamics of the spiral of hostilities and the strong resilience of the Eritrean people. We could say withstanding such conspiracies and hostilities is gleaned from experience or cumulated historical events. The Eritrean people, after the Second World War, had to go through all kinds of external hostilities. As iron is steeled in fire, the unity and cohesion of our people emanates from this intense adversity.
After the end of the Second World War, Eritrea was perceived as a country “that would not serve their interests”. The Eritrean people thus became their first target. To this end, the people had to be weakened and divided along religious and ethnic lines. The experience gained during the British colonialism, whose hallmark was fomenting parochial division in society, was not easy. We also had to go through similar political, ethnic and other divisive practices during the armed struggle. The experience gained during the civil war and in the later years was not simple. Those trying times ended up emboldening the people. The tribulations helped the people to easily understand the external plots and conspiracies.
In the final analysis, it is not the size of the population or country that matter. The Eritrean people emerged victorious against a huge army supported by various external powers. The size of the Dergue’s army was reportedly about 400,000. The challenge for the Eritrean people was how to change the asymmetry in the equation to their favour. The experiences they gleaned in the vanquishing various enemy offensives, including the Fenkil Operation, were huge indeed. The atrocities committed against them provoked more resolve and resilience enabling them to ultimately emerge victorious.
Against this backdrop of long history of adversity and struggle, the hostilities and conspiracies the people of Eritrea had to face in the past 20 years is by far the worst. Had the Eritrean people not stood in unison against all these frantic external conspiracies to defend their sovereignty and independence, the positive climate of peace that was ushered in last year would not have occurred.
At the end of the day, the tribute belongs to the people. Political awareness, organization, weapons may be relevant elements. But the determinant factor is resilience. Resilience gleaned in 80 years of determined struggle against incessant hostility by a small people living a relatively small land with its geopolitical complexities. Solid cohesion, political awareness and resilience were all byproducts of this particular history and experience. These attributes have enabled the Eritrean people to vanquish, again in the last 20/30 years, all schemes of division, fundamentalist extremism and other ploys. The Eritrean people are not different from their neighbors in the Sudan, Ethiopia or Somalia. But their distinct historical trajectory, the resultant cumulative experience, has enabled them to acquire an embedded culture of resistance and resilience. This culture must be preserved and transferred to posterity. There is no wealth that is more precious, or resources that are bigger, than this cultural attribute that can be invoked to overcome economic, security and other challenges today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
- Mr. President, with the assumption of power by a new leadership in Ethiopia, it seems that the prevalent State structure is changing radically. Taking into account all possible scenarios, what are the potential consequences and ramifications to Eritrea, the Peace Agreement and the region as a whole?
Needless to stress, our history puts us at a vantage point to better understand how matters will pan out. In this respect, the situation in Ethiopia has inculcated much damage to Eritrea and its people for three generations in our contemporary times. This is also intertwined with the fact that successive regimes in Ethiopia advanced external agendas. Thus, although we have no wish or business to interfere in sovereign matters of others, the situation in Ethiopia is of direct relevance to us due to the damage that befalls us through no fault of our own.
The dangers posed by ethnic polarization that had become institutionalized in Ethiopia over the past 20/30 years cannot be downplayed. We were well aware of the simmering problem from the outset. I remember, we participated at the Conference in Addis Ababa in 1992. Things were developing contrary to the proposals and advice that we were providing in good faith. Each group was advancing its own ideas and wishes under various pretexts to justify the misguided policy of ethnic fragmentation.
I saw the Ethiopian draft constitution in 1994 before anybody else. I was asked to give my comments on the draft. I was convinced that a constitution that polarizes people along ethnic lines under the pretext of self-determination will not serve the interests of the Ethiopian people. That was the envisaged road-map and they rejected our advice.
The “ Federal Democratic Constitution” w a s subsequently adopted. The end result was polarization of the Ethiopian people along ethnic lines. This should have been avoided from the outset. The conspiracy against Eritrea emanated from this stance. There was no reason for the border conflict. It was only an ill intended philosophy to divide and rule the country. We were not there when the border has been demarcated, we inherited it. There was no reason for conflict.
The principal cause was the agenda of the bankrupt clique that was at the helm of power in Ethiopia. “Elections” were conducted in Ethiopia every five years. These were invariably endorsed and had the blessing of external forces and special interest groups.
The border conflict was unleashed at the behest of external powers. We know in detail how the border war was initiated and conducted. It was not carried out through the internal capacity of Ethiopia alone. We cannot claim that it encompassed the entire Ethiopian people. It was, in essence, the agenda of and instigated by a bankrupt clique.
I am dwelling on this dimension of the border war in order to stress that it was not our choice; that it was not of our making. And its relevance to the current reality is evident. The dangerous political trends that could have been avoided then must be fully appraised to prevent another folly today. In a nutshell, the narrow politics of ethnic polarization – irrespective of seemingly plausible rationalizations of the rights of nationalities etc. – will ultimately foment discord among the various constituents to advance narrow interests to the detriment of larger objective of nation building.
The political dynamics in Ethiopia in the last year and half is characterized by two opposed trends or options… the first category wishes to preserve or even narrow further the politics of ethnic polarization (this is often taunted as more appropriate and democratic); the second choice spearheaded by Dr. Abiy and others is forward looking and wishes to bring change as a panacea to the problems of the past. We can also look at the neighborhood and draw lessons from what the events that are unfolding in Iraq, Somalia, Sudan etc, with all their specific peculiarities. And it is not about passing quick judgements or interfering in the sovereign affairs of our neighbours. As I underlined above, political developments in Ethiopia will affect Eritrea. So we need to closely monitor developments and make our views known to avoid damages later. It is with this perspective that we should strive to make modest contributions.
We will of course continue to strengthen our relations and our common objective with those who are promoting the positive trends in Ethiopia. This has nothing to do with personalities. This is the duty and responsibility of both political forces and peoples to stem emergence of warlords and kleptocrats that will plunge the country in a quagmire. The ultimate objective is to ensure enduring peace and stability in Ethiopia. On our part we are ready to make our modest contribution.