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Interview with President Isaias Afwerki

Part III: 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 third part of the interview follow:


  • Mr. President, what should we expect from now onwards?

Any prognosis of potential trends must be predicated on a thorough appraisal of the prevailing reality on the ground. In this sense, the inevitable consequence of politicised ethnicity is that fragmentation is not confined to and does not stop at the large building blocs. It cascades down to the clan and sub-clan levels even within the “unitary’ ethnic constituency. It becomes a recipe, as it were, for spiralling strife between and within separate ethnic groups because the political leaders embroiled in the scheme stoke further division to maintain and consolidate their power. This is not abstract or academic inference. It is what we actually see on the ground in all the ethnic based Regions. This is manifested in all its dimensions; political, cultural, social, economic and security sectors. The fragmentation of society has degenerated to its smallest units.

The panacea does not lie in addressing the outward symptoms of the malaise but in uprooting the underlying political structure of institutionalized ethnicity. This must be the overarching objective. Differences within society and one country on the basis of distinct political programmes and choices are natural. But creating a permanent chasm on the basis of ethnicity is toxic that will only destroy the unity and cohesion of any country. The specific institutional forms and systems of the alternative framework can be worked out. These can evolve with time as they are dynamic; not immutable beliefs and precepts as providential books.

The overriding task is to reverse the politics of ethnicity and foster social cohesion as well as unleash positive forces in society through articulation and nurturing of consensus on the new alternatives. We have to recognize this is not easy as there are political leaders who are keen to exploit the inherited and entrenched sentiments of ethnic politics to serve their narrow interests. The political discourse propagated through different media outlets corroborates these conflicting situations. Controversy on the timing of elections, now envisaged for 2020, is another dimension which may further compound the prevailing political polarization. This should not be another bone of contention or polarization. In the final analysis, what is of paramount importance is the substance of the transition; the calendar of the elections is arguably secondary to that central objective. External actors – including pundits, certain think thanks and research centres – are often not helpful as they tend to prescribe solutions that are neither viable nor in consonance with the specific contexts and local realities.

As far as we are concerned, our position is not ambivalent. We strongly believe that the policy of institutionalized ethnicity is toxic and obsolete. In our view, eradication of this malaise will serve the best interests of Ethiopia. Furthermore, Eritrea and the region as a whole will also benefit from this. Ethiopia is not like any other country. The spill over effects in the region (Somalia and elsewhere) cannot be underrated. Geography and geopolitics have their own importance. History also offers invaluable lessons.

The new relationship we are cultivating with Ethiopia is on the right track. We also believe that differing options floated to uproot and eliminate toxic and politicized ethnicity should not create cleavages within the forces of change. Some of the generic labels used – i.e. “federalists versus unionists” are in themselves shallow and unhelpful. The discourse must be more profound and nuanced to be constructive and productive.

We can invoke our experiences of the last 30 years. In many ways, what we are saying now is not new. Our position now is not different from what it was in 1994. Had that folly been avoided then, all the problems that ensued thereafter would not have occurred. The enormous losses and sacrifices incurred could have been avoided. The challenge now is to eschew recurrence of another debacle in a proactive way. In this sense, it is vital for us to follow developments in Ethiopia closely so as to avoid potentially negative ramifications.

  • Mr. President, now to revert to the Sudan; a new change has occurred in Sudan too. Subsequently, exchange of visits and meetings have and continue to take place between the Government of Eritrea and the Transitional Government of Sudan. What is the current political situation in Sudan? And what would be the role of Sudan in the ongoing effort to forge a new chapter of regional peace and cooperation?

Developments in Ethiopia and Sudan directly influence us more than any other situation in the region. Perhaps the similarities between the trajectories in the recent decades and current developments in both countries may not be that far apart.

To understand the historical relationships between Sudan and Eritrea, we may have to look back at political developments in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s etc. As we know, a major shift occurred in the political landscape of Sudan in 1989. Still, it would be more logical to see the different segments in their complementarity; as one integral whole. And we cannot also look at these continuums distinctly from our own history.

Since the 1950s, or even before, there was no country in our region, in comparative terms that had a fairly advanced political culture as Sudan. The influence of the Sudan on Eritrean politics, and even in Egypt, was not negligible especially in terms of the beginning of the armed liberations struggle.

The political culture in the Sudan was peerless in comparison to other African countries. Divisions along religious and ethnic lines were non-existent in Sudan in the 1950s and 60s or known. Except the traditional political parties, such as UMMA, the political makeup of Sudan had its own political features.

At the end of the Cold-War, “Political Islam” emerged as a new trend. This had nothing to do with Islam or religion. It was concocted to disrupt the prevalent advanced political culture. How did the Islamic movement emerge and develop? In 1983, at the time of Numeri and when Political Islam was at its incipient stage, the National Islamic Front (NIF) did not represent even 5% of the people’s political outlook within the existing political parties. It never exceeded that figure thereafter in spite of the NIF’s cravings to assume power.

In 1989, the NIF seized power through a military coup. This political agenda that was imposed through a coup plunged Sudan into unimaginable political quagmire, economic stasis and perennial insecurity.

To downgrade a country like Sudan, which had such an advanced political culture, is no less than a high crime. This is especially so when seen in the context of the propaganda and programme that the NIF had pronounced when they seized power in 1989 with what transpired during the subsequent thirty years of their rule. What was the situation in Sudan, in terms of all the relevant parameters, during those 30 years until the advent of change yesterday through a spontaneous popular uprising? This was sadly a period of immense havoc and decline in political, economic, cultural, social and security sectors.

This may be irrelevant and imprudent today. But in my view, the separation of South Sudan was not inevitable. The rights of the South Sudanese people could have been addressed like other people’s rights. Separation was essentially triggered by the venal political stance that we have described earlier. They may justify it through different excuses, but the original notion was to secure an appropriate resolution of the issue within a unity state. This should have been solved as an internal Sudanese problem. The argument is not about the fundamental right of the South Sudanese people to separate from the Sudan. And in any case, has South Sudan achieved internal stability and peace? Is the relationship with North Sudan cordial? When you examine the events that unfolded from the 1990s until the ultimate separation, was the latter inevitable? Were there other alternatives? We know the developments that led to the separation of South Sudan because we were actively engaged in the process of resolving the problem. And in retrospect, it is clear where the blame lies.

Other crimes such as Darfur, Eastern Nile, Bahir Al-azraq (Blue Nile) and Kordofan also followed in its sequel. They (NIF) fomented social cleavages that were never heard of before. They were bragging about “self- sufficiency” and posing as “defenders and guardians of the oppressed people”. These were hollow words.

After 30 years, what is the accumulated debt of Sudan? This is estimated at around 60- 50 billion US dollars. 90 to 80 billion USD was reportedly looted and deposited in foreign banks. The Islamic agenda was obviously a convenient mask for otherwise uncouth kleptocrats bent on embezzling public funds. The spontaneous popular uprising that erupted was the inevitable response to the calamitous reality.

Sudan is one of the richest countries blessed with mineral resources and agricultural potential. During the British colonial era, the Gezira Cotton Project alone was billed for contributing almost 10% of the (annual) revenues of Great Britain. Sudan’s agricultural potential and wealth is simply unparalleled.

The vibrant industries and agricultural enterprises finally collapsed to the extent that the country was beset by acute food shortages. In addition to the political cleavages induced by the regime, rampant corruption and embezzlement of public funds in the name of Islam were the principal causes of the economic crisis. And more ominously, they made Sudan the epicenter of terrorism and regional destabilization.

Osama Bin Laden was operating in Sudan in 1994 when we were compelled to severe our diplomatic ties. Al-Qaeda was based there. Eastern Sudan became a haven for terrorists. The 1989 coup leaders who presumably set out to change Sudan became sponsors of fundamentalist terrorism from the outset. Thereafter, they continued to provide sanctuary to other terrorists including Boko Haram, Daesh etc. Even Carlos was there at one point in time. They plunged Sudan, against the will of the people, in a cauldron of fire with all the attendant economic problems.

Sudan must now be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism and focus its efforts to resolve inherited economic problems. As I underlined before, the popular uprising did not stem from organizational or sensitization campaigns of political parties; it was a spontaneous reaction to the destruction of the country in 30 years of NIF rule.

In short, it has become now very challenging to reform the political structure and get rid of their legacies. Today there are many opposition organizations operating in different parts of the country. These were directly or indirectly created by the former regime.

Sudan is now in a period of transition which has its own peculiarities in comparison to the ongoing process of change in Ethiopia. The direct internal challenge is political as there is assorted opposition movements essentially linked to the NIF regime. The external dimension too must be recognized as Sudan was isolated before

The expectations are Sudan will restore and revert to its advanced political culture and assume its rightful place in the region. Sudan had entered pacts and alliances with certain forces of regional destabilization. It was embroiled in forums and networks alien to the region. Rectification of these follies and Sudan’s constructive regional stance will contribute to greater regional stability. This will remove prevalent threats to our own security and prompt us to work together for better results.

The government has embarked on a transition period (3 to 4 years). The political solutions floated will surely face a host of challenges and obstacles. Will the proposed frameworks bring about enduring and sustainable solutions? What are the political, cultural, social, economic and security hurdles that must be scaled? There are internal forces who seek to scuttle the process of change. There are also external attempts to reverse the process by forces who consider the change as a loss.

For our part, we have no choice but to follow events closely. This is critical both for formulating informed choices and options as well as to gauge and properly identify the modest contributions that we can make. Again, we cannot be bystanders or indifferent to developments that unfold in our immediate neighbors as would normally be the case for events in other distant countries. It must also be noted that in the last 30 years, it was not only the people of Sudan who lost opportunities. We have lost development opportunities as well. In the event, and as it is the case with Ethiopia, our active engagement is warranted for a raft of reasons: Sudan’s role in both bilateral and regional terms is significant; positive change and restoration to normalcy in Sudan has considerable dividends to the region; and, the opportunities for promoting mutually beneficial regional cooperation in economic and security matters will be greater. These sentiments and positions are mutually shared and reciprocated by all Sudanese political forces engaged in the transition process. Both sides have accordingly embarked on a structured and periodic process of mutual consultation. Our long exposure to and intimate knowledge of events in the Sudan is of course an asset.

Still, the challenges are not easy and should not be underrated. Some of the political actors in Sudan are powerful in terms of their economic muscle which can be misconstrued to create pressure. The arsenal in their tool box is not negligible. They can funnel these tools to stoke social mistrust and discord. The same is true with regional powers who harbor ill-will. Who are these powers? What are their tentacles? In which sub-regions are they active? Which instruments are at their disposal? Here again, the complexities are evident.

We should also take into account the perspectives of major global powers. What was their calculus in the region in the 1940s (after the end of the Cold War) when they were asserting that Eritrea “will not serve our interests? What are their interests and what is the hierarchy of these interests through their own prisms? The primary challenge in our region is economic and the countries continue to grapple with daily challenges of food security. Yet, all the powers that are exerting pressure these days have all along compounded the problems and participated in the looting of the resources of the region.

Regional players who had instrumentalized Sudan to advance their subversive agendas cannot be expected to embrace the change with folded hands. They will try to reverse the trend; they will use their financial leverage to that end. We know these forces intimately.

The challenges for transition are thus complex and multi-faceted. It requires capabilities to thwart external subversive schemes, prudence in tackling internal challenges and cohesion with its ranks and constituent parts. It may be premature now to discern with absolute certainty how the process will pan out. The political, security and above economic problems that the transition has to grapple with are not easy. What are the options in respect to the latter in particular – soliciting external assistance, subsidy and loans; reviving domestic potential, etc. Cultivating internal consensus for whatever approach is preferred is another challenge.

The recent disturbance in eastern Sudan is another dimension in the spectrum. This was deliberately fomented by the internal and external forces bent on rolling back the change underway. The situation in eastern Sudan has a bearing on Eritrea. The scheme is thus driven by their negative agenda against Eritrea as it affords the architects of this political mischief to “kill two birds with one stone”

In the event, it is too early to say that Sudan has fully resolved all its problems and is currently progressing forward without obstacles. It is still in a transitional phase. For our part, we will continue to monitor developments and strive to make modest contributions. Our approach in terms of cultivating positive interaction with the forces in the transition is not different from what is being done with Ethiopia. But in the final analysis, what is determinant is their perspective and programmes in this journey which is in its early phase.

  • Mr. President, we would like to focus now on the broader neighborhood and particularly the Arabian Gulf. The Government of Eritrea has been exerting efforts to cultivate solid ties of friendship and partnership with Gulf countries, besides its endeavours in the Horn, pursuant to its foreign policy of safe and peaceful neighborhood. What is the progress in this regard?

Our initial reference frame was not one region but the neighborhood as a whole. In our lexicon, the neighborhood consists of four regions. First are the countries of the Nile Basin such as Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, etc.

These countries are very important because of their strategic and geographic location. The second group are the countries in the Horn of Africa, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and others. The third category consists of the countries bordering the Red Sea, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen etc. And lastly, we find the Gulf States, which are an integral part of the neighboring countries.

These four regions are not only related by geography. They are also interlinked by shared strategic, economic, political and security interests and affiliations. This is too palpable to merit more elaborate discourse.

Our domestic programmes are of course of paramount importance to us. Our domestic priorities cannot be put to the backburner. Still, a stable regional environment of mutual respect and cooperation is vital for us. This is not a choice or option; it is a necessity. So we need to interact with others and make modest contributions. The issue is not whether we have influence or not. We may gauge the respective influence and leverage of others – that of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen and others in the wider neighborhood. Obviously each country has its own specific influence or leverage that is congruent with its capabilities.

Irrespective of this factor, synergy is created where mutual respect and cooperation flourish. Stability that nurtures trust will be enhanced too in this setting. Economic development; the betterment of citizen’s quality of life become more achievable in a conducive climate of cooperation. Combatting threats to regional security, money-laundering, illicit arms trade, human trafficking; and programmes of counter-terrorism are more effective through collective and concerted action.

The critical point is nurturing consensus on the underlying notion. The geographical boundaries of the constituent parts are not really a matter of controversy. Once there is agreement on the desired goals and objectives, these secondary issues can be handled with flexibility. We can subsequently work out the most appropriate mechanisms.

This is not a new invention. When the Horn of Africa Initiative was launched in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, we participated from the beginning with the frontline parties. The revitalization of IGAD followed in its sequel. The controversy then was not about the name of the organization but its core objectives and functions; that the ultimate aim is to enhance regional integration. The limited mandate of drought was extended to include development and regional integration. Unfortunately, IGAD became subservient to external agendas and a tool against Eritrea.

Invasion of Somalia occurred in 2006 through the collusion and instigation of the TPLF, the US Administration and others. The cherished mechanism of regional integration was consequently scuttled. We suspended our membership and we are not and will not be there.

But, the idea and commitment to regional cooperation in its widest sense that we are talking about now is not different, in essence, from what was contemplated then. We may sometimes exaggerate by saying that we have a better understanding of the imperative of robust cooperation because we have acquired rich experience long ago, and overcome countless challenges. The issue is not about geographical or population size. It is not about economic power. It is about the quest for stability. And when it comes to stability and peace, we are in the forefront in terms of unequivocal choice and commitment.

For us, to work for the stability of the neighborhood is not an agenda for tomorrow or after tomorrow. Taking stoke of our past experiences, the modalities will have to be worked out meticulously and comprehensively. This is not merely a matter of political goodwill.

Past experiences will surely be useful for drawing appropriate lessons. The new ties we are cultivating with Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, the Gulf countries fall within this larger framework. And in all these instances, nurturing consensus and the convergence of views are obviously cardinal pre-requisites.

Let us examine, for instance, issues on the Red Sea. The 11- point concept paper we submitted summarized our view on the platform and mechanism envisaged. Clarification of objectives and mechanism – which may be seen in three phases – is of paramount importance. Irrespective of its power or wealth, one country cannot shoulder the obligations of the other littoral State. The legal provisions must be clear too.

The Somali problem cannot, for instance, be solved by other countries but only by Somalis themselves. Missiles and drones – or other imported technology – will not resolve the security situation in Somalia. In brief, each littoral States must first build its defense and security capabilities. One littoral State cannot be a substitute to another in this regard.

Synergy will be acquired once this is done on an individual littoral State basis. Extraneous powers can be involved if there is a need to buttress our collective and pooled capability. If the littoral States cannot coordinate among themselves and pool their capabilities, the security of the Red Sea will not be guaranteed by other external forces. When we pool together our collective capabilities – of all armed services – the impact will be much effective. We may then invite the support of extraneous forces through mutual consultation when and if warranted. This approach is equally valid for other regional mechanisms of cooperation; in the Horn of Africa; the Nile Basin or the Gulf.

These are the skeleton or essential contours. The specific details can be worked out by expert and professional committees. So there is no need to delve into unnecessary controversy. This broad roadmap can be taken as a starting point.

It will also be essential to examine broader global changes and trends and its ramifications to the neighborhood. What is the regional impact of developments in the Americas, Europe, and Asia? In today’s interdependent world, we cannot speak about our neighborhood in isolation from global dimensions. The interlinkages cannot be ignored. If we talk about counter-terrorism, there is consensus in terms of eliminating the scourge. The task is then reduced to practical matters of organizational and methodological configurations for the desired concerted action.

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