Your struggle was long, bitter and one of the most difficult on the African continent. Eighteen years down the line, do you think all the sacrifices were worth it?
I think it is one of the most cost effective, if you can talk about human lives in terms of cost effectiveness. In some cases you have millions of people dying for a cause. You can cite an example with the Algerian revolution which was one of the most costly, in a relatively short time compared to ours. The sacrifices were high. I believe that 65,000 lives for the liberation war in a matter of 30 years and then again this other war which brought about more sacrifices…by all standards I can say it was worth it.
What were the major gains for the people? If you look at the history of post-liberation in Africa and other places, they bring a lot of expectations and then they meet a reality of building a new nation. How have you been able to balance it all?
It is one thing to be realistic about the goals. I think the 30 years of struggle educated the population in this country and it was not a matter of living in hopes and expecting the unrealistic in our own case. We always said it is not easy to build a nation from scratch to rebuild the destroyed economy of the country to rehabilitate everything and rehabilitate human beings. Their cost in terms of life created a big vacuum and amongst the population the disadvantage was high. Under these circumstances, we had to educate the people not to expect much. There is nothing you can compare to your freedom as a human being in our society. But to see the change in the quality of life is not easy and our expectations sometimes become very disappointing and many times leaders make mistakes in telling people something that is not achievable. In our case we are being very careful not to create that unrealistic expectation.
For a very long time most people in Africa didn’t understand the nature of the struggle in Eritrea…
It was very confusing because there was the perception that Haile Selassie was one of the liberators of the continent. Ethiopia was considered to be the pioneer of freedom. Because the struggle of the people in Eritrea was misunderstood, it took a long time [for Africa] to soberly consider the reality. Many in the elite groups did know and the solidarity was there, the public at large was not well informed.
At a point, United Nations (UN) statistics said Eritrea was able to produce only 30 percent of its food. Have you been able to take care of the issue of food security in the country?
It is very misleading. I will tell you a story about something that happened last year. We have ceased communications with UN agencies. They are only instrumental to promoting policies of the so-called donors. Donors are those parties which are dominated by multinationals who marginalise this continent. They would like to keep us feeding on expired foods that come in the name of aids and food support. This has been a challenge for us and we have been saying, ‘why can’t you allow us to feed ourselves? Or why can’t you finance or even credit some of the programmes for food security with dams, water and soil management, agricultural machinery, fertilizers, agrochemicals?’ If we can get these, we will have enough to feed ourselves. But they would like to ask us what our needs in terms of food aid are; how the harvest was this year. Yes, we may need food aid as a conditional support, but we cannot depend on food aid alone while it can cripple our society as is the case in many African countries.
Last year and the year before, we were asked to give information about food security in this country and were categorised as the most needy in terms of food when we had produced in 2007 (without any exaggeration) 90 percent of our food needs because harvest was good. Last year, it was not as good as 2007. Without even getting the right information they categorised Eritrea as the neediest in terms of food aid.
You have a reserve for 10 years in the US for example. When it expires, it has to go somewhere. Shipping and shipping lines associated with these multinationals would like to find market for them and we are an easy market.
One other issue that is commonly raised is that you have far more people in defence than in production. How do you respond to this?
That is politics. In fact it is a very bitter thing because most of the national activities are done by the young who are on national service. Bridges, roads, dams, agricultural schemes, almost every productive activity in this country is conducted by these people. But we have introduced programmes for training. Everyone within the national service is obliged to be trained in one vocation or another. The army is engaged in land preparation cultivation and harvest. It is not the right kind of thing people want to do but because of circumstances we had to engage in human resource utilisation in terms of the national service. I can say without exaggeration that 60 to 65 percent of input in all food security programmes come from the army.
In 2001, you closed the private press because, according to the government, they were endangering national security. Are you likely to open the possibility of a free press?
We need to agree on what we mean by a free press. If I discover that a journal is financed by an agency in Washington or anywhere outside, that agency is responsible for what they say or what they write and it is an extension of the agenda of outside forces in Eritrea. It is no secret that the media is controlled by a number of multinational corporations. The media is a very sensitive institution and promoting agendas or even creating problems is done through the media. At that point we discovered that almost everybody was recruited by the CIA. This is not a free press. A free press has to be free and accountable and credible in the sense that when everybody knows what has happened, you will not deliberately distort facts and attempt to create and incite discord in society.
If you have patriotic journalists who decide to stay within the country and not manipulate it from outside, would they be allowed to practice?
And they will be free?
What do you mean by free?
They are not manipulated from outside and they are not manipulated by the state…
[Cuts in] We have so many of them like that and that may be the best option because I may disagree with you on my reading of a certain situation. How do you educate people, how do you educate yourself? You may have someone telling you something [with which you] disagree. Disagreement is an incentive even within the family. You have to be free to have your own ways of thinking. You have to be free to make judgements and you will need the information provided by someone who can read things better than you.
I was reading your response recently at an interview where you said democracy itself must be interrogated in the context of Africa.
A conference was held in Asmara in cooperation with all of our friends in Africa which is talking about ‘Democracy in Africa: The Realities and the Prospects’. I was invited to deliver a keynote speech. I have four issues to address. One is economic democracy. If only two percent of the population enjoys or has a bigger share of the resources of the country and 90 to 98 percent of the country does not get it, what does it mean to put your vote in a ballot box? It has no meaning at all. If I am marginalised and do not have any share of the country’s resource, it means that I am not even a citizen because equal citizenship is equal opportunities at the end of the day. That economic dimension is very important and it has to be addressed.
Number two is social rights. If I am segregated because of my ethnicity, clan, religious affiliations, there is no equality and freedom in society. The politics of the country does not respect me, does not respect diversity if I am segregated. Social bridging or social polarisation is one of the main problems of democracy not only in Africa but everywhere else. That requirement will have to be fulfilled for us to talk about democracy.
Then there is the cultural issue. Democracy is a culture. Society will have to be civilised to appreciate the rule of law, to respect the opinion of others. Without a democratic culture, without tolerance or working together, without respecting the views of the other party you cannot say democracy functions in a society. Culture is very important and culture cannot be cultivated overnight.
The last one is politics. How do people get organised to work within a society to have their views expressed through programmes and projects that will influence economic, social and foreign policies, and security? Without this, democracy doesn’t mean anything at all. Today it is deliberately distorted as if election is everything. When people do not have economic rights in society; they do not even have the political organisation to express their interests, elections will be organised. You will go there and put your vote in the ballot box; you are hungry when someone is enjoying fresh eggs from Paris, or something imported from London for lunch. That makes democracy a mockery in my view. That is when you come to include freedom of expression and free press. It has to be within this context, otherwise it will not mean much.
Today, Western democracy, as they would like to categorise it, is courted in different shades: elections and inequality and all other values, when you are stealing my resources without my consent; you do not give me any economic opportunity; you don’t allow anyone to have his voice heard; you simply want to be heard and have everybody else comply with what you want to do.
The US does not have a democratic culture. When all those people migrated from Europe and went to the US, what did they do? They exterminated the indigenous people. That was not democracy. It was genocide. Then they brought slaves from Africa and slavery is part of their culture.
Now exploitation is modernised. Domination and hegemony are modernised and they still claim they are a very democratic country. I won’t be misled to believe that this is a democracy.
I went to Masawa and noticed you are building a new international airport in an effort to open a free trade area. Will that give an indication of future developments?
It is going to be the hub of the economy. Masawa is planned to be the economic capital of this country. Also we would like to be one of the gateways for some parts of the continent.
Your region is one of the most disturbed in the world. On the one hand there is Somalia and Sudan and, on the other hand, people say that there is a proxy war actually taking place in Somalia between you and Ethiopia. What is Eritrea’s take on all these developments?
This deliberate distortion of facts is one of the problems that complicate the reality on the ground. Why would Eritrea go into proxy war in Somalia? I do not see any reason why this should be the case. We will have to go from that to making a study about why this is getting complicated.
You can go into history and see what the problem between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Somalia was. Ethiopia and Somalia went into war in 1964, then again in 1977 which was during the Cold War era. The era may have had influence, but that is a real question on the part of rulers in Ethiopia. It is perceived that Somalia is a threat today and because of the star in Somalia’s flag, Somalis believe they have five components. With the former Italian and British Somali lands which form Somalia proper. Outside that, Djibouti is considered to be part of the Somali nation. Ogaden is considered to be one part of the Somali nation. The northern part of this is in Kenya, so you have a five-pointed star.
This created a lot of problem during the Cold War but when that era was gone, the problem was solved. And Somalia for the last 18 years has been living in chaos. It is one of the so-called failed states. Unfortunately, the same story came to hunt rulers in Ethiopia [and] scared, they invaded Somalia under the pretext that there is terrorism. But that is not fair. That Somalia that dreamed of including parts of Kenya, parts of Djibouti, and parts of Ethiopia does not exist anymore.
A reconstitution of Somalia is critical to the stability of the whole of Africa. We have no interest in going into a proxy war in Somalia. We say leave the Somalis alone. When the Americans intervened in the early ’90s, we saw that it was a mistake. It shouldn’t have been done. It is unfortunate that their agenda for destabilising the region is concealed by the continuous misinformation about the realities in Somalia. There is an interest for Ethiopia and the US—at least I can talk about the previous administration—to maintain the sad status of chaos in Somalia. Anyone who questions the validity of these policies is categorised as someone fighting a proxy war in Somalia.
It is often said that you actually support some of the groups fighting in Somalia…
[Cuts in] It is not true. We have a very consistent policy and I have tried to explain it. It is a reconstitution of Somalia. When in 2006 the [Union of Islamic] Courts were in the Mogadishu area, they brought relative peace. We said that may be one option for the gradual stabilisation of Somalia. But we cannot hope that this will go on. We propose that a broader coalition, a conditional coalition be created which was the idea of so many Somalis who lived in the US, Europe and the Middle East and there was no bias at all.
We have known Somalis for 56 years and have fair understanding of their problems. We felt the only approach was a gradual political process to bring everybody on board and that can be the only approach for reconstituting Somalia and the conference that was held in Asmara was inclusive in the sense that it was not only Islamists but also independent individuals participated. If you know Somalia, supporting one individual against the other would be going into the same trap.
We were against the imposition of an illegitimate government from outside. The first government was that of Abdul Quassim Salat in Djibouti. That is not the way the Somalis should be represented. Though legitimate, that government was disbanded.
Again another government was formed in Nairobi. In fact, the Ethiopian government was behind the creation of that government. They didn’t like the first government, giving the excuse that the council was dominated by Islamists who are supposed to be directly linked to terrorist organisations. This was untrue. Now we have the third government. Our position is, do not impose a government from outside. When this government was formed, we said you are repeating the same mistake again. It is not the personalities that matter; it is the process that is very important and this is not an inclusive government.
Talking about weapons in Somalia, she does not need any weapons from outside. The weapons and ammunitions in Somalia are more than anyone can imagine. And no one needs to import weapons from outside, which is one of the difficulties of dealing with Somalia when you have the whole population armed. It is not a question of who is providing whom. Ethiopian troops were busy selling weapons and ammunitions. Sometimes it is also reported that there are other agencies clandestinely smuggling weapons into Somalia. But because our ideas are not appreciated by Washington, there is continuous disinformation about our support for one faction against the other. It is a pack of lies meant to cover up the wrong policies adopted by Washington and Addis Ababa.
The media often describe the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia since the 1998/2000 war as a no-war-no-peace situation. How do you hope this logjam can be broken so that some fairly good relations can emerge between the two nations?
I think there could be an attempt to misinform the public about the reality on ground. I think the cause of this conflict was the border issue. If it were war, what would be the justification for war? Yes, in 1998/1999 until 2000 when we signed this agreement in Algiers under the auspices of the OAU, then, there was a conflict unresolved. Now after the arbitration, there is no reason for anyone to believe that there is war. Peace, no. But there is a declared war after the arbitration, on the border issue. The government of Ethiopia occupies several Eritrean territories. That is the cause of the so-called no war, no peace. There is a declared war. I mean, when someone occupies your land, he is declaring war. But there are no claims and counter claims now. It is a resolved case.
It is a well know fact that the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) trained the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Some people say that that there could be a personal issue between you and Meles Zenawi…
I know we fought together for 17 years from the grassroots to high ranking commanders. I know commanders but never known him. He has never been in the army nor any one battle or part of the armed struggle. We don’t know each other. So how could they imagine that there would be something personal? I never saw his face before the end of the war.
I am interested in relations between Eritrea and Nigeria. How can we develop it at all levels especially as historically there is a Nigerian community that is also part of the Eritrean people today?
I grew up in this town; there was a Nigerian neighbourhood [where they were] selling spices, suya, handicraft and so many things. I still have that image in my mind. Some of these people were communities who stayed on their way back from pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a popular neighbourhood and was part of the social fabric. It disappeared. Many were expelled during the war and many forced to leave during the liberation war and there are no signs of that neighbourhood any more. Some even learned to communicate with them in their languages like Hausa. There are some of these tribes in the Gash Bacca region. Two or three years ago, there was a problem about land rights and I said, ‘you have all the rights. You are here, you are a citizen. You are not even a Nigerian. This could be emotional because it could have been something that could have been developed.
During Obasanjo’s visit to Asmara, we wanted a cultural and educational exchange. To hire trained people and engage them in the colleges we have. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I would blame it on government officials and not hide the fact that President Obasanjo promised and promised but left office without even fulfilling one of them.
Talking about development projects, Dubai is a hub for international market. We don’t have their ambitions but if there could be a linkage between Masawa airport and those in Nigeria, at least air link between Nigeria and Masawa and even Asmara would enrich relations. There are so many programmes which could be constituted to initiate bilateral relations between us. I hope Nigerians will one day come to realise this fact. I have an embassy there and we try to maintain contact and explore areas where we can develop bilateral relationship. The talents in Nigeria are tremendous and we can benefit from them. I wish we’d see that day.