President Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrean TV Interview, Wednesday, 17 February 2021
A rough translation into English by Habte Hagos
Isaias Afwerki, the only President the State of Eritrea has ever known, who has never been endorsed in an election, gave an interview on a wide range of issues on 17 February 2021. The outlet he chose was EriTV, the government controlled and the only legal TV channel in the country. The President spoke in Tigrinya and at times used English words and phrases out of context. The interview took the form of previous such interviews. It was what can only be described as a “lecture/speech.” In three parts, it lasted 2 hours, 22 minutes and 49 seconds in total. The President was asked just 8 questions in that time during what was billed as an “Interview with President Isaias Afwerki on timely regional issues”.
My first language is Tigrinya and my ancestral village is only 15 minutes’ drive from Isaias’ home village off the road from Asmara to Dekemhare. However, I am not a fan of Isaias, have never been. Despite this, I have endeavoured to translate the talks accurately and in unbiased manner. I spent a great deal of time listening to each sentence and word. I found the talks convoluted, incoherent, repetitious and at times simply impossible to make any sense of it. As a result, and despite my best efforts, I may have got the wrong end of the stick and mistranslated parts of what was said. For this I apologise from the outset and stand ready to be corrected.
The names of the two young bright interviewers were not given as part of the introduction to the talks. Regrettably, therefore, I have called them “Interviewer 1 (on the right)” and “Interviewer 2 (on the left)”.
The President’s Speech in Bullet Points
- The 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was a clear indication that the role of Wayane (TPLF) junta had ended – “game over”. The junta then started to prepare for war; contrary to the agreement and they placed obstacles to jeopardise the initiative.
- We met Debertsion [now former President of Tigray] in Zelambessa on 11 September 2018. I was not in a mood to talk to him. This was followed by another meeting in Omhajer. I only agreed to do so late the previous night having said I would not meet him up to that point. I had only one message/question and repeatedly asked myself if I should say it or not. In the end, I thought better to say it. I asked Debretsion, why are you preparing for war? Why? He replied, “it won’t happen”.
- The TPLF seemed concerned about attacks from the South and from Eritrea in the North. We started to carefully study the situation and to make our own preparations.
- The TPLF junta foolishly attacked the Northern Command in late October 2020. Their aim was to kill and capture troops and then march to Addis Ababa to overthrow the Federal Government. And on their way to remove the Government in Asmara from power [Asmara is on the opposite direction to Addis]. To go to war for such a stupid reason was a “miscalculation” and was totally unexpected.
- The conflict in Tigray is madness and we will need to learn from it before we can move on. We cannot say the conflict is over, there will be long and protracted war by the remnants of the junta who will not rest and accept defeat.
- In 1994, Meles and I met. He gave me a copy the draft Ethiopian constitution that has not been shared widely and asked for comments. I carefully read the constitution and said to Meles this is not a good constitution for Ethiopia (or any other country). It will put the country in danger not only because of clause 39 [regional autonomy or secession] but much more. Meles replied, the TPLF want to put “explosives” in all the regions of Ethiopia and if it works fine and if not, we blow them up one by one.
- When small regional administrations are created, powerful individuals’ takeover, including religious ones. The region gets destroyed, then NGOs come in and take opportunities away from the local administration. It then creates ethnic divisions which in turn brings in external actors with their own agenda. This is the case in Ethiopia, and it must not be seen separate from what has happened elsewhere.
- If peace is to come to the region, Ethiopia must play its rightful role. To do this, however, Ethiopia’s internal problems must be solved first and we will able to support them in that endeavour. We have the responsibility and obligation to support Ethiopia more than any of our other neighbouring countries, and that’s why we have been supporting Ethiopia over the last 3 months.
- All our problems in the region were caused by external forces for their own interests and we have sacrificed a lot to solve them. There would have been no need for the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea if there were no foreign actors with their own agenda. The leaders in Addis Ababa, who had no agenda of their own, were misguided and misled by foreign powers. That was the root cause of the long conflict between our two countries.
- The Badme war was a fabrication and useless. the war started to jeopardise and poison the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. If we ask why the war happened? It is because of external interest and they used the TPLF junta as puppets.
- External forces are looking to destroy and weaken Eritrea through sanctions. To this end, they lie, bribe, threaten witnesses and then become a judge and jury to impose sanctions on us. If we look back at the 9 years we were sanctioned and the manner they were imposed, those patterns have been identical over the last three months.
- Disputes arise because of inequality, there is no “balance”, and this creates frictions and “miscalculations”. To bring peace to our region there should be a “balance” and a look at our region as 4 “components”.
- The problem is that there is “imbalance” in the region. If we are looking at the Nile River, what role are Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia playing? Are all these regional countries playing their role and is there a forum that brings them together?
- The GERD project is a foreign power initiative. From 2011, when GERD started, who were contributing to it and how was the project progressing? It is an entangled project. If people say this is a problem for Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, I say regional powers may think that way, but it does not stop there. The GERD talks have now stalled and reached a stage where the dispute cannot be resolved. Now that GERD is nearly complete, one asks why the conflicts/obstacles surrounding it were not raised 5 or 10 years ago, or when the dam building started in 2011? Those who are talking about it now did not utter a word then – maybe because they wanted to please their global masters.
- Water and other resources in the region must be carefully discussed by all parties considering future generations. We need to ask how water will be used; is it going to be for washing, human/animal drinking, agriculture or factories?
- Water development programme is needed to identify the resources we have; rainfall, sea, rivers, underground reservoirs. The priority for our people is drinking water followed by cleaning, water for animals, farming and then factories.
- In terms of the conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan, I find it shocking. Why has the conflict now arisen unexpectedly and is becoming a headline news? Why has the conflict started when both Ethiopia and Sudan are going through transition? External forces interests. This conflict is not urgent and should not be a cause of conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan, especially at this transition time.
- There is nothing in our region that we cannot solve ourselves if we do not involve foreign powers because they always complicate things and create even more conflicts.
- Saudi Arabia should have a special place in the region. We [Eritrea] will try to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s role in the region as much as possible, not only in terms of their involvement in Eritrea and Ethiopia, but beyond.
- What we currently see in the Southern Red Sea is impossible to describe. In there, there are many countries’ navy, regional and global powers trying to build their “sphere of influence” and to control shipping lanes. We should remove these threats and actors by strengthening each country.
- COVID pandemic is a “wake-up” call. We need to understand the “mismatch” between the policy and the services we can provide. Our current health service capability to deal with COVID is zero.
- We need to start building capability to deal with the pandemic in a sustainable manner and these tasks need to start without delay. We should not say COVID, COVID and see it on its own. We do not know what it is, and we have no capability to understand it.
- To say COVID has had a negative impact on our economy is an exaggeration because we had no economy in the first place. Our economic capability currently is zero but we have big ideas and policies for a sustainable solution.
- There is no economic or trade problem in this country but the way we think has been the root cause of our difficulties. Nobody can say “our economy is an economy”. What economy? It is a “hand to mouth economy”.
- This is why I say there has not been any business in Eritrea that has been interrupted or closed down because of COVID. Which ones? None, because they did not exist in the first place.
- What will people do if they start moving from villages to towns and cities? Work in “cheklista, chekilista” [Bicycle shops] or open up groceries that will have no customers?
- After independence, we had the Hergugo power plant that generated 120mg. But it went down and down so that it now generates almost zero power. It is a long story but for years, and as long as 8 years, it was not maintained at all and it eventually collapsed.
- As far as I am concerned Nakfa 1,800 [£90 or US $120] per month is not a salary – it is nothing and you cannot buy anything with it. At the end of the day, it comes down to the Government’s budget which is impossible to say how it is made up.
- Now workers have Nakfa 1,800 per month salary, they must not spend it all but save some of it. The savings level should mirror the annual salaries uplift in the future too.
- Finally, people should get ready and tighten their belts. In the last 80 years we wanted to live peacefully within our means but there are enemies.
The President’s Full Interview
Part 1 [46 minutes and 18 seconds]
Interviewer 1: sends his greetings to the viewers and welcomes them to the interview with the President.
Dear President, thank you for giving us this opportunity and we will start by asking regional issues.
The year 2020 saw COVID pandemic with huge losses of life and it has had a devastating economic impact worldwide. In addition to this, in our region and especially in Ethiopia, we have witnessed a conflict instigated by Wayane (TPLF).
Interviewer 2 : As has been said, in November 2020, the TPLF junta started a wide ranging and unexpected conflict in Tigray which has resulted in their removal from the Regional Government which they led up to that point. What do you expect the result of this conflict will be on Ethiopia, the region, and the relationship between our two countries?
The President’s Reply
If we look at it in parts, Ethiopia has been going through a reform programme/agenda recently, especially PM Abiy’s initiative to build peace and cooperation with Eritrea. We can see this as a positive change or development. So, we ask why is there now this is unexpected, unthinkable, mad, and out of control conflict in Tigray? We must ask why it has come to this to have a good understanding of the situation.
After the peace agreement announcement in 2018, people felt hope in the expectation that stability and economic development will follow. The peace agreement was a clear indication that the role of Wayane (TPLF) junta has ended or “game over” – something we may come back to later. In the last two years, the junta and their friends were worried/disturbed by the peace agreement and the new friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. As a result, the TPLF junta started preparing for war and proactively worked towards it; contrary to the peace agreement. We monitored the situation from a distance. PM Abiy said he accepted the ruling of the Border Commission surrounding Badme, but the junta were worried about it. The TPLF were using the border dispute as a card game and this created a big political division within Ethiopia. On our part we were not worried about Badme or the border dispute [this was 1998-2000 war in which some 100,000 lives perished], which we planned to deal with gradually. Our priority was to ensure stability within Ethiopia so that it is strengthened. In our view the border demarcation between the two countries was not an immediate issue and that we needed to focus on a lasting peace first. However, we decided to proactively monitor the situation within Ethiopia and put a lot of efforts to it because obstacles were placed by the junta to jeopardise the peace initiative. This does not mean we were not following or not aware of the military preparation by the junta. The Ethiopian Federal Government was fully aware of what was going on in Tigray during this period and so did we.
PM Abiy tends to propose big ideas and initiatives with good intention and the best at heart. But I said we should each look at the situation in Tigray and other issues carefully. Given our past experience, we needed to look at the issues calmly rather than rush into them. We wanted to build our relationship on solid grounds.
The port of Assab, the border with Zalambessa and Omhajer could help solidify the peace agreement. PM Abiy asked me to meet Debertsion [the now former President of Tigray] and I said I do not need a mediator because there were a lot of issues I was observing. I said let’s solidify the peace agreement first. In the meantime, the TPLF junta was openly opposing the peace initiative between Ethiopia and Eritrea. They started to make unfounded propaganda and military preparations. Then we met Debertsion in Zelambessa [11 September 2018], but I was not in a mood to talk to him. This was followed by another meeting in Omhajer. I did not wat to meet Debertsion and only agreed to do so late the previous night having said I would not meet him up to that point. I met Debretsion for a minute or two. I had only one message/question and repeatedly asked myself if I should say it or not. In the end, I thought better to say it. I asked Debretsion, why are you preparing for war? Why? He replied, “it won’t happen”. I asked what do you mean? This is the reason why I agreed to meet you and we cannot discuss any other business. This was a message of warning PM Abiy was trying to convey i.e. that war preparation was unnecessary. I therefore passed his message to Debretsion on his behalf. Hearing his reply, I concluded by saying in that case let’s wait and see.
The TPLF seemed concerned about potential attacks from the South and Eritrea in the North. We started to carefully study the situation and to make our own preparations. In the end and unexpectedly, on 3 November 2020, we witnessed a mad and out of control attack on Ethiopian troops based in Tigray. It was a miracle scenario and if you look back, it is truly surprising. The Northern Command had between 30,000 and 32,000 troops of which approximately 1/3 were Tigrayans. Ahead of the attack, the TPLF junta held a general election in Tigray against the Federal Governments order/instructions so they can say the Federal Government had no mandate to govern the country. They therefore foolishly attacked on the Northern Command. Their aim was to kill and capture troops and then march to Addis to overthrow the Federal Government. And on their way to remove the Government in Asmara from power [Asmara is on the opposite side of Addis]. To go to war on such a stupid idea is “miscalculation” and was totally unexpected.
Some of the Northern Command troops refused to defect to the Tigrayans and this was a turning point. It is now three months and 2 weeks since the start of the war and those involved, including members of the Northern Command, may be able to explain the war better than I. For us this attack was unexpected and in time it may serve as the basis of a long movie. We have not seen before such miscalculation and mad attack. This attack is the result of a 2-year plan, but it may not only be that and could go back 30 or more years. What caused it? We need to understand the issues first in order to solve the problem. I think this is “explosive politics”.
All the problems currently in Ethiopia have been brought or are the making of the TPLF junta. In 1994, Meles and I met. Meles said here is the draft Ethiopian constitution that has not been shared widely and he wanted my comments on it. I read the constitution carefully and said to Meles this is not a good constitution for Ethiopia (or any other country) and it will put the country in danger not only because of clause 39 [regional autonomy or secession] but much more. He said that was what he expected me to say and added that that was the best for us. We want to put explosives in all regions of Ethiopia and if it works fine and if not, we blow them up one by one. How can you think of building a country with this in mind? The Ethiopian federal and regional structure is therefore an idea or philosophy set with the TPLF junta’s interest in mind.
In the last 25 years from 1995 to November 2020, what political culture has been cultivated in Ethiopia? It is ethnic division and regional hatred. It is this that has brought the country into the current disaster. The current war has long history going back to the 1970s. This is a picture in the whole of Ethiopia, not only in Tigray – there are many other ethnic divisions that have been cultivated during this period that are worrisome. To remove this hatred, live peacefully and to cooperate as neighbours in the future, this regional division within Ethiopia has to go. This is the problem Ethiopia is facing now i.e., regional administration based on ethnicity. A pattern we witnessed in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Libya and was even tried in Sudan. It is based on ethnicity, clan, tribe under the control of warlords’ which in the end fragments a country. Small administrations are created, and powerful individuals take over, including religious leaders. The country gets destroyed, then NGOs come in that deny opportunities to local administration. In the end it results in division, which in turn brings in outsiders and their agenda. This is the case in Ethiopia, and it must not be seen separate from what has happened elsewhere.
Is Eritrea better than others? We have the experience although we are not different from the others. After WW2, the British administration wanted to divide Eritrea into 2 or 3 by religion and this has been a big lesson for our people. This is the reason of our armed struggle that started in the 1960s and before and went on to 1981. This lesson is what has saved us from danger otherwise we are no different from others. Ethnic division and hatred is poison politics that can spread quickly which then becomes difficult to correct. In the last 2 to 3 years as the corrective measure are taken in Ethiopia, we had an obligation, not a choice, to support it and help bring peace and stability to the country. Ethiopians fighting each other by region and ethnicity is not something we can think or dream of, and we do not get satisfaction from it. What has happened in Tigray is madness and we will need to learn from it before we can move on. We cannot say the conflict there is over, there will be a long and protracted war by the remnants of the junta. The lessons for us are big and we need to think what we can be done in the future. We do not have a solution, but our experience will help.
What are the ramifications of the Tigray conflict? Ethiopia and its operation in the region are not small and has been so for some time. When the issue of Somalia came up, we agreed to work together, and the role played by Ethiopia is exemplary. If peace is to come to the region, Ethiopia must play a role to help bring peace and stability. To do this, however, Ethiopia’s internal problems must be solved first and we are able to support in that endeavour.
Eritrea is uniquely placed and has repeatedly witnessed over the last 80 years the problems and difficulties in Ethiopia and hence the country’s peace and stability is of huge interest to us more than that of other countries. We therefore have the responsibility and obligation to support Ethiopia more than any of our other neighbouring country. That is why we are supporting Ethiopia and the conflict over the last 3 months should help us look at the big picture.
The President finishes answering the first question in 28 minutes.
Interviewer 2 : Good. Related to the above, there are several external actors that oppose Eritrea’s independence and the Government for many years. What does this mean in the context of the current situation in Ethiopia?
The President’s Reply
We should see this in historic perspective. The topic keeps on coming up and the issue is how we should read it. For 80 years, and you can go beyond that but especially after WW2, countries have had their borders demarcated by their colonial masters. You cannot now debate or ask how and why it was done. All African countries that gained independence after WW2 are well known and they include Eritrea as one of the first. At the end of the 19th century, we can talk about Italian rule and so on. In 1941 and afterwards, John Foster Dulles said the US does not have any strategic interest in Eritrea and our fate was decided. If we look back, it was because of that decision that Eritrea came under Ethiopian rule and forced us to struggle for our rights because we were denied our rights. We can talk about the British Administration (1941 to 1952) too. The aim of the British was to serve their interest as powerful masters. It was a foreign agenda of the powerful that denied us our rights because they made Ethiopia as their agent in the region. As a result, we were denied our rights and we had to fight for it for many years right through the Haile Selassie’s and Derg’s rule. All our problems were caused by external forces for their interests. This is only a recent history, and we can talk about it. We sacrificed a lot to resolve the problem caused by foreign powers. There would have been no need for the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea if there were no foreign actors with their own agenda. The leaders in Addis Ababa, who had no agenda of their own, were misguided and misled by foreign powers. That was the root cause of the long conflict between the two countries.
In 1961, we started the armed struggle. In 1974 Haile Selassie was deposed and then for the next 17 years up to 1991 was replaced by the Derg which was controlled by external forces. These powers said Eritrea does not serve their strategic interest, hence must be under our agent: Ethiopia’s rule. This was not the then Ethiopian leadership decision. We sacrificed a lot to make our country independent and to achieve victory. What has this taught us? Internal division and bad politics starting from then and the following 50 years has taught us a lot and gained experience from it, especially our understanding of foreign power’s interest. In 1991 after the cold war – East/ West politics – and our independence, we entered a new period. We started a good relationship with Ethiopia in the expectation to slowly widen it to regional cooperation. We had a clear roadmap.
But before we start, useless border disputes came up that were not of our making. The dispute with Yemen over the Hanish Islands is such an example given the Yemenis had no presence in the islands in the first place. Whose agenda was it? It was not Yemen’s agenda but that of the regional and superpowers. These powers felt Eritrea should not have peace and stability, hence created problems for us from many sides. We can now say the Hanish dispute has been settled and closed. However, soon after the Badme dispute came up. Badme was a fabrication and useless war. This war started to jeopardise and poison the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and led to the 1998 to 2000, and then 2002 war. If we ask why the war happened? It is because of external interest/agenda and they used the TPLF junta as puppets. Despite our long historic kinship and our joint struggle against the Derg, the TPLF junta attacked us. The junta’s action on Eritrea was not of its own creation only but that of external powers. It is a foreign agenda supported by superpowers. For example, in addition to the aid given to Ethiopia during the Derg time, the US gave in excess of $20 billion in aid to the junta. What was this for? It is to create conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea to advance their own strategic interest. Especially after 2000 and after the 1991 cold war, there was plans/thinking to create a “unipolar” or to start one economic structure so that in the future they can bring the whole world under their control. Towards this goal, they try to divide the world under “spheres of influence” and within this sphere they want to have their agents – this was their plan and agenda.
To achieve their agenda in our region, these foreign forces created border disputes e.g., conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and conflicts in other countries. These conflicts are instigated by external powers not by the countries themselves or their leaders, who do not have any idea what these conflicts are about. They are used as puppets to serve the foreign powers’ interest.
In the last 25 to 30 years, since the TPLF junta came to power, they have had a lot of foreign aid and it would take a lot of time to get into the details to explain. So, was the TPLF junta working on their own? No, they were working for foreign agenda. The recent conflict has shocked the junta and hugely worried their foreign friends. In the last three years or more, if we look at the news, there are actors that are worried. Why? You cannot see other emerging issues in the region separately from this. We need to see all this in a joined-up manner. We are not the only actors, there are many other actors, including the superpowers. The junta is not a big threat and we know this from our long experience going back to the 1970s. Our struggle for independence was because we could not live with Ethiopia, but we are not here to create a new region because it will not work.
If we go back to 1991 developments that created the current conflict, we tried to prevent it but overruled by external forces for their interest. To understand these conflicts; we need to ask what is the foreign agenda, who are the regional and global actors? What do they want and what have they been saying? Their end goal is to have their own spheres of influence by choosing the people whom they want to do their agenda. The foreign agenda cannot be implemented without internal actors and this is something we must understand.
The conflict in Tigray has not ended; the junta will not rest and accept defeat. From our 80 years’ experience and what we have learned, we cannot expect the junta nor the foreign actors to change their ways or bring any good plans to our region. This is not only the case here in our region. If we look at the conflicts outside our region; Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan [these are countries specifically mentioned by the President as outside of our region in this part of the interview], the actions and obstacles are created to serve foreign agenda. We have learned many lessons from the madness of the TPLF junta over the last 3 months. In the future we need to think how we can stop these types of disruptive actors. We need to have a plan in place and be prepared to accept threats and vilification as a norm – it must be seen in the light of our experience. Look how they imposed sanctions on Eritrea in the past. They are looking to destroy and weaken us through sanctions. To this end they lie, bribe, threatens witnesses and then become a judge and jury to impose sanctions on us. If we look back at the last 9 years of sanctions and the manner they were imposed, those patterns have been identical over the last three months.
External agenda and interest will not stop nor change; there will be no goodwill gesture from them. We need to plan our future and carefully monitor foreign influence. This is what we have learned over the last 3 months since the start of the conflict in Tigray.
Part 2 [35 minutes and 26 seconds]
Interviewer 2: Dear President, as you said there are several developments in our region. The border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan, and the Nile Dam (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)) dispute (between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt) are key. What can be done to resolve these disputes at a regional level and what role can Eritrea play?
The President’s Reply
To answer this question, I would start by asking what our foreign policy is, especially in relation to our neighbours. What is it based on? Disputes arises because of inequality, there is no “balance”, and this creates frictions and miscalculations. To bring peace to our region there should be a “balance” and look at our region as 4 “components” [parts]; (a) The Nile Basin – countries around the Nile, (b) Horn of Africa – here there maybe countries that come under Nile Basin too, (c) The Red Sea, and (d) The Arabian Peninsula. We can say these are one region and there should be a “balance” without focusing which is large or small. In the end, there should be a “balance” and each country must be able to hold its rightful place. Eritrea as a small country has no ambition beyond its own territory and wants to live in a peaceful region; security and stability is more important to us than economic developments. This may not be the case for the larger and richer countries but important for us.
The problem is that there is “imbalance” in the region. If we are looking at the Nile River, what role are Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia playing? Are all these regional countries playing their role and is there a forum that brings them together? If we look at the recent developments, are these countries in their rightful places? Is the region free of influence from regional and global powers? These regional and global powers want to impose their influence and so our foreign policy should not only be economic development but also security. We need to assess the role of external powers because they have an agenda to spoil things, create frictions and border conflicts. Who are these global actors and who are the regional powers, and what role are they playing? Without fully understanding and dealing with these foreign powers we cannot make progress to create a peaceful and stable region for the benefit of our people. We should not see things purely in terms of border conflicts and disputes, and must look at these issues under the 4 “components” mentioned earlier.
We need to understand how in the last 10 or 30 years foreign interest has influenced our region. Especially, the plan to create a global economy, what impact has that had in our region? And how is it impacting the current situation?
For example, how do we see the issues surrounding the Nile River or GERD? After independence in 1991 and the 1993 referendum that followed, I attended an OAU summit in Cairo and have kept notes of the discussions. What I cannot forget about the summit is my discussions with Meles in the hotel lobby. We talked a lot about the Nile and he wanted to know my views about the gossip that Egypt wanted to sell water from the Nile to Israel by erecting pipe lines under the Suez Canal. Not sure if this was true or fiction. But Meles told me he wanted to raise the issue with the Egyptians. I said we are new here and just starting, and advised he should not get involved with it at this stage, after all this is an OAU summit. I insisted he should not raise the issue of the Nile and Meles said you are right there is no rush but added he would still raise the issue with Egyptians anyway. After lunch, Meles came back really agitated and I asked him if he was ok. He replied, I should have left things as we agreed but I saw Omar Suleiman and raised the Nile water issue with him. Omar asked me with some disrespect who I was to raise such an issue. Meles was so angry. He said he would show them in much the same way the Turkish did to the Syrians.
If we look during the Derg time as I explained before, there were also issues around the Nile water. Mengistu Halimaraim [Ethiopian Leader up to 1991 i.e. before Meles] said, because there was perception that Eritrea was supported by the Arabs, the Arabs have petrol, but we have water of which 80% flows to Sudan and Egypt, and we can use that as a political weapon. This was the thinking and temptation then because of the situation; hence it is not new and not the making of the TPLF junta.
From 1993, if we asked who were pushing to cut the Nile water flow to Egypt and Sudan or control Ethiopia? It is clear there were regional and global powers behind it which I do not want to get into too many details. The Nile Dam (GERD) project was the initiative of foreign powers. From 2011, when GERD started, who were contributing to it and how was the project progressing? It is an entangled project. If people say this is a problem for Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, I say regional powers may think that way, but it does not stop there. They are either saying that as a PR exercise or as an agenda to sabotage certain aims in order to gain favours from external forces. The GERD talks have now stalled and reached a stage where the dispute cannot be resolved. Now that GERD is near complete, one asks why have these conflicts/obstacles surrounding it were not raised 5 or 10 years ago or when the dam building started in 2011? Those who are talking about it now did not utter a word then maybe because they wanted to please their global masters. They say the issues were raised then but a solution was not found. The result is that given the situation in Ethiopia and the dispute with Sudan, the GERD dispute cannot be resolved. To take it to the AU or for the US to mediate or try to find other avenues to resolve it, I say is simply prolongs the dispute and will not solve it. It will eventually create conflicts in the region and so one of the four “components” (Nile Basin) will adversely impact us all. We need to think how we can solve it ourselves, and this has been our policy. If we look at our region, Ethiopia’s population of 110m, Sudan 40m and Egypt 100m it totals to 250m people and will double to 500m in 25 years. The water and other resources must be carefully discussed by all parties considering future generation. We need to ask how the water will be used; is it going to be for washing, human/animal drinking, agriculture or factories? It should not be the case that because some countries have powerful supporters/defenders and other bring opposing proposals they dominate the outcome, or the issue ends up going round and round unresolved. The region needs to carefully think for a solution and work, using new technology, for the water to sustain current and future generations. One of my concerns is that people are now resorting to news media outlets and PR which will make finding a solution to the GEDR dispute very difficult.
In terms of the conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan, I find it shocking. Why has the conflict arisen now unexpectedly and is becoming a headline news? It is very surprising and concerning. This is a long outstanding dispute; the Sudanese parties have been playing politics with it in collaboration with the TPLF junta and other global powers. It is a long story. But why has the conflict started while both Ethiopia and Sudan are going through transition? Why is it moving to armed conflicts? This conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan is something that can be put on hold for now and then looked at calmly at a later stage given it has been there for a long time. In the last 25 years, the Ethiopian and Sudanese administrations have played politics with it and we need to think how we can find a long-term solution. This is not an Ethiopian or a Sudanese problem but a regional one for which we must find a solution ourselves collectively. It is not urgent and should not be a cause of conflict between Ethiopia and Sudan, especially at this transition time. Once both countries complete their transition then the border dispute can become a priority to resolve. These regional disputes should be solved without one country taken advantage of another given this is a “zero-sum game”. The dispute must be solved amicably by the region. What is happening now is an “insult to our intelligence”. We need to engage and find ways of solving our regional problems ourselves in places such as those in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and others, look at them calmly. There is nothing that we cannot solve ourselves if we do not involve foreign powers because they always complicate the problems and create even more conflicts. In the case of Ethiopia, we need to prioritise the issues and find solution for them. The regional issue is our prioritise, we need to put our efforts to it and work hard because it is not easy. Until that is done, it will not be possible to create stability in the region that can lead to economic prosperity.
The President finishes answering the first question in 23 minutes and 56 seconds.
Interviewer 1: Between Eritrea and the Middle East, in particular the Arabian Peninsula, relationships have been developing but it should not be looked separately from the other 3 regional “components”. In January 2021, Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry organised a meeting in Eritrea that brought together other Arabian Peninsula members. Did those talks cover economic cooperation between these countries? In terms of peace and stability in the Red Sea region, what are the developments?
The President’s Reply
We can talk about the other countries one by one but based on our policy judgement, Saudi Arabia should have a special place in the region. As I said earlier, there needs to be a “balance” and the “balance” of Saudi Arabia is not light if we look at it in all measures not only in terms of economy, trade, and development but also in terms of stability and security. Therefore, with the regional strategy it is important for Saudi Arabia to take its rightful place. We do not need to debate whether Saudi Arabia is now in its rightful place or not because it is clear to us. As much as possible we will try to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s role in the region not only in terms of their involvement in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Saudi Arabia has the economic resources, regional and international influence but this has not been fully recognised for a long time. There are recent developments in these areas, that are “dynamic” and give us much hope to bring peace and stability to the region. This is the result of a relationship that we have been working on with the Saudis and it is beginning to create a positive outcome. Trade and cooperation will follow once we have a good and close security relationships despite various obstacles from inside and outside the region. By the end of the month, we will put “mechanisms” in place that will put “building blocks” on our relationships. Our interest is to build on a lasting relationship that provides collective security, and we are exchanging ideas to that end. We presented a paper in Saudi Arabia recently that sets out a strategy for the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, including Somalia. It will be important to strengthen all countries security and economic developments. Eritrea cannot replace Djibouti, Somalia or Yemen. Conversely these countries cannot replace Eritrea. They will need to be stable on their own. What we see in Southern Red Sea is impossible to describe. In there, there are many countries’ navy, regional and global powers trying to build their “sphere of influence” and to control shipping lanes. We should remove these threats and actors from the region by strengthening each country so they can make their contribution towards the security of the Red Sea region as a whole. Somalia must improve its internal stability, otherwise it will not be possible to control its 3,300km sea coast from smugglers and pirates who pose serious threats to the region. The same can be said about Djibouti, Eritrea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Unless the security and stability issues are addressed at a country levels, it will be difficult to speak about regional cooperation and economic development. Both go “hand in hand”.
We need to study the local and regional situation carefully. To that end, we have made good progress in a short time, but this does not mean there are no challenges. There are actors that want to put obstacles in front of us, and we cannot say all is going well. We need to understand the challenges and remove the obstacles to build regional cooperation and stability. If we look at Yemen and other parts of the region and the actors there, who are regional and global powers, we should not be shocked by it. It is to be expected and our role is to challenge them at local and regional levels. To that end, we are making good progress.
Part 3 [41 minutes and 5 seconds]
Interviewer 1: I would like to ask about the current situation in the country. The Eritrean Government has taken concerted measures to prevent the spread of the COVID virus and the result has been successful by all measures. But we now seem to be going through a second wave. What should we do and what is our preventative approach? How do we strengthen our health services through technology to cope with the emerging demand?
The President’s Reply
As we said before, the general guide or roadmap should not be difficult to explain. COVID pandemic is a “wake-up” call. The question is not what we do with the variant but to find a sustainable solution for COVID and other pandemics that may arise in the future taken in to consideration our capability and resources. That depends on our people. The people may not now have the capability and opportunity but in the end economic development depends on the health of the people. To achieve that we need a free health service, which is a basic human right, and we are putting policies in place towards that goal. However, we need to understand the “mismatch” between the policy and the services we can provide due to resource constraints. The COVID pandemic should therefore be seen in that context. We need to ask about the status of our health service, clinic, hospital and others. Above all we need to ask about the skills and resources we have to make the best use of these services. Without any exaggeration our current capability is zero.
We need to start to build health services for the whole country. From Assab to Korara, to Hranay, Omhajer, Tesenaya and other places. What should our health services look like? It is not a question of buildings and saying here is a clinic, a health centre, or a hospital. But what resources do these health service have? Above all do we have the skilled workforce to man these services. It is not only a question of available services or lack thereof. These services need to be seen in “three dimensions”; how is it operating and what capability we have to deal with the pandemic? What means or resources do we have to deal with the pandemic? As I mentioned earlier, do we have people with the right skills and experience? Do we have the laboratories, the technology, and the hospitals required? Without full response and understanding to these questions we cannot deal with COVID. We need to start building capability to deal with the pandemic in a sustainable manner and those tasks need to start without delay. In the meantime, we need to decide how to monitor the virus spread, where we should have testing centres and how to do it etc. It is not a question of what vaccine and where to get it from. It is a question of what means we have and with whom we collaborate at a world recognised and “unbiased” level. We need to know our capability and resources. In general, we need to draw up an action “roadmap” that we can explain fully to the people. We need to look at the areas that do not have services such as electricity, water, schools and transport in villages, towns, and cities. After that we can build laboratories, testing centres and bring in the necessary equipment. Above all we must increase our skilled workforce year-on-year and in doing so carefully assess what is affordable. We cannot only depend on foreign aid but must build a network of overseas collaboration and relationships to help us increase our own resources and GDP. How do we do this in 2021 and beyond is something we need to consider. We should not say COVID, COVID and see it on its own. We do not know what it is, and we have no capability to understand it. All we can do is prevent the spread of the virus by wearing masks, wash hands and alert the people of the pandemic. It is important people fully understand how the virus spreads and what they need to do. That is what we need to strengthen by putting the necessary guidance in place that is reviewed and updated frequently.
Economic development and skilled manpower growth is currently needed in our country. The situation in Sudan, the Middle East, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other countries is something we need to think about because it has a direct impact as we cannot see ourselves separate from what goes on in the region. We will need to monitor developments in our region and assess the cooperation we can build. Our economic capability currently is zero. But we have good ideas and policies for a sustainable solution. In the end it is important to have the necessary human resources and skills and it is not a question of having laboratories, hospital, or clinics. This is an area we will focus on and enhance in 2021.
The President finishes his first answer in 10 minutes and 26 seconds.
Interviewer 1: Before we move on, dear President, the economic impact of COVID worldwide is clear. In Eritrea we have had lockdowns for some time that has had huge adverse impact on the living conditions and wellbeing of our people. What plans are there to help?
The President’s Reply
I say the problem is something else, not COVID. There is no economy or trade problem in this country but the way we think which has been the root cause of our difficulties. To say COVID has had an adverse impact on our economy is an exaggeration. The issue is lack of economic development. Nobody can say “our economy is an economy”. What economy? It is a “hand to mouth economy” subsistence. It is not a big economy with productive added value. We do not have big factories, farms that use new technology, industry etc. What we have now is a subsistence economy but we are working out plans that can help us move to a sustainable economy. This is why I say there has not been any business in Eritrea that has been interrupted or closed down because of COVID. Which ones? None because they did not exist.
Understanding our current economic status is a step forward. We need to reflect on the situation we had in 2020 and what we can now do in 2021 through the Ministry of Industry and others. We need to make an assessment industry by industry, our human resources and what we need to do to develop a sustainable economy. To that end, we have a 2021 plan in place. This will show us in which areas we need to focus our economic development.
It is true we cannot say COVID 19 does not affect us at all but to blame everything on the pandemic is not helpful. We need to accept the situation and think of ways of developing our economy through a meticulous study, going sector by sector. The current situation is not easy nor right. For example, if we look at tourism associated projects, how many hotels and tourism facilities do we have? Does tourism fit with our economic plan? We need to focus on the projects and activities that bring results. Identify areas or projects that are viable. There are service shortages in villages and towns. Farms that are “hand to mouth” are not sustainable. Can people live that why and for how long? What will people do if they start moving from villages to towns and cities? Work in “cheklista, chekilista” [Bicycle shops) or open up groceries that will have no customers? This is a topic that must be carefully considered to find a long-term economic solution. It is not only the role of the educated to do the necessary assessment on this. It needs full participation of the people. This is what we will be working on in 2021 taken into account the situations of our neighbours. Firstly, we will fully identify our problems and then find the solutions for them over time. Linking our economy purely to COVID is a narrow outlook and our focus should be the wider economy.
The President finishes his answer (18.09)
Interviewer 2: Dear President, you mentioned it but needs further clarification. In the past you gave priority to economic development, what will be the priorities for 2021?
The President’s Reply:
This question helps you focus on the issue we have been discussing. Can we work on one strand only at the exclusion of other projects or should we work on “matrix”? What is needed is to identify all the projects and priorities, assess how they link to each other and their interdependencies. You draw a chart. Say, for example, water development; what sources do we have? Rainfall, sea, underground reservoirs. The priority for our people is drinking water followed by cleaning, water for animals, farming and then factories. All this need water strategy for the whole country not in terms of towns and cities but villages included. There are plans to collect rainfall in reservoirs – a programme that is run country wide. The water is then controlled and shared out so that it is used productively, including for drinking, farming and industries. This is a wide-ranging plan which we will need to be reassessed annually. To do this we will not necessarily need heavy machinery or material such as cement but shovel and pick and deploy the huge workforce at our disposal. A 5 to 10 years water plan can be drawn up – this is a big topic that we will need to consider.
Another resources we need to evaluate is electric power which currently is poor. After independence, we had Hergugo that generated 120mg to serve the region, but it went down and down that it now generates almost zero power. It is a long story but for years and as long as 8 years it was not maintained at all and it eventually collapsed. The challenge now is how to generate the power for homes and factories such as the cement factory. We need power generators/grids in Tesenay, Allowa, Fanco, Kerberet and other places too. You cannot solve power shortage by having standalone home generators. What we currently have is only a short-term solution, not long term. A plan for local and national grid power stations that is “modular” is required. Do we have power generators/grids that are powered by fuel or some other stuff? The “modular” approach will need to be divided by regions for Kerkebet and its northern region, Tesenay, Alegder, Omhajer, Tokhbeya and Baranetu, Assab and its region, north towards Massawa and its surroundings, the middle part in Kebessa inside the three areas, North and South Red Sea, Anseba and South, Gash Barka and on so on. A strategy for all these areas will be needed.
Will our energy be renewable or non-renewable? There is solar, wind or other sources of energy we can use. It will need a clear strategy. It may be a hybrid – renewable and non-renewable power. The cost is huge, and we may need to go for hybrid because of that but we should endeavour to go for renewable energy. Now 99% of our energy comes from non-renewable and this should be reduced gradually. This will be something we will monitor annually.
Roads and rail links and how they connect the various regions of the country is another area we need to think about. Without a good transport network, we will not be able to work effectively and develop our country. This must be looked at in a joined-up manner. The plans we have for water and electricity development are significant and they will need to be phased so they can be affordable and monitored annually. We are making progress.
The President finishes (28.5)
Interview 2: One of the big steps taken by the Government, dear President, is to review public workers salary. In Q4 2020, monthly salary of those who completed secondary school and other civilians increased to Nakfa 1,800 [£90 or US $120] per month. When will this apply to those few who have not started to receive it yet?
I do not know if I have answered this question or not, but I have answered it. The main thing is that our budget must improve and increase. As far as I am concerned Nakfa 1,800 is not a salary. It is a starting point on which we will make improvement. Nakfa 1,800 should not only be a number but other issues need to be considered. You cannot buy anything with Nakfa 1,800. Unless Nakfa has purchasing power, it is nothing. If you take the needs of one person to buy food, rent, clothing, transport, and other needs, Nakfa 1,800 will not be enough. The price of goods and services should be aligned to the minimum wage, especially as the Nakfa is getting weaker and weaker. Then there is a question if the person lives on his own or has a family, does he have a home or rent, does he have utility bills to pay, transport cost – all this need to be assessed. Finding a single answer is difficult. At the end of the day, it comes down to the Government’s budget which is impossible to say how it is made up or defined. The waste in various departments must be removed. For example, fuel budget and other running cost must be cut back so it can be used to increase salaries. There should be a process of moving money between budget to increase salaries and this will need a fundamental restructuring. It needs to be seen case by case, person by person considering the prevailing standard of living. For example, we cannot say because he/she has a salary of Nakfa 1,800 should leave their parents’ home. In general, the Nakfa 1,800 is a starting salary which we will need to reassess and increase it every year. This will depend on economic growth, fiscal sustainability, and the government’s other spend areas.
The Nakfa 1,800 must be implemented without delay even if it means transferring money from other budget to salaries. Workers must not spend all their salaries but save some of it. The savings level should mirror their annual salaries uplift in the future.
The President finishes (38.10)
Interview 2: There are some, albeit, a few workers who have not been paid the new salary amount yet.
The President Reply: This is easy and should not be a problem. The pay will be backdated.
Interviewer 1: In conclusion, dear President; in the current situation considering COVID and regional issues, what are the 2021 opportunities and challenges?
What I would like to say is, and we have covered a lot of the issues already, including economy, security, and regional issues, I would say the people should get ready and tighten their belts.
Interviewer 1: This is a good answer. Does it need clarification?
The President’s Reply
Clarification is needed although not sure how to do it. Government Departments will do what they need to do but everything must be done with full participation of the people. All of our plans, activities and projects must be clear for the people, including the security issue we have been talking about the TPLF junta. In the last 80 years we wanted to live peacefully within our means but there are enemies. When there are people out there to undermine us, we will need the people to be ready and take part in all the aspects we have been talking about.
Interviewer 1: On behalf of our viewers, Dear President, thank you – we close our programme here.
Personal observations of the President’s speech
The Horn of Africa is at cross roads. There are some serious political, social and economic challenges that threaten the region unless some urgent action is taken by the international community. The translation of the Eritrean President’s speech has therefore been made with that in mind and to inform both regional and global leaders the thinking of the main actor of instability in the region.
In going through the speech over and over again, my focus has been to identify 3 or 4 key messages from it, which I must confess has not been easy. The President has the tendency to waffle, contradict himself repeatedly and to digress to petty and obvious issues. One such example is his explanation where water comes from (e.g., rainfall) and how it is used (e.g., drinking and washing) as if this is something unknown and unheard of before.
Nevertheless, and based on what the President said and implied, the following 4 points, in my view, sum up the key issues:
- The war on Tigray agreement between Isaias and Abiy
The 20-year no war no peace stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended in 2018 with Abiy’s acceptance of the Border Commission’s ruling on Bame, and the signing of a peace accord between the two countries. The exact contents of the peace agreement remain a mystery but the affection and chemistry between Abiy and Isaias has blossomed. Despite this, the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea have not seen any tangible benefits; there is no trade, the border between the two countries remains unmarked and all cross-border roads closed. The only link between the two countries is through intermittent flights that are out of bounds to most citizens.
Various events were held in both Eritrea and Ethiopia to celebrate the mystery peace accord in which the two leaders held hands, blew kisses to the crowds and at one event even exchanged rings. It is following these jubilations Isaias proclaimed “game over” and effectively declared war on the TPLF against whom he had a long-held grudge. This therefore exposed the true nature of the agreement which was a joint war on Tigray rather than a peace agreement between the two countries. This assertion is supported by Isaias’ speech in which he says, “we were monitoring the situation in Tigray and preparing ourselves since 2018, and now supporting Ethiopia in its efforts”.
The only people that were deceived by the peace accord between Abiy and Isaias were the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway who pre-maturely and as a token gesture for Africa awarded the 2019 Peace Prize to Abiy.
- Ethiopia: A nation under foreign occupation
Ethiopia the cradle of Christianity, is a proud country, and rightly so. It is the only African country that has never been colonised and indeed defeated foreign invaders not once, but twice. The country has had its fair share of its problems since WW2 not least the tragic famines of the 70s and 80s, and the wars with Eritrea. But it has remained proudly independent – always standing tall amongst African nations.
At the time of writing, Ethiopia has sadly been under Eritrean occupation for 116 days. Since the start of the Tigray conflict, that Abiy ineptly called a “law enforcement operation”, he has been indiscriminately bombing the region, mercilessly killing his own people with the full support (and some would argue) guidance from Isaias.
It is mind boggling to try to understand how the second smallest nation in the region can humiliate the largest country in the region and the second most populous nation in Africa after Nigeria. Nobody knows the exact population of Eritrea nor its GDP. Indicative figures are a population of around 4 million and a GDP of about $3.5 billion compared with Ethiopia’s 112 million (2019) and $95.6 billion (2020 forecast) respectively. This is akin to Chile in South America occupying the United States of America.
Only time will tell how long patriotic Ethiopians will tolerate Eritrean occupation of their territory before they rise up to defend their homeland and sovereignty.
- How will the war in Ethiopia end?
In 2018, following the signing of the peace accord, Isaias, beating his chest with excitement and hugging Abiy, declared: “you are our leader now and there is no difference between our two countries”. This was a music to the ears of the inexperienced and novice Abiy, who took Isaias’ words at face value. To people with long experience and inquisitive minds what Isaias was saying was the complete opposite. In effect Isaias was saying to Abiy “I am the leader now and you will do what I tell you.” This assessment has proved accurate over the last two and half years, culminating in the tragic and unnecessary war in Tigray.
In his speech, Isaias predicts that “there will be a long and protracted war in Tigray by the remnants of the junta who will not rest and accept defeat”. He is absolutely right. The Tigrayans, despite geographical challenges, have proved time and again that they are a determined and formidable people. They are probably the most united ethnic group in the entire Horn of Africa, if not in the whole continent. In 1991, they used this strength to defeat the Derg, that was armed to the teeth, and to liberate the Ethiopian people from the worst kind of repression under Mengistu Hailemariam. They have the resilience and perseverance to fight a protracted war for decades until they achieve their ultimate goal. This war will be no different.
The other war I fear most and is closer to home is a third war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. There have been several reports of clashes between Ethiopian and Eritrean Forces with the former trying to defend Tigrayan properties from looting, killing and and abusing civilians. The Eritrean Forces are solidifying their grip in the northern part of Tigray by hoisting their flag and issuing local Tigrayans with Eritrean ID cards. This has caused resentment amongst Ethiopian Forces, including high ranking officials to the extent that they have now started to advocate for action and speak openly about it.
The only way, it seems to me, Eritrean troops will leave Tigray is sadly by force – hence the likelihood of a third war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
- Isaias: The President
From Isaias’ speech, much of which is gibberish, what comes loud and clear is that he is smug and someone who greatly overestimates himself. There is no recognition that he is a failed leader of what is one of the tiniest countries in Africa, who attempts to portray himself as the President of the Horn of Africa
What I find ironic in Isaias’ speech is that he seems to have given up on Eritrea, especially its economy. He says there is no economy to speak of in the country. He says that the health service is zero and its capacity to deal with COVID-19 is zero. He maintains that COVID-19 has not adversely impacted businesses around the country because there were no businesses in the first place. Electricity generated in the country is almost zero, the country has no skilled workforce etc. He blames everyone else, including external forces, apart from himself and yet all of these disasters took place on his watch.
Just as well Eritrea has no stock market because the index would have tanked to zero following this speech.
The President’s mind seems to be preoccupied with three distinct but interrelated issues:
- The Ethiopia/Sudan conflict – Isaias repeatedly asserts the border issue between Ethiopia and Sudan has been there for a long time and the TPLF junta and Sudanese politicians hashed it till now to satisfy foreign interest. He asks why the conflict flared up now when both Ethiopia and Sudan are going through a reform agenda? This is a familiar ploy by Isaias. It is unthinkable to that he raised these issues with Sudanese/Ethiopians interest at heart. His motive here beyond a shadow of a doubt is starve the Tigrayan Forces by closing their supply lines through Sudan.
- The GERD dispute – again as far as Isaias is concerned the dam is a foreign interest project and he regards it cynically. He asks why there is disagreement now between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt when it could have been raised and resolved a decade ago? Again, he blames this on external forces, knowing full well that if the conflict flares up into a fully blown out war with perhaps the backing of the Arab League, Ethiopia will be in another unwinnable war.
- UN imposed sanctions – Isaias is paranoid that with the Tigrayan conflict, the UN will impose sanctions on Eritrea, in much the same way as the 9-year sanctions that ended in 2018. He adds “external forces are looking to destroy and weaken Eritrea through sanctions. To this end, they lie, bribe, threaten witnesses and then become a judge and jury to impose sanctions on us”.
Finally, Isaias closes his speech with what seems to me a war alert/readiness to the people of Eritrea saying “when there are people out there to undermine us, we will need our people to be ready and take part in all the aspects we have been talking about. We must get ready and tighten our belts. In the last 80 years we wanted to live peacefully within our means, but there are enemies out there”.