Once dubbed the “hope of Africa” by a Western newspaper, Eritrea has since been lambasted as a rogue state led by an authoritarian regime, paranoid about its larger neighbour, Ethiopia, with whom it fought a ruinous border war. A key ally of the US once upon a time, relationships soured in the early 2000s, as they did with the AU, the UN, other nations, and international organisations. Human rights groups often rank Eritrea as one of the worst performers. But, though it has gone unreported, Eritrea is a country that may meet most of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. It has achieved considerable success in health and education, based on principles of self-reliance and social justice. As pictures of the recent famine in the Horn of Africa are broadcast across the world, Eritrea is missing from the narrative because in a short space of time it has made strides in developing a strong agricultural sector and a resilient economy. And it has done all this without donor aid or outside help. New African spoke to the Eritrean president, Isaias Afweriki, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York.
Eritrea is very much a command economy where things are planned with military precision. And in contrast to its neighbours, its agricultural model has led to self-sufficiency, and its economy is set to grow quite rapidly with the added bonus of new mining ventures which should make Eritrea the fastest developing economy in the world this year, with a growth rate of 17%.
Eritrea has managed not only to survive, but more importantly advance many of its goals. A recent study likened the “management” style of President Isaias Afwerki to that of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. Both rulers govern small countries, and rule with iron fists, but they are determined to put their countries on the right track, with commitment to gender equality, education and good government.
The only real difference is that Kagame has been more politically adept at keeping the West and international organisations on his side.
President Afwerki is not one for airs and graces, and will not charm or disarm you in the way of a Clinton or Blair. He did open up as our interview with him went on, but was unemotional and stern for most of the time.
Throughout, his answers were pragmatic and determined. Asked about his style of management, he said: “There is no such thing as an Eritrean philosophy, it’s based on realistic approaches to dealing with challenges and I believe this is universal.
“What people call the old philosophy of Africa being second-class, Africa being marginalised, Africa needing aid, Africa living on handouts, Africa this and Africa that, Africa being backward, this stereotypical approach is what we believe defines the term ‘conventional’ because it has become the norm, and many people perceive it as if it’s the rule of the day and there are no other alternatives.
“We believe Africa should have its own alternative, not because Africa is unique but because Africa is marginalised, not because of colonial history but because of existing realities. There is a path we can adopt to extricate ourselves from the state of affairs in which we currently find ourselves and through which we can be equal partners with everybody.”
If there is one word to describe the philosophy of this man, who spent much of his life in the military, as well as that of his country, it is “self-reliance”.
“Aid was fashionable at one point in time, but with experience we see that in fact, aid has been disabling for Africa,” he continued. “The resources are there, the endowments are there, and yet there is still no infrastructure, our manufacturing and industries are not globally competitive and we have been unable to exploit the advantage we have in terms of national resources, mineral resources, geography, and water to change the quality of life in Africa.”
Eritrea has had to declare independence four times since 1941, first from Italy (1941), then from the UK (under UN mandate) in 1951, then from Ethiopia (de facto) on 24 May 1991, and finally from Ethiopia (de jure) on 24 May 1993.
At the last declaration of independence in 1993, many countries and development finance institutions courted Eritrea. “I remember in 1994,” said Afwerki, “when experts from the World Bank came and said, ‘We’ll write the country programme for you’; we never had any experience, we were a new nation, but the question came to my mind, so I said, why do we need someone else to write our country programme? Why can’t we write our own one?
“We know our reality better than anybody else. We can identify our needs and specify what we need to change in reality; we may not have the resources but we want to develop institutions and the capacity to write our own programme. If we need someone else’s support then we can outsource but ultimately we would be owners of our own programme.
“I remember the discussion we had with those experts, they couldn’t even explain or give an answer to the question. They said the World Bank writes country programmes for everybody and particularly in Africa. That led to a very controversial discussion, and finally we said we have to write our own programme.”
Afwerki denies that he has closed off the country from the rest of the world. “When you talk about self-reliance, people will tell you this is isolationist, you are isolating yourself. Self-reliance does not mean isolation, self-reliance means enabling yourself to be party to, or part of, regional, sub-regional and global markets. How do you become equal with others? You have to sell something and buy something. To sell something you need the produce.
“We didn’t cut ties with [the World Bank], we don’t cut ties with anybody but if we’re better suited to run a programme, we will run it ourselves.”
Statistics, which are not always easy to come by, say that in the last five years, the country has managed to increase agricultural production. It used to produce 20% of its requirements, now it is producing nearly 80%. Agriculture is one of President Afweki’s special interests and he is known to spend long hours visiting agricultural projects.
Nevertheless, a recent report by an NGO said that there were signs of the drought in East Africa affecting Eritrea. This, the president categorically denies.
“For the last two years, I can say, we have been producing enough, maybe a surplus; last year we had a surplus, this year we expect to have a surplus. Why were we able to produce that in a semi-arid country with very limited water resources? How do you do that? It’s because of dams, small, medium, big dams. It’s the result of spate irrigation, where you divert streams of water flowing from one area to another.
“With the introduction of new technology, any country, even arid countries like Eritrea, can be self-sufficient in food production; anyone who wants to see our experience will have to come to Eritrea.”
Afwerki categorically blames the recent problems in the Horn of Africa on the aid trap many countries in Africa find themselves in: “Number one, it’s dependency; dependency on aid. If say a community is addicted to food aid coming from outside – and we have gone through this experience for quite a long time – the whole community is paralysed, year in, year out. The year comes and the year goes, and communities develop a culture of depending on outside help.
“I think it’s irresponsible governments, corrupt governments, who misuse local resources, who misuse external aid and support and don’t have even an idea on how to tackle this problem on their own.
“And that’s where I believe Africa will have to design its own philosophy of development, because we cannot copy the experience of others. We cannot depend on someone else’s experience on this, we know our own realities, we have to really be articulate in designing programmes that suit our own reality.”
Eritrea’s history with the AU has been frosty. Given its historical problems with its larger neighbour Ethiopia, it has often wanted more support from the continental organisation.
A traditional ally of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Al Gathafi, who helped Eritrea during its struggle against Ethiopia (although Afwerki has remained neutral during the recent Libyan uprising), when Afwerki was asked about the AU failing to play a lead role in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, he was brutally frank about the organisation’s limitations.
“Now, you see, this has been quite problematic for the last maybe 40 years,” he said. “The founding fathers had a dream; like everybody else in the world, they wanted their countries to be independent, they had this dream of an organisation of African unity that was meant to be a mechanism for a collective effort to bring about the integration of Africa.
“Pan-Africanism was not only an emotional goal but a realistic one for those who felt they needed a continental organisation to do the job. This organisation failed. And then everyone agreed that we needed to have a more effective and revitalised continental organisation, and the idea of the African Union came.
“For the last 12 years, we have wasted our time and energy trying to find the best structure for a continental organisation that can deliver in terms of designing programmes, or even organising programmes among the regions. It should be a modular approach where you have sub-regions organised to integrate their economies, and put in place an infrastructure – communications, water supply, energy, trade and investment. Then you can have these small building blocks or pieces of a mosaic, giving a bigger picture.
“It’s a very daunting task but you need an organisation to facilitate that, you need cooperation amongst nations, you need to exchange resources and experiences; that’s where you need to develop an economy in Africa, the resources are tremendous.”
Afwerki’s vision for the AU is one more geared towards pushing an integration agenda: “We need an effective organisation to enable each and every government, sub-region, and ultimately the continent to get out of this marginalised position at a global level.
“That kind of stuff will have to be the basis for an organisation that gradually transforms itself into some kind of mechanism for economic integration; and economic integration is the rule of thumb. Thirty years were wasted and now we have wasted another 12, but the challenge is still there.
“Unless we do it on our own and have the appropriate organisation for Africa, to be party to globalising aid, there could be more famine and droughts, and we will always be mentioned at the lowest level in the global sense.”
As for the UN, he thinks it is simply a way to legitimise the policies and actions of some of its larger members, who still dominate the institution. “The UN does not exist, to me at least, and I have said that again and again and again. This was an organisation meant for the post-Second World War era, it may have served some purpose during the Cold War but now we need a completely different international organisation.
“There is undoubtedly a need for an international organisation, it’s a body that will organise relations amongst nations and it could be a vehicle for promoting cooperation amongst nations.
“[The current UN] has become an umbrella or an excuse for intervention here or there. Even the wording of some of the resolutions passed in the name of the United Nations and what happens on the ground is completely different and sometimes contradictory to what’s said within the UN, because there are no rules, and those who have the might do things the way they like.
“They disregard this organisation because they use it as a cover-up, as an excuse for the promotion of their own agendas. It’s not only Côte d’Ivoire or Libya or any other place, it’s been happening time and again.”
It appears that internationally, Afwerki and his country are repairing some of the broken ties. When pushed to respond to accusations by the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, about “the famine in Eritrea”, Afwerki took a conciliatory tone and simply said it was unfortunate.
He even had praise for his counterpart in the US, President Barack Obama: “The guy is talented, the guy has a vision,” Afwerki said. “But however talented, however determined to bring about a change, one single individual cannot do it because we have a systemic problem, and systemic problems need to be addressed in a systemic way.”
When quizzed about the right model for growth, the American one of checks and balances, which paralyses the political decision-making process, or the Chinese centralised one, Afwerki preferred to abstain. “We need to have the basics right, first and foremost; if we agree on the basics then we can talk about the mechanism or the means of achieving goals.
“The economy is the heart of the problem. Development and growth are basics in any community. And then the distribution of wealth is critical, in the United States or even in any underdeveloped African country, how do you distribute wealth?
“Two per cent of the population get 90% of the wealth of the country, and 98% only get 10%; that brings about crisis. Any political system will have to address these basic issues and that’s the challenge for every community.
“So rather than talk about models, let’s talk about the basics, and we’ve always said that opportunities, equal opportunities for citizens, have to be there, and a country will have to be based on citizenship. Resources will have to be allocated appropriately, distribution of wealth is critical; if these are the measuring sticks for any political system anywhere, then we can talk about those basics.
“Outside those basics, for every country, even these highly developed economies, if wealth distribution is not fair and equitable, if production has stagnated, then we have all this financial and economic meltdown everywhere; it’s basically a mishandling of the basics, in my opinion.”
President Afwerki has been in power since 1991 and was touted as a disciplined, capable and incorruptible “soldier prince”. It is widely agreed that unlike many of his peers, he has not sought personal gain from office.
And at first it appeared Eritrea was opening up with a new constitution, the prominence of women in politics and civil society, and the promise of democratic elections. But following more tensions with Ethiopia in 1998 and disagreements with some members of the international community, Afwerki quashed dissent within his government and postponed elections and the implementation of the constitution.
So when asked about whether he was still, after 20 years, the best person for the job, and whether in general those who fought for independence were the best people to build a nation and drive economic growth, his answer was quite clear:
“Who has the right to say so and so is the best leader? The people will have to decide. We need political systems that serve the interests of the people. Ultimately populations will not tolerate circumstances that don’t change people’s quality of life, [or] economies that don’t have equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. Societies make their judgement based on their experience with the political systems available to them.
“People talk about liberation movements but my question is, if you’ve been a liberation fighter, why do you pickpocket, why do you take money from the population? Why do you open accounts in Switzerland? You don’t have a carte blanche to rob the population of their resources simply because you fought for liberation.”
Just as the president was opening up, our time was running out. “If you have questions remaining, you can come to Asmara and complete your interview,” he said, finally managing to conjure a warm and welcoming smile.
With many questions still unanswered, we may just have to take him up on his invitation.