His official car is an aging Toyota, which he often drives himself. His salary is less than $12,000 a year. Cabinet officials and foreign diplomats lament they sometimes can’t find him because he’s on campus, seated among fellow students or sequestered studying for his MBA.
Issaias Afewerki is hardly your typical African president.
But, according to the U.S. State Department, he represents the wave of the future--at least what the outside world wants to see happen on the most troubled of continents. Africa’s newest state may even have answers to some of the region’s oldest problems.
“Eritrea is a success story. It’s better than just about anybody else in Africa and there are a lot of reasons for ongoing optimism, despite horrendous obstacles,” said a senior U.S. official. “It has a lot of ethnic groups divided by two of the world’s major religions. Its economy was destroyed and its people scarred by a 31-year war, Africa’s longest war of independence. Yet it brings incredible seriousness to the daunting task of building a country almost from scratch.”
But like the war against Ethiopian rule--when Eritrea had no help from either East or West-- the little state is doing most of the work on its own. Issaias, an engineering student who left college to join the war and eventually rose to become secretary-general and military chief of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, orchestrated war strategy during three decades of living in the bush. Eritrea won independence in 1993.
Today, Issaias, 51, again is trying to defy the odds against success in a country with a per capita annual income of only $149. Eritrea is off to a good start. It has one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Police don’t even carry guns. The economic growth rate is around 4%, while the current deficit is one-third the West European average. Refusing to be encumbered by serious debt, Eritrea regularly rejects outside funding and expertise--even for pivotal projects, such as rebuilding the national railway that had not worked since the 1970s. Instead, old railway workers, many in their 60s and 70s, reconstructed the entire thing. It opened this year. But Eritrea has a long way to go on many fronts. “It’s still a one-party state. Many non-government organizations have been forced to leave. And we have concerns about some human rights cases,” says the U.S. official.
Issaias, who opted to live in a modest home with his wife, also a former combatant, and their two small children after converting the palace into a museum, admits shortfalls. “Our democracy has not yet been consummated,” he said during a recent conversation in a small government guest house.
Like many Eritreans, he likes American rock from the 1960s, a holdover from the days of a major U.S. military base in Asmara. Again unlike many African leaders, he has even forbidden his picture to be posted in government offices.
Question: U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her recent tour of Africa, are talking about a new breed of leadership in Africa. Your name is always high on the list in part because of your often unconventional views, especially on issues such as aid.
Answer: Aid has to be altogether scratched from our vocabulary. It’s debilitating and crippling. We have come out of a war. We would be more eligible than anyone else for aid. The economy, national infrastructure, agriculture, industry and social fabric have all been destroyed.
But what are the benefits of aid? There’s a saying: As long as it rains in Canada or the United States, who cares about rains in Africa? That’s a joke by relief workers. But it’s not a joke; it’s a real thing. Many have been getting handouts from the international community for food and other things. After two or three years, you’re crippled and you’ll live on aid forever and assume the international community is responsible for you. You’re not productive and you’ll have no sense of working to support yourself.
Governments abuse aid. They don’t come up with ideas about facing the challenges--be it social, economic or political. They don’t look for resources within their nations. There are no institutions created. The institutions that prevail are nongovernment organizations and charities that do the job on behalf of society and governments. The more aid that is pumped into societies on this marginalized continent, the more dependent we become. It’s like a drug that ultimately cripples you to the point that you can’t even survive.
Q: Are you talking about all of Africa? What about the rest of the developing world?
A: Billions of dollars have been spent in cases like Somalia, Cambodia. Where have these billions gone and how has society benefited? And what can the international community or the U.N. claim was achieved? Is it peace or the transformation of living standards? Nothing has changed. In fact, the international community has created institutions that give the false impression of resolving problems but in fact only perpetuate problems and create parasites.
Aid should be a temporary dose, like aspirin, or a temporary drug with appropriate regulations to limit the time frame for its dosage or you’ll get a habit. It’s better to take a bitter pill to cure the disease rather than have false drugs that will develop the habit of dependency.
Q: Eritrea is not only the newest, but one of the poorest countries in Africa. What makes you think you can succeed when so many others have failed for so long?
A: Self-reliance is our negation of the idea of aid. We have an established tradition of self-reliance. There has been a lot of controversy about this. Some simplistically say, after all, you have no resources, you are a poor country. There are no agricultural resources, no minerals, no infrastructure, no natural resources. But how were we able to face [Ethiopian President] Mengistu’s army, which was one of the biggest on continent backed by one of the biggest populations? We were able to challenge it, with all its resources, by relying on ourselves economically and militarily.
We learned the hard way. During the war, no one supported us. When [Emperor] Haile Selassie was in Ethiopia, the United States supported Ethiopia. Then Mengistu overthrew Selassie and allied with the Soviet Union. All that time, we got nothing from the U.S. or then the Soviet Union. So we had to find a way to achieve our goals by relying on our own resources. Now the benefit of that experience prevails: We can do it on our own.
Q: How does that translate in practical terms?
A: Another dimension of our strategy is to develop human resources to the maximum. That may have come as a result of our recognition of the limitation of our natural resources. Without developing human capital, it’s senseless. That’s what we’re doing now. Yes we need roads, bridges, airport, water supply. But we can’t develop this infrastructure without developing our human capital. We’re talking long-term strategy, 20 years. We have to educate our people.
We have a successful arrangement with the World Bank on human resource development strategy that we designed for the next five years. We have a clear idea on how many citizens will have to be educated, in what areas and how to benefit from these programs. Within a number of years we will have human resources that could be flexible in accommodating or using whatever resources, internal or external, that are available.
Q: During her trip, Albright emphasized that the United States wants a new “partnership” with Africa, a shift from the old patronage by richer nations of poor developing countries. How does that sound to you and what do you want from the United States?
A: Partnership is nothing new coming from the outside. It’s an idea, a philosophy that’s been brewing or evolving in the region. It’s now a buzzword.
Relationships should be based on the fact that we own our programs. It’s not for someone else to tell us: You have to do this or introduce that type of policy or create this kind of institution and you have to have someone outside come to write your program. That should be history. We have to be able to come up with our own program and mobilize our resources.
If we don’t have the capability, we can benefit from the resources and expertise of our partners. This is an approach where we agree to sit around the table without anyone coming with a finished agenda. We’ll talk openly about what is appropriate and find solutions together. Our partners have to share our concerns, participate in what we are doing and of course benefit mutually at the end.
Q: Eritrea’s population is half Muslim, half Christian. It has nine major ethnic groups and nine different languages. Yet it has avoided the kind of problems that divided Lebanon, Yugoslavia or Somalia. How have you prevented conflict in such a divided society?
A: It’s the balance that is important. Diversity can actually be a resource. I speak three local languages and that’s a resource. I would be one dimensional if I hadn’t had the opportunity to know other people with their own unique cultures and values and speak to them in their own language. As long as we live together in one room, we need to recognize each other, agree on the common things we have and appreciate our diversity.
It never happens in one stroke. Part of it is history: Christianity and Islam came in the third and the sixth centuries. Despite some problems of religious wars, people have learned how to live in harmony. This has become a crossroads of cultures and people of northern Africa.
The fight for independence also unified religious, ethnic and language groups and helped overcome many difficulties seen today in Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia. We’ve gone through a civil tensions in the early 1970s. We’ve gone through tribal and religious problems in the 1960s. But there was unity of the nation in fighting Mengistu.
So we’ve achieved a lot, although I can’t say it’s been fully consummated. We still need to make the [new political] environment take this diversity into account. In that regard, it’s not recognition of diversity but recognition of minorities and their role that is important. Give a disadvantaged group more than it deserves in society and that creates more harmony.
Q: It is noticeable here that, for all the participation and commitment, there is no opposition party. The government has a strong role in the media. And there has been criticism about human rights cases.
A: Sometimes, there is a perception that homogeneity--the sense of purpose, unity and harmony in this society--is something negative. Some simplistically conclude it’s an authoritarian government.
On the contrary. For the last 30 years, we’ve gone through a very dynamic political process. Either we survived as a nation or not at all. Practically everyone in this population of 3 million was involved one way or another in the struggle and the EPLF. So at this moment we can’t simply say, well, disassociate yourself from this group. Even when you disagree, because you have lived together, you don’t want to separate. Habits are difficult to break. We’re in a transition and as long as this historical transformation is not consummated, it’s difficult to see there’s a possibility of other real political parties.
Q: Then you will allow, tolerate or encourage opposition political parties?
A: Why not? That’s the healthiest way of managing politics in any society. Even before the end of the Cold War, even before anyone thought this country could be liberated in 1991, the EPLF congress in 1987 clearly put in its program that political pluralism is necessary for stability and development of the continent.
Once we have overcome the challenges of reconstructing the country and we’re affluent, we’ll have the luxury of being different on day-to-day issues. That will be the right time for political parties to emerge. I don’t mean political parties should be postponed, but my understanding of the process is that this history of a single sense of purpose will not stay forever.
A new generation will not associate physically and psychologically with the current sense of history. It will live in a completely different environment. Then and only then will we come up with a serious political environment where a number of parties will participate.
Already within the party there are a lot of ideas that have come and gone, and people have independent views. Ultimately people will say: Is our difference significant enough to develop into two or three different political organizations? Even now, I don’t expect my son or my family to see the reality of this country from my perspective. My position and theirs can be different.