The Eritrean president sat down recently with the Los Angeles Times to share his views about U.S. relations, a long-simmering border dispute with Ethiopia and progress in Africa toward democracy and human rights.
U.S.-Eritrea relations are at an all-time low. Four years ago, the U.S. was considering putting a military base on the Eritrean coast and Eritrea joined the U.S.-led coalition supporting the Iraq invasion. Now there’s a diplomatic tit-for-tat and the U.S. is threatening to put Eritrea on a list of state sponsors of terrorism. How did the relationship sour?
That leads us to one of the major issues, and that is the border. [A 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea killed at least 70,000.] We know there was a heavy-handed involvement by the U.S. in the conflict. The U.S. has come out to openly say that they were on the side of Ethiopia against Eritrea. . . . We believe the U.S. deliberately complicated the process [to demarcate the border in accordance with a 2002 independent ruling that gave the disputed Badme region to Eritrea] to delay it and find some opportune moment for reversal. These five years of complications have not come from the regime in Addis. It’s come from Washington.
Why would the U.S. want to do that?
That’s the question. Why do they have to support Ethiopia? Wouldn’t it be better for the U.S. to work with countries of this region for a safe and stable environment? It’s evident that the U.S. wants to manage sub-regions everywhere in the world, particularly in Africa, by proxy. I call it an agent who promotes the U.S. interest at the expense of the collective interest of that region.
The U.S. State Department accuses Eritrea of supporting terrorism by arming Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, which was ousted last year from Mogadishu amid U.S. claims that it has links to Al Qaeda.
It’s a deliberate distortion of fact. Why would one categorize the courts as terrorists? The Islamic courts are a product of the political process in Somalia for the last 15 years. A product of 15 years of chaos, 15 years of warlords, 15 years of neglect by the international community. Despite our disagreement with their ideology, it was the beginning of a process that could have led Somalia to be more stable and sovereign.
Did Eritrea support the courts with weapons, as alleged recently by the U.S. and the U.N. Monitoring Group?
I still would like to know what is behind this allegation. Nobody is convinced. What are the accusations?
That there were about 13 flights over a one-month period, leaving from Asmara and Massawa and arriving in Mogadishu. Most of the flights were in November and December of 2006.
Before the occupation of Somalia?
What does that mean to the situation now and the issue of terrorism or the support of terrorism? We were told after the invasion of Somalia that the Islamic courts were finished. If anything went to the Islamic courts before their ousting, why would it be an issue? This is history. We recognized the Islamic courts as part and parcel of the political process in Somalia. We believe the courts have to be recognized.
I haven’t heard you deny the allegation. Is your position that if you did send arms last year, that it would not have been improper because the courts were legitimate?
There are no facts or evidence. For me to deny or not deny, first I’d have to ask about the evidence. The main objective of this accusation is misleading by distorting the facts.
Are you worried about ending up on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism?
The message might have missed its target. Was it meant to intimidate us and prevent us from playing a role in some sort of political process in Somalia that could contribute to peace? Would we be intimidated and refrain from doing our duty in the region? It was mainly aimed at intimidating us.
Eritrea has become increasingly isolated over the past 10 years. Why?
It’s a perception of those who would like to see Eritrea isolated. Facts on the ground will tell you that we are more and more joining the region and friends all over the world.
But there’s very little foreign trade or importing/exporting. Diplomatic relations are strained with several countries. Many foreign aid groups have left or been kicked out.
It’s a matter of how you see it. This is a very young country. You can go and see the social services we offer, the quality of life, the improvements that have occurred in the past 10-15 years, and objectively compare that to older countries who have not achieved what we have [in] a very short time. If you take that as a measure, it definitely tells you that we are not isolated.
We believe we are part of a regional and global economy and would like to survive and strive within that process by developing an economy that can grow and be sustained. But to be part of it, we have to be able to produce something and sell something, so we can buy something. We need to do things that enable this country to stand on its two feet and do business with other countries. We have to be able to produce enough to feed ourselves and then go beyond that to sell in the market. Do we live on food aid? Do we live on handouts?
Eritrea in recent years has rejected hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Why?
It’s not a matter of rejecting support from outside. It has to be seen in light of what I mentioned. How can we buy and sell in the marketplace if we depend on food aid? Isn’t it wise for people to think they need to produce what they are eating? What’s wrong with that? To be part of the region and trade with others, we need to work hard and produce, and depend upon our toil. . . . Self-reliance is perceived as isolationist. But self-reliance is a means, not an end. It’s a means of taking you to the bigger market and the biggest markets. How can I do that with handouts?
Do the people share that commitment? Many fought hard for independence and expected prosperity. Now you’re telling them they have to continue to sacrifice.
Ordinary people understand it more than myself. Change in living standards and quality of life is what matters to them. And they see it. Ask anyone in a very remote area and he can tell you the changes that have occurred in terms of clean water, health services, education and even the quality of food. They may not have reached their ultimate aspirations, but ordinary people appreciate what has transpired.
Eritrea has one of Africa’s most progressive constitutions, but it hasn’t been ratified. Why?
Everything has been hijacked in this country. We have not been left to do it in a manner and process that would take us somewhere.
Hijacked by whom?
All the evils we have seen in the past 10 years.
It’s everything. It’s not only the border. We have not been left alone to push the process ahead in our own way. It’s not about ratifying the constitution. It’s not a question of allowing multiple political parties. People may talk about democracy, but even those who pretend to be democratic are not democratic.
How has any of that prevented you from ratifying the constitution?
The constitution is a paper.
An important paper.
It’s only a paper. I don’t want to cheat everyone with this paper. I don’t want to mislead everyone that this paper is a panacea. We have to create a conducive environment for a viable political process in this country.
Why isn’t it conducive now?
There is a process of transformation in any society. The political process is part of that social and economic transformation. You may tell me there is a constitutional monarchy here, or elections there, or multiple political parties over there. It’s a mockery. It’s become fashionable to pretend to be democratic, to pretend to have a constitution and multiparty-system. But those systems undermine all the processes that would lead to participation of the population. It’s a matter of providing equal opportunities, not a political document, that guarantees your rights. It’s not putting your vote in a ballot box that will guarantee you good living standards.
Isn’t the essence of a democracy having the right to vote once in a while?
You can see today how this concept of democracy is abused. It’s very sad. Democracy in its real essence should provide people with equal opportunity.
Do you think Eritrea isn’t ready for democracy?
Eritrea could be more ready than those other countries that are labeled as democracies. What we see evolving are not democracies. We see tyrannies, corrupt governments and people deprived of any form of participation, in spite of the ballot box and constitutions that are publicized. . . . We can’t do it with prescriptions coming from the wrong doctors. We say, leave us alone. Let us do our own work and arrive at a heavenly sort of democracy, if we can call it that.
You once chastised African statesmen for failing people on human rights. Now you are facing similar complaints over the 2001 crackdown against political opponents, restrictions of religious groups and closure of the free press.
There is no independent press anywhere. Who guides the so-called independent media? Who finances these organizations? Unfortunately, the independent media are being manipulated by those who can afford to buy them.
Why restrict religions other than the four major faiths officially sanctioned by the government?
There is no restriction on religion. What’s new about the Bible that you want to teach me? What is new about the Koran? I say there is nothing new. Extremists who want to use Islam as a political end for their ambitions should be asked that simple question. What do you want to do with this ideology? I say it’s a pretense of using religion for ulterior aims. Religion is by default restricted because you have nothing new to teach me. You do not have the right to impose your beliefs on another person. That creates discord and confusion in the society. Government is there to guarantee everyone is respected. I don’t believe that’s a restriction.
What about the status of the jailed political leaders and journalists, including two Eritrean nationals who worked for the U.S. embassy? Will they ever be put on trial or released?
They are not politicians. They are crooks who have been bought. They provided themselves to serve something contrary to the national interest of this country. They are degenerates. I don’t take it [as] a serious matter.
Given the bad blood in recent years, do you think you could even normalize relations with Ethiopia? Economically, they’re a key partner.
We can live together. There is nothing to prevent us from developing a relationship. Imagine how much we could have achieved in terms of economic cooperation, working together on the stability of this region, working together to fend off threats. Because of the border, I’m not discouraged. We know we can live in peace and live by cooperating and probably integrating our economies gradually and doing trade. This border issue should not be. We have to remove it somehow.
How much longer will you stay in power? Do you think about stepping down?
It’s become a habit for me not to discuss this issue. I believe in a political process that will take this country from one level to a higher level. I see myself . . . in this process. I think I’m moving in the right direction. It’s a long process under normal circumstances. It can’t happen under abnormal circumstances. Unfortunately, we have entered into a situation we call abnormal because of external interferences that are blocking our progress.