Asmara, Asharq Al-Awsat- The simplicity with which Eritrean President Issaias Afeworki welcomed us was in harmony with the simple life of the people in the capital Asmara, the Port of Massawa, the cities of Keren and Tessenei, and other towns in Eritrea. However, Eritrea’s celebration of its 18th anniversary of independence brings back to mind the years of war that the four-million strong population waged for independence from Italy and later from Ethiopia, turning the colony into one of the most recent free countries that joined the United Nations. The presidential palace – where the interview that Asharq Al-Awsat held with President Afeworki was conducted – has become the people’s icon of freedom. However, the president does not reside there. Like other ordinary citizens, he lives in a rented home in the middle of Asmara where he is surrounded by neighbors. Simplicity, modesty, and friendliness are all present here in Eritrea.
The following is the full text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Your vision on the security of the Red Sea is that it should be managed by the peoples of the region in order to avoid international interventions. Would you tell us about this vision?
(Afeworki) This issue does not need any elaboration; it is a necessity. It is a necessity imposed by the geography and the needs of the countries in the region as well as the needs of this international waterway. The responsibility of maintaining security in the Red Sea as a strategic water passage is one of the priorities of these countries. How should these countries deal with these priorities and necessities? No doubt, the will exists but it should be followed with coordination in light of the presence of good intentions in this direction. However, the matter needs groundwork and then a mechanism to coordinate relations. The capabilities may be more than what the circumstances require. However, the first step in the right direction requires the organization of the beginnings and then finding the mechanism. I am certain that the regional mechanism will be more effective than external interventions that bring their own problems. We in this region can do without external interventions.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have repeatedly talked about your position on the Arab League. But at one time, Eritrea was chosen as an observer country, which was a precedent in the Arab League, and you later became a full member. What is your position now as an observer in the Arab League?
(Afeworki) This was a step that we described as a “courtesy”. We do not wish to engage in an argument on this subject. Talking about it has become extremely boring. I believe that there is an Arab consensus – a consensus with inconsistent voices – that this organization (the Arab League) is no longer up to the level of the demands and aspirations of the peoples of this region. It no longer has the power or the resources to carry out the services required from it. This is not a shame nor is it insulting to the officials of the Arab League. But the situation in the region has become inconsistent regarding many issues in view of the external interventions. With its present capabilities, the Arab League no longer represents the aspirations of the peoples of this region in light of the lukewarm attitude and unanimous agreement in opinion on the weakness of this organization. Eritrea does not gain anything by being a member of the Arab League. As I just said, the issue of membership as an observer was a courtesy; there was no reason for us to be present in Cairo. Our brief experiment proved to us that this organization needs a great deal of reform to become of use to the peoples of the region.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There is an Israeli Embassy in Asmara and an Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv. Some assumed that this gives Eritrea a positive role to play in the issue of Palestine, the central issue of the Arabs. How can you play such a role?
(Afeworki) This likelihood may be impossible. Eritrea has no wish to involve itself in an issue that is already complicated and that has become one of the most difficult issues in the region. Even big powers or countries that consider themselves as the most powerful in this region do not have the resources to contribute positively or to be influential in this process. The issue is not one of having an embassy here and an embassy in Tel Aviv. Your embassy may be in distant lands with which you may not have any relationship. The important and crucial point is that this issue should be resolved by its own people; the efforts of others come later. Overstepping on the capabilities of a country or interfering in solving this issue that has become so internationally complex that even super powers have not been able to find a solution to it would not bring a solution. There is nothing that encourages one to make initiatives for a solution. In my opinion, what is being propagated in the media or in diplomatic and political circles are sheer falsehoods. They are mere words on something that does not exist in the first place. In view of all these complications, Eritrea knows its place and its role. Yes, we may have certain political stands and opinions on certain matters. But, in my opinion, it would be impossible for Eritrea to try to find a solution to this issue or to contribute to loosening the knot of this problem.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) A number of officials have talked about Eritrea’s role in stirring up the current conflict in Somalia. They have also said that Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors in Djibouti and Ethiopia are not as they should be and that your country has military bases in some neighboring countries to support the resistance movements there. What is the truth, Your Excellency?
(Afeworki) The source that is publishing such information and making the media, the satellite channels, and diplomatic circles giddy is US circles. Of course, we are surprised that we have a role in everything that is happening around us. But all these reports are part of the campaigns by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Like any other person, I have also heard in the media that Eritrea is supporting the Islamists in Somalia with arms. Naturally, the report originated in the US Department of State and within 24 hours, it turned into a Security Council resolution referring to reports that Eritrea is supplying the Islamists in Somalia with arms. What is odd about all this is that the satellite channels and all the newspapers report on this issue without verifying the source and without trying to find out whether it is fact or fiction. All these are lies, as I just said and part of the mission of the US Central Intelligence Agency. It has its own agenda and has turned the world giddy, especially since 2006. We were taken by surprise to hear that there are 2,000 Eritrean fighters in Mogadishu. So we began ask: Where did this information come from? The information is from US sources. Unfortunately, the Security Council also adopted this information and said that there are 2,000 Eritrean soldiers in Mogadishu. The Ethiopian invasion came after that and their forces entered Mogadishu but there was not a single Eritrean soldier in Mogadishu. The perplexing question that begs an answer is: Why are such reports repeated and why do some media figures accept them as a publishable fact? It would be better for these media outlets to take the information from its source and to verify it and then publish the truth. Eritrea’s position in Somalia is amoral, political, and legal one. We say that no one has the right to accept the situation in fragmented Somalia. It is not in anyone’s interest to have a divided Somalia and fragmented Somalis. It is not in the interest of anyone for the tragedy of the Somalis to grow day after day while the external interventions are the cause of this tragedy. We denounce and condemn foreign interventions, including US interventions in this issue. The whole purpose of these intensive campaigns is to distort the truth and point the finger of accusation at Eritrea. I am not surprised. The media outlets that propagate and inflate such false information and give a wrong impression to observers should correct their information and take it from its correct sources. They should ask the source in order to get to the facts.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So you believe that the issue is US interventions through the Central Intelligence Agency to destabilize the region?
(Afeworki) No, no; this is the political culture of the US Central Intelligence Agency. I am not making haphazard accusations. The same scenario was repeated in Iraq after claiming that there were weapons of mass destruction there. They had certain stands against Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was another matter altogether. The claim made by senior officials of the former US Administration that there were weapons of mass destruction there has been revealed to be a lie. A few days ago, Nancy Pelosi said that the Central Intelligence Agency distorts the facts, lies to, and deceives the members of Congress. Lying has become one of the traits of the CIA culture in several cases. It has become the source of lies that others begin to believe. The CIA releases a lie and then believes it and makes the world believe it in order to prepare for what scheme it may and use in another scenario. It leaks information to the media then picks up these leaks and publicizes them. The CIA builds on these lies as if it was not the original source that leaked them and this way the ball keeps rolling. I say that this has become a boring and broken record that has been exposed in the whole world. As I just said, the people should wonder when any information is leaked. They should verify the source and the purpose of the leak. A piece of information should be published after the facts are confirmed.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The relationship with Addis Ababa is very fraught with tension. Are there any initiatives to bring viewpoints closer together?
(Afeworki) This is not possible; there are territories that were occupied by Ethiopia after the arbitration. Ethiopia should withdraw its troops from the occupied lands. This is not subject to discussion.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You mean this is your principle, that there will be no dialogue?
(Afeworki) There is no dialogue and there will absolutely be no dialogue.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So are you saying that the solution begins with withdrawal?
(Afeworki) There will be no solution, no negotiations, and no dialogue even after Ethiopia withdraws from our territories. We are not obliged to engage in any dialogue. What dialogue? What issue? There is no issue.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are reports that Eritrea has brought in two opposites into its land – Israel and Iran. What is the truth?
(Afeworki) Same thing, ask the Central Intelligence Agency that published this information in the same manner by leaking it. They leaked the information and said that they obtained it from reliable sources. What are these reliable sources? We know them but the world does not. They are the reliable sources. They want to fabricate a clamor in the region about Iran, Iran’s role, Iran’s influence in the region, and Iran’s infiltration of the region. There is a lot of talk on this subject and one wonders: How did Iran come to Eritrea, which door did it use, and in what issue? At the same time I was recently asked about Iranian submarines in the Eritrean coasts in the Red Sea. My reply was if there are submarines, where are they? Tell us so we would know. It is very odd for some to claim that there are Iranians in the Assab Harbor in the Red Sea. How did they come? Did they come by air or in disguise? Prior to that, there was talk about Israeli bases. In the first place, after independence, one of the basic principles of this country’s foreign policy is not to allow any presence of any military force on Eritrean soil; no military presence of any force regardless of its might. Engaging in such a game is not useful for us and is not strategically acceptable. This is a basic principle of our foreign policy. We do not allow any country from the region or from outside the region to have bases on our soil. The queer thing is that the reports said that Israel and Iran are present in the sea together! This is indeed laughable. The well known quarters wish to fabricate discord by publishing such reports. I advise the media that outlets that promote this process to verify and then to publish the facts.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So, Your Excellency the president, are you categorically saying that there are no foreign bases in your country?
(Afeworki) No, there are not and there will not be on this land. If they tell you there is a base on the moon that is fine! But here, in this country, there can be no such thing.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is behind the tension in your relationship with Djibouti?
(Afeworki) There is no tension, the tension there it was created by the United States. If you wish to verify this, refer to the statements of the US Department of State and to the resolutions that the Security Council has issued. This is a problem that has been fabricated by the policies of the successive administrations or governments in Washington.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So, can we say that the relationship between you and Djibouti is like “milk and honey”?
(Afeworki) There is no milk and no honey and no such recipe because Djibouti or those that wish to make problems for Djibouti may have succeeded in this. We reject these interventions in Djibouti. There are US and French bases in Djibouti and intensive activity. We do not comment or give our opinion on this presence at all. All policies there come from Washington and lead to a fabricated problem. Our main concern is to avoid problems or to foment problems with the neighbors. This is part of the fabricated problem. I do not think there are any relations for us to say relations of milk and honey.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Let us now move to the issue of Darfur. What do you think of the current solutions as a country that has special relations with Khartoum?
(Afeworki) We follow a firm principle in all issues whether in Somalia or any other issue. In other words, the Somalis are best qualified to solve their problem. No solutions can come from outside Somalia without involving the Somalis and leaving matters up to the Somalis. Similarly, the problem in Sudan should be resolved by the Sudanese. There is no alternative to this process. The mistake that took place was the internationalization of the issue. It was an unjustified internationalization that led to what we are witnessing today. Prior to Abuja, the people predicted a process of internationalization and some innocently while others deliberately embarked on the maze of internationalization. If the issue of Darfur is one of marginalization, marginalization can be described. It can be defined, diagnosed, and treated. The people of Sudan are the most qualified to solve this problem regardless of the differences in viewpoints in how the problem originated and how it can be solved. There should be a Sudanese-Sudanese accord to solve the problem whatever it is. Even after a long time and more complications, there can be no solution in Sudan except through reconciliation. The Sudanese should be left alone to solve this problem and all the countries neighboring Sudan are positively contributing to warm the climate and solve this problem. The fact now is that the issue of Darfur is no longer a Sudanese issue; it has become a regional, international, and legal issue outside the framework of Sudan. Will this help in solving the problem? It will definitely not. The situation should go back to its origins and the solution should be a Sudanese-Sudanese one. The foreign interventions that we have seen since Abuja to date will not solve this problem. In our opinion, the issue is one of the simplest ones no matter what its background. Whether it is problems among the tribes or a problem caused by the government or a problem caused by some parties inside Darfur, these can be solved within a Sudanese-Sudanese framework.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) A few days ago, you stated to the media that the problem in Sudan is that one of the two partners ruling Sudan is not serious about normalizing matters and solving the issue of Darfur. Did you mean that?
(Afeworki) The problem is complicated and the Sudanese solution should be a comprehensive one. The Nifasha agreement that was concluded between the People’s Movement and the National Congress could have marked a start but not the comprehensive solution for Sudan. There is an issue in the east, the issue of Darfur, and other issues in the north and in central Sudan. A comprehensive solution for the whole issue cannot be reached unless all these partial issues are resolved. What was talked about the dialogue between the two partners in rule – the national unity government in Sudan between the National Congress and the People’s Movement – is part of this agreement. It will not be implemented with the same spirit and has challenges. It has its direct and indirect effect on what is happening in Darfur. According to the agreement, the central government is made up of the People’s Movement and the National Congress. The position of the National Congress and that of the People’s Movement on Darfur and on the solution of the Darfur issue are different. How can the central government deal with the Darfur issue at a time when the two partners in rule have divergent stands on this process? This further complicates the issue. I do not think that foreign interventions – even if good intentioned – that do not take this into consideration can solve the issue of Darfur.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It is noted that there is a very strange peaceful co-existence in Eritrea among all the denominations. How can this be explained?
(Afeworki) This has been the case for a long time. You know that Christianity entered Eritrea in 330 A.D. Islam came immediately after in the same century after the prophet, may God’s prayers and peace be upon him, and his companions were in the Holy Land. How can nations co-exist? The peoples are homogenous. They may have different languages and they may belong to different tribes but they have been homogenous since ancient times. Even before the appearance of countries that we can call modern, Muslims and Christians have co-existed in this country for more than 1,000 years. In other words, the civilization here is ancient; the people did not emerge from the jungles and engage in fighting among themselves. The people co-existed and knew one another. This is what distinguishes the realities that you can see today. We have a church here and a mosque there; a Muslim here and a Christian there; some speak one language, others speak another language. We have nine languages. But we are all from the same ethnic group and the same background. We have been living in this region for centuries. This is what distinguishes us in addition to the maturity of the people that they gained from their experience during the period of struggle. They triumphed because they were united; they lived in harmony; and they had one goal despite the differences in the cultural and denominational structure and other matters. This is one of God’s gifts to this land.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some quarters are talking about a restricted Eritrean press.
(Afeworki) We do not have a misguided press in this country and we do not think there is an absolute press freedom in the world. The world newspapers are now operating in the so-called age of globalization. It is a process of monopoly by specific groups that are known by name and known by their capabilities, financing, and management. Press freedom is non-existent and we are opposed to this situation in the world on which certain quarters impose their control. These quarters are using the media to serve their private interests. The true voices of the media are the voices that oppose the monopolization of the media that are distorting the facts and serving monopolist interests. The media is now monopolized by a specific quarter that has interests, ambitions, and policies of hegemony and monopoly. They are exploiting the media and this is part of their policies. Should we be part of this process or should we make our voices heard and not allow these quarters to muzzle us? We do not allow these world organs to be active on our land to distort the facts and create discord in our country or our region and in our environment. This country and this region need a free media, a free media that convey the information as it is so that the people would build on facts and correct information and then analyze viewpoints in the interest of these peoples. This region needs to create and unify harmony among its peoples not to use the media to cause division and create sedition among nations and countries. This is not true media but media of distortion and fabrication of discord. We do not welcome and we have no interest in adopting such a process. That is the false media say that there is no free press in Eritrea. We are reassured and at peace with this process because the accusations against us are being made by oppressors, counterfeiters, and monopolists that think they alone have media and no one else. We have a clear stand on this issue and the people are following up on what is happening in the world and in the region. They differentiate between facts in this country. We have a mature media that convey the facts without any distortion.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Let us go back to Sudan. The Sudanese president visited you several times after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued the arrest warrant against him. Was this an Eritrean message to the world? What is your opinion on the decision of the ICC?
(Afeworki) This is a political decision. The issue of Darfur is one of the complicated issues. Before the (ICC) decision was issued, our position was to reject interventions that targeted Sudan first and then the region through Sudan. The Sudanese people will not be the only losers if Sudan is torn up and becomes entangled in internal disputes. The whole region will lose and this is something that we reject completely. No one will gain from instability in Sudan. Proceeding from this subject and following up on all the events that took place regarding the issue of Darfur, these interventions are political interventions to peddle obvious agendas. The issue of the so-called court was a political decision, a political decision made by the Security Council. From where did the information come that drove the Security Council to make such a decision? This is well known. The Security Council turned the process from a political decision to the so-called criminal court. In such a case, the issue becomes political and not legal and has no connection to violations that took place in Darfur. The information did not come from specialized bodies that gathered the information and made the charge based on this information. Proceeding from this premise, we are talking about the way that the charge was made against President Al-Bashir and the arrangements that were made. As far as we are concerned, the motives and agendas are quite obvious and we rejected them from the first day. Our reception of the president here expresses part of the position of everyone in this region. This became obvious through his visits to several countries and his participation of the Arab League meeting in Doha. This is an international stand. It does not accept political interventions under any guise to create more instability in Sudan.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) On the occasion of the 18th anniversary of independence, the question that arises concerns a review of development during this period. What is the status of the march for development in Eritrea?
(Afeworki) In the past 18 years, we have been working seriously to build the infrastructure. This was the priority despite the external obstacles, problems, border issues, and other problems. We began by building a homeland that was devastated by wars. We needed to adopt economic development policies taking into consideration the circumstances that we inherited after the war. Our priority was the infrastructure because there can be no development or economic investment in all the sectors without an infrastructure. By infrastructure we mean roads, airports, harbors, electric power, water, and communications. After that we moved to investments and to attract investors in several sectors like agriculture, tourism, industry, and other sectors. Praise be to God, we can say that we succeeded to a large extent in implementing our infrastructure projects. What is important in this regard is that all our projects – almost all – were carried out by local capabilities, local construction companies, and national human resources. This has been a great asset for us over the past 18 years. At present, we have an asset in qualified people. All projects are constructed by local qualified and highly capable people. This is a major accomplishment. The fruits of investment are beginning to appear in several sectors, such as the fishing wealth, after the completion of the infrastructure projects that serve the fishing industry. As for agriculture, we are still in the middle of the road. But we can say that in the past 18 years we succeeded in building an infrastructure to move from rain agriculture to irrigated agriculture. This is a guarantee of our food security. In the sector of mining, we have begun to implement projects. God willing, by next year or the end of this year, we will begin prospecting for gold and several other resources. This is the fruit of 18 years.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) This leads us to ask about the oil reserves in Eritrea. How much is this reserve and where have you reached?
(Afeworki) This is a subject that we do not wish to talk about until all the measures are completed and we actually begin. However, I can say that there is a large reserve but we should not talk about this without verifying all the angles for the sake of credibility.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But you can confirm that there is a reserve?
(Afeworki) The excavations are continuing and the reserve is there but things are still at the beginning.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are moving toward agricultural investments outside their territories in order to insure sources of food in countries close to them. Your country contains fertile land that is suitable for agriculture and it also contains sources of water. Is it possible to have partnerships in this regard?
(Afeworki) This approach is very encouraging. The largest Gulf investments were in non-economic investments or not in genuine economic investment projects. The trend was to invest in stocks, shares, and financial institutions. This has had a big impact on the Gulf investors and investors in the region. Now after the world financial crisis, the Gulf investors have become more mature. They are now investing in real investments in a genuine economy and ensuring food is a basic and strategic issue that has no other alternative. Many countries, especially Saudi Arabia, resorted to agricultural projects and successful investments in animal wealth and the production of fruits, vegetables, and grains. But this is not enough. The trend now is toward regions that are close to the Gulf, including Sudan, Eritrea, and other countries in the region that will benefit from this trend because they have the needed resources of water, land, and even labor. The cost of transport and the security guarantees are also available. We are still in the early stages of this process. There are already some investments in Eritrea and we have conducted feasibility studies to launch major projects in the highlands and in the western plains or the eastern coastal plains. We are in the process of establishing the infrastructure that these projects need to provide water, modern irrigation technology and then land reclamation for several projects. God willing, there are also non-Arab investments in this regard. God willing, when the infrastructure is completed, there will be huge investments equal to the opportunities that Eritrea can provide.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) This leads us to relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries in general. If we were to go beyond the economic sector, what is the nature of these relations?
(Afeworki) Our relations with the Gulf countries are of the best. We started working on the infrastructure of the country after 1991 and we began constructing a huge national project to generate electric power. This project was financed by funds in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Its effect on other projects was great because it is a vital and strategic project for Eritrea. It was part of Eritrea’s commitments and parallel stands. The relationship continues to be normal and ordinary. We can say that we have distinctive strategic relations. We hope that the opportunities for investment and commerce would strengthen this relationship between Eritrea, the Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia.