Eritrea:Too many enemies, too few friends.

Michael Abraha

March 11 2009

The European Union is considering continuing with its controversial development aid to Eritrea totaling 122-million Euros (154-million USD) this year. Widespread opposition is growing in view of unrelenting Eritrean government violation of human and democratic rights. The EU is also criticized for not requiring Eritrea to adhere to acceptable standards of transparency and accountability. Reporters without Borders says the EU is handing over a blank check to the Eritrean government which is globally identified as authoritarian and extreme. Civic and political groups have also expressed disappointment at EU´s continued support of the government.

One of those critical of EU position is Tesfai Woldemichael (Degiga) – Vice Chair and Foreign Affairs Chief of the Eritrean People´s Party (EPP). I recently interviewed Tesfai. He seems to think there is no hope for the Eritreans under the present system. I first asked him to clarify the issues surrounding EU´s continued financial assistance to Eritrea.

Tesfai Woldemichael: We have protested against the EU actions; that it should stop supporting the government while the people are being oppressed and where there is no freedom and no hope for constitutionality. People are being tortured and imprisoned at the whims of authorities. Former cabinet ministers and other innocent citizens are languishing in prisons without trial. People are fleeing every day. We encourage humanitarian and recovery aid. But other forms of development aid in the form of cash should be attached to the need for Eritrean government´s respect for human rights and justice. And the EU should strictly monitor the use of its funds in Eritrea where transparency is a taboo.

Michael Abraha: How would you describe the current Eritrean political situation?

TW: Eritrea is internationally isolated at present; it is without friends. Eritrea is a failed, dictatorial state without genuine administration. Ideologically, and politically, the government is aligned with extremists. The regime´s intervention in Somalia and its growing relations with Iran may help it to remain in power, but in the long-run, the move will backfire and further isolate the country.

MA: Why are Eritreans so patient then if the government is not serving their interest?

TW: The interests of the government and that of the people stand at opposite ends. The people want the government to be removed and they want democracy and justice to reign. On the other hand, the government strives to prolong the life of its authoritarian system. My assessment is that the people have exhausted their patience while the regime is close to collapsing.

MA: Observes say Eritrean economy is in horrible shape. How do you assess the situation.?

TW: Hunger and starvation are spreading. Not only have prices of basic necessities such as food items gone astronomically high, but they are also not available. As a result, the government is confiscating meager food grains harvested by farmers. The regime itself is under tremendous strain. The ruling PFDJ is itself broke. Its survival now depends on future extraction of gold at Bisha, after which it hopes to reinforce and further tighten its grip on the population.

MA: Many Eritreans have chosen to flee their homeland instead of staying on and directly challenge the government; your comment on this.

TW: For a long time now, an average of 400 to 500 people a month have been defecting to refugee camps in neighboring countries. This is happening without stop even though the government has introduced directives allowing troops to shoot and kill anyone trying to cross the borders. Early this month 4 teenagers attempting to flee were shot at close range and their bodies were on display for hours until the bereaved parents were ordered to pick them up.

The people fleeing are those disenchanted by the harsh realities. They are angry and bitter because they have been denied their rights, and cannot lead peaceful life. By fleeing, the people are denouncing the system in action. In so doing the people are demonstrating their disgust. This is human nature. People confront an enemy if they have the power. If not, they retreat until they are strong. Our people are now in a state of retreat. This in itself is a revolutionary step. In the end this exodus will become a force for change. The time is not that far away.

MA: What are the short and long-term plans of the new Eritrean People´s Party (EPP), and what has its impact been so far on Eritrean politics?

TW: EPP´s long term plan is to build a democratic, multiparty system in Eritrea where the people will be able to enjoy freedom. To achieve this we need to have an inclusive party. Although more and more people are getting disillusioned with the government, not enough are participating in opposition activities. So we want to introduce change in the opposition camp and bring people together where they would be more effective and fully engaged in the task of transforming Eritrea.

MA: Your party, EPP, and the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP) are in the process of merging. What do you hope to achieve under a unified leadership.

TW: It should be remembered that blood was shed between the two major organizations, namely, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People´s Liberation Front (EPLF). Both EDP and EPP originate from these former liberation movements. The merger hopes to heal the wounds of the civil war of the 70´ and 80´s, thereby contributing to the unity of our people. We admit errors were committed in that the strife was about grabbing power disregarding the wishes and interests of our people. The merger is also hoped to help create a necessary precondition for the demise of dictatorship and establishment of democratic Eritrea.

MA: What are the requirements and criteria for other groups and individuals to join a future, unified EPP-EDP party?

TW: We believe groups or parties with similar or same political programs should come together. The upcoming, unified EPP-EDP party hopes that other parties would want to join it in future. Already there are discussions with other groups to this end. For example, a dialogue is currently underway between the Eritrean People´s Movement and the two parties.

MA: What lessons can EPP draw from other people's experiences in transforming Eritrea?

TW: As you know we have a culturally diverse people with historically divided political movements. In spite of this, there are strong signs that people are ready to fight for unity and peace. Divided societies can end up in total destruction and chaos as we have seen in Somalia and Ruanda. We are not immune from human tragedies. But we can learn from countries like South Africa where Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress transformed a divided country into a united and prosperous nation through the process of truth and reconciliation.

Michael Abraha could be reached at