Commentary on President Isayas Afeworki
latest Interview with his own TV station.

MoFA

Jan. 09 2009

(MoFA) Jan 09 2009:- President Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea gave a lengthy interview to the government media on the occasion of the European New Year. True to form, his interview was short on substance and long on sloganeering. A number of questions were raised and numerous topics covered during the interview. As was often the case in his previous interviews, the president talked at length on issues the breadth and complexities of which is far beyond the comprehension of ordinary Eritreans. At his wit’s end to show off his deep understanding of history, economics and international politics, he went on a lengthy drivel that sometimes reached comical levels. The president offered unsolicited advice on Middle East Peace, the War on Terror, the world financial crisis and what not, all the while flaunting his ‘in-depth’ knowledge on the issues. All told, the president sounded like a philosopher king presiding over world affairs than the leader of a tiny impoverished nation teetering on the brink of disaster.

In what has become his trademark style for quite some time now, he ducked most of the questions related to domestic issues. Even when he made the attempt to address such issues, he made sure to belittle the significance and dismiss the accuracy of questions raised by the Eritrean population regarding bread & butter issues. Veiled references to unspecified riches and false hopes of improved life style were the most common themes of his responses. There were also moments where he chided Eritreans whom he said were fabricating stories of maladministration and corruption as well as those who continue making demands for a better access to the barest necessities of life. All told, the Eritrea that President Isaias wanted the world to see was a far cry from the poverty-stricken, over-militarized and crisis ridden police state that it has actually become.

But there were more interesting aspects to President Isaias’ responses during his latest interview than his largely irrelevant rambling about the successes of his forty year old project, namely—building an independent, prosperous and powerful Eritrea. While his delusional success stories could be dismissed as an uphill struggle to paint his regime in a positive light to a jaded constituency, his apparent obsession with making his influence felt far & wide in the region and beyond should not be taken lightly. To the extent that Eritrea still faced any challenges, the PFDJ leader claimed, it was the repeated acts of belligerency the successive American administrations—and more particularly the Bush Administration—perpetrated against his regime. America has always been out to get us, not just since independence, but way before the 50s, when they tried to stifle our aspirations for freedom, Isaias recounted. He even claims that the CIA has been hatching plot after a plot against Eritrea. According to him, the challenge posed by Eritrea’s other enemies—Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen—pales in comparison to what the US represents. His regime has bones to pick with the US in just about every issue that may come his way. And his country has been locked in a perpetual enmity with America from which he is sure to survive unscathed “because we have been nobody’s servants.” That President Isaias makes paranoia sound like a normal state of mind, is nowhere more apparent than in his latest interview.

Not surprisingly, his self-delusion is not limited to how he views the progress Eritrea has made economically over the years. It also extends to what he believes his role is going to be in shaping the state of affairs in the entire sub-region. The president insists that despite his good efforts, external interference by ‘others’ has complicated the peace process in Sudan. Despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, he reserves the moral high ground of peace making in Darfur. While accusing the Djibouti government of declaring war on Eritrea, he warns rather hawkishly that “they (Djibouti) would have to pay that debt”, a veiled reference to a threat to use force to settle the score. With regard to Somalia, he thinks his regime has “the obligation and trust” to play a role towards restoring normalcy to the Country and promote peace in the region. As pointed out numerous times in the Week in the Horn, Eritrea can play a constructive role if and when it refrains from the subversive acts that it has actively been engaged in the entire sub-region. As his remarks on Djibouti clearly indicate, the regime in Asmara would not stop at nothing to flex its muscle at those it may perceive as vulnerable. How such a belligerent posturing could pass for a constructive engagement such as the Eritrean leader refers to is beyond comprehension. If anything, Eritrea has been good at externalizing its domestic crisis onto others through all kinds of subversive acts.

Perhaps the most interesting issue he canvassed during his interview was Eritrea’s relationship with Ethiopia. What makes his remarks on this particular issue more interesting is his attempt to give a historical context to what he claims is his vision for a united Ethiopia and his roadmap towards achieving that goal. According to the president, his front—EPLF—had consistently championed the cause of Ethiopian Unity from early on. He even goes as far as claiming that this in fact was the source of much difference between his Front and the TPLF/EPRDF. Apparently, he is gambling so shamelessly on the hope that he might be able to pull off support among the Ethiopian public. He has also concluded that the FDRE constitution has deepened the divisions among the various ethnic groups of Ethiopia and hence a need for some solution to avert a cataclysmic disintegration of Ethiopia. His promise to work towards creating conducive environment for coexistence is meant to achieve a coalition of likeminded non-state actors under his leadership. This of course is his roadmap towards maintaining Ethiopian Unity, i.e. bringing all forces of reaction under his tutelage to effect a regime change. Obviously, Isaias would do anything to realize his one true quest: launch campaigns that could stand in the way of Ethiopia’s progress, coddle any party that has an axe to grind with Ethiopia, use any arsenal that could potentially set the nation ablaze, and what not. Apparently, president Isaias—whose only enemy is the US—knows how best to fight against the US: by doing everything in his powers to destabilize Ethiopia.

What is the silver lining in President Isaias’ new found love affair with Ethiopia’s unity?!

Eritrea is in crisis, its youth either in the army-itself already in shambles—or seizing every opportunity to leave the country often at high risks to their lives. Its economy is in doldrums, with its oversized army and its top brass preying on what little there is by way of resources. Through it all, the leadership in Asmara is neither unwilling nor capable to face up to the challenges of addressing these issues as this would require to shift resources away from campaigns of wreaking havoc on neighbors and destabilizing the whole region. The preferred way of diffusing the crisis is Isaias’ time-honored tactic: export the crisis abroad. Too emasculated to launch all out attack, they resort to subversion and terror. Unfortunately, the price they have paid for this has been far too little to make them think twice before they venture into these adventures. As the recent interview seems to corroborate, the people in Asmara may yet feel they can get away with a few more of these acts, ironically all in the name of constructive engagement.