President Isaias Afwerki outlines his hopes for a self-supporting nation

Eritrea has achieved much in the four years after the end of the war with Ethiopia. What achievements are you most proud of?

Eritrea inherited a ruined infrastructure and a stagnant command economy as a legacy of the long war with Ethiopia. Just to highlight the extent of the physical damage incurred by the war and the magnitude of the rehabilitation challenge, take the power sector. This was left to rot. Total national output stood at a pittance of 23 MW at the time of liberation. You can imagine the impediment to industrial revitalisation or new investment that this acute power shortage represented. (With the various intermediate projects under way, the government plans to increase the capacity to at least 120 MW by 1998.) One can cite similar figures for other infrastructural and social sectors - for example, health, transport, communications and education.

The government's performance in rehabilitating these ruined physical and social structures in the past four years has been more than satisfactory. I think that I can say that it has succeeded in effectively mobilising domestic resources and making maximum use of external support. But the achievement that the government most treasures is, in my view, its efforts at institutionalisation. The war was won on the battlefield, but the government deferred formal independence for two years until a referendum could be held to decide the issue. Similarly, the process of drafting the constitution has been under way for two years, and is being pursued with a pace and an intensity that allows maximum and genuine popular participation. I believe that this emphasis upon creating institutional norms is far more important and reliable that quantitative sectoral achievements.

Eritrea receives very little international aid, and is proud of its tradition of self-reliance. Will that tradition come under threat as the country develops?

I have always maintained that self-reliance is essentially a matter of attitude and approach rather than a measure of external input into the economy. For example, in the present realities of Eritrea, it is obvious that we shall require external support for some time to come, until we stand firmly on our own two feet. Indeed, any society can be struck by natural or man-made disasters, and it needs support and solidarity at these difficult times.

But there must be a purposeful and steady effort to live within one's means, to shed tendencies or habits of dependence that may be nurtured by extraordinary circumstances. We are living off food aid at the moment, but the government is making strenuous efforts to enhance food security in the broadest sense: whether by increasing the purchase power of the people through development programmes or increasing food production through extensive programmes of soil and water conservation as well as irrigation.

As Eritrea develops, the prospects for self-reliance should be greater. Our desire is to do away with traditional donor-recipient relationships to foster a symmetrical partnership of trade and investment. Eritrea's development can only accelerate this shift.

How important is foreign capital to economic development?

Foreign investment is crucial in our development drive. The Government has codified an attractive investment code that has no restrictions on repatriation of profits and equity holdings. We are not, in fact, making a distinction between foreign and domestic capital. There are no restrictions or reserved domains for public or private capital.

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What is your view of the recent dispute with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea?

This is a dispute which should never have developed into an armed confrontation. Sadly, Yemen miscalculated, first in occupying land which is not its territory and later in attacking our units in Greater Hanish. The islands are part of Eritrea's sovereign territory as they had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks which ruled over the Eritrean coastline from the 15th century until the end of the 19th. They were later ceded to Italy, which occupied Eritrea from 1890 until 1941.

All our efforts are geared to finding a peaceful and legal settlement of the issue through arbitration and through dialogue. Various facilitation procedures by interested parties are also under way. We are asking for: a cessation of hostilities to pave the way for the smooth conduct of the arbitration process; an inquiry by an independent body into the circumstances of the conflict; and international arbitration on the sovereignty of the Hanish-Zuqar archipelagos and the subsequent demarcation of the maritime boundaries of both countries. This process has been filed with the UN to give it the force of a binding treaty.

How do you see relations with Sudan developing in coming years?

We have severed diplomatic ties with Khartoum for more than a year now, but this is an aberration. The Khartoum regime itself is in fact an aberration, both in the region, and in Sudan, which is a multicultural and tolerant society. The regime represents a small minority, and its agenda of exporting fundamentalism through subversion and violence is doomed from the outset. We are dealing with an ancient society with a long tradition of tolerance and co-existence; fundamentalism as a phenomenon can only be a passing trend. Its limited appeal to disgruntled elements in society is bound to wane as the complex factors that engendered it - the Cold War, political frustration, social deprivation and impoverishment - come of age or are tackled through positive policies.

Our ties with Sudan will therefore be normalised in the near future, when the obstacle - the incumbent Khartoum regime - is removed. The economic, cultural and commercial ties that bind both countries and peoples are too deep-rooted to be imperilled by the irresponsible behaviour of a particular regime.

Will you introduce multiparty democracy?

The commitment of the government to pluralist democracy is well-known: it was enshrined in the constitution of the EPLF during the years of armed struggle, and the country's constitution now being drafted is expected to codify this as an entrenched and fundamental right.

The emergence of serious political parties must, however, be seen in the context of present realities. You cannot bring political parties into existence by legislation or decree. Serious political parties must be a reflection of and an embodiment of differing perspectives, interests and visions in society: these must grow naturally.

In the present reality of Eritrea, the EPLF, and now the EPDJ, was and is a broad movement that has galvanised almost the entire population, first for the armed struggle for liberation and now for the challenges of national reconstruction. It has emerged as the dominant political grouping for historical reasons. Now, the legal framework and environment for pluralism is in place.

The emergence of real contenders is, however, likely to be a slow process.

Do you see any potential difficulties in relations between Eritrea's Christian and Muslim communities?

Eritrea is home to different faiths, but I do not think that you can say that there is a religious divide in the country. Through the centuries since the two religions came to Eritrea, their communities have lived together in harmony as a cohesive community. There is no reason to expect this to change.

Religious, cultural and ethnic diversity are not in themselves recipes for social tension and strife. If Rwanda and Bosnia underscore social upheavals that may be fuelled by sectarianism, the tragedy in Somalia demonstrates that cultural, religious or ethnic homogeneity does not in itself provide immunity from social turmoil. In the final analysis, social cohesion in multicultural societies is simply a function of political governance. Policies of political and economic exclusion, the politics of dominance of one group over others, ultimately breed hatred and animosity among diverse societies whose communality of values and interests may be bigger than what differentiates them.

Where do you see Eritrea at the turn of the century?

The Eritrean people have demonstrated that they are a hard-working, industrious and resilient people who pursue their goals with ambition and seriousness. These qualities have been further reinforced and refined, especially in the past 30 years of difficult armed struggle. The achievements of the years since the liberation are promising. Thus, although much toil and time will be needed to rehabilitate and reconstruct what has been devastated by 30 years of war and lost opportunities. I firmly believe that Eritrea will be among the leading countries in the region in terms of all-round development in the coming ten years.

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©Kensington Publications 1996