Eritrea: Interview With President Isaias Afwerki – Part II and Final
Question: Mr. President, the situation in the Sudan has an impact, to varying degrees, on the countries in the Horn of Africa and other countries that have contiguous borders with it. At this time of conflict, the region can play a facilitating role, although the solution rests primarily on the Sudanese people themselves. Is there regional consensus on this approach? What are the initiatives and efforts underway; if any? What effective mechanism can be contemplated to foster harmony and synergy with external initiatives or interventions that are already underway or that may be launched in the period ahead?
The overarching objective of regional integration is to nurture mutual cooperation and complementarity. In our region, each country can operate separately – this is not, evidently, a problem. But integration has an advantage. This is indeed too palpable to merit elaboration. We need to have a shared platform that enables us to solve issues and tacklechallenges that are common tothe region. The crisis in Somalia provides a clear example.We put forward aproposal for a Consultative Forum with our regional partners and stakeholders instead of focusing on our own individual initiative. We believed that the sum of our contributions would bemore effective in resolving the problem at hand.We also believed that this would help pave the way for the much-desired, long-term, regional integration. The efforts exerted in Somalia were not easy. Unfortunately, things did not work out as expected.In 2006, unnecessary interferences and the subsequent invasion that ensued compounded the problem. In protest, we opted tosuspend our membership in IGAD as its very existence as a viable and independent organization was put in serious doubt.
IGAD was originally established to combat drought. In 1991, however, with the end of the Cold War and the Independence of Eritrea, a new situation emerged in the region and IGAD was reformed as a regional body that would catalyzethe coordination and implementation of regional development programmes and cooperation between themember countries. Each country can evidently formulate its own development plans. Buthaving integrated development programmesoptimizes aggregate output. Marshalling our efforts for higher yield and dividends thus becomes desirable.
The regional landscape incorporates various other bodies – CEN-SAD, COMESA. The objectives of these regional bodies are similar in nature – to transform the economies of member countries from a subsistence stage to developed industrial economies. If we can mobilize our resources and implement joint programmes in infrastructure, energy, water, agriculture, health, education, and various other sectors, the overall output would be much higher.
In the current global reality, creating a competitive force entails collective endeavors. The fact is the separate domestic development efforts of each country cannot be as effective as the collective one. As such, not only does integrationcontribute to development, but it can also augment stability and prosperity at the regional level. If there are obstacles and challenges, instead of trying to resolve them individually, we would have common solutionsor mechanisms. With time and experience, this can be made more effective. Thiswould help us tackle our challenges and move forward. The case of South Sudan provides a clear example of a viable regional engagement through the framework of IGAD. This particular initiative may indeed be invoked as a concrete manifestation of broad regional cohesion.
Challengessuch as the one we are currently witnessing in theSudan may arouse the concern of the whole world.Countries may be interested individually. The easiest and most effective mechanism, however, is a regional initiative. There is now a trilateral group of facilitators in the Sudan – the United Nations, the African Union, and IGAD. How was this formed? What is it achieving? Does it have profound knowledge of the case? We do not want to digress into all the details.
Suffice it to say that the regional body is much more affected, and as such, much more concerned about this issue than anyone else. Questions may arise on its capabilities and what it can concretely deliver. These are tangential issues. But, its engagement is absolutely vital.
IGADD’s presence is important in the affairs of the countries of the region: Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. It cannot arguablybe dismissed for being weak or for not being ableto create its own mechanism. It must be allowed the time and space to develop its capabilities in the process. It must be able to work towards solutions while becoming familiar with the issues in each country in the region; knowing the problems in depth.
The status of currentinitiatives in the Sudan are disjointed. One of the factors that is amplifying the distortions is the multiplicity of interventions. Some of these are benign in intention. Obviously, there are others which are not altruistic. But we do not need to delve into these matters.
As is usually the case in different parts of the world, there are those who wait for corpses so that they can sweep in and act as Undertakers whenever calamities unfold. They wait for and pray to see/handle corpses; their whole preoccupation is not how to save people from dying. These tragic events are callously seen as lucrative businesses to them. Obviously, identifying who these are is not difficult.
Interventions, both benign and sinister, continue to be too many. They predate the eruption of the conflict today; they have indeed remained part and parcel of the political landscape since 2019. These phenomena will continue to exacerbate the distortion. Hence it is critical to take remedial action and restore and bolster the viable regional framework. Even if the countries of the region are deemed as lacking in capabilities, they must be given a chance. We must recall the interferencesthat occurred in Somaliain 2006 and its deleterious consequences. That was one of the reasons that prompted us to suspend our membership in IGADD. Still,as part of this region, we will not shirk our responsibilities.
Therefore, the regional body must acquire higher capabilities and increase its contributions. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in the Sudan at this time is almost adversarial; and includes blocking and marginalization. There is no serious attempt tostudy the issue in depth orto find a solution through collaborative effort with others in a spirit of complementarity. This is done in plain view. Anyone who turns on the radio or television can see this. Unbridled rivalry will only compound and distort the domestic issue. This wayward initiative may appear as a major one; or as if it is prompted by purely humanitarian considerations. In general, the outwardly impressive interventions are not few in number.
One factor remains constant: the ultimate ownership of the issue belongs to the Sudanese people and they must be allowed the space and time to solve their challenges. The neighboring countries of this region can offerassistance, but they cannot replace the Sudanese people. As such, any cooperation must be carried out in a well-researchedand coordinated manner. There is no room for rivalry. That being the case,and as I stressed earlier, we have no reason or appetite to compete in a bazaar.
We will do what we have to do because it is our duty and obligation. The same applies to others. Our sole aim and wish is to contribute whatever we can in accordance with our obligations. In the end, the Sudanese people must emerge from this most recent conflict as well as from all other challenges of the past yearsand be able to shoulder the burden of the transitional period.
Irrespective of potency, knowledge or other credentials; no one can act asa substitute for the Sudanese people. But all can assist in creating an enabling environment to the Sudanese people. On the basis of this key principle, all the neighbors of Sudan can make their own contributions. The most effective way to expedite this process would be to coordinate their initiatives, rather than compete and claim that this issue affects one more than the other.
The fact remains that neighboring countries are the ones that can contribute the most, and their engagement must be continuous – whether in the present time or in the future – and this remains truein spite of limitations in capacity and coordination. This does not mean that there is no room for other partners to engage. Far from it,any opportunity to cooperate must be accepted. This challenge does not only affect the Sudan. There are other problems in the region, and these countries must create a platform to tackle all the problems together.
Question: Mr. President, as you mentioned, Eritrea’s desire and efforts, as well as the desires and efforts of neighboring countries is for this conflict to come to an immediate end; for a reliable ceasefire agreement to be reached;and for the brotherly Sudanese people to focus on a permanent political solution. Unfortunately, however, the critical issue at the moment is the displacement of civilians living in Sudan, including Eritreans. What are the efforts taken by the Eritrean government to welcome its citizens and facilitate the evacuation of other nationals via Eritrea, including overflight permits?
We have one constant policy. We do not enter into the relief/aidmarketplace. Our citizens and others in Sudan are obviously at risk in view of the prevailing instability. In such a situation, crossing through Eritrea is not discussed whether in the context of gettingnecessarypapers, visas, permits, or transport. If you skim through media coverage, Eritrea is not in the picture. We choose not to get into that exercise of publicity. Because, undue focus on people fleeing fromthe conflict; narrations on “exodus”to Chad or South Sudan etc.exacerbate the distortion.
When such unexpected disasters arise, the best approach is to calmly think about how to deal with them and how to pool our resources together for a better solution. The countries in the region must work and coordinate their efforts. If extraneous entities deem the region does not have the capability to address the problem and insist they alone will shoulder the responsibility, we can express our good wishes and let them try. As far as we are concerned, however,we have no problem accepting anyone who leaves the Sudan and comes to us because of the crisis. Our air, land and sea borders are open.
This is not a new policy declaration. We do not need to issue any declaration because it isan established principle and normative practice to us. How many Eritreans are there in Sudan? Are some of these Eritreans refugees in Sudan or not? Would Sudanese be considered refugees when they enter Eritrea or not?These are irrelevant questions. Distorted labels and stereotypes do not existin our vocabulary. We have never contemplated setting up refugee camps here and there. This is a job reserved for Undertaker entities that I mentioned earlier.They have no other job. Their existence depends on the creation of refugees – they open shops, set up camps, set up tents with different colors, all with the name of the United Nations written on them. The aim is to create refugees. It is a business. I call it the business of Undertakers.
When personal and humanitarian calamities unfold, what is of paramount importance is the moral responsibility to help. This responsibility cannot be shrugged off because of paucity of resources, food, medicaments, shelter etc. The main thing is for humans to care about other humans. Let alone Sudanese, even if foreigners living in the Sudanwant to come here and be sheltered, they are welcome. We can even offer them our homes. We do not have any problem doing this. If we have bread to eat, then we can share it. There is absolutely no issue and we are willing and able to offer whatever assistance is required of us.
This applies the more so to Eritrean nationals in the Sudan, whether they were made to live in refugee camps or residing elsewhere outside this arrangement. We have a consistent policy – aid shops, shops for the poor, or refugee camps will not be opened in Eritrea. We do not engage in this. The people of this region must be able to accommodate each other when problems arise while the borders remain in place.
It is hard to believe that the Sudan, with all of its wealth and resources, and that was once referred to as the ‘breadbasket’ of this region, has fallen into such a predicament. It is especially hard to believe that the Sudanese people find themselves in such a dire situation.Nonetheless, the key question now must be how dothe Sudanese get out of this predicament – this must be the principal objective now. Surely, they have the capacity and more than adequate resources. The assistance from the region that we are talking about is a stop-gap measure only for this brief period of hardship.
The airwaves continue to be flooded with harrowing images and thousands of Sudanese fleeing from their country. Why is this newsworthy? Why do you film them? Is it pleasant to see them depressed, crying? Do you do that primarily and solely for purposes of sensationalisation?This is absolutely tabooand unacceptable in our culture (as the primary efforts must be marshalled for the solution of the underlying problem).
Our border is open, anyone who needs sanctuary can come. Whether we have enough resources or not,whether there isfood and water, whether there areenough tents or shelters isa secondary topic. What we do have is the faith and spirit that we can share whatever we have; share whatever meal we have. If there is a need to mobilize resources for this,we can do that. This does not only apply to Eritrea but we also have high hopes that all the other neighbors of Sudan will do the same.
But for the long term, the regional institution and framework of cooperation that we have talked about must build the capacity to fully address such emergencies whenever and if they occur. How do we deal with not only war, but other natural disasters as well? How do we work together? How do we strengthen our advance preparations? It is necessary to develop the capacity and methodologies of mitigating and addressing unexpected developments.
To discuss numbers of people fleeing a crisis and crossing borders and to track their whereabouts and movements each day is simply shameful, and it is absolutely unacceptable in our culture.
During the struggle, when our people were in exile in Sudan, they lived as Sudanese, as Sudanese citizens. Sudan was the rear base of the Eritrean people. Whether during the liberation struggle or after the struggle, an Eritrean living in the Sudan never thought of themselves as a stranger and foreigner.
By the same token, any Sudanese who comes here must be able to think that he or she is at home; whether in times of trouble or prosperity. When you create such an environment, you can cope with any challenge whether it is war or natural disasters. The issue of resources is secondary. Our policy is not to enter into the bazaar and Public Relations stints of Undertakers.
(President Isaias also spoke in Arabic to stress the solidarity of Eritrea with, and convey a message to, the people of the Sudan who had offered sanctuary to Eritreans as full citizens during the dark decades of the liberation struggle).