Interview with Opposition Leader, Mesfin Hagos
I recently interviewed Mesfin Hagos, Eritrea’s independence war hero and former Defense Minister in post liberation Eritrea. He now chairs the Eritrean Democratic Party, EDP, one of a dozen political organizations campaigning to end President Isaias Afewerki’s tyrannical despotism described by many political observers as the worst in Africa. I started by asking him whether Eritrea’s decision to force UN peacekeeping troops out of its territory was legally justified and diplomatically helpful or harmful to its case over the border conflict with Ethiopia?
Mesfin Hagos: The stationing of the UN Peacekeeping force was linked with the implementation of delimitation and demarcation ruling on the border by the Arbitration Commission and not to be there for indefinite period. The Border Commission delivered its ruling which has not been implemented for nearly six years now. The border conflict would have been put behind us and the UN Peacekeeping force would have gone if the ruling on border demarcation were implemented on time. I don’t think it is correct to conclude that the Peacekeeping mission is obliged to remain stationed as long as the border is not demarcated. Secondly, the Peacekeeping mission was stationed with the wish of the host country. If the host country does not want it there, then it leaves. Any consequence of the withdrawal of that Peacekeeping force becomes the responsibility of that country. Period.
To go back to your key question, I am not aware whether the Eritrean government decided or not to push the Peacekeeping force out of Eritrea. As I see it, the Eritrean government does not want to send out the Peacekeeping force. But for sure, there were some signs that could lead people to the conclusion that the regime might be intending to send the force out. The Peacekeeping force was forced to limit its mobility; its helicopters prohibited from flying over certain areas; denied the use of some access roads to the Temporary Security Zone, and finally, the regime refused to supply fuel to the force. This was an empty show of force by the regime. The refusal to sell fuel could be because of absolute shortage of that commodity. But if the Eritrean government were to ask the Peacekeeping force to leave, no one would claim that that action is illegal. Nevertheless, even the Eritrean regime knows well that asking the Peacekeeping mission to leave Eritrea has diplomatic consequences. We have also witnessed the regime shuddering under the fear of diplomatic and military consequences when the Peacekeeping mission showed the intention of relocating units from Eritrea to Ethiopia. It is needless to comment that the signs shown by the regime against the presence of Peacekeepers were false and misleading.
Q. Do you see any hope that the UN would in any way put pressure soon on Ethiopia to demarcate its border with Eritrea according to the final and binding international ruling of April 2002?
MH: First and foremost, if one is to take the Algiers Agreement in reference to the role of the United Nations or its Security Council in resolving the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia, one finds no legal authority or mandate for the UN body in this regard. It is only the will of the two conflicting parties that can matter. The Algiers Agreement does not site any legal action that the UN can take against a party that refuses to abide by the terms of the agreement. Thus, it is mainly moral obligation and moral responsibility that the UN and its Security Council can have. However, it would not mean that the obligation and responsibility of the UN body and its Security Council will remain limited only to a moral obligation. As far as the dispute is one that can adversely affect regional peace as well as the relationship and economic development of the two UN member states, the UN Security Council has the obligation to be seized of the matter. Therefore, the decisive factor in this situation is not the Algiers Agreement but the interest of those political actors that have an upper hand in the doings of the world body. It has been evidenced in several instances that, whenever their supreme interests are adversely affected, those powers are not stalled by previous decisions and agreements from issuing new provisions and enforcing them to promote their national interests. Likewise, those actors may not use their influence as long as the Eritrea-Ethiopia border dispute does not adversely affect their interests. This is the reality that we until now see on the ground. The adverse effects of the non-implementation of the ruling of the International Arbitration Commission are being paid by the peoples of the two countries, and especially by the Eritrean people.
Q. I know you cannot speak on behalf of the entire Eritrean opposition, but when, and under what circumstances, do you think the opposition would be ready to enter into talks with Ethiopia to resolve the border dispute”
MH: It is only under anyone of following two conditions that the Eritrean opposition forces can talk with Ethiopia about the border:
· When they consolidate and strengthen themselves as a unified political entity and obtain recognition by other regional and international forces or countries. And secondly, when they fulfill all the factors that can make them stand as an alternative to the regime and obtain legal recognition.
I don’t think any legal dialogue and substantive agreement on the border with Ethiopia can be made by the opposition before fulfilling the above mentioned two factors. It is also to be expected that Ethiopia will engage on this matter only with a legal body that can enforce an agreement that has been reached between the two. It is undeniable fact that the Eritrean opposition camp is no nearer to both those factors. This being the legal side of the coin, it is not impossible for the opposition to enter into dialogue (talk) with Ethiopia on the border issue and other areas of mutual interest.
Q. You were on a tour of the US lately – meeting supporters in the Eritrean Diaspora. Were you satisfied with the outcome of your visit?
MH: I am fully satisfied with the outcome of my meetings and exchange of views with Eritreans in North America. Unlike other organizations, the Eritrean Democratic Party, EDP, was little understood by other Eritreans; its blurred picture lingered for sometime. Some people used to equate it as the other side of the PFDJ coin. Others looked at EDP as an ‘agent’ of foreign forces. Even though both allegations had no ground, it did not mean that we were not concerned by the mistaken understanding of EDP by the opposition forces that we counted as our partners in the struggle. My latest mission to the United States played a role in correcting this wrong understanding. The meetings I held with different political organizations left a clear picture about EDP as an important partner in the opposition camp, and this was positive achievement.
Q. How would you describe current US relations with the Eritrean opposition? Can you talk about your meeting with Dr. Frazer, US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs?
MH: Let me discuss this matter taking into consideration the weight of the Eritrean opposition forces vis-à-vis the weight of the United States. There is little to compare between the United States, today’s sole world power, and the Eritrean opposition which could not even close its ranks and emerge as an alternative force to the Eritrean government. What the Eritrean opposition wants and expects from the United States is much wider and larger than what the world power could expect from the Eritrean opposition. The American administration has openly expressed its wish to see the Eritrean regime removed because the latter entertains policies and practices opposed to the interests of the United States government. For different reasons, we in the opposition and the government of the United States agree in the removal of the Eritrean regime, and we thus have a common interest upon which we can base our relations and strengthen them. This is the link between the Eritrean opposition camp and the American administration. The very fact that the United States government is willing to meet and discuss common issues is a positive stance by itself. During my mission to the United States, I was given the opportunity to meet with senior staff at the US State Department for exchange of notes. They were not only ready to listen to our viewpoints but convincingly showed us that they are ready to cooperate with us in the future. I was indeed pleased to know that Dr. Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and her team are serious with their intention to henceforth follow up the Eritrean situation very closely.
Q. How would the Eritrean opposition benefit if the US went ahead and designated the Eritrean regime as a sponsor of terrorism and called for international sanctions to be imposed on the government? Or do you think it would be harmful to Eritrea in any way?
MH: We have been openly providing our views ever since this subject was released in the media. In reality, who is being considered by the United States as the sponsor of terrorism so that action can be taken against it? Is it against the people or the regime? And what is the intended action? Our concerns revolve around these unanswered questions. The terrorist behaviour of the Eritrean regime starts from inside Eritrea and no one else suffered from it as much as we Eritreans did. And above all others, it is we Eritreans who wish the regime to pay the price for its terrorist acts. Based on this truism, we in principle support any action by the international community or the United States that can debilitate and further isolate the Eritrean regime. But I personally wish to state that such actions against Eritrea should not in anyway harm the people who have been already victimized by the terrorist acts of the regime. I am of the conviction that the international community and the United States can take selective but painful measures against the Eritrean regime and its interests. In this regard, we are more than willing to provide views and advice.
It is thought that the American administration does not yet have a final decision on this matter. The Eritrean regime has been warned to stop its terrorist acts, or else, it will be responsible for any measures that could be taken against it. It is up to the United States government to judge whether the Eritrean regime has stopped its sponsorship of terrorism or not, but to our own judgment, the regime has intensified its acts of terror. We wait and see what measures the international community or the United States will take against the Eritrean regime.
Q. There has been talk in the news about possible formation of an Eritrean government in exile. Would you comment on this?
MH: I better leave comments to be made by those who voiced it. This was not in fact the first time to see a statement of this kind released without ever being considered by the concerned Eritrean organizations. If one organization wants to form a government in exile, that is up to it. But as I understand it, the idea was not shared with other organizations, and it was not released in the name of all opposition organizations. I cannot confirm that the alleged announcer did say so because I did not hear him saying it. If he has not said so, it will be appropriate that he denies the news release.
It is legitimate to resort to any action that can strengthen the Eritrean opposition forces. But things said or done for selfish ends are finally harmful to the cause itself as well as to the very person saying it without prior consultation with all concerned. I cannot say that we are short of Eritreans and non-Eritreans that are bent at continually harming the fragile camp of the opposition. I hope the report is an erroneous release.
Q. Was Mr. Isaias Afewerki a dictator during the armed independence struggle? If yes, why was he tolerated then?
MH: During the liberation struggle, Isaias was a popular leader of the revolution. I don’t feel I have the space in this interview to explain the sources of his popularity at that time. Aside from those taking power through military coup d’etat, most dictators do not come to power as dictators. It is gradually and through subtle use of the popularity given them by the party that brought them to power that they consolidate their dictatorial mantle. As they get corrupted by more power, dictators entrench their absolutist rule that eventually becomes clear for all to see. This is how the dictatorial nature of Isaias was developed. Many people who were not with the EPLF during the period of the liberation struggle usually allege that it was the comrades-in-arms of Isaias, and particularly the G-15 group, who helped Isaias to become what he is – a dictator. May be there is some grain of truth in this surmise. But it is not that easy to conclude the matter in this manner.
In the era of the liberation struggle, the question of the survival and continuation of the Revolution was given the uppermost priority by every fighter, including by the upper echelons of the leadership. On this basis, I cannot say that the issue of dictatorship was of concern to us. True, there were many senior cadres who were in disagreement with the method of work by Isaias. If they claim that they disagreed with Isaias then knowing he was a dictator, then I can only tell them that this was not true. Isaias made good use of the sincerity (naiveté) and/or personal frailties of some people in order to satisfy his greedy behaviour. Be it through wits or through the popularity he gained through sheer circumstances, Isaias skillfully unleashed fights among his close comrades and he remained the arbiter and advisor of their squabbles. Therefore, the dictatorial practices of today’s Isaias were part of his inborn behaviour that were enhanced after liberation. The difference was only of time and situation. This extremely general and rough description of the person cannot give a full picture of what Isaias is.