Omar Jabir is one of the most forthright Eritrean critics of the unelected rulers in Asmara. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Omar Jabir has very harsh words against the regime’s refusal to call for emergency food aid although the UN says close to 70 percent of the population is malnourished.
Omar is also troubled by recent reports that Eritrea still stands at the bottom of the list of the world’s worst places for press freedom – below North Korea, Burma and Somalia. He is not surprised by the regime’s unhealthy attitude toward freedom of expression. Omar spoke to Michael Abraha.
Omar: The origins of this misguided attitude go back to 1969 when the present Eritrean leader declared his split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). A chauvinistic, dictatorial organization was created under the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Many were executed within EPLF for expressing their views. Then the alliance with the Tigrayan People’s Front (TPLF) was formed in order to liquidate ELF. After independence, the imprisonment and killing of all opposition groups including journalists, politicians (the G-15 among the targets) and civil society leaders ensued. This will continue without limit!
Q: Eritrea is also the most malnourished in the world, only a little better, it is said, than war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a UN status report. Seven of every ten Eritreans are reportedly undernourished. Who do you think are those three out of ten Eritreans who have enough food? But more importantly, shouldn’t the Eritrean authorities be calling for emergency aid instead of letting hungry Eritrean families continue to suffer?
A: The three out of ten are the privileged members of the governing party and their supporters and perhaps also those families receiving help from relatives abroad. The authorities will not ask for international aid or declare that there is famine in the country because of arrogance and lack of common sense; they don’t care about the rest of the nation as long as the ruling party is surviving!
Q: The UK says it will support UN sanctions against Eritrea for what is termed as Asmara’s ‘spoiler’ role in the bloody Somali civil strife. Should sanctions be imposed and if so, how would they impact the people of Somalia and Eritrea?
A: I have my reservation about international sanctions. In many cases sanctions will negatively affect the grass roots and the regime will use those measures to strengthen its grip on the people. It will then find excuses to apply and implement new, ruthless policies. External pressure can only be useful if it comes after an internal uprising and if it is in accordance with guidelines put forth by the opposition leadership.
Q: Eritrean pro-democracy forces and the rest of the world are not willing to accept the Asmara regime as it is. The Eritrean leaders and their supporters are meantime happy with the status quo. What are the chances for a peaceful and orderly transformation?
A: What we need is a clear and comprehensive vision that is consistent with the struggle of all democratic forces that are oppressed by the regime. Where is Hitler? Where is the Soviet Union? And where is Ethiopia’s Mengistu Hailemariam? History might take a twist some time, or it might look as if it took a pause. But no, the fermenting process is going on as we speak, and the time for change will come when all is ready.
Q: Eritrea is said to be the worst in road accidents. More Eritreans (per capita) die on the roads than anywhere else in the world despite the regime’s stated policy of building more roads and expanding public education. What is the real state of the country’s infra- and supra-structures?
A: Building roads is secondary to “building up the Human being” –the latter is missing in Eritrea! I remember when we met with the Eritrean president in 1993 in Asmara and I said to him: “It is easy to build the infrastructure, the state departments; but the most difficult task is to build the Nation!” He agreed and promised to go on that track but as it turned out, genuine change was not in his agenda.
Q: President Isayas says fleeing Eritreans are on a “picnic…. and will come back one day”. Are Eritrean refugees on a picnic?
A: Either he doesn’t understand the meaning of “picnic” or he doesn’t care. Those refugees are risking their lives – dying in the desert and the sea. I can assure the didctator that they will come back one day – but he will not be there to see them!!
Q: Some experts say Eritrean politics has been shaped by the outcome of the Badme war with Ethiopia. Would the Eritrean government willingly democratize once the border is demarcated?
A: To solve national issues, you need democracy, unity and freedom of expression. So the starting point for solving the border issue should first be to restore democracy, and not the reverse. But the regime is not interested in resolving the dispute because to democratize the country is not a priority for the Eritrean dictatorship!