Eritrea dreams of ending isolation, boosting development

By Jenny Vaughan ASMARA, Eritrea (AFP) –  Long criticised for backing rebel groups across the Horn of Africa, Eritrea has said that ending its isolation is crucial for economic growth, blaming external threats for its slow development. "We

By Jenny Vaughan

ASMARA, Eritrea (AFP) –  Long criticised for backing rebel groups across the Horn of Africa, Eritrea has said that ending its isolation is crucial for economic growth, blaming external threats for its slow development.

“We cannot live in isolation, because at the end of the day we can only prosper if there is an environment for trade between neighbouring countries,” Yemane Gebremeskel, director of the president’s office, told AFP in a rare interview with a foreign journalist in the country’s capital, Asmara.

Trade and investment slumped in the years following the bitter 1998-2000 border war with arch-foe Ethiopia, and stagnated under a policy of fierce self-reliance.

But today, there are signs Eritrea is warming to foreign investors, especially in the mining industry with more than a dozen companies, including from China, Canada and Australia, exploring the mineral-rich country.

But relations with neighbours remain tense.

Eritrea and Ethiopia have long traded accusations of backing rebels to needle each other, with their troops still eying each other along the fortified frontier more than a decade after their border war ended.

The two countries remain at odds over the flashpoint town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea by a United Nations-backed boundary commission but still controlled by Ethiopia.

“We would not like to have a divided attention, a divided focus, we would not like to devote time and energy to defence… but the external environment has not been very helpful,” Yemane said.

Relations with Djibouti are frozen after border skirmishes in 2008, while regionally Eritrea stands almost alone, after pulling out of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the main east African bloc.

The UN accuses Eritrea of destabilising the region by supporting rebel groups in neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia, including the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab fighters in Somalia, claims Yemane dismissed as lies.

But Sudan — where Eritrea once backed anti-government rebels from Darfur, the south and the east — is now warming relations with Asmara, although close friendship with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who faces genocide charges at the International Criminal Court, brings with it diplomatic challenges too.

But despite Yemane’s optimistic rhetoric, Eritrea remains focused on building its defence from external threats, while some critics would say it is also building up strength against internal threats too.

Elections have been stalled, the constitution not implemented, and the country’s youth are conscripted into years of national service, a nation-building programme introduced after Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a bloody 30-year war.

“If it (elections) has been postponed, it has been postponed depending on the threats we face, real or perceived,” he added.

Officially, national service lasts no more than 18 months, but many report being locked into the programme — into the armed forces or civil service — for more than a decade on a meagre salary.

“The national service has been prolonged because of the war and because the state of the situation,” Yemane said.

Each month, thousands of young Eritreans flee the country into neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan as refugees, according to the UN refugee agency.

Yemane however insists “it is not a big issue.”

Until Eritreans are officially released from the programme, they are restricted from travelling outside the country, and in Asmara’s airport, travellers are screened for release papers before flying.

Accusations of flouting democratic ideals and muzzling the media and opposition are common from rights groups and the international community.

But Yemane insists that his country is unfairly judged and is often examined in a vacuum, without considering the wider context shaping Eritrea’s politics.

“You can take a snapshot, you can have a checklist, you can say ‘OK, the press is owned by the government, there is no political opposition,’ you can reach that kind of simplistic conclusion,” he said.

“Or you can look at the complexity of issues, the trajectory we have gone, the problems we are facing, the external threats we are facing.”

Review overview
  • Semere August 21, 2013

    This is merely for external consumption. They know that no Eritrean whether in or out will believe them. If we have to believe:

    1. Let them first break the news to their citizens who have the right to be informed on national policies.
    2. Let them first confess their plunder and name their mistakes.
    3. Let them first take to justice all the criminals who maimed innocent Eritreans
    4. Let them first ask forgiveness to the Eritrean people.

  • Dawit Meconen August 21, 2013

    Genuine Eritreans,

    Never be deceived with any seemingly positive words that come from the mouths of Isaias Afewerqi and members of his inner circle. Until him and his gangs are arrested and placed behind bars, never slacken the belt of your struggle, even for a second.

    ” The Boosting of Foreign Relation,



    Independent Eritrean Foreign Policy,

    Woyane Invasion,

    USA attempt to overthrow Eritrean Government,

    Defaming, incarceratin and murdering Eritrean Intellectuals as Foreign Agents,

    Printing of the Constitution

    Serving the Truth

    etc.” are all gimmicks Isaias Afewerqi invent and employ to blindfold naive Eritreans from waking up to his secret agenda of Abai Tigrai.

    • Kabbire August 21, 2013

      Did you just write “Abai Tigrai” ? I thought Hgdef are trying to turn Eritrea into “neush Arabia” ንኡሽ ዓረብ፤ ሳቒር ዓራቢ ?
      Even if Eritrean languages are burned down and Eritreans are sold to Arab slavery.

      • Said August 21, 2013

        In this situation, no bady will by us , an for what as long people like , exceed, we can by or sale, mr.kebbire u sond like the dictator, because I never see u righting anything against dictator, that cande ware me .

      • Said August 21, 2013

        The arab people thy not coming to u going on us on will .

        • ahmed saleh August 22, 2013

          Dawit Meconen
          I am always eager to read your comments . We will agree to disagree on some points but that doesn’t mean
          we will abandon each other like some crooks betrayers . For some extent I think we are in same wagon of
          Eritrea N’ Eritrawian .

          • Dawit Meconen August 22, 2013

            ahmed saleh,

            I hope you agree with me who our enemies are :Isaias and woyane, and the path we must take to defeat them: strong Unity.

            The two enemies are one and the same; their aparent antagonism is an illusion, of which the short term goal is to break the Eritrean backbone from the center by pulling the two ends in opposite directions.

            Isaias Afewerqi’s favorite Tigrigna idiom is: Gereb B’hakla, and its English close relative, Divid and Rule.

            The two woyanes have skillfully divided the Eritrean population into two Warring Camps, and each day, applying the “Gereb B’hakla” maxim, they hand them more kerosene, in the form of religion, ethnic, region, factionalism etc. to burn each other to the ground.

            As they say,” Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twise, shame on me”. The bus has to stop here; we cannot allow the villains fool us to oblivion. It is time to throw the kerosene back at them. Armed with Unity and Eritrean Nationalism, there is no power in the world that stand in our way.

  • Nahom August 21, 2013

    Each month, thousands of young Eritreans flee the country into neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan as refugees, according to the UN refugee agency.

    Yemane however insists “it is not a big issue.”

    It is not big issue because if all Eritreans fled from the country and Charley, monkey, and kisha remained with their mafia boss to prepare him food and to guard him from external threat yes it is not big issue for Charley.

  • fretta August 23, 2013

    Gashe Dawit Moconen,

    You’re so deceiving, you preach about unity while characterizing some regions like Akeleguzay led by Adhanom and Bereket(who is this guy anyway) as woyane, so sickening.
    Stop trespassing and stay where you belong mr. moconen.

  • Isayas Yiwdek August 28, 2013

    This regime is viper. Issayas must go. The Eritrean people is suffering as never before. Eritreans please let us get united so that we can knock down HGDEF. Our country is severly injured because of HGDEF. HGDEF is indemocratic regime and is venom of an asp. Isayas must go.

  • Isayas Yiwdek August 28, 2013

    I hate HGDEF so much. I love my country Eritrea. I wish the Eritrean people peace, panacea and security.