“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” – Mahatma Gandhi
In some ways, the world’s most interesting “leader” today is 53-year-old Isaias Afewerki, president of the UN’s newest independent state, Eritrea.
He is as unique as his country, unlike other heads of state.
When I met him in early December in Asmara, he was obviously more interested in working than talking. The BBC had been waiting weeks for an interview, but somehow I jumped the queue.
In journalism, as in love or war, you sometimes don’t ask why, but just take advantage of opportunity.
At around six-foot-two, Isaias is good looking, doesn’t stand on ceremony, dislikes neckties, is not surrounded by bodyguards or flunkies and has little patience with small talk. He is courteous, soft-spoken, exudes confidence and gives the impression that his every waking moment is devoted to solving his country’s problems.
I doubt if he’s much fun, or has much fun. But that’s a guess.
Until he became president after the defeat of the Ethiopian army, Isaias was a guerrilla war leader who at age 20 dropped out of engineering at university in Addis Ababa to fight. He joined the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front) and was soon dismayed at the religious, ethnic and clan rivalries that hindered unified action.
Disillusioned, he broke away to help form the Marxist-oriented EPLF (Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front) which stressed organization, unity, central command, discipline and wouldn’t tolerate internal feuds or ethnic/religious favouritism.
As a battlefield strategist Isaias (as he’s known to every Eritrean) was brilliant. His “protracted war” strategy for fighting the Soviets and Cubans when they threw their might in with Ethiopia, was a result of studying guerrilla war in Mao Tse-tung’s China. It was the EPLF which literally destroyed the most powerful army in Africa and won independence for Eritrea.
Extraordinarily, Isaias comfortably made the transition to peace. “In a liberation war you have one major obstacle … (while) in peace you face challenges from all directions and their magnitude is tremendous,” he’s been quoted as saying.
Even though he’s now in a new war with Ethiopia, he’s led Eritrea into becoming the most peaceful, harmonious, least corrupt country in Africa where ethnic, religious and cultural disputes are muted. Clan and religious loyalties have been channelled into Eritrean nationalism.
Whether this will last, is debatable (some diplomats are sure he’ll eventually fail). But at the moment Eritrea, perched on the Red Sea bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, is the hope of Africa as far as developing a pluralistic, democratic, law-abiding society free from the curse of Africa — endemic corruption and tribal violence.
I met Isaias after I had travelled the disputed border areas where an Ethiopian army of about 200,000 is facing a battle-tested army of Eritrean “fighters” — men and women.
Articulate, he seems to have clearly defined positions on every issue and is without false vanity (no pictures or photographs of the president adorn government offices or posters — rare modesty for Africa).
He seems to view the border war with Ethiopia mostly as an irritant that diverts him from concentrating on social and economic problems and moving closer to democratic ideals.
“Ethiopia’s actions are motivated by politics,” he said. “Settling where the border is or isn’t is simple, and doesn’t need a war. It was defined by the Italians years ago and is accepted internationally. The border is not the issue.”
At issue is the neighbouring province of Tigre, which once wanted independence “but when the Mengistu regime was collapsing, Tigreans (led by their leader Meles Zinawi) saw opportunity and marched on Addis and took control.” Meles [died last year … was]
is now Ethiopia’s prime minister and Tigreans are said to control all important ministries.
Whatever the reasons for the war, they have “backfired.” The Ethiopian army of peasant conscripts has no stomach for tangling again with Eritrea which cleaned their clock last time.
Isaias thinks Ethiopia’s “ethnic cleansing,” the forcible deportation of Ethiopians with Eritrean links, is so harsh and unfair that some see a revival of an attitude they thought was finished when Mengistu was overthrown.
“In fact, Meles and the Tigreans are continuing the empire-building policies of Haile Selassie and Mengistu, and they’ll fail,” Isaias says, adding that he’d like international adjudication but refuses to withdraw fighters from what he considers Eritrean territory.
Isaias is animated when he talks about the dangers of foreign aid, and thinks aid programs can be a device whereby donor countries can influence and manipulate recipient countries and make them dependent. With aid comes corruption.
“There’ve been enough examples to show this, even though there may be some misguided goodwill in aid programs. We welcome help, but we must be responsible to ourselves, and not to foreign agencies.”
He also notes that huge loans mean huge debts to repay.
Ironically, the EPLF’s original Marxist doctrine has given way to pragmatism, realism, recognition of human nature.
Isaias has admitted: “Ideals I entertained 20 years ago don’t work. There are things you can’t do because of human nature. Experience makes me more realistic.”
He’s disillusioned with all “isms” which he feels lead to disappointment. “Once you become obsessed with trying to live up to certain idealistic doctrines, you close your mind to new ideas and new methods … You lose flexibility.”
He’s also noted that while still committed to improving living standards, it’s more difficult than he once believed.
“It’s impossible to make a poor man rich by simply wishing it,” he once told journalist Dan Connell. “What must be done is give (the poor man) opportunity to do something for himself.”
The miracle of Isaias is that he escaped Marxist dogma. He shocked his Marxist colleagues during the war when Lenin was being quoted to support an argument, and Isaias quietly interjected: “Maybe Lenin was wrong” — unthinkable heresy to communists.
When Eritrea joined the Organization of African Unity (OAU), instead of conventional platitudes, Isaias lambasted the organization for only attacking European colonialism, never doing much to help Africa, for lavish spending, for holding innumerable costly and useless meetings, for ignoring the curse of Africa which, along with endemic corruption, is tribalism or “ethnicity.”
“It wasn’t diplomatic, but it sure was refreshing!” said one diplomat. And true.
The only time during our interview Isaias allowed himself a smile was at the end when I said I knew how to increase the amount of money foreigners spend in Eritrea, with no risk of losing control.
“Oh?” he said, mildly curious. “How?”
“By allowing credit cards. People with credit cards spend more than they should because it doesn’t seem like money.” (With frustratingly few exceptions, Eritrea does not take credit cards).
He frowned: “We have other things that take priority … ”
“You don’t have to do anything — just tell the banks. They’ll do it. Banks rule the world anyway.”
Isaias smiled. A nice smile. He should do it more often.
This piece was first written on December 30, 1998 by the legendary founding editor of the Toronto Sun, Peter Worthington, who died today at the age of 86. It’s our editor’s choice article of the month.