BY BEREKET KIDANE
The year 2017 was, in fact, a good year for Eritrea in terms of the peace and tranquility that prevailed in the country, the development efforts that kicked into a higher gear, the regional diplomatic and security alliances struck, and the calm that prevailed on its frontiers.
Relations with the United States could be better but they have shown signs of improvement of late under Trump’s first year in office.
The following are 5 Eritrea news storylines that defined this past year:
Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the minority regime of Ethiopia and archenemy of the Eritrean State, continued its free fall for much of the year and will stumble into next year with 2018 possibly being its last or next to last year in power.
While it lost sovereignty and control of much of the country with most of the kilils becoming “no- go zones” for its federal Agazi troops, it continued to childishly blame Eritrea and Egypt for all of its self-inflicted problems.
TPLF’s senior leaders spent the final two months of the year in full-crisis mode locked-up in a closed-door meeting in Tigray unable to solve their predicament or make the hard decisions needed to save the country from balkanizing.
The wave of ethnic violence targeted at civilian residents from other kilils horrified most Ethiopians and observers of Ethiopian politics who had never seen that kind of inter-ethnic killings, mayhem and incitement in Ethiopia’s history before.
At last, the consequences of TPLF’s lies, fabrications, falsification of data, malfeasance, kleptocracy, and incitement of ethnic hatred finally caught up to it in the year of 2017. TPLF’s future in Ethiopian state politics became perilous.
Most political observers now see TPLF as a “lame duck” that won’t be around for very long.
A Shift in the Balance of Power in the Horn
At the height of its political influence in Washington during the Obama years, TPLF used to routinely blackmail Arab and Asian countries that wanted to do business with Eritrea or engage Eritrea diplomatically by telling them that it has the “green light” from the United States to attack Eritrea.
It worked around the clock to isolate Eritrea regionally and internationally through blackmail and threats of countries aligned with the United States.
That all began to change around 2015 when India rebuffed TPLF’s blackmail and ignored its temper tantrum by inviting President Isaias Afewerki to New Delhi to participate in the India-Africa Summit despite TPLF’s protestations.
It continued from there when President Isaias visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to sign economic and strategic cooperation agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and United Arab Emirates (UAE) despite TPLF’s complaints.
KSA and UAE both ignored TPLF’s temper tantrum and went ahead and engaged Eritrea as a regional ally.
That trend picked-up steam in 2016 and accelerated in 2017 when Egypt was brought into the fold.
In January 2017, President Isaias explained that Eritrea had wanted Saudi Arabia to play an expanded role in the region when it comes to addressing terrorism and instability in the region but her pleas were not met with action until the ascent of King Salman (now replaced by his son) to the throne, adding that King Salman’s strategic outlook in the region is very much aligned with Eritrea’s.
In May 2017, President Isaias further explained that Egyptian-Eritrean ties were developing at a rapid pace in all sectors and that both countries were ready to strengthen their multi-dimensional cooperation.
Taking into account the political generational change going on in the Mideast with young Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates looking to build their militaries by investing in their defenses and diversifying security cooperation agreements with countries in the wider region that includes the Red Sea basin, Eritrea is poised to take advantage of the benefits of collective security through the agreements it had signed with the rising Gulf Arab regional powers.
Consequently, in 2017 as a result of TPLF’s full-blown economic and political crisis coupled with Eritrea’s security alliances struck with Gulf Arab regional powers, the balance of power in the Horn began to shift toward Eritrea.
Solar panels dot the landscape
2017 was a year in which solar panels started to become ubiquitous in urban and rural Eritrea. Solar power is Eritrea’s choice of renewable and long-term sustainable energy solution as it has the immense potential to provide water supply to industry and agriculture. It’s been many years since sovereign Eritrea said “yes” to the sun but in 2017 it became quite clear that solar is Eritrea’s energy future as the investment made in the sector, particularly in human resources, started to pay dividends.
Solar powered street lights popped up everywhere in Asmara and became operational right away. Residents of remote villages such as Ajerbeb saw small solar panels go up on their roof huts and turned out en masse to celebrate the arrival of electricity in their village.
Villagers talked about how they no longer have to walk to the nearest town with electricity to charge their cell phones or how their school children will now have light to be able to study at night and improve their grades.
A large solar farm was built at Adi-Halo that can be scaled up to 4 MW and plans were drawn up to extend large renewable energy projects to the Gergera and Kerkebet dams to pump water from gigantic water tanks to villages for domestic consumption and irrigation of crops.
Man-made Fresh Water Lakes
Eritrea has plenty of “salt water” on its coastline but since desalination projects are very expensive it has been constructing large artificial “fresh water lakes” and reservoirs for industrial and agricultural use as part of an effort to harness water from the many streams and rivers on the west such as Gash, Barka, and Anseba as well as smaller ones on the eastern part of the country that extend from Karora to Assab and ultimately flow into the Red Sea or neighboring countries.
In 2017, the reservoirs at Gerset, Kerkebet, Gahtelay and Gergera became so large that the question was what to do with all that water stored and how to get it to where it is needed for domestic use, livestock and agriculture.
That is where solar power comes into play and becomes instrumental in the distribution, pumping and delivery of water to where it can be used. In 2017, Kerkebet alone stored 200 million cubic meters of water.
The goal is to distribute water from reservoirs like Gergera to 30 or 40 kilometers away to places like Hazemo, Dekemhare and Korbaria and from Gahtelay to Massawa and surrounding area so they can be used to meet water needs for industry and agriculture.
In that effort, President Isaias explained that Eritrea has only accomplished 20% of the work that is needed but has bigger plans for 2018 and beyond relying on the accumulated knowledge thus far and experience of other countries to make it happen.
These network of water dams and artificial lakes have the added benefit of beautifying the landscape, in addition to increasing water supply to the country.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Recognition
2017 brought us Eritrea’s first World Heritage Site listing. Eritrea’s capital city with its art deco architecture, palm-lined boulevards, bougainvillea covered villas, beautiful cinemas, espresso bars and opera houses was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Asmara boasts one of the largest collection of modernist architecture in the world. Because of Eritrea’s coveted location on the Red Sea it was always being invaded by different empires of the day that influenced its culture, religion and architecture.
If Asmara, an Italian-inspired city, easily met the ten criterion required for heritage status then one has to assume that cities like Massawa, Turkish-inspired, will also be up for nominations and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the not too distant future, in addition to Qohaito and the ancient Port of Adulis where amazing excavation work is going on to unearth its former grandeur and importance as a transit point to trade between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.
The heritage status recognition will be crucial in raising funds for the restoration and preservation of Asmara that should enable it to become the cornerstone of tourism in Eritrea. The same will hopefully be done for the Ottoman urban culture and buildings of Massawa and other sites.
In terms of Eritrea’s tourism potential, there are also the Red Sea islands with their pristine beaches and colorful coral reefs that offer some of the best diving and snorkeling anywhere in the world, scenic mountain regions, and historical landmarks of antique cultures of empires past.
When it comes to the tourism industry of Eritrea, the sky is the limit. If Eritrea plays its cards right it can generate substantial amounts of income from the tourism industry in the coming years.
As I reflect back on 2017, it was indeed a good year for Eritrea. Looking forward to what 2018 has in store for our beloved nation.
Happy New Year!