BY FIKREJESUS AMHAZION (PH.D.)
Undeniably, 2018 was an extraordinary year for Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. The powerful winds of change swept across the region, ushering in the possibility of lasting peace, stability, and security.
The year’s rapidly unfolding, momentous events have been both highly encouraging and a greatly welcome development in a long-troubled region. For Eritrea, in particular, the year was especially eventful. This article is the first in a three-part series that looks back at some of the important events and developments that unfolded in the country over the past twelve extraordinary months. Parts II and III of the review will be published in the following several days.
As ever, the New Year and holiday period were celebrated with great enthusiasm by Eritreans across the country and around the world. With little doubt, however, the largest party was the one that took place in Sawa, with celebrations organized by the Ministry of Information and Sawa National Service Training Centre.
Additionally, President Isaias Afwerki paid a working visit to Egypt upon the invitation of the President of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Eritrean leader’s visit, where he was welcomed by a guard of honor, was illustrative of Eritrea’s growing regional and international relations.
Notably, the visit sparked media hysteria regarding the closure of the border with Sudan and far-fetched rumors of an Egyptian and Emirati military presence in Eritrea. During his traditional New Year’s interview, President Isaias dismissed the reports and rumors as a “joke.”
Interestingly, as Eritrea began the year by continuing to effectively counter external efforts to isolate and weaken it, more evidence was beginning to emerge that despite the former Ethiopian regime’s outward veneer of growth, prosperity, and stability, all was certainly not well. In fact, the country was on the verge of collapse. In highly prescient comments delivered during his New Year’s interview, President Isaias stated that, for the TPLF-led regime in Ethiopia, “the game is over.” Months later, he would repeat the statement as events proved him to be correct.
Of course, with it being the beginning of the year, numerous meetings were held by various organizations, government ministries, and local or regional administrations in order to discuss priorities and outline various activities for the upcoming year. Notably, Eritrea and China also signed a loan agreement worth USD 87 million, which would partly be channeled to construct the first phase of the 29 km-long asphalt road connecting Adi-Guaedad with Habela.
Memorably, the month also saw the visit to Eritrea by a number of distinguished international entertainment figures, such as Eritrean-American comedian and film star Tiffany Hadish and the British musician Joss Stone.
Later in the year, Hadish would also wear a dazzling traditional Eritrean outfit to the Academy Awards, proudly showcasing her roots and heritage. Not to be forgotten, Eritrean rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle would also visit the country later in 2018.
February saw Eritrean athletes make history and add to the country’s fast-growing sporting legacy. In Rwanda, Eritrean cyclists dominated the 13th African Continental Road Cycling Championships. The Eritrean team won the team time trial competition for an unprecedented 8th consecutive year, while there were victories and positive results in numerous other categories, including the junior and women’s competitions.
Remarkably, since its inception in 2001, Eritrea has won more medals in the African Continental Road Championships than all other African countries combined. Upon the Eritrean team’s return to Asmara, thousands of Eritreans poured out into the streets to joyously welcome them home.
Although known for its cycling and long-distance running prowess, Eritrea was also represented at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda, an Eritrean-Canadian alpine skier, competed for Eritrea in alpine skiing, becoming the first athlete to represent the country at the Winter Olympics.
Notably, the month also saw FIFA President Gianni Infantino visit Eritrea. During his visit, Infantino met with President Isaias Afwerki and the Commissioner of Culture and Sports, Mr. Zemede Tekle, to discuss the development of Eritrean football.
Eritrea is blessed with a rich diversity of cultures. Late in the month, UNESCO joined Eritrea’s Commission of Culture and Sports, as well as high-level government officials and community representatives, in a two-week workshop as part of the UNESCO project: “Strengthening the capacities of Eritrea for implementing the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage”.
The project aimed to support Eritrea safeguard its intangible cultural heritage through the effective implementation of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which Eritrea ratified in 2010.
A number of development-related activities took place during February. There was the start of a joint Eritrean-Egyptian model farming project in Eritrea to help support agricultural productivity and food security. As well, the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), drafted a roadmap for the successful implementation of the country’s second health sector strategic development plan and achievement of health-related Sustainable Development Goals. The month also saw the completion of several potable water supply projects, the organization of youth skills development programs, a research workshop in Asmara organized by the National Commission for Higher Education, training programs for teachers and artists, and many other important activities.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned after three troubled years in office. Those years were characterized by famine, violence, economic challenges, and serious political and social instability. Hours after Desalegn’s resignation, the Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency. Although the regime continued to claim Eritrea was behind its crisis, the situation was largely self-inflicted – a fact that became increasingly difficult to deny. Eventually, by late March, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition selected Dr. Abiy Ahmed as its chairman, paving the way for the Oromo leader to become the country’s prime minister.
On March 8, International Women’s Day was commemorated nationwide with different activities under the theme “Women’s Empowerment: Prelude to Equality”. Additionally, a representative of the National Union of Eritrean Women addressed the 62nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York, outlining the progress and challenges of women in Eritrea.
In March 1988, in the Battle of Afabet, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front dealt a crushing defeat to the Ethiopian occupation forces of the Nadew Command. The momentous achievement was described by the late British historian Basil Davidson as the “African Dien Bien Phu.” This past March, the 30th anniversary of the Eritrean victory was marked with celebrations in Afabet and a series of important activities looking back at the historic events.
The month also saw Eritrean delegations participate in a number of international events and meetings. The Eritrean Commission of Culture and Sports, in cooperation with the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, attended the Youth Mobile Festival in Barcelona, which had over 15,000 participants from around the world, while an Eritrean delegation also attended the 53rd World Tourism Exhibition, held in Berlin from 7 to 10 March. As well, early in the month, high-level representatives from Eritrea and Finland held a meeting in Asmara to build on past progress and address various challenges within the education sector.
A fundamental part of being Eritrean is confronting injustice. A reflection of this was how Eritreans in the Netherlands staged a peaceful demonstration on 13 March protesting the unjust manner in which they were treated by the Dutch government in recent years. As well, in Geneva, the Permanent Mission of Eritrea to the United Nations in Geneva, in collaboration with Nevsun Resources Limited, Bisha Mining Share Company, and Danakali Limited, held a seminar titled, “Demystifying Eritrea: the Ground Reality, Mining and Human Rights”, which was focused on addressing the outdated stereotypes and misguided narrative about Eritrea.
Locally, March saw the initiation or continuation of a number of community and development projects across the country, including vocational education and training programs, the construction of kindergartens at the Halibet and HazHaz hospitals, the installation of solar power panels at the Hagaz Community Hospital, a workshop focused on the preservation of tourist sites, the launch, by the Ministry of Health, the WHO, and other stakeholders, of a five-year National Action Plan for Health Security, and other activities.
Of special note, a report published by the WHO and the Uppsala Monitoring Center ranked Eritrea as the highest of all African countries in terms of completeness and number of submitted drug safety reports to the global database.
Eritrea and its people have a long history of resilience and perseverance. Challenges are not to be seen as insurmountable barriers, but as opportunities for learning, growth, and development. This characteristic resilience and perseverance was illustrated by the YPFDJ’s annual conference.
In 2017, the YPFDJ European Conference was cancelled by local Dutch authorities amidst controversial and unfortunate circumstances. Undaunted, the YPFDJ in Europe came back stronger in April 2018 to hold a highly successful conference, featuring hundreds of participants and a number of important activities.
Of course, April 13th also marked the 16th anniversary of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s final and binding decision on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border. For years, the former Ethiopian regime rejected the EEBC’s decision. However, after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation in February 2018 and with the country on the verge of implosion after years of mass protests, Dr. Abiy Ahmed officially assumed office on April 2nd. Abiy, who became Africa’s youngest leader and the first Oromo prime minister in the 27 years that the ruling coalition has been in power, would quickly begin to seek change and reform. His reforms would extend to changing his country’s relationship and approach toward Eritrea. During his inaugural speech, Abiy promised to make peace with Eritrea.
A further sign of the looming changes to the region was the visit by a US delegation, led by then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Donald Y. Yamamoto, to Asmara from 22 to 24 April.
Other important events during the month included, inter alia: the national celebration of International Health Day took place at the Orotta Referral Hospital; the founding of the Congress of the National Association of Chemical Engineers on 21 April; the graduation with Master’s Degrees from Swiss and South African universities by numerous individuals employed by Eritrean governmental institutions; Eritrea’s participation at the 10th African Leaders’ Extraordinary Summit in Rwanda; and the celebration of Easter across the nation.
As ever, during the month of April, several activities were conducted to help improve people’s standard of living and support development, including training programs focused on pest control in agricultural areas, vocational and skills development programs, erecting electrical lines in rural areas in order to improve electrical access, workshops for teachers, the introduction of modern farming practices in rural areas, and the construction of elementary schools and expansion of the hospital in Agordet. As well, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare reported that the Government of Eritrea has distributed over 786,000,000 Nakfa to war-disabled veterans over the past 15 years.
Undeniably, Eritrea’s greatest resource is its people, particularly the youth. However, it also possesses an abundance of natural and environmental resources. This point was underscored by the discovery in April of several new species of avifauna. With Eritrea still so young and unexplored, it is reasonable to expect that many more exciting discoveries lay ahead.