It is to be recalled that President Isaias Afwerki conducted a two-hour live interview with local media on May 20 on the occasion of the 26th Anniversary of Independence Day. Excerpts of the first part of the interview follows:
Q: Many have been concerned with respect to the intensive work visits and discussions between senior government officials of Eritrea and Egypt as part of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Some also tend to distort this situation and speculate about its negative effect on our region. Further, it has been repeatedly claimed (propagated) that Egypt is establishing a military base in Eritrea. What is the basis of this speculation and what are the pillars of the relations between Eritrea and Egypt, and other countries in the region as well?
President Isaias Afwerki: Let me first convey my best wishes for a happy Independence Day to the Eritrean people living inside and outside the country as well as to the friends of Eritrea.
In regard to the bilateral ties between Eritrea and Egypt, I do not wish to dwell on innuendos but rather focus on the substantive issues. It must be seen within the context and framework of our regional policy. That our ties are growing at a fast pace in various sectors and field is too palpable to merit emphasis.
The underlying doctrine of our foreign policy is naturally anchored on our domestic situation and geared towards the promotion of a congenial regional environment or safe neighborhood which will significantly influence the successful implementation of our domestic plans and projects. We have to exert vigorous efforts to promote this reality.
The cultivation of common understanding with all our partners in the region is indeed imperative for the establishment of robust ties. Ties fostered for tactical or short-term benefits will not be sustainable. In spite of considerable challenges, we have been pursuing an active and not passive diplomacy in the past 25/26 years to create the desired conducive environment with all the countries and peoples in our wider neighborhood.
The Red Sea is one of the four constituent geographic pillars in our wider region. The importance of the Red Sea Region is too evident to merit explanation. The second geographic zone is the Horn of Africa that includes Kenya. The Nile Basin is the adjacent region that extends westwards. The fourth part is the Gulf States region.
All these regions or sub-regions have interrelated linkages in strategic terms. The geopolitical and economic importance of these wider region in global terms are also obvious and primary causes for the various conflicts that have raged in the past 25 years as well as in preceding periods. These conflicts must be resolved to usher in a stable neighborhood.
Upheavals, wars, atrocities, conflicts had become the order of the day in the past 25 years. The mayhem has become boundless in the past four/five years. Why are conflicts exacerbated and deteriorating from bad to worse with time in this region? Do these conflicts stem from the domestic realities in each country? Are these provoked by strained ties between the countries in the region? Are they instigated by mainly extremist forces who have their own disparate agendas? The negative implications of these conflicts both in regional and global terms cannot also be underrated.
How can these conflicts be resolved? More importantly and beyond the mere resolution of conflicts, is there a mechanism for common action to ensure mutual respect, cooperation and unity of all the peoples in the region to guarantee their common economic and security interests? Why are these problems perpetuated and aggravated with time? The primary causes must be addressed fully and comprehensively.
These are precisely the agenda of our talks when we foster bilateral or multilateral ties. We are neighbours that live in this given region. We have common interests. How can we cultivate robust ties – economic, trade, investment – and cooperation when conflicts are pervasive? Is it possible to consolidate economic and other cooperation without first securing regional stability? These and other related issues have remained the subject of our diplomatic engagements.
We have since long adopted a strategy of engagement in our relationship not only with Egypt but also with all the countries in the four regions. We have strived to create mutual understanding with all the countries by addressing the crucial issues candidly and fully. A crucial parameter in this regard is how to resolve and find a panacea to imbalances in the region that often prompt and fuel extraneous interventions?
If we take the Red Sea region for instance, we can easily see its distinct strategic importance. What can we say about its stability in the past 25 years and in earlier times? Have all the littoral States been contributing their share to secure their national interests as well as the maritime importance of sea lane? Or have they been sidelined as mere observers? How does the Red Sea affect the individual countries concerned and the region as a whole? The Red Sea will not be stable if extraneous intervention is preponderant and the countries and peoples of the region have no role. These are various related issues mulled for a long time but that have not found satisfactory solutions to date.
In the Horn of Africa, the prevailing realities in Somalia and Ethiopia; the conflict instigated by patrons of the TPLF regime between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the consequent instability that has afflicted the region are matters that merit scrutiny.
Why have the Somali people been plunged into a situation of interminable turmoil for the past 25 years? Why are they unable to establish their own government? Why are they not active in managing and shaping their own affairs? How long can the situation continue with the intervention of UN or African forces? How can its negative ramifications in the region be rectified? Which are the forces that are active in this region?
With respect to the Nile Basin region, there is one evident problem. This problem stems from the agenda that the TPLF regime resuscitated 23/24 years ago. This boils down to the utilization of the waters of the Nile as a political instrument to advance the agendas of domination, influence, control and subordination of others.
All riparian States have their own interpretations and approaches on this matter. The main problem or controversy at this point in time is the Millennium Dam Project. This is a fantasy and has become as additional cause of discord to prevalent misunderstandings and friction in the region.
The situation in the Gulf States is evidently. There are also new realities in the vast arc extending from Afghanistan to Libya and Iraq.. that have unfolded in the aftermath of what is termed as the “Arab Spring”.
In general, bilateral and multilateral ties will not flourish seamlessly as long as instability and conflict in these four regions are adequately addressed. This is indeed the prevailing consensus among all the countries in the region. In this regard, identification of the fault lines and imbalances is crucial. This is still work in progress.
Egypt has not played its appropriate role in the region in the last 30 years due to its own domestic realities and the influence of external political forces. This was one of the major gaps. Activating its regional role is now one of the goals of the Egyptian government. This will bring positive dividends and benefits to the region. It cannot be harmful at all. The same is true with Saudi Arabia in spite of its considerable resources and opportunities. This may not, perhaps, be termed as a “major gap” but Saudi Arabia’s “potential” has not leveraged to enhance the regional importance of the Red Sea, the Horn, the Nile Basin as well as the Gulf region. Focus on these countries is not meant to underrate the respective roles that all the other countries in the region must play. All countries must contribute in accordance with their capabilities.
We in Eritrea have to do the same without exaggerating our role. The ultimate objective is to ensure the contribution of all the countries – big and small – in a manner that is commensurate with their capabilities to advance the common good; i.e. the stability of the region; for our common economic and security interests.
This must of course be predicated on mutual respect and mutual interest. It must be predicated on shared values and developed further to consolidate the overall benefits to the regional. In this perspective, we need to exert efforts to create the necessary mechanism that will promote and lubricate collaborative work to achieve our common goals. The fact is, the existing continental and regional institutions (African organizations, the Arab League etc.) are rather nominal and not as effective as expected.
In this context, there were no mechanism for activating robust ties in various sectors – agriculture, trade, education, health and other areas – with Egypt and other countries in the region in spite of the prevalent good will. Now we can say, these have begun in good earnest in our relation with Egypt and other countries, there have been aspirations to work together in different sectors such as agriculture, trade, education, health and others. In tandem with this, we have to identify and jointly thwart the threats in the region. We have to vanquish the forces of terror and conflict in this region.
Discourse about “a military base here or there” is a throw-back to old times; it represents an outdated philosophy. We have no desire or appetite to entertain and resurrect concepts of military and security alliances/blocs in the Horn of Africa that existed not only in the past 25 years but also before and that did not contribute to regional and international peace.
To create and pledge allegiance to this or that bloc is a redundant philosophy and politics at this time. What is discussed now is outside this old framework. It is not about establishing military blocs. Obviously, fostering military and security cooperation is not a taboo. We all have our respective capabilities in this regard. The central issue is how we pool and leverage our respective resources. Essentially, these revolve around the exchange of information, identification of common threats and consultation on joint tactics. This is not in fact a matter of choice but normative relations between all countries.
Therefore, the cooperation between Eritrea and Egypt or Eritrea and other countries in the region, which aims at promoting stability, should not be surprising at all. It should not be misconstrued as a problem by any standards.
On the other hand, military cooperation and the cultivation of a common approach do not materialize through the signing of agreements only. They are built incrementally in phases by diligently preparing the ground.
If we look at the speculative innuendos on the issue at hand, they essentially stem and are an extension of the smear campaigns against Eritrea by the TPLF regime and its patrons. The latter have chosen to prop up the TPLF regime as a plaint vehicle to advance their interests. In their view, this must be accompanied by an unremitting invective campaign against Eritrea.
This has been underway for years now. The aim is to attribute any problem in the region to Eritrea and to distort facts and evens to demonize, isolate and actually undermine Eritrea. The preposterous accusations against Eritrea for “gross violation of human rights… as a spoiler in the region… for sponsoring terrorism etc…” originate from the same quarters and for the misguided motive described before. …
The spurious accusations related to the Millennium Dam Project – the false allegations that Eritrea and Egypt are conspiring (have used the Bene Shangul) to attack the Millennium Dam – are linked to such fabrications. A sane person cannot possibly harbor these ideas. And in any case, why should they be obsessed with normal ties of cooperation that Eritrea cultivates with any country in the region? .
However, if we look at the Millennium Dam Project from a different perspective, I believe that this project is one of the White Elephant projects in Africa and the Ethiopian people are unlikely to benefit from this project. As I said earlier, this project is associated with the hegemonic motive of successive Ethiopian regimes who claim that the water resource they are endowed with is equivalent to the oil resources the Arab countries are endowed with and it is felt that it can be used as a leverage to control those countries in the region.
Regarding the electric supply to be potentially generated from this dam, how are the transmission and distribution mechanisms to be operationalized? For example, how are the people to benefit from this project – at household level, in agriculture, industry, services, etc.? It is also propagated a lot about exporting supply of electricity to such countries as Somalia and South Sudan. Before attempting to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of exporting electricity, it is better to deeply think in terms of the benefits of this dam to the Ethiopian people. There are many questions that can be raised in relation to this project. Anyone concerned about this project has to think primarily in terms of its usefulness to the Ethiopian people.
When it comes to the issues propagated about Eritrea in relation to this project, we are preoccupied with other priorities and this issue is a trivial one for Eritrea. We should be more concerned about enhancing the stability of the Red Sea region as we believe working together to deal with common interests are useful for bringing stability.
We should also be more concerned, to the extent that our limited capabilities allow, about the situations in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia given the cumulative experiences of the last 25 years. We also work closely with the Gulf States for the same reasons. Unfortunately, this has been worrisome to those who harbor ill-will against Eritrea. This must be seen against the backdrop of the failure of all the unwarranted measures stacked against Eritrea: the imposed sanctions; border disputes; demonization; and, diplomatic campaigns to isolate Eritrea.
Regardless of the speculations and unjustified perceptions, we will continue to work closely with all the relevant actors in our region for the purpose of pooling and synthesizing our resources for advancing the common good. There is no other alternative to this route.
The ties that Eritrea is cultivating have good prospects in the near future. As I emphasized before, our history and political tradition attests that we do not join or flirt with military blocs and alliances which are mostly characterized by short-lived benefits and interests.
We believe in constructive and interdependent engagement. Our relationship with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates as well as the peoples of Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and other peoples in the region are not short-lived; rather they are based on long term and mutual benefits.
Concerning the multi-layered cooperation with Egypt, which may currently be at its formative stage, we are determined to scale it up and accelerate its pace in the period ahead. From this perspective, it must also be noted that if we wish to expand our military and security cooperation, it will not be deferred or postponed under any circumstances.