Eritrea dreams of ending isolation to boost development
UP. A picture taken on July 18, 2013 shows the Commercial Bank of
Eritrea in Asmara. Long criticized 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.
Photo by AFP/Jenny Vaughan
Sunday, August 25, 2013
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 neighboring
countries," Yemane Gebremeskel, director of the president's office, told
Agence France-Presse 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
But relations with neighbors remain tense.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have long traded accusations of backing rebels
to needle each other, with their troops still eyeing 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 defense… 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
The UN accuses Eritrea of destabilizing the region by supporting
rebel groups in neighboring 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 program 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 program -- 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
neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan as refugees, according to the UN refugee
Yemane however insists "it is not a big issue."
Until Eritreans are officially released from the program, they are
restricted from traveling outside the country, and in Asmara's airport,
travelers 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
But Yemane insists that his country is unfairly judged and is often
examined in a vacuum, without considering the wider context shaping
"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." -