From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Jan 11 2009 - 06:43:04 EST
President Isaias' Interview with the National Media Regarding National, Regional and Global Issues - Part I
Jan 10, 2009, 13:47
Q: Excellency, taking a comprehensive look at the ten- year period from 1998 to 2008, the challenges we faced in safeguarding the nation's sovereignty and stepping up the development drive, what were the major achievements and shortcomings witnessed? And what lessons have we drawn both from our accomplishments and drawbacks?
President Isaias: Before proceeding to answer the question, I would first like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. It is not easy to assess the achievements registered over the period of ten years in a matter of minutes. The past ten years have been directly linked with the task of safeguarding the nation's sovereignty, so we should first look at it from this perspective. It is not realistic to say that we have accomplished everything that has to be accomplished just because we secured our independence and waved our own flag in 1993. Achieving real sovereignty is a protracted affair; it is not something you achieve as per your wishes and choices, as there are external and internal factors involved in the process. There is no simple and straightforward path to achieve sovereignty within one's own borders, and it is not something that can be accomplished in one go. And when you look at the external factors, you can't explicitly identify the hostilities you face from the outside. Particularly in our part of the world, our experience has shown that one can encounter a number of regional and global hostilities. So if we look at sovereignty from this standpoint, what types of hostilities did we face over the past 10 years? So far, all acts of aggressions we encountered have not been of a simple regional and international dimension. Various attempts have been made to undermine our sovereignty. In the present era and particularly in the African continent, how many states are there those secured real sovereignty? How we look at and perceive the sovereignty of these countries requires profound analysis. In our case, we have not wasted the past ten years only fending off the TPLF regime, but we have also been making changes on the internal front. However, we cannot simply focus and talk about the endeavors exerted to rebuff external hostilities, as doing so would only be an extension of the real problem. One has to be able to identify the differences in the threat posed by real problems and by extensions of these. As the current world situation attests, the primary force that has been working against the independence of the Eritrean people since the end of WWII is the USA, although it has so far been practiced through succeeding Ethiopian regimes. Going into the details of the aforementioned truth would only be waste of time in repeating history. But this is the main act of hostility we have been facing over the past ten years, though it might have been manifested in different forms. All the acts of hostility did not originate from the outside only; futile attempts have equally been made to instigate and stir up problems from the inside. History could attest to the fact that no newly independent nation in the world faced as much hostility and hurdles as Eritrea has. Hence, the achievements we have scored in safeguarding our sovereignty, upgrading our internal capabilities and meeting many other challenges, I don't think we fell short in any way. Just as I mentioned earlier, achieving sovereignty is a protracted process, it requires a long journey of persistent hard work to build the desired mindset. It takes time for anyone to say that we have built a secure and sovereign nation. What we must not forget to mention here is that the experience of the 30-year long struggle has laid the foundation for achieving real sovereignty, we are now just building on that foundation. So in raising this matter, we should not only talk about the period between 1991 to1993 but also take into account the time before that. Assessing the strength and capabilities we acquired in the experience of the past ten years and whether they have afforded us with everything we need to face future challenges is in itself an evaluation of what we have achieved over these ten years. We have no regrets in this case. There may be certain things we would have liked to have accomplished but could not do so because circumstances did not allow. But regret is only something you feel when you look at mistakes you have committed in the past. We achieved our independence after a very long and bitter struggle, and Ethiopia got its liberation too. But the hope we entertained that our region was entering a new era and that we could build a bright future in cooperation with our neighbors did not materialized. We don't need to list all the regional and global acts of aggression launched to thwart this optimism because everyone is already aware of them. This is something we had hoped to happen, but it didn't. However, it is not also something we regret, for there is no other choice. Just because our optimistic outlook was thwarted does not mean it cannot be accomplished; even with all the deceit and obstacles it still can be done. We can still aspire and work for realizing this long-term vision while proceeding with our duties and responsibilities on the home front. Whenever you embark on achieving a specific goal and it does not turn out the way you want it to, you don't feel sad or regret your efforts but instead it makes you even more determined in pursuing the set objective. Still, you cannot talk about the obstacles you face as advantages or plus points. But we can say that the achievements we scored over the past ten years in various domains have enabled us to prove and realize that our unrealized goals can still be achieved. So this is the brief evaluation of the past ten years in relation to sovereignty.
Q: So our primary challenge had all along been emanating from the United States?
Well, there is no other force confronting us. External forces that confront us backed by the US cannot even be considered as real forces. If you look at every act of aggression committed against us on the basis of year, month and date, you can see that the primary source of aggression has been the Washington Administration. But this is something we can talk about on a different occasion and topic. We can talk on broader topic about the US influence in the Post-WW II era in opposing our independence. Identifying the things that hinder and challenge us makes it easier to overcome them, thus we should not make any mistakes in this case. And we should take our deductions seriously.
Q: Your Excellency, in a meeting you held with the inhabitants of the Southern region, you said: "we won't be talking about the problems we are talking about now in 2009." People have been talking about these remarks, so what do such remarks imply? Is it because there are definite hopes for 2009, particularly in the economic sector?
At that time, we were talking about the 2008 harvest and agricultural output, particularly food shortage and low production due to natural challenges. The views that were raised then did not reflect the prevailing reality on the ground. Though people have every right to voice their opinions, there is a difference between practical evaluation and view that emanate from emotion and guesswork. What I said at that time was that we won't be talking about the 2008 agricultural harvest in 2009. And that is exactly what I meant although people might make their own assumptions. What I know for sure is that this country will definitely eradicate hunger; it is only a matter of time and hard work. But we have to be able to do it within short period of time, although there are a number of factors that can affect the time required. As regards the required endeavors in the domain of agriculture, we have always emphasized the need to concentrate on irrigation farming. Most of the problems in this sphere arise because of the still prevailing practice of rain-dependent farming methods which is easily affected by climatic change. Achieving food security is being given top priority in our efforts to improve the people's standard of living. And food security is directly related to our agricultural projects and plans. The outcome of the technological farming methods we are introducing every year are self-evident. Our priority is to achieve food security regardless of the amount of rainfall obtained. You had initially raised the issue of sovereignty, but what significance can it have to talk about sovereignty without first achieving food security? We can say that our efforts to achieve food security have so far borne fruitful outcome. Questions might arise as to what happened in 2008 because the bumper harvest of 2007 had not been utilized as per the policies and plans we outlined. This is one of the problems. Today, if you ask how much stored food the industrialized European countries have at their disposal, they have stored food that could last for ten years. The food aid that is often extended to the developing nations is taken out from this strategic storage. In addition to their technological and industrial advancement, we can say that food security has enabled the developed nations reach their present stage. If a given country is unable to reach such a stage, we cannot say that it has achieved food security. If you are able to store food occasionally, then you can use that stored food for dire situations. The stored food can even be used as an additional buffer in good times as well. So the question is not whether we have gathered enough harvest for this year; our capacity to store some part of our production should also be strengthened. This is what we are striving for. In order to build our own crossing bridge we need not only to increase our production but also be in a position to store some as well. Not only storing food but we should also change our consumption habits. For if you are going to store food for times of crisis, you also need to make certain changes in you consumption habits. This is not a new strategy; it is a common cultural practice that every farmer in the world is aware of. It would not be wise to extravagantly consume everything you harvest at one time and put your future at risk. The same holds true if you look at it at the national level. We should not be extravagant in our consumption habit. We need to develop a culture of saving not just in storing food but also in every aspect of our lives. If a person is currently consuming 2000-2500 calories a day, then he/she should reduce it to 1500-1200. If you are working towards a future with food security then you have to make certain sacrifices. This was our plan in 2007. Our efforts, coupled with nature's blessing has enabled us to gather bumper harvest in 2007, and we made plans to make use of this harvest efficiently so that it can serve as a buffer in 2008. However, that was not how it was utilized. And it is not desirable to lament and make excuses now. But we should ask ourselves what lesson we have learned from this experience. Had we properly utilized the 2007 harvest, we would not have faced the problems in certain areas. Problems arose last year because certain areas did not obtain any rain at all, while some got only inadequate amounts. We have learned from our experience in 2007 and 2008 and we won't make the same mistakes in 2009. This means that we will have to double our production efforts, rectify our weak points and expand irrigation farming projects. Food security does not involve only producing wheat, taff, barely and corn, we should be able to boost all kinds of agricultural production. Moreover, we should think ahead about what we must and make use of our experience from 2007/2008 if the rainy season happens to be inadequate this year. So what plans do we have for the first, second, third and fourth quarters of the year of 2009? We have made a number of preparations in most sectors; so past mistakes will under no circumstances be repeated in 2009. What I would like to stress here is that nobody should doubt that food shortage will indeed become a thing of the past in this country.
Q: So what should be done to achieve this goal?
The first thing to do is to raise productivity. You can't sit around and pray for change to come automatically. We now have learned a lot from the past, which will enable us to identify the methods through which we can boost productivity. We have also acquired ample experience in implementing projects. We should make proper use of this advantage and apply it not only in reinforcing irrigation farming but also taking maximum advantage of the rain-dependent farming. We have also drawn up detailed programs and projects in other sectors that can help increase agricultural production. If we get abundant rainfall this year along with our irrigation farming projects, we will be in a position to significantly boost production output. And this time we won't make the same mistakes we made in 2007. We will be able to gather enough harvest out of which we can manage to store some. In other aspects in which we might not obtain enough rainfall, we will have to focus on and strengthen our irrigation farming projects so that we can at least fill the gap. Thus, we have mapped out clear and precise plans for all eventualities and we will work according to these plans. Talking about what we will achieve beforehand might seem like giving false hope; so for now we need to concentrate only on the work we have to accomplish. We must strive to achieve beyond what we have planned so that we can effectively meet any challenges. Food security means being able to store back-up food items at least for four or five years; then we can confidently say that we have achieved food security irrespective of the amount of rainfall obtained or the viability of our projects. But this does not mean food security is limited to the agricultural sector alone; we should also be able to identify how the other sectors can affect food security objectives. Hence, going back to your earlier question, this is the message that I wanted to convey at the time I conducted discussion with the inhabitants of the Southern region. But what I would like to stress at this juncture is that it would be better if we don't focus on uncertain hopes. People have been making their own interpretation of the remarks I made at that time. They might have assumed that we have rich gold resources that will be mined in 2009. Some of our problems will be alleviated in 2009; so we won't be talking about these problems again. Or maybe we have some hidden resources that we don't know of but will harness in 2009. I think it would be better if we don't entertain such hopes. I am not saying it is not good to talk about unexploited goldmines and other resources, but it is better if we don't talk about intangible hopes.
Q: In what way can the fisheries and mining sectors contribute in efforts to achieve food security?
I don't want to talk much about the mining sector. A lot of people might like the subject of gold and when it will be harnessed. I think it would be better if we don't talk about what is going to happen in 2009 or 2010 in this case until the gold has been properly mined and brings tangible change in the lives of the citizenry. As to the fisheries sector, food security does not only mean the production of grain stuff. There are a number of other agricultural products like sugar, cotton and oil seeds that could be exported. There are also manufacturing projects that need to be boosted. We can identify how these sectors could affect food security only after production increase in this domain. For instance, we have not yet effectively harnessed our fishery resources. We must increase production so that we can meet domestic and foreign market demands. However, the question is do we have the necessary infrastructure such as processing and distribution facilities that could boost production? We can say that we are in a better position this year regarding infrastructure. If we construct roads, raise electricity supply and that of water and improve our communications facilities, then our production capabilities will increase accordingly. Once the necessary infrastructure is put in place, you don't have to repeat the same task all over again; you can only improve and build on them. The accumulated experience and capabilities in other sectors are a driving force in endeavors to boost agricultural production and achieve food security. What is more important at the moment is not to focus on mining prospects and instead strive to raise productivity in agriculture, fisheries, livestock production, poultry and other sectors so that to provide additional impetus to efforts geared to achieving food security. In that case, the mining sector can provide additional advantage.
Q: Some people say that we tend to focus more on strategic goals and policies while at the same time not giving sufficient attention to current problems. Your comment on this, Mr. President?
I think people in this country have become a bit wishful thinking. You should always be cautious in comparing yourself with other people around the world. People might placate themselves by saying that they are a lot better off compared to others if present circumstances are not the way they might want them to be. But there are a number of ways you can look at this, such as through educational, health and other social services. As we have witnessed in 2008 and other times before, the problems that may arise as a result of poor rains are understandable. It also varies from area to area; for every place is not affected in the same manner. For instance, if we take all the country's six administrative regions into account and ask ourselves how the harvest looked like in each region, we can see that there is a lot of variation in accordance with population density and consumption habits. But if we talk at a national level, the consumption rate in Eritrea is not small. There might be some who eat four meals a day and others who only get two loaves of bread a day. Considering the gap in the standard of living, I can say that only very few areas have been exposed to hunger verging on starvation. But generally speaking, thanks to the culture of sharing, there is no way my neighbor will go hungry while I have plenty of food in my house. You can say that we have a very commendable culture or value regarding this case. The Government has also taken the necessary measures to properly identify those areas severely affected and provide possible assistance. As I mentioned earlier regarding efficient collection and distribution mechanisms applies here. You should be able to distribute the collected harvest evenly among all areas. But what is surprising here is that people in relatively better areas tend to complain ever more. This is only a mere mentality problem. When you are administering either at national, village or family level, there must be an efficient utilization of the available resources. An individual might want to increase or improve his consumption habits, but he should also be able to think about his neighbor. We have to take a comprehensive look at things. Fair and uniform distribution among all areas is crucial in solving the afore-mentioned problems. But if we refer to what people are saying, in that case as the old adage goes, it is those who have more that complain more. Patience is indeed a great virtue and everyone is morally obliged to demonstrate patience in times of adversity and extend a helping hand to those who are worse off. We should be able to think about the future.
Q: With the issue you raised earlier regarding rainfall vis-?-vis collecting harvest; even though everybody understands the situation there is discrepancy in implementation. Sometimes corruption on the part of those who implement the programs is witnessed. Some of them also change regulations at will; sometimes there is an appeal by some as to where the confiscated items go since they do not provide receipts. Your comments regarding this?
I would have posed a question: is there any tangible evidence to this? There are a lot of rumors in the city. There are some idle people engaged in fabricating rumors. One has to verify and evaluate things. It doesn't mean that there exist no such cases. It is an issue that is seriously discussed during the meeting of the Ministerial Cabinet and Regional Administrators. You could not totally deny that there is no administration problem. It is not either to be ignored assuming that it has been resolved once and for all. It needs a regular follow up until a certain higher stage is reached. It is a continuous process. Harvest gathering, distribution and administration of agricultural yields are being taken as priority endeavor. There has been a proclamation issued in the mid 90s. Selling and exchanging of crops is prohibited by law in this country for obvious reasons. It is very surprising to hear some unfounded rumors by some producers and consumers. There is evidence, and it is repeatedly talked about regarding smuggling crops through other means in order to sell them illegally in violation of the law. The people who are talking about those illegal activities are talking because they knew that what is being done is unlawful. So if you know that it is unlawful and you are seeing it by your own eyes and you know that such illegal activities are contrary to our social norms and harm the people and the country, why not you try to correct the person who is involved in such an illegal activity? However, instead of spreading rumors we have to look for evidence. I am not denying that there are no administration problems; there should be a distinction between truth and rumors. The core objective is that such people who are conducting illegal activities which eventually derail security of life of individuals and the country, even on a small scale, have to be brought to justice and corrected. It is wrong to pin point problems only to individuals. It is the people that have to be vigilant to such illegal activities. Rumors have to be verified. It is not to blame individuals that are spreading rumors; what is very important is that the culprit should be corrected. This is one of the incidents we learned from the experience of 2007. Unlike the shortcomings witnessed in 2007, a proper mechanism would be applied as regards harvest gathering, conserving and utilization. What I want to say time and again is that I am not saying one should not speak his mind; but if really one is observing erroneous implementation on the part of the concerned parties one has to come forward with evidence and inform the appropriate government institution so that timely measures could be taken. No one could expect officials in different hierarchies to be saints. And you could not blame them indiscriminately. You should identify those who are involved in an act of corruption and pick them out. There are different scenarios outside that of crops which we are at present carefully scrutinizing. When the time is ripe they will be looked at according to the evidence presented. Even if it is difficult to acquire initial tangible evidence the follow up will continue until verified evidence is identified. It is only when you have the tangible evidence that you could take an appropriate measure.
Q: The other issue is regarding members of the Defense Force. We all know that the EDF members are the ones who are shouldering the responsibility of development and safeguarding the country's sovereignty. What program do we have regarding salary increment or any other incentive?
There is no immediate program; the programs we have are long lasting. This country belongs to all citizens equally and everyone has equal rights. Parallel with this there is obligation. What do you reward or what is the right of a citizen of this country who strives hard beyond his obligation? You could not decide ones salary with numbers at a given time because it depends on the existing economic situation. At the end of the day, I believe that, those citizens who are contributing beyond their obligation, be it members of the Defense Force or other citizens, should get their reward. It is not an aid to support them or to secure the future life of their families, it is their right. When this will happen depends on when we achieve the desired economic progress, tangible development in terms of agricultural production and other services. They have to get a reward that will provide them with durable means of livelihood. As to when that would happen is another matter. Everyone should work hard so that he/she is rewarded. Those citizens who strive beyond their obligation for the development of this country should be the ones that should get priority in terms of the nation's resources. One that asks for right simply because he/she is a "citizen" is the one who is living in a world of dream. Those who deserve should get a lasting reward. To this end, vigorous efforts are being exerted to enable every citizen derive proportionate benefit from the resources of the country. Every citizen should benefit for what he/she toiled, there is no such thing of arguing "we are the same, we should get equal opportunity of resources" without contributing nothing. The Government's strong conviction is to reward those citizens who contribute their capacity and beyond in the nation-building process. We should scrutinize these factors carefully. In the situation we are living in the question of salary increment is untimely. Our current endeavor and concentration is focused on working round the clock to develop the nation and provide due reward to those citizens who toiled beyond their obligation. They deserve their share of the resources of the country.
Q: Mr. President, it is being said that there are some negative scenarios among Diaspora Eritreans in terms of sub-national outlook, faith, language, etc. Many describe the scenario as spontaneous or initiated by some people from within the community and from outside. If you could extensively clarify in terms of the psychological warfare that is being waged among them and the people behind it so that they could have a better understanding?
Maybe it is difficult to generalize. It is better to talk about specific places where this is taking place. In general terms, forces that try to undermine one's sovereignty and existence as a nation do not come only through military means. Military means comprise very simple process. The worst are divisive acts that we are witnessing throughout the world and particularly in our region. Prior to our armed struggle for independence and during the period of the struggle itself, we were compelled to mend and cure our internal malady. If there had been a civil war, where did it come from? How did it happen? How did the struggle begin? How was it conducted? They were as a result of inherited customary practices and social fabrics. This is being surfaced again on the part of some decadent individuals who do not learn from history and who try to weaken the very fabric of the society in order to satisfy their petty selfish personal interests. These very few people are nothing but servants of outside agents that do not want to see the harmonious co-existence of the Eritrean people. This divisive and smear propaganda is now gradually fading out. The divisive and sub-national campaign that has just been referred to is being carried out targeting Eritrean nationals in the Diaspora is a continuation of the age-old wicked ploys designed to weaken and sow seeds of division among the Eritrean people. The conspiracy is also aimed at weakening the potential of the country and undermines the ongoing efforts to achieve food security, expand infrastructure facilities, effectively harness national resources and promote social services. The challenge is not an easy one. Such acts of conspiracy are part and parcel of the hostility and organized plot masterminded by the CIA to undermine the nation's sovereignty. The conspiracy weaved to sow seeds of religious divisions and create mistrust, and thereby weaken the people's unity and harmony, the sub-national campaigns based on ethnicity and region are all aimed at disrupting the unity of the Eritrean people. This phenomenon is not something that could be solved overnight. Realizing that the very fact of such conspiracies and ploys are aimed at disrupting the unity and social fabric of the people, the Eritrean people, as ever, should remain steadfast and rebuff such enemy conspiracies, in addition to enhancing their vigilance.
Q: For any judicial or governmental services that should be provided so many problems are arising including those officials is interfering using their power. There is a public opinion that the Government should employ a mechanism to control this. Your views on this?
It would have been better for those who forward such questions to be asked how many cases of this kind do they know. For instance, let's say that someone asks you that the official concerned is not abiding by the law; what you have to say are that do you have any evidence? I know issues better than those who thought they know so. We do have agencies that look after such issues. We do have problems but the first thing we should have is clean and good governance, and to achieve this we need to overcome those problems. There are issues of corruption. But what I know and the agencies who look for those kinds of problems know is minimal compared to what is being rumored. Whenever you have or know any issues you need to report to the police or administrative bodies. Of course, some officials are involved but still if you want a solution you only need to bring them to justice without hesitation. If one does so, it is definite that he/she will solve the problem. This is not a concern that we should be unduly worried about.
Q: There are rumors that these things arose deliberately to create gap between the Government and the people?
How can we say that these people are part of the community? Well, someone who thought that the public is ignorant; he is the most ignorant one. You might mislead people one or two times, but you won't delude repeatedly and especially the majority of the public. There are so many problems facing the public but still since they know where they are heading and what they are doing, the public could not be deceived. Although this doesn't mean that there are such try outs, which are part of the acts made to weaken our domestic capacity. But it is not something that should be presumed when you see it with regards to time and rate. We know and we have learned much about such kind of conspiracies. Still over the past ten years we were able to identify some of the campaign we didn't know. Outside there might be evil thoughts reluctant of major issues. Now and then there are immoral thoughts such as 'there is no government, the government is abandoned by the people' and so forth; which are a manifestation of bankruptcy. When erroneous thoughts start to shuffle again and again, they might seem that it is true. They call this in Arabic Woham. There are some who live in that world of fantasy. But it is not something that should be taken into consideration, because over the past ten years we have learned more and know much about so many things. I believe that giving meanings to such issues is irrelevant, as our capacity to meet challenges is gaining ever more strength from time to time.
Q: Your Excellency, you pointed out on various occasions that Eritrea's main resource is its human capital, and for this reason human resource development is one of the primary strategies of the nation's development programs. So would you tell us about the investment so far made in the education sector, including institutions of higher learning?
When you speak of resource, it implies human resource; not quantitatively but qualitatively. When you say qualitatively, it means everything i.e. skills and knowledge. When you say a person is up to standard, you are talking about skill, knowledge and profession. The main thing is what we have accomplished so far. We might say that our statistical data about student enrollment shows increase. Even though the statistical data indicate an increase in the number of colleges, students, institutions, centers and so on, there is concern that things might have been left unaccomplished, including the task of making available well-equipped laboratories, workshops, textbooks and above all competent teachers. The number of students does not correspond with the number of the teachers. Even teachers should be able to move in accordance with the challenges and drafted programs capable of their skills. Still, we face scarcity of facilities in the various institutions. There is shortage of teachers quantitatively and qualitatively when you taking into account institutions of higher learning. We can't say that we have scored success in the education sector short of accomplishing the aforementioned tasks. You might count what you have done the previous year or starting from independence. But that is not the main thing. There are so many programs broadcast through ERITV that highlight the progress made in education. There are so many qualified staffs or teachers in the Ministry who fully put their skills into practice. We should look into the curriculum, school facilities- textbooks, workshops, laboratories- there is uneven progress in these things. But it is good that we are talking about this sector taking into consideration specific indicators. But the gap between what we aspire for and where we stand now is quite big. Nevertheless, we should work hard to narrow the gap soon. To achieve an ultimate goal in agriculture, infrastructure, development programs, health and the like, we need to nurture skilled manpower. With short of human capital, nothing can be achieved. Even though we can praise ourselves that we have so far registered success, a lot remains to be done so as to score still greater achievement.
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