1. Every time President Isaias Afwerki has an interview with his captive media (Eri-TV), a very large segment of the population take the very sensible decision of ignoring it, leaving a few of us obsessive types to watch it and divine meaning from it. Then the few of us who watched it disagree on what we watched, leaving the very large segment who ignored it to shake their head at us. His interview with Eri-TV on October 7 followed the same ritual.
2. The reason most people don’t watch the interviews is because he takes 20 minutes to answer one simple question and he has such a circular, overstate-the-obvious and redundant way of communicating that it feels like it is 2 hours. You are constantly looking for the remote control to speed him up; alas, humans don’t work that way. As if that is not painful enough, his need to correct, contradict and grade interviewers exceeds his urge to answer their question, which is also trumped by his desire to show off his knowledge of trivia, which is expounded upon and stretched to its breaking point (“I can buy cartridge from Dubai. I can buy cartridge from New York, I can buy cartridge from China”: ok, ok, ok, we effing get it.)
3. There were only six questions, but people are only talking about one, which we will save for last. If you fear his painfully boring communication style is contagious and will infect this article, you can skip to it–go to paragraph 10. My feelings won’t be hurt.
4. The first question must have been about dams and reservoirs–the question was cut off and the interview actually begins mid-sentence. Names are dropped: Look at my comprehensive knowledge of Eritrean geography: Kerkebet, Af Himbol, Geset, Fankot, Alebu, Teseney, Alighidir, Goluj, Omhajer, Bademik, Rahayta, Gergera, Gahtelai, Massawa, Ein Lab, Felket, Aget, Hazemo and even Khor Barya was mentioned–which must have made a subregional friend very happy that his little qushet was mentioned. Here we learned how dams and reservoirs work, what to grow, is it for cash crops and if so is it sugar, and if so is it because we have done it before at Af Himbol and the key differences between srAte meEdeli and mezergHi. So where are we now as we enter a new year? All together now: Ab Hade zebereke medrek bexiHna alena , we are shifting gears; the plane is about to take off, There Is No Stopping Us Now, and the rest of the lyrics from The Supremes.
Meanwhile, in a place far, far away (at Radio WegaHta), a former Eritrean engineer who was building dams and reservoirs, paints a completely different picture of how and why everything Isaias Afwerki builds is bound to crumble:
5. The second question is about the state of the economy and Eritrea’s fiscal and monetary policies that had to change to deal with external conspiracies. And, by the way, you–including you card-carrying, Isaias-picture waving, mekhete-attending, Weyane-cursing, 2%-paying ultranationalist–are part of the conspiracy if you sent money to your family and did not use official currency exchanges but the black market. You thought you were helping your family by making sure your $500 became 20,000 Nakfa but by doing that you were implementing the agenda of ny sleya t’kalat (spy networks) who were hell-bent on destroying the Edghe haili (purchasing power) of our currency. So now you have forced Uncle Isaias to treat you like children and confiscate all your money and give you 5,000 Nakfa stipend a month. Spend it wisely.
6. Now, here, the journalist probably recalled that the government (in the person of Hagos Kisha, the ruling party’s Director of Finance) had bragged about how much money it spends to subsidize and stabilize the local market. And since a good Eri-TV reporter never asks a straight question but editorializes the question, and rephrases a statement he had heard in the form of a question, he asked about the huge amount required to import essentials to Eritrea and for his efforts, he was told that his question is based on the wrong assumption because not much is needed to import essentials. This then led into one of Isaias Afwerki’s favorite sports: mocking the capital of Eritrea’s capitalists and entrepreneurs who are not independently wealthy (they are dependent on Westerners), cannot account for how they made their money, and don’t really know the demands of Eritreans and all they know is speculation and importing Kilo Fino. It was at this point that the reporter made news and asked, “excuse me, sir, but Eritrea’s entrepreneurs do very well in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, South Sudan, Ethiopia…why is it the only place they are not qualified is their home country?”
No, that didn’t happen. It won’t happen for as long as there are containers in Eritrea.
7. This led to the interviewer to ask if the government had considered implementing price controls until such time as the market is stabilized and inflation is under control. Again, due to that random disappearance and arrest, the journalists are so terrified their voice actually drifts off mid-sentence, which led to Isaias asking him to repeat his question. And what is amazing is that the interviewer, Asmelash, is the voice of fire and fury when he is asked to read editorials about the World Order. But interviewing Isaias, his knees buckle and his voice fails him. Isaias Afwerki swatted that question ably–that he has no interest in monitoring prices when there are better ways to achieve the goal of expanding supply and meeting demand. This would have been a very impressive answer had he not spent a good five minutes bemoaning why a liter of milk in Senafe costs 20 nakfa when studies have been done (really) which show that selling it for 10 Nakfa is profitable enough. Yeah, but didn’t we just talk about the diluted purchasing power of Nakfa? What will the dairy farmer buy with 10 Nakfa?
8. The conversation then shifted to the African Union. Now, since most Eritreans are as hostile to the AU as President Isaias is, a quick update may be necessary: while we were out protesting the world either by camping out at Adi Halo or pretending Eritrea is not in Africa, the African Union has been on a long arc trying to reform itself into an effective organization. There was the Adeje Report of 2006; there was the Mekelle Report of 2016, and then there was the Kigali Ministers of Finance meeting where they appointed the one African Head of State who has a reputation for making the trains run on time and is all about lean, efficient institutions. That would be President Isaias Afwerki.
9. Well, that COULD have been President Isaias Afwerki but he chose to spend an entire decade and half sulking and nursing his wound. So, the job was given to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kagame put together a commission of technocrats and they came with a list of recommendations on how to reform the African Union: reform the what (i.e. prioritize); reform the how (i.e. change the bulky AU infrastructure into something much leaner); reform the who (management team of professionals); reform the wallet (ensure that the AU is self-financing.) This is right up the alley of President Isaias Afwerki and he is all-in; he just wants to find a way to make his contribution known, without having to attend every heads of state AU meeting which he has boycotted.
You can read Kagame’s recommendation which so impressed Isaias Afwerki right here.
10. This takes us to the follow-up question-and-answer session that has gotten the people who hope that Isaias Afwerki has changed to actually find evidence (or invent evidence) that he has: the interviewer asked what exactly is the benefit to Eritrea from all this African Union reform and Professor Isaias Afwerki put on his Pan-African/Internationalist hat:
10.1 “…ዶባት መንደቕ ጌርካ ትዓጽዎ ነገር ኣይኮነን….”
10.2 “…..ርሑቕ ከይከድና ኣብዚ ጎደቦና ጥራይ ሱዳን፥ ኢትዮጵያ፥ኡጋንዳ፥ ኬንያ፥ሶማል፥ጅቡቲ ናይ ገዛእ ርእስና ምትሕግጋዝ እንተንፈጥር እዚ ሕጂ ኣዝዩ ዉጡር ኩነታት ክንብሎ ንኽእል፤ ኣብ ምትሕግጋዝ ምክብባር ዝተመስረተ ናይ ሓባር ናይ ትሕተ ቅርጺ መደባት ነውጽእ….. ”
Without going too far, if we look at our region–Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti–if we can create cooperative relationship, the tense situation would give way to joint infrastructure based on co-operation and mutual respect
10.3 “ንሕና በይንና ካብ ዓለም ተነጺልና ክንነብር ስለዘይንኽእልን ስለዘይብልናን …”
We can’t, and we are not able to, live isolated from the world
10.4 “…..ዝሓለፈ 25 ዓመታት ዘምለጠና ዕድላት ሓቢርካ ምሰራሕ ብዙሕ ዩ…..”
The opportunity we lost over the past 25 tears to work cooperatively is substantial
10.5 “…..ሓቢርካ ምሰራሕ ግዴታ ዩ option ኣይኮነን….”
Cooperating is a must, not an option
10.6 “…..ሓቢርካ ምሰራሕ መኽሰቡ መወዳእታ የብሉን….”
The benefits of cooperation are unlimited
10.7 “…..መራኸቢ ክህልወና ኣለዎ፤ናይ ምድሪ ናይ ኣየር ናይ ባሕሪ ጽርግያታት ….”
We must have means of joint transportation: ground, air, sea.
11. So there you have it. Is this a change in Isaias Afwerki or can one find similar sentiments he expressed as early as 1993 when he was talking about confederation with Ethiopia? If the interviewer hadn’t asked the question, would Isaias Afwerki have found a way to say it? Is this a guy who has learned the dead-end of going-it-alone or is it a guy who was forced into going-it-alone and now feels the world is coming back begging? Does he feel newly-empowered having found a profitable role for his government in the Saudi Alliance against Yemen and Qatar?
12. It so happens this is the week the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group will make its decision on whether to extend the sanctions, modify them or remove them. Depending on what it does, the president and his team may go back to tilting at windmills and cursing the world, or feeling vindicated. Now, because Isaias Afwerki and his team control the state media, nobody is broadcasting on Eri-TV that everything Isaias Afwerki is saying now, Haile “DeruE” Woldetensae had said in his famous pre-disappearance address:
But thank God for social media and people’s memories: it is all over the internet and the question remains: why did people like Haile “DeruE” go to jail for saying things in 2000 that Isaias finally got around to saying in 2017? Why did we lose so much opportunity? Was it worth it to crown a president into a king for a whole country to waste so much time and opportunity?