Ali Said: Promotion or Lateral Transfer?

I am reposting a translation of an interview with Ali Said, the incoming Foreign Minister of Eritrea, that was conducted by Hwyet magazine back in August 1996. (Hwyet issue # 8). I think this is timely because, once again, Eritrea has a new Foreign Minister without sufficient explanation. The issue of swapping of ministers or cabinet members can be looked at strictly on the basis of human resource management or, if you love intrigue, on the basis of political reward and retribution.


I think it is a given that at nearly all governments, the most influential (and thus powerful posts) are the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. Using this definition, Ali Said was promoted and Haile Woldensaie (druE) was demoted. Both are considered very close (and old) friends and confidantes of the president so what could be the reason for the swapping—especially in a period where continuity in Eritrea’s Foreign Affairs was much desired? If the OAU considered continuity important enough to leave the management of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict in the hands of Algeria and not Togo, why didn’t the same philosophy prevail in Eritrea?

Is the reason for druE’s “demotion” because he was too outspoken and critical of his administration (and thus the leadership of the president) especially in the speech he gave in Germany? And if so, is his replacement considered a get-along-go-along person? And if so, is that good for Eritrea?

Human Resource Management:

There is a management school of thought that believes in cross-training of staff so they can step in an assume any position. In this case, change in positions would be a lateral movement. There is sufficient evidence that supports EPLF’s belief in this type of management. Sometimes, a person’s temperament is best suited for a job different from the one s/he occupies. For example, in the Reagan administration, James Baker who was the Treasury Secretary and Donald Regan who was the Chief of Staff at the White House swapped jobs. The difference here is that the swapping came at their request. The change in Eritrea’s Foreign Ministry had been predicted as early as December 1999 when the Indian Ocean Newsletter (a notoriously unreliable rag) had predicted that druE would resign the post for health reasons.

None of the Above:

Which of the above scenarios is most applicable to the case of Eritrea? There is a third scenario that says that the swapping of the ministers is entirely irrelevant and is of marginal importance because Eritrea’s Foreign Ministry—like the other ministry—is managed from the President’s Office and that the real Foreign Minister of Eritrea is most likely Yemane Gebreab, the political affairs director of PFDJ. If all the Foreign Minister does is execute the orders of the president, then it matters little as to who occupies the position. Note here that this in itself is not evidence of authoritarianism; it is a management preference. Some delegate; some micromanage. George Bush and Bill Clinton for example were accused of being their nation’s foreign ministers whereas Ronald Reagan was the grand-delegator.

All of this, of course, is pure speculation—which is all we can do until we have a free press and a totally transparent government. Here then is an interview that was conducted by Hwyet, a “private” quarterly in Eritrea.

Translator’s Note: Ali Said’S communication style is the now-legendary Eritrean field-linguo: short sentences, long, long answers, passive voice that sound like imperatives and a liberal overlapping of past, present and future tenses. My goal in translating the interview is to help us familiarize ourselves with our leaders. A little exercise may be helpful: every time Ali Said mentions a date, please subtract 1949 (the year he was born) from that date and you will be struck by how young he was when he was participating in the historic events he mentions…

The only editorial license I allowed myself was to create paragraphs if the Hwyet editors, writing in Tigrigna, didn’t. Notes that appear in brackets [ ]are mine; those that appear in parenthesis ( )appear in the Tigrigna version of the interview. If, like me, you wince every time the ELF is portrayed as a Muslim organization hell-bent on exploiting religious differences, rest assured, it is all going to be sorted out by an objective historian sometime in the future…Meanwhile….


Mr. Ali Said was born to Mr. Abdala Ali and Ms. Medina Nakuda Ahmed in September 1949. He attended elementary school in Hrgigo and resumed his secondary education in various schools in Assab, Massawa and Port Sudan. Minister Ali Said is a freedom fighter who spent his entire youth and energy in the [Eritrean] revolution. The wall of his experience, strength and faith is grounded on a foundation of struggle and strife. What enabled him to participate in monumental and historic events is the readiness and dedication to the goal of the Eritrean cause; [and] it was his discipline that enabled him to make a successful transition from an enlisted man to that of a person in a position of authority.

The year 1976 has a historic significance in the history of the Eritrean People Liberation Army. One of the relevant incidents worth noting is [what occurred] in the surrounds of the city of Nakfa. This epoch in the history of the Eritrean struggle was the intensive six month war; treating the war as a do-or-die, the enemy assembled all the armed forces at its disposal–its army, its paratroopers and even its fighter planes engaged in a maniacal hide-and -seek. The outcome of the war led to a complete demoralization of the enemy. And the commander-in-chief of this war was [none other than] the [current] interior minister: Ali Said Abdela.

He was one of the famously malleable revolutionary leaders who were part of the EPLF culture that many find wondrous–the culture that enables a fighter in charge of foreign affairs to, overnight, assume the responsibilities of a regional administrator; the deftness to be, become and resemble what you are assigned. [Emphasis added to relate to current affairs]

A family man, Minister Ali Said Abdela married Fitum Ahmed in August 1981 and is father to Reem, Alewia, Abdela and Ahmed.

Hwyet: Minister Ali, could you talk to us about your youth especially as it relates to national politics?

Ali Said: It is a long [hi]story. We started it in school. Back then, we used to hear about the deceit that was going on at the [Eritrean] parliament and, especially in Asmara, the injustice of people like Tela Ukbit. This touched our conscience and awaked our sentience. I had [just] transferred from Quranic education to secular schooling. At the school, there were teachers who had nationalistic influences. Our [school] director was Osman Saleh Sabbe. When we were in the 6th – 7th grade–in 1962–we heard that the Eritrean flag had been lowered. And that initiates our civil disobedience. Initially, we demanded that school be disrupted and, because Hrgigo is a small village and we all know one another very well, we ensured that every single student refrain from attending school. [But] we didn’t stop there; we prepared then-significant slogans, pictures and insults [and pasted them] on soap boxes. Our cause was on behalf of Asmara students who had been jailed for the sake of the Eritrean flag; our wailing-cry was “set them free.” The needle was threaded; soon after [the movement solidified], we raised the Eritrean flag on a long post and, to make the task of lowering the flag harder, we pasted fat on the post [so that] whoever attempted to go up would slip and fall. The situation was getting tense. Overnight, a colonel and D.O. (Alamin Idris) arrived. And they engage in much divisive speech making. We do not accept their arguments. We stood firm as one. And, as a human being, I participated in these endeavors.

Hiwyet: During that period, you used to be an armed infiltrator [Fidai]. How did that come about?

Ali Said: Our passion grew and time ticked away. It was 1965 and we were, by now, being entangled with the revolution. Our recruiter was a freedom-fighter by the name of Mohammed GeAs.

First, he brought us a note from people like Ramadan and Omer [and] we e showed him hospitable reception. But because we had a passion for armed struggle, we embark on a mission to Kessela. Just in case we fall into the hands of the enemy, we take with us textbooks and geographical maps so that our mission would look like an [innocent] pilgrimage. However, our fears were [soon] realized: we were detained at Telata Asher and jailed. Two months later, we were released and we were back to school and resumed our part: Abdela Hassen was assigned to the environs of Asmara and I was responsible for Massawa and the outskirts of Hrgigo. Again, we fell into the hands of the enemy. Accompanied by a Gwandye-carrying policemen, we were transported —amazingly, in a Haregot bus–from Massawa to Asmara. We were in jail for two nights, they began the nightly [torture]: they would take us to Agip and beat us and then dunk us in cold water and then interrogate us. [The futility of this effort] forced them to give up. They escorted us to the man who had turned in on us–a prisoner named Salem. He gave his word: “I know them in Kessela.” We denied it. Finally, they brought us face-to-face with the now-jailed man who had recruited us: Mohammed Ba’ath [GeAz?]. Both he and we were emphatic in our bold-faced denial that we knew one another. There was nothing more they could do; after two months, bail was set and we were freed.

Returning to Massawa, we attempted to enroll in school [but] the director, a man by the name of Tsge Medhin, emphatically stated, “ I will not accept these politically-tainted people.” We went to petition [the] Education [Ministry]; however, Asfeha Kahssai not only denied our petition, he insulted us to boot. His deputy opposed his decision: “People like Tsge Medhin are in power only because they are loyal henchmen; they can’t even file a proper complaint.” As he said this, he was glaring at us but we were unfazed and we listened attentively and wanted to hear him some more.

Hiwyet: Then what?

Ali Said: The ELF was already divided into administrative regions. Region Four ventured into the highlands. In its long and exhausting journey, it had made martyrs of 25 tremendous cadres. People like the martyred Ibrahim Afa, Ahmed Omer and Suleiman Sheikh had been redirected from the naval force to the field. On our part, we resumed our role to the best of our ability. Things were taking shape: we were armed with pistols and grenades. Part of the activities included lobbing grenades when Haile Selassie was on a visit to Massawa. (Perhaps recalling the incident, he laughs). Although they did not reverberate as intended, the incidents had immense significance. There were times that we escorted a snake-bitten Ramadan for hospitalization in Massawa. We did all we could to ensure that they weren’t lacking [necessities such as] food and perishables [supplies]. Time was running fast.

After a period of beating, the surgery scar of our jailed recruiter, Mohammed GeAz, bursts open and, succumbing to the agony, he blows our cover and identifies us to the enemy as armed insurgents. We are tipped to this in the nick of time. We evade the enemy and tail it to the field. The date: February 1966.

Hiwyet: So then, what kind of reception did you receive at The Revolution?

Ali Said: We were young. The enemy was adequately exploiting the discord between the different branches of the revolution. It took advantage of the weak links [of the revolution]. And we, being young and students, began to air our views on what we saw. And we object [to it]. And [our attitude] was incompatible with the prevailing attitude. [But] we had faith; we thought, as students, the freedom fighter [should be] a different breed. Our disposition [however] was not well liked. And so, under the guise of vacation they try to send us to Sudan. We lost contact with one another for eight months. And the situation at the revolution was being cloaked by [acts of] murder and slaughter.

And because of what was going on, when our time was up, they sent us to Sudan for so-called vacation. There, [in Sudan] we noticed that the opportunity [for our cause] was better. And we embraced the movement for unification. The revolution representatives in Kesela–people like Saleh Iyay and his deputy Ibrahim Hamed-Ali, did not like our movement. They are nervous. A place called Hafera was a place where those who were “disruptive” went for sanctuary. And we conspired to be transferred there. We were fortunate. And our feeling that the situation must change intensified. In 1968, after the Aredaib Conference, we met with Isias and Ramadan. We briefed them on the details [of what transpired]. To be brief, that [Aredaib] is where the price of many great and superior brave men was paid. From there, we were sent—through Port Sudan–to a place called Dar SeAt by Aden for some training. We spent four bitter months there. Then our journey continues on to Beirut and from there to Libya.

I was one of these [revolutionaries] who was opposed to this assignment–my belief was “I am a freedom-fighter and I should fight.” I had comrades [who felt the same way]. We argued that as long as we had that belief, we would not lose the will to fight. From Syria, we move on to Palestine and learn commando warfare and engineering. The Karachi Affair [the ELF’s failed attempt to hijack a plane] follows this training.

Hwyet: Minister Ali Said, today you are a minister. Yesterday, (at the revolution) you, in your capacity as an organization leader, led battles. Have you encountered any difference [between these roles]?

Ali Said: There is a big difference. The field work was [relatively] easy because your agenda and you vision is one: the enemy. But now, the mission to reconstruct the demolished; to organize a large population; to [deal with] the individual who had high expectations and is faced with a diminished reality; to correct wrong attitudes–the transition is like the difference between a small lake to a wide river. It is a different life. Here, one cannot even have sovereignty over oneself. The current situation is difficult and stress-inducing. [However] whether you like it or not, you have to live it. But life in the field was a different experience: there was a spirit of oneness. You are, simultaneously, a leader and a follower. You give orders; you take orders. Life is ordinary. And because you have had this [field] life for a long portion of your life, it [the new life] is hard.

Hwyet: As a human being and as a leader of the revolution and its goal, your contribution is tremendous. Conversely, what did you learn from the revolution?

Ali Said: To be succinct, revolution is an enormous school. If I had taken a different path, I would have–like my peers and classmates–I would have acquired a degree and a doctorate. But I have absolutely no regrets over this [my decision]. I am not in despair. At the revolution, the trial we undertook–and continue to undertake–to change attitudes was and is an immense [source of] wisdom. [Compared to that] report cards you receive from schools are puny. That [wisdom] of the revolution has been tried and passed the test [of the challenge]. The life of the revolution–its enlightenment and flavor–cannot be duplicated.

Hwyet: What do you find singularly attractive?

Ali Said: (Laughter) Between battles, I was attracted to dances and festivities. Generally, though, notwithstanding all the bitterness and hardships, because it was a place of trial, encouragement and reassurance, I find the revolution within the past 27 years as very attractive.

Hwyet: And what do you dislike?

Ali Said: I dislike someone who gives up easily. I dislike one who allows his morale to be depleted. Man should be an optimist and should not let [his]hope dwindle. [Translator’s note: the following is translated verbatim] A man must have an insoluble pebble from the river in his gut at all times.[emphasis added]

Hwyet: Minister Ali Said, 30 years ago, as a student, you were one of the youth who raised a lowered Eritrean flag. What is your dream for the next 30 years?

Ali Said: This question is, in my view, a question for all citizens. But, for my part [I believe that], if we work with persistence and perseverance, the jeopardy will change into serenity; Eritrea will outpace the countries who have had a jump start; it will be a center of peace, tranquility and progress. That’s my dream. Thank you.

Hwyet: “Afka YsAr”. [“May your words come true”. The equivalent saying, in Arabic is: “Min Bu’ek Li Bab a’semai.”


Related Posts