EU and Eritrea: Very Strange Message, Indeed

On EU’s unrequited love affair with Isaias Afwerki

As the opportunity that the Eritrean people had to engage and dialog with their head of state has decreased, the occasions for Isaias Afwerki to provide monologues and lectures in various platforms have increased. Now that he doesn’t have “People’s Meetings” where little people ask him what he considers annoying little questions; now that there are no peers who have the moral stature to challenge his presentations; now that his admirers are limited to Ethiopian opposition figures and website publishers and clueless Diaspora Eritreans, Isaias Afwerki has designed a system of giants and dwarfs giving him more time to present his ministers, regional governors and commanders his “working papers”—which are usually the ruminations of a mad mind.

The latest victims were his ambassadors who were called back to Eritrea (at least the ones who haven’t defected) to hear his streams of consciousness, which are heavy on insults and conspiracies, a result of a mind pregnant with persecution complex.

Every year since 1997, Isaias Afwerki has been talking about how Eritrea (read: Isaias) is just facing endless conspiracies against its existence. In 2008, he said that it is a constant struggle: “one conspiracy is foiled,” he lectured, “only to be replaced by another.” It seemed hopeless.

Until 2009, that is, which is turning out to be a grand year because, according to, “the military, political, security and economic hostilities and conspiracies weaved against Eritrea over the past 10 years have been rebuffed thanks to the strong resistance of the people and Government of Eritrea. As such, all these acts of conspiracy and hostility have ended up in utter failure, he asserted.”

The people and government of Eritrea have been on a collision course for quite some time, but never mind that now. Isaias Afwerki has declared victory over conspiracy, but premature declarations of victories have been his weaknesses, lately.

Those who have been following the man’s 40-year-career of deception recognize this for what it is: a stalling strategy to buy himself time from the siege he finds himself under. But some naieve Eritreans—and God knows we have enough of them, but only in the Diaspora—will, no doubt, give this clause the most optimistic interpretation there is, much the same way that a palm reader will find cause for happiness in the lives of her miserable clients. But this shows lack of understanding of the dictator’s modus operandi: dictators have to create crisis and they have to scream about conspiracies so as to maintain absolute grip on power. They also have to, occasionally, give the appearance that they are just on the verge of recovery so that their True Believers can keep on hoping. But it is a fantasy for people to think that Isaias Afwerki will unilaterally loosen his grip on power.

If you worry about how a Grand Conspiracy Theorist will survive now that all conspiracies have been foiled, have no fear. This modest website is, according to him, part of the conspiracy and we would feel remiss in our duties if we did not oblige his hunger for conspiracies. And here’s one:

Very Strange Message, Indeed

“We do not know how EU funds are used in Eritrea,” said Olle Schmidt, a Swedish Liberal MEP. He said that in light of the dismal human rights situation in Eritrea, the funding decision would send “a very strange message” to the government of President Issaias Afewerki.

In 2000, the European Union (EU) and most of Africa, the Carribean and one Pacific state (ACP) entered into an agreement named after the place where it was executed: Cotonou, Benin. The Cotonou Agreement was supposed to re-define the European and ACP relationship into one among equals, a partnership, where each side knew precisely its obligation towards making development a reality.

Why Europe should have any obligation at all for the development of Africa is a subject for a vigorous debate—but it is a debate that is not occurring. If it is about colonialism, is it only sub-Saharan Africa and Papau New Guinea that were colonized? Weren’t Egypt, Libya, Algeria also colonized? Wasn’t India a colony? If it is not about colonialism, what is it about? Suffice to say that most African and European development experts accept it as an article of faith that Europe has an obligation for Africa’s development—and the most able African politicians and other panhandlers have proven quite adept at pulling the guilt strings of Europe.

In any event, according to the Cotonou Agreement, the ACP was supposed to make specific progress in the area of civil liberties and human rights. And the question was: what would the EU do if the ACP made no progress or, in fact, regressed in the area of human rights and civil liberties?

Apparently, nothing. European governments have mastered the art of the loophole: finding some creative weasel room to give money without demanding accountability. Their citizens are tortured, killed and made to disappear—but they turn a blind eye, simply because their citizens have dual citizenship. The fraud that Europe and African governments have agreed to perpetuate is to have a pretend movement towards democracy and respect for human rights. And most ACP states will at least go through the pretense of respecting the civil liberties of their citizens.

Then comes the test presented by Isaias Afwerki: what if I don’t even bother to go through the pretense and tell you and everybody listening that I have no intention of sharing power, respecting human rights or doing all the things I promised I would do at the Cotonou Agreement?

This is a question that the EU is grappling with now. According to the EU, 122 million Euros have been earmarked for Eritrea by the Commission, which will be reviewed by European Development in May. Those who are giving the money will debate it, but those on whose name the money is being offered have no means to debate it because there is no free press or free parliament in Eritrea. What should be done?


A fundamental principle of the Cotonou Agreement is that when it comes to developmental aid, Europe will deal with the central governments of the ACP: not regional/local governments, not the civil society, nor opposition parties. Only the central government. The point of contact is supposed to be the central government.

But this article of the Agreement assumes that the central government is going to be accountable; that it is democratically elected, that there are watchdogs reviewing what it does.

The question is this: if the recipient government unilaterally amends a key clause, why shouldn’t the donor government also do so? In this instance, it is perfectly legitimate for the EU to come with its own amendment: until such time that the African state lives up to its end of the bargain, we will have to find other venues to dispense with the aid money. We will have to find groups that are more accountable than the central government.

In Eritrea, this means either NGOs who would give the funds directly to the people or (since that is not allowed by the central government) outlawed political groups who are accountable. Groups that oppose the regimes policies that have resulted in starvation creeping to Eritrea.

Food production has been deteriorating in Eritrea for the last decade. This is because Eritrean farmers who produced food as a family unit are broken: their children forced into indefinite military service and labor cannot help their parents, the farmers cannot produce enough. The regime has monopolized trade thereby criminalizing sales of food between Eritreans, thereby sending trade to the black-market and creating more food shortage.

Of the quarter million youth (or more) now engaging in non-producitve labor and war-preparation, most are farmers now engaged in the regime’s fantastic projects without pay while their farmland has become fallow. These are problem created by the Eritrean regime, and giving it 122 million Euros would be essentially a reward for its bad behavior.

The worst thing the EU can do is to provide money, with no strings attached, to governments which are not accountable to their people. It is their money, and Europeans can do whatever they want with it, but they should not fool themselves into thinking that they are actually helping. The EU could pick any Eritrean at random and get better assurances that the money will be spent for what it is intended than giving it to a hard-currency starved government, which is heavily involved in arms trade.

For that reason, we, you, all of us should express out views here:

There are Eritreans who will see this as part of a conspiracy to “starve Eritrea” but we are not responsible for people who confuse a country, with a government, and with the whims of one individual. It is time for people to stand up and act on what they believe without fear of blackmail or lectures from the enablers of dictatorship.


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