On September 23, in an uncharacteristic twist, Eritrean strongman Isaias Afwerki, whose trademark is insults and put-downs, gave a subdued speech at the UN’s 66th General Assembly’s General Debate Session.
To be sure, he referred to the United Nations as “hopelessly outdated” and warned that it “risks becoming totally irrelevant.” He was also not sparing in his self-flattery, adding himself (albeit subtly) among those who had accurately predicted that the Oslo Accords and the Somalia TFG arrangement wouldn’t work.
But in contrast to his interviews with his State media where he downplayed the importance of the election of President Barack Obama, here he seems to recognize that Obama has a “strength of personality” and “many talents” and that there was “freshness” in “his message of positive change.” When he called for the emerging powers of China, India, Russia and Brazil to assume more leadership, he did it without denigrating the United States, as is his habit in every speech. Whereas, in the past, he had characterized the North African revolutions and the Arab Spring as instigated by outside agents (the CIA) who thrived in an environment of “creative chaos”, here he seems to recognize that they are grassroots movements, albeit limiting their motives to purely economic causes. Whereas, in the past, he had dismissed the entire continent of Africa (except Eritrea) as corrupt and backward, here, for the first time, he says that “a number of African countries are entering a period of political, economic and social renewal.” Whereas, in the past, he had given mixed messages on his government’s position regarding Palestine (telling a reporter as recently as February of this year that a two-state solution will never work and what might work is Trans-Jordan “Israel may be left in peace and the Palestinian and Jordanian peoples are brought together and can create their own nation“), here he seems to support Palestinian people’s right to “self-determination and an independent, sovereign state.”
Even when it comes to two issues that have practically consumed his regime’s entire foreign policy–Ethiopia’s refusal to vacate land ruled Eritrean by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, and the UN Security Council’s resolution (1907) to impose sanctions on his regime, Isaias Afwerki mentions them without much passion–“I would be remiss in my duty if I did not remind the United Nations…” like a person who does not expect favorable response but feels obligated to say what he has to say.
All in all, the speech was quite subdued, delivered by a defeated person who must recognize that years of ranting, raving and pounding the podium have resulted in nothing but bruised knuckles. But Isaias Afwerki has always had one message for internal consumption, and another for the international audience, and the real test will be how this speech will be spun by Eritrea’s state media and what he says in his follow-up speech in his “seminar” with his supporters on Sunday, September 25th.