Thursday, December 31, 1998
Vision of the future
Eritrea making itself into model for rest of Africa
By PETER WORTHINGTON -- Toronto Sun
For the past five days I've been writing at length about Eritrea, an obscure African country on the Red Sea -- the most recent "nation" admitted to the UN -- a country which some may feel has little relevance to Canada or the world in general.
In some ways this may be true.
Yet in a world that is continually splitting into independent states, most of them impoverished and feuding with neighbours and/or torn with dissent, all seeking aid from the developed world, most cursed with corruption and wary of free choice.
Africa is especially vulnerable. Not one country has emerged from colonial status as a free and functioning democracy, free of corruption and ethnic rivalries, where human rights are respected and rule of law is paramount, where citizens feel secure, safe, content.
Why Eritrea is important -- or has the potential of being important -- is that it's in the process of making itself into a model for the rest of Africa.
Although it's one of Africa's poorest countries, with limited resources, Eritrea is unusual in that it seeks to break the habit of dependency and almost makes a fetish of self-reliance. It knows foreign aid can be a dangerous, seductive crutch -- politically, socially, economically. In the end, Eritrea must fend for itself.
A ship with 1,500 Eritrean deportees from Ethiopia makes its way to dock at the port of Massawa.
(Right) An Eritrean soldier helps an elderly lady of the ship.
-- Photos: Reuters
This attitude-cum-policy, is basically the doing of President, Isaias Afewerki who, at age 53, envisions Africa as a whole and has analyzed what's gone wrong and is determined not to avoid mistakes of the past.
He realizes the future hinges on enterprise and freedom.
This evolution towards democracy is made more tenuous because Ethiopia is again at war with Eritrea -- a border dispute that seems petty to the point of absurdity, except that it is deadly. Unless solved, it will ultimately damage both countries.
Canada, as a country, pays little attention to little Eritrea, situated on the Red Sea above the Horn of Africa, sandwiched between Sudan and Ethiopia; a country the size of England with the population roughly of Toronto -- 3.5 million.
It gets about $3 million in aid from Canada -- a $2 million census program and small water and education projects. Our modest aid program to Eritrea has been cut by a third each year since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, after a torturous 30-year war of liberation -- the longest such struggle in recent times.
Almost as an abberation, Canada has shown uncharacteristic wisdom in that it has a consular office in Asmara (mostly for immigration), whose honorary consul is a personable Eritrean-born Canadian from Edmonton, Mugheta Kusmu.
Staff members are Eritrean-Canadians, and our Canada Fund aid representative is Laraine Black, a Canadian who got interested in Eritrea in the 1980s during its war against Ethiopia and volunteered to help the Eritrean Relief Agency (ERA) in Khartoum. In those days the Canadian government dismissed Eritrean "fighters" as "rebels" and funnelled all food aid to Ethiopia.
Eritrea was abandoned or neglected by most of the world. Only Oxfam and some church and Scandinavian aid groups showed concern.
Why Eritrea should be important to countries like Canada (we funnel aid in various amounts to some 50 African countries, much of it useless or wasted) is that Eritrea is a living blueprint for the future -- a role model for both developed and developing countries, for aid donors and aid recipients. Providing it succeeds. Consider:
- Eritrea won a war of independence against Ethiopia without any outside military advice or support -- a country of 3.5 million people defeating a country of 58 million with the largest mechanized army in Africa led by Soviet military advisers.
- The capital of Asmara is one of Africa's most charming (the tallest building is seven storeys; most are two storeys). It is the only African city that has no begging. There is little crime, streets are clean and safe; police seem mostly to direct traffic.
- It is the only African country that actually refuses some international bank loans, not wanting to be saddled with a debt they can never repay -- unlike Zimbabwe and Zambia, for example, which expect their debts to be cancelled.
- It is the only country that rejects foreign aid unless it is carefully controlled and administered by Eritreans, in the belief that foreign aid can corrupt people and governments, and foster dependence rather than self-reliance.
- It is the only African country where aid projects have come in under budget.
- It may be the only African country where there is no bribery or official corruption. It may be the only African country without limousines for leaders.
- Isaias is the only African president who has spoken out against racism ("ethnicity") and corruption in Africa.
- It is the only African country that has managed to turn traditional ethnic and cultural differences (eight linguistic groups and a variety of cultures) into a nationalistic spirit.
- It is the only African country that won't allow religious aid programs unless they are secular and apply to everyone, and are not directed to the followers of one particular religion.
- More than any African state it has sought to ensure women have rights they traditionally never had. Arranged child marriages, dowries and the barbarism of female mutilation have been curbed, all of which flourished prior to the war of liberation. Legally, women are moving towards the same rights and opportunities as men.
- Free education is a priority, and learning English is compulsory in schools, on the thesis that "English is a passport to the world."
- President Isaias is one of the few African leaders who professes that "pluralistic politics" are essential "because one party cannot have all the solutions all the time."
There is more one could say, but this is a quick summary of a young country with an old history that is the hope of Africa, where many have abandoned hope.
Eritrea is now engaged in a war that Ethiopia has declared. Again. This time a ridiculous dispute pushed by Ethiopia about where the border is, which until now has always been clearly defined and internationally accepted. The Italians drew the line a century ago.
For its own internal reasons, Ethiopia is "ethnically cleansing" itself of those with Eritrean connections -- people whose parents may be Eritrean, spouses who are Eritrean, Eritrean students in Ethiopia, Eritrean businessmen. Over 40,000 have been deported. And the world is silent.
For the future of Eritrea (and Ethiopia) and in the long run Africa itself, the U.S., Britain, Canada, Italy and those with influence in the region should put pressure on Addis Ababa to resolve the dispute peacefully.
While it takes two to argue, the main responsibility lies with Ethiopia; it is the one abusing human rights (see Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Commission) and it is the one likely to respond if international pressure is serious.
As for Canada, it would be encouraging if, for a change, the Chretien government consulted its people in Eritrea, or got its ambassador in Addis Ababa to forego docile diplomacy and publicly give an opinion -- as President Isaias does, whenever he's asked.
It could herald a new form of diplomacy -- telling the truth.