His Excellency Isaias Afwerki
Friday, April 7, 2000, 2 p.m. EDT
Isaias Afwerki is the first and only president of Eritrea. The country, formerly a province of Ethiopia, gained independence in May 1991. Afwerki was elected president by the country's national assembly in an April 1993 referendum.
He was born on February 2, 1946, in Asmara, now the capital of Eritrea. He graduated from Prince Mekonnen Secondary School in Asmara, then attended the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. In 1966 Isaias interrupted his university studies to join the Eritrean Liberation Front as a combatant. From 1967 to 1970, he served as Deputy Division Commander. In 1970, he was one of the founding members of the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) and, until 1977, he held various leadership positions. In 1987, the Second Congress of the EPLF elected him as the organization's Secretary General. After the Eritrean rebels joined forces with other insurgent groups, the Marxist government of Ethiopia was overthrown and Eritrea gained independence.
Amicable relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia began to deteriorate in 1997 when Eritrea introduced its own currency. When Eritrean soldiers moved into a desolate area known as the Plains of Badme fighting erupted in May 1998. According to a Washington Post report, the clash had its origins in Isaias's falling out with Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister who was once his friend and ally. An uneasy truce held until February 1999 when the Ethiopians sent waves of troops on the Eritrean positions, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 10,000 soldiers and a clearcut Ethiopian victory.
Since then the two countries have haggled over the details of a peace agreement while maintaining extensive military forces along the border. At meeting of African leaders in July 1999, Isaias said, "…Eritrea knows the bitterness of war and also the taste of the fruits of peace. It has absolutely no interest, and sees no advantage, in war."
Submit questions for President Isaias Afwerki
Eight years have passed since your country became independent with the blessing of the TPLF government of Ethiopia. Since then your country has been at war with Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan and now with Ethiopia. Don't you think it is about time for your country to focus on its internal POLITICAL, ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL problems rather than meddling on the affairs of its neighboring sovereign countries?
President Isaias Afwerki: It's nice to have this opportunity to talk to people through the internet. It's an opportunity to allow people to vent, and to learn their views.
The person asking the question might have misread history. We didn't achieve our independence with the blessing of the TPLF government. We have gone through a process where we exercised our legitimate right to independence in an internationally supervised referendum after 30 years of armed struggle, and it was a result of the blessing of the Eritrean people and no one else blessed their independence from the outside. This is a historical fact that everyone knows.
We have successfully concluded a conflict with Yemen through arbitration which we thought was a civilized political culture. On Djiibouti, the government there cut diplomatic ties with Eritrea under pressure from outside and now has reversed the decision and is resuming diplomatic ties again with Eritrea. On Sudan, the government there has admitted that its experience in domestic, regional, and international relationships have been wrong because of Turabi. Now with the change in the Sudan, after 10 years we have got new relationships with the government in Khartoum.
Falls Church, Virginia:
I visited your beautiful country during the summer of 1997, and it saddens me to hear about the renewed fighting with Ethiopia. What do you think it will take to acheive a lasting peace between the two countries? And is there anything that you believe that those of us here in America can do to help?
President Isaias Afwerki: We have a peace plan brokered by the OAU with an active participation from the United States, and we would like to see a more active role for the United States.
As a Rwandese I have admired your struggle to independence and self-determination. How come the present regime in Addis -composed of former comrades-in-arms- does not want to let go so that you fully exercise your independence as a country.
What do you have to give in to them so that you have peace.
President Isaias Afwerki: I don't think we need to pay any price for peace. The border dispute will have to be resolved peacefully either by demarcation or arbitration. We wouldn't demand anything from Ethiopia, neither can we expect anything from them, in exchange for peace.
IMF data show that Eritrea has been spending 26% to over 50% of its budget on the military during the period 1993 to 1998. This is far higher than in Ethiopia where military spending was kept below 10% of the budget.
Why is Eritrea spending so extravagantly on the military when its food aid needs on a percentage basis are consistently among the highest in the world -far higher than Ethiopia-?
President Isaias Afwerki: This isn't true. We are not spending beyond the needs of our self defense. It's the government in Addis that is spending lavishly on defense when 8-12 million of its population is threatened by famine.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
How seriously does your Government treat the issue of HIV-AIDS, and particularly the implications of military conflict and its potential for spreading HIV infection? Are there specific programs for your soldiers, including information, education, and provision of condoms? Are you also monitoring the prevalence of HIV infection among your military personnel?
President Isaias Afwerki: We have one of the best programs to fight the HIV virus, not only on the continent but world-wide. We have almost done a blanket screening, especially amongst the young to discover that we have less than 1% of the population positive. And we have introduced a program that involved communities to bring down the percentage to zero in the coming 5 years.
Having known many citizens of your new country here in DC, they are the hardest workers in town and happy to be here. Having secured several ports in the secession from Ethiopia and having sustained an independent economy from your capital, Asmara, why do you want the small triangle of land enough to fight Ethiopia for it?
President Isaias Afwerki: We don't have grand ideas about expanding territory. Small is beautiful. Thank you.
B.L. Birmingham, Alabama:
I must congratulate you on behalf of the Eritrean people's successful struggle against the Dergue and your subsequent independence, but in the relatively short time that Eritrea has been independent, you have managed to end up fighting all of your neighbors in turn- Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Why is Eritrea unable to peacefully negotiate its territorial disputes? Why do you always turn towards military conflict? After their decades of struggle, don't the Eritrean people deserve peace to develop the economy and improve their standard of living?
President Isaias Afwerki: We have gone through a thirty year war to abhor the use of force in our history.
What is your strategy to bring economic development to Eritrea?
What natural resources does Eritrea have to make it an independent nation?
Does your government keep provoking fights with its neigbors because you lack the resources to survive on your own as an independent nation?
President Isaias Afwerki: The resource of a nation is its people and we have plenty of those.
I came back two days from Eastern Sudan namely the border town of Kassala where fierce battles have been raging between forces originating ifrom Eriteria and Sudan government forces. There accusations that your country's forces are actively participating in this fighting. How do you respond especially as the Sudanese armed opposition is based in your country, plus there have been speculations of plans to out flank Ethiopian forces via the Sudan ?
President Isaias Afwerki: This is simply speculation. I have no answer for speculative judgments.
Why is your country and Ethiopia fighting?
I have heard that Eritria has an area similar to our Grand Canyon in Arizona, is this area in danger from the fighting?
President Isaias Afwerki: Eritrea is small, beautiful and lovely. It's not the size that matters but the value people give to any size, big or small.
Mr president is OAU working now on amending the socalled unamendable technical arangement?
President Isaias Afwerki: The OAU has now allowed for a new process that would produce implementation technical arrangements.
If you look around the world today, different countries are becoming allies both economically and politically-NAFTA, EU, NATO-.Do you believe that that Ethiopia and Eritrea two countries that share a similar culture and history, will ever become one again?
President Isaias Afwerki: It's my wish that the economies of both Eritrea and Ethiopia enter a process of integration.
You have fully accepted the OAU peace plan which is supported by UN and US. You also have agreed to allow the use of the Port of Assab as a corridor for relief efforts to help Ethiopian famine victims. What more do you need to do in order to convince the intl community that you have done your part ? Frank Angarano
President Isaias Afwerki: We are not doing this to impress the international community or anybody else for that matter. It's our moral obligation and our commitment to the people of Ethiopia who are threatened by the present famine.
walnut creek, california:
Is there hope for peace talks again with Ethiopia, or will the OAU pressure Ethiopia to come to sit down and talk
President Isaias Afwerki: I am optimistic despite the fact that rulers in Addis are putting obstacles in front of the ongoing peace process.
The so called Eritrean opposition group NFA has decided to move its headquarters to Addis Abeba and align itself against Eritrea.
As comical and desperate their actions are what do you to say to them?
President Isaias Afwerki: It's like a bankrupt Greek merchant reshuffling all account books.
New York NY:
I am an information technology professional, and I am particularly interested in how developing countries might be able to profit from the technological revolution.
For example, India has become a hub for technology. How do you see-do you see the potential for Eritrea to benefit from the worldwide technological revolution? -This is, of course, after the war is over, and the country can rebuild again.-
I am not sure how appropriate this question is , but I must say I am very privileged to feel that I have the opportunity to speak to you the President of Eritrea using this medium.
President Isaias Afwerki: I couldn't agree more.
Why do you think the issue of the deportees of Eriteans has been ignored in the international community, when the media was reporting "Ethnic Cleansing" all over the world when it happened in Bosnia and Rwanda?
Thank you and God bless you.
President Isaias Afwerki: The international community has got its double standards.
do you believe the US and the security council has been honest and fair judges for the last two years??
President Isaias Afwerki: The question of government in Ethiopia is an exclusive right and concern of the Ethiopian population.
What is the purpose of your visit now? Is it fair to assume that you are here to discuss issues related to the conflict between Ethiopia and your country? If that is so, why was it necessary for you to travel here in light of the fact that Mr Anthony Lake has been conducting shuttle dipolmacy in the region for more than a year now?
President Isaias Afwerki: I don't see any conflict in endeavors by third parties in my endeavor to work for peace.
First of all I would like to thank you for the leadership that you are giving our beloved Country.
My question is regarding the current drought looming on the horn of Africa. How prepared are we? What steps have been taken to reduce the problem?
Finally I would like to wish you all the wisdom that the Almighty God gives to be a great Leader.
President Isaias Afwerki: First of all, the international community should respond promptly to the needs of the people threatened by famine. We have offered our good will to facilitate the operations of delivery of humanitarian assistance, and we hope everybody will cooperate to achieve the desired goal. Thank you for your concern.
I am a supporter of Elf-RC, and a proud Eritrean. My question is simple, how long do we have to suffer before power is given back to the people? Is there any chance of multi-party democracy in Eritrea? Thank you!
President Isaias Afwerki: How long can you suffer by continuing to do harm to your own people?
Durham, North Carolina:
Mr. President: I believe that Eritrea's new constitution is a very remarkable document. At what point in time to you expect to see it implemented?
President Isaias Afwerki: The National Assembly in its recent deliberations has decided that elections could take place any time once the present border conflict is over.
After Shabia defeated the former Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu H-Mariam, in 1991, AFP reported that your army excuted thousands of POWs-mainly officers of the Ethiopian army-. How do you respond to the charge?.
President Isaias Afwerki: We are proud to have freed one hundred thousand prisoners of war, including many criminals.
New York, NY:
What is your opinion of OAU? Do you see any future of a United Africa?
President Isaias Afwerki: I respect our continental organization and like many dedicated Africans I aspire for a united Africa in the future.
Mr. President, the house speaker of the Ethiopian Parliament told reporters that your government agreed to some points of ractification in the technical arangements, would you please comment on the issue?
President Isaias Afwerki: The speaker of the Parliament doesn't seem to understand events. He might have misunderstood it, he's naively disinforming his own people.
Are most of Eritreans abroad returning to their country since independence? If not why are they not returning, what are they afraid of? Where is the spirit of sacrifice?
President Isaias Afwerki: You might want to know that Eritreans in the diaspora have contributed more than one hundred million dollars in the last two years.
Mr. President, long live Eritrea!!!
What is the Eritrean governemnt view about the internet and what are you doing to make a full use of it?
President Isaias Afwerki: We are very sorry that Internet service hasn't been introduced in the country. Everybody is eager to see the Internet come to Eritrea.
I welcome you Mr. President. Many people say that, Malaria is becoming number one killer in Eritrea. What is the government doing to eradicate it?
President Isaias Afwerki: We have been privileged to be number one in the successes of fighting malaria.
Santa Barbara, California:
Why did your government wait till the aftermath of 'Operation Sunset' to accept the OAU peace proposal? Thank you!
President Isaias Afwerki: You might want to believe that what you call "Operation Sunset" brought about the acceptance of the OAU peace proposal. I hope that you must have learned not to believe what you say is not true.
What role did the Clergy play in what is going on in your country?
President Isaias Afwerki: We have a secular government and the clergy has its private business.
2. Assuming Ethiopia accepts the UN resolution for peace, How are you going to resolve the issue of stolen Eritrean businesses and properties that are still in the hands of Ethiopian dicatorship?
President Isaias Afwerki: We are taking legal action against the confiscation of property of Eritreans by the government of Ethiopia.
In your opinion what is the reason behind the Ethiopian government preference of small OAU peace keepers than UN peace keepers?
President Isaias Afwerki: It's one way of not wanting a solution of the conflict.
Mr. President first of all thank for taking your time to answer our question.
In just eight years Eritrean's economy has advanced considerably more than some of African countries which has been as an independent nation for dacades. What do you think the future of Eritrean economy will be in the coming five years
President Isaias Afwerki: The growth rate of the Eritrean economy from 1992-1997 was seven percent average. In 1998, it was four percent. In 1999 it was three percent.
Mr. President, what is your government's postion regarding Eritrean refugees status in the Sudan.
President Isaias Afwerki: We have agreed with the UNHCR on a repatriation program that would start this year.
Have you ever thought of stepping down from your position, or you have a life time commitment like your fellow African leaders.
President Isaias Afwerki: I would step down anytime tomorrow when the people of Eritrea ask for it.
My father, a reputed veteran civil servant, a devoted former official and a respected gentleman among his circles; who was imprisoned by Mengistu for about 8 years just for being Eritrean is now being kept in one of Eritrean prisons for more than five months with out any charges or trial. Eventhough we did not expect this to happen to him or any Eritrean for that matter, we still have no clue why he is dettached from the world in a prison cell being denied any visit by family members or a bail.
As a concerned son and a true Eritrean citizen, I would like to ask His Excellency the president why a professionaly dedicated person, a provider to his family and whose other son is serving on the frontline of the current conflict being held for such a long time in that condition without any trial or bail?
With all the respect, Thank you!
President Isaias Afwerki: What's the name of your father?
Would an arms and economic embargo against Eritrea and Ethiopia make the conflict stop?
President Isaias Afwerki: I don't think so.
If you or Meles would like to make peace, both of you have equally 100% power to do it. What do you gain from war? If withdrawal is all Ethiopia asking, why don't you do it? After all, isn’t it temporary, that is, until its ownership is verified and demarcated?
President Isaias Afwerki: I know I don't gain anything from this war.
Tell us what happened at the battle Badme?
President Isaias Afwerki:
Tens of thousands of Wayane troops were either killed or injured in Badme.
I would like to thank all those who participated in this interactive discussion. Thanks very much.
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© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company