AN ALTERNATE INTERVIEW WITH PRESIDENT ISAIAS
Ezana Sehay 2019-03-16
On November 4, 2018 President Isaias of Eritrea conducted an interview with the state media. At the time we were told that was first part to be followed with part two soon after. Nevertheless, that never materialized. As for the reason why, we can only speculate: After watching and reading the overwhelming negative feedbacks and views of the Eritrea people on part one of the interview, it’s more likely than not the president called off the planned sit-in audience.
Most of you have said good riddance, after all his interviews are interminable nonsense. Yet, some wouldn’t mind listening the man speak, because they find his maundering entertaining. But there are those who wish for him [Isaias] to confer with some one who can ask him real questions, questions that are relevant to the core issues of the people’s [Eritreans] concern.
Well, wish no more. Now-days the president is in a good mood – at least that’s what he wants us to believe, so much so, he has given me, yours’ truly, a rare opportunity for a heart to heart conversation.
Journey to Asmara
As much as meeting President Isayas, I was excited to visit the beautiful city, Asmara. Asmara is /was one of those cities one falls in love with instantly. Back in my college years [1990s], I remember what a reporter for the French magazine Le Figaro said of Asmara which I think fits the city’s charm well. He wrote:
“Asmara is not an African city, it is not an Arab city, it is not a European city. It is a city with its own unique characteristics - a beautiful one…”
To my shock, the city I just visited looked nothing like the Asmara people knew and loved. Today’s Asmara looks a rundown medieval city. One can hardly see any new buildings. All the old magnificent ones are dilapidated. It looks like time has stood still for the city. Moreover, Asmarinos [residents of the city] were known for their jovial attitudes which added to the city’s allure. Unfortunately, that is no more. Todays Asmarinos appeared to be angry, distressed and apprehensive.
The waiting game
Two days after my arrival I was taken to taken to the presidential residence by two security men. As you can imagine the security was tight. I was then escorted to a sparsely furnished room. Once in the room “stay put” said one the men and then both left.
After panning around, I took a seat and waited for the president to show up. I was aware that the president likes to keep his guests waiting – he finds it “empowering” – I was told, so I didn’t mind the waiting.
After about half hour, the president barged-in. as I rose to greet him, I noticed the man’s imposing physical stature. I mean, I am 5’11, but felt dwarfed compared to him. But on closer look, even under the heavy make up, one can detect his frailty.
He took a seat and kept staring at me. I knew I had to say something, but cat got my tongue. The silence persisted for a while. But then it occurred to me that I should be the one to initiate the conversation.
In this no holds barred [revealing] interview I was allowed to ask the president all the hard questions, and to his credit, he has responded candidly to the best of his knowledge and his interpretation of reality. So, here it a condensed version of the interview, edited for clarity.
Me: Mr. President, first of all I would like to thank you for granting me this opportunity.
The president just kept staring at me. I couldn’t figure what to make of it, but I realized I had to come up with a better pitch that appeals to him. Then I recalled a piece of advice one of his handlers gave me about the president prior to my meeting him. “It might help you to know he [the president] responds well to flattery” he said.
Me: Mr. President, sir, you are looking good…
The President: [interrupting] I feel good too. I worry not, rest well and sleep well. I sleep 12 hrs a day.
I figured that was his way of dousing the whispers in the country – that, the president is in a state of paranoia.
Me: Wow, I would’ve thought running a country requires more time than sleep.
The President: Oh, yes. I am at my office or a field for more than 16 hrs a day.
At that time, I asked myself “how many hours are there in an Eritrea day?”.
Me: moving on, Sir, why did you stop talking to the international media?
The President: The western medias represent their respective governments’ interest and most of them are spies. If you see the methodology of their questioning … is an ambush with questions one is not ready for.
Me: You don’t think that is a legitimate formula?
The President: No! that is interrogation. The purpose is to make me look bad.
Me: Okay. About your interview with the local media
The President: [interrupting] What’s wrong with it?
Me: Well… people say they are monotonous, gibberish. Most of them cover issues that have no relevance to the people. Sometimes you wonder out of the text you yourself ordained. You have the tendency to talk about topics you are least qualified to, in doing so you not only confuse your audience but also yourself. Some say all your interviews are catered to your die-hard diaspora supporters… It’s your way of impressing upon them, by sounding pedantic or wonk.
The President: What’s your point?
I figured the president has no intention of responding and so I didn’t pursue it.
Me: Sir, in all of your interviews there is one thing you always get it right. You admit the state of the country’s economy to be in shamble, that nothing works. My question is if you know it to be in bad shape year after year, why can’t you fix it?
The President: We are doing our best with the limited resources at our disposal.
Me: Limited resources? Sir, Eritrea is rich in natural resources, but most importantly you have some of the most industrious people in the world, all you need is attract foreign investment.
The President: One has to be careful when it comes with foreign investment, especially, western investment. For every dollar they invest, they bring along same amount of problems. Look what happened with Bisha mining company. In ten years, it has generated a billion dollars but has caused us more problems, “slave labor”,” indefinite military service”, “human rights violation”, blah, blah, blah….
Me: Well, Sir, those are important issues that should be addressed… But I digress, the thing is, in this era of global economic integration, foreign capital and know how is vital, and you have to learn to deal with what ever problems accompanying them.
The President: No, we don’t have to. Better yet, we have come up with a clever idea of creating employment for our youth without spending a penny.
Me: Oh? I would love to hear about it?
The President: Bedsides the country, where else are today’s Eritrean youth?
Me: Eh, Ethiopia, Sudan
The President: [ cutting off] Forget those in Ethiopia or Sudan.
Me: Well, the rest are in Europe. North America and Israel.
The President: Yes, those. Do you know what they’re doing there?
Me: Hopefully, working or studying
The President: They are working… and the country is earning dividend in the form of 2%... not to mention the remittance.
Me: Mr. President, human migration for all kind of reasons is an age-old tradition… You can’t take credit for it.
The President: I can and I am.
Me: Sir, may I remind you, that during the Ethiopian occupation half a million Eritreans were forced out of the country
The President: Ahh, but I doubled that
Me: And that doesn’t worry you? Sir, that is detrimental to the posterity, if the trend allowed to continue the country will face what sociologists call “the Palestinzation syndrome”, a country with out enough citizens to defend its sovereignty. Doesn’t that concern you?
The President: Do I have to think for every generation?
A silent intermission ensued
Me: If I may, let me shift in to another issue. Your government has been called one of the repressive regimes in the world, some have dubbed you the African “North Korea”.
The President: You are making it sound as a bad thing. [pause] look! North Korea is a small country that is standing up to the bully super power [USA]. Despite multiple economic pressures and sanctions, it is standing tall. You know why? Because it has gutsy leadership which has developed the power to hit back.
Me: But, Sir, at what price? While the regime is fully invested in developing fire power, the people are starving. If hunger doesn’t kill them the gulags will
The President: How do you know? Have you been to the country?
Me: No, but
The President: That’s all fabrication of the Western governments and media!
Me: The repression too?
The President: Uh, the gospel of human rights and democracy… Listen, democracy is an instrument of western powers’ control on poor countries. People wont peace, security. As far as they are concerned democracy or free press are luxury concepts.
Me: [pause] You know Dan Connell, don’t you? Sir.
The President: [hesitating] Ehm, he used to be a good man, you know.
Me: I think most people still consider him to be a good man. [pause] Any how, few years a go I read a piece he wrote about conversations he has had with your excellency. He claims, during the 70s [in the midst of the struggle], you told him that an independent Eritrea would be a multi-party democracy. Do you remember that?
The President: May be
Me: Then, in early 90s [after independence], as he detected you dragging your feet on the promise, he raised the issue of democratization. Your answer, he alleges, was “these people [Eritreans] are not ready for democracy”. [pause] My question is, Sir, how is that a society that was ideal for democracy in the 70s become unfit for it in the 90s?
The President: That’s what living under a backward country like Ethiopia does to you.
Me: That backward country has been experimenting democracy for the last few years
The President: [giggling] How is it working for them? Stupid Woyane! We told them [Woyane] not to entertain the West’s ideals of democracy, free press… Did they listen to us? Eh…. No! And look what happened to them. [pause] can I tell you something? Off the record.
Me: off course.
The President: Ethiopia before Woyane was sleepwalking toward oblivion. Against all odds the Woyanes not only did salvaged it but also made it a force to be reckon with. But do the people appreciate all these? No! [long lough]
After an extended pause
The President: Take the case of the Oromo people. Despite their rich culture and prosperity, for centuries, they have been the most oppressed and tyrannized to the point of feeling inadequate. When the Woyane assumed power, it came up with the idea of ethnic federalism. As a result, the Oromos who were balkanized by tribal sentiments were united under one kilel [region], the biggest and richest one. Not only that, slowly but surely, they grew to be the dominant power in the country. All these, with the blessing of the Woyanes. [chuckled] Woyane created a monster so to speak. Do the Oromos recognize that? If they do, they have a funny way of showing it. To the contrary they revolted against it.
After a pause to take a sip of water
The President: But the point is, the people of Ethiopia rose up against Woyane because they [the Woyanes] allowed them to by opening the political space. If you give the people a little bit of something, it’s natural they will ask for more. [pause] the bottom line is, we will never make the same mistake the Woyanes did: Open the political system for who? The Jebha [ELF], the fifth elements, the traitors, Assenna.com, Awate.com, … No! we liberated the country, and we will run it for ever!
Me: But, Sir, most of your collogues in key positions of the government are people who had little or no role in the struggle for independence. The real heroes of liberation [G-15] are incarcerated or dead in prison.
The President: Because they committed treason.
Me: Mr. President, all they called for was the convening of the organizational [PFDJ] congress to evaluate the country’s situation… That can hardly be qualified as treason.
The President: [fuming] I am the nation! They betrayed me!
His face turned red, so red, his touch up began to melt and mess up his face. Under the circumstance I didn’t want to pursue the issue further. I was afraid he might quit on me.
Me: Now, I would like to move to what is becoming the topic on every Eritrea and Ethiopian mind: Your rapprochement with the Ethiopian government. For years you have ruled out negotiation with the Ethiopian government unless it vacates the “occupied” Eritrea territories. All that changed about eight months ago when you responded positively to Prime Minister Abiy’s peace offer. Since then the bi-lateral [government to government] normalization of relationship has been moving at the speed of light. As one can expect people of both countries are apprehensive. Sure, they like the prospect of peace, but when it comes to what that peace is based on, they are in the dark. [pause] So, my first question is, what made you change your mind?
The President: I am the president. I can change my mind at whim if I want to.
Me: You don’t think the people have the right to know?
The president: No one has the right to question my judgment.
Me: Okay… Sir, with in a couple of months, you visited Ethiopia twice. How did you find it?
The president: Unbelievable! The high-rises in the cities, the mega industries, the road networks including the Addis Ababa rail-line… I mean everything is impressive. The man is a miracle worker.
The president: Prime Minister Abiy
Me: Mr. president he has been in power for only ten months
The president: I know. That’s what makes it incredible…All these in ten months. Think what he can do in ten, twenty years.
Me: The way things are going in the country, forget ten years he might not last ten months.
The president: That’s what they used to say about me. But I am the last man standing.
Me: Believe me sir, he can’t get away with doing to the Ethiopians what you do to the Eritrea people.
The president: Like what?
I deliberately avoided the question, knowing it’ll get me no where
Me: Well, Sir we are coming to the last part of the interview and I have a couple of serious questions I would like to raise. The first one is… How is your health?
The President: [unnerve look] Why do you ask?
Me: Considering the way you have been acting lately, people, especially your supporters are worried about your mental poise.
The President: I am in perfect mental health; indeed, psychiatrists concur my mental capacity is 110%.
Me: You have psychiatrists?
The President: Not as my shrinks, just friends.
Me: In any case, Sir, in terms of mental health 110% is abnormality, that is not a good sign.
The President: [recanting] What they [the psychiatrists] meant was I am of a sound mind. But out of curiosity, what triggered all the suspicion about my state of mind?
Me: Well, Sir, it started with your flip flop on the border issue with Ethiopia. But what shocked people was your attitude and action when Prime Minister Abiy come to visit you in Asmara. Back then you displayed emotions never been seen in you. You looked like a spouse of a service man who just came back from the frontline or a child who has just received his Christmas gift.
The President: [interrupting] You got it wrong, he [PMA] was more excited to meet me. He even attempted to kiss my feet.
Me: I must have missed that angle
The President: Now you know why I hate the media, they always dig up something unflattering.
Me: Perhaps… But, during your visit to Ethiopia you doubled it up. You have violated all presidential or a states-man protocol. In the reception hall [in Addis Ababa] you acted like a dog that has just been reunited with its master. You said things that are unsayable: auctioned the sovereignty and integrity of the state of Eritrea and its people.
The President: Aren’t I entitled to a little enthusiasm?
Me: But Sir, that was beyond enthusiasm.
The President: All right, it was my victory lap.
Me: Victory lap? What exactly did you win?
He kept quite for some time as though thinking of something
The President: Nothing, but Woyane lost.
Me: Oh, I get it. Few months before that you declared “game over Woyane”, So, you really think Woyane is gone?
The President: [panning] Weeel… one can’t be sure of Woyane. It is like that mythical animal. You know, the one with extraordinary regeneration capacity. What’s it’s called?
Me: You mean the Hydra?
The President: Yeah, that one
Me: By the way, how did you find the public reception Ethiopia?
The President: Beyond my wildest expectation
Me: Do you ever long for such reception from the Eritrea people?
The President stays mum
Me: Why do you think Ethiopians gave you such a rousing reception?
The President: Because I stood with them in their struggle for freedom and democracy.
Me: Is it because you believe Ethiopians deserve freedom and democracy?
The President: Of course!
Me: Coming from you, I find that to be a logical absurdity.
The President: What do you mean?
Me: Sir, if you really believe freedom and democracy are important social values, why do you deprive the Eritrea people of those rights? Is Eritreans’ DNA mysteriously lacking the democracy chromosome or freedom gene?
The President: Because they didn’t ask for.
Me: Didn’t ask for? If you don’t respect their basic human rights, how do you expect them to ask for democracy?
The President: They should ask for the rights to demand what ever is on their mind
Me: How can they ask for their rights to demand democracy if you don’t allow them?
The President: They should ask for the right to be allowed to demand democracy
Me: Do you want me to repeat the question?
The President: Go ahead, but the answer will be the same.
At that time, I figured the president was losing interest in the conversation. Frankly so did I. But I said what the heck and decided to jab him with a question on most Eritreans’ mind.
Me: Mr. President, Sir, do you even like the Eritrea people?
The President: [tasty] That’s a stupid question.
Me: Sir, during your visit to Gondar, you were asked what you consider to be the three most important occasions in your life. Your response was; your high school graduation, the day you got married and the downfall of the Derg regime.
The president: So?
Me: One would think the day of Eritrea independence to be way up on the list.
The president shrugs off.
Me: Mr. president, the reason for some Ethiopians affection toward you is, because they genuinely believe you are willing to give them what they are looking for: access to the sea. Ethiopian elites and politicians are openly discussing the possibility of that happening with in few years. And your government’s silence on the issue is fuelling the rumors.
The president: We don’t respond to such none sense.
After a brief intermission
Me: Okay, Mr. president, before ending our conversation I wanna ask you about a theory that is floating around.
The President: [curiously] About what?
Me: It’s about you, about your mental status, about your acting Boris Yeltsinish, you know, the drunken clownish ex-Russian president.
I pause for a response from the president
Me: You wonna hear it?
The President: Sure
Me: It goes like this: For the last two decades, you have perpetuated the impasse with Ethiopia intentionally. You have put the nation under a de facto emergency rule. Consequently, all other important political and social issues have been relegated to non-issues. Some say, you don’t want the border deadlock to be settled because you are afraid of the question that would follow; such as the ratification of the constitution.
I paused to give a chance for the president to interject. Though intently listening, didn’t appear eager to comment. So, I resumed
Me: But recently something materialized that compelled you to change you mind. According to sources close to your excellency, the doctors at the UAE military hospital where you frequent have informed you that your malady has become terminal. That terrified you of course, but more terrified are your colleagues. [ pause] You see, PFDJ is a two-leg stool: still standing but shaky. In other words, with out you, it definitely will collapse. [pause] This development has brought the issue of power succession to the fore front.
I paused again hoping for The President to respond or comment to no avail
Me: [resuming] The challenge is finding some one who can succeed you, carry on with your legacy so to speak. But since you don’t have confidence in your colleagues, you have proposed your son Abraham to replace you. Nevertheless, you suspect there may be some in the military brass who may not be acquiesce with the idea. That led you to anticipate another scenario: the likely hood of a bitter power struggle following your passing most likely to occur than not. [pause] Therefore, to make sure the faction led by your son triumph in the anticipated clash for control of government, you come up with the idea of finding an external ally/ allies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are willing partners to the idea, but you don’t think they’re reliable. You want a country with a strong army in close proximity. Ethiopia with its puppet prime minister become your ideal choice. [pause] You then hatched a plan to entice the new prime minister; invite him to Asmara and introduce him to your son. [pause] What’s more, your declaration of apportioning the Eritrea diplomatic responsibility to the Ethiopian prime minister was deliberate move. In fact, according to the sources, you’re willing to undermine the Eritrea sovereignty in exchange for cooperation with your son’s ascension to power and continue with your legacy what ever that legacy entails.
I pause, this time for longer time. The President kept looking at me with a blank face
Me: [continuing] How am I doing?
The President: That is pure fabrication.
Me: Which part? All of it?
The President: All of it is wild imagination.
Me: Okay, let me put it in a different contest. Sir, for better or worse, you have been on the apex of the Eritrea politics for half a century. Considering your dotage, do you ever consider retiring?
The President: No! Eritrea needs a strong, stable leadership – or risk losing everything we have accomplished so far. This isn’t about me or the Hegdef [PFDJ] – it’s about the nation’s future, we have to stay the course.
You heard him right, people: The draconian system in Eritrea – explicitly devised and executed to directly benefit Isaias Afworki and the PFDJ – is not about Isaias Afworki. Not at all.
It is not like Isaias Afworki is doing the “president thing” for himself. It’s not as though he enjoys it. Why, if he has his way, he’d be living in Gurgusum beach and a – whiffling away along side his dog. Ops sorry, did I say dog? I meant monkey.
But for you – for you, Eritrea, and for your future – Isaias Afwerki is willing to selflessly take on the burden of absolute power. Furthermore, he is willing to selflessly exercise that power to the point of selflessly kind of being a jerk about it. All for you.
For you, Eritrea, Isaias has abandoned the Eritrea Peoples Liberation Front’s [EPLF] fundamental principles, betrayed his comrades and stacked the government with his loyal supporters and flunkies.
So, think about that. Think about how traumatic would be for Isaias to go – it would be everything his regime has accomplished over the last 27 years: Political and social repression, War with all its neighbours, a none-functioning economy, down and out educational system…
Not convinced? How about causing mass exodus to the tune of a quarter of the entire nation’s population, thus leading to unprecedented and crippling demographic crisis.
God bless Eritrea!