Original Air Date: April 8, 1997
Rebroadcast Air Date: December 30, 1997
Program 9714/9752

ERITREA'S DAWN

Guests:
Charles Brown, Director of Program Development and Training, Freedom House
Berhane Gebrehiwet, Head of Research and Education, National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students
John Hicks, US Ambassador to Eritrea
Askalu Memkorios, President, National Union of Eritrean Women
Musa Naib, Member, Constitutional Commission of Eritrea
Zemhret Yohannes, Head of Research and Information, Eritrean People's Front for Democracy and Justice

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MUSA NAIB, Constitutional Commission of Eritrea member: For the last thirty years, we've been waging not only the armed struggle, but we've been politicizing our people, giving them basic education, trying to build a basic infrastructure for the democratic institutions here.

KEITH PORTER, Producer: Building the nation of Eritrea today on Common Ground.

CHARLES BROWN, Director of Program Development and Training, Freedom House: The current regime has genuine popular support. The degree of civic participation is amazing. You see people genuinely wanting to help build their country. But the problem is, is that the government is not willing to take that next step and let things progress along traditional democratic lines.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.

Dawn breaks over Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea and in many ways this small city and this small country are still in the dawn of a new existence. All the way on this road from Asmara down to Massawa we saw buildings that had bullet holes. I mean there were signs of war almost all the way.

BERHANE GEBREHIWET, Head of Research and Education, National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students: That shows that this area was battle fields.

PORTER: This area was what?

GEBREHIWET: Battlefields.

PORTER: A battlefield.

GEBREHIWET: It was a battlefield.

PORTER: This is Berhane Gebrehiwet, a leader of the Nation Union of Eritrean Youth and Students. He is also a veteran of Eritrea's thirty-year war for independence from Ethiopia. Much of the war was fought trying to liberate the city of Asmara in the mountains and Massawa, a vital port city, on the Red Sea. The war was eventually won by the EPLF, The Eritrean People's Liberation Front.

GEBREHIWET: In 1977, we almost liberated all parts of the country except Asmara and some towns, and also most of Massawa, except one island. By the invasion of the Soviet Union, the EPLF had to retreat back to the northern mountains.

PORTER: So your rebels had to retreat after the Soviets came in on behalf of Ethiopia.

GEBREHIWET: Yes. Then in 1990, after ten years of heavy fighting in the mountains near Nafa, again in 1990 the EPLF took counter offensive measures and then that was how Massawa was liberated. And then, you can see when Massawa was liberated, we can from the northeastern part to Massawa and then back towards Asmara. So that's why you can see a lot signs of battle fields...

PORTER: Along the road between the two cities.

NAIB: The constitutional commission was formed in April 1994 by a proclamation from the parliament, from the national assembly. We call it proclamation Number 55 of 1994.

PORTER: Now the real work of nation building begins. One of the first steps for Eritrea is writing a national constitution. This is Musa Naib, a member of the constitutional commission.

NAIB: What we have done is that we have tried to create a new system for our own, I could say ???. We have taken some of the presidential systems that we think will fit our situation and left the rest of it the same. We have done the same thing with the other systems and tried to see our own model for the governments.

PORTER: The constitution writing process was a nationwide endeavor with grass roots involvement and intensive civic education. Several draft constitutions were prepared and soon there will be a national referendum on the final document.

NAIB: This country is coming out of a prolonged war of thirty years, you know. I think this thirty years war, though the war isn't everything, but at least one could say it has its good parts, also, in our situation. For the last 30 years, we've been waging with not only the armed struggle, but we've been politicizing our people, giving them basic education, trying to build a basic infrastructure for the democratic institutions here. And so all this process of education, all this process of informing the people and trying to have clean and with a law abiding society, I think contributed much. So going back to studying, to the political events that have been going on for the last 30 years, I think could play big role, and so what we're doing, is try to capitalize on these achievements that we already have in our case.

PORTER: Naib reminds us that in African history, even the best constitution is no guarantee of stability or human rights.

NAIB: The guarantee for the basic human rights, I believe in the long process that involves many sectors of the society, and it's by the participation of the whole democratic forces that can be enforced. We witness so many things here in Africa, if you know about our present. You see the coup d'etats, you see the military dictatorship, you see so many things happening, and so many miserable things have happened. There is no organized, well-informed society that could be a check and a balance and defend these people from the authorities that are performing, that are being upon the people. So I think the process is not only limited to a document that we call a constitution, whether he writes or not, it's not a guarantee. There are so many nations in the world that all of us, we know that they right so many perfect words and clean wording and all that could be said about the constitution and human rights, listed in their constitution, but they are doing atrocities contrary to what they have written here. And so I believe that it's a long process, that you guarantee for your citizens the basic human rights, you build these basic institutions, you give education to the people, you try to have social societies that could tomorrow strengthen, you have strengthened these basic democratic principles.

ZEMHRET YOHANNES, Head of Research and Information, Eritrean People's Front for Democracy and Justice: First, we are a young state, we don't have the infrastructures, the institutions in place. For example, people have been asking us, "Why don't you allow the formation of political organizations?" I have been saying, "Look, we are starting, why are you in a hurry?" We have a political force which has been struggling to liberate the country, which has legitimacy, which has popular support, and we are doing fine. We are creating the basis for a political system.

PORTER: This is Zemhret Yohannes, Head of Research and Information for the PFDJ, the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice. They are the political successors of the EPLF, the army that won the war. They are often referred to as simply "The Front." And sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the front and the actual government of Eritrea.

YOHANNES: We are committed towards creating a pluralistic political system but this takes time. It was not created in one night in the western world, it took a long time. And we want also to make it sensitive to our situation, to our culture, to our history, to our society. To the particular conditions to our society. And we have been creating the frameworks, we have been creating the frameworks, we have been creating police force which is in the process of formation. It will take time to have a real working police force, the judicial system is in the process of formation. The administrative set up is in the process of formation. And after a certain period of time, especially after the constitution is ratified, then we will have the law allowing political activities with certain limits, taking into consideration our society. We'll say "these are the limits of political activity." We will not allow for example religious-political parties, or sectarian political parties. This will be the bottom line for political activity in the country. As to freedom of speech also, we have set in the press law certain limits. It says that racist, chauvinist, speech is not allowed in this country. Somebody might come up and say that the Muslims are fanatics and so on and so forth, and we will have a riot in our hands. How can a society allow such a thing to happen in the name of the freedom of speech? Freedom of speech must be responsible freedom of speech.

PORTER: I guess I could summarize the, our philosophy, or my philosophy, as an American citizen, the bargain that I made is that there is speech out there that I disagree with, and then there is also the issue of censorship, of stopping speech. And the American bargain basically is, we allow bad speech because we think that that is a lesser evil than censorship. Do you buy that philosophy, that censorship is worse than bad speech?

YOHANNES: I think both of them are bad. You have censorship which is imposition, and you have irresponsible bad speech which also erodes freedom of expression. Because by bad speech I understand you are derogating the rights of others. It might be defamation, it might be socially irresponsible or harmful speech, which harms morality or basic principles of how a society is organized. Or it might trivialize also discussion, for example, you have sensational scandals and so on and so forth. The issues are covered by this sensational coverage, this sensational speech. The real issues of the country, if you take the personal life of President Clinton as a public issue and you speak about it and you write about it. What's the national political of the United States gained out of it.? It doesn't make sense for me....

PORTER: I guess the usual answer is that, that the answer to bad speech is more speech.

YOHANNES: Augh... why not responsible speech?

BROWN: I think Eritrea is at an important turning point in regards to the human rights situation there. It's at a bit of a fork in the road and it can choose one of two paths. It can move towards a Singapore style pseudo-democracy, or it can move towards a more traditional form of democracy.

PORTER: This is Charles Brown, a human rights expert from the American organization Freedom House.

BROWN: I am concerned that it is already heading down the path of a Singapore style pseudo-democracy. Where you have the ruling Eritrean Popular Liberation Front implementing many of the same measures that have been used in Singapore to guarantee that the government in Singapore maintains control of its people. For example, a single party which is dominant, but portrays itself as a popular front rather than a political party. A economic system, which is a free market system but in which the government, and through the political party the government, exerts a great deal of control of who has access to the opportunity to participate in the economy and the use of private front businesses to maintain government control over the economy. The most well known being the "Red Sea Trading Company." Another example of this is actually a bit of a positive measure which is the use of English in a multi-ethic society as a means to guarantee cohesion among peoples who have 9 different languages and 3 different religions. Also similar to Singapore nonetheless. It is also the case, as is the case in Singapore, that the government has put a number of limitations, if not restrictions on non-governmental organizations. Spinning off a number of former popular front leadership organizations into supposed non-governmental organizations; the Youth Front, the Women's Front, the Labor Union, but in fact using these as a means of social control so that any non-governmental organization which is too successful or to independent is forced to merge itself into the relevant front.

PORTER: On the positive side, it looks like there is an awful lot of political involvement there. That coming out of the war of independence, that people seems to be exerting a great interest and even have a great stake in what's happening there.

BROWN: Well there's no doubt that if an election was held there tomorrow that the EPLF or as it's better known the Popular Front For Democracy and Justice, which is its peacetime name, it changed it's name a couple of years ago, that the PFDJ would win between 90 and 98 percent of the vote in a genuine free and fair election. And that's one of the ironies and I think of the potential tragedies of Eritrea. The current regime has genuine popular support. The degree of civic participation is amazing. You see people genuinely wanting to help build their country. But the problem is, is that the government is not willing to take that next step and let things progress along traditional democratic lines.

PORTER: We're talking in this edition of Common Ground about building the new nation of Eritrea. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan foundation organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

ASKALOS MENKORIOS, President, National Union of Eritrean Women: Our objectives were to, you know, raise political consciousness of women and then advocate for their rights. And this objective still continues.

PORTER: One of the strongest organizations working to build civil society in Eritrea is the National Union of Eritrean Women. The president is Askalos Menkorios.

MENKORIOS: The other issue is a literacy programs that we had. They are a very limited way and also with a lot of interruption due to war and bombardments. So now we have a literacy program all over Eritrea. The other issue is the issue of leadership of women and leadership training. We do train women leaders. Because you know, since the democratic right of election came to Eritrea by EPLF's principles women have been elected at different levels. But still you need to improve their leadership capacity because many of them are illiterate, but really courageous and devoted women leaders. So we do involve ourselves in leadership training. The other issue is the skill training. Since women are involving themselves in literacy, they finish their 3 years of literacy program and as soon as they finish we try to train them so that they can improve themselves in different activities. So just creating the bridge between their need of education and their disadvantage due to lack of education during the past many years.

PORTER: Another group needing help in post-war Eritrea are the thousands of disabled veterans. This is the Maihabar Vocational Training Center. Simon Tewold is a metal work instructor at the center.

TEWOLD: We have about 97 students this year.

PORTER: You have about 97 students this year? And they take 6 months to go through the program.

TEWOLD: Yes, 6 months to go through the program.

PORTER: What happens to the people after the end of the 6 months?

TEWOLD: Well some of them are employed in government and some, what can I say in that, industrious, I can't say industrious, but some productive areas. And some of them are waiting for other chances you know. As I told you before the lack of job makes them to wait more. Otherwise they are fit to work.

PORTER: Yeah, the lack of a job makes them have to wait longer. But they are fit to do these jobs.

TEWOLD: And some of them are organized in groups and have their own workshops.

PORTER: Well, that's interesting, do you have any idea what percentage of people find a job.

TEWOLD: Well maybe 2%.

PORTER: How does someone get here? I mean, who do you serve here?

TEWOLD: Just the disabled veterans, the disabled fighters come here because the school is designed for them.

PORTER: In one of the workshops I saw a poster that said something about being proud of your disability. What does that mean?

TEWOLD: It means just, disability doesn't mean inability. So if one is disabled it does not mean that he can't work. So they are proud of their disability and moreover have contributed for the freedom because of their disability. They're proud of their disability because their disability can brought Eritrea to freedom.

JOHN HICKS, US Ambassador to Eritrea: In Eritrea, we can't help but be satisfied with the strong sense of self-reliance, the declared commitment to establishing a participatory democracy. Their very strong orientation to the private sector as reflected both in the their rhetoric and the policies that have been established, in the incentives that they have provided for both domestic and foreign business and as reflected in the private sector investment that has actually come into the country.

PORTER: This is the United States Ambassador to Eritrea, John Hicks.

HICKS: The country faces a special challenge in its efforts to establish a participatory democracy, in that it emerged from thirty years of struggle as a very tightly knit people with a very strong sense of national unity. It is that same sense of national identity and national unity which will perhaps present the greatest challenge as this country struggles to establish an open participatory pluralistic political dispensation.

PORTER: So, I mean, I can assume that we wont be necessarily satisfied if Eritrea remains a one party democracy.

HICKS: Well, certainly as far as the United States and the rest of the western World is concerned, we believe that our experience with multi-party politics has been successful and it is a model that we believe in. Having said that though, I think it is fair to say that as a nation, we don't look to impose our form of democracy on any other nation. We think that the basic principles of democracy—respect for human rights, the basic freedoms of press, religion and speech, are the key underpinnings. But we also think that pluralism is important. I might add that the Eritreans have not ruled out the possibility for multi-party democracy in this country; in fact the constitution itself does provide for such political parties to emerge. But, quite seriously, and given the history of the country, it probably will take some time for multipartyism as we know it in the United States and other parts of the world to emerge in Eritrea.

PORTER: All right, well lets move on to the economic system. What is it that is evolving here? Is it going to be a free market capitalist system?

HICKS: Well, I think that all of the signs clearly indicate that. There is no doubt that this nation sees its development occurring through leadership from the private sector. It has taken the policies that it has put in place in terms of economic management clearly point in that direction. It has put a number of important incentives in place to encourage the private sector both here and from abroad to invest private sector resources. So that I think that the policy framework as reflected in many measures, as well as the specific actions that have taken place, are very encouraging for the private sector. So I think that the actions fit the rhetoric and also what we have seen in terms of investment. Yeah, for a nation that's just four years old its very encouraging indeed.

PORTER: One key to the economic revitalization of Eritrea is this port on the Red Sea, and its city, Massawa.

GEBREHIWET: This is a monument, a memorial monument for the liberation of Massawa. And you can see over the monument we have three tanks and two of the tanks were the first captured EPLF tanks, but we lost them when we crossed the bridge which is behind us.

PORTER: Again, Berhane Gebrehiwet.

GEBREHIWET: The only way to get into the center of Massawa is the bridge, so the tanks directly entered leading the fighters behind them.

PORTER: One at a time. I mean, the tanks came in one in one after another, single file?

GEBREHIWET: One after the other, and two of them were hit when they just crossed the bridge and the third totally crossed it, and it was difficult.

PORTER: So, what happened to Massawa during the war?

GEBREHIWET: Massawa was totally destroyed.

PORTER: Yet another economic program is taking place just outside of Massawa, as Eritreans without outside help are rebuilding the railroad which once connected Massawa and Asmara. Still more development in Eritrea focuses on the Red Sea itself, as a potential resort destination and tourist attraction. The impression I get here is that there is such a potential for a bright future, do you agree with that?

HICKS: Well I do, I have spent fourteen of my twenty-four career years with the government in Africa, this is my sixth African country.

PORTER: This is again US Ambassador John Hicks.

HICKS: Nowhere on the continent does there exist the kind of commitment , the self-reliance, the very strong work ethic, the sense of nationhood, and perhaps more importantly the determination of a people to pull themselves up first and foremost by their own efforts, by their own boot straps if you will. Not rejecting out of hand help from the outside, but realizing that first they must look inward before extending the request for help. This is the kind of view that shapes this country's vision and strategy for national development. I like to refer to it as a refreshing view. It is a view that as a nation we fully support and I think that if we can support successfully this nation in achieving its ambitious objectives as it relates to economic development, as it relates to establishing an open pluralistic participatory democracy, we will see development occur here at a pace unparalleled in Africa. And if that happens, the lessons that emerge from such an event will be important not only for Africa, but can help inform our economic assistance strategies and our diplomacy in other parts of Africa and perhaps even the world.

PORTER: That is John Hicks, the Ambassador of the United States to Eritrea. For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

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