Original Air Date: April 8, 1997
Rebroadcast Air Date: December 30, 1997
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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