“The European Commission is to earmark €122 million in development aid for Eritrea” Under normal circumstance, this announcement would have been great news. But for the present day Eritrea, this is bad news. It is tantamount to a friend giving cash to a drug addict to feed his destructive habits. It is morally repugnant, and legally perhaps verges on the criminal

To start with, those Eritreans who publicized this information and who took action in organizing the collection of appeals to the EU should be commended. I hope there will be many Members of European Parliament (MEPs) who will have the patience and care to read some of the appeals from those who truly represent our oppressed kith and kin inside Eritrea. It is sad and indeed embarrassing to note that after 40-50 years of suffering and struggle, Eritrea is independent - but not yet free. Now, the oppression comes from a homegrown tyrant and a handful of henchmen and sycophants.

To the less informed, it may seem contradictory for Eritreans to stand against ‘assistance’ for their destitute and desperate country. Yes we do realize that our country, Eritrea, is one of the poorest nations on earth and that it needs all the help it can get to feed and lift our people from the abject poverty. Thus we assure everybody that we have taken into consideration all the implications and ramifications our stand may cause to our people. Unfortunately, taking all the factors into account and weighing them against the misguided motives of the donors and the evil intentions of the receiver we have decided to oppose strongly the so called ‘Development Aid’ to Eritrea under Isaias. That is why the majority of the appeals from our people to the EU are against the aid plan.

Some clarification is necessary here:

  • No Eritrean anywhere would be against Humanitarian Aid for Eritrea in the form of food and health. In fact Eritrea needs Humanitarian Emergency Aid PRONTO!
  • True, Eritrea also needs Development Aid but not to be channeled through, or disbursed directly to, Isaias’ regime. .

Naturally the latter point will become clearer as one reads further. I would like to approach the argument based on the unhealthy motives of the recipient and the donor:

Motives of the recipient

PFDJ, the party in power in Eritrea led by Isaias, is the continuation of EPLF, which was the victorious movement in the Eritrean struggle for independence. When it was in the field, born out of necessity and sheer survival instincts, EPLF had adopted Self-Reliance as a guide in its operations. After independence, it became convenient for the leaders, particularly Isaias, to promote self-reliance as an ideology that the nascent civilian Eritrean government should also follow. In the euphoria of a newly gained independence, after so much sacrifice, the majority of the citizens had no time to doubt the intentions of the new leadership. Thus there was no overt demand for discussion or input from the civilian population on what form of economic or political ideology Eritrea was going to follow. In a way, it was also very difficult for the people to suspect the new leaders’ intentions as they were deliberately tantalizing them of duplicating in Eritrea the successes of the Asian Tigers, especially that of Singapore. But the new group lacked experience and above all they lacked the goodwill to learn new ideas from anybody outside their small clique. The main weakness was of course Isaias’ obsessive love for power and his desire for consolidation of total control of the organs of government. Whilst they were engaged in this process this secretive and isolationist clique used the myth of Self–Reliance as a cover up to hoodwink the people and maintain power to the detriment of the nation. It was unfortunately too late by the time the bankrupt myth combined with an aura of invincibility and we can do it all alone attitude was realized as being inimical to the very survival of the young nation.

By now it is common knowledge that preaching Self- Reliance alone, without the right policies to attract capital and provide economic growth, will not do it. Isaias and his group have totally failed to learn and understand that for self-reliance to succeed the nation must have basic rule of law, property rights must be guaranteed and markets should be free to operate without excessive regulations. Eritrea needed leaders like Lee Kwan-Yew of Singapore, who was enlightened and farsighted enough to understand the secrets of economic, political and social development. It is needless to state that Isaias has never had these necessary qualities for the task. In fact, it is even worse for Eritrea for almost 20 years after independence it is being led by someone who is unable to graduate into a statesman and chooses to remain like a guerilla leader.

To circumvent these basic development preconditions, Isaias’ government continues to misuse Self- Reliance as a license to degrade the living standards of the unsuspecting population. In fact Eritrea has now become a perfect example of a Renter State, living on rent than development. Only this time the rent collected is not from sale of natural resources like oil or minerals (which it does not have). Instead it comes from Diaspora Eritreans. To fulfill the myth of Self- Reliance expatriate Eritreans are forced to pay 2% from their gross income earned outside Eritrea (including welfare income). This is on top of the many forms of cash extortion the state uses to squeeze money from them. At home, every Eritrean between the ages of 18-46 is conscripted for an indeterminate period in the name of National Service and security. They earn a meager wage (about €10/15 a month) and are provided an inadequate diet. The regime uses the bogus excuse of an impending war with Ethiopia and National development to keep the youth of the country hostage. Among Eritreans, this unending service is known as “the Slave Labor”. It is common to see hundreds and thousands of the Eritrean youth with traditional hand tools digging, carrying rocks on their backs building roads-to-nowhere in the deserts of Eritrea. The economic and social effects of unavailability of this productive sector of the population has caused heavy short and long term damages on the economic development of the country. The only university in Eritrea has been officially closed and most high school classes are given only in military camps. In Eritrea, Isaias and his group are known as the “control freaks”. They practice very harsh control of the political, social, economic, commercial and even religious life of the nation. The list of gross violation of civil liberties perpetrated by this group is long and well documented.

Again, like all totalitarian governments, the Eritrean regime, in full control of all the organs of state and above all the media, has perfected its expertise in concealment and doublespeak. It unashamedly presents the utter failure of its policies as astounding progress. Of course the world knows that the truth is totally different and the proof is the stark reality that the people (especially the young) are voting with their feet and choosing to escape out of the country en mass. Those who are left behind are suffering with hardship, hunger and malnutrition as slave laborers. Eritrea is now completely stripped of the most educated, skilled and productive sector of its population.

The above phenomena have finally convinced the majority Diaspora Eritreans that their trust has been abused by Isaias and his inept and evil administration. As a result, many have concluded that enough is enough, and that not only did they stop their financial support, but have started opposing the regime openly. The refusal of the Diaspora to pay the 2% tax and other forced and voluntary contributions has caused the foreign exchange reserves to decline. We believe that it is not because Isaias has been genuinely convinced of the benefits of Development Aid but because his main sources of funds have dried out and that he has no choice left except to accept the EU assistance. Therefore, we have no doubt that this earmarked EU funds will provide him with a new lease on life and extend his hold on perpetual militarization and destruction of our country and the future of its impoverished people. That is why we strongly oppose it.

Motives of the Donors

Another reason why Isaias used to shun foreign assistance was because he was against accountability and transparency. It is not a coincidence that Eritrea under Isaias is the only nation in the world that has no published official national budget. No wonder then he hates the requirements of monitoring, controlling and accountability conditions that normally come with foreign assistance. He also hates foreign monitors or officials, whose survival do not depend on his benevolence as is the case with all his ministers and hangers-on. Thus the myth of self-reliance affords him a façade and a perfect excuse to avoid transparency. Naturally then, his relationship with Aid Agencies has always been very tenuous and confrontational. In fact one of the first victims of his attitude was Mr. Antonio Bandini, Italian and EU Ambassador to Eritrea. On September 28, 2001 this diplomat was kicked out of the country by Isaias for raising the subject of human rights violations in Eritrea. Following that event and over the succeeding four or five years Isaias expelled from Eritrea nearly all of the national and international aid organizations and shattered their offices. As a result a good percentage of the population who depend on food aid are still exposed to hunger and starvation.

It is at this stage that the EU offer of ‘development assistance’ came to the scene. In the debate over pros and cons of foreign aid many economists criticize aid, that in addition to being ineffective, the motives of the donors are seldom based on pure altruism. Following this hypothesis, it is plausible to suspect that the “assistance” under discussion might not have been based on pure concern for the people of Eritrea. It is possible that this aid is being used as a means of influencing Isaias to support EU policies in Africa. The rogue and spoiler role Isaias plays in our region of Africa is well known to all. I believe that Mr. Louise Michel, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, has used this aid to sweeten a deal with Isaias.

On May 2, 2007 Isaias paid a visit to Brussels. We were shocked to witness the warm welcome Mr. Michel accorded Mr. Isaias, despite the history of Isaias’ previous bad behavior towards the EU and its personnel. In fact, at the joint news conference, it was embarrassing to hear Mr. Michel state “I was very, very honored to receive him (Mr. Isaias) in the Commission,” Instead of criticizing him, Mr. Michel unabashedly designated Mr. Isaias as a “key partner in the search for a comprehensive solution to a range of conflicts across the Horn of Africa, from Darfur to Somalia”. In the last two years, Mr. Michel and his subordinates met Mr. Isaias on several occasions, but it is sad to note that at no time has the subject of the deteriorating Human Rights situation in Eritrea been put on top of the agenda or discussed seriously. On the contrary, the top priority of discussion and agreement revolved around the indicated regional security issues, which naturally pump up Isaias’ inflated ego and pretensions as an international peacemaker. As far as Eritreans inside and outside Eritrea are concerned, the meetings and issues discussed between Isaias and EU representatives are secondary to the wellbeing and critical survival of our population.

Mr. Louise Michel’s appeasement towards Isaias was not for the sake of Eritrea. That is why most of us Eritreans are convinced that Mr. Michel is not a friend of Eritrea or Eritreans. If he really cared about Eritrea – come what may – like what Mr. Bandini cared, he would have raised the gross human rights situation – a subject very dear to every Eritrean. No doubt, the human rights situation in Eritrea is worse than that in Zimbabwe. The difference is the fact that Eritreans tend to suffer quietly, possibly because nobody will ever care if they screamed to high heaven. But why was the treatment of the two dictators different at the hands of Mr. Michel? The reason is that Mr. Michel as a consummate diplomat only cared about what he wanted from the deal. Fortunately for both of them (Michel/Isaias) their motives – which I am afraid was neither development nor humanitarian - happened to coincide. Thus, it is only conceivable that Mr. Michel must have promised to lift or relax many of the regulations and restrictions that come with development aid. Otherwise, it would be unimaginable for Isaias who has no respect for Cotonou, Paris or Accra Pacts or any form of international agreements to accept a regular EU aid package. To put it mildly this so-called aid is a personal bribe to Isaias. But shame on you Isaias! Like all past third-world leaders blinded by their obsessive thirst for power, you finally became a useful tool bought in the open market and you have thereby shortchanged your people as an expendable commodity.

As stated above, Isaias does not want these funds for development, he wants to use them to strengthen his iron grip and keep Eritrea’s 300,000 to 500,000 youth who are the most productive section of the society on militarization, permanent war footing and slave labor. Really, this is a crime against humanity. Time will come when Mr. Isaias will have to account for his crimes in a court of law. The question now is: What about the accomplices? Should they not be held responsible both morally and legally?


It is interesting to note that on paper Mr. Louise Michel claims that “the promotion of human rights, of democracy, of the principles of good governance” is a central theme of his policy. We too cherish these honorable beliefs. In fact, we would appeal to Mr. Michel to strictly apply them in all his dealings with Eritrea. For instance, we would like him to confront Isaias with pertinent simple questions such as: why doesn’t Eritrea have a parliament, political parties, a free media, and any independent civic organizations? According to EU principles these organizations are actors accepted as the sin qua non for a meaningful development everywhere. We have no doubt that Mr. Michel recognizes that Isaias does not espouse any of these beliefs, and we see no reason why the EU should accommodate Isaias at the expense of the people of Eritrea. Again, we would humbly appeal to Mr. Louise Michel and all the EU parliamentary representatives, to use their informed and unbiased judgment, and not advance any so-called development assistance to Mr. Isaias. Instead we request the EU to do the following:

  • Please expedite humanitarian aid for Eritrea. There has been a serious hidden starvation in Eritrea for many years and in the last few months, it has been getting desperately worse. Isaias’ marauding soldiers are not ashamed to move from village to village and snatch the available few kilos of grains from the houses of poor subsistence farmers to feed themselves.
  • Except for humanitarian aid we are convinced that no so-called development aid be granted to Eritrea as long as Isaias is in power. It is going to be toxic to the well-being of the nation. Repeat, any cash aid you give him will be a lifesaver for Isaias and will prolong the militarization and oppression of the people.
  • As far as the earmarked Development Aid is concerned, Eritreans certainly do need the funds . Assuming the motive is really to help the population and not to help the dictator, we ask the EU to directly disburse and use the funds for many projects that can directly benefit tens of thousands of Eritrean youth and children, who are now being wasted in the neighboring countries and to benefit some IDP’s settled on the border areas.
  • We ask the EU to consider the fact that educated and skilled Eritreans have been either decimated by the perennial wars with our neighbors or have fled the country to find sanctuary in all corners of the world. Beginning the 1950's and up to 1991, Eritreans escaped from the successive Ethiopian governments; in the last 18 years, however, the exodus is from the repressive Isaias regime. As a result, Eritrea seriously lacks rudimentary educational, technical, and governance capacity. Eritrea under Isaias is deliberately and totally isolated from the rest of the world. The standard of living and the quality of life has regressed to pre-1950 levels. It is a fact that Isaias will not live forever. Thus, we urgently need to find large-scale capacity building programmes and projects for the young refugees in neighboring countries. Projects like these will have the double benefit of preparing them for the future, and at the same time, of keeping them close to their country and making their return easy.
  • We ask EU to use some of the funds to provide refugees with the opportunity to be trained with professional and vocational skills wherever they are. If the EU cares for the people of Eritrea, we have thousands of our young - some of them highly educated - being wasted as refugees in places like South Africa, the Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Israel, and many Arab and European countries. Some of these refugees are living under terrible conditions in European slums and prison camps. We are certain, if these refugees are equipped with some professional knowledge, skills, and training, they will voluntarily and gladly begin to return home to Eritrea as soon as Isaias is out of the picture.

What Next

  • Every Eritrean should continue writing appeals to the MEPs in their boroughs and to Brussels and let them know that you would like them to vote against disbursing EU funds directly to Isaias. It is also always helpful to let your representative know if you are a voter.
  • A united front should be formed composed of Eritrean civic and political organizations. At the least they should write a letter to Mr. Lois Michel and the EU president strongly criticizing the plan and encouraging the EU to expedite sending non-cash humanitarian aid instead, at an earliest time possible.
  • Any Eritrean legal experts should study and prepare to make a case for legal action if the EU refuses the Eritrean peoples’ just request and starts disbursing the funds directly to Isaias, knowing full well his destructive motives. I am sure there are many European NGOs that would gladly help find organizations that could offer Pro Bono legal Counsel.


Berhane G Negus