Habtom Yohannes a journalist and an activistHabtom Yohannes is a journalist by choice and an activist by circumstances. In this issues-and-ideas interview, Holland-based Habtom offers an in-depth analysis and insight into the Eritrean and Horn of African predicaments ranging from the ramifications of the recent Brussels gathering on Eritrea, to Eritrea’s diplomatic weaknesses and his position on the controversial website Awat.com. Michael Abraha first asked Habtom what messages were driven home by the Brussels meeting.

Habtom Yohannes: The November Brussels Conference was thoroughly explained by my colleague Abdulrahman Sayed (Bohashem) in various interviews. The conference was a success in that it put our country on the international agenda. Senior representatives of the two world superpowers, the United States America and the European Union debated the Eritrean situation in particular and the situation in the Horn of Africa in general for two days. Representatives of different European countries were also present. Representatives of the African Union, the ambassadors of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan and Nigeria participated. The Eritrean Ambassador, Mr. Girma Asmerom was invited but didn't show up.

As you know, Thursday, December 10, was International Human Rights Day. This day is a day of jubilation for those who live in democratic countries and it is a day of sorrow for those who live under dictatorship. The Eritrean people, including those in the government, have paid dearly for the independence of the country and for the democratic rights of every Eritrean citizen. The first is achieved but the second one: civil and political rights, is long overdue. Despite the fact that Eritrea is signatory to, among other things, the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cpr.html, the Eritrean Government continues to deny its own people basic human and democratic rights under the pretext of perceived and real threats. All who were present at the Brussels conference unanimously condemned the gross human rights violations in Eritrea and called upon the Eritrean Government to respect the basic rights of its own people irrespective of any regional developments.

The main task of any responsible government is to defend the basic rights of its own people and not to violate them. The naked human rights violations inside Eritrea were symbolized during the conference by the book of Professor Kjetil Tronvoll. The former Norwegian Prime Minister and current Chairman of the Oslo Centre presented the book and called upon the Eritrean Government to defend the basic rights of its own people, which was underscored by all who were present at the conference. I don't think there is any sane person on earth who thinks that our people can thrive in a situation of fear. In Eritrea we have a government that instills fear in the blood vessel of the Eritrean people. If a government fears the people, you call it democracy and if the people tremble because of their own government, then you can't call it anything other than dictatorship.

On regional conflicts and Eritrea’s lack of diplomatic skills

A: Putting the whole blame on Eritrea for the destabilization of the Horn of Africa is not fair and will not solve the problem. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been waging a devastating political and military struggle for regional hegemony. For the last seven years, Ethiopia has been refusing with impunity to withdraw its troops from a sovereign Eritrean territory including Badme which was awarded to Eritrea by the international border ruling of April 2002. The international community has been condoning this fact to the fury, and rightly so, of the Eritrean Government. A UN sponsored resolution on the conflict is on Eritrean side but due to lack of basic diplomatic skills, the present rulers of Eritrea have lost nine precious years, including the two years that Ethiopia forced the Eritrean Government to place almost 25 percent of its territory under international observation. The Eritrean people have been paying dearly for the arrogance of their own government. Instead of deploying all its diplomatic skills, if it has any, the Eritrean Government has been acting as the frustrated adolescent in classroom: nagging against everybody including its own friends

Eritrea supports and arms different Ethiopian opposition groups that are based in Eritrea. These groups have been using the failed state of Somalia to smuggle arms and troops deep inside Ethiopia. Ethiopia, the Sudan and Yemen have formed the so called Sana-Axis to support and arm Eritrean opposition groups inside Ethiopia. Many don't know that the Sana-Axis Group is the God-father of the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA).

The Ethiopia factor in the Horn Crisis

A: Ethiopia and Eritrea have been waging a proxy war inside Somalia. The solution for this is not to single out Eritrea and blame it for the chaos in the Horn, which was created mainly by the failed policies of successive American Administrations and the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The international community should come with a comprehensive policy for the whole Horn of Africa that must include, among other things:

  • The immediate demarcation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border according to findings of the Ethiopian Eritrean Border Commission of April 2002 followed by constructive dialogue between both countries. Dialogue starts with the immediate execution of legal decisions. This is not about the present Eritrean Government but it is about Eritrean sovereignty and the Eritrean people. Serious and responsible opposition groups should adhere to the EEBC-decision. I think those who want to achieve peace with Ethiopia without addressing these issues are either naive or they are driven by short-sighted personal gains. Constitutions tame the power of national governments and International laws and decisions do the same with powerful neighbors and international bodies.
  • The immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops from Somalia; immediate halt of arms transport to Somalia and to put Somalia under the United Nations Administration until the country gets a viable government by all Somalians and for all Somalians.
  • To oblige all Horn countries to be serious about democratization, human rights and good governance. They should allow peaceful opposition groups, nourish responsible civic societies, strengthen the middle class, and allow freedom of press and democratic governance. Instead of spending millions of dollars in destabilizing each other, they should be encouraged to build strong state and public institutions that are vital for the lasting development and peace of their peoples. All countries of the Horn should enter a covenant not to support each other's opposition groups; especially the armed groups’
  • All countries of the Horn must develop transnational and interlinked economic projects. These will oblige the countries to work with each other instead of waging devastating wars.

On US and EU policy gaps over Eritrea

A: I am giving here my personal conviction. From the outset I have been against the obsession of Dr. Janday Frazer (the Assistant Secretary for Africa during the Bush Administration) to declare Eritrea as State Sponsor of International Terrorism. Some opposition groups, political and civic alike, who applauded the failed attempts of Dr. Frazer to put Eritrea in that list, should be ashamed by now. Even before she left office, Dr. Frazer attempted to declare Eritrea State Sponsor of International Terrorism. She failed and I am very happy about that. Ms. Frazer, to the bewilderment of the then US-Ambassador at the United Nations, Mr. John Bolton, asked him to reopen the April 2002 EEBC finding to benefit Ethiopia (read his book "Surrender Is Not an Option, pp347). She has no moral high ground to label Eritrea as State Sponsor of International Terrorism.

Eritrean opposition groups, political and civic alike, should discern between Eritrea and the Isaias administration. The African Union and IGAD (The Intergovernmental Authority for Development), unique in the history of the continent, have called on the Security Council to sanction Eritrea for its occupation of contested border territories with Djibouti and for its involvement in Somalia. Ethiopia is still occupying sovereign Eritrean territory against UN, US, AU and EU-sponsored international ruling and no international body has called for sanctions against Ethiopia. I abhor the human rights violations of the Eritrean Government but this doesn't mean that I should embrace everything that is against the Eritrean Government. Maybe I am not a politician. I have never struggled for political power but for justice based on the naked truth. I have committed myself to serve my country and people because of those principles.

I am glad that the era of the Bush Administration, the neo-cons and people like Dr. Frazer has come to an end. The new US-Administration and the European Union seem to develop a common understanding in international politics: engagement based on good governance, democratization and human rights.

On whether sanctions are justified: if yes, why; if no, why not.

A: Well, I am not crystal gazer, but I don't think this call for sanctions will succeed. It is clear for everybody that the Ethiopian Government is behind this call for sanctions. If these sanctions win then it is not because they are just but because of the yet another diplomatic failure of the Eritrean Government.

The Ethiopians have not only beaten President Isaias Afwerki (not Eritrea!) on the war-front, they have outsmarted him in the diplomatic front as well. I am not talking here about who is right and who is not. I am talking about diplomacy. Diplomacy is peaceful warfare. You use all strategic means and tactics to achieve what you want to achieve. This means that you have to work with others, intermingle with international bodies and convince them. Show some form of statesmanship. It has been time immemorial since President Isaias Afwerki visited democratic European countries or the United Nations. If African nations succeed to sanction Eritrea, then this shows the failure of Eritrean Government's diplomacy and not only the diplomatic strength of the Ethiopian Government. What have all the Eritrean Ambassadors in different African nations been doing? Where is our Foreign Minister? Do we have one? Is that Minister Osman Salih or Ato Yemane Gebreab? While Afwerki and his cohorts spend their precious time antagonizing the international community and oppressing their own people, the Ethiopians spend time and energy in diplomacy. International diplomacy is not always about fairness and about who is right. It is about attaining your right.

We must do a thorough study about the decision of the AU and IGAD's decision to call on the UN Security Council to sanction Eritrea. It is oblivious that Ethiopia is behind this call for sanctions, but when did this take place and where were the African "friends" of President Afwerki (like Mugabe, Kaddaffi and Al-Bashir) when the decision was taken? An interesting topic for historians, political scientists and journalists.

I don't think the Security Council will approve sanctions against Eritrea. The majority of nations are ruled by dictators. Most of them receive support from Western Countries out of strategic interest and if the West declines, the majority of these dictators can get easy support from China and Russia - two of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Permanent members of the Security Council have the right to veto any proposal. I think the tabled proposal to sanction Eritrea will be vetoed by France, China or Russia. Do you remember Resolution 1862 of the United Nations Security Council? It was drafted by France - one of the permanent members of the Security Council - and was adopted by the Council members. It gave Eritrea five weeks to withdraw from the contested territories of Ras Dumeira and Dumeira Island. It has been almost a year since the resolution was issued but nothing on the ground has changed. So let us not expect miracles from sanctions here and sanctions there.

Even if the new resolution is adopted, it will change little. The resolution has three parts: a ban on weapons sales both into and out of Eritrea; freezing the funds of the "Eritrean political and military leadership and third, the restricting of its foreign travel.

How did Eritrea get to this political crisis?

A: President Isaias Afwerki and his cohorts have brought this disaster upon themselves and the nation. They deserve it but not Eritrea and the Eritrean people. From the regional perspective and the interest of Eritrea as a nation, I am against any sanction that weakens Eritrea but targeted sanctions that hit the regime on its Achilles heel must be welcomed by all who want a peaceful transition in Eritrea. At the same time we must be realistic. There are many countries that will breach the sanctions for their own interests. I have mentioned some of them earlier, but one can mention also different countries in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union that will supply the Afwerki government with every support it needs. Sanctions haven't worked miracles in Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran. Even targeted sanctions alone won't bring quick change in Eritrea. Lasting change is only possible from inside with genuine outside support.

Can Isaias claim he is fighting Western Imperialism?

A: It is interesting even some Ethiopians applaud Isaisas Afwerki for challenging Western Imperialism. This is hollow, emotional satisfaction out of emotional slogans. Any leader who doesn't respect the basic rights of its own people can shout one slogan after the other against Western Imperialism, Neocolonialism, Neo Imperialism or Neo Conservatism. However, I haven't seen a country transform itself into a well developed nation where the basic rights of its citizens are respected, just because its leader repeat worn out slogans that might satisfy the emotions of empty minds. Empty rhetoric and hollow slogans of President Isaias and his cohorts are working as opium for some of his followers. They don't understand what the long term consequences are for the nation. Every time he gives interview and insults the international community, they come to you as if Eritrea has won the Nobel prize or has landed on the Moon and shout: "have you seen the interview? Wedi Afom has beaten them". As if they have heard a very inspiring spiritual sermon, they go and fall into a very unfathomable sleep. They woke up the following day and nothing has changed except for the worse.

On criticisms that Saleh Gadi and his Awate.com are knowingly or otherwise encouraging extremism

A: I think questions regarding our friend Saleh Gadi should be addressed to him. I know one thing: Saleh Gadi and the whole Awate team have been serving the Eritrean people and even the international community in a very special way. This goes also for the different Eritrean websites like Meskerem.net, Assena.com, Asmarino.com and all the opposition websites. I am not saying here that everything that appears on one of this websites is commendable or it is my cup of tea. Some of them have been publishing lies. Even if they publish daily things that I don't like, I will defend their right to publish what they want to publish. I will defend Meskerem.net evenly as I will defend Awate.com! It is about freedom of expression, freedom of publication and freedom of gathering information. Democracy and freedom of expression are not for the fearful. I don't have any problem with any publication as long as the articles are not written under pen-names. Our struggle for liberal democracy in our country is best served with open communication and not with censorship. If I believe in what I say and write, then I must use my name and my face. Pen names have been creating chaos, distrust and confusion amongst Eritreans. We don't know who is writing what and for what purpose? I don't know if there are foreigners behind some pen names or people with divisive motives. This has been my principle from the outset and I don't support pen-names. There have been rumors that Salih Gadi is the one who has been writing the articles under the pen name of Ali Salim. Instead of focusing on the contents of the articles people's attention is deviated by suspicions and counter suspicions. The best way is to allow articles that are written under the real name and face of the author. I don't think Salih Gadi is behind Ali Salim. Salih Gadi has been expressing his opinion openly from the outset. Some of his articles carry similar thoughts as that of Ali Salim. I don't think Salih Gadi is coward to hide himself behind pen names. But still I can't convince others that Salih Gadi is not Ali Salim or vice versa. I don't have the evidence. And this is all created by pen-names in these trying times.

Instead of attacking Salih Gadi or Awate, people should exploit the privilege they have got thanks to this website: let them write argumentative articles that are well-founded to refute opinions they don't like. The only thing I don't like about Ali Salim or others like him is their use of pen names. If they mean what they write, let them come in to the open! I don't believe that Ali Salim or others can create chaos in Eritrea because they write what they write. Many before him have tried this "ethnic", "religious" and "regionalist" cards. They all have failed miserably. Ali Salim (whoever he might be since we know him as a ghost. We don't know if he is a boy or a girl, a foreigner or an Eritrean) and Sheik Hamid Turki are not the only Eritrean Muslims and lowlanders. Many beloved Muslims and lowlanders have paid dearly for an inclusive and democratic Eritrea. Some have already gone and others like, for example, Mr. Ibrahim Mohammed Ali - may God recover his health fully! - are amongst us. Eritrean Muslims are part and parcel of my identity and I won't allow that heroic Muslim identity to be destroyed by those who preach "religious" war.

Furthermore nobody must pretend to represent the interest of the lowlanders or highlanders, the Eritrean Christians, Eritrean Muslims or God / Allah. Let alone individuals even the "political parties" can't say that they represent the Eritrean people. They might represent their own member but no more or no less. I hope time will come soon where the Eritrean people can choose freely their own representatives. Political parties and individuals must stop hiding themselves behind religions, regional or ethnical divisive politics. This is only for the weak. These people think that they represent the Muslim Eritreans or Eritreans from this region or that region, from this ethnic group or that ethnic group. Ask the Eritrean people, Christians as well Muslims, Lowlanders as well as Highlanders, Southerners as well as Northerners about these so called representatives and they will tell you that they don't know them. I haven't received any proof that Salih Gadi or Awate.com is inciting religious war or supporting fundamentalism. On the contrary, this website has been entertaining diverse views from different authors with various backgrounds as to religion, ethnicity, gender, regional background and political affiliation. Calling Meskerem.net PFDJ-website is the same as calling Awate.com a fundamentalist website. We all must be the alternatives we seek. We all say we are for democracy, good governance, human rights and freedom of expression. But once we read, hear, see something we don't like, we become President Isaias Afwerki: we want to close that website, that television station, that radio station or that newspaper with the views we don't like. I call this type of position dictatorial.

On the idea that Awate.com should focus more on basic values that unite Eritreans such as tolerance.

A: Some are claiming that they are the democratic forces with compassion and tolerance while Awate.com is not. I totally reject this notion. Not that I am always in agreement with what Awate.com does or what it publishes or what it allows others to publish on its website. But my friends at Awate.com have shown more democracy and virtues of democracy; at least as far as freedom of expression, tolerance of opinion, the right to gather information and so on are concerned. As the Frans Philosopher Voltaire who was refugee in The Netherlands stated: Hands off of Awate.com

You can reach Habtom Yohannes at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.