Eritrea: A Brand in the Making

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Eritrea self reliance road construction
Eritrea’s secret to successfully overcome challenge after challenge throughout the years has always been mind-boggling to others. But to generations of Eritreans, it has become second nature and a way of life.

By E Abraham,

Seme’eka ሰሚዔካ,” said the Chief engineer in charge of the airport project. “I have also read through the project proposal for the construction of the air traffic control tower (ATCT). I tell you what, it is so damn expensive and you very well know that the country cannot afford such an obscene amount of money at this moment.”

He was chairing a crucial meeting of a group of professionals entrusted with the construction of a brand new airport. The contentious issue at hand was the cost of constructing an ATCT.

“But…,” replied the engineer, an Eritrean diaspora on the national service programme who was tasked with putting the proposal together. “… but we cannot possibly think of constructing an airport without a control tower…?”

It was half a statement and half a question. He couldn’t think of any other way to bring the cost down without compromising both quality and safety, which he knew would not be acceptable to the Chief and also it is not how things are done in Eritrea.

“I am not even remotely suggesting that we can build an airport without a control tower, brother, and a structure that is sub-standard would be unthinkable either,” continued the Chief, “but, you mentioned that the higher cost is due to the surrounding mountains pushing us to build a taller tower, is that right?”.

The engineer felt relieved that the Chief sounded understanding of the situation and said “yes that is right, we also need to find the money and start construction as soon as possible if we are to meet the deadline….” and reluctantly added “since this is one of the projects in infrastructure development, we may be able to apply for funding from our NGO partners”.

The Chief looked at him as if he had just been insulted. As one of the high priests of the church of self-reliance; one couldn’t just throw words such as funding, aid, and NGOs at him without feeling his wrath.

After a moment of dead silence, the Chief said to the engineer, “look, I am not going to go through the values of self-reliance and the dangers of falling for the trappings of aid and funding because we have done that hundreds of times. But let me once again say this to you. The NGOs, the UN organizations and all other aid agencies are there to provide immediate help when there is human made or natural disasters and assist in the rehabilitation efforts in their aftermath. This is a noble cause and one to be supported and encouraged.

Despite claims to the contrary, Eritrea, being a war devastated newly emerging nation has successfully partnered with many such organizations. The problem arises when those same organizations decide to set up shop in a given sovereign nation and try to function as parallel governments. They would use their money for influence and as a trap by funding mostly ‘questionable projects’.

In fact, some governments would readily use the services of those organisations as a substitute for home-grown solutions, ingenuity and creative thinking. Pure laziness if you ask me, and obviously it is this laziness which is being taken advantage of. Every time such governments are unable to come up with their own solutions for their own problems, however rudimentary that may be, they end up sharing their decision making with ‘outsiders’ and the more decisions are shared with them the less control the governments will have in their own affairs and the more dependent they become on ‘outsiders’.

That effectively translates in to relinquishing one’s sovereignty bit by bit. As you all know, more than anybody else, we Eritreans have a very good idea of the cost of sovereignty and we don’t want to compromise it for a crumb here and a crumb there…” It is one of those topics that fire the Chief up.

“Now, enough about that and back to your point. If the problem is the mountains, then why can’t we just build a ‘glass house’ on one of the mountains? It is cheaper than building a tower from the ground up and if we were able to build it on one of the taller mountains then it would also serve the purpose superbly!”

He was always like that. No one knew whether his ideas came off the cuff or he had a ‘solutions-bank’ within him where he could draw from whenever he needed one. Everyone in the meeting was taken by surprise and was in owe of the Chief’s ability to once again think outside of the box and the way he makes it look so easy. Most at the meeting took turns in singing his praises and threw their support behind his novel idea.

The engineer, however, although equally in owe, was less convinced of its practicality. He said, “I really like the idea, but with all due respect, I don’t think it is practical. As you know, none of the mountains are close enough to the airport, and even if they were, it would be a logistical nightmare and highly costly to get construction materials up to the top of the mountain which would defeat the purpose of us trying to make savings.” The Chief didn’t seem perturbed a bit and countered,” you have quite valid points there, but for starters, I don’t think it is necessary to have the tower next to the airport so long as it is in close proximity to be able to maintain a direct line of vision to the taxiways and runways of the airport and the surrounding space. As to the issue of logistics and the cost associated with it, would be better leave that to the Warsay-Yika’alo, the generation that built Filfil-Solomuna…”

Everyone in the room shared a similar sentiment and could feel the Chief’s pride and confidence in the Warsay generation. The Warsay generation has made quite a name for itself by being able to miraculously build the ‘road-from-heaven’ as some would like to call the Filfil-Solomuna road a few years back. Nothing seems insurmountable for the Warsay in Eritrea ever since.

It was also with that final note that they concluded their meeting with a decision to build the ‘glass house’ on top of one of the mountains of Sawa as the ATCT for the airport. Today, it proudly stands as one of the many monuments to Self-reliance, the core guiding principle of the EPLF/PFDJ and the government of Eritrea (GoE).

Self-reliance in Eritrea is not a political rhetoric, it has monuments that could be seen and felt throughout the country. It has also produced so many tangible and quantifiable positive outcomes to the people of Eritrea. Positive outcomes such as those which enabled Eritrea to meet the health MDGs well ahead of time.

Take for instance the decision to prioritize between primary schools and health stations at remote village levels in the early days of Eritrea’s independence. It was a tough call, but limited resources meant that schools were given priority over health stations with the spectacular idea of training the teachers as primary health care workers capable of screening for some of the most common ailments with the aim of either treating them on the spot or early referrals to the nearest health post.

If anyone is wondering how Eritrea managed to meet the health MDGs ahead of time, it was through creative schemes such as these and definitely not through multi-million-dollar aid packages and grants. It is also interesting to note how resource allocations are entirely governed by the need to look after the newer generation first and foremost. The inheritors of tomorrow’s Eritrea-the Warsay.

It goes without saying, therefore that, if the new generation is to inherit tomorrow’s Eritrea, it better be prepared and learn to be self-reliant as well. Through a clear understanding of the meaning of sacrifice, hard work, and the concept of delayed gratification as opposed to instant fulfilment. That is exactly what happens in Sawa. It is the new Sahel, the new Nakfa, and a modern day Bet temhrt Sewra where legends of tomorrow’s Eritrea are made.
Sawa is the Mecca where the youth from all corners of Eritrea come together. From cities and rural areas, daughters and sons of a farmer or a business man or the President and everyone else’s in between. Everyone is treated equally and gets reacquainted with one another, with hard work and with the idea of sacrifice through the national service programme. Sawa is about getting the youth of Eritrea better equipped, and it is also about giving them an edge in terms of dealing with the challenges of tomorrow both with in Eritrea and the world at large.

Some folks innocently argue that the government could make life easier for the youth by just borrowing money against the country’s known assets and by setting off a construction and investment boom overnight. That is possibly true and would have probably made the GoE the darling of the West, made the leadership super-rich and even more popular domestically.

However, the GoE and its leadership very well understand the risks of dealings with the so called ‘international monetary organizations’ and the principles of self-reliance also dictate that one has to learn to live within his/her own means. Hence, the GoE continues to refuse to be enslaved by foreign aid and to live off future generations’ money by borrowing and spending on self-serving, feel-good-big-city-construction-bonanza and short sighted tactical investment projects.

The GoE rightly understands the fact that, to be able to devise one’s own destiny, there is no alternative or shortcut other than through sacrifice, hard work, resilience and patience. This has never been a government of ‘NOW”; rather, it has always been a government about the future. If the war of independence to bring about the nation of Eritrea took 30 years, then the next logical war for Eritrean sovereignty has been going on for the last 25 years. Economic sovereignty, political sovereignty and physical sovereignty with in an internationally recognized border. The scale of sacrifices obviously varies under both circumstances; they have continued to be made nevertheless. The message the GoE has always been trying to communicate to those who care to listen is this: the war of independence didn’t end in 1991, it merely entered its third and final phase.

Instead of waiting for hand-outs through foreign aid or borrowing from future generations, the GoE set out early on to exploiting Eritrea’s untapped mineral resources in a highly sustainable and measured fashion.

Again, the principle of self-reliance has always been in play in the unique way the government negotiates and makes deals with the mining companies. A highly attractive deal of 90% is mostly on offer to the mining companies. The GoE, through its local mining company ENAMCO, also retains the option of buying another 30% in shares. The government usually pays upfront (or as deferred payments) for those extra 30% stakes—mostly settled at values in their prospective stages … smart. This effectively makes ENAMCO a 40/60 business partner with almost all of the mining companies currently operating in Eritrea. This is a win-win position for both the mining companies and the GoE. It boosts business and investor confidence for the mining companies when the GoE is willing to take such a huge chunk of the risks at such an early stage of their development.

For the GoE, in addition to serving as a source of significant revenue down the track, it also allows it to participate in the decision making processes of the respective companies; a sure way of learning how the mining industry operates. Most importantly, it gives the GoE invaluable access to follow up on sustainability and environmental impact of each and every mining site as per its commitments; mind you, not from a regulator’s perspective but from the perspectives of a share-holder.

Self-reliance is also about thinking independently. Thinking outside of the box. Questioning anything and everything. At times this may call for some bold measures to be taken and a need to break away from the status quo. What better place to kick-start the process of independent thinking than the Eritrean education system?

Restructuring the Eritrean education system from kindergarten to tertiary level was one such bold move. Particularly, the decentralizing of the University of Asmara in to strategically located colleges throughout the country was the boldest of all. It raised a lot of dust in its early days of implementation and most were from genuine concerns revolving around quality of education, international accreditation of the newly established colleges and global recognition of the qualifications of the would be graduates out of those colleges.

It is fair to assume that perhaps none of those opposing the move were asking this important question: what did it mean to have an accredited University with its qualifications recognized globally, if it was not producing enough educated manpower to help with the rehabilitation of a war devastated newly independent nation like Eritrea?

None of those concerns took in to account what it all meant to the future of the country, the contributions those colleges would make to the immediate and future human resource needs through increased student intakes and in rectifying the ridiculous set-up where colleges such as agriculture and marine science being located in the capital Asmara; far away from agricultural land and the sea respectively.

Most importantly, those concerns and blind oppositions did not take in to account the contributions the newly established colleges would make towards the sustainable growth of their localities and what that meant in terms of future urban development around those colleges. Mai Nefhi, Adi Qeyih, Hamelmalo, Halhale will never be the same again thanks to the establishment of the Eritrean Institute of Technology, the College of Arts & Social Sciences, the College of Agriculture and the College of Business and Economics respectively.

Eventually and in due time, those colleges will end up becoming big Universities, transforming those localities beyond recognition in the process. None of these issues seem to be considered by those who blindly opposed the establishment of those colleges. Instead, their concerns appear to be based on nostalgia of the status quo, uncertainty about the future and a pathological fear of boldness. Ultimately it was about doubting Eritrea’s capacity to be able to map out its own destiny.

Eritrea has shown to the world that it is more than capable of mapping out its own destiny and most importantly that its guiding principle of self-reliance works. One of the many reasons why the principle of self-reliance is working brilliantly well in Eritrea is due to the fact that it is not an alien concept, rather it is a potent cocktail of self-belief, hard work and looking-out-for-one-another, which are inherently Eritrean values. The organizational wizardry of the EPLF and its leadership during the war of independence had been a multiplier to everything that is good about the people of Eritrea. The challenges of the war of liberation, where Eritrea was abandoned by the entire world and left to fend for itself, provided the ultimate platform to perfect the art of self-reliance to the extent that Eritrea could be said to be an authority on the subject.

Eritrea has also shown to the world that foreign aid in its traditional buy-them-food-when-they-are-hungry form doesn’t work; long before it was made talk of the town by the renowned economist Dambisa Moyo. Eritrea has unfairly coped some flak for insisting on leading the way to a new era of relationship with genuinely well-meaning NGOs based on partnerships and respect for home-grown development programmes and need gaps. The perfect example of such a partnership has manifested itself in the work the Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF) is doing in Eritrea and the model of that partnership and its benefits to the people of Eritrea is prototypical and could serve as a reference to aid organizations everywhere.

In that partnership, there is sustainability and technology transfer through the intra ocular lens (IOL) factory that is run by a local workforce; there is primary health care delivery that engages local communities with the aim of eradicating trachoma, there is training of local eye specialists to service the eye hospital established through the co-operation of the Ministry of Health and the FHF. Put simply, Eritrea, through this partnership, has set the bench mark for any aspiring NGOs interested in working successfully in Eritrea.

Throughout its existence, Eritrea has never had it easy. Mainly for geopolitical reasons but also other confounding factors, nothing has ever been achieved without overcoming formidable resistance and paying a disproportionately colossal sacrifice—with consequent unnecessary time lags. To varying degrees, this had been the case during the colonial periods and during the war of liberation and it has definitely been the case in contemporary post-independence era. Eritrea’s secret to successfully overcome challenge after challenge throughout the years has always been mind-boggling to others. But to generations of Eritreans, it has become second nature and a way of life.

A way of life which enables Eritrea keep coming out of every single challenge better, wiser and sharper. ‘Impossible’ has never lived in Eritrea. Most importantly, almost all achievements in Eritrea today are the results of original trailblazing ideas worthy of trademarking or patenting. Some of the highlights mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg.

As Eritrea prepares to celebrate its Silver Jubilee of independence on May 24, 2016, it provides a perfect opportunity for anyone interested to travel and see for themselves what Eritrea is all about. A Brand in the Making.