ERITREA: 'Our people are the owners of Eritrean democracy'
"We need strong bilateral relations with the United States, for regional and international security, and for peace," Eritrea's ambassador Girma Asmerom says, leaning forward in his seat to stress the point.
It sounds like a line used by many ambassadors, but for a Horn of Africa country that has spent decades in war with neighbor Ethiopia, first for independence and then over border issues, it is said with all seriousness, especially as the border dispute is as yet unresolved.
Eritrea was an Italian colony for fifty years, until 1941. Allied forces liberated Eritrea from Italy, an Axis power in the Second World War, and the country became a British protectorate for ten years.
The fate of Eritrea continued to follow the twists and turns of world politics. Upon independence from the British, the country spent 30 years in armed conflict, fighting annexation by Ethiopia. Ethiopia was supported by the United States until 1974, when the socialist government of Mengistu Haile Miriam seized power and aligned itself with the Soviet bloc, winning the support of Russian and Cuban forces in the process. The Eritreans supported Ethiopia's Tigre fighters in overthrowing the Miriam regime, and in 1991 Eritrea finally won full independence. In 1998, a border conflict with Ethiopia erupted, and 70,000 people died before a truce was negotiated in 2000.
"Ethiopia got myth and reality mixed up," Ambassador Asmerom says of the conflict. "They portrayed it as an Arab-inspired secessionist movement. That's how the emperor [Haile Salassie] justified [continued war with Eritrea]. Finally, discontent among the armed forces contributed to the demise of communism in the region."
The most recent conflict ended with a truce, but the dispute over the 600-mile border is not over. Ethiopia has objected to the border drawn up by an independent UN commission set up under the 2000 Algiers peace deal, a position that according to a statement by the Eritrean Foreign Ministry could plunge the region into a new war.
"Ethiopia's reckless position, which may well plunge the region into another cycle of war and conflict, constitutes a flagrant violation of the Algiers Peace Agreements and basic principles of international law," the statement, issued earlier this year, reads.
"The UN commission has decided where the border is, but Ethiopia refuses to accept it," the ambassador says.
Three and a half million Eritreans fought as one against annexation by Ethiopia, a country of 60 million, Ambassador Asmerom explains. "The secret of our victory is the participation of everybody. Every Eritrean knows someone who died in the war."
Like many Eritreans who sacrificed careers to fight for independence, the ambassador received his Bachelor's degree at Bowdoin College in Maine and Masters at American University in Washington, but chose to go back home to join the Eritrean army. He fought in its ranks for 14 years. "My reward is democracy in Eritrea," he says of his sacrifice.
Fulfilling duties a little different from those of most envoys, Ambassador Asmerom traveled to 18 American states this year to take part in town meetings with Eritreans, each lasting five to six-hours. This is a regular part of his work. Under the Eritrean constitution, the Eritrean diaspora has the right to elect its own representatives, and it takes an active part in the national political process.
There are 30,000 Eritreans in the United States, and close to 6,000 in the Washington area. Most came here for political reasons, to escape the war. "They have to be included in the democracy process. They are the owners of Eritrean democracy," the ambassador says.
If the truce with Ethiopia holds, the winds of good fortune might finally blow for Eritrea. Blessed with natural riches, Eritrea has deposits of coal, granite and marble. Its seas have abundant fish, and the ambassador says only five of a possible 80 metric tons are caught each year.
"We are not poor in natural resources, but we are poor in technology. We need to build up investor confidence to exploit these riches."
"Our goal is to eradicate all poverty in Eritrea in ten years. It is an ambitious goal, but we can do it with the income from fish alone. Now everybody says they want trade, not aid. We said it from the beginning," the ambassador says.
To facilitate this trade, the country has built four modern airports close to major cities; it has expanded its ports and established a free economic zone with favorable tax laws. Roads between major cities have been asphalted and a new coastal road has been completed.
"As a latecomer we can avoid the mistakes made by other African countries over the last 40 years," the ambassador says of his ten-year old country. "Eritrea is like a child prodigy."
Precocious as this child may be, most Eritreans are still living in poverty, and 80 percent of the population is still illiterate. "Democracy is a process," the ambassador says. "We will get there. With some serious investment, Eritrea will turn into one of the shining countries in Africa."
Name: Girma Asmerom Tesfay
Date of Birth: December 10, 1949
Place of Birth: Eritrea
Marital Status: Single
School American University, School of International Service, Washington, DC.
Degree MA, December, 1974
Major International Relations (Development Economics & Political Analysis)
Honors Recipient of Hall of Nations Fellowship
School Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine
Degree BA, June, 1973
Honors Dean's List Student
Winner of the George Levine Memorial Soccer Trophy
April 2001 - present: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States and Canada
1999 - 2001: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of South Africa and non-resident Ambassador to Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and Madagascar
1997 - 1999: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Ethiopia, OAU and ECA
1993 - 1996: Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Head of African Affairs
1992 - 1993: Ministry of Information and Culture - Head of Eritrean TV.
1991 - 1992: Chief of Protocol, State and Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1990 - 1991: Head of Protocol, Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) Department of Foreign Affairs
1987 - 1990: Head of Information, EPLF Department of Foreign Relations
1979 - 1987: Head of Amharic Radio Programme and the Amharic News Letter, EPLF Department of Information
1977 - 1979: Member of the Editorial Board, EPLF Department of Education
1977: Joined the Eritrean People's Liberation Army/EPLF
1975 - 1976: Pride, Inc., Washington, DC. Preparing Monthly Newsletter
1974 - 1975: Nicholson & Carter Law Firm, Washington, DC. Part-time researcher
1973 - 1974: Federal City College, Washington, DC. Assistant Soccer Coach
1970 - 1974: Government of the District of Columbia, Department of Recreation, Summer Program Soccer Coach