As I was reading about Egypt weaving and now fighting its way towards change yesterday, into my inbox popped an email from an Eritrean.
It reminded me that I was one of the few people from the UK ever to have met Isaias Afeworki, president of Eritrea.
This is true. I met him 23 years ago when I was a journalist and he was head of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. He was young, (42 at the time) charismatic and passionate about the fight for liberation from Ethiopia. Back then, people did not say ‘goodbye’ as they left each other – they said ‘see you in Asmara in Liberation Day’. Liberation finally came after a 30-year struggle which saw upwards of half a million lives lost, and Afeworki became Eritrea’s first president in 1993. He is still there, and celebrated his 65th birthday yesterday.
But the hope generated by change has not been followed by the change itself, at least not if you look at some of the key indicators.
– Two thirds of Eritreans are malnourished. Only the DRC can ‘beat’ that.
– The Mo Ibrahim Index ranks Eritrea as the worst country in the world for human rights. It is a one-party State and the inconvenience of elections is currently put to one side because they are ‘polarizing’.
– Reporters Sans Frontieres rank Eritrea at the bottom of their press freedom index, behind North Korea.
– Eritrea is now second worst in the world for education provision according to the Global Campaign for Education. That was saddest of all, as I recall how central education – and particularly education of girls – was to their fight for freedom. One day we were driving through a deserted area of the country and came across a group of young girls and older women being taught to read in a makeshift classroom under a copse of trees.
At least they are not losing their sense of humour. The email from my Eritrean ends ‘On the plus side: Eritrea has a great cycling team. Daniel Teklehaimanot has qualified for London 2012 after a storming performance at the 2010 African Continental Championships in Rwanda.’
I am not making a comment on Egypt in painting that rather grim picture of where violent change took Eritrea.
That visit more than 20 years ago made a big impact on me. I met so many people risking their lives for a change they believed in. Their cause seemed overwhelmingly just. Liberation Day came. But are they more free? The answer is a depressing one.
So here’s hoping the change that comes from the energy now coursing through Egyptian veins leads to a better place than where they are now.