It’s been a year since my appointment as South Africa’s ambassador to Eritrea, which seems an appropriate point to reflect on my experience and the tentative conclusions I have reached concerning the country’s potential.
Firstly, as an untapped frontier, with the right investment and development partners, Eritrea will be a changed country within the next three decades.
Secondly, as an African country in which South African businesses are making inroads, and are willing to stay the course despite external pressure, Eritrea can play a pivotal role in the Horn of Africa’s stability.
South African policy makers already made that choice for stability and development in 2004 when we became the first sub-Saharan country to open an embassy in Asmara.
I am the third South African ambassador advancing our country’s pan-African development agenda.
Based on my experience thus far in Eritrea, the long road to development has just taken off, but with the key firmly in the ignition.
Theoretically, Eritrea presents the ideal investment destination in the Horn of Africa.
Its strategic location along the Red Sea stretches along 1 200km of coastline, including 300 islands. Given its location along one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, Eritrea could play a key role in international maritime security, which remains severely tested by piracy emanating from Somalia – a scourge many countries appear unable to contain.
Aside from such strategic potential, much of Eritrea’s marine resources – including its pristine, unspoilt beaches – are not capitalised, despite offering some of the rarest, pristine havens for ecotourists, divers and holiday makers.
Other countries, like Qatar, have spotted this potential. The Qataris have invested in a multimillion-dollar resort on Dahlak Kabir island in Eritrea. Qatar has also financed the building of a $13 million (R119 million) road linking Eritrea to neighbouring Sudan.
Overall, Eritrea’s economy is showing signs of picking up after its painful war history.
The country’s gross domestic product grew by 17% in 2011 and by 7% in 2012 – primarily because of gold revenue.
An 8% growth rate is predicted for 2013 with the emergence of copper mining.
Industry experts predict current foreign direct investment in the mining sector has just touched the tip of a potential minerals bonanza.
So why is it then, one may ask, that despite the country’s potential as a relatively stable investment destination in the otherwise volatile Horn of Africa, companies and tourists have not been arriving in droves?
The answer is simple. It’s linked to the painful stories of non-development from so many countries in the world that find themselves on the wrong side of “the list”.
Eritrea is still subject to UN military sanctions stemming from its alleged one-time support for militant groups in the region, the Somalian al-Shabaab being the most notable.
This proud, independent nation – which lost more than 70 000 of its young men and women in a 30-year independence war, followed by a two-year border war with Ethiopia – remains “opaque and unpredictable” in the language of the various foreign powers that have tried, unsuccessfully, to exert influence in the Horn of Africa for decades.
From a geopolitical perspective, Eritrea remains isolated from the international community despite its location between several global hot spots and it’s potential for playing a key, even conciliatory, role, as it has done in facilitating a peace deal in eastern Sudan.
This is largely because the Eritrean state has remained principled and has refused to bow to any external powers – committing itself instead to the African Union’s principles.
To US diplomats vying for influence in the region, Eritrea is a “mysterious” place and a “single-party state” (as though the term were unique to Eritrea).
But external efforts to sanction and stunt this young African country’s growth by promoting “regime change” have not succeeded.
These are common realities we know. There are others that readers will not be aware of.
The country’s national development programme has made impressive gains, particularly in increasing educational opportunities for the youth and for women. But part of the problem this young nation faces is that most of its economically active population is in uniform. Eritrea keeps its young men in the army to fend off aggression from Ethiopia.
Despite it being 11 years since the Ethiopian-Eritrean border commission ruling, the international community does not appear to have the will or the appetite to push Ethiopia to implement the ruling – and so border skirmishes continue.
This has sent the wrong message to belligerents in the Horn of Africa, who use the continued border tensions between Eritrea and its much larger, more militarised neighbour to stoke up regional tensions and carry out acts of cross-border terror.
Despite this, Eritrea is one of the few African states to meet the millennium development goals in maternal health, child mortality, and the reduction of malaria, TB and HIV infections.
While it cannot be denied that several key challenges remain, Eritreans are committed to the path of development. This is evidenced by the millions of dollars remitted by its diaspora citizens, who continue to sustain the state and its people.
Yes, many young Eritreans have sought greener pastures abroad, but this is a situation common to many poorer African and, indeed nowadays, European countries, where better work opportunities are presented far from home.
The battle for development remains crucial for Eritrea’s future. The question is, are potential partners prepared to stay the course and invest in Eritrea’s future infrastructure?
It’s about time the distinct and painful story of Eritrea reaches the eyes and ears of Africans, and beyond.