News of Eritrea

Written and complied by Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Marcos 63–65)

 Where’s President Isaias?

As any regular watcher of Eritrean state TV (and is there any other kind in Asmara?) knows, President Isaias Afwerki is a staple on the evening news. Omnipresent you might say: receiving guests, inspecting fisheries or farms, presiding over cabinet meetings. Always dapper and informal, clad in sandals and a hang-out shirt, Isaias is a TV performer of considerable charm well endowed with the common touch. He’d be the perfect guest on the “Today” show.  But suddenly in April he disappeared from the TV and from seemingly all other events. He was last reported seen receiving the credentials of the South African Ambassador on March 28th. Then nothing.

Eritrea being a small country, rumors —some wild, some plausible — soon began to circulate. Was he ill? Isaias is said to have liver problems, not helped, it is said, by his drinking. During 2011, he visited Qatar at least seven times, supposedly for medical attention. Was there a crisis between the military and civilian ranks of the government?  Stories of a stormy meeting between Isaias and his top military people began making the rounds, becoming more elaborate and unbelievable with every telling. Was he hiding in some bunker?

The rumors became so heated that when the BBC from London called the Minister of Information, Ali Abdu, he took the call and felt compelled to refute the rumors and declare that the President was in “robust health.”

Then exactly 30 days after he disappeared, Isaias reappeared on TV, all smiles.   Clad in his familiar short-sleeved shirt, blue pants and sandals, the President looked relaxed and said that, well, gosh, he had been out of the country for some time and then in the last week traveling in the remote parts of the country. You know, “the edges of Gash Barka [in Western Eritrea], to Afabet, Gulbub, Massawa, and had breakfast in Gahtelai.”  When he returned to Asmara, he told the TV audience, his wife Saba told him there was a lot of “news.”  Well, yes, like, where was the president?  He finally paid attention. “I don’t follow the internet and I don’t have a mobile phone,” he said, so how was he to know?  Besides why should the President be on TV every night, he told the TV interviewer who was respectfully dressed in a suit.

But no, he was not ill. Said Isaias: “I have no sickness, I am healthy, but because the rumors are repeated . . . but you can’t chase the wind [or] follow those who are mentally deranged [and spread news] . . . and people should wise up.  If you ask me, ‘are you sick?’ I would say, my illness is in the mental derangement of others.”

So for 30 minutes the president talked about everything, including castigating the news media and lecturing on the evils of advertising. A classic, brainy talk with the President designed to end all the rumors. By mid-May, the President seemed to be back to his usual routine meeting with regional councils, for example. At least that’s what the press releases say. He’s not been back on TV. Rumors persist.

A Jolly, Fun World Record

All along the Asha-Golgol-Himbirti road in Asmara is a bright painting named “Polution Free World.” A world record painting, and a painting celebrating a world free of pollution. The work of 827 students under the guidance of Habtom Mihretab — everybody got a piece of the action! — the painting now holds the record as the world’s longest painting. It measures out at 7.166 km, beating the previous records of a mere 6 km, held by the collaborative work of some Mexican students. The staff of the Guinness Book of Records, which knows a bit about the biggest and longest, sent a letter to Eritrea confirming the record. It took the students 55 days to do all the painting.  Now, say the teachers, the students have to work hard to maintain the painting – and make sure the record is not surpassed.

A less distinguished world record

The Committee to Protect Journalists this month released the list of the world’s top ten most censored countries. The new world record holder: Eritrea, which displaced North Korea, long the world’s leader in press censorship. Syria and Iran rank third and fourth. “In the name of stability or development these regimes suppress independent reporting, amplify propaganda and use technology to control rather than empower their own citizens,” says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Journalists are seen as a threat and often pay high price for the reporting but because the internet and trade have made information global domestic censorship affects people every where.” The Committee says that at least 25 journalists are currently held in prison in Eritrea for violating press laws. Reporters Without Borders described Eritrea as “Africa’s biggest jail for the media.”

Profitable Gold Mines

What News Summary would be complete without a report on Eritrea’s gold mines? In brief, they are very profitable. Nevsun, the Canadian company that has the license to mine gold in Eritrea, reports that profits were up for the first quarter. Prices for gold have increased and the cost of production is down. Additionally the quality of the ore produced at its mines has been higher than expected. The company forecasts that gold production for 2012 will be 210,000 ounces [worth $333,900,000 at today’s price], higher than its original estimate of 190,000  ounces.

New airline route

Eritrean airlines announced a new route from Asmara to Cape Town South Africa. The flights on an Airbus 319, will leave Asmara four days a week. They will stop in Uganda on route.

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