Drs Tsegezab Gebregergis, March 24 2016
I have raised the question “The discovery of a new wealth: will it be a curse or blessing for Eritrea?” because Eritrea is classified as a country fast becoming resource-rich. Traditionally, economists believed that to be endowed with natural resources was an unqualified blessing for a nation. However, since World War Two, and especially after the Cold War, evidence against this belief started growing by leaps and bounds as many resource-rich countries grew very slowly and economists started to talk about the curse of natural resources. There is indeed a large body of empirical literature today which supports the thesis that the abundance of natural resources is a curse rather than a blessing to the country owning them.
We therefore need to understand and explain when natural resources are a blessing and when they become a curse. On my part, I tend to believe, supported by empirical literature, that the defining aspect of whether or not natural resources are a curse or a blessing for a country is the existence or non-existence of good institutions.
The objective aim of this article is therefore to show that, unless the democratic aspiration of the Eritrean people to live under the rule of law is first fully implemented and realised, the mere discovery or possession of strategic minerals by our country does not necessarily lead to the improvement of the life conditions of our people or promote internal peace, unity and security. Later, I will expound more on this.
The Rationale for the Establishment of the Eritrean State
Eritrea was freed from Ethiopian occupation through the heroic efforts of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in May 1991. With the establishment of the new Eritrean state making the top priority the institution of a democratically elected and accountable government, Eritreans allowed the EPLF Central Committee to take over the direct management of Eritrea in May 1993. Eventually the EPLF was replaced by the PFDJ in 1994. Consequently, Eritrea’s lethal mistake was committed with the establishment of the new Eritrean state.
One of the rationales for the historic establishment of the Eritrean state was to ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Eritrea and the security of its people, to provide basic services and to improve conditions for the Eritrean people.
However, in all these pivotal societal matters, the PFDJ-run Eritrean state has failed miserably to fulfil its promises and obligations. In fact, since Eritrea came under PFDJ rule, even the physical size of the country has been significantly reduced. For the PFDJ leader has compromised with the enemies of Eritrea and its people to let them illegally alter the internationally binding agreement on the sanctity of the colonial borders, signed by African heads of state in Cairo in 1964.
What is more, all the economic and social indicators clearly show that Eritrea and its people under PFDJ rule have been systematically impoverished and even the unity of the people has been jeopardised. In other words, Eritrea is being destroyed piece by piece economically, politically and socially.
All these things are happening despite the fact that Eritrea has discovered massive gold reserves of high quality, oil and gas reserves in commercial quantities, phosphates, nickel and other strategic and non-strategic underground minerals. By strategic minerals, I mean those which are in high demand by the developed Western nations for military, industrial or commercial purposes.
Democratic Governance and Accountability
The major problem in Eritrea emanates from the total absence of democratic governance and accountability, i.e., the utter lack of good and accountable institutions. Indeed, unless a democratic and accountable system of government is first put in place, the discovery of oil, gold and other minerals and the setting up of extraction industries will not bring any blessings for Eritrea.
In other words, the discovery of gold and other hard currency-earning minerals, apart from prolonging the life cycle of dictatorship in Eritrea, has no practical use or social utility/benefit for Eritrea and its people (the extractive industries are essentially those engaged with the physical extraction of metals and minerals from the bottom of the earth in order to meet the ever growing demand for raw materials from Western industries).
Thus, the discovery of gold and other minerals without good governance, democracy and accountability is indeed a curse rather than blessing for Eritrea. It is a curse because, in the absence of accountability, a free and independent judicial system and a free press, it promotes rampant corruption and the proliferation of a network of otherwise unproductive spies and informers engaged in spying on their own people. And corruption is the antithesis of an all-round healthy economy and good social development.
The bitter experience of the Eritrean people in the last two decades under dictatorial PFDJ rule and the political reality prevailing in the country clearly show that political independence without fundamental freedom, democracy, openness and accountability is as depressing as summer without sunshine. The absence of these fundamental human freedoms has the same devastating effect on society as the lack of oxygen has on living beings.
As already stated, the colossal economic and societal destruction taking place in Eritrea is incalculable and, unless Eritreans are capable of stopping it now, the consequences will be very alarming.
In other words, unless a miracle happens, in the form of some kind of divine intervention to shorten the life of the PFDJ government, then despite the discovery of new oil- and gold-based wealth, Eritrea and its people will face a long, cold and dark political and economic winter unparalleled in the nation’s history.
My straightforward piece of advice to the internal Eritrean forces that espouse democratic change is therefore to wake up and take practical measures rather than wait for a divine miracle to happen. In any case, miracles do not happen by themselves; it is an organised people who make miracles happen, as the Eritrean people have shown during the struggle for independence against Ethiopia’s colonial subjugation of Eritrea.
After all is said and done, in Eritrea today, under the conditions of an absolutist one-man rule and a crony government, the new wealth derived from the abundance of natural resources will only embolden and prolong dictatorial rule, promote corruption, greed and embezzlement and concentrate wealth in the hands of a small number of families allied with the Eritrean dictator, while creating universal poverty in the ranks of the population. In other words, the new wealth will not be a blessing for Eritrea and its people, but it will definitely be a curse.