Hiruy Tedla Bairu, the son of Eritrea's first leader under the federation with Ethiopia, is the new secretary-general of the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF), an Eritrean opposition coalition made up of 14 different groups. The AENF has just held a conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and vowed to remove Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki.
QUESTION: How do you aim to remove President Isayas?
ANSWER: In fact the work has been done by Isayas himself because he has made himself almost totally unpopular within the country...The only thing that was missing was an alternative leadership and this is what we are trying to manage at our congress. The most important thing for us is to really re-educate the people as soon as possible via the medium of powerful radio beamed at Asmara and other towns in all the languages. Also, to use the radio as a means of political conversation with the army and the security services, showing them where the country is heading and that they should feel responsible at least for the short-term destiny of their country. Then the second thing is to mobilise Eritreans in the diaspora and involve them in a national conference so that an exiled parliament and eventually an exiled transitional government would be put up, so that whenever a collapse takes place then a unified transitional government can replace it.
Q: If you we brought in under this scenario when would you hold elections?
A: I think about one month or two months after that. We would establish a transitional government and then move towards constitutional, electoral commissions and party laws. After that we would move immediately towards total empowerment of the people.
Q: Who is backing you?
A: So far it is only a promise. As usual we rely on our people, but after that we rely on our neighbours and also we have similar interests. He [Isayas] irritates their internal political stability if nothing else. And we want him out so at least our interests seem to coincide.
Q: Already working so closely with your neighbours has caused dissent within your own group. Does working with Ethiopia or Sudan discredit your organisation?
A: When the [border] war was going on it would not have been politically correct. But now that the border thing has been settled, people are moving towards normalisation and I think our relationship might contribute towards that.
Q: What support do you have from the international community?
A: The big thing is to project our case to the United States of course – that would be a good thing to do and then the European Union, that is also a very important player. But it can only be done via the good offices of our neighbours because they have already established relations, so they will help us to make the rounds of the embassies and they might call a conference if diplomats are close, things like that.
Q: Could force be involved?
A: What we are preparing are camps where dissenters, military dissenters, will be welcome. Once they know the opposition will welcome them, an avalanche might take place within the armed forces. Most probably they will be based in some parts of Eritrea that are contiguous with the Sudan and it is not unthinkable to think the same can be done also on the Eritrean and Ethiopian border. It can be done, but mainly Sudan and Eritrea. We wouldn’t use force to do that...
If push came to shove, we would use force for defensive purposes. [But] I would rather not use force to replace Isayas because that would be anti-diplomatic and that would be extremely damaging, because that would involve some aspect of terrorism wouldn’t it, and we are committed against that.
Q: Where is the money coming from to support your organisation?
A: The money has not started flowing yet. The coffers are dry. I think the three neighbours - Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen - will provide the initial capital and the Eritreans will help by contributing, let's say, one percent of their income, a given salary. We are looking for between US $15 to US $20 million to organise the institutions to replace the current system.
Q: You have been an organisation for three years now with little impact. What is new now?
A: There was no tight organ – now we have reorganised it. The leadership of all these organisations is united now and they are professional in the sense that they will involve themselves in the struggle without recourse to their separate political constituents. So that is the major step really.
Q: The Eritrean government dismisses your claims. Why should the international community take you seriously?
A: The wise thing to do now is not to take us seriously in the military sense. But politically we have a few surprises for everybody... Opposition forces have not been taken seriously.
Sovereignty, nation-to-nation relationships, government to government relationships had rendered in many situations these organisations redundant and also because they speak with so many different voices. So people have great difficulty taking oppositions seriously. When they do however, there is always a pleasant surprise.