Eritrean leader says he will urge Clinton, Congress not to abandon Africa

January 22, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The president of Eritrea, one of Africa's newest nations, has come here to urge the Clinton administration and Congress not to let the bitter experience of Somalia lead the United States to withdraw from the continent's affairs.

The Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, said in an interview that when he meets President Clinton on Feb. 1 he will tell him, "It's an obligation for the United States to have a major role in Africa."

Mr. Isaias heads one of the world's newest democracies, a country of 3.5 million people on the Horn of Africa that became independent in May 1993 after winning a 30-year war for independence against Ethiopia. He said that African nations need the United States' diplomatic clout and economic aid to help them achieve peace, democracy and better living standards.

The Clinton administration gives high marks to Mr. Isaias for joining other leaders in the region in supporting diplomatic efforts to end civil wars in Somalia and the Sudan.

Mr. Isaias, 47, said he feared that many Americans wanted the United States to play a minimal role in Africa after its mission in Somalia took a disastrous turn on Oct. 3, 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died there in a firefight.

The United States originally sent troops to enable relief groups to distribute food throughout the war-torn country, but they became embroiled in fighting when their mission changed to hunting down Somali militia commanders.

"The United States' role in Somalia was welcomed by the region, but then something went wrong," Mr. Isaias said. "But it's wrong for people to say that because of that, the United States has no role to play in that part of Africa. One particular incident should not be decisive about what America's role should be."

Mr. Isaias voiced alarm at the push by many Republicans lawmakers to slash economic aid to Africa and to eliminate the $800 million Development Fund for Africa.

"When you consider that Israel receives $3 billion in aid and that Egypt receives $2 billion, $800 million in aid for the 600 million people of Africa is not a very large amount," he said. "Slashing aid to Africa will hurt many Africans, but is it going to solve America's economic problems?"

Mr. Isaias insisted, however, that he had not come to the United States with his hand out.

"Our country was devastated by 30 years of war," he said of Eritrea, once the northernmost province of Ethiopia. "We recognize that the solution to our problems will not come from foreign aid. But we need foreign aid temporarily until we can stand on our own feet." The United States is set to give about $22 million in aid to Eritrea this year, about half of which will be emergency food relief aimed at tiding the country over until it rebounds from a lengthy drought.

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