In August 2006, while I was working for the BBC, I received reports that aid provided to Eritrea by the European Union (EU) was being sold by the Eritrean government, and the proceeds used for government work programmes.
The European Commission’s ambassador to Eritrea, Geert Heikens, explained in a BBC interview that he had attempted to discuss this abuse with the authorities, but to no avail. He said he had written endless letters to the government, but had received no reply.
The ambassador pointed out that Eritrea was not a democracy and this kind of behaviour was symptomatic of its lack of transparency.
Ambassador Heikens was recalled by the EU and has now explained what took place, in the email below.
I found the article Martin wrote for the BBC, August 2006, about the EC food aid for Eritrea. In this email I will try to reconstruct the events based upon my memories.
In 2005 the EC donated for an amount of 3 million Euros food aid to Eritrea. The ship delivered the wheat in 2005 in the harbour or Massawa. See photo enclosed.
In the agreement between the EC and Eritrea it was stated that the aid should be made available freely to a target group to be agreed between the EU and Eritrea. Examples of target groups were e.g. children, nursing mothers, elderly persons. The food was stored in warehouses in Eritrea, most of it, if not all, in Asmara.
After almost a year the food aid was still in warehouses, while one could see hungry people in the streets of Asmara. Requests to talk and agree upon the target group remained unanswered.
At a morning, May – June 2006 I was informed that bags with the EU logo containing our food aid were sold in the market, in the streets of Asmara and perhaps also in other places. My wife who walked every morning with a friend and our dog through Asmara discovered the bags.
I contacted and reported this discovery to HQ in Brussels. After consultations I contacted the Eritrean government, the EU National Authorising Officer (NAO), the official counterpart for EU development aid with the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific), Dr Woldai.
However, I did not get an answer. Requests for a meeting were neither answered.
At a certain moment Martin heard from our problems and asked for a telephone interview. I agreed and early August I believe we spoke by telephone and I explained the situation and the history. When the subject EU Food Aid was finished Martin asked me if he could ask some questions on the situation in Eritrea. I agreed.
Without remembering the whole and exact exchanges I remember I said something like …… well however you look at the situation, you cannot call it a democracy, it is a dictatorship under President Issaias. For the exact wording see the article of Martin.
That evening we, Rita and I, were watching BBC world service and in the moving bottom line we could read the text EC ambassador calls Issaias a dictator, or a text with similar meaning.
A few days later I was called for a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a meeting with the NAO, minister of national development, Dr Woldai.
I acknowledged that I have used the words as written in the article. The MFA just took note of what I said. With the NAO the exchanges evolved into a discussion about democracy.
In detail I reported both meetings to Brussels HQ, both DG Development and DG AIDCO.
After some exchanges Brussels decided to call me back for consultations. In Brussels we had a long exchange after which it was decided to call me back, ending my assignment to Eritrea and offer me another posting.
I did not return to Asmara. Rita, whose diplomatic visa was expired, received a tourist visa and could go back to Asmara in December 2006 for a few days to arrange the removal. She could say farewell to the staff of the EU Delegation and some colleagues and friends and read a message from me for the staff of the Delegation.