Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam from Eritrea is one of only a handful of African female Permanent Representatives of their countries to the UN in New York. In Africa Renewal’s series profiling the African women representing their countries at UN Headquarters, she spoke with Zipporah Musau about her priorities, the challenges so far and why she is keen on bringing a fresh narrative of her country to the world. Here are excerpts:
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I consider myself lucky. I'm a mother of three, happily married for 30 years and doing my very best for my country as its Permanent Representative at the UN.
I’ve lived and worked in the diaspora for 40 years. I’m the first female ambassador in Eritrea to be appointed from the diaspora. Eritrea is a young country [it became a de facto state on 24 May 1991 and legally recognized on 24 May 1993] so, it makes sense that we're still building our service personnel from the diaspora.
I worked in corporate America before this appointment. I also did a lot of community organizing before I came here - women's groups, youth groups. I did a lot of writing too, including research papers, articles, newspaper columns and what have you, in the last 20 years.
So, you have a have a passion for women and youth?
Yes. Eritrean women participated in the war for independence. Women played a very active role among the Eritrean diaspora. I am a product of that diaspora. My mother was in the movement, I was in the movement and everybody in my family. So, it came naturally for me. Beyond Eritrea, we worked with community organizations and other diaspora communities, and mostly with women to empower each other and work together because women's voices resonate better.
How has your journey in this position been so far?
I was appointed in September 2019 and within my first six months in office, COVID-19 came. I was already hitting the ground running, trying to find out more about the UN system, and getting people here to know more about Eritrea. For the last 20 years Eritrea has been at war and under sanctions, so we didn’t get a chance to build good relationships. Now that the war has ended, for me, it is a great time to be here.
My plan was to come here and get a fresh start, a fresh narrative on Eritrea and a fresh outlook on things. I wanted to find out how best we can work together with the UN and also how we can make a contribution to the discussions here at the UN headquarters, especially those about our region, and then of course, representing my country in the various fora and platforms.
COVID-19 did not allow a lot of that to happen, but it hasn't stopped me and that's one of the things that women can do. We ‘evolve’ in a crisis and quickly find other ways of getting things done. I've managed to continue doing what I had started doing during my visits, getting to know people and introducing Eritrea.
What would you consider your three top achievements?
The first one was to get to know my office, its capacity and limitation, vis a vis the expectations and then analyzing and making assessments on what needs to be done. The second thing I did was networking – I managed to meet a total of 79 Permanent Representative of different countries to the UN before COVID-19 came. Through these meetings, Eritrea became very visible, very quickly. I also wanted to know how the other missions work and what their expectations are of the UN. I also got to meet a couple of UN officials, including the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed.
One advantage for me was when I first came here, I was invited immediately to the women ambassadors’ group that had 52 members then. Then I also got to meet the Africa group of ambassadors, both male and female, who became my new family here, and guided me through some of the things we do here.
And then, of course, I got to find out more about the UN system. I’m getting to learn about the different UN departments, funds and programmes. Because of COVID-19, I haven't gotten a chance to really sit down with all of them.
Currently of African countries, only Angola, Chad, Eritrea, Rwanda and South Africa have women serving as their country’s Permanent Representatives. Madagascar also has a woman serving as the Chargée d’affaires a.i. Why do you think there a few African women Permanent Representatives here and what can be done?
Well, when we come here as women and as Africans, we are equal to the men here. Our countries send us here to get the job done - they don't say, because you're a woman, our expectations are this much, or because you're a man these are our expectations. Expectations for both men and women ambassadors are the same, as with any other profession.
On why we are few?
If we don't cultivate our women or motivate them, if we don't appoint women in other capacities in our own countries and give them opportunities, then positions like this one will continue to be elusive. Luckily for me, we have a feminist president who believes in giving women opportunities and he gives you the chance to learn and become the best in your profession.
What would you consider the most challenging part of your job?
COVID-19 is the biggest challenge right now because it disrupted everything. Despite that, I'm trying to find a niche for Eritrea. I don't think we should be pigeonholed to say Eritrea only participates in this group or that group, or is aligned solely with this side or that side. And I'm willing to speak to anyone and everyone to get my message about Eritrea across. You have to be bold to go and say “This is what I want”.
Would you consider staying non-aligned a challenge?
It's a challenge but I know Eritrea’s positions on many of the issues. But I also believe in listening to other people, other ideas and opinions. If you want the system and this multilateralism to work for everybody, you're going to have give-and-take. So, these resolutions that come up almost on a daily basis, you know, there's some issues that I tell them, “That's fits exactly with Eritrea’s national interests”. And there's some of them that have nothing to do with Eritrea but are important and we will participate.
How do you deal with the challenges?
Well, I have the support system here - my staff, some who have been here for many years, and know the ins and outs of the system. So, if I have questions, they are my go-to people first. And then I have my peers, the experienced diplomats who know a little bit more about the issues here, the nuances, and the alignments.
What are your top priorities going forward?
Eritrea’s engagement with the UN wasn't to the level that I want it to be because we were embroiled in sanctions for nine years, and we've had the border demarcation issue going on for almost 20 years. Now that these have been resolved, my priority will be rebuilding relationships, especially in the Horn of Africa, and then Africa.
The second priority for me, would be to find utility in this UN. What areas can we benefit in? Whether it is technical expertise, youth, education, healthcare, the response to COVID-19 and the issue of vaccines for Africa.
And then there is strengthening Africa’s position here, working closely with the new Under-Secretary-General for the OSAA [the Office of the Special Advisor on Africa, Ms. Cristina Duarte], and just elevating the voice of Africans here at the UN.
We will start by building our internal capacity, and then building meaningful partnerships - these relationships have to be about partnerships, not you being the donor, me being the recipient, carrots and sticks, then no carrots if you don’t do this. Those kinds of relationships for Africa have to stop. We have done that for the last 50 years and it's not working for us. In terms of resources, we have oil, we have gold, we have everything. We should position ourselves as givers. That’s what we are.
What is your country doing during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people respond and recover better?
Well, it's been difficult. Eritrea went into total lockdown, including closing the borders. In Eritrea, over the last 30 years, and even during the war for independence, we established a very networked society, where information can travel from the capital city Asmara, to the other side of Eritrea in about 20 minutes. So, delivery of information on COVID-19 protocols was easy - the social distancing, wearing masks, PPEs, etc. Also, there was repositioning and retooling of factories to make masks, instead of the usual shirts and gowns, and uniforms.
What about the people?
The government delivered food to the people. It used youth organizations all over the country to deliver hand sanitizers, masks and food to elderly people and those who couldn't leave their homes.
About 70% of the country’s population are farmers, which became an advantage when it came to social distancing. Everyone retreated to their farms and there was no coming into close contact with anyone else. This has helped to keep the number of COVID-19 infections in Eritrea low. This week [as of 4th February 2021] the numbers stand at 2,000 infections and 7 deaths. For a long time, we had zero deaths.
The Eritrean diaspora also played a key role in raising money to help fight COVID-19. Those in the US, Canada and Europe raised $5 – 6 million, others about $3 million. I tell my colleagues here; you have to strengthen your diaspora. We have about 75,000 Eritreans here in the US, maybe a similar number between Europe and Canada. When you add all the other countries, it comes to around 200,000.
What about those in the informal sector?
I know the informal sector has been affected because those are the people who rely on daily wages - the coffee shops, the markets, etc. The government has safety nets, such as subsidies, to help them with the basics.
We've managed because when the world isolated Eritrea for the last 20 years, we spent time looking inwards and strengthening our internal capacity. So, when COVID-19 came, we just went back to what we were doing in those 20 years - taking care of our own, and relying on our own people, including the diaspora to maintain the day-to-day life in the country.
You mentioned subsidies. Were they meant for the farmers only?
Subsidies were for the whole population - anyone that needed food and other basic groceries. We have subsidized grocery stores throughout the country where food stuff is sold at a lower price than that in the market. This enabled people to go pick up basic necessities close to their homes. For the elderly, the food stuffs delivered to their homes by the youth.
When will you open up for business?
We are starting to open up a little bit, but certainly not for international travel. I haven't been home yet. Some businesses have started opening up now, but with some restrictions including curfews. In Asmara, and the rest of Eritrea, the weather is great for outdoor activities. So, some of our restaurants are able to have outdoor seating. Some of the small mom-and-pop operations are also beginning to open up but very carefully.
Interestingly, for the farmers, life went on, it didn't stop. We have a special cooperatives programme in Eritrea for small-scale farmers, so they continued to farm. In the big cities, we have not opened up churches or mosques yet, only a few celebrations have been done.
Are there plans like to give loans to small-scale business people, those who have been really affected economically?
Some of the things we did before include micro-credit programmes for business owners, single mothers, the women who are doing small-scale hand weaving and other industries. We have to think outside of the box of some other ways of empowering these informal sector workers so that they can survive the next shock.
But at this point in Eritrea’s development, I don't think we were the hardest hit because we're not that big in exporting. For us, tourism is our building-back industry and blue economy is the way to go in the future. In building back, we will take advantage of what we've already done before, but strengthen it for the next big shock. We need to empower our women and youth, the education sector, and build our internal capacity.
Trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) began on 1st January this year. How is Eritrea embracing that? Are you ready to trade?
At this point in time, in Eritrea is not in any position to contribute much. We don't have a manufacturing industry. We don't have the link roads, strong internet connection, or the things that would make it conducive for that kind of grand scheme. I think for us we're more pragmatic. We shall start small in the region and work from there to the rest of Africa.
Would your farmers not want to export their produce?
Yes, we do have farmers and they produce the best fruits and food. But we’re focusing on being food secure first so we can stop being dependent on other countries for food. We also wanted to be water secure, harvesting every single drop of rain even though our rains are sporadic. For the past 10 to 15 years, we've been building big and small dams, and harvesting water and I can say Eritrea is now water secure.
Eritrea is completely water secure?
Yes, we are water secure. We have enough water for our people. Now we are ready to go to the next step, which is to industrialize farming. We have small mom-and-pop farms [family farms] all over the place. We already have cooperatives, so now we need to expand them and try to build the farming sector to where it needs to be and be ready even to export.
Finally, what is your message to the women in Africa and to the youth?
For the women of Africa, this is your best time.
This is a moment when everybody, not just Africans, is realizing that there is a lot to Africa. Other narratives had blinded us to believe that the grass was greener on the other side, and that the opportunities were out there. But here you have a fresh Africa, waiting to be built, waiting for your creativity, your ingenuity.
How much greater is it for Africans to say, I did this, I built this?
To the youth, this is your future, take it before someone else does.