Thursday, September 06, 2007

Millennial Opportunities:Times Interview with Meles Zenawi,9171,1659420,00.html

Thursday, Sep. 06, 2007

Interview: Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi


TIME: Many people outside Africa know Ethiopia
primarily from television reports of the famine in
1984 and 1985.

Meles: That was clearly part of our reality. We cannot
run away from it. Ethiopia is in the midst of a
profound transformation. Most analysts agree that our
growth has been exceptionally pro-poor. The political
transformation is still a work in progress.

There have been quite a few bumps on the road. But in the end,
the movement has been inexorably in the right
direction towards permanently establishing democratic
institutions, towards further consolidation of a
democratic culture and towards further stabilization.
On the eve of the millennium, we are beginning to see
the impact of the start of the transformation of the

TIME: What happens in Ethiopia has an impact well
beyond its borders. Why?

Meles: After Nigeria, we are the second biggest black
African nation. We are the headquarters of the African
Union. We are the only African country that has never
been colonized.

This is perhaps the last surviving
African civilization. We have our own script. We have
our own calendar. We represent the greatness of
Africa's past. We also represent the worst of Africa's
present, in terms of poverty. It is the best and the
worst of African reality.

TIME: As you say, democracy is a destination rather
than a present reality.

Meles: While all democratic systems are works in
progress, ours started rather late and therefore has a
longer distance to cover. But democratic
transformation for us is not mimicking some facets of
Western governance.

The focus has been on building
institutions of democratic governance. And to do so
all the way to the grass roots. Democracy cannot be a
plaything for the capital cities. It has to infiltrate
every nook and cranny in the country, including the

TIME: There are questions about the validity of the
2005 elections which returned you to power.

Meles: Everyone, including the most ardent critics of
the government, agrees that right up to election day
the democratic elections in Ethiopia were exemplary,
by any standard. The issue arises as to whether the
counting of the vote was done in a fair and
transparent fashion. Here, there are varied

We argue that while there may have been
mistakes here and there, on the whole it was a
credible and fair count. The opposition did not agree.
So we said: 'Let's check. Let's review the counting in
the presence of foreign observers.'

We did that. After we did that, two groups of observers the African Union
and the Carter Center said that while there had been
some mistakes, the outcome of the election was
credible. The observers from the European Union did
not criticize counting per se, but they said the
environment was such that the outcome of the election
was not credible.

Their view was not shared by
practically all European governments. Every one of
them sent a congratulatory message to me.

TIME: Your government used what many consider
excessive force to quell protests about the elections.

Meles: It's very obvious now that the opposition tried
to change the outcome of the election by
unconstitutional means.

We felt we had to clamp down.
We detained them and we took them to court. In the
process, many people died, including policemen. Many
of our friends feel that we overreacted. We feel we
did not.

There is room for criticism nevertheless it
does not change the fact that this process was a
forward move towards democracy and not a reversal.
Recent developments have simply reinforced that. The
leaders of the opposition have realized they made a
mistake. And they asked for a pardon, and the
government has pardoned them all.

TIME: Your image as a role model for African leaders
has been tarnished by the perception that your
government is not concerned with human rights.

Meles: As a person, I have never been discourteous or
nasty to anybody. I may have stood my ground a bit too
directly, a bit too firmly, and I believe I have over
a number of years learned to be a little less direct.
And I have certain misgivings about these human rights
organizations and their activities.

I see fundamental structural flaws in the way they operate. The way it's
done is Mr X. says he is a victim of human rights
violations. He reports that to an organization here or
abroad. The organization has no means to verify the
facts, but prints the allegations as allegations.
Those who read those allegations do not read them as
allegations they read them as facts.

The other flaw is this attitude of holier than thou. Now, it is simply
impossible for foreign advocates of human rights to
ensure there is respect for human rights on the basis
that there is Big Brother out there watching everyone.
It has to come from inside. If people need a Big
Brother, then by that very fact there is no democracy.

TIME: There are specific allegations that there have
been human rights abuses in the Ogaden region. How do
you answer these?

Meles: We are supposed to have burned villages. I can
tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know
not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused
of dislocating thousands of people from their villages
and keeping them in camps.

Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence. Nobody. And I can tell you there
are many intelligence organizations in the Horn of
Africa. This is a very volatile area, and
understandably there are much such organizations, and
none of them have come up with any evidence. The
reason is very simple.

We know how insurgencies succeed and how they fail. And we have experience of
counter-insurgency, from when we were on the receiving
end. The most stupid mistake a counter-insurgency
operation can make is alienating the population. If
you alienate the population, you're finished. We are
not going to make that mistake.

We may not have been the most evangelical of human rights advocates in the
world, but we are not stupid either. That is why we
have not made those blunders and we will never make
those blunders.

TIME: And your view is that the Ogaden National
Liberation Front is a threat?

Meles: Absolutely. It's not a theoretical threat. They
killed more than 70 people just a few months ago in a
camp all of them civilians. It is a real threat. And
it has to be curtailed.

TIME: Parts of the U.S. seem to take a different view
of the ONLF. Your security forces detained four
American personnel because they were dealing with the
ONLF in some way, or talking to them or using them to
help them operate in Somalia.

Meles: As far as we know, these personalities did not
have official sanction to do that what they were
doing. They were violating their own code of conduct.
That is why they were stopped.

We have no proof that
they were in contact with the ONLF but there are
indications that they might be moving in that
direction. We stopped it from happening before it

We consider the ONLF a terrorist organization. Now the U.S. is more focused on
international terrorism. The ONLF does not have an
international dimension to its terrorist activities.
So therefore there is a slight divergence of

TIME: The U.S. sets great store by its good relations
with Ethiopia. Why?

Meles: We are African and a critical part of Africa.
But we are close to the Middle East. And the three
major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism came
to Ethiopia much earlier than much of Europe.

So the Middle Eastern influence has historically been huge.
And in view of the fact that much of the Middle East
is currently in turmoil, the Gulf in particular, with
all sorts of terrorist activities, we are susceptible
to that influence too.

But we are in the middle of Africa, and the challenges to democracy, poverty and
development are central to our survival. This is a
country of almost 80 million now, diverse cultures and
language. So in a way, Ethiopia is a melting pot, a
gateway between Africa and the Middle East.

TIME: How would you describe relations with the US?

Meles: Excellent.

TIME: Some people say you are America 's poodle.

Meles: Our objective is to safeguard Ethiopia's
interests. Ethiopia's interests at the moment fully
coincide with America's security interests in the
region, and therefore it's perfectly normal for us to
work very closely with the U.S. We have not denied the
fact that we are working very closely with the U.S.

We have every reason to do so. We are not ashamed of it.
If that makes us a poodle, if protecting one's
national interest means being a poodle, then so be it,
that's ok. But that's not my definition of a poodle.

TIME: The U.S. warned against Ethiopia's invasion of
Somalia but you went ahead. Was the invasion a

Meles: It's been a tremendous success. Before we
intervened, about a year ago now, the Transitional
Federal Government (TFG) were on the verge of collapse
and the Islamic Courts Union were on the verge of
taking complete and full control of Somalia. That is
no longer on the cards. That is a tremendous change.

TIME: Why could you not accept the Islamic Courts
Union taking charge in Somalia?

Meles: Because these groups had declared jihad on us.
And the TFG also gave us the legal ground for
intervening by inviting us to come in. Now is Somalia
stable yet? No, it is not, and it is not going to be
absolutely tranquil any time soon. But the level of
violence has dramatically gone down.

TIME: What do you make of the assessment that the
invasion radicalized Somali nationalism into a much
more dangerous, religion-inspired insurgency, and with
Eritrea funding and supporting and there being links
to those have already have a track record in
international terror, that there is a monster being
created here?

Meles: If there is any monster now, it's been there
for quite some time. What we tried to do was put it
back in its cage. These groups had ties with al-Qaeda
long before we intervened. The terrorist outrages in
Kenya and Tanzania [the U.S. embassy bombings in 1998]
were launched from Somalia. Somalia was a very well
known key hideout for key leaders of al-Qaeda in the

When the Islamic Courts took over, they
immediately put in a place a quasi-Taliban like
regime. Now that was also not started by our
intervention. What we have done is isolate the
hardcore of the Taliban we did not create it and by
doing that we believe we have radically weakened it.

That does not mean there is no threat of terrorism
now. There are too many forces around who are
interested in terrorism for that to be the case
including Eritrea. But the sort of mass upsurge in
Talibanization that was occurring in Somalia has been

TIME: We have information of a larger and more
extensive American operation in Somalia than has
previously been disclosed, of around 60 American
Marines on the ground, of helicopters operating from
the U.S. carrier Eisenhower, of several days of
bombardment conducted jointly by Ethiopian and
American planes. What can you tell me about that

Meles: Since it is in the past now, I can be very
frank. The American military involvement started after
the Islamic Courts were defeated, and they gathered
around the wooded area in the southern part of Somalia
on the border with Kenya.

At the stage, some US air assets were used for bombing operations on two
occasions. U.S. air assets were used for intelligence
purposes throughout. And they did share quite a lot of
information with us. There may have been a few
American soldiers on the ground, helping with
intelligence. But other than these two air raids,
there has not been any other U.S. air raid in southern
Somalia before or after that operation.

There has been some military operation in Puntland that was a
seaborne operation, and it was done without any
coordination with our forces. They have been helpful
with intelligence throughout the operation, but that
is not new, we share information on security threats.

TIME: African leaders often prove reluctant to leave
office, but you've been hinting that you may not stand

Meles: I have three more years to go.

TIME: And then you will step down?

Meles: And then the process will kick in.

TIME: Why would you stand aside?

Meles: I have been around for quite a long time. Time
to start thinking about doing new things.

TIME: Won't you leave a bit of a vacuum?

Meles: No. Politics here is not personality based. It
is ideologically driven and organization based. That's
part of its strength.

In our case with the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democracy Front (E.P.R.D.F.)
it's a movement with very well articulated positions.
And these things do not change because of
personalities. I have been in the minority position
when issues of war and peace were at stake. And I have
found myself implementing a majority position that I
completely and utterly disagree with.

TIME: Such as?

Meles: Such as the war with Eritrea. There were a
number of instances where I found myself in a minority
and implementing decisions that I was uncomfortable

TIME: You have acquired the reputation as an abrasive
leader and author of a confrontational foreign policy.
Do you disagree with that view?

Meles: I probably fail to beat about the bush. But I
would suggest that when and where I have been direct,
I have tried to be respectful.

In policy we have not been confrontational. We have always sought the
peaceful way out, even when we are on the receiving
end of aggression. With Eritrea, it was very obvious
that Eritrea invaded our country. And we sought a
peaceful way out.

The Americans and the Rwandans came up with a peaceful option. We accepted that. The
Eritreans did not. At some stage I felt we could have
gone a bit further in terms of being accommodative.
But we were never aggressive, whether in Somalia or
Eritrea. Sometimes, when we disagree, we say so with
perhaps a little extra force in it. That might be

TIME: What keeps you awake at night?

Meles: It has always been fear — fear that this great
nation, which was great 1,000 years ago but then
embarked on a downward spiral for 1,000 years, and
reached its nadir when millions of people were
starving and dying, may be on the verge of total

Now it's not a fear of collapse, I believe
we are beyond that. It's the fear that the light which
is beginning to flicker, the light of a renewal, an
Ethiopian renaissance, that this light might be dimmed
by some bloody mistake by someone, somewhere.

This [renaissance] is still fragile, a few shoots [which]
may need time to be more robust. At the moment, it is
fear born out of hope that this new millennium will be
as good as the first one and not as bad as the second


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