Interview: Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
By Alex Perry
TIME: Many people outside Africa know
Meles: That was clearly part of our reality. We cannot run away from it.
TIME: What happens in
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 village.
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
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 happened. 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 perspective.
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?
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 success?
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 Horn. 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 curtailed.
TIME: African leaders often prove reluctant to leave office, but you've been hinting that you may not stand again?
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 with.
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 misunderstood.
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 collapse. 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 one.