Interview: Meles Zenawi

Andrew Simmons talks to Ethiopian prime minister about Somalia and the AU presence.

Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, has been in power since 1991, that’s longer than the man he helped to overthrow, the communist leader Colonel Mengistu, who was last year convicted in absentia of genocide. 

Most recently Zenawi has been in the headlines for his invasion of Somalia with the support of the United States.

Andrew Simmons went to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to interview him for Talk to Al Jazeera.

I’ll start with the issue of Somalia. You invaded nearly three months ago, you wanted to get your troops out quickly, at least two-thirds of them are still there, are you in a dangerous quagmire?

Meles Zenawi: I think we should get the facts straight  first. We did not invade Somalia. We were invited by the duly constituted government of Somalia, internationally recognised government of Somalia to assist them in averting the threat of terrorism. We did so. We are not in a quagmire now; we have completed our first phase of withdrawal, we’ll complete our second phase of withdrawal in a few days’ time and things are improving in Somalia.

You said you’ll be out in a matter of weeks and you said that two months ago and the security situation is not good. It’s patently clear that it’s not good.

Zenawi: We had plans to withdraw in weeks, but in the meantime the Africa Union decided to send troops to Somalia and we, therefore, decided to synchronise our withdrawal with the deployment of African Union troops.

Now that the first contingent of Africa Union troops is in place, we’ll go ahead with our withdrawal and as the African Union troops consolidate, we’ll completely withdraw. Of course, there are challenges in Mogadishu, but the rest of Somalia is very stable and even in the case of Mogadishu, taking into consideration the fact that this is a city of 2.2 million people, awash with guns, the type of security challenge we currently face are not all that unexpected or alarming.

Ugandans are coming under attack frequently, your own troops likewise – every other day is not an exaggeration. You’ve hardly brought peace to Somalia, have you?

Zenawi: If one assumes Somalia is equal to Mogadishu, then, of course, that could be a correct assessment, but I believe Somalia is not equal to Mogadishu. The rest of Somalia is absolutely stable and even in Mogadishu, while there are these challenges, these are not insurmountable challenges. You talk of daily attacks on the Ugandans, as far as I know, not a single Ugandan soldier has been killed since arriving in Mogadishu. That gives you an idea of the scope and scale of the attacks which understandably are exaggerated by the media.

What do you mean by that?

Zenawi: Well, people are looking for… I mean, violence is more newsworthy than anything else.  It’s in the nature of things and reports of attacks are tabulated every day, they are not fabricated but, in the process of being reported, they tend to be given more weight than they perhaps warrant.

Let’s look at this point and you’d expected more support from the international community and the African Union and that has not been forthcoming in the scale you wanted. So I’ll put to you, you fought a proxy war on behalf of the US, don’t you regret it now?

Zenawi: Well let’s get the facts straight first, we did not fight a proxy war on behalf of the United States, indeed the United States was very ambivalent about our intervention, once we intervened of course the United States and much of the international community was supportive but in the initial phase before we intervened, everybody, including the United States was warning us that we might walk into a trap and a quagmire and that we should think twice before taking steps. 

That’s the first point that I want to stress. Secondly, the African Union has been extremely helpful, it has deployed its forces within a few months – that’s much more than what the United Nations is capable of…

But there isn’t anything like the numbers committed to this operation is needed surely…

Zenawi: We have 1,500 Ugandan troops in the thick of it…

That’s nothing compared with the situation, with respect…

Zenawi: I don’t think it’s the numbers that are going to do the trick, it’s going to be the reconciliation process among the Somalis which will hopefully marginalise the terrorist elements and therefore reduce the threat they pose to manageable proportions and I think that’s going ahead.

Before moving on to that point, I’d like to just pick up on your assertion that the US were not directly involved with the run up to this war because in a leaked UN document, referred to a meeting around June 2006 between top brass military from Ethiopia and the US in which a series of options were looked at, now this has been documented now do you deny that there wasn’t active discussion about a military operation with the US, assistance and the US backing months and months before the actual hostilities took place?

Zenawi: Months and months before the actual hostilities took place … I … publicly stated that we will take military steps unless the terrorists change their ways and this public information was shared with anybody who was interested in our view not just the Americans, there was no military planning.

But the point is, do you deny that the US were not involved actively with your forces months before … you don’t deny it?

Zenawi: They were not involved at all, except in the form of sharing intelligence which we have done for years before the military intervention in Somalia.

But sharing intelligence can mean a number of things can’t it, that it can be a description of formulating options…

Zenawi: No, we planned our military operation, we executed it without the support, military support of anybody, without the financial support of anybody.

I want to pick up on the point you made about terrorism, the Islamic courts, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Islamic courts is wholly comprised of what some describe as extremists, many many moderates among them and they did bring peace to Somalia for the first time in a long time.  So how do you assess your war objectives in hindsight?

Zenawi: I agree with you that all those involved with the Islamic courts were not hardcore terrorists. Many of them were rank-and-file clan militia members, but there were hardcore terrorists in the leadership including some who were trained in Afghanistan.

Now, this assertion that they brought peace to Mogadishu, in some ways is very similar to assertions by some, that Hitler, for example, instilled, enforced peace and stability in Germany after the turmoil in the Weimar republic, but the way he did it was such that it would be obnoxious to everybody and could not  be sustained. 

That’s the same thing with the establishment of peace in Mogadishu by the jihadists. They did it by flogging women, by preventing people from going about their daily life in a normal civilised way, and it could not have ever been sustained. The peace brought about by the Taliban in Afghanistan was not sustained. The peace brought about by the Taliban in Somalia would never have been sustained.

On the issue of peace, how on earth can this be attained if you don’t involve former members of the Islamic courts in the process? You talk about reconciliation – how can that happen if you don’t bring in people from a leadership that many ordinary Somalis respected and admired?

Zenawi: Well, again, I think the facts are slightly different. The overriding political divide in Somalia is not ideological, it’s not between Islamists and non-Islamists, it’s among clans. The hardcore jihadists were hiding behind clan loyalties. 

By addressing this fundamental clan division, you incorporate, inevitably, some who are associated with the Islamic courts but who have respect within their own clans and you marginalise those extremists who have no interest in peace and who are merely hiding behind clan loyalties. 

So I believe the transitional government is willing and able to incorporate, to include anyone…anybody who has respect and support within any of the Somali clans.

Do you think then, that an ordinary Somali, their view towards Ethiopia is that you are an occupying power, how do you address the Somali public after what’s happened?

Zenawi: That is not the overwhelming opinion of the overwhelming majority of people in Somalia.

But does it have to be a majority?

Zenawi: Had it been the case, we would not have rooted out the Islamists in four days with a very limited contingent and we would have had fire burning throughout Somalia, that is not the case. 

Clearly there are people in Somalia who very strongly object to our intervention and we respect the opinion of some of them and we have no intention of staying there or remaking Somalia in our image.

We were there to support the transitional government, we have done most of the job, we are withdrawing most of our troops and as soon as we complete our job, and as soon as the African Union is firmly established in Somalia, we’ll move out completely.

When will you move out completely?

Zenawi: The second phase of our withdrawal will take place in a few days which means less than a third of the original contingent will be left in Somalia, and as soon as some of the other African Union troops begin to arrive, we’ll withdraw the remaining troops.

And what happens if it deteriorates even more at that point?

Zenawi: Well, all we can do is to try to help the Somalis resolve their own problem. We cannot resolve it on their behalf, we can only support them. If our support is not enough, then it will be very unfortunate, we are not going to be sucked in to a Somali civil war.

You are sure about that?

Zenawi: Absolutely.

I’d like to move on now to your deteriorating relations with your neighbour Eritrea. How bad are things at the moment?

Zenawi: Well, I think it would be fair to say that they are quite bad.

And for what reason?

Zenawi: I think the Eritrean government has come to the conclusion that they cannot live comfortably alongside a strong, united Ethiopia, under any government, and have come to the conclusion that they should try to weaken and perhaps dismantle Ethiopia to feel secure.

The border war ended in 2000. You refused to accept the ruling of the boundary commission. Is there any room for compromise for the sake of peace after all this time?

Zenawi: There is a misunderstanding here. We did not refuse to implement the boundary commission decision, of course we have our reservations about the decision itself, but in the end we recognise this is a judicial decision and we have said we’ll accept the decision.

We have asked for dialogue in the implementation of the decision, we have not rejected the decision itself, we have simply asked let’s implement it, but let’s implement it in a manner that can bring about lasting piece and through that.

But you didn’t accept the ruling really, I mean there are ways of describing it but you didn’t accept the ruling, did you?

Zenawi: That is not true, we said we’ll accept the decision in principle very clearly, we said that repeatedly and very clearly, what we said is having accepted the decision in principle, let’s move ahead and implement it but in order to implement it, you need to implement it in a manner that would sustain peace and let’s have engagement, dialogue that is the normal practice, it is not something that Ethiopia discovered. That’s what happened, for example, in the case of the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon, they had a decision, Nigeria had it’s reservations about the decision, they said they will accept the decision in principle but that they’d want to talk about it’s implementation. They talked for three years, they agreed and went ahead an implemented. That’s a normal thing, we are simply asking for the normal implementation process.

You’ve said in the past that it takes two to tango in relation to talks.  Now President Isais Afewerki insists you need to make the first step because of this boundary commission dispute, now for the sake of peace, the world over, leaders make a move, a grand gesture, is there nothing you can do here?

Zenawi: We did initially, as you intimated earlier on, we did reject the boundary commission’s decision in the end.  We said OK we have to make a very clear gesture and we said we’ll accept the decision, let’s just talk about implementation, we are not going to reopen the decision, we are simply going to discuss implementation and so I believe we have gone more than half way to try and encourage the Eritreans to respond in kind. They have not done so.

You started on this issue by sounding very pessimistic; do you think there’s a danger that there could be war again?

Zenawi: We have no intention of going to war with Eritrea again, we would not want to do so, I believe the Eritreans recognise that it’s in their interests to try it again and so the likelihood of war is not as high as some people think. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean there’s going to be peace, it could mean that the current status of stalemate and tension could persist for months and perhaps years.

I’m sure you’d agree that the horn of Africa is going through a very difficult time in view of your actions in Somalia and the present situation in Eritrea.

Zenawi: I don’t, I don’t agree with that. The Horn of Africa is much safer now than it was in December, in spite of the conflict in Somalia and the tension in Eritrea, the Horn of Africa is doing very well economically the bulk of the population lives in Ethiopia and Ethiopia is doing very well economically, we are going ahead with all our plans, so I don’t think … I can’t say the Horn of Africa is very stable and safe but I cannot say that it is deteriorating either.

Zenawi: What implications do you think the recent kidnapping incident in North of your country has in view of relations with Eritrea.

Zenawi: We in Ethiopia look at this not in isolation but in the context of prevision activities of the Eritrean government to try and destabilise Ethiopia. There were a spate of bombings in Addis last year, these were carried out by people recruited, supported by the Eritrean government. Recently we have caught an Eritrean agent of the Eritrean government who was involved in trying to carry out bombing activities during the African Union summit here. All of these cases are before court now and so we think this is just a continuation of involvement with terrorism that the Eritrean government unfortunately appears to be more and more immersed in.

Isn’t there a time, anytime soon, when the rhetoric has to stop and you talk with President Isais, you both fought the same enemy many years ago … Mengistu?

Zenawi: Sure, not only the rhetoric, but the tension and the problems have to come to an end, they could easily come to an end, we have offered to talk to the Eritrean government any time, any place but as I said before … it takes two to tango and we don’t have a party [sic] at the moment.

And I’d now like to address your background in terms of human rights, how would you assess your record on human rights?

Zenawi: We’ve made tremendous improvements in the human rights record so far in Ethiopia but, of course, this is not a perfect situation, it’s a work in progress.

What about the anti-government demonstrations in 2005, the lives lost, the clamp down you ordered after the elections, do you regret that?

Zenawi: I regret the deaths as you know, up to 194 civilians died, six policemen were killed, more than 70 policemen were wounded, I regret all these deaths but there was a challenge to the constitutional order in Ethiopia and that challenge had to be faced.

It changed the world’s view or many leaders in the world, their view towards you as a leader … that round of violence in your country, didn’t it?

Zenawi: I doubt whether it changed the view of world leaders, but it clearly tarnished the image of Ethiopia.

Because I have in front of me here a report from the US department of state which is very recent and it’s 23 pages on the human rights record in Ethiopia and it refers to the inquiry which was implemented after the deaths, 193 deaths in the antigovernment protests, and it highlights the fact that the chairman and vice chairman of that inquiry left the country allegedly because they had been threatened, and they had voted, the majority vote was in favour of the fact that there was undue unnecessary force used against protestors, now that decision was reversed after they left the country.

Zenawi: That is not the case.

It’s here in the department of state report. Have you read it?

Zenawi: I have not read it, but I know having read the department of state reports on human rights for over a decade now that they do tend to get things wrong, that what they write is not always the last word in the Bible.

There’s reference to wholesale, large numbers of people disappearing, people who were involved in these demonstrations, we already know that there has been levels of repression used in your country, defending it, on the basis that it was necessary but here, the suggestion is that it was wholly unnecessary and this level of repression is inexcusable.  What do you say to that?

Zenawi: Well, people are entitled to their own opinion in the case of Ethiopia, we took people to court, they’ve had their day in court we are still waiting for the verdict of the court, we detained a large number of people immediately after the attempted insurrection but we released them within weeks, the vast majority of them were released within weeks, the 100 or so were detained and taken to court. I do not believe that is a disproportionate response to a concerted effort to bring about a change in government by force.

This is Africa’s second most populated country.  It has a wealth of resources and energy, don’t you think you should be more democratic in the way you run Ethiopia?

Zenawi: We are democratic in the way we run Ethiopia, we’ve been elected by the people.

Aside from the engineering, one wouldn’t dispute the structure being democratic, it’s the policies used, officially or unofficially by your security services and your security forces against Ethiopians I’m asking about.

Zenawi: Well, as I said, there has been tremendous democratic progress in this country including the last election, everybody who observed the last election says that it was an exemplary election campaign and that things began to get wrong after the polling and contrary to what some have suggested, every government I know, including every government in Europe has clearly recognized that we did not steal the elections, that we won the last elections, not just the last but the previous elections too so the fundamental structure is democratic, is there room for improvement? I do not know of any country where there is no room for improvement.

And what about the way you run the security services and security forces which is what I asked you. Would you not agree that perhaps you need to review policies in a way?

Zenawi: Yes, we need to review our policies on a daily basis, beef up the capacity to manage such crisis without bloodshed and more effectively, and more humanely, we need to do that every day and we’ve been doing that since the day we got here to Addis.

Finally can I ask you, how would you like to be remembered in history?  You’ve been in power a long time, how would you like to be remembered in history?

Zenawi: I would like to be remembered as someone who got Ethiopia off to a good track, a democratic one, one … where Ethiopia’s proverbial poverty begins to be tackled in an effective way. I’d like to be remembered as someone who started the process.

Thank you very much Meles Zenawi for taking part in the programme.  That’s all we’ve got time for in Talk to Al Jazeera, from me Andrew Simmons, goodbye.

Source: Al Jazeera

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