Interview with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

During a tour of the Horn of Africa region, IRIN was granted an interview with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in which he discussed at length problems concerning the peace process with Eritrea. He also talked about Somalia and domestic issues. Here are the main points of the interview:

QUESTION: The peace process with Eritrea is at a stalemate now. What is the way forward?

ANSWER: The first thing that needs to be recognised is that the peace process is about the demarcation of the boundary, but it is not solely about the demarcation of the boundary. The Algiers Agreement is much wider in terms of scope. And so in my view the demarcation process has encountered some difficulties and to that extent the peace process has encountered difficulties. As to the way forward, the only way is to talk and find ways and means of peacefully resolving the problems that have cropped up.

Q: Eritrea has said categorically that it will not talk before demarcation. How do you think Eritrea can be persuaded to have a dialogue?

A: They need to know that it is the only game in town because the only alternative to talking is shooting, and shooting is not a viable option.

Q: So what you’re saying is that if Eritrea maintains its stand and won’t talk until after demarcation, then war is inevitable?

A: Well as far as we are concerned, war is not an option and as I have repeatedly indicated we are not going to initiate any conflict with anybody, let alone with Eritrea. If Eritrea does not want to talk, then either the stalemate will continue or possibly at some stage in the future it may decide to overcome the stalemate by force of arms, so if there is going to be a new conflict it will be initiated by Eritrea.

Q: At what level should that dialogue with Eritrea take place? Is it something you would conduct yourself?

A: That for me is purely a technical issue. The door should be open at all levels.

Q: The Boundary Commission has issued a legal ruling stating that Badme – around which much of this impasse centres – is in Eritrea. If Eritrea wants to take possession of Badme, how would Ethiopia react?

A: First of all we do not believe that the Boundary Commission decision is proper and legal. It is contrary to the mandate that they have been given. And the indications are that some in the Boundary Commission have become both plaintiffs and judges. And so the Boundary Commission is clearly part of the problem now. The boundary issue is to be settled peacefully and the only way to settle the problem peacefully is through dialogue.

As you know there is an Ethiopian army there [in Badme]. The only way it [taking possession] can be done is by removing the Ethiopian army and the Ethiopian administration. And if dialogue is ruled out, the only way of doing that is by force of arms and if they do so they will have decided to initiate a conflict. It did not work last time around and it will not work this time.

Q: But they are now legally entitled to Badme.

A: They are not. The demarcation process has not started. And so the legal peaceful process has not been consummated. Nobody has the right to take a short cut.

Q: You’ve called for an alternative mechanism to rule on contested parts of the border and you have said the Boundary Commission is null and void. What are you looking for?

A: There are decisions that we have already accepted of the Boundary Commission. With regards to delimitation we have already accepted the decisions. [But] we have a different interpretation to that of the Boundary Commission of the decision of April. Secondly with regards to demarcation, we have indicated that there are certain parts of the boundary where we can go ahead. Thirdly we tried to resolve the problem of those problematic areas through the Boundary Commission. In the end, we began to feel that as time went by the Commission became more and more part of the problem. We would have gone for dialogue as has been the case elsewhere in the continent, and in this regard the experience of the Nigerians and the Cameroonians is a case in point. In the case of the peace that has eluded us here, we sought the assistance of the Security Council - not because we believe the Security Council is the first port of call, but because we felt most of the other options appeared to be against it [a peaceful resolution].

The Security Council has a mandate to stop conflicts and prevent them before they erupt. There is a potential for conflict here and we feel that it is within the remit of the Security Council to have a look at it and see if they can find a way forward.

Q: So what specifically would you like to see the Security Council do?

A: Well we didn’t think it would be wise for us to dot all the i’s. We just said that there needs to be some alternative mechanism. We can come up with all sorts of alternatives. What we sought from the Security Council is a commitment to recognise that there is a threat to regional peace here, that the threat to regional peace emanates from the mismanagement of the demarcation process by the Boundary Commission and that an alternative mechanism of correcting - quote unquote - the anomalies, in which the Security Council provides the legal backing, would be a way forward. The Security Council can establish a technical committee to do so, the co-signatories of the agreement could establish a similar mechanism, I’m sure there are many alternatives that could be looked into.

Q: When the border decision was announced in April 2002 Ethiopia was very quick to say it had got everything it wanted. Why are you rejecting parts of the agreement at this moment in time?

A: They [Boundary Commission] made their decision on the basis of the established practice of the parties. If they had followed the colonial treaty, Badme would have been say 40,50,60 km within the Ethiopian boundary. They issued map coordinates which they said are provisional and not final, and that they could be adjusted by checking the facts on the ground. We assumed that the map coordinates would be adjusted, so we said their decision is acceptable to us. But at some stage in the process this Boundary Commission said the coordinates are final, they are not going to be adjusted unless the Security Council says so or unless the parties give us a new mandate. That is changing the rules of the game in the midst of the game. And that’s what created the whole problem. They said they would base their decision not on colonial treaties, but on established practice. And we assumed that they would check what the established practice on the ground was before demarcating the final boundary.

Q: Ethiopia is seen by some as the spoiler, that it’s stopping the peace process from moving forwards. Do you fear that your international credibility could be at stake?

A: Well if international credibility is based on whimsical assumptions, that could be a problem. In that case the problem is in the whimsical assumptions rather than with us. I can’t see how people could consider Ethiopia as the spoiler. We are saying publicly, repeatedly, we are not going to fire a single bullet at anybody. Fullstop.

Q: Can you foresee any eventuality according to which Ethiopia accepts that Badme is in Eritrea?

A: Had Badme legally been part of Eritrea I would have accepted it without any hesitation. But I know the place inside out, and so I know the established practice of the parties because I have been around that place for many years. And there is no way in hell that the decision on Badme which says it is part of Eritrea can be anything other than illegal and unjust.

Q: But Eritrea will never accept that Badme is in Ethiopia. It seems an intractable situation.

A: Well justice will have to prevail, fairness will have to prevail. When we were told Asmara is not Ethiopian, when we were told Assab is not Ethiopian we said - sure, if the Eritrean people think that Assab is Eritrea and not Ethiopia, that’s alright. And we went to Asmara and celebrated with the Eritreans the independence of Eritrea.

Badme is not bigger than Asmara. Badme is not more important than Assab by any stretch of the imagination. It is some godforsaken village. So it’s not about territory. According to the latest rendition of the Boundary Commission, Badme would be 800 metres inside Eritrea. What’s 800 metres in a country as big as Ethiopia? What’s 800 metres compared to what we willingly and happily gave up as Eritrea? It’s nothing. But it’s 800 metres which we are told is something it has never been, and something that it will never be. That’s the point. That’s the crux of the matter.

Q: But in the interest of peace, as you say it’s a godforsaken place – isn’t it better to let it go and move on?

A: Sure, if injustice was the mother of peace, we would do that.

Q: So for Ethiopia, what’s the bottom line?

A: The bottom line is peace, we don’t want any mess-ups here. We want to focus on our development efforts. We have no quarrel with the Eritrean people. We want to get on with our business and we hope the Eritrean people will also get on with their business. Some people have made the wrong decision, let’s not let that wrong decision mess up the peace here – that’s the bottom line.

Q: The US envoy Mr Yamamoto was here, and he’s gone to Eritrea. Did he have any concrete proposals for the two sides?

A: No he didn’t have any specific thing in mind. What he had in mind was that this should not lead to war and we agreed on that. We agreed there should be some sort of dialogue. But at this stage it would be jumping the gun to talk about the specifics.

But it is a first and crucial step [to moving the process along] and we are very pleased that the US administration has taken that initiative.

Q: Turning to Somalia. You just came back from the IGAD summit in Kampala where the committee steering the peace process was enlarged to include all the IGAD members. Do you think it will have a positive effect on the peace process?

A: Well, the idea was that some groups were uncomfortable with the frontline states in general, and Kenya and Ethiopia in particular. If the inclusion of the other IGAD states makes them comfortable, then so be it. As to whether it will change the substance of the matter, I have very serious doubts. If it’s a question of trust and confidence then we should do everything we can to increase that trust. If it’s about the substance, in the end that’s for the Somalis to work out. And whatever the Somalis work out, we will support.

Q: Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi recently said the problem of peace in Somalia is due to regional neighbours who are afraid of the reconstitution of a strong and united Somalia. Is Ethiopia afraid of a united strong Somalia that may lay claims to parts of Ethiopia?

A: Well Salad [TNG president Abdiqassim Salad Hassan] raised this thing in Kampala and I said that while we respect Moi as an elder statesman, he doesn’t speak for Ethiopia. If the Ethiopian Somalis want to secede they are free to do so any time of the day. That’s the constitution of Ethiopia. If the Somali people of Ethiopia wish to do so, that’s fine with me. That’s not an issue at all now.

Q: Do you then support the reconstitution of a united Somalia?

A: A disintegrated Somalia is the source of all sorts of trouble for everybody and particularly for Ethiopia. A reconstituted Somalia at the very least is a properly recognised destination. Even if there is no Somali state, it doesn’t mean that the unity of Ethiopia is guaranteed. Just as the unity of Ethiopia is not guaranteed in the case of Eritrea. The old unity is gone. Eritrea is an independent state. And we are not worried about it.

It’s in our interests that we have a stable Somalia, that we have a united Somalia. But how the Somalis manage their affairs is their business.

Q: You have just come up with a very ambitious plan to tackle food insecurity – the Coalition for Food Security. Some people have voiced concern that maybe it is too ambitious?

A: It is ambitious. The question is, is it do-able? I believe it is do-able so long as we mobilise resources. And so long as we recognise that the main resource for food security is not that of the government, or of the donors. The main resource is that of the farmers - the labour resources and the land. If we can mobilise these resources effectively and supplement them with external resources, then I believe it is do-able.

Q: Why is it different to anything you’ve done in the past?

A: Oh it’s very different. On a number of fundamentals. First in the past the assumption was that development was something the government and NGOs would bring to the people. That the main resource for food security was external food assistance. The assumption now is that the overwhelming resource for food security does not come from outside the village. It comes from inside the village. And the central strategy now is to mobilise those resources within the village and utilise them effectively. That has implications for us as to how we use external resources. The whole philosophy has been stood on its head. That’s a fundamental change. Secondly and related to that, we are saying that the food aid we get should, in a properly designed manner, be phased out. There should be a shift from food aid to monetary assistance to those who are food insecure, so that those who produce surpluses can sell their products. And food aid should not be given free to anyone who does not have anything to eat. It should be used as a sort of social security whereby people are provided with some assistance to maintain their assets and livelihood, but they work for it if they are able to work.

Q: One of the opposition parties has called for an independent national electoral board for the 2005 elections. Is that something we are likely to see?

A: The head of the electoral commission is the president of the Supreme Court. So if they want to bring somebody more independent than the president of the Supreme Court to the board, then let them think of it.

Q: Yes, but who names that board?

A: It’s the parliament.

Q: Which is controlled by the [ruling] EPRDF.

A: All parliaments are controlled by the majority parties, in every parliamentary democracy that I know of.

Q: And what are your future plans. How long do you see yourself as prime minister?

A: Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.