Interview with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

May 2004


The Ethiopian Radio and Television Enterprise interviewed Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in May 2004, during which he discussed wide-ranging current national issues.  The Prime Minister responded to questions posed regarding last December's conflict in Gambella, the OLF's terrorist attacks, the Ethio-Eritrean border, the resettlement programme and investment and the private sector among others. There follows a summary of the unofficial translation of the Premier's responses to the questions.


Last year's conflict in Gambella resulted in the death and displacement of citizens and destruction of property. Some allege that the national defence force was involved in the killings. Would you tell us the cause and nature of the problem?  


The Gambella state administration had long been characterized by inefficiency in its working systems. It failed to equally and fairly serve all the nationalities and peoples in the State. The problem was particularly serious among the two dominant nationality groups of the State: the Anyua and the Nuer. Representatives of the two nationalities in the leadership were pursuing a policy of favouring those belonging to their ethnic groups and of neglecting those who do not belong to their own nationality in a bid to promote their interests and benefits at the expense of the masses. 


When these bred tensions which led to killings perpetrated by illegally armed groups last Ethiopian year, the government took corrective measures including the sacking of executives, police and militia members involved in the crimes. Those dissatisfied with the measures taken organized themselves illegally and were engaged in sporadic killings of non-indigenous people who had been resettled in the State earlier. Some of these non-indigenous people of course, did not accept the sovereignty and right to self-governance of the native people and were also using the murders to instigate mob violence and conflict among the people.  That ultimately resulted in the December 13th tragic incident.


Following the conflict, the national defence forces played a vital role in restoring peace and order. The federal government should have intervened and taken remedial measures in accordance with relevant provisions of the constitution before the problem reached a climax. Of course, the state administration was not willing to cooperate. However, the federal government should also take its share of the blame for not acting before the day the brutal killings were perpetrated. Now that the House of Peoples' Representatives has established an independent inquiry commission to probe into the case, we look forward to seeing its findings.


What were the measures taken by the government following the conflict?  


The first step in this regard was providing the public with accurate and timely information about the extent of the problem. Of course, some exaggerated figures were given on the death toll in some areas, like Dima, but it was soon rectified. The second measure taken was organizing discussion forums that would help the peoples in the State to dwell at length on the problems and forward practicable solutions. Accordingly, a series of meetings were held from Kebele to regional levels where representatives of elders, intellectuals and the youth reached consensus on the urgent need for restoring peace and stability as well as expediating development in the State. 


The government has also been exerting utmost efforts to enable displaced Anyua nationals to return home.  Some have already come back and efforts are underway to facilitate the return of others camped in Southern Sudan.  The government is also working with local elders to return to peaceful life those members of the illegally armed group. The defence force has been deployed in the area to track down those members who fail to do so.  Though we are working to resolve the problem mainly politically through the active participation of the public, administrative measures are also being taken side by side.  So, we now see that the situation is improving.


Quite recently, some schools in Oromiya State and Addis Ababa University itself came under grenade attacks. Whose making was this and why did it happen? 


The driving force behind those bomb attacks was the so-called Oromo, Liberation Front (OLF). However, a number of anti-peace elements have also played their own role. Although the perpetrators of the crime were known to be members of the OLF long before this attack, adequate evidence was were not produced against them to bring them before the court of justice. Some of them had been under close government supervision for some time. A considerable number of others, who were not OLF members but who advocate narrow nationalist agenda, were also involved in the offence. These being the forerunners, as ascertained by evidence, almost all of the opposition and parasitic forces had a hand in it one way or the other. 


The fact that the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO), the party that leads the State, had not done meaningful political work in the education sector has in fact created a loophole that was exploited by anti-peace elements for the occurrence of the problem.  OPDO failed to make its administrative and political presence strongly felt in the education system, and that helped terrorists to easily target educational institutions and students. 


The government has repeatedly said that the OLF's bombing of schools and school children was the result of complete despair on the part of the Front.  How can this be substantiated? 


OLF's terrorist acts are not new phenomena. OLF has been engaged in various destabilizing activities since it walked out of the transitional government back in the ‘90s.  It entered the Oromiya rural areas with more than 30,000 troops, many of whom were ex-army members.  However, this large number of army was annihilated in a short period of time not mainly because of a heavy strike by the defence forces but because it lacked the support of the Oromiya farmers.  Had it gained the acceptance of the farmers, it might have been difficult to destroy the army in such a short time. The repeated attempts of the OLF to mobilize the Oromiya farmers failed because the farmers turned a deaf ear to the Front's malicious propaganda. 


The Oromiya farmers could clear their areas from OLF and its disciples not mainly because OPDO had done a good job but because the policies designed and implemented by the EPRDF-led government have answered the fundamental questions of the farmers.  Like all members of other nations and nationalities, the Oromos have enjoyed the right to self-governance and got the opportunity to develop their language and culture.  So, they want to live peacefully safeguarding the gains of the post-Derg system. 


The OLF, therefore, is fully aware of the fact that it is impossible to oust the incumbent government without the support of Oromiya farmers, who constitute 85 per cent of the total population in the State. So, this is a good reason for the OLF to lose all hope. The situation is also similar in Oromiya towns. Except for few sympathizers in the government bureaucracy, the educational system, and the business community, it couldn't rally many behind its cause. Moreover, the OLF has learned from its experience that the room for waging armed struggle in urban areas is also closed. The only alternative the Front could pursue was changing the strategy of clandestine terrorist attacks it had been carrying out on hotels and railways, to schools and higher learning institutions. Therefore, from such evidence we say that the recent attacks were a result of total despair.  


The government says OLF is carrying out its terrorist acts in a fashion that could incite people to people conflicts. What does this mean? And how can this risk be avoided?


In my opinion, what needs to be clear here is that the prime victims of the terrorist attacks are the people of Oromiya, particularly young students. The main objective of the OLF had been creating a rift between the government and the people of Oromiya. When this plan was foiled, it shifted to promoting hate politics and instigating violence among the peoples of Ethiopia. Of course, parasitic elements from all nations and nationalities were behind the OLF in its latest move. Nevertheless, both attempts proved to be unsuccessful mainly due to the vigilance of the peace-loving people of Oromiya.  The people of Oromiya have demonstrated their commitment to peace by protecting people in their State belonging to other nationalities and by exposing the anti-peace forces. 


What is being done now to prevent similar terrorist attacks from happening in the future? 


Following the attacks, the measures taken by the Oromiya state administration and OPDO were similar to those taken in Gambella.  However, federal government intervention was not required in Oromiya as the State was capable of handling and solving the problem all by itself.  Commendable activities were carried out in keeping the public informed about what was going on.  Secondly, the state administration and OPDO managed to mobilize the farmers, who are the decisive force, and a better than ever portion of the urban community.  Such coordinated efforts enabled the reversal of OLF's desire to broaden the school violence into a mass uprising. 


Though the damage inflicted on life and property has been enormous, it was put under control before the situation got out of hand. Of course, it could have been possible to prevent the problem if pre-emptive measures had been taken by both the state and federal governments. But, the State has taken effective measures after the incidents including restoration of a peaceful atmosphere in schools, apprehension of OLF members and those directly involved in the criminal activities.  


Some groups argue that the problems in Gambella and Oromiya States are indicative of the failure of federalism in Ethiopia. How do you respond to that?


Conflicts between peoples and ethnic groups, wherever they happen and whatever the reason is, are always undesirable and devastating. Nonetheless, attributing nation and nationality conflict to federalism is basically a wrong approach. The ethnic conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Cote d' Ivoire were the ones that broke out in non-federal states. Ethnic conflicts are mainly incited by unscrupulous members of the leadership that run for personal gains. The Oromiya farmers didn't pay heed to OLF's tribalist and separatist moves as their political and economic rights were ensured under the federal system. I believe that federalism has never been the cause for ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia. It, rather, lessened the chances that conflicts could occur.  


The Ethiopian government says it is committed to resolving the Ethio-Eritrean boundary dispute peacefully. On the other hand, Ethiopia opposed the Boundary Commission's decision saying that it needs rectification. Don't these two positions contradict?  


In my opinion, there is nothing contradictory in the two positions. We believe that the boundary commission's decision is indisputably unfair and illegal. We oppose the implementation of the decision not only because it is illegal and unfair. We know that this is neither the beginning nor the end of injustice in the world. What we are saying is that if the decision is implemented as it is, it will pose a great danger to peace between the two countries and also in the region. So, even though we know that the decision is illegal, we would go for implementing it (after expressing our opposition), if it were not a threat to peace.  


The border dispute has been a continuing source of tension between the two countries, and to make matters worse, the ruling has put in effect under the administration of the two States not only a homestead but also a single house. Two countries administering a single house is impractical even if the relations between them is smooth.  It is, therefore, simple to imagine what implementing the decision would mean in such a tense situation.  The strategic objective and goal of our opposition of the decision is, therefore, the desire to realize durable peace in the region.  Hence, our positions are not contradictory.


Some members of the international community insist that the decision should be materialized as it is final and binding. Others believe in resolving the dispute through peaceful dialogue. Can these be reconciled? 


The Boundary Commission is a border demarcating body established by and accountable to Ethiopia and Eritrea.  In arbitration processes of such a kind, it is common practice for both parties to accept the decision as final and binding.  Cameroon and Nigeria did the same before they went to the international court for a similar border dispute.  And if the international community says both parties should accept the final and binding decision, it is only referring to the Algiers Agreement, which is what it is expected to say.  


On the other hand, “the ruling is final and binding” does not mean that it cannot be corrected if both parties agree. Now, the two sides could not come to terms as to how the decision should be implemented. In this case, they are faced with two alternatives of either going to war or settling through dialogue. We believe that the civilized way of resolving disputes is dialogue and negotiation. The first article in the Algiers Agreement also states that the two sides have agreed to settle differences by peaceful means. This also applies to differences created following the decision. Therefore, dialogue is the best and only lega1 way to obtain a sustainable solution to the problem.  


While on a visit here, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hinted that the Ethio-Eritrea border problem should be resolved quickly. Does that mean that the international community would put pressure on the two countries to get the decision implemented? 


In its latest resolution, the UN Security Council has indicated that the boundary demarcation is entirely a bilateral issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Therefore, the international community cannot take the border problem as its own issue other than supporting the two parties. The issue, however, may concern it if it leads to conflict and affects peace in the region. We also believe in the immediate resolution of the dispute as the status is not helpful to either side.


Though there is an increasing interest on the part of the international community to settle the problem through dialogue, it cannot go anywhere due to the stubbornness of the Eritrean government. In such a situation the assumption that the, international community would pressurize Ethiopia to accept the decision could not be practical and concrete.  


The Eritrean government has been engaged in a massive propaganda campaign against Ethiopia. It has also been trying to destabilize the country by use of anti-peace forces. On the other hand, Ethiopia has not taken any counter-measures in this regard. Have you any comments?


We always wish the people of Eritrea or any other neighbours good governance. However, we understand that ensuring good governance is the task of the people and political forces in the respective countries, not ours. From this viewpoint, we have neither the interest nor the time to meddle into the internal affairs of Eritrea unless the issue is bilateral.  


On the other hand, if the regime in Asmara is interested in indulging in our internal affairs, as it does now, it is up to it. The propaganda spread by the Eritrean government against Ethiopia is no different from that being disseminated by the private press and opposition parties. So, it is like adding or dropping one private newspaper or opposition party, which cannot bring about any major change. Hence, we do not want to engage in trashy propaganda campaigns simply because the Eritrean regime is doing so.


The government is implementing a resettlement scheme as part of its food security programme. Can you tell us the significance of the resettlement programme in relation to ensuring food self-sufficiency?  


We planned to resettle about 2 million people comprising 500,000 households taking into consideration the 14 million people exposed to food shortage last year. Though we know that it is impossible to resettle all the affected population, that we set out to cover 2 million people shows the attention we have given to the programme. The resettlement programme is being carried out because it is believed to be a viable option to achieving food security in a short time. It is all about moving people from scarce, depleted and arid and semi-arid areas to relatively fertile localities. The resettlers were provided with two hectares of land per household as well as fertilizers and select seed, and are expected to be food secure in a year's time. 


Citing the unsuccessful resettlement programme of the Derg, some argue that the current resettlement scheme is also doomed to failure. Would you comment on that?


Leaving the theoretical arguments about the feasibility of a resettlement programme aside, we have proved for ourselves its significance from the practical gains during the first year of implementation. Most of the farmers that were resettled last year have become self-supportive and did not need even a single gram of relief assistance. Rather, they have been in a position to feed and provide other necessities for newly resettled compatriots. So, we have learnt from practice that tens of thousands of citizens have achieved food self-sufficiency in just one year. Therefore, the assumption that resettlement cannot help ensure food security has been practically disproved.  


Our resettlement programme is totally different from that undertaken by the Derg. For one thing, the Derg's resettlement programme was a forced one, while ours is being carried out on a voluntary basis. In our programme, farmers reserve the right not to be involved in the programme and also to return to their previous localities if they are not comfortable in the new environment. For this purpose, the land that a resettler used to cultivate in his or her original place is reserved for three years in case he/she returns. So, this programme is a voluntary exercise totally different from that of the Derg, which was carried out without the consent of the resettlers.  


There is this criticism that areas designated for resettlement are hot, malaria-prone, and devoid of education, health, water as well as physical infrastructure. How do you react to such criticism?  


Of course, a great deal of the uninhabited arable land is found in hot lowlands.  And, it is undeniable that there are health, infrastructure and social service problems as these areas had never carried out consistent efforts to put in place the basic institutions, especially health and water supply facilities. In some cases, the construction of these facilities was launched after the resettlers had reached the area. No matter how hard we have worked, we are not yet in a position to say that there are no problems.  


Malaria has long been a health problem in the lowlands of Ethiopia, and in recent years, it has been spreading even in highland areas. So, the resettlers are not moving from malaria-free zones to malaria-prone areas. In most cases, they come from localities already affected by the disease. Similarly, though encouraging activities have been carried out in expanding education in rural areas, we have not yet covered each and every locality. Therefore, most of the drought hit people, too, came from areas that had no schools. And, when compared to the resettlers’ previous areas, the new resettlement areas are not worse.


We are not saying that the relocation is about transferring people from bad situations to fully developed and comfortable villages. This would be achieved through process and by the coordinated efforts of all stakeholders, including the resettlers themselves. For example, when the programme was launched last year, there were almost no institutions that would serve the resettlers. But, this year progress has been made in putting in place at least the vital infrastructure and social services. With the cooperation of the resettled farmers we hope to do more in the years ahead. Therefore, immediate and relatively minor problems should not be reason enough to criticize the noble objectives of the relocation programme.  


Some of the resettlers are said to have died of hunger. If that is true, how serious is the problem?  


This problem occurred particularly with some children at a resettlement village in Oromia State. The reason was that the state administration failed to immediately purchase and supply food when donors stopped the provision of a monthly ration assistance to the resettled people. Of course, the problem could have been prevented very quickly. Nevertheless, except for this case, we have not had any death reports from other resettlement areas. 


Some argue that the resettlement programme is very ambitious and impracticable. Can you share us your views?

The number of drought-affected people last year stood at 14 million. Unless something is done now, seasonal rain failure that we are experiencing once every three or four years will inevitably result in donor fatigue. If something has to be done to achieve food self-sufficiency, in a relatively short time, there is no better option than resettlement. Resettled farmers are provided with two hectares of land each, much larger than their previous average holdings of less than half a hectare. As I said earlier, the relocation is from areas of depleted land and inadequate rainfall to those with relatively fertile lands and with adequate rainfall. So, given these opportunities and other support by the government, we believe that the resettled farmers would soon turn food secure.  


We don't have any intention to relocate the 14 million drought- stricken compatriots. For one thing, not all of them may be willing to be involved in the programme.  Even though they are willing, we don't have adequate resettlement land for all of them. We planned to involve only 2.2 million of the total affected population in the programme, which, I don't think, could be considered ambitious. Even the 2.2 million target entirely depends on the free will of the farmers. For example, the Amhara State had plans to involve a significant number of the drought-hit farmers in the programme. However, regional and woreda executives did not exert much effort to encourage farmers to resettle. So, because of this, the number of people willing to be involved in the programme was found to be below the target, and the plan was revised accordingly. 


When we set a 2.2 million target, we took into account the expected will of the resettlers and the capacity of the government to run the programme. If more people are found to be voluntaring to be involved in the scheme, we redouble efforts and try to go as far as we can. By the same token, if the number of volunteer resettlers appears to be lower than the target we have set for ourselves, we are not obliged to, and do not insist on, meeting our set target.  


The government is also blamed for insisting on household water conservation schemes as part of its food security programme instead of focusing on large-scale irrigation projects. 


Undertaking large-scale irrigation activities on big rivers is not an un-pleasant idea. The problem, however, is that irrigating thousands of hectares of land requires huge capital and exercise. Given our financial constraints, we can't go further as far as huge irrigation development projects are concerned. We can't rely on external funding for such projects. But we can rely on farmers' labour, which is a readily available resource.  


If, for example, 10 million households each develop a quarter of a hectare, it will be possible to develop a much larger area of land than can be irrigated by big rivers. Therefore, though we do not rule out the possibility of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects, as far as we can afford it our main strategy will be focusing on effectively utilizing the farmers' labour potential.  


It is said that farmers have been introduced to water technologies that are not well designed and feasible. There are also water conservation structures allegedly left idle. Have you any comments?  


The feasibility and practicability of the water harvesting technologies that we have been employing has been proven. We can't, however, say that the implementation of these technologies on farmers' plot has proceeded without any problems. We may see some of these water retaining schemes here and there that have not gone operational. As the programme was massively launched, we cannot expect a l00 per cent success rate. On average, 60 to 70 per cent of the water conservation activities have proved to be successful at national level. This is a great victory, just as a 60 to 70 per cent implementation of other programmes is also considered a success.  

From our experiences, we have tried to identify the problems encountered and to come up with better working mechanisms. It is normal that drawbacks are faced even in simple routine activities let alone in such new undertakings that have involved a large number of people. We are exerting efforts to improve our work by the day. So, as long as we have identified the problems and taken remedial measures, I don't think that the problem should be blown out of proportion and considered a failure. 


Some groups say that the government has overemphasized rural development while giving little attention to urban and industrial development. Could you explain the government's approach in this regard?  


The ultimate goal of our Agriculture Led Industrialization Development strategy (ADLI) is industrial development, not rural development. And, we believe that the road to industrialization in our context can be achievable only if we expedite rural development. This, however, does not mean that we have neglected the industrial and urban development endeavors. We have carried out a number of activities this year aimed at strengthening these sectors. To curb the problems private investors were facing, we have implemented the Civil Service Reform Programme by prioritizing institutions closely linked with investors. We have also been creating an enabling environment to support and encourage investors in many ways. So, I would say the allegation in this regard is groundless and a wrong one. 


The government has repeatedly expressed its commitment to encouraging the private sector. On the other hand, it apprehends businesspersons for alleged tax evasion and involvement in illicit activities. What impact will this measure have on the efforts to attract both local and foreign investment?


Our industrial development strategy considers the private investor as an engine of development. The strategy emphasizes the creation of a conducive environment for genuine investors, while at the same time the urgent need is to take measures on and discourage the parasitic ones. Therefore, supporting and encouraging genuine investors also involves discouraging illicit practices. A number of activities including building infrastructure, enhancing the working systems of the Ethiopian Investment Commission and dialogue on the problems of trustworthy investors were carried out over the past nine months.  


Investors with an aggregate capital of 10 billion Birr were licensed in the past nine months, half of this sum was from foreign investors. This is the highest record as compared to that of previous years. On the other hand, the government has taken measures against those who evade taxes and engage themselves in illicit activities. The idea of being strict on tax swindlers was not primarily meant to increase the government's revenue. It was mainly aimed at discouraging illegal practices so that the legal investors will be protected and the unlawful ones will abandon their practices.  


We are not at all interested in arresting individuals. We believe that the measures taken against illegal entrepreneurs will have a discouraging effect on those involved in similar practices. The government has to ensure law and order before illegality becomes prevalent and the situation gets out of control.  The government also gives more emphasis to encouraging domestic investment as it could play a great role in the national economy. However, efforts are underway to increase the flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), particularly by encouraging Ethiopians and Ethiopian nationals in the Diaspora.