Addis Ababa — Dialogue with Eritrea Essential for Peace
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who leads the nation with the oldest recorded history and the second-largest population in Africa, is both assuming a larger role on the world stage and, simultaneously, campaigning for reelection at home. Last year, he was tapped to join the 17-member Commission on Africa, established by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, which is expected to issue an action plan "for a strong and prosperous Africa" late next month. Meles also continues as a co-chair of the Global Coalition for Africa (GCA), which holds annual policy forums for African leaders and policy experts that are designed to generate support for African development.
At home, Meles and his ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) are resisting electoral challenges from a range of opposition parties while also searching for solutions to such serious problems as recurring famine throughout the country and a border dispute with neighboring Eritrea that erupted into full-scale war in 1998, claiming some 100,000 lives. In an interview with AllAfrica's Reed Kramer during this year's GCA forum last week in Addis Ababa, Meles defended his government's policy and outlined his approach to a number of domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Being here in Addis, it is obvious that the country is in the midst of an election campaign. There was no democracy under Emperor Haile Selassie or the military regime that ousted him in 1974 and ruled until the EPRDF took power in 1991. How would you evaluate the status of democracy in Ethiopia today?
I think it is evolving and evolving in the right direction. Obviously, democracy in Ethiopia, as on the rest of the continent, is a work in progress. But we have a very recognizably democratic system. We have over sixty opposition parties and most of them have so far indicated that they want to participate. Over the past two to three months we've had intensive debates through the public media on issues of concern to the Ethiopian electorate. My expectation is that we will continue these debates right up to election day. We intend to make sure that this election is flawless. We will work together with the opposition parties and the international community to have a flawless election.
Your opponents have said they don't have the access to the media that they need to campaign. Do they have a case?
I think this is nonsense. First, there are over 80 magazines and newspapers in Ethiopia. Most of them espouse the ideals of the opposition parties. In any case, we don't control access to this media. As far as public media is concerned, every Sunday for several hours, we have had debates about the issues that the electorate is concerned about. Third, for the election process, the ministry of information has allocated access - air time - to the parties. The ruling party has well over 85 percent of the seats in parliament and has been given 46 percent of air time. The opposition have less than 12 seats in parliament and have been given over 50 percent of air time. If anybody has the right to complain, it would be the ruling party.
Your government started distribution of anti-retroviral drugs this week. How do you evaluate the progress of the campaign against HIV/Aids in Ethiopia?
The infection rates have stabilized, but that's not good enough because they have stabilized at a high level. Therefore, we are encouraged by the fact that the rate has stabilized, but we recognize that we need to be more aggressive. We unveiled a more aggressive, more comprehensive strategy of tackling HIV/Aids, which includes provision of anti-retrovirals, provision of voluntary testing and counseling in combination with preventive work. On the whole, I'm encouraged, but I also recognize that we face a very serious challenge and we have to preempt it.
And you're working in concert with international agencies on this?
Yes. The Global Fund [to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria] has been most helpful. The United States has also been very helpful, and many of our other development partners have chipped in too.
You said recently that donors should quadruple aid to Ethiopia. Why is that justified and can Ethiopia really make effective use of that level of assistance?
Ethiopia is getting, in per capita terms, half of the average aid [received by] sub-Saharan African countries. Secondly, the World Bank carried out a study of countries that can effectively use additional development assistance, and it came up with a list of ten countries. Ethiopia is one of them. And so an independent study by a respected international body has identified Ethiopia as being able to use additional resources effectively. The fact that we get half as much as the average African countries seems to indicate that we need to get more.
What are your priorities for that aid if it came?
It would be infrastructure and rural development.
You've also said fair trade is key to fighting poverty in Ethiopia. Why?
U.S. maize is sold more cheaply in Yemen than Ethiopian maize, and Yemen is next door. If we were to improve productivity in agriculture - and that's central for our future - we would need to have access to the Yemeni market [that was] not blocked by subsidized exports to Yemen. This is just one specific example.
As I said earlier on, our focus is on infrastructure and rural development. Rural development means we could produce more agricultural products, and we need to sell them and we need to have access to the developed-country market. We need to deal with the subsidized agricultural exports of industrialized countries for us to have a chance of trading our way out of poverty. So, non-reciprocal access to developed-country markets - rule-bound non-reciprocal access - and limiting the damage of export subsidies on the part of the developed countries are the two key points that we need to address in terms of the trading environment.
What do you mean by non-reciprocal access?
Non-reciprocal means what in WTO [World Trade Organisation] jargon is called "special and differential treatment." We need liberalized access to developed-country markets without necessarily liberalizing every sector of our economy, because we need some protection. Every country in the world except the first industrialized country, the United Kingdom, has had some level of protection at some stage of its history. Complete and total liberalization of our markets at this stage of our development process may not be the way forward. We should not be asked to do these things in return for having access to the developed markets.
Why does Ethiopia still need so much food assistance? A new United Nations report says Ethiopia is currently recording a 'bumper harvest' but that 2.2 million Ethiopians will require emergency assistance this year and another 5 million will need some form of aid.
There are two reasons why Ethiopia needs food assistance. In most instances, it is because we do not produce enough food in the country. In some years, even if we produce enough in the country, the distribution of food is such that some people go hungry, because parts of our country are affected by environmental degradation and intermittent rainfall. Other areas of the country sometimes produce surplus and that surplus could be enough to cover the needs in some years.
So infrastructure plays a roll there too?
Infrastructure and lack of money on the part of the government to buy domestically and distribute [food] domestically. What we hope to do over the next year, two years, is produce enough of a surplus in the surplus-producing regions, and reduce the deficit in the deficit regions sufficiently so that the government can cover the needs with some assistance from donors by buying domestically. In that way, we could perhaps dispense with the need for food importation from outside. Hopefully by 2007 we will be in a position to do that.
As you know, critics say that you spend too much money on the military and not enough on development. What is your response?
We live in a very dangerous part of the world. Nevertheless, as soon as the war with Eritrea ended, we demobilized unilaterally. At a time when Eritrea did not demobilize, we demobilized unilaterally. In the first year, we cut our defense budget by half. Since then, in absolute terms, it has been going down continuously, and that's recognized by the international community.
Obviously, we would like to reduce the defense expenditure to as close to zero as possible. But that is going to take some time, because we live next door to Somalia, which is in chaos. We live next door to Eritrea, with whom we have difficulties. And this is a tough neighborhood. We cannot unilaterally disarm. The first time we tried that, before 1998, we paid for it.
Speaking of the difficulties with Eritrea, can you explain how you want to see the border dispute resolved and tell us if Ethiopia will accept the decision by the International Boundary Commission that basically supports Eritrea's claim to the disputed area?
I think people need to recognize that this is a border dispute, but it is not a border dispute alone. As you know, Eritrea has been independent de facto since 1991, and de jure since 1993. Between 1991 and 1997, we had excellent relations with Eritrea, despite the fact that we did not have a boundary that was formally demarcated.
It was when the other aspects our relationship began to go down that the border became a hot-button issue. If we are looking at the possibilities of sustainable peace, we have to address the border issue. But we have to go beyond the border issue and address the root cause of the conflict, and this has to do with the economic, political, and social ties between the two countries.
What we have suggested is to do both: address the border issue and also address the root causes of the conflict through normalization between the two countries. Dialogue on both.
Now, why are we calling for dialogue on the border issue when we have a decision by the boundary commission? The boundary commission decision we didn't like. We still don't like. But in the end we recognize that it is a legally binding decision. So, we changed our position and said: we don't like the decision but we accept it in principle because it is legally binding.
However, when you go from delimitation to demarcation, the normal process is that you make adjustments. There is no border on earth that has been demarcated without adjustments to the delimitation decision. There are technical reasons for it. You have to have line of sight for the pillars, and the line of sight does not follow the map of the delimitation decision. There are also political reasons for adjustments, and these political reasons for adjustments are recognized by the boundary commission itself. The boundary commission has said, and I'm quoting, there are "anomalies and impracticalities" in its own decisions.
When we asked the boundary commission to address the anomalies and impracticalities that they identified in their own decision, they said: 'We don't have the mandate. Give us the mandate and we'll address them. We recognize there are anomalies and impracticalities in our own decision." So what we are suggesting is, okay, the boundary commission has also identified these problems and said it is willing to address them if it is given a separate mandate. We are saying: let's talk, so we can address these impracticalities and anomalies and can then have a real, lasting demarcation of the boundary. That's why we need dialogue on both normalization and implementation of the boundary commission decision.
And do you think there can be successful dialogue?
We're not having it [now] but we are hopeful that, in the end, people on both sides will come to their senses and start talking.
Can you elaborate on the economic problems that arose in your relationship with Eritrea?
There were trade issues - there are very strong differences of opinion on that. There were issues related to currencies, particularly when they decided to issue their own currency, which we supported. There were issues on utilization of ports. There are many related economic issues, but these are the key ones: trade, currency, and port services.
Since Ethiopia does not have a port of its own, port access is very important to your country, is it not?
In our economic relationship with Eritrea, it is a very important issue. We obviously have access through Djibouti and Port Sudan. Nevertheless, if we are going to have normal relations with Eritrea - normal trading relations - one of the fundamental issues that needs to be addressed is access to the ports in a manner that does not repeat the previous mistakes. The last time around, they confiscated all the Ethiopian property on the two ports of Eritrea. That cannot be repeated if we are going to have normal relations.
What about your relationship with the United States?
Relations between the United States and Ethiopia have been excellent for many years, particularly the past four years, and they are still very good. We are confident that they will continue to be as excellent as they have been in the past.
Last week, you had talks with a visiting American delegation headed by the deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, Lt. General Lance Smith. Do you feel comfortable with the direction of the U.S. government's fight against terrorism, with which you have been cooperating?
We're comfortable with the broad outlines of what has to be done to fight terrorism. There may be areas where there is room for improvement, but we are not in the business of second-guessing that.
Finally, are you hopeful that the Naivasha peace accord for Sudan, which has now been finalized, will conclusively end the long-standing civil war in Sudan, reduce tensions in your neighborhood and improve regional security?
The peace accord is a tremendous achievement. It will have a tremendous impact. If Sudan achieves sustainable peace, it will be a tremendous boost to the stability of the whole of the Horn of Africa region, and going beyond that.
We are elated. We are very happy that this agreement has been signed. We very much hope that it will be implemented, one, and two, that it will be possible to address the other issues in Sudan on the basis of the Naivasha agreement.
And what about the Darfur situation? What do you think should be done to address that catastrophe?
I think the principles of the Naivasha agreement, with proper modifications, are good enough to address the problems of Darfur. What we need to do in Darfur is, first, convince the government that they have to resolve this problem quickly, and second, convince the rebels and their foreign supporters to be constructive about moving forward.
They don't have the time that people had in the south. There are indications that, for example, there is a breakup in discipline among the rebels and that warlordism might be emerging. If things get out of control, it may be too late. We need to strike while the iron is hot on both sides, and the international community should exact pressure on both sides so that we can achieve peace quickly.
Why do you think it has taken so long, especially when the international focus has been fairly intense?
The rhetoric has been very intense, but when it comes to useful practical steps we have not been as intense.