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Prime Minister Meles Zenawi: No Longer Playing Defense

In a wide ranging interview with awate.com on April 13th, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi discussed the economic progress in Ethiopia, as well as developments in the region particularly Eritrea, Libya, Egypt and South Sudan, and how that has, in some cases, brought about changes to Ethiopia’s policy.

Referencing his government’s recently announced change of policy towards Eritrea, abandoning “passive defense” in favor of more aggressive posture, Meles Zenawi said that it was necessitated by changes initiated by the regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

In the past, explained Meles Zenawi, the Eritrean regime’s campaign of terrorism was targeted against “government and government institutions, specifically, military and security establishments and other government entities.  These are what they call hard targets, you can harden them and protect them.”   But now, went on the Prime Minister, “the targets have shifted. The recent crop of terrorists that Isaias sent across the border were targeting things such as Fil-Waha [hot springs in Addis Abeba which caters to tourists and locals], Mercato [downtown shopping district] taxis, buses—these are what they call soft targets. The instructions that they were given when they were being trained around Asseb in Dankalia region was to ‘change Addis into Baghdad’.”

“So we now have to tell the Eritrean regime, if you carry outrageous acts in Ethiopia, not only the terrorists that you send, but you yourself, you are going to pay. And our response is going to be proportional.”

Regarding Egypt and its resistance to Ethiopia’s development of hydro power, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that Egypt, dating back to Gemal Abdel Nasser, had traditionally used economic and political pressure to dissuade Ethiopia from developing its potential.

“It is not really about water, it is about politics and power,” said Meles Zenawi, “The problem, as I see it, is the politics of the Egyptian elite; there is a bit of racism behind it, and there is a bit of colonial inheritance behind it.”

In the past, explained the Prime Minister, Egypt was so influential that it “could prevent Ethiopia from accessing grants, loans and credits for projects on the Nile. They have completely shut off our access to credit whether it is from World Bank, or Brazil or China or Europe or the USA.”   And politically, “they were assured, given the poverty level in Ethiopia, that Ethiopia will not be investing anything on the Nile, of substance. That was the key instrument. The other instrument they had was that Ethiopia itself was unstable and was not going to focus on development and it was surrounded by hostile governments.That is why Nasser went out of his way to recruit non-Arabs into the Arab League simply because they were in close proximity to Ethiopia—Somalia is a case in point.”

But now, continued Meles Zenawi,  “Now we are in a position to be able to finance [the project] on our own, the biggest dam that can be built on the Nile, in Ethiopia. We believe that this is going to dismantle much illusion amongst the Egyptians.”

Responding to the question of Ethiopia’s response to the Libyan revolution, particularly Oil Libya which used to be Shell Ethiopia, Meles said that “the way we operate here in Ethiopia is to follow first the international law” meaning the UN Security Council and the African Union. 

“Even when we do not agree with them [the AU], we do not believe in publicly second guessing them. This, we think, is part of the due that we have to pay for the fact that we host the AU. So, at this stage, we have not recognized the national council in Benghazi: we wait for the AU to do so.”

Responding to the question of how the new government of South Sudan is managing to have a good relationship with both of the feuding governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi said that this assumption is incorrect: that the Eritrean regime is already destabilizing South Sudan and that South Sudanese delegates had gone to Asmara to plead their case and “I am told that the response they got is a surprised stare—which is typical of the Eritrean regime, they never admit what they are doing. So the relationship between South Sudan and Eritrea is typical of Eritrea’s relations with everybody in the neighborhood.”

awate.com will publish the interview, in its entirety,  very soon.

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  • I was in Ethiopia, recently visiting some family members, and I also was in Asmera for the same reason a year ago. Yes, it’s true that Ethiopians and Eritreans who live in Ethiopia have a lot to complain about their day to day life. However, compared to Eritreans who are in Asmara, their complaints are a child’s play. I found that they have a laxuery of not to be embaressed by public comments of their leader makes or watching their back, when they go to their place of worship. They move around from place to place, without someone asking them ‘where to, and why’?.. I need that freedom for my beloved Eritrea…Could Meles’ policy change bring about pressure on the UN and EU to intervene to get rid of PFDJ and, as Moses would say ‘Let my people go?’…Only the almighty knows…