Interview With Meles Zenawi

Thursday, December 14, 2006; 12:26 PM

The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen sat down this week with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to discuss rising tensions with Somalia's Islamic Courts, and the state of democracy inside the country.

On the issue of Somalia: Ethiopia is inching closer to war with the Islamic Courts, who have taken over large swaths the country, including its capital, and who have in the past called for creation of a "Greater Somalia," including portions of ethnically Somali Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Diplomats estimate that Ethiopia has at least 8,000 troops in Somalia bolstering the fragile, but internationally recognized transitional government, a claim that Ethiopia has repeatedly denied.

Q: First, your reaction to the call by the Islamic Courts for Ethiopia to withdraw its forces in seven days?

A: They have issued an ultimatum. This does not come as a surprise to me. The declaration is based on falsehoods. It is true we have troops in Baidoa, the capital, who are there to train forces of the transitional federal government, who are an internationally recognized government and who have officially asked for support from Ethiopia. . . . Now, if the transitional government does not want our trainers, we'd be happy to withdraw them. . . . But on a more fundamental level it appears that this jihadist movement is hell-bent on controlling all of Somalia. That for them, the negotiations are a ploy used to facilitate their goal. They see Ethiopia as a stumbling block.

Q. There are analysts, diplomats and others who fear that limited conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, even a short conflict, would ultimately spawn terrorist attacks across the region in neighboring countries, that it would embolden the more radical elements within the courts. Do you share this analysis? What are your thoughts on the idea that even an African Union deployment might make matters worse in the long run?

A. This argument does fascinate me. It does surprise me that intelligent people in the 21st century could claim that if you respond to the terrorists with force, you spawn terrorism, but if you appease them, you somehow tame them. This argument, as I said, is very interesting, and very surprising. . . . This policy of feckleness in the face of threats, this beatification of this threat, is quite dangerous. . . . There is a group in the Islamic Movement in Mogadishu that is not interested in democratic secular government in Somalia, that is hell-bent on establishing a Taliban regime in Somalia. Now, you can facilitate the Talibanization of Somalia through dialogue. If that is the intention, it perhaps makes sense. But you cannot stop a group that has clearly demonstrated that it wants to Talibanize all of Somalia, that is prepared to use dialogue to facilitate its military takeover. For someone to say in the face of such facts and stark realities, that facing the challenge on its own terms is what creates the challenge in the first place, such arguments in my view are worse than fecklessness in the face of a challenge.

On Democracy: In May 2005, the Ethiopian government conducted what many observers considered the most open and competitive elections since Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took power in a 1991 coup. An estimated 90 percent of the country's 25 million registered voters took part. When the preliminary results were announced, however, opposition party members accused the government of fraud, and took to the streets to protest, prompting a recount that showed the opposition parties made significant gains, but did not win a majority. When the opposition took to the streets again in November, they clashed with government security forces who opened fire. A government investigation found that 197 people were killed, including six police officers. Thousands of opposition members were arrested, and more than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and relief workers remain in jail, many having been charged with treason.

Q. I wanted to ask you about how your thinking has changed since you arrived in 1991. How has your thinking changed on subject of democracy? And do you believe that Ethiopia needs a strong, viable, peaceful opposition in order to progress?

A. Of course everybody's thinking evolves over time. Only dead people cease learning, and I am not certified dead yet. So I am still learning. Over the years I've come to recognize that democratization in Ethiopia is not just a matter of choice. It's a matter of national survival. I am deeply convinced that we either democratize and have a good chance of surviving, or if we fail to do so, we disintegrate. That is a significant evolution in my thinking. I know more now than I did in the past about the process of democratization. I know more about the pitfalls. With regards to your second question, a peaceful, strong viable opposition is part of any vibrant democracy. And we wish to have a vibrant democracy, and therefore we wish to have a vibrant, strong, peaceful opposition that is fully committed to the constitution and to play by the rules.

Q. Given what you just said, do you have any regrets about what happened after the election last year? There are hundreds of opposition members still in jail, thousands arrested at the time -- 197, I believe, killed, according to the government's report. Given what you just said, do you have any regrets about what happened?

A.. Yes, well, it's very regrettable that the election which was described as a model, that it turned out that this process in the end was tarnished by the fact that many people died. I regret the deaths of these people. It was a completely unnecessary and tragic series of events. I do not regret the fact that we have detained political leaders of this insurrection.

Q. Insurrection?

A. Yes. We bent back a lot to prevent this. . . . They said that there were irregularities in the elections. . . . Our response has been okay, we have the processes. We have the national election board. . . . And if you don't accept the board you go to the courts. . . . So we bent back, and said we accept the process of review of the counting, which involved the opposition parties' representatives and foreign observers. . . . Having done it we were not able to prevent publicly declared -- openly and publicly declared -- exercise of overthrowing the duly constituted government by unconstitutional means. And the rule of law is the basis for any democracy. And without the rule of law in democracy, you have chaos. They were pushing the country towards chaos. And we had to enforce the rule of law. And they have had their day in court. That is as it should be. There are no regrets here.

Q. I've been talking to a lot of people, regular people here on the streets in Addis, and some are open, and talk. But a lot of people are afraid to talk. They are concerned about expressing their opinion. Why do you think that is? Do you think that's warranted? Why do you think there's such a fear among people here?

A. I don't think there is such fear. At least in expressing opinions contrary to government. . . . There might be fear with regards to those associated with groups intent in carrying out insurrection. And supporters of armed insurrection might be concerned to have their ideas known. It is illegal to be a member of an organization that is challenging the constitution by armed force. But other than that, I don't see any fear. But I also understand that the opposition wants to prove that this is a repressive regime.

Q. Do you have any plans to try for a third term?

A. My party? My party will try not only for a third term but for a tenth term.

Q. And you personally?

A. And me personally, I think I've had enough.

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