Date: Mon, 13 Nov 1995 12:24:03 -0500
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A Breakfast Meeting with Prime Minister Meles

By Harold G. Marcus, Michigan State University. 20 October, 1995

I never imagined that an Ethiopian ruler would come to Washington and seek to discuss his government with American Ethiopianists, but this was the message I received from the Ethiopian Embassy in early October. I later learned that the participants were to be Donald Levine of the University of Chicago, John Harbeson of the City University of New York, James McCann and Allan Hoben of Boston University, Theodore Vestal of Oklahoma State University, Charles Schaefer of Valparaiso University, Donald Crummey of the University of Illinois, Edmond Keller of the University of California (Los Angeles), Marina Ottaway of Georgetown University, Terrence Lyons of the Brookings Institution, John Prendergast of the Center of Concern, and Annette Scheckler of the Refugee Policy Group.

The event took place at 8:00 A.M. on 20 October, in a large, room in the Ethiopian Embassy, where there was a breakfast buffet of American and Ethiopian dishes and a number of well arranged circular tables. We ferenji scholars occupied two of them, but there were at least three other tables of Ethiopian officials and private persons, none of whom was identified. We ate and chatted for about half an hour, and then Meles rose and welcomed us as friends of Ethiopia. He pointed out that there were many sides to the Ethiopian story and that he was present to clarify the views of his government. He thereupon called for questions.

I took copious notes, since I intended to write an article about the event for H-Africa, Ethiolist, and Ethiopian Review. Below, I have tried to replicate what I heard from Meles and his interlocutors. Most of the questions and answers are, of course, paraphrased, but there is some verbatim material.

I publish this piece in the hope that it might clarify Prime Minister Meles' views for those of us who remain uncertain about his thinking and the policies and intentions of his government. I am experienced enough, however, to know that his statements will be deconstructed and interpreted in a variety of ways. Still, I hope my article serves as a piece of solid information in a world full of hyperbole, invective, and rejectionism. While I have sought fully to rehearse what I heard, other participants may remember the event differently, and I urge them to offer corrections.

1- (Q) Theodore Vestal led off by citing democracy s need for a vigorous multi-party system. In Ethiopia, he asserted, parties are so harassed that they can not operate properly and are therefore unable to participate in the democratic process. In the absence of functional parties, how can there be the true competition that democracy requires, he asked.

(A) Meles said he would not challenge Vestal s assertions since the dialogue would get nowhere; instead he would deal with the issue abstractly. He claimed that the Ethiopianists gathered before him were in contact only with Ethiopia s best and brightest, both in the United States and in Ethiopia, and not with the villagers, as was his party and its supporting organizations. The best and the brightest, he stressed, have to organize on the village level and not only in Addis Abeba and Washington. His party had done so, even in Oromia, where the transitional government had gambled on arming the peasants.

The Oromo had proved as reliable as had the peasants of Tigray and Shewa, whom the EPRDF had organized under conditions of war. The opposition should be able to install itself in the countryside now, since conditions there are much less dangerous than during the Mengistu years. Meles reported that his government is fairly weak on the ground compared to the dirg s administration. He ended by suggesting that, in order to be successful, the opposition must strive to work at the grassroots.

2- (Q) Terrence Lyons pointed out that there was a wide-spread perception that the government had neutered the opposition. Since it was good for democracy to have an opposition, what could the Ethiopian government do to help its opponents?

(A) Meles answered that his government needs a vigorous opposition to keep it honest and efficient, just as the dirg kept the TPLF healthy and alert. Yet, the Ethiopian opposition remains anarchic and has no real program. When the EPRDF proposed its five-year plan, it was seriously critiqued only by foreigners and the IMF, not the Ethiopian opposition. If things went on as they had before, there would be no functional opposition for a long time. It remains rejectionist, not constructive; rejection is not opposition.

He repeated that the opposition must root itself in the countryside.

3- (Q) Paul Henze asked about IMF and World Bank views regarding the government s financial policies.

(A) Meles stated that the relationships had evolved from mutually suspicious beginnings. Whereas a *Policy Framework Program* is usually worked out in Washington, Ethiopia s PFP was designed in Addis Abeba, albeit in close consultation with the IMF and WB. Since the two organizations now respected Ethiopia s opinions, there are no serious differences, even if there are divergences about pacing and timing. Meles stated that the IMF and WB are willing to live with the government s land reform policies.

4- (Q) Jim McCann inquired about the role of the university in Ethiopia s future.

(A) When the EPDRF first arrived in Addis Abeba, he asked two senior AAU scholars to help formulate the economic program of the transitional government. One assisted but, when subsequently offered a high governmental post, decided to stay in the university; whereas the other remained aloof from the beginning. Meles respected their decisions, and they were not among those who were fired.

He stated that the latter had completely compromised their integrity, especially the ex-president, who had signed kebele death warrants during the Red Terror. Others had neglected their academic tasks in favor of using their podiums to disseminate political propaganda.

Meles claimed that he had no trouble with political people, such as Beyene Petros, who taught their subjects. The situation at the university is better now: people are much more serious about doing their jobs properly, even though there remains much opposition to the government. Many professors have become government consultants, and their expertise is much appreciated. Finally, Meles affirmed that Addis Abeba University would remain the country s leading institution of higher education.

5- (Q) Donald Crummey offered that AAU was a sullen place now and that the government had not followed due process; indeed it seemed intent upon destroying the university s integrity as an institution in a civil society.

(A) Meles replied that, during the last two years of the dirg, all contracts at the university had run out, so the TGE had a legal right to keep whom it wished and not to renew the others. He understood that the process was flawed, but the rules then in place did not allow for due process.

6- (Q) Harold Marcus intervened and stated that Meles s answer offered no explanation at all.

(A) Meles responded by declaring that the university that most of us had known had ceased its existence in 1976. He claimed that his government was seeking to implement a program of university autonomy and helping to develop a set of by-laws securing its rights and responsibilities.

7- (Q) Annette Scheckler inquired about the ideological basis of Ethiopia s ethnic federation.

(A) Meles clarified that the ethnic basis of Ethiopia s democracy stemmed from the government s fight against poverty and the need for an equitable distribution of the nation s wealth: peasants must be enabled to make their own decisions in terms of their own culture. Power must be devolved to them in ways that they understand, and they understand ethnicity. Meles added that he believes that ethnicity will become less an issue as the economy grows and Ethiopia s process of assimilation does its job.

8- (Q) John Harbeson followed up by stating that he saw a contradiction between the government s stated goal of ethnic autonomy and its retention of resources for dispersal to the periphery.

(A) Meles agreed, since the bulk of resources currently came from import duties. When, however, the economy developed, the regions would have their own resources derived from income, agricultural, and mineral taxes. He maintained that, contrary to rumors and innuendo, the government was not favoring Tigray, since all revenue allocations were matters of public information. He invited his critics to study budget and finance figures.

9- (Q) Marina Ottaway and Allan Hoben asked about the government s land policies.

(A) The prime minister clarified that the constitution sets the scene by guaranteeing that peasants have access to the land. Land not in use may be leased, but its purchase and sale is prohibited. Land, he explained, is the only social security the peasants have. Since the FRE does not expect to create lots of urban jobs, it must improve the peoples lot by increasing agricultural productivity. The government s policies in this regard respect the peasants collective memory of the land evictions of the 1960s, the rapacious land tenure policies of the Haile Sellassie regime, and the dirg s exploitation of peasants associations. Meles repeated that, except for the buying and selling of land, peasants can do what they want with their holdings.

10- (Q) Edmond Keller asked how the government expected to build up trust among the people? How will it distribute its budget?

(A) Meles pointed out that there are constitutional restraints on his government s ability to provide largesse: the Federation Council has the responsibility of working out a formula for distribution, and it well represents the south as well as the north. He continued that the FC and the structure and tone of the FRE unites Ethiopia. He commented that the EPRDF could have dismantled Ethiopia in 1991, but did not because of the party s belief that unity was economically beneficial for the people. The FRE provides a way for Ethiopia s ethnic groups to cooperate peacefully and to develop together. Other approaches to development had been hegemonic and exploitative and had led to internecine strife and civil war. His government well understood this fact. We are not as stupid and suicidal as some think.

In Meles s opinion, the EPRDF could not have defeated the dirg without the support of the Amhara peasantry. There is unity between the Amhara and the Tigray cultivators, and the southern peasants have to learn to be as demanding as their northern brothers. Only a political idiot would ignore the peasants and their needs.

11- (Q) Donald Levine generalized that Ethiopian critics are not only rejectionist but also fragmented. He wanted Ethiopians to be able to mobilize politically, and he looked forward to a process of healing. He asked Meles what he might do to sponsor detente and help the opposition to abjure rejectionism.

(A) Meles took the tack that Ethiopians do not need to submit to the government; that Ethiopians are not submissive people; and that they can and do fight for what they consider righteous. At this time they are not fighting. He invited us to visit the countryside and see developments on the ground.

He continued that his government was not brutal, and competing parties need only to abide by the law to operate in Ethiopia. Meles asserted that EPDRF strength lies in its flexibility and its ability to accomodate Ethiopia s many needs. The EPDRF focusses on essentials and allows regional organizations to shape policies relevant to them and their constituents.

12- (Q) Donald Crummey disliked Meles' implication that we had absorbed the prejudices of Addis Abeba against the government; and that we uncritically accepted the hyperbole of the best and the brightest emigres about Ethiopia. Speaking for himself and others, Crummey said that he had travelled in the Ethiopian countryside and had not found there the country described by Meles. He asked the latter to describe his vision of Ethiopia and its national content.

(A) Meles answered that Ethiopia was primarily its peoples. The content of Ethiopia is some people, who, through force of history, have developed a common culture, a common identity, but who, up to now, have not been able to relate democratically. It is people [who are] proud of the gada, proud of the castles...[they] prove that at one point we did it, were great, [and that] we can be great again, an inspiration for the future...I am proud to be an Ethiopian. I am proud to be a part of that history...

13- (Q) Charles Schaefer wondered from where the the country s future greatness would derive, now that Ethiopia stressed ethnic identities.

(A) Meles responded that Ethiopia s peoples had to sort out their identities before mobilizing their energies to build a new nationalism. He stressed that Ethiopia remained intact and was peaceful, whereas other countries have dissolved or are fragmenting through civil war. The government of the FRE believes that the survival of Ethiopia as such, stems from its ethnic policies. He continued that Ethiopia had been united through a glorious past, [was experiencing] a difficult present, [but would have] a better future. He pointed out that his government needed time to prove out its social policy.

14- (Q) An unidentified Ethiopian woman asked Meles what drove him to govern.

(A) Meles claimed that he was pushed by his long-time fight against the poverty of the Ethiopian people and for their human dignity and respect; and that he was pulled toward implementing the EPDRF s program by his responsibility to those who had died implementing his orders in the fight against the dirg. I have to make good their sacrifice.

It was his duty to administer the government s good economic plan and to improve Ethiopia s infrastructure. He recognized that there were many bureaucratic impediments to development, which he was seeking to eliminate.

He claimed that there two views about ethnicity: if you think it is a threat, it will be; if you think it a benefit, then it will be. He declared, Diversity can be a source of richness and strength. You can not wish it away. He hinted that it would disappear at the same rate as the economy grew, allowing more profits to be obtained nationwide than regionally.

15- (Q) John Harbeson commented that the government was strong enough to tolerate even immature, perhaps even irrational, political parties.

(A) Meles maintained his earlier point that political parties were subject to the rule of law, but that the government tolerated in Addis Abeba semi-official representatives of the OLF, which every week put out a communique describing the front s violence against the FRE. A blind eye, he commented, might perhaps lead to productive discussions or, at the least, maintain some contact with the OLF leadership.

By this time, it was close to 11:00 A.M., and Meles had cancelled two other meetings to stay with us. He had been engaging and sincere in his well informed replies. He showed himself to be highly intelligent, thoughtful, charming, and unflappable.

He stumbled only over the questions about the university and opposition parties. He was defensive about the land issue, although he explained his government s ideas on the subject very well. His views on Ethiopian nationalism were from the heart, even if his notions conflicted with the primacy of ethnicity now enshrined in the FRE s Constitution. Although he never said so directly, one might conclude that he foresaw the weakening of the ethnic principle as the Ethiopian economy grew nationally. Finally, his humility in face of his enormous responsibilities was obvious and laudable.

As an exercise in propaganda, Meles s performance was outstanding, and he clarified many of his government s actions and ideas. Yet, I do not believe he changed many minds, although after the meeting, we were better informed than we had been before. I thank the prime minister for his unprecedented effort and hope that the Ethiopian Embassy subsequently can maintain the flow of information.