'90 Interview of Meles Zenawi: on Independence, Isaias and Eritreans
By: Paul B. Henze
PBH: What is your position on separatism?
MZ: We are not separatist. We want a united Ethiopia. But we do not want a centralized Shoan-dominated Ethiopia. I just read the speech you gave to the Eritreans here a couple of weeks ago. I support everything you say. I agree with you that the Ethiopian state is valuable. It should not be destroyed. It should be put back together on a democratic basis and with guarantees of freedom and autonomy for all its peoples, so it can develop economically. Federation is the only way this can be done. We are in favor of federation. This is the only way the damage the Derg has done can be repaired.
PBH: This brings us to Eritrea and the EPLF. How are your relations with the EPLF? Do you talk to Isaias Afewerki?
MZ: I talk to Isaias often. We have no disagreements now. During the 1970s we worked together and had no serious disagreements with them. In 1984 we broke relations. The break was over different understandings of the Soviet Union. They still believed the Soviet Union offered a model for the future and that it could be reformed. They argued that the Soviets were misled on Ethiopia. They wanted to persuade the Soviets to support them instead of the Derg. They thought the Soviet system was a model they could apply in Eritrea. We thought this was foolish because we had learned in Tigray that we had to develop our own model and apply our own system in accordance with our own conditions and practical experience. We watched all these talks where the Soviets tried to use the Italians and the East Germans to bring the Derg and the EPLF together and we always thought nothing could come of them. We were right.
So we had very poor relations with the EPLF for four years, 1984-88. Then we worked out an agreement again. They came to see the Soviet Union the way we did. They gave up their illusions. They saw what was happening in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev . After their great victory over the Derg at Afabet in early 1988, we both began to cooperate again. They have given us help, but we are still a very independent movement. We are not dependant on them. We control all of Tigray now. We would not want to be dependant on anybody from the outside. We won our battle at Enda Sellassie with our own strength. If they had not helped us, it might have taken longer, but we would still have won. But that does not mean that we see everything the way EPLF does. I want to assure you of that.
PBH: What are your differences?
MZ: The EPLF has a much more difficult situation than we do. Many of our differences result from that, and we have an understanding and sympathy for their position. In Tigray we have a united people. No more than 10% of our people are Muslims and our Muslims are Tigreans first and Muslims only second. That is not true in Eritrea. The population is much more divided. The Eritrean Muslims themselves are divided. There are at least three groups among them. They don’t see things the same way the Christians do. The EPLF has some of them with it and its policies have been sensible -- it is trying to make the Muslims part of a united movement. But that is not possible and the closer the EPLF comes to taking power in Eritrea the more dangerous this issue becomes. There are serious tensions between Eritrean Christians and Muslims in Sudan. This will become apparent in Eritrea when the Derg’s control is gone. We do not have this problem among Tigrean refugees. They all stick together – the Christians do not resent the Muslims and the Muslims do not feel oppressed by the Christians.
PBH: And separatism – how do you see this issue in comparison with the attitude of Eritreans?
MZ: The EPLF has the problem that the population hates the Derg so much that it has all become separatist. The population wants independence to be declared as soon as the EPLF takes Asmara. Isaias understands some of the difficulties of this because he has thought a lot about it in the past year. But he has terrible pressures from his people. It is a difficult issue for him.
PBH: Are the Eritrean highland Christians as strongly in favor of an immediate declaration of independence as Muslims?
MZ: There are different opinions on this, but we think that the whole population wants independence. They may not understand what it means. These people were once strongly in favor of unity with Ethiopia. The Shoan Amharas destroyed that feeling. The highlanders are getting more impatient than the leadership of the EPLF. Isaias sees problems in independence and does not want to rush and create difficulties for himself, but he doesn’t have full control over this issue.
PBH: What would be your preferences?
MZ: We look at this from the viewpoints of the interests of Tigray first, and then Ethiopia as a whole. We would like to see Eritrea continuing to have a relationship with Ethiopia. We know that Tigray needs access to the sea, and the only way is through Eritrea. Whether Eritrea is part of Ethiopia or independent, we need this access and, therefore, must have close ties. There are many Tigrayans in Eritrea. They are concerned. They don’t want to be treated as foreigners there. There has always been close connections between Tigray and Eritrea for the highland people are all the same. They have the same history. We are worried about Eritrea because we are not sure that differences among different groups can be kept under control. Everything could be destroyed there if people begin fighting each other. When the EPLF takes over Asmara, they will have a difficult job, because they have to keep the people together. Some of the Muslims will favor separatism but there is no strength in unity among them on this issue. The ELF has no active strength in Eritrea now, but it still exists in Sudan and there are many Muslims who sympathize with it.
PBH: I have the impression that the situation in respect to Asmara is similar to that with Gondar – the Derg’s ability to hold out there is steadily eroding. Eventually the city will fall to the EPLF. Perhaps before that happens the Derg forces there will work out some sort of deal with the EPLF. Do you think this is likely?
MZ: You know that during the coup attempt last May we were in contact with the Derg forces in Asmara and offered a ceasefire and collaboration, just as the Eritreans did. We thought we could work out a truce and lay the basis for a new relationship in the region. We could have done that with the people with whom we made contact. But elements loyal to Mengistu got the upper hand. They thought Mengistu could do wonderful things for them. He probably made all sorts of promises of promotion to them. We think these elements still control Asmara and we have not seen evidence that their control is weakening yet. No one has tried to contact us. The EPLF is moving up the escarpment. If they take Ghinda and Embatcala, they can bring up their heavy artillery - - which they captured from the Russians two years ago - - and strike at Asmara airport. That will be a serious blow against Derg forces and will shorten the time they can hold out.
PBH: But what next? Conditions of life in Asmara are already said to be difficult – no electricity, little water, no fuel for civilian transportation, no fuel for cooking. Surely something will have to give way?
MZ: We don’t know. We would like to see everybody get together and set up a provisional government so that this kind of situation can be avoided.
PBH: Would you expect the EPLF to participate in a provisional government in Addis Abeba?
MZ: We don’t know. We think they could play a constructive role. We would really like to see Eritrea retain a relationship to Ethiopia, but we don’t know if Isaias can work out the situation to make this possible. Our own position is very delicate. We have to have good relations with Eritreans, so we recognize their right to self-determination, going as far as independence if they want it. We endorse their proposal for a referendum because we don’t think there is any other solution for the situation that has developed. But we really hope that Eritrea can remain part of a federated Ethiopia. I agree with what you have written about the advantages for the Eritreans themselves.