Meles Zenawi interview excerpts

African Arguments

“Unlike all previous governments our writ runs in every village” – By Richard Dowden


RAS Director Richard Dowden interviewed Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles on May 12th 2012. What follows is a selection of quotes from the interview on subjects ranging from democracy to the demise of Muammar Gadaffi and ‘land grabbing.’ To read Richard’s full analysis of the current state of Meles’ Ethiopia click here.


On the suggestion that, as a ruler from a minority, he is rushing the development of Ethiopia as fast as possible into order to stay in power

We are making progress on the economic front though not necessarily according to the standard orthodox prescription, so people think there must be something wrong…

People have non-material requirements, that’s what makes us different from cattle. You can’t satisfy one at the expenses of the other…  (In Ethiopia) there is as much political empowerment as there is economic empowerment.

Are we moving as fast as our legs will carry us in the right direction. The fact is that we are generally a stable country in a turbulent neighbourhood and that cannot be attributed purely to economic growth.

On governance and the Ethiopian the federal system that allows Ethiopia’s peoples the right to secede:

We now have a constitution… [which] defines the country in such a way that you contribute but also if you are not comfortable you can leave.

Let’s define the country in such a way that you can contribute but also, if you are not comfortable, you can leave.  What is the point of 50 million chattel slaves? You are better off with 5 million who are not chattel slaves.

We have done a lot of work in that area – such as the right of nations to speak their own languages.  But have we created a perfect democratic system? No. I am not sure there is one anyway.  This is all a work in progress. It involves not just Addis but the remotest parts of the country.

Unlike all previous governments our writ runs in every village. That has never happened in the history of Ethiopia. The state was distant, irrelevant. You paid tribute from time to time and if you didn’t like it you rebelled. That’s the history of Ethiopia. Now we have a formally structured state, there is a school in every village and clinics in every village, roads, infrastructure.

Yes (the new constitution) is working, people are beginning to feel part of a larger entity. They are beginning to feel the benefits of belonging to a larger country.

On the Opposition and democracy

You can categorise (the opposition) into two groups: those who think our constitutional system is the biggest crime which will separate Ethiopia … it’s a visceral objection to our experiment.  [And there are] those who think there is a devilish conspiracy – clever but devilish – designed to abort the desire of the nations to have their own state. It is neither one nor the other. The fundamental concept is that the greatest asset of the country is the people.

There is no village that I know of in the rural areas that did not vote for us.  Expect in the pastoral areas. We stand no chance in those areas. We are not even going to contest elections there.  People there are completely ignorant and not interested. The opposition is completely ignorant (of the rural areas) so we had the whole field for us alone…

We built the structures in rural areas during the armed struggle. Where we have a good party structure we are able to get the votes out.

We were voted out in Addis in 2005 but the opposition refused to take over (the government of the city). They said they had won the whole national election. There was a terrible administration in Addis after that election.

The army

The army in terms of its composition, the old fighters the TPLF are now a tiny minority except at senior levels

On the Ogaden, the Somali region of Ethiopia

Initially our army was there. Now it is local police militia. They can contain the Ogaden National Liberation Front and fighters from Somalia.

We are extending electricity pylons tarmac roads and schools – if they blow them up that is their problem.

On foreign investment

We do not think foreign companies are angels. They are seeking profit and there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t think Ethiopia is an island and we won’t survive as an island… But we can’t expect foreigners to do everything for us. We have to make sure it is a win-win solution.

But most infrastructure activities are not amenable to traditional private investors… Infrastructure must be available to all at the lowest possible price.

On the dam building programme:

Most of our dams are in deep gorges so there is very little displacement (of people). They are found an alternative and compensated. Everyone who has been affected is compensated.

My fear is that (western environmentalists) are not concerned about the environment in an intelligent way.

On Nomadic pastoralists

That’s a romantic western idea but if there are people who want to live like that that is their right. If you force them to settle, you will not succeed.

On foreign agribusiness companies being given large tracts of land in the southern province, Gambela

There is a massive shortage of people in Gambela … All our agriculture programmes are based on small scale. The private sector is brought in, in so far as it is consistent with supporting small scale farmers.

There is a massive shortage of people in Gambela so we make sure that Gambela people are settled and have land and young people can go to farms not to work as guards which is the traditional role, but as farmers. [The private sector] must offer jobs to the local people in Gambela before they bring people from the highlands or other areas [to work in Gambela].

On Eritrea

I have not spoken to him (Issaias Afewerke, President of Eritrea) since the beginning of the war.

I wrote a letter to Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General saying that we unconditionally accept the ruling of the Border Commission. I accept the demarcation of the Boundary Commission. [But we added] Five points to help resolve our problems.

We have tried to communicate (with Eritrea) in every manner possible both formal and informal. We will continue this effort to try to negotiate and move forward.

On Gadaffi

He was a malign influence on the area. His departure was less benign than we had hoped.

On his own future

I will retire in 2015 and probably teach at the leadership academy, maybe do some writing.  I am not interested (in an international or pan-African role) but I can’t say no if I am asked to go to a meeting for a week or two, but not permanent.

On the causes of the Arab revolution

In Tunis the pattern of growth was wrong. Some was of some local benefit but mainly tourism – pimping for others, that was the economy.  The economic policy was consistent with the orthodoxy but it wasn’t designed for Africa. Even where there was growth it was inequitable growth so it can’t be sustained.

Quotes at the 2012 World Economic Forum meeting in Addis Ababa

On corruption in Africa

The vast majority of loot is properly organised by companies by all sorts of gimmicks. Our role [as African governments] is to be paid or unpaid facilitators. Our bargaining cards are very limited as we need these companies to give us jobs. This makes our image very negative so their returns must be commensurate with risk.

[For some African leaders] if the family farm is being looted why not join in? But the most insidious corruption is local corruption. What is needed is an engaged citizenry to try to create an environment where corruption cannot happen at lower, middle or high level.

[Big companies] can wreck us with financial instruments most of us do not even understand. How do we regulate them? … If we are not careful we will be taken for a ride and then dropped. We need to learn.

On Democracy and growth

There is no direct relationship between democracy and growth. Democracy is good, it is positive for growth but the case of democracy can stand on its own.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society. Meles Zenawi is Prime Minister of Ethiopia.