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Exclusive interview with Mr Seyum Mesfin

Ethiopia - Exclusive interview with Mr Seyum Mesfin

Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs


The Horn of Africa is a region of permanent tensions. In Somalia the situation is precarious, a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed seven years ago but it is an armed peace with risks of confrontation, a rebellion is active in the Ethiopian Somali region. Ethiopia, the most important country in the Horn, cannot withdraw from Somalia since neither African Union nor United Nations have taken over the task of helping the transitory government though it is recognized. Some regional and external actors are busy adding fuel to the fire. On the occasion of Mr Seyum Mesfin’s visit in Paris it was appropriate to have a detailed interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia.


Les nouvelles d’Addis. – The situation in the Horn of Africa will be the main subject of this interview. But first may I ask the reason of your visit to Paris ?

Seyum Mesfin. – I came for regular bilateral consultations and exchange of notes on regional and international matters. I met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Kouchner and his team and this morning I had meetings involving other Departments on the basis of bilateral cooperation.

LNA. – I shall go back to this later but let us start with the hottest place in the Horn : Somalia. When Ethiopian troops were sent to help the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and his president Abdullahi Yusuf, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said : we shall withdraw very soon. Eleven months later every observer sees that the intervention in Somalia has not been a success. What can you say about the present situation in Mogadiscio ?

SM. – The situation has remarkably improved when compared to what Mogadiscio and Somalia were before December last year. During the last eleven months there is a lot of transformation in the sort of capability building of the institutions of Somalia, the TFG, the parliament and some other institutions. But as well the security area. You know, most of Somalia was a no-go area just a year ago. Today there is no any no-go area in Somalia. But of course it does not mean that there are no security concerns in the country. Mogadiscio is one. The extreme south of Somalia is another. One region in central Somalia, Galguduud, is also a security concern because it is vulnerable to international terrorist groups. But relatively the situation has greatly improved and it will continue to improve day after day.

LNA. – Press reports do not present the same picture and an American scholar, Dr Michael Weinstein, has written that the Ethiopian military operation in Somalia is a “disastrous miscalculation”. In addition the African Union has not been able to send 8000 soldiers as pledged, the UN Secretary General thinks that it would not be adequate to send a peacekeeping mission and yesterday the special envoy of Le Monde describes a war without frontline and without rules. Does the Ethiopian leadership believe in a military solution in Somalia ?

SM. – Let me say this : military solution cannot be a solution for a political crisis. Naturally the problems of Somalila have of political nature. There is no doubt about this. But let us talk about the reality instead of speculations and assumptions. Where is the miscalculation ? Somalia was a failed State for the last 15-16 years. Today Somalia has institutions, wether they are fully functional or not is not what matters. Today Somalia has a duly constituted transitional government, a federal transitional charter and a federal parliament. This was not the story some years back. There is a transformation from lawlessness and absolute anarchy into the establishment of rule of law and transformation towards peace building. So this does not indicate that Somalia is going from bad to worse but from worse coming to rule of law. There is radical improvement. Secondly : what is miscalculation ? To leave Somalia in the hands of international terrorists, talibanists, califates ? Today the nation is beeing governed by transitional federal institutions where all clans and sub clans are involved. So where is the disaster ? Truly, Mogadiscio and the rest of Somalia was ruled by terrorists and extremists affiliated to al-Qaida. Today they do not exist as elaborate organization but they still pose a threat to public security. So where is the disaster ? To me what analysts and speculators are saying is that they are not totally grasping the transformation that is taking place in Somalia. What they are feeding to the international community (IC) is what they think is sensational for selling their news. Sensationalism does not help in establishing and building peace in a country. Somalia has entered in a peacebulding process. Like all peacebuilding processes, it cannot be challenge free. It is rather a big challenge to the Somalis themselves, to the entire region of Africa and to the IC. Now, the African Union decided to send a peacekeeping mission in Somalia to replace the Ethiopian troops and assist the peacebuilding. Unfortunately it is only the Ugandan peacemission that is in place in Mogadiscio. There are other countries willing to deploy troops like Burundi, Malawi, Ghana and Nigeria. What is lacking is not the good will, the political will and commitment of African countries sending their troops to Somalia. What is lacking is the ressources. Europe is saying : Somalia is not our priority. The UN is saying they are overstretched, they have many agendas full at hands. So the IC is continuing to put Somalia at the backburner. Somalia is a country that has failed. The IC has a responsability to discharge here. It is a threat to international peace and the IC is urged to provide the ressources, to assist in the peacebuilding. This is what is lacking.

LNA. – The problem is that the method of the IC has been to create a Somalian government from the top. There was another theory about block building. That is to encourage local authorities like Somaliland, like Puntland, like Bay and Bakool. The paradox is that the UN have always maintained the fiction of a united Somalia which does not exist anymore. Another paradox is that Ethiopia has sent an ambassador to Mogadiscio where the government has hardly the means to control its territory but there is no ambassador in Hargeisa where there is peace for about 12 years. One could think that one would encourage more those who have obtained results in building peace.

SM. – Let me indicate this. You are right. Somaliland has been an island of peace for over a decade. And the IC would rather adopt a policy of reticence and wait and see towards Hargeisa and Somaliland. And it was trying to assist those who have been destroying Somalia, the warlords. But this does not mean that the IC was not, through various means, trying to encourage the Somalis to sort out their problems. They are primarly responsible for changing the present reality of their country. You said that the IC was trying to impose a solution for Somalia from the top which is rather the contrary. For the last two and a half years Somalis of various walks, religious leaders, clan leaders, scholars, civic societies, including many of the warlords, sat in Kenya. After two and a half years of protracted talks and dialogues the Somalis have formulated a national transitional charter upon which the transitional government and parliament have been established. This is a transformation. Secondly, what happened during the summer is a very well formulated development of Somalia. Again more than 2000 representatives of grassroots Somalis, both from inside and from the diaspora sat for 45 days in Mogadiscio which would have been totally unforseeable to happen inside the country because it never happened before. They have come up with concrete recommendations on the way forward. They presented them to the government and the government endorsed them, took it to the parliament. Again the parliament has endorsed them. On the basis of which these institutions are now preparing a new transitional government with the departure of Mohammed Gedi. And we are optimistic to see that this would give an opportunity to establish a functioning government, a technocratic government, that would assist Somalia to continue with the peacebuilding process.
And then the question of Somaliland. I do agree with you that there has been a total neglect of those who have been trying to build a region. They have to get support. But on the issue of Somaliland and of the rest of Somalia, it is truly the Somalis themselves to resolve this crisis. No one would stand on the way of what the Somalilanders would decide. It all depends on the dialogue and on the solution for Somaliland that would be also perceived by the rest of Somalia. The question of Somaliland cannot be solved by violence and by mean of force. They have to enter into dialogue and address the question wether to reconstitute Somalia. I accept with you that Somalia cannot be reconstituated the old way.

LNA. – May I add that Ethiopia has made bad experiences with to much centralism. So how could Somalia be again a centralized country when it has failed for so long ?

SM. – What Ethiopia has done is on the basis of its own realities and solutions to the long standing problems. We would not advise any other country, be it in the neighbourhood or afar, to copy the Ethiopian model because copying model would not work. But I do agree with you that Somalia cannot be rebuilt the old way. A new reality has emerged. The various regions of Somalia are insisting for decentralized state structures. Somaliland is pushing along a line of secession. So definitely there is a new reality of Somalia that the Somalis have to face. Our job as a region and also the international community, is to assist the Somalis to address this problem by peacful means.

LNA. – So you don’t feel that you are trapped in a very complicated situation where you are sometimeinvolved in the clan divisions. You had Puntland versus Somaliland, you had Abdullahi Yusuf versus Mohamed Gedi, you have the Hawiye versus the Darods. You seem to be in a quagmire.

SM. – We are not trapped in fact. It would be a political suicide for Ethiopia to fight one to one, supporting any clan. As you might know Ethiopia is a home of millions of Somalis of its own nationals. So almost all the clans you have in Somalia are replicated on this side of the border as well. Thus Ethiopia is a genuine broker for peace and reconciliation in Somalia. Ethiopia has not gone there to crown Abdullahi Yusuf as king of Somalia or somebody else. Or against a particular clan or in support of another clan. What Ethiopia has done is to fight international and local terrorists who have been the source of bloodletting in Somalia. Today the Somali people are very grateful of what Ethiopia is doing, assisting them in the establishment of rule of law in the country. Truly we do’nt want to abuse this goodwill of the Somali people of welcoming us in supporting them. We would like to withdraw as early as possible. We can only withdraw in a responsible manner, we cannot allow the situation to unravel again and leave a vacuum in Somalia. We are assisting the government to build its own capacity, build troops, police, security and government. We will not be trapped because Ethiopia is not fighting any other commmunity in Somalia, except the terrorists and they are now reduced to fragmented terrorist elements creating security concerns.

LNA. – What is the perspective for Ethiopia. This military operation is a financial burden. And you said that not enough money is coming to help the transitional government. Can you go on for a long period. I suppose that you would like to have a deadline to withdraw.

SM. – Precisely we are urging the IC, the African Union, the European Union and other actors to discharge their responsability by supporting the institutions of Somalia to build their own capacity and to assist them in peacebulding by deploying peacekeepers from Africa or from the UN. Any other formula is not going to assist the Somalis. Secondly, Ethiopia is not only fighting the terrorists in Somalia, Ethiopia is also assisting in the capacity building of the government. The Somalis are building their troops, they are training their police, building their ministries to function. That would definitely ease the burden for Ethiopia and allow to withdraw. We have already withdrawn two thirds of our troops from July onwards. One third remains mainly in Mogadiscio. We are hoping and we are confident that we would be able to withdraw these troops if two things happen. One : if the international community’s response is very responsible and immediate we will be withdrawing from Somalia. We don’t want to spend even an extra day in Somalia. Two : If the IC fails to discharge its responsability, definitely Ethiopia would continue to assist the government to control the situation and then would withdraw soon.

« Eritrea has committed a material breach by occupying
the Temporary Security Zone »

LNA. – We have spent a long time about Somalia but there is another problem which might produce a new confrontation : the border issue with Eritrea. Seven years ago a peace agreement was signed in Algiers but the boundary problem has still not been solved. And last September Ethiopia has warned that the Algiers’ agreement could be terminated. What does this threat mean ?

SM. – You know that Eritrea has committed a material breach by occupying the Temporary Security Zone (TFZ). This zone was established under the Algiers’ agreement of cessation of hostilities. It is a 25 km zone all along the border area. And the UN peacekeeping mission was deployed in this area. Today the security area does not exist anymore. It has been 100% occupied by Eritrea. Secondly the peacekeeping mission of the UN has been paralyzed by Eritrea’s restrictions of movement of these troops. So Eritrea has demolished the cessation of hostilities of Algiers. And Ethiopia has notified Eritrea that they cannot be allowed to continue with their material breach if they are for the Algiers’ agreement. Ethiopia’s understanding is : if Eritrea fails to reverse its occupation of the TFZ, it means that they have moved out of the Algiers’ agreement. This is what we have notified, and not that we are withdrawing from the Algiers’ agreement. We will act as a responsible party but the IC and Eritrea have to understand that Ethiopia cannot be expected to remain abiding the peace agreement when one of the parties has totally demolished this agreement.

LNA. – If the Algiers’ agreement is terminated, what would that mean ?

SM. – Ethiopia wants this agreement to remain in force and lead us to normalization of relations, finalizing the demarcation of the border and towards engagement between Eritrea and Ethiopia. But Ethiopia alone cannot achieve this. We need a peace partner and the world knows that Ethiopia has no peace partner in Asmara. That is the problem.


Democratization : « Ethiopia is in the process
of fundamental transformation »

LNA. – I would like to have your comments on some domestic political issues. Friends of your country noticed with great interest the political evolution. But after the May 2005 elections Ethiopia’s image as a modernising country has been shattered because of the great number of people arrested and kept in jail without charges. The Economist wrote recently : “Opposition leaders were accused of hugely inflated crimes, such as treason and attempt of genocide”. Would you understand that it is difficult for observers to take at face value some arguments your government is opposing to criticism concerning the state of democracy in Ethiopia ?

SM. – You know there are various perceptions and various sides of the story. It depends from which perspective you see the process of democratization in Ethiopia. If you are looking it from the perspective of fault finders, definitely at any time they would have it. If you see from the perspective of a social transformation where you cannot calculate it like mathematics, one plus one is two on base ten or certain formulas, the challenge is there : Ethiopia is in the process of fundamental transformation. This process, transforming a society, is full of pitfalls, ups and downs and zigzags. This is what Ethiopia is facing. This does not mean that Ethiopia is not progressing firmely towards democratization, of the country, of the society, of the state. There has been tremendous achievement during the last decade and a half. Ethiopia’s building of institutions, of gouvernance are more firm and solid. They cannot be judged with the outcome of one election or with elections scenarios as test of the democratization of the country.

Let us come to the issue you mentionned. The 2005 post election. One thing that the IC has confirmed is that the will of the people has not been subverted. The will of the people has been honoured. But any challenge could happen. There cannot be any perfect election anyway.

LNA. – My point was not about the election but about the repression with accusations like attempt of genocide.This word is now used for the killing of ten persons but it has a very precise definition. It is something serious.

SM. – Yes it was very serious. One : the opposition wanted to dismantle a government placed on the basis of the Constitution by the means of violence and unconstitutional means. This is treason by any standard of Constitution of any country. This is what they have been accused.
Two : they have made a specific ethnic group as a target. They have been campaigning on that hate propaganda. That is what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Nobody is saying that what happened in Rwanda was not a genocide.

LNA. – But nothing of that sort has happened in Ethiopia.

SM. – It did not happen but it does not mean that they have not attempted. So the charges were that they have been attempting to lead the country towards that bloodbath.

LNA. – Let me ask this : why did Bereket Simon say before the election that the opposition leaders are “Interhamwes” ?

SM. – Because their main direction was hate propaganda, it was not a propaganda for elections. The Interhamwes were the leaders of hate propaganda. So what our opposition was doing was not campaigning for election, but they have been deeply involved in hate propaganda against certain ethnic groups in the country. It was dangerous. This was the accusation they have been charged with.Then there have never been opposition members which were detained without charges. They have been charged, tried by the court of Justice and we have now what the decisions of the court were. Some were thrown into life imprisonment, some were sentenced to 25 years, 20 years, 15 years and so on. Now the government and the people of Ethiopia wanted to leave this behind us and look forward. The clemency has been of a tremendous tolerance and accommodation. This must be evaluated in view of Ethiopia’s transformation.

The other point : it is said that Ethiopia’s image has been tainted. For those who have been expecting for perfection and anything to go smooth, that might be so. But Ethiopia is continuing to build its institutions of good governance, to build institutions of democracy with full committment and fiercely fighting poverty. Ethiopia to day is one of the few hopeful in Africa to achieve the Millenium goals. It is registering an economic development, a real growth of GNP on the average of 10%. We are not an oil country, we are an agrarian country. We have reached tremendous achievement in the areas of education, health, social programs and so on. This cannot simply come on its own. It is associated with the transformation of the politics, of the legal system, of the state system.

LNA. – You might think we are more interested in the problems of your country. It does not mean that we are not aware of progress and economic development. But one knows that Ethiopia is a multiethnic country with an important minority, the Oromos and there is an ancient debate about their place in Ethiopia. Number of them are not supporting OPDO, your partner in the government, but most of these are not favourable to OLF either but to some opposition groups represented in the parliament like OFDM whose leader is Bulcha Demeksa. He has complained that recently thousands of Oromos, including followers of his party, have bee jailed. Is he right ?

SM. – His problem is : crying foul has become a phenomenon of opposition groups in Africa in general. He cannot prove it. He says that his followers have been emprisonned by thousands, that his offices in the country side have been closed and so on, and when he was asked were people have been arrested, he could not prove it. So crying foul is not the game of politics. He should continue to participate in the democratic process through democratic means, through the building of opposition parties. Unfortunately this is not what Bulcha Demeksa and the other opposition leaders are doing. For them fault finding, baseless allegations are the day to day engagement of their parties. We do accept that democracy cannot be complete without loyal opposition, not loyal to the party in power but loyal to the Constitution and the rule of law. But at the same time our western friends and partners think they can create opposition parties through artificial insemination over night. It needs time for the opposition to mature.


Ogaden : « There is no hidden and dirty war »

LNA. – According to recent news, the situation in Ogaden is deteriorating and there could be a humanitarian problem. What is really going on because we have has head lines like in the Guardian : “Ethiopia’s dirty war”. The UN factfinding mission has pointed at serious violations of human rights. The International Comittee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been expulsed, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) had to stop its operations in that region. What is the situation ?

SM. – There is a disgruntled group among the Somalis calling itself ONLF. The government has been trying to resolve this problem by peaceful means, involving the population a year ago. Somali elders even travelled to various capitals in Europe to find the leaders of this group. Because they try to lead this rebellion from Stockholm, from London, from Copenhagen and so on. The elders travelled and tried to talk to these people that raising arms in present Ethiopia has no place because if any community is not happy, they have the constitutional guaranteed means of peacefully divorcing from the country. So by force they cannoy achieve anything. But the rebellion leaders never heed the call of the people and the call of the government and finally they committed a heinous crime, a massacre, attacking a camp of a company involved in exploration works. And this is what they have done. The least a credible government could do is give security and stability to the country. So the government has taken a fierce mesure against this group which has now been completely neutralized in the region. There were collateral damages. Yes. But not as to the accusation MSF tried and also the ICRC. They have been telling the world that several villages have been erased to ground, that thousands of people were moving from one place to the other, and the UN went and did not find any village burnt down, did not find any population displaced from their villages. The UN mission never said that there has been gross violations of human rights, they never said that there is a humanitarian disaster. What they said is, if not checked at the earliest possible time, in three, four months down the road, there could be a humanitarian disaster or crisis. So they urged for immediate relief assistance to reach the needy people. This is what the UN and Ethiopia are doing today. We have launched a huge humanitarian assistance in the region, security has been guaranteed, business is back to normal, activities are going normal. There is no hidden and dirty war as those who tried to open a different agenda for Ethiopia. The ICRC was thrown out of the region simply because they tried to propagate a situation that never existed. They are now regretting it. Concerning MSF, I met the international president recently in Addis. He admits that what his people did on the ground was absolutely wrong, going to the public and make statements which are not reflecting the reality in the area.

LNA. – I don’t understand what is the interest of a NGO to make false statements ?

SM. – Ask them. It is not Ethiopia saying it. This is what the UN is saying.

LNA. – In your opinion the ONLF actions are to be considered in the context of terrorism ?

SM. – It is part of the overall drive in the region because they have been pushed to commit this crime assisted by Eritrea and by the al-Shebab group, the Islamic courts and so on.

LNA. – Let us return to Franco-Ethiopian relations. Do you expect changes since there is a new president in France and a new government ?

SM. – We expect naturally an enhanced cooperation, between Africa and France, because the situation requires so. And there is good will from the government of France to remain committed to the partnership with Africa and we will work on that.

LNA. – Is there a specific program or project in the context of bilateral relations ?

SM. – We have agreed to revitalize the mixed commission we have between France and Ethiopia. We have given serious consideration to enhancement and diversification of our cooperation in basic areas and we hope to go into the mechanism we have established and see it functional as soon as possible.

LNA. – The mixed commission did not meet for a long time ?

SM. – For almost four years but now we have agreed to relaunch that.

LNA. – In December Africa and Europe will meet at a summit in Portugal. Critics have been expressed in Africa about the European commercial propositions which seem to be less favourable to Africa than the Cotonou agreement. What is the Ethiopian position in this respect ?

SM. – The same position that Africa is expressing. The main direction for Europe must be to open up the markets for African products. Any other consideration to deny a huge European market for African exports would definitely have a major negative impact on the growth of trade and on social development in Africa. So we are urging Europe to be open and to assist Africa also in capacity building to meet required demands. But at the same time Europe had declared this EBA (Everything But Arms). It has to remain in place. Now they are trying to take this out and to go in the fixation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). As you know the WTO Doha Round has not yet been successful. We are witnessing a lot of retreats from the industralized countries in opening up their markets to the products of developing countries. That is going to create a lot of damages and imbalance in the trade movement. We are urging Europe not to shut the door.

LNA. – Thank you.

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